The Doctrine of Divine Decrees
By James P. Boyce
[Extract from Boyce's Theology]
The doctrine of the decrees of God, or, as it is frequently called, predestination, is justly considered one of the most difficult of all the doctrines in which Christians believe. It involves some things hard to be understood, and the ignorant and unlearned have often wrested the doctrine to their own destruction. The difficulty of the doctrine and its dangers are, however, no good reason for refusing to study it. Least of all can any one afford, on this account, to refuse to accept it. The sole question with us is whether it is taught in the word of God. If so, it must be a part of our creed. For God would not have revealed it to us if he had not meant to have us receive it. In considering this doctrine we will first try to state plainly what the doctrine is. We will then present the Scripture proof for the view taken. We will then examine the objections, or theories, that are urged against the doctrine, and we will conclude our consideration with some practical suggestions concerning the manner of holding and teaching the doctrine.
The Doctrine Stated The decrees of God may be defined as that purpose or plan by which eternally and within himself,
[p. 101 God determines all things whatsoever that come to pass. Let us see now just what points are involved in this definition. God determines all things whatsoever that come to pass. Let us see now just what points are involved in this definition.
1. God's Purpose Or Plan. These decrees are defined to be God's purpose or plan. The term "decree" is liable to some misapprehension and objection, because it conveys the idea of an edict, or of some compulsory determination. "Purpose" has been suggested as a better word. "Plan" will sometimes be still more suitable. The mere use of these words will remove from many some of the difficulties or prejudices which make them unwilling to accept this doctrine. They perceive that in the creation, preservation and government of the world, God must have had a plan, and that that plan must have been just, wise and holy, tending both to his own glory and the happiness of his creatures. They recognize that a man who has no purpose or aim, especially in important matters, and who cannot, or does not, devise the means by which to carry out his purpose, is without wisdom and capacity, and unworthy of his nature. Consequently, they readily believe aud admit that the more comprehensive, and, at the same time, the more definite is the plan of God, the more worthy is it of infinite wisdom. Indeed they are compelled to the conclusion that God cannot be what he is without forming such a purpose or plan.
2. Formed Eternally and Within Himself. Any such plan or purpose of God must have been formed eternally and within himself. (1) It must have
been eternally purposed. For God's only mode of existence, as has been heretofore proved, is eternal, and therefore his thoughts and purpose and plan must be eternal. The fact also that his knowledge is infinite, and cannot be increased, forbids the forming of plans in time, which, as they become known to him, would add to that knowledge. It is also to be remembered that the plan must precede its execution, but as time began with that execution, the plan could not have been formed in time, and must be eternal. (2.) In like manner, also, was it formed within himself. He needed not to go without himself, either for the impulse which led to it, or the knowledge in which it was conceived. He had all knowledge, both of the actual and the possible, all wisdom as to the best end and means, all power to execute what he devised in the use, or without the use, of appropriate secondary means, and free will to select, of all possible plans and means, whatever he himself should please; and the impulse which moved him existed alone in that knowledge and will.
3. Embraced All Things That Should Come To Pass. It is as the result of this plan, or purpose, that things come to pass. According to this doctrine of decrees, God assumes a certain responsibility for the universe. This, as we shall see, is the most difficult feature in the doctrine. Nevertheless we cannot hold to any real doctrine of decrees and deny this feature. We should, however, make a distinction at this point. When we say that God
determines whatever comes to pass, we should distinguish between an efficacious determination and a permissive determination. Some of the things which come to pass are the outcome of an efficacious decree on the part of God, that is, they come to pass because God determined not only that they might come to pass, but that he himself would bring them to pass. As to these things God, in decreeing them,, took upon himself the responsibility of their coming to pass. There are other events, however, which may be truly said to have been in the decrees of God, and yet God repudiates responsibility for their ever coming to pass. His decree concerning these is a permissive decree. These things were in his plan or purpose as truly as the others. But the purpose as to these was a purpose to permit and not to effect. God did not simply foreknow these events. He actually made a place for them in his plan. In a true sense he intended them to occur. But he did not intend to bring them about. Such, for example, is the entrance of sin; such also are all sinful acts that have ever occurred.
This distinction between efficacious and permissive decrees may not be altogether satisfactory. It may be difficult for us to see how God could plan to take sin in and not be himself responsible. But some such distinction we are bound to hold. For it is clear that God has not taken all events into his plan in just the same way and with the same sort of purpose or decree.
