God’s Sovereignty and Secular Casuality

The concern of the 1966 Synod of the Christian Reformed Church with the views of Professor Harold Dekker again sharply focused attention on the atonement of Christ. Attention centered around the problem of differentiating between the love of God and the atonement as it relates to the redeemed and the non-redeemed. In its report the Synodical Study Committee referred to the writings of Dr. James Daane from time to time. It referred to his article, “Christ’s Atonement and God’s Sovereignty” (Ref. Jour., April, 1965). The Committee failed to agree with Daane’s theological conclusions, but it did not deal with the main contention of the article. Therein Daane argued that Reformed theology has used a secular view of causality as an essential part of its theological method. I would like to pursue that subject a bit further here.

In order to set the context for the problem we must present the opening paragraphs of Daane’s discussion. He writes as follows:

“Reformed theology in our Christian Reformed churches has reached the point where it teaches that there is only one grace of God and that there are two graces of God, each essentially different from the other. It has also reached the point where we officially confess with the Canons of Dort and the Heidelberg Catechism that the atonement of Christ is infinite, and where we think in terms of limited atonement and regard this doctrine, too, as having normative, creedal value.

“How have we arrived at this point where we make contrary affirmations about the same doctrine? We did not deliberately set out to arrive at this point, for all arrival we are both surprised and confused. I suggest that we were carried there. By what? By our adopted theological method.

“In adopting this method we were not aware that it is a secular, philosophic-scientific, and not a biblically-grounded, authentic theological method. It is a secular one because it regards the grace of God and the atonement of Christ as a philosophic-scientific principle of causality.”(p. 16)

We  notice at once that Daane has set up a disjunct which applies to our view of atonement. He suggests that infinite atonement and limited atonement are contrary armations. The Study Committee refused this disjunct and repudiated it. It asserted that the atonement can have infinite value and still have limited application because the Scriptures do not teach that election is universal.

When Daane begins by asserting that “we” of Reformed theology are using the wrong method he apparently includes all recent Reformed theologicans. Later he does become more specific. He then tries to saddle his largely hypothetical method on the back of the late Professor Louis Berkhof. Daane uses Berkhof as proof that he is not tilting with a straw man. Perhaps, we can best discover who uses the method Daane suggests by taking a close look at the method as such.

The principle of causality which Daane has in mind assumes that the effect is inherent in the cause. If we fully understand the effect then we can fully understand the cause and vice versa. Strictly speaking, as applied to the physical sciences, this view assumes that the cause and its effect are continuous. They are only separable segments of a continuous series.

Kant saw the implications of this view of causality. He said it could not be used as a proof for the existence of God. The most it would yield would be a First Cause and not the God of Christianity. If the effect is continuous with the cause then any relationship of causality between Cod and the cosmos must also be continuous. This can only lead to a non-Christian kind of continuity between Cod and creation; a continuity which spells pantheism. Reformed theologians have repudiated this kind of emphasis on immanence by bringing in scriptural concepts of transcendence. Reformed theologians have not subscribed to a rationalistic type of determinism which would follow from a deterministic causality though at times they have been tempted to use “a posteriori” arguments for the existence of God. Neither have they generally tried to solve the causality problem, Barthian fashion, by holding the immanence-transcendence poles in dialectic tension.

Implicit in Daane’s criticism is the idea that with an appropriation of the secular principle of causality “we” of Reformed theology have deduced certain invalid conclusions which restrict God’s freedom. “We” have argued syllogistically to the wrong conclusions. This should now be examined in detail.

Generally, there arc three ways by which one may subscribe to a premise from which he can draw a syllogistic conclusion. (1) One may accept a premise on faith from an authority if he has sufficient confidence in the authority. (2) One may assume a premise to be self-evident or axiomatic as, for example, the theorems of mathematics. (3) One may study a host of specific instances and then come to a general conclusion which he feels can be safely applied to all the instances. If we trust the reliability of a premise obtained by anyone of these methods we will trust the reliability of the conclusion deduced from the premise, assuming we have made a correct and valid deduction.

