Thursday, April 16, 2009

Three Comments on Common Grace

The "Common Grace" issue in the Christian Reformed Church (13)

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Dear Forum Members,
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In the last installment I pointed out that the Christian Reformed Church (henceforth, CRC) was composed of basically two groups when divided theologically. There were, first of all, the immigrants who had their roots in the Churches of the Secession and many of whom held to a certain common grace that emphasized a gracious and well-meant gospel offer. Secondly, there was a sizeable group that had its roots in Kuyper’s movement, had adopted Kuyperian common grace and had immigrated to this country where they had succeeded in taking over important positions in the church. A third group could be found, however, composed of immigrants (or children of immigrants) who, though the members of this group had their roots in the Churches of the Secession, did not hold to the gracious and well-meant gospel offer. Many of these were from the Northern part of the Netherlands where the more orthodox people of the Secession could be found. Also belonging to this third group were many from Kuyper’s new denomination who were advocates of Kuyper’s early teachings on particular grace, but, although perhaps unable to pinpoint exactly what Kuyper’s errors were, were too Reformed to be devotees of Kuyper’s common grace.
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God, in His providence, works in strange and unexpected, but marvelous ways. So He did also in the CRC in the first quarter of the 20th century. The tensions in the CRC over common grace and Kuyperian theology were grievous and had the potential of splitting the church into two denominations, each of which supported either Kuyperian common grace or Secessionist theology. A split in the CRC seemed inevitable.
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The whole issue of Kuyperian common grace came indirectly to the broader assemblies of the CRC through the teachings of a professor in the Seminary by the name of Dr. Ralph Janssen. He had received his advanced education in European universities, and had learned the arts of higher critical studies of Scripture. These higher critical studies and their teachings became the content of many of Dr. Janssen’s courses. At bottom was a denial of the infallibility of Scripture and a natural explanation of Scripture’s contents that robbed Scripture of its divine authorship and reduced Scripture to man’s work – at least in part. Among other views of higher criticism that he held, Janssen insisted that the miracles recorded in Scripture did not have to be explained in terms of God’s direct work, but could easily be interpreted in such a way that scientific laws of nature were not violated. For example, the manna that Israel ate in the wilderness was not given by God directly, but was found naturally in a certain plant common to the wilderness. The miracle lay in Israel’s ability to find it. How that plant could provide sufficient food for 3,000,000+ people for forty years we leave to the imagination of unbelievers. He also taught that the water that came from the rock at Rephidim was always present in the rock and not specially created by God. The miracle lay in the fact that Moses happened to hit the rock in a particularly thin spot. His blow broke the rock and the water, always there, was released. He also insisted that the religion of Israel came not from divine revelation in its entirety, but was a modification of heathen religions to suit Israel’s unique position among the nations.
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While we need not enter into these views in any kind of detail, we are interested in the fact that Janssen appealed to Kuyperian common grace in support of his position. He argued that, because it was true that the unregenerate could do such good works as created a neutral area of cooperation between the church and the world, scientific discoveries ought to be included in the church’s thinking, and the church’s interpretation of Scripture could be modified so as to make Scripture scientifically acceptable. He also argued that if the heathen possessed common grace, their religions had many elements of good in them, with the result that Israel could pick up these elements and incorporate them into its own religion.
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Rev. Herman Hoeksema was, far and away, the most vocal critic of Janssen’s views. He wrote against Janssen’s views in the church paper, The Banner, until its pages were closed to any discussion of the controversy. When the views of Dr. Janssen became an issue in the Seminary, Rev. Hoeksema was appointed to a committee to study these views and bring conclusions and recommendations to the synod, the church’s highest governing body. The report that was finally adopted by the Synod of 1922 was a report based on the word of and mainly drafted by Rev. Herman Hoeksema. However, the report did not address itself to Janssen’s main line of defense, Kuyperian common grace, but limited itself to the issue of higher criticism itself.
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The Synod of 1922 condemned Janssen’s views, but, following the leading of the committee report, did not deal with the question of common grace. Hoeksema, in later years, regretted that the committee and the synod did not tackle the problem of common grace in connection with Janssen’s errors. Although Janssen was relieved of his teaching responsibilities in the Seminary, nothing was said about his views on common grace, which he had used as a basis for his teachings.
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The reason why both the committee and the synod refrained from dealing with the deeper issue of common grace does not appear in the record, but it can be conjectured that both the committee and the synod were aware of the deep tensions in the church over this question and were hesitant to bring these tensions to the floor of a major assembly at a time when the church was threatened by the deadly error of higher criticism.
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But because Kuyperian common grace was wide-spread in the CRC, there were also many Janssen supporters in the college and throughout the churches. These men were furious that their mentor had been condemned, and decided to make common grace an issue that the church would be compelled to face. They did this by way of protests against the preaching of Herman Hoeksema, who, they knew, denied both Kuyperian common grace and the well-meant gospel offer. It is interesting that Hoeksema himself had been born and raised within the tradition of the Secession Churches, but had never held to a well-meant gospel offer. And when, while still in the Netherlands, he came into contact with Kuyper’s teachings, he learned from the Kuyper of sovereign and particular grace, not the Kuyper of common grace.
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The result was that Hoeksema’s teachings went to the Synod of 1924. Strangely enough, Hoeksema’s teachings were never condemned by the synod; and, indeed, the synod officially declared him to be Reformed. But, in spite of that, the synod took it upon itself to draw up an official statement on the doctrine of common grace. The leaders in the CRC, who were especially interested in such a statement, saw also an opportunity to heal a widening breach in the churches between the followers of Kuyper and the followers of the Secession leaders. And so they adopted a statement of common grace that approved both kinds of common grace: a gracious and well-meant gospel offer and a common grace in the unregenerate that restrained sin and enabled the wicked to do good works.
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The decision served its purpose, and the breach in the CRC was healed by the decisions of this synod.
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On the other hand, a little more than a half year after the synod, Hoeksema was deposed from office and driven out of the CRC for his denials of common grace. But in the good providence of God, that segment of the CRC that repudiated both the common grace of the Secession Churches and Kuyperian common grace, saw in the teachings of Hoeksema the solid and uncompromising truth of the Reformed faith taught by Calvin, on through Dordt and many Reformed theologians, and which was preserved to the present. They went with Hoeksema and became the nucleus of the Protestant Reformed Churches, a denomination that today holds firmly to the doctrines of sovereign and particular grace.
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And thus we bring our brief historical study to an end. It ought, I think, be evident that history does not support the theories of common grace, but is on the side of those who stand for sovereign and particular grace.
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God willing, we will enter into the doctrinal ideas of common grace vs. sovereign and particular grace in subsequent forum installments.
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With warmest regards,
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Prof Herman Hanko

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Dr. Abraham Kuyper's common grace (12)

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Dear Forum members:
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In my last installment, I introduced our readers to Dr. Abraham Kuyper’s success in bringing into Reformed theology a novel view of common grace.
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I call this view of common grace “novel”, because Kuyper himself, in his three-volume treatment of the subject, speaks of his view as being new; he insists that nothing like it could be found in Reformed writings since the time of the Reformation.
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However, in spite of Kuyper’s claim to novelty, there had been, for a long time, those within Reformed circles who frequently spoke of the “good deeds” of the wicked. My own paternal grandmother, a basically uneducated member of the churches of the Secession, but an unusually godly and pious woman, and one who lived through the controversy over common grace in 1924, but stayed with Rev. Hoeksema, could never quite understand why it was not a good work for an unbeliever to help a man who had fallen into a creek or river and could not save himself. She was from the Churches of the Secession and reflected in her thinking a stream of thought in these churches that inclined towards common grace. She had, however, no use for Kuyper, and it is doubtful whether she ever fully understood what he was saying.
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I offer here a brief sketch of Abraham Kuyper’s views on common grace. (For a detailed description of Kuyper’s views on common grace [his three-volume work has never been translated] see Henry Van Til, The Calvinistic Concept of Culture [Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1959], and, Henry Danhof and Herman Hoeksema, Sin and Grace, tr. by Cornelius Hanko [Jenison: RFPA, 2003].)
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While Kuyper rejected the idea of a gracious and well-meant gospel offer, he held strongly to another kind of grace common to all men that restrained sin in such a way that men were enabled to do good works. By good works Kuyper meant works pleasing to God and of use by the church.
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Kuyper spoke of common grace as first of all a major dose of some antitoxin administered to Adam immediately after the fall (the figure is Kuyper’s). He claimed, without a smidgeon of Biblical support, that had God not intervened with His common grace, Adam would have, after the fall, become a beast and the creation a chaotic wasteland. In fact, according to Kuyper, Adam would have fallen dead at the foot of the tree. (Kuyper is not clear here on whether man would actually have died a physical death or whether he would become a beast; both are claimed to be true. Sometimes he even speaks of Adam becoming a devil if common grace had not been administered to him.) The result of his sin was that, although a deadly and fatal dose of poison was administered to Adam because of the fall, by giving Adam common grace, God gave Adam, so to speak, a dose of an anti-toxin, which resulted in Adam’s vomiting out some of the poison he had imbibed. The result is that while Adam came close to death and retained consequences of his brush with death, he did not actually die in the fullest sense of the word. While he became depraved, he was not as depraved as he would have been had not common grace been administered. While he would have become a beast without the antitoxin administered to him, he now retained his rational and moral nature and continued to be a man. While he would have become utterly incapable of doing any good if God had not intervened, he now retained the ability, apart from saving grace, to do some good in this world.
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Kuyper spoke of this common grace as being the work of the Holy Spirit. By the power of the grace that the Holy Spirit worked, the full effects of sin were avoided. Apart from that common grace man would have become a devil, vicious, corrupt, depraved, beyond the possibility of being saved.
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But, since common grace was given to Adam, and through Adam, to his posterity, and since by means of that common grace, unregenerate man is capable of doing good, a wide area of “neutrality” is created in this world, in itself neither good nor bad but morally neutral, in which the wicked and the righteous are able to cooperate in many works of mutual interest, particularly in making this world a better place to live. An example of this neutral ground would be the shop in which believers and unbelievers work together on assembly lines in a manufacturing plant. Because working conditions were frequently dreadful in the 19th and early 20th centuries, believers and unbelievers could and did join in “neutral” labor unions to fight together for improvement in working conditions. And here in this morally “neutral” area in which the unbeliever could, by his good works, contribute significantly to the well-being of mankind and the church, Kuyper found his justification for forming a coalition with Roman Catholics to work together to spread the Reformed faith throughout the world.
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This cooperation, in Kuyper’s thinking, would begin in the Netherlands where all the citizens, under the auspices of a State Church, could promote the Reformed faith and from the Netherlands would come a great revival that would spread throughout all the world and make this world a better place to live. This thinking has been carried on in many places where, under the supposed banner of the Reformed faith, labors are put forth to improve this world. And, to be a genuine Reformed believer in this world, it is said, means to be busy in winning all institutions of society, and society itself for the cause of Christ. If one does not hold to this sort of common grace and himself join in the crusade to save the world from itself, he is an Anabaptist, and guilty of world-flight.
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The movement led by Kuyper began in the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century. The interesting and important aspect of this movement is that immigrants from the Netherlands came to America, now not only from the Churches of the Secession of 1834, but also from Kuyper’s new movement. The result was tension in the Christian Reformed Church, which church most of the immigrants joined. Some within the CRC promoted the views of the Secession Churches with its emphasis on piety and from which came the common grace of the gospel offer, and some promoted the views of common grace developed by Kuyper. There was bitter enmity and antagonism between the two movements, both of which were found within the Christian Reformed Church.
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I had a Dutch teacher while studying in Calvin College, himself a devotee of Kuyperian common grace, who frequently in class would speak to us of the bitter in-house conflicts between these two wings in the CRC, and who would say to us that the half of what went on had not been revealed, but that he was going to write a book about it someday in which the whole story would be told. He never wrote the book, so far as I know.
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The conflict between these two wings in the church threatened to split the church. If this had happened, it would not have been surprising, for the same doctrinal and ecclesiastical split occurred in the Netherlands. Although the Churches of the Secession and the Kuyperian churches in the Netherlands did unite in 1892, the union was a shot-gun marriage that was, from the start, doomed to failure. An effort was made in 1905 to heal the divisions, but nothing worked. Finally, the split became reality in 1944, when Dr. Klaas Schilder was deposed from office and began what is now known as the Liberated Churches.
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(Right: Dr. Klaas Schilder)
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Interestingly, many who left the Reformed Church under Dr. K. Schilder were of the Secession of 1834 and, therefore, leaned toward the common grace of the offer, the same idea appeared among the people of the Liberated Church. It took, however, a slightly different form. It was connected with the sacrament of baptism instead of the preaching. The Liberated, therefore, instead of speaking of a general offer in the preaching, spoke of a general promise to all baptized children in the sacrament of baptism. Instead of the common grace that comes through the preaching, the Liberated speak of a common grace that comes through baptism. Instead of emphasizing the grace of the offer that enables a man to choose for or against the gospel, the Liberated speak of a grace that comes through baptism enabling all baptized children to accept or reject the promise. And so, both the gracious offer of the gospel and the gracious promise of the covenant are conditional, so that both depend upon the fulfillment of the condition of faith in order to have salvation realized fully.
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But the division of 1944, while it included many issues, involved also the differences over common grace: Kuyperian common grace vs. the common grace of the well-meant offer of the gospel.
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That nearly brings the history of common grace to the origin of the Protestant Reformed Churches. But we will wait with that part of the story till the next installment.
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With warmest regards,
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Prof. Herman Hanko

