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History of the Christian Church, Volume VIII: Modern Christianity. The Swiss Reformation.
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§ 114. Calvinism examined.


We cannot dismiss this important subject without examining the Calvinistic system of predestination in the light of Christian experience, of reason, and the teaching of the Bible.

Calvinism, as we have seen, starts from a double decree of absolute predestination, which antedates creation, and is the divine program of human history. This program includes the successive stages of the creation of man, an universal fall and condemnation of the race, a partial redemption and salvation, and a partial reprobation and perdition: all for the glory of God and the display of his attributes of mercy and justice. History is only the execution of the original design. There can be no failure. The beginning and the end, God’s immutable plan and the issue of the world’s history, must correspond.

We should remember at the outset that we have to deal here with nothing less than a solution of the world-problem, and should approach it with reverence and an humble sense of the limitation of our mental capacities. We stand, as it were, before a mountain whose top is lost in the clouds. Many who dared to climb to the summit have lost their vision in the blinding snowdrifts. Dante, the deepest thinker among poets, deems the mystery of predestination too far removed from mortals who cannot see "the first cause in its wholeness," and too deep even for the comprehension of the saints in Paradise, who enjoy the beatific vision, yet "do not know all the elect," and are content "to will whatsoever God wills."848848    Paradiso, XX. 130-138:—
   "O predestinazion, quanto rimota

   Èla radice tua da quegli aspetti

   Che la prima cagion non veggion tota !

   "E voi, mortali, tenetevi stretti

   A giudicar; chènoi, che Dio vedemo,

   Non conosciamo ancor tutti gli eletti :

   "Ed ènne dolce cosìfatto scemo,

   Perchèit ben nostro in questo ben s’affina,

   Che quel che vuole Dio, e noi volemo."
Calvin himself confesses that, the predestination of God is a labyrinth, from which the mind of man can by no means extricate itself."849849    Com. on Rom. 9:14: "Est praedestinatio Dei vere labyrinthus, unde hominis ingenium nullo modo se explicare queat."

The only way out of the labyrinth is the Ariadne thread of the love of God in Christ, and this is a still greater, but more blessed mystery, which we can adore rather than comprehend.


The Facts of Experience.


We find everywhere in this world the traces of a revealed God and of a hidden God; revealed enough to strengthen our faith, concealed enough to try our faith.

We are surrounded by mysteries. In the realm of nature we see the contrasts of light and darkness, day and night, heat and cold, summer and winter, life and death, blooming valleys and barren deserts, singing birds and poisonous snakes, useful animals and ravenous beasts, the struggle for existence and the survival of the fittest. Turning to human life, we find that one man is born to prosperity, the other to misery; one a king, the other a beggar; one strong and healthy, the other a helpless cripple; one a genius, the other an idiot; one inclined to virtue, another to vice; one the son of a saint, the other of a criminal; one in the darkness of heathenism, another in the light of Christianity. The best men as well as the worst are exposed to fatal accidents, and whole nations with their innocent offspring are ravaged and decimated by war, pestilence, and famine.

Who can account for all these and a thousand other differences and perplexing problems? They are beyond the control of man’s will, and must be traced to the inscrutable will of God, whose ways are past finding out.

Here, then, is predestination, and, apparently, a double predestination to good or evil, to happiness or misery.

Sin and death are universal facts which no sane man can deny. They constitute the problem of problems. And the only practical solution of the problem is the fact of redemption. "Where sin has abounded, grace did abound more exceedingly; that as sin reigned in death, even so might grace reign through righteousness unto eternal life, through Jesus Christ our Lord "(Rom. 5:20, 21).

If redemption were as universal in its operation as sin, the solution would be most satisfactory and most glorious. But redemption is only partially revealed in this world, and the great question remains: What will become of the immense majority of human beings who live and die without God and without hope in this world? Is this terrible fact to be traced to the eternal counsel of God, or to the free agency of man? Here is the point where Augustinianism and Calvinism take issue with Pelagianism, Semi-Pelagianism, Synergism, and Arminianism.

