May 25, 2010

The Contradiction Between the Early and Later John Gerstner (1914–1996) on the Will of God

1) The early John Gerstner:
4. "If predestination is true, God is insincere in inviting all men to salvation!"

Again, you will ask, Why if a man is not elected or predestined to eternal life but is actually passed over in the decrees of God, does God proceed to strive with him nonetheless? Why does God send his gospel to a person who has been predestined to be left to himself and perish? Or in the form of an objection it is said: If predestination is true, God is insincere in inviting all men to salvation.

Now before we come to grips with this question in its fundamental nature, let me call attention incidentally to a significant fact. The situation which is before us at the moment is in no sense different from the situation we would have if there were no such thing as predestination. That is, if there were merely foreknowledge and no predestination of events God would know from all eternity that certain persons were going to disbelieve and to perish in their sins. He has perfect knowledge of all things and therefore knows who will believe and who will not believe. The question can still be raised, just as legitimately as in the predestination context, why does God strive and work and present the gospel and its means of grace to persons whom he knows are going to reject every overture which he makes? We know that God knows the outcome and we also know that God does work strenuously for the salvation of people whose unbelief he has known from all eternity. This is just to remind you once again that as long as there is such a thing as foreknowledge we have problems like this regardless of the doctrine of predestination. Predestination, in other words, does not bring a problem like this into existence; it exists independently of predestination and is made neither better nor worse, that is more or less severe, by the doctrine of predestination.

Otherwise it is a perfectly legitimate question to ask why God strives with men whom he knows and has predestined should perish. Again, incidentally, before coming to this question, let me notice another significant point. This question really does concern God and not us. What I mean is this: we may wonder why God, who knows all things, including the fact that certain persons will in spite of all efforts reject and disbelieve, continues to work with them to persuade them to believe; but, we cannot ask why we would do so with all men. We do not know the outcome. To us there is always a possibility that anybody with whom we work and for whom we pray may be an object of the divine mercy and may be predestined to eternal life and may actually believe and be saved. God knows, in a given instance, that such is not going to happen, but we never know it. Therefore, we can not only work in obedience preaching the gospel but we can work in hope that our preaching will be successful in the salvation of the persons with whom we strive. It does not affect our evangelistic endeavors or zeal in the slightest, but nevertheless it is a question which we may ask concerning God himself.

What reason, then, are we able to discover why God, who knows the futility of certain endeavors to convert certain persons, does proceed to make these endeavors which he knows are going to be futile? There appear to be several reasons. First, God by this means shows the hardness of the sinful heart. As we have said, it is only the wickedness of the human heart and not the decree of God which causes men to reject the overtures of God and his gospel. What more clearly reveals the depths of depravity than the rejection of such invitations from a glorious God? Second, this hardness of the human heart apart from the converting presence of the Holy Spirit shows that God is essential to goodness. Third, God's sincerity is evident in that if any person whosoever accepts the gospel, God will accept him. Fourth, the elect see, in the invitations of God and their rejection by men, how hard their own hearts were apart from the grace of God and what they would have done apart from that grace. They may say now and through all eternity as they contemplate the righteous judgments of God against the wicked, "There but for the grace of God go we.
John H. Gerstner, A Predestination Primer (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1963), 35–37. See also Robert Reymond's citation of this early work.

2) The later John Gerstner:
Most Reformed theologians also include, as a by-product of the atonement, the well-meant offer of the gospel by which all men can be saved. Some Reformed theologians take a further step still and say that God even intends that they should be saved by this atonement which nevertheless was made only for the elect. For example, John Murray and Ned Stonehouse write:
Our Lord . . . says expressly that he willed the bestowal of his saving and protecting grace upon those whom neither the Father nor he decreed thus to save and protect.
One may sadly say that Westminster Theological Seminary stands for this misunderstanding of the Reformed doctrine since not only John Murray and Ned Stonehouse but also Cornelius Van Til, R. B. Kuiper, John Frame, and, so far as we know, all of the faculty have favored it. The Christian Reformed Church had already in 1920 taken this sad step away from Reformed orthodoxy and has been declining ever since. The Presbyterian Church, U.S.A. had even earlier, though somewhat ambiguously, departed and the present mainline Presbyterian church affirms that "The risen Christ is the savior for all men."

