July 3, 2012

Leonard Verduin on the Reformed Faith and Symmetrism

Reformed Faith and Symmetrism
by Leonard Verduin

According to the Belgic Confession our God may be known both from His works and from His words. That Confession warns against abuses in connection with either of these. It is an old truism that if both of these self-disclosures of God are read correctly they will be found to tell the same story.

From His works as well as from His words it appears that our God is not as fond of symmetry as one might have expected Him to be. In fact His works and His words show that He has a dislike for perfect symmetry: and, at some very significant points.

Perhaps the word "symmetrism" needs explanation before we go on. It may be said to mean "after the same measurements." Symmetrism is the condition that we encounter wherever the component and complementary parts of a thing are exact repetitions of each other. Take this illustration. Here is a duplex dwelling. It consists of two halves that are identical: both have a kitchen, both have the same number of sleeping rooms, both open on the street. The only difference is that one is right and the other is left. The two apartments may be said to stand in symmetric relationship.

The word "asymmetrism," which we shall also have occasion to use, intends to convey the idea of "no-symmetrism." It stands for the condition where the component parts do indeed belong together, but do not stand in a symmetric relationship to each other.

To go on then, we have contended that God's works and God's words reveal that He is a God who has no penchant for symmetrism. He has will to place component parts in an asymmetric relation to each other.

May we submit an example? When God made Adam and Eve He made them to complement each other, but not in a pattern of symmetrism. He did not make Adam on this side of the hill and Eve on yonder side, with the intention that the two should meet at the brow of the hill: He made Adam, and in a different way, and afterward He made Eve. It is said that Adam was made of the substance of the earth; but Eve was made of the substance of Adam. Keenly aware of the manifest asymmetrism that obtains at this point, the inspired Apostle informs us that "the man is not of the woman but the woman of the man."

In line with this asymmetric relationship between our first parents God made Adam, not Eve, to be the head of the Covenant of Works, so that it may be said that Original Sin is a paternal and not a maternal heirloom.

* * *

This asymmetrical relationship between the sexes is, as might have been anticipated, solidly endorsed by known biological facts. The process of reproduction manifests assymetrism very clearly. The parts played by ovum and spermatozoon are indeed complementary parts, but not in any symmetric fashion. The latter seeks out the former, and not vice versa: the former is penetrated by the latter, and not the other way around. This is manifestly an asymmetric situation.

Because of this situation men have long since, and by a wholly defensible insight, expected the prospective husband to court and the prospective wife to be courted. In all societies men have had an aversion, perhaps an intuitive aversion, to a mixing of the roles in the matter, that is, with a courtship practice smacking of symmetrism. (The fact that among a few tribes it is the woman and not the man that takes the initiative in the preliminaries to marriage, does not militate against our thesis; in fact, it endorses it. Such tribes are just as aware as any others are of asymmetrism. The only difference is that they have reversed the pattern, perhaps consciously).

How deep-seated this principle of asymmetrism is in the relationship of the sexes may be known moreover from certain other well-known facts in the mechanics of reproduction. We know that the female parent produces so-called X-chromosomes, whereas the male parent produces not only X-chromosomes but also Y-chromosomes. When an X-chromosome of the father unites with an X-chromosome of the mother female offspring results: but when a Y-chromosome of the father unites with an X-chromosome of the mother the offspring is male. Female offspring results from an X plus X; male offspring results from X plus Y; there are no Y plus Y offspring. For this reason it is wholly reasonable that offspring by parthenogenesis (the development of new individuals from females, without the benefit of fertilization by the male, which occurs especially in certain insects, crustaceans, and worms) is invariably female.

Even in situations where God has willed pairs of identical organs, as in the case of two eyes, two hands, etc. even these do not usually stand in symmetric relationship to each other; men are born either right-handed or left-handed. Ambidextrous people are made not born, in all probability. And even in instances of organs that occur in pairs these are frequently not in a position of perfect symmetry in relation to each other.

* * *

All this adds up to a situation of very evident asymmetrism.

Turning now to God's self-disclosure in the Book we find, as we had anticipated, the same situation.

Take for example, the matter of Good and Evil. It is one of the first tasks the Bible sets for itself to make it plain to us that Good and Evil do not stand in a symmetric relationship to each other. Good is primeval; Evil is a superimposed accident. For this reason it is pious to say of the Good, wherever it shows itself: "All of Thee, O God"; but it is blasphemous to say of the Evil; "All of Thee, O God."

The Bible makes it very plain that also in the angelic world (out of which Evil sidled into our world) Good and Evil stand in an asymmetric relationship to one another. God created only good angels; He did not create any devils. The latter are good angels gone bad. Gabriel was always in his present modality; Satan not so.

