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It has been several months since “Reformed Dogmatics” came from the press, and various book reviews are beginning to make their appearance in magazines to which review copies were sent. Because the readers of the Standard Bearer, we feel, have a special interest in this publication, we thought it would be interesting and perhaps enlightening to publish these reviews in our magazine. Two reviews, one from Christianity Today and one from theReformed Journal, appear below. These reviews will appear without comment and purely for the information of our readers. Not only is it usual policy not to editorialize about book reviews, but we also feel that “Reformed Dogmatics” speaks for itself. 

The following review appeared in Christianity Today (June 23, 1967):

Depravity That Is Total* 

Reformed Dogmatics, by Herman Hoeksema (Reformed Free Publishing Association, 1966, 917 pp., $14.95), is reviewed by M. Eugene Osterhaven, professor of systematic theology, Western Theological Seminary, Holland, Michigan. 

Herman Hoeksema was undoubtedly one of the most unusual men in the American church. A highly gifted pulpit orator and theologian of the Dutch Reformed tradition, he left the Christian Reformed Church in the mid-twenties over the doctrine of common grace. He describes that doctrine in this way: 

There is a grace, an operation of the Holy Spirit, whereby sin was restrained in man’s heart and mind, as well as in the community, and in the power of which the natural man could accomplish all these good things. Of himself man could certainly do no good; he was totally depraved. But all men receive a certain grace; and through this grace man is not regenerated: his heart remains always evil. But the evil operation of his heart was restrained. Yes, what is more, he is somewhat changed to the good, so that in temporal, natural, and civil things he could do good before God. 

Hoeksema would have none of this weakening of the doctrine of sin, as he saw it, and held for a doctrine of total depravity that was understood vertically (that the natural man is only evil, with no good at all in him) as well as horizontally (that man is depraved in every part of his being). Although this was Hoeksema’s lifelong battle, he states his position in this text only where he feels he must do so, in the discussions of the image of God—which, incidentally, he denies in the broad sense—and of Adam’s sin.

Only a careful study of Hoeksema’s writings will bring out the manner in which he builds everything on the antithesis between elect and reprobate (he is a thoroughgoing supralapsarian), declaring that reprobation is equally ultimate with election, that God wills both, that God’s attitude toward the reprobate has never been anything other than hatred, and that whatever he brings into the life of the reprobate is brought there for the damnation of that person. This involved concatenation of ideas is not the only evidence of speculation in Hoeksema’s thinking; one finds considerable amounts of it here and there. This is, of course, inevitable in any work of theological depth. The question concerns the kind of speculation and its limits. 

Having pointed out what I see to be the weakness in Hoeksema’s system, I will go on to say that there is a great deal of solid theology, and good theology, in this book. The authors he leans upon are almost entirely a few select persons within the Dutch Reformed tradition. Why should a man of his ability quote Anselm via Kuyper, except possibly because of the pressure of time? Hoeksema believes in a “system of truth” that is to be elaborated; rejects the proofs for God along with the idea of the immortality of the soul, the covenant of works, and certain traditional ways of handling topics in Reformed dogmatics; and always argues his own position with ability. 

The extensive use of untranslated Latin and Dutch is lamentable, unless the volume is intended for a narrow range of readers. The considerable use of the biblical languages is commendable. Those who knew the author are aware of his linguistic facility, theological acumen, and capacity for work. This work, more than his dozen volumes on the Heidelberg Catechism, represents his system of theology. He wrote it during the thirty years that he taught in his own seminary while also serving as minister of a large congregation.

*Copyright 1967 by Christianity Today; used by permission. 

The next review appeared in the Reformed Journal(May-June, 1967) and is here reprinted by permission:

Reformed Dogmatics by Herman Hoeksema. Grand Rapids, Mich.; Reformed Free Publishing Association, 1966. 872 pp., $14.95. Reviewed by James Daane. 

This is Herman Hoeksema’s greatest book, and he did not live to see it published. 

Reformed Dogmatics is the deposit of the mature thinking of an authentic theologian; it displays a breadth of thought and a richness of insight and originality little known to those who knew the author only in terms of that theological controversy which created his public image but overshadowed his theological stature. 

