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Divine Nescience of Future Contingencies a Necessity

By L. D. McCabe, D.D., LL.D.

Chapter IX.

Divine Nescience of Future Contingencies is Necessary to an Interpretation of the Holy Scriptures.

NO profound believer in the awful verities of the holy Scriptures will question the necessity of the correct, consistent and speedy .interpretation of its essential and heaven-inspiring, teachings. There are innumerable passages of these sacred writings which express, and more which imply, the positive constraint of the human will, and to which the human will is placed under the law of cause and effect. The passages which express and imply the freedom of the human will, and that it acts freely under the law of liberty, and not under the law of constraint, are equally innumerous. These facts necessitate the existence of two kingdoms, in one of which God works all things after the counsel of his own sovereign will, and in the other he works and overrules and administers in accordance with the free volitions of accountable beings. In the kingdom of providence, by which we mean God's watchful, provident care over sensitive beings, he works results and accomplishes his purposes by constraint of the human will. In the management of the affairs of this world this kingdom is indispensable every hour. Men are continually used by God as instruments in the accomplishment of his providential purposes. In the kingdom of free grace God works and coworks with free agents. He rewards, punishes, subjugates or glorifies them in accordance with their moral character. But in the kingdom of providence God treats man as an instrument. In the kingdom of free grace he deals with him as a sovereign person. The only theory that can safeguard Scripture is, that in the utterance of prophecy and in its fulfillment God treats man not as a person, but simply as an instrument. There are two classes of Scripture prophecies, the conditional and the unconditional. The unconditional are those that refer to the divine purposes, and which God brings about either by his own direct efforts or by employing intelligent beings as instruments in his hands. No unconditional prophecy ever fails of fulfillment. The conditional prophecies are made upon the condition of the voluntary compliance of free agents with certain specified terms and conditions. "Many prophecies," says Dr. Domer, "fail of their fulfillment." Of course any failure in the fulfillment of prophecy is confined to the conditional class of prophecies.

Every theologian must keep distinctly before his mind the grand distinction of man as an instrument and man as a responsible person. If he does not, he will inevitably become confused in his thoughts, and hesitating in his utterances. A person, as we have said, is a being who can elect between competing motives, and then absolutely originate resolves. So long as the great doctrines of election and reprobation are maintained, the Bible must remain a book flooded with confessed contradictions, and what are called, by Dr. Robert Breckenridge, "Bible paradoxes," which never can be explained by mortals. No learning, mental resources, logical acumen, or devoutness of spirit, have yet been able to free divine revelation from these ignominious, irritating and overwhelming inconsistencies. And thus must it ever be so long as foreordination is maintained.

These contradictions worry, perplex, enfeeble, confound, and often drive into stark infidelity, those who commenced the search of the word of God as sincere and devout inquirers. How discouraging it must be, for example, for a logical, discriminating mind, candidly inquiring after the truth, to hear, in a single sermon from Dr. J. W. Alexander, one of the finest of scholars, and the loveliest of men, that "the Scriptures expressly ascribe sinful acts to divine Providence, that God arranges the wicked act, adopts it into his providential plan, and yet puts forth no causative influence to its commission; that God is not the author of sin, yet nevertheless the sin occurs providentially; that God hates moral evil, and has no participation in it; and yet those who disbelieve and rebel are swayed by his providence; that all thoughts, feelings, frames and free acts, are controlled by infinite Wisdom; and that man acts freely, while God works out his irresistible decrees. We do not deny that there are difficulties here, but they arise from the depth of the divine nature and the short sounding line of human reason."

"The short sounding line of human reason" is certainly long enough to determine that it is impossible to establish "irresistible decrees," without tearing down the distinction between virtue and vice. The only way for the Calvinian to escape this axiom in theology, is to jump into a bank of mystery, and affirm, "We are very limited beings, indeed we are." But all the Scriptures which Dr. Alexander adduces in support of such contradictory declarations are susceptible of interpretations that are simple, cogent, and wholly unembarrassed by any self-contradictions. "The wicked act of selling Joseph into Egypt," he says, "was all arranged and formed a part of God's plan." Now which is easier to believe, that God did arrange that wicked act of selling, or that he had his own providential plan, irrespective of the wicked acts of Joseph's brethren, of sending him into Egypt in the interests of pure benevolence, and which he would have carried out had his brethren acted righteously? It is very easy to discriminate between a benevolent mission to Egypt and the mode or instrument of his conveyance there. God arranged for Joseph to go down to Egypt, but he did not plan that he should go there by fraternal wickedness.

