Professor Engelsma's Response to Hyde's Book, "Grace Worth Fighting For..."

Daniel R. Hyde, Grace Worth Fighting For: Recapturing the Vision of God’s Grace in the Canons of Dort. Lincoln, NE: Davenant Trust, 2019. Pp. x + 421. $24.95 soft. Reviewed by David J. Engelsma

The book is a thorough commentary on the Canons of Dordt. The introduction provides an interesting, informative account of the history leading up to and surrounding the synod that drew up and adopted the Canons. Hyde is at pains to ground the doctrine of the Canons in the theology of the early, and even medieval, church. He especially often refers to, and quotes, Augustine in connection with the article of the Canons under consideration. Surprising is Hyde’s repeated effort to demonstrate the concurrence of Dordt with Aquinas, of all authorities. Instructive is Hyde’s quotation of the annotations, or comments on Scripture passages, in the Bible that Dordt authorized.

Although sound, and learned, with regard to the teaching of many of the articles, the commentary leaves something important to be desired. That something can be expressed by the judgment that the commentary is as sound as can be given by an adherent to the Christian Reformed Church’s and United Reformed Churches’ doctrine of common grace, especially the theory of a well-meant offer of salvation. Although (as a minor wonder) Hyde, a theologian in the United Reformed Churches, never explicitly proposes and launches a defense of the theory of common grace, the doctrine nevertheless seriously weakens and mars his explanation of the creed that more than any other condemns the heresy of Arminianism, and, therefore, also the well-meant offer, and defends the Reformed confession of the gospel of sovereign grace. At every crucial point in the commentary, the well-meant offer affects adversely, if it does not control, the explanation.

This is a fatal fault in a commentary on the Canons. This compromising of the doctrine spoils the understanding of the Reformed faith of the many who undoubtedly will read the commentary as an authoritative exposition of the Reformed faith. In addition, it simply weakens the force of the single most powerful weapon in the Reformed arsenal in the life-and-death warfare of the Reformed faith, that is, Christian orthodoxy, with the Arminian heresy.

As was inevitable, the compromise begins already in Head One on predestination. Into the Canons’ confession of particular, sovereign love, for the elect and for the elect only, Hyde injects his notion of an inefficacious love of God for all humans without exception: “God loves the world of fallen humanity” (61). Hyde thinks to redeem this contradiction of Head One of the Canons by quickly adding, “but most specially, God loves his peculiar people whom he takes out of the world.” But his appeal to John 3:16 in support of his assertion that God loves “the world of humanity,” which text teaches a saving love in the Son of God, commits Hyde to a doctrine of a (would-be) saving love in Jesus Christ for all humans without exception (60).

Recognizing his fatal compromise of Dordt’s doctrine of the love of God for the elect alone, in an explanation of the very head of doctrine that contends for particular love, Hyde becomes defensive: “This love for…humanity is not sufficiently expressed by Reformed believers today out of fear of sounding ‘Arminian’” (60). The truth is that among Reformed churches today, this supposed love of God for all humanity, on the basis of John 3:16, reigns virtually supreme. Almost none has any fear whatever of sounding Arminian by the embrace of a universal, would-be saving love of God for all humans. It is as rare as the proverbial “hen’s tooth” to find a church or a theologian that denies a love of God for all humans without exception, on the basis of John 3:16, which passage in fact teaches the saving love of God in Jesus Christ.

As is always the case with treatments of the Reformed doctrine of predestination that are fearful of the doctrine, if not offended by it, Hyde’s weakness regarding this fundamental truth of Scripture comes to the fore in his explanation of the Canons’ confession of reprobation (Canons, 1.15). Hyde begins his explanation by casting doubt on the confession of a “double predestination” (109). He further thinks to weaken Dordt’s confession by referring to many, differing opinions about reprobation on the part of different Reformed theologians. This, of course, is completely beside the point. The issue is not whether Berkhof and Hoeksema differed in their theology in their understanding of the decree of reprobation. The issue is Dordt’s official doctrine for all Reformed churches and theologians.

