Canons Of Dort (9): The God Who Elects Unconditionally Does Not Change

One of the most remarkable developments in late modern evangelical theology was the rise of the so-called doctrine of “Open Theism.” This doctrine holds that the future is genuinely unknown to God. It is “open” to him and he to it. According to the Open Theists, God is contingent upon the free, unknown choices of humans. To understand how far askew things have become in late-modern evangelical theology, piety, and practice, in this context, those who hold to the doctrine of Middle Knowledge (Molinism; media scientia) are considered relatively conservative. When the Evangelical Theological Society met to consider the status of Open Theism, whether it may be considered a legitimate evangelical theological option, the case was argued that it implicitly denies latter of the two articles that ETS members must uphold, the Trinity and the Inerrancy of Scripture. The society was not persuaded. Clark Pinnock was perhaps the leading advocate of Open Theism. Late in his career, he also argued explicitly that the Mormons might be right, that God might have a body. See Most Moved Mover for more. It does not seem too much to say that the doctrine of God is crisis among Bible-believing evangelicals and perhaps even in Presbyterian and Reformed circles where some are arguing that the unity in the Trinity is not one of being but of a personal, social relationship. The doctrine of “Social Trinitarianism” at least verges upon (and in my view, crosses over into) the heresy of Trithesism, the doctrine that God is three rather than one. There has been hardly a peep about this nor has much been said about the proposal that, when he enters into covenant with us, God may be said to take on “covenantal properties” such as mutability. On this see the terrific work of James Dolezal, God Without Parts. The ecumenical Christian doctrine that God is sovereign remains deeply offensive. Recently David Bentley Hart, a theologian in the (Greek) Orthodox tradition declared that he should rather be an atheist than believe in a sovereign God who elects unconditionally and who reprobates sinners.

So, it behooves us to re-learn our doctrine God because, contrary to the cliched account of the history of Reformed theology, our doctrines do not descend out of the doctrine of the divine decree (the so-called “Central Dogma” theory) but our doctrine of God is, as it is for all Christians, at the headwaters of our theology, piety, and practice. This is so for every Christian tradition. Consider the first line of the Apostles’ Creed: “I believe in God the Father almighty, maker of heaven and earth.” The first thing we say about God is, implicitly, that he is triune and second that he is almighty. The ancient Christian church knew nothing of a God who is contingent upon creatures. I doubt that the heretics Arius and Pelagius would agree that God is contingent upon creatures. The Athanasian Creed (probably from the 5th century) is quite clear about the doctrine of the Trinity, that God is one, not merely by social relation but in being, and three in person.

We worship as we do because God is what he is: holy. We live our life before God (coram Deo). It is he, our sovereign covenant-making and covenant-keeping God who has saved us by grace alone (sola gratia), through faith alone (sola fide).

The Synod of Dort knew that behind the attempt of the Remonstrants to revise Reformed theology lay a revised doctrine of God. Arminius was greatly troubled by the problem of evil and he thought that in the doctrine of Middle Knowledge, the doctrine that God knows what` our free choices might be and even that he has arranged circumstances so that we will only choose one thing, he had found the solution to the problem of evil. This solution, however, was worse than the disease. As the Reformed theologian Gijsbertus Voetius (1589–1676) and Francis Turretin (1623–87) both argued, the doctrine of Middle Knowledge makes God contingent (dependent) upon the free choices of humans. Saying that he knows what they could be is not the same as saying that he knows what they shall be. Under Middle Knowledge, the God of the Bible is no longer saying, “Let there be” but rather, “There might be or there might not be.” He is less Yahweh Elohim and more Hamlet.

It was in light of the Remonstrant attempt to revise the doctrine of God that Synod re-asserted the ecumenical doctrine of God. Election, we confess, is not grounded in anything (e.g., faith and good works) that God foresees in us (CD 1.9). Rather, the ground of our election is the beneplacitum of God, i.e., his good pleasure.

Art. X. The good pleasure of God is the sole cause of this gracious election; which doth not consist herein that God, foreseeing all possible qualities of human actions, elected certain of these as a condition of salvation, but that he was pleased out of the common mass of sinners to adopt some certain persons as a peculiar people to himself, as it is written, ‘For the children being not yet born, neither having done any good or evil,’ etc., ‘it was said [namely, to Rebecca] the elder shall serve the younger; as it is written, Jacob have I loved, but Esau have I hated’ (Rom. 9:11–13); and, ‘As many as were ordained to eternal life believed’ (Acts 13:48).

Election is not conditioned by anything us. It is conditioned by what is in God, who is one (simple), who does not change, i.e., who is immutable. Synod directly rejected Middle Knowledge. God does not elect on the basis of foreseen possible human qualities and actions. He did not look down the corridor of time, as it were, to see what we would be and do. Rather, the elect are considered as created and as fallen and it is out of that fallen mass of humanity that God elected his people, in Christ, those whom he gave to the Son, for whom the Son would come, obey, die, and rise. We take Romans 9:11–13 and Acts 13:48 as being quite plain. God elects sovereignly, freely, unconditionally. That is the prerequisite of grace. It is free. Were it conditioned upon our qualities or actions, grace would no longer be grace (Rom 11:6).

Art. XI. And as God himself is most wise, unchangeable, omniscient, and omnipotent, so the election made by him can neither be interrupted nor changed, recalled nor annulled; neither can the elect be cast away, nor their number diminished.

Behind our conviction about grace lies our conviction about God. He is what he is. In Exodus 3:14 he declared, “I am what I am.” He is not if do or say something. He simply is. He does not become. He does not decrease. He is. We were not. Then we were by God’s sovereign Word but God just is utterly what and all that he is all the time. Thus, his decision, his decree to elect is not dependent upon anything in us. It does not change as we change. God will never lose any of those whom he has given to his Son (John 10:28–29). No one can snatch us our his hand. The Father and the Son are one. This is God’s sovereign, mysterious, immutable, reliable, trustworthy promise and grace to us in Christ.

Rest in that.

Here is the whole series on the Canons of Dort.

R. Scott Clark.