21 December 2002

Holwerda on Election

Thanks to John Barach's Dutch translation skillz, I was reading an article by Netherlands Reformed theologian Benne Holwerda earlier today regarding the biblical language of election. Holwerda was professor of Old Testament at the Theological School of the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands (liberated) in Kampen after World War II.

One issue that was occupying Netherlands Reformed theologians at the time was the relationship between the covenant and election. Is the covenant something that God makes only with the elect, in the sense of those who will persevere to the end, or is the scope of the covenant wider? And is that the proper way to use the biblical language of election, whatever systematic theological sense the term "election" has come to have in the history of theology?

This is the topic that Holwerda attempts to address in an introductory way through his survey of the biblical data in a series of articles entitled "Election in Scripture." And his conclusions come very close to mine as I expressed them in an earlier blog entry.

Holwerda begins by noting that how we use certain terminology in our formal dogmatics may not always match up with how that same terminology is used in Scripture (not to mention that certain terminology is not even found in Scripture, e.g., "Trinity" or "sacrament"). Indeed, in some cases, our concepts may "have a totally different content in dogmatics than in Scripture."

This is not necessarily "illicit," he notes, so long as we are vigilant to remember that this is the case and, therefore, make sure we don't come to Scripture with a specific systematic theological meaning already in mind (see Tim Gallant's recent closely related thoughts).

To illustrate this point, Holwerda gives two examples: "providence" and "regeneration."

In dogmatics, "providence" refers to God's "work of world maintenance and world-rule, as God carries it out in time following the work of creation." In biblical usage, however, God's "providence" is coupled with his "eternal counsel" and thus refers to the eternal decrees with regard to the world. Thus the theological usage refers to an ongoing work in time while the biblical usage refers to a decree in eternity.

With regard to "regeneration" the situation is similar. In dogmatics, "regeneration" refers to what theologians think of as "the implantation of new life-principle" that is a necessary condition for (and thus logically precedes) faith. In Scripture, however, the meaning is "entirely different," referring not to some kind of principle, but to a "total life-renewal" that comes by the Word received in faith, and thus logically follows from faith. This was also the meaning of the term in early Reformed theology, even the Belgic Confession (Article 24), and the term only shifted in usage in the wake of Dort in response to the teaching of the Remonstrants.

Keeping these points in mind, Holwerda goes on to examine the biblical teaching regarding election. His conclusion is that Scripture uses the terminology of "predestination" (and God's "eternal counsel") in a manner that is decidedly distinct from that of "election," even if they are related.

Moreover, the Scriptures use the term "election" to refer to the events in time and history by which God establishes his covenant with his people (they are chosen), encompassing the entire corporate covenant community.

God's "rejection" or "reprobation" is a term that has particular reference to those in the covenant who reject God in persistent unbelief and thus fall under his displeasure, being rejected by him.

In light of that reprobation, there remains an "elect" or "chosen" remnant, using the terminology in a narrower way, again refering to a corporate entity from within the wider covenant people.

God's "decree" (or "predestination" or "eternal counsel"), Holwerda suggests, concerns not only who will finally be saved, but all that God has eternally purposed to accomplish in history.

It seems to me that Holwerda's approach is essentially correct, biblically speaking, and aligns with my very similar conclusions. It is good to know that other conservative Reformed thinkers have already taken these paths years ago.

Now the difficulty is to make it clear that adhering to biblical teaching on these matters is not designed to and, indeed, does not undermine what our systematic theological notions are constructed to protect.

Moreover, the distinction between dogmatics and Scripture must be kept prominent, so that one is not misunderstood when he speaks of the church as the body of the "elect" or baptism as a "washing of regeneration."