The Calvinistic system involves a positive truth: the election to eternal life by free grace, and the negative inference: the reprobation to eternal death by arbitrary justice. The former is the strength, the latter is the weakness of the system. The former is practically accepted by all true believers; the latter always has been, and always will be, repelled by the great majority of Christians.

The doctrine of a gracious election is as clearly taught in the New Testament as any other doctrine. Consult such passages as Matt. 25:34; John 6:37, 44, 65; 10:28; 15:16; l7:12; 18:9; Acts 13:48; Rom. 8:28–39; Gal. 1:4; Eph. 1:4–11; 2:8–10; 1 Thess. 1:4; 2 Thess. 2:13, 14; 2 Tim. 1:9; 1 Pet. 1:2. The doctrine is confirmed by experience. Christians trace all their temporal and spiritual blessings, their life, health, and strength, their regeneration and conversion, every good thought and deed to the undeserved mercy of God, and hope to be saved solely by the merits of Christ, "by grace through faith," not by works of their own. The more they advance in spiritual life, the more grateful they feel to God, and the less inclined to claim any merit. The greatest saints are also the humblest. Their theology reflects the spirit and attitude of prayer, which rests on the conviction that God is the free giver of every good and perfect gift, and that, without God, we are nothing. Before the throne of grace all Christians may be called Augustinians and Calvinists.

It is the great merit of Calvin to have brought out this doctrine of salvation by free grace more forcibly and clearly than any divine since the days of Augustin. It has been the effective theme of the great Calvinistic preachers and writers in Europe and America to this day. Howe, Owen, Baxter, Bunyan, South, Whitefield, Jonathan Edwards, Robert Hall, Chalmers, Spurgeon, were Calvinists in their creed, though belonging to different denominations,—Congregational, Presbyterian, Episcopal, Baptist,—and had no superiors in pulpit power and influence. Spurgeon was the most popular and effective preacher of the nineteenth century, who addressed from week to week five thousand bearers in his Tabernacle, and millions of readers through his printed sermons in many tongues. Nor should we forget that some of the most devout Roman Catholics were Augustinians or Jansenists.

On the other hand, no man is saved mechanically or by force, but through faith, freely, by accepting the gift of God. This implies the contrary power of rejecting the gift. To accept is no merit, to reject is ingratitude and guilt. All Calvinistic preachers appeal to man’s responsibility. They pray as if everything depended on God; and yet they preach and work as if everything depended on man. And the Church is directed to send the gospel to every creature. We pray for the salvation of all men, but not for the loss of a single human being. Christ interceded even for his murderers on the cross.

Here, then, is a practical difficulty. The decree of reprobation cannot be made an object of prayer or preaching, and this is an argument against it. Experience confirms election, but repudiates reprobation.


The Logical Argument.


The logical argument for reprobation is that there can be no positive without a negative; no election of some without a reprobation of others. This is true by deductive logic, but not by inductive logic. There are degrees and stages of election. There must be a chronological order in the history of salvation. All are called sooner or later; some in the sixth, others in the ninth, others in the eleventh, hour, according to God’s providence. Those who accept the call and persevere in faith are among the elect (1 Pet. 1:1; 2:9). Those who reject it, become reprobate by their own unbelief, and against God’s wish and will. There is no antecedent decree of reprobation, but only a judicial act of reprobation in consequence of man’s sin.

Logic is a two-edged sword. It may lead from predestinarian premises to the conclusion that God is the author of sin, which Calvin himself rejects and abhors as a blasphemy. It may also lead to fatalism, pantheism, or universalism. We must stop somewhere in our process of reasoning, or sacrifice a part of the truth. Logic, it should be remembered, deals only with finite categories, and cannot grasp infinite truth. Christianity is not a logical or mathematical problem, and cannot be reduced to the limitations of a human system. It is above any particular system and comprehends the truths of all systems. It is above logic, yet not illogical; as revelation is above reason, yet not against reason.