"There never was a more vile act than the death of Christ," says Dr. Alexander, "and yet it was not only provided for, but it was indispensably necessary to the salvation of men. The act was wicked, but it was declared to be by the determinate counsel and fore-knowledge of God; therefore wicked acts are included in the plans of Providence."

True, to save a lost world, the death of Christ was by the determinate counsel and foreknowledge of God. But the mode of his death, by wicked men on a Roman cross, was nowhere attested, or even hinted at in the Old Testament Scriptures. Now which is easier to believe, that God planned the murder of Christ, or to distinguish between the necessity of the fact of his dying to save the world and the contingent mode and instrument of his dying? God had his own plan for the offering up of his Son, which wicked men murderously invaded, and wholly in opposition to his wishes. In this unutterable wickedness they could have desisted at any moment in their march up to Calvary. And they could have thus desisted without defeating the glorious work of redeeming the world. For Paul says they never would have crucified the Lord of life had they known "the hidden wisdom." Surely the multitudes now studying the word of God ought not to be confused and embarrassed and disheartened by a continuation of such unreasonable interpretations thereof, when interpretations so much more natural, obvious and unobjectionable, are ready for our consideration and acceptance. Such interpretations signal us from every side and quarter of thorough exegesis. Surely it is unwise any longer to palsy our faith in necessary inexplicables, by demanding the acceptance of beliefs that manifestly are so repugnant to human reason and benevolent impulses. "Such beliefs," said Benjamin Franklin, "are so repulsive that none do believe them, unless they have been patiently drilled into them from early childhood by revered parents." The Calvinian himself embraces them only because he feels compelled to do so in order to escape what he regards as a more unreasonable, inadmissible and ruinous position.

Some reader might possibly reply, "The doctrine of the Trinity is seemingly as self-contradictory as the doctrine of fore-ordination." But the inexplicity of the Trinity arises solely from the inability to comprehend the Divine Essence. We rejoice in this our inability; for were we able to comprehend the divine essence, it would not be worthy of our adoration.

But the difficulty we experience in believing the doctrine of predestination arises from our perception of the utter incompatibility between two easily comprehended propositions. God fore-ordains whatever comes to pass, and Man is a free agent, are two comprehensible propositions. And the more clearly they are separately comprehended, the more striking does their incompatibility appear. Between self-contradictions and mysteries there are no parallels, and none should parallelogistically be assumed in the defense of any thought system. It cannot be done without an ultimate breakdown to the system, unless men cease investigating, and inquiring the why and the wherefore.

The assumption of absolute foreknowledge may possibly lessen the number and heinousness of these inexplicable Scripture contradictions. But such an assumption necessitates principles of interpretation that will prevent our comprehension of the truth, the completeness, the naturalness, the consistency and the force of the divine word. This assumption must prevent any consistent or comforting conceptions of the character of God. It will prevent also the construction of a system of theology, without incorporating into it vexations, absurdities and ever-bothering perplexities. Such an assumption flatly ignores those principles of hermeneutics which are indispensable to any sound and consistent exegesis of the holy Scriptures.

Foreknowledge may relieve itself theoretically of some of the difficulties of fore-ordination, but it can never by any possible means escape the many and great difficulties of subsequent ordination. Free volitions become active working factors throughout the eternity, subsequent to their birth and existence. Foreseeing such things as independent volitions, God must determine how he will treat them, how he will reward, punish, control, or utilize them in maintaining his administration, in carrying forward his universal moral government, and in evolving and compassing his own eternal plans and purposes. This necessitates one vast system of subsequent ordination, assignment or prearrangement following necessarily from the assumption of divine foreknowledge. All future free choices being now infallibly foreknown, they are, and necessarily must be, immutable fixities. "They are all permanently adopted," says Dr. Whedon, "into the divine plan." And all the divine determinations and assignments and referrings, relative to those free choices being now infallible, the whole future is one vast fixity, as immutable in itself, as discouraging to freedom, as disheartening to hope, as enervating to the formation of individual moral character, and the putting forth of holy resolves, as any system of unalterable decree could ever possibly be. How inexcusable then is the vaulting assumption of the Arminian triumph, over the Calvinian dogma of eternal reprobation.

