In the remainder of this article we find a discussion, first of all, concerning the manner in which the truth of election is to be preached. The fathers mention here the following elements: 1) the spirit of discretion; 2) piety (The Dutch has here: “met Godvruchtige eerbiedigheid, heiliglijk.” The Latin has: “religiose et sancte.”; 3) in due time and place (literally: in its own time and place); 4) without vainly attempting to investigate the secret ways of the most high. In close connection herewith, the Canons speak, in the second place, of the twofold purpose of election preaching; 1) the glory of God’s most holy name; and, 2) the lively comfort of His people.
It is probably not out of place to inquire a little into the reason why these stipulations were proposed by the fathers. Did they have the Arminians in mind, or some particular Arminian objection or accusation, when they adopted this language? Or did they possibly have in view some of their own number, who had strong views about election and who were by some accused of using unwarranted expressions? Or, perhaps, is this language to be conceived of as some kind of concession to an element in the Reformed churches that was afraid of “election preaching?” Or, to mention one more possibility, did the fathers have in mind a certain concrete situation, some real dangers, when they added these qualifications to their insistence that the doctrine of election must still be proclaimed in the church today?
In the light of the context of this article, especially the immediately preceding context of Articles 12 and 13, and in the light of history, both past and present, I find it extremely difficult to believe that the fathers had anything else in mind than the reason suggested in the very first of the possibilities mentioned above. And I consider it dangerous and contrary to the intentions of Dordrecht to explain the language of Article 14 in any other way.
There was no strife about this article at the Synod. It was no subject of disagreement on the part of the supralapsarians and those who were supposed to be guilty of using strong language and even unwarranted expressions concerning predestination. Fact is, that the attempt to condemn these so-called strong expressions was actually made after the Canons were adopted. But it failed. And the Canons themselves were signed by all delegates. Hence, the second possibility, namely, that the fathers had in mind some of their own number who were guilty of making unwarranted expressions and placing undue emphasis upon election, must be ruled out.
However, this article is interpreted by some as though the fathers had in mind a certain real danger in election preaching, and as though its language is some kind of concession to an element in the Reformed churches that saw this danger and wanted to counteract it. And it is my considered opinion that this is not true, and that those who still today are of such a feeling can find no solace in this article. There are those who, when all is said and done about the truth of election, and when it is duly established that this truth must be preached, say: “Yes, but you must be careful with election preaching. You must be careful that you do not shove this doctrine on the foreground in the preaching, so that it is always and everywhere the main content of the preaching. It leads to passivism and indifference, etc.” Thus, for example, J.G. Feenstra writes in “De Dordtse Leerregelen,” page 60, as follows: “In practical life, sad to say, misuse is made of the doctrine of election either out of indifference or out of passivity. Thus it is also possible that in the preaching such misuse creeps in. Against this we cannot warn with suffiecient earnestness. A minister of the word must especially in this regard observe due caution.” And T. Bos, in a commentary by the same title as the work of Feenstra, page 56, writes: “Nevertheless in the church one must be careful about the preaching of the doctrine of election. The preaching of this doctrine must not withstand the preaching of the gospel in general to all men. In its own time and place election must be set forth, so that it is not good always to preach about election and everywhere to appear in the pulpit with that doctrine . . . . It was especially Calvin who began to present the doctrine of election again in a clear light in the days of the Reformation. He began with the doctrine of God; and to the works of God in eternity belonged predestination. His starting point was the glorification of God, and this appears most clearly precisely in election. But now it is certainly not Calvinistic to shove the doctrine of predestination on the foreground in the preaching in such a manner that it is always and everywhere the chief content. This doctrine is too holy and too glorious to be played with, as it were.”
