That the chapter concerning divine predestination stands first in the Canons and is the longest of the five heads of doctrine is, of course, no accident. From the historical viewpoint this has its occasion in the fact that the Scriptural truth of predestination bore the brunt of the Arminian attack, and that it was on this subject of predestination that the Arminians expressed themselves in the very first of their Five Articles. It was to be expected, therefore, in view of the apologetic character of the Canons, that they too would speak first on the subject of divine predestination. However, from the doctrinal viewpoint it is also proper that this should be the first concern of the Canons, since the truth of divine predestination is the foundation of the entire structure of the truth concerning our salvation. To the credit of the Arminians it must be said that, although they erred concerning the truth, they showed no ignorance of the fundamental issue, but recognized the fact that if they were to promulgate their doctrine of a conditional salvation, they must above all overthrow the Reformed conception of divine predestination. That is at least more than some pseudo-Calvinists will acknowledge in our own day. Our fathers at Dordrecht, as well as the Arminians, also recognized the cardinal importance of the truth of divine predestination, and in the construction of the temple of the truth which we have in our Canons they therefore accorded to this truth of predestination the place of prime importance. And they labored long and carefully, in order that this foundation might be properly and correctly laid.
Nor is the significance of this carefully laid foundation to be overlooked. When in eighteen clear and concise articles, together with nine rejections of errors, our fathers in unmistakable language have delineated the Reformed conception of divine predestination, there is, on the one hand, absolutely no excuse for ignorance on the part of Reformed people of either the meaning or the significance of God’s sovereign predestination. The church, being led into all the truth by the Spirit of truth, has said, with the Scriptures in hand: “This we confess. This is the truth of Holy Scripture. Here are the implications of that truth for the gospel of your salvation. If you would speak the truth, if you would indeed be Reformed, then here is the clear line of the truth.” And on the other hand, inasmuch as the Canons function as a bulwark, a defense, of the truth of God’s Word concerning our salvation, they clearly mark the line of battle, both for friend and foe. It is only too often the case that the enemies of the truth of divine predestination make a caricature of this truth, in order then to do battle against it. They set up a straw man of some sort. They purposely substitute fatalism or determinism for the Scriptural truth of predestination. Or they picture the predestinating God of the Scriptures as a horrible tyrant, who delights inanely in the desolation of little infants. Or they picture the predestined creature as a passive stock and block. And having charged the Reformed confessor with all these horrors, they proceed to do battle against their own caricature of the Reformed confession. The result is that these enemies of the truth often seem to leave the field of battle victorious. And, sad to say, the simple and undiscerning are often confused by these tactics, led to believe that indeed there is something seriously wrong with our Reformed view of predestination, and deceived into compromising or even surrendering completely. The Arminians were adept at such tactics, as our fathers well knew; and the enemies of the Reformed faith in general still follow this plan of battle, in order to deceive the simple. Only, in the Canons the line of battle is clearly defined. We say, as it were, in this First Head of Doctrine: “Put your straw men away now. Be done with your caricatures of the Reformed faith. When you fight against fatalism and determinism, or whatever it may be, you do not fight us. Here is the truth. Here is our confession. Here is the battle line. Here is our first line of defense. Would you vanquish us, you must make a frontal assault against this bulwark, defined in these eighteen positive and nine negative articles. But remember! The timbers of this bulwark are firmly fastened in the foundation of the infallible Word of God. And unless you can destroy that foundation, you will surely leave the field of battle utterly routed.” Likewise, therefore, it befits the Reformed confessor to find his defense behind this bulwark of the truth.
As to the method followed in these articles, it will immediately be evident that the Canons are apologetic in character. This is true not only of the negative portion, the Rejection of Errors, but also of the positive part, in which the true doctrine is expounded. Even while they develop the true doctrine, the fathers, as it were, have one eye on the Arminians. Thus, for example, one immediately feels in the first article that the Canons are on the defensive: an objection is being met, namely, the argument that the decree of predestination is unrighteous. And so, by way of defending the true doctrine, our fathers at the same time develop and define that true doctrine.
