08 December, 2016

On Right Hermeneutics and Proper Distinctions: The Rejection of the Well-Meant Offer by Herman Hoeksema and the Protestant Reformed Churches

Rev. Clayton Spronk

[Source: Protestant Reformed Theological Journal, vol. 45, no. 2 (April 2012), pp. 329]


For approximately 90 years theologians of the Protestant Reformed Churches have vigorously engaged in the debate over the doctrine of the well-meant gospel offer. They have addressed the doctrine in countless sermons, magazine articles, and books. By these means the doctrine of the well-meant offer of the gospel has been exposed as unbiblical and contrary to the Reformed creeds. It is a doctrine that despises the wisdom, power, and glory of God; a doctrine that destroys the power of the preaching of the gospel in the instituted church and on the mission field; a doctrine that unduly exalts man; a doctrine of confusion that threatens the elect believer’s assurance of salvation.

Those who take the contrary position have criticized and attacked the Protestant Reformed rejection of the well-meant offer of the gospel. Usually the criticisms and attacks amount to nothing more than name-calling or caricatures of the Protestant Reformed position. Seldom is there a serious attempt at refutation. Claiming that the Bible teaches the well-meant offer, the critics ignore Protestant Reformed arguments and shout “HYPER-CALVINIST” ad nauseum.

Dr. R. Scott Clark’s essay “Janus, the Well-meant Offer of the Gospel, and Westminster Theology” is unique. Dr. Clark analyzes the debate theologically.1

This does not mean that Dr. Clark completely avoids making un­warranted assertions. For example, though he never clearly defines the term hyper-Calvinism, he yet characterizes the rejection of the well-meant offer of the gospel by Hoeksema and others during the 1920s’ common grace debate in the CRC as hyper-Calvinism.2 The charge of hyper-Calvinism, at least as it is lodged against Hoeksema and subsequent Protestant Reformed theologians, has often been proven false. It is disappointing, therefore, that Clark lobs this charge again without even interacting with the arguments Protestant Reformed theologians have advanced to refute it.

Dr. Clark also makes the erroneous claim that the exegetical argu­ments of the proponents of the well-meant gospel offer have not been treated often by Protestant Reformed men, particularly the exegetical arguments of John Murray.3 If Dr. Clark would only look through the index of the Standard Bearerhe would find that there are indeed many articles that treat the texts Murray attempted to exegete, and that there are even two series of articles specifically devoted to the refutation of Murray’s arguments and exegesis.4 Then there is Prof. Engelsma’s yet unchallenged Hyper Calvinism and the Call of the Gospelwhere the Protestant Reformed position is clearly laid out and grounded upon Scripture.5 So thoroughly have Protestant Reformed men refuted the exegesis of the so-called well-meant offer texts, that it could more fairly be said they are waiting for an answer to their exegetical arguments.

Dr. Clark does not provide exegetical arguments to prove Protes­tant Reformed interpretations of Scripture wrong. Instead, he focuses on hermeneutics. Dr. Clark wrote his essay in honour of Robert B. Strimple, whose lectures on the well-meant offer greatly influenced Clark. About Strimple’s teaching of the well-meant offer Clark writes, “His explanation of the 1948 majority report to the Fifteenth General Assembly of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church (OPC) by John Murray (1898-1975) was a turning point in my hermeneutic, doctrine of God, and theology of evangelism.”6 Strimple “helped” Clark “appreciate Scripture as an accommodated revelation, the distinction between God ‘in himself’ (in se) and ‘toward us’ (erga nos).7 For Clark, the doctrine of the well-meant gospel offer is grounded upon and in harmony with the accommodated nature of biblical revelation.

Clark believes that the debate about the well-meant gospel offer historically was not about “biblical exegesis nor historical theology … but rather matters of theological method, specifically hermeneutics and assumptions about the nature of divine-human relations.”8 Dr. Clark’s position is that Louis Berkhof, John Murray, and others who agree with them correctly recognized the logical and necessary connection between the truth that Scripture is accommodated language and the doctrine of the well-meant offer. Those who reject the well-meant offer do so, he argues, because they erroneously reject the hermeneutical principle undergirding the doctrine. He writes, “This essay contends that the reason the well-meant offer has not been more persuasive is that its critics have not understood or sympathized with the fundamental as­sumption on which the doctrine of the well-meant offer was premised: the distinction between theology as God knows it (theologia archetypa) and theology as it is revealed to and done by us (theologia ectypa).”9 He argues that the Protestant Reformed rejection of the well-meant gospel offer is based on a wrong approach to Scripture, namely, a failure to recognize Scripture as accommodated revelation.

If valid, Clark’s arguments demonstrate that the Protestant Reformed rejection of the well-meant offer is wrong. If valid, his arguments expose as futile all of the attempts of Protestant Reformed theologians to demonstrate from Scripture that the doctrine of the well-meant offer is erroneous. If Dr. Clark is right, proponents of the well-meant offer can lightheartedly wave away the exegetical argu­ments raised against the doctrine because they are based on an errone­ous view of Scripture. If he is right, Protestant Reformed theologians have misunderstood the debate over the well-meant gospel offer for 80 plus years.

But Dr. Clark is wrong. Herman Hoeksema and his disciples do not reject the hermeneutical principle that God speaks a language accommodated to man in Scripture. The accommodated nature of Scripture, rightly understood, does not necessitate the doctrine of the well-meant gospel offer. And Protestant Reformed theologians have not missed the importance of hermeneutics in the debate, as Dr. Clark suggests, but have continually pointed out that the defenders of the well-meant gospel offer have the wrong approach to Scripture.

Dr. Clark does not understand the well-meant gospel offer debate as clearly or advance it as much as he thinks. Yet an examination of his arguments is worthwhile. This is true for several reasons. First, Dr. Clark at least attempts to defend the well-meant offer on the ba­sis of theological arguments that are worth consideration. Second, engaging in controversy usually helps both sides see the issues at stake more clearly. Third, perhaps the proponents of the well-meant gospel offer will more seriously interact with Protestant Reformed exegesis of key passages after it is demonstrated that the Protestant Reformed approach to Scripture is orthodox.

