Reprobation – The Critics and the Canons

Dr. W. Robert Godfrey is Assistant Professor of Church History at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. He is a member of the Broomall, Trinity Christian Reformed Church. An article by him on “Did the Canons Misfire? Five Points on the Synod of Dort” appeared in the June issue of THE OUTLOOK. In this article, Dr. Godfrey addresses himself directly to criticism voiced by Dr. Harry Boer and Dr. James Daane pertaining to Reprobation.

In 1975 Dr. Harry Boer addressed a letter to the Synod of the Christian Reformed Church requesting biblical evidence to support the doctrine of reprobation as taught in the Canons of Dort (particularly I, 6 and I, 15), Although Dr. Boer’s letter did riot explicitly reject the doctrine, it declared that neither the Canons nor any Reformed theologian since had offered biblical proof that was convincing.

Boer’s letter has called the church to consider once again its commitment to the Canons of Dort as a binding doctrinal standard and to their teaching on reprobation. This article will investigate the charges of some of the critics within the church in light of the Canons and their teaching on reprobation.

The Critics

Boer‘s Criticism – Questions about reprobation are not new in the church. In a series of articles in The Reformed Journal in 1965 Boer himself suggested that the traditional Reformed view of reprobation was inadequate.

In the March issue Boer listed certain “ambiguities” or paradoxes that plagued the doctrine of reprobation and made it impossible to preach. In the April issue he argued that the defense of reprobation by Herman Bavinck, Abraham Kuyper, Charles Hodge, and Louis Berkhof was based in “inference, logic, human conclusions” (p. 14), not on biblical evidence. Boer, however, offered only criticisms and failed to present an alternative to the traditional view.

Daane’s Criticism – Dr. James Daane developed some of these critical themes in his book The Freedom of God in 1973 in which he too argues that reprobation has been defended and expounded along rationalistic rather than biblical lines. A fundamental concern of the book is that the logic of reprobation destroys the freedom of God and undermines the preaching of the Gospel.

Both the historical and theological contentions of Daane’s book need to be examined. Historically Daane claims that his views are in conformity with John Calvin and the Canons of Dort. He claims not to criticize the doctrine of election and reprobation found there, but only that of later “Reformed scholasticism.”

Daane’s effort to separate the Reformed tradition into two camps and Oppose Calvin and Dort to later Calvinism will not do historically. For example, one of the few specifics he offers on the nature of Reformed scholasticism (p. 127) is almost a direct quota. tion from Calvin. Even Rev. Philip Holtrop in his very enthusiastic review of Daane’s book (Calvin Theological Review, 1975 ) rightly noted that this separation cannot be substantiated. Daane’s criticism, therefore, of Reformed scholasticism throughout his book is inevitably a criticism of the Canons of Dort.

Daane’s view, theologically, insists that election and reprobation must be considered separately. Daane argues that it is possible to maintain the sovereignty of God in the “good news” of election while placing the “bad news” of reprobation exclusively in the human will. Daane says, “For Christ is the truth of election, the reason that some men are saved, but flot the reason tlwt some are not. This means that any doctrine of reprobation is illegitimate by biblical standards except that which biblical teaching sanctions: that he who rejects God, God rejects” (p. 200). But this clearly does not conform to what the Canons of Dort say. Daane‘s view is not a fully Reformed doctrine of reprobation. Rather it is Arminian. All men reject God and would continue to do so were it not for God’s sovereign purpose which distinguishes the elect from the reprobate according to his own good pleasure.

Daane also maintains that traditional Reformed theology has erred in exclusively stressing individual election, rather than having a full doctrine of election centered in the election of Christ, Israel, and the Church. Norman Shepherd in his penetrating review article on Daane’s book (“Election as Gospel,” Westminster Theological Journal, Spring 1974 ) denies this charge (p.325) and notes Daane’s failure to establish the election of any individual except Christ (p. 327). There is a remarkable irony to Daane‘s insistence on the need for a more biblical doctrine stressing the election of Christ. He himself admits the weakness of a biblical foundation for his notion: “The election of Jesus is seldom expressed in the Gospels, yet it is the background almost everywhere” (p. 131).

