In the March issue of the Reformed Journal, Dr. Harry R. Boer writes about “The Doctrine Of Reprobation And The Preaching Of The Gospel.” He is chiefly concerned about the doctrine of reprobation and the preaching of the gospel from the missionary point of view; more specifically, as he adds, “from that of a missionary charged with the training of pastors for the emergent Church in Nigeria.”
He begins his article by stressing that “one of the marks, qualities or properties which Reformed theology ascribes to the Scriptures is that they areperspicuous. The simple and uneducated believer can accept the messages of Scripture by a response of faith. And he states that there is no place where it is so necessary that the message of the gospel be perspicuous as on the mission field. This need for perspicuity is even more true in his personal work as teacher of theology in Nigeria, since the majority of students in the Theological College of Northern Nigeria do not come out of a Reformed mission background and are therefore not bound to Reformed creedal commitments.
Now his objection is “that the subject proper of reprobation in Reformed theology is not perspicuous but ambiguous, and as such invites being neither taught nor preached.” What he means to say is that the subject of reprobation as taught in the Reformed Churches is contrary to Scripture, for Scripture is perspicuous, while the doctrine of reprobation is not; the whole counsel of God as revealed in Scripture is simple, easily grasped; but reprobation is difficult, ambiguous. This doctrine is a mere tradition carried by the church from generation to generation, but it should not be forced on those who are not conditioned to this creedal deposit of the Church.
To show that the doctrine of reprobation is shrouded with ambiguity, Boer refers us to the Canons. He points out, on the one hand, that “The Canons state, emphasize and re-emphasize to the point of being repetitious, that unbelief is the fault of man alone and in no sense of God. He quotes Canons I:15, 11:6, III-IV:9, 15. He adds that this is clear and unequivocal language, that the cause or guilt of unbelief as well as of all other sins is in no wise in God, but in man himself. But he meets in those same Canons, on the other hand, the doctrine of reprobation. If these statements of man’s responsibility stood alone and were not qualified by other declarations, he would have no problem. “But they do not stand alone. The guilt of man in his historical existence has, according to the Canons, the background of an eternal and unchangeable decree of God.” This is expressed in our Canons, as Boer admits, just as emphatically as the guilt of man for his unbelief and all his other sins. And Boer quotes Canons 1:6, 15 to prove it. There you have the ambiguity. Or does Boer mean “contradiction?”
Obviously our fathers deliberately placed both of these seemingly ambiguous, or contradictory statements of doctrine in our Canons in refuting the errors of the Arminians. This was not a slip of the tongue, nor an oversight, but was done deliberately. Although the fathers knew that they were speaking of the deep things of God, which far surpass our meager understanding, they did not hesitate to declare this to be the truth of Scripture. They saw no ambiguity nor contradiction here. But they maintained that God’s sovereignty and man’s responsibility are both taught in Scripture. They even declared that (1:6),
“Herein is especially displayed the profound, the merciful and at the same time the righteous discrimination between men, equally involved in ruin; or that decree of election and reprobation, revealed in the word of God, which though men of perverse, impure and unstable minds wrest to their own destruction, yet to the holy and pious souls affords unspeakable consolation. Instead of contradiction or ambiguity, they, saw perfect harmony between God’s sovereign decree and man’s guilt of sin. For they declare in 1:15,
“What peculiarly tends to illustrate and recommend to us the eternal and unmerited grace of election, is the express testimony of sacred Scripture, that not all, but some only are elected, while others are passed by in the eternal decree; whom God out of his sovereign, most just, irreprehensible and unchangeable good pleasure, hath decreed to leave in the common misery into which they have willfully plunged themselves, . . . . to condemn and perish them forever not only an account of their unbelief, but also for all their other sins.”
But Dr. Boer sees still more ambiguities in our Canons in connection with the doctrine of election. For him the ambiguity deepens as he goes along. He asks himself “how a reprobating God can also be an unfeignedly calling God with respect to the very men who are objects of His reprobating decree.” This question arises in connection with Canons III-IV:8 that speaks of the unfeigned call of the gospel. In fact, Boer finally sums it all up by saying, “The following ambiguities, then, seem to inhere in the context in which the decree of reprobation stands in the Canons of Dordt:
“1. That man alone is responsible for his unbelief. That lack of faith arises from the decree of reprobation.