Accommodated Revelation and the Well-Meant Gospel Offer Debate

Clark takes umbrage with Hoeksema’s characterization of the well-meant offer as a “Janus” doctrine. Hoeksema called the doctrine of common grace as set forth in three points by the CRC Synod of 1924 a Janus doctrine in his treatise entitled A Triple Breach.10 The well-meant gospel offer is commonly called the little point of the first point of common grace. When Hoeksema described the first point of common grace as a Janus doctrine, he was especially aiming at the well-meant offer of the gospel. How is the well-meant offer a Janus doctrine? Hoeksema explains,

For, the fact is, that the first point reminds one of the two-faced head of Janus. Janus was a Roman idol, distinguished by the remarkable feature of having two faces and looking in two opposite directions. And in this respect there is a marked similarity between old Janus and the first point. The latter is also two-faced and casts wistful looks in opposite directions. And the same may be asserted of the attempts at explanation of the first point that are offered by the leaders of the Christian Reformed Churches. Only, while the two faces of old heathen Janus bore a perfect resemblance to each other, the Janus of 1924 has the distinction of showing two totally different faces. One of his faces reminds you of Augustine, Calvin, Gomarus; but the other shows the unmistakable features of Pelagius, Arminius, Episcopius. And your troubles begin when you would inquire of this two-faced oracle, what may be the exact meaning of the first point. For, then this modern Janus begins to revolve, alternately showing you one face and the other, till you hardly know whether you are dealing with Calvin or Arminius.

“The best interpretation of Hoeksema’s language,” according to Clark, “is that it was an implicit rejection of the archetypal/ectypal distinction.”11 Clark’s argument is that Hoeksema would have seen that the well-meant gospel offer, as taught by those who are within the Reformed tradition,12 is not two-faced or Arminian if only he accepted the key Reformed conception of archetypal and ectypal theology.

Archetypal theology and ectypal theology are the most important terms in Clark’s discussion of the accommodated nature of revelation and his defense of the doctrine of the well-meant gospel offer. Clark argues that the right understanding of archetypal and ectypal theology leads to the right approach to Scripture as accommodated revelation, which will in turn inevitably lead to acceptance of the well-meant gospel offer. For Clark, the distinction between archetypal and ectypal theology is the “basic premise” of the well-meant offer of the gospel.13 He asserts that the well-meant gospel offer is a “correlative” of the orthodox Reformed conception of ectypal theology.14 So he argues that rejection of the well-meant gospel offer is also a rejection of the orthodox Reformed distinction between archetypal and ectypal theology.

The basic issue, Clark rightly explains, is submission to the teach­ings of God revealed in the Bible. Those who hold to the well-meant offer, he believes, “submit to Scripture as it comes to us.”15 Specifically, they submit to Scripture’s revelation that God hates and wills the damnation of the reprobate with His decretive will and loves and desires the same reprobate with His preceptive will in the preaching of the gospel.16 This is a “paradox” that creates “tension,” Clark admits, but it is not valid to say that the well-meant offer presents a two-faced God who with a Calvinist face loves only the elect and an Arminian face loves all men. For Clark, the well-meant gospel offer is pure Calvinism and must be recognized as such if one properly understands the Reformed conception of archetypal and ectypal theology.

In Clark’s view, denying the possibility that God can reveal both a decretive hatred for the reprobate and a preceptive love for the reprobate in Scripture is rationalism. God’s hatred and love for the reprobate may very well be a “paradox” that creates “tension” in the minds of men, but, he argues, there is no tension in God’s archetypal knowledge of Himself concerning His hatred and love for the rep­robate. The proper attitude of the believer, according to Clark, is to submit to the tension caused by God’s revelation of ectypal theology. When those who oppose the well-meant offer seek to resolve this tension, they are rejecting the revelation of Scripture and attempting to ascend to the heights of God’s archetypal knowledge where there is no tension.

Clark’s defense of the well-meant offer is essentially the “it’s a paradox” defense that advocates of the well-meant offer have used often in the debate. Clark is correct when he says, “during the contro­versy, the archetypal/ectypal distinction was never formally discussed as a Reformed theological category or proposed as a way to resolve the issue and from Hoeksema’s characterization of the well-meant offer as schizophrenic.”17 The terms “archetypal” and “ectypal” have not often been part of the well-meant offer debate, but the substance of Clark’s argument is not new. The attempt has been made to explain that the well-meant offer is only an apparent paradox in the minds of men, that it is nevertheless the teaching of Scripture, and that rejection of the doctrine is simply rationalism. What is new is Clark’s clever attempt, by dragging the historically orthodox terms “archetypal” and “ectypal” into the debate, to cast Herman Hoeksema, Gordon Clark, and their theological heirs who reject the well-meant offer in an un-Reformed light. Hoeksema and those who agree with him are outside the Reformed camp because they deny the Reformed teaching these terms represent.

In addition to charging opponents of the well-meant offer with be­ing un-Reformed, Clark turns Hoeksema’s charge that the well-meant offer is an Arminian doctrine against him. According to Clark, those who reject the well-meant offer fall into the same form of rationalism as the Arminians!18 For an example of Arminian rationalism, Clark points to the Arminian doctrine of universal atonement. According to Clark the Reformed position is that Scripture teaches that preachers must make “a well-meant offer of the gospel indiscriminately, despite the fact that not all hearers are elect.”19 But the Arminians saw the tension between teaching that God does not love all men decretively and teaching that in the preaching God loves all men. The Reformed approach to this tension, according to Clark, is to accept it. The ra­tionalist Arminian approach is to resolve the paradox “by saying that Christ died for all and for every man.”20 Those who reject the well-meant offer illegitimately resolve the paradox by saying God does not love everyone in the preaching. A failure to submit to Scripture’s paradoxical teaching is evidence that the opponents of the well-meant offer and the Arminians reject the Reformed conception of archetypal and ectypal theology, and consequently both are rationalistic in their approach to Scripture.

Clark’s argument for the well-meant offer rests, then, on two basic claims in connection with the Reformed conception of archetypal and ectypal theology. First, he claims the opponents of the well-meant offer reject the archetypal/ectypal distinction. Secondly, he claims that the views of the well-meant offer theologians indicate that they rightly understand and affirm this orthodox, Reformed distinction. Dr. Clark is wrong on both counts, and therefore fails to advance or resolve the well-meant offer debate.

