Herman Venema (1697-1787) on the Order of the Decrees

   Posted by: CalvinandCalvinism   in Buy maxalt in Philadelphia


(4.) We come now to the fourth question–the question namely as to the manner in which the decree was formed in the mind of God.

A decree is not a natural act on the part of God, but an act of his will freely determining itself. It proceeds indeed from a natural self determining power in him, hut it is not in itself an essential act. The power to decree is essential but not the decree itself. The decree accordingly is not of the essence of God, because it is a free act of his will and must not consequently be confounded with his nature. They speak inaccurately therefore or do not understand what they say or deny the freedom of the decree who affirm that the decree is God himself. Those who hold that the decree is freely made cannot , confound it with God; because that which may or may not be does not belong to his nature. Now he forms his purpose because he wills to do so; but it cannot be said that he exists because he wills to exist and consequently the decree is not natural–it cannot be said to belong to his nature, for it exists because he wills it,–it cannot be said to be God himself. From this it will appear how incorrect it is to say what is in every one’s mouth that God is a pure act, that he is every thing that may be. This is a contradiction in terms, for that which has a possible has not an actual existence.

God who is possessed of all power can produce more than he does, because his omnipotence is not exhausted. His decree is a free act and does not therefore belong to his nature, and although he maybe in the state of decreeing, he is not naturally and of necessity so. It is not correct, moreover, to deny that those actions are free which proceed from the natural power of God, as if the act and the power to act were in him two separate and distinct things. Those who say that as a pure act he is every thing that exists have done so chiefly for the purpose of avoiding the error of those who ascribe to him accidental qualities–qualities, i.e. which are superinduced from another quarter and which contribute to make up the perfection of which he is possessed. But a free action is not of this description. It is the result of an inherent power and, although in common with an accidental property it may or may not be, it has yet no effect in making him the perfect being he is. No addition is made by it to his excellence which is already infinite; it is only the effect of an exercise of the power which originally and naturally belongs to him.

A decree is an act which occupies the whole mind of God, the understanding and the will. In regard to the understanding it is an idea of possible things and a perception of ends and of means. It passes thence to the judgment by which its proportion and form, its end and means, are settled, and which combines, disposes, and arranges the ideas of these, and is at length completed by the will in the exercise of which God determines to give them being for these ends and by these means. The decree has thus its full form, inasmuch as it is the determination of the divine will.

We say that the decree is a simple and uncompounded act in God. It does not consist of a repetition of acts but is accomplished by one simple exercise of thought. We require a succession of acts in forming a purpose, in consequence of our inability to embrace all in a single act. But God is a perfect Being and by one mental act knows and determines all without being under the necessity of employing a successive series, for he is an uncompounded Being and liable therefore to no succession either in thought or action.

Notwithstanding all this however there are various orders and steps of the decree. These deserve to be noticed, inasmuch as the decree of God embraces various things which are perceived by us according to their nature and order. Some have the appearance of a cause, and others that of an end; some are regarded as means, while others are represented as antecedents or consequents.

Yet although such is the variety of the divine decrees, God must have comprehended them all in one act of his mind, whatever they were and whatever difference existed between them; for he cannot in decreeing confound causes, ends, means, antecedents, and consequents, but must conceive of them all, of whatever kind they may be, in one mental act. And hence it is plain that we are right in treating of the order of the decree, although the expressions winch we employ in doing so are not to be understood as really conveying correct ideas of the subject but only as suited to our imperfect capacities. The question then is not concerning the order and succession of thoughts in God, as i f he decreed first one thing and then another, but concerning the order of the things themselves i n our mind. This is a question of some importance and does not involve any thing that is at variance with the simplicity of God who by a single mental act comprehends the whole. What then is this order ? On this subject there is a diversity of opinion among divines. But we pass over their controversies and say briefly

That the first thought had reference to the general end of all the works of God–the manifestation namely and recognition of his own perfections or what we call the glory of God. This general end was the first thing contemplated and was as it were the moving cause of all.

