Chapter 11 EVANGELICAL INCLUSIVISM IN THE CHRISTIAN REFORMED CHURCH p102p
In responding to a complaint registered by the late Dr. Harry Boer, the Christian Reformed Church adopted a biblical description of all those who will be finally lost. From this we may conclude that all other human beings will be saved.
In 1977, Boer submitted a serious charge against the teachings of the creeds of the church. Boer said that “The heart, the soul, the essence, the sine qua non” of his complaint was that the Canons of Dort teach that "a segment of mankind…is consigned to everlasting damnation before they ever come into being” (p. 497*).
Boer's complaint was a well-structured summary of an objection that has been raised against Calvinism for hundreds of years. An historic formulation of this complaint is that Calvinists teach that God at times consigns infants "only a span long" to everlasting damnation. Because this charge has often been alleged against Calvinism, a committee of well-qualified theologians and philosophers was appointed to study Boer's complaint. After three years of study they submitted their report (Report 30) to the 1980 Synod of the Christian Reformed Church.
REPORT 30 p103p
Whatever else Report 30 (pp. 486 – 558*) may or may not say, it gives a resounding “NO” to the notion the Canons of Dort teach that a "segment of mankind . . . is consigned to everlasting damnation before they ever came into being." The very first ground for rejecting Boer's complaint states: "The Canons of Dort do not teach…‘that God has consigned certain human beings to damnation apart from any merit or demerit on their part’" (p. 76*, emphasis added). This is a direct refutation of Boer’s complaint.
What did Synod 1980 intend by the phrase "apart from any merit or demerit on their part”? This phrase cannot refer to the "merit or demerit" attributable to the whole human race by their identification with the first Adam. If there are persons who are consigned to damnation solely on the basis of their original sin in Adam (inherited sin), then Boer's complaint is valid. A "segment of mankind…is consigned to everlasting damnation before they ever came into being."
THE LIGHT SHED BY REPORT 30
The following quotations from Report 30 tell us what “merit or demerit on their part” refers to. The basis or cause of consignment to hell is said to be:
• Man's "sin" (two times, pp. 516, 517)
•"Sin and unbelief" (seven times, pp. 516, 517, 522, 548 [twice], 553,and 554)
•"God consigns to destruction only on the basis of what that person does and whatever evil actions that person performs" (p. 521)
•"So can we say that God rejects only those who reject him? Most emphatically we can" (p. 521)
•"Damnation is a response to the evil the 'reprobates' do" (p. 522) p104p
•"They themselves are the agents of unbelief" (p. 530) [An agent is one who acts for himself or for another person.]
•"God condemns to destruction only those who do, in fact, sin and exhibit unbelief" (p. 530)
•"Human beings are condemned only on the basis of what they actually do in history" (p. 530)
•"Those not selected have disqualified themselves through their sins" (p. 537)
•"The condition of the non-elect results from their unbelief" (p. 538)
•"Condemnation, however, is to be found solely in the persistent unbelief and sin of those so condemned" (p. 553)
These quotations from Report 30 establish beyond all doubt that “merit or demerit on their part” refers to the “willful, persistent sin” committed by the person consigned “to damnation.” No one is consigned to damnation APART FROM such individual, willful, persistent sin.
The entire Report was referred "to the churches for elucidation of the teaching of the Canons on election and reprobation. —adopted" (p. 76*). What the Christian Reformed Church confesses relating to "the teachings of the Canons on election and reprobation" is to be understood in the light that is shed by Report 30.
I consider it providential that my book, Unconditional Good News (Eerdmans, 1980), appeared in print the very same week that Report 30 was referred “to the churches for elucidation of the teaching of the Canons on election and reprobation.” The quotations from Report 30 (above) clearly show that Report 30 and my book both reach the same conclusion, that “No one will be finally lost apart from individual, willful, persistent sin on the part of the person consigned to eternal death.” p105p
A NECESSARY IMPLICATION OF REPORT 30
I had been studying this subject for 16 years in preparation for the publication of my book when Report 30 appeared in the Agenda for Synod 1980. Therefore I instantly recognized what Report 30 was saying and the many good and necessary implications that follow from the report’s conclusion. This conclusion directly refuted Boer’s complaint that a "segment of mankind…is consigned to everlasting damnation before they ever came into being.”
Boer’s complaint and Report 30’s conclusion cannot both be true. By referring the entire report "to the churches for elucidation of the teaching of the Canons on election and reprobation,” Synod essentially told Dr. Boer that he had misconstrued the teaching of the Canons of Dort.
I seriously doubted that either the committee members who wrote Report 30 or the synodical delegates recognized the many good and necessary (unavoidable) implications that flow directly from the conclusion of Report 30. If "God consigns to destruction only on the basis of what that person does and whatever evil actions that person performs" (p. 521*) and the many other similar statements found in Report 30 are valid (See above list.), then the most obvious implication of Report 30 is that no one dying in infancy would be “consigned to destruction.”