The Reformed Conception of Archetypal and Ectypal Theology 

Herman Hoeksema did not reject the orthodox conception of the archetypal/ectypal distinction. Clark admits that Hoeksema does not explicitly refer to the archetypal/ectypal distinction in his Reformed Dogmatics. He also acknowledges that Hoeksema “seemed to ac­knowledge a distinction between God as He is in Himself and as He reveals Himself to us.”21 But Clark argues, “Most of the time, however, he argued against the substance of the archetypal/ectypal distinction.”22 In order to challenge Clark’s argument it is necessary at this point to set forth briefly the Reformed tradition’s teaching concerning archetypal and ectypal theology.

Dr. Richard A. Muller provides an excellent summary of the orthodox Reformed teaching concerning the archetypal/ectypal distinction in his Post Reformation Reformed Dogmatics.23 Muller explains in general that the “message and intention of the distinction between archetypal and ectypal theology” is to recognize “not only that God is distinct from his revelation and that the one who reveals cannot be fully comprehended in the revelation, but also that the revelation, given in a finite and understandable form, must truly rest on the eternal truth of God.”24 The Reformed tradition recognized that revelation in gen­eral and Scripture in particular is not God and is not a comprehensive revelation of God. Nevertheless, Scripture and all revelation is the revelation of the eternal truth of God in a “finite and understandable form.” The Reformed faith used the terms archetypal and ectypal to distinguish between the eternal comprehensive knowledge of God and the revelation of that eternal comprehensive knowledge to man.

The Reformed orthodox designated God’s comprehensive knowl­edge of Himself as archetypal knowledge. Archetypal theology, Muller writes, “is God himself, the identity of self and self-knowledge in the absolutely and essentially wise God.”25 Man does not and cannot possess this archetypal knowledge of God. Muller explains that it is “incommunicable (incommunicabalis), as indeed are all the divine at­tributes when defined strictly or univocally. All that can be naturally communicated to created things of such an ultimate wisdom are but faint images or vestiges (images aut etiam vestigia).”26

Man cannot know God as God knows Himself archetypally, yet God is able to communicate to man the true knowledge of Himself. In Reformed thought, archetypal theology is the source of revelation, even though man can never possess archetypal theology. Muller ex­plains:

The nature of this archetype and its function as the source of all that finite creatures know about God poses a final paradox in the Protestant scholastic discussion of the “attributes” of archetypal theology: it is both incommunicable (incommunicabilis) and communicative (communica­tiva). The identity of theologia archetypa with the infinite essence of God renders it incapable of communication to creatures. Nevertheless, God’s infinite self-knowledge is transmitted to things in the created order. In creation, all things receive the imprint of the divine, and the ability of finite creatures to apprehend revelation, to have theology, rests upon the image of God according to which they have been created.27

This archetypal theology is the source of the revealed knowl­edge of God, which the Reformed designated as ectypal theology. Muller quotes Junius’ definition of ectypal theology: “And so, indeed theology simply so called, is the entire Wisdom concerning divine things capable of being communicated to created things by [any] manner of communication” (p. 235).28 Muller includes a helpful outline of the ectypal theology as understood by Reformed theologians:

1. theology of union (theologia unionis): the theology known by Jesus’ human mind in and through the hypostatic union

2. theology of angels (theologia angelorum)

3. theology of man 

a) before the fall (ante lapsum)

b) after the fall (post lapsum) or theology of pilgrims (theologia viatorum

c) theology of the blessed in heaven (theologia beatorum)29

With the distinction between archetypal and ectypal theology, the Reformed tradition honours God as high above man. To know God archetypally, man would have to become God. Reformed theology keeps man in his place as a creature by teaching that man cannot know God comprehensively. On the other hand, Reformed ortho­doxy maintains that through revelation man knows God truly. For all knowledge comes from God’s perfect knowledge of Himself. God does not reveal to man knowledge that differs from or contradicts the knowledge He has of Himself. For Reformed theologians, both ar­chetypal theology and ectypal theology are true theology, and Muller writes that the Reformers taught that “true theology is one according to substance whether it is found in God or in his creatures.”30 He goes on to write, “This substantially singular theology, as known infinitely and absolutely by the divine subject, God, is archetypal; as known finitely and relatively by the creaturely subject, ectypal.”

The Reformed distinction between archetypal and ectypal theology teaches that man can know God truly, but it also prevents rationalism in the form of man independently ascending to the knowledge of God. God is the source of all knowledge, and man is limited to knowing God as God reveals Himself to man.

Hoeksema’s Agreement with Reformed Orthodoxy 

With the Reformed understanding of the distinction between archetypal and ectypal theology Herman Hoeksema (along with subsequent Protestant Reformed theologians) is in full agree­ment. 

Clark offers only one random and isolated quotation from Hoeksema to support his contention that Hoeksema rejects the substance of the archetypal/ectypal distinction. He quotes Hoeksema’s statement: “If we want to make separation between revelation and Himself, there is no knowledge of God.”31 This statement in isolation does not argue against the archetypal/ectypal distinction. Hoeksema does not identify revelation with God, nor does he indicate that man ever knows God archetypally, either apart from or through God’s revelation of Himself. The statement is ambiguous (as many statements are in isolation), but there is no reason to believe that Hoeksema is saying anything differ­ent from orthodox Reformed theology’s affirmation of the inseparable connection between archetypal and ectypal theology. Hoeksema is pointing out that revelation cannot be separated from God and that through revelation man truly knows God.

