Calvinism Has No Use for Such Drivel (Bavinck)

Reformed Dogmatics, Vol. 2 Some have said that the Pelagian or Semi-Pelagian view of God, evil, election, salvation, and damnation is more kind and loving than the Calvinist view.  If you’ve heard that, it’s completely false.  I usually like to keep posts shorter than this, but Herman Bavinck’s full section on the topic is worth reading.  After spending quite some time discussing the Scripture texts that talk about reprobation, God rejecting and hardening some people, using Pharoah to show his power, and displaying his absolute sovereignty in and through evil, Bavinck applies this truth:

These numerous strong pronouncements of Scripture are daily confirmed in the history of humankind. The defenders of reprobation, accordingly, have always appealed to these appalling facts, of which history is full. Present in this world there is so much that is irrational, so much undeserved suffering, so many inexplicable disasters, such unequal and incomprehensible apportionment of good and bad fortune, such a heartbreaking contrast between joy and sorrow, that any thinking person has to choose between interpreting it—as pessimism does—in terms of the blind will of some misbegotten deity, or on the basis of Scripture believingly trusting in the absolute, sovereign, and yet—however incomprehensible—wise and holy will of him who will some day cause the full light of heaven to shine on those riddles of our existence.

The acceptance or rejection of a decree of reprobation, therefore, should not be explained in terms of a person’s capacity for love and compassion. The difference between Augustine and Pelagius, Calvin or Castellio, Gomarus and Arminius is not that the latter were that much more gentle, loving, and tender-hearted than the former. On the contrary, it arises from the fact that the former accepted Scripture in its entirety, also including this doctrine; that they were and always wanted to be theistic and recognize the will and hand of the Lord also in these disturbing facts of life; that they were not afraid to look reality in the eye even when it was appalling.

Pelagianism scatters flowers over graves, turns death into an angel, regards sin as mere weakness, lectures on the uses of adversity, and considers this the best possible world. Calvinism has no use for such drivel. It refuses to be hoodwinked. It tolerates no such delusion, takes full account of the seriousness of life, champions the rights of the Lord of lords, and humbly bows in adoration before the inexplicable sovereign will of God Almighty. As a result it proves to be fundamentally more merciful than Pelagianism. How deeply Calvin felt the gravity of what he said is evident from his use of the expression “dreadful decree.” Totally without warrant, this expression has been held against him. In fact, it is to his credit, not to his discredit. The decree, as Calvin’s teaching, is not dreadful, but dreadful indeed is the reality that is the revelation of that decree of God, a reality that comes through both in Scripture and in history. To all thinking humans, whether they are followers of Pelagius or Augustine, that reality remains completely the same. It is not something that can in any way be undone by illusory notions of it.

Now, in the context of this dreadful reality, far from coming up with a solution, Calvinism comforts us by saying that in everything that happens, it recognizes the will and hand of an almighty God, who is also a merciful Father. While Calvinism does not offer a solution, it invites us humans to rest in him who lives in unapproachable light, whose judgments are unsearchable, and whose paths are beyond tracing out. There lay Calvin’s comfort: “The Lord to whom my conscience is subject will be my witness that the daily meditation on his judgments leaves me so speechless that no curiosity tempts me to know anything more, no sneaking suspicion concerning his incomparable justice creeps over me, and in short, no desire to complain seduces me.” And in that peaceful state of mind he awaited the day when he would see [God] face to face and be shown the solution of these riddles.

Well said.  Agreed.

The quotes are from Herman Bavinck, John Bolt, and John Vriend, Reformed Dogmatics: God and Creation, vol. 2 (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2004), 394–395.

Shane Lems
Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC)
Hammond, WI

That Which We Cannot Comprehend

The Plain Man's  Pathway To Heaven (Paperback) ~ Arthur Dent Cover Art Arthur Dent (d. 1607) wrote one of the most popular Puritan devotional works in the 17th century: The Plain Man’s Pathway to Heaven.   This book was reprinted over 50 times in the 17th century, and John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress was greatly influenced by it.  In The Plain Man’s Pathway, Dent records a fictional but instructive dialogue between four people: a Christian theologian/pastor, an honest man, an ignorant man, and a wicked man.  The dialogue covers the basics of the faith: sin, depravity, regeneration, the gospel, obedience, etc.

The following is a helpful section where the Christian pastor-theologian explains to the ignorant man that we cannot know all the secrets of God’s will in predestination, reprobation, and election:

“…Certain it is, that God, for just causes, albeit unknown and hid to us, hath rejected a great part of men.  The causes, I say, of reprobation are [ultimately] hid in the eternal counsel of God, and known to his godly wisdom only.  They are secret and hid from us; reserved in his eternal wisdom to be revealed at the glorious appearing of our Lord Jesus.  His judgments, saith the Scriptures, are as a great deep, and his ways past finding out.  It is as possible for us to comprehend the ocean sea in a little dish, as to comprehend the reason of God’s counsel in this behalf [matter].”

“…[Though] we can never comprehend the reason of God’s proceeding in this behalf [matter], yet we must know that his will is the rule of righteousness, and must be unto us instead of a thousand reasons; for whatsoever God willeth, inasmuch as he willeth it, is to be holden [considered] just.  WE cannot conceive the reason of many natural things, and things subject to sense, [such] as the motion of the celestial bodies, their inconceivable swiftness, their matter and substance, their magnitude, altitude, and latitude.  We cannot thoroughly find out the cause of thunder, lightning, winds, earthquakes, ebbing and flowing of the sea, and many other things under the sun.”

“How then can we possibly ascend up to the privy [private] chamber and council-house of God, to sift and search out the bottom of God’s secrets, which no wit or reach of man can any way attain unto?  Let us therefore learn in God’s fear to reverence that which we cannot in this life comprehend” (p. 225-226).

