|Recent Reformed Criticisms of the Canons
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Reprinted from Crisis in the Reformed Churches, Peter Y. De Jong, editor (Grand Rapids: Reformed Fellowship. Inc., 1968), pp.161-180. Used by permission. Footnote numbering appears as in original.
This volume [Crisis in the Reformed Churches] on the Synod of Dort and its doctrinal decisions would not be complete, if it did not contain a chapter dealing with recent criticisms of the Canons. On purpose we confine ourselves to criticisms coming from theologians belonging to the Reformed tradition. Theologians coming from other traditions, especially from Arminian and Liberal backgrounds, naturally are critical of the Canons. But in their case it is usually not the Canons which are specifically criticized, but they reject the whole complex of doctrines dealt with in this statement. For theologians of the Reformed tradition the situation is different. In most cases they belong to churches which have accepted the Canons as one of their subordinate standards. These theologians therefore have subscribed to the Canons and will not easily criticize their own confession. Yet in recent years many critical voices have been heard, both in Europe and in the United States. In this chapter we shall briefly discuss these criticisms.
We begin with Karl Barth. To some it may seem strange that we include him among the Reformed theologians. Is it not true that on decisive points Barth has deviated from the theology of the reformers in general and from Calvin's theology in particular? Although the answer to this question is "Yes," it cannot be denied that Barth belongs to the Reformed tradition. He himself has stated this more than once and his theology, especially his Church Dogmatics, bears it out in many places.
Barth deals with the Canons in his doctrine of election.1 During the discussion he refers several times to them. Right at the beginning he praises them for the fact that, in spite of the inclusion of reprobation in their doctrine of predestination, they formulated election itself in such a way that it really had "the character of evangelical proclamation."2 This is particularly true of the formulation of Canons 1, 7.
Yet Barth has a very serious objection against their doctrine. He believes that in the Canons we find the idea of a decretum absolutum, just as in the theology of all the reformers. Although they all maintained that our election is an 'election in Christ' and spoke of Christ as the speculum electionis (Calvin3) or the libervitae (Formula of Concord4), yet this 'in Christ' was not the final word. Actually it referred only to the ordo salutis (Christ as the mediator and executor of our salvation). Behind this 'in Christ' there was still deeper ground of election and reprobation: God's eternal decree, by which, in sovereign freedom, He decreed to save some in and through Christ and to leave others in their sin and perdition. The Arminians saw this serious defect and over against the Calvinists they stated that "Christ, the mediator, is not only the executor of the election, but the foundation of the very decree of election."5 Unfortunately their own understanding of the election was very faulty. With their doctrine of foreseen faith they themselves were the last exponents of medieval semi-Pelagianism and at the same time the first exponents of Neo-Protestantism. Over against them the Calvinists of Dort were altogether right, when they maintained that our salvation is wholly a matter of divine election. Unfortunately they maintained this by taking recourse to the decretum absolutum idea. In this same connection Barth criticizes Canons 1, 7, which before he had praised so highly.6 Although Jesus Christ is mentioned, He is mentioned after the decision about election and reprobation has already been taken.
In all this we touch upon the very nerve of Barth's criticism. Again and again he returns to this point. In the section on "Jesus Christ, Electing and Elected" he severely criticizes Calvin on this same point, and also the Canons.7 The electing God of Calvin is a Deus nudus absconditus, and the same is true of the Canons. "Jesus Christ is not in any sense the fundamentum electionis. . . . but at very best He is only the fundamentum salutis."8 Later on, in his discussion of the perseverance of the saints,' Barth once more mentions the same point. Again he rejects the view of the Arminians, he even calls it "unspiritual, impotent and negligible — a feeble postlude to the Catholicism of the later Middle Ages and a feeble prelude to rationalist-pietistic Neo-Protestantism."9 In principle he himself agrees with Calvin and the Synod of Dort. He even calls the doctrine of perseverance the "supreme statement of predestination." Yet there is again the old criticism. Although at this point the Synod "almost exclusively" referred to "Jesus Christ, the Word of God and his promises," yet the doctrine could not work properly, as appeared rather soon after the Synod, because the decretum absolutum remained the last background. This is clear from the fact that with regard to the 'certainty' about our election, the Synod does not first mention the "constant promises of God" but "the marks proper to the children of God" (Rejection of Errors V, 5). Barth regards this as a necessary and unavoidable consequence of the decretum absolutum idea. If we have not been elected from all eternity 'in Christ,' then Christ cannot be the real speculum electionis, then we have to seek our last certainty somewhere else, and the only remaining possibility is that we seek it in the fruits of election in our own life.
