The exegetic trend revealed in the article of the Rev. Zwier in “De Wachter” of May 10, must be considered positively dangerous.
That Scripture need not at all times be harmonized, that the question need and may not always be asked, “How do you reconcile those teachings?” that it is rationalistic to seek to explain Scripture in the light of Scripture, is a principle that must and shall lead to corruption of God’s Word and ultimately to a denial of all that is Reformed. Any doctrine can be corrupted without much difficulty if such methods are employed.
On the basis of the above, how can particular atonement be maintained over against them who contend that atonement is general? It can scarcely be denied that there are various passages in Scripture that taken entirely by themselves teach that Christ died for all men and shed His blood for the salvation of all. What could possibly prevent me from teaching, that there is both a particular and a general atonement, even as the Rev. Zwier maintains that the prosperity of the wicked is in order that they shall be destroyed forever while that prosperity is at the same time evidence of a favorable attitude of God toward them? At the best, why should one, who might be so inclined, not have the right to place the passages that seemingly teach general atonement next to the ones that teach particular atonement and compose a “point” of his own, postulating something on this order: besides the particular atonement for the elect unto eternal life, there is also a certain general atonement, which God effected for all men in general? In fact, would it not be well, from the viewpoint of our Christian Reformed brethren, that some such basis be established for all that grace and mercy that God manifests toward the wicked from moment to moment?
There is a passage in 2 Peter 2 which reads as follows, “But there were false prophets also among the people, even as there shall be false teachers among you, who privily shall bring in damnable heresies, even denying the Lord that bought them, and bring upon themselves swift destruction.” In 1 John 2:2 the Spirit says: “And he is the propitiation for our sins: and not for ours only, but also for the sins of the whole world.” Taking these passages entirely by themselves, might I, if so inclined, not reason as follows? These expressions teach general atonement pure and simple. Peter says very plainly, that the Lord bought also those false prophets, who bring in damnable heresies and bring upon themselves swift destruction; whereas John states in language that for clarity leaves nothing to be desired, that Jesus Christ the righteous died not only for our sins but also for the sins of the whole world. These statements are so lucid that they need no further explanation. Both Peter and John teach general atonement. This atonement is not unto eternal life, for the false prophets bring upon themselves swift destruction. Hence, it must be something temporary.
“But,” you argue, “this is impossible. Atonement cannot be both particular and general. Therefore, these passages must have another interpretation.”
Borrowing the language of the Rev. Zwier against us, I might serve you with the following reply. “You are prejudiced. You deny general atonement to begin with, and hence also these passages of Peter and John must be interpreted to harmonize with your prejudgments. Your prejudices in the matter of atonement lead you to corrupt these clear passages from Scripture in such a fashion that after all these false prophets were not bought at all and Jesus is not the propitiation for the sins of the whole world. You permit your dogmatics to dominate your exegesis. The result is, that your exegesis is no exegesis at all. It is not exegesis when you impose your own prejudgments upon the text of Holy Writ. That is ‘iniegkunde.’”
“But,” you object once more, “does Scripture not teach that Christ atoned for the elect only? Did He not buy only them that were given Him of the Father? Is He not a propitiation for the sins of the elect only? Must statements such as were quoted from Peter and John not be interpreted in the light of the passages that teach that atonement is only for the elect? How then can you speak of a general atonement?”
If I were to answer in the language the Rev. Zwier employs against us in “De Wachter” of May 10, might I, if so inclined, not reply to the above in the following manner? “I can speak of a general atonement because Scripture teaches it. We do not in rationalistic style endeavor to reconcile these two. We bow as well as you do before the truth that atonement is particular. But we submit just as respectfully to the truth that these false prophets were bought and that Jesus is the propitiation for the sins of the whole world. We are convinced that the passages on limited atonement give us no license to deprive such passages as these of their power. No, we cannot reconcile these two. For our minds they are contradictory. God is the Incomprehensible One. Hence, never again ask us to reconcile the two lines so plainly taught in Scripture. We believe both, but cannot comprehend it. You always come with your human logic. You refuse to believe that God is the Incomprehensible One. Your human logic determines your view of atonement.”
Would such an answer convince you that you have been served with a rational and correct reply?
This is but one illustration. More could be given. The reader must sense where such methods of exegesis must bring us in the end. They must cripple all consistent exposition of Scripture. And in this case they would certainly deprive the Reformed people of the argument they have always employed against the exponents of the doctrine of general atonement.
The Rev. Zwier’s reasoning in his article on Acts 14; 16, 17 is dangerous, too, because of the end to which it will certainly lead. He may tell his readers that the curse of the Lord and His blessing are in the house of the wicked at the same time; that the prosperity of the wicked is in order that they shall be destroyed forever and at the same time an evidence of God’s favorable attitude toward them; that it is sinful rationalism and entirely unnecessary to endeavor to reconcile the two; that the readers must believe both, however contradictory they may seem to us; but this latter will never be. These things are not true, neither will the Rev. Zwier’s readers believe them. The result will be that only God’s favor to the wicked will remain in the consciousness of the church and Psalms 73 and 92 and numerous other passages will be forgotten. The latter will be conveniently relegated to the secret counsel of God, to the things with which we may not concern ourselves. Only general love and grace to all men will abide in the mind of the church. All that is distinctively Reformed will be lost for the church, and the latter will become Arminian and modern more and more. Have not leaders in the Christian Reformed churches complained long before 1924 that the church was drifting rapidly into these very dangers? How much of that which is peculiarly Reformed still lives in the consciousness of the masses? And, despite his own assurances to the contrary, if the Christian Reformed churches continue to drift into waters that are foreign and dangerous and end ultimately in complete Arminianism and modernism, the Rev. Zwier may claim a full share of the credit(?). By opposing where he should have defended, he has done much to lead the church away from the unadulterated Reformed truth.
