Chosen in Christ: Revisiting the Contours of Predestination, by Cornelis Venema. Fearn, Ross-shire, Great Britain: Christian Focus Publications, 2019. Pp. 403. $19.99 (softcover). ISBN-13: 978- 1527102354. [Reviewed by David J. Engelsma.]

 

United Reformed Churches/ Christian Reformed Church theologian, Cornelis Venema, president of Mid-America Seminary, has written an explanation and defense of the Reformed doctrine of election that is learned, thorough, and, for the most part, sound. There is a careful interpretation of the outstanding passages in Scripture on election, including chapters on the Old Testament, the New Testament, and, deservedly, the Pauline epistles as source of the doctrine in their own right. The exegesis is sound and compelling. The doctrine of election does not have its source in John Calvin, but in Holy Writ.

Church historically, the doctrine was clarified and emphasized by Augustine against the early heretic, Pelagius. To Augustine’s teaching of election, Venema devotes an entire instructive chapter. The deep, spiritual concern of Augustine was expressed by the biblical question, “What do you have that you have not received?” Venema makes this the sub-title of the chapter heading of the treatment of Augustine. Venema plainly shares this concern. Surprisingly in a defender of the well-meant offer, as Venema is, Venema frankly acknowledges that Augustine rejected the theology of a well-meant offer of the gospel: “Augustine does not affirm that the call of the gospel is a ‘sincere’ or ‘well-meant’ offer, which expresses God’s good-will toward those whom He has not chosen” (149).

In the chapter on the doctrine of election in Reformation theology, Venema not only does justice to election in Calvin, as one would expect, but he also examines the doctrine of Luther—the Luther of Bondage of the Will. Briefly, he considers the theology of Bullinger, Zwingli, and Vermigli, as well as the Reformed creeds. In his study of election in the Reformation, Venema notes that Lutheranism, following Melancthon rather than Luther, declined to confess the doctrine of reprobation lest this jeopardize its doctrine of “universal grace…in the gospel” (186).

The book explores the striking truth of Ephesians 1:4, that our election was “in Christ,” a truth little regarded even by Reformed theologians.

The treatment of the Arminian controversy is solid and insightful. This chapter will be of help to those churches and Christians today who are confronted by and struggling with various forms of the Arminian heresy. Arminius and his defenders at the Synod of Dordt taught salvation conditioned by a positive response to a universal, gracious offer of salvation (220, 221). Theirs was “a doctrine of ‘conditional’ predestination” (221).

According to Arminian theology, “God’s gracious will, which is general and common toward all whom He graciously summons to faith, can be rendered ineffectual by any of its recipients” (225). This theology “makes evangelical faith a kind of work that some sinners, who belong to the class represented by Jacob, perform in order to be saved according to God’s purpose of election” (233, 234).

Venema refutes Arminian theology from Romans 9 (231ff.). He criticizes Arminianism for teaching a will of God for the salvation of all (236). He charges, rightly, that Arminian theology teaches a (saving) grace of God that is “profoundly ineffectual” (236). Against Arminius, Venema affirms “God’s purpose of election to show him [Jacob] mercy was unconditional in the strictest sense of the term” (233).

Of great benefit and interest to many Reformed pastors will be the closing chapters on contemporary deviations from and assaults on the creedal Reformed doctrine of election. The controversy over gracious election did not end in 1618/1619. One chapter is a careful, learned exposure of the doctrine of election of the influential Karl Barth. The minister who has neither the time nor the inclination to plunge into the heavy volumes of Barth’s dogmatics, but recognizes the need to learn something of the German/Swiss theologian’s unique argument for universal election, does well to read Venema.

Venema can be faulted for taking too seriously Barth’s drawing back from acknowledging openly his universalism, when he was called to account by his critics. Barth taught the final salvation of all humans without exception. So much is this the case that he argued at length that Judas Iscariot, the ultimate reprobate in Scripture, was, in fact, elect and saved.

And then there is the development of the universalistic theology of traditional Arminianism in “open theism.” Venema exposes this contemporary heresy of a love of God for all mankind with its necessary denial of God’s omniscience and sovereignty—an Arminianism with candor.

The Reformed reader’s joyful reception of Venema’s solid’s defense of the sovereign, gracious decree of election (a defense by one who cannot cavalierly be dismissed as a “hyper-Calvinist”), with repeated affirmation of an accompanying sovereign, just decree of reprobation, is dampened by Venema’s defense at the very end of the book of the “well-meant offer of the gospel” (350- 354). Venema is candid. By the well-meant offer he means, and everyone who promotes it means, “God’s love toward all fallen sinners” (351). It is a (would be) saving love. It “desires for all to be saved” (350). According to the well-meant offer, God “genuinely wills that all fallen sinners…be saved” (350, 351; the emphasis is Venema’s).

