In definition of the decree or decrees of God, the Westminster Confession (1647) maintains that “God from all eternity did, by the most wise and holy counsel of his own will, freely and unchangeably ordain whatsoever comes to pass; yet so as thereby neither is God the author of sin, nor is violence offered to the will of the creatures, nor is the liberty or contingency of secondary causes taken away, but rather established” (chap. III).
The decree of God is thus equivalent to the effective resolve or purpose, grounded in his free wisdom, by which God eternally controls his creation. It refers not merely to predestination to salvation or perdition, but to all God’s action in creation and direction of the world. As the Shorter Catechism puts it, “the decrees of God are his eternal purpose according to the counsel of his will, whereby, for his own glory, he hath foreordained whatsoever comes to pass” (ques. 7).
Important details are to be noted. First, the decrees are eternal, and are not therefore subject to temporal conditions nor variable in the light of changing situations. Second, they accord with God’s wisdom, and cannot therefore be dismissed as the capricious decisions of naked sovereignty. Third, they allow for secondary wills and causes, so that they are not a mere fate, nor deterministic nexus, nor Islamic will. Fourth, they serve God’s good pleasure, and therefore are neither meaningless nor discordant with the righteous love which characterizes God and redounds to his glory.
The reference of the decrees is specifically to creation, providence, and election. “God executeth his decrees in the works of creation and providence” (Shorter Catechism, ques. 8). “By the decree of God some angels and men are predestinated unto eternal life, and others foreordained to everlasting death” (Confession, III, 3). In this respect, Westminster follows Calvin’s Institutes, which speak both of the general decrees of God (I, 17–18) and then of his special decree of election (III, 22–24). Within the same understanding, the order of the decrees formed the subject of the great infralapsarian-supralapsarian debate of the seventeenth century, the one party ranging the decree of election after the decrees of creation and the fall (within God’s providential ordering), the other ascribing priority to the decree of predestination. From the order of treatment, both Calvin and Westminster tend to the infralapsarian view, which implies a logical succession of decrees rather than a primary decree subserved by others. This emerges more clearly in the Catechism.
At the same time, there is an obvious hesitation to use the plural even at Westminster. Strictly, indeed, the Confession speaks only of the decree of God, and the real theme of Chapter VI is quickly seen to be predestination. This is more consonant with the earlier Reformation tradition, as may be seen from statements such as the Belgic Confession (1561, Art. XVI), the Thirty-Nine Articles (1563, Art. XVII), and even Dort (1619) with its reference to the one decree of election and reprobation grounded in the divine good pleasure. Obviously this does not mean a negating of the sovereignty of God in creation and providence. It does not imply that the decree of God cannot be multiple and varied in operation. It suggests, however, that there is a higher right in supralapsarianism so long as it is not artificially entangled in temporal conceptions. The purpose or decree of God is ultimately one, namely, the establishment of gracious covenant and fellowship with a chosen people as fulfilled in the saving work of Christ. Necessarily the basic decree carries with it other general or detailed decrees, just as the unity of God includes a wealth of perfections. In itself, however, it is one and supreme. Hence it is perhaps better to keep to the singular of Westminster and the earlier confessions, not ranging creation, providence, and so forth, under a wider genus “decree,” but interpreting them in relation to the “eternal and immutable decree from which all our salvation springs and depends” (Scots Confession, 1560, Art. VII).
