Article 14. As the doctrine of divine election by the most wise counsel of God, was declared by the prophets, by Christ himself, and by the apostles, and is clearly revealed in the Scriptures, both of the Old and New Testament, so it is still to be published in due time and place in the Church of God, for which it was peculiarly designed, provided it be done with reverence, in the spirit of discretion and piety, for the glory of God’s most holy name, and for enlivening and comforting his people, without vainly attempting to investigate the secret ways of the most high. Acts 20:27; Rom. 11:33, 34, 12:3; Heb. 6:17, 18.
It requires a generous measure of good-will to accept the above translation as a faithful rendering of the original Latin formulation. In my opinion,—and the Dutch rendering would seem to support this opinion,—the article is certainly corrupted by the insertion of the word “provided” about midway in the sentence. For although it. is true that the English translation staes factually that the doctrine of election “is still to be published,” yet by inserting the word “provided” it changes this factual statement into a conditional sentence, and at least leaves the impression of raising some doubt as to the preaching of this doctrine. When one reads the word “provided,” he very easily mentally changes “is still to be published” into “may still be published.” And the intention of this article is certainly not to present the preaching of election as optional, and that too, only under certain provisions. For those who can follow the Latin, let it be noted that the grammatical construction of the main clause here is that of the gerundive, or future passive participle, with the verb “to be.” And this construction invariably denotes necessity and obligation. And in the original Latin there is no term that could be rendered by “provided;” instead, there is just a series of phrases which denote the manner in which it is necessary to preach the doctrine of election. In this respect the Dutch version is much clearer; and our official English version could well be improved upon. The only other correction worth mentioning concerns the phrase “and for enlivening and comforting his people.” This should be: “and for the lively comfort of his people.”
The main proposition of this article is, as was already indicated in our remarks on the translation, that this doctrine of divine election ought to be preached, or rather, set forth, propounded. It goes without saying, of course, that by “this doctrine of election” the fathers mean the doctrine of election that is maintained and expounded here in the Canons, not just any doctrine of election, and certainly not the Arminian doctrine of a conditional, non-decisive, and revocable election. Undoubtedly the fathers had in mind an argument of the Arminians also when they framed this article. And that argument was that such a doctrine, i.e., of sovereign and eternally unchangeable election, ought not to be preached because it would lead to passivism and dead orthodoxy, would snuff out every incentive and incitement to an active life of faith and conversion. And now, having made it clear that this doctrine does not make men careless and profane, (see Articles 12 and 13), they also insist now that this doctrine must be preached in the church. It is not impossible, however, that the fathers also had in mind some of their own number, who were not inclined toward the Arminian error, but who committed the very grave error of seldom or never preaching election and teaching this doctrine to the youth of the church, although they claimed to believe this truth. It may safely be said that the large measure in which Arminianism conquered the church at that time was due in some degree to such a silence on the part of some who nevertheless meant to be Reformed. Often in history the church has suffered loss and defeat by default, by its own failure vigorously to maintain and expound the truth.
A greater evil it is, however,—and in regard to this evil the Canons are by no means outdated,—when men who are at heart Arminian claim to believe the truth of sovereign predestination, but deliberately attempt to kill that truth by silence in the pulpit and in the catechism class. This is not at all uncommon in our day. And the terrible result of this practice is that the entire cargo of Arminianism is smuggled into the Reformed church. On this subject we agree wholeheartedly with the Rev. J.G. Feenstra, who, commenting on this article, writes as follows (I translate from the Holland): “There is nothing more dangerous than when a truth from God’s Word is passed by in silence, is silenced to death (doogezwegen). That is the very worst. I would rather that they openly oppose it, than that they silence this truth to death.
“In genuine Reformed preaching one cannot keep silence about this truth. The doctrine of election belongs to the fundamental matters of God’s word. Silencing of the truth goes hand in hand with undercover importing of false doctrine . . . .”
With this we must agree. And let it be noted that this articles makes the preaching of the truth of election absolutely binding in the churches. He who subscribes to the Reformed confessions when he takes office or makes confession of faith binds himself to the confession that it is not optional, but obligatory to proclaim the doctrine of election set forth in The First Head of Doctrine of our Canons. This is once more emphasized for officebearers in the Formula of Subscription itself.
Such, then, is the main proposition of this article.
And it is of force because it is founded upon the Scriptures. The fathers take pains to point this out: “As the doctrine of divine election by the most wise counsel of God, was declared by the prophets, by Christ Himself, and by the apostles, and is clearly revealed in the Scriptures, both of the Old and New Testament, so it is still to be published . . . .”
