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Previous article in this series: September 1, 2014, p. 461.


In our previous article (Sept. 1 issue) we indicated that we intended to offer a response to Dr. John Bolt’s essay entitled “Herman Hoeksema Was Right (On the Three Points That Really Matter).” Bolt’s essay is found in a collection of essays entitled Biblical Interpretation and Doctrinal Formulation in the Reformed Tradition, 14 essays submitted to honor Dr. James De Jong (who served for a time as president of Calvin Theological Seminary) as he nears retirement.

As stated, the essay warrants consideration and a response if for no other reason than because of who wrote it, a seminary professor in the Christian Reformed Church. But more than that, it is evident that Dr. Bolt has given careful thought to what we know as “the common grace controversy of 1924.”

Dr. Bolt’s essay is well researched and well argued.

And if Bolt’s arguments stand, they lead to but one conclusion, namely, in the 1924 common grace controversy Hoeksema was right (in three areas that really matter). And as well, by necessary inference, he and others with him were wronged by the broader assemblies of the CRC.

Coming from a Calvin Seminary professor, that is no little concession, or, if you prefer, charge. Though, as we stated in our last article, at this point Bolt wants it known that his essay, with its conclusions, is “suggestive rather than definitive” (cf. footnote 9, p. 297).

Bolt has written a proposition, “Hoeksema was right,” with three supporting theses inviting response and debate.

The three theses are:

#1—that grace is particular.

#2—that the doctrine of common grace is an extra-confessional matter on which Reformed people can have different opinions.

#3—that Reformed church polity was violated in hierarchical actions.

We begin with Bolt’s first thesis.

Bolt’s point is not simply that Hoeksema insisted that grace is particular, but that when it comes to grace, God’s grace, divine grace directed towards human beings, it is always and only particular. There is no other kind of grace.

This means, as far as Hoeksema was concerned, that to speak of a common grace is a contradiction in terms. Scripture knows of no such grace.

As Bolt points out, Hoeksema in large measure certainly learned this emphasis upon grace, one that is particular and saving, from none other than Abraham Kuyper himself. Grace that is bound inexorably to election was one of Kuyper’s great emphases. His book Dat de Genade Particulier Is is well known to us. We know it by the title Particular Grace: A Defense of God’s Sovereignty in Salvation, a translation published by the RFPA. In his book Of Sin and Grace Hoeksema quotes from Kuyper’s book with approval.

We concur with Bolt’s statement that Kuyper’s influence on Hoeksema in this area “was deep and enduring.”

But, as we know, there is this other doctrine of grace that came in time to dominate Kuyper’s perspective, the one that came to be known as common grace. With this, Hoeksema would have no part.

Why not?

Because, as far as Hoeksema was concerned, it stands in flat contradiction to particular grace.

A doctrine of common grace implies that grace is not only particular and found in Christ alone, but also general. As a result, there is a grace, a favor, of God towards all, a grace that has nothing to do with Christ—supposedly. We add the word supposedly because Hoeksema, along with Danhof and Ophoff, shrewd theologians that they were, predicted that such a distinction would never last. Such a distinction throws a tension into one’s theology. And one can be sure that, in time, if that distinction is not expelled from one’s theology and preaching, the “lean and ill-favored cattle” (common grace) will devour the “fat and well-fed cattle” (particular grace). They knew that, because this is a matter of grace, God’s grace, it would not be long before those holding to common grace would tie this in also with Christ and, in time, even with His cross.

And now what would become of particular grace itself? Diluted beyond any meaningful use in the preaching, that’s for sure.

Were they prophets or were they not?

Let history be the judge.

What becomes clear from Bolt’s essay is that Kuyper himself foresaw this very possibility, and so, when referring to this ‘common grace,’ Kuyper purposely refrained from using the Dutch word genade, which explicitly refers to “grace,” and used the word gratie instead, as in gemeene gratie—gratie referring more to a certain kind of favor than to saving grace. Bolt informs us that Kuyper, in his first volume of De Gemeene Gratie, made a point of this distinction. Kuyper realized that once the notion of common grace was introduced, there would be “an immediate effort to change it into a universal saving grace,” and so he informed his readers why he used the one word rather than the other. He insisted that gemeene gratie was an altogether different kind of grace than algemeene genade (cf. Bolt’s essay, p. 301).