But is it right even to use the term “decree” in this context? As in the opening definition, it obviously has to be carefully safeguarded to prevent misunderstanding. In the Bible it is used for the most part of the arbitrary, inflexible, and often vexatious orders of despotic rulers rather than the resolve of God. Perhaps this underlies the sparing use, often in verb form, in the earlier confessions. It is hardly conceivable that, for example, the Helvetic or Gallican Confessions, or the Heidelberg Catechism, should devote a special section to the divine decree or decrees. On the other hand, the term seems in practice to be unavoidable. It turns up in almost every document. Even the Remonstrants refer to God’s “eternal and immutable decree” in their first Article (1610), and more blatantly Arminian statements only limit the range of the divine decree, for example, that “God does not decree all events which he knows will occur” (Free Will Baptist Confession, 1834). Similarly, the Lutheran Formula of Concord (1576) distinguishes between foreknowledge and foreordination (Art. XI, 1), but in relation to predestination or election it states that God “in his eternal counsel has decreed …” (XI, 12). There thus seems to be good reason for the judgment of Karl Barth, no enthusiast for the word, that it “describes something which cannot be denied,” and is not therefore to be erased or abandoned (Church Dogmatics, II, 2, p. 182).
The dangers of the term are easy to see. Even in Scripture it has associations with the arbitrarily rather than the righteously and meaningfully sovereign. In itself it emphasizes sheer power instead of holy, wise, and loving power. It suggests harsh enforcement rather than beneficent overruling. It implies that which is fixed and static, so that man is an automaton and God himself, having made his decree, is unemployed and uninterested, that is, the God of deism who simply leaves things to take their decreed course. Perhaps it is not insignificant that the heaviest casualties to Unitarian deism seemed to be suffered in churches which emphasized the decrees. Perhaps it is not for nothing that Lutherans detected a Turkish or Islamic impulse in Reformed teaching. Perhaps it is with reason that some Reformed apologists are still ill-advised enough to find support in scientific or Mohammedan determinism. There are, in fact, real dangers in the term and its use.
Nevertheless, no single word is so well adapted to express the true sovereignty, constancy, and infallibility of the divine counsel, purpose, and resolve; and therefore biblical and evangelical expositors have little option but to use it. Safeguards are no doubt required. It does not, perhaps, form a genuinely suitable heading as at Westminster. It is best handled in the text where there can be proper qualification. Yet that which God wills and purposes is in a true sense decreed by him. His wise and omnipotent resolve constitutes his free, sovereign, and incontestable decree.
Most of the difficulties derive, perhaps, from a failure to remember that the decree is genuinely eternal, and cannot therefore be a lifeless, deistic fiat. No doubt much of the wonder of eternity is that it is pre-temporal. To this extent an eternal decree is rightly seen to be prior to its fulfillment, belonging to the past before the beginning of all things. But eternal does not mean only pre-temporal. It also means co-temporal and post-temporal. The decree of God is thus present and future as well as past. It is with and after the fulfillment as well as before it. Deistic conceptions can arise only out of an ill-balanced and unhealthy over-concentration on the one aspect of eternity, which is also what gives such unreality to the famous infralapsarian-supralapsarian discussion. The truly eternal decree is just as alive and relevant today and tomorrow as it was yesterday. Made in eternity, it has been made, but is still being made and still to be made. The decree accompanies and follows as well as precedes its fulfillment. It cannot, then, be regarded merely as a lifeless foreordination. It is really the decree of God and therefore an eternal decree in the full and proper sense.
Even if the deistic threat is averted, however, the difficulty of apparent arbitrariness remains. It is, in fact, heightened by some of the confessions with their references to the inscrutability of the decree. Thus the Westminster Confession speaks of the “secret counsel” of God in election, and his “unsearchable counsel” in reprobation (III, 5, 7). Dort warns against inquisitive prying into “the secret and deep things of God” (I, 12). The Gallican Confession (VIII) and the Thirty-Nine Articles (XVII) both refer to secrets or secret counsels, and the Belgic uses the term “incomprehensible” (XIII). Now it is true that according to Scripture the ways of God in nature and history take an astonishing course, so that the detailed decrees of God might well be called unsearchable or inscrutable. It is also true that sinners cannot perceive the things of God, so that even the primary decree which the others serve and express may aptly be termed a mystery. Yet the question arises whether this mystery is not revealed in Jesus Christ. Are not believing eyes opened, in part at least, to the ways of God by the Holy Spirit? Can we really say that the basic decree of God, for all the strangeness of its outworkings, is inscrutable, secret, or incomprehensible in the primary and ultimate sense?
