“How did our Fathers in the Reformed Churches
manage to teach this terrible theological theory
in the name of the Biblical Gospel?”
-Reformed Theologian Emil Brunner,
Dogmatics, Vol 1, page 321
Here is an excerpt from Reformed Theologian Emil Brunner, Dogmatics, Vol 1, from chapter 23 entitled “Double Predestination”, where Dr Brunner confronts the typical Reformed--his own camp’s--understanding of divine reprobation in Romans 9. The whole book (along with the the other volumes) is available online from Archives.org here. This excerpt comes from pages 328-334 (bold mine):
The Ninth chapter of the Epistle to the Romans is usually regarded as the "locus classicus" of the doctrine of a double predestination, and for this reason it requires very careful consideration. Hence it is extremely important to show very clearly the connexion of this chapter with the two which follow. They do not deal with the salvation and damnation of the individual, but with the destiny of Israel. Thus the point of view itself is entirely different from that of the doctrine of predestination. The "probandum" is not a "double decree", but, on the one hand, the validity of the divine promises to Israel, in spite of the hardening of heart of the empirical contemporary Jewish people; and, on the other hand, the reason for the defective development in Israel, namely, from the human point of view the self -righteousness of Israel, instead of the recognition of the Grace of Christ ; and, from the point of view of God, God's all-inclusive plan of redemption, which even the temporary rejection of Israel must serve.All this looks very different from the doctrine of a "double decree" by means of which a "numerus electorum" from all eternity is confronted by a "numerus reprobatorum" . The "nervus probandi", the main argument, is not the parable of the potter and the clay, but primarily the freedom of God in his Election and "hardening", and, secondly, the impossibility of making any claim on God. This freedom of God is balanced by the doctrine of righteousness through faith alone. Because Israel is self-righteous, it loses salvation; but if Israel abandons its self-righteousness and becomes converted, then it will receive salvation. When it seems, in the middle of the chapter, as though Paul will finally argue for a decree of rejection, then — quite apart from the detailed exegesis which we shall carry out in a moment — we should reflect that those who are here called "vessels of wrath", are the same as those who, in Chapter 11, will be represented as having finally been saved. Thus the fact that they are now "vessels of wrath" does not prevent them from being the "saved" at the end of the ages. So far as the details of this chapter are concerned, which has so often been used in support of the doctrine of predestination, the following needs to be said :(a) As in the whole context, so also in the example of Jacob and Esau, in the movement of thought of the Apostle Paul, this is not an argument in support of a "double decree", but it is an illustration of the freedom of God in His action in the history of salvation. When we read: "For the children being not yet born, neither, having done anything good or bad, that the purpose of God according to election might stand, not of works but of Him that calleth ..." this does not refer to a double "decretum" , but to the freedom of the divine election. Here there is no question of the eternal salvation of Jacob and the eternal doom of Esau; the point is simply the part which each plays in the history of redemption. Paul wishes to show that God chooses the instruments of His redemptive action, the bearers of the history of the Covenant, as He wills. The theme of this passage is not the doctrine of predestination, but the sovereign operation of God in History, who has been pleased to reveal Himself at one particular point in History, in Israel.(b) Likewise in the following verses Pharaoh is simply an historic redemptive instrument in the hand of God, that instrument which, through its "hardening", must serve God's purpose. There is no question here of his salvation or condemnation. All the argument is concentrated on one point : God has mercy on whom He will, and hardens whom He will. The point of the whole is the freedom of grace.(c) Finally, we come to the critical main passage, verses 19-22, the point in the whole Bible which comes closest to a doctrine of a double decree — and yet is separated from it by a great gulf. The parable of the potter and the clay, taken from Isaiah 28:16 and Jeremiah 18:6, expresses the absolute right of God to dispose of His creature as He chooses. The creature has no right to claim anything over against God; He may do with it what He wills. He does not have to account for His actions to anyone. God is the Lord, and His authority knows no limits.The difficult verse is 22: "What if God, willing to show His wrath, and to make His power known, endured with much long-suffering vessels of wrath fitted unto destruction : and that He might make known the riches of His glory upon vessels of mercy, which He afore prepared unto glory ..." The sentence breaks off here. The whole phrase is a conditional question: If God does this, what will you say? The "vessels of wrath" which are here mentioned as the means of the divine plan of salvation, are the Jews. The passage does not say that they have been created as vessels of wrath, still less that from all eternity they have been destined for this, but that, on account of their unbelief, they are "fitted unto destruction" ["Ripe and ready to be destroyed." Moffat's Trans. (Tr.)]