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Reformation: Boer vs. the Bible

Resident Faculty, W. Robert Godfrey   |   May 3, 1980   |  Type: Articles

For over 350 years the Canons of the Synod of Dort have formed an integral part of the doctrinal standards of the Dutch Reformed Church and her descendants. The Canons were born of  controversy and formulated to protect the Gospel message that salvation is by grace alone from the revival of a semi-Pelagian theology espoused by the Arminians. Despite the time and circumstances of their composition neither the Canons themselves nor their theology are simply Dutch. The Canons were unanimously adopted by an international synod of European Reformed churches, were enthusiastically received by Reformed churches in Great Britain, France, Switzerland .and Germany as well as the Netherlands, and have been widely hailed since as a faithful and effective declaration of the biblical doctrines of grace.

The teachings of systematic and biblical theologians from Calvin and the Westminster Divines down to Hodge, Kuyper, Bavinck and Berkhof, have  been in accord with the doctrines taught in the Canons, particularly the doctrines of election and reprobation. From the time of Calvin these doctrines have been subjected to rigorous examination and to fierce attacks, but have been consistently reaffirmed and defended by the Reformed churches. The testimony of the history and theology of the church, therefore, places a heavy burden of proof upon the Reformed, thinker who opposes the Canons’ teaching on election and reprobation.

Boer's Gravamen

Dr. Harry Boer, a Christian Reformed minister, has taken that heavy burden upon himself in his gravamen or official complaint against the doctrine of reprobation found in the Canons of Dort. He presented this complaint to the 1977 Synod of the Christian Reformed Church seeking a change of what he considers to be a fundamental error in the doctrinal standards of the church. This article will attempt to analyze and evaluate Boer's gravamen.

The object or goal of Boer's gravamen is simple. He seeks to have the doctrine of reprobation as taught in the Canons of Dort I, 6, and I, 15 “exscinded” or made “non-binding” on office-bearers in the Christian Reformed Church (Acts of Synod 1977, p. 665, hereafter referred to just by page number). His reason for pursuing his goal also seems simple. He maintains that there is no Scriptural evidence for the doctrine and that therefore it should not be an official doctrine in a church which is founded upon the Word of God alone.

In his challenging the Canons on the point of reprobation, Boer acknowledges that he stands in opposition to traditional Reformed orthodoxy. He recognizes that the doctrine of reprobation has been a clear element of Reformed teaching since the days of John Calvin (p. 677). Yet he makes the inaccurate claim that the doctrine historically has had “uncritical acceptance” (p. 679).  Nothing could be farther from the truth. Despite centuries of studied acceptance by learned Reformed theologians and exegetes, Boer maintains in strong language that reprobation is not the result of the study of Scripture, but is the result of “theological rationalism” (p. 676) that has made Reformed exegesis on this matter “an unprincipled, ruthless exercise” (p. 678). He believes that “so sinister and doomful a teaching” (p. 677) is “grievously unbiblical” (p. 679). For Boer reprobation rests upon rationalistic deduction, not upon the Bible, and is harmful to the church that embraces it. Thus Boer claims to stand on the side of the Bible over and against “theological rationalism.”

If the aim of Boer's gravamen is simple, so his procedure to establish the point of the gravamen seems straightforward. He analyzes nine particular Scriptural texts cited in the First Head of Doctrine of the Canons of Dort to see if they teach reprobation and maintains that his analysis shows that these texts do not teach the doctrine. He then concludes that since there is no biblical evidence for the doctrine, his gravamen must be sustained by the church and the doctrine of reprobation removed from our church standards.

Yet on careful examination the matter is not simple. More than Boer would like to admit is at stake. Nor is Boer's line of argument in the gravamen at all convincing. At nearly every point his argument is seriously flawed both historically and biblically. This article will focus on those flaws in relation to 1) Boer's definition of reprobation, 2) his understanding of the character of the Canons, 3) his exegesis of particular texts, 4) his failure to address and analyze texts other than the nine proof texts and 5) his failure to wrestle with the theological implications of his position. Finally the article will discuss the church's continuing need for the doctrine of reprobation and election. In all, the article will try to show that the church must reject Boer's gravamen.

