The timid voice of supposed conservatism in the Christian Reformed Church, Torch and Trumpet, rather regularly carries a department called “Believe It or Not.” And sometimes “Believe It or Not—by Edwin Palmer” is indeed harder to believe than “Believe It or Not—by Ripley.” An example is the contribution of this department in the February, 1969 issue of said magazine, entitled “The Bible Is Nonsense.”
Now even if I make every conceivable concession to literary license and to the author’s attempt to find an eye-catching title which would be in harmony with the believe-it-or-not character of his rubric, I cannot come to any other conclusion than that a statement of this kind is nothing less than blasphemy. The author would have done far better to keep the statement and, in fact, the entire article in his pen. An article of this kind does the cause of the Reformed faith no good, but brings reproach upon it. As sensational as the title may be and as clever as some of the statements in the article may seem to be to the undiscerning, the article does the already woefully weak forces of conservatism in the Christian Reformed Church no good. For what, I pray you, is the basic difference between saying that the Word of God is nonsense and the Bible-denying position of liberals like Kuitert et al? What is there to prevent the latter from employing a reductio ad absurdum against those who claim to hold to the truths of the infallibility and authority of Scripture, and to say, “Behold, now, these conservatives would have us believe inspired, authoritative, infallible nonsense?” Nor does this kind of writing really strengthen the rather lonely conservative man-in-the-pew in the Christian Reformed Church who is looking for trustworthy, dependable, fearless leadership. On the contrary, it leaves him thoroughly befuddled. And the basic reason is that he is asked to do what is utterly impossible for any rational being, namely, to believe that which is nonsense.
Before I explain, and lest anyone think I am being too hard on Dr. Palmer, let me hasten to state that I am not at all implying that Palmer intended to blaspheme, nor that he intended to deny the doctrine of Scripture. Let me further emphasize that I have great sympathy for the conservative man-in-the-pew in the Christian Reformed Church, who has been largely abandoned by his own leadership, sold down the river, and who in some cases is beginning to wake up to the fact that there is very, very little consistent, unequivocal, fearless, conservative leadership left in that denomination. I say: I have great sympathy for such people, because they are as sheep without a shepherd. And for that very reason I am extremely critical of the theology and the theological implications of Dr. Palmer’s article.
And now let me explain.
The article begins with the blunt statement: “The Bible contains pure, unadulterated nonsense.” A more blunt statement could hardly be imagined. The statement is not only untempered by any softening qualification such as “apparently,” but it appears to be intentionally emphatic: “. . . pure, unadulterated nonsense.” I make bold to say that at the moment anyone proves to me,—from the Bible itself, of course,—that this is true, at that moment I will abandon the Bible, my office, and the Christian faith. Nonsense I cannot believe; nor does God expect me to believe it.
As might be expected, Dr. Palmer gives three supposed examples in support of this statement which are rather familiar.
The first example is that of election and human responsibility. With Palmer’s statement of unconditional election I can very well agree. He proves it with some familiar Scripture passages which are well-known to any Reformed man. But then he continues as follows:
On the other hand—and here is the nonsense—the Bible continually holds all men responsible for what they do. Its teaching about predestination never once allows man to blame God—even in the slightest—when man refuses to believe. Never does it permit the suggestion that God is at fault for having ordained things in a certain way. On the contrary, the Bible continually exhorts man to repent, believe, grow in the grace and knowledge of Christ, pray, not faint, acquit himself like a man, and be strong. And if he doesn’t, it is 100% his fault and not God’s.
How in all the world can anyone reconcile these two contradictory statements? On the one hand, God elects and reprobates; and, on the other, man is responsible. Logic demands that it be one or the other: either God elects and man is a puppet, or man elects and God sits idly by hoping man will elect him. But it is foolishness to say that God elects unconditionally and that man is still responsible. It is utter folly to speak of the responsibility of a fore-ordained thief.
The Arminian sees the irrationality and tries to correct the contradiction by eliminating one of the contradictory statements: God’s unconditional election. On the other hand, the hyper-Calvinist sees the irrationality of holding to both statements. Contrary to the Arminian, he solves the problem by eliminating the other side of the coin, human responsibility.
Yet the Bible teaches both sides—divine sovereignty and human responsibility—and therefore the Bible talks nonsense.
In general, I can agree also with Palmer’s statement of human responsibility, although it is not very adequate and clear as a theological statement. With all the rest of what he says, however, I am in violent disagreement. His characterization of Arminianism is absolutely false. His characterization of so-called hyper-Calvinism (what is that, more Calvinistic than Calvin, perhaps?) is totally imaginary. I would guess, incidentally, that he has in mind people like the Protestant Reformed (because we have frequently had this label pinned on us, though I would assure Palmer, if he does not know it, that we have never denied human responsibility) and perhaps also a man like Gordon Clark (shades of the Clark Case in which the men of Westminster Seminary were Clark’s chief antagonists; and is not Westminster Dr. Palmer’s alma mater?); and .who knows what others? Hyper-Calvinists, you know, are somewhat mythical ogres.
