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Doctrinal Tensions “Down Under” (4) 

In our previous editorial on this subject we dealt with Dr. Runia’s summary and evaluation of Dr. G.C. Berkouwer’s views on reprobation and the latter’s criticisms of the Canons of Dordrecht. And we found that Runia expressed substantial agreement with Dr. Berkhouwer.

There is one more section in Dr. Runia’s essay in which he presents and summarizes the criticisms of others. In this section he refers chiefly to another Dutch theologian, Dr. A.D.R. Polman, who was for many years professor of systematic theology at Kampen, the seminary of the Gereformeerde Kerken. Permit me to quote what Runia writes about the views of Dr. Polman:

In his earlier publications he fully upheld the views of the Canons, but gradually, mainly under the influence of Barth and Berkouwer, he has changed his mind. He summarizes his own view as follows. There are two dangers that continually threaten the biblical doctrine of God’s election and rejection: casual determinism and (often as a reaction against the first) synthetic synergism Causal determinism is the result of taking one’s starting point in an abstract, sovereign decree, based on the concept of ‘absolute power’. The consequence of this starting point is that election and rejection become two parallel, symmetrical lines, which both proceed from the absolute decree. But this is nothing else than causal determinism. In reaction, synthetic synergism overemphasizes man’s responsibility and then projects this back into God’s decree in the form of praescientia or praevisio. According to Polman the Bible does not know about a pre-temporal decree that in (a) causal way determines all things, but it only speaks of a gracious election in Christ before the foundation of the world. When it mentions rejection, it is always a rejection in history, in which God’s reaction against man’s rebellion becomes manifest. This does not mean that man’s sinful activity becomes autonomous over against God’s counsel. The Bible sets the two aspects side by side, and leaves it at that. We have to respect these limits of our reflection. But it is quite clear that every one who objectivizes the elect and the reprobate in two fixed groups, can no longer do full justice to the serious call of the Gospel, which also comes to the reprobate.

We may remark here that in this summary of Dr. Polman’s ideas we meet with the same errors which we have noted in the views of those theologians previously treated by Dr. Runia in his essay. Basically, there is nothing new here. We find also in Polman the same criticism of so-called “causality,” the same attempt to get rid of sovereign and eternal reprobation, and the same tossing about of such scare-terms as “causal determinism.” We may take note of one element in the above summary which has not occurred previously, at least not in this definite form. I refer to the last sentence: “But it is quite clear that every one who objectivizes the elect and the reprobate in two fixed groups, can no longer do full justice to the serious call of the Gospel, which also comes to the reprobate.” But we may also note that the position stated in this sentence is not really new. We as Protestant Reformed have heard this charge over and over again. In fact, the charge is even much older: it is a charge which was registered by the Arminians against the Reformed already at the time of the Arminian controversy. It was, in fact, just because of charges like this that the fathers of Dordrecht found it necessary to emphasize that they held to the promiscuous preaching of the gospel and to the seriousness (not to be confused with wellmeant- ness) of the call of the gospel which comes to the reprobate as well as to the elect in the promiscuous preaching. 

But let us go on with Runia’s summary:

Polman is well aware of the fact that he deviates from the Canons. Somewhere he writes that the real problem is not God’s free, sovereign good pleasure in the life of the believers, but the partial symmetry between the decree of election and rejection, in which from all eternity God has elected and rejected certain persons. “The latter is confessed in the Canons (1, 6 and 15) and this is not accepted by us.” The fathers of Dordt never produced scriptural evidence for this view, but based it on a mere logical conclusion. If some people call this a valid and necessary conclusion, then they should realize that the Bible itself never draws this conclusion.

It should be noted, first of all, that Dr. Polman here clearly expresses disagreement with the Canons of Dordrecht and that he accuses the Canons of drawing a conclusion which the Bible itself never draws. Polman, therefore, is in express disagreement with the Canons of Dordrecht. And according to the language of the Formula of Subscription—which, of course, has become a dead letter in the Netherlands—this is very plainly a disagreement which undoubtedly would require a gravamen. 

Now what does Dr. Runia say about all this? He passes it by without a word of evaluation. 