Definition of Reprobation

The divine decree of reprobation is clearly defined in Canons I, 15 as an eternal decree of God in which, first, some are passed by and left in their sins (sins for which they, not God, are  responsible) and, second, those passed by are condemned and punished because of their sins. This definition makes clear that the reprobates are passed by because of the just good pleasure of God, and are damned because of their sins.

Boer seems to understand the position of the Canons correctly in his initial discussion of reprobation (p. 667). In his conclusion, however, he seriously misrepresents the teaching of the Canons. He caricatures Dort's doctrine of reprobation, claiming that it is “a sovereign wrath that damns men to an existence of everlasting death without regard to any demerit on their part” (p. 679). Boer is claiming that the Canons teach that God damns men without regard for their sin. This representation is a most unfair and inaccurate definition of reprobation. No Reformed theologian has ever taught such a doctrine. The Conclusion of the Canons, which Boer himself cites, clearly rejects and repudiates the notion that anyone is damned without regard to his sin.

Boer's error in defining reprobation is one fatal element in his gravamen. This error is basic when Boer begins to examine the Bible's teaching on reprobation. He argues that the Scripture does not teach reprobation, but which definition of reprobation does he mean? Is the definition he uses that of the Canons or that of his caricature? There is indeed no evidence in Scripture for Boer's improper definition of reprobation that God damns some without regard to sin. The question that Boer needs to address, however, is whether there is any evidence that God willed from eternity to pass by some sinners, not to bestow his grace on them, and to damn them because of their sins.

The Character of the Canons

When Boer turns to the question of Scriptural evidence for the doctrine of reprobation, he demonstrates a basic misunderstanding of the Canons and of confessional statements in general. He declares that he needs only to examine the Scriptural evidence presented in the Canons of Dort themselves: “I do not consider it my responsibility similarly to analyze the exegesis of texts adduced by Reformed theologians from other parts of Scripture ... I am bound by the confessions of the Christian Reformed Church and by them alone” (p. 676). Boer assumes in addressing only the nine proof texts offered that the Canons intended to present exhaustive or definitive biblical evidence of the doctrine. This assumption misunderstands the nature of the Canons. Confessional documents are not designed to prove doctrines by presenting full Scriptural evidence. They provide rather a summary of biblical teaching, only occasionally using representative texts which summarize biblical truth. Confessional documents present the product of the study of the Bible. One sees this clearly, for example, in the Canons of Dort, Heads of Doctrine II-V, where no Scripture is quoted in the positive articles (although one text is referred to in III-IV, 9). In the First Head of Doctrine there are no Scriptural quotations in one-half of the articles and no Scriptural references in one-third of them. In the article defining reprobation (I, 15) this distinction between proving a doctrine and stating it can be seen. This article states that there is “express testimony of sacred Scripture” for the doctrine of reprobation, but does not try to prove this by referring to any specific texts. If, following Boer's· methodology, adequate Scriptural evidence for all doctrines presented by the Canons had to be found within the Canons themselves, much more than the doctrine of reprobation would have to be removed. Would Boer want to argue, for example, that because Canons I, 4 (“The wrath of God abides upon those who believe not this gospel. But such as receive it and embrace Jesus the Savior by a true and living faith are by Him delivered from the wrath of God and from destruction, and have the gift of eternal life conferred upon them.”) does not cite Scripture, that he is not obligated to believe it?

Exegesis of Particular Texts

Boer discusses nine texts drawn from the First Head of Doctrine, which he claims are given there to prove the doctrine of reprobation (p. 666). Yet it would hardly be surprising if none of these texts clearly proved reprobation, since none of them are cited in article 15, the one article that fully defines reprobation. In fact, most of the texts which Boer examines were cited in the Canons to serve some function in their respective articles other than to demonstrate the biblical foundation of reprobation. Let us look at how these nine texts are used in the Canons. Article 6 cites two texts (Acts 15:18 and Eph. 1:11), not to prove reprobation, but to show that the giving or not giving of faith proceeds from God's decree. Eph. 1:11 is certainly supportive of this teaching of the Canons. Article 18 cites three texts. Rom. 9:20 and Matt. 20:15 are not used there to prove reprobation, but are cited appropriately as a warning against murmuring at the just severity of reprobation. Rom. 11:33-36 is included in article 18 to show the proper doxological response to the mysteries of God.

