The Study Report on the Boer Gravamen
At long last the Report of the Study Committee on the Boer Gravamen has become available, and it appears in the 1980 Agenda for Synod of the Christian Reformed Church.
The reader will probably recall that the Boer Gravamen was directed against the doctrine of reprobation as taught in the Canons of Dordrecht, I/A/6 and I/A/l 5. Dr. Boer demands in his gravamen that this doctrine be “exscinded from or become a nonbinding part of the creeds of the Christian Reformed Church.” He bases his demand—in which he expresses himself viciously against the doctrine of reprobation—on the claim that the Canons do not furnish the “express testimony of Scripture” in support of this doctrine which they claim there is. To back up his claim, he treats every text furnished by the Canons; and he claims to have shown conclusively that none of these texts supports the teaching of the Canons. He concludes, therefore, that unless the Synod of the Christian Reformed Church can furnish other Scriptural proofs, unknown to him, they must needs repudiate the doctrine of reprobation taught in the Canons or declare it nonbinding.
This Boer Gravamen was assigned to a study committee in 1977. The committee consisted of nine members, three of whom are professors at Calvin Seminary (Anthony A. Hoeksema, Bastiaan Van Elderen, Henry Zwaanstra) and one of whom is a professor at Calvin College (Nicholas P. Wolterstorff). This committee was to “receive the reactions of individuals, consistories, and classes, to study the gravamen in the light of Scripture, and to advise the Synod of 1980 as to the cogency of the gravamen and how it should further be dealt with by Synod.” The committee reports (without divulging or summarizing contents) that 50 reactions were received from individuals, consistories, and classes. It then proceeds with its own analysis and critique of the Boer Gravamen.
Let me satisfy the reader’s curiosity immediately by doing what I always do first with a study report: look at the conclusion. Here are the final recommendations of the Study Committee, quoted from page 401 of theAgenda:
1. That synod give the privilege of the floor to the following representatives of the study committee when this report is discussed: the chairman, B. Nederlof; the reporter, A. Hoekema; and other members of the committee who may be available at the time.
2. That synod do not accede to the request made in Dr. Harry Boer’s Confessional-Revision Gravamen: namely, that “the doctrine of reprobation ought . . . to be exscinded from or become a nonbinding part of the creeds of the Christian Reformed Church” (Gravamen, p. 330).
a.The Canons of Dort do not teach what the gravamen erroneously understands the doctrine of reprobation to be: namely, a decree by means of which God is the cause of man’s unbelief, and by means of which God has from eternity consigned certain human beings to damnation apart from any merit or demerit on their part.
b.b. The Scriptures do teach a doctrine of election and reprobation, in that they teach that some but not all have been elected to eternal life.
3. That synod recommend this report to the churches for study.
4. That synod refer this report for information to the churches which are in ecclesiastical fellowship with the Christian Reformed Church, and to the churches which belong to the Reformed Ecumenical Synod.
5. That synod discharge the committee.
You will see immediately that the meat of the recommendations appears to be in point 2. It also appears that the Study Committee does not agree with the Boer Gravamen, and therefore does not want the Canons’ doctrine of reprobation cut out of the Canons or declared nonbinding. The grounds are, first of all, that the Boer Gravamen misinterprets and/or misunderstands what the Canons actually teach about reprobation. Secondly, the grounds refer to Scripture.
Taken at face value and without reference to the body of the Study Report, this is a recommendation which ought to gain the support of most, if not all, of the delegates to Synod, whether they are for or against the doctrine of reprobation. It is designed to satisfy the opponents of the doctrine of reprobation, first of all. For it expresses that the Canons do not actually teach that dreadful doctrine which Dr. Boer understands them to teach. Besides, the recommendation says nothing directly or indirectly about Dr. Boer’s criticism of the Scriptural proofs offered by the Canons. Hence, Dr. Boer and those agreeing with him ought apparently to be satisfied. Or will they be satisfied? Will men like Boer and Daane be willing to swallow the idea that they have never understood the thrust of the Canons with respect to reprobation? Especially when they have the backing of numerous Dutch theologians and even of the Synod of the Gerefomeerde Kerken?