Is this failure to express either approval or disapproval, this complete silence, a serious matter for a Reformed man? Or would it be unfair to argue from Dr. Runia’s silence? In my opinion, it would not be unfair, but perfectly justified to criticize Dr. Runia on this score. And here are my reasons. In the first place, Dr. Runia himself states that Dr. Polman changed his mindunder the influence of Barth and Berkouwer. Berkouwer is evaluated favorably by Dr. Runia. Moreover, throughout this chapter shows a consistent inclination to agree with all those who criticize the notion of so-called “causality” in the Canons, particularly with respect to the doctrine of reprobation. In fact and in truth, therefore, while Runia does not express approval specifically of Polman, he has already expressed approval of similar ideas in other theologians. This, can only mean by implication that Dr. Runia also disagrees with and opposes the teachings of the Canons of Dordrecht, and, is in violation of the Formula of Subscription, and should have felt himself in duty bound to file a gravamen instead of airing his disagreements. In the second place, it is inconceivable to me that a Reformed man—let alone a Reformed professor of theology—can be confronted with such flagrant heresy as that of Polman and pass it by in silence. Yes, I am referring to the fact, first, that this ought to be contrary to the Reformed sensibilities of any soundly Reformed man. I simply cannot conceive of it that a Reformed man can be confronted by such error and that he does not cry out against it with all that is in him and warn his readers against it. This Runia fails completely to do. Do not forget, moreover, that this is not merely my personal opinion concerning what a Reformed man should do. In the first place, according to the Church Order of Dordrecht, Article 18, this is the calling of professors of theology: “The office of the professors of theology is to expound the Holy Scriptures and to vindicate sound doctrine against heresies and errors.” (emphasis added) The language of the Formula of Subscription is still more explicit. Notice:

We promise therefore diligently to teach and faithfully to defend the aforesaid doctrine, without either directly or indirectly contradicting the same, by our public preaching or writing. 

We declare, moreover, that we not only reject all errors that militate against this doctrine, and particularly those which were condemned by the abovementioned synod, but that we are disposed to refute and contradict these, and to exert ourselves in keeping the Church free from such errors. And if hereafter any difficulties or different sentiments respecting the aforesaid doctrines should arise in our minds, we promise that we will neither publicly nor privately propose, teach, or defend the same, either by preaching or writing, until we have first revealed such sentiments to the consistory, classis and synod, that the same may be there examined, being ready always cheerfully to submit to the judgment of the consistory, classis and synod, under the penalty in case of refusal to be, by that very fact, suspended from our office.

With respect to the duties stated in the two clear quotations just made, Dr. Runia is plainly derelict. 

Runia’s summary of recent criticisms of the Canons is concluded by a brief paragraph concerning voices raised in the Christian Reformed Church of this country. He makes mention of articles by H. Pietersma and H.R. Boer in The Reformed Journal. Some of our readers will undoubtedly recall references in The Standard Bearer to these same writings. The articles by Pietersma Dr. Runia does not even summarize. They were written in connection with the Dekker Case. My single recollection of those articles is that one could recognize in them whatsoever the Reformed doctrine of election and reprobation; any similarity was strictly coincidental. The articles by Dr. Boer are summarized very briefly by Runia. And then he adds this conclusion: “Boer does not openly attack theCanons. Neither does he speak of a ‘causal’ way of thinking, but it is quite obvious that this criticism is along the same lines as that of Berkouwer and Polman.” 

Also, here Runia utters not a word of criticism although, again, in view of his opinion that Boer stands in the line of Berkouwer, and in view of Runia’s agreement with Berkouwer, we may assume that Runia is likewise not critical of Boer and Pietersma.

Dr. K. Runia on Reprobation 

At this point Dr. Runia presents a concluding evaluation of these criticisms, in addition to whatever elements of evaluation he has already presented in the earlier parts of his essay.

First of all, he points out that these criticisms all center about the doctrine of an eternal decree of reprobation. He presents three considerations which, according to him, are necessary in order to see this “problem” in its proper perspective. First, he claims that none of these theologians wants to limit God’s power and sovereignty, that they are not motivated by the desire to give some place to even a partial autonomy of the human will when they question or reject an eternal decree of reprobation, but that “On the contrary, they all agree with the Canons when the latter teach that we have been chosen by God in Christ before the foundation of the world. Or to put it in the formulation of 1, 5: ‘Faith in Jesus Christ and salvation through Him is the free gift of God.'” His second consideration is “that most Reformed confessions of the Reformation period are either silent on reprobation or speak of it in very cautious terms.” And this third consideration is that at the conference of Arminians and Calvinists at the Hague in 1611 the Dutch Calvinists stated more than once that their controversy with the Arminians did not concern the latter’s view of reprobation. According to Runia, these three considerations will help one to see the problem in its real proportions. 