Paragraph 8 of the Rejection of Errors cites Rom. 9:18, Matt. 13:11 and Matt. 11:25, 26, again not to prove reprobation, but to show that God does not give to everyone the grace necessary for faith and conversion. Again the texts are appropriate. None of these eight texts were adduced in the Canons specifically to prove the full doctrine of reprobation. Boer's dealing with these texts, which were not brought forward in the Canons to teach reprobation. only demonstrate his misunderstanding of the Canons.
Romans 9:11·13
The one other text which Boer examines is Rom. 9:11-13, a text which demands fuller study here. Boer himself reserves his longest discussion for this text cited in article 10. He recognizes that this text is the most important Scripture used historically by Reformed theologians to prove the doctrine of reprobation. Any claim that reprobation is not biblical must provide a satisfactory exegesis of Romans 9. Boer attempts this task.

Boer begins his exegesis by noting that Paul in Rom. 9:12, 13 is citing two Old Testament texts: Gen. 25:23, “The elder shall serve the younger,” and Mal. 1:2, 3: “Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated.” Boer concentrates his attention on the citation of Malachi. He notes that Malachi in the Old Testament is concerned with the conflict between the nations of Israel and Edom. Boer contends that Malachi refers to Israel by its forebear Jacob and to Edom by its forebear Esau. Thus Malachi speaks of Israel and Edom in a corporate, national sense when he refers to Jacob and Esau. Boer argues that Mala.chi is not speaking of individuals when he says, “Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated.” Boer insists that God did not "hate" the individual Esau in an eternal decree. God had indeed eternally decreed that Esau the elder should serve Jacob the younger, but God's hatred of Esau was not part of that decree. God's hatred resulted in response to the rebellion and sin in history of Esau the individual and of the sinful nation Edom.

Boer then relates Malachi's message to the situation addressed in Romans 9-11 which he interprets as the message of salvation for the Gentiles and of rejection for the Jews. Here again, Boer argues, Paul like Malachi has corporate entities and not individuals in view. The Jews have been rejected for rejecting the Messiah, but a remnant has been retained by election. Indeed the hardening of Israel is not the result of an eternal decree, but of its sin and unbelief of which Israel must and can repent.

Boer's exegesis here is intriguing, but does not take accurate or satisfactory account either of the broad context of Romans 9-11 or of the specific thrust of Rom. 9:11-13. Boer fails to see properly the broad question that Paul answers in Romans 9-11: Does the experience of Israel negate the promises Paul has just made in Romans 8? Paul has reached the climax of his assuring words to Christians: “If God is for us, who is against us? ... Who shall bring any charge against God's elect?... Who shall separate us from the love of Christ?” (Rom. 8:31, 33, 35). But after assuring Christians that nothing can separate them from the love of God, Paul faces the problem of Israel. Was not Israel given similar promises? Was not Israel God's elect people? Yet Israel languishes in unbelief. Has not God's promise failed? And, most importantly, if the promise has failed to Israel, might it not also fail for Christians?

Paul faces this problem squarely. Despite the unbelief of Israel, he says “it is not as though the word of God had failed” (Rom. 9:6). Paul shows that God's word has not failed because those who are truly Israel will be saved. The key is that “not all who are descended from Israel belong to Israel” (v. 6). Paul teaches that within the nation of Israel there are children of flesh and children of promise (v. 8). Not all of the nation therefore are children of God. Physical descent is not enough. One must be a child of promise.

Paul then proves the discriminating purpose of God by several specific examples. First in verses 7-9 he mentions the distinction between two individuals, Isaac and Ishmael - the one a child of promise, the other a child of the flesh. Then Paul refers to the case of Jacob and Esau (vs. 10-13). Paul makes his point strongly here. Jacob and Esau are twins, the sons of the same mother and father. Yet Jacob was a child of promise and Esau a child of flesh. The discrimination between these two was a matter of election. It occurred before they were born, before they had done anything good or bad (v. 11). In reference to these two unborn persons, both equally corrupted in Adam's sin, but not yet differentiated by personal sins, Paul cites Malachi: “Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated.”

