Doctrinal Tensions “Down Under” (3) As To Dr. K. Runia on Reprobation (continued)

In the last issue we began to investigate and examine the charge maintained by the Reformed and Presbyterian Fellowship of Australasia that Dr. K. Runia undermines and challenges the Canons of Dordrecht on the eternal decree of reprobation, as well as the claim that Dr. Runia has avoided and rejected the method of official “grievance”, or gravamen, against the Canons on this point. In a way, of course, these two charges are related. And they are related in such a way that if the first charge is true, namely, that Dr. Runia openly contradicts the Canons on the doctrine of reprobation, then the second charge is also true. For it is a simple fact that Runia has not filed a gravamen against the Canons of Dordrecht, but has expressed his ideas publicly and in writing in the book,Crisis In the Reformed Churches, and in his chapter in that book, entitled, “Recent Reformed Criticisms of the Canons.” Yet, from another viewpoint, that second charge is a separate one. For it concerns the very important principle, much under discussion in recent years, of subscription to the confessions and of the binding character of the confessions. This, of course, involves the issue of so-called “doctrinal freedom”, or latitude of teaching. 

In connection with the two above charges, you will recall, it is our purpose to evaluate the defense of Dr. Runia on the part of the Board of Directors of the Theological College at Geelong, Australia. 

In order to accomplish this evaluation we are reviewing Dr. Runia’s chapter, “Recent Reformed Criticisms of the Canons,” in the book, Crisis In The Reformed Churches. In this review, we are up to Dr. Runia’s summary of recent criticisms of the Canons by theologians of the Gereformeerde Kerken of the Netherlands.

Correctly, Dr. Runia puts the finger on Dr. G.C. Berkouwer as the one who started the new discussions on the Canons in his volume on Divine Election, one of Berkouwer’s well-known series of Dogmatical Studies. Runia shows where his sympathies lie at once in a statement like the following: “Throughout the volume we observe his deep appreciation for the teaching of the Canons, against Barth’s accusation of teaching a decretum absolutum.” I, for one, can find no deep appreciation for the teaching of the Canons in Berkouwer. I consider his volume on Divine Election to be one of the most pernicious of recent writings on this subject. And instead of a deep appreciation for the teaching of the Canons, I find in it a studied attempt to undermine and to destroy the Canons. In fact, I cannot understand, even in the light of Dr. Runia’s subsequent summary of Berkouwer’s position, how he, Runia, can discover in Berkouwer a deep appreciation for the teaching of the Canons,—except, of course, on the basis that Runia agrees essentially with Berkouwer and is, like Berkouwer, out of sympathy with the teachings of the Canons of Dordrecht, particularly on the doctrine of eternal reprobation. 

But let us turn to Runia’s summary and evaluation of Berkouwer. After all, it is not our purpose to study and criticize Dr. Berkouwer’s Divine Election in this connection. The reader who is interested in this may consult the rather extensive study and critique by the late Reverend Herman Hoeksema in Vols. 32 and 33 of The Standard Bearer. At present we are interested in Berkouwer’s views only in so far as Dr. Runia presents them and evaluates them. 

Although in the nature of the case Dr. Runia’s presentation is very brief, we may accept that he presents rather adequately the essential points of Berkouwer’s position with respect to the Canons and the doctrine of election and reprobation. The reader will have to excuse me for some comparatively long quotations in this connection. For I wish to make them in the interest of fairness and completeness. First of all, Dr. Runia writes as follows:

Yet Berkouwer himself also sees ‘certain problems’ in the Canons, especially in 1, 6. While in 1, 5 the Canons have clearly stated that the “cause of guilt of unbelief” is “in man himself’, 1, 6 seems to go beyond this. “One’s first impression is that this is a simplistic way of explaining causality.” Berkouwer, however, tries to defend the Canons. “When we read 1, 6, we see that it directs our attention to the acts of God in the life of man.” A connection is laid “between sinfulness and stubbornness on the one hand, and the judicial acts of God on the other hand, not in the sense that either belief or unbelief become an independent and autonomous power over against the counsel of God, but in the sense that non-granting is evidently meant as the judicial act of God toward man in sin.” In spite of this defense, Berkouwer is well aware of the fact that there are certain difficulties in the formulation of the Canons. Cautiously he admits that ‘it could be wished that also in 1, 6 the light of the epilogue had been shining more clearly and that therefore the criticism of the eodem modo had been more explicit.” It is indeed “difficult to indicate completely and clearly the harmony between 1, 6 and 1, 5.” But then he immediately adds, more or less as an excuse for the Canons that this same “opaqueness” is noticed wherever these things are discussed. “It is not the opaqueness of paradoxical irrationality, but the opaqueness which is due to (the nature of) unbelief, and which can be described from two sides: from the side of God’s judgment and from the side of man’s sin.” “The imbalance of the causa-concept which we observe in Calvin and in the Canons is, on the level of human insight, a proof of the inexplicability of sin and unbelief. We prefer this imbalance rather than any synthesis from the point of view of the praescientia of determinism.”