Only one of the Scriptural references (evidently added later in both the English and the Holland versions) has any bearing upon this statement. That is Acts 20:27, where the apostle Paul declares in his farewell to the elders of Ephesus whom he had called to Miletus: “For I have not shunned to declare unto you all the counsel of God.” But it is not difficult to point out that the claim that this doctrine was proclaimed by the prophets; by Christ Himself, and by the apostles is correct. Actually the well-known protevangel of Genesis 3:15, concerning the divinely instituted enmity between the seed of the devil and the seed of the woman, is already a declaration of the divine purpose of predestination. Furthermore, the entire history of the old dispensation is a revelation of God’s electing sovereignty. Abraham is chosen and called. Isaac is the child of the promise, not Ishmael. Jacob has God loved, while He hated Esau. Israel is chosen from among the nations, although it was not better nor more honorable than other nations. Confer: Gen. 3:15; Exodus 33:19; Deut. 4:37; Deut. 7:7, 15:4; Ps. 89:3, 4, 19 ff.; Ps. 105:6; Isaiah 6:9-11; Isa. 40:1, 41:8, 42:1, 43:1-7, 43:21, 44:1-8, 45:4, 46:9, 10, 48:9, 10, 49:16, and many other passages. That our Lord Jesus Christ Himself revealed the Father in the clear consciousness of the truth of predestination, and on more than one occasion found solace in this precious truth when the enemy opposed Him and sought to destroy Him and His cause and when it seemed as though His work was frustrated by the turning away of many that first followed Him and listened to His preaching,—that is evident at more than one point in the gospel narratives. Cf. Matt. 11:25-27; Matt. 13:11-16; Mark 4:11, 12; John 6:37, ff.; John 10:26-30; John 17:6, 9, 11, 12. And it is to be noted in this connection that the Lord Jesus openly proclaimed this truth. Finally, we may briefly note that also the apostles proclaimed the very same truth. A few of the many available Scriptural references will suffice: Romans 8:28-39; Rom. 9:11; Ephesians 1; I Peter 2:5-10. These examples, both in the Old and in the New Testament could be multiplied without any difficulty.
Concerning the above references let us observe the following. First of all, the intention of the fathers in this article is not merely to show that the doctrine of election is Scriptural. This, of course, is also true; and these passages can serve as proof texts for the doctrine set forth in the Canons. And this means at the same time that if the contents of the preaching is to conform to the Holy Scriptures, it is not possible to avoid proclaiming the truth of election. A minister, for example, who preaches through the entire epistle to the Romans could never avoid the doctrine of eternal predestination as it is there plainly set forth by the Holy Spirit. But secondly, the question here is: must the truth of election be preached? And this question the fathers seek to answer in the light of Scripture. The question is”: is it a sound principle of homiletics, of the science of the art of preaching, to preach election? Or is it a sound principle not to preach it, even though it is the truth of Scripture? And the fathers, proceeding on the basis that Scripture must also determine the principles of the method and manner of the preaching of the word, answer that the former is correct: it is very plain from Scripture that the truth of sovereign election has always been proclaimed in the church, and therefore must still be proclaimed today.
To one more element of this main contention of the Canons we must call your attention, before we turn to the question as to how this truth of election must be preached. And our remarks center on two closely related expressions in this article. The first is the phrase, “by the most wise counsel of God.” And the second is the cause. “for which it was peculiarly designed,” the word which referring to the church. It is very evident that the reference is to the visible church on earth. That church is the gathering of believers and their seed. And the truth of election, the article says, was peculiarly designed (destinata est in the Latin) for the gathering of believers and their seed on earth. It was intended for the lively comfort of God’s people. It is from every point of view the heart of the gospel, the heart from, which the church lives. And it has been rightly termed the cor ecclesiae, the heart of the church. That God has caused this truth to be proclaimed in all the ages of the church is therefore a revelation of His infinite wisdom. That prophets and apostles and Christ Himself proclaimed this truth in time past was no accident, but took place according to the most wise counsel of God and by the infallible inspiration of the Holy Spirit. It was the infinitely wise counsel of Him who always knows what is best for His church, therefore, that caused this blessed truth to be proclaimed to the church in the past, and that has preserved the infallible record thereof for us in the Holy Scriptures. Should, then, men attempt today to be wiser than God, and foolishly decide that this truth should not be proclaimed in the very church for which it was peculiarly designed?
(to be continued)