In other words, Kuyper, once having introduced his common grace theory into the Reformed church world, attempted with might and main to keep the tainted, polluted waters of common grace from seeping into the wells of the pure waters of particular, saving grace.

As they say, “A fond and blasted hope.”

Hoeksema saw that. And so his broadside against common grace, not only against the infamous three points formulated by the 1924 Synod of Kalamazoo, but against Kuyper’s version (with his attempted distinctions) as well.

This is an important point, to which we will return shortly.

What Bolt is at pains to argue (and he argues it well) is that the 1924 Synod, in its formulation of the theory of common grace, failed to protect adequately Kuyper’s own insistence on the particularity of grace (p. 301).

Bolt puts it this way:

The 1924 Synod of the Christian Reformed Church, though it ostensibly wanted to defend Abraham Kuyper’s doctrine of common grace, failed to guard its formulation from the perils of possible salvific universalism. Kuyper would not have been happy with that: by joining Kuyper’s insistence on the particularity of grace, Herman Hoeksema was right and the Christian Reformed Church was wrong (p. 302).

In his criticism of the “first point” as formulated by the 1924 Synod, what Bolt zeros in on is what Hoeksema and his colleagues later referred to as Het puntje van het eerste punt (“The little, and most telling, point of the first point!”)—the reference to the general offer of the gospel. In its first point synod declared that, in addition to God’s expressing through creation this common grace (a favorable attitude toward mankind in general), God also expressed this grace to all through the general offer of the gospel!

And that certainly went beyond Kuyper. In fact, this is contrary to Kuyper, whose opposition to turning the gospel call into a general offer is well documented.

But more importantly, this perspective on the gospel offer is contrary to the confessions, to the Canons of Dordt in particular.

To his credit, Bolt adopts the conclusion reached by his colleague Dr. R. Blacketer back in 2000. Writing on the 1924 controversy with an eye to the well-meant offer of the gospel, Blacketer concluded that “the substantial error committed by the 1924 synod was its acceptance of the Arminian definition of the sincere call—a doctrine that is clearly rejected by the Canons III/IV.8” (emphasis mine–KK) (Calvin Theological Journal 35, no. 1, 2000).

So Bolt rightly criticizes the common grace doctrine adopted by the 1924 Synod as formulated in its first point. It is clearly in conflict with the truth of God’s grace, which is always particular and directed towards God elect, those who are in Christ Jesus from all eternity.

The Synod of 1924 was wrong to declare otherwise.

However, that said, though we can agree in part with Bolt’s criticism of the first point, we are convinced he does not go far enough in criticizing and opposing the first point of ‘Kalamazoo.’ He misreads Hoeksema if he thinks that all that Hoeksema opposed in the first point was its reference to common grace as an avenue to the well-meant gospel offer.

Hoeksema’s opposition to this common grace concept was not just the CRC’s non-Kuyperian development of it, he was opposed to Kuyper’s view itself. To Hoeksema, it did not matter whether Kuyper used the word gratie (favor) or the word genade (grace). Practically, they came to the same thing and were, as far as Hoeksema was concerned, neither biblical nor confessional. Whether gratie or genade, if it is meant to depict a favorable, loving attitude of God towards the reprobate in their ungodliness, it is a teaching that would destroy the antithesis in this world and our life in it, and it was to be rejected root and branch.

Hoeksema knew what Kuyper was trying to avoid and guard against by his intentional use of gratie rather than genade. Hoeksema simply was not persuaded the distinction had merit. He knew what Kuyper’s purpose was in developing the whole common grace concept, namely, to justify this marriage (union) between ‘Athens’ (the culture of the worldlings) and ‘Jerusalem’ (the church with her kingdom agenda). Hoeksema and his colleagues would have no part of it, and so sounded the alarm, warning their denomination to have no part of it either.

And so Hoeksema’s rejection of Kuyper’s common grace itself, and not just the CRC’s perversion of it.

