With reference to what the Synod of Utrecht declared concerning God’s attitude and relation to the wicked and reprobate in this world, we conclude, therefore:
- That in the main issue, viz., the alleged grace of God to the reprobate in the preaching of the gospel, conceived as a well-meant offer of salvation to all that hear it, the Synod tacitly differed from the first of the three points adopted in 1124, by the Synod of Kalamazoo. In Utrecht they were well aware that this grace of God in the preaching of the gospel is the very heart of the “First Point”. That they did not adopt it can hardly be regarded as unintentional. We conclude that the Netherland theologians were more Reformed than those of Kalamazoo.
- That the declaration of the Synod of Utrecht concerning God’s attitude to and dealings with the reprobate wicked in this world is too vague and ambiguous to serve as an officially accepted dogma of the Church that is supposed to be binding upon all its officebearers and members. It is difficult to understand why the Synod of Utrecht felt the need of declaring anything at all upon a matter that was so evidently in its undeveloped stage, unless it may be supposed that it felt itself obliged to support and express a measure of agreement with the Christian Reformed Church(es) here, in which case it made a bad job of it.
- That we, as Protestant Reformed Churches, would no more subscribe to this declaration than to the First Point of Kalamazoo of 1924, if it were only because of its ambiguity and lack of clear conceptions.
But let us now turn our attention to the second and third declarations of the Synod of Utrecht on the matter of “common grace”. These deal with the natural man, and are comparable to the second and third points of Kalamazoo, 1924. We quote them (translation ours):
“2. That He also left to man small remnants of his original creation-gifts, and some light of nature, even though this is entirely insufficient unto salvation, and man, even in things natural and civil, does not use this light aright. (Netherland Cong. Art. 14; Canons of Dordt, III, IV, 4);
“That these remnants and benefits must serve, not only to render man without excuse, but also to bridle the course (working through) of sin temporarily, and to cause that possibilities, given in the original creation, may still be developed in the sinful world.”
On the same matter the Synod of Kalamazoo, 1924 expressed itself as follows:
2, “Regarding the second point, touching the restraint of sin in the life of the individual man and of society in general, Synod declares that, according to Scripture and the Confession there is such a restraint of sin. This is evident from the Scripture passages that were quoted, and from the Netherland Confession, Artt. 13, and 36, which teach that God, by a general operation of His Spirit, without renewing the heart, restrains the unbridled manifestation of sin, so that life in human society remains possible; while the citations from Reformed authors of the most flourishing period of Reformed theology prove, moreover, that our fathers from of old maintained this view.
“3. Regarding the third point, touching the performance of so-called civic righteousness by the unregenerate, Synod declares that, according to Scripture and the Confessions, the unregenerate, though incapable of doing any spiritual good (Canons of Dordt, III, IV, 3), are able to perform such civic good. This is evident from the Scripture passages quoted, and from the Canons of Dordt, III, IV, 4, and from the Netherland Confession, Art. 36, which teach that God, without renewing the heart, exercises such an influence upon man that he is enabled to do civic good; while it is, moreover, evident from the citations made from the Reformed writers of the most flourishing period of Reformed theology that our fathers from of old maintained this view.”
Let us, first of all, compare these two sets of declarations.
There is very little similarity between them.
In fact, the only point of similarity must be found in this, that both speak of a restraint or bridling (beteugeling) of sin, although, even on this point, they quite radically differ as to the nature of this restraint, its cause, and its effect.
For the rest, the two declarations differ in every respect. Let us note the following important points of difference:
- The declaration by the Synod of Utrecht proceeds from the remnants and natural light left to man after the fall. These are the subjects of its pronouncement. Of these it says something. The second and third points of Kalamazoo, however, deal with the matter of the restraint of sin. In this they take their point of departure. And concerning this subject they attempt to declare something. This is important, for by choosing as their subject the remnants left to man after the fall, the theologians of Utrecht were in a position to take their standpoint in the Confessions: they do, indeed speak of these remnants; while, by speaking of the restraint of sin, in the sense in which they do, the theologians of Kalamazoo at once left the basis of the Confessions: they do not speak of such a restraint at all.
