This article, originally entitled “Edwin H. Palmer’s Twelve Theses on Reprobation: Speculation or Scriptural?” is reproduced in its entirety with permission by its author Ron F. Hale
Over Christmas, I went hunting while visiting family in Dallas, Texas. I love hunting old theology books in quaint book stores. I tracked down two books in the older book section in Half Price Books and bagged them both. The store’s stout and steamy coffee on a nippy day enhanced the outing.
One find is entitled The Right to Heresy: Castellio against Calvin published by Beacon Press in 1951, it is a reprint of a 1936 copyright owned by Viking Press, Inc. The Austrian author, Stefan Zweig, lays out an intriguing historical case for Sebastian Castellio against John Calvin’s grisly treatment of Miguel Servetus and those who resisted his doctrine and dominion. I will side step this famous fracas at this time.
The other book was written by Edwin H. Palmer entitled, The Five Points of Calvinism (enlarged edition) first published in 1972. Palmer was Executive Secretary of the New International Version of the Bible (NIV) and General Editor of the NIV Study Bible. He has pastored Christian Reformed congregations and served as instructor at Westminster Theological Seminary.
Palmer adds to this enlarged edition a chapter on reprobation entitled: Twelve Theses on Reprobation. As listed in Chapter 7, they are:
- The Bible is the infallible, inerrant Word of God and is the final arbiter in all teaching, including reprobation.
- God is holy: He is the absolute antithesis of sin, and a hater of evil.
- Although sin and unbelief are contrary to what God commands (His perceptive will), God has included them in His sovereign decree (ordained them, caused them to certainly come to pass).
- Historically, many, but not all, theologians have spoken of two parts of reprobation: 1). Preterition and 2). Condemnation.
- Reprobation as preterition is unconditional, and as condemnation is conditional.
- Preterition is the reverse side of election.
- God does not effectuate sin and unbelief in the same way He effectuates good deeds and faith.
- Objections to the teaching of reprobation are usually based on scholastic rationalism rather than on humble submission to the Word of God.
- It is wrong to expect the Bible to give a systematic theological treatise on reprobation.
- A person does not know if he is reprobate, but he may know if he is elect.
- Reprobation should be preached.
- Ignorance is wisdom.
Palmer defines this reformed doctrine by saying: “Reprobation is God’s eternal, sovereign, unconditional, immutable, wise, holy, and mysterious decree whereby, in electing some to eternal life, He passes others by, and then justly condemns them for their own sin – all to His own glory.”
Tender Heart for the Reprobate
My heart has always been tendered toward the theological creature in Augustinian/Reformed tradition known as the reprobate for they find themselves in a “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” no-win situation.
I believe in election and that it “is consistent with the free agency of man.” Thus, the idea of the reprobate is a problem to my way of believing.
Since many Calvinists do not see any conditionality in the sovereign decree(s) of God, they must either adhere to a system where God decides to choose some (the elect) and rejects or predestines others to hell (the non-elect or the reprobate), or they go with the less harsh version, where God only predestines the elect to heaven but the non-elect go their own way in sin without a harsh decree but with a fate that is sealed because of God’s non-choosing. The reprobate is born with a big “L” for loser in decretal theology.
Traditionalists or non-Calvinists have a much simpler answer without a mysterious speculative system that only philosophical minds wish to explore. For the traditionalist, the repentant person who trusts Jesus by believing the Gospel is saved and the non-believer rejecting Jesus is condemned to hell.
Kenneth Keathley’s chapter entitled The Work of God: Salvation, in the 2007 systematic theology book A Theology For The Church delves into a four pointed criticism of decretal theology.
- Decretal theology is highly speculative about issues on which the Bible gives little or no information.
Later Keathley mentions the work of Jewett who profoundly asserts, “If we begin our study of the doctrine of election by asking what God ordained before the foundation of the world, then we are led into a hopeless labyrinth.” Hence, “we must begin with what God has revealed in Jesus Christ,” says Keathley.
“Thus decretal theology is actually a philosophy masquerading as theology” states Keathley, as theologians seek to divine “the mind of God by discerning the logical order of the decrees… .”
- Decretal theology is a logical system that ultimately fails logically.
Quoting Thomas Schreiner, he states, “The scandal of the Calvinist system is that ultimately the logical problems posed cannot be fully resolved.”
While all theological systems fall short, it seems that according to Keathley, “ … decretal theology has sometimes run roughshod over certain clear teachings of Scripture, particularly in the areas of the extent of the atonement and God’s universal salvific desire.”
- Decretal theology leaves the moral problems of predestination unresolved.
He summarizes Calvin’s implications of this “dreadful” decree, by saying, “Calvinism teaches that the ultimate reason a person dies lost is because God decides against him, not the other way around.”
- Decretal theology reduces Christ to the mere instrument by which the decrees are accomplished.
Both lapsarian options, according to Keathley, “assumes that God logically begins his plans with us and then decides to send his Son to be our Savior. This highly questionable assumption seems to have the effect of making Christ an afterthought and commits the mistake that decretal theology strives to avoid – it puts man at the front and center of attention … rather Jesus Christ is the locus and sum of salvation, including election (Eph. 1:4; 2 Tim.1:9).”
I close, reminding you of professor Palmer’s eighth point in his twelve theses on reprobation, he asserts, “Objections to the teaching of reprobation are usually based on scholastic rationalism rather than on humble submission to the Word of God.” With respectful disagreement, many non-Calvinist theologians fail to find the Biblical foundation for such a speculative and confounding doctrine. They see the doctrine of decrees and reprobation extending beyond the crystal-clear teachings of the Old and New Testaments, thereby, presenting conclusions where serious speculation abounds.
The prophet Moses spoke, “The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but the things that are revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may do all the words of the law” (Duet. 29:29 ESV).
Philosophical presuppositions, speculations, divine mysteries and salvific secrets need to be examined by great Christian thinkers and writers, but never to the extent of turning the clearly revealed Gospel of Jesus Christ into something muddy, mystifying, and misunderstood by the masses of lost humanity, “For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost” (Luke 19:10).
© Ron F. Hale, January 27, 2019