In one or the other of these ways, however, God
has decreed all things whatsoever that come to pass — not some things only, but all things; not all things in general, but each thing in particular. It is useless, we repeat, to try to evade this conclusion if we hold to any real doctrine of a plan, or purpose, on God's part concerning the universe which he has created. For so interwoven are the events of the universe that a lack of purpose as to any one event would involve a lack of purpose as to a multitude of others also — indeed as to every other event in any wise connected with the one not purposed. Events do not happen without sufficient cause or causes. If, therefore, a particular event is purposed, then the antecedent event or events which caused that particular event must have been purposed also. And if any particular event was not purposed, then the antecedent event or events that caused this particular event were not purposed either.
To such an extent is the force of this realized that it is admitted by all that in the mechanical universe, and even in the control of the lower animals, everything that comes to pass is purposed, or decreed. But the free agency of man, and of other rational and moral agents, is supposed to prevent God's purposing, or willing, all things with reference to them. It is said that such purposing would take away that free agency and consequent responsibility.
The Scriptures, however, recognize the sovereignty of God and his control of man, and also the free agency and accountability of man. Consciousness also assures us of the latter. The nature of
God, as has just been shown, proves the former. The Bible makes no attempt to reconcile the two. Paul even declines to discuss the subject, saying, "Nay but, O man, who art thou that repliest against God?" (Rom. 9:20.) The two facts are plainly revealed. They cannot be contradictory, they must be reconcilable. That we cannot point out the harmony between tliem is a proof only of our ignorance and limited capacity, and not that both are not true. It is certain, however, that whatever may be the influences which God exercises or permits to secure the fulfillment of his purposes, he always acts in accordance with the nature, and especially with the laws of mind that he has bestowed upon man. It is equally true that his action is in full accord with that justice and benevolence which are such essential attributes of God himself.
II. Proof that this Doctrine is TrueBut for the fact that this doctrine seems to lead to certain consequences that are hard to explain or receive, it woiild very likely not have been called in question, or at least would not have been so violently opposed. The difficulties connected with it, however, and the opposition to it make it necessary to marshal with special clearness and force the proof in favor of it.
1. A Reasonable Doctrine. This is, first of all a reasonable doctrine in itself. If one can divest himself in his thought of the supposed hard conclusions that follow from the doctrine, he must see that
it is reasonable. For if God is really the eternal, all-wise, omnipotent ruler of the universe, he assuredly has had a plan concerning his universe. If he is really omniscient he must have known everything that would come to pass. It is not possible that God could have been surprised by anything that has over occurred. But if he foreknew that everything would come to pass, and did not in any wise interpose to prevent, then he must at least have purposed to permit those things to come to pass. And so there is absolutely no rational way by which anything can be thought of as not coming at least permissively under God's decrees.
[This rational view is greatly strengthened when we remember that God is not simply a spectator of the universe, foreknowing what will happen, but its actual ruler, and that he upholds all things by his power, and that absolutely nothing can happen independently of him. If everything that exists draws its existence and its support from God, and is able to act only by reason of the fact that God upholds it in its acting, how can it be that anything has ever come to pass without some kind of purpose on God's part concerning it?
The difficulty, from a rational point of view, is not in accepting the doctrine that everything that ever comes to pass has been always in God's plan. The real difficulty is to see how anything, even sin, has come to pass without God's having been responsible for it. This difficulty will be solved if we ever understand fully the nature of God's rational creatures
and the element of freedom and responsibility which God has lodged in them. But meantime there is no difficulty, from a rational point of view, in holding that the plan, or purpose, of God includes all things whatsoever that come to pass. This seems to be the only reasonable conclusion.]