Ultimately Daane rejects the traditional Reformed doctrine of reprobation because it cannot be preached or believed: “. . . if reprobation is not a proper object of faith and trust, then reprobation is indeed a most unusual Christian doctrine” (p. 21). Can this charge be answered? Can we trust and proclaim the sovereign God who elects and reprobates? Can we preach the Gospel in good conscience to all men?

Answering the Critics

In order to answer the critics of the Canons, the church must reexamine the history of the Synod of Dort. A study of the Synod will help us to appreciate anew the meaning, biblical truthfulness, and practical value of the Canons. It will also reveal an intriguing continuity in argument and style from the early seventeenth-century critics of Reformed theology to the contemporary ones.

Arminians at Synod of Dort – Controversy in the Netherlands on the subject of election and reprobation began to trouble the church significantly during the years when James Arminius was professor of theology at Leiden University (1603–1609). After Arminius’ death his followers radicalized his theology and brought the church to the verge of schism. In 1618 the Synod of Dort assembled to judge the theological opinions advanced by the Arminians (also known as the Remonstrants).

One observer at the Synod was John Hales. He was the chaplain to the English ambassador. Through his letters Hales has given us insight into the early actions of the Remonstrants at the Synod. In his letter of December 12/22, 1618 he notes that some of the Remonstrants claimed “that in the question of election they had no scruple; all their doubt was in the point of reprobation.” Episcopius, the leader of the Arminians at the Synod, maintained that “the point of reprobation is that which especially disturbs us.”

The Remonstrants persistently demanded therefore that the subject of reprobation be the first to be discussed by the Synod and offered their criticisms of the orthodox doctrine of reprobation.

The behavior of the Remonstrants drew wide criticism in the Synod. Hales, in the Jetter cited above, noted two points i.n the Remonstrant position that were particularly unpopular: “First, their propounding so many negatives. Secondly, their urging so much to handle the point of reprobation and that in the first place; whereas the synod required they should deliver themselves, as much as was possible, in affirmatives, and begin first from election, and from thence come to the point of reprobation in its due place.” One delegate to the Synod observed “That it had been the custom of all those who favored Pelagianism to trouble the church with the question of reprobation.”

Correct procedure – The Remonstrants refused to conform to the agenda of the Synod and finally had to be dismissed. The Synod then proceeded to study Arminian theology on the basis of published works. The First Head of doctrine oHers the orthodox Reformed position on election and reprobation and rejects the errors of the Remonstrants. The Canons properly explore first election and then reprobation.

Hales again noted that this was the correct procedure for three reasons: “First, because the order of nature so required, to deal of the affirmatives before the negative; and again, because that all divines whoever handled this question did hold the same order; and the Holy Ghost in Scripture had taken the same course.” Logic, history, and most importantly Scripture all testify to this order.

The Canons treated election and reprobation together under the same head of doctrine, recognizing that it is impossible fully to articulate a doctrine of election without exploring its implications for reprobation. The Arminians at Dort claimed to accept the Calvinistic concept of election and only to reject reprobation. The orthodox rightly saw that this claim was false. One’s view of election is inevitably affected by one’s view of reprobation. Election is either strengthened and clarified by a proper understanding of reprobation or ultimately undermined by a faulty one.

A balanced, careful, biblical statement – In answering the Remonstrants the Canons of Dort do in fact present a balanced, careful, bibilcal statement on reprobation. The Canons recognize that all men are actively and willfully involved in rebellion against God. In sovereign mercy God calls unto Himself many out of sinful mankind. This mercy, accomplished in Christ, can be preached to the glory of God and to the comfort of believers. In sovereign justice God leaves others in their sins and condemns them because of their sins.

This just decree can be preached to the glory of God’s justice and to maintain the sovereignty of God in the issues of salvation. Indeed the Canons themselves, precisely in I, 15, tell us how to preach reprobation because “What peculiarly tends to illustrate and recommend to us the eternal and unmerited grace of election is the express testimony of sacred Scripture that not all, but some only, are elected, while others are passed by in the eternal decree.” To abandon reprobation is to make both election and the atonement either conditional or universal. To abandon reprobation is to abandon the whole Reformed soteriology.