We cannot conceive of God except as an omniscient and omnipotent being, who from eternity foreknew and, in some way, also foreordained all things that should come to pass in his universe. He foreknew what he foreordained, and he foreordained what he foreknew; his foreknowledge and foreordination, his intelligence and will are coeternal, and must harmonize. There is no succession of time, no before nor after in the eternal God. The fall of the first man, with its effects upon all future generations, cannot have been an accident which God, as a passive or neutral spectator, simply permitted to take place when he might so easily have prevented it. He must in some way have foreordained it, as a means for a higher end, as a negative condition for the greatest good. So far the force of reasoning, on the basis of belief in a personal God, goes to the full length of Calvinistic supralapsarianism, and even beyond it, to the very verge of universalism. If we give up the idea of a self-conscious, personal God, reason would force us into fatalism or pantheism.

But there is a logic of ethics as well as of metaphysics. God is holy as well as almighty and omniscient, and therefore cannot be the author of sin. Man is a moral as well as an intellectual being, and the claims of his moral constitution are equal to the claims of his intellectual constitution. Conscience is as powerful a factor as reason. The most rigid believer in divine sovereignty, if he be a Christian, cannot get rid of the sense of personal accountability, though he may be unable to reconcile the two. The harmony lies in God and in the moral constitution of man. They are the two complementary sides of one truth. Paul unites them in one sentence: "Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who worketh in you both to will and to work, for his good pleasure" (Phil. 2:13). The problem, however, comes within the reach of possible solution, if we distinguish between sovereignty as an inherent power, and the exercise of sovereignty. God may limit the exercise of his sovereignty to make room for the free action of his creatures. It is by his sovereign decree that man is free. Without such self-limitation he could not admonish men to repent and believe. Here, again, the Calvinistic logic must either bend or break. Strictly carried out, it would turn the exhortations of God to the sinner into a solemn mockery and cruel irony.


The Scripture Argument.


Calvin, though one of the ablest logicians, cared less for logic than for the Bible, and it is his obedience to the Word of God that induced him to accept the decretum horribile against his wish and will. His judgment is of the greatest weight, for he had no superior, and scarcely an equal, in thorough and systematic Bible knowledge and exegetical insight.

And here we must freely admit that not a few passages, especially in the Old Testament, favor a double decree to the extent of supreme supralapsarianism; yea, they go beyond the Calvinistic system, and seem to make God himself the author of sin and evil. See Ex. 4:21; 7:13 (repeatedly said of God’s hardening Pharaoh’s heart); Isa. 6:9, 10; 44:18; Jer. 6:21; Amos 3:6 ("Shall there be evil in a city, and the Lord hath not done it?"); Prov. 16:4; Matt. 11:25; 13:14, 15; John 12:40; Rom. 9:10–23; 11:7, 8; 1 Cor. 14:3; 2 Thess. 2:11; 1 Pet. 2:8; Jude 4 ("who were of old set forth unto this condemnation ").850850    The last passage is often quoted for a decree of reprobation; but the verb προγεγραμμένοι is wrongly translated "ordained" in the E. V. Προγράφω means to write before, and refers to previous writings, namely, the Scriptures of the O. T. Calvin correctly translates "praescripti in hoc judicium," but refers it, metaphorically, to the book of the divine counsel: "aeternum Dei consilium liber vocatur."

The rock of reprobation is Romans 9. It is not accidental that Calvin elaborated and published the second edition of his Institutes simultaneously with his Commentary on the Romans, at Strassburg, in 1539.

There are especially three passages in Romans 9, which in their strict literal sense favor extreme Calvinism, and are so explained by some of the severest grammatical commentators of modern times (as Meyer and Weiss).

(a) 9:13: "Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated," quoted from Mal. 1:2, 3. This passage, whether we take it in a literal or anthropopathic sense, has no reference to the eternal destiny of Jacob and Esau, but to their representative position in the history of the theocracy. This removes the chief difficulty. Esau received a temporal blessing from his father (Gen. 27:39, 40), and behaved kindly and generously to his brother (33:4); he probably repented of the folly of his youth in selling his birthright,851851    This is implied in the passage, Heb. 12:17, whether we refer μετάνοια to Esau’s late repentance (Calvin, Bleek), or to a change of mind in Isaac (Beza, Weiss). and may be among the saved, as well as Adam and Eve—the first among the lost and the first among the saved.

