Most Reformed Christians know something about the Canons of the Synod of Dort. Fewer of us have actually read the Canons. One aspect of the Canons that is sometimes neglected is the rejection of errors. There are five heads of doctrine (with three and four being combined) and after each head of doctrine comes the rejection of errors. There, Synod states exactly the errors taught by the Remonstrants (Arminians) that Synod was rejecting.
The Rejection of Errors was the Synod of Dort’s way of reasserting the antithesis between the Reformed faith and the compromise with moralism and rationalism in the Remonstrant theology.
One of the things I like most about the Reformed faith is its doctrine of the antithesis, which is inside code for, “not of this world.” In Reformed churches, this is no mere shibboleth—it is a way of thinking about ourselves, about the church, about the world, and about where we are in history (i.e., eschatology).
According to the Apostle Paul, there are two ages: “this age,” and “the age to come.” Although expressed in temporal categories, these two ages are actually contemporaneous—that is, they exist at the same time. Christians, those saved sola gratia, sola fide, have been made participants in the age to come. But there is an antithesis between these two ages. The Bible is full of antithesis, going all the way back to “this fruit” and “that fruit,” and “in the ark” and “not in the ark.” Israel was to believe and live in antithesis with the nations.
In the modern period, the idea of the antithesis has largely been jettisoned. It was compromised, of course, in Christendom, i.e., the church-state complex that developed after Theodosius I made Christianity the state religion in AD 380. For most of the medieval period we lost our sense of antithesis with “the world” (a phrase from John that is roughly equivalent to “this age” in Paul). The Reformation helped us to begin to recover the antithesis.
Before the sixteenth century was closed, however, there arose early strains of what we know as modernism. There were already in the early sixteenth century anti-Trinitarians, who rejected the Trinity on the ground that it was not rational. Rationalism also manifested itself in the form of Socinianism. In the early stages, the Socinians said that they were “just following the Bible.” They found that the Bible did not teach much of what we know as historic Christianity (the Trinity, the two natures of Christ, the substitutionary atonement). One of the great concerns the confessional Reformed churches had with Arminius and the Remonstrants was their rationalism. They placed human rationality above the Word of God. They denied it of course, but by the middle of the seventeenth century, the rationalist fruit of the Remonstrant movement was evident for all to see.
With the rise of early modernity (the assertion of autonomy in the modern period), the Protestants faced a choice to either embrace the antithesis between historic, biblical Christianity and modernism (autonomy, rationalism, empiricism, and subjectivism), or to compromise. Some of the Protestants in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries took the plunge, taking an antithetical stand relative to the ideas that we now call the Enlightenment as it spread across Europe and Britain. Many did not.
That segment of the Protestant movement that did not take the plunge eventually took two forms. The first move attempted to synthesize modernity and historic Protestantism. This synthesis between what was, in principle, unbelief and belief, failed. Those who tried it had created an unstable compound of two competing principles. Something had to give, and it did. Most of them became liberals, quit fighting, and joined the other side. The second move toward synthesis was pietism, which stated, “We believe the faith, but what really matters is your personal, immediate encounter with the risen Christ.” The children of the pietists became liberals and stood openly in judgment over Scripture and the historic Christian faith.
Beginning in the eighteenth century, what we now call evangelicalism began to develop as the great-grandchildren of the Protestants began to try once more to synthesize historic Christianity with modernity. They did it by using conservative versions of what came to be called “new measures” in evangelism. They did it by turning to a more radical version of experiential Christianity, by synthesizing pietism with Protestantism. They did it by adapting elements of rationalism and idealism (think Plato). That attempt, in colonial Congregationalism, mostly became the New England theology.
At various times in modernity, others have tried to construct a synthesis with modernity. That is what virtually all of evangelicalism is today. The emerging church movement, in the 1990s and early 2000s, was nothing less than an attempted and failed synthesis between modern subjectivism and rationalism and Christianity. This is why Emergent Village leaders naively mouthed old liberal and Socinian slogans. The history of theology tells us that the synthesis never works. Just as old Princeton Seminary and old Westminster Seminary reasserted the antithesis between belief and unbelief—between historic Christianity and various compromises with modernity—so too those who believe historic Protestantism must continually reassert the antithesis between modernity and Christianity.
