In the January 15 issue we promised to begin a discussion of the doctrinal tensions “down under” which have given rise to controversy in the Reformed Churches of New Zealand and, to an extent, The Reformed Churches of Australia. We noted that these tensions center around the teachings of Prof. Dr. Klaas Runia in particular, and that a number of brethren have organized themselves into a Reformed and Presbyterian Fellowship of Australasia. This Fellowship has made known by means of their publication, The Reformed Guardian, their objections to the views of Dr. Runia and their intention to stand for the defense of the Reformed faith.
One of the points on which Dr. Runia has been criticized, also in an Appeal to the Board of Directors of the Reformed Theological College in Geelong, Australia, was that of the doctrine of reprobation. To the said Appeal the Board of Directors gave a written answer; but the Reformed and Presbyterian Fellowship is not satisfied with, but rather critical of, that answer. Moreover, as we noted last time, the Fellowship still maintains that Dr. Runia is in the wrong. This is plain from the Fellowship’s resolution, quoted in the last issue. In that resolution they make mention of the fact that Dr. Runia “objects to certain statements in the confessions of the Reformed Churches of Australia without presenting gravamina (i.e., doctrine of reprobation, and the Sabbath).”
It will be enlightening on this point of the controversy, first of all to quote the Answer of the Board of Directors to the Appellants against Prof. Runia’s teachings. In this answer they state that they have examined the charges brought against Dr. Runia carefully; and they reply to each of the charges individually. On this matter of the doctrine of reprobation, the Board answers as follows:
2. Crisis In The Reformed Churches. In his contribution to this volume Prof. Runia extensively discusses modem criticisms of the Canons, eg. those of Barth, Woelderink, the Pastoral Letter of the Hervormde Kerk, and some Reformed theologians—Berkouwer and Pohnan in the Netherlands, Boer and Pietersma in U.S.A. Careful reading of Prof. Runia’s evaluations of these criticisms shows that he accepts the doctrine of eternal reprobation as clearly taught in Scripture and fully subscribes to the basic intention of the Canons to uphold and defend the doctrine of free grace. It is with the formulation of the doctrine that Dr. Runia finds the difficulty. He points out how logic has been a determinative factor in giving expression to this doctrine. He questions the adequacy of the Scripture texts cited by the Fathers of Dordt in support of the doctrine. Is it casting ‘aspersions on the confessions’ when an honest effort is made to examine the grounds on which the doctrine is based? Is it not the hallmark of Reformed scholarship that appeal should be made to the Scriptures? There appears to be an inconsistency in the pattern of thinking which lies behind the formulation of the doctrine of reprobation in the Canons. Dr. Runia comments, “The only correct starting point for all our thinking about election and rejection, I believe, lies in the Gospel itself. We are very happy to note that the Synod of Dordt has seen this too (1, 1-5). Unfortunately it has not adhered to this one starting point. In 1, 6 it has added another line of thought, namely, one that starts from the counsel of God.” Is it not permissible to discuss the formulation in a document drawn up by man?
Prof. Runia is also accused of “declaring that even such questioning of the confessions does not require the presentation of a ‘grievance’ to the ecclesiastical courts.” Actually Dr. Runia does not declare any such thing. It is Prof. Berkouwer who states that there is no need to lodge a gravamen against the Canons when critical of its ‘framework’. (p. 171).