. Paul never uses the idea of the "wrath of God" save in the sense of the divine reaction to human sin and man's refusal to obey. There is no more reference here to a negative decree, or to a negative purpose in creation, than there is to a negative ultimate end; for in Chapter 11 it is said of the same Jews that after their temporary rejection has served the purpose of God, they will be restored to the Divine favour, as soon as they repent, and are converted. Paul never forgets for a moment the personal relation and that conditionalis divinus, that is, the Living God.In any case, the "vessels of wrath" mentioned in this passage are not the "reprobi" of the doctrine of Predestination. Here, indeed, there is no mention of individuals as individuals at all, but the whole People of Israel is being discussed, and the point is not that the "People" as a whole will be lost eternally, but that now, for the moment, they play a negative part in the history of salvation, which, in the future, after they have been converted, will become a positive one. The final issue of the judgment of wrath will be their salvation. Here, again, we notice that there is a remarkable "incongruity" between those "on the left hand" and those "on the right", as in Matthew 25. The "vessels of wrath" are designated by an impersonal passive, κατηρτισμένα εἰς ἀπώλειαν, they are "ripe for destruction". Thus it is explicitly stated that it is not God who has made them what they are. The linguistic phrase is deliberately in the passive, denoting a present condition, and can equally well be translated "ripe for condemnation". Over against them stand the "vessels of mercy" whom God "hath afore prepared unto glory". In the first case no active subject, and no indication of an act of predetermination; in the second instance, an active Subject, God, and a clear indication of eternal election. Thus even in this apparently clearly "predestinarian" passage there is no suggestion of a double decree! The examination of the statements of Scripture regarding this doctrine leads, therefore, to a completely negative result. There is no doctrine of a double decree in the New Testament, and still less in the Old Testament.
(4)The doctrine of the double decree is, however, not only not supported by the evidence of Scripture, it is also impossible to equate it with the message of the Bible. It leads to an understanding of God and of man which is contrary to the idea of God and of man as given in revelation. It leads to consequences which are in absolute and direct opposition to the central statements of the Bible. Of course, the champions of the doctrine of Predestination have never admitted this, but, on the contrary, they have taken great pains to evade these conclusions, and to smooth out the contradiction; but in this speculative effort which, from their own standpoint, was inevitable, their process of argument becomes sophistical and contradictory. If God is the One who, before He created the world, conceived the plan of creating two kinds of human beings — non pari conditione creantur omnes, Calvin says explicitly — namely, those who are destined for eternal life — the minority — and the rest — the majority — for everlasting destruction, then it is impossible truly to worship this God as the God of love, even if this be commanded us a thousand times, and indeed at the cost of the loss of eternal salvation. Essentially, it is impossible to regard the will which conceives this double decree as the same will which is represented as Agape in the New Testament. All Calvin's arguments against these objections come to the same point in the end : these two conceptions must be kept together in thought, because both are stated in the Word of God. God is Love, that is the clear Biblical message; God has conceived the double decree, that is — according to Calvin's erroneous opinion — equally clearly, the Biblical message ; thus one must identify the God of the double decree with the God who is Love. But when we reveal the error in the second statement, the whole argument, which demands the impossible, falls to the ground. The Bible does not urge us to believe that the God whom it reveals to us as the God of love has created some human beings for eternal life and the rest for eternal doom. Equally inevitably the double decree contains a second consequence for the Idea of God which is in opposition to the Biblical message: God is then unmistakably "auctor peccati" . Zwingli drew this conclusion courageously, without "turning a hair", only making the excuse that the moral standard which is valid for us cannot be applied to God. This at least can be said, and in itself the idea is not contradictory. Calvin, on the contrary, is terrified of this conclusion, and calls it blasphemous. In point of fact, it is impossible