Questions as to Form of the Canons

While some critics have clearly rejected the teaching of the Canons, others have sought to evade the clear teaching of the Canons by raising questions about the form of the Canons.

1. One such question relates to a clause in the conclusion of the Canons of Dort. The conclusion rejects the idea “that in the same manner in which election is the fountain and cause of faith and good works, reprobation is the cause of unbelief and impiety . . . .” The clause begins “in the same manner” or eodem modo” and this phrase has become almost a slogan to oppose the teaching of the Canons I, 6 and I, 15.

The argument claims that this clause in the conclusion suggests that reprobation is not a sovereign act of God. It seems unlikely a priori that the delegates at Dort were such poor theologians that the First Head of Doctrine is contradicted by the conclusion. And indeed they were not. What the conclusion says is that sin is not a gift to the reprobate in the same way that faith is a gift to the elect. That is undoubtedly true. The conclusion in no way undermines the First Head of Doctrine but rather reiterates it.

2. Another question raised by the critics suggests that traditional Reformed theology stresses individual election in a way that makes it impossible to preach. They have complained that there is not enough attention on the election of Christ, Israel, and the Church. Yet preaching on the election of Christ, Israel, and the Church is pointless unless it includes the individual. Preaching on election must proclaim to all that salvation is of the Lord and must comfort and assure the believer. Election comforts the believer only when he knows that he as an individual is elect in the fellowship of the new Israel, the Church.

The way to proclaim election is beautifully outlined in the First Head of Doctrine, especially Canons I, 6. There is the model how the Gospel can sincerely call all to faith. The Reformed at Dort clearly and rightly declared in I, 6 that the decree of election and reprobation “to holy and pious souls affords unspeakable consolation.”

3. The most distressing question raised by the critics is the contention that there is a lack of biblical evidence for reprobation offered in the Canons. Ultimately any Christian doctrine must be established not by theological or historical arguments but by the examination of Scripture. The Canons do refer to “the express testimony of sacred Scripture” (1, 15), but do not present extensive biblical proof. That would be contrary to their primary purpose of presenting a clear, concise summary statement of the Reformed doctrine as opposed to the Arminian doctrine.

Biblical documentation of the doctrine of reprobation is not lacking, however. The words of Jesus in John 10:26 and the case of Judas, the son of perdition, are obvious examples. So too are Paul’s arguments in Romans 9:6–18 and II Thessalonians 2:7–13. In Jude 4 we read, “For admission has been secretly gained by some who long ago were designated for this condemnation . . . ,” and in I Peter 2:8, “‘A stone that will make men stumble, a rock that will make them fall’; for they stumble because they disobey the word, as they were destined to do.”

Critics Need Firm Direction

The Christian Reformed Church needs confidently and forcefully to renew its commitment to the Canons of Dort. The Canons are .a great treasure not only of a few denominations, but of Christendom as a whole. The church needs to offer firm pastoral direction for the critics, insisting on the biblical character of the doctrine of election and reprobation as taught in the Canons.

The church needs particularly to warn the critics not to continue to pursue their arguments in the Faith manner used by the Arminians at the Synod of Dort. The church cannot listen to those who only offer a negative evaluation of the Canons without stating positively their own position. The church must always see that election and reprobation must be discussed together and that one cannot be fully understood without reference to the other.

The church must call the attention of the critics to the Canons of Dort, I, 18: “To those who murmur at the free grace of election and the just severity of reprobation we answer with the apostle: ‘Nay but, O man, who art thou that repliest against God?’ (Rom. 9:20), and quote the language of our Savior: ‘Is it lawful for me to do what I will with mine own?’ (Matt. 20:15). And therefore, with holy adoration of these mysteries, we exclaim in the words of the apostle: ‘O depth of the riches both of the wisdom and the knowledge of God! how unsearchable are his judgments, and his ways past tracing out! For who hath known the mind of the Lord, or who hath been his counsellor? or who hath first given to him, and it shall be recompensed unto him again? For of him, and through him, and unto him are all things. To him be the glory for ever. Amen.’ (Rom. 11:33–36).”