A Word of Introduction
A few prefatory remarks may not be amiss as we begin our discussion of the Rejection of Errors which is appended to this First Head of Doctrine. For a more detailed discussion of this peculiar aspect of theCanons we refer the reader to Chapter 3, Part I, “The Confessional Status of the Canons.” Let it suffice at present to remind ourselves that historically this phenomenon had its origin in the fact that the Synod of Dordrecht was called to pass judgment over the Arminians and their teachings, that as to both the idea and the method of this rejection of errors the Canons are thoroughly Scriptural, and that as to their significance these negative articles are indispensable to the maintenance and defense of the truth and binding upon every truly Reformed man to the extent that he must be disposed to refute and contradict especially these errors and must exert himself to keep the church from such errors.
In each chapter of the Canons this negative section, usually denoted for reference “B,” is introduced by the words: “The true doctrine having been explained, the Synod rejects the errors of those . . .” In the first chapter of the Canons this introductory formula, which must be understood as prefacing each of the negative articles, contains the words “concerning Election and Rejection.” We shall not repeat this formula each time we quote an article of the Rejection of Errors, but ask the reader to bear in mind that this formula belongs with all the negative articles. Incidentally, the historical reason for this negative section of the Canons is indicated by the original Latin version of the introductory formula in Chapter I, which reads: “A Rejection of the Errors by which the Belgic Churches have been for some time greatly disturbed. The Orthodox Doctrine concerning Election and Reprobation having been expounded, the Synod rejects the Errors of those . . .”
Article I. Who teach: That the will of God to save those who would believe and would persevere in faith and in the obedience of faith, is the whole and entire decree of election unto salvation, and that nothing else concerning this decree has been revealed in, God’s Word. For these deceive the simple and plainly contradict the Scriptures, which declare that God will not only save those who will believe, but that he has also from eternity chosen certain particular persons to whom above others he in time will grant both faith in Christ and perseverance; as it is written: “I manifested thy name unto the men whom thou gavest me out of the world.” John 17:6. And as many as were ordained to eternal life believed,” Acts 13:48. And: “Even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and without blemish before him in love.” Eph. 1:4.
The meaning of this article is so plain that it scarcely needs any explanation. The emphasis in the statement of the error rejected falls, of course, on the words: “. . . . is the whole and entire decree of election unto salvation, and that nothing else concerning this decree has been revealed in God’s Word.” That it is the will of God to save those who believe and who persevere in faith and in the obedience of faith is, of course, a thoroughly Scriptural idea. Without faith and without perseverance there is no salvation. Furthermore, it belongs also to the decree of election that God decreed to save those who would believe and who would persevere in faith and faith’s obedience. There is no dispute about that. This is also the plain teaching of the Canons in the positive section of this first chapter. Cf. Articles 7 and 8, But the insidious error of the Arminians was that they taught that this was thesole content of the decree of election unto salvation. And this error made room for the next erroneous step, namely, that divine election was conditioned by human faith or unbelief.
Notice how crafty the Arminians were. In the first place, observe that this error left them apparently free from blame in that they could still employ Scriptural language concerning election and salvation. In the second place, the Arminian could apparently place a strong emphasis on one of the cardinal truths of holy writ, the truth of salvation by faith only. And thus, in the third place, he could with a semblance of truth cast the accusation in the teeth of Reformed men that they falsely accused the Arminians, arid that it was instead the Reformed men who were in error because they did not want the doctrine of salvation by faith and did not want to stress the necessity of perseverance.
I say “apparently,” because, as the Canons also point out, the Arminian was really in error. By this teaching he denied the real nature of faith and perseverance, as does anyone who fails to place faith and perseverance themselves in the decree of election. And it is indeed possible to fall into the same error of the Arminians which is mentioned in this article without literally stating that nothing else concerning this decree of election has been revealed in God’s Word. This is frequently done, in fact, by those who deliberately keep silence about the decree of election or who fail to relate the gift of faith to the decree of election as effect and cause. In other words, their error is often not in what they say, but in what they leave unsaid. And by leaving unsaid what they ought to Say, namely that faith and perseverance in faith are blessings of salvation which flow to the elect from the fountain of divine election, they give aid and comfort to the Arminian enemy of the truth.