Now I have my serious doubts about the correctness of all three of these considerations, though it is not my purpose to enter into these items in detail at this time. As to the first, I have two remarks: 1) It is not a question of what these theologians want to do, but a question of what they actually do. And no one can escape the fact that by their rejection of an eternal decree of reprobation they create a void which can only somehow be filled by the false doctrine of the autonomy of the human will. 2) The fact that one subscribes to the quoted statement of Canons I, 5—without anything more—and especially in the context of a denial of reprobation, is of absolutely no significance and of no value as a guarantee of a man’s Reformed character. Any Arminian will also subscribe without reservation to the bare statement, “Faith in Jesus Christ and salvation through him is the free gift of God.” This is not the issue. The issue is that of the Reformed or the Arminian interpretation of this bare statement. And a Reformed interpretation of it cannot be made without reference to an eternal decree of reprobation as well as an eternal decree of sovereign election. 

As to the second consideration, the mere silence of other Reformed confessions on this subject is of no importance whatsoever, especially when we take under consideration the fact that the Canons of Dordrecht are of a later date, and that they represent an advance in the history of dogma, and an advance and refinement of the Reformed faith which arose out of the throes of severe controversy and struggle, through which the Lord our God was pleased—as so often in the history of the church—to bring the faith to clearer and more precise expression. Nor can it be denied that the Canons of Dordrecht stand very clearly in the line of, Calvin himself, so that the same theologians who criticize the Canons also find themselves necessarily differing with the great Reformer. 

As to the third consideration, that concerning the Hague Conference in 1611, even apart from the question whether this is the whole story of the Hague Conference, the fact is, in the first place, that there was development and sharpening and clarification of the controversy between 1611 and the time of the Synod of Dordt, 1618. In the second place, the fact remains, regardless of this Hague Conference, that the Canons must and do speak for themselves. They, not the proceedings of the Hague Conference, are the official expression of the Reformed faith. And these Canons speak of eternal reprobation in opposition to the heresy of the Arminians. The question is not whether one agrees or disagrees with what the Hague Conference may have said, but it is whether one agrees or disagrees with the Canons. And that the Canons express themselves on eternal reprobation is no wonder! For there is no one who can escape the conclusion, no matter how he may attempt to deny this or to avoid it, that the doctrine of eternal reprobation is inseparably bound up in the doctrine of eternal election, so that it is fundamentally impossible to express one’s self on the latter and to maintain silence on the former. 

In the light of the above, one must also conclude that the three considerations advanced by Dr. Runia do not help whatsoever in gaining the proper perspective with respect to what he calls a “problem.” Instead of furnishing the proper perspective, Dr. Runia accomplishes the opposite. He puts this matter in the wrong perspective. And he does so by attempting to minimize, through these three considerations, the seriousness of this criticism and denial of sovereign reprobation. 

At this point Dr. Runia turns to a brief discussion of the Canons themselves. And he begins by making the claim that “we must admit that there are indeed two lines of thought” in the Canons. On our part, we will not make this admission, and especially not in the sense in which Dr. Runia insists on it. But let us allow Dr. Runia to speak for himself:

On the one hand, the Canons take their starting point in the Gospel. Here all emphasis is laid on the ekloge. Salvation is wholly and fully God’s work. It is God who has chosen those who believe in the Gospel. He has chosen them in Christ before the foundation of the world “out of mere grace, according to the sovereign good pleasure of his own will” (1, 7). Their faith is not their good work, but it is the “free gift of God’ (1, 5). At this very point we find the real controversy with the Arminians, who in their defense of man’s free will, made election conditional upon foreseen faith. 

In addition to the above the Canons equally emphasize that unbelief is man’s fault. “The cause or guilt of this unbelief as well as of all other sins is no wise in God but in man himself” (1. 5). This too is part of the clear teaching of Scripture. Man is always seen as responsible for his own sin and the blame for his unbelief is always put squarely upon the sinner himself. In no respect can God ever be held responsible for it, not even in an indirect sense. God is holy. “God is light and in him is no darkness at all.’

