Corrupting the Word of God: The History of the Well-Meant Offer, by Herman Hanko and Mark H. Hoeksema. Jenison: Reformed Free Publishing Association, 2016. 272 pages. $24.95. Hardcover. [Reviewed by Rev. Douglas Kuiper.]
To know the history of the development of a particular doctrine is beneficial. The history of the development of a doctrine that is truly based on Scripture is the record of the work of the Holy Spirit guiding the church into her understanding of that particular truth (). When a doctrine corrupts God’s Word, the history of its development exposes the doctrine as false.
The volume under review is the history of the development of the idea of the well-meant offer (WMO). Coauthoring this history are Prof. Herman Hanko (emeritus, PRC Seminary), who wrote chapters 1-10 and 13-14, and Mark Hoeksema, who penned chapters 11-12. As Hanko is the primary author, and as I will make specific references to the portions that Hanko authored, I will refer to Hanko as the author, without meaning to ignore or slight Hoeksema in the least.
The Book’s Value
The book’s value is threefold.
First, it sets forth a history of the doctrine of the well-meant offer (WMO). I am aware of no other book-length treatment of this history. This book is unique in providing such a history.
Second, by tracing the historical development of the doctrine, the book exposes the error of the WMO. Had an advocate of the WMO written this history, one would expect him to defend and promote the WMO as being biblical, Reformed, and confessional. He would likely argue that Calvin and the fathers of the Synod of Dordt, who certainly did use the word “offer,” meant by it the WMO. Such an author would probably contend that the “declarations of Reformed writers from the golden age of Reformed theology” (to borrow the wording of the Christian Reformed Church’s statement of the first point of common grace adopted in 1924) prove that the WMO was widely accepted from the time of the Reformation.
Hanko’s purpose is the exact opposite: his doctrinal survey demonstrates that the doctrine is contrary to Scripture and the Reformed confessions and is, therefore, a heretical error. Hanko correctly notes that we must determine from Scripture alone, and not from the historical development of a doctrine, whether a doctrine is true or false (xi). Yet when the historical root of a doctrine is another doctrine that the church has rejected as incompatible with the teachings of Scripture, the present day flowering of that doctrine is immediately suspect, and can be refuted with the same Scriptures. Hanko traces the root of the WMO to Amyraldism, an error that the faithful Reformed church rejected (chap. 4). How can something that was wrong in its root be right in its flower? Hanko demonstrates that the use of the word “offer” by Calvin and the fathers of Dordt was not identical to its use by the WMO advocates (pp. 24-33, 51-55). Hanko shows that Augustine, Luther, Calvin, and many other “Reformed writers from the golden age of Reformed theology” interpreted, , and differently than do the advocates of the WMO.
Third, the book’s value is to reveal that, running in a parallel track to the history of the WMO, the opposition to the WMO by faithful men and church bodies also has a long history. We who oppose the WMO are not new in our opposition, nor do we stand alone. It may seem that we stand alone, but when we consider the history of the opposition to the WMO, we must realize we do not.
In this connection, Hanko makes at least five references to a church body that came to oppose the WMO independently of the PRCA, before having any official contact with the PRCA. I refer to the Evangelical Presbyterian Church of Australia. Not infrequently, the Spirit of truth leads two or more bodies of believers to the same conclusion regarding a doctrinal point, though giving them different incentives to develop the doctrine, and leading them down different paths historically. No one denomination develops truth all by itself.
These values of the book make it worthwhile reading. I encourage you to read it. Are you afraid that the book will be “over your head”? The book is not so much doctrinal as historical, the chapters are not overly long, and Hanko’s style is easy to follow. If you regularly read the Standard Bearer, you can handle this book, even if you read it only a chapter at a time.
The Book’s Weaknesses
My role as reviewer requires me to point out the book’s weaknesses. I assure the reader that these weaknesses, though real, do not detract from the book’s value overall.
Although the book contains a few scattered statements as to what the WMO is and on what assumptions it rests (xii-xiii, 62, and others), nowhere does the book devote a section to a brief but comprehensive statement regarding these points. I suppose this omission is due to this book being the written, developed version of a course that Hanko taught in the Protestant Reformed Seminary to seminarians who would be familiar with the WMO. Perhaps also this omission implies that most readers of the book will know of the WMO.
However, this omission is regretful. We ought to know what that doctrine is, of which a history is here given. Many in conservative Reformed and Presbyterian circles, lacking the fuller knowledge expected of seminarians, would benefit from an introduction or first chapter which explains the WMO.
A second weakness is that Hanko, who is generally very clear, at times contradicts himself, or gives with his left hand what he took away with his right.
Hanko quotes A.A. Hodge, who said of the external call of the gospel: “God intends that its benefits shall actually accrue to every one who accepts it” (122). This Hanko declares to be an “astounding and unwarranted statement,” but in the next sentence says “With some effort even this quotation could be interpreted as being biblical.” Hanko is not suggesting here that WMO advocates would interpret it as biblical; that goes without saying. He is saying that WMO opponents could interpret it as biblical, “with some effort.” But if it is unwarranted, must it not be unbiblical? If it is interpreted as being biblical, is it not then warranted?
He also judges the Westminster Confession to be weak both “in failing to exclude certain views promoted by the Davenant men” and “in failing to define clearly its idea of the well-meant offer” (90). He then says in the next paragraph: “Any form of Arminianism—also such as represented by Amyraut and Davenant—and the whole notion of the well-meant offer were excluded from the formulation of this great assembly” (91). These two statements leave one puzzled. Did, or did not, the Westminster exclude these ideas?
Its weaknesses notwithstanding, this book is substantive, solid, and Reformed. For exposing the WMO as heretical in its root, it does the Reformed cause a great service.