Rev. Woudenberg is a minister emeritus in the Protestant Reformed Churches.
In the February 26 issue of Christian Renewal there appeared the following letter by a Mr. Tim Gallant reflecting on our past writings. It read as follows:
I have followed with interest the discussion between J. Tuininga, B. Woudenberg, and other brothers from the Protestant Reformed, Liberated, and newly-federating churches. It seems to me that the heart of the issue involved with the Protestant Reformed understanding of the covenant and their rejection of the free offer has not yet been articulated clearly.
It is thought that we who accept the free offer reject logic. The problem, however, is not with logic per se, but rather with the exaltation of finite human reason over the Word of God. We do not hold contradictory views in tension, but we recognize that the richness of biblical revelation must fix human reason within its prescribed bounds. Unbelievers, we know, suppress the truth (Rom. l: 18), making their autonomous reason the arbiter over God. But beyond this extreme lies the possibility that we, even as believers, demand that as finite, sinful creatures we can fit an infinite, incomprehensible God into our logical constructions. This is another, more subtle form of idolatry of reason, which, I concede, most of us are guilty of in one way or another.
The PR’s do not see how God can freely offer the Gospel to unbelievers, while simultaneously decreeing them to reprobation. But using identical logic, Arminians do not see how God can freely, “sincerely” uphold His righteous Law, and yet decree that men break it. Or, to put the matter even closer to home, does God really sincerely despise sin in His children? If so, why do they yet sin since God has the power to change this fact? Are His statements about His hatred of sin insincere? Should we mark them with asterisks? What about Adam? Did God decree the Fall? If He did not, then He is not absolutely sovereign. But how could He justly decree the Fall, when Adam was not created corrupt? For that matter, how could Adam fall if he was created upright?
You see, we are dealing with reason both crippled by the Fall, and limited by creaturehood. What may seem contradictory to it may be perfectly consistent, but simply beyond our grasp. A statement that rings of truth in one sense may be untrue in another, and we may have difficulty in distinguishing between those senses. The law of non-contradiction still stands, but we have to concede that we are necessarily limited in our application of it.
Meanwhile, drawing the Protestant Reformed line in the sand, the Declaration of Principles enshrines the refusal to concede such limitations. Or is it enshrined? Woudenberg denies that the PR’s have elevated the Declaration to confessional status: “It was not that anyone joining our churches was required to consider this binding on their consciences….” On the other hand, what he does not tell us is that it was made very clear that no man holding to the Liberated view of the covenant would ever hold ecclesiastical office in the PR churches.
Functionally speaking, this means that the Principles were treated as a confessional matter. The PR’s claim that the Principles are simply a return to the early faithful teaching of the confessions and the Reformed Fathers. In actuality, the Principles contradict the confessions. For example, the Canons of Dort say that “the children of believers are holy, not only in nature, but in virtue of the covenant of grace, in which they, together with the parents, are comprehended” (1.17). This has led to PR contortions: Gen. 17:14 now means that the father who fails to circumcise his child has broken the covenant by failing to pass on the sign. In arguing this, Woudenberg writes, after a “close look at (this) leading text,” that “the breaking of the covenant is not to be first in it and then out.”
Apostasy is impossible. But how can this interpretation stem from a close look at this verse? For it is the “uncircumcised male child” — that is, the “person (who) shall be cut off from his people; he has broken My covenant.” It is beyond question that the primary covenant-breaker in the text in question is not the father at all, but the child who has not received the sign — “in (the covenant) and then out.”
Moreover, Woudenberg’s suggestion is in direct contradiction to Hebrews 10, which tells us that he who has broken covenant has “trampled the Son of God underfoot, counted the blood of the covenant by which He was sanctified a common thing, and insulted the Spirit of grace” (v. 29). There is no honest way of escaping the force of these words. The Spirit of grace sanctifies people in the blood of the covenant — and these people are not elect. There is grace, there is sanctification in the covenant (“in it”), and there is apostasy (“out”). [It should be clarified that covenant judgment visits disobedient children within, and also excommunicated children without. Excommunication itself is, of course, a covenant judgment.] That is not Arminianism, it is not irrational; it is simply the biblical doctrine of the covenant, which seems to defy (not deny) logic.