I John 1:5

But (Note this “but,” HCH) there is also a second line of thought in the Canons, namely, the line of ‘causality.’ We find this in particular in 1, 6, which opens with the following words: “That some receive the gift of faith from God, and others do not receive it, proceeds from God’s eternal decree.” Reading this, one cannot help wondering whether there were some traces of the idea of ‘absolute power’ in the minds of the author. At any rate it was at this point the Arminians always concentrated their attack. Time and again they repeated the accusation: you make God responsible for unbelief. At the conference of The Hague in 1611 they described the views of the Calvinists as follows: “those who are predestinated unto perdition (being by far the majority) must be damned necessarily and unavoidably, and they cannot be saved.” The Calvinists, on the other hand, always rejected this view as a caricature. They were firmly convinced that this was unbiblical and repudiated it as a statement of their own position. Yet the question may be asked whether the conclusion of the Arminians was not valid, if one takes 1, 6 and 1, 15 seriously. Is it really possible to avoid this conclusion? Of course, we gratefully notice that the fathers of Dordt rejected it, but was it not a valid implication of their second line of thought?

We must caution the reader that the above quotation presents the Canons through Dr. Runia’s eyes. And the Doctor’s vision here is far from being 20/20. The above quotation represents a gross misrepresentation of the Canons and of the position of the fathers of Dordt. In the first place, if there are to be distinguished two lines of thoughts in the Canons, then they are not the disjunctive and contrasting lines which Dr. Runia thinks to find. But the First Head of Doctrine is to be outlined, in general, as follows. In the first five articles of Canons I, the fathers of Dordt follow the historical order with respect to the fallenness of mankind, the gift of God’s only begotten Son, the promiscuous preaching of the gospel, everlasting woe and everlasting life, unbelief and faith. Up to this point, we may say, in general, that the historical facts with respect to salvation and the preaching of the gospel are presented. And, in general, up to this point Arminians would agree. Beginning with Article 6, however, the Canons face the question: how are these historical events to be explained? And then they present the truth which is so severely criticized by Runia and others, namely, “That some receive the gift of faith from God, and others do not receive it, proceeds from God’s eternal decree.” This is no new line, no second, divergent line, .which stands in contrast with the so-called line of the gospel. To assert this is not Reformed. It is Reformed to maintain that the gospel exactly proclaims “the whole counsel of God.” When the Canons, beginning with Article 6, expound this truth of God’s counsel of predestination, they do not go off on a tangent. But they explain in the light of and on the basis of Scripture the only way in which the facts set forth in Articles 1-5 can possibly be explained in their true light and significance in the context of sovereign grace which is really sovereign. They explain the heart of the truth that salvation by faith is indeed a free gift of grace. Thereupon, the Canons first set forth the truth of sovereign election, Artt. 7-14. And then they are confronted by the fact that not all believe and not all are saved and not all are chosen; and they further explicate the truth already mentioned in Article 6 (that some do not receive the gift of faith, and that this also proceeds from God’s eternal decree). And thus it is that in Articles 15 and 16 the doctrine of eternal reprobation is set forth. 

There are, therefore, no two lines in the Canons, but one line, the line of divine predestination. 

The trouble is that Dr. Runia does not want this clear line, and that he simply reiterates the criticisms of those whom he has reviewed in this essay, especially with respect to that bug-bear of causality. It is only on this basis, further, that Dr. Runia principally takes the side of the Arminians when, for example, he writes, “Reading this, one cannot help wondering whether there were some traces of the idea of ‘absolute power’ in the minds of the author. At any rate it was at this point the Arminians always concentrated their attack. Time and again they repeated the accusation: you make God responsible for unbelief.” Instead of accepting the position of Dordt, instead of accepting Dordt’s repeated repudiation of this false charge of the Arminians, he really joins the Arminians in their argument when he writes: “Is it really possible to avoid this conclusion? Of course, we gratefully notice that the fathers of Dordt rejected it, but was it not a valid implication of their second line of thought?” (emphasis added) This rhetorical question constitutes a vicious attack upon the Canons: a charge that the fathers of Dordt are really inconsistent, and an essential agreement that the Arminian false charge against Canons I, 6 and 15 is a valid charge. 