But the second thought had reference to the formation of the world and the creation of man with the view of manifesting his goodness, wisdom, power, &c.

That the third related to the permission of the fall and that too for wise ends.

That the fourth referred to man’s deliverance from the fall. This last again was conceived in the following order. There was first the consideration of the end in view, namely the manifestation of his glory and justice.

Then there was the contemplation of the general means for the attainment of that endnamely the sending of Christ into the world and the appointment of faith as a condition, his purpose being to save some men for the sake of Christ and to condemn others. This is what we call his general decree.

The first consideration had reference to a Mediator; then came that which related to the conditions and the bond of union to Christ–faith namely and love. This latter consideration, however, was irrespective of certain persons, which is the general decree of predestination and has reference to those who believe and follow after godliness. In this decree God gave Christ to the human race as Redeemer that they might be saved by him, and instituted a connection between faith and salvation and between unbelief and damnation.

In its special form he ordained particular and effectual grace, and he decreed that by it a certain number should believe and be saved, or he appointed those in whom the connection between faith and salvation or between unbelief and damnation should be found, or he marked out for some salvation in Christ and denied that salvation to others. This is the special decree or election.

Such is the natural order of the divine decree or rather of the things decreed. This is shown by the execution of the decree. For of whatever kind be the objects comprehended in it, and in whatever way they succeed each other in time so they all were in the mind of God in the precise order in which they are evolved. He could not regard them otherwise than they are and occur. His decree is thus an uncompounded well arranged act.

We add that the divine decree was a single act and was formed from eternity to the exclusion of all subsequent appointments. When we say that it was a single act, we mean that the whole decree was made from eternity, and that no room was left for decrees to be made in time.

This opinion is opposed chiefly by Socinians who say that there were only three eternal decrees–those, namely, which related to the creation of the world, to the mission of Christ, and to the salvation of believers and condemnation of unbelieving and impenitent sinners,–and that those which refer to such actions as are free were made in time according to circumstances and the conduct of men or as necessity required.

This opinion is opposed by the unity of the decree, by which we mean, as we have seen and explained, that it was made at one and the same instant and before the foundations of the world were laid. Scripture declares that all God’s works are manifest or (as the word denotes) known to him from the beginning, Acts xv. 18; and that he “works all things after the counsel of his own will,” Eph. i .11.

The divine decree embraces every thing that exists in time, for it was formed before the foundation of the world. Being formed then, and extending to every particular, there can be no occasion for other and new decrees. If there were, then the decree would not be universal, which however we have proved it to be. Besides, this idea of decrees in time would destroy the simplicity of the divine nature, for then God would determine upon some new act, there would be an accession to his knowledge. But he knows no such succession as belongs to our minds, who continually cherish new thoughts and perform fresh actions. The decree therefore is one and was made simul et semel, nor are there any of the divine purposes which received their being in time.

The act of the decree is absolute not uncertain or doubtful. It is not suspended on any condition on the part of man. The Remonstrants say that it is and distinguish the divine decrees into absolute and conditional. Of the former, according to them, there are only the three already, specified, and these are also eternal. The rest which relate to individuals, to their actions, and to their destiny, they call conditional, because the execution of them depends on the performance or non-performance of some condition by the persons themselves. They hold that God simply determined what the creatures ought or ought not to do in time without fixing what they would really do and what their condition in eternity would he. They maintain that he decreed the salvation of some and the damnation of others only conditionally,–If thou believes thou shalt be saved; if not thou shalt be damned. This condition was suspended on the liberty of these individuals respectively and was not definitely ordained by God. They thus deny the absolute and unconditional nature of those decrees which refer to particular persons.

