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Deeper Roots

Why the Doctrine of God is Essential to Dort's Doctrine of Salvation

Grace, election, regeneration, and assurance are at the forefront of the Canons of Dort. These are practical doctrines, of which everyone can understand how and why Remonstrants and Counter-Remonstrants opposed each other. But how about the doctrine of God? It seems like an abstract, bare theory in the background. This article aims at showing how the positions in the debate on grace and free will are rooted in different conceptions of God, his essence and attributes, and the interaction between God and his creatures.

The Canons themselves make this connection explicit in article 11 of the first chapter: “Just as God is most wise, unchangeable, all-knowing, and almighty, so the election made by him can neither be suspended nor altered, revoked, or annulled; neither can God’s chosen ones be cast off, nor their number reduced.” Here the Synod articulates the insight that God’s essential properties – of which only his wisdom, immutability, knowledge, and omnipotence are mentioned – are at work in the decree of election and reprobation.

The succinct statement of this article points to an important level of the debates that had been held during the years preceding the Synod. At least three issues in which the doctrine of God (or theology proper) was at stake can be highlighted. The Synod articulates the insight that God’s essential properties are at work in the decree of election and reprobation. Click To Tweet

The Grounds of Knowledge

The first was manifested in the Arminian controversy from the beginning. If we analyze the debates concerning grace and free will not only in anthropological categories, but also in terms of the doctrine of God, they materialize in questions concerning the foreknowledge of God. There is common ground between Arminians and Calvinists in affirming both the perfect knowledge God has of everything that occurs or will occur and the decree of God to save and elect people in Jesus Christ. The question, however, is how foreknowledge and decree are related.

This question goes in two directions. First, it can be asked on what basis the decree of election is made: is it based on God’s knowledge of future faith, or on some other ground? Here the Remonstrants defend a position that was present in earlier theology, for example with Philip Melanchthon and other Lutherans, who taught that election is based on foreseen faith (e fide praevisa). In this explanation, it seems like the decree of election “follows” the human act of faith. The same problem can be stated the other way around: what is the ground of God’s foreknowledge?

Apart from the soteriological question “Where does faith come from?” there is the philosophical question “What makes God’s knowledge true or determinate?” On that level, the Arminian view seems to make God’s definite foreknowledge conditional on the human act of faith: God can only have true knowledge if the human response occurs. Such a view makes for an independent – or quasi-independent – causal role of human free will in producing the act of faith.

In the technical, scholastic language of that time, the question is about the different modes or sorts of the knowledge of God (scientia Dei or notitia Dei). Traditionally, the distinction is between God’s “knowledge of mere understanding” (scientia simplicis intelligentiae; also labeled ‘necessary knowledge’ or scientia necessaria) and the “knowledge of vision” (scientia visionis; also labeled ‘free knowledge’ or scientia libera).

The former is about God’s knowledge of all possibilities, whether they will actually occur or not. The latter is about what actually exists or occurs. In traditional Reformed theology (as in medieval scholasticism), these two modes of divine knowledge do exhaustively cover the entire realm of what is to be known by God. Moreover, the Reformed state that it is through the will of God that things pass from the realm of mere possibility to the state of actual existence.

With Arminius and others, this picture changes. It is interesting to note that Arminius was among the first Dutch Reformed theologians to purchase and presumably read the book Reconciliation of Free Choice with the Gifts of Grace, Divine Foreknowledge, Providence, Predestination and Reprobation (1588) by the Spanish Jesuit Luis de Molina. With respect to the foreknowledge of God, Molina developed the notion of “middle knowledge” (scientia media): a third category of God’s knowledge, located in the middle between God’s indefinite knowledge of mere possibilities and his definite knowledge of whatever actually occurs.

Middle knowledge has a hypothetical character: God knows what people would do if they were placed in certain circumstances. Now God can, by his omnipotence and providence, produce and arrange these circumstances. But according to Molina, it still depends on the free will of a person whether or not he or she will act in a certain way, given the circumstances.