In reply to the above, The Reformed Guardian has stated the following:
2. CRISIS IN THE REFORMED CHURCHES. Under this section the Board has sought to tell us that Prof. Runia is only discussing “the formulation in a document drawn up by men.” But is this so? On page 167 of the book CRISIS IN THE REFORMED CHURCHES, in which Prof. Runia wrote the section entitled, “Recent Reformed Criticisms of the Canons,” Prof. Runia refers to the document on election adopted and published on behalf of the Synod of the Dutch Reformed Church, and states, “The real criticism of this letter is that the idea of ‘causalty’ (should be: ‘causality’, HCH) is found in the teaching of the Canons. This idea as it is applied to rejection, is the reason that the final responsibility of the sinner is obscured and God, somehow, seems to become the final ’cause of man’s perdition.’ Again we feel inclined to agree with this criticism. ” On page 166 of the same book we read, “Woelderink utterly rejects the idea of an eternal decree of reprobation. At this point the Canons have gone beyond the limits of Scripture. ” This latter underlined statement is Prof. Runia’s, is it not? We readily acknowledge that Prof. Runia is quoting Prof. Berkouwer when he writes, “Such questioning of the confessions does not require the presentation of a ‘grievance’ to the ecclesiastical courts”, BUT what is so disturbing is that Prof. Runia seems to have similar problems with the Canons, and HE DOES NOT SUBMIT SUCH A ‘GRIEVANCE’ TO THE ECCLESIASTICAL COURTS!
It is evident from this “Answer to the Appellants” that the Board of Directors finds no fault with Dr. Runia’s position on reprobation. And it is evident from The Reformed Guardian’s comments on their Answer that they are by no means satisfied and that they continue to assert that Dr. Runia indeed does have objections to the Reformed and confessional doctrine of reprobation, though he has not filed a gravamen, Before we proceed with a discussion of this particular question, we must make mention of the fact that the Fellowship and its members have been severely criticized for dealing with these matters in public. It has been claimed that they ought to deal privately with Dr. Runia about these questions; and it has been claimed that they ought not to write in public and publicly to criticize and accuse Dr. Runia; and it has been claimed that they ought not to stir up the churches in this manner. It has even been claimed that The Reformed Guardian and its writers are guilty of transgressing the ninth commandment by its attacks upon Runia’s positions.
With respect to this aspect of the matter, I call your attention to the fact, in the first place, that the Theological College in Geelong is not a church-controlled institution, so that neither the church in Australia nor the church in New Zealand has any direct control over Dr. Runia in his position as professor of theology. In the second place, as far as the church in Australia is concerned, Dr. Runia’s own consistory (session), of course, would have oversight of his doctrine and walk. In the third place, as far as the churches in New Zealand are concerned, and in particular as far as Dr. Runia’s opponents in the churches in New Zealand are concerned, they have no way of directly controlling Dr. Runia as to his doctrinal positions. In the fourth place, while it is true that the churches in New Zealand could officially approach the Board of Directors of Geelong, this does not preclude an appeal to the Directors of the Theological College such as has been sent to these directors by individual members of the churches. In the fifth place, we must bear in mind that what Dr. Runia has said about various doctrinal points at stake in this controversy he has said in public, in the columns of Trowel and Sword, in the Calvin Theological Journal, inChristianity Today, in The Banner, and in the bookCrisis in the Reformed Churches. Moreover, the letters-to-the-editor department in Trowel and Sword, I am informed, was closed to those who were critical of what Dr. Runia wrote. Now it strikes me as a very strange and unjust argument to claim that when Dr. Runia writes in public, those who disagree with him and with his highly questionable positions must do so in private, or are guilty of transgressing the ninth commandment if they oppose Runia in public. This I cannot understand: that one man may take position in public about matters which concern the public heritage of all the churches, and that another man, or men, may not take an opposite and critical position about these same matters likewise in public. Let those who deem Runia’s opponents guilty of transgressing the ninth commandment demonstrate that their accusations—accusations which they have pressed on the official level as well as in The Reformed Guardian—are false. This, of course, will require a treatment of the issues. Finally, in this connection, I would encourage the Fellowship not to be deterred in their criticism by this charge. It is a charge which has often been used as a kind of “red herring” in doctrinal controversy, with the purpose in view of obscuring the real, doctrinal issue. These issuses are public. They concern the Reformed heritage. They are the proper concern of the churches. And the Fellowship certainly does the churches a favor by calling attention to and reflecting upon these issues. Meanwhile, of course, it may be expected that these issues will also be pressed in the ecclesiastical courts, so that the matter may in due course be brought to a head and may be resolved. This, I have been informed, Runia’s opponents fully intend to do. This is of great importance. Sound doctrinal discipline must be insisted upon; failure in this regard can only be detrimental, as has been demonstrated in other Reformed churches in recent times, and can only result in allowing the cancer of false doctrine to spread in the churches.
