A Gravamen In The Garb Of A Request

In the Reformed Journal (April, 1975, pp. 7-10) there appears a significant article from the pen of Dr. Harry R. Boer entitled “Reprobation: does the Bible teach it?”—significant, I believe, because it fits into what seems to be a world-wide pattern of attack and erosion with respect to the Reformed faith. But more about that significance later. What makes this article important is the fact that it is actually a transcript of an address to the Synod of the Christian Reformed Church. It does not appear in this year’s synodical Agenda, nor could I find it listed among the unprinted personal appeals in the Agenda. Hence, I do not know, as of this writing, whether this address will reach and be treated by the 1975 Synod of the Christian Reformed Church. Possibly it could be excluded from treatment on technical grounds; but that, it seems to me, would only mean that it could appear on the Agenda a year later. However that may be, the fact is that this address to the Christian Reformed Synod is public. And we wish to comment on its form and its content, both to keep our readers informed as to what is happening on the Reformed scene and to instruct our readers.

Dr. Boer’s address to the Synod is purportedly a request to Synod to furnish Scriptural proof for the doctrine of reprobation as taught by the Canons of Dordrecht. It concerns especially Article 6 and Article 15 of Canons I. The request itself reads as follows:

It is stated in Article 6 of the First Head of Doctrine of the Canons of Dordt that the fact “that some receive the gift of faith from God, and others do not receive it, proceeds from God’s eternal decree.” Article 15 of the same Head of Doctrine similarly says that it is “the express testimony of sacred Scripture” that “not all, but some only are elected, while others are passed by in the eternal decree, whom God, out of His sovereign; most just, irreprehensible, and unchangeable good pleasure, has decreed to leave in the common misery into which they have willfully plunged themselves, and not to bestow upon them saving faith and the grace of conversion. . . .”

In Article 15 no Scripture is adduced to show what is “the express, testimony of sacred Scripture” that supports the doctrine in question. The two texts adduced in Article 6 are certainly not perspicuous in teaching what they are alleged to teach.

Having been for some time concerned about this, I asked my consistory in 1969 to inform me what this express testimony is. The consistory declined this request stating that I can address this question to the church only in the form of a gravamen. Unable to concur in this judgment, I next addressed the request to my then classis, Chicago South. In 1973 the Classis gave me the same, answer that the consistory had given me. I now address my request to the Synod. There is urgent reason arising from a publicly known harmful, and to a large extent officially existing situation in the Christian Reformed Church, and further from the missionary context in which I work, that leads me to ask the Synod to receive and deal with this altogether important question.

In the rest of his rather lengthy article, Dr. Boer clarifies and motivates the request quoted above. Because of its length, we shall not quote the entire article, but summarize parts of it and quote only as necessary. However, there is an important section of clarification in the remainder of the article which it is necessary to quote in full. This is numbered “I” and reads as follows:

Permit me to make two clarifications. First, my request is not an appeal from consistorial and classical refusals to hear me. Nor is my request to be construed as a gravamen against the doctrine of reprobation. My address to Synod is a request for information: what is “the express testimony of sacred Scripture” that teaches the doctrine confessed in the creedal quotations adduced above?

Second, both quotations include the decree of election in their scope. I do not request Scripture support for the doctrine of election. Election is not only well attested in the Scriptures, it is constitutive of the whole doctrine of redemption. It is therefore a most fundamental and necessary doctrine. The fact that it is this forms no small part of my concern in addressing you. I also exclude from my concern a request for Scriptural evidence that there is a judgment of God on unbelief and sin committed by unrepentant men in history, which the second half of Article 15 associates with the doctrine of reprobation.

My address is therefore confined solely to a request to receive from you specification of “the express testimony of sacred Scripture” with respect to the doctrine of reprobation as taught in the two articles cited and as limited in this paragraph.

The rest of this document consists mainly of explanation and motivation.

In “II” Dr. Boer calls attention to the fact that the doctrine of election “is rapidly going into eclipse in the Christian Reformed Church.” And he blames as a “very basic cause” of this eclipse “the prevalent, public, and officially condoned attitude of the Christian Reformed Church to the doctrine of reprobation as this is set forth notably in the citations from I/6 and I/l5 in the Canons of Dordt given above.” As to the factualness of Dr. Boer’s claim here, I can only comment that I believe he has 20-20 vision. Whether, however, this is proper motivation for his request to synod is an altogether different question.

