Tensions In “The Teaching”`

The second category of issues which the Reformed Journal (March, 1966) predicts will have to be faced in the Reformed community in the future is entitled “The Teaching.” In this category Dr. Henry Stob calls attention to four issues, all of which are indeed very important. 

The first of these issues is concerned with theology proper, i.e., the doctrine of God’s Being and Nature. Dr. Stob describes this issue as follows:

Nothing is so important as the proper understanding of who and what God is. On the other hand, there is hardly a doctrine that is more in the melting within the larger theological community than the doctrine of God. His individuality is denied, His personality is denied, His transcendence is denied, and His death is proclaimed. These denials and morbid pronouncements concern us mainly in a negative way; they fix the positions that we are called upon to expose and discredit. Yet they also provide us with the occasion to review in the light of Scripture what He is really like who presents Himself as the Creator and Redeemer of the world, and as the Covenant God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and of all their seed. Is He, for example, unchangeable in the way in which unchangeableness has often been thought of—mainly under pagan Greek auspices? Are we to think of Him, as owe have sometimes done under Thomistic influences, as Pure Act, devoid of all passivity and potentiality? Are we to regard the quite human speech about Him, which is found in such abundance in the Old Testament, as merely figurative and anthropomorphic language essentially inappropriate to God, or are we to regard such language as a veritable revelation concerning God? Questions such as these, and others besides, we shall have to be asking ourselves in the coming months and years.


The last part of this paragraph is the most important. As for the first part of this paragraph, I cannot become excited about the doctrinal pronouncements of the modernist church; nor do I consider it the chief calling of the true church to expose and discredit all the modern day mouthings of the modernist, as, for example, the “God is dead” theology. I do not share the excitement about this latest modernistic denial of the truth. In fact, I am very much inclined to say concerning it, “Let the dead bury their dead.” It is much rather the chief calling of the church today to maintain and defend the Reformed faith over against attacks and attackers from within, perhaps Over against some who have themselves become enamored of the modernist and neo-modernist theology, than to concern itself with these “far out” and far-fetched theological fads which have captured such a large part of the attention of the religious press. 

In the second place, I can certainly agree with Stob’s statement that “nothing is so important as the proper understanding of who and what God is.” Theology in the narirower sense, doctrine of God, is of prime importance in all dogmatics. Fail to have a proper understanding of who and what God is, and you will necessarily fail to understand all the rest of theology. That is axiomatic. 

However, Dr. Stob will have to be more specific with his questions than he is in this paragraph. Where, for example, is the pagan Greek influence in the Reformed presentation of God’s unchangeability? Where is the Thomistic influence, and what is it? What does Stob mean by the suggestion of a possible passivity and potentiality in God? Is he suggesting a contrast, or even a contradiction, between anthropomorphisms and veritable revelation concerning God? Moreover, in all this I cannot down the question within my soul: is Dr. Stob hinting that we must begin to re-think and perhaps re-formulate the very basic truths of Reformed theology? I am afraid of all these questions, not because I fear questions or because I feel Reformed theology has no answers to them, but because I fear the questioning and doubt-creating attitude that these questions seem to betray. It is to be hoped, and expected, that the Journal will make itself clear on these matters. 

The second issue raised by Stob in this category is probably the most important of all. It concerns the doctrine of the eternal decrees, the very heart of the Reformed faith. I quote:

As almost everyone has observed, the doctrine of the eternal decrees, particularly of the decree of reprobation is currently under review. Different theologians lay the accent differently on election and reprobation, some affirming and some denying their equal ultimacy. Others find the creeds ambiguous in their teaching on the subject. Others, through the careful study of the classical Scripture passages bearing on the matter, are beginning to entertain doubts about the reality of the supposed Biblical basis for the traditional Reformed understanding of reprobation. Still others question the propriety of employing philosophical categories like “Cause” and “Necessity” for the purpose of construing the Biblical givens. There is some uncertainty in our circles how one should proceed amidst all this ferment. Some, perhaps most, think matters of this sort should not be openly discussed, since the creeds speak plainly on the subject; it is only a “gravamen” that the situation allows. Others think that though the language of the creeds is ambiguous the intent of the creeds is plain; that, however, this intent has not been adequately expressed in our theology; and that therefore discussion is both permissible and desirable, such discussion being nothing more than discussion in the open field of theology. Under the circumstances it would seem that we should continue to discuss, at least until the issues are further clarified.


Again, there is not the desired degree of clarity on the part of Dr. Stob with respect to the various positions and suggestions about reprobation which he mentions. He does not identify the holders of these opinions. I suspect that much of the ferment which he mentions is current in the Netherlands among theologians of the Gereformeerde Kerken, even to the extent that the orthodoxy of some of the leading theologians is being questioned openly. I suspect, too, that what ferment there is in the Reformed community in this country has been “imported” from the Netherlands. I suspect, too, that the influence of Barth’s theology is to be discovered somewhere in this ferment. Time will tell whether these suspicions are correct. I have no doubt, however, judging from the past writings of men like Dr. Stob, Dr. Boer, and Dr. Daane, that the Journal is, to put it mildly, not entirely satisfied with the “traditional Reformed understanding of reprobation.” I am thinking of Dr. Stob’s conception of God’s hatred, of Dr. Boer’s articles about reprobation, and of Dr. Daane’s continual harping on the “equal ultimacy” theme. 