Before we get into the material of this issue, I must call attention also to the manner in which the Answer to the Appellants apparently belittles our confessions. I do not agree with the entire presentation of Dr. Runia’s position in the Answer quoted above; but with this we shall deal presently. I refer now to the question which this Answer raises at the end of the first paragraph which we quoted, “Is it not permissible to discuss the formulation in a document drawn up by man?” I believe that Dr. Runia does more than merely “discuss” the formulation. I also believe that if Runia may discuss, his opponents are equally entitled to “discuss.” But this is not my point now. I refer especially now to the expression, “a document drawn up by man.”
An expression of this kind certainly belittles our confessions, and thereby belittles the seriousness of the issue involved here. If it is the intention of a statement like this to emphasize that our creeds aresubordinate standards, then this is certainly true. Our creeds are subordinate standards in the sense that they have no authority of their own, but are dependent upon the Scriptures for their authority. If it is the intention of a statement of this kind to emphasize that the formulations of our creeds are human and fallible and not per se about criticism, we say again: this is certainly true. The creeds are not infallible; they do not and they may not be allowed to bind one in the same manner as Scripture, but are rather binding only in so far as they express the truth of Holy Scripture itself. Nevertheless, it is not accurate to call any of our creeds merely “a document drawn up by man.” The fact of the matter is that the creeds are drawn up by thechurch, and that, too,—as we believe—under the guidance of the Holy Spirit Who has been given to the church to lead her into all truth. Moreover, in our Reformed churches we are all bound to these creeds as they are the official expression of what Reformed churches believe to be the truth of Holy Scripture. In that sense the creeds are indeed more than “a document drawn up by man.” They have authority in the Reformed churches, an authority which may not be ignored and which may not be contravened and contradicted, an authority which binds every officebearer and every member. There is but a single way in which the creeds may be criticized: the way of official “grievance,” or gravamen, demonstrating that what the confessions say is not according to Holy Scripture. And it would seem to me that instead of minimizing the importance of the Canons of Dordt and their “formulation,” the Board of Directors of Geelong would have done well to acknowledge this authority and the seriousness even of “discussing” the formulation of any of our confessions. It is by no means the same to discuss a confession or to discuss the document of a theologian or of a group of theologians, or even of a synodical committee or of a synod itself. This we emphasize even apart from the fact the Dr. Runia does much more than “discuss.” The fact of the matter is that he criticizes the Canons, and that, too, not in a minor matter of formulation, but on a very fundamental point. It is plain to this writer that Dr. Runia does not agree with the Reformed doctrine of reprobation.
To the substance of this issue of the Reformed doctrine of reprobation we now turn.
The criticism of Dr. Runia’s position on this score concern his contribution to the book, Crisis In The Reformed Churches, published by the Reformed Fellowship. This is a book of essays in commemoration of the Synod of Dordrecht, 1618-’19. It was published in 1968, the 350th anniversary of the Great Synod, under the editorship of Dr. P.Y. De Jong. Various theologians of the Reformed tradition contribute essays on aspects of the Synod and its work, essays which vary rather widely in quality and accuracy. My general impression of the book is that it is not true to its title, that is, it does not adequately convey the impression of the great crisis which actually was reached at the Synod of Dordrecht and in the Arminian controversy. But this is not the point now. In this work Dr. K. Runia also contributes a chapter, entitled, “Recent Reformed Criticisms of the Canons.” As might be expected, the chapter is not merely informative; but in it, at various points and especially at the end, Dr. Runia evaluates these criticisms and thereby necessarily gives expression to his own views. It is with these opinions concerning the criticisms of the Canons that Dr. Runia’s critics find fault, claiming that Dr. Runia has objections to the Reformed doctrine of reprobation as it is set forth in the Canons and that he has publicized these objections but has failed to follow the orderly Reformed way of gravamen.
