PRETERITION NECESSARY TO THE SOVEREIGNTY OF GOD IN ELECTION 1
It is generally conceded by those who advocate a revision of the Confession, that " the sovereignty of God in election " must be retained as a fundamental truth. Several presbyteries have voted for revision, with the explicit declaration that this part of the third chapter must stand; and they have at the same time voted to strike out the doctrine of jpreteriiion. Among them is the large and influential presbytery of New York. With the highest respect for our brethren and copresbyters, and with sincere regret to be obliged to differ from the majority, we proceed to raise and answer the question, Whether the doctrine of " the sovereignty of God in election" can be held unimpaired and in its integrity, if the tenet of pretention is omitted from " the system of doctrine contained in the Scriptures."
The presbytery have declared to the General Assembly:
1, That " they deprecate most earnestly all such changes as would impair the essential articles of our faith;" and
2, That " they desire the third chapter of the Confession, after the first section, to be so recast as to include these things only: The sovereignty of God in election; the general love of God for all mankind; the salvation in Christ Jesus provided for all, and to be preached to every creature." In this recasting, they specify several sections of chapter third which they would strike out, and among
1 New York Observer, March 6, 1890.
them is the section which declares that God " passes by" some of mankind, and "ordains them to dishonor and wrath for their sin." According to this deliverance, the presbytery of New York supposes that it can hold the doctrine of " the sovereignty of God in election " unimpaired and in all its essential features, while denying and rejecting the doctrine of pretention. An examination of the nature and definition of " sovereignty," we think, will show that this is impossible.
Sovereignty is a comprehensive term. It contains several elements. First it denotes supremacy. A sovereign ruler is supreme in his dominions. All other rulers are under him. Secondly, sovereignty denotes independence. Says Woolsey, "In the intercourse of nations certain states have a position of entire independence of others. They have the power of self-government, that is, of independence of all other states as far as their own territory and citizens are concerned. This power of independent action in external and internal relations constitutes complete sovereignty" (Political Science, i. 204). Thirdly, sovereignty denotes optional power; that is, the power to act or not in a given instance. It is more particularly with reference to this latter characteristic of free alternative decision, that " the sovereignty of God in election " is spoken of. In his election of a sinner to salvation, God as supreme, independent, and sovereign, acts with entire liberty of decision, and not as obliged and shut up to one course of action.
This is the common understanding and definition of sovereignty as applied to decisions and acts. Says Blackstone: "By the sovereign power is meant the power of making laws; for wherever that power resides all other powers must conform to, and be directed by it, whatever appearance the outward form and administration of the government may put on. For it is at any time in the option of the legislature to alter that form and administration by a new edict or rule, and put the execution of the law into whatever hands it pleases, by constituting one, or a few, or many executive magistrates " (Introduction, 2). Blackstone gives the same definition of sovereignty, when it is vested in a king (Book II., ch. vii.). The king has no superior to oblige or compel him to one course of action. He has independent and optional power. This is the reason why a monarchy is inferior to a republic, as an ideal of government, and the secret of the steady tendency to the latter form of government, in the earth. Sovereign, supreme, independent, and optional power is too great a power to be lodged in the hands of one man. Its safest deposit is in the hands of all the people.
The pardoning power is a sovereign power, and this implies choice between two alternatives. If the governor of New York has the power to grant a pardon to a criminal, but not the power to refuse it, he is not sovereign in the matter. If of two criminals, he cannot pardon one and leave the other under the sentence of the court, he is not sovereign in the matter. When it is said that in a democracy the sovereign power is vested in the people, the meaning is that the people have the right to make such a constitution and laws as they please. No one would contend that the people of New York have sovereign power in the case, if they are obliged to put imprisonment for debt, or any other particular statute, into their code. A "sovereignty " that has no alternative is none at all.