Clark believes that Hoeksema’s statement is the basis for serious problems in Hoeksema’s theology. After quoting the statement, he writes,

This approach influenced how [Hoeksema] structured his theology. For Hoeksema, God is the principium cognoscendi, whereas in contrast, for Berkhof, Scripture performs that role. This is a significant difference. Berkhof’s doctrine of God began with revelation. Hoeksema, however, began not with revelation, but with God himself as the beginning of knowledge. This move suggests a sort of intellectualism, that is, an intersection between our mind and God’s, in Hoeksema’s theology. There was tension in his Dogmatics. At one point he nodded politely to the Creator-creature distinction, but elsewhere he argued against the substance of the archetypal/ectypal distinction, and the historical record is that his rhetoric against the well-meant offer tended to militate against the distinction.32

Hoeksema does indeed call God the principle of knowledge (principium congnoscendi). Hoeksema writes,

God is a knowing God. He is not a cold, abstract power, but He is the absolute, perfectly self-conscious, infinite being, who is in Himself the implication of all perfections. When we say that He is a knowing God, we mean that He is the self-sufficient one even in His knowledge. He has no need of anyone, of any being outside of Himself, to be a knowing God. He is not in need of an object of knowledge outside of His own infinite fullness. In Himself He is the subject and object of all knowledge. He is the perfect subject as well as the infinitely perfect object of His own knowledge. When we say that God is the principle of all knowledge of God, we mean thereby that in the deepest sense He is also the principle of all knowledge of Him that is found in the creature.33

In this statement Hoeksema does not teach that man can know God apart from His revelation in Scripture. He denies this very plainly in this section of his Dogmatics. Hoeksema teaches that the triune God is a knowing and speaking God in Himself, but “If nothing more could be said ... there would be no revelation of God, because revelation implies God speaks not only to Himself but also to another outside of Himself. In other words, that there is a being who can receive and understand God’s speech concerning Himself and to Himself is implied in revelation.”34 Hoeksema teaches that man is shut up to revelation for the knowledge of God.

Given the fact Hoeksema denies that man can know God apart from Scripture, it is difficult to understand why Clark would criti­cize him for viewing “God himself as the beginning of knowledge.”

The Reformed faith holds that God is both prior to and the source of revelation. If Hoeksema is speaking about the objective source of man’s knowledge of God, his views are in harmony with Reformed orthodoxy in teaching that the knowledge of God begins with God.

But Hoeksema is not focusing on the objective source of revelation in this section of his Dogmatics. He speaks of God as the subjective principle of knowledge and explains how man comes to the subjective knowledge of God. There must be a subjective work of God in man (especially fallen man) for him to know God. God reveals Himself through Jesus Christ, specifically through the Spirit of Jesus Christ. Without the inward work of Christ’s Spirit, natural man cannot receive the revelation of God. Only the spiritual man can know God—the man who is regenerated by the Spirit of Christ, who comes from God.35 Hoeksema’s teaching that God is the subjective principle of knowledge does not deny that man cannot know God apart from Scripture but is merely recognition of the biblical and Reformed teaching that natural man cannot rightly know the things of God.

The charge that Hoeksema “at one point” merely “nods” at the Creator/creature distinction is absurd. He maintains this distinction in his entire discussion of the knowability of God. The distinction between God and man is maintained by Hoeksema even in the paragraph quoted above, where He calls God the principle of knowledge. In that paragraph Hoeksema affirms that God is uncreated, man is created; God is independent in His knowledge of Himself, man is dependent upon the revelation of God for the knowledge of God; God knows Himself comprehensively, man does not.

Throughout his discussion of the knowability of God, Hoek­sema teaches everything the Reformed orthodox teach about arche­typal and ectypal theology as summarized by Muller. Hoeksema taught the substance of the archetypal and ectypal distinction by teaching the incomprehensibility of God. He taught that God knows Himself perfectly in a way man can never know Him. He teaches that God’s perfect knowledge of Himself is the source of man’s finite knowledge of God. In other words, man can truly know God only as God reveals Himself in a way that is accommodated to the capacity of man as a creature. Hoeksema’s teachings throughout his dogmatics are encapsulated in two paragraphs at the end of his discussion of the knowability of God that must be dealt with if one is going to argue that Hoeksema denies the archetypal/ectypal distinction:

Even as God alone knows himself with an infinitely perfect and eternally self-conscious knowledge, so also he alone is able to impart his knowledge to the creature, that is, to reveal himself. This must not be misunderstood as if there ever could be formed a creature capable of receiving God’s own infinite and eternal knowledge of himself, because such a creature would have to be infinite as God is infinite. 

Rather, revelation consists in that God speaks concerning himself and imparts his knowledge in a form the creature can receive, in a creaturely measure. Behind and beyond the plane of revelation, there must always remain infinite depths of divine glories and perfections that we can never fathom.36

The evidence Clark offers does not support his argument that Hoeksema rejects the substance of the Reformed, orthodox distinc­tion between archetypal and ectypal theology. Herman Hoeksema’s teaching concerning the incomprehensibility of God and the nature of revelation in his Reformed Dogmatics supplies abundant evidence that his views were fully in harmony with the orthodox Reformed teaching concerning man’s knowledge of God. And although Herman Hoeksema did not explicitly affirm the orthodox Reformed concep­tion of archetypal and ectypal theology, it is explicitly affirmed by his theological heirs. I can testify that the distinction was explained and affirmed in the introductory course on dogmatics I took in the Protestant Reformed Theological School.

The Archetypal/Ectypal Distinction Misapplied 

In his essay Dr. Clark demonstrates a confused understanding of archetypal and ectypal theology that is not in harmony with Reformed orthodoxy. Glaring examples of this confusion are found in statements Clark makes about God’s eternal decrees, particularly the decree of election. Clark’s statements about election not only demonstrate that his views are not in harmony with the Reformed conception of the archetypal/ectypal distinction, but also that his views are not in harmony with the Reformed confession concerning election. 

For Clark, the contents of God’s eternal decree of election belong to archetypal theology, while only the fact of the decree belongs to ectypal theology. Here are four pertinent statements:

1. In its defense of the gospel and teaching on the well-meant offer, the Synod of Dort appealed not to the decree, God’s hidden will, or theologia archetypa, but to theologia ectypa, that is, to God’s revealed will and the outworking of the decree in history.37

2. In view of the fact that the number and identity of the elect is a matter of archetypal theology, the divines used the notable adverbs promiscuously and indiscriminately.38

3. In this regard, the approach of Dort is in contrast to that of both the Remonstrants and the modern critics of the well-meant offer. Rather than making deductions from the revealed fact of God’s sovereign eternal decree, the Synod was committed to learn­ing and obeying God’s revealed will, even if it seems paradoxical to us.39

4. The fact of the decree is presupposed in and animates the well-meant offer, but since its contents are archetypal, we are shut up to ectypal theology of which the well-meant offer is correlative.40

For Clark the “hidden decree” of election belongs to archetypal theology. Only the fact of the decree belongs to ectypal theology. Clark does not clearly spell out what he understands by the “fact of the decree.” But he does explain that the identity and number of the elect are not part of the fact of the decree revealed in Scripture. The identity and number of the elect are not and indeed cannot be revealed to man in Scripture or any other way, since it belongs to archetypal theology.