We see that foreknowledge unavoidably necessitates a divine comprehensive plan, reaching from eternity to eternity, linking every free choice with innumerable other events and things. It necessitates a plan, which involves the endless ruin of uncounted millions of sensitive immortal beings, every one of whom has his place and his mission and his influence, all over the moral universe and all through eternity. But every invitation, every entreaty, every promise and every threatening, addressed to me in the holy Scriptures implies my avoidability of sin. But if in the mind of God there is no contingency as to the coming to pass of my future free choice, the Bible is the most confusing, misleading, uncandid volume in all the literatures of the world. It is an inexplicable book upon the assumption of either fore-ordination or subsequent ordination, of predestination or of absolute prescience.

So long as one revered body of divines maintains that the human will always acts under the law of constraint, and the other great body of divines, equally revered and influential, maintains that the human will always acts under the law of liberty, there cannot possibly be harmony among theologians and commentators. The Bible, therefore, must remain inexplicable and unsatisfactory as to fundamental and essential teachings, and Christians must, as in the past, continue to cower and beg in craven confusion before the searching analysis and defiant arraignments of a candid and intelligent and inquiring unbelief.

For, evidently, the great system of Calvinian theology rests on the self-contradiction, man is free, but really and in fact without the power of contrary choice, all his choices being really constrained, ab extra or ab intra, by motives or subtle, influences. And the great system of Arminianism rests on unthinkables equally manifest and patience-testing. Man, it says, is free, but all his future choices are now infallibly certain in themselves, and immutably assigned to the accomplishment of immutable results in an immutable universe throughout an immutable eternity.

Believers in divine revelation must ever submit to the taunts of infidels to agree in interpretation among themselves as to the fundamental teachings of divine revelation, and to furnish them with an exegesis that will not necessitate interminable perplexities and mental resentments. Every Calvinian knows that he meets with multitudes of passages whose Arminian look greatly perplexes him. He is often made to hesitate and wonder if his theory be really true, though so venerable with age and authority. President Nott said, "I believe both Calvinism and Arminianism, for manifestly both are taught in the word." In this he has been followed by multitudes of distinguished Calvinists, such, for example, as the clear-headed and charming Dr. Charles Simeon, who says, "There is not a single Calvinian or a single Arminian who approves equally of the whole of the Scriptures. Had either of them been with St. Paul he would have urged him to alter some of his expressions." He who believes in the third order of the ministry, and that the Methodist Discipline was written to teach the doctrine of prelacy, can never understand that wonderful system of ecclesiastical polity, he who believes in the divine right of kings and that the Constitution of the United States was established to sustain the divine royalty of the ruling classes, can never understand that remarkable instrument, the growth of so many ages. And, in like manner, no one who believes in the doctrine of election and reprobation can thoroughly understand the Scriptures unless that doctrine be clearly taught therein. But that doctrine is at best, as all confess, an uneasiness-producing doctrine. It makes all hesitate as to its being true, and to wonder if it can be true. Indeed, it is a belief that is ever attended with a penetrating regret that it is true. Even Augustine, sixteen hundred years ago, in thinking on his system, exclaimed relative to it, "Believe me, I am pressed with great perplexities." And this distrust evidently is the present trend of the convictions of the universal religious consciousness of the world. "After the Synod of Dort," says Bishop Burgess, "Calvinism grew fainter and fainter in the Church of England, till it scarcely struggled."