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It cannot be denied that Barth raises a very fundamental question regarding the Canons. If he is right in his criticisms, they would really stand condemned. The whole idea of a decretum absolutum is utterly foreign to the Bible. The real heart of the biblical doctrine of election is that we have been chosen 'in Christ' before the foundation of the world (Eph. 1:4, cf. 1 Tim. 1:9). But is Barth right? Not all Reformed theologians agree on this point. For instance, C. Van Til states that "the Synod of Dort had no nominalist notion of a will of God to which a second decision of God had to be added in order to connect election properly with the love of Christ."10 James Daane, on the other hand, says that "in its teaching about individual election the Canons do not even mention the Pauline expression 'in Christ,' except in the Rejection of Errors and even there the 'in Christ' is not even at issue."11
Unfortunately it is not possible within the limits of this chapter to examine this point at great length. We should not forget that Barth accuses not only the Canons but the theology of all the Reformers, especially of Calvin. For Calvin's view we may refer to G. C. Berkouwer's Divine Election, who declares that Barth's "dogmatical-historical judgment does not conform to Calvin's reflections on the speculum electionis and on Ephesians 1 :4."12 Berkouwer does not deny that Calvin did not always state the matter clearly and adequately, but at the same time adds that "at a decisive point he rejected precisely the penetration into deus nudus (the Father alone, as Calvin puts it) by saying that the heart of the Father rests in Christ."13) The same is true of the Canons. They too do not always state the matter clearly and adequately, but there is no doubt that the fathers of Dort would all reject the idea of a decretum absolutum, apart from Jesus Christ. Chapter 1, 7 states that God has chosen from the whole human race "a certain number of persons to redemption in Christ, whom he from eternity appointed the Mediator and Head of the elect and the foundation of salvation." Unfortunately the English translation of this sentence is somewhat ambiguous. First, the phrase "He chose . . . to redemption in Christ" could be interpreted as meaning that Christ is only the fundamentum salutis. The Latin text, however, reads: "ad salutem elegit in Christo." In other words, the 'in Christ' qualifies the act of choosing. Secondly, in the last clause of the above quoted sentence the word 'also' has been left out. Both the Latin and the Dutch version read: "whom He also from eternity appointed . . . " In other words, the article clearly distinguishes between our election in Christ (i.e., Christ as the foundation of election15) and Christ's appointment as Mediator (i.e., Christ as the foundation of salvation). The Canons do not see Christ only as the executor of the (previously decreed) election, but the election itself is in Christ.16
Yet it cannot be denied that in the Canons this central aspect of the biblical doctrine of election does not receive the emphasis it deserves. Because 1, 7 is preceded by an article that speaks of a general double decree of election and reprobation, in which the 'in Christ' aspect is altogether missing, the conclusion that there is a decretum absolutum behind the election-in-Christ could be drawn, and I am afraid that, unintentionally, the Canons thus have given occasion to later deterministic misunderstandings, which especially since the 18th century have plagued and still are plaguing large sections of the Reformed community. I am also sure that, if the Canons were to be rewritten in our day, the central affirmation of our election in Christ should be brought out more clearly and more unequivocally.
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We now come to some publications of theologians belonging to the Dutch Reformed Church (Nederlandse Hervormde Kerk). In 1951 a booklet on The Election was published by Dr. J. G. Woelderink. This booklet is particularly interesting, because the author himself came from a strict-Calvinist background, with leanings towards hyper-Calvinism. In nearly all his writings, and in particular also in this booklet, he opposed all hyper-Calvinist tendencies while at the same time trying to remain faithful to the deepest intentions of Reformed theology.
What is Woelderink's view of the Canons? It is a combination of deep appreciation and of fundamental criticism. Fully agreeing with the teaching that our salvation is due to God's electing love, he at the same time sees two contrasting lines in the Canons. The first five articles of Ch. 1 take their starting point in the Gospel. But in art. 6 they switch over to a second line of thought, which takes its starting point in the decree.17 That this is the major point of criticism appears from the fact that time and again he returns to this same point.18 To him this is the basic error of all Calvinist parties at Dort, both the Supralapsarians and the Infralapsarians. Because of their emphasis on the decree they were necessarily thinking in terms of causality19, and consequently "election and rejection were no longer channels through which the stream of God's virtues broke forth, but they became springs which produced salvation and perdition."20 It was no longer sufficient to ascribe faith to God's grace, and unbelief to man's sinful heart. No, God too had his share in unbelief, in as far as He had decreed "to leave the non-elect in His just judgment to their own wickedness and obduracy" (1, 6). The natural result of this 'causal' way of thinking was that in 1, 12 all emphasis is placed on man's inner spiritual life, where he can observe "the infallible fruits of election."
Woelderink's own solution is to see election primarily and essentially as an act of God in time. His main Scripture proof is taken from the Old Testament21, but he finds the same emphasis also in the New Testament. He does not deny that we are allowed to proceed from election as God's act in time to God's election from eternity, but this should not be done in terms of an abstract, eternal decree, but we should see the eternal God Himself who in his electing love guarantees the relationship of grace which He has established with us.22 If one wants to speak of a decree, one should do this in the form of the 'Covenant of Redemption,' in which the triune God appointed the Son as Redeemer.
Rejection, too, is seen as an act of God in the history of the world and in the concrete lives of sinful people. In the case of rejection, however, we are not allowed to go back to an eternal decision of God "before the foundation of the world." Woelderink utterly rejects the idea of an eternal decree of reprobation.23 At this point the Canons have gone beyond the limits of Scripture. It is not surprising, therefore, that they do not give any Scripture proof for this aspect of their teaching.
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There are undoubtedly elements of truth in Woelderink's criticisms of the Canons. We too believe that there are traces of 'causal' thinking. But at the same time we believe that Woelderink on his part has fallen into the other extreme and is virtually 'his toricizing' and 'actualizing' election. Paul's statement that God chose us in Christ "before the foundation of the world" (Eph. 1:4) hardly plays any part in Woelderink's conception.24 Election and rejection only 'happen' in an 'open situation.' This is so much so that according to Woelderink election can change into rejection, and vice versa.25 At this point he is very close to Barth's conception. Yet his position is also different from that of Barth, because he rejects the latter's objectivism of grace and its implied universalism.26 The Bible knows not only of the light of the Gospel, but also of a shadow, the dark shadow of final rejection and therefore of final perdition.