2. Sustained by the Scriptures. This doctrine is not only a reasonable doctrine, it has also the clear support of the Scriptures. This scriptural authority for the doctrine will appear from the following statements and references, gathered with slight modifications from Hodge's "Outlines," pp. 205-213: (1) God's decrees are eternal: Acts 15:18; Ephesians 1:4; 3:11; 1 Peter 1:20; 2 Thessalonians 2:13; 2 Timothy 1:19; 1 Corinthians 2:7. (2) They are immutable: Psalm. 33:11; Isaiah 46:9. (3) They comprehend all events. a. The Scriptures assert this of the whole system in general embraced in the divine decrees: Daniel 4:34, 35; Acts 17:26; Ephesians 1:11. b. They affirm the same of fortuitous events: Proverbs 16:33; Matthew 10:29, 30. c. Also of the free actions of men; Ephesians 2:10, 11; Philippians 2:3. d. Even the wicked actions of men : Acts 2:23; 4:27, 28; 13:29; 1 Peter 2:8; Jude 4; Revelation 17:17. As to the history of Joseph, compare Genesis 37:28 with Genesis 45:7, 8 and Genesis 50:20. See also Psalm 17:13, 14; Isa. 10:5, 15. (4) The decrees of God are not conditional: Psalm 33:11; Proverbs 19:21; Isaiah 14:24, 27; 46:10; Romans 9:11. (5) They are sovereign: Isaiah 40:13, 14; Daniel 4:35; Matthew 11:25, 26; Romans 9:11, 15-18; Ephesians 1:5, 11. (6) They include the means : Ephesians
1:4; 2 Thesssalonians 2:13; 1 Peter 1:2. (7) They determine the free actions of men: Acts 4:27, 28; Ephesians 2:10. (8) God himself works in his people that faith and obedience which are called the conditions of salvation: Ephesians 2:8; Philippians 2:13; 2 Timothy 2:25. (9) The decree renders the event certain: Matthew 16:21; Luke 18:31-33; 24:46; Acts 2:23; 13:29; 1 Corinthians 11:19. (10) While God has decreed the free acts of men, the actors have been none the less responsible: Genesis 50:20; Acts 2:23; 3:18; 4:27, 28.
III. Objections to the Doctrine Owing to a belief that the purpose of God accomplishing his will in his rational creatures is inconsistent with their free agency, several classes of theologians have presented theories in opposition to the scriptural doctrine of decrees above set forth.
1. Theory of the Socinians. The most objectionable theory is that of the Socinians, who deny that God can know what a free agent will choose or do before he acts or wills. They maintain that the will is, at the moment of its choice, in such perfect equilibrium that there are no tendencies in any direction which prevent an absolute freedom of choice. No knowledge, therefore, of the will itself, nor of the circumstances which surround its action, will enable any one to say, before it is exercised, what will be its choice. Hence its act is entirely undetermined and undeterminable until the free agent wills. It cannot even be known beforehand by God himself.
The objections to this theory are obvious: (1) It is based upon a wrong conception of the nature of free agency; for it supposes each act of the will to be an arbitrary choice. But such arbitrary choice is not found even in God. As regards man, we know, from consciousness and experience, that his will is influenced by motives. Indeed, so truly is it governed by the nature of the man, and the attendant influences, that even we can predict his will and action in many cases, and only fail to do so perfectly in all because of our limited knowledge. The omniscient God cannot fail to know everything that affects the decision, and therefore what the decision will be.
(2) This theory is also opposed to the independence of God. It supposes him to have made beings of such a nature that his own actions and will must depend upon theirs, and that he must await their decision, wherever it will have any influential bearings on anything future, before he can know or purpose what he himself will do. (3) As is also manifest from what has been said under the first objection, this theory is opposed to the omniscience of God. It expressly puts a limitation upon that omniscience by declaring that he is limited in his knowledge, at least so far as not to know beforehand the decision of the will of his creatures. But ignorance of this would also involve ignorance of all things in the future with which it may be connected. This would, in a world inhabited by free agents, constitute no small part of all that will occur.
(4) It is opposed to the many instances mentioned in Scripture of the prediction beforehand by God of even the bad actions of certain men. See as to Pharaoh, Exododus 7:3, 4; Hazael, 2 Kings 7:13; Judas, Matthew 26:21; Peter, Matthew 26:34, etc.
2. Theory of some Arminians. Another theory has been advanced by some Arminians, who maintain that God does not know the free actions of men, not because he cannot know them, but because he chooses not to do so.
(1) The first objection to this theory is that, were it true, it would not give greater freedom to the will than does the orthodox statement.
Though this theory honors God more than the former, it is inferior to it with respect to the object for which it is introduced. If it could be true, as the first theory claims, that so indeterminate is the future will of a free agent that even God cannot know it, then that future will would certainly be entirely under the control of the free agent, and he would, to the utmost extreme, be free. His will would be in absolute equilibrium in the act of choosing. Neither would any motive exist to influence that choice. It would be thoroughly arbitrary, and so would not be a matter of God's decree at all.