Hyde gives no clear definition of reprobation in light of Canons, 1.15. He offers no ringing defense of the doctrine. His discussion of the doctrine indicates that he is embarrassed by the Canons’ strong confession of reprobation. When he does describe the truth of reprobation, he errs grievously. Again and again, he describes reprobation as God’s leaving sinners in their unbelief and other sins. The closest that Hyde comes to defining reprobation, in the section headed “Reprobation Defined,” is his statement, “those not elected he ‘passively’ left in their sins” (110). If one, like the Canons, views reprobation as a divine bypassing of some particular persons in the decree of election, he must still understand reprobation as the eternal decree bypassing some. That Hyde deliberately refuses to define reprobation as the divine, eternal decree ordaining some to damnation is evident from what he immediately adds: “he then actively decreed their ultimate condemnation because of their sin” (110). Reprobation now is a decree to condemn some sinners, “because of their sin.” Nothing is left of the offensive doctrine of Canons, 1.15: a decree ordaining some to damnation, which decree is not on account of their sins, but on account of the sovereign freedom of God. According to Romans 9:18, “whom he will he hardeneth.” I very much doubt whether James Arminius would have objected to Hyde’s “definition” and compromising explanation of reprobation.

Reinforcing this view of reprobation, supposedly as taught by Canons, 1:15, Hyde writes: “We speak of God passively and indirectly withholding grace in his passing by others. Only then do we speak of him actively giving those in sin the condemnation they deserve” (113). Hyde finds it impossible to describe, much less to define, reprobation as the “divine, eternal, and unconditional decree appointing some particular persons to eternal damnation, whether now the decree “passively” passes some by, or actively “ordains” some. Reprobation is not on account of, that is, conditioned by, sin. Before he was born and had done any evil, Esau was reprobated by God (Rom. 9:10-13). Condemnation is on account of sin; reprobation is on account of the sovereign freedom of God.

Election and reprobation are one decree. If reprobation is conditional, so also is election conditional. If election is conditional, it is not gracious. And if election is not gracious, nothing of salvation is gracious. For election is the source of all salvation: “Election is the fountain of every saving good” (Canons, 1.9).

Because reprobation is one decree with election, there can be no falsifying or weakening of reprobation without a falsifying or weakening also of election. By this time, the history of theological development ought to have warned Reformed churches of this ironclad law of apostasy.

The same compromise of predestination appears in Hyde’s exposition of the second head of the Canons, regarding definite, particular, limited atonement. Almost at once, in explanation of Canons, 2.3—an article on the atonement of Christ—Hyde declares that “God’s ‘will/desire’” for the salvation of sinners applies to “every human person” (175). In keeping with this will of God for the salvation of all humans, according to Hyde, Canons, 2.8—the main article on the atonement:

does not deny a love of God for the nonelect at least in some sense, a general sense in which Christ is Redeemer of the world, nor did it deny a “complex-intention” view in which Christ died for the elect while also making the nonelect “redeemable” (195).

This, on the article in the Canons that not only does not say a word that either expresses or implies either a love of God for the reprobate in any sense whatever or the death of Christ for the reprobate in any sense whatever, but rather limits the atonement of Christ to the “elect” and to the elect “only”!

Contrary to Hyde’s compromising of Canons, 2.8—the main article on the atonement, there is no love in Canons, 2.8 for the “nonelect” (Hyde’s favorite name for the reprobate) in any sense whatever; in the context of Hyde’s assertion of a love of God for the reprobate in the cross of Christ, there is no general sense in which Christ is the Redeemer of the world; and there is no “complex-intention” view (whatever this non-theological, philosophical, confusing phrase may mean) taught by Canons, 2.8 in which Christ’s death made the reprobate “redeemable.”

Concerning this last, that is, the reprobates’ being “redeemable,” are they then also “predestinationable?” Are they also “conversionable?” Are they also “preservationable?” And is this nonsense, the only purpose of which is to placate Arminians, if not to bring the Reformed faith into some kind of agreement with the Arminian doctrine of universal atonement, making it less offensive to these deniers of the cross of Christ, the confession of Canons, 2.8?