Therefore, I wrote an overture that was adopted by Classis Chicago South and was sent to Synod 1980 (Overture 23, Acts of Synod 1980, pp. 592–594). The overture alerted Synod 1980 to the fact that if they would adopt Report 30’s understanding “of the teaching of the Canons on election and reprobation” then “the church will, for the first time, accept the doctrine of the salvation of all who die in infancy” (p. 593*) p106p
In addition to writing Overture 23, I sent a letter to each of the Study Committee members pointing to what I called an "ambiguity" in their report. I used the word "ambiguity" in deference to the scholarship of the committee members. I did not want to tell them point blank that there was a good and necessary implication of their report that they had not considered. I received the following response from Dr. Nicholas Wolterstorff (a member of that study committee). Notice it is dated June 9, 1980, a day when Synod 1980 was still in session. I have Wolterstorff's permission to make this letter public.
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June 9, 1980
The Rev. Neal Punt
Christian Reformed Church of Evergreen Park
9547 S. Homan Ave.
Evergreen Park, IL 60642
Dear Rev. Punt,
The ethics pertaining to individual members of a synodical study committee are not very clear to me. Perhaps they aren't very clear to anyone! But I trust that I'm not going outside the bounds of those ethics in composing this response, purely as an individual and without talking to my committee members, to your communication sent to our study committee.
In working on the report with the committee, and in composing part of the report myself, I throughout worked with the conviction that the Canons teach that it is only on the basis of actual individual sin that a person is condemned, not on the basis of original sin. You are quite right to read the report along those lines. This clearly does have the implication concerning the salvation of infants that you point out. Obvious as it is however, once it is pointed out, I didn't notice this implication, nor do I remember any committee member pointing it out. p107p
In the quotations you give from some of your own theological work, you make some interesting suggestions about the difference between "being under the sentence of death" and "the actual implementation of that sentence." Those are suggestions that I hope our community reflects on in the coming years.
So I guess I would have said about our report not that it has an “ambiguity” in it, but rather that it has an important implication that the committee has not reflected on. But I do think that on the most charitable, and not implausible, reading of Dordt, all they meant by "passing some by in electing" is electing not all. I would myself prefer putting the situation your way, “All persons are elect in Christ except those who the Bible declares will be lost." But Dordt's phraseology is, in my judgment, at least compatible with that.
Let me add my Thank You for the seriousness with which you have taken the committee's work, and the good spirit in which you have raised some important questions about it. And let me do what I can to encourage you to think through some of these issues, and publish them for consideration by the church. p108p
With all best wishes, (signed) Nicholas Wolterstorff
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REPORT 30 WAS CONFIRMED BY SYNOD 1981
The decision of Synod 1980 was appealed to Synod 1981. As a delegate to Synod 1981, I called attention to Overture 23 that was sent to Synod 1980. I also read Dr. Wolterstorff's letter on the floor of Synod 1981. Thus the delegates to both of these synods knew, or should have known, what light Report 30 shed on "the teaching of the Canons on election and reprobation." Synod 1980 adopted and Synod 1981 confirmed Report 30 as an "elucidation of the teaching of the Canons on election and reprobation” thereby necessarily teaching, among other things, that all who die in infancy are saved.
This elucidation confirms that, "Condemnation [consignment to hell] is to be found solely in the persistent unbelief and sin of those so condemned" (p. 553*). This is, consequently, the synodically approved understanding “of the teaching of the Canons on election and reprobation” (p. 76*).
This understanding “of the teaching of the Canons” is the premise of Evangelical Inclusivism, namely, that “All persons will be saved except those who the Bible declares will be finally lost.” Therefore I can and do say that this is the perspective of the Christian Reformed Church on the doctrine of “election and reprobation.”
The report that Synod 1980 referred to the churches and the premise of Evangelical Inclusivism do not constitute a change in or a revision of the creeds of the church. They are a clarification of what the Canons of Dort mean. They are “an elucidation of the teaching of the Canons on election and reprobation.” Neither Report 30 nor Evangelical Inclusivism impinge in the least bit upon any of the doctrines represented in the acronym TULIP: Total Depravity, Unconditional Election, Limited Atonement, Irresistible Grace, and Preservation of the Saints. p109p
As members of the Christian Reformed Church, we can rejoice in and work out all the good and necessary implications of Evangelical Inclusivism. That is, that no one is ever sent to Hell solely on the basis of their sin in Adam, apart from willful, personal, and final rejection of or indifference to the revelation God has given of himself to him or her. This is the synodically approved "teaching of the Canons on election and reprobation.” From this we can conclude that “All the others will be in heaven.”
*.All the above page references are to the 1980 Acts of Synod of The Christian Reformed Church.
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