Venema’s defense of the well-meant offer, against the objection to it by those who confess the doctrine of predestination, is the same in every respect as that offered by the Christian Reformed Church since its adoption of the doctrine of the well-meant offer in 1924. Venema appeals to a “revealed” will of God that contradicts the “hidden” will of God of predestination. Similarly, he appeals to a “preceptive” will of God that contradicts His “decretal” will. Thus, he misrepresents the preceptive will of God in Reformed theology. God’s preceptive will is not a loving purpose that all humans be saved, but the command of God—a precept—to all who hear the gospel that they repent and believe. Likewise, the revealed will of God is not the desire of God that all be saved. Rather, it is the command to Pharaoh that he let the people go, whereas God had decreed that the king would not let the people go, so that God might make His power known in the disobedience of Pharaoh. Between the two aspects of the will of God, there is no contradiction.

To attempt to defend the well-meant offer by appeal to the “serious” call of the gospel as confessed by the Canons of Dordt is disingenuous, if not deception (351). God can be, and is, serious when He calls the reprobate to repent and believe, without desiring their salvation. Repentance and faith are their solemn duty. An advocate of the well-meant offer does well, in defense of his theory, not so much as to mention the Canons of Dordt. Dordt—in defense of the doctrine that God loves all human without exception with a love that desires their salvation? Dordt—in defense of the doctrine that God desires to save all humans? Dordt—in defense of the doctrine that God is gracious in the preaching of the gospel to all who hear? Dordt—in defense of the doctrine that God’s grace in the gospel is ineffectual, and ineffectual because some to whom God is gracious fail to accept the offer? Dordt—in defense of the doctrine that is the necessary implication of a well-meant offer to all in the gospel, namely, that the reason why some are saved by the gospel is that they accepted the offer whereas the others rejected it?

And then there is the argument against the well-meant offer that Venema does not take up. Controversy over the well-meant offer in the Reformed community in AD 2019, especially controversy in the sphere of the Christian Reformed, United Reformed, and Protestant Reformed Churches, may not ignore the public development of the doctrine of the well-meant offer in the doctrine of universal atonement of Prof. Harold Dekker and in the doctrine of the denial of predestination of Dr. Harry Boer. Both were Christian Reformed theologians, and both pleaded for their heresies on the basis of the well-meant offer. Venema is thoroughly conversant with these developments.

Despite himself, Venema is compelled to admit that his defense of the well-meant offer is a failure. Again and again, in the short space of four pages, he attempts to defend his obviously inadequate and unsatisfactory defense by appeal to mystery and incomprehensibility. “While it may be difficult, even impossible, for us to comprehend [the harmony of predestination and the well-meant offer—DJE],” etc. (350). “Despite the difficulty of explaining how these two distinct aspects of God’s will [election and the well-meant offer—DJE] are compatible,” etc. (351). “Admittedly, it is difficult to comprehend the consistency or coherence of these distinct aspects of God’s will” (352). “It is not possible to comprehend fully the harmony within God’s will in this respect” (352). Delivering Venema from the duty of showing that the well-meant offer, not only is in harmony with, but also does not flatly contradict, predestination is the convenient fact that the relation of the well-meant offer and predestination is a “mystery” that lies “beyond our grasp” (352). The “Reformed theology” of Cornelis Venema, like that of the Christian Reformed Church, “recognizes the difficulty of harmonizing the scriptural teachings of a sovereign decree of election and a well-meant offer” (354).

One other feature of Venema’s treatment of the well-meant offer cries out for notice. There is no mention of Herman Hoeksema and of his opposition to the doctrine of a well-meant offer. How a Reformed theologian in the sphere of the creedal Reformed churches in North America can discuss and defend the well-meant offer, while condemning the rejection of the theory, without so much as a mention of Hoeksema is, on the one hand, surprising. On the other hand, it is to be expected. Ignoring Hoeksema in public has been the tactic of the Christian Reformed Church with regard to its “un-favorite” son since 1924. As an old Christian Reformed minister, who became one of the founding fathers of the United Reformed Churches, told me, in the presence of several of his colleagues, “Our tactic with regard to Hoeksema has always been to ignore him in public. But we are not together privately for fifteen minutes before his name comes up among us, and we are discussing him and his theological stand.”

The movement that resulted in the United Reformed Churches took Dr. Cornelis Venema out of the Christian Reformed Church. It did not take the Christian Reformed Church out of Dr. Venema.

 

This article was originally published in the Protestant Reformed Theological Journal, and has been reproduced here with permission from the PRTS faculty. You can find the original full issue PDF and subscribe to PRTJ here: https://www.prcts.org/past-journals