Moreover, the strict meaning of a positive hatred seems impossible in the nature of the case, since it would contradict all we know from the Bible of the attributes of God. A God of love, who commands us to love all men, even our enemies, cannot hate a child before his birth, or any of his creatures made in his own image. "Can a woman forget her sucking child," says the Lord, "that she should not have compassion on the son of her womb? Yea, these may forget, yet will I not forget thee" (Isa. 49:15). This is the prophet’s conception of the tender mercies of God. How much more must it be the conception of the New Testament? The word hate must, therefore, be understood as a strong Hebraistic expression for loving less or putting back; as in Gen. 29:31, where the original text says, "Leah was hated" by Jacob, i.e. loved less than Rachel (comp. 29:30). When our Saviour says, Luke 14:26: "If any man hateth not his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yea, and his own life also, he cannot be my disciple," he does not mean that his disciples should break the fifth commandment, and act contrary to his direction: "Love your enemies, pray for them that persecute you" (Matt. 5:44), but simply that we should prefer him above everything, even life itself, and should sacrifice whatever comes in conflict with him. This meaning is confirmed by the parallel passage, Matt. 10:37: "He that loveth father and mother more than me is not worthy of me."

(b) Rom. 9:17. Paul traces the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart to the agency of God, and so far makes God responsible for sin. But this was a judicial act of punishing sin with sin; for Pharaoh had first hardened his own heart (Ex. 8:15, 32; 9:34). Moreover, this passage has no reference to Pharaoh’s future fate any more than the passage about Esau, but both refer to their place in the history of Israel.

(c) In Rom. 9:22 and 23, the Apostle speaks of "vessels of wrath fitted unto destruction" kathrtismevna eij" ajpwvleian), and "vessels of mercy which he (God) prepared unto glory" (a} prohtoivmasen eij" dovxan). But the difference of the verbs, and the difference between the passive (or middle) in the first clause and the active in the second is most significant, and shows that God has no direct agency in the destruction of the vessels of wrath, which is due to their self-destruction; the participle perfect denotes the result of a gradual process and a state of maturity for destruction, but not a divine purpose. Calvin is too good an exegete to overlook this difference, and virtually admits its force, although he tries to weaken it.

They observe," he says of his opponents, "that it is not said without meaning, that the vessels of wrath are fitted for destruction, but that God prepared the vessels of mercy; since by this mode of expression, Paul ascribes and challenges to God the praise of salvation, and throws the blame of perdition on those who by their choice procure it to themselves. But though I concede to them that Paul softens the asperity of the former clause by the difference of phraseology; yet it is not at all consistent to transfer the preparation for destruction to any other than the secret counsel of God, which is also asserted just before in the context, ’that God raised up Pharaoh, and whom he will he hardeneth.’ Whence it follows, that the cause of hardening is the secret counsel of God. This, however, I maintain, which is observed by Augustin, that when God turns wolves into sheep, he renovates them by more powerful grace to conquer their obstinacy; and therefore the obstinate are not converted, because God exerts not that mightier grace, of which he is not destitute if he chose to display it."852852    Inst. III. ch. XXII. 1. In his Com. on Rom. 9:22, 23, he ignores this distinction and explains κατηρτισμένα, "given up and appointed to destruction, made and formed for this end" (devota et destinata exitio: sunt enim vasa irae, id est in hoc facta et formata, ut documenta sint vindictae et furoris Dei). This is the extreme supralapsarian exposition. But other Reformed exegetes fully acknowledge the difference of phraseology. It was pressed by those members of the Westminster Assembly who sympathized with the hypothetical universalism of the Saumur school of Cameron and Amyrauld. "The non-elect," said Dr. Arrowsmith, "are said to be fitted to that destruction which their sins bring upon them, but not by God." See Mitchell, Minutes of the Westminster Assembly, pp. 152 sqq.; Schaff, Creeds, I. 770 sq.


Paul’s Teaching of the Extent of Redemption.


