Canons Of Dort (16): Scripture Teaches Both Definite Atonement And The Free Offer Of The Gospel

The Reformed confession may be wrong but it cannot be called rationalist.

Arminius and the Remonstrants, though they protested that they were merely following Scripture (as someone, somewhere said, “all heretics quote Scripture”) were, in the judgment of the Reformed churches, guilty of subtly placing reason above Scripture. It is not that there is no place for reason in Reformed theology. None of the magisterial Protestants (least of all Luther—see David Bagchi’s marvelous essay in Protestant Scholasticism: Essays in Reassessment) were committed to irrationality. Rather, they and the Reformed Churches with them sought to use reason as a servant rather than a master.

 

Rationalism is a word that gets tossed around rather casually at times. It is used without careful definition. E.g., sometimes Lutherans accuse the Reformed of rationalism because we do not accept their Christology or doctrine of the Supper. They accuse us of putting reason above Scripture. Were that true, we would indeed be guilty of a form of rationalism but in fact the Reformed Churches confess a high, mysterious doctrine of Holy Communion, in which God the Spirit is said to feed believers on the true body and blood of Christ. The Reformed confession may be wrong but it cannot be called rationalist. Call this version R2. There is at least one other major form of rationalism in the Christian tradition, namely, that view that holds that the human intellect ascends to and intersects with the divine intellect. Under the influence of this form of rationalism people have argued that we know what God knows, the way he knows it, at some point. Call this version R1 In this essay, I am more concerned about R2.

Arminius and the Remonstrants, though they protested that they were merely following Scripture (as someone, somewhere said, “all heretics quote Scripture”) were, in the judgment of the Reformed churches, guilty of subtly placing reason above Scripture. It is not that there is no place for reason in Reformed theology. None of the magisterial Protestants (least of all Luther—see David Bagchi’s marvelous essay in Protestant Scholasticism: Essays in Reassessment) were committed to irrationality. Rather, they and the Reformed Churches with them sought to use reason as a servant rather than a master.

The Remonstrants, however, rejected the assumptions on which the Reformed proceeded and substituted for them a different set of assumptions. One of those assumptions they shared with the Pelagians, namely, that for God to hold humans responsible it must be the case that humans can meet a given test (e.g., obey the law, believe etc). This assumption caused them to change the Reformed doctrine of the atonement, which holds that the Father gave to the Son a people, and the Son incarnate obeyed and died on their behalf, as their substitute. His substitutionary (active and passive) obedience and death is imputed to them. God nevertheless justly holds accountable all for their relationship to Christ. The Remonstrants argued:

Only those are obliged to believe that Christ died for them for whom Christ has died. The reprobates, however, as they are called, for whom Christ has not died, are not obligated to such faith, nor can they be justly condemned on account of the contrary refusal to believe this. In fact, if there should be such reprobates, they would be obliged to believe that Christ has not died for them.

In other words, for the Remonstrants, unless we can say that unequivocally that Christ died for “all men” and “every man” it is unjust to require of any and all that they should repent and put their trust in Jesus. This is nothing but rationalism. The unstated assumption here gets us to what I call R1 or the notion that we know what God knows, the way he knows it. The Reformed taught a strong distinction between God the Creator and us his creatures. We are analogues of God, not his equal. By definition we cannot know what God knows and certainly not the way he knows it. The great Reformed theologian, Franciscus Junius (1530–95) argued that there are “two kinds of theology,” theology as God knows it and theology as we know it. Our theology is, when it is true theology, an analogue of God’s. Think of it this way. We are not God but we are image bearers (Gen 1:26). In the same way, our theology is not God’s but it is like his. There is no mystery for God but there is mystery for us.

Indeed, Junius, who was a professor in the theology faculty of the University of Leiden, corresponded with a cocky young Dutch theologian named Jacob Arminius. They went back and forth until Junius tired of Arminius. His colleague, Franciscus Gormarus, who became famous for opposing Arminius appointment to the theology faculty, said that Junius, on his deathbed, warned him not to appoint Arminius. The governors of the University ignored Gomarus, though one supposes they later might have wished that they had listened to him. Arminius and Junius were really arguing about what we can know.

The Remonstrant proposition that only those for whom Christ died are obliged to believe in him assumes that we know more than we do. What we should do, and what the Reformed Churches do, is to call upon all men and every man to repent and believe in Jesus because we do not know a priori for whom Christ died.

Ironically, the Remonstrants and that small, noisy minority among the Reformed who deny the free or well-meant offer of the gospel ultimately agree. Both reject the distinction between the way God knows theology and the way we do. On this see “Janus, the Well-Meant Offer of the Gospel and Westminster Theology,” in David VanDrunen, ed., The Pattern of Sound Doctrine: A Festschrift for Robert B. Strimple (Phillipsburg: P&R Publishing, 2004), 149–80. What we do know is that when a person is given new life and true faith, that person is one of those for whom Christ obeyed and died. We know it after the fact (a posteriori).

The Remonstrants set up a case where Christ died for all men and every man but for no one in particular. Thus, the Reformed Churches objected:

We Reject the Errors of Those Who Teach: That Christ by His satisfaction merited neither salvation itself for any one, nor faith, whereby this satisfaction of Christ unto salvation is effectually appropriated; but that He merited for the Father only the authority or the perfect will to deal again with man, and to prescribe new conditions as He might desire, obedience to which, however, depended on the free will of man, so that it therefore might have come to pass that either none or all should fulfill these conditions. For these adjudge too contemptuously the death of Christ, in no way acknowledge that most important fruit or benefit thereby gained, and bring again out of hell the Pelagian error (CD, RE 2.3).

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