In the April issue of the Reformed Journal, Dr. Harry R. Boer continues his discussion on Predestination and Mission Preaching under the heading, “Reprobation in Modern Reformed Theologians.” Boer does not believe in predestination in the Reformed sense of the word, but regards especially the doctrine of reprobation as pure rationalism, based on inferences which are contrary to the teaching of Scripture that unbelief is the sole fault of man. He finds it impossible to defend and teach this doctrine in his theological college and on the mission field, even though it is the official doctrine of his church. He writes:
How can I justify to students entrusted to my teaching care by the younger Churches the theological method followed by modern Reformed theologians in supporting the doctrine of reprobation? I teach as a basic ingredient in the education of my students that the sole source of our knowledge of God and of his salvation is God’s revelation as vouchsafed to us in His Word. When the critic seeks to blunt the sovereignty of the grace of God by calling into question the responsibility of man, I confront him with: What is your Scripture for this derogation of human responsibility? I stand here foursquare with Calvin’s position that when Scripture is silent the theologian must be silent. But how can one silence the detractor of the role of man in responding to the grace of God when I myself justify a thorough-going rationalistic validation of a teaching which some of our keenest theologians admit has only the most tenuous basis in Scripture, and which the most eminent theologians in our recent tradition validate in the first and most important instance by categories of intellectual or historical logic?
Obviously what the Principal of the Theological College of Northern Nigeria is telling us is that he cannot teach the doctrine of reprobation because it is not found in Scripture. He states that he stands foursquare with Calvin’s position that when Scripture is silent the theologian must be silent. And he wishes to apply this to the doctrine of reprobation.
Yet Boer fully realizes that he is, nevertheless, in conflict with Calvin, because Calvin, as Boer admits, did not maintain that Scripture was silent on the doctrine of reprobation. Calvin maintained this doctrine and even vehemently defended it against those who denied and opposed it. Boer writes, “Calvin called the decree of reprobation a decretum horribile (a horrible decree) but he taught it because he believed it to be squarely based on Scripture.”
One wonders why the professor had to mention the fact that Calvin spoke of a decretum horribile. The reader is liable to draw the conclusion that Calvin was really not so fond of teaching a decree of reprobation after all. And yet that is contrary to fact. For he also spoke of this same decree as a wonderful decree, and he staunchly defended it, condemning in no uncertain terms those who rejected it. If the expression is read in its context it does not sound derogatory, as it does when it is mentioned just in passing, as Boer does. Let me quote the passage in which the expression appears:
But whether they (those who oppose predestination, C.H.) will allow it or not, predestination is manifest in Adam’s posterity. It is not owing to nature that they all lost salvation by the fault of one parent. Why should they refuse to admit with regard to one man that which against their will they admit with regard to the whole human race? Why should they in caviling lose their labour? Scripture proclaims that all were, in the person of one, made liable to eternaldeath. As this cannot be ascribed to nature, it is plain that it is owing to the wonderful counsel of God. It is very absurd in these worthy defenders of the justice of God to strain at a gnat and swallow a camel. I again ask how is it that the fall of Adam involves so many nations with their infant children in eternal death without remedy, unless that it so seemed meet to God? Here the most loquacious tongues must be dumb. The decree, I admit, is dreadful (decretum horribile); and yet it is impossible to deny that God foreknew what the end of man was to be before he made him, and foreknew, because he had so ordained by his decree. Should any one here inveigh against the prescience of God, he does it rashly and unadvisedly. Institutes, vol. 2, pg. 568.
Over against those who argue that God would not be just in including all men in the condemnation of Adam, Calvin writes (idem, page 564):
I admit that by the will of God all the sons of Adam fell into that state of wretchedness in which they are now involved; and this is just what I said at the first, that we must always return to the mere pleasure of the divine will, the cause of which is hidden in himself. But it does not forthwith follow that God lies open to this charge (of being unjust. C.H.) For we will answer with Paul in these words, “Nay but, O man, who art thou that repliest against God? Shall the thing formed say to him that formed it, Why hast thou made me thus? Hath not the potter power over the clay, of the same lump to make one vessel to honour, and another unto dishonor?”
And in answer to those who would maintain that this decree of reprobation criminates God and excuses the sinner, or, as Boer would say, contradicts the fact that unbelief is the sole fault of man, Calvin declares ( Inst. vol. 2, page 567),
All must admit what Solomon says, “The Lord hath made all things for himself; yea, even the wicked for the day of evil,”
Now, since the arrangement of all things is in the hand of God, since to him belongs the disposal of life and death, he arranges all things by his sovereign counsel, in such a way that individuals are born, who are doomed from the womb to certain death, and are to glorify him by their destruction.