But if Paul really teaches the universality of the atonement, and the divine sincerity in the offers of eternal life to all reprobates, how can the stanch believer in election ever be able to comprehend him? Paul was either an Arminian or a Calvinian, and he taught the doctrine of one or the other. I think he uses the term "proorizw" to mean outlining a general plan or purpose. But the Calvinian understands by it God's arbitrary decree as to the endless destinies of souls. By the term righteousness Paul means holiness or purity of the soul, but the Calvinian understands by it the active or passive obedience of Jesus Christ imputed to a sinner. He regards righteousness as the robes of Christ's righteousness wrapped about the elect. By the term justification Paul means the forensic acquittal of the repenting sinner, on the ground of the unquestioned sincerity of his penitence; but the Calvinist understands it to mean his acquittal on the ground of God's sovereign and eternal decree. With the Calvinist faith is consent to the covenant of grace, through which consent the sinner receives the benefit of justification. God pardons all the sins of the elect and accepts of them as righteous, because the active and passive righteousness of Christ is imputed to them. Imputed righteousness implies the absence of righteousness in the being to whom it is imputed. Salvation by faith never was comprehended or apprehended by Augustine. With him "faith was only holding as true the phenomena of the life of Jesus." And this lack of a full and proper conception of a present saving, cleansing faith, is, it seems to me, the great and sad defect of Calvinian teachings. I have read Calvin's Institutes in a vain search for some evidence against this statement.

In the rigidities of Christian duty, and fulfilling all outward righteousness, the Calvinistic mind has been surpassed by none in the history; of the Church. But in the spiritual liberties, joys and beatitudes of religious experience it is not uncharitable to think it greatly deficient. Self-condemnation, fear, distrust, uncertainty, apprehension of not being quite right, dread of spiritual pride, and horror of religious enthusiasm, have generally characterized this type of Christianity. And it is all traceable to the grave fact that its faith in Jesus, as a present and an all-sufficient Saviour, is neither Lutheran nor Pauline. "The Lutheran doctrine of faith was wholly unknown in the age of Augustine,'' says Dr. Wiggers.

So long as a man believes in the irresistibility of divine grace, eternal election and reprobation, the imputation to himself of Adam's personal guilt, and the imputation of the active and passive righteousness of Jesus Christ as the ground of his justification, his faith is too little concerned with the subjective relations which the unsaved soul sustains to the Saviour. The consciousness of such a one seldom, if ever, embraces those well-defined spiritual experiences and discriminations which always precede the gift of the power of saving faith, and those experiences that ever attend that faith that brings immediate pardon and sanctification through the all-cleansing blood, the faith that makes the soul conscious of God, conscious of God even as it is conscious of itself. The faith of such a one is too objective, too intellectual, in its embrace of formalities, and too foreign to spiritual necessities, to be truly evangelical or thoroughly saving or definitely experiential. And hence it is that the most gifted and cultured of the Calvinistic teachers are less distinct in their perceptions, and less definite and confident in their utterances upon the subject of the processes and the wonders of personal holiness than, perhaps, upon any other gospel theme. Therefore, the good and great Chalmers, while descanting upon the most precious doctrine of the direct witness of the Holy Spirit, exclaimed, "If there be such a direct witness of the Holy Spirit to one's justification, I know nothing of it myself experimentally." The confident affirmation and rejoicing of the Calvinistic mind that its faith is Pauline, certainly requires an unprejudiced re-examination. A clear and complete vision of the gospel of salvation can never be obtained, I am convinced, by Calvinistic principles or processes or modes of conception. "We are not commanded," says Dr. Daniel Steele, "to be holy in another, but to be holy in ourselves; not to be holy in our standing, but to be holy in our present state. In the nature of the case Christ can never be vicariously holy in our stead; vicarious suffering is possible, but vicarious character can have no existence save in man's imagination. The co-existence of a holy standing in Christ up in heaven, and an actual unholy state of character on earth, is a baseless illusion. The monstrous conception of a vicarious holiness is swept away by St. Peter's vigorous pen, 'Be ye, yourselves, also holy in all manner of living.' I Pet. i, 5." An imputed righteousness cannot be an inwrought righteousness. With the Arminian, faith means identification with Christ, laying hold upon Christ as that which the soul needs and must have. It means holding on to Christ at every sacrifice and against every temptation. It means, every moment I have the witness of the Holy Spirit, that I am accepted of God through his well-beloved Son; that he is cleansing my soul, carrying on and up the great work of my eternal salvation, through my unreserved renunciation of all sin, my belief of the truth and exclusive dependence on the great atonement. "The chief want of the Calvinistic confessions of faith," says the earnest Calvinist, Dr. Newman Smythe, "is the play of the light and the hope of the Gospel over them." So long as Martin Luther entertained the view of faith Augustine taught he was chained in spiritual imbecility. But so soon as he obtained the true Lutheran faith, he became the monarch of the Reformation. "The Reformation," says Dr. Sprecher, "exposed the error and the defect of the previous methods of apprehending the doctrines of divine revelation, and in the light of justification by faith in Christ alone, it produced a complete change in the manner of apprehending the subject of personal salvation. To justifying faith the Scriptures present Christ as the central point of revealed truth." We thus see that the views of Bible theology which Calvinism imperatively necessitates differ, and necessarily must differ, fundamentally from those which the believer in a universal atonement is compelled to entertain.