It is over against this charge of Dr. Runia’s critics that the Board of Directors of the Reformed Theological College in Geelong defends Runia in its “Answer to the Appellants.”
We may distinguish the following points in the Board’s defense of Dr. Runia:
1. The Board maintains that “careful reading of Dr. Runia’s evaluations of these criticisms shows that he accepts the doctrine of eternal reprobation as clearly taught in Scripture and fully subscribes to the basic intention of the Canons to uphold and defend the doctrine of free grace.” This point raises the following questions for us: a) Is it true that Dr. Runia fully accepts the doctrine of reprobation as clearly taught in Scripture AND as set forth in the Canons of Dordrecht? This, after all, is the question, the basic question. Does Dr. Runia agree with the doctrine of eternal reprobation as set forth in the Canons? Does he agree that the Canons set forth the doctrine of eternal reprobation as it is clearly taught in Scripture? b) Or does the Board here intentionally avoid the issue when it speaks merely of the doctrine of reprobationas clearly taught in Scripture? And does the Board avoid the issue when it states that Dr. Runia “fully subscribes to the basic intention (emphasis mine, HCH) of the Canons to uphold and defend the doctrine of free grace (emphasis mine, HCH)? Understand well; I do not ask these questions maliciously and I am not as ascribing malicious intent to this statement of the board. I am merely calling attention to the fact that this statement of the Board is beside the point.
2. The Board maintains that it is with the formulation of the doctrine that Dr. Runia finds difficulty. It is a bit difficult to determine just how much the Board includes under this point. I suppose we are to assume that all the rest of their defense is included. They mention that Runia “points out how logic has been a determinative factor in giving expression to this doctrine.” They mention, too, that Runia questions the adequacy of the Scripture texts cited by the fathers of Dordt in support of the doctrine. And they mention that according to Runia, “there appears to be an inconsistency in the pattern of thinking which lies behind the formulation of the doctrine of reprobation in the Canons.” Apparently all of these matters belong under this subject of “formulation” in the Board’s thinking. But this raises the following questions: a) While in the abstract it is possible to have difficulty with the formulation of a doctrine without necessarily disagreeing with the doctrine formulated, is it true that Dr. Runia has difficulty merely with the formulation and not with the doctrine set forth? b) Is it true that Runia merely makes an honest effort to examine the grounds on which the doctrine is based, or does he indeed “cast aspersions on the confessions” by criticizing these grounds or the alleged lack of grounds? Is it true that Runia merely makes an appeal to Scripture, which is certainly the “hallmark of Reformed scholarship,” or does he criticize the Canons as being contrary to Scripture or as setting forth a line of thought which is not Scriptural? c) Is it true that Runia merely discusses the formulation of the Canons, or is it true that he is critical of the formulation? And is it not true that Dr. Runia’s criticisms are based upon an alleged disjunction between the “Gospel” and the “counsel of God”—a disjunction which he discovers to exist, in his opinion, also in the Canons?
3. Finally, the Board absolves Runia of any guilt with respect to the charge that Runia maintains that one can be critical of the “framework” of the confessions without lodging a gravamen against them. This matter also we shall have to examine.
A brief review of Runia’s chapter in Crisis In The Reformed Churches is in order at this point.
Dr. Runia states that he is not concerned in this chapter with criticisms of the Canons by theologians from other traditions, especially from Arminian and liberal backgrounds, but that he is confining himself to criticisms coming from theologians belonging to the Reformed tradition. We will overlook the fact that Runia somewhat apologetically includes Karl Barth among the latter. Certainly, one has to stretch the concept “the Reformed tradition” not a little in order to include Barthin it.