This asymmetric relationship between Good and Evil has complicated things for us. It has given rise in Reformed theology to a set of terms that would have hardly been necessary in a symmetric system. It has made necessary such terms as the "decretive" will of God over against the "preceptive" will (sometimes called the "will of decree" and the "will of command"; of, the "hidden" will and the "revealed" will. There are still other pairs of terms for these concepts.) The good deeds of men are embraced by the preceptive will as well as by the decretive will; not so the evil od deeds.

When speaking of the decretive will of God typically Reformed writers have always hesitated to tie the sin, or the sins, of men to that decretive will with the same composure that they evince when they tie the good deeds of men to that decretive will. This has led them (and this too is an essential and integral feature of the Reformed idiom) to say that as to the decretive will God has willed sin "in a way." To include the evil of men in the preceptive will of God is to commit blasphemy: but to include the evil of men in the decretive will without such reservation as is attempted in the expression "in a sense" is to err in a not dissimilar way. Unless a man is prepared to utter the wholly offensive assertion that God willed the good "in a sense" he is driven to accept asymmetry as the proper term for setting forth the relationship of good and evil. God willed the good; He willed the evil also, but, "in a sense." not to have this modifying phrase ready to hand at all times as one makes bold to talk about these things, is to reveal a penchant for symmetrism that must not be tolerated. Consistent symmetrism pulls God's truth out of shape; and this is always bad.

* * *

At yet another point in the Reformed system, a point quite closely related to the former, asymmetrism appears, namely, in the doctrine of the "double predestination."

Election and reprobation (or whatever term is devised to designate "the other half of the picture" -- it speaks volumes that no single term for the negative side of predestination has been able to get itself generally accepted) are not related to each other as the two halves of a duplex are. They stand in the asymmetric relationship to each other.

This is evident from the nomenclature. Opposite the word "election" there is no symmetric counterpart in common use. Its correlative is called "preterition," "leaving in sin," "rejection," "reprobation." But none of these is the symmetric opposite of election. If we were permitted to think in terms of symmetry we would have to put "election to death" over against "election to life" -- but that is terminology too contrasty for Reformed thought. It is a habit of long standing in the Reformed tradition to treat of this stupendous matter along the lines of asymmetrism.

The Belgic Confession, for example, tells us that "all the posterity of Adam being thus fallen into perdition and ruin...God did then manifest Himself such as He is; that is to say, merciful and just; merciful, since He delivers and preserves from this perdition all whom He in His eternal and unchangeable counsel of mere goodness has elected in Christ Jesus our Lord, without respect to their works, just, in leaving others in the fall and perdition wherein they have involved themselves" (Art. XVI). This is a beautiful statement, and a true one. But it is a classic of asymmetrism. First of all, because merciful and just are not symmetric opposites. Then too "to elect" some and "to leave" others is to do two things that are not the symmetrical opposites of each other; if they were one we would be able to say "God elected some to life and passed the others by," and say, with equal propriety "God elected some to eternal death and passed the others by." The collision that occurs here is not a head-on collusion; it takes place obliquely.

Similarly the Heidelberg Catechism. It speaks clearly of a "church chosen to everlasting life" (L.D. 21); but it leaves the idea of another company "chosen to everlasting death" unmentioned. It leave the matter of reprobation to be inferred. This is good theology; but it is not symmetric theology.

And the Canons of Dordt, even the Canons of Dordt, avoid carefully the language of symmetrism. They speak enthusiastically of election; but they are content to say the rest "He leave the non-elect...to their wickedness and obduracy" (I, 6). They declare that "God passes them by" (I, 15). They warn us that it is "blasphemy" to implicate God in the evil of men as he is implicated in the good of men (I, 16). They shy away from such language as "God willed sin." These Canons were drawn up by men whose training was long on courses in logic; this fact make their language of asymmetrism all the more significant. We may say that they loved symmetry; but not to the extent of entertaining the blasphemous for the sake of symmetry.

He whose soul is so angular that he cannot live in the presence of asymmetrism may have his book -- but it will not be The Book. The Koran should be much more to his liking; for it speaks the language of perfect symmetry, with its Almighty saying "This one to eternal life and what care I? and this one to eternal death and what matters it to me?"

* * *

One of the sinister results of symmetrism consistently embraced is that it robs us of a genuine Gospel method. The idea of a well-meant offer must invariably atrophy in its presence. If God "means it" when He confronts the sinner with the possibility of salvation in the same way, symmetrically, in which He "means it" when He threatens the elect, then the practical upshot as well as the theological implication is that He does not "mean it." And the next thing is to put one's tongue in his cheek when he reads the Lord's assertion, made under oath at that, that He takes no delight in the death (destruction) of the sinner. Let us not take this lightly. The Evangel as a bona fide invitation to the good things that are in Christ cannot survive the blighting influence of symmetrism. It has not survived in the case of ancient symmetrists; it will not survive in the case of contemporary symmetrists.
Leonard Verduin, "Reformed Faith and Symmetrism," The Reformed Journal 5.9 (October 1955): 1–3.

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