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Of great significance is a document on election adopted by and published on behalf of the Synod of the Dutch Reformed Church. This Pastoral Letter is particularly significant, because the Canons are one of the subordinate standards of this church. The Letter openly and joyfully confesses the miracle of election. "The congregation of Jesus Christ, drawn by the Holy Spirit from the darkness of guilt and lost-ness into the light of Christ's grace, confesses its faith in the electing God."27 On the one hand, this is a humbling confession, for it means that we cannot redeem ourselves in any way. On the other hand, it is a comforting confession, for it means that our salvation rests on the faithfulness of God. This divine election becomes manifest in history. God gives faith to sinful people, through his Word and Spirit. But behind this divine act in history we may see God's eternal decree, which is fulfilled in this act. "In all this God is the decreeing, and deciding God, and He is such in his eternity, which is before, above, after and in our time."28
Rejection too is an act of God in history.29 But in this case we may not infer an eternal decree of rejection. Although such a conclusion may seem to be natural and valid, Scripture itself never employs this logic.30 Texts that have often been quoted in Support of such an eternal decree of rejection (such as Prov. 16:4; Matt. 13:10-13; 22:14; Acts 13:48; Rom. 9:11; 1 Pet. 2:8; Jude 4; Revel. 17:8) do not really teach this.
After all this it is not surprising to see that the Letter contains a number of criticisms of the Canons. In fact, not only the Canons, but the Belgic Confession as well is criticized, especially art. 16, which speaks of God's "leaving others in the fall and perdition wherein they have involved themselves."32 The Canons, 1, 6, however, go beyond this and, in spite of what has been said in 1, 5, suggest "that human guilt is not the last word about the ground of rejection."33 Other points of criticism are that Word and Spirit are not always kept inseparably together34, that the certainty of election is too much sought in pious man himself35, that the election of the individual believer is onesidedly stressed36, and that the Scripture proof given is very weak.37
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These last points, however, are only minor criticisms. The real criticism of this Letter is that the idea of 'causality' is found in the teaching of the Canons. This idea, especially as it is applied to rejection, is the reason that the final responsibility of the sinner is obscured and God, somehow, seems to become the final 'cause' of man's perdition. Again we feel inclined to agree with this criticism, yet we also believe that the Letter itself is in danger of actualizing the election. The doctrine of election seems to be nothing more than a confession of God's free grace in our life. But does the Bible not say more? There are, especially in the New Testament, many passages that speak of God's pre-determination (Cf. Acts 4:28; Rom. 8:29, 30; Eph. 1:4-11; etc.). It is striking that in the Letter Eph. 1:4 is discussed in connection with the realization of the election. At this point the Canons, in spite of their 'causal' way of thinking, are closer to the fulness of the biblical message than this Letter.
Finally we come to recent criticisms of the Canons by theologians of the Reformed Churches (Gereformeerde Kerken) of the Netherlands. The one who started the new discussions on the Canons was G. C. Berkouwer, in his volume on Divine Election. Throughout the volume we observe his deep appreciation for the teaching of the Canons, against Barth's accusation of teaching a decretum absolutum.38 He is of the opinion that Barth himself with his concentration upon Jesus Christ as the electing God transgresses the limits of God's revelation. Although he appreciates Barth's desire to banish all uncertainty from preaching by anchoring our election in the factuality of Christ, yet he believes that Barth falls into the other extreme. "If Barth's argument is that the consoling pastoral message misses its ontic foundation, we must reply that it is rather Barth's doctrine of election with its universality that evokes the problem which Barth thinks the Reformation left unanswered. For with Barth Christ is not so much the mirror of election as the manifestation of the election of God, a universal manifestation which may be disregarded in unbelief, but which cannot be undone."39 Likewise he defends the so-called sylloguismus practicus, as found in the Canons, over against such theologians as Weber, Niesel, Klingenburg and others.40
Yet Berkouwer himself also sees 'certain problems' in the Canons, especially in 1, 6. While in 1,5 the Canons have clearly stated that the "cause or guilt of unbelief" is "in man himself," 1, 6 seems to go beyond this. "One's first impression is that this is a simplistic way of explaining causality."41 Berkouwer, however, tries to defend the Canons. "When we read 1,6, we see that it directs our attention to the acts of God in the life of man." A connection is laid "between sinfulness and stubbornness on the one hand, and the judicial acts of God on the other hand, not in the sense that either belief or unbelief become an independent and autonomous power over against the counsel of God, but in the sense that non-granting is evidently meant as the judicial act of God toward man in sin."42 In spite of this defense, Berkouwer is well aware of the fact that there are certain difficulties in the formulation of the Canons. Cautiously he admits that "it could be wished that also in 1, 6 the light of the epilogue had been shining more clearly and that therefore the criticism of the eodem modo had been more explicit." It is indeed "difficult to indicate completely and clearly the harmony between 1, 6 and 1, 5." But then he immediately adds, more or less as an excuse for the Canons that this same "opaqueness" is noticed wherever these things are discussed. "It is not the opaqueness of paradoxical irrationality, but the opaqueness which is due to (the nature of) unbelief, and which can be described from two sides: from the side of God's judgment and from the side of man's sin." "The imbalance of the causa-concept which we observe in Calvin and in the Canons is, on the level of human insight, a proof of the inexplicability of sin and unbelief. We prefer this imbalance rather than any synthesis from the point of view of the praescientia of determinism ."43
In the foregoing paragraph the Conclusion of the Canons was mentioned. This epilogue plays a dominating part in Berkouwer's interpretation. Two statements from the epilogue are mentioned again and again. The Synod rejects the idea that its doctrine teaches "that God, by a mere arbitrary act of his will, without the least respect or view to any sin, has predestinated the greatest part of the world to eternal damnation, and has created them for this very purpose" and "that in the same manner (Latin: eodem modo) in which the ejection is the foundation and cause of faith and good works, reprobation is the cause of unbelief and impiety."44 We are not saying too much, when we call the non-eodem modo in particular the master key which Berkouwer uses to open the door to the real teaching of the Canons, especially its teaching about reprobation.