We, may notice in this connection that Dr. Runia passes by in silence (and does silence mean assent here?) the fact that Berkouwer obviously misconstrues Canons 1, 6, the main thrust of which is not that the non-granting of faith is the judicial act of God toward man in sin, but the fact that the non-granting of faith proceeds from God’s eternal decree.

But let us quote further. Dr. Runia certainly points to a dominant theme in Berkouwer’s view of the Canons when in his next paragraph he writes as follows:

In the foregoing paragraph the Conclusion of the Canons was mentioned. This epilogue plays a dominating part in Berkouwer’s interpretation. Two statements from the epilogue are mentioned again and again. The synod rejects the idea that its doctrine teaches “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 et damnation, and has created them for this very purpose” and “that in the same manner (Latin: eodem modo) in which the election is the foundation and cause of faith and good works, reprobation is the cause of unbelief and impiety.” We are not saying too much, when we call the non eodem modo in particular the master key which Berkouwer uses to open the door to the real teaching of the Canons, especially its teaching about reprobation.

We should pay attention especially to that last statement. There is no question about it that Dr. Berkouwer emphasizes very much what is called thenon eodem modo in his discussion of the Canons. As is suggested in the above quotation, the reference here is to the Conclusion appended to the Canons by the Synod of Dordrecht. In this Conclusion you find the following opening paragraph:

And this is the perspicuous, simple, and ingenuous declaration of the orthodox doctrine respecting the five articles which have been controverted in the Belgic churches; and the rejection of the errors, with which they have for some tune been troubled. This doctrine, the Synod judges to be drawn from the Word of God, and to be agreeable to the confessions of the Reformed churches. Whence it clearly appears, that some whom such conduct by no means became, have violated all truth, equity, and charity, in wishing to persuade the public.

Following this, there is a long series of statements giving content to the last sentence quoted above. These are all false charges which the enemies of the Reformed faith and of the truth of predestination have leveled against the Reformed churches and their doctrine. Concerning these charges the fathers of Dordrecht state that “the Reformed churches not only do not acknowledge, but even detest with all their soul” these false accusations. And they call upon the public to judge of the faith of the Reformed churches not from the calumnies which are heaped upon it from every side, nor from the private expressions of a few among ancient and modern teachers, often dishonestly quoted or corrupted and wrested to a meaning quite foreign to their intention, but from the public confession of the Churches themselves and from the declaration of the orthodox doctrine, confirmed by unanimous consent of all and each of the members of the whole Synod. 

Now what does Dr. Berkouwer do with respect to the doctrine of election and reprobation in the Canons? He picks out two of these false charges which the Synod of Dordrecht rejected, and he uses them to color all that he says about the Canons. In fact, he tries to explain—or rather, to explain away!—all that the Canons teach concerning reprobation from the viewpoint of the Synod’s rejection of these two false charges made by the enemies of the truth. The two charges are mentioned in the paragraph just quoted from Runia’s essay. And the so-called non eodem modo is Berkouwer’s chief tool here. Now notice, please, in the first place, that Dr. Berkouwer does precisely what the Synod asks should not be done. The Synod asks that their doctrine be judged from the public confession of the Churches themselves and from the declaration of the orthodox doctrine confirmed by the unanimous consent of all and each of the members of the whole Synod (foreign delegates included!). Moreover, the Synod has declared concerning the Canons that this is the perspicuous, simple, and ingenuous declaration of the orthodox doctrine respecting the five articles controverted in the Belgic churches and the rejection of the errors with which they have been troubled for some time. Moreover, the Synod judges that this doctrine is drawn from the Word of God and is agreeable to the confessions of the Reformed churches. Berkouwer, instead of judging and testing the doctrine of the Reformed churches from their public confession, which is perspicuous, simple, and ingenuous, turns to two of these false charges of the enemy which are rejected by the Conclusion as caricatures of the Reformed truth—instead, mind you, of letting the Canons speak for themselves—and he insists on considering all that the Canons say with respect to reprobation in the light of those two statements, especially the “not in the same manner.” He does that, in the second place, in such a way that he really destroys the doctrine of the Canons concerning sovereign reprobation. For this is what Dr. Berkouwer actually seeks to do. He uses the so-callednon eodem modo against the Canons, to destroy the teaching of I, 6, namely, that the fact that some do not receive the gift of faith proceeds from God’s eternal decree of reprobation. He wants to get rid of the latter idea, and he wants to limit the truth solely to the idea that “the cause or guilt of unbelief is in man himself.” But now notice that Dr. Runia praises this! Instead of exposing the fact that Dr. Berkouwer in effect perverts and subverts the plain teaching of the Canons—as Runia should have done—Dr. Runia writes that Berkouwer uses the non eodem modo as “the master key . . . to open the door to the real teaching of the Canons, especially its teaching about reprobation.” It is plain from this alone that Runia is in thorough agreement with Berkouwer on this score. Otherwise he would not speak of “the master key” and of “(opening) the door to the real teaching of the Canons” (emphasis mine, HCH). Berkouwer militates against the real teaching of the Canons; Runia does the same thing when he asserts that Berkouwer opens the door to the real teaching of the Canons while Berkouwer actually corrupts the Canons. Berkouwer militates against the real teaching of the Canons without having filed an official grievance; Runia does the same thing by saying “Amen” to Berkouwer. 