It is astounding that Clark relegates the identity and number of the elect to the realm of archetypal theology. If what Clark says is true, the number and identity of the elect can never be known by individuals or by the church as a whole. Clark’s position stands in clear opposition to the Reformed doctrine of election and also the Reformed concep­tion of the distinction between archetypal and ectypal theology.

It is true that God has not yet revealed to the church on earth the number and identity of the elect. Those who reject the well-meant gospel offer have never claimed they have the ability to know the number and identity of the elect. In fact, it is exactly because the church cannot now know the number and identity of all the elect that the gospel must be preached promiscuously and indiscriminately. But this does not mean that the Reformed faith has ever maintained that the number and identity of the elect cannot and will not ever be known by the church, and the burden of proof is on Clark to demonstrate that it has maintained this to prove his view is Reformed.

We believe that the identity of the elect can be and is revealed by God to the elect and therefore belongs to ectypal theology. Muller’s outline of the Reformed orthodox conception of ectypal theology is helpful at this point. In that outline we find that, according to the Re­formed faith, the knowledge of the blessed in heaven belongs to ectypal theology. For the Reformed faith the identity of the elect is known to the blessed in heaven, meaning the identity of the elect belongs to ectypal theology. The Reformed faith confidently affirms, too, that the identity of the elect belongs to the theology of fallen pilgrims. As individuals the elect are able to identify themselves as elect. Of course, the elect never come to this knowledge rationalistically, apart from the revelation of Jesus Christ in Scripture. And through the revelation of Jesus Christ in Scripture they never peer into the being of God to read their names in the book of life. But rather, through faith in Jesus Christ as He is revealed in Scripture, the elect in this life come to the sure knowledge that they are elect and that their names are written in the book of life.

Assurance of Election Denied

Dr. Clark’s explanation of election is important because it indi­cates how the well-meant gospel offer robs the believer of the assur­ance of election. He even comes close to admitting candidly that the well-meant offer robs the believer of the assurance of election. He writes, “The gospel is not that one is elect ... Rather, the gospel is that whoever ... trusts in Christ’s finished work shall be justified and saved.” Opponents of the well-meant gospel offer (at least those who are not hyper-Calvinists) would agree that the message of the promiscuous preaching of the gospel is not ‘you are elect.’ Yet it is significant that Clark does not say anything about election as part of the content of the gospel at this point. Nowhere in his essay does he include the decree of predestination (including election and reprobation) as part of the content of the gospel. He only identifies the decree as “fundamental to ... the application of redemption” and says this decree “is presup­posed in and animates the well-meant offer.” 

Protestant Reformed preachers would never address all who hear the preaching and say “you are elect.” This is because Protestant Reformed preachers are not hyper-Calvinists, who believe that the gospel is to be preached only to the elect. The Protestant Reformed position, clearly and often expressed, is that the gospel must be preached promiscuously and indiscriminately to elect and reprobate alike. In this sense the Protestant Reformed position agrees with the well-meant-offer theologians that the preacher must not promiscuously preach “you are elect.” But Protestant Reformed preachers will and do say in the preaching, “whoever ... trusts in Christ’s finished work shall be justified and saved” ... and is elect! Protestant Reformed preach­ers, in harmony with the Reformed confessions, preach election and reprobation to provide comfort for God’s elect who believe.41

It is impossible to include election as part of the content of the well-meant offer of the gospel. How can one preach, ‘God loves you all and wants you all to believe so that you all may know you are elect’ to a reprobate, about whom God has said in His eternal decree, “I desire your eternal damnation”? Such preaching would of course be absurd. Therefore the well-meant offer of the gospel is inconsistent with the biblical and confessional demand that the decree of predestination be preached (Canons I:14).

Already we can start to see how Clark’s essay demonstrates the Janus-like character of the well-meant gospel offer. The Reformed face is seen in the confession of an archetypal theology to which belongs a decree of sovereign election. But then the head of the well-meant gospel offer turns and one sees an Arminian face of an ectypal theol­ogy that denies the possibility of knowing one is elect.42

Mixing Sovereign Particular Grace with Resistible Universal Grace

In a sense I have demonstrated in the preceding sections of this article that the well-meant gospel offer, as presented by Clark, shows a Janus-like quality in the way it separates election from the preaching of the gospel. God’s decree to save only some is placed in the realm of unknowable archetypal theology, so that the doctrine of election is not part of the content of preaching, and the assurance of election is not worked in the hearts of believers by the preaching. The one face of archetypal theology, the hidden decree of election, is cut off from the other face of ectypal theology, the revelation of God in Scripture and the preaching of the gospel that He loves all men. In his essay Clark also explains how archetypal theology, the decree of election, is connected to ectypal theol­ogy, the preaching of the gospel and God’s love for all men. Once again, as a true Janus, the well-meant offer of the gospel shows two faces. 

In an attempt to refute “Hoeksema’s characterization of the well-meant offer as schizophrenic,” Dr. Clark writes,

Given the archetypal/ectypal distinction, however, the free or well-meant offer does not contradict absolute predestination, but rather necessarily presupposes its truth. Here the adjective free is of para­mount importance. If the promiscuous and indiscriminate offer of the gospel really were a sort of crypto-Arminianism, of course the gospel offer would no longer be free. As Reformed theology understands the nature of grace, however, if the offer were ultimately conditioned upon the ability of the sinner to respond, then, to quote Paul, “grace would no longer be grace” (Rom. 11:6). The well-meant offer is part of the divinely ordained administration of his decree(s) of predestina­tion and reprobation. The fact of the decree animates the well-meant offer, but since its contents are archetypal, we are shut up to ectypal theology of which the well-meant offer is correlative.43

In this statement Clark presents the Reformed face of the well-meant gospel offer. God does not elect sinners on the basis of their ability to respond to grace, and therefore the salvation offered to all men in the preaching of the gospel is not conditioned upon the sinner’s ability to respond to that grace. The well-meant gospel offer will have nothing to do with the Arminian idea that man has the ability to accept the grace offered in the preaching.

