Anthropopathism and God’s Desire of Salvation

Anthropopathism and God’s Desire of Salvation

By Douglas J. Douma and Benjamin Wong

THESIS: The doctrine of divine anthropopathism provides a sufficient though not necessary reason for denying the well-meant offer; the teaching that God desires the salvation even of the reprobate.

A disagreement regarding the extent and nature of God’s desire of salvation which embroiled the Christian Reformed Church (CRC) in the 1920s found its way to the Orthodox Presbyterian Church (OPC) two decades later. (See: See: Douglas J. Douma, The Presbyterian Philosopher, p. 121-123.) While in the 1920s the term generally used for the doctrine under debate was the “well-meant offer of the gospel” (WMO), in the 1940s the term “Free Offer of the Gospel” (FOG) was primarily used. This latter term, however, often produced confusion as its proponents (including John Murray, Ned Stonehouse, and Arthur Kuschke) used the term to encompass both the WMO and the “General Call of the Gospel,” the teaching that the Gospel is to be preached to all men. While their opponents (including Gordon Clark, William Young, and Floyd Hamilton) agreed with the General Call of the Gospel, they denied the WMO; the idea that God has a well-meant or sincere desire (perhaps even an emotion) towards the salvation of those whom He does not ultimately save.

In the OPC the question of whether God has emotions figured prominently in the disagreement. This began at Gordon Clark’s 1944 ordination examination. There, Clark answered in the affirmative to Arthur Kuschke’s question whether the Westminster Confession’s statement that “God is without parts or passion” means that “God is lacking in feeling or emotion.” Kuschke perhaps realized that Clark’s denial of emotion in God implied a denial also of the WMO. For, if God indeed has no emotions, might that also mean that He has no desires? Thus Kuschke asked Clark, “Does God sincerely offer the Gospel to the reprobates?” To this Clark responded, “God makes a perfectly free and public offer of the Gospel to all men. I stand on the wording of the Confession.”

It is important to see that Clark avoided applying to God any of the terms “sincere,” “well-meant,” “desire,” or “emotion.” And he continued to avoid these terms as similar questions (from whom it is not clear) came during his examination:

Q: God, in all sincerity in inviting even the reprobates to Eternal Life and is pleased to have them accept the invitation. How can God, who already from eternity decided that certain men would be damned make such an offer, that is a paradox to me.

A: The solution to that paradox, is the distinction between the outward public call and the actual call of the Holy Spirit. The call of the spirit comes to God[‘s] Elect only. I don’t see a paradox there, it seems perfectly clear to me.

Q: You are not ready to say that the offer and invitation which God makes in the Gospel are sincere in the case of every individual.

A: The word “sincere” is not a word in the Confession and it seems to me to be a peculiar word attached to a command.

Q: Also an invitation and offer.

A: I would quite agree with the statement in the Canons of Dort, an unfeigned command.

Q: Please God, all who are called should comply with the invitation.

A: That is an expression of his preceptive will.

Q: Its not only that, it is more than that, not only an expression of his preceptive will, it is also an expression [of] what would please him, namely: men should obey his command?

A: I know only two wills of God preceptive and [decretive] and certainly it is not a matter of his decree – his [decretive] will, obviously it is a matter of preceptive will.

Q: It might be a matter of his emotions?

A: God is without passion.

Four years later, when all was said and done, both Majority and Minority Reports were written in the OPC on the subject of the FOG. In support of their position that God desires the salvation of the reprobate, the Majority Report of Murray, Stonehouse, and Kuschke referenced a number biblical passages including: Eze. 33:11, Matt. 5:44-48, Acts 14:17, Deut. 5:29, Deut. 32:29, Psalm 81:14ff, Isa. 48:18, Matt. 23:37, Luke 13:34, Eze. 18:23, 32, Is. 45:22, and 2 Peter 3:9. But focusing on a more systematic approach, the Minority Report of William Young and Floyd Hamilton argued that God does not desire the salvation of the reprobate because, for one,

“Desire suggests a want or lack in the one who desires which can be fulfilled only by the gratifying of the desire. This is incompatible with the self-sufficiency of God. Desire is something weaker than the firm determination of the will. No such weak wishing can properly be ascribed to God whose will is firmly fixed and fixes all things. God has not a will that can be frustrated as well as one that cannot be.”

And they argued that such supposed “desires” in God are merely anthropopathisms:

“That the term desire is employed after the manner of men and is not to be understood literally as implying an emotion in God may appear in view of the following Scriptural principles: a) There is frequent employment of anthropopathic language in Scripture, in which grief, anger, jealously, curiosity, and repentance are ascribed to Deity. Such passages teach that God acts in a manner which we are taught to view as corresponding to the manner of action of human beings moved by such passions. From these Scriptures the presence of such passions in God cannot be inferred.”

“The particular passages of Scripture alleged to support frustable desires no more prove desire as an emotion or passion in God than the assertion ‘it repented God…” proves a real change of his mind, or that God actually desires to know that the wickedness of Sodom was as it had been represented to him.” (Appendix 71)

Clark certainly also approved of the idea of divine anthropopathism in the Scripture. In an entry written for the Wycliffe Bible Encyclopedia in 1975 on God’s immutability, he explained:

“Occasionally the Bible attributes repentance or regret to God in I Sam 15:11, 35 it is stated that God repented (Heb. Niham, “feel compassion, grief, sorrow”) of having made Saul king over Israel. This seems to indicate a change of mind or emotion in God. But between these two verses, in v. 29 we read that ‘The Strength of Israel will not lie nor repent: for he is not a man, that he should repent.’ God’s seeming change of mind or attitude therefore should be taken as an anthropopathism, the attributing of human emotions to God, just as we understand the arms and eyes of the Lord as anthropomorphisms.”