Whatever view we may take of these hard passages, we should remember that Romans 9 is only a part of Paul’s philosophy of history, unfolded in chapters 9–11. While Rom. 9 sets forth the divine sovereignty, Rom. 10 asserts the human responsibility, and Rom. 11 looks forward to the future solution of the dark problem, namely, the conversion of the fulness of the Gentiles and the salvation of all Israel (11:25). And he winds up the whole discussion with the glorious sentence: "God hath shut up all unto disobedience, that he might have mercy—upon all" (11:32). This is the key for the understanding, not only of this section, but of the whole Epistle to the Romans.853853    "Das ganze Summarium und der herrliche Schlussstein des ganzen bisherigen Brieftheils." Weiss in the 6th ed. of Meyer on Romans (p. 555). Godet: C’est ici comme le point final apposéàtout ce qui précede; ce dernier mot rend compte de tout le plan de Dieu, dont les phases principales viennent d’être esquissées." The ἵνα τούς πάντας (Jews and Gentiles) teaches not, indeed, the forced acceptance of mercy by all, but, at all events, the universality of the divine purpose and intention. Meyer sees in this passage a conclusive exegetical argument against a decretum reprobationis.

And this is in harmony with the whole spirit and aim of this Epistle. It is easier to make it prove a system of conditional universalism than a system of dualistic particularism. The very theme, 1:16, declares that the gospel is a power of God for the salvation, not of a particular class, but of "every one" that believeth. In drawing a parallel between the first and the second Adam (5:12–21), he represents the effect of the latter as equal in extent, and greater in intensity than the effect of the former; while in the Calvinistic system it would be less. We have no right to limit "the many" (oiJ polloiv) and the, "all" (pavnte") in one clause, and to take it literally in the other. "If, by the trespass of the one [Adam], death reigned through the one, much more shall they that receive the abundance of grace and of the gift of righteousness reign in life through the one, even Jesus Christ. So, then, as through one trespass the judgment came unto all men to condemnation; even so through one act of righteousness the free gift came unto all men to justification of life. For as through the one man’s disobedience the many [i.e. all] were made sinners, even so through the obedience of the one shall the many [all] be made righteous" (5:17–19).854854    Unfortunately the A. V. obliterates the force of the parallel in the fifth chapter of Romans by neglecting the definite article before πολλοί. "The many" of the original is opposed to "the one," and is equivalent to "all;" while "many" would be opposed to "few." The Revised Version of 1881 corrects these mistakes. The same parallel, without any restriction, is more briefly expressed in the passage (1 Cor. 15:21): "As in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive;" and in a different form in Rom. 11:32 and Gal. 3:22, already quoted.

These passages contain, as in a nutshell, the theodicy of Paul. They dispel the darkness of Romans 9. They exclude all limitations of God’s plan and intention to a particular class; they teach not, indeed, that all men will be actually saved—for many reject the divine offer, and die in impenitence,—but that God sincerely desires and actually provides salvation for all. Whosoever is saved, is saved by grace; whosoever is lost, is lost by his own guilt of unbelief.


The Offer of Salvation.


There remains, it is true, the great difficulty that the offer of salvation is limited in this world, as far as we know, to a part of the human race, and that the great majority pass into the other world without any knowledge of the historical Christ.

But God gave to every man the light of reason and conscience (Rom. 1:19; 2:14, 15). The Divine Logos "lighteth every man" that cometh into the world (John 1:9). God never left himself "without witness" (Acts 14:17). He deals with his creatures according to the measure of their ability and opportunity, whether they have one or five or ten talents (Matt. 25:15 sqq.). He is "no respecter of persons, but in every nation he that feareth him and worketh righteousness, is acceptable to him" (Acts 10:35).

May we not then cherish at least a charitable hope, if not a certain belief, that a God of infinite love and justice will receive into his heavenly kingdom all those who die innocently ignorant of the Christian revelation, but in a state of preparedness or disposition for the gospel, so that they would thankfully accept it if offered to them? Cornelius was in such a condition before Peter entered his house, and he represents a multitude which no man can number. We cannot know and measure the secret operations of the Spirit of God, who works "when, where, and how he pleases."