Part I is a brief introduction to Dogmatics; in it Hoeksema describes the Name, Definition, Method, System, and Principles of Dogmatics. In Hoeksema’s theology, the method is the thing to watch. He rejects the biblical theological method in strong language, asserting that it “despises the work of the church in the past and wholly ignores or damns the guidance of the Holy Spirit.” Biblical theology is “really a condemnation of dogmatics as such,” and, insofar as it does not want to be dogmatics, “it simply deceives itself.” Another objection, according to Hoeksema, is that biblical theology ignores the fact that revelation in Scripture is “woven into the texture of the earthly and historical.” Here Hoeksema’s theological methodology betrays an element of rationalism; he regards revelation as something that can be separated from the earthly and historical. On his view, the earthly and historical are not an essential ingredient of the revealed truth of Scripture. Revealed truth, therefore, must be removed from the texture of the earthly-historical since “the believer’s mind can appropriate the truth of Scripture only in the way of logical contemplation.” Here a deep-seated rationalistic motif comes to the surface, one which fails to recognize that Christian truth would not be true if it had not happened. Only an eternal truth that is non-historical can be appropriated by the mind of men “only in the way of logical contemplation.” 

Hoeksema was a supralapsarian “without reservation.” His defense is interesting. He admits that all the Reformed creeds are infra- not supralapsarian, and that the Scripture is also infra, but only from “the historical viewpoint”—a viewpoint about which his methodology is very permissive. He further argues that the “Reformed Fathers”—who remain unnamed—never condemned Supralapsarianism, nor regarded it as “inconsistent with Reformed theology.” Both theologically and historically this claim is far from the whole truth. 

Hoeksema argues against biblical theology because it fails to take seriously the working of the Holy Spirit in the history of the Church. This is a strange contention for one who held that revelation must he taken out of the fabric of the temporal-historical. Nonetheless, it throws light on the I stance that Hoeksema took toward his accepted Reformed creeds, These he viewed with an almost blind, uncritical loyalty, accepting them as not-to-be-questioned truth, not as historical documents. 

Except at two points. We have already noted his rejection of infralapsarianism. Although Supralapsarianism was eventually given official toleration within a sector of the Reformed. churches, it is not the teaching of the Reformed creeds, and a theology structured on this basis is quite different from one structured on an infralapsarian position. The other area in which Hoeksema took certain liberties is in the doctrine of election. In Hoeksema’s theology election takes priority over reprobation. He does not hold that reprobation is equally primal in the intention and ways of God. God’s primary intention is to glorify Himself in Christ and the Church. Reprobation, says Hoeksema, is a necessary means for the realization of election. The first is a means, the second the end. This is hardly the teaching of the Canons of Dordt. Nor do the Canons teach the idea that reprobation is a “necessary” means—a view that appears to impinge on the sovereignty and freedom of God, an idea that Professor Berkouwer regards as so ungodly as to bring shame by the mere mention of it. With this I would agree. But I wonder whether there is essentially any difference between saying that reprobation is the necessary presupposition of election and saying that election necessarily posits reprobation—an idea inherent in election defined as selection. This whole matter calls for further study. 

Although the covenant of works is commonly accepted in many Reformed theological circles (and taught by the Westminster Confession), Hoeksema always his own man, rejected it because (I) the Reformed creeds do not teach it, (2) even a sinless man cannot earn the rewards of grace, and (3) because man’s covenantal status is not an additive, but something given in his very humanity. Here Barth echoes Hoeksema, but Hoeksema never struggled with the problem of how one can hold to a supralapsarian view of reprobation and at the same time hold that man’s covenant relationship to God is built in his very humanity. How would one define a divine covenant made with men who even apart from sin are reprobated by God to doom?

