A Word of Introduction
It is an appalling fact that throughout the world, wherever the Reformed faith has been transplanted from the Netherlands to any significant degree, that characteristic doctrine of the Reformed faith, sovereign predestination, has fallen upon evil times. Appalling this is, in the first place, because this doctrine is of such importance that without adhering to it no church can properly claim the name Reformed. Appalling it is, in the second place, because this doctrine occupies a strategic place in the structure of the Reformed faith: principally, if the doctrine of sovereign predestination suffers demise, no other important doctrine can be rightly maintained, i.e., in a Reformed sense. And appalling it is, in the third place, because this denial, for all its seriousness, seems to create so little concern. In various places there is concern about departures from the Reformed faith and about liberal tendencies; There is a great measure of concern, for example, about the doctrine of Holy Scripture—and rightly so. But one seldom notices much concern about this denial of sovereign predestination. This, I say, is appalling! For a church to embrace this error is like clasping a viper, a deadly viper, to one’s bosom: it will surely be fatal! How appalling, then, to see a church or a segment of a church concerned about other ills, but paying little or no attention to that deadly viper! That can be like, paying attention to a minor head cold when one is in danger of death from snake’s venom.
It is with the purpose of sounding a note of warning and of calling attention to this mortal danger, both for ourselves and others, that this and following editorials in this series are written. I intend to express myself frankly and concretely. Some will undoubtedly take offense at this, I can predict. So be it. Express myself I must and will.
It is generally recognized, I believe, that as far as Reformed churches are concerned, this denial of sovereign predestination began in the Netherlands. The chief, but not the sole, architect of this denial has been Dr. G.C. Berkouwer, whose learned writings have had world-wide influence. The point of attack upon this doctrine, as has frequently been the case, was the doctrine of sovereign, unconditional reprobation. For about a half dozen years now that doctrine, as set forth in Canons I, 6 and 15, has been officially dead. The GKN officially declared that a gravamen against the doctrine was correct and that the doctrine set’ forth by the Canons is not in harmony with the Scriptural givens. To attack Canons I, 6 and 15 is officially fair game in the Netherlands. But as I have so often stressed before, if there is no sovereign reprobation, there cannot possibly be any sovereign election. The Reformed doctrine of sovereign predestination is a doctrine of praedestinatio gemina, i.e., twin predestination.
I do not intend at present to write about the situation in the Netherlands; that would require too many articles and would entail too long a delay in giving attention to the situation elsewhere. I only mention the Netherlands because it is the viper’s nest out of which this denial of sovereign predestination originated and spread to other centers of the Reformed churches. Our intention is to take note of the situation in Australasia, in South Africa, and in our own country. We will begin with Australasia.
In spite of the attempt, or claimed attempt, by some in Australasia to live their own ecclesiastical life in isolation from the doctrinal trends in other lands, especially the Netherlands, this has simply proved to be impossible. Not only do I claim that this is, indeed, impossible in today’s world. For theological isolationism is as impossible as is isolationism in international relationships in the small world in which we live today. But I also claim that it is not healthful. To ignore theological developments elsewhere, especially elsewhere in the Reformed community, is foolish; it is like the proverbial ostrich putting his head in the sand when there is danger threatening. But apart from that, it is simply impossible in this age of thorough communication by means of books and magazines and theological journals. And especially in the case of Australasia, which had such close ethnic and ecclesiastical ties with the Netherlands this has been impossible. One could hardly expect that when theological professors were imported, for example, into Geelong from the Netherlands and from the U.S.A., there would come with those imported professors no imported ideas and no imported controversial issues and—no imported heresies! And so the thick stone walls of the old mansion in which the Reformed Theological College of Geelong is housed have not proved impregnable to heresies from abroad. And the denial of sovereign predestination was among those heresies.
Reference might be made in this connection to the Runia matter of several years ago. Do not forget that his views concerning sovereign predestination, and especially concerning reprobation, were one of the important issues in that history. The Standard Bearercommented at length on that matter and warned, at the time, of the seriousness of the issues for the Reformed denominations of Australia and New Zealand. And in a certain sense it was at that time, by their failure to act against Dr. Runia, that the churches already clasped a deadly viper to their bosom, that viper being the denial of sovereign predestination. Perhaps it did not seem so at the time: for it appeared as though the churches avoided the issue through the departure of Dr. Runia for the Netherlands, and there were undoubtedly a good many who heaved a sigh of relief when he left. But the failure to face up to the issues decisively was a crucial mistake. And one evidence of the fact that it was a crucial mistake is the fact that the very same errors confronted the churches only a short time later in the teachings of Dr. S. Woudstra at the Reformed Theological College at Geelong. And this time there was no avoiding a decision.
And what was the decision? True, Dr. Woudstra was dismissed from Geelong. But not only have the churches been kept ignorant of the reasons; that is bad enough! However, it is also a fact that the same Reformed Church of Australia which through its representatives declared that they did not want Dr. Woudstra training their students for the ministry have, through one of their classes, Classis Victoria, received him into the ministry. And mark you well, Dr. Woudstra had not purged himself of the errors for which he had been dismissed from Geelong!
And thereby the churches clasped a viper to their bosom!
Understand clearly, I am not referring to Dr. Woudstra as a viper. The issue is not one of Dr. Woudstra’s person. I am referring to his heretical view of sovereign predestination, and especially of sovereign reprobation. That is the viper!
For do not forget: it is a fact that Dr. Woudstra’s errant views concerning sovereign predestination constituted one of the reasons for his dismissal from Geelong.
This is according to student testimony, which reported that he took the position that the reprobate were not destined from all eternity, and that non-salvation cannot be traced back to a decree of God. This same student testimony attributed to Dr. Woudstra such statements as, “We cannot say that election was an arbitrary decree before the foundation of the world,” and, “Election does not prevent the salvation of others,” and, “Man has tied God’s hands if he refuses the grace offered.” Or take note of this reported statement: “Election in Christ reveals the same working of God as in the election of Israel. They were not all Israel who were of Israel. Some were not saved—yet they were elect.” On Romans 9:13 he is reported to have said, “If we understood it as many do, we would say that Esau had legitimate ground for questioning God for his damnation.”
Moreover, it is a fact that it was views such as these (essentially the same as the views of Dr. Runia) which led the representatives of the Reformed Church of Australia to recommend that Dr. Woudstra be dismissed.
But what happened?
Dr. Woudstra received a call to Hobart, Tasmania. And Classis Victoria, after examining Dr. Woudstra, approved his admission into the ministry of the very churches which had dismissed him. How this was accomplished is a mystery to me. Either the questions asked Dr. Woudstra were so designed that his errors were not exposed; or the Classis forthrightly accepted him, errors and all. My guess is that the former was the method.
But one thing is certain: Dr. Woudstra did not change between his dismissal from Geelong and his admittance to the ministry in the Reformed Church of Hobart.
Nor is it true that his errors were such that they would not affect the preaching. It is doubtful whether there are ever any such errors; but that certainly was not the case here.
For not long after his dismissal from Geelong Dr. Woudstra preached a sermon on, of all subjects, election! His text was Ephesians 1:3, 4. And in that sermon, delivered in the Reformed Church of Geelong, the Reformed doctrine of election is undermined and the same errors for which he was dismissed from Geelong occur in the pulpit!
To this we shall call attention in our next article, the Lord willing.