But my basic criticism is that Dr. Palmer’s alleged contradiction in this first example is not a contradiction whatsoever. Palmer’s logic is faulty. And it is this faulty logic which leads him to say that these two truths are contradictory, that they cannot be reconciled, that it is “foolishness” and “utter folly” and “irrational” to maintain both. Mark you well, this is brash language! Dr. Palmer is talking about what God and His Word say! And to the latter he applies this radical description!
Let us put this to the test.
What is a contradiction? A contradiction consists of two propositions which mutually exclude one another, so that the one denies the truth of the other. Briefly stated, the principles of logic with respect to contradictions are as follows:
1) That a thing cannot at the same time be and not be.
2) That a thing must either be or not be.
3) That the same property cannot be affirmed and denied at the same time of the same subject. In other words, the following formulae apply: A is A. A is not Non-A. Everything is either A or Non-A.
In order to apply the above rules to Dr. Palmer’s example, let us put the two truths which he claims are contradictory in the form of propositions, as follows:
1) God is the God Who sovereignly and unconditionally elects and reprobates moral, rational creatures.
2) Man, a moral, rational creature, is a creature who is responsible before God for all his moral actions.
I would even be willing to go Dr. Palmer one better, and state what is undoubtedly implied in Proposition 1: God is the God Who sovereignly determines the moral acts of man, both good and evil. This is a thoroughly Scriptural proposition, as are the two above.
Now I challenge Dr. Palmer to demonstrate that there is any logical contradiction between the above two statements. Remember, the question is not whether there is any problem here. It may very well be that we cannot fully answer the question how God is able sovereignly to elect and reprobate men and to determine men’s moral deeds without destroying man’s responsibility. This I gladly concede. But whether or not we can understand the sovereign operation of God is not the question. The question is whether the two propositions are contradictory.
And by no rule of logic can they be declared contradictory! The basic reason is that these two propositions assert something about two entirely different subjects. Proposition 1 asserts something about God. Proposition 2 asserts something about man.
The two statements would indeed be contradictory if the first denied what the second affirms. But this is not the case. The first affirms something about God: He sovereignly and unconditionally elects and reprobates men. The second affirms something about man: he is responsible for his moral actions. The first does not deny that man is responsible. It has always been the claim of the enemies of God’s sovereignty that to assert that God is sovereign even over the moral creature is the same as saying that man is not responsible. But no Reformed man will ever say this. Nor is this either expressed or implied in the first proposition. Hence, in the two propositions man’s responsibility is not confirmed and denied at the same time. There is no contradiction.
The two propositions would also be contradictory if the second proposition denied the first. Then the sovereignty of God with respect to the moral creature would both be affirmed and denied. But also this is neither expressed nor implied, unless it can be shown that to say that man is responsible is to declare that God is not sovereign over the moral creature. But this cannot be shown. Hence, in the two propositions God’s sovereignty over the moral creature is not denied and confirmed at the same time. Again, there is no contradiction.
There is no “believe-it-or-not” involved here. If the two statements were really contradictory, they could not both be true. We would have to believe either one or the other. But since they involve no contradiction, and since both are clearly revealed in Scripture, we believe both. And we do so without involving ourselves in any nonsense.
But let me be positive as well as negative. And then, without at all claiming to solve every problem involved, let me suggest that the fundamental solution to the difficulty connected with these two truths lies along the line of defining the freedom and responsibility of the moral, rational creature as falling within the compass of God’s all-comprehensive and sovereign decrees. It is not difficult to find Scriptural proofs and examples of this, both of elect and reprobate, righteous and wicked. I will leave that to Dr. Palmer. But let me point out that unless we go in this direction, we not only lose the truth of God’s sovereignty, but we also lose the truth of man’s responsibility. For the very idea of responsibility implies a sovereign to whom one is responsible.
The second example of Dr. Palmer is as follows:
Or, to take another example, the Bible tells us such apparently contradictory facts as: 1. God is all powerful and all loving; and, yet, 2. God ordains napalm war, volcanic death, and the cancerous suffering of a young mother of five. Foolish! says the logical person, such as theologians Nels Ferre and James Pike. An all-loving and all-powerful God would not allow such heartaches.
It is quickly disposed of. Even if we overlook, for the sake of argument, the totally un-Biblical statement that God is “all loving,” it is evident that Dr. Palmer commits the same logical error as in the first example, that is, he finds contradiction where there is, according to every rule of logic, no contradiction whatsoever. And behind this error lies another, that of begging the question: Dr. Palmer assumes what he ought to prove (but what he cannot prove) that God’s ordaining of war, death, and suffering constitute a denial of God’s omnipotent love.
But I must confess that I stand rather amazed, that Dr. Palmer would even present this as an example. Much less than a contradiction, there is hardly even a problem here. At least, if this is a problem, the answer to it is written many times in Scripture. That answer, as far as God’s people are concerned, is this: God ordains all things for His people in His sovereign love and with a view to their eternal salvation; and He also causes all things to work together for their good. What Reformed Christian is not thoroughly acquainted with that answer? And the answer, as far as the reprobate ungodly are concerned is this: God ordains all things for the reprobate in His sovereign hatred and with a view to their eternal damnation; and He also sends them all things in His wrath, setting them in slippery places and casting them down to destruction.