In this same paragraph Dr. Clark reveals the Arminian face of the well-meant offer of the gospel—the ugly face of Arminian universal grace. Dr. Clark focuses on the nature of the grace shown in the well-meant offer, but the first issue that must be settled is the extent of this grace. To whom does God show this grace?

In the decree of election, God’s grace is of course only for the elect. Opponents of the well-meant offer have continually attacked it as a denial of the doctrine of election characteristic of Arminianism because it teaches that God bestows grace upon both the elect and reprobate in the preaching. Hoeksema, for example, after summarizing Prof. Louis Berkhof’s position as teaching that “the grace of God, the love of God for sinners, the pleasure He evinces to save them, does not apply to the elect only, but to all men” writes, “however indignant the professor may appear to be when we accuse him of Arminianism, he certainly proves by his own words that the indictment is well founded.”44

Dr. Clark has come to the rescue of Professor Berkhof, he thinks, with the archetypal/ectypal distinction. Hoeksema did not understand that God’s grace is exclusively for the elect decretively or archetypally, and since the grace of God is for all only preceptively or ectypally, there is no conflict. But Dr. Clark’s rescue attempt fails miserably. In his at­tempt to show how “absolute predestination” and the well-meant offer harmonize with each other, he actually demonstrates that it is impos­sible to build a sort of Chinese wall between God’s hidden grace and election on the one hand, and His revealed grace in the preaching of the gospel on the other. As an aside, Dr. Clark presents the qualifying adjectives “well-meant” and “free” as synonymous, and declares that the unmerited grace of election (“free grace”) is the grace offered in the gospel. They are one and the same. According to Clark, the grace of God in election is presupposed by and animates the well-meant of­fer. Thus, the “well-meant” gospel offer is God’s revelation of a desire to save the elect and reprobate on the basis of the unconditional (free) grace of election. The well-meant gospel offer is indeed a schizophrenic mixture of God’s free grace for the elect alone, with the grace offered to the elect and the reprobate alike in the preaching of the gospel.

The second important issue that must be settled is the power of God’s grace. Dr. Clark focuses on the power or ability of man. But what shall we say about the power of the grace of God shown to the reprobate as a desire to save them when those reprobate perish? Now that Clark has tied the desire of God to save all men in the preaching to God’s eternal grace in election, we see that the well-meant offer teaches that the unconditional grace of God fails to save reprobates who perish—God’s grace is resistible! Hoeksema’s words about Berkhof apply to Clark: “however indignant the professor may appear to be when we accuse him of Arminianism, he certainly proves by his own words that the indictment is well founded.”

By teaching that the grace of God is resistible, the well-meant offer by implication does fall into the Arminian error of making salvation dependent upon the ability of man. If the grace shown in the preach­ing is resistible, then man’s perishing in unbelief is due not to God’s sovereign determination to condemn him but to man’s exercising his power to frustrate God’s desire. The necessary implication is that if a man obtains salvation he does so because he exercises his ability to believe. The well-meant offer defenders may deny that man has the natural ability to accept the offer of salvation. But that does not rule out the idea that man chooses to believe by the power of God’s grace, which means that man’s act, not God’s sovereign decree, is decisive for salvation. The idea that man’s act, assisted by God’s grace, is decisive for salvation is embedded in the well-meant offer. The well-meant offer may not always present a free-will Arminian face, but it always has the face of Arminian conditional salvation.45

Misunderstanding the Reformed Archetypal/Ectypal Distinction 

In the end, Dr. Clark’s misapplication of the archetypal/ectypal distinction is based on a misunderstanding of the distinction. Defend­ers of the well-meant offer have always resorted to the “it’s a paradox” defense in response to the charge that the doctrine teaches that God has two contradictory wills. They deny that there is a flat contradiction between the idea that God loves only some in election and loves all in the preaching of the gospel. This is only a seeming paradox in the minds of men, but it is a completely harmonious truth in the mind of God. Dr. Clark uses the archetypal/ectypal distinction to explain the notion that in Scripture God is able to reveal such a “paradox” that creates “tension” in the minds of men.

Another problem with Dr. Clark’s appeal to the archetypal/ectypal distinction is that his argument works only because he assumes incor­rectly that what he is defending is a paradox in the sense of an appar­ent contradiction rather than a flat contradiction. The charge against the well-meant offer is that it does not teach a paradox but, as Prof. Engelsma writes, it “involves a Calvinist in sheer contradiction. That God is gracious only to some in predestination but gracious to all in the gospel and that God wills only some to be saved in predestination but wills all to be saved by the gospel is flat, irreconcilable contradiction.”46 The point is that the well-meant offer teaches concepts that are not only irreconcilable in the mind of man but are also irreconcilable in the mind of God. Engelsma writes, “I speak reverently: God Himself cannot reconcile these teachings.”47

Dr. Clark’s response would be that the opponents of the well-meant offer make such a charge only because they do not understand the archetypal/ectypal distinction. He seems to believe that the Reformed orthodox used this distinction in order to explain how what man knows from God’s revelation in Scripture conflicts with what God knows in Himself. Clark believes that this is supported by the distinction between what God knows in se or in Himself, archetypal theology, and what God reveals erga nos towards us, ectypal theol­ogy. This distinction is important to Clark because he believes that it demonstrates that there is no contradiction in God’s knowledge in Himself. The discord is between God’s knowledge of Himself and man’s knowledge of God, and the tension created by this discord is only in man, not in God.

It seems Dr. Clark may have overlooked Reformed orthodoxy’s teaching that God’s ectypal theology is first in se, or in Himself, before it is revealed erga nos, or to us. This is a mystery, but the Reformed faith teaches that God eternally determined in se what He would reveal to man. God eternally knows Himself archetypally and ectypally. Muller explains the orthodox Reformed view:

Ectypal theology in se is, thus, the ideal case of communicated the­ology, the accommodated form or mode of the archetype readied in the mind of God for communication to a particular kind of subject, namely, Christ, the blessed, or the redeemed on earth. With the exception of Christ, however, the ideal case will be less than fully realized in the finite order, given the varieties and infirmities of the rational subjects.48

The “tension” of the well-meant gospel offer is not therefore merely between what God knows in Himself and what man knows from God’s revelation. The tension begins in God, where there is discord between how He knows Himself archetypally and ectypally. 

