Monday, 27 October 2008

Blogging the Confession 9 - God's Decrees

We come to one of the controversial sections of the confession: its theology of God’s decrees, and I know that you’ve all been on tenterhooks waiting to see what I’ll say about it. I know this because daily, even hourly, I have been bombarded by emails pleading with me to post on chapter 3 of the confession. There must have been … well let me open the mailbox and count them … actually there has been (as Bluebottle used to say in the Goons “not a sausage”!). Still I’ll press on.

Here I’ll look at the basic claim of decreetal theology and the objections to it. In the next post (or two) I’ll look at the details of the confession’s exposition.

Chapter 3 opens with an assertion of decreetal theology, “God from all eternity, did, by the most wise and holy counsel of His own will, freely, and unchangeable ordain whatsoever comes to pass”. This is a controlling theme of the confession which  goes on to focus on salvation and according to sections 5 and 6 that is particularly determined by God’s decree. John Murray says that “perhaps no chapter has been more distasteful to those out of sympathy with the system of doctrine set forth in the Confession than the third “ (The theology of the Westminster Confession of Faith” Scripture and Confession  P&R, 1973, 132).

George Hendry voices the objections of many. He argues that the term and concept of a decree rob the confession of the “exultant joy” of passages such as Ephesians 1:3-14 and Romans 8:29-30 and instead these sections “breathe an air of dread and doom”. He argues that the term and concept ‘decree’ are not found in the NT nor used in the OT with the absolute sense of the WCF. Further he argues that the idea of reprobation rests entirely on Rom 9:19-23 when Paul in fact hopes that “all Israel shall be saved” (Romans 11:26). He says that the Biblical presentation is that  “God is actively pursuing a goal which he has set before him rather than mechanically carrying out a decision which he took once long ago”. He accuses the confession of a deficiency in relating time and eternity so that the Confession views eternity as simply infinite time and God’s will and decree is located in “pre-temporal eternity” (G.S. Hendry The Westminster Confession for Today   SCM, 1960, 54).

We can deal with these objections in reverse order. The WCF stresses God’s transcendence and may not match that with his immanence, and that may suggest that there are better ways of conceptualising the relation of time and eternity, however the framers of the confession almost certainly used an Augustinian “timeless” view of eternity in which eternity is the absence of time and change. 17th century Reformed theology was only too aware of the distinction between God’s archetypal knowledge and our ectypal knowledge. Here it adopts the Biblical language of “before” but we should not assume they were ignorant of the metaphysical ‘problems’ that language entailed.

On this issues Bavinck comments that “God's decree should not be exclusively described . . . as a straight line to indicate a relation merely of before and after, cause and effect, means and goal; but it should also be viewed as a system the several elements of which are coordinately related to one another. . . . As in an organism all the members are dependent upon one another and in a reciprocal manner determine one another, so also the universe is God's work of art, the several parts of which are organically related. (Bavinck H.The Doctrine of God   Banner of Truth, 1977 – I have not checked the page references in the new edition).

Hendry’s claim that the Confession makes God’s work ‘mechanical’ is an over-reaction to the language. God’s transcendence is stressed but look at Chapter 5 sections 3 and 5 on providence to see the language of God’s involvement. Of course if you want the language of Open Theism in which God is working out a plan without knowing the future then you won’t find it in the Confession.

Rom 9:19-23 may not teach ultimate reprobation but it is too simplistic to exclude questions of ‘eternal individual salvation’ from consideration in Rom 9-11. Paul’s grief over Israel is about people and individuals not simply a group identity. I’ll say a bit more about reprobation in later posts.

Decreetal theology is one way of conceptualising and expressing God’s sovereign rule. It is usually admitted that  “the divine decrees … are not described in the abstract in Scripture, but are placed before us in their historical realisation” (Berkhof, Systematic Theology, 100). Bavinck has an extensive and impressive treatment of the Biblical material which lies behind the concept of ‘decrees’ (Bavinck H.The Doctrine of God   Banner of Truth, 1977, 339-44). He shows that this approach rightly affirms God’s prior purpose for his creation and for his creatures which will be achieved. It places God’s election of his people and his restoration of creation through Christ at the centre of all history.

There is a mystery about God’s sovereign working, but we do not help ourselves to think about that topic by seeking to delimit a certain set of events over which God does not have full control and so full knowledge from ‘before’ time.  Any conceptual framework which abstracts from the Biblical presentation runs the risk of distorting the biblical emphasis, in this case the danger is to put too great an emphasis on the decrees, over against their outworking in God’s mysterious sovereignty in the life of creation. However that is not a reason to abandon the framework unless a better one can actually be proposed.

There may be some change in mood between the Biblical material and the Confession, though mood is a rather difficult matter to judge. In any case the confession is a statement of confessional theology not pastoral theology and so does not aim to capture the mood of the Biblical texts.


Michael F. Bird said...


Richard Muller has just published a book on the decrees in Reformed Theology which looks interesting.

John McClean said...

Thanks Michael, the book is a "repackaged edition" - that's what the publisher calls it ! - of his seminal work "Christ and the Decree". For a nice summary of the issues Muller deals with see

Pete Moore said...

I hope its not just the packaging that was made to sparkle and engage in the reincarnation of 'Christ and the Decree'... The original form of Muller's book on the decrees is certainly quite heavy going. Sweet and full of the goodness of golden syrup, but also also with its consistency. Hard to stir!