The Presbyterian Church in the United States (now part of the Presbyterian Church, U.S.A.) is not far behind, and the separatist Presbyterians such as the Orthodox Presbyterian Church and the Presbyterian Church in America are following in this train. Only the Protestant Reformed Church seems willing to hold to the whole counsel of God on this doctrine.

Serious as this error is, it does not constitute a radical break with the Reformed tradition, though it does lay a foundation for it. For example, Murray and Stonehouse insist that, though God truly desires the salvation of the reprobate, He does not decree that. Rather, He decrees the opposite. They recognize theirs as a very dangerous position and appeal to great mystery:
We have found that God himself expresses an ardent desire for the fulfillment of certain things which he has not decreed in his inscrutable counsel to come to pass. This means that there is a will to the realization of what he has not decretively willed, a pleasure towards that which he has not been pleased to decree. This is indeed mysterious, and why he has not brought to pass in the exercise of his omnipotent power and grace, what is his ardent pleasure lies hidden in the sovereign counsel of his will.
However this is not "mystery" but bald contradiction, as these two fine Reformed theologians well realized. How does one account for Homer(s) nodding? The answer is simple—the exegesis seemed to demand it. The two authors "tremble at God's word" and God's Word seemed to them clearly to say that God desired what God did not desire. We certainly agree that if God says that He desired what He did not desire we would have to agree with God. Since we know that God does not desire what God does not desire, for this is evident on every page of Scripture, as well as in the logical nature of God and man, we know this exegesis is in error, must be in error, cannot but be in error.

But where is its error? It must be that Murray and Stonehouse are talking literally where He desires to be taken anthropomorphically. Almost everything said about God or by God in Scripture is anthropomorphism. The "everlasting arms," His "riding on the clouds," the "eyes" and "ears" of the Lord—there are literally hundreds of such metaphorical, anthropomorphic expressions describing God. This is, of course, admitted by all. On the other hand, it is rightly contended, God is also described literally as loving, rejoicing, happy, thinking, and so forth. Can we say that when God is described in physical or finite terms the expressions are metaphorical, but when He is described ontologically or psychologically the expressions are literal? No, for sometimes that is the case and sometimes not. When God is described psychologically as suffering, frustrated, or grieved, Murray, Stonehouse, and all sound theologians would deny these to be literally true. They know that, in the early church, patripassionism (the teaching that the Father suffers) was a heresy.

The question facing us here is whether God could "desire" that which He does not bring to pass. There is no question at all that He can desire certain things, and these things which He desires He possesses and enjoys in Himself eternally. Otherwise, He would not be the ever-blessed God. The Godhead desires each Person in the Godhead and enjoys each eternally. The Godhead also desires to create, and He (though He creates in time) by creating enjoys so doing eternally. Otherwise He would be eternally bereft of a joy He presently possesses and would have increased in joy if He later possessed it—both of which notions are impossible. He would thereby have changed (which is also impossible) and would have grown in the wisdom of a new experience (which is blasphemous to imagine).

If God's very blessedness means the oneness of His desire and His experience, is not our question (whether He could desire what He does not desire) rhetorical? Not only would He otherwise be bereft of some blessedness which would reduce Him to finitude, but He would be possessed of some frustration which would not only bereave Him of some blessedness, but would manifestly destroy all blessedness. This is clearly the case because His blessedness would be mixed with infinite regret. Our God would be the ever-miserable, ever-blessed God. His torment in the eternal damnation of sinners would be as exquisite as it is everlasting. He would actually suffer infinitely more than the wicked. Indeed, He would Himself be wicked because He would have sinfully desired what His omniscience would have told Him He could never have.

