It is often lamented that in the Christian Reformed Church the doctrine of eternal and unconditional reprobation is no more taught. While this is clearly the truth of Scripture and, indeed, the specific and undeniable teaching of Calvin, it is almost totally ignored today even in churches which claim to stand in the tradition of the Reformer of Geneva. An instance of this denial recently appeared in The Banner. In his column “The Question Box”, Rev. Bratt has the following. We quote the article in full.
A Michigan Men’s Society, discussing
arrived, as might be expected, at a parting of the ways as far as interpretation is concerned. The majority held that God hated Esau prior to his earthly existence, and the minority held that God hated him because of his disreputable life. They ask: “Whose side do you take? What do you believe to be the right position?”
Answer: I side with the minority. The other position lands you in the bog of fatalism.
Implicit in the question is the very difficult matter of the conjunction of God’s election of man and of man’s full responsibility for what he does. Both are clearly taught in the Scriptures and therefore, despite our inability to harmonize them, must be firmly maintained. Furthermore, as I mentioned in a related article some time ago, what complicates this issue is that the one factor (election) belongs to the category of eternity while the other (man’s choices) belongs to the category of time.
We must be concerned that we do not impose our own logic on the Scriptures on the one hand and that we observe the boundaries of the Bible on the other.
If we were to take the doctrine of election and apply stern logic to it, we would posit the cold judgment that back in eternity God chose some to be saved and in a parallel decree chose some to be damned.
But the Bible does not proceed in that fashion. It teaches that man is saved in the electing grace of God. God chose him to salvation from before the foundation of the world. No credit for this can be ascribed to man. Salvation rests on the eternal love of God. That is one set of teachings.
The other is that the wrath of God rests on the sinner because of his sin. Damnation is based on human sin. (The fact that God hated Esau is, significantly enough, not stated in the Genesis record but long after Esau had left the human scene.) The lost will locate his perdition in his rejection of the Christ. The redeemed will say, “I’m here because God saved me,” while the lost will say, “I’m here because I deserve this punishment.”
The Men’s Society that sent in the question would do well to take a close look at the Canons of Dort in this regard. The Conclusions are very emphatic. They state that the teaching “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 in which election is the fountain and cause of faith and good works, reprobation is the cause of unbelief and impiety. . . the Reformed Churches not only do not acknowledge but even detest with their whole soul.” (cf. also Canons I, 5; III-IV, 9 and the Institutes of the Christian Religion, III, 8, 23.)
Now it is true that our Canons, in the Conclusion, say precisely what the quote above includes. Nevertheless, Rev. Bratt is misapplying the Canons badly when he quotes them in support of his view of conditional reprobation. The fact is that the Canons are denying that the Reformed Churches teach that in the same manner as election is the fountain and cause of faith and good works, reprobation is the cause of unbelief and impiety. In other words, they are denying that the Reformed faith teaches that God’s decree of reprobation is the cause of the sin of man. They are insisting that this is not the Reformed faith, nor is it the truth of Scripture, The Reformed Churches until today have concurred in this. But from this it must not (and cannot) be deduced that our fathers maintained aconditional reprobation so that unbelief and impiety in the wicked is the cause or basis of God’s eternal decree. This is what Rev. Bratt wants when he says that God did not hate Esau until after he sinned. This is at variance with Scripture and with the Reformed faith.
It is true that this is an exceedingly difficult problem — one surely, that is, for us, insoluble. But Rev. Bratt’s advice should then surely be followed: “. . . we must observe the boundaries of the Bible… .” And the Bible teaches that also the decree of reprobation is sovereign and unconditional.
I cannot find the reference in Calvin’s Institutes which the author mentions. (Perhaps this is due to the fact that I have a different edition than he does; mine is the Allen translation published by Eerdmans.) But quotations can be made from Calvin’s writings which specifically condemn conditional reprobation and emphasize its sovereign character.
In Calvin’s treatise “The Eternal Predestination of God” in which Calvin answers the heresies of Pigbius, he writes, commenting on Romans 9:22-23:
Now if this being “afore prepared unto glory” is peculiar and special to the elect, it evidently follows that the rest, the non-elect, were equally “fitted to destruction,” because, being left to their own nature, they were thereby devoted already to certain destruction. That they were “fitted to destruction” by their own wickedness is an idea so silly that it needs no notice. It is indeed true that the reprobate procure to themselves the wrath of God, and that they daily hasten on the falling of its weight upon their own heads. But it must be confessed by all that the apostle is here treating of that difference made between the elect and the reprobate, which proceeds from the alone secret will and purpose of God. (Calvin’s Calvinism, translated by Henry Cole, Eerdmans, 1956.)
Or again, in his commentary on Romans 9:11, Calvin writes:
It is indeed true, that the proximate cause of reprobation is the curse we all inherit from Adam; yet, that we may learn to acquiesce in the bare and simple good pleasure of God, Paul withdraws us from this view, until he has established this doctrine, — that God has a sufficiently just reason for electing and for reprobating, in his own will.
The editor of this Commentary, evidently not agreeing with Calvin on this point, adds in a footnote:
Archbishop Usher asks this question, “Did God, before he made man, determine to save some and reject others?” To this he gives this answer, —”Yes, surely; before they had done either good or evil, God in his eternal counsel set them apart.” It is the same sentiment that is announced here by Calvin. But to deduce it from what is said of Jacob and Esau, does not seem legitimate, . . .