If Paul were an Arminian, the Calvinist cannot possibly comprehend him, and if he were a Calvinian, the Arminian can never compass or fathom his system of faith and theology. If God foreordained the eternal destinies of all mankind, there must be nothing in theology or in Scripture exegesis inconsistent with that teaching. If he did not, there must be no interpretation inconsistent with the universality of the provisions for and the sincerity of the offer of eternal life to all. Predestination can never be reconciled with the notions of equity, righteousness and benevolence which the Scriptures so constantly advocate.

Between, "The just shall live by faith," and, "The just by faith, shall live," there is a wide distinction. No one can comprehend the apostle, who does not perceive that he means the just by faith, made just, regarded just, treated just by faith, shall live. The Bible, therefore, must remain a book of tantalizing enigmas, until these bodies of divines come to some general agreement. All, therefore, who devoutly love the holy Scriptures, will constantly feel the necessity of some new regulating principle of interpretation, some new ground upon which we all can meet, fraternize freely, and, seeing eye to eye, look down into the profundities and up into the sublimities of God's most holy word. In the very frequent surrenders, by learned Calvinistic commentators, of their most reliable texts, I see a manifest indication that on Calvinian foundations no scholarly theologian can ever construct a consistent Pauline theology. This any one could easily infer from the logical and practical weakness, darkness, and incertitude that necessarily attach to the Calvinistic views of those fundamental principles, which are so vehemently presented by St. Paul. It was never till Martin Luther lifted himself up from the Augustinian faith in objectivities, to the Lutheran faith in subjectivities, that he saw in celestial clearness the whole process of salvation. As long as he sought the forgiveness of sins by fastings and alms-giving and prayer, as expressly taught by St. Augustine, he found no relief, no peace to his soul. But as soon as he obtained the glorious thought of salvation by faith alone in the blood of Jesus, which dawned upon him while studying the text, "If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, his groans ceased, his agonies gave place to rapture and tears of gratitude. No wonder it was henceforth the one mission of his splendid life, to preach the great doctrine of salvation by faith alone in the blood of Jesus. Through this divine truth, this bright door, this opening into saving faith, he led the immortal Wesley into unspeakable usefulness and ineffable glories.

When Isaac Newton climbed up into the moon and found universal gravitation nestling there, he caught such a view of his Maker as made him adore and obey him ever after. So when Martin Luther discovered the great law of spiritual attraction toward the mighty magnet resting on Calvary's cross, he obtained such a view of the Gospel, such an insight into the process of pardon and regeneration, as sent him flying over the earth with a message from eternity, as a seraph of light. This view ever after enraptured his soul, till he was carried by angels into the eternal sunshine of his Redeemer's presence on high.

