In a previous article on this subject I have pointed out that the new theological method being promoted in the Reformed community has as one of its chief characteristics, according to its own claim, that of being non-abstract, or anti-abstract. In analyzing this characteristic as it is set forth in the writings of Dr. Henry Stob in connection with the Dekker Case, we found that the terms abstract andobjective seem to be equated. Dr. Stob was critical of the problematics involved in the question, “For whom did Christ die?” He arrived at this criticism by creating a false problematics on the basis of the false doctrine of the well-meant offer of the gospel, we pointed out last time. But the main point in this connection, the point that must not be overlooked, the point that is important not only with respect to the issues of the Dekker Case but also with respect to all theology, is this: we must not, in our theology and in our doctrine, ask for objective answers to objective questions concerning concrete, objective, historical events and concerning an objective state of affairs.
We must not lose sight of this. It is rather difficult to keep our sights trained on this issue because Dr. Stab does not write directly about method, but about the doctrinal issues of the Dekker Case and about the flaws in the report of the Doctrinal Committee. And it is a temptation to go astray and to criticize the doctrinal position which Dr. Stob assumes in the course of his writings. Moreover, Dr. Stob does not clearly expound this new method; he rather assumes it, and from his own position of this new method criticizes the methodology of both Dekker and the Committee. Further, he criticizes by way of example. Hence, it is rather difficult to pinpoint this entire matter of method. And yet this is the issue. And while I would not at all minimize the doctrinal issues at stake, I nevertheless want to emphasize that this methodological question is of the utmost importance. It is the question behind the doctrinal issues in the Dekker Case not only, but also many other doctrinal issues of the day. On this question of method, therefore, we must focus our attention.
In this editorial I want to point out, first of all, that this anti-abstract, or anti-objective, method is contrary to our Reformed confessions.
My point, in this connection, is not that our creeds make certain direct pronouncements aboutmethods. They do not. But our creeds follow a certain method. And my point is that the method propounded by Dr. Stob is not the method followed by our creeds. This means that when Dr. Stob proposes that we must not inquire into any objective state of affairs, as in the question, “Did Christ die for everybody?” then he is implicitly criticizing our confessions. When Dr. Stob takes the position that we must not seek objective answers to objective questions concerning concrete, objective, historical events in God’s program of redemption and salvation, he is implicitly proposing that our confessions (and not only Professor Dekker and the Doctrinal Committee) follow a wrong method. For our confessions do indeed inquire into “an objective state of affairs.” Our confessions do indeed face objective questions concerning concrete, objective, historical events of the gospel; and they do indeed furnish objective answers to these questions. They do this, for example, with respect to the question used as an example by Dr. Stob, “Did Christ die for everybody?” They do this with respect to all the fundamental doctrinal issues involved in the Dekker Case. And they do this with respect to many, many other truths. In fact, it seems to me that Dr. Stob himself could hardly fail to recognize this fact in the light of the fact that he criticizes the Doctrinal Committee for being more abstract than Prof. Dekker.
But let me demonstrate that our confessions follow the method which Dr. Stob does not want.
Turn with me to Canons I, A, 6. This article reads as follows:
That some receive the gift of faith from God, and others do not receive it proceeds from God’s eternal decree, “For known unto God are all his works from the beginning of the world,”
“Who worketh all things after the counsel of his will,”
According to which decree, he graciously softens the hearts of the elect, however obstinate, and inclines them to believe, while he leaves the non-elect in his just judgment to their own wickedness and obduracy. And herein is especially displayed the profound, the merciful, and at the same time the righteous discrimination between men, equally involved in ruin; or that decree of election and reprobation, revealed in the Word of God, which though men of perverse, impure and unstable minds wrest to their own destruction, yet to holy and pious souls affords unspeakable consolation.”
Here is a clear example of following the method which Dr. Stob rejects.
Notice, in the first place, that this article obviously deals with an “objective state of affairs.” That objective state of affairs is this: 1) Some men receive the gift of faith from God. 2) Other men do not receive the gift of faith from God.