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Dr. Abraham Kuyper and Common Grace (11)

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Dear forum members,
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In my last installment, I discussed the basic concessions to Amyraldianism made by the men who sparked the so-called Marrow controversy. I also pointed out that the whole idea of a gracious and well-meant gospel offer came to the Netherlands from Scotland and, more particularly, from the Marrow men.
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I must trace the development of this error in the Dutch churches and its subsequent spread to America.
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During the long period of deterioration in the Dutch churches after the great Synod of Dordt, the people who were dissatisfied with the modernistic preaching in the State Church met in homes in small groups, in which groups the Scriptures were studied, religious books were read and discussed, and prayers were made for a reformation of the church. These house meetings were called gezelschappen, or conventicles. These conventicles were instrumental in bringing about the so-called “Later Reformation”, and the influences of Scotland were especially strong among the people who attended these house meetings. The “Later Reformation” is to be distinguished from the reformation that came about through the Secession of 1834. It was a return to Christian piety in opposition to the cold and sterile religion of the State Church. The result of Scottish influences was that the whole idea of the gospel offer was found among many of these people of the “Further Reformation”. Being impressed with the spirituality of the writers from the ranks of the Marrow men, many of the Dutch people, themselves, thirsting for spirituality, became persuaded that the offer of the gospel played a crucial role in the cultivation of genuine piety.
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Because of the apostasy in the Reformed Church (the State Church), reformation was needed to preserve the truth among the Dutch people. God sent such reformation through the work of a rather insignificant minister in the small village of Ulrum, in the province of Groningen. His name was Henry De Cock. After De Cock’s conversion to Calvinism and the Reformed faith, he and his consistory voted to secede from the apostate State Church to form a new denomination, orthodox in its theology and free from State control. Most of those who had been worshipping in conventicles saw the secession as an answer to their prayers. And thousands joined the Secession Churches so that the new denomination grew rapidly, even though it was severely persecuted by the government. The year of the Secession was 1834.
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Six ministers went along with the Secession in its first stirrings: De Cock, Van Velzen, Gezelle-Marburg, Scholte, Van Raalte and Brummelkamp. But there was not unity of doctrine among them. Basically, there were two groups, both of which had been found earlier in the conventicles. The one group, composed of De Cock, Van Velzen and Geselle-Marburg, were soundly orthodox, while Brummelkamp was a strong defender of the gospel offer, and Van Raalte was not a strongly orthodox man. Scholte was something of a maverick and had little influence on the development of the churches of the Secession. He immigrated to Pella, Iowa and set up an independent congregation there. Van Raalte immigrated to Holland, Michigan, and his band of settlers, with the arrival of additional immigrants, formed the beginning of the Christian Reformed Church.
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Roughly, the two camps in the churches of the Secession were also geographically divided. Brummelkamp led a faction that was predominantly to be found in the southern part of the Netherlands, while the more orthodox men had influence in the north. Brummelkamp was professor in the theological school in Kampen, the Netherlands, where he influenced many of the ministers of the Secession.
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With Van Raalte occupying a moderate position, it is not surprising that when the Christian Reformed Church was begun in 1857 the well-meant gospel offer was imbedded in the thinking of many preachers and members of the church. It became a part of the doctrinal position of the Dutch Reformed churches, though it was not officially adopted until 1924.
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It is at this point that a major development in the doctrine of common grace, not related to the gracious offer of the gospel, took place, which we shall have to consider. In 1886, Dr. Abraham Kuyper led another reformation in the Netherlands that resulted in another denomination. His movement was called the Doleantie or “Aggrieved Ones”. The movement took that name because Kuyper and his followers insisted that, rather than form a church free from government control, they were the true continuation of the State Church and that, therefore, they had never really left the State Church, but simply represented it as it ought to be. They were “aggrieved” at the apostasy of their brethren and fellow members within the State Church. In this respect they differed sharply from the Churches of the Secession of 1834, which established a church free from government control.
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Kuyper was a man of many gifts and one born to a position of leadership. However, when he entered the ministry he was unconverted and found a cozy home in the apostate State Church. But through a series of events, not the least of them a sharp reprimand from a simple farm lady in his congregation for preaching modernism, Kuyper was brought to the conviction that the Reformed faith, developed since the days of Calvin and Dordt, was indeed the truth of the Scriptures. He gave himself over to the defense of this Reformed faith and, to the utter dismay of his modernistic colleagues, began to do battle with them. His desire was to bring the church of the Netherlands back to its original strength when the Synod of Dordt scored a smashing victory over the Arminians.
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Kuyper’s major writing in this period was a book with the title Dat God’s Genade Particulier Is, translated into English under the title “Particular Grace.” (The translation is by Mr. Marvin Kamps, and is published by the Reformed Free Publishing Association.) In this book Kuyper argued against the universalism of the modernists in the Reformed Churches and defended particularism in all areas of salvation, especially in the atoning work of Christ.. The interesting part of this book, as far as we are concerned, is Kuyper’s repudiation of the gracious and well-meant offer of the gospel. In fact, the texts commonly quoted in support of the offer of the gospel (II Peter 3:9, I Tim. 2:4, etc.) were all explained by Kuyper in a particularist way as referring to the elect only. Kuyper was, at this stage in his life, soundly Reformed.
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(Right: Dr. Abraham Kuyper)
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But Kuyper underwent a change. He came out with a three-volume work entitled Gemeene Gratie or, General Grace. In this work, Kuyper, without ever repudiating his rejection of the free offer of the gospel, now, strangely, steered the church in the direction of another aspect of common grace, namely, a grace given to all men that restrained sin and produced in the unregenerate the ability to do good works.
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This change in Kuyper’s thinking came about because Kuyper committed the grievous sin of resigning from the active ministry of the Word in order to enter politics. He formed a political party, ran for and won a place in the Lower Chamber and became the head of his party. He aspired, however, to the office of prime minister, but could not get sufficient members of his party elected to the Lower Chamber to thrust him into the prime minister’s office. And so he formed a coalition with the Roman Catholic party to secure enough votes to gain the prime minister’s seat.
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But in Netherlands where sentiment could be as strong against Roman Catholics as it was in England, Kuyper had to justify theologically this strange and unnatural coalition. This he did with his theory of common grace.
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In turn, Kuyper saw it as important that he lead the country as prime minister, because he held a view of the Netherlands, which sounds strange to our 21st century ears, but was not unusual in the days when the church was still a State Church.
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Kuyper considered the Reformed Church of the Netherlands to be the true church, because it was the State Church. Now, it was characteristic of a State Church that that denomination, technically, is responsible for the spiritual welfare of all the citizens, even if they were not attending members of the one state-approved denomination. Usually every baby had to be baptized by the church, all the marriages had to be in the church, and funeral services and burials were conducted within the precincts of the church. Kuyper considered the Netherlands to be a genuine Reformed country with a genuine Reformed Church supported by a Reformed government. He saw a future in which the Netherlands would become the fountain-head of a mighty stream of the Reformed faith that would flow throughout all the world and make of the entire world a Reformed community, with every sphere of life subordinated to the rule of Jesus Christ. It was essential to Kuyper that a Reformed man be in a position of authority in the government to realize this dream. But he could gain leadership only by way of a coalition with Roman Catholics; and some theological justification for putting these two historic enemies in the same bed had to be made. That theological justification was common grace.
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That brings us to a discussion of Kuyperian common grace, but that must wait till next time. We notice in passing that Kuyper’s dream of a world where every country and every institution of society are subordinated to the one rule of Jesus Christ has become the goal of many post-millennial movements, of many theologians found in Reformed and Presbyterian circles, and of many colleges and universities. Today we have the strange and inexplicable situation in which thousands speak of the Kuyper of common grace and regularly travel to his shrine to be renewed in their thinking, while almost no one remembers the Kuyper of sovereign and particular grace. The Kuyper gone wrong is the idol of many; the Reformed Kuyper has disappeared from the earth.
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With warmest regards,
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Prof. Hanko