Daane’s criticism leaves the impression that Reformed theologians have arrived at the doctrine of limited atonement by some invalid means and once having appropriated the principle they apply the secular principle of casuality to conclude that God’s grace must be limited because its effect, the atonement. is limited. Daane argues that such a method is unscriptural and he is right.

But is this the method and is this the principle of causality which is involved? I think not. Is it not rather the case that by careful study of the Scriptures Reformed theologians have been forced to the conclusion that the atonement is not universal. Assuming that there may be semantic difficulties in any attempt to make distinctions, it is still necessary to conclude that “one shall be taken and the other left” We need not, therefore, assume that Reformed theologians have fallen into a deductive trap which has been baited with a secular principle of causality.

Deduction from such a secular principle of causality, as Daane rightly asserts, implies an “iron-clad necessity.” In this connection Daane goes on to say, “But this is not true of God’s grace, nor of Christ’s atonement. God’s grace is, what it is. Whether it effects the salvation of only a few men, or of many men, or of all men, it is and remains the same. Indeed, the grace of God is not obligated by its nature to save any man” (p. 16).

No one will argue that God’s grace is not what it is. 1t is also not affected by the deductions of systematic theologians. But. unless all predication is impossible and we are not allowed to sum up the truths of revelation in propositional form, then we certainly can say something different about God’s grace if it does not effect the salvation of all men or if it does effect the salvation of all men. Furthermore, to say that God is not obligated to save any man is certainly correct. But to say that God’s saving grace is not obligated to save any man is to talk nonsense as without its manifestation in the salvation of some men, and God’s revelation that He will and does so manifest Himself, there is no grace to talk about.

To say that God’s grace is what it is also does not force the conclusion that theologians may not make certain differentiating statements once revelation has indicated that God does differentiate. In addition, it would also be valid for theologians to make some deductions about the way God deals with men once God has revealed in the Scriptures and in history that he does deal with men in definite kinds of ways. To deny this possibility would be tantamount to the assumption that God acts out of sheer caprice and that His will is completely arbitrary. The Scriptures do not sustain that conclusion (Mal. 3:6 inter alia).

If one rejects the secular philosophic-scientific notion of causality which Daane alleges to be part of the Reformed theological method, is he then on safe ground? Hardly. There is another secular philosophic-scientific view of causality which is just as unbiblical and which can also serve as the foundation for a theological method. The principle Daane suggested grew out of Cartesian rationalism and Newtonian physics. It is now largely passe in philosophic-scientific thought. Today physicists have come to a principle of indeterminancy by their own methods. This ties them in conveniently with the philosophic principles of causality which the philosophers of science had inherited from the English empiricist, David Hume.

Hume suggested that there is nothing in the nature of things and events outside of the mind in which the operations of causality can inhere. He maintained that we only habituate ourselves to the notion of causality because we notice temporal sequence and physical contiguity. In other words, we only think causality. It really is not in operation in things.

Hume argued that we can conceive of various causes having different effects than those which they actually have. For example, when I release an object from my hand, I would not be involved in a contradiction if I conceived the idea that the object might hit the ceiling upon my releasing it. Hume went on to argue that there is no necessity in physical nature. The only necessary relationships we experience are relationships in thought. For example, the relationship between the premises and the conclusion of a syllogism is a necessary relationship. All necessary relationships are analytical. In the physical world and in the course of history, we can only predict with uncertain probability. There is no certainty in the created order. Hume would delete from nature the ordinances of God.

Hume’s notion of causality, which led him to skepticism as to the nature of reality, has been the foundation for the theories of knowledge appropriated by present day secular scientists. They, for the most part, subscribe to a universe which in its ultimate operations flounders aimlessly in a boundless ocean of chance. There is complete indeterminancy in their principle.