Contrary to Boer's thesis the context shows inescapably that when Paul quotes Malachi he has the historic individuals Jacob and Esau in mind. First this is clear because he speaks of Jacob and Esau as the unborn children of Isaac and Rebecca (v. 10). Secondly it is clear because Paul is illustrating his teaching that not all who are descended from Israel belong to Israel. Hence a national interpretation of Jacob and Esau would make no sense, for no one would have been tempted to think here that Edom was part of the promise to God's elect people Israel. In citing Mal. 1:2, 3 Paul is referring the text to the individuals Jacob and Esau.

While the primary context of Malachi is the nations Israel and Edom, yet Paul has not misused the text of Malachi in referring it to individuals. As John Murray in his Commentary on Romans has aptly stated: “Although the respective peoples proceeding from Jacob and Esau are in the forefront of Mal. 1:1-5, yet we may not discount the relevance to Jacob and Esau themselves. Why was there this differentiation between Israel and Edom? It was because there was a differentiation between Jacob and Esau. It would be as indefensible to dissociate the fortunes of the respective peoples from the differentiation in the individuals as it would be to dissociate the differentiation of the individuals from the destinies of the nations proceeding from them.” (Vol. II, pp. 20-21). Boer's exegesis of Rom. 9:11-13 has ignored its clear, specific teaching on individual election and reprobation.

Paul does not stop at this point after showing that God's electing purpose with Israel has not failed. He squarely faces the question that could be put to him: Paul, have you maintained election by making God unjust? (v. 14). Paul's answer is that God is absolutely just when he discriminates between sinners, showing mercy to one and hardening another (v. 18). He gives the example of Moses and Pharoah (vs. 15-17). Boer suggests that Pharoah was hardened for his sin (p. 670). This is true as far as it goes. But was not Moses also a sinner? Was Moses chosen because he was better than Pharoah? Obviously not. God's eternal discriminating purpose alone can explain mercy for sinful Moses and hardening for sinful Pharoah.

Yet Paul still has an opportunity to correct any misunderstanding about his teaching on election and reprobation when he entertains the question: "Why does he still find fault? For who can resist his will?" (v. 19). Does Paul answer by saying that God elects but does not reprobate? Does Paul answer by saying that God only reprobates those who resist his grace? No! He asserts in the clearest terms God's sovereign discrimination in election and reprobation: "Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one vessel for beauty and another for menial use?" (v. 21).

The doctrine of election and reprobation are beyond our full comprehension. Many more questions remain which could be put to Paul, some of which he answers in Romans 10-11. But his articulation of a doctrine of reprobation in Romans 9 is crystal clear, and it is that Pauline teaching in Romans 9 that is accurately summarized and articulated in the Canons of Dort.

Other Texts

One text of Scripture in the Canons, then, Rom. 9:11-13, does teach reprobation. But the matter ought not to be left there. It must be reiterated that by dealing only with the texts in the Canons, Boer has not acted responsibly. He is obligated as the author of a gravamen to prove from the whole of Scripture that the confession of the church is wrong. Therefore he must deal with all the Scriptures or at least the major Scriptures that touch on the matter of reprobation. Boer has fallen short of this obligation.

Certain obvious Scriptures demand attention. Boer ignores I Peter 2:8, “ ... for they (those who reject Jesus) stumble because they disobey the word, as they were destined to do." Here Peter speaks of some being destined to continue in sin. Is this not reprobation? Nor does Boer speak of Jude 4: "For admission has been secretly gained by some who long ago were designated for this condemnation." Is not such a designation a decree of reprobation? Nor does Boer think of Judas Iscariot as our Lord speaks of him in John 6:70,71; 13:18, 19; 17:12. Judas is chosen to be a disciple, but is prophesied long before as the betrayer, the son of perdition. All of these texts teach elements of the doctrine of reprobation, but Boer does not refer to them in his gravamen.

Theological Implications

As one who offers a gravamen to the church Boer sidesteps his responsibility in more than his failure to take account of particular texts of Scripture. In rejecting a significant element in the Reformed system of doctrine, Boer is obligated to show that eliminating this element does not damage or compromise the rest of the system. Specifically Boer is responsible to show how he can continue to believe in election - as he says he does - once he has rejected reprobation.  Reformed theologians have argued that once one rejects reprobation a truly biblical conception of election cannot be maintained. Boer does not explain what will happen to the doctrine of election if reprobation is excised from the Canons.