In the chapter on 'Election and Rejection' Berkouwer more than once emphatically states that "Scripture repeatedly speaks of God's rejection as a divine answer in history, as a reaction to man's sin and disobedience, not as its cause."45 In this connection he points to such texts as 1 Sam. 15:23; 2 Kings 17:20; Deut. 28:15ff.: Lament. 5:22; Ps. 51:13; 78:67; Isa. 50:1ff.; etc. He then asks the question: is there any reason to add anything to this Scriptural testimony?46 Is there still a 'plus,' the 'plus' of God's eternal decree? Is there a double cause, one in man's sin and guilt, and a second and deeper one in God's predestination? According to Berkouwer Calvin at times wrote as if there were such a second causa in God. He even writes that "Calvin has seen the actual causa in predestination."47 Berkouwer's own view is that the concept of cause is altogether insufficient. "One can never come to an acceptable solution by means of the concept of cause." 48 It leads inescapably to some form of determinism. This does not mean that Berkouwer chooses for indeterminism as the solution. The struggle between determinism and indeterminism in the doctrine of election is a futile one. As we are not allowed to make the divine counsel the abstract principle of explanation of sin and unbelief and perdition, so we are not allowed either to withdraw sin and unbelief from God's counsel. Quite often it has been tried to do this by speaking of autonomy, synergism, praescientia, nuda permisslo, liberum arbitriurn, over against God's election.49 But this is an impossible solution. "Nothing can be made independent of the counsel of God." Berkouwer himself believes that we should stop at the well-known words of Augustine: contra, but not praeter volunta tern Del.
He interprets the Canons in the same light. "When the Church, in the Canons, for example, speaks of God's decree, it does not mean that we are confronted with an impersonal, iron law, a fatum of causal determination."51 Reformed theology has always realized that neither determinism nor indeterminism provide a solution. Hence it maintained both that the decreturn Del is Deus decernens and that this Deus decernens is the God who reveals to us His sovereignty and freedom in the powerful 'before' of His revelation.52 The Preacher understood this well, when he said: "I know that, whatsoever God doeth, it shall be for ever; nothing can be put to it, nor anything taken from it; and God hath done it, that men should fear before him" (Eccl. 3:14).
The question must be asked here, whether there is still a place left for a decree of reprobation. Berkouwer is very cautious. H. Berkhof of Leiden, in a review of Berkouwer's volume on election, wrote: Berkouwer is silent on 1,15 and this is significant!53 Although Berkouwer a few times does speak of a decree of reprobation, he usually puts the word 'decree' between inverted commas. I believe that we may say that there is virtually no place for such a 'decree' in Berkouwer's theology. He himself stops at the two statements from his epilogue, quoted before, and at the fact that in Scripture God's rejection is always a reaction against man's prior rejection of God. He is and remains very cautious, but I believe that H. N. Ridderbos was right, when he wrote that although Berkouwer is in full agreement with the basic motifs of the Canons, the emphases are definitely somewhat different from those in the Canons.54
More than ten years after the publication of his book on Divine Election Berkouwer touched again upon the Canons in a long article on "Questions around the Confession."55 This time he speaks of 'tensions' in the Canons.56 On the one hand, there is 1, 5, which clearly speaks of man's own guilt, on the other hand, there is 1, 6, which speaks of God as the cause behind receiving and not receiving faith. At this point there is something problematical in the formulation. Berkouwer tries to solve the problem by distinguishing between the basic motif and the framework of the Canons. The basic motif is quite clear and fully scriptural. The central intention of the Canons is to speak of "the undeserved election, the sovereignty of grace in the way of salvation, the election as the fountain of every saving good. Clearly and continually we hear the voice of the Gospel in the references to the 'golden chain of our salvation' and the 'in Christ'."57 But the framework, within which this basic motif is expressed, is not always clear and pure. It is the framework of 'causality.' There is a 'causal' approach, which is strongly influenced by a certain exegesis of Rornans 9.58 The sovereignty of God is apparently seen as something deeper or higher than the 'ekloge' of Rom. 9:11. One gets the impression that there are two themes: on the one hand, the merciful purpose of election; on the other, the absolute sovereignty of God 'in general.' Renewed study of Romans 9-11 in recent years, however, has convincingly shown that there is not such a double theme. The only theme Paul deals with is that of the 'ekloge,' the purpose of election, which God works out in the history of Israel. The emphasis is on God's acts of election in history and not on a pretemporal decree that in a causal way determines all things.