Hume’s kind of philosophic-scientific principle of causality can also be related to a theological method. it is the method of the Arminian. The Arminian view assumes that God must wait for man to make up his mind before God can know whether any particular man will be saved. There are, therefore, events in the unfolding course of history which are surprises for God. The Arminan’s God can only predict in a sort of Humean way based on probabilities. He cannot know certainly the course of events in advance.

If, as we should, we want to avoid infringing on the sovereignty of God, we must repudiate a Cartesian or Hegelian kind of rationalistic determinism. This gives no guarantee, however, that we have avoided a secular principle of causality. We may have avoids the crags of determinism only to be lost in the whirlpool of complete contingency. The presence of one man who is able to make up his own mind about his salvation independent of divine election or non-election impinges on the sovereignty of God with all the force of a competing ultimate. This may have the ring of a syllogistic conclusion but that does not make it ipso facto unbiblical (Cf. Daniel 4:35).

Daane asks, “Do we want in any sense to locate the explanations for the non-salvation, or damnation of some men in the nature of the atonement and in the nature of God’s grace? Surely it is enough to explain the damnation or non-salvation of the lost in terms of their sin and unbelief. The Bible docs not find the explanation in the nature of God’s grace (non-saving), or in the nature of the atonement (limited). Sin and unbelief and God’s judgment upon them are sufficient explanation. To go beyond sin and unbelief to account for the non-salvation of the lost is an attempt to locate in God, in His grace, or in His atonement, a cause that accounts for sin and unbelief”(p. 17).

Two things are noticeable in the above statement. As is his wont Daane makes a categorical statement about the biblical intent of the precise point of controversy without giving any biblical backing for his categorical assertion. Secondly, we cannot avoid the conclusion that, like Dr. Harry Boer, Daane does not like to use the word reprobation.

Nevertheless, it should be obvious that no maHer what the semantic variant, biblically, one must conclude that neither the saved nor the remaining unsaved come to their eventual state independent of the fore-ordination and the will of God. We can then say something about God’s part in the course of these events (Cf. II Thes. 2:11, 12). If we say that some men are chosen and some are not, the concept of selection comes into play, assuming we may use concepts. For example, if one picks fifty items out of a box containing one hundred, then there is a sense in which it is correct to say that the remaining fifty have been rejected. The word rejected may then also carry a hint of positive action. At this point we have almost completed a semantic return to the word “reprobation.”

To sum up, it would seem that no matter what word we use, we must admit that the redeemed and the non-redeemed do not and cannot act out of consonance with God’s sovereign will. We must avoid “iron-clad necessity” in thinking this through or we cio, indeed, come to a rationalistic determinism. On the other hand, we must not underlay our theological method with a Humean kind of contingency whereby man freely chooses for good or evil and bis belief or unbelief are the only determinants in his ultimate weal or woe. This also constitutes a secular and unbiblical principle of causality.

It does not now seem that Reformed theologians proceeded on the basis of the secular principle suggested by Daane or on the basis of the secular principle which he overlooked. Reformed theologians, as did the Study Committee, have insisted that God’s sovereignty and man’s responsibility both be recognized. They have not attempted to explain these rationally but have been content to leave their interplay veiled in the mystery of God’s inscrutable will. They have not tried to work this out to a perspicuous science as did Paul’s detractor in Romans 9 to whom Paul replied, “Nay, but, O man, who art thou that repliest against God?” This does not preclude saying some things about God’s grace once God has said some things about it. Daane suggested that Reformed theologians have unwittingly strengthened their arguments with re-enforements called in from the camp of Hegel. Daane may well be under caution to note whether he may not himself have unwittingly backed into the camp of David Hume.

Reformed theologians have been accused of being more than a little influenced by philosophical ideas and methods. This criticism has been leveled against such men as the late Prof. Louis Berkhof by Dr. James Daane.

In this article Prof. N.R. Van Til of Dordt College, Sioux Center, Iowa, challenges this criticism and suggests that, perhaps, Dr. Daane has fallen into this error himself.