God is a sovereign, and the highest of all. He may create a universe or not, as he pleases. Were he obliged or compelled to create, he would not be sovereign in creating. He may arrange and order his universe as he pleases. If he were confined to but one order, he would not be sovereign in his providence. But not to waste time on these self-evident generalities, we come to the case in hand: the "sovereignty of God in election.'' The question is, Whether God is "sovereign" in electing, regenerating, and saving a sinner, if he has no option in the matter? if he cannot "pass by" the sinner, and leave him unregenerate, unpardoned, and unsaved? One would think that such a question as this could have but one answer in the negative, had not a majority of the presbytery of New York answered it in the affirmative. The Westminster Confession declares that "the sovereignty of God in election" means, that he may elect or pass by the sinner as he pleases. The Revised Confession declares that it means, that he may elect him but not pass him by. The Old Confession declares that sovereignty means, that God may bestow regenerating grace upon a sinner who is resisting common grace, or may not bestow it. The New Confession declares that it means, that he may bestow regenerating grace upon him, but may not refuse to bestow it. The Old Confession declares that sovereignty means, that God may pardon the sinner or not, as he pleases. The New Confession declares that it means, that he may pardon him but not deny him a pardon.
Now we ask, What sovereignty has God in the salvation of the sinner, if he has no alternative in regard to election, regeneration, and pardon? if eternal justice requires that he elect, and forbids that he pass by? if eternal justice requires that he regenerate, and forbids him to leave in unregeneracy? if eternal justice requires that he pardon, and forbids him to refuse to pardon? To strike out pretention from the Confession, is to declare that it is an unscriptural doctrine, and to brand it as error. And to assert "the sovereignty of God in election" after having done this, is to assert that an act that has no alternative is a sovereign act.
But God himself has decided the question. He asserts his sovereign right to optional decision in the matter of human salvation. In that wonderful description of his being and attributes which he gave to Moses, among other declarations he says, "I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will shew mercy to whom I will shew mercy" (Ex. 33: 19). In this solemn pronunciamento with which he prefaced the whole work of human salvation, he distinctly declares that he is under no obligation to redeem sinful men, but that whatever he does in the premises is of his own nnobliged, free, and sovereign mercy and decision. Still more explicitly, in what is perhaps the most terrible passage in all Scripture, God asserts that he will pass by and leave in their sin some who have refused his common call, and frustrated his common grace. "Because I have called, and ye refused; I have stretched out my hand, and no man regarded; but ye have set at nought all my counsel, and would none of my reproof ; I also will laugh at your calamity; I will mock when your fear cometh. Then shall they call upon me, but I will not answer; they shall seek me early, but they shall not find me" (Prov. 1: 24-26, 27). God incarnate teaches the same truth, that "one shall be taken and the other left" (Luke 17: 34-36). And St. Paul recites the words of God to Moses, "I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion," as a conclusive demonstration of the Divine sovereignty in salvation.
The only instance of the retention of election, and rejection of pretention, in a creed, is that of the Cumberland Presbyterians. Our Arminian brethren are consistent and logical, like the Westminster Standards, in teaching both election and pretention; only they assert that both are conditional. Men are elected because of faith, and are passed by because of unbelief. There has never been any proposition to revise pretention out of an Arminian creed. Arminius, Episcopius, Limborch, Wesley, and Watson understand that election necessarily implies the antithetic non-election.1 A proposition to revise the Confession so that it would teach conditional election and pretention, would be self-consistent but anti-Calvinistic; but the proposition to revise it so as to declare that God elects but does not pass by sinners, is neither consistency nor Calvinism. If adopted, the Northern Presbyterian Church will have an illogical and mutilated creed, and will resemble a wounded eagle attempting to fly with but one wins;.
1 According to Brandt, the Remonstrants defined predestination as follows: "God hath decreed from all eternity to elect those to everlasting life, who through his grace believe in Jesns Christ and persevere in faith and obedience; and on the contrary hath resolved to reject the unconverted and unbelieving to everlasting damnation" (Reformation in the Low Countries, Book xxi.).