“2. That God is in no wise responsible for the unbelief of man. That the decree withholds the gift of faith and the grace of conversion.
“3. That God unfeignedly calls all men to faith. That in the reprobate the response of faith is impossible.
“4. That election and the promise of the gospel must be preached. That reprobation in its very nature appears not to be capable of being preached.”
In each case, Boer agrees with the first statement. And he does not want the doctrine of reprobation, because to him it is ambiguous, contrary to the simple, perspicuous truth of the Scriptures.
One wonders whether the professor also finds the same ambiguity in the doctrine of God’s providence as taught in Scripture and in our Confessions. He must also teach to prospective ministers “the almighty and everywhere present power of God, whereby, as it were by his hand, he upholds and governs the heaven, earth, and all creatures.” Heid. Cat., Lord’s Day 10. Since wicked men and even devils are included in this providence of God, so that they serve toward the coming of Christ’s kingdom in spite of themselves, Dr. Boer must be confronted with the problem of their responsibility in all that they do. Again he must accept the sovereignty of God and the responsibility of man, or he denies the one for the sake of maintaining the other.
But at present there is an equally serious question that bothers me. Dr. Boer is attacking the confessions. Since he finds that the Canons are ambiguous on the doctrine of reprobation, while the Scriptures are simple, concise and clear, there must be a conflict in Boer’s mind between the, Scriptures and the Confessions. In fact, he must be teaching prospective ministers with that ambiguity before his mind. And he does not hesitate to write openly about it in the Reformed Journal.
This amazes me, because this is contrary to the very Church Order under which Dr. Boer labors as professor in Nigeria. Article 53 (at least of the older editions), states, “The ministers of the Word of God and likewise the professors of theology (which also behooves the other professors and school teachers) shall subscribe to the three formulas of unity, namely, the Belgic Confession of Faith, the Heidelberg Catechism, and the Canons of Dordrecht, 1618-’19, and the ministers of the Word who refuse to do so shall de facto be suspended from their office by the consistory or classis until they shall have given a full statement, and if they obstinately persist in refusing, they shall be deposed from their office.”
The Christian Reformed Church has been occupied with revising the Church Order, and therefore I do not know whether they have changed this article, but I surmise that it still stands. And that expresses strong language. Dr. Boer as professor of theology may not ignore that article of the Church Order, nor may his churches. To do so can only result in chaos.
This is especially true, because Dr. Boer, no doubt, signed the Formula of Subscription when he was ordained to his office. Thereby he declared:
“We . . . do hereby sincerely and in good conscience before the Lord, declare by this, our subscription, that we heartily believe and are persuaded that all the articles and points of doctrine, contained in the Confession and Catechism of the Reformed Churches, together with the explanation of some points of the aforesaid doctrine, made by the National Synod of Dordrecht, 1618-’19, do fully agree with the Word of God.”
How can the professor now say that the Canons, at least on one point of doctrine, the doctrine of reprobation, is ambiguous, and therefore not the teaching of the Scriptures? And how can he carry out the promise that appears in the next paragraph of the Formula of Subscription?
“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.”
Dr. Boer does not teach the doctrine of reprobation as taught in our Canons, one can be sure of that. In fact, he would not defend the proposition that we must be able to say to every individual “God loves you,” if he did live up to that promise. For according to his own article there is a conflict between the unfeigned call to repentance and the doctrine of reprobation, as he sees it.
Now it is conceivable that Dr. Boer signed the Formula of Subscription in good faith, and that he came to this new view on the Canons in a more recent study of Scripture. But even so the Formula of Subscription allows for that possibility. And Boer should adhere to what he further declared in signing that Formula. We read:
“We declare; moreover, that we not only reject all errors that militate against this doctrine and particularly those which were condemned by the above mentioned 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 of 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.”
God is a God of law and order, and before God also ministers and professors must be faithful to the vows they make. Especially one who prepares others for the ministry should set a good example by following the proper church political procedure in case he differs with the Confessions or with the official stand of the church.
The fathers did not have the problem that confronts Boer and others. Nor did the apostle Paul. Nor did any of the other apostles. Nor did Jesus. Nor did the prophets. And that simply because they did not consider the sum and substance of all gospel preaching to be contained in the declaration of mere man, “God loves you, and Christ died for you.”