If you want to see the spirit of the Reformed antithesis during the early stages of modernity, the Canons of Dort, of which the Rejection Errors are a part, is a great place to start. Why do you think that people hate the Canons so? It is not just because they teach the Five Points, but it is because they reassert the antithesis. Augustine taught the substance of the Five Points over against the Pelagians and the semi-Pelagians, but he does not draw the wrath of the haters. The Canons are hated because they stand as a witness to the compromise of modern evangelicalism and its roots in the rationalism and moralism of the Remonstrant theology.
Embedded in the antithesis, as I understand it, is a tension between the eschaton (the final state) and everything else. As those united by the Spirit through faith to the ascended Christ, we participate in the eschaton (heaven) and in the eschatological (consummate) age now, even though we are not there yet. We participate in that place and time proleptically by our union with Christ and by the present, ongoing work of the Spirit who has made us alive in Christ, who feeds us with the body of Christ and who unites believers together in his body. When we gather on the Sabbath, we are called out of this age and into the age to come. Heaven opens, as it were, and we are lifted up into the heavenly courts. We come before the face of the living God.
Where we live now is not the eschaton. That fact that there are ways in which we participate in the eschaton but there are ways in which we do not and cannot now participate in that place and age, means that we live in tension between two worlds. I think there is a connection between how one relates to the antithesis between the world and Christ, or between this age and the age to come, and one’s eschatology. If one thinks that tension will be resolved before Christ returns, either in a literal millennial golden age or in a metaphorical but earthly (post) millennial golden age where we experience eschatological life prior to the return of Christ, not just in the means of grace and in the church, but in civil/common life, then one has attempted to resolve the antithesis too soon. Any attempt to resolve the antithesis too soon is an over-realized eschatology.
That is why the theonomists tend to be postmillennial. They have a plan for getting to and administering the earthly golden age (despite the warning of the Second Helvetic Confession about not seeking a “Jewish golden age“) before or in anticipation of Christ’s return. Many of those who have swelled the ranks of the theonomic movement since the 1950s were converts from pre-millennialism. They simply transposed their hermeneutic and eschatology to another form of chiliasm. Geerhardus Vos says that somewhere, and he is exactly right. That golden-age vision fuels the Christian American theocratic cultural and political program. That is why ostensible rapture-seeking, Tim LaHaye-reading premillennial folk act like postmillennial folk, because it is all really the same thing with a different arrangement. They are all golden-agers. This is not new. Most Reformed folk were theocrats in the classical period, and some of them also flipped from one form of chiliasm to another.
The eschatological corollary to antithesis is the theology of the cross. We do not yet live in the age to come. We are citizens of the heavenly kingdom, but we are pilgrims on the way to the heavenly city. We get glimpses of eschatological life. We “taste of the powers of the age to come” (Heb 6:5) in the Holy Supper and in the preaching of the gospel. We have a foretaste in sweet fellowship with our brothers and sisters, but it is always interrupted. The visible church, in this life, is mixed with elect and reprobate. There is church discipline yet. Sin continues to claim its willing victims. For those in Christ, the sting of death has been removed, but death itself has not. The guilt of sin is gone, but the wages of sin must yet be paid. We are a semi-eschatological people and we live in a semi-eschatological time and place. The antithesis tells us that we must not try to erase the tension by obliterating the fact and doctrine that providence is common to all humans (Gemeine Gratie: common grace; universal mercy or benevolence) elect and non-elect alike. To overstate the antithesis is to run to Montanism or Gnosticism. To deny it is to run to rationalism/empiricism/modernism. We live between. We must embrace the antithesis between light and darkness, between Jerusalem and Athens, and we must embrace the theologia crucis entailed by it.
©R. Scott Clark. All Rights Reserved.
Editors Note: This was originally published on the Heidelblog in 2008.
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