Friday, April 10, 2009

The "Marrow Controversy" (10)

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Dear Forum members,
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We must turn now, in our historical treatment of the error of common grace in general and the gracious and well-meant gospel offer in particular, to the Marrow Controversy, which troubled the Presbyterian Church of Scotland in the first half of the 18th century. Before we do this, however, I must make a few remarks about theological developments in the British Isles, after the Westminster Assembly that relate to our subject.
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The Presbyterian Church never became the state church in England. After the Cromwell inter-regnum, England was once again under a monarchy with the Stuarts from Scotland on the throne. The State Church again became the Anglican Church. Only in Scotland did Presbyterianism become a vital part of the life of the nation. A struggle in Scotland over the question of whether the Presbyterian Church of Scotland or the Anglican Church would be the state church resulted in a victory for the Presbyterian Church.
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There were many who opposed some of the doctrines of the Westminster Confession. John Davenant, a delegate from England to the Synod of Dordt, defended a modified Amyraldian position. The same was true of Richard Baxter. Amyraldianism continued to have its supporters.
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Many throughout the British Isles, known as Puritans objected to the formal orthodoxy of the State Church in England (Anglican) and the worldliness of its members, as well as its retention of Romish rites and ceremonies. Further, they charged the Church with the error of Antinomism. While I cannot go into this aberration in these articles, we may notice in passing that this error first appeared in Germany in the Lutheran churches of the Reformation. The chief defender of Antinomianism was John Agricola, but the error was (and is) always a threat to the church. In general, Antinomism taught that the redeemed and justified child of God did not have the obligation to keep the law of God. Antinomism denied the “must” of the law of God, for, so it argued, the justified sinner is righteous in Christ wholly apart from works. The charge was often leveled against the Presbyterian Church in Scotland because, the church held firmly to the doctrine of justification by faith alone, and opponents of that doctrine often accused the orthodox of teaching Antinomianism although the charge was false. That is, enemies of justification by faith alone attempted to thwart the doctrine by leveling against it a charge of Antinomianism. While the charge itself was not true, it was true that, because the Presbyterian Church was the State Church, all the citizens of the nation were technically members and the responsibility of the church. Among these were countless people who were thoroughly irreligious, hardly ever came to church and lived completely worldly lives.
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This objection was brought against the Presbyterian Church of Scotland in the latter part of the 17th century and the early part of the 18th century by those who were later called the Marrow men, and who, while also charging the Presbyterian Church with antinomism, found fault with the worldliness and spiritual carelessness of so many in the church, and ascribed it to a lack in the preaching of the gospel. They charged the church with producing preachers who were cold and abstract and who lacked the passion for souls that ought to characterize the preaching. They wanted preaching that was conducive to leading people to Christ and thus produce genuine conversion..
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The origin of the name “Marrow Men” is found in a book by Edward Fisher, written in 1645, which appeared under the title, The Marrow of Modern Divinity (Swengel: Reinar Publications, 1975). In this book Fisher, in a dialogue between three fictional characters (Nomista [representing the law of God], Neophytus [representing a new convert] and Evangelista [representing the gospel]) discuss the problems in the church and find many of them to be rooted in a wrong conception of preaching. As, in his book, he analyzed the problems in the church, Fisher, through his fictional characters and attempting to alter the character of the preaching, made and defended statements such as these: “Christ hath taken upon Him the sins of all men;” “[In Christ] the Father hath made a deed of gift and grant unto all mankind;” “Whatsoever Christ did for the redemption of mankind, He did it for you;” “Go and tell every man without exception, that here is good news for him, Christ is dead for him.” This warmer approach to preaching, so he argued, would make it attractive to people and make the gospel more acceptable to those to whom it was preached.
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In the early part of the 18th century the book came to the attention of some of the men in the church in connection with a controversy over what was called “The Auchterader Creed”. The Auchterader Creed was a statement drawn up by the Auchterader Presbytery, which the presbytery required a candidate to the ministry to sign in order to be licensed to preach. The statement read: “It is unsound to teach that a man must forsake sin in order to come to Christ.” In the course of the debate reference was made to Fisher’s book as containing the solution to the problem presented by the Auchterader Creed. The book of Fisher was republished and became itself an issue on the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church of Scotland. After due consideration, Fisher’s book was condemned by the Assembly on the following grounds.
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1) The book taught that assurance was of the essence of faith. (While there is no point in entering into this controversy, we should notice that the Westminster Confession, in 18.3, wrongly, denies that assurance is of the essence of faith: “This infallible assurance [of faith] doth not so belong to the essence of faith, but that a true believer may wait long, and conflict with many difficulties before he be partaker of it”.
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2) It taught a universal atonement and pardon in the cross. (This was especially evident from the statement in the book that Christ was dead for all. While the distinction was attempted between Christ dying for all and Christ dead for all, this was a mere play on words and a subtle effort to defend a universal atonement.)
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3) The book taught that holiness was not necessary to salvation. (From this teaching and that of point 5 below, arose the charge that Edward Fisher (and the Marrow Men who rejoiced at his teachings), were antinomian. So the charge of Antinomianism was made by the Marrow Men against the church, and by the church against the Marrow Men.)
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4) It taught that the fear of punishment and the hope of reward are not allowed to be used as incentives to obedience.
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5) It held that the believer is not under the law as a rule of life.
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Because the whole issue was related to the preaching of the gospel, the General Assembly interpreted the book to be a defense of the gracious and well-meant gospel offer. And so it was. It was a bold attempt to introduce into the church the errors of Amyraldianism by means of altering the preaching. Because Christ’s atonement was for all men, preachers were to assure every hearer that God loved him, that it was God’s desire and intention to save everyone who heard the gospel, and that God earnestly and tenderly, through the gospel, wooed sinners to “close with Christ.” There was no need to reject the overtures of the gospel, because each man had a deed or grant that gave him the right to be saved, but the actual bestowal of salvation was conditioned on faith and acceptance of the overtures of the gospel.
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Thus, although the Presbyterian Church of Scotland officially condemned these views, eventually they entered the church through the teaching of the Marrow men, and committed subsequent theology to this pernicious error.
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Subsequent Presbyterianism has been influenced by the Marrow men and one finds that a gracious and well-meant gospel offer has infiltrated the thinking and preaching of many, if not most, of the Presbyterian Churches around the world.
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The question we now face is this: how did the idea of a gracious and well-meant gospel offer enter into Dutch thinking? From the time of the Synod of Dordt to the end of the 18th century it was not present in the Reformed Churches of the Netherlands.
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There are several ways in which the gracious offer of the gospel was introduced into the Dutch Reformed Churches.
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1) Because of the persecution of Protestants in France, many refugees found a sanctuary in the Netherlands. But many of these refugees were influenced by Amyraldianism, which had originated in France. D. H. Kromminga writes, “Before the revocation of the Edict of Nantes various heterodox opinions had made their appearance among the Reformed churches of France. At Saumur, professor Moses Amyraud had taught a double decree of predestination, an anterior decree determining that Christ should make atonement for sinners and that sinners should be called to salvation, and a further particular decree of the election of some and the preterition of others … These tendencies which were at work among the Huguenot refugees soon made their appearance also in the Netherlands and affected the course of scientific theology so that it began to lose its Reformed character.” (D.H. Kromminga, The Christian Reformed Tradition [Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1943] 48, 49.)
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2) In the years subsequent to Dordt, the Reformed Churches suffered a period of doctrinal and spiritual decline – as was true in Scotland. Many, concerned about such outward religion as was practiced in the State Church in Netherlands, searched for an emphasis in theology and religion on piety, a godly life, and an assurance of salvation that came from inner conviction. These trends sparked what is sometimes called De Nadere Reformatie, or “The Later Reformation”. The perilous state of the Established Church and the reaction of many within the church to dead orthodoxy and ungodliness of life found in the church, paralleled the situation in Scotland at the time of the Marrow controversy.
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3) The spiritual state of the church opened the door in the Netherlands to influences from the Marrow men in Scotland. Such influences were actually brought about by exchanges of professors in the universities, ministers in the pulpits and close contact through books and pamphlets. In fact, many of the books written by the Marrow men and their followers were translated into Dutch and became the spiritual food for people who were starving for God’s Word in the apostate State Church. But the price to pay for such exchanges was an introduction into Dutch thinking of the well-meant gospel offer. It took firm hold and characterized a stream of Dutch theology that has lasted to the present.
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And so, in my own ecclesiastical tradition, the gracious and well-meant gospel offer has had remarkable influence.
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We will continue this in our next installment, God willing,
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With warmest regards in the Lord,
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Prof. Herman Hanko

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Did the Westminster Assembly teach a gracious and well-meant offer? (9)