There is no need here to go any further into the details of the article. The central question Berkouwer discusses is whether one can still be faithful to the confession, if one is critical of its 'framework' but fully agrees with its basic motif. His answer is in the affirmative, for faithfulness to the confession is not a matter of certain terms, but rather of the total structure of the confession. There is therefore no need to lodge a gravamen against the Canons at this point.
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This new approach of Berkouwer has been rather influential. Several Reformed theologians in the Netherlands have openly stated that they agree with Berkouwer's criticism of the Canons. I am thinking here in particular of A.D.R. Polman, for many years professor of systematic theology in the Reformed Seminary at Kampen. In his earlier publications he fully upheld the views of the Canons, but gradually, mainly under the influence of Barth and Berkouwer, he has changed his mind.59 He summarizes his own view as follows. There are two dangers that continually threaten the biblical doctrine of God's election and rejection: causal determinism and (often as a reaction against the first) synthetic synergism. Causal determinism is the result of taking one's starting point in an abstract, sovereign decree, based on the concept of 'absolute power. The consequence of this starting point is that election and rejection become two parallel, symmetrical lines, which both proceed from the absolute decree. But this is nothing else than causal determinism. In reaction, synthetic synergism overemphasizes man's responsibility and then projects this back into God's decree in the form of praescientia or praevisio. According to Polman the Bible does not know about a pre-temporal decree that in causal way determines all things, but it only speaks of a gracious election in Christ before the foundation of the world. When it mentions rejection, it is always a rejection in history, in which God's reaction against man's rebellion becomes manifest. This does not mean that man's sinful activity becomes autonomous over against God's counsel. The Bible sets the two aspects side by side, and leaves it at that. We have to respect these limits of our reflection. But it is quite clear that every one who objectivizes the elect and the reprobate in two fixed groups, can no longer do full justice to the serious call of the Gospel, which also comes to the reprobate.60
Polman is well aware of the fact that he deviates from the Canons. Somewhere he writes that the real problem is not God's free, sovereign good pleasure in the life of the believers, but the partial symmetry between the decree of election and rejection, in which from all eternity God has elected and rejected certain persons. "The latter is confessed in the Canons (1, 6 and 15) and this is not accepted by us." The fathers of Dort never produced scriptural evidence for this view, but based it on a mere logical conclusion. If some people call this a valid and necessary conclusion, then they should realize that the Bible itself never draws this conclusion 61
Reformed theologians of the Netherlands, however, are not the only ones who have followed this new line of thought. Also in the Christian Reformed Church of the U.S.A. there are similar voices. I am thinking here in particular of some articles by H.R. Boer and H. Pietersma in The Reformed Journal.62 Boer summarizes the 'ambiguities' in the context in which the decree of reprobation stands in the Canons as follows: "1. That man alone is responsible for his unbelief. That lack of faith arises from the decree of reprobation. 2. That God is in no wise responsible for the unbelief of man. That the decree withholds the gift of faith and the grace of conversion. 3. That God unfeignedly calls all men to faith. That in the reprobate the response of faith is impossible. 4. That election and the promise of the gospel must be preached. That reprobation in its very nature appears not to be capable of being preached." Boer does not openly attack the Canons. Neither does he speak of a 'causal' way of thinking, but it is quite obvious that his criticism is along the same lines as that of Berkouwer and Polman.63
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It is evident that for all these theologians the doctrine of an eternal decree of reprobation is the 'piece de resistance.' To see the problem in its proper perspective, however, we wish to draw the attention to three things.
First, none of these theologians wants to limit God's power and sovereignty. All of them reject every form of synergism, which is so characteristic of all Semi-Pelagianism, including that of the Arminians. When these theologians question or reject an eternal decree of reprobation, they are not motivated by the desire to give some place to even a partial autonomy of the human will. On the contrary, they all fully agree with the Canons when the latter teach that we have been chosen by God in Christ before the foundation of the world. Or to put it in the formulation of 1, 5: "Faith in Jesus Christ and salvation through Him is the free gift of God."
Secondly, we should remember that most Reformed confessions of the Reformation period are either silent on reprobation or speak of it in very cautious terms. Even Calvin himself did not mention it in the Catechism of Geneva, the Confession of the Schools and in his draft for the French Confession. For a further survey we may refer to Berkouwer's Divine Election, Ch. VI, where he discusses and rejects Warfield's interpretation of this silence and caution. Berkouwer's own view is that "in the Reformed confessions there is an intuitive and reflexive understanding of the Scriptural message of election."64
Thirdly, at the Conference of Arminians and Calvinists, at the Hague in 1611, the Dutch Calvinists more than once stated that their controversy with the Arminians did not concern the latter's view of reprobation. They declared "that they would have left the Arminians free in their view of reprobation, if only they (i.e. the Arminians) had been willing to confess that God out of mere grace, according to his good pleasure, had elected some to eternal life, without any regard to their faith as a preceding condition."65 At the close of the conference they reiterated: reprobation is not a matter of controversy, if only election out of pure grace is maintained.66
I believe it is important and necessary to keep these three points clearly in mind, when we discuss the matter of reprobation. It undoubtedly helps us to see the problem in its real proportions.