Who in times past suffered all nations to walk in their own ways. Nevertheless he left not himself without witness, in that he did good, and gave us rain from heaven, and fruitful seasons, filling our hearts with food and gladness.
Finally, the passage under discussion gives no occasion whatever for the exegesis the Rev. Zwier gives of it, nor for the remarks made in his article on this text.
What does Acts 14:16, 17 teach? That God, even in the old dispensation, did not leave Himself without witness to the heathen world. He did good from heaven, giving rain and fruitful seasons, filling them with food and gladness. Thus He revealed Himself as the One Who must be thanked and served. This “doing good” does not imply an attitude of favor at all. It refers to God’s perfect actions toward the heathen. God never does evil, even though the creature’s every act is such. God acted at all times according to divine perfection and holiness. His every act reveals that He is God, and One Who must be thanked and served. That goodness is revealed here in the rain and fruitful seasons, food and gladness He gives. Good things they were, revealing God unto the recipients. However, God suffered them to walk in their own ways of sin and destruction. At the risk of again being accused of rationalism and drawing unwarranted conclusions I would ask: what kind of a favorable attitude is one that suffers people to walk in the way of iniquity and destruction? The fact is, that even though God witnessed of Himself to the heathen, yet there was no grace or gracious attitude to apply that witness unto salvation. God did good, but not in grace. The Rev. Zwier would not deny that God can also do good even though His attitude be one of sovereign and righteous indignation!
This exposition of the word in question is in perfect accord with Scripture. The Rev. Zwier writes of the “simple and natural meaning of the word, which also elsewhere in Scripture is used to denote benefits, that proceed from a favorable attitude.” There is no reason to write of this “favorable attitude.” The word used in the original for “doing good” (there are two words in the Greek, both of which, however, are so nearly alike, that they may be regarded as one) is found in but seven places, 1 Timothy 6:18, Mark 3:4, Luke 6:9, Luke 6:33 and 35, Acts 14:17, and I John 11. Please read these passages carefully and determine for yourself how much truth there is in the attempt of the Rev. Zwier to clinch his argument by writing about the “simple and natural meaning of the word, which also elsewhere in Scripture is used to designate benefits, that proceed from a favorable attitude.” All these passages have nothing to do with any attitude, favorable or otherwise. They speak of doing good, doing well, doing right over against that which is evil. When we interpret Acts 14:16, 17 as we do, we are in perfect accord with the common usage of the word in Scripture. The Lord did well, gave good gifts, acted in such a manner that the heathen could see Him as the good God, Who was worthy to be thanked and served. He did good, not because of a favorable attitude or to bless, but in order that He should not be without witness, while He nevertheless suffered them to walk in their own ways.
The Rev. Zwier should not have written that Acts 14:16, 17 teaches as positively as possible that God’s common goodness (favorable attitude) also extends to the heathen. Nor should he have told his readers that this passage presents irrefutable evidence of common grace to the heathen.
The Rev. Zwier should not insinuate that we explain this text as we do, because we have a preconceived notion of the grace of God. One must have just that to discover common grace in Acts 14:17.
The Reverend does wrong when he states that our exegesis of this passage is no exegesis at all and that we force our own prejudices upon the Word of God. When common grace, a favorable attitude toward the heathen who perished in their sins, and the doctrine that God blesses the wicked is all carried into the expression “doing good,” whereas the text itself interprets it as a further explanation of the immediately preceding “nevertheless he left not Himself without witness,” who is guilty of “iniegkunde”?
The Rev. Zwier should not maintain that we corrupt the simple and natural meaning of the word in question for no other reason than that we insist on maintaining our own personal prejudgments in the matter of common grace. The element of a “favorable attitude” our accuser himself forces upon the text.
The writer of “Dogmatische Onderwerpen” should not attempt to leave the impression that Scripture uses this word only to designate benefits that proceed from a favorable attitude. Nothing is farther from the truth.
The Rev. Zwier should not give an altogether unwarranted exegesis of the text and then say: Never again ask me how to reconcile it with other passages in Scripture. That is as childish as it is wrong.
The Reverend should not write, “Paul here reckons with both truths: God’s sovereign reprobation as well as His common goodness. But he does not attempt to harmonize the two.” That is untrue. Paul speaks of God’s sovereign reprobation and His not leaving Himself without witness, doing good from heaven. God “in times past suffered all nations to walk in their own ways; nevertheless He left not Himself without witness.” There is no contradiction here, nor even a seeming contradiction. It takes no rationalism whatsoever to see the unity in this text. While God suffers the heathen to walk in their own ways, they nevertheless receive His witness, sufficient to leave them without excuse. That witness consists in the good that God does to them even while He suffers them to walk in the way of sin and destruction.
God can also do good in wrath and sovereign hatred.
If Acts 14:16, 17 is such a perfect proof for common grace as the Rev. Zwier claims it to be,—I am satisfied.
What must we think of the passages that are less clear?