Dear Forum members,
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In this installment, we return to the Westminster Assembly and the question whether the WC teaches a gracious and well-meant gospel offer.
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The Westminster Assembly was not only an important convocation of the leading divines in the British Isles in the 17th century, but it also produced an extremely influential creed, called the Westminster Confession of Faith. The creed continues to have influence in Presbyterian churches throughout the world.
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Many theologians in the Presbyterian tradition and sworn defenders of the teachings of the creed also claim to hold to the well-meant offer of the gospel, an aspect of common grace and the subject of our discussion in this brief historical survey. The question, therefore, becomes: Does the Westminster Confession (henceforth, WC) teach the well-meant and gracious offer of the gospel?
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Some supporters of common grace have admitted that the doctrine of a gracious and well-meant gospel offer is not taught in the Confession, but that the wording of key articles can be so interpreted as to allow room for this teaching. Richard Baxter argued this point, although he was an Amyraldian and was unhappy with the WC for not explicitly including Amyraldian doctrines concerning the gracious and well-meant offer of the gospel and a certain universality of the atonement of Christ. Richard Baxter’s case rests on tenuous grounds. His argument is that the error would have to be specifically rejected if it is to be excluded from the WC, and that, therefore, the silence of the Confession allows for it to be taught. But the WC, unlike the Canons, does not deal with specific errors, which it takes the time to refute. The fact is, that the case for Amyraldian views was strenuously argued on the floor of the Assembly, and was rejected by the majority of the delegates. Philip Schaff writes: “The difference [in viewpoint between the delegates] is made more clear from the debates in the ‘Minutes.’ Several prominent members, as Calamy, Arrowsmith, Vines, Seaman, who took part in the preparation of the doctrinal standards, sympathized with the hypothetical universalism of the Saumur School (Cameron and Amyrauld) and with the moderate position of Davenant and the English delegates to the Synod of Dordt. They expressed this sympathy on the floor of the Assembly, as well as on other occasions. They believed in a special effective election and final perseverance of the elect (as a necessary means to a certain end), but they held at the same time that God sincerely intends to save all men; that Christ intended to die and actually died, for all men; and that the difference is not in the intention and offer on the part of God, but in the acceptance and appropriation on the part of men.” (Philip Schaff, The Creeds of Christendom [New York: Harper & Brothers, Sixth Edition] 770. Emphasis is Schaff’s.)
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One of the arguments offered as proof that the WC teaches a gracious and well-meant gospel offer is the creed’s own use of the word “offer.” As a matter of fact, I have been able to find only two places in the WC where the word “offer” appears as a description of the preaching. In one place we read: “Man by his fall having made himself incapable of life by that covenant (the first covenant with Adam, HH), the Lord was pleased to make a second, commonly called the covenant of grace: wherein he freely offered unto sinners life and salvation by Jesus Christ, requiring of them faith in him that they may be saved, and promising to give unto all those that are ordained unto life his Holy Spirit, to make them willing and able to believe” (Chapter 7, paragraph 3). The word for “offer” that is used here is in the Latin, offer from offere.
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The second place where the word is also used is Chapter 10, paragraph 2, in the expression, “{Man] renewed by the Holy Spirit ... is enabled to answer this call, and to embrace the grace offered and conveyed in it.” While the Latin version of the WC is not decisive (the creed was originally written in English) the Latin surely helps us understand what the translators considered the mind of the Assembly. The Latin version of this article has: “… gratiamque inibi oblatam et exhibitam amplexari,” for “and to embrace the grace offered and conveyed by it.” Oblatam can mean “offered,” but has the primary meaning of referring to something brought to the attention of another; while exhibitam is correctly translated by our English word “exhibit”. The Latin word offere is not used here in the Latin translation.
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The word “offer” does appear in the Shorter Catechism in Q. & A. 86: “What is faith in Jesus Christ? Faith in Jesus Christ is a saving grace, whereby we receive and rest upon him alone for salvation, as he is offered (offertur) to us in the gospel.”
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It is my contention that these scattered uses of the word “offer” cannot refer to the gracious and well-meant gospel offer as it is taught today. My reasons are the following.
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The Amyraldian position on the well-meant gospel offer was argued on the floor of the Assembly, but the Amyraldian position appears nowhere in the confession itself. It was rejected by the Assembly. The rejection of Amyraldianism means that the Amyraldian view of the well-meant gospel offer was also rejected.
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Richard Baxter’s original reluctance to sign the WC would seem to indicate that this notable Amyraldian doubted whether the WC taught the well-meant gracious offer of the gospel. In fact, he would not sign the WC until he could be assured that, although the confession did not include the Amyraldian position, the wording of the confession left room for it.
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Article 3 of chapter 7 uses language that precludes the interpretation sometime given to the word “offer”: In speaking of the covenant of grace the article goes on to say about this covenant: “wherein [God] freely offered unto sinners life and salvation by Jesus Christ, requiring of them faith in him that they may be saved, and promising to give unto all those that are ordained unto life his Holy Spirit, to make them willing and able to believe.” This wording sounds more like Canons 2.5 than a statement defending the proposition that God desires the salvation of all who hear the gospel, although it is even somewhat stronger. 7/3 of the WC does not say that faith is a condition to the reception of Christ offered to all in the gospel, but it says rather that the promise of the gospel includes also the promise to give faith to the elect (“to all those that are ordained unto life”) and that faith is worked by the Holy Spirit. Although faith is required for salvation, it is sovereignly given and given only to those who are God’s own elect. That is strong language.
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This interpretation is strengthened by what I wrote some years ago in a paper entitled “A Comparison of the Westminster Confession and the Reformed Confessions“. “There is evidence that the meaning given to ‘offer’ by the Davenant men (also Amyraldians, HH) was not the meaning of many on the Assembly.” According to Warfield (B. B. Warfield, The Westminster Assembly and its Work [Mack Publishing, 1972] 141.) Rutherford, a prominent member of the Assembly, seems to have used the term only in the sense of the preaching of the gospel. Warfield also claims (Ibid., 142) that Gillespie, another gifted divine, spoke of ‘offer’ in the sense of preaching or in the sense of command when he claimed, during the debate, that command does not always imply intention. That is, when God commands all men to repent of sin and believe in Christ, this does not necessarily imply that it is God’s intention to save those whom he commands. Shaw argues the same point and claims that the Assembly used the term ‘offer’ only in the sense of “present” (Shaw, p. 104).
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Schaff inadvertently supports my conviction that the WC does not teach a well-meant gracious gospel offer when he suggests that the Westminster divines contradicted themselves when they taught, on the one hand, an offer of salvation, but insisted, on the other hand, that the atonement was limited to the elect (Schaff, vol. 1, 772). Schaff’s assumptions are 1) the well-meant gospel offer requires a universal atonement; 2) the word “offer” in the WC means the gracious and well-meant gospel offer. His first assumption is right. His second assumption is indeed nothing but an assumption. The fact is that the Westminster divines were far too astute theologically to support such an obvious contradiction. Further, the defenders of Amyraldianism on the Assembly argued especially for a universal atonement, and did so on the grounds of a gracious offer of the gospel, but were over-ruled by a majority of the assembly.

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Schaff is correct that the WC emphatically teaches a limited atonement. And a limited atonement is the death-knell to all teachings with regard to a gracious and well-meant gospel offer. While the truth of a particular redemption is woven into the warp and woof of the WC, it is specifically taught in III. 6 and VIII, 5, 6, 8. I see no need to quote them here, for it is universally acknowledged that the WC is emphatic in its teaching concerned the truth of particular redemption.
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I consider these arguments convincing proof that the well-meant gospel offer is not taught in the Westminster Confession.
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One more point needs to be made before we leave Westminster. The debate on the floor of the Assembly over the extent of the atonement was crucial for an understanding of the relation between the atonement and the well-meant gospel offer. The debate on the Assembly hinged on the question whether the intention of God with respect to the salvation of men rested on the sufficiency of the atonement or its efficacy. The Amyraldians argued that God’s intention rested on the sufficiency of the atonement, while the orthodox argued that God’s intention in the atonement was determined by its efficacy. That is, while all the divines on the Assembly were agreed that Christ’s atonement was sufficient for all, and while this was expressly stated in Canons 2.3, 6, (of which creed the delegates were aware) though it is not in the WC, the Amyraldians argued that this universal sufficiency also implies that the intention of God is to save all men: intention is determined by sufficiency. The orthodox insisted, however, that God’s intention with respect to the extent of the atonement was limited by its efficacy: The cross was efficacious to save only the elect; this was God’s intention with the atonement; hence the extent of the atonement was determined by its efficacy. Nevertheless, this question became an issue in the debate in subsequent years, and is an issue we will discuss at a later point.
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The orthodox view prevailed on the Assembly. The WC is solid in its rejection of a well-meant gospel offer.
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With warm greetings in Christ,
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Prof. Herman Hanko

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

The Westminister Confession and the "well-meant gospel offer" (8)