But it is Barth’s criticism of the Canons with which Runia deals first. Runia’s presentation of Barth’s criticism centers around Barth’s allegation that the Canons contain the idea of a decretum absolutum(absolute decree) and that they do not speak of election “in Christ.” Over against Barth, it must be conceded, Dr. Runia defends the Canons on this point, albeit in a somewhat “left-handed” manner. He contends correctly that in I, 7 the Canons do indeed speak of election in Christ. Yet even here Runia cannot defend the Canons without tempering and even spoiling his defense. For after he has maintained that the Canons do teach election in Christ, he adds the following paragraph, which is not only critical, but which in connection with his later evaluation of the criticisms of others also raises grave doubts:
Yet it cannot be denied that in the Canons this central aspect of the Biblical doctrine of election does not receive the emphasis it deserves. Because 1, 7 is preceded by an article that speaks of a general double decree of election and reprobation, in which the ‘in Christ’ aspect is altogether missing, the conclusion that there is a decretum absolutum behind the election-in-Christ could be drawn, and I am afraid that, unintentionally, the Canons thus have given occasion to later deterministic misunderstandings, which especially since the 18th century have plagued and still are plaguing large sections of the Reformed community. I am also sure that, if the Canons were to be rewritten in our day, the central affirmation of our election in Christ should be brought out more clearly and more unequivocally.
Here it is plain already that Dr. Runia has difficulty with Canons I, 6—a difficulty which arises again and again in this chapter. This says nothing yet as to what Runia understands by “later deterministic misunderstandings”—an expression which, in the light of the fact that the true Reformed position on predestination has been frequently characterized as determinism (also by Runia’s mentor, Dr. Berkouwer) raises grave suspicions in one’s soul.
Aside from this, we must point out that Dr. Runia certainly does not appear in this part of his chapter as a champion of the Canons, especially when we consider that Karl Barth, whose criticisms he is evaluating here, was anything but Reformed as far as the doctrine of predestination is concerned. But let us pass this by. It may be conceded that in this section of the chapter Runia does not evince overtly any disloyalty to the Canons.
The next section of Runia’s essay is devoted to the view of Dr. J.G. Woelderink, a theologian of the Dutch Reformed Church (Hervormde Kerk). Concerning Woelderink’s criticism, Dr. Runia writes as follows:
What is Woelderink’s view of the Canons? It is a combination of deep appreciation and of fundamental criticism. Fully agreeing with the teaching that our salvation is due to God’s electing love, he at the same time sees two contrasting lines in the Canons. The first five articles of Ch. 1 take their starting point in the Gospel. But in Art. 6 they switch over to a second line of thought, which takes its starting point in the decree. That this is the major point of criticism appears from the fact that time and again he returns to this main point. To him this is the basic error of all Calvinist parties at Dordt, both the Supralapsarians and the Infralapsarians. Because of their emphasis on the decree they were necessarily thinking in terms of causality, and consequently “election and rejection were no longer channels through which the stream of God’s virtues broke forth, but they became springs which produced salvation and perdition.” It was no longer sufficient to ascribe faith to God’s grace, and unbelief to man’s sinful heart. No, God too had his share in unbelief, in as far as he had decreed “to leave the non-elect in His just judgment to their own wickedness and obduracy” (1, 6). The natural result of this ‘causal’ way of thinking was that in 1, 12 all emphasis is placed on man’s inner spiritual life, where he can observe “the infallible fruits of election.”