It is not enough to deny the “new hermeneutics.” We also must deny any thorough-going rationalism which flattens the textured richness of God’s Word for the sake of fitting it into the limited envelopes of our reason. Because of this, we must resist the Protestant Reformed approach to Scripture on these issues. We must be reformed to all of God’s Word, in the glorious completeness of its counsel.
To this I submitted the following reply:
Dear Mr. VanDyk,
I was intrigued by Mr. Tim Gallant’s letter in your February 26 issue of Christian Renewal, primarily because it brings our discussion of the place of logic in Christian thought into a new and altogether desirable area.
To begin with, it is always interesting to hear others describe what we in the Protestant Reformed Churches are supposed to believe and teach, when what they say is such that one like myself, who has lived his life at the heart of the PRC, has never heard or taught. And yet, perhaps, this is to be understood, seeing it clearly derives, not from a study of our material, but from certain cursory deductions made according to a logic quite different from our own; and it is that difference to which our discussion now turns.
This is the real value of what Mr. Gallant brings out. Rather than faulting us for using logic at all, as the others have done thus far — on the presumption that logic in itself is something bad — he recognizes the need for it; for, whether one acknowledges it or not, some kind of logic has to be there if intelligent communication is to take place. There has to be an understanding of how thoughts relate, and a standard by which truth is gauged. The question is what logic this is to be.
In our day we live in a world permeated with a logic of relativity (Einstein amazingly seems to have left his mark almost everywhere). Nothing is true or false in itself, but only as it relates to other things; and at any time that can change. What is true at one time, and with relation to one thing, becomes the opposite at another. But we have learned to live with such contradictions, and even become fascinated by them, as nearly every form of modern art — to say nothing of politics, etc. — brings out. Each in its own way seems to have become completely taken up with meaningless contrasts and conflicts, as though that is what life is all about. And it has folded over into religion as well, until faith is seen as a leap into the incomprehensible darkness of enigmas and dilemmas, rather than the “certain knowledge” and “assured confidence” we have been taught by our past.
And yet, as modern as this might seem, its history lies deep in the rhetorical logic of ancient times with its concept of duplex veritas (double truth). Already in 1277 a group of students from the College of Arts at the University of Paris, who wanted to maintain the non-Christian views of Averroes, were disciplined for defending the proposition, among others, that theologically the world was created, but philosophically it is eternal — anticipating Howard VanTill by a bit, it would seem. But it was not until the Renaissance that such views came into their own, and were carried via humanism into northern Europe. Philip Melanchthon defended rhetorical logic insistently, allowing him, as it did, to uphold both the theology of Luther, based on the bondage of the will, and his own favored view of synergism, with its presupposition that the human will is free. Nor was it long thereafter that Peter Ramus made out of rhetorical principles a popular form of logic based on “eloquence” as its standard for determining truth, after which he joined the Reformed church world and spread his views broadly among many of its scholars. It was in this that Jacobus Arminius was first trained — and I can point out precisely where, in the first defense of his (Arminian) principles while debating with Francis Junius (a student of Calvin’s and a strong proponent of traditional logic), he used the principle of contradiction both to affirm the basic attributes of God appealed to by Junius, and deny them in the same breath, as, for example, when he argued “God possesses the eternal and unchangeable form … in a changeable way.” To him such contradictions were acceptable as long as they could be convincingly put.