Dear forum members,
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In our discussion of the history of common grace, we have come to the Westminster Assembly and the teaching of the Westminster Confession of Faith on the subject of the gracious, well-meant gospel offer. On the question of common grace in general, the Westminster Confession of Faith (henceforth, WC) has nothing to say. We may limit ourselves, therefore, to the one question of whether Westminster teaches a gracious, well-meant gospel offer.
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We must discuss two aspects of the question, both of which are treated in the WC. The two belong together. These two are: Is God gracious to all men in the preaching of the gospel, when He expresses His desire and intention to save all men? And, secondly, is the atonement of Christ a sacrifice for the elect only, or is it also, in some sense, a sacrifice for all men? The two belong together, for, if the gospel is a proclamation of God’s desire to save all men, and if therefore, salvation is freely and graciously offered to all men on the condition of faith, then a universal atonement must of necessity stand behind this general expression of God’s love for all. God cannot, without making a mockery of the gospel, offer to all men a salvation that Christ has not earned by His suffering and death on the cross. Nor can God love all men without there being a judicial basis for that love in the cross of Jesus Christ.
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History has also shown that the two are inseparably connected. The Marrow Men, who emphatically taught a gracious gospel offer, were forced to hold to the position that “Christ is dead for all,” although they attempted by a verbal slight of hand to distinguish between a Christ who died for all and a Christ who is dead for all.
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The Amyraldians, as we have seen, attempted to escape the inevitable connection between the two by speaking of a hypothetical universal atonement, which was to be distinguished from a particular atonement actually accomplished by Christ 2000 years ago when He died on Calvary.
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The same issue was really the downfall of a strong Calvinism in Wales after the work of George Whitefield and the establishment of a Presbyterian Church there. Some wanted an approach to preaching that was warmer and more expressive of the desire of the church to bring sinners to repentance than what they considered to be the cold, dispassionate approach of Calvinism. In order to satisfy such clamoring for more compassionate preaching, these men introduced the idea of a gracious, well-meant gospel offer. But shortly after its general acceptance, the question of the extent of the atonement came up and the church was compelled. by the logic of its position, to introduce the general notion of a certain universality to the atonement. (See Hanko & Engelsma, The Five Points of Calvinism [The British Reformed Fellowship, 2008] p. 54).
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The same was true of the history of the doctrine of a gracious and well-meant gospel offer in the Christian Reformed Church (CRC). In 1924 the CRC adopted a theory of common grace that included a gracious well-meant gospel offer. Although the Synod that adopted this theory did not address the question of the extent of the atonement, the church was forced to consider the question in the mid-‘60s. The Synod that made the final decision clearly approved of the extent of the atonement as being universal, although it was careful to limit the universality of the atonement so as to exclude efficacy. The universality of the atonement was said to be universal only in sufficiency, availability and as an expression of God’s intention. It is interesting that on the floor of the Synod, during the debate, opposition to a universal atonement, even in the limited sense of sufficiency, availability and intention, was expressed, but this opposition was quickly silenced by a reminder that, after all, the CRC had officially adopted the gracious offer of the gospel, and that, therefore, the atonement had to be universal.
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This same relationship between the extent of the atonement and the approval of a gracious, well-meant gospel offer was a source of tension at the Westminster Assembly.
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One could characterize the Westminster Assembly as being divided into two camps with respect to the truths of Calvinism. (On the question of church polity, three camps were present: Presbyterians, Erastians, and Independents.) Staunchly orthodox defenders of the system of Calvinism developed by John Calvin himself and made explicit at the Synod of Dordt were led by such men as Rutherford and Gillespie, while a “moderate” group of men defended a milder form of Calvinism. (“Moderate” is really a generous assessment of these so-called Calvinists, for in fact, they were Amyraldian in their thinking, and they defended a position on the Synod that was only a slight modification of the Amyraldian heresy.) The position of Amyraut was defended on the floor of the Assembly especially by Seaman, Vines, Marshall and Calamy.
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We may say, without hesitation, that the orthodox view prevailed in the entire confession and the Amyraldian view was rejected..
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I am aware of the fact that many in the past and today claim to be within the teachings of the WC even though they hold to a gracious and well-meant gospel offer. Perhaps their defense is that the WC itself uses the term “offer” (as does the Canons of Dordt). Perhaps they are more honest and claim, as the Amyraldian Richard Baxter claimed, that there was room in the confession for his Amyraldian views. He wrote: “Chap III, sec. 6, and chap. VIII , sec 8 (of the WC, HH) which speak against universal redemption, I understand not of all redemption, and particularly not of the mere bearing the punishment of man’s sin, and satisfying God’s justice, but of that special redemption proper to the elect, what was accompanied with an intention of actual application of the saving benefits in time. If I may not be allowed this interpretation, I must herein dissent.” (Robert Shaw, An Exposition of the Confession of Faith [Philadelphia, 1847] p. 71.)
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In other words, Richard Baxter refused to sign the WC unless he was permitted to make a distinction between a special redemption that included the application of Christ’s benefits to the elect, and a more general redemption that was a “mere bearing the punishment of man’s sin, and satisfying God’s justice.” Baxter admitted that the latter was not taught in the WC, but that it was permissible to make the distinction because the WC did not condemn it. Baxter argued his case from the silence of the WC, not from its teachings. (We may note that Baxter later did sign the WC.) It would help matters considerably if present day defenders who hold to a gracious well-meant gospel offer and claim faithfulness to the WC would tell us whether their claim to be faithful to the WC is based on the mere use of the word “offer” in the confession, or whether they argue from silence, as Richard Baxter did; or, whether perhaps they have some other argument.)
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We will discuss the actual teachings of the WC in our next installment.
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With warmest regards,
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Prof. Herman Hanko

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Amyraldianism (7)

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Dear forum members,
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Shortly after the Synod of Dordt adopted the Canons, an error arose in France that greatly influenced subsequent theology. I speak of the error of Amyraldianism. The error owes its name to its most influential defender, Moise Amyraut. It was claimed to be Calvinism, but was in fact a repudiation of the Calvinism of Calvin and the teachings of the Synod of Dordt.
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The heresy that it taught was called “hypothetical universalism”. It taught that “hypothetically” God loves all men; Christ died for all men; in His goodness towards all men, God made salvation available to all men; gave all men the promise of salvation on condition of faith; and actually bestowed an objective grace on all men. However, in fact, God saves only the elect and confers on them the grace of salvation.
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The system of theology promoted by Amyraut was a strong foundation for the gracious and well-meant offer of the gospel. The ideas are almost identical.
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The doctrine became sheer Arminianism – as one would expect that it would. It was based on the “two-will” idea in God: one will that wills the salvation of all men, and another will that wills the salvation of the elect. These two wills are sometimes called “the will of God’s decree” and “the will of His command;” or: “the secret will of God” and “the revealed will of God.” It is a distinction dear to the hearts of well-meant offer defenders. It is an idea repudiated by Calvin in his Treatise on the Eternal Predestination of God, a book I referred to in any earlier installment. It is a distinction with which we shall have to deal in a subsequent article.
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Further, the system of Amyraut is based on a distinction in God’s grace between objective grace and subjective grace. Objective grace is God’s universal promise of salvation through a universal atonement on condition of faith. Subjective grace is the actual working of God in the heart of man to save him. The objective grace is a “common” grace, given to all who hear the gospel; subjective grace is given only to the elect.
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We ought to notice that the terms “objective” and “subjective”, especially the former, can be confusing. By objective grace is not meant a grace that is purely objective to the one hearing the preacher preach, so that he only hears about grace towards all men, and does not actually receive grace in his heart. The Amyraldians taught that the grace that comes to all men who hear the preaching includes a subjective grace applied to the heart, but this grace is not a saving grace, for saving grace depends on the fulfillment of the condition of faith. The “common grace” to which the well-meant offer refers, also includes a subjective grace that enables the hearer to decide either for or against the gospel. But we shall wait for further discussion of this subject in a later installment.
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This view of the Amyraldians sounds like the conditional theology of those who hold to a conditional covenant. God’s promise is to all baptized members of believers objectively, but is subjectively given only on condition of faith. I do not hesitate a moment to state that conditional salvation, in whatever form it appears, is Arminian and Amyraldian.
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The views of Amyraut are peculiar and one wonders why any theologian could possibly give them credence. And yet they became popular in the British Isles. Several Amyraldians were present at the Westminster Assembly and argued vehemently their position. Richard Baxter was an Amyraldian and, at first, refused to sign the Westminster Confession of Faith – although later he did sign it, evidently persuaded that the Westminster Confession allowed room for his views. Edward Fisher, in The Marrow of Modern Divinity, also held to the teachings of Amyraut; his book had considerable influence at the time of the Marrow Controversy in the beginning of the 18th century.
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The easiest way to learn what the Amyraldians taught is to consult the Formula Consensus Helvetica. The introduction of this confession, as it appears in A. A. Hodge’s “Outlines of Theology,” reads: “Composed in Zurich, A. D. 1675, by John Henry Heidegger, of Zurich, assisted by Francis Turretin, of Geneva, and Luke Gernler, of Basle, and designed to condemn and exclude that modified form of Calvinism, which, in the seventeenth century, emanated from the Theological School at Saumer, represented by Amyrault, Placaeus, and Daille; entitled ‘Form of Agreement of the Helvetic Reformed Churches respecting the doctrine of universal grace, the doctrines connected therewith, and some other points.’” (A.A. Hodge, Outlines of Theology [New York: Hodder and Stoughton, 1878] 656-663.)
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After emphatically defining and defending sovereign and eternal election in Articles 4 and 5, the confession goes on to say in Article 6: “Wherefore we can not give suffrage to the opinion of those who teach:--(1) that God, moved by philanthropy, or a sort of special love for the fallen human race ... did, in a kind of conditioned willing—willingness—first moving of pity, as they call it—inefficacious desire—purpose the salvation of all and each, at least, conditionally, i.e., if they would believe; (2) that He appointed Christ Mediator for all and each of the fallen ....”
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This article is a specific reference to the teachings of Amyraut. It is a bit complicated in this form, but means that God loved the fallen human race in a special way. Further, God willed and purposed to save all men, although His desire and purpose to save all men was conditional and without the efficacy to save. That willingness to save all men arose out of pity for all men.
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Again, after emphatically asserting, against the Amyraldians, that Adams’s sin, imputed to the whole human race, includes both the imputed guilt of Adam’s sin to the human race, and its inherent hereditary sin, the Confession goes on to say, “Accordingly we can not, without harm to Divine truth, give assent to those who deny that Adam represented his posterity by appointment of God, and that his sin is imputed, therefore, immediately, to his posterity …” (Article 12).
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This article makes clear that those of the school of Amyraut denied original sin, both in the sense of original guilt and original pollution.
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Concerning the death of Christ and the extent of his atoning work, the creed says: “… He encountered dreadful death instead of (in the place of, HH) the elect alone, restored only these into the bosom of the Father’s grace ...” (Article 12). The Amyraldians were not hesitant to speak of a certain “hypothetical” universalism in the suffering of our Savior on the cross.
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After turning to the subject of the calling of God, the confession says, “Although these ’all’ (in John 6:40, HH) are elect alone, and God formed no plan of universal salvation without any selection of persons, and Christ therefore died not for every one but for the elect only who were given to Him ...” (Article 19). John 6:40 reads: “And this is the will of him that sent me, that every one which seeth the Son, and believeth on him, may have everlasting life: and I will raise him up at the last day.” The Amyraldians interpreted that text to mean that God willed the salvation of all, but actually bestowed it on those who saw the Son and believed. This interpretation is rejected by the Consensus Helvetica.
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Article 20 follows with this strong language: “Accordingly we have no doubt that they err who [hold] the absolute universality of grace ...” (Article 20).
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The defenders of the well-meant gospel offer teach exactly what the Helvetic Consensus repudiated, that is that God is gracious to all who hear the gospel.
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While the Consensus Helvetica did not attain creedal status in any Reformed or Presbyterian Church, it was held in high esteem in the Swiss Churches and was the consensus of the Swiss theologians who worked in the major cities of Switzerland over one hundred years after the death of Calvin.
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There can be little doubt about it that the teachings of the well-meant gospel offer closely parallel those of Amyraldianism. These views were emphatically rejected by the Swiss churches.
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With warmest regards,
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Prof. Herman Hanko

