Canons of Dort (32): Our Sovereign God Uses Means To Encourage Us

The Remonstrants tried to take the Reformed churches back to the theology that had flourished between Aquinas and the the neo-Augustinian renaissance.

The YRR movement is a welcome return to aspects of classic Augustinian theology but the downside of this recovery is that it is truncated. It has no doctrine of the church and its adherents mostly downplay a vital aspect of the Reformed confession: the God who is sovereign also uses means to accomplish his purposes. Many of those who adhere to the YRR/New Calvinism reject the Reformed doctrine of the church and sacraments.

 

The Augustinian Renaissance

For perhaps 20 years we have been in the midst of a movement which Collin Hansen (2008) described as Young, Restless, and Reformed. Others have spoken of the “New Calvinists” (see the resources below). The one doctrine that animates these movements is the sovereignty of God. For many American evangelicals it is a given that God has his opinion and we have ours. That was the evangelical world I met in the 1970s. For many, perhaps most evangelicals, the idea that God is absolutely sovereign is considered an unknown, exotic, or bizarre doctrine. Of course, the doctrine of divine sovereignty has deep roots in the history of Christian thought. In the fifth century the Council of Ephesus (431) condemned Pelagianism, which undermined divine sovereignty and openly denied the doctrine of grace. By the 9th century, when Gottschalk of Orbais resuscitated Augustine’s theology, he was beaten and put under house arrest. In the 13th century, however, Thomas Aquinas taught unequivocally God’s divine sovereignty in unconditional election and even in reprobation. In the late medieval period there was a renaissance of Augustinian theology and that movement helped to fuel the Protestant Reformation. It was essential to Martin Luther’s Protestant breakthrough as he rediscovered Augustine’s doctrines of grace while he lectured on the Psalms in 1513–14 and the magisterial Protestants (as distinct from the Anabaptists, who mostly rejected the Reformation doctrine of salvation by grace alone, through faith alone) followed him. Zwingli, Bucer, Melanchthon (contrary to some reports) and Calvin were all thoroughgoing Augustinians.

The Remonstrants, however, rejected the Protestant Augustinian consensus. They tried to take the Reformed churches back to the theology that had flourished between Aquinas and the the neo-Augustinian renaissance, i.e., the theology of William of Ockham and Gabriel Biel. Arminius adopted Molina’s doctrine of middle knowledge (see the introductory posts in this series for more on this), which made God dependent upon human free choice. That revision gained a stronghold among evangelicals in Anglo-American evangelical theology in the 18th century (e.g., the Wesleys) and more or less swept the field in the 19th and 20th centuries in America in the Second Great Awakening and its successor movements.

Thus, the YRR movement is a welcome return to aspects of classic Augustinian theology but the downside of this recovery is that it is truncated. It has no doctrine of the church and its adherents mostly downplay a vital aspect of the Reformed confession: the God who is sovereign also uses means to accomplish his purposes. Many of those who adhere to the YRR/New Calvinism reject the Reformed doctrine of the church and sacraments.

He Sovereignly Ordains Means

Augustine himself understood that the God who elects sinners unconditionally (and reprobates some sinners) from all eternity has also instituted means by which he works. To be sure, for a variety of reasons he tended to assign more power to the sacraments (Holy Baptism and the Lord’s Supper) than they actually have but still, he understood that God works through them to accomplish his purposes. So, the debate that the Reformed had with Augustine, as it were, was not whether God uses means but how. This is in contrast to the debate between the confessional Reformed and modern evangelicals, which is a debate about whether God uses means.

The Spirit Uses Means

At the Synod of Dort, against the Remonstrants (Arminians), the Reformed churches of Europe and the British Isles affirmed the importance of means the means of grace (media gratia) In books 3 and 4 of his Institutes Calvin discussed the means of grace extensively. The means are those things that God uses to bring his people to new life and true faith and to strengthen them in that faith and to enable them to persevere.

We confess:

And, just as it has pleased God to begin this work of grace in us by the proclamation of the gospel, so he preserves, continues, and completes his work by the hearing and reading of the gospel, by meditation on it, by its exhortations, threats, and promises, and also by the use of the sacraments (Canons of Dort, 5.14).

This is what the Reformed had said in Heidelberg Catechism 65:

Since then we are made partakers of Christ and all His benefits by faith only, from where comes this faith?

The Holy Spirit works faith in our hearts1 by the preaching of the Holy Gospel, and confirms it by the use of the Holy Sacraments.

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