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When we now turn again to the Canons
, we must admit that there are indeed two lines of thought. On the one hand, the Canons
take their starting point in the Gospel. Here all emphasis is laid on the 'ekloge'.
Salvation is wholly and fully God's work. It is God who has chosen those who believe in the Gospel. He has chosen them in Christ before the foundation of the world "out of mere grace, according to the sovereign good pleasure of his own will" (1, 7). Their faith is not their good work, but it is the "free gift of God" (1, 5). At this very point we find the real controversy with the Arminians67
, who in their defense of man's free will, made election conditional upon foreseen faith.
In addition to the above the Canons equally emphasize that unbelief is man's fault. "The cause of guilt of this unbelief as well as of all other sins is no wise in God, but in man himself" (1, 5). This too is part of the clear teaching of Scripture. Man is always seen as responsible for his own sin and the blame for his unbelief is always put squarely upon the sinner himself. In no respect can God ever be held responsible for it, not even in an indirect sense. God is holy. "God is light and in him is no darkness at all" (1 John 1:5). But there is also a second line of thought in the Canons, namely, the line of 'causality.' We find this in particular in 1, 6, which opens with the following words: "That some receive the gift of faith from God, and others do not receive it, proceeds from God's eternal decree." Reading this, one cannot help wondering whether there were some traces of the idea of 'absolute power' in the minds of the author. At any rate it was at this point the Arminians always concentrated their attack. Time and again they repeated the accusation: you make God responsible for unbelief. At the conference of the Hague in 1611 they described the views of the Calvinists as follows: "those who are predestinated unto perdition (being by far the majority) must be damned necessarily and unavoidably, and they cannot be saved."68
The Calvinists, on the other hand, always rejected this view as a caricature. They were firmly convinced that this was unbiblical and repudiated it as a statement of their own position, yet the question may be asked whether the conclusion of the Arminians was not valid, if one takes 1, 6 and 1, 15 seriously. Is it really possible to avoid this conclusion? Of course, we gratefully notice that the fathers of Dort rejected it, but was it not a valid implication of their second line of thought?
The main question, however, is whether Scripture itself speaks of an eternal decree of reprobation. It is indeed very remarkable that the main 'proof' in Reformed theology has always been the 'logic' of the situation. At the Conference of The Hague the Calvinists stated: "When we posit an eternal decree of election of certain particular persons, it clearly follows that we also posit an eternal decree of rejection or reprobation of certain particular persons, for there cannot be an election without a rejection or reprobation. When from a certain number some persons are elected, then by this very act others are rejected, for he who takes them all does not elect."69
A similar line of argument we find in the judgments given by the various groups of delegates at Dort. In fact, the argument appears in several forms. Some say that, if there is a decree, "It is a fixed rule: what God does in time, He must have, from eternity, decreed to do."71
Others again say that if unbelief were the sole cause of rejection, all would have been rejected. Reformed theologians of our 20th century still use the same kind of argument. When L. Berkhof gives his proof for the doctrine of reprobation, he begins with the following statement. "The doctrine of reprobation naturally follows from the logic of the situation. The decree of election inevitably implies the decree of reprobation. If the all-wise God, possessed of infinite knowledge, has eternally purposed to save some, then He ipso facto also purposed not to save others. If He has chosen or elected some, then He has by that very fact also rejected others."73
And L. Boettner opens his discussion of 'Reprobation' with these words: "The doctrine of Predestination of course logically holds that some are foreordained to death as truly as others are foreordained to life. The very terms 'elect' and 'election' imply the terms 'non-elect' and 'reprobation.' When some are chosen out others are left not chosen."74
It is of course true that 'logic' does plan an important part in theology. Reformed theology has always freely acknowledged its good right. The Westminster Confession
states that "the whole counsel of God concerning all things necessary for his own glory, man's salvation, faith and life, is either expressly set down in Scripture or by good and necessary consequence,
may be deduced from Scripture" (Ch. 1, vi). By this very means the church has developed its doctrine of the Trinity and also its Christology, yet the question must always arise: is a particular consequence 'good and necessary'? In general we must say that especially at the point of an eternal decree of reprobation we have to be most careful. And one should ask oneself: why does Scripture itself not draw this conclusion, if it is so natural and so logical?
It is very striking indeed that the Canons
themselves, in 1,15, do not mention any Scripture proof at all. In other articles, which touch upon the same matter, the Scripture proof given is very weak, to say the least.75
The same is true of Reformed theology in general. The texts that are usually mentioned are all ambiguous and they all allow a different and better interpretation.76
* * * * * *
This criticism of the Canons by some Reformed theologians in recent years, does not mean that these theologians themselves wish to derogate from the sovereignty of God or that they deny God's eternal counsel. Polman, for instance, says: "God elects a man without any ground in this man. God rejects the man who rejects Him, without becoming dependent on the negative decision of this man.77 Rejecting the solution of the Calvinists at Dort, they equally reject the Arminian solution, namely, God's praevisio of unbelief which would precede his decree.78
They cannot accept these solutions for two reasons. First, they refuse to accept a 'causal' connection between God's decree and that which happens in history. They believe that the whole concept of causality is out of place here. Causality would mean that there is no place for human responsibility, which is clearly depicted on nearly every page of Scripture. In addition, history would lose all its significance. It would only be a mechanical, pre-determined outworking of a divine decree. Secondly, they also refuse to change the biblical asymmetry between election and rejection, into a symmetrical, logical system, in which salvation and perdition evolve from the one decree in two parallel lines. "He who wants to be 'logical' here, must either make faith the work of man alone or unbelief the work of God."79 But both conclusions are evidently unscriptural.80 The Synod of Dort has clearly seen this, as appears from the Conclusion, in which it declares that the expression "that in the same manner (eodem modo) in which the election is the fountain and cause of faith and good works, reprobation is the cause of unbelief and impiety" is one of the many things "which the Reformed Churches not only do not acknowledge, but even detest with their whole soul"! If it is objected that the synod did not always adhere to this in the formulation of the Canons, especially in 1, 6 and 15, we immediately grant this. But Berkouwer is undoubtedly right when he says that the real intention of the synod is found in this rejection of the eodem modo and not in the causal framework which we find in 1, 6 and 15.