Moreover, it is a very serious mistake to ascribe the wicked conclusions of theologians like Nels Fen-e and James Pike to their logic. If they truly have logic on their side, then we should all say “Amen” to their conclusion. Nay, then God Himself says “Amen” to it. For our God is not a God of confusion and of nonsense, but a God of order. No, let us call it by its right name: unbelief! The problem of men like this is not an intellectual one, not one of logic and reason. Then there would be some excuse for them. But their problem is spiritual. And the antithesis is never one of faith and reason, but of faith and unbelief,
But how,—here is the practical side of it—how can you help those who love the Reformed faith and want to maintain it over against today’s tidal waves of error and apostasy, when in effect you say to them: “Pike and Ferre and all other deniers of Biblical truth make sense, but don’t follow them. Follow the Bible’s nonsense.”
The third example furnished by Dr. Palmer is as follows:
Finally, to mention but one more example of Biblical nonsense, the mystery of limited atonement. The Bible says—and the Reformation taught—that the Father sent Christ to die for his people and not for all the world and that Christ went to hell to make a substitutionary sacrifice for them alone.
Yet—and here is the contradiction—the Bible tells us that God sincerely loves all, even those who are hell-bound, and desires the salvation of all, reprobate as well as elect.
Everyone will recognize at once that here there is an obvious contradiction. Palmer makes no logical error when he speaks of a contradiction here. But he might have stated the contradiction more succinctly. From the viewpoint of God’s love, he might have stated it as follows:
1) God is a God Who loves all men.
2) God is not a God Who loves all men (for the reprobate are by definition those whom He sovereignly hates). The logical fallacy is: A is non-A.
Or he might have stated it from the point of view of God’s will:
1) God is a God Who desires the salvation of the reprobate.
2) God is a God Who does not desire the salvation of the reprobate, but their damnation. Again the logical fallacy is: A is non-A.
Here is a genuine contradiction. There is not a rational being in the world who can deny it.
And contradictions are nonsense!
What, then, is Palmer’s mistake? The contradiction is not a Biblical one. For nowhere in all of Scripture can one find the proposition that God loves the reprobate or that He desires the salvation of the reprobate.
Indeed, Dr. Palmer furnishes three examples of nonsense. The nonsense in examples one and two is the nonsense of his own fallacious logic. But the nonsense of the third example is the nonsense of a genuine contradiction.
But none of this nonsense is Biblical. In fact, it is distinctly contrary to Scripture: in the first two instances as far as method is concerned, and in the third instance as far as content is concerned.
The Bible always makes sense!
Let me conclude by pointing to the implications of all this.
After once more calling these examples “unadulterated Biblical nonsense,” Dr. Palmer tries to escape the plain implications by an appeal to the truth that God’s ways are higher than our ways and that the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and thus by claiming that God “can reconcile what seems to man to be contradictory statements.”
This is not only a perversion of Scripture; and it is not only very weak and unconvincing; but it is also essentially a denial of the truth of revelation. Palmer’s position implies that a proposition does not have the same meaning for God as it has for man. For man it is a contradiction; but not for God. If this is true, this simply means that we can never know the truth about anything. For it is certain that the meaning which any proposition has for God is the true meaning; and if then it has another meaning for us, we simply have not the truth. And this is a fundamental denial of the truth of revelation (and, of course, of the doctrine of Holy Scripture’s infallibility, authority, and clarity). For if what God revealed to us of Himself and His work has a different meaning for Him than for us, God is essentially unknowable. His revelation is not true and reliable. And this destroys the very foundations of theology.
We must rather proceed from the truth that God is One, that He cannot deny (contradict) Himself, and that His revelation (which is always His Self-revelation) is also one, and does not contradict itself. Following this fundamental truth, we must in our exegesis always apply the rule of the regula Scripturae, which means that throughout the Bible there runs a clearly discernible and consistent line of thought, in the light of which more difficult passages must be explained. And applying this principle, we will interpret those passages of Scripture which at first sight seem to be in favor of the Arminian view in the light of the current teaching of God’s Word that salvation is of the Lord, that grace is sovereign, that the atonement is particular, that the natural man is not free to do good, etc. And while, then, we may not be able to solve every problem, we will not discover contradictions in the Word of Him Who cannot lie.
If we do not hold fast to these sound principles, we will always find ourselves powerless to oppose false doctrine in the church.
A clear example of this is the “Dekker Case.” Why were the so-called conservatives completely impotent over against the position of Dekker? There is one fundamental reason: they were ham-strung by their own doctrine of contradictions as concretely set forth in Dr. Palmer’s third example and in the First Point of 1924. The conservatives felt this. That is why, while they attacked Dekker, they all had to be very careful to pay homage to the First Point and the well-meant offer. That is why Prof. Dekker’s doctrine could not be condemned as false. That is why Synod had to settle for “ambiguous and abstract.”
And that is also the deepest reason why, when I recently mentioned “conservatives” among the Christian Reformed clergy, a good Christian Reformed brother said to me: “The conservatives? Who are they?”
That is a good problem to ponder!