A few of the orthodox Reformed theologians in the early seventeenth century allowed for a class of hypothetical states of affairs known by God through his “middle knowledge,” but they still insisted that the transition from hypothetical or conditional possibilities to the actual human choice is determined by God’s decree. This is the “Calvinist” version of middle knowledge, but it is on all accounts a minority position. The Catholic theologians who developed or endorsed this theory did so to create room for the free decision of the human will that is independent of prior determination by God’s will and decree.

While Arminius mostly kept silent on this issue, and not all Remonstrants openly endorsed middle knowledge, it is clear that the Arminian view of election on the basis of foreseen faith – where faith is a condition to be fulfilled on our part – goes well with and is conceptually supported by the idea of middle knowledge. This not only shows that a seemingly abstract discussion about divine foreknowledge has a direct practical application in the core doctrines of salvation, grace, and election. It is also a point in which the inner-Protestant debate between Arminians and Calvinists has strong resemblance to and is connected with the great controversy  “on the auxiliaries” (de auxiliis) that started a few decades before Dort within the Catholic Church. In the foundational tenets of the doctrine of God, questions were at stake that impacted both sides of the confessional divide.

A Fatal Disconnection

This becomes clear on an even more general sphere in another direction, to which the second part of this article is devoted. The Synod of Dort not only published its Canons as a comprehensive refutation of the Remonstrants and as an exposition of the orthodox Reformed doctrine of salvation; in one of its final sessions, on May 4, 1619, it also issued a condemnation of Conrad Vorstius, a Reformed theologian of German origin, who had been appointed as Arminius’s successor at Leiden university in 1610 but was dismissed after a two-year struggle in which even the British king James I had intervened.

The main reason for suspicion against Vorstius was his Tractatus de Deo, based on his academic lectures at the gymnasium of Steinfurt. In his discussion of the divine essence and attributes, Vorstius placed question marks to the traditional understanding of God’s simplicity, immutability, infinity and other properties. He suggested that biblical expressions about God’s being seen by the angels and saints in heaven, about God’s coming down to the earth, and other examples, should be taken in a literal sense. Against the classical, orthodox doctrine of God, Vorstius defended a conception in which God shares in the material and composite aspects of created reality, and in his relation to the created world is subject to development and change.

Perhaps even more important is the fact that Vorstius sees a distinction between God’s essence as He is in himself, and God’s outward operations in his power, wisdom, and will. In the former aspect, God is eternal and necessary; in the latter sense as he relates to the world created by him, God acts not in a natural and necessary way, but freely and mutably. The presence and operations of God towards the world are not only determined by God’s own perfections – as in tradi­tional doctrine – but by God’s free will. In the final analysis, they depend on the contribution of creatures, which goes beyond God’s control.

Although Vorstius does not explicitly ascribe a temporal mode to God’s outward acts, his discussion of the divine “affections” in response to good and evil reveals that he understood these in a non-essentialist way as true reactions of God to the acts of human beings (and other creatures).

When taken together, the changes advocated by Vorstius result in an entirely different picture of God. The disconnection of God’s essence and God’s operations establishes room for the independent free will of creatures, thus providing a conceptual framework in which the Arminian teachings on grace and free will would make sense.

Consistent with this pattern, Vorstius teaches that the sacrifice of Jesus Christ itself is not effectively satisfactory, but should be complemented by our obedience and faith. By making salvation conditional upon the human response to Christ, he offers fundamental support to the Remonstrant positions in the doctrine of grace and election.

Consistent with his emphasis on the human factor is a doctrine of Christ in which his essential divinity is denied. Instead, Vorstius explains that Christ is “Son of God” in virtue of a divine influx that fulfills the human person of Christ in a way that should be imitated by our obedience to the commands of Christ. His Reformed colleagues were particularly alarmed by the resemblance of Vorstius’s methodological and substantial revisions to the radically rationalist ideas of Faustus Socinus and his followers.

Their denial of the Trinitarian and Christological dogmas of the Early Church, and their rejection of the Anselmian doctrine of satisfaction, made the Socinians into the biggest danger and the ultimate enemy of the Reformed faith. Via Vorstius, the Remonstrants became –justly or unjustly – associated with the Socinian movement. The Vorstian controversy demonstrates that in the early seventeenth century fundamentally different intuitions of the relationship between God and the world were at play, and were reflected in the exposition of the doctrine of God.