Striking, however, is the similarity of this to those who would criticize us in the PRC. It is not as though I would accuse them of Arminianism (the matter is far too complex for such simplistic judgments; and I would think better of them than that); but their rejection of consistent logic certainly leaves them defenseless against it, as becomes evident when Rev. J. Tuininga is driven to claim that to be Reformed is to be neither a consistent — or “hyper” — Calvinist or an Arminian, but both. And it is this, I would suggest, that causes Mr. Gallant to be caught on the horns of the dilemmas he lists when he asks, “Does God really sincerely despise sin in His children? If so, why do they yet sin since God has the power to change this fact? Are His statements about His hatred of sin insincere? Should we mark them with asterisks? What about Adam? Did God decree the Fall? If He did not, then He is not absolutely sovereign. But how could He justly decree the Fall, when Adam was not created corrupt? For that matter, how could Adam fall if he was created upright?” These tensions to him I am sure are very real, as his logic demands they be. And that is the point. When contradictions are accepted, nothing is right or wrong in itself, and every question someone would think to bring up regarding the Scriptures must be taken seriously, as Mr. Gallant thinks he must. But it doesn’t have to be that way.
When one accepts the often stated principle of Scripture that God in his revelation does not contradict himself, one can, by carefully comparing each Scripture with all Scriptures — in the way traditional Reformed hermeneutics always did — find those currents of thought that run consistently through the whole, and set them forth as truth (as our confessions have done), and reject their opposites as error (as they all do as well).
But that is not all. Sound logic also tells us where not enough is known for surety such as this, as in those instances where God has withheld certain things from us, like He did when Moses, struggling with the question of how Jehovah could both be just in the punishment of Israel’s sin and still lead them graciously into the promised land, exclaimed, Exodus 33:18, “I beseech thee, show me thy glory,” to which the Lord replied, :20-23, “Thou canst not see my face: for there shall no man see me, and live. And the LORD said, Behold, there is a place by me, and thou shalt stand upon a rock: and it shall come to pass, while my glory passeth by, that I will put thee in a clift of the rock, and will cover thee with my hand while I pass by: and I will take away mine hand, and thou shalt see my back parts: but my face shall not be seen.” God would reveal as much as it was good for Moses to know, but no more — and strikingly what He revealed was the doctrine of election (compare Ex. 33:19 with Rom. 9:15,16), but not who the elect are, or why they are chosen and others passed by. Such limitations proper logic recognizes, and is satisfied to stay within, without having to struggle with their contradictories, as Mr. Gallant seems pressed to try.
And there is more. Besides the things which God tells us He has withheld, there are others in the Scriptures, of which good logic warns us we do not know sufficient to be sure. It may be that not enough has been revealed, but it may also be that our study has simply been inadequate, or that God has not yet given us the spiritual insight required (for understanding God’s Word, after all, takes more than just mental acumen; one must be led into it by the Spirit, a gift only grace can provide [John 16:13]). Nevertheless, one can and should continue to search, as the Bereans did [Acts 17:11]; and in doing so he will grow, whether he come to final conclusions or not, into a greater appreciation for and fellowship with the living God (which is what the covenant is finally all about).
And so, perhaps above all, what sound logic does is to protect us from radical conclusions with inadequate footing in the Word. No one should presume that, because he has found a text or two which seem to support a favored view of his, that he is free to present it as God’s Word regardless of how it conflicts with other texts; and yet, with all of the Pentecostal influences of our day, this is exactly what is being done repeatedly. But it should not be. Before anyone accepts or teaches anything, he should be sure that it is in harmony with the whole of what God has said (for which test our creeds are a wonderful tool); and, until he does, to discuss it perhaps as something to be considered, but without claiming it to be God’s Word.
And so, we would hope and pray that what remains of the Reformed faith today will draw back from this strange flirtation with contradictory logic, and return to the way of the fathers in which only sound theological development can take place, and which we have received from the past be preserved.
In many ways this strikes at the heart of the whole matter, for it deals with the oneness of God; and few things are more basic than this. But it also reaches out and touches on nearly everything else, as we hope to show as we go on.