to say of the God whom the Biblical revelation shows us, that He is the Author of Evil. But Calvin tries in vain to eliminate this conclusion from his doctrine of predestination. Here, too, his argument simply ends in saying: "You must not draw this conclusion!" — an exhortation which cannot be obeyed by anyone who thinks.The consequences of the doctrine of predestination are just as disastrous for the understanding of Man as they are for the Idea of God. Predestination in the sense of the "double decree" means unmistakably: All has been fixed from eternity. From all eternity, before he was created, each individual has been written down in the one Book or the other. Predestination in the sense of the double decree is the most ruthless determinism that can be imagined. Before there was any world at all, before there was anything like time, causes, things, and creatures, it was already fixed — not only that there will be these two kinds of human beings, sinners who will be lost and sinners who will be saved, but also to which of both groups each human being, whom God will create, belongs. And here, indeed, we are not concerned with the milder exposition of the Infralapsarian theory — lapsus est primus homo quia Dominus ita expedire censuerat — that God does indeed (it is true) see all beforehand, but that He only wills one thing beforehand, the positive — no, eternal destruction is willed by God in exactly the same way as eternal salvation, and those human beings who are doomed to destruction have been created by God for this end in exactly the same way as the others have been destined for salvation. For every human being who thinks, and does not force his mind to accept sophistries, it is clear that the net result is that there can be neither freedom nor responsibility, that decision in the historical sense is only an illusion, since everything has already been decided in eternity. Calvin — and Calvin in particular, who cares so much about moral responsibility — tries to avoid this conclusion, but all his arguments are logically untenable, and all end in the postulate : we must hold both ideas together in our minds, since the Bible teaches both.Finally, the consequences for soteriology are no less sinister. If this doctrine be true, what use is it to preach the Gospel and to call men to repentance? He who is going to be saved will be saved in any case, and he who is doomed to destruction will in any case be lost. The summons to decision which all preaching contains is merely a trick, because decision is an illusion. All these absolutely devastating consequences of the doctrine of predestination for the Christian Faith and for the activity of the Church must, we feel, have been dimly felt by Calvin and the other theologians who held these views, but they did not allow them to obtrude. The fact that they must have been aware of them seems evident when we reflect that — with a few exceptions — they did not dare to preach this doctrine, nor to include it in the Catechism. It was "de facto" an artificial theological theory, an esoteric doctrine for theologians, which they did not dare to preach to the people as a whole. We can, however, only explain the fact that these theologians themselves believed that they were able to evade these conclusions, and that they did eyade them to the extent that they did not let them rob them of either their faith in the God of love or of their belief in human freedom and responsibility, by suggesting that in their own thought the true Biblical doctrine of Election and this false and unscriptural doctrine of predestination were continually being confused with one another. Because, in the genuine understanding of faith, they knew that Election and responsibility. Election and the Love of God, not only do not contradict one another, but that they are one, they were able to hold firmly to the doctrine of the double decree without drawing these conclusions from it. The harm caused by this doctrine was felt less in the sphere of Christian faith and life than in that of theological reflection, and indeed only in the comparatively tolerable form of the impossible sophistical argument. This had to be included out of — so-called — "loyalty" to the Bible. The fact that men were able to hold the doctrine of predestination with a good conscience was due to the unconscious confusion of Election and Predestination. Because they were aware that the doctrine of Election is the heart of the Bible, but did not perceive that this is very different from the doctrine of Predestination, the genuine sentiment regarding the doctrine of Election was transferred to that of Predestination. But the conflicts which this caused were made to some extent innocuous by the fact that the clear Biblical teaching prevented them from drawing the logical conclusions of the doctrine of Predestination. The logical impossibility of this situation was supported by the conviction that in so doing they were standing on the bedrock of Holy Scripture.
The whole book is available online from Archives.org here.
- Roger Olson, “A Reformed Theologian’s Critique of Divine Determinism” -- it was from this post by Dr Olson that I first learned of Dr Brunner’s position;