This book is available on Kindle or paperback for a decent price (FYI, I quoted from the paperback).  It does use some archaic language, which is why I added a few words above for clarification.  However, though it is somewhat lengthy (c. 300 pages), it’s not too tough to read if you’re somewhat familiar with older English.   I’m sure I’ll quote more later from this excellent and edifying book, The Plain Man’s Pathway.

shane lems

Double Predestination in the Carolingian Era

In the 9th century, a Saxon monk named Gottschalk taught what is known today as double predestination.  Swedish historian Bengt Hagglund explains it this way: “[Gottschalk] claimed (with some justification) that he found support for his teaching in the writings of Augustine” (p. 153).  Hagglund goes on.

“Gottschalk did not say…that certain persons are predestined to evil.  What is rather decided beforehand is that the ungodly will receive the punishment which they deserve, just as the righteous will receive eternal life.  In both cases, therefore, the right thing is done. …The atonement wrought by Christ applies only to those elected to eternal life” (p. 153).

Hagglund also quotes Gottschalk – here’s Gottschalk:

“For just as the unchangeable God, prior to the creation of the world, by his free grace unchangeably predestined all of his elect to eternal life, so has this unchangeable God in the same way unchangeably predestined all of the rejected, who shall be condemned to eternal death for their evil deeds on judgment day according to his justice as they deserve.”

Though some defended Gottschalk, his view was condemned at a synod in 849 and he was banished to a monastic prison for 20 years.  Why was he banished and his view condemned? Because, as Hagglund notes, the church of the day emphasized the freedom of the will and man’s cooperation with grace.  In other words, his views weren’t appreciated because of the semi-pelagian theological context.  As a side note, it is good to remember that the calvinistic Reformers didn’t make up double predestination; it wasn’t a theological novelty.

Quotes taken from Bengt Hagglund’s History of Theology (Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1968).

shane lems

sunnyside wa

Predestination

   J. Gresham Machen (d. 1937) has an oustanding explanation of predestination in his little book The Christian View of ManI realize this biblical doctrine is a tough one.  If you’ve wrestled with it or know someone who struggles with this doctrine, I recommend reading chapters 3-6 of The Christian View of Man.  I’ll give a few excerpts below.  First, he says the main question at hand is

“…whether a man is predestinated by God to salvation because he believes in Christ or is enabled to believe in Christ because he is predestinated.”

After discussing a few different views of predestination, he notes this:

“[The Bible] is utterly opposed to the view that God does not know what man will decide, and it is equally opposed to the view that what God foreknows he does not foreordain.  Over against such views, it tells us in the clearest possible way, not only in general that God has foreordained all things according to the counsel of his will but also in particular that he has foreordained the salvation of some men and the loss of others.”

“We do not, indeed know what the reason for God’s choice is. … But because we do not know what the reason is for God’s choice of some and his passing by of others, that does not mean there is no reason.  As a matter of fact, there is without doubt an altogether good and sufficient reason.  We can be perfectly sure of that.  God never acts in arbitrary fashion; he acts always in accordance with infinite wisdom; all his acts are directed to infinitely high and worthy ends.  We must just trust him for that.  We do not know why God has acted thus and not otherwise, but we know the  One who knows and we rest in his infinite justice and goodness and wisdom.”

“Little hope have we, my friends, if our salvation depends upon ourselves; but the salvation of which the Bible speaks is rooted in the eternal counsel of God. [Here Machen quotes Rom 8.28 & 30]  There, my friends, is the true ground of all our comforts – not in our love, not in our faith, not in anything that is in us, but in that mysterious and eternal counsel of God from which comes all faith, all love, all that we have and are and can be in this world and in the world to come.”

Again, this is an outstanding treatment of predestination.  Machen (as always) writes clearly, biblically, and pastorally.  He deals with objections well, and ends this section with a brief discussion of the beauty of God’s gracious act of choosing and saving wicked rebels.  If you haven’t read this book, The Christian View of Man, I’d say get it!  It is written for the average layperson, so most thoughtful Christians will be able to benefit from it.  While I’m at it, I also recommend What is Faith by Machen, which is one of the best presentations of faith alone and justification that I’ve read – its right up there with some of Luther’s sermons.  [I also need to note that each of these books is less than $10 – probably under $5 if you get them used!]

shane lems

Staying within the Limits of Revelation

In Calvin’s treatise called “God’s Eternal Predestination and Secret Providence” (an awesome piece of writing!) the Reformer continually calls his readers to stay within the limits of what God has revealed to us concerning predestination and providence.  Here’s one of the more memorable lines (one of many):

“Those who seek to know more than God has revealed are madmen.”

He uses Augustine several times to reiterate the point.  Here’s one quote of Augustine he used.

“When men ask us why God did this or that, our answer is to be, ‘Because it was his will.’  If they go on to inquire, Why did he so will it? our reply should be, ‘Now you ask what is greater and higher than the will of God itself.  You ask what none can find out.’  Let human rashness, then, keep itself within bounds.  Let it never seek after that which is not, lest it should not find that which is.”

One more by Calvin:

“Into this mirror [Christ] let the eye of our faith ever fixedly look.  Let it not desire to penetrate where access to its sight is not given.”

I always love this emphasis by Augustine and Calvin.  It is easy for knowledge-seekers to go where we should not go – we need constant reminders to stay within the limits of scripture, and stay humbly there.  It really means staying at the feet of Jesus, the sum and substance of scripture.  Wise Christians will not be afraid to say “I do not know” when asked certain deep questions.  This is part of the epistemological humility that we should pray for and seek to exhibit.

shane lems