But why continue to torture ourselves? God, if He could be frustrated in His desires, simply would not be God. When, therefore, we read of God's "desiring" what He does not bring to pass, let us not "grieve" His Spirit by taking this literally, but recognize therein an anthropomorphic expression.
John H. Gerstner, Wrongly Dividing the Word of Truth: A Critique of Dispensationalism, ed. by Don Kistler, 2nd edition (Morgan, PA: Soli Deo Gloria, 2000), 142–146.

3) Here's Gerstner's "Forward" to Engelsma's book that he also wrote later in his life:
This is certainly an interesting, informative, lively, learned discussion of the essence of the gospel call to all mankind. In my opinion, Professor Engelsma carefully defines and convincingly avoids "hyper-Calvinism" himself and clears his denomination, the Protestant Reformed Churches, of so teaching.

The locus of the debate among Calvinists concerns what is called "the well-meant offer." Let me locate first what is mean by "well-meant offer" and the area of difference among Calvinists concerning it.

There is much related to this title that is shared by all Calvinists though sometimes differently phrased; namely, that reprobates hear the call and that is a "serious" call to them. There is one part of the understood meaning of well-meant offer" that is affirmed by many Calvinists today and denied by others; namely, that God desires and intends the salvation of reprobates in that call they hear or read.

The "well-meant offer" is understood, by both sides, to include the notion that God intends and desires the salvation of reprobates when the gospel of Jesus Christ is preached to everyone who hears with his ears or reads with his eyes. The late John Murray and Ned B. Stonehouse in The Free Offer of the Gospel and the Orthodox Presbyterian Church could declare in 1948 (citing The Free Offer of the Gospel by Murray and Stonehouse):
...there is in God a benevolent lovingkindness towards the repentance and salvation of even those whom he has not decreed to save. This pleasure, will, desire is expressed in the universal call to repentance.... The full and free offer of the gospel is a grace bestowed upon all. Such grace is necessarily a manifestation of love or lovingkindness in the heart of God, and this lovingkindness is revealed to be of a character or kind that is correspondent with the grace bestowed.

The grace offered is nothing less than salvation in its richness and fullness. The love or lovingkindness that lies back of that offer is not anything less; it is the will to that salvation. In other words, it is Christ in all the glory of his person and in all the perfection of his finished work whom God offers in the gospel. The loving and benevolent will that is the source of that offer and that grounds its veracity and reality is the will to the possession of Christ and the enjoyment of the salvation that resides in him (quoted in Hyper-Calvinism & the Call of the Gospel, p. 43).
I have italicized the three statements that can only mean in that context that God desires and intends ("will" is used on the sense of "intend") the salvation of the reprobates. Much else that is stated can be so interpreted but is not unambiguous. All Calvinists (and indeed all Christians) agree that not all humans persons are saved. Arminians do champion the notion that God desires and intends the salvation of every person. Calvinists do not, but here Calvinists John Murray, Ned Stonehouse, and the Orthodox Presbyterian Church do so teach.

On the other hand, Herman Hoeksema, the Protestant Reformed denomination, and our author David Engelsma in this book emphatically reject the "well-meant offer" as including God's desire and intention to save reprobates.

As a Calvinist, not associated ecclesiastically with the tiny Protestant Reformed denomination and sharply divergent from some of her doctrinal positions, I feel it absolutely necessary to hold with her here where she stands, almost alone today, and suffers massive vituperation and ridicule from Calvinists (no less) for her faithfulness at this point to the gospel of God.

I had the incomparable privilege of being a student of Professor Murray and Stonehouse. With tears in my heart, I nevertheless confidently assert that they erred profoundly in The Free Offer of the Gospel and died before they seem to have realized their error which, because of their justifiedly [sic] high reputations for Reformed excellence generally, still does incalculable damage to the cause of Jesus Christ and the proclamation of His gospel.

It is absolutely essential to the nature of the only true God and Jesus Christ Whom He has sent that whatever His sovereign majesty desires or intends most certainly--without conceivability of failure in one iota thereof--must come to pass! Soli Deo Gloria! Amen and amen forevermore! God can never, ever desire or intend anything that does not come to pass, or He is not the living, happy God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob but an eternally miserable being weeping tears of frustration that He was unable to prevent hell and can never end it thus destroying Himself and heaven in the process.