Monday, April 6, 2009

The "Free Offer" of the Gospel (6)

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Dear Forum members.
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In the last installment I described briefly the error of the Arminians, and the Canons of Dordt that was written against their errors. While the views of the Arminians did not include the error of a well-meant offer of the gospel as such, their general teachings were very much like those of well-meant offer defenders. The defenders of the well-meant gospel offer in the Reformed tradition appeal to the Canons in support of their view with an irony that cannot be overlooked.
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The Arminians taught that fallen man’s will is free. The defenders of the well-meant offer also teach the free will of man. They do this by saying that God desires the salvation of all men and has done all that is necessary for man to be saved; but it now remains up to man whether he will accept the offered salvation.
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Many who hold to the well-meant gospel offer deny that they teach that man possesses a free will. Nevertheless, their denial is spurious. (I will demonstrate this at a later date.)
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The Canons teach total depravity. In Canons 3/4. B 3, 4 the fathers at Dordt reject the error of those “who teach that in spiritual death the spiritual gifts are not separate from the will of man, since the will in itself has never been corrupted, but only hindered through the darkness of the understanding and the irregularity of the affections; and that, these hindrances having been removed, the will can then bring into operation its native powers, that is, that the will of itself is able to will and to choose, or not to will and not to choose, all manner of good which may be present to it” (Article 3). “Who teach that the unregenerate man is not really nor utterly dead in sin, nor destitute of all powers unto spiritual good, but that he can yet hunger and thirst after righteousness and life, and offer the sacrifice of a contrite and broken spirit, which is pleasing to God” (Article 4). Defenders of common grace teach that, although man is totally depraved, he is not absolutely depraved. This is an inexcusable playing with words, used only to deny an important point of the Canons, the truth of total depravity.
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The Arminians taught a “common grace,” that is a grace of God common to all. The Arminians meant by common grace those gifts which man did not lose when he fell. Those who hold to common grace teach much the same thing. Man is the object of the grace of God, which enables him to make a choice either for or against the gospel offer. The Canons say that Synod rejects the errors of those “who teach that the corrupt and natural man can so well use the common grace (this is the only place in all the Reformed creeds were the term “common grace” is used – and its mention is in order to reject it. HH) (by which they understand the light of nature), or the gifts still left him after the fall, that he can gradually gain by their good use a greater, namely, the evangelical or saving grace and salvation itself. And that in this way God on His part shows Himself ready to reveal Christ unto all men, since He applies to all sufficiently and efficiently the means necessary to conversion” (Canons, 3/4, B, 5, emphasis is mine, HH).
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The Arminians reduced the gospel to overtures of love, opportunities to be saved, expressions of God’s willingness to deliver from evil, and various pleadings and beggings to “close with Christ,” as the Marrow men were wont to put it. The common grace people say much the same. But the Canons say that the Synod rejects the errors of those “who teach that the grace whereby we are converted to God is only a gentle advising, or (as others explain it) that this manner of working, which consists in advising, is more in harmony with man’s nature; and that there is no reason why this advising grace alone should not be sufficient to make the natural man spiritual, indeed, that God does not produce the consent of the will except through this manner of advising (emphasis is mine, HH); and that the power of the divine working, whereby it surpasses the working of Satan, consists in this, that God promises eternal, while Satan promises only temporal good” (Canons 3/4, B 7). Nor do the Canons hesitate to call this view “altogether Pelagian and contrary to the whole Scripture” (idem.).
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Finally, the Canons emphatically teach a limited atonement, or, as the doctrine is better called, a particular redemption. The Arminians taught a universal atoning sacrifice of Christ, which made salvation possible for all men. The common grace proponents are also compelled by their position to speak of an atonement of Christ that was for all men – at least in some important respects. The Canons reject that idea. In Canons 2. 8 the fathers state with all the emphasis of which they are capable: “For this was the sovereign counsel and most gracious will and purpose of God the Father, that the quickening and saving efficacy of the most precious death of His Son should extend to all the elect, for bestowing upon them alone the gift of justifying faith, thereby to bring them infallibly to salvation; that is, it was the will of God that Christ by the blood of the cross, whereby He confirmed the new covenant, should effectually redeem out of every people, tribe, nation, and language all those and those only (emphasis is mine, HH) who were from eternity chosen to salvation and given to Him by the Father . . . .”
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It is difficult to imagine how anyone can appeal to the Canons of Dordt in support of a well-meant offer of salvation.
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May the indispensable blessings of our sovereign God be with you in the year that lies ahead of us. We take joy in knowing that, although the future is hid from us, God will guide us by His counsel, and afterwards receive us to glory
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With warmest regards,
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Prof. Hanko

Sunday, April 5, 2009

The "Canons of Dordt" and Common Grace (5)

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Dear forum members,
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The period after the reformation was a time of writing creeds. In all the history of the church there has never been such a rich period of doctrinal advance and creedal formulation. All the major creeds of the reformation were written in the first 125 years that followed the work of Luther, Calvin and Knox. The last two creeds of importance, omitting for the moment the Helvetic Confession, were the Canons of Dordt and the Westminster Confession of Faith, both written in the 17th century.
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The Canons of Dordt and the events leading up to the Synod of Dordt, are our concern in this installment. The Canons was unique among all the creeds of the reformation because it was occasioned by a fierce attack against the doctrines of sovereign and particular grace. That attack was launched by a man named Jacobus Arminius, and his followers became known as Arminians.
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(Right: Synod of Dordt meeting at Dordrecht, The Netherlands)
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The Canons of Dordt was written in five chapters, each chapter devoted to a refutation of one point of the teachings of the Arminians. The five chapters are: Sovereign and eternal predestination, including election and reprobation – over against the Arminian teaching of conditional predestination; Particular redemption – over against the Arminian doctrine of universal atonement; Total depravity – over against the Arminian doctrine of the free will of man; Irresistible grace – over against the Arminian teaching that the grace of the Holy Spirit could be resisted; and the Preservation of the saints – over against the teaching of the Arminians that a man, although once saved, could lose his salvation and ultimately perish in hell.
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It is somewhat ironic that some 20th century supporters of the well-meant gospel offer, especially in Reformed circles, appeal to the Canons in support of their position. This appeal is ironic because the Canons were actually written against the position of the Arminians that grace is offered and available to all, and that the actual reception of it depends on the choice of man’s will.
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The two articles in the Canons, to which supporters of the well-meant offer have appealed, are Canons 2.5 and Canons 3/4. 8, 9. Canons 2.5 reads: “Moreover, the promise of the gospel is that whosoever believeth in Christ crucified shall not perish, but have everlasting life. This promise, together with the command to repent and believe, ought to be declared and published to all nations, and to all persons promiscuously and without distinction, to whom God out of His good pleasure sends the gospel.”
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This is a very beautiful and important article. It clearly defines the contents of the preaching of the gospel and it raises a bar against all Hyper-calvinism. Hyper-calvinism is a charge frequently leveled against all opponents of the well-meant gospel offer, but is really only a red herring that makes use of careless name-calling. It is intended to brand those who deny the well-meant offer with evil. The article itself prevents one from teaching the main error of the Hyper-calvinists. They deny that all men who hear the gospel are, by the gospel, called to repent and to believe in Christ. They teach that the command, proclaimed in the gospel, that all who hear are called to repentance and faith in Christ is wrong; God calls to faith and repentance only his elect. But I intend to discuss this aspect of the question of the well-meant offer in a later installment.
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The article, does not, however, teach an offer. Those who claim that it does maintain, I would suppose, that “the command to repent and believe” is, in fact, an offer. They seem to be oblivious to the fact that there is a considerable difference between a command and an offer. I may offer a man fifty dollars if he will cut my lawn; it is then up to him whether he does it or not. But that is quite different than saying to a man: “I order you to cut my lawn and you will be punished if you refuse.” So God does not offer salvation to all men; but He does command all men to repent of their sin and believe in Christ.
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He is God and has the right to issue such a command. And man, creature that he is, must obey or be destroyed. He does not say to a man: “I love you and want you to be saved; please believe in Christ and I will save you;” no, He says to man: “Repent or go to hell.”
It is impossible to find and offer anywhere in this article.
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Canons 3/4, 8, 9 reads: “As many as are called by the gospel are unfeignedly called. For God has most earnestly and truly shown in His Word what is pleasing to Him, namely, that those who are called should come to Him. He, moreover, seriously promises eternal life and rest to as many as shall come to Him and believe on Him” (Article 8). “It is not the fault of the gospel, nor of Christ offered therein, nor of God, who calls men by the gospel and confers upon them various gifts, that those who are called by the ministry of the Word refuse to come and be converted. The fault lies in themselves, some of whom when called, regardless of their danger, reject the Word of life; others, though they receive it, suffer it not to make a lasting impression on their heart, therefore their joy, arising only from a temporary faith, soon vanishes and they fall away; while others choke the seed of the Word by perplexing cares and the pleasures of the world, and produce no fruit. This our Savior teaches in the parable of the sower (Matt.13)” (Article 9).
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It is my understanding of the appeal of common grace supporters to this article as proof of a well-meant offer is because they assume that the word “offer” in Article 9 refers to the well-meant offer with its idea that God loves all and offers salvation to all who hear the gospel. However, as we noticed in an earlier article, the Latin word offere (the Canons were written in Latin) means “to present, to set forth, to set before the face of one.”
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The article teaches the following truths, at least as far as the question of the well-meant gospel offer is concerned. God’s calling to those who hear the gospel is serious and means what it says, and that it is well-pleasing to Him that men do what He commands. He is not playing games with men when he commands them to repent and believe in Christ. He is not commanding them to do something to which He is indifferent. He does not say to men that they must repent and believe in Christ, but does not really mean what He says, and does not care whether they obey or not. God never has any pleasure in sin, nor delights in disobedience.
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Presumably, the defenders of the gospel offer, because, so they say, God is well-pleased with the repentance and faith of those who hear the gospel, must also desire that all be saved. And this desire that all be saved implies that God loves all and that Christ died for all.
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This is indeed a problem that requires our investigation. It is not a new problem. It was already addressed by Francis Turretin, an ardent opponent of the well-meant offer. Whether his explanation is adequate is another matter, and we intend, God willing, to discuss this problem somewhat later – as well as Turretin’s answer to this objection. It is sufficient to say now that the command of God to repent from sin and believe in Christ is a command rooted in the creation ordinance. God created man good and upright and able to keep God’s law. Man’s fall is his own fault, and for it he is culpable before God. All men are responsible for Adam’s sin, for Adam was the federal head of the entire human race. But all men are responsible also for obedience to God, even after they fell. God does not, as it were, say to fallen man: “I am so sorry that you fell into sin. I see your sad plight and your inability to do what I originally commanded you to do. I will not, therefore, require obedience of you any longer.” Such a position would be contrary to God’s own infinite holiness and justice. God still insists that man obey Him. An inability that is man’s own fault is no excuse for disobedience. And God is very serious about this.
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Article 9 teaches that the fault for man’s disobedience, therefore, does not rest with the gospel – as if the gospel is insufficient to point the way to salvation. The gospel is clear and concise. Man must obey God and believe in Christ. Mans unbelief is his own fault and responsibility, and he may not, as the rich man in hell did, blame the gospel (Luke 16:29-31).
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But a more detailed examination of this question will have to wait.
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Greetings and blessings to all,
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Prof. Herman Hanko.