On the other hand, the report is designed to placate those who disagree with Dr. Boer and who claim (to one degree or another) to want to maintain the Canons. In the first place, the recommendation does not uphold Dr. Boer, but apparently wants to retain the Canons. In the second place, it suggests (without actually saying it or meaning to say it) that the Scriptural proofs are correct. Actually it only states that the Scriptures do teach a doctrine of election and reprobation—a statement with which everyone can agree, be he Boerian, Daanian, Dortian, Arminian, Barthian, or Berkouwerian.
Only time will tell what the reaction of the Christian Reformed Synod will be, and whether everybody, anybody, or nobody will be satisfied with this very clever recommendation.
I call it “clever” because behind the recommendation lies a lengthy report of some 60 to 70 pages in which it becomes very plain that the Study Committee is in fundamental agreement with Dr. Boer.
I found it amazing, too. In fact, when I went back and studied the report, I marvelled at the adroit intellectual gymnastics displayed by the Study Committee in leaving the impression of agreement with the Canons, but meanwhile agreeing totally with the fundamental position of Dr. Boer. The final recommendation, read superficially, leaves an altogether false and deceitful impression. A careful reading the body of the report brings out the fundamental agreement of the Study Committee and Dr. Boer. They arrive at the same destination, but by different roads.
This I will prove by referring to certain key sections of the Study Report. I wish I could quote the Report in its entirety, but this is impossible because of its length. I will refer to the report length. It follows the outline below:
B. Outline of the Report
A. The Mandate
B. Outline of the Report
C. The Gravamen
E. Other Materials
F. The Work of the Committee.
II. The Teaching of the Canons on Election and Reprobation
A. The Historical Background of the Synod of Dort
B. A New Translation of I, 6 and I, 15
C. Comments about Reprobation Made-by the Delegates to the Synod of Dort
D. An Analysis of the Canons, with Specific Reference to Their Teaching on Reprobation
III. The Gravamen
A. An Historical Evaluation of the Gravamen
B. The Meaning of the Expression, “the express testimony of sacred Scripture”
C. An Analysis of the Gravamen
IV. The Scriptural Basis
A. Scripture Passages Adduced by the Delegates to the Synod of Dort
B. An Analysis of the Scripture Passages Dealt With in the Gravamen
C. Other Scriptural Material Which Is Relevant to the Question at Issue
V. The Continued Functioning of the Canons in the Church
A. The Binding Character of the Canons
B. The Canons and Preaching
The Study Report, the Boer Gravamen, and Scripture
You will recall that the thrust of Dr. Boer’s Gravamen is the claim that the Canons produce no express testimony of Scripture in support of their doctrine of reprobation. Dr. Boer recognizes, indeed, that the Canons cite various Scripture passages in connection with reprobation; but it is exactly his claim that these passages do not prove what they are supposed to prove. Hence, he devotes a large part of his gravamen to an attempt to prove the latter point. Dr. Boer produces his own exegesis of the various texts adduced by the Canons; and in every instance he claims to have demonstrated that the Canons are wrong and he is right. The passages dealt with by Boer are the following: Acts 15:18, Eph. 1:11, Rom. 9:20, Matt. 20:15, Rom. 11:33-36, Rom. 9:18, Matt. 13:11, Matt. 11:25-26, Rom. 9:11-13.
Now the Study Report really did not have to deal with this exegetical question, since the main thrust of its report is that Dr. Boer misinterprets the teaching of the Canons on reprobation. Boer, according to the Study Committee, imputes to the Canons a doctrine which they do not actually teach. In other words, his whole gravamen was, so to speak, a tempest in a teapot.
Nevertheless, the Study Report deals at length with all of the passages of Scripture with which Dr. Boer deals in his Gravamen.
And what is the outcome?
In one of the introductory remarks of this section the Study Report states: “It only intends, in this section of the report, to point out that in the exegesis of Scripture passages there are in some cases considerations which are not fully honored either by Boer or by the Canons.” This sounds as though the committee assesses some blame on both Boer and the Canons.
However, the fact is that on every significant point the Report agrees with Dr. Boer, sometimes stating this in so many words. And on no significant point does the Report disagree with Dr. Boer. In some instances they almost out-Boer Dr. Boer in their zeal not to find a doctrine of sovereign reprobation in these passages of Scripture.
Permit me to document my evaluation.