But let us go on. 

Dr. Runia continues to summarize the teaching of Berkouwer—all without any criticism or statement of disagreement. In the following paragraph it becomes plain that Berkouwer does not want sovereign reprobation. On this score, Runia explains- Berkouwer correctly. About this we have no quarrel with him. What we quarrel with is the fact that Runia does not criticizeBerkouwer here. Notice carefully the following:

In the chapter on ‘Election and Rejection’ Berkouwer more than once emphatically states that “Scripture repeatedly speaks of God’s rejection as a divine answer in history, as a reaction to man’s sin and disobedience, not as its cause.” In this connection he points to such texts as

I Sam. 15:23II Kings 17:20Deut. 28:5ff.; Lamentations 5:22Ps. 51:13, 78:67;Is. 50:1ff.;

etc. He then asks the question: is there any reason to add anything to this scriptural testimony? Is there still a ‘plus’, the ‘plus’ of God’s eternal decree? Is there a double cause, one in man’s sin and guilt, and a second and deeper one in God’s predestination? According to Berkouwer Calvin at times wrote as if there were such a second causa in God. He even writes that “Calvin has seen the actual causa in predestination.” Berkouwer’s own view is that the concept of cause is altogether insufficient. “One can never come to an acceptable solution by means of the concept of cause.” It leads inescapably to some form of determinism. . . .

Notice that Berkouwer, as he is here summarized by Runia, has succeeded in getting rid of the doctrine of reprobation completely. He does not want any other divine rejection than a rejection that is “a reaction to man’s sin and disobedience.” He does not want a divine rejection (reprobation) which is in any sense the cause. And remember that this is not only contrary to Calvin, as Berkouwer intimates; but it is clearly contrary to the Canons in I, 6 and I, 15. Remember, too, that the Canons even in the Conclusion do not deny that reprobation is the cause of unbelief and impiety; but they deny that reprobation is the sovereign cause of unbelief and impiety IN THE SAME MANNER as election is the foundation and cause of faith and good works. But all this Runia passes by. In fact, in a later paragraph he makes it very plain again that he agrees with Dr. Berkouwer. He uses others to express this agreement and to express that Berkouwer, somehow or other, cannot be guilty of militating against the Canons. Nevertheless, Runia makes his own position very plain. Notice:

The question must be asked here, whether there is still a place left for a decree of reprobation. Berkouwer is very cautious. H. Berkhof of Leiden, in a review of Berkouwer’s volume on election, wrote: Berkouwer is silent on I, 15 and this is significant! Although Berkouwer a few times does speak of a decree of reprobation, he usually puts the word ‘decree’ between inverted commas. I believe that we may say that there is virtually no place for such a ‘decree’ in Berkouwer’s theology. He himself stops at the two statements from the epilogue, quoted before, and at the fact that in Scripture God’s rejection is always a reaction against man’s prior rejection of God. He is and remains very cautious, but I believe that H.N. Ridderbos was right, when he wrote that although Berkouwer is in full agreement with the basic motifs of the Canons, the emphases are definitely somewhat different from those in the Canons.