It becomes clear that Dr. Clark brings different terms to the debate—archetypal and ectypal theology—but is simply resorting to the old distinction between God’s hidden and revealed will to dispel the charge that the well-meant offer posits two contradictory wills in God. But this distinction between God’s hidden and revealed wills does not help to explain or mitigate the sheer contradiction involved in the well-meant gospel offer. Prof. Engelsma explains,

But this effort to relieve the tension of the contradiction in which the offer involves Calvinists gets us nowhere. For one thing, the will of God to save only some, not all, is not hidden but revealed. It is found in every page of the Scriptures. It is Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 22:14: God has eternally chosen only some (“few”) to be saved in distinction from the others (“many”). For another thing, the distinction leaves us right where we were before the distinction was invented: God has two, diametrically opposite, conflicting wills.49

The Reformed orthodox used the archetypal/ectypal distinction, not to explain how God’s knowledge of Himself conflicts with the knowledge man has by revelation, but to explain how man cannot know God comprehensively and yet is able to know God truly. The distinction explains that there is harmony between what God knows and what man knows. God is high above man, and therefore man cannot know God comprehensively as He knows Himself. Yet, man knows God truly in ectypal theology. The mystery is that the infinite God is able to accommodate the truth about Himself so that finite man will know the truth about Him. Man can never know that truth apart from revelation. But from revelation man knows God as He knows Himself ectypally (with this difference, of course: that God knows Himself as God, and man knows God as a mere creature).

Without trying to determine whether the Reformed faith teaches that there is an intersect between the mind of God and the mind of man, at the very least it is clear that the Reformed faith teaches that the believing man who knows God ectypally through revelation knows God as He knows Himself. God knows Himself as a God who only ever loves the elect and hates the reprobate. Believers know God as a God who only ever loves the elect and hates the reprobate, not be­cause they have peered behind revelation and seen God’s archetypal or ectypal knowledge directly, but because God has revealed this truth to us through Scripture. 

Reformed orthodoxy confesses that God reveals Himself in an ac­commodated and rational manner. Ironically, Dr. Clark demonstrates the well-meant gospel offer’s rationalistic notion that the Bible is an irrational book. The well-meant offer is not based on the Bible, for the Bible does not teach that God loves all men. Perhaps this means that those who affirm the well-meant offer have, to use Clark’s language, sought to gain knowledge through an illegitimate intersection of the human mind with the mind of God. Whether that is true or not, the theory of the well-meant offer does not come from Scripture but was invented by the rationalistic minds of men.


Introducing the archetypal/ectypal into the well-meant offer debate re­ally does not resolve the debate at all. Dr. Clark’s essay seems more like an attempt to steer clear of the debate or transcend the debate by simply ruling the arguments of Protestant Reformed theologians out of order, than to deal forthrightly with the Protestant Reformed objections to the teaching of the well-meant gospel offer. Since he has failed to prove that the Protestant Reformed approach to Scripture is unbiblical and un-Reformed, the Protestant Reformed arguments against the well-meant gospel offer stand. If Dr. Clark wants to move the debate forward, he will have to attempt to refute the theological arguments of Herman Hoeksema, Gordon Clark, and their theological descendants.

The theology of Herman Hoeksema and his spiritual descendants has once again withstood the charge that it is in error. Protestant Reformed theology is in agreement with the Reformed orthodox conception of the archetypal and ectypal distinction. The charge of rationalism or a failure to view Scripture as accommodated language is invalid. And, far from agreeing with Arminianism, Protestant Reformed theology sharply condemns all of the doctrinal errors of Arminianism—especially conditional election, and universal but resistible grace. 

The well-meant gospel offer is un-Reformed. Dr. Clark’s at­tempt to prove its Reformed pedigree has failed. If his presentation of the well-meant gospel offer is representative of the views of other Reformed and Presbyterian proponents of the doctrine, it is clear that they do not understand the Reformed orthodox conception of the arch/ectypal distinction. The well-meant offer is not a correlative of Re­formed theology. It is entangled instead with Arminian theology—a theology that invariably denies the sovereignty of God’s grace. The well-meant offer, as Clark presents it, still has two faces.



1. R. Scott Clark, “Janus, the Well-Meant Offer of the Gospel, and West­minster Theology,” in The Pattern of Sound Doctrine, ed. David VanDrunen (Phillipsburg, Penn.: P&R Publishing, 2004), 149-179.

2. Clark, “Janus,” 154. Clark writes, “The controversy over the ‘Three Points’ of 1924 and the Clark case (1944-48) were concerned with the prob­lem of hyper-Calvinism).” The Clark case to which Clark referred dealt with the teachings of Gordon Clark in the OPC. For a response to R. Scott Clark’s essay from a disciple of Gordon Clark, see Sean Gerety, Janus Alive and Well: Dr. R. Scott Clark and the Well-Meant Offer of the Gospel, per­haps most easily accessible on the Internet at www.godshammer.wordpress.com/2011/05/02janus-alive-and-well-dr-r-scott-clark-and-the-well-meant-offer-of-the-gospel/ (viewed 3/2/2012).

3. Clark, “Janus,” 174.

4. Clark is probably referring to John Murray and Ned Stonehouse’s 1948 pamphlet, The Free Offer of the Gospel. In 1957 Herman Hoeksema responded to this pamphlet in a series of articles entitled “The Free Offer” in the Standard Bearer, no. 33: 9, 11-17, 20, 21. In 1973-1974, Prof. Homer Hoeksema responded to the arguments of Murray and Stonehouse in a series of articles entitled “The OPC and the ‘Free Offer’” in the Standard Bearer, no. 49: 12, 15-17, 20, 21; no. 50: 3, 4, 6-9, 13, 15. Prof. Homer Hoeksema took the time to analyze and criticize the interpretation of every passage Murray and Stonehouse included in their pamphlet.

5. David Engelsma, Hyper-Calvinism & the Call of the Gospel, 2nd edi­tion (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Reformed Free Publishing Association, 1994). The purpose of Engelsma’s book is to defend the Protestant Reformed Churches from the charge of hyper-Calvinism, so he does not give a thorough critique of Murray and Stonehouse’s exegesis. Nevertheless, he does refute some of their interpretations of Scripture (see, for example pp. 176-177). 