The Study Committee begins this section of its report with a rather lengthy discussion of Romans 9-11 in general. Already in this section they make it plain that they agree with Dr. Boer that there is no doctrine of reprobation taught here. On page 380 we find the following paragraph:
The second question Paul answers with a theological argument. The sovereignty of God, which defines God as God, grants him the right to deal with his people as he pleases. This sovereignty, however, must not be construed in a crass or despotic way. Rather, two considerations must be kept in perspective regarding this: (1) God’s selection is an act of grace, and love; and (2) those not selected have disqualified themselves through their sins. On the one hand, God could exercise his sovereignty as a potter exercises control over the clay he manipulates. In fact, God even did so in the history of Israel in his use of Pharaoh. However, this gives man no occasion to challenge or blame God. On the other hand, in all of his dealings with mankind, both with the elect (vessels of mercy) and the nonelect (vessels of wrath), he exercises great long-suffering and mercy.
Notice the statements: 1) “those not selected have disqualified themselves through their sins.” 2) “On the other hand, in all of his dealings with mankind, both with the elect (vessels of mercy) and the nonelect (vessels of wrath), he exercises great long-suffering and mercy.”
By the way, notice that above the vessels of wrath are designated as nonelect. And then take note of the following interpretation of Romans 9:22-23 in the committee’s paraphrase or expanded translation of this passage, p, 382:
In conclusion, an expanded translation of 9:22-23 would be: “Since God, although desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience vessels of wrath who had prepared themselves for destruction, how much more will he not be gracious to his chosen ones in order to make known the riches of his glory for the vessels of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory?” To be observed here is that God is not responsible for the vessels of wrath — for if he had made them vessels of wrath, what would be the point of his dealing patiently with them? On the contrary, he does endure them with much patience. However, God has himself prepared the vessels of mercy for glory, both from the Jews and from the Gentiles.
One more example from this section. This concerns the matter of hardening as it occurs both in Romans 9:17-18and Romans 11:25-26. Note how the Scriptures are twisted to teach that this hardening was temporary and revocable and it had a redemptive purpose. This is sufficient to make one rub his eyes in disbelief, p: 383:
It is in the light of this foregoing discussion that the concept of hardening must be seen. The Jews who were cut off were hardened (11:7,25). God hardens the hearts of whomever he wills (9:18). This hardening, to be sure, is not an arbitrary or despotic act of God. The hardening of the Jews is subsequent to their sins and unbelief. Pharaoh’s heart was hardened. However, these examples of hardening had a redemptive purpose (9:17; 11:25-26). This hardening was temporary and revocable. If any hardened Jews discontinue in their unbelief, they can be grafted back into the tree (11:23). This reaffirms the well-meant offer of the gospel: in every proclamation and invitation of that gospel, the possibility of acceptance by the hearers is an open one.
Turning now to specific passages treated by Boer, we find, First of all a treatment of Acts 15:18. The Study Report agrees with Dr. Boer, as is, plain from the following paragraph, p. 384:
As a proof text for the eternality of God’s decree, this inferior text does not establish a decree of reprobation. However, the preferred text of
cited above, does not teach the eternality of God’s decree, but rather refers to the Lord’s action of revealing his activities to his people—in fact, not all his activities, but only those referred to in the immediate context. Hence, according to the preferred text
does not teach anything regarding God’s eternal decree, and according to the inferior text it only refers to the eternality of God’s decree and not specifically to a decree of reprobation.
Future translations of the Canons should more clearly indicate that an inferior reading of
is being cited in I, 6.
With regard to Eph. 1:11 the Study Report again agrees with Dr. Boer’s criticism of the Canons’ use of this passage, p. 384:
This doxology in
eulogizes God’s redemptive work. The focus is on God’s election (1:4) of the Ephesians, on their foreordination (1:5,11), and on the revelation of the mystery of his will to them (1:9). The doxology makes no reference to the unredeemed (“reprobate”) or their lot.