The question is pertinent, for it forces us to ask what we really mean by this decree. In the earlier confessions this seems to be clear. It is God’s “eternal and unchangeable counsel, of mere goodness” to elect certain men to salvation in Jesus Christ (Belgic Confession, XVI). It is his “everlasting purpose … to deliver … those whom he hath chosen in Christ” (Thirty-Nine Articles, XVII). This aspect naturally remains in later statements, as we may see from the Canons of Dort, I, 7 and the Westminster Shorter Catechism, question 20. But a new element tends to emerge. The decree of God comes to be identified specifically with the pre-temporal discrimination between the elect and the reprobate which we cannot forsee, which is not based on any good works or foreknown response, and which is therefore necessarily inscrutable and apparently arbitrary. This profound, merciful but just acceptance or rejection of men equally involved in ruin is the real decree of God at the beginning or end of his ways, which we can only accept since we have neither the means to understand nor the right to challenge it.
The question arises whether this is a justifiable equation. Will not a “special prudence and care” (Westminster Confession, III, 8), lead us, not to this sorting of individuals, but to Jesus Christ, in whom God’s grace and wrath are manifested? If Jesus Christ is really the mirror of election, as also, we might add, of reprobation, are we not to seek the basic decree in him, whom to see is to see the Father? When we ask concerning the ultimate decree, surely we are still to concentrate on him in whom the fulness of Godhead dwells rather than looking abroad to other mysteries.
In other words, the decree of God must be strictly related to Jesus Christ. The Formula of Concord puts this well: “This predestination of God is not to be searched out in the hidden counsel of God, but is to be sought in the Word of God … but the Word of God leads us to Christ.… In Christ, therefore, is the eternal election of God to be sought” (XI, 5–12). The Remonstrant Articles also display a fine judgment in their initial definition that “God, by an eternal, unchangeable purpose in Jesus Christ his Son … hath determined … to save in Christ for Christ’s sake, and through Christ, those who, through the grace of the Holy Ghost, shall believe on this his Son Jesus.”
These statements are vitiated, however, by their tendency to make salvation dependent in the last resort on the human decision of faith and their virtual ignoring of the element of reprobation inseparable from the divine decree. We may thus refer again to the fine passage in the Institutes in which Calvin teaches us to seek our election in Christ as the Eternal Wisdom, the Immutable Truth, the Determinate Counsel of the Father (III, 24, 5). And we may close the whole discussion with some noble sentences from the widely adopted Second Helvetic Confession penned in 1576 by the aging Bullinger of Zürich: “We therefore condemn those who seek other-where than in Christ whether they be chosen from all eternity, and what God has decreed of them before all beginning.… Let Christ, therefore, be our looking-glass, in whom we may behold our predestination. We shall have a most evident and sure testimony that we are written in the Book of Life if we communicate with Christ, and he be ours, and we be his, by a true faith. Let this comfort us in the temptation touching predestination, than which there is none more dangerous: that the promises of God are general to the faithful” (X). For the ultimate reality of the decree of God is “that the Son of God, our Lord Jesus Christ, was from all eternity predestinated and foreordained of the Father to be the Saviour of the world” (XI). In sum, Jesus Christ himself is the purpose and decree of God. In him we see God’s righteousness both to condemn and to save. Incorporated into him by faith, we have the assurance that the basic decree to which all others are subject, while it carries with it the condemnation and judgment of sin, is as such a decree of grace and life, of fellowship and glory.
Bibliography: K. Barth, Church Dogmatics, II/2; III/3. Calvin, Institutes, I, 16–17; III, 21–24; H. Heppe, Reformed Dogmatics, pp. 137 ff.; C. Hodge, Systematic Theology, Part I, Chapter 9; P. Schaff, Creeds of Christendom, Vol. III; W. G. T. Shedd, Dogmatic Theology.
Professor of Church History
Fuller Theological Seminary
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