Notice again: 

1) That Runia concedes that there is no place for a decree of reprobation in Berkouwer’s theology. 

2) That this is plainly contrary to the Canons, I, 6 and I, 15. 

3) That H.N. Ridderbos nevertheless declares that Berkouwer is in full agreement with the basic motifs of the Canons. 

4) That K. Runia believes the Ridderbos is right. 

5) That the hocus-pocus by which this obvious contradiction is magically made all right is an implied distinction between the Canons and the basic motifs of the Canons. 

It is a complete conundrum to me how anyone can deny eternal reprobation and at the same time be in agreement with the “basic motifs” of the Canons. This is simply preposterous! Yet this is clearly the position of Runia-Ridderbos. And it is, therefore, also a conundrum to me how the Board of Directors of Geelong—if they consulted Runia’s essay—could defend the professor and reject the objections of Runia’s opponents. 

Near the end of this section, Runia gets to the matter of the so-called “framework” of the confession as over against its basic motif. Notice, please, that he has already introduced this neat little distinction rather subtly in what we have already quoted. Now he does so openly:

More than ten years after the publication of his book on Divine Election Berkouwer touched again upon the Canons in a long article on “Questions Around the Confession.” This time he speaks of ‘tensions’ in the Canons. On the one hand, there is I, 5, which clearly speaks of man’s own guilt, on the other hand, there is I, 6 , which speaks of God as the cause behind receiving and not receiving faith. At this point there is something problematical in the formulation. Berkouwer tries to solve the problem by distinguishing between the basic motif and the framework of the Canons. The basic motif is quite clear and fully scriptural. The central intention of the Canons is to speak of “the undeserved election, the sovereignty of grace in the way of salvation, the election as fountain of every saving good. Clearly and continually we hear the voice of the Gospel in the references to the ‘golden chain of our salvation’ and the ‘in Christ.'” But the framework, within which this basic motif is expressed is not always clear and pure. It is the framework of ‘causality.’ There is a ‘casual’ approach, which is strongly influenced by a certain exegesis of

Romans 9.

The sovereignty of God is apparently seen as something deeper or higher than the ‘ekloge’ of

Rom. 9:11

One gets the impression that there are two themes; on the one hand, the merciful purpose of election; on the other, the absolute sovereignty of God in ‘general.’ Renewed study of

Romans 9-11

in recent years, however, has convincingly shown that there is not such a double theme. The only theme Paul deals with is that of the ‘ekloge’, the purpose of election, which God works out in the history of Israel. The emphasis is upon God’s acts of election in history and not on a pre temporal decree that in a causal way determines all things.

There is no need here to go any further into the details of the article. The central question Berkouwer discusses is whether one can still be faithful to the confession, if one is critical of its ‘framework’ but fully agrees with its basic motif. His answer is in the affirmative, for faithfulness to the confession is not a matter of certain terms, but rather of the total structure of the confession. There is therefore no need to lodge a gravamen against the Canons at this point.

Notice the clever sleight of hand. Berkouwer neatly throws the whole matter of causality with respect to God’s decrees into the category of non essential framework. Such an important matter as sovereign reprobation (and don’t forget: this inevitably means election too!) can lightly be made a matter of insignificant terms. Throw away the terms. It is the “basic motif” that counts. There is a false disjunction here between the so called framework (terminology) and the basic motif. And notice that here again we hear the refrain about that detested causality—which is inseparably bound up, remember, with the sovereignty of election and reprobation. Notice, finally, that this detested “causality” is discarded as belonging to the insignificant framework. Hocus pocus! You can disagree with the Canons and yet agree with them!

We have already noticed that in Dr. Runia’s view it is quite possible to disagree with the Canons’ doctrine of an eternal decree of reprobation and yet to be in full agreement with the basic motifs of the Canons. Here we see the same idea. And again, Dr. Runia has no criticism, either here or in his later evaluation. And how could he have criticism? For he has made it abundantly plain that he is in agreement with Berkouwer’s view. He has made it abundantly plain that he wants nothing of “causality,” especially with respect to reprobation. And therefore, in order to maintain himself as a presumably Reformed man under the Reformed confessions and subscription to these confessions, he must necessarily go along with Berkouwer’s disjunction between framework and motif, between the “system of doctrine” and the expression of that system of doctrine in the confessions. One may militate against the confessions without filing a gravamen.

On all counts thus far, the Fellowship is correct; and the Board of Directors did Geelong and the churches a disfavor by upholding Dr. Runia.