Historically two groups have tried to maintain the doctrine of election without retaining reprobation. The Lutherans attempted this in their Formula of Concord. They sought to eliminate reprobation by making grace resistible. But much more than reprobation is lost by such a procedure. Man is again made the central, determining factor in his own salvation. The other group, the Arminians, also sought to retain election. Even at the Synod of Dort they argued that they were not rejecting the Reformed doctrine of election, but only the doctrine of reprobation.
Their procedure was even more disastrous than the Lutheran, however, as they grounded election on foreseen faith. This solution founds election, not on God's sovereign good pleasure, but on qualities found inherent in some men but not in others. Again election ultimately becomes determined by man rather than by God and one is left with a man-centered religion.

The Need of Reprobation

This article has attempted to show the serious flaws in Boer's gravamen. It would be tragic, however, if, after three years of study, the gravamen was rejected by the Synod simply because of its flaws. The Synod should not simply reject the gravamen, but should enthusiastically and zealously reassert the church's commitment to the doctrine of reprobation presented in the Canons. We need this doctrine to encourage individual Christians, to build up the church, and to magnify the glory of God.

The individual Christian is encouraged by a doctrine of reprobation which is an integral part of election. As the Lutherans and Arminians have experienced, one cannot have the full, comforting doctrine of election without reprobation. Reprobation undergirds the truly gracious character of election. It is a truly gracious and sovereign election, which does not rest on any human accomplishment or worth, that assures the Christian that his salvation is entirely God's work in Christ and that "he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ" (Phil. 1:6). In addition, reprobation also assures the Christian that when an apparent believer (for example Judas) deserts Christ and his cause, we should not despair. Such apostasy is not an example of God's failure to keep his own, but part of God's eternal plan (see John 13:19).

The Church needs reprobation both for its confessional integrity and for its evangelistic work. The confessional integrity of the church is under attack from many sides. Some attack the confessions for using Aristotelian, scholastic thought forms rather than Christian ones. Some attack the confessions for their assumption that there is one clear message in the Bible that can be summarized in a system of doctrine. Some claim that the confessions do not really meet the needs of modern churches. These attacks would change the church from a disciplined, confessional body to a body that has accommodated itself to the wisdom of American pragmatism and individualism. These attacks on the confessions are of a piece with attacks on the Reformed view of the perspicuity, sufficiency and reliability of the Bible. The church must uphold its confessions not just because they are a glorious heritage, not just because they have provided strength and stability to the church for centuries, but preeminently because they clearly and faithfully express the truth of God's Word.

The church also needs reprobation for its evangelistic task. This claim may strike some as strange, but Paul himself demonstrates this in the way he moves from Romans 9 to Romans 10. The doctrines of election and reprobation taught in Romans 9 do not elicit passivity or terror. Rather Paul shows in Romans 10 that these doctrines as they express God's sovereignty urge us to call people to faith in Christ. Election does not breed uncertainty, but assurance. Because faith is God's gift to his elect, those who come to faith know they are elect. The great promise that “everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord will be saved” (Rom. 10:13) rests on the foundation that "I will have mercy upon whom I have mercy" (Rom. 9:15). It is the joyful task of the church then to preach salvation through faith in Christ knowing that it is the electing God who by his Spirit irresistibly draws to faith those for whom Christ died.

Finally reprobation magnifies the glory of God. reprobation properly evokes from us a profound sense of awe before God. His glory, power and purposes are beyond our full comprehension. But we must not succumb, as Dr. Boer does, to the temptation to cut God's purposes down to the standard of our minds. God's thoughts are not our thoughts (Is. 5:8). We must confess, with gratitude for a salvation that we did not deserve, the mystery of God's discriminating ways as they are revealed in Scripture. Those who reject reprobation are really the rationalists who reduce theology to what seems sensible to them. The church must reject Boer's gravamen and assert again the faithful, biblical teaching of the Canons of Dort to the greater glory of God.

Originally published in The Outlook, May 1980 by Reformed Fellowship, Inc.  Used with permission.

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