Now although we do not hold this, we do not deny that God in his decree instituted a universal connection between faith and salvation, and that he determined what the creatures ought to do if they wished to be happy. This we call his general decree. But we say, moreover, that there is also a special decreethat God determined what the creatures would do and what their condition would bewho should believe and who should notand that his decree regarding them and every thing relating to them was absolute. This does not imply that his decree was made without any regard to means. Means are intimately connected with a proposed end, and he who desires to attain the latter desires also to employ the former. And thus God who settled the condition of his creatures fixed also upon the means for bringing it about. His decree is not so absolute as that whatever he may do with the creature he may do without means. But it is equally plain that God has willed his decree in regard to particular persons endued with liberty to be also absolute and not conditional only. We may easily be persuaded of this if we consider the arguments of our opponents in favor of conditional decrees. We shall observe this order in what follows with the view of refuting these arguments, turning them against those who use them, and confirming the opinion which we hold.

One of their arguments in favour of conditional decrees is founded on the conditional propositions contained in Scripture. If thou believes thou shall be saved. Whosoever believes shall not perish. These and similar propositions they say, being conditional, prove that the decree is also conditional, because the former cannot be at variance with and different from the latter.

We admit the whole of this argument but we deny that it necessarily follows that no decree is absolute. Even in regard to a matter which is conditionally stated the propositions are conditional; they are no doubt conditions of the divine decrees and are in them selves true, but they are conditions of a part not of the whole of the decree. There is a decree by which God has fixed what is conditionally proposed–whether, namely, the creature will fulfill the condition or not. We maintain that this also as we shall see immediately forms part of God’s eternal purpose. From these conditional propositions therefore no argument can be drawn against our theory.

But we may turn the argument against those who make use of it and draw from it one in favor of our own opinion. Our argument is this, that those things which are conditionally proposed in Scripture appear from other places to have been absolutely settled in respect of futurition as what should assuredly take place. We shall give two examples in illustration and proof of this.

The one refers to Eli the high priest. The prophet who was sent to him spoke thus, “Wherefore the Lord God of Israel says, I said indeed that thy house and the house of thy father should walk before me for ever: but now the Lord says, Be it far from me,” 1 Sam. ii . 30. He thus gave Eli to understand that if he had been careful in keeping the law the priesthood would have been continued in his family for ever, but that now it would not. This condition, however, could not have been and would not be fulfilled. It was fixed that the priesthood should not continue in the family of Eli , because it had been absolutely promised to the posterity of Phinehas, Numb, xxv. 13. Two of the sons of Aaron were Eleazar and Ithamar, from the latter of whom Eli was descended. And as God had promised that the son of Eleazar and his seed after him should have the covenant of an everlasting priesthood, it followed that the priesthood could not remain in the family of E l i inasmuch as he sprang from Ithamar, but that it would return to the family of Eleazar from whom it was for a season transferred to him. The condition therefore could not be fulfilled by Eli because that which was apparently suspended upon it had been absolutely decreed, even that the priesthood should continue in another family than his own.

The other example refers to Saul. Samuel told him that if he had kept the commandment of the Lord his kingdom would have been established for ever, but that because he had rejected the word of the Lord the Lord had rejected him from being king, 1 Sam. xiii . 13″; xv. 23. Yet it had been decreed that the kingdom should continue not in his family, but in the tribe of Judah, Gen. xlix . 10. But Saul, as is well known, belonged to the tribe of Benjamin and not to that of Judah. The conditional promise therefore, as is evident «from another place, had been, absolutely determined, so that it does not follow that because certain propositions or statements are conditional, the whole decree is conditional too.

Hermann Venema, Institutes of Theology, trans., by Alex W. Brown, (Andover: W.F. Draper Brothers, 1853), 287-291. [Some spelling modernized; and underlining mine.]

Richard Muller:

Hermann Venema (1697-1787); studied at Groningen (1711-1714) and Franecker (1714-1718). In 1723 he succeeded the younger Vitringa as professor of theology at Franecker, a post he held until his retirement in 1774. His dogmatic work was published posthumously in English translation: Institutes of Theology (1850). Richard Muller, Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics, 1:51 [first edition].

[Note: From what I can gather, only volume 1 was ever published.]

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