6. Clark, “Janus,” 149.

7. Clark, “Janus,” 149.

8. Clark, “Janus,” 152.

9. Clark, “Janus,” 152.

10. Herman Hoeksema, A Triple Breach in the Foundation of the Reformed Truth: A Critical Treatise on the “Three Points” adopted by the Synod of the Christian Reformed Churches in 1924 (reprint 1992, Grandville, Mich.: Evangelism Committee of the Southwest Protestant Reformed Church), 24.

11. Clark, “Janus,” 153.

12. The irony of Dr. Clark’s essay is that it attempts to refute the charge that the well-meant gospel offer is an Arminian doctrine even though Armin­ians affirm the doctrine. 

13. Clark, “Janus,” 154.

14. Clark, “Janus,” 177.

15. Clark, “Janus,” 177.

16. Clark argues that the well-meant gospel offer theologians are “fol­lowing the tradition” in affirming that “God is ... free to reveal himself as desiring certain things that he also reveals that he has not willed decretively.” In this same section he places God’s desire for the salvation of the reprobate in God’s preceptive will. Pp. 176-177.

17. Clark, “Janus,” 174.

18. See, for example, Clark, “Janus,” 154 and 177.

19. Clark, “Janus,” 164.

20 Clark, “Janus,” 164.

21. Clark, “Janus,” 160.

22. Clark, “Janus,” 161.

23. Richard A. Muller, Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics: The Rise and Development of Reformed Orthodoxy, ca. 1520 to ca. 1725, no. 1 Pro­legomena to Theology, 2nd edition (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Academic, 2003), 229-238.

24. Muller, Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics, 229.

25. Muller, Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics, 231.

26. Muller, Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics, 231.

27. Muller, Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics, 232.

28. Muller, Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics, 235.

29. Muller, Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics, 235. The content of the outline is from Muller, the form of the outline is mine.

30. Muller, Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics, 230.

31. Quoted in Clark, “Janus, the Well-Meant Offer,” 161.

32. Clark, “Janus,” 161. Clark offers as an example of Hoeksema’s rhetoric against the archetypal/ectypal distinction Hoeksema’s pamphlet Predestination Revealed not Hidden nor Confused (Grand Rapids: The Radio Committee of the First Protestant Reformed Church, 1948). Hoeksema speaks against the well-meant offer in this pamphlet, but there is no evidence that he speaks against the archetypal/ectypal distinction. Clark seems to be assuming what he needs to prove—that the rejection of the well-meant offer is rejection of the archetypal/ectypal distinction. It is ironic that Clark offers as an example of Hoeksema’s supposedly Arminian rationalism a pamphlet in which Hoek­sema exegetes Romans 9 in a solidly Reformed way that would appall any Arminian. I for one would like to know if Clark agrees with Hoeksema’s exegesis.

33. Herman Hoeksema, Reformed Dogmatics, 2nd edition, no. 1 (Grand­ville, Mich.: Reformed Free Publishing Association, 2004), 23-24.

34. Hoeksema, Reformed Dogmatics, 26-27.

35. Hoeksema, Reformed Dogmatics, 32. Hoeksema’s explanation of how God was the subjective principle of knowledge before man’s fall into sin is found on pages 27-28. His explanation of how God is the subjective principle of knowledge after man’s fall into sin is found on pages 28-32. On page 32 he writes, “Only the spiritual man can distinguish, discern, and judge of the spiritual things, for he has the Spirit of God, through whom he is brought into contact with the hidden mystery of God, the new speech. While the spiritual man discerns these things and speaks or witnesses of them, he himself is a mystery to the natural man and is discerned by no one. The conclusion is that only he who has the mind of Christ can know the mind of the Lord and that only he who has the Spirit of Christ can know his mind (reference is made to 1 Cor. 2:10-16).” A little later, on the same page, he writes, “Centrally, then, the Spirit of Christ himself is the subjective principle of knowledge; insofar as the church becomes co-worker with Christ through faith, in the Spirit, that faith is the principle by which the church hears and reproduces the speech of God.”

36. Hoeksema, Reformed Dogmatics, 60.

37. Clark, “Janus,” 165. Clark’s contention here and elsewhere that the Canons teach the well-meant offer is wrong. For the right explanation of the teaching of the Canons see Engelsma, Hyper-Calvinism ...

38. Clark, “Janus,” 166.

39. Clark, “Janus,” 174.

40. Clark, “Janus,” 175.

41. Reprobation is also part of the content of Protestant Reformed preach­ing, not because the preacher knows who the reprobate are, but because God uses such preaching as a key power to harden the reprobate and shut them out of the kingdom of heaven. On the flip side, preaching reprobation is beneficial for the elect, as the Canons teach us in I:15, because it “peculiarly tends to illustrate and recommend to us the eternal and unmerited grace of election.” It is striking that Clark mentions reprobation but does not attempt to explain its connection to the well-meant gospel offer. 

42. Dr. Clark would certainly object to this argument by pointing out that he is in agreement with Canons I:12’s teaching that the elect obtain assurance of election in this life. Nevertheless, his confession that the elect obtain as­surance of their election is inconsistent with his presentation of archetypal theology.

43. Clark, “Janus,” 174-175. “Schizophrenic” is Clark’s word.

44. Hoeksema, A Triple Breach, 26.

45. Proponents of the well-meant offer deny that it implies free will. But Prof. Engelsma points to the history of the CRC in which early proponents of the well-meant offer also denied this, only to be followed by later theologians who moved in the direction of free-will. Engelsma warns that this is the logi­cal development of the well-meant offer, writing, “In the meantime, before there is official adoption of free will, free will is widely preached and taught in Reformed churches. When ministers practice the [well-meant] offer of the gospel, proclaiming to their hearers that God loves them all, desires the salvation of everybody, and now offers them salvation, they are telling the people that salvation depends upon man’s decision for Christ.” Engelsma, Hyper-Calvinism, 54.

46. Engelsma, Hyper-Calvinism, 116-117.

47. Engelsma, Hyper-Calvinism, 117.

48. Muller, Post-Reformation, 235-236.

49. Engelsma, Hyper-Calvinism, 117-118.


  1. https://godshammer.wordpress.com/2011/05/02/janus-alive-and-well-dr-r-scott-clark-and-the-well-meant-offer-of-the-gospel/

  2. A well argued essay. Thx for making the issue so clear and removing the fog surrounding the Well-Meant Offer.