Dr. Runia then goes on to point out that “Woelderink’s own solution is to see election primarily and essentially as an act of God in time.” Runia further states that Woelderink “does not deny that we are allowed to proceed from election as God’s act in time to God’s election from eternity.” And then Runia further describes Woelderink’s view of reprobation:
Rejection, too, is seen as an act of God in the history of the world and in the concrete lives of sinful people. In the case of rejection, however, we are not allowed to go back to an eternal decision of God “before the foundation of the world”. Woelderink utterly rejects the idea of an eternal decree of reprobation. At this point the Canons have gone beyond the limits of Scripture. It is not surprising, therefore, that they do not give any Scripture proof for this aspect of their teaching.
And now the question is: what does Runia think of Woelderink? In the first place, we ask you to keep in mind Runia’s description of Woelderink’s view, especially in the first part of the first quotation about Woelderink above. For at the end of his essay Runia makes virtually the same statements. In the second place, we quote Runia’s evaluation of Woelderink’s criticisms in part: “There are undoubtedly elements of truth in Woelderink’s criticisms of theCanons. We too believe that there are traces of ‘causal’ thinking.” At this point Runia goes on to criticize Woelderink for “historicizing” and “actualizing” election. But in this same connection we would point out: 1. That here already Runia betrays his criticism of what he calls the “causal thinking” of the Canons. Bear this in mind. It will occur again. And it is crucial. 2. It is significant that while Runia criticizes Woelderink for historicizing and actualizing election, he does not criticize him for historicizing and actualizing reprobation. This is related, remember, to the fact that Runia is critical of the so-called “causal thinking” of the Canons. But Runia’s silence on this score, I believe, speaks volumes.
In the next section of his essay Dr. Runia summarizes and evaluates a Pastoral Letter which was published on behalf of the Synod of the Dutch Reformed Chu?ch (Hervormde Kerk). This letter takes virtually the same position as Dr. Woelderink takes. We will quote two pertinent paragraphs of Runia’s description of this letter. After describing its position on election, Runia writes:
Rejection too is an act of God in history. But in this case we may not infer an eternal decree of rejection. Although such a conclusion may seem to be natural and valid, Scripture itself never employs this logic. Texts that have often been quoted in support of such an eternal decree of rejection (such as
do not really teach this.
After all this it is not surprising that the Letter contains a number of criticisms of the Canons. In fact, not only the Canons, but the Belgic Confession as well is criticized, especially Art. 16, which speaks of God’s “leaving others in the fall and perdition wherein they have involved themselves.” The Canons, 1, 6, however, go beyond this and, in spite of what has been said in 1, 5, suggest “that human guilt is not the last word about the ground of rejection.” Other points of criticism are that Word and Spirit are not always kept inseparably together, that the certainty of election is too much sought in pious man himself, that the election of the individual believer is one-sidedly stressed, and that the Scripture proof given is very weak.
Concerning the above, Runia gives the following evaluation: “These last points, however, are only minor criticisms. The real criticism of this Letter is that the idea of ‘causality’ is found in the teaching of theCanons. This idea, especially as it is applied to rejection, is the reason that the final responsibility of the sinner is obscured and God, somehow, seems to become the final ’cause’ of man’s perdition. Again we feel inclined to agree with this criticism.” (emphasis mine, HCH)
Notice the significant inclination of Dr. Runia to agree with this criticism of the Canons’ doctrine of reprobation and also the doctrine of reprobation as found in the Belgic Confession. This is a constantly recurring refrain in Dr. Runia’s essay. He has no use for this causal way of thinking. Whenever he speaks of it, he speaks of it in a negative way. Even when he criticizes this Pastoral Letter and seems to express some agreement with the Canons, he does so in such a way that he continues to reject this idea of causality, as in the following statement: “At this point theCanons, in spite of their ‘causal’ way of thinking, (emphasis mine, HCH), are closer to the fullness of the Biblical message than this Letter.”
At this point in his essay Dr. Runia takes up recent criticisms of the Canons by theologians of the Gereformeerde Kerken. But since a full treatment of this part of Dr. Runia’s essay would require too much space, we will postpone our discussion of this section until the next issue.