A little further, Calvin writes:
False then is the dogma, and contrary to God’s word, —that God elects or rejects, as he foresees each to be worthy or unworthy of his favour.
All these quotations could be multiplied from Calvin’s writings — also from his Institutes where, among other comments on this doctrine, Calvin defines predestination in these words:
Predestination we call the eternal decree of God, by which he has determined in himself, what he would have to become of every individual of mankind. For they are not all created with a similar destiny; but eternal life is foreordained for some, and eternal damnation for others. Every man, therefore, being created for one or the other of these ends, we say, he is predestinated either to life or to death.
Hence, in order to define the relation between the sovereign decree of reprobation and the sin of man, Reformed writers have avoided the error condemned by our Canons in the Conclusion, but have likewise condemned the error of conditional reprobation. They have rather chosen to speak of reprobation as in the way of sin. It is evident that the expression “in the way of” does not say a great deal. But here is where we must follow where Scripture leads and stop where Scripture stops. But to adopt conditional reprobation is to ignore Scripture’s plain statements, to deny the truth of God’s absolute sovereignty, and to pave the way for conditional election as well and a complete denial of predestination.
THE MID-EAST CRISIS AND PREMILLENNIALISM
Since the establishment of the nation of Israel as an independent country, those addicted to the theory of pre-millennialism have found support for their views in this historical fact. With the recent war between Israel and the Arabs and the Israeli conquest of Jerusalem, the claim is once again heard that Scriptural prophecies are being fulfilled by these events. An example of this is to be found in the writings of L. Nelson Bell who in his column “A Layman And His Faith” in Christianity Today writes an article from which we take the following:
That for the first time in more than 2,000 years Jerusalem is now completely in the hands of the Jews gives a student of the Bible a thrill and a renewed faith in the accuracy and validity of the Bible.
The Jews as a “separate” people demonstrate a mystery and a hope. Their continuance as a people in the midst of all other nations is itself a miracle. The cohesiveness of these Jews is demonstrated by the fact that at least ninety-six countries are represented in Israel today -from the ends of the earth, but Jews all.
. . . . the events in the Middle East certainly fit — at least in some measure — into the picture revealed in the Scriptures. If we say, as the Arabs do, that Israel has no right to exist, we may prove blind to her peculiar “destiny under the providence of God.
. . . . prophecy has come true. A flag of Zion floats over Jerusalem for the first time since the Romans leveled the holy city 1900 years ago. It is a thrilling thing to see a segment of prophecy being fulfilled!
Apart from the exegetical question involved in the premillennialist’s views, there are a couple of serious mistakes involved here.
In the first place, this position is based upon a logical error called Petitio Principii or “begging the question” or “reasoning in a circle.” The argument goes something like this. The Israelis have a right to the land of Canaan because Scripture gives them this rightful claim. There are prophecies, so it is argued, which specifically mention that Israel shall some day receive Canaan again for her inheritance. Now that the Israelis are in possession of Canaan (and particularly of Jerusalem), we have the obvious fulfillment of Scripture in these events in the Mid-East.
These are the facts of history. When the Romans conquered Palestine and destroyed Jerusalem, most of the Jews fled the land. This marked the end of Israel as a nation. In the 600s A.D., the Arabs conquered the land and have inhabited it ever since-except for a brief period during the time of the Crusades of the 11th Century. In the First World War, the British drove out the Turks and established some sort of rule there. In 1917 the British statesman and Zionist Jew, Chaim Weizmann, persuaded the British Government to issue a statement favoring the establishment of a Jewish national home in Palestine. This statement, called the “Balfour Declaration”, was approved by the League of Nations. From that time, Jews began to settle in Palestine and reclaim the wasteland. The Arabs took a dim view of this and resisted this takeover. The result was that the British temporarily halted immigration officially, although many Jews continued to come to Canaan secretly worried lest they be denied a homeland. The Jews fought with the Allies in World War II, and, as a reward the British Government asked the United Nations in 1947 to solve the problem of Palestine, but in favor of the Jews. Under pressure from the Jews, the United Nations decided to divide Palestine between Jews and Arabs and internationalize the city of Jerusalem. Israel agreed to this division, but the Arabs never did, and thousands of them were dispossessed. In May of 1948 the British mandate in Palestine ended, the British left the land, and the Zionists proclaimed the new state of Israel. This is where things stood until the Jews conquered new lands in the recent war.
Because the legal status of the nation is in considerable doubt, those who find in all this -the fulfillment of prophecy prefer to establish Israel’s claim to Palestine on the words of Scripture. But it is at this point that the argument breaks down. For isolated and mis-interpreted texts in Scripture cannot both be the justification for the establishment of the nation of Israel and serve as texts which are now supposedly being fulfilled in these recent events.
In the second place, it is not so sure that even the misinterpretation of these texts is being fulfilled. I am told that 80% of the Jews in Palestine are purely secular; i.e., those who are without any religion whatsoever. The remaining 20% are orthodox Jews, i.e., those who still attempt to maintain the Phariseeistic interpretation of the Mosaic law. This hardly sounds like the nation of Israel spoken of by the pre-millennialists.
The conclusion is that, rather than finding in these events a fulfillment of prophecy, we must rather interpret the efforts of men to establish a separate nation of Israel as being based upon a misinterpretation of prophecy and as the result of the desire of the Jews for a homeland of their own.