Every Arminian knows that ever and anon lie stumbles upon passages in the Bible that start his earnest inquiry, "How can I snatch that text out of the hands of the Calvinist, and yet maintain my reputation for scholarship and my character of candor ?" These facts are disreputable to the commentators of the holy Scriptures. But so long as these two opposing systems of theology obtain, the Bible must remain an inexplicable and sealed book. Between its lines lie hallowed mysteries. But the absurdities which theologians and exegetes have crowded into its sacred lines must unceremoniously be swept therefrom. Nothing but divine nescience of future contingencies can ever eradicate the innumerable contradictions which commentators have crowded into that blessed book which God at such great cost has vouchsafed as a glorious revelation of himself, his thoughts and his purposes to his helpless, intelligent creatures. Only assume the truth of divine nescience, and a system of Scripture exegesis correspondent to our own instincts, intuitions, reason, conscience, experience, and consciousness, and our natural sense of things, runs throughout the entire holy volume with ever-increasing clearness. Without it the Bible remains, and must ever remain, full of inexplicable perplexities. Inertia makes astronomy the simplest of all the physical sciences. What inertia can do for astronomy, divine nescience can do for the Bible. In providence, and in all his great world-plans, God treats man as an instrument, and hence he puts the human will under the law of unconscious restraint and constraint. Relative to man's endless destiny God deals with him as a free agent, and hence his will is put under the law of liberty. Calvinians think that God treats man as an instrument not only in providence and in the great world-plans, but also in relation to his eternal state. Arminians think that God deals with man as an agent not only in reference to his everlasting destiny, but also in relation to the kingdom of providence and the great world-plans. But so long as the Bible is universally interpreted upon either of these false principles of hermeneutics, it must be a self-contradictory book, and retanslations shall be necessitated perpetually. The dualistic view of the human will, as being both an instrument and an agent, and the self-contradiction of foreknowing a future choice that either will be, or will not be, are the indispensable desiderata to a sound system of Bible hermeneutics. Divine nescience is the heliocentric place from which the apparent are the real motions of all the divine truths moving in the firmament of Revelation. Taking this doctrine as a stand-point, and assuming the dualistic action of the human will, light floods all the holy Scriptures. The Calvinist Froude says: "The Arminian has entangled the Calvinist, and the Calvinist has entangled the Arminian, in a labyrinth of contradictions, and therefore the crisis has uniformly been a drawn battle." Neither of them will surrender to the other principles he has so long urged as biblical truth. They may, however, consent to unite and agree upon some new criteria of interpretation which will work with lubricity through every perplexing text and difficult subject. In the interpretation of the holy Scriptures, manifestly a present uncertainty must not be regarded as a future certainty, a strong analogy between the divine and human intellects must not be denied; the dualistic action of the human will must be admitted, constrained when acting as an instrument, and free when acting as a free agent; the possibility of finite merit must not be questioned, and the ultimate reason for a rightness must be such as will make right as obligatory upon God as it is upon man. Without this ultimate ground of right Bible theology may be received upon the simple authority of demonstrated divine inspiration, but it never can be settled and systematized philosophically. And the latest writers upon morals confess that this ultimate ground of right has never yet been discovered. And so long as the volition of Deity enters even as an element in ultimate rightness, Scripture teachings on many fundamental subjects can never be philosophically defended.

But with the above indispensable principles of hermeneutics, a scholarly and spiritual exegesis can sweep all tantalizing perplexities out of the word of God.

It is mournful if not disreputable to the expounders of divine revelation that they have not furnished us with some comprehensive principles of interpretation that would exorcise from the holy Scriptures the unthinkables and the unbelievables that so appall the candid reader thereof, and compel him often to hesitate as to their divine origin.

Neither predestination, nor prescience, nor the narrowness of human comprehension, nor dissimilarity between the human and the divine intellects, nor God's independence of logical processes, nor the impossibility of succession of events with Deity, nor the eternal now, the timelessness of time, the durationlessness of duration, has ever been able to sweep babelic jargon from the word of the Lord, or to unlock to eager eyes and more eager hearts multitudes of its ineffable revelations. If we, therefore, from prejudice, or tenacity for old opinions, or partisan animus, or apprehension of lessened personal popularity, reject a hypothesis which, while diminishing none of the perfection’s of Deity, and necessitating no evils whatever, makes luminous with simplicity and directness the whole word of God, before the final bar we never can be justified. We, therefore, fearlessly affirm that divine nescience of future contingencies is indispensable to a satisfactory interpretation of the holy Scriptures. "The harmony of any philosophy in itself is that which giveth to it light and evidence," said the immortal Francis Bacon.