"God, the blessed and only Ruler, the King of kings and Lord of lords, who alone is immortal and who lives in unapproachable light, whom no one has seen or can see. To him be honor and might forever. Amen" (1 Tim. 6:15, 16).

John H. Gerstner
Ligonier, PA
From John Gerstner's "Forward," in Hyper-Calvinism and the Call of the Gospel by David Engelsma (Grand Rapids: Reformed Free Publishing Association, 1994), vii–ix.

After Gerstner quotes A. H. Strong (in Systematic Theology, p. 290) stating the proposition that love (both in God and in ourselves) implies a desire that all creatures should fulfill the purpose of their existence by being morally conformed to the holy One, Gerstner says “all Calvinists must disagree because what God desires He does.”

See John H. Gerstner, The Rational Biblical Theology of Jonathan Edwards, 3 vols. (Powhatan, VA: Berea Publications; Orlando, FL: Ligonier Ministries, 1993), 3:285.


Klosski Ray said...

Contradiction???? I don[t think so. I would say after much more study on the subject John came to a more clear and precise understanding of this subject, As the Holy Spirit taught him, he just changed his mind. You know we are allowed to do that when it comes to scripture as we learn about our mistakes, Blessings

Tony Byrne said...

Of course he changed his mind after some further reflection. The point of the title is that Gerstner contradicted what he earlier taught, but not by accident, as if he didn't know what he was doing. The early Gerstner said A. The later Gerstner said not-A, but rather B. That indicates BOTH a contradiction AND a change of mind. It's not an either/or, as you suppose.

And, what you added are mere assertions. I could assert that it was not the Holy Spirit who taught the later Gerstner, since the Spirit clearly teaches that God desires all men to keep his commandments, including the evangelical command to repent unto salvation. To say otherwise, I would argue, is to say that God does not want the non-elect to comply with his evangelical commands. As Augustine said, "For as He would that man would not sin [i.e. comply with his negative commands], so would He spare the sinner, that he may return and live [i.e. be saved]" (Augustine, "Exposition on the Book of Psalms," NPNF, 1st Series, ed. by Philip Schaff [Peabody, Mass: Hendrickson Publishers, 2004], 8:545).

Moreover, it is a shame that Gerstner believed the false teaching of the Protestant Reformed Church on the point, as if they represent faithful Reformed soteriology. They very clearly do not, as anyone can see by objectively looking at the facts of history, as I have so thoroughly documented on my blog over the course of 10+ years. Rightly did Prosper, Augustine's great defender, say, "...he who says that God will not have all men to be saved but only the fixed number of the predestined, speaks more harshly than we should speak of the depth of the unsearchable grace of God" (Prosper of Aquitaine: Defense of St. Augustine, trans. by P. De letter [New York: Newman Press, 1963], 159).

I doubt you want to debate the mainstream Reformed view or consensus on the point, since the evidence is so overwhelming. If you want to examine the scriptures on the point to see how the later Gerstner was not in fact in sync with the Spirit on that issue, then let me know.


Tony Byrne said...

“It comes out [in Gerstner’s critique of dispensationalism in Wrongly Dividing the Word of Truth] that Gerstner, against [John] Murray and Stonehouse and [Anthony] Hoekema among others, does not believe in the free offer of the gospel to all people indiscriminately. Instead he holds that the well meant offer of the gospel is given only to the elect, a position outside the mainstream of reformed theology as represented in most confessions and textbooks. He opts for the rigorous supralapsarianism of Herman Hoeksema and the Protestant Reformed Church instead of the mainstream Orthodox Presbyterian Church and Christian Reformed Church. This fact implicitly weakens Gerstner’s argument, since he shows himself to be at odds not only with dispensationalists but with most reformed theologians as well.”

David L. Turner, “‘Dubious Evangelicalism’? A Response to John Gerstner’s Critique of Dispensationalism,” Grace Theological Journal 12.2 (Fall 1992): 269.

See also the post Al Martin Agrees with John Murray on the Free Offer.

David Hutchings said...

God desire is not in His command, but only in His decree.