In the preceding five articles of Canons I, our fathers have already made many objective statements concerning the objective state of affairs. They have laid down the truths: 1) That God was not obligated to save any man, and that He would have done no injustice by leaving all to perish. 2) That the love of God was manifested in sending His only begotten Son into the world, that whosoever believeth on Him should not perish, but have everlasting life. 3) That in order that men may be brought to believe, God mercifully sends the messengers of these most joyful tidings to whom He will and. at what time He pleaseth, and that by the ministry of these messengers men are called to repentance and faith in Christ crucified. 4) That some believe not the gospel, and that the wrath of God abideth on them, while others receive the gospel, embrace Jesus by a true and living faith, and are delivered from wrath and have the gift of eternal life bestowed upon them. 5) That the spiritual, ethical cause (cause in the sense of guilt, or blame) of the unbelief of those who believe not the gospel is in no wise in God, but in man himself; whereas faith in and salvation through Jesus Christ is the free gift of God. In all of these truths we have statements concerning an objective state of affairs. And by means of these statements our fathers are busy, in these first five articles of Canons I, pinpointing the issue between the Reformed faith and Arminianism. They have, as it were, finally narrowed the issue down. They have said, in effect, that the issue is not: 1) John 3:16 and the truth that God manifested His love in sending His only begotten Son into the world, that whosoever believeth, etc. Reformed believe this as well as Arminians. 2) That God sends preachers of the gospel in order to bring men to believe, and that these preachers call men to repentance and faith. Reformed hold to this as well as Arminians. 3) That it is those who believe that are saved, while those who believe not have the wrath of God abiding on them. Reformed believe this as well as Arminians. 4) That the unbeliever is morally responsible for his own unbelief, while faith is a free gift of God. Reformed maintain this also.
But now there still remains the question how this objective state of affairs is to be explained. How is it that among men equally involved in ruin, equally lost in themselves, there is a difference? How is it that some men are saved, and some are lost? Well, you say, some men believe the gospel, and others do not believe it! True! But how is it that some believe and others do not believe? Mind you, they are equally lost in themselves! Well, you say, that some men do not believe the gospel is their own fault: that is their guilt! And that some men do believe is the free gift of God: by grace are ye saved, through faith, and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God,” Eph. 2:8. One hundred per cent correct! But the question persists. Here we have an objective state of affairs among men, mind you, equally involved in ruin, equally lost in themselves, that upon some faith, the gift of God, is bestowed, while upon others it is not bestowed. How is this? Whence does this proceed? What is the explanation of this objective state of affairs?
It seems to me that Dr. Stob must take the same position with respect to this question which he takes with respect to the question for whom Christ died. It is an abstract question. It is a scientific question concerning an objective state of affairs. And it is an insoluble question. It seems to me, judging from what he has written about theological method, that Dr. Stob must take the position that we may not ask and answer this kind of question, that this is the wrong kind of problematics. It seems to me that he would have to write about this question also: “To avoid this impasse, to escape this cul-de-sac, we must descend from the cold heights of abstract truth and ask the biblical question: What is every man who hears the preached Gospel—every such man without exception—called upon” to do? And it seems to me that Dr. Stob would want to answer this question solely by this: Every man who hears the preached Gospel is called upon to believe and repent,—period,—and for the rest we must not inquire into the question.
But let me point out that the Canons face this question. They do not avoid it by calling it a pseudo problem, a question stated in terms of non-biblical categories, a problem which cannot be solved by the biblical givens, etc. They face this question concerning the explanation of this objective state of affairs. Moreover, the Canons answer this question. And they answer it objectively. They answer that this proceeds from God’s eternal decree. They point out that this decree discriminates between men. They point out that according to this decree there are some elect men and some non-elect men. They point out that upon the former God bestows the gift of faith, graciously softening their hearts and inclining them to believe, while (in typically infralapsarian language) He leaves the non-elect to their own wickedness and obduracy in His just judgment. They point out that this is the decree of election and reprobation.
Now I will not quarrel about the infralapsarian language of this article. For the sake of argument, I will accept it. Besides, “infra-“‘ is historically and confessionally Reformed. This is not the question at stake. The question is not even whether what the Canons here state is materially true, although both Dr. Stab and I are bound by this statement.
The question now is simply one of method.
And no one can possibly deny that the Canons very clearly deal with an objective question concerning an objective state of affairs and furnish an objective answer to this question.
Here, then, is Exhibit No. 1 in proof of my contention that the method about which Dr. Stob writes is not the method of our confessions, but that the method which he severely criticizes is the method of our confessions. In other words, Dr. Stob is implicitly criticizing the confessions in his writings about a nonobjective, anti-abstract method.
And it is my contention, not that the confessions are infallible, above criticism, but that if we criticize the confessions, we should do so directly and in the proper way, i.e., the way of gravamen. We must not first undermine the confessions and the doctrines which they set forth, in order then finally to do away with them. And above all, we must not undermine the confessions in this most basic aspect of methodology, in order to prepare the way for an eventual gravamen. I am not saying that Dr. Stob is deliberately and consciously attempting to do this. Iam saying that this is a consequence of his method. And I am saying that the method which he advocates has already been followed in the Netherlands and is now bearing its fruit in attempts to change the confessions.
All of this points again to one important word of caution: we must be extremely careful when it comes to theological method!
There is one more important aspect of this example from our Canons. It is this. Our Canons always reason directly and explicitly from “biblical givens.” That is, they support their objective answers to objective questions concerning an objective state of affairs by quoting Scripture profusely. This is important. For it means that in order to follow a different method and in order to criticize the method of our Canons, one must ultimately show that this appeal to Scripture itself is incorrect and illegitimate. Only if this is done may the confessions be criticized.
(to be continued)