But this second theory has not this advantage, for it does not suppose this condition of equilibrium. In claiming that God does not choose to know what he might know if he should so choose, it admits the certainty of the event. For the certainty of what will occur is as much fixed as it could be if actually
known to God. For the supposition is that God could know it if he chose so to do. (And it is clear that even God is not able to know an event as something that will occur, if it were not certain that it will actually occur.
We object to this theory then, first, on the ground that it has no advantage whatever over the orthodox theory. If it is said that the fact that God could know the event does not make God in any wise responsible for the event, it can be answered that, according to the orthodox theory of God's permissive decrees, God is fully as free from responsibility for the events which he only decrees to permit as he is, according to this theory, for the events which he is supposed to decree not to know. Moreover, this Arminian theory makes just as really a place for God's decree and influence in the free acts of his creatures as does the theory which we have shown to be the Scripture doctrine. For this Arminian theory does not try to rule out a free exercise of influence on God's part to bring about any result that he desires or purposes. And so man, under the divine influence, is left not a whit more free, according to this theory, than he is under the theory which we have shown to be the doctrine of the Scriptures.
(2) A second and chief objection to this theory is that it is based upon a wrong conception of the relation of the will of God to his nature. That will does not confer the attributes of his nature, nor does it control them, but is itself influenced by them. God knows all things, not because he wills to know them,
but because, from his nature, he has infinite knowledge — knowledge of all things possible, and knowledge of all things certain. If by his will he could refrain from knowing, he would change his nature. As well speak of a man not choosing to see with his eyes open the objects presented to his sight, as of God not choosing to know anything, whether that is only something which is possible or something which in any way has been made certain.
3. Ordinary Arminian Theory. There is, besides the theories already referred to, the ordinary Arminian theory. This is that God knows all things that will come to pass, but does not decree all, but only some of them. The decisions of free agents are among those things which he is supposed not to decree. This theory aims to provide for the larger freedom of God's rational creatures. But — 1. A manifest objection to the theory is that it does not accord with the statements of the Bible. This has already been made clear by the passages of Scripture which have been advanced in proof of the various points involved in the ordinary Calvinistic theory.
2. A second objection will be found in the fact that this theory does not thus secure that freedom from certainty in the decisions of free agents, which is the great reason for the objections to the decrees of God concerning them. For if God knows that any event will occur, and can prevent it and does not, it is evident that he purposes that it shall exist, and makes it a part of his plan. The event is as absolutely
certain to occur (if God actually knows it as an event that "will come to pass") as it could possibly be under any purpose that God could have to bring it about. What God knows "will come to pass" is certain to come to pass. Otherwise he would know a thing as future which may not be future. His knowledge of it would be false. He would be himself deceived.
(3) A third objection to this theory is that it fails to accomplish another object for which it is introduced, namely, to secure such a relation of God to any free act of man as will take away all influence exerted upon that act by God's decree. We have seen that, so far as the permissive decree is concerned, the knowledge of the event does indeed render it certain that the event is going to happen. But it is only when the decree is effective, and introduces means for its accomplishment, that the free; agency is affected. As to this case also, the Arminian theory is no whit better than that of the Calvinist.
The Arminian holds as firmly as does the Calvinist that God is sometimes directly active in hi» gracious influences upon men. Both hold that in all such gracious acts God is both merciful and just. Calvinists extend these gracious acts or influences no farther than do Arminians, for they deny as strenuously as others that God acts effectively to lead men to wicked decisions and deeds. So far as the nature of God's actions upon free agents is concerned, both parties agree. But the Arminian
theory, in asserting foreknowledge without purpose, and in alleging that the foreknowledge is all that there is in God, is contrary to the relations of God's will to his knowledge, as well as to the statements of Scripture abont the decrees of God; and while it leaves the event equally certain, supposes fully as much influence over the will of the creature and has equal difficulty in reconciling the free agency and conseqiient responsibility with the inevitable certainty of the event.