John Calvin and the Subject of Common Grace (4)

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Dear Forum Members,
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In our last installment, we discussed Augustine’s repudiation of ideas, which have, since the Reformation, become known as the well-meant gospel offer. I included three decisive quotes from Augustine’s writings to show that he did not hold to the ideas expressed by this doctrine. I used quotes that refer to texts to which defenders of the well-meant offer appeal to support of their view; the same passages to which the Semi-pelagians appealed in support of their heresies. In condemning the interpretation of these passages given by the Semi-pelagians, Augustine condemned the interpretation of the defenders of the well-meant gospel offer as well.
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One would think that the church of Augustine’s day would have accepted his views, but such was not the case. There is a kind of irony in the fact that Rome bestowed on Augustine sainthood and gave him the name, Doctor of Grace, but repudiated his views of grace. Rome condemned blatant Pelagianism, but adopted a Semi-pelagian position. Rome became Semi-pelagian in all its teachings, and particularly in its doctrine of justification. Rome taught justification by faith and works, a Semi-pelagian heresy.
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There was something inevitable about this rejection by Rome of Augustine’s position. Early in the history of the new dispensational church, monasticism arose and soon began to flourish. But monasticism was based on a two-tiered morality – one level for the common members of the church and another level for the monks and nuns. The latter level was a higher level, because those who lived on this level lived more holy lives than the ordinary people of God: they repudiated, as part of their monastic vows, marriage in order to live celibate lives, possession of earthly goods to live in poverty, and the enjoyment of God’s good gifts in the creation. Because, repudiating these things, they lived a more perfect life; they also merited with God and earned a higher place in heaven by their extraordinary good works – so the church taught.
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This idea of merit, as tacitly approved by Rome’s encouragement of monasticism even before the Pelagian controversies, committed Rome to a Semi-pelagian position. If a man’s good works truly merit with God, it can only be because he originates these good works; they are not gifts of grace, sovereignly worked in man’s heart. Having committed itself to the doctrine of the merit of good works, it was impossible for Rome to adopt Augustine’s position, and Rome became completely Semi-pelagian. Not only did Rome deny sovereign grace, but it began, in its determination to hold to its heretical position on grace, to persecute those who taught and believed in sovereign and irresistible grace. In the Ninth century, Gottschalk rotted in prison after severe torture because he insisted on teaching the views of Augustine. And the people who came out from Rome under the leadership of the reformers were in constant danger of becoming the objects of Rome’s fury.
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It was not till the time of the Reformation that God delivered His people from Rome’s bondage.

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In giving the history of the idea of common grace, we must remember that the term itself, whether as referring to a general and well-meant offer or God’s attitude of favor toward all men, was unknown prior to the Reformation, and was even unknown at the time of the Reformation. Nor were the concepts generally discussed and debated. The reformers hated Rome’s Semi-pelagianism, but Rome had made no dogma that was called “common grace.” The reformers without exception, therefore, restored to the church the truths of sovereign and particular grace without any specific reference to a grace common to all men.
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Because the term common grace was unknown in the century of the Reformation, we would look in vain for some reference to it. Luther does not, so far as I know, use the term, not even in his development of justification by faith alone through grace against Rome’s teachings of justification by faith and works. This does not mean, however, that Luther is of no value to us in our discussion of the issues of common grace. It is especially in his major work, The Bondage of the Will, written against the humanist Erasmus and his detestable doctrine of free will, that Luther developed the truths of sovereign and particular grace. The book is almost “must reading” for anyone who wants to know what the Reformer of Wittenburg taught on the subject of grace. And anyone who reads the book will see clearly that to try to introduce into the book any doctrine of common grace is an exercise in futility.
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Calvin, however, dealt with the concept, even though he too did not specifically refer to the term. Defenders of common grace are frequently wont to appeal to Calvin in support of their position. Nevertheless, their appeal is unwarranted and a perversion of Calvin’s teachings.
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It might be worthwhile, in passing, to point out that Calvin repeatedly used the word “offer” in his writings. And this use of the word “offer” is one reason why Calvin is said to support the idea of the gracious and well-meant offer of the gospel. I once knew a man, now in glory, who so desperately hated the word “offer” that, meaning well, he went through all Calvin’s writings and blotted out the word “offer” wherever he found it. This man made a serious mistake and should never have done this. The word is, after all, found in the Canons of Dordt, a confession of the Reformed Churches. It is a good word. But he misunderstood the Latin use of it.
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The word “offer” comes from the Latin offere, which means, “to present, set forth, and hold before someone.” And the idea of the frequently used term “offer” is, therefore, to underscore the fact that in the gospel, Christ is presented or set forth as the One whom God has ordained to be the means of salvation; and that all who hear the gospel are commanded to repent of their sin and believe in Christ. The word is used by Calvin in the sense in which Paul uses it in Galatians 3:1: “O foolish Galatians, who hath bewitched you, that ye should not obey the truth before whose eyes Jesus Christ hath been evidently set forth, crucified among you?”
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A few quotations from Calvin will lay to rest the erroneous supposition that Calvin taught a well-meant gospel offer. (This quotation and the following quotes are taken from Calvin’s Calvinism: Treatises on the Eternal Predestination of God & the Secret Providence of God [Grand Rapids: RFPA, no date.] The book is a reprint of the edition first translated into English in 1859 by Henry Cole. The treatise, The Eternal Predestination of God was originally written and published in Geneva in 1552. It is sometimes known as the Consensus Genevensis, because it was written by Calvin when the doctrine of predestination was attacked by Pighius and Bolsec, and a consensus was sought with all the reformers in Switzerland. It makes specific mention of Pighius, a bitter opponent of Calvin, especially Calvin’s doctrine of predestination.)
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On page 50, 51 of Calvin’s Calvinism, Calvin writes: “Pighius will himself confess that there is need of illumination to bring to Christ those who were adversaries to God; but he, at the same time, holds fast the fiction that grace is offered equally to all, but that it is ultimately rendered effectual by the will of man, just as each one is willing to receive it.” And Pighius was an enemy of the gospel, against whom Calvin’s Treatise on the Eternal Predestination of God was written.
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In the second document included in Calvin’s Calvinism, a document entitled A Defense of the Secret Providence of God, Calvin writes: “But with reference to His (God’s, HH) hardening of men’s hearts, that is a different way of God’s working, as I have just observed. Because God does not govern the reprobate by His regenerating Spirit (to work salvation, HH); but He gives them over to the devil, and leaves them to be his slaves; and He so overrules their depraved wills by His secret judgment and counsel, that they can do nothing but what He has decreed” (319).
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A rather lengthy quote from pages 81, 82 is important, for it refers to Scriptural passages that deal with the question brought up by the defenders of the well-meant gospel offer. “Now let us listen to the Evangelist John. He will be no ambiguous interpreter of this same passage of the prophet Isaiah (Isaiah 53:1 & 6:9, 10, HH) . ‘But (says John) Jesus had done so many miracles before them, yet they believed not on Him, that the saying of Esaias the prophet might be fulfilled which he spake, Lord, who hath believed our report and to whom hath the arm of the Lord been revealed? Therefore they could not believe, because that Esaias said again, He hath blinded their eyes, and hardened their heart,’ etc. Now most certainly John does not here give us to understand that the Jews were prevented from believing by their sinfulness. For though this be quite true in one sense, yet the cause of their not believing must be traced to a far higher source. The secret and eternal purpose and counsel of God must be viewed as the original cause of their blindness and unbelief. It perplexed, in no small degree, the ignorant and the weak, when they heard that there was no place for Christ among the people of God (for the Jews were such). John explains the reason by showing that none believe save those to whom it is given, and that there are few to whom God reveals His arm. This other prophecy concerning ‘the arm of the Lord,’ the Evangelist weaves into his argument to prove the same great truth. And his words have a momentous weight. He says, ‘Therefore they could not believe.’ Wherefore, let men torture themselves as long as they will with reasoning, the cause of the difference made – why God does not reveal His arm equally to all—lies hidden in His own eternal decree. The whole of the Evangelist’s argument amounts evidently to this: that faith is a special gift, and that the wisdom of Christ is too high and too deep to come within the compass of man’s understanding. The unbelief of the world, therefore, ought not to astonish us, if even the wisest and most acute of men fail to believe. Hence, unless we would elude the plain and confessed meaning of the Evangelists, that few receive the Gospel, we must fully conclude that the cause is the will of God; and that the outward sound of the Gospel strikes the ear in vain until God is pleased to touch by it the heart within.” (The reference to John’s gospel is to John 12:37-41.)
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These passages could be multiplied from this important book as well as from other writings of the reformer of Geneva. But the interested reader may, with profit, read more of the same teachings in these treatises of Calvin as well as his Institutes of the Christian Religion. If Calvin found the final cause of men’s rejection of the gospel in God’s will, then it is impossible to conceive of the fact that God wills the salvation of these men.
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The other aspect of common grace, God’s attitude of favor towards all men, is also said to be a doctrine taught by Calvin. It is not necessary to go into this aspect of the question. We submit five reasons for this. 1) It is admitted by all students of Calvin that passages can be found in his writings, especially his Institutes, which suggest this. But to understand properly these writings of Calvin, we must not forget that Calvin was writing in a time when the issue of God’s favor towards all men was not a topic of debate and was not even consciously thought of as an important doctrine. We must not become guilty of the sin of anachronism (putting back into Calvin’s time our own debates and teachings), and appeal to Calvin on questions, of which he was not even aware, as proof for our position. 2) When Calvin repudiated the idea of an attitude of favor toward all men as it was expressed in the preaching of the gospel (as the above quotes show) he basically repudiated also the idea of an attitude of favor on God’s part towards all men, manifested in the good things of God’s creation. The well-meant gospel offer is said, by its defenders, to be one evidence among others that God has an attitude of favor towards all men. His attitude of favor is show in His expressed desire to save them. 3) Calvin’s repudiation of the well-meant gospel offer is rooted in God’s sovereign decree of election and reprobation, and reprobation means that God hates the wicked, a doctrine emphatically taught by Calvin. 4) Calvin spoke frequently of the fact that God reveals His goodness in all the gifts He bestows on man; but Calvin held to Asaph’s position in Psalm 73:18, that God puts the wicked on slippery places by means of these good gifts. 5) Finally, although Calvin may have made some statements that in the light of later controversies are not totally satisfactory, when Calvin came to the heart of this theology, the core of all he taught, the center of the truths of sovereign and particular grace, he was Biblical and beyond criticism.
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We may safely conclude that, whether we hold to a general, gracious, well-meant offer or repudiate it, Calvin did not teach it. We ought not to be surprised by the fact that Calvin sometimes said things that, in later years and in the light of later controversies, proved to be unfortunate statements. We ought rather to be surprised that Calvin, so recently escaped from Rome, was as solidly Biblical as he was. This is amazing and reason for gratitude to God.
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Greetings and blessings,
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Prof. H. Hanko