Next Dr. Runia treats what he calls the main question: “The main question, however, is whether Scripture itself speaks of an eternal decree of reprobation.” And again he assumes a critical stance. Runia claims, in the first place, that the main proof in Reformed theology has always been the logic of the situation. And while he first concedes that logic does play an important role in theology, and that Reformed theology has always freely acknowledged its good right, and while he even quotes the Westminster Confession on this score (“the whole counsel of God concerning all things necessary for his own glory, man’s salvation, faith and life, is either expressly set down in Scripture or by good and necessary consequence, may be deduced from Scripture”), nevertheless he virtually cancels this concession by adding: “In general we must say that especially at the point of an eternal decree of reprobation we have to be most careful. And one should ask oneself: why does Scripture itself not draw this conclusion, if it is so natural and so logical?” And then, in the second place, he goes on to say that Canons I, 15 does not mention any Scripture proof, and that in other articles the Scripture proof given is very weak, “to say the least.” And finally, he adds that this is true of Reformed theology in general and that “The texts that are usually mentioned are all ambiguous and they all allow a different and better interpretation.” 

This section is nothing short of amazing in its boldness, coming from the pen of one who is supposed to be a Reformed man and to subscribe to the Reformed creeds. 

In the first place, how is it possible that a Reformed man states that it is a QUESTION whether Scripture itself speaks of an eternal decree of reprobation. This again is plainly contrary to the Formula of Subscription and to a Reformed man’s subscription to the creeds as the expression of the truth of Scripture. 

In the second place, would that Dr. Runia had heeded his own warning that at the point of an eternal decree of reprobation we have to be “most careful,” instead of recklessly claiming without any evidence, without even an attempt at proof, that Scripture itself does not draw this logical conclusion. All of this betrays a wrong attitude toward our confessions as well as a wrong attitude toward the doctrine of eternal reprobation. It is due, of course, to the fact that Dr. Runia has swallowed hook-line-and-sinker the teachings of Berkouwer. 

In the third place, I stand amazed that a Reformed man can say that texts of Scripture are “ambiguous.” This betrays a wrong attitude toward Scripture as well. 

And, in the fourth place, I stand amazed that a Reformed man can say in such an off-hand manner, without even an attempt at proof, that all the texts that are usually mentioned in our confessions and in Reformed theology in support of eternal reprobation “allow a different and better interpretation.” 

Why, I ask, does Dr. Runia not openly say farewell to our Reformed confessions? This, at least, would be honest. 

In the concluding section of his essay Dr. Runia states a few things concerning the criticism of the Canons by some Reformed theologians in recent years. First, he claims that these criticisms do not mean that these theologians wish to derogate from the sovereignty of God or that they deny God’s eternal counsel. This is a statement without proof; and I point out again that it is beside the point. The question is not what these theologians wish to do (a question of motive and intent), but it is a question of what they do, objectively. And it seems to me that the conclusion is inescapable that they deny God’s eternal counsel, in spite of any assertions to the contrary. 

Secondly, Runia explains once more that these theologians cannot accept a causal connection between God’s decree and that which happens in history. Here he brings up the old argument of a disjunction between the causality of God’s decree and human responsibility—a favorite of Arminians. And he brings the similar argument that history would lose all its significance and would only be a mechanical, pre-determined outworking of a divine decree. Moreover, he once more repeats, in a slightly different form, his charge that the Canons are inconsistent and his agreement with Berkouwer that the “real intention of the synod is found in this rejection of theeodem modoand not in the causal framework which we find in 1, 6 and 15.” Berkouwer, he says, is “undoubtedly right.” 

Dr. Runia concludes by conceding that there are many unsolved problems left. And he goes on to state that to him the only correct starting point for all our thinking about election and rejection lies in the gospel itself, and that it is unfortunate that the Synod of Dordrecht has not adhered to this, but added another line which starts from the counsel of God. He hedges a bit on this, almost leaving the impression that he has said too much. But the fact remains that he has said it! Finally, he suggests that Reformed theology overemphasized the “pre-temporal nature of the divine counsel” and that it perhaps “too simply identifies the eternal nature of the counsel with the eternal nature of God Himself.” And he leaves the reader with the thought that there are many questions and that “the depth of these problems remains a tremendous challenge for the future.” 

But the total effect is that Dr. Runia criticizes and contradicts the Canons of Dordrecht at their most crucial point, that of the First Head of Doctrine, and that he covers this up in the end by the old Arminian tactic of leaving things in question. 

It seems to me that anyone who reads this essay must see that Dr. Runia is a man who is fundamentally out of sympathy with the Reformed faith set forth in the Canons of Dordrecht. 

Geelong should have called its professor to clear account on this score. 

And the churches “down under” should not allow their future ministers to be instructed by Dr. Runia unless and until he gives full satisfaction with respect to his agreement with the Canons.