Hoeksema contends that reprobation is not necessary for the revelation of God’s justice, for this is most fully and clearly revealed in the Cross (p. 165). Reprobation is merely the means for the actualization of election. But having thus defined reprobation, Hoeksema hardly knows what to do with it. He gives Christ a. very central place in his doctrine of election. The election of Christ does not, he says, occur for the sake of the elect; the election of the latter exists for the sake of Christ the Elect. But once Hoeksema takes this position, what is he to do with his doctrine of reprobation. If Christ’s election requires reprobation, are some men reprobated for the sake of the election of Christ? This comes close to saying that Christ is saved by the damnation of men, for

His reality depends on the reality of reprobates. And it is interesting to note that in Hoeksema’s outline of the order of predestination, reprobation first appears in relation to the elect (the Church) and then only in parentheses. Hoeksema’s struggle with election and reprobation is a warning to those who with an easy facility interpret biblical passages with a direct reference to election and reprobation. To be sure, Hoeksema also engaged in this kind of exegesis, but when he did he violated the complexities of his own theology of election. 

Finally, Hoeksema’s exposition of the love and the grace of God should be carefully studied by theological minds in the Christian Reformed Church. Appealing to

Colossians 3:14,

Hoeksema asserts that love can only exist “in the sphere of moral perfection.” There can be no love “in the sphere of darkness.” Love is that which “unites ethically perfect parties only.” “It can exist only between personal beings; and these personal beings must he perfect” (p. 105). With this profoundly unbiblical idea of love, it comes as no surprise that God, according to Hoeksema, can only hate sinners. 

In view of this conception of the nature of divine love, it is also not surprising to hear Hoeksema speak of grace as an ethical attribute of God and define grace as that delight which God takes in Himself as a perfect being. And with this we have the ground for Hoeksema’s vigorous rejection of common grace for all sinners, and his insistence that God loves, and is gracious toward, the elect only, and toward these because they are righteous in Christ. 

Even God’s mercy is declared to be an “attribute of God in the absolute sense of the word.” Thus God is merciful, not to sinners, but to Himself. “Mercy is the attribute or virtue of God according to which He is tenderly affected toward Himself as the highest and sole Good and implication of all perfections….” 

Here in a nutshell we have Hoeksema’s theology: “Love is the bond that unites the ethically perfect. Grace is the objective pleasantness and the subjective attraction of the ethically perfect. Mercy wills and desires the ethically perfect to be blessed.” And he applies this theology by asserting, “It should be evident from this that God cannot be merciful to the reprobate wicked, and that His mercy toward His people” is that by which “He beholds them eternally as perfectly zealous in the Beloved” (pp. 115, 116). 

This is not only un-Reformed. It is less biblical than Arminianism. Arminianism distorts the biblical teaching about God’s love, mercy, and grace. Hoeksema loses these biblical teachings. God, of course, does not hate Himself, but the biblical teaching is not that God loves. Himself, but loves the Son, and in this love loves sinners, Where does the Bible teach, not that God is gracious, but that He is gracious to Himself? and where that He is merciful to Himself? Hoeksema defines God’s love, grace, mercy by a reference to the nature of God (and therefore defines all of them as ethical attributes of God in the absolute sense) rather than in reference to sinners, and to Christ in His role of saving sinners, and therewith to what God freely decided to do in Christ and for sinners. In short, a theology that teaches that God loves Himself, has grace and mercy for Himself because He is ethically perfect, and has none of these for sinners because they are sinners, is worse than Arminianism, which distorts, but does not deny these. 

Hoeksema the theologian never understood the nature of God’s love and mercy for sinners, nor that grace of God by which God freely willed to give Himself in Christ for their sakes. Hoeksema’s God loves Himself, “seeks and finds Himself,” and is “self-centered.” Hoeksema, as a theologian, did not know a God who glorifies Himself precisely by creating and redeeming man for the purpose of sharing Himself with man, therein revealing His glory. For God is not one who can be known “only in the way of logical contemplation.” The grace of God is hardly something logical! 

Hoeksema’s God is so self-contained and self-centered that Hoeksema could not conceive of movements of God toward man which were the results of His free decision, and not merely a necessary shadow cast by God’s inner life. 

This book is required reading for all who think they endorse Hoeksema’s basic theology, and for all who think they hold a traditional Reformed theology distinctively different from his. Hoeksema was a big enough theologian to surprise both groups.