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Brief History of the Origins of The Teaching (3)

Dear Forum members,
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I intend to spend a little time at the outset of these discussions of common grace on a brief survey of the history of this doctrine. While surely it would be of little profit to enter into this history in detail, some important matters are to be learned from a study of the subject as it has been discussed in the history of the church of Christ. The old adage is true: “He who will not learn from history’s mistakes is doomed to repeat them.”
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The fact of the matter is that the whole subject of common grace was not on the agenda of the church prior to the Reformation of the 16th century. The term “common grace” was not used and the idea of common grace as it is maintained today in so many circles was strange to the thinking of theologians. This was true of common grace as God’s universal attitude of kindness towards all men, but it was also true of the term “well-meant gospel offer.”
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Nevertheless, similar ideas as those found on the lips of present defenders of common grace were expressed very early. And it is well to take a brief look at some of them. I intend to write in this installment a bit about the ancient church father Augustine. He and Athanasius, the great defender of Christ’s divinity at the Council of Nicea, are my own favorite church fathers from the time of the close of the New Testament canon to the supremacy of papal rule in Europe and the medieval church.
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Augustine lived in the last part of the 4th century and the first part of the 5th century. He died in 430 A.D., the same day the barbarians were storming the gates of the city of Hippo where he was bishop. He was born from a Christian mother and a pagan father, and in his early years he himself was a wicked man. He continued a dissolute life until he was, under the power of the grace of God, converted from his sinful ways and brought to faith in Christ. Augustine’s early life and conversion, however, were used by God to underscore, in his own experience, the truth that grace is sovereign, irresistible and the sole power of salvation – much like Luther’s monastery experiences and his search for God. Augustine knew from his own experience that he was helpless to break the shackles of sin that had bound him. Augustine became, what the Roman Catholic Church later called him: Doctor of Grace. With supreme irony, Rome gave him the honorable title of “Doctor of Grace,” while rejecting his doctrines of grace.
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(Left: Augustine)
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Augustine knew that sovereign grace alone could and did save him from the slavery of his lusts. God, whose ways are always wise, used these experiences to prepare Augustine for his calling to defend the sovereign grace of God.
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Augustine was an extremely brilliant man and, prior to his conversion, dabbled in all the philosophies current during his lifetime. But when God brought him out of his unbelief, God set his thinking on theology rather than on vain philosophy. While he was unable to shake completely free from his philosophical meanderings for some years after his conversion, Augustine was compelled to be devoted more deeply to the study of the truths of Scripture by the rise in Italy of a horrible theology known as Pelagianism. And when the church condemned blatant Pelagianism, a modification of Pelagianism arose, especially in southern France, which Augustine also fought bitterly. It became known as Semi-pelagianism.
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It was in his wars against these heresies that Augustine developed his own views on sovereign grace. Knowing that he himself was a sinner saved only by the power of grace, he saw also that these truths were the clear teachings of the Word of God. And he spent the remainder of his life defending them. Augustine, in his writings against Pelagianism and Semi-Pelagianism, taught the doctrines that we today call the five points of Calvinism. He taught sovereign, double predestination, the total depravity of the natural man, an atonement that was limited to the elect, a work of God’s grace that man could not resist, and a perseverance of the saints throughout their life. It is really no wonder that Calvin quoted Augustine’s writings more than the writings of any other church father of the first four centuries.

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Pelagius was a superficial thinker, but, as so often happens in the church, a very congenial man and one well-liked. He taught that Adam was created neither good nor bad, with a sort of morally neutral nature, but with the potential for doing both. When Adam chose to disobey God and brought about the fall into sin, Adam experienced no serious and important consequences of the fall, but remained capable of choosing for the good or for the bad. Nor did the fall have any consequences for his posterity. Sin itself, a matter of bad choices, was only a bad habit, like smoking. The longer one committed a sin, the more habitual it became. But, by force of the will, one could break the habit, repent of the sin, and make this fundamental alteration in his life. In other words, man was saved by his own efforts to overcome habits of sin he had probably learned from other people.
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It stands to reason that such a blatant distortion of Biblical doctrine could not be tolerated in the church, and Pelagius was condemned. But a modified form took its place. This modification became known as Semi-pelagianism. Those who promoted this view claimed that the fall resulted in a certain depravity of man’s nature, but this depravity was more a matter of a grave and potentially deadly sickness than an actual spiritual death. And so, while grace was certainly necessary, the help and assistance of grace could only be acquired through man’s own desire to attain salvation. He was sick, but no doctor would come to heal him unless he summoned the divine doctor to his bedside.
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Thus, salvation was possible for all men. This led inevitably to another position to which these Semi-pelagians held: the idea of a universal atonement rooted in God’s desire to save all men. And here is where, while not speaking in terms of a well-meant gospel offer, the Semi-pelagians taught something almost identical to today’s “well-meant offer of the gospel” rooted in God’s love for men.

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I am going to give a few quotes from Augustine’s writings to demonstrate his commitment to a repudiation of this underlying error of the well-meant gospel offer. Although as I said, Augustine taught clearly all the doctrines of grace, I cannot offer in this forum quotes from Augustine’s writings to prove these points. But I offer two pertinent quotes to demonstrate Augustine’s position on the idea of a gracious gospel offer.
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In defense of total depravity, Augustine argued that the will was a slave to sin and not free. “So, when man by his own free will sinned, then sin being victorious over him, the freedom of his will was lost” (Enchiridion, 30).[i] “And hence he will not be free to do right, until, being freed from sin, he shall begin to be the servant of righteousness” (Enchiridion, 30).
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Not surprisingly, the Semi-pelagians quoted the same Scriptures as are quoted today in support of the well-meant gospel offer. I Timothy 2:4 is one such text: “Who will have all men to be saved, and to come unto the knowledge of the truth.” Augustine wrote: “. . . but that we are to understand by ‘all men’ the human race in all its varieties of rank and circumstances, -- kings, subjects; noble, plebian, high, low, learned, and unlearned, the sound in body, the feeble, the clever, the dull, the foolish, the rich, the poor, and those of middling circumstances; males, females, infants, boys, youths; young, middle-aged, and old men; of every tongue, of every fashion, of all arts, of all professions, with all the innumerable differences of will and conscience, and whatever else there is that makes a distinction among men. . . We are not compelled to believe that the omnipotent God has willed anything to be done which was not done: for setting aside all ambiguities, if ‘He hath done all that He pleased in heaven and in earth,’ as the Psalmists sings of Him, He certainly did not will to do anything that He hath not done“ (Enchiridon, 103). This interpretation is the same as Calvin gives to this passage.
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Matthew 23:37 is another text to which appeal is made by defenders of the well-meant gospel, and reads: “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, thou that killest the prophets, and stonest them which are sent unto thee, how often would I have gathered thy children together, even as a hen gathereth her chickens under her wings, but ye would not!” Augustine, in his answer to those who appealed to this text, said: “But even though she (Jerusalem) was unwilling, He gathered together as many of her children as He wished: for He does not will some things and do them, and will others and do them not, but He hath done all that He pleased in heaven and on earth” (Enchiridion, 97).
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Passages such as these could be multiplied, as well as countless passages in support of the other doctrines of grace. Augustine wanted no part of any universal intent or desire of God to save all men. Nor would Augustine speak of two wills in God, one will to save all and another will to save only His people. He was opposed to the doctrine. An early form of the well-meant offer was rejected.

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There were also those among the Semi-pelagians who appealed to the wonderful deeds of the pagans, including the marvelous systems of philosophy developed by the Greeks, especially Plato and Aristotle, as proof of man’s natural ability to do good. In fact, in my own Greek courses in college my Greek professor did not cease to extol the works of Plato; they were, he said, works that brought Plato to the next to the top rung of the ladder to heaven, and he bemoaned the fact that Plato did not climb that last rung. Augustine dismissed these works of the philosophers as being good in the sight of God (even though he had been ensnared by philosophy in his pre-conversion days). Rather disdainfully, he dismissed them as “splendid vices.”
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Greetings and blessings to all,
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Prof Hanko
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[i] All the quotes I give are from Augustine’s writings as found in Schaff, Philip, Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 1-8 [Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co. 1980-1986]. From henceforth I will give only the work quoted.