Now I would not question the motives behind the above quotations, nor the good intentions thereof. Nor do I question the truth of some of their claims in the abstract. But I very definitely question the realism and the necessity of such warnings. First of all, let us look at this matter in the light of the Canons themselves. If the doctrine of election is set forth, not merely as an abstract and unconnected doctrine that God has chosen a certain number of people to salvation but as it is expounded in the Canons, and as we have viewed it in the first thirteen articles adopted by Dordt, where is the danger so earnestly warned against? And especially if we bear in mind that in Articles 12 and 13 the fathers have precisely denied that the truth of election can lead to passivism and indifference on the part of the elect, this danger certainly recedes still more into the background. And in this light I certainly cannot agree that “Against this we cannot warn earnestly enough.” And in the second place, in the light of history I consider this warning altogether unrealistic. Has it ever actually been the case that the doctrine of elections was too much shoved on the foreground? Pray, when? Has it ever been really thus, that the doctrine of election was always the subject of the preaching? Has it been so that the truth of election was made to stand over against the preaching of the gospel in general and to all men? It may perhaps be granted that there have been isolated instances of preachers who became guilty of this to a degree. But that there have been whole movements and entire denominations in the main stream of church history that were guilty of these things I deny. Has not the case rather been thus, that in the history of the church there has been no doctrine more difficult to maintain both in the pulpit and in the official utterances of the church in her confessions than the truth of sovereign predestination? Has it not been so that even Reformed churches have been loath to bring this truth in the pulpit, have even become ashamed of their “Calvinistic” views of predestination, have contradicted them with the heresy of a general and well-meant offer of grace, and have far too often maintained an almost complete silence about election? Has it not only too often been thus, that those who proclaimed the truth of election freely and boldly, and who properly proceeded from the truth of election in all their exposition of Reformed truth and of the gospel, were roundly criticized and opposed and charged with, the supposed wrongs mentioned above? Yea, has not much of the controversy and struggle of the faithful church concentrated exactly in the life-and-death effort to maintain the sovereign and particular character of the gospel? Such is the light which history sheds on this question: And therefore I would much rather say: one cannot warn earnestly enough against the danger of not allowing the truth of predestination its proper place in the preaching!
The explanation of the language of this article is rather to be found again in the false accusations of the Arminians. In harmony with their whole false presentation, they accused, and still often accuse, the defenders of the truth of election of indiscretion and impiety in the preaching of this truth. They accuse us of curiously prying into the secret ways of the most high. They object that the preaching of election is not for the lively comfort of God’s people, and is not to the glory of God. Instead, we must have “the good old invitation.” And it is to the glory of God to save souls and to offer divine salvation to all men. They object that election is not kept in its proper place, nor brought at the proper time in the preaching. And of course, they will also define that proper place and time for us. And in answer to these calumniators of the truth and of those who faithfully preach the truth the fathers make clear here that they are not such evil men as the opponents would picture them, and that all these calumniations of the gospel of sovereign election are imaginary and false. For they certainly maintain that this truth must be preached “with the spirit of discretion, piously, holily, in its own time and place, for the glory of God’s most holy name and the lively comfort of his people, without curiously scrutinizing the ways of the most high.
In general, we may note that what is here said about the preaching of election is also true of every individual Christian doctrine, in a greater or lesser degree. What truth is there that must not be preached in a spirit of discretion, piously, holily, in its own time and place, etc.? This becomes the more true when we bear in mind that Christian doctrine is essentially one, and is from that point of view essentially all theology, doctrine of God. It always then behooves us to exclaim: “How wondrous are the ways of God, unfathomed and unknown!” But we may immediately add that whenever we deal with the doctrine of God in the narrower sense of the term, what the Canons here say about the proper attitude and manner of the preaching is most emphatically true. When we speak of God, His names, His being, His persons, His attributes, His works adintra and ad extra, we cannot emphasize enough that we stand on holy ground, and that it behooves us to take off our shoes from off our feet. And this is perhaps above all true of the predestination. It is by no means something to be played with. But the awareness of this fact is not the private possession of the Arminian! His doctrine surely gives no evidence of discretion, piety, holiness, etc. And woe unto him who willfully plays with such holy things by corrupting the truth! Woe to him who deliberately keeps silence about the truth of such holy things of God! It had been better for him if he had never pretended to preach!
(to be continued)