Apparently the Canons consider that “all things” in 1:11 must include reprobation. Dr. Boer rightly challenges this assumption, since the passage deals only with the elect. Furthermore, the term “all things” is completely enclosed by concepts referring to election and the calling of the elect.
introduces the second formulation of the reason motivating this doxology. The two formulations 1:4 and 11) of the reason are closely parallel in content, structure, and vocabulary. Both refer to the experience of the redeemed. Insofar as the Canons in I, 6 affirm that God’s people are redeemed through grace according to the counsel of God’s will, they properly cite
When it comes to Matthew 20:15 the committee disagrees with Boer at least in part. It states: “To say, as Boer suggests, that the Canons are using this passage to prove the doctrine of reprobation is false, since the Canons here are reacting against the murmurings of the Arminians who claimed that the Reformed view represented God as not dealing equitably with all men. On Romans 9:18 the committee agrees with Dr. Boer. Notice, p. 386:
As was shown earlier, the salvation-history or Heilsgeschichte approach to
is a valid and preferred interpretative framework for these chapters. Furthermore, the focus on the historical and limited dimension of “hardening” which Boer suggests is a proper interpretation of this concept, as indicated in the interpretation of
given above. Hence, it is improper to cite “having mercy” and “hardening” as “firmly decreed” in
as is done in the Rejection of Errors, I, 8.
Also on Romans 11:33-36 the committee is in agreement with Boer, p. 387: When it comes to Matt. 13:11 the committee’s treatment is rather long and technical. And since we have already quoted at length, we will not quote their explanation. We will quote their explanation of Matt. 11:25-26, in which they agree with Dr. Boer, as well as their concluding statement in this section, where they express that Boer is correct, p. 388:
Matthew 11:25-26 is Jesus’ prayer of thanksgiving to the Father following the pronouncement of woes upon Chorazin, Bethsaida, and Capernaum. It is followed by a discussion of the relation of the Father to the Son in verse 27, and by the familiar “come unto me . . .” in verses 28-30. The Rejection of Errors, I, 8 quotes
to distinguish the “wise and understanding” from the “babes” as if the former were the reprobate and the latter were the elect. However, to identify the two groups in
as two fixed groups is questionable. Entrance into the kingdom is through humility (“becoming as a child”). The “wise and understanding” must humble himself as a “babe” — the childlike and innocent state of an initiate in the faith (cf.
). The contrast is not in terms of two fixed I groups but rather in terms of two conditions which can be found in one individual.
This revelation to the “babes” is according to the “gracious will” (eudokia) of God (11:26). When used of God, this term refers to God’s divine favor upon his chosen ones. Furthermore, the Son chooses those to whom he reveals the Father (11:27). No reference is here made to those not chosen. At best,
refers only to God’s gracious attitude toward his, chosen ones; it does not refer to the nonelect.
In conclusion, Dr. Boer has correctly judged that i
and 13:11 do not prove that God decreed (decrevisse) to leave some in condemnation (damnatio) or to pass them by (praeterire).
Finally, what about Romans 9:11-13, the well-known Jacob-Esau passage? The committee again agrees with Dr. Boer that there is no reprobation taught here. Two quotations will suffice. The first is as follows, p. 389:
It must be observed that the Canons rightly use
in I, 10 to substantiate the doctrine of election. It is also noteworthy that this passage was not used elsewhere in the Canons to substantiate the doctrine of reprobation. Boer rightly objects to a popular use of the Esau reference to support reprobation.
The second statement is this:
…The passage does not motivate this attitude of God (His great displeasure regarding Esau, HCH), but from the context it is clear that God’s attitude is a consequence of the unbelief and rebellion of the sinner (Esau) and is not due to an eternal decree. On the other hand, the context clearly indicates that God’s love for the elect (Jacob) is motivated by his grace and kindness, but by the actions of the individual.
There you have it! The committee agrees with Dr. Boer and has effectively gotten rid of all the Scriptural underpinning of the doctrine of reprobation which the Canons adduce.
They might at least have been gracious enough to add another point to their recommendations, somewhat along the following lines: That Synod declare that Dr. Boer is correct in his exegesis of the Scripture passages in question, and that the Canons do not adduce express testimony of Scripture in support of their doctrine of reprobation. Ground: the Study Report demonstrates that the Canons’ use of the various Scripture passages in question is incorrect.
In the second place, it ought to be plain from this that when in ground “b” of its second recommendation the report speaks of the fact that “The Scriptures do teach a doctrine of election and reprobation. . . ,” it does not refer to the Scriptures which the Canons use. For these, according to the committee, do not speak of reprobation.
In the third place, this raises the question: precisely what does the committee understand by reprobation? In answer to this question, it is my contention that the committee has no real doctrine of reprobation left that it really believes only in single predestination, not the Reformed doctrine of double predestination. But this is a long story, and I have already used more than my usual space. With this question we shall deal, D.V., in the next issue.