As is to be expected, Hyde’s weakness with regard to predestination, and then with regard to the atonement, has its effect also on the doctrine of the call of the gospel and the conversion of elect sinners in Heads 3&4 of the Canons. Hyde rejects the explanation of Canons, 3&4.8, that “God does not intend or will the salvation of the reprobate” (254). The implication is Hyde’s defense of the doctrine that God does intend or will the salvation of the reprobate. Hyde extends the saving promise of eternal life to all who hear the gospel, disregarding that Canons, 3&4.8 restricts the promise “to as many as shall come to Him and believe on Him.” “As many as shall come to Him” is restrictive of the promise. If God promises eternal life to all who hear the gospel, one of two things is true. Either the promise is inefficacious, or it is conditional. In either case, the implication is that the conversion and salvation of the sinner depend on the will of the sinner. And this, in fact, is exactly the heresy on account of which the Synod of Dordt assembled.

Closely connected with these compromises of the fundamental doctrines of Dordt is the failure of the book to live up to its title. The title promises a book that “fights” for the Dordtian doctrines. What kind of warfare can be expected from an author who begins by judging Arminius as a “humble and godly man who did not seek controversy” (15). Hyde carefully, but clearly, suggests that Arminius was “just as godly as the heroes we praise” (16). Mirabile dictu, we are told that Arminius desired peace. If this is, indeed, the case, those who troubled God’s Israel in the great conflict of 1618/1619 must have been the delegates to the Synod of Dordt.

In keeping with his estimation of “godly” Arminius, Hyde informs us that his—Hyde’s—polemics is an engagement with “our Arminian friends” (349). Hyde’s avowed religious friendship with the Arminians explains his otherwise puzzling tactics throughout the book. Invariably, either in the course of his treatment of the doctrines of the Canons or even at the very beginning of the treatment, Hyde is at pains to assert the oneness in important respects of Arminianism and the Calvinism of the Canons. This tactic, which is revelatory concerning Hyde’s theology, as also his notion of “fighting,” is especially prominent at the opening of his consideration of the Arminian doctrine of the falling away of the saints—their “fifth point” of doctrine. “As with all the original Remonstrant articles we’ve seen before, the Reformed agree in many things in this fifth point” (299).

Regardless how craftily the Arminians couched their denial of God’s preservation of his saints, they believed and taught the falling away of saints—the possibility and reality that those who once were born again and saved fall away from Christ and perish everlastingly. Dordt knew this. Hyde knows this. Good polemics, the “fighting” that is required for the defense of the gospel, does not begin by affirming agreement between Arminianism and Calvinism, but by asserting fundamental difference, even though Arminianism attempted to disguise its heresy, as heresy always does.

The same reprehensible lack of a genuine “fighting” spirit is evident in Hyde’s refusal to condemn Luther’s and Lutheranism’s false doctrine of a falling away of saints. Luther’s grievous error was due to his erroneous doctrine of the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper. As was basically his doctrine of the Supper, Luther taught a saving work of God in the administration of the sacrament of Baptism in everyone to whom the sacrament was administered. As an instance of great men erring greatly, Luther taught the regeneration of every baptized person by the application of the water of Baptism. The sign of the sacrament has an inherently saving effect upon all who receive the sign. It regenerates. This implies the falling away of some who were regenerated at Baptism. Rather than to condemn this false doctrine and sharply to distinguish the Reformed doctrine from it, as does the Canons (which would mean restricting the grace of the sacrament to the elect infants), Hyde concludes that “the differences between Lutheran and Reformed…are more verbal than substantive” (307, 308).

The introduction to the commentary is dismissive of the fundamental importance of the Canons and its doctrines. As becomes increasingly popular in our day, Hyde is at pains to contend that the Reformed faith is far more than the five points of the Canons, which is true. Thus, however, the importance of the five points of grace in the Canons is diminished. What Hyde ought to have emphasized, especially in a commentary on the Canons, is that without the five points there is neither a Reformed, nor a Christian, faith. The Reformed faith is not only the five points; but it is not less, or other, than the five points. And as the doctrine of salvation, the five points are especially the Reformed faith.

Daniel R. Hyde’s commentary on one of the most polemical of all the Christian church’s creeds leaves much to be desired regarding all-out, no-holds-barred, to-the-death fighting. Since the Arminian heresy is the threat to the gospel in our day, as it was in 1618/1619 and since Arminianism in its various forms is committed to total warfare with the Reformed faith, this weakness is serious, indeed, fatal.

Perhaps, Hyde has exhausted himself by his ongoing, all-out, no-holds-barred, to-the-death tilting at the windmill of hyper-Calvinism.

Featured Posts