07 February, 2017

The Debate with Rev. Andrew Stewart

Commencing with my objections to his sermon on Isaiah 55:1–3, my debate on the subject of the free offer of the gospel with Rev. Andrew Stewart was both precursory to and contemporaneous with the debate with the RPC as a whole. The relevance of my personal controversy with Andrew Stewart is to be found in the fact that his arguments in defence of free offer doctrine largely represent the arguments used by the denomination, and the arguments used by the reputedly conservative Reformed and Presbyterian church world today in defence of this doctrine. Consequently, I begin my account of the issues involved in the controversy by outlining the main areas of dispute between Rev. Andrew Stewart and myself.

1. The Question of Knowledge

In his response to my article, Stewart made a number of preliminary remarks, one of which belongs in the realm of epistemology (the theory of knowledge). What he wrote there is indicative of a position to which he would return frequently during the controversy.1 That position is essentially that dogmatic statements, being of human origin, can never authoritatively state what is infinite, namely, the attributes of God. His argument can be stated this way: dogmatic statements cannot authoritatively state what is infinite; God is infinite; therefore dogmatic statements cannot authoritatively state God. Rev. Andrew Stewart goes on to say that we must proceed with great humility, balance, and a sense of the wonder of God’s grace which, he opines, cannot be reduced to the level of human logic.

It must be said immediately that these sentiments are by no means the least of the problems raised by Rev. Andrew Stewart’s theology of the gospel offer. Upon reflection over the last eighteen years, I have come to the conviction that one’s view of the nature of the knowledge of God lies at the very heart of the gospel offer controversy. It is well to recognize the context of Stewart’s view that human statements of belief about God (statements of dogma) can never be definitive. That context is the aberrant epistemology of the twentieth-century theologians Herman Dooyeweerd and Cornelius Van Til. Especially Van Til’s thinking was formative in reputedly conservative Reformed and Presbyterian circles.

Dooyeweerd taught that there was a “boundary” that existed between God and the world, so that the laws of logic which apply below the boundary do not apply to God. In a similar vein, Van Til developed his concept of “analogical knowledge,” meaning that all human knowledge can only ever be a representation of God’s knowledge. In this view, there is no defined point of contact between God’s knowledge and man’s knowledge; there is never an identity between God’s knowledge of Himself and our knowledge of Him. Hence, propositions cannot have the same meaning for God as they do for man, with the result that propositional knowledge of God ultimately becomes impossible.

Regarding his view of the knowledge of God, Rev. Andrew Stewart is a good disciple of Dr. Van Til. He is such both in his stated belief that to hold both double predestination and the well-meant gospel offer is “an apparent contradiction” or “paradox”; and he is such also in his stated view that we may not and cannot apply the laws of logic to the Being of God. Hence, Stewart does not like definitive theological statements; he severely criticized me for stating categorically and dogmatically that God cannot both love and hate the same person at the same time. For Andrew Stewart, that is an application of “mere human logic” to the truth about God. In his view, the truth about God always eludes our logical categories and it is the part of a true Christian humility to let the doctrine of a love of God for all men stand in tension with the truth of sovereign reprobation. This position represents a denial of the sufficiency of Scripture. According to Stewart, these two conflicting doctrines are taught in Scripture. But since Scripture is the revealed will of God, if it contains contradictions, then it is unclear, and if unclear, it cannot be sufficient.

Rev. Andrew Stewart’s position is self-contradictory: he has to use logic in order to disparage logic. His position is that God’s attributes cannot be reduced to the level of human logic. In his opinion, I am guilty of so doing. Yet it is only on the basis of logic that he can say I am wrong. Obviously, we cannot both be right at the same time; that would be a denial of the law of non-contradiction. Rev. Andrew Stewart wants to deny logic only when it suits him, which means that he wants to deny logic when it exposes his false doctrine.

2. Unconstrained Mercy and the Nature of God

In his statement of the nature of divine mercy, Rev. Andrew Stewart attempts to refute my position that a grace of God for all men in the gospel is utterly incompatible with the Reformed doctrine of reprobation. My position was that double predestination makes the grace of God in the gospel particular to the elect. His solution to the obvious incompatibility between reprobation and a grace of God for all in the gospel is what he calls “God’s pure and unconstrained mercy.” For Stewart, unconstrained mercy explains how God may choose to “bestow temporary tokens of mercy” on those who finally perish in their sins. In other words, God is merciful to the reprobate in this life—the free offer of the gospel being one of the temporary tokens of mercy—but withdraws his mercy from them at death and plunges them into hell.

With all supporters of the free offer, Rev. Andrew Stewart makes an unfounded assumption here: that the preaching of the gospel is always and everywhere a token of God’s favour to every hearer. But this is simply not the case. Scripture is clear that it will be worse for those who hear and reject the gospel than for those who never heard it. This is clear, for example, from Jesus’ words in Matthew 11:20-24. The point is that the greater the light we have, the greater our guilt and the sorer our punishment if we reject it. Consequently, for the reprobate to hear the gospel and reject it, and for them to receive many good gifts such as food, health and houses, and be unthankful makes their punishment sorer. So, one must ask, how is it that greater guilt and sorer punishment can be favour? Such is a strange favour indeed!