Neither does Calvin see the conflict that Boer sees between a sovereign decree of reprobation and the call to faith and repentance. He writes on page 575,
We have already seen how plainly and audibly Paul preaches the doctrine of free election: is he, therefore, cold in admonishing and exhorting? Let those good zealots compare his vehemence with theirs, and they will find that they are ice, while he is all fervor. And surely every doubt on this subject should be removed by the principles which he lays down, that God hath not called us to uncleanness; that every one should possess his vessel in honour; that we are the workmanship of God, “created in Christ Jesus unto good works, which God hath before ordained that we should walk in them,”
In one word, those who have any tolerable acquaintance with the writings of Paul will understand, without a long demonstration, how well he reconciles the two things which those men pretend to be contradictory to each other. Christ commands us to believe in him, and yet there is nothing false or contrary to this command in the statement which he afterwards makes: “No man can come unto me except it were given him of my Father,”
Let preaching then have its free course, that it may lead men to faith, and dispose them to persevere with uninterrupted progress. Nor, at the same time, let there be any obstacle to the knowledge of predestination, so that those who obey may not plume themselves on anything of their own, but glory only in the Lord. It is not without cause our Saviour says, “Who hath ears to hear, let him hear,”
Therefore while we exhort and preach, those who have ears willingly obey: in those, again, who have no ears is fulfilled what is written: “Hear ye indeed, but understand not,”
Let Boer confront himself with the same question he places to his students: “what is your Scripture for this derogation of” divine reprobation as taught in Scripture and defended by Calvin? And if Dr. Boer desires more Scriptural references to the decree of reprobation than Calvin offers, we can furnish him with many more.
But in order to show that he is not so far wrong in opposing Calvin and our Canons, the professor tells us that there is a “vast difference between early Reformed theology in its teachings of reprobation, such as found in Calvin and the Canons of Dart, and that found in a number of prominent Reformed theologians of the past eighty years.” He says that “we hear altogether different language in modern Reformed theologians of unquestioned eminence.” And then he refers to Herman Bavinck, Dr. A. Kuyper, Prof. L. Berkhof, Charles Hodge, Loraine Boettner, and the Dutch theologian K. Dijk. He realizes that they all maintain and defend the decree of reprobation. But his main objection to all of them is that they make inferences and draw conclusions. They believe and defend the decree of reprobation, but they admit that there is little mention in Scripture of reprobation as an eternal decree, they offer no Scriptural proof for their contention, and they maintain the doctrine simply on the basis of inference and conclusions. Now he does not object to inferences and conclusions, without which theology cannot operate. But he does object when there is little or no basis for these inferences in Scripture. As he states,
The use of inference comes to stand in quite a different light, however, when over and above the whole and persistent teaching of Scripture and the confession of the Canons, that unbelief is the sole fault of man, an eternal decree is posited, for which no substantial scriptural evidence is adduced, which makes unbelief flow forth from the decree, and which makes God responsible for withholding from men the gift of faith and the grace of conversion.
Boer’s problem actually lies deeper than that. His question is, how can you harmonize the preaching to all men promiscuously of “God loves you and Christ died for you,” with a sovereign decree of reprobation? And those two can never be harmonized, because the former is contrary to the Scriptures, while the latter is the teaching of the Scriptures.
But to show that there is not such a vast difference between Calvin and the modern theologians I will make just one quotation from one prominent theologian, of whom Boer says that he is a “profound, devout man, whose theology somehow does not seem to age,” Dr. Herman Bavinck, taken from his Dogmatiek, vol. 2, page 371.
The difference between Augustine and Pelagius, Calvin and Castellio, Gomarus and Arminius is not that the latter were so much more tender and kind, more sympathetic and understanding, But the difference is this, that the former accepted Scripture and its doctrine in its entirety; that they were and always wanted to be theistic in their doctrine; that they acknowledged the will and hand of God in these perturbing facts of life; that they dared to look at reality in all its dreadfulness . . . . Calvinism . . . tears the blindfold from the eyes, will not live in a dream world, accepts the seriousness of life in all its fulness, maintains the rights of the Lord of lords, and bows in humility and worship before the incomprehensible, sovereign will of God Almighty. And thus proves to be much more sympathetic than Pelagianism. How deeply Calvin felt this seriousness is evident from the fact that he spoke of a decretum horribile. Entirely unjustly has this word been turned against him. It does not testify against Calvin, but is to his credit. The decree as, taught by Calvin is not horrible, but the reality is terrible, which is the revelation of that decree of God, which is thus taught by Scripture and history, which for every one who thinks into it, whether he follows Pelagius or Augustine, remains the same, and which can never be nullified by any misrepresentation . . . . Calvinism causes us to rest in Him who occupies the inaccessible light, whose judgments are unsearchable, and whose ways are past finding out.