It is obvious that there are many unsolved problems left. The Synod of the Dutch Reformed Church (Ned. Herv. Kerk) rightly demands of its theologians that they must try to penetrate deeper into this 'paradox,' namely, that faith is God's gift and that unbelief has its sole cause in man's own heart.81 At the same time it adds that "The Church has to call a halt to every one who wants to weaken or remove this paradox."
The only correct starting point for all our thinking about election and rejection, I believe, lies in the Gospel itself. We are very happy to note that the Synod of Dort has seen this too (1,1-5). Unfortunately it has not adhered to this one starting point. In 1, 6 it has added another line of thought, namely, one that starts from the counsel of God. Taking into account the whole pattern of thinking at that time (cf. the controversy between the Supralapsarians and the Infralapsarians) this is not surprising. As a matter of fact, the Synod was right when it saw an inseparable connection between the Gospel of Jesus Christ, as preached by the church, and the divine counsel. The problems can definitely not be solved by a mere historicizing and actualizing of election and rejection. But at the same time, we must say that the Gospel may not be robbed of its power by a method of thinking that takes its starting point in an eternal counsel and then proceeds to draw logical conclusions from this counsel. I often wonder whether the 'solution' is not to be sought in a deeper study of what we mean by the word 'eternal,' when we speak of God's eternal counsel. Did Reformed theology perhaps overemphasize the pre-temporal nature of the divine counsel? Did it perhaps too simply identify the eternal nature of the counsel with the eternal nature of God Himself? There are many questions here and it is obvious that in many respects we in this 20th century have not progressed much beyond the fathers of Dort. Perhaps we shall never get much further. But be this as it may, the depth of these problems remains a tremendous challenge for the future.
1 Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, 11,2, pp.3-506.
2 Op. cit., 17/18.
3 Calvin, Institutes, Ill, xxiv, 5.
4 Formula of Concord, Ep. XI, 7. II, 2, 67.
6 Op. cit., 69.
7 Op cit., 1/11.
8 Op. cit., 11 2/3.
9 Op. cit., 332.
10 C. Van TI, Christianity and Barthianism, 1962, 166.
11 J. Daane, in a review of van Til's book, in The Reformed Journal, Jan. 1963, 29.
12 G.C. Berkouwer, Divine Election, 1960,155/6.
13 Op. cit.. 156. Cf. also 57 if. (Calvin on the 'absolute power' of God); 105ff. and 139ff. (Christ, the mirror of election). unfortunately this cannot be said of all later theologians. E.g.. L. Boettner, The Reformed Doctrine of Predestination, 1932, completely omits a discussion of the 'in Christ'-dimension of election. Atthough we are convinced that the author himself would utterly reject the decretum absolutum idea, it cannot be denied that his presentation often gives the impression of speaking of a deus nudus.
15 We use this term, not in the way of the Arminians at Dort (this has always been rightly cirticized, because they saw the divine election as 'motivated' by Christ's act. cf. Berkouwer, op. ct., 134f.), but in the way it was used by the English delegates at Dort, viz., that from all eternity God appointed Christ as the Head of the elect and the elect themselves as members of Christ. Cf. Acta. as republished in the 19th century by J.H. Donner and 5.A. van den Hoorn, 342.
16 The judgments of the various groups of delegates vary at this point. Some very clearly state that our election was 'in Christ,' e.g., the English and the Genevan delegates. cf. Acta, 342, 385. Others mention Christ as executor only; e.g.. the delegates from Switzerland (375), Nassau (368, 382), Bremen (394) and Emden (399.409). The reason for this emphasis of Christ as executor lies no doubt in the fact that the Arminians explained the phrase 'election in Chnst' in the sense of a 'fides praevisa.' viz., He chose us as being in Christ. Hence the Swiss delegates declare: "But although the election refers to Christ, the Mediator, in whom we are all elected unto salvation and grace. yet God chose us, not as being in Him before we were elected, but in order that we should be in Him and saved by Him" (Acta. 375). It is to be regretted that these theologians were led by this fear of misinterpretation by the Arminians, and there-fore were unable to do full justice to the 'in Christ' of Eph. 1:4. The official Canons, however, cannot be said to have succumbed to this fear. Read 1, 7.