In “III” Dr. Boer claims that “It is psychologically and theologically next to impossible to preach on election in the Christian Reformed Church even if one genuinely wants to do so.” And what is the alleged reason for this claimed impossibility? Dr. Boer says: “This disturbing circumstance is caused by the existence alongside the doctrine of election, and inextricably bound up with it, of the companion doctrine of reprobation.” In this section Dr. Boer goes on to claim that “As a teaching of the Church it (the doctrine of reprobation) has become a creedal appendix that appears to have no function in the body ecclesiastic.” He further characterizes the doctrine of reprobation as a “diseased appendix.” And he goes on to claim that “The diseased condition arises from the fact that the general disbelief in the doctrine has not resulted in its rejection as a central doctrine of the Church.” Still speaking of reprobation in relation to election, he warns: “The Church cannot long preach a doctrine which she believes when it is part and parcel of a doctrine which she no longer believes.”

In “IV” Dr. Boer claims that the public situation with respect to the doctrine of reprobation “has an official aspect which makes that situation even more ominous.” In this connection he refers to the fact that in the Christian Reformed Church the doctrine of reprobation “played no role of any kind whatever in the debate that was carried on for four-and-one-half years” in connection with the Dekker Case. He claims, I believe correctly, that neither the study committee, nor the numerous overtures to the Synod of 1967, nor the decision of Synod ever raised the relevance of the doctrine of reprobation in connection with the so-called Dekker case.

In “V” Dr. Boer offers as a further reason for his request his position as a missionary engaged in a textbook writing ministry in the service of English-speaking African Theological students. And he writes: “I believe I am entitled to know the position of my sending denomination on the question of the Biblical basis for a doctrine so closely related to the central Reformed affirmation of the sovereignty of God and man’s salvation as reprobation.”

In the concluding section of this document, Dr. Boer summarizes his request, quoting once again from the Canons of Dordrecht the specific passages for which he requests the Scriptural proof. And then he writes:

I have not been able through my own study to discover this “express testimony.” Scriptural support adduced for it by Reformed theologians does not impress me, and in any case I am not bound by their exegetical judgments. My consistory and my classis have declined to respond to my request for Scriptural verification. Had they done so there would have been a basis for synod’s finalizing action. I wish to know officially what the explicit Scriptural support is for this doctrine which the Form of Subscription binds all office-bearers, and presumably ecclesiastical bodies when they are called upon to deal with matters directly and inseparably related to it, both “diligently to teach and faithfully to defend.”

I think it will be plain from the above account, regardless of one’s opinion for or against the document, that it deals with a matter of the utmost seriousness. Dr. Boer himself states that the doctrine of reprobation as taught in our Canons is inextricably connected with the doctrine of election. Hence, it is fair to conclude also that the doctrine of election as taught by the Canons is necessarily involved in this document of Boer also—whether the document is viewed as a request or as a gravamen. And recognition of this part alone is sufficient to brand this document of Boer as important. It deals with matters which are of the very genius of the Reformed faith and confession. Reformed believers, therefore, will do well to observe what the outcome of this bit of strategy of Dr. Boer will prove to be.