Without engaging in a detailed discussion of this issue, I want to make a few suggestions: 

1. It is high time that those who refer to “equal ultimacy” furnish a clear definition of what they mean by it. This also is, after all, a rather philosophical expression; perhaps its propriety may as well be questioned as the other terms which Stob characterizes as philosophical categories. But precisely what does it mean? Do those who use this term mean equal sovereignty? Do they mean to denote the idea that election and reprobation are equally grounded in God’s sovereign good pleasure? Or do they mean to denote the conception that in the order of the decrees the decree of election and that of reprobation are coordinate? And when they use “equal ultimacy” as a charge against one’s view of predestination, are they trying to suggest that reprobation must, at least, be conceived of as conditional? If the Journal intends to discuss this issue, I suggest the need of some precision.

2. If there is to be discussion of this issue, it must indeed be responsible discussion. This is a most serious matter in itself. Besides, the history of the dogma of predestination has been such that it was the decree of reprobation which was particularly disliked and attacked. In fact, it is a rather safe test of one’s orthodoxy with respect to the doctrine of election to inquire how he stands with respect to the decree of reprobation. That is due, of course, to the fact that the truth of sovereign election cannot possibly be maintained where the truth of sovereign reprobation is denied. Predestination is indeed praedestinatio gemina, double predestination. 

3. Certainly, for Reformed men it must be a prioriestablished that all discussion must take place strictly within the confines of the confessions, particularly the Canons of Dordrecht, unless there is a willingness to file a gravamen against the confessions. For my part, the confessions are quite sufficient on this score, even though their language is infralapsarian. It would seem to me that it should be recognized that one who has such serious questionings of the confession that the possibility of a gravamen arises as to this doctrine, is in the nature of the case rendering himself suspect. Par the truth of sovereign reprobation, ever since the pronouncements of Dordrecht, belongs to the things which are most surely believed among us. But let theJournal speak out; the Standard Bearer will listen and react,—on the basis of Scripture and the confessions. 

4. It seems to me that 1924 and its supposed grace for the reprobate, as well as Prof. Dekker’s redemptive love of God for all men, inclusive of the reprobate, must needs have a place in the discussion proposed by theJournal.

The third issue raised by Dr. Stob is the question of evolution. I will not quote all that he writes about this, but call attention to the following items: 

1. Stob calls in question Prof. L. Berkhof’s calling “theistic evolution a contradiction in terms. He suggests that it is possible to think of evolution theistically, “in a way compatible with God’s creative activity.” I invite a debate on that proposition. For I certainly hold that “theistic evolution” is, in the light of Scripture, a contradiction in terms. I believe indeed that “theistic evolution” is an unthinkable idea, and that in the name of theism it nevertheless rules God, the Creator, the God of the Scriptures out, and that there ought to be no room under a Reformed ecclesiastical roof for the theistic evolutionist. I am afraid, however, that for the most part the Reformed community has moved so far away from that strict position that to maintain it would result in ecclesiastical upheaval, The theologian and the church that dare to maintain strictly a literal and realistic creation in six days have become increasingly rare. 

2. That the issue of theistic evolution is a matter of “responsible exegesis” must surely be maintained, even as Stob suggests. In the abstract, that this responsible exegesis must be carried on, “not in isolation from, but in maximum awareness of the deliverances of science,” I also subscribe to. But when Stob begins to explain this as meaning a “verdict reached through the correlation of the data supplied both by believing exegesis and by faith-directed inquiry into the empirical state of affairs,” then I begin to have serious doubts as to his emphasis on “responsible exegesis,” and I begin to fear that he after all means exegesis dictated by the alleged evidences and claimed data of natural science. And the true character of such “exegesis” is not exegesis at all, but exegesis, or what the Dutch call “inlegkunde.” Nor have previous deliverances of theJournal given evidence of a different tendency in this regard. 

The fourth issue which Dr. Stob mentions is that of what is commonly called the “Dekker Case.” Stob makes mention of various viewpoints in this connection, including that of “writers from the Protestant Reformed Church” (correctly: “Churches”). He also makes mention of Synod’s study committee, whose report at the time when Dr. Stob was writing was not yet published. Significantly, he makes the following statement in this regard: “There is no warrant for prejudging the Committee’s conclusions, but it is perhaps legitimate to express the hope that open theological reflection will not be prematurely arrested by ad hoc decisions made in reference to a matter of considerable complexity. The issue needs ongoing exploration within a framework of mutual trust and respect.” 

Since Dr. Stob penned the above words, the Study Committee Report, some seventy pages long, has become public. Its conclusions are not favorable to Prof. Dekker’s views, but rather to the old, traditional, and altogether inconsistent position of 1924. But if I read Dr. Stob correctly, he does not want any bindingdecisions on this matter, especially not if those decisions are contrary to the position of Prof. Dekker. In other words, Stob wants “leervrijheid,” freedom of doctrine. How that is possible under Reformed church polity and on fundamental issues is a conundrum to me; nor does Stob explain it. 

But I have the feeling that here at last the “cat comes out of the bag.” If the Journal has its way on all these important issues,—and that way has always tended to be the “liberal way,”—then they will forevermore be pleading for “ongoing exploration within a framework of mutual trust and respect.” The result will be that with respect to issues on which the church has long ago taken a stand and on issues on which the Reformed faith has for years and centuries been “settled and binding” they will discuss and discuss and discuss, until the last vestiges of the Reformed faith in the Christian Reformed Church have been removed. 

The Journal bears careful watching, therefore.