One place in which the Canons of Dort explicitly refer to “the ungodly Socinus” is in connection with the doctrine of satisfaction and justification. Chapter II, Rejection of Errors 3 says this about those who claim that the death of Christ merely enabled God to impose new conditions on humans in order to be saved: “They contradict Scripture: ‘They are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Jesus Christ, whom God presented as a sacrifice of atonement, through faith in his blood’ (Rom 3:24–25). And along with the ungodly Socinus, they introduce a new and foreign justification of humanity before God, against the consensus of the whole church.”

Fully Divine

The third way in which the doctrine of God is at stake is perhaps even more intricate. It concerns the doctrine of the Trinity. In recent critiques of the Canons of Dort, it is sometimes suggested that its definition of God’s election (CD I,7) is flawed, because it relegates Jesus Christ to a mere means of execution instead of assigning the central role in the decree to him. By contrast, some authors suggest that Arminius presented a more Christocentric account of predestination, since he described Christ as “the foundation of election.”

On this issue, things are not always what they appear to be. When Arminius speaks of Christ as the foundation of election, the implication is that those who believe in Christ are elected (remember the first part of this article on election “on the basis of foreseen faith”). While Christ is – according to Arminius – the “meritorious cause” of our being entitled to election, it is in the final analysis our own act of faith that saves us and is the ground for election.

More importantly, it can be argued that in Canons article I,7 God’s decree is expounded with an implicit Trinitarian understanding in mind. Throughout the Canons, it is clear that Father, Son, and Spirit are involved in the common work of salvation, each taking his own part.

Exactly because the Son and the Spirit are fully and equally divine with the Father, we can be completely assured of the salvation procured by the Son and applied by the Spirit.

There is no gap between the will to redeem of the Father, the atonement by the Son, and the work of regeneration by the Spirit – a gap that then, again, would need to be filled by a free human response. The Triune work of salvation is effective, infallible, and certain from the first to the last.

Rather than being deficient in terms of Christological and Trinitarian determination, the Canons show how a high view of both doctrines undergirds and facilitates the doctrines of election, atonement, regeneration, and assurance. There is no gap between the will to redeem of the Father, the atonement by the Son, and the work of regeneration by the Spirit. Click To Tweet

With the Arminian view, this is less clear. During Arminius’s years as a theology professor at Leiden university, he was involved in a brief debate on the deity of the Son. Although the position defended by his colleague, the younger Lucas Trelcatius, to which Arminius voiced his protest, was somewhat extreme, and certainly his own views are within the range of orthodox understandings of the doctrine of the Trinity, still there is a slight tendency in Arminius to put the Son (and the Spirit) somewhat below the Father in terms of the divine essence. This subordinationist tendency became more manifest with Arminius’s immediate followers like Simon Episcopius.

In this regard, we need to be careful. For many Christian theologians today, the explicit prominence of the doctrine of the Trinity in any exposition of the Christian faith is the ultimate and almost exclusive test of sound doctrine. When approaching the Canons and the theological debates surrounding the Synod of Dort, we cannot expect to find it in exact way we prefer. We do find different emphases and even different versions of this doctrine underlying the further exposition of the contents of the gospel. Again, neither the Canons nor Arminius were very specific in relating their views of election, atonement, regeneration, and assurance to the confession of the Triune God.

In that sense, both parties of the seventeenth-century debate remained within the boundaries of historic Christian orthodoxy. On closer analysis, however, some differences of emphasis can be detected that can eventually develop into fully different systems of understanding the Christian faith. At least we can say that the doctrines of Dort – as summarized in the TULIP acronym – are consistent with and presuppose a strong view of God as one being in three Persons.

Dolf te Velde

Dr. Dolf te Velde (1974) teaches Systematic Theology at the Theologische Universiteit Kampen (The Netherlands) and Historical Theology at the Evangelische Theologische Faculteit Leuven (Belgium).

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