A Reformed Defense of Christian Doctrine

“The one main question to which we are to address ourselves now is whether Christians holding to the Reformed Faith must also hold to a specifically Reformed method of reasoning when they are engaged in the defense of the faith.

This broad question does not pertain merely to the “five points of Calvinism.” When Arminians attack these great doctrines (total depravity, unconditional election, limited atonement, irresistible grace, perseverance of the saints) we, as Calvinists, are quick to defend them. We believe that these five points are directly drawn from Scripture. But the question now under discussion is whether, in the defense of any Christian doctrine, Reformed Christians should use a method all their own.

People easily give a negative reply to this question. Do we not have many doctrines in common with all evangelicals? Do not all orthodox Protestants hold to the substitutionary atonement of Christ? More particularly, what about the simple statements of fact recorded in Scripture? How could anyone, if he believes such statements at all, take them otherwise than as simple statements of fact? How could anyone have a specifically Reformed doctrine of such a fact as the resurrection of Christ? If together with evangelicals we accept certain simple truths and facts of Scripture at face value, how then can we be said to have a separate method of defense of such doctrines?

Yet it can readily be shown that a negative answer to these questions cannot be maintained. Take, for example, the doctrine of the atonement. The Arminian doctrine of the atonement is not the same as the Reformed doctrine of the atonement. Both the Arminian and the Calvinist assert that they believe in the substitutionary atonement. But the Arminian conception of the substitutionary atonement is colored, and as Calvinists we believe discolored, by the view of “free will.” According to the Arminian view, man has absolute or ultimate power to accept or to reject the salvation offered him. This implies that the salvation offered to man is merely the possibility of salvation.

To illustrate: suppose I deposit one million dollars to your account in your bank. It is still altogether up to you to believe that such wealth is yours, and to use it to cover the floor of your house with Persian rugs in place of the old threadbare rugs now there. Thus, in the Arminian scheme, the very possibility of things no longer depends exclusively upon God, but, in some areas at least, upon man. What Christ did for us is made to depend for its effectiveness upon what is done by us. It is no longer right to say that with God all things are possible.

It is obvious, therefore, that Arminians have taken into their Protestantism a good bit of the leaven of Roman Catholicism. Arminianism is less radical, less consistent in its Protestantism than it should be.

Now Mm. Grey, the evangelical, seems to have a relatively easy time of it when he seeks to win Mr. Black, the unbeliever, to an acceptance of “the substitutionary atonement.” He can stand on “common ground” with Mr. Black on this matter of what is possible and what is impossible. Listen to Mr. Grey as he talks with Mr. Black.

“Mr. Black, have you accepted Christ as your personal Savior? Do you believe that he died on the cross as your substitute? If you do not, you will surely be lost forever.”

“Well now,” replies Mm. Black, “I’ve just had a visit from Mr. White on the same subject. You two seem to have a ‘common witness’ on this matter. Both of you believe that God exists, that he has created the world, that the first man, Adam, sinned, and that we are all to be sent to hell because of what that first man did, and so forth. All this is too fatalistic for me. If I am a creature, as you say I am, then I have no ultimate power of my own and therefore am not free. And if I am not free, then I am not responsible. So, if I am going to hell, it will be simply because your ‘God’ has determined that I should. You orthodox Christians kill morality and all humanitarian progress. I will have none of it. Good-by!”

“But wait a second,” says Mr. Grey, in great haste. “I do not have a common witness at this point with the Calvinist. I have a common witness with you against the Calvinist when it comes to all that determinism that you mention. Of course you are free. You are absolutely free to accept or to reject the atonement that is offered to you. I offer the atonement through Christ only as a possibility. You yourself must make it an actuality for yourself. I agree with you over against the Calvinist in saying that ‘possibility’ is wider than the will of God. I would not for a moment say with the Calvinist that God’s counsel determines ‘whatsoever comes to pass.’

“Besides, even less extreme Calvinists like Dr. J. Oliver Buswell, Jr., virtually agree with both of us. Listen to what Buswell says: ‘Nevertheless, our moral choices are choices in which we are ourselves ultimate causes.’ Dr. Buswell himself wants to go beyond the ‘merely arbitrary answer’ in Romans 9:20, 21, which speaks of the potter and the clay, to the ‘much more profound analysis of God’s plan of redemption’ in Romans 9:22-24, in which Paul pictures Pharaoh as ‘. . . one who, according to the foreknowledge of God, would rebel against God.’”3

“I understand then,” replies Mr. Black, “that you Arminians and more moderate Calvinists are opposed to the determinism of the regular, old-style Calvinists of the historic Reformed Confessions? I am glad to hear that. To say that all things have been fixed from all eternity by God is terrible! It makes me shudder! What would happen to all morality and decency if all men believed such teaching? But now you Arminians have joined us in holding that ‘possibility’ is independent of the will of God. You have thus with all good people and with all liberal and neo-orthodox theologians, like Barth, made possible the salvation of all men.

“That means, of course, that salvation is also possible for those too who have never heard of Jesus of Nazareth. Salvation is therefore possible without an acceptance of your substitutionary atonement through this Jesus of whom you speak. You certainly would not want to say with the Calvinists that God has determined the bounds of all nations and individuals and has thus, after all, determined that some men, millions of them, in fact, should never hear this gospel.

“Besides, if possibility is independent of God, as you evangelicals and moderate Calvinists teach, then I need not be afraid of hell. It is then quite possible that there is no hell. Hell, you will then agree, is that torture of a man’s conscience which he experiences when be fails to live up to his own moral ideals. So I do not think that I shall bother just yet about accepting Christ as my personal Savior. There is plenty of time.”

Poor Mr. Grey. He really wanted to say something about having a common testimony with the Calvinists after all. At the bottom of his heart he knew that Mr. White, the Calvinist, and not Mr. Black, the unbeliever, was his real friend. But he had made a common witness with Mr. Black against the supposed determinism of Mr. White, the Calvinist, so it was difficult for him, after that, to turn about face and also make a common testimony with Mr. White against Mr. Black. He had nothing intelligible to say. His method of defending his faith had forced him to admit that Mr. Black was basically right. He had not given Mr. Black an opportunity of knowing what he was supposed to accept, but his testimony had confirmed Mr. Black in his belief that there was no need of his accepting Christ at all.”

(Van Til, The Defense of Christianity)

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