“Unactualized Possibilites”…and the Confessions

The Reformed conception of divine sovereignty has been forged in the fires of controversy. In particular that doctrine has come into repeated conflict with the doctrine of human freedom and human responsibility. Time and time again the church has been called upon to explain these truths in the light of divine sovereignty. Again and again the church has tended to drift either toward a hyper-Calvinism in which human freedom and responsibility are destroyed or toward an Arminianism which destroys divine sovereignty. Once again this issue is being raised.

In the March torch and trumpet we sought in an introductory article to show how this issue was raised by Dr. James Daane. For purposes of clarity we will quote again the statement which we believe raises this issue. It is found in a footnote on page 68 of his book A Theology of Grace. “Van Til has defined possibility as that which is coextensive with the counsel of God. Thus in this conception there are no real possibilities except those which already are or shall be actualized. Van Til regards it as inconceivable that the counsel of God should include genuine possibilities that do not become actualities in history. Such a conception of possibility is sheer determinism and cannot be reconciled with the traditionally held position that Adam was created with the freedom not to sin. Nor does the Bible speak as though all unactualized possibilities are unreal and nonexistent possibilities. Jesus in Gethsemane did not act on the principle that there are no possibilities but those which are in fact actualized. Cf. also Paul’s statement in I Corinthians 2:7, 8, ‘We speak God’s wisdom in a mystery…which God foreordained before the worlds unto our glory: which none of the rulers of this world hath known; for had they known it, they would not have crucified the Lord of Glory.’” (Daane’s Italics).

When Dr. Daane affirms that there are possibilities in the counsel of God which are unactualized (i.e., do not come to pass) he is saying that there are certain portions of the divine decree which are never realized. This of course means that something other than the decree and counsel of God determines what does come to pass. Whether Dr. Daane would assign that power of determination to natural law or human freedom or chance or some other cause is not known and at least for the moment is not important. But what is important is that whatever is ultimately responsible for determining what comes to pass is something that is totally independent of God and his counsel.


It should be instructive at this juncture to consider what Reformed theologians of the past have had to say on the relation between the divine decree and the outworking of that decree in divine providence. Let us hear first from Dr. Louis Berkhof who, treating of this subject in volume one of his Reformed Dogmatics, says on page 84, “The decree of God bears the closest relation to the divine knowledge. There is in God, as we have seen, a necessary knowledge—a knowledge including all possible causes and results. This knowledge furnishes the material for the decree; it is the perfect fountain out of which God drew the thoughts which he desired to objectify [actualize ez]. Out of his knowledge of all things possible he chose, by an act of his perfect will, led by wise considerations, what he wanted to bring to realization, and thus formed his eternal purposes.” Here Dr. Berkhof makes the proper distinctions. It is to be freely admitted that God knows all possibilities, all things which could ever come to pass, given every conceivable set of circumstances or conditions. But not all these possibilities known to God come to pass. God has chosen by an act of his perfect will, led by wise considerations, to bring to pass only certain of the myriad possibilities conceivable to him. Herman Bavinck speaks in this way: “…all the ideas contained in the divine decrees and thereby designed for realization outside of the divine essence are derived from the fulness of knowledge eternally immanent in God” (The Doctrine of God, p. 338). Here again we see that the decree contains only those possibilities which are going to be actualized in history. Again on page 369 Bavinck declares, “Scripture everywhere affirms that whatsoever is and comes to pass is the realization of God’s thought and will, and has its origin and idea in God’s eternal counsel or decree.” Bavinck knows nothing whatsoever of “unactualized possibilities in the counsel of God.” Charnock, Cunningham, Calvin, Turretin, Dick, Edwards, Hodge and others bearing the Reformed stamp upon their works all unhesitatingly concur that the eternal counsel of God and his providence are mutually exhaustive; that, in the words of the Westminster Confession of Faith, “God from all eternity did, by the most wise and holy counsel of his will, freely and unchangeably ordain whatsoever comes to pass.”

We must next turn to the doctrinal symbols of the Christian Reformed Church to see whether tWs idea of “unactualized possibilities in the counsel of God” is supported or condemned. We may look first at question 26 of the Heidelberg Catechism: “What do you believe when you say: I believe in God the Father, Almighty, Maker of Heaven and Earth?” The answer: “That the eternal Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who of nothing made heaven and earth with all that is in them, who likewise upholds and governs tile same by His eternal counsel and providence (italics ez.), is for the sake of Christ His Son, my God and my Father.” There is thus established in the catechism a very close connection between counsel and providence. It is to be admitted that the answer does not affirm the fact that they are mutually exhaustive. Thus room might be left for “unactualized possibilities.” Ursinus, the author of the catechism, goes on in the answer to question 27 to define providence by saying that it is “The Almighty and everywhere present power of God; whereby, as it were by his hand, he upholds and governs heaven, earth, and all creatures, and so governs them that…all things come not by chance, but by his fatherly hand.” But even this is not necessarily conclusive. One could presumably speak of a general fatherly care which was not immediately and necessarily united with the eternal counsel.

The precise meaning, however, is brought out very clearly by Ursinus in Ws commentary on the catechism. We read, “Providence is the eternal, most free, immutable, wise, just, and good counsel of God, according to which he effects all good things in his creatures; permits also evil things to be done, and directs all, both good and evil, to his own glory and the salvation of his people.” In the mind of the author of the Heidelberg Catechism there is such an intimate relation between providence and the eternal counsel of God, that they can be equated one to the other: “providence is the eternal…counsel of God.” Ursinus How, O how can we believe this? Ah, this is the light that shines from the empty tomb. Calvary is lit up by resurrection glory. That’s the order of revelation, isn’t it? We would live with Jesus. But that can only be after we die with him.

I would reign with Him in glory. But then I must first behold Him under the weight of the infinite wrath of God; I must look down into the abyss of hell’s torments; I must see myself in that convict there; I must confess, “Blessed and only living God, it is my death He suffers, it is my iniquity he pays, and it is just and good. Accept Thou my praise in all eternity.” Is that faith essentially different from Abraham’s? Or less? But surely, without the resurrection it’s all fiction and loss. But now is Christ raised. He is made my Wisdom, and my Righteousness, and my Sanctification, and my Redemption.

“Give me a trumpet that I may sound!” We see by faith what Gabriel desires to look into. No wonder “they disbelieved for joy.”

What was too bad to be true, was true. Jesus died. What was too good to be true, was true. Christ arose. Thanks, O Spirit of Pentecost, for the revelation! And for this faith!