Of the contents of this first chapter we will give no general oversight here, beyond that which is furnished in the title, “Of Divine Predestination.” Rather will we allow the various articles to speak for themselves.
Article 1. As all men have sinned in Adam, lie under the curse, and are deserving of eternal death, God would have done no injustice by leaving them all perish, and delivering them over to condemnation on account of sin, according to the words of the apostle,, “that every mouth may be stopped, and all the world may become guilty before God.” And verse 23: “for all have sinned and come short of the glory of God.” And : “for the wages of sin is death.”
Our English translation of this article1 is not as literally correct nor as forceful as it might be. The article undoubtedly intends to emphasize a universal human guilt, and this is more clearly expressed in both the Latin original and the Dutch translation of this article. The English rendering, “lie under the curse, and are deserving of eternal death,” is in the Latin, “et rei sint facti maledictionis et mortis aeternae” which is more aptly translated in the Dutch, “en des vloeks en eeuwigen doods zijn schuldig geivorden (and are become guilty of the curse and of eternal death).” The translation, “by leaving them all to perish,” is also an extremely free rendering of the Latin, “si universum genus humanum in peceato et maledietione relinquere………….voluisset.” Here again the Dutch is much more accurate with its, “indien Hij het ganse menselijke geslacht in de zonde en vervloeking had tvillen laten (in case He had willed to leave the entire human race in sin and the curse.)” A little more accuracy in the rendering, therefore, would have emphasized more strongly the idea of a common human liability to death.
It is evident that the Canons here proceed, in their introduction of the truth of predestination, from the viewpoint of God’s righteousness. The question is: Can God be charged with injustice in election and reprobation? More stringently formulated the question is: Is not God unjust in His decree of reprobation? As we indicated above, when we took this article as an example of the apologetic character of the Canons, the occasion for choosing this viewpoint lay in the controversy with the Arminians. They sought to present matters so, that the Reformed churches made of God an unrighteous tyrant, who arbitrarily saved some and damned others. That is a charge whose stinging lash Reformed people feel also today.
Let us examine the implications of this charge which is met by Article 1. It is noteworthy, first of all, that the accusation which is here answered by the Canons is purely rationalistic. It is the product of human reason, yea, of sinful reason, which charges God, the only righteous judge, with unrighteousness. And a careful examination of Arminianism will reveal that such rationalism characterizes its entire view. We will undoubtedly have opportunity to repeat this observation in our further studies. And how striking it is that those who are themselves guilty of such rationalism are known for their accusations of rationalism against Calvinism. That is much worse than the proverbial pot callings the kettle black. In the second place, it must be observed that this charge of divine injustice in predestination can only be brought against those who maintain that God’s predestinating decree is sovereign and free. Under the Arminian conception of a predestination on the basis of foreseen faith or unbelief such an accusation is said to be unnecessary. The Arminian view is alleged to have exactly this advantage, that it leaves God righteous when it makes the matter of man’s salvation or damnation a matter of free will. But, it is alleged, if God is sovereign in predestination, if His predestinating decree has its source, its cause, its occasion only in Himself, then God is an unjust and horrible tyrant. Ultimately, therefore, this first article maintains not only the righteousness of the predestinating God, but the sovereign freedom of the God of our salvation. Finally, let us notice how inevitably our confession concerning God is tied in with the whole subject matter of the Canons from the very outset. God and His works are not to be separated. And so it is that it is not merely God’s decrees that are at stake here, but the decreeing God! The Arminians attacked not merely the righteousness of the decree of predestination, but the righteousness of God! They attack not only the absolute freedom of the decree, but the sovereign freedom of God! And to this our Canons give answer here.
1) The English rendering here used is taken from “The Psalter.”