It is at this point that we find we must part ways with Dr. Bolt’s argument as he supports Hoeksema and criticizes the 1924 Synod. We agree with his major premise, that grace is always particular. After all, biblical grace is rooted in the cross. And we can find some agreement with his argument that the 1924 synod in its first point was at odds with Kuyper in their common grace theory. But we cannot agree with the whole of Bolt’s argument.

Why not?

Because, evidently, Bolt sees as valid the distinction between genade and gratie that Kuyper tried so strenuously to maintain. The one is grace, the other is only a certain kind of favor. So the term “common grace” really should be a “common favor” of God to all. And if the CRC synod had understood that, everyone would have been better served, and Hoeksema and his colleagues would have been satisfied as well.

Of that we are not convinced.

But this evidently is Bolt’s assessment.

In an attempt to correct the CRC’s misrepresentation of Kuyper’s gemeene gratie (common grace), Dr. Bolt offers a reworded first point, which he thinks might be acceptable to Hoeksema and his colleagues.

Having quoted the 1924 Synod’s wording of the first point, which speaks of a “favorable attitude of God toward mankind in general and not only toward the elect,” and also of “a certain favor or grace of God which He shows to all His creatures,” Bolt proposes a first point worded as follows:

Concerning the doctrine of grace, Synod declares that God’s saving grace is always particular, to the elect. The promise of the gospel “that whosoever believes in Christ crucified shall not perish but have eternal life…, together with the command to repent and believe, ought to be declared and published to all nations, and to all persons promiscuously and without distinction, to whom God out of His good pleasure sends the gospel” (Canons of Dordt, II, 5). In addition to this saving grace of God, shown only to those chosen to eternal life, there is also a favor of God shown to all creatures, whereby He providentially upholds all things, preserves life, and governs the world by His fatherly hand (Lord’s Day 10). Whatever “light of nature” remains in man only serves to make him inexcusable (Canons III/IV, 4).

There are things we like about this revision: the Canons’ reference to the call of the gospel as being promiscuous, a summons to all and sundry, replacing what amounted to a free offer of the gospel; the reference to God’s providence upholding all things; and then the Canon’s declaration that the ‘light of nature’ remaining in man only serves to make man inexcusable.

Almost I am persuaded. But not quite. We are not convinced Hoeksema, for all his likely agreement on various points, would have been willing to make the above statement his own.

First of all, there is the statement that “God’s saving grace is always particular.” Just God’s saving grace? Why not this: “God’s grace is always particular”? Would Dr. Bolt agree with that? In essence, that was Hoeksema’s issue with Kuyper. Not simply whether saving grace is always particular—in that, the two were in agreement—but whether there is another kind of grace, namely, a grace that preserves mankind but does not save, a grace shared in common by all!

Here Hoeksema parted ways with ‘Father Abraham.’ We are persuaded he would have questioned why the qualifier “saving” was applied to the particular grace referred to. What does that imply? There is also a second kind of grace, non-saving?

But the main issue we have with Bolt’s proposed first point is the use of that word ‘favor,’ as found in the phrase “there is also a favor of God shown to all creatures.” “All creatures” certainly would include the reprobate segment of mankind along with the elect and the other creatures of this world.

That Bolt is willing to speak of a favor of God that embraces the reprobate segment of mankind in addition to the grace shown to the elect indicates to us that he is in basic agreement with Kuyper’s attempt to distinguish between genade and gratie—a distinction Hoeksema was convinced was not valid, was not biblical, and would not remain distinct for long either in practice or in the preaching.

The word favor has too many ‘Kuyperian’ overtones.

God hates the wicked, as described in the Psalms, and yet looks with favor upon them too? How can that be?

That God is good to the wicked, the Esaus of this life, is biblical. Esau was given good parents, good instruction, good gifts of intellect and health, and a lot of good food. But bestowed in favor? Or in wrath? Read Psalm 73 if you wonder.

We appreciate Dr. Bolt’s effort to justify Hoeksema in his rejection of Kalamazoo’s first point. Bolt makes a valiant attempt to find a solution. But we judge his proposed (re)wording to be a middle ground. And for all its coming closer to the truth of things, it is not yet on the mark, we judge.

Next article, an assessment of Dr. Bolt’s second thesis.