By this means, the fathers say, these heretics deceive the simple. By “the simple” is undoubtedly meant not so much those who are intellectually simple, who do not have any power of discernment, who lack the necessary mental power to understand and to oppose this error. Rather are “the simple” those who are ethically upright and guileless, and who are for the very reason of their own guilelessness easily deceived into believing that the Arminians are “not so bad,” are “sincere,,” after all do preach of election and do proclaim the gospel of salvation by faith only. This deception can be, readily understood. These “simple” believers have a certain respect for ministers of the gospel: They look to them for instruction. And they expect their ministers and professors to be honest, straightforward, and guileless. They have a right to expect this. Besides, the speech of these heretics is deceptive: they apparently speak the truth, while actually they proclaim the lie. And thus they deceive guileless people of God; they gain sympathy, and they gain sympathetic adherents; and they in a measure succeed in casting their truly Reformed opponents in the role of theological hairsplitters and false accusers and heresy hunters. In the meantime, this deception is very wicked and unethical; and the fathers do not hesitate to call it by its right name: “deception.” For they lead these simple people of God away from the truth, not toward it. And they deprive them of the real ground of their comfort and their assurance.
Nor do the fathers leave this accusation without objective grounds. The real nature of this deception of the Arminians consists, according to this article, in a plain contradiction of the Scriptures. The Arminian, in other words, comes with the Scriptures in hand, but actually contradicts them. He comes with “a word” out of the Scriptures, rather than with “the Word” of the Scriptures. For the Scriptures do not merely declare that God will save those who will believe. The latter is true, but it is only one element of the truth. And if stands alone, then it is basically a contradiction of the truth. For then the question remains: whence is faith and perseverance? And to the gospel belongs also this, that God has from eternity chosen certain definite persons to whom, in distinction from others, He grants both faith and perseverance.
The three quotations from Scripture speak for themselves. The text in John 17:6 plainly teaches: 1) That God has given certain men (not: men who will believe, or: men who will persevere, but men) to Christ. 2) That it is to these men that Christ has manifested His Father’s name. Hence, the manifestation of the Father’s name has both its origin and its limitation in the, fact that the Father gave to Christ certain men. The text in Acts 13:48 would have to be just changed about if it were to harmonize with the Arminian teaching. The Arminian must read this passage as follows: “And as many as believed were ordained to eternal life.” But the Scriptures very plainly place the ordination unto eternal life prior to the act of faith, and therefore teach that the decree of election is at once the divine limitation and the divine origin of faith. Hence, when Paul and Barnabas preached to the Gentiles in Antioch in Pisidia, only those, but then surely those, who were divinely predestinated unto eternal life responded in faith, were glad, and glorified the word of the Lord. And the text in Ephesians 1:4, quoted and explained already in Article 9 of the positive section of this first chapter, obviously teaches that the obedience of faith (the being holy and without blemish before him in love) is one of the very purposes of eternal election. Also here, therefore, the Scriptures plainly teach that eternal election is the fountain and cause and at once the limitation of that blessing of salvation which is denoted “the obedience of faith.”
In the light of all this, it must be granted that the fathers are not at all too severe in their judgment that the Arminians are guilty of deceiving the simple and contradicting the Scriptures. And if in our day Reformed men would be a little less disposed to tolerate error and a little more disposed to refute and contradict the errors rejected by our fathers, Reformed churches in general would be doctrinally more vigorous and spiritually more healthy.
Article II. Who teach: That there are various kinds of election of God unto eternal life: the one general and indefinite, the other particular and definite; and that the latter in turn is either incomplete, revocable, non-decisive and conditional, or complete, irrevocable, decisive and absolute. Likewise: that there is one election unto faith, and another unto salvation, so that election can be unto justifying faith, without being a decisive election unto salvation. For this is a fancy of men’s minds, invented regardless of the Scriptures, whereby the doctrine of election is corrupted, and this golden chain of our salvation is broken: “And whom he foreordained, them he also called; and whom he called, them he also justified; and whom he justified, them he also glorified.” Rom. 8:30
Here again we find an example of the fact that the fathers do not hesitate to call the Arminian heresy by its right name. They note here concerning this particular error: 1) That it is not Scriptural, but a fancy of men’s minds, invented regardless of the Scriptures. 2) That it is not the doctrine of election, but a corruption thereof. 3) That it doctrinally breaks the golden chain of our salvation, described in Rom. 8:30. At the same time we may note that in this article is an example of the fact that the Arminians themselves were often guilty of the very thing with which they charged the Reformed. The accusation is often made that the Reformed system of doctrine is so intricate and involved that only a theologian can understand its many ramifications. If any doctrine is worthy of this accusation, however, it is this Arminian doctrine of various decrees of election which is fully qualified in every respect to befuddle and confuse men’s minds.
(to be continued)