17 J.G. Woelderink, De Uitverkiezing, 1951,19.
18 Cf. op. cit., 23, 25, 26, 76.
19 Cf. op. cit., 19, 21, 22, 23, 26.
20 Op.cit., 21.
21 Op. cit., 43ff. One of Woelderink's criticisms of the Canons is that they almost completely ignore the O.T. (op. cit.. 8). This criticism is valid and explains the onesided emphasis on individual election in the Canons.
22 Op. cit., 49.
23 Op. cit., 35.45f., 49, 58f.
24 He does discuss it on p.57, but by distinguishing between predestination and election he virtually separates the expression 'before the foundation of the world' from the election.
25 Op. cit.. 46,53. Cf. also his view that believers can fall away completely and definitely, 53f.
26 Op. cit., 70t.
27 De Uitverkiezing. Rich tllinen voor de behandeling van de leer der ultverkiezing, aanvaard door de Generale Synode der Nederlands Hervormde Kerk, 1960, 13.
28 Op. cit., 14.
29 Op. cit., 1St., 26ff.
30 Op. cit., 18; ct. 35.
31 Op. cit., 30ff.
32 Op. cit., 3Sf.
33 Op. cit., 39.
34 Op. cit., 39. Cf. Canons III-IV, II and 17.
35 Op. cit., 39f. Cf. Canons 1,12, 13, 16; III-IV, 13.
36 Op. cit., 40. Cf. Canons 1, 7,10, 15.
37 Op. cit., 40f. The O. T. is hardly quoted. Many quotations from the N. T. are based on a wrong interpretation (Matt. 10:25, in 1,18 and Matt. 11:25, in Rejection of Errors I, 8; Acts 15:18 and Eph. 1:11 in I, 6). In 1,15, dealing with the decree of reprobation, no Scripture proof is given at all!
38 G.C. Berkouwer, Divine Election, 1960, 145ff.
39 Op cit., 161.
40 Op. cit., 279ff.
41 Op. cit., 180.
42 Op.cit., 181.
43 Op. cit., 181. The last words of this sentence in the English translation are incorrect. They should not read: "the Praescientia of determinism," but "praescientis (i.e. indeterminism) or determinism." Cf. the Dutch edition, 212.
44 Cf. op. cit., 20, where they are mentioned for the first time.
45 Op. cit., 183.
46 Op. cit., 185.
47 Op. cit., 187. But read also 189, where Berkouwer points out that time and again Calvin breaks through this scheme of a twofold causa and confesses that "the real cause of sin is not the counsel of God, but man's sin." On p.190 Berkouwer adds: "Dort's criticism of the eodern modo finds its preludium in Calvin."
48 Op. cit., 188, cf. 189, 200, 21Sf.
49 Cf Dutch edition, 237.
50 Op. cit., 201.
51 Op. cit., 204.
52 Op. cit., 204/5.
53 H. Berkhof, In de Waagschaal, xl. 24.
54 H. N. Ridderbos, Gereformeerd Weekblad, Xl, 33.
55 G. C. Berkouwer, "Vragen rondom de belijdenis," Geref, Theol. Tijdschrigt, LXIII, i, pp.1.41.
56 Art. cit., 14.
57 Art. cit.. 11.
58 Art. cit., 16.
59 A.D.R. Polman, "De leer der verwerping van eeuwigheid op de Haagse conferentie van 1611," in Ex. Auditu' Verbi Festschrift for G. C. Berkouwer, 1965, 193.
60 Op. cit., 189-190. ct. also Polman in several articles in Gereformeerd Weekblad, XVII, 10, XVIII, 2 and, in particular, in XIX, 4.
61 PoIman, "Waar is the banier?" II, in Gereformeerd Weekblad, XIX, 4, p.26.
62 H.R. Boer, "The Doctrine of Reprobation and the Preaching of the Gospel," The Reformed Journal, March, 1965; Ibid., "Reprobation in Modern Reformed Theologians," April, 1955. H. Pietersma, "Predestination," Dec.1966, Jan., Feb., May-June and Nov., 1967.
63 The same is true of Pieterama. In his articles, however, we again find the tendency to 'actualize' election. He formulates predestination as "God's entering into history to deal with men in a new way," viz., in Jesus Christ. In his statements the pre-temporal aspect ('before the foundation of the world'), (Eph. 1:4; cf. I Tim. 1:9) is not done full justice.
64 G.c. Berkouwer, Divine Election, 195.
65 A.D.R. Polman, in Ex Auditu Verbi, 183; cf. 188.
66 lbid., Gereformeerd Weekblad, XIX, 5, p.34.
67 Cf. Ibid., in Ex Auditu Verbi, 179,184,185; Woelderink, op. cit., 79.
68 Polman, op. cit., 177.
69 Ibid., op. cit., 183.
70 Acta, 361, 367.
71 Acta, 385.
72 Acta, 359.
73 L. Berkhot, Systematic Theology, 1953,117/8.
74 L. Boettner, op. cit., 104. For other examples, see H.R. Boer, "Reprobation in Modern Reformed Theologians," The Reformed Journal, April, 1965.
75 Ct. G.C. Berkouwer, art., cit., 16/17.
76 Cf. Herdenlijk Schniven, 30f.
77 Rolman, Gedormeerd Weekblad, XVII, 10. underlining by us.
78 Ct. Polman, Ibid., XIX. s.
79 Poiman, Ibid., XVII, 10.
80 Cf. Herderlijk Schrijven, 18/19.
81 Ibid., 19.