Surely, here is a point where the rigor of the old orthodoxy, whether Roman Catholic, or Lutheran, or Calvinistic, must be moderated. And the Calvinistic system admits more readily of an expansion than the churchly and sacramental type of orthodoxy.


The General Love of God to all Men.


This doctrine of a divine will and divine provision of a universal salvation, on the sole condition of faith, is taught in many passages which admit of no other interpretation, and which must, therefore, decide this whole question. For it is a settled rule in hermeneutics that dark passages must be explained by clear pas-sages, and not vice versa. Such passages are the following: —

"I have no pleasure in the death of him that dieth, saith the Lord our God: wherefore turn yourselves, and live" (Ezek. 18:32, 23; 33:11). "And I, if I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all men unto myself" (John 12:32). "God so loved the world" (that is, all mankind) "that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth on him should not perish, but have eternal life" (John 3:16). "God our Saviour willeth that all men should be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth "(1 Tim. 2:4).855855    Calvin explains "all men" to mean men of all classes and conditions ("de hominum generibus, non singulis personis"). See his Comm. on 1 Tim. 2:4, and his sermon on the passage. But the Apostle emphasizes "all men" with reference to prayer "for all men," which he commands in 2:1, and which cannot be limited. "The grace of God hath appeared, bringing salvation to all men" (Tit. 2:11). "The Lord is long-suffering to you-ward, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance" (2 Pet. 3:9).856856    Calvin arbitrarily explains this passage of the "voluntas Dei quae nobis in evangelio patefit," but not "de arcano Dei consilio quo destinati sunt reprobi in suum exitium." "Jesus Christ is the propitiation for our sins; and not for ours only, but also for (the sins of) the whole world" (1 John 2:2). It is impossible to state the doctrine of a universal atonement more clearly in so few words.857857    Calvin understands "totus mundus" in this passage to mean "tota ecclesia!" This is as impossible as the confinement of "the world," John 3:16, to "the elect." He mentions, however, also a better explanation, that Christ died "sufficienter pro toto mundo, sed pro electis tantum efficaciter."

To these passages should be added the divine exhortations to repentance, and the lament of Christ over the inhabitants of Jerusalem who "would not" come to him (Matt. 23:37). These exhortations are insincere or unmeaning, if God does not want all men to be saved, and if men have not the ability to obey or disobey the voice. The same is implied in the command of Christ to preach the gospel to the whole creation (Mark 16:15), and to disciple all nations (Matt. 28:19).

It is impossible to restrict these passages to a particular class without doing violence to the grammar and the context.

The only way of escape is by the distinction between a revealed will of God, which declares his willingness to save all men, and a secret will of God which means to save only some men.858858    Various terms for the distinction: voluntas revelata and voluntas arcana; voluntas signi and voluntas beneplaciti (εὐδοκίας); voluntas universalis and voluntas specialis: verbum externum et verbum internum. The oft-quoted proof text, Deut. 29:29, teaches a distinction, but not a contradiction, between the secret things and the revealed things of God. Augustin and Luther made this distinction. Calvin uses it in explaining 2 Pet. 3:9, and those passages of the Old Testament which ascribe repentance and changes to the immutable God.

But this distinction overthrows the system which it is intended to support. A contradiction between intention and expression is fatal to veracity, which is the foundation of human morality, and must be an essential attribute of the Deity. A man who says the reverse of what he means is called, in plain English, a hypocrite and a liar. It does not help the matter when Calvin says, repeatedly, that there are not two wills in God, but only two ways of speaking adapted to our weakness. Nor does it remove the difficulty when he warns us to rely on the revealed will of God rather than brood over his secret will.

The greatest, the deepest, the most comforting word in the Bible is the word, "God is love," and the greatest fact in the world’s history is the manifestation of that love in the person and the work of Christ. That word and this fact are the sum and substance of the gospel, and the only solid foundation of Christian theology. The sovereignty of God is acknowledged by Jews and Mohammedans as well as by Christians, but the love of God is revealed only in the Christian religion. It is the inmost essence of God, and the key to all his ways and works. It is the central truth which sheds light upon all other truths.



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