But what of those writing from the majority – did they deny anthropopathism to support their doctrine of WMO? This appears to be so when we find the following written in their Majority Report:

“Again, the expression ‘God desires,’ in the formula that crystallizes the crux of the question, is intended to notify not at all the ‘seeming’ attitude of God but a real attitude, a real disposition of lovingkindness inherent in the free offer to all, in other words, a pleasure or delight in God, contemplating the blessed result to be achieved by compliance with the overture proffered and the invitation given.” (Appendix 52)

In denying a “seeming attitude” in favor of a “real attitude” it is apparent that anthropopathism is being denied. And a denial of anthropopathism is necessary to maintain their position. For if God has no true desire or if God has only “seeming” anthropopathic desires, then He does not truly desire the salvation of the reprobate. Divine anthropopathism provides sufficient reason to deny the WMO.

But, is the argument from anthropopathism even necessary for a denial of the WMO? That is, are the desires of God in the verses referenced in the Majority Report even universal in the first place?

In Clark’s later writings he commented on some of the more challenging verses that the Murray et. al. raise. And what Clark argues in each case is that God’s desire for salvation is limited to the elect and thus God does not desire the salvation of the reprobate:

Regarding Ezekiel 18:23, 32 and 33:11, Clark wrote:

“Whether the Arminians might prefer discussions of other verses, Ezekiel, chapters 18 and 33, are surely fair choices. … At this point one must note that Paul addresses ‘all that be in Rome’; ‘the church of God which is at Corinth’; ‘the church of Galatia,’ without any added reference to saints as in the first two books; then ‘unto the church of the Thessalonians which is in God the Father’; similarly II Thessalonians. While now the Arminian may disallow Romans and Corinthians, it is clear that Paul addresses the other two churches without any phrase that might indicate he is addressing only a part of their membership. He treats the congregations on the basis of their public profession even though there may be several non-Christians among them. Similarly in Ezekiel, the prophet addresses the house of Israel. Surely Ezekiel knew that ‘he is not a Jew which is one outwardly,’ and that ‘they are not all Israel which are of Israel.’ Therefore the contiguous verse in Ezekiel, the context of the book as a whole, and the references in the New Testament indicate that God has no pleasure in the death of Israel.” (Gordon H. Clark, Predestination in the Old Testament, p. 41-42.)

Regarding Deuteronomy 5:29, Clark wrote:

“One verse used against predestination is Deuteronomy 5:29, which says, ‘O that there were such an heart in them that would fear me … that it might be well with them and with their children forever.’ The Arminians argue that this desire of God is inconsistent with the decrees of election and reprobation. If there were such decrees, the sentiment of this verse would be hypocritical. The verse implies, say the Arminians, that God gives all mens sufficient grace for conversion, while man’s acceptance or use of this grace depends on his own free will. It is not hard to answer this Arminian argument. First, God’s strong and sincere wish for the salvation of some men is entirely consistent with a decree to elect these persons. To make their point, the Arminians would have to show that God desired the salvation of all men; but this verse only refers to Israelites. If any verse seems to say that God desires the salvation of all and is not willing that any should perish, it will be discussed in its proper order. Here at least the wish is restricted to a few people. If this verse or any verse speaks of God as wishing the salvation of someone whom he has rejected as reprobate, there would be an inconsistency implying hypocrisy. But this is not the case here, for here God is speaking of his chosen people. … As for the Israelites who were lost, Paul reminds us that they are not all Israel, which are of Israel; but that there is an Israel of God; and so all Israel shall be saved.” (Gordon H. Clark, Biblical Predestination, p. 130-131.)

And regarding 2 Peter 3:9, Clark wrote:

If it had been fully realized that Peter was addressing Christians, a great deal of theological confusion would have been avoided. Arminians have used the verse in defense of their theory of universal atonement. They believe that God willed to save every human being without exception and that something beyond his control happened so as to defeat his eternal purpose. … Peter is telling us that Christ’s return awaits the repentance of certain people. Now, if Christ’s return awaited the repentance of every individual without exception, Christ would never return. Already many have died unrepentant, and their number grows larger every day. The only time when every individual had come to repentance was when Adam and Eve repented and were clothed with skins. The Arminians, unwittingly to be sure, imply that Christ should have returned then—his second advent antedating his first. … Peter therefore is saying simply that Christ will not return until every one of the elect has come to repentance.” (Gordon H. Clark, I and II Peter, Book II, p. 71.)

We conclude therefore with Matthew Winzer who has written:

Those who reject Prof. Murray’s predication of a desire in God for the salvation of all men, do so for this very reason: because his report does not give proper regard to the anthropomorphic language of Scripture. Consequently, it represents God, not as incompetent to obtain what He desires, but as unwilling to have what He apparently desires and is fully competent to obtain. Hence, the rejection of Prof. Murray’s formulation proceeds, not on the basis that it contradicts the light of nature, but that it contradicts the light of Scripture. Moreover, the Scriptural references which Prof. Murray has alleged in favour of his formulation, do not teach what he has endeavoured so earnestly to extract from them. (Matthew Winzer, “Murray on the Free Offer, A Review”, The Blue Banner, October / December 2000,