The purpose of this letter is to apologize. From November 15, 2020 through January 15, 2021, I wrote a series of five articles on the seventeenth-century Dutch Reformed theologian Herman Witsius, reflecting on his book entitled Conciliatory, or Irenical Animadversions, on the Controversies Agitated in Britain, under the Unhappy Names of Antinomianism and Neonomians. On account of objections raised against these articles, working with my consistory, and discussions with a number of my colleagues, I am persuaded that I owe the readers of the SB an apology.
As I informed my consistory and the readers in my articles on Witsius, I was persuaded that the statements I commented on could be explained in such a way as to harmonize with our Synod’s decisions, that is, when considered in the light of the error Witsius was opposing and then his fuller explanation. My consistory pointed out that a number of Witsius’ statements, as they are worded, no matter how I read them and was convinced what Witsius meant by them, stand in contradiction to decisions of our recent synods (in particular those of 2018) and to our confessions, and thus constitute false doctrine. As a result, the articles, instead of helping clarify issues in our present controversy over the place and function of good works in the life of the child of God, sowed confusion and, in light of Synod 2018’s decisions, promoted statements and theology that Synod judged to be erroneous.
In particular I was pointed to Witsius stating, in the context of the utility (usefulness) of holiness and good works, that “Scripture teaches that something must be done that we may be saved”; also to the statement, “We must accurately distinguish between a right to life and the possession of life…. But certainly, our works, or rather those, which the Spirit of Christ worketh in us and by us, contribute something to the latter [that is, to the possession of life and salvation]”; and also to Witsius’ statement, “Hence, I conclude, that sanctification and its effects, are by no means to be slighted, when we treat of assuring the souls as to its justification.”
My attempt to explain what Witsius meant by these phrases in an orthodox fashion did not help clear up confusion, but contributed to it, as if such wording and phrases could be still be considered orthodox and language that I would approve of today. Let me state categorically, I do not. And I certainly do not maintain that good works are to serve along with faith as a secondary instrument to assure one of justification, of one being counted righteous before God. Faith, based on Christ’s atoning sacrifice, is the one only instrument.
I do not propose we use Witsius’ language in the preaching, nor would I suggest we approve of it if it were used. No more than I would approve in our day of using the word “conditions” in connection with life in covenant. Such words and phrases have come to be loaded with erroneous connotations and ought not have our approval today. I should have made that clear in my articles, but did not, leading to unnecessary questions and confusion. For this I am sorry and apologize.
Whatever Witsius may have meant or intended by them, they are not phrases or words we should use from Protestant Reformed pulpits. Nor should they have our approval if used. As they stand, they would teach that man’s good works function as an instrument through which the believer receives or gains some aspect of salvation. This is error to which I do not subscribe.
I am sorry for the confusion and resulting unrest these articles have caused. I assure you, as I did my consistory, that I wholeheartedly agree with and subscribe to the decisions of our recent synods, repudiating all that is contrary to them.
Rev. Kenneth Koole