- The declarations of Utrecht ascribe the “bridling” or restraint of the “working through” of sin to the remnants and natural lights of fallen man; the declarations of Kalamazoo boldly ascribe this restraint of sin to an operation of the Holy Spirit, and to an influence of God, and with equal boldness simply declare that such an operation of the Spirit of God is taught in the Confessions. This, too, is important, because: (1) the Synod of Kalamazoo thus declared that there are positive operations for good in the natural man, apart from regeneration; and (2) thereby denied the complete depravity of the sinner as he actually exists in this world. The Synod of Utrecht wisely refrained from speaking so boldly.
- The declarations of Kalamazoo speak of the good that sinners do, through an influence of God upon them; but the declarations of Utrecht do not speak of this good at all. They are content to speak of the bridling or restraint of sin, caused by the remnants and the natural light that are left to fallen man.
- The declarations of Utrecht are honest enough to remind us that the Canons teach that the natural man does not use his remnants and natural light aright, even in things natural and civil, although they should have proceeded a step farther, and also have stated that the sinner wholly pollutes this natural light, and holds it in unrighteousness, for the same article of the Canons states this also. The Synod of Kalamazoo, however, not knowing what to do with these statements of the Canons, and surely not being able to use them in support for their alleged good that sinners do by an operation of the Spirit upon them, omitted them entirely, and quoted only the first part of Canons III, IV, 4. This can hardly be ascribed to an oversight on their part, of course, but rather reveals that they were quite conscious of the fact that this last part of article 4 of Canons III, IV quite condemned their doctrine about the good that sinners do.
- The declarations of Utrecht refrain from trying to find support in the Confessions, when they interpret the remnants and natural light, left to the natural man, as serving the purpose of restraining sin; but the declarations of Kalamazoo boldly refer to the Confessions, without any ground or sense, for their doctrine that sin is restrained by an operation of the Holy Spirit.
- The declarations of Utrecht have a remote reference to the Kuyperian theory that, through the power of common grace, God carries out His original creation ordinance, when they declare that the remnants left to man after the fall, “cause that possibilities, given’ in the original creation, may still be developed in the sinful world.” The declarations of Kalamazoo have nothing at all that pertains to this view of Kuyper.
On the whole, therefore, we may say that the declarations of Utrecht are much more sober than those of Kalamazoo; and the latter are much worse than the former.
Certain it is, that although the theologians of the Netherlands were well acquainted with the doctrine that had been adopted in 1924, by the Synod of Kalamazoo, and with the controversy about this doctrine, they did not at all support their sister church, though, probably, this was their original purpose.
Nor can it be said, that the two sets of declarations supplement each other, or that those of Kalamazoo are, at least, implied in those of Utrecht. If the restraint of sin is to be ascribed to the remnants of natural light, left to man after the fall, it cannot be ascribed to a special operation of the Holy Spirit. The theory of A. Kuyper Sr., which the Synod of Kalamazoo attempted to establish as an official dogma of the Church, is that sin is to be compared to a dose of parish green, which our first parents swallowed, and that common grace is the antidote, that caused them to vomit out this poison, or, at least, part of it. Hence, man is not so depraved as he might have been without this antidote. Somehow there is in him a remnant of original goodness. But this is quite different from the view that the natural man has some remnants of his original creation-gifts, and of natural light.
We can only conclude that the Synod of Utrecht could not see eye to eye with that of Kalamazoo.
But how to judge of the declarations of Utrecht considered by themselves?
As to point 2, one can very well subscribe to it, as far as it goes. For it declares nothing more than what is literally in the Confessions.
And although it may be considered a virtue that a Synod adheres literally to the Confessions of the Church, rather than, in a roundabout way formulating points that have nothing to do with the Confessions, to introduce false doctrine into the Church, as did the Synod of Kalamazoo; yet, one wonders why the Synod of Utrecht considered it necessary to “make such a declaration, as contained in its second point under Common Grace, at all. It certainly expresses nothing new, nor does it bring an old truth to further development, or shed light upon an established truth.
In fact, the original form of this truth, as it is expressed in Canons III, IV, 4, is to be preferred above that adopted by the Synod of Utrecht. Instead of saying : “all this is entirely insufficient unto salvation, and man, even in things natural and civil, does not use this light aright/’ the Canons declare: “But so far is this light of nature from being sufficient to bring him to a saving knowledge of God, and to true conversion, that he is incapable of using it aright even in things natural and civil.”
This is much stronger.
There is a marked difference between saying that a man does not use the natural light aright, and saying that he is incapable of doing so.