As far as the formal, church political aspect of Dr. Boer’s document is concerned, first of all, it seems to me that the document is patently and transparently not a request, but a gravamen against the Canons. For the benefit of any of our readers who may not be acquainted with this term, a gravamen is an official charge of error against one of our Three Forms of Unity, brought under the provisions of the Formula of Subscription. Since a gravamen is against the confessions, its claim will necessarily be that the, teaching of the confession is not in harmony with the teaching of Scripture itself. It is our claim, contrary to Dr. Boer’s avowals, that his document is nevertheless such a gravamen. It is only disguised—and rather poorly disguised—as a request. Why do I make this claim? My reason is that while this document of Dr. Boer claims to be nothing more than an innocent request, its entire tenor, as well as various specific statements, is critical of the Canons on the doctrine of reprobation. In the first place, we must bear in mind that this request—contrary to appearances—does not “drop out of the blue,” so to speak. For one thing, Dr. Boer has been a minister of the Christian Reformed Church, I would guess, for at least thirty years. For all these years he has subscribed to the Canons. Is he suddenly now discovering that there is allegedly no Scriptural proof in the Canons for the doctrine of reprobation? Did he, then, blindly subscribe to the Canons for all these years? One would be inclined to address to the doctor the words of Jesus to Nicodemus, “Art thou a master of Israel, and knowest not these things?” For another thing, we must view this document of Dr. Boer in its proper setting on the Reformed scene. It is exactly these two points of the Canons which have not only been criticized in the Netherlands, but have been rejected by the Gereformeerde Kerken, and that, too, on the ground that the teaching of these articles is not the teaching of Scripture. It is well known that various theologians in the Netherlands, and especially Dr. G. C. Berkouwer, have long been making propaganda against the Reformed doctrine of reprobation and double predestination. For another thing, Dr. Boer himself has written critically on this doctrine in the past. Besides, he is critical of the lack of interest in and attention to the recent book of his fellow liberal, Dr. James Daane, The Freedom of God. All this in itself, however, would not be sufficient reason to characterize Boer’s document as a gravamen. But there are also specific critical statements. In the fast place, while it is technically true that “in Article 15 no Scripture is adduced to show what is ‘the express testimony of sacred Scripture’ that supports the doctrine in question,” yet Dr. Boer certainly knows very well that in Canons I, Rejection of Errors, Article 8, the Canons do adduce three Scriptural passages in support of reprobation to which Dr. Boer does not pay the least attention. They are: Romans 9:18, Matt. 13:11, and Matt. 11:25, 26. In the second place, his statement concerning Article 6 is critical in a very serious way of the Canons; and besides, it begs the question. That statement is: “The two texts adduced in Article 6 are certainly not perspicuous in teaching what they are alleged to teach.” This is a round about way of saying that the Canons do not prove their point in Article 6. Besides, of course, this is merely a claim of Dr. Boer, and a claim for which he offers no iota of proof. The burden of proof is on him to show that the Canons are at fault here. I do not believe they are. I, therefore, could as well say to Dr. Boer, “None is so blind as he who will not see.” In the third place, Dr. Boer in “III” of his document is obviously critical of the doctrine of reprobation, blaming it for the silence about the doctrine of election in his denomination. He refers to reprobation as a diseased creedal appendix. And, finally, even if there were no explicit Scriptural proof offered by the Canons whatsoever,—and this is the case, you know, with many articles in our confessions—it simply will not do for a man to subscribe for many years to the confessions and then suddenly to ask for proof. If he has doubts as to the Scriptural validity of Articles 6 and 15 of Canons I, then the burden of proof is on him, not on the Synod. Dr. Boer is using the disguise of a mere request to make his point that no Scriptural proof can be adduced for the doctrine of reprobation as taught by the Canons. Why he did not follow the method of gravamen, or whether he thought this method was too tedious and doomed to failure in advance, I do not know. Whether the strategy of his request is to put the Christian Reformed Synod before the same issue that was faced in the Dutch churches several years ago, and in this connection, so to speak, to put the Synod between a rock and a hard place, I do not know. But any Synod would be justified in giving the same answer as that which was given by Boer’s consistory and by Classis Chicago South. And in that case, of course, the burden of proof would rest squarely upon Dr. Boer’s shoulders.

Materially, of course, I do not agree with the position of Dr. Boer’s article whatsoever. And yet it would be beneficial and would result in a “moment of truth” if the issue raised by Dr. Boer would eventually somehow be treated by the broadest ecclesiastical assembly of the Christian Reformed Church. Perhaps Boer’s request will not reach the 1975 Synod. Perhaps he will be told that he must register a gravamen. If that should take place, I hope that Boer will register such a gravamen. Why? Not because I believe that Dr. Boer is correct in his assessment of the reasons why the Christian Reformed pulpits are largely silent concerning both reprobation and election. Not because I believe that the fault is to be laid at the door of the Canons. Not because I believe that the much maligned Reformed doctrine of double predestination (that is, election and reprobation) is at fault. But because I believe that principally the Christian Reformed Church contradicted the doctrine of sovereign reprobation (and therewith inevitably the doctrine of sovereign election) in 1924 when it adopted the doctrine of common grace and of the free offer. And if a future Synod of the Christian Reformed Church would be compelled to face the real issue of Dr. Boer’s document, this would result in a “moment of truth.” Does the Christian Reformed Church truly hold to the Reformed doctrine of reprobation, or is the general silence concerning this doctrine and that of sovereign election evidence of the fact that the Christian Reformed Church, while creedally subscribing to these doctrines, nevertheless wants nothing of them?

And that leads me to my final point. I began by calling this document of Boer significant. I had in mind the fact that on the worldwide Reformed scene there has for several years been a process of erosion going on with respect to these truths. I already referred to the fact that theologians in the Netherlands have for a long time already openly contradicted this doctrine of reprobation (and with it, inevitably, sovereign election) and that the Dutch churches have officially opened the door to the denial of the teachings of our Canons in these two articles. I have in mind, too, the fact that Dr. K. Runia, at that time still in Geelong, openly denied this doctrine. And he, of course, has now been followed at Geelong by Dr. S. Woudstra. And I have in mind, too, that already in the Christian Reformed denomination reprobation has been denied by more than one theologian. Is this document of Dr. Boer an opening wedge in an attempt to make this denial official? Time will tell. But meanwhile let all Reformed believers be on their guard, and understand that with the denial of sovereign reprobation the denial of sovereign election goes hand in hand. And with the denial of sovereign predestination Reformed churches deny all that is precious of the Reformed faith.