(4) Chief Objection. The chief objection to the doctrine of decrees arises from the existence of sin. According to that doctrine sin has not occurred accidentally, neither was it simply foreknown; it was a part of the plan and purpose of God that it should exist. But for this difficulty the doctrine would seem a most natural one. It is not likely that any one woiild object to a doctrine of decrees such as this if it applied only to heaven, or to a realm where there is absolutely no sin. But when it is said that the coming and the existence of sin were, in any sense, a part of the plan or purpose of God, then there is a disposition to shrink back and say it cannot be so.
The difficulty here is freely admitted. And in this respect the dispensation of God is surrounded with "clouds and darkness."
The following statements, however, may be made: (1) That its being a part of the purpose or plan of God renders its presence no more difficult of explanation than that he should have foreknown its appearance,
and not exerted his unquestioned power to prevent it. (2) That amid all the darkness we can yet see that God is so overruling sin as to cause it greatly to redound to his glory and the happiness of his creatures. (3) That even without any, explanation of it, we can rest in our knowledge of the justice, wisdom and goodness of, God. (4) That we cannot see how its possible entrance into the world could have been prevented, consistently with the creation and putting upon probation of beings with moral natures, endowed with free will, and necessarily fallible because mere creatures.* And the right thus to put on probation, without such influence as would make his creatures certainly persevere in holiness, is one which none could justly deny to God. But that which God could possibly (under any contingency) permit, cannot, if it has actual existence, militate against his pure and holy character.
(The following has been added to what Dr. Boyce wrote, by Dr. F. H. Kerfoot, who revised his Theology. B. M. B.):
[In concluding this treatment of the doctrine of decrees some practical suggestions should be made
* The idea that God could not have kept sin from entering the universe, and have done this "consistently with the putting upon probation of beings with moral natures, endowed with free will, and neccesarily fallible," is an idea often advanced. It seems, however, hardly tenable. "With God all things are possible." And this thing could not have been difficult. If Satan could enter Eden and, by his wiles, persuade to sin, aud do this entirely consistent with man's moral nature and free will, surely God, if he had seen jit, could have persuaded and strengthened man against sin; and could have done so entirely " consistent with man's moral nature and free will and the probation upon which man was put." As Dr. H. B. Smith has said: "Every explanation of sin jnust be false, if at the expense of God's sovereignty and omnipotence."
as to the manner of holding and teaching the doctrine.
1. In so far as this doctrine is taught in God's word, it is not a doctrine for the unconverted. The Bible addresses itself to the unconverted in the fullest recognition of their personal responsibility. And its special message to them is that "God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life." It says to all such: "Him that cometli unto me I will in no wise cast out," "whosoever will, let him come" It is far better for all unconverted persons to attend first to this side of the Bible teaching. God addresses himself to them in this way just as if the doctrine of decrees had never been given. God will take care of his decrees. We cannot. But our personal responsibility must be attended to, or it will soon be too late.
2. The doctrine of decrees, or predestination, as a rule, does not mean very much to beginners in Christian faith. As Dr. Shedd well says: "This doctrine belongs to the higher ranges of Christian truth." It is high — they cannot attain unto it. Let them not, however, deny that it is a truth. Let them follow on to know the Lord. But, meantime, until the doctrine comes to have some real signification to them, let them shrink from speaking or thinking too confidently concerning it.
3. It is pre-eminently a doctrine for maturer Christians. And to these it is not a doctrine for
metaphysical hair-splitting, but a doctrine of practical Christian faith. Paul, the greatest and most confident proclaimer of the doctrine, nowhere undertakes to harmonize it with the doctrine of free agency and human responsibility. He left the "harmonizing" with God, knowing that, from God's point of view, the harmonizing would be easy. To the apostle, however, as a humble Christian man, the doctrine simply meant what he knew to be true, that all things, even "these little lives of ours, are interwoven with God's eternal purposes." The doctrine of decrees, or predestination, was to him like a great harbor to a storm-tossed mariner, a place where he might now and then anchor in peace, sheltered from every stormy wind, bathed in the sunshine of God's eternal love. In the midst of life's surging forces and uncertainties, it was a comfort to fall back on the thought that God lives and reigns, and is never taken by surprise or defeated in his eternal purposes, and that "all things work together for good to them that love God." He fell back on this doctrine at times as on the bosom of God, persuaded that "neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord."
The entire chapter on "The Decrees" from Boyce's book may be found here.
[From Ben M. Bogard, editor, Pillars of Orthodoxy, or Defenders of the Faith, 1900 - jrd
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