Obviously, feeling the tension in his theology between predestination and a temporary mercy of God toward those whom he calls “the non-elect,” Rev. Andrew Stewart repairs to the infinity of God for his refuge. He claims that God in his infinite mind is capable of hating and loving at the same time. What he means by this is that God both loves and hates a man at one and the same time. That is simply a contradiction. Such a view is a denial of the attribute of God’s simplicity. The doctrine of God’s simplicity means that God is one and undivided in His Being. Although we speak of and distinguish individual attributes of God, it is nevertheless true that his attributes are all one in Him. Hence, God’s simplicity means God always acts consistently with His nature; God is always in harmony with Himself; there is no tension in the Being of God. The very thought is utter blasphemy. He is the one, perfectly blessed, incomparable God, unto whom be glory forever. Even in human relationships do we not regard consistency as a virtue? That we do is a reflection of the eternal and self-existent Jehovah, who as the I AM THAT I AM simply is. Jehovah God is never anything other than what He is. Hence, to will opposite things, such as is ascribed to Him by Stewart, is impossible for God, as Job declares, “He is in one mind, and who can turn him?” (Job 23:13). God’s will is God and so His will is one and undivided; you obviously cannot say this about one who wills both A and not A at the same time: God is not the great schizophrenic!

3. The Appeal to Mystery

The attempt to overcome the obvious contradiction embodied in the doctrine of the free offer of the gospel, namely, that God is gracious towards many whom He hates and has eternally decreed to destruction, by appealing to “paradox” or “mystery” has been made repeatedly over the last century. It has characterized the thinking of the Christian Reformed Church in N. America for the last century. As may be seen from the following quotation, the appeal to mystery was part of John Murray’s defence of the free offer of the gospel:

We have found that God himself expresses an ardent desire for the fulfilment of certain things which he has not decreed in his inscrutable counsel to come to pass. This means that there is a will to the realization of what he has not decretively willed a pleasure towards that which he has not been pleased to decree. This is indeed mysterious, and why he has not brought to pass, in the exercise of his omnipotent power and grace, what is his ardent pleasure lies hid in the sovereign counsel of his will. We should not entertain, however, any prejudice against the notion that God desires or has pleasure in the accomplishment of what he does not decretively will.2

Such a position is euphemistically called a mystery. It is not a mystery; it is a bald contradiction. It has God willing what He does not will and having a pleasure toward that for which He has no pleasure. The attempt to get around this clear contradiction by making the distinction between God’s decretive and preceptive wills is mere sophistry. The preceptive or revealed will of God is the rule of man’s duty, not the rule of what God is going to do. The distinction is therefore bogus and Murray still ends up with two contradictory wills in God.

The appeal to mystery as a defence of the free offer of the gospel figured large in Rev. Andrew
Stewart’s attempts to answer my denial of the doctrine. He repeatedly stated that the doctrine of double predestination and that of the free offer—that in the preaching of the gospel God expresses a sincere desire for the salvation of all who hear including the reprobate—must be allowed to stand together. At this point, according to Stewart, we stand before a profound mystery. We cannot and may not even attempt to reconcile these teachings of double predestination and a love of God expressed to all in the preaching of the gospel. To do so is to make oneself guilty of rationalism. This is a serious charge and it is one that Rev. Andrew Stewart leveled against me in our final correspondence.

The sentiments of Rev. Andrew Stewart with respect to the teaching of a double will in God, the use of human logic, and his appeal to mystery as a defence of the free offer are echoed in a voice from the past:

When He has revealed something to us in His word having to do with the dispensation of His will towards men, it is not our business to explore this in order to see whether or not this puts two wills in God which are opposed as if His nature were something which could be comprehended by our understandings. His nature is an abyss which not only men’s spirits, but even the intelligence of angels, cannot thoroughly examine … No, my brethren, when on the one hand the Word of God will teach me that He has reprobated some and consigned them to eternal punishment, and that on the other hand this same Word will teach me that God wills all men to be saved, that He invites them to repent, that He extends his arms to them, that He goes before them and calls them with a lively voice … although my reason found there some things which seemed to be in conflict, although whatever effort that I exert I am not able to harmonize nor reconcile them, still I will not fail to hold these two doctrines as true. Nor will I undertake to resolve the opposition of these two wills of God which seem so repugnant.3

The words are those of Moses Amyraut. Interesting, to say the least.


1. I contacted Rev. Andrew Stewart on two occasions seeking permission to quote from his correspondence. Since I received no reply, I do not feel at liberty to quote him directly; I do, however, feel at liberty to refer to his stated positions.

2. John Murray and Ned B. Stonehouse, The Free Offer of the Gospel (www.opc.org/GA/free_offer.html).

3. Moses Amyraut quoted in Brian G. Armstrong, Calvinism and the Amyraut Heresy (The University of Wisconsin Press, 1969).

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