Stated and Defended
THE SUBSTANCE OF TWO DISCOURSES ON PREDESTINATION AND ON RECEIVING THE GRACE OF GOD IN VAIN, preached at several Camp grounds in the State of Georgia, in 1849, by Russell Reneau. Oxford, Ga.—Office of the Southern Family Journal. 1849
Religious controversy should never, without pressing necessity, be entered into. However pure may be the motives, which, at first, influence the combatants on both sides, and however unexceptionable the manner in which the discussion may be conducted, it is next to impossible to confine it to the naked question at issue, and it seldom, if ever, fails to be unprofitable to those engaged in it. Stimulated by knowing that they are contending under the eye of their respective friends, whose cause is entrusted to their hands, and too proud to consent to appear inferior to their opponents, they are too often tempted to lose sight of the glory of God and to struggle merely for victory, which is seldom conceded, but which, if even by general consent achieved, is too often connected with alienation of feeling and the excitement of bitter animosities in the minds of partisans on both sides. Men do not enter into controversy with the desire to ascertain the truth. Each steps into the arena with a conviction, not to be shaken, that he is the champion of the truth; and having taken his stand, he feels it incumbent upon him to sustain not only his opinions, but himself. Whoever heard of a controversialist that acknowledged himself to be convinced of error and that openly yielded to the force of his antagonist’s arguments? True, those who, not being committed to either party, dispassionately witness the contest may be aided in the acquisition of truth; but with the combatants and their friends, the more ordinary result is that they are each more firmly established in their respective sentiments. To a man of pacific temper, therefore, it is disagreeable to engage in controversy, and the earnest seeker after truth will more easily attain to it by any other process. But yet, religious controversy is sometimes necessary. The world abounds in errors, and we are commanded to contend and earnestly, too, for the faith once delivered to the saints. Assaults upon truth committed to our trust should be met, whatever may be the character of the assailant, and whatever the manner in which he conducts his assaults. True, it is always more agreeable, and sometimes more consonant with one’s self-respect, to pass by in silence the dogmatic and the uncandid; but necessity requires, however much our disgust may be excited, that we notice even them, otherwise they may be wise in their own conceits, and the wavering may have misgivings that their attacks cannot be repelled. In engaging in controversy with persons of this description, however, we should see to it that we are influenced solely by a regard for the truth, and that we be not provoked into the same unlovely spirit which they betray. It is always an evidence of an unsanctified temper, or of the weakness of our cause or of both, when we indulge in personalities and abuse. Never until we feel that our arguments are exhausted are we tempted to stand by our arms. The weapons of the Christian’s warfare should never be carnal, and his self-respect as a gentleman should make him scorn to bandy epithets with an antagonist. Not that we would be understood to say that a Christian should never use severity. It is often as necessary to answer the man as the argument; and in doing so, rebuke administered with a proper spirit and in a proper manner, exerts sometimes a wholesome influence.
Thus much would we say, partly in deprecation of the necessity which seems to impel us to controvert the positions of the publication whose title we have given above, and partly as an assertion of the principles by which we shall be governed in the attempt.
This is a pamphlet of twenty-eight pages and contains the substance of two sermons delivered in various parts of Middle Georgia in 1849. They created quite a sensation at the time, and their author, having no further use for them for the pulpit, has slightly expurgated them, and the world is now blessed with them in a more permanent form. They are designed as attacks (in their author’s opinion, it would seem, very effective ones) upon the Calvinistic doctrines of Predestination and, what is called, the Final Perseverance of the Saints. There is nothing original about them, excepting the spirit that is exhibited and some ingenious misapprehensions of the plain language of Calvinistic writers, which no one before has been so constituted as to fall into. Leaving these out of view, the remaining is made up of arguments in a diluted state, borrowed, without acknowledgment, from standard Arminian writers; and if we were assured that our readers are in possession of the authors on the Calvinistic side of the question, we should consider ours (excepting in so far as we may be performing a service to our author) a work of supererogation. This publication, we suppose, is but an earnest of what is to follow as we are told on page 1: "We are determined that if it (Calvinism) lives any longer than we do that it shall not be our fault." We hope that on this announcement, our Calvinistic readers will not give way to unnecessary alarm: Calvinism had survived Arminius, and Whitby, and Wesley, and Fletcher, and Watson, and a host of other able assailants. Let us live in hopes, therefore, that it may possibly survive even Mr. Reneau.
Our author, however, has formally declared war against Calvinism and, in effect, announced that he has not only drawn his sword but thrown the scabbard away. The war, under his direction, is to be of the most sanguinary character. Nothing short of complete extermination will satisfy him. "We have determined that if it (Calvinism) lives any longer than we do that it shall not be our fault." No quarter is to be granted—perhaps none is to be asked. Conscious of his strength, he may be confident that he will occupy the victorious position of Samson when in triumph he sung: "With the jaw of an ass have I slain a thousand men;" or perhaps, like the same Samson in adversity, he anticipates that, by a mighty effort of strength, he will rejoice to overwhelm in one common destruction both himself and his enemies. However this may be, we confess it shocks us to hear such a blood-thirsty determination announced. There are to be granted no terms of honorable capitulation—the forces of Calvinism are not to be cheered with the hope that, if it come to the worst, they can save their lives by surrendering at discretion. Entreat as piteously as they may for mercy, it is in no case to be granted them. The lifeblood of one or both, it is sternly decided, must water the ground! Is not this the nineteenth century? Has not the savage ferocity of war been mitigated by the spirit of the Gospel and by the humanizing influences of advancing civilization? We hope our author, for his own sake, will reconsider this determination. It may make Calvinism desperate. If he has no bowels of mercy and no respect for "the spirit of the age," —if none of the softer or the nobler motives can influence him, then let prudence and sound policy cause him to haul down that blood-red flag. If he has unrelentingly determined that the forces of Calvinism shall, in no case, be prisoners on parole, let them have the consolation to know that they shall be prisoners of some sort, or they will sell their lives as dearly as possible.
But, after all, we are more than half inclined to think that the danger to Calvinism from him has its existence only in our author’s harmless self-complacency. That he considers himself a warrior of no inferior stamp—destined to achieve victories which no polemical hero before him (he tacitly acknowledges) has been adequate to, is abundantly evident, not only from this, but from other passages of his production; but we see no reason why any body else should labor under the same delusion—surely there is none to be found in the performance before us. It is no uncommon thing for men to "think of themselves more highly than they ought to think." Where they are composed of materials suitable for the purpose and placed in a favorable position, a very little encouragement makes them in fancy swell out beyond all reasonable proportions: and there is no conception of themselves too exalted for them to entertain. Herod, while listening to the adulation of his courtiers, fancied himself a God; and a wise King of Macedon, aware of his propensity of poor human nature, enjoined it upon one of his household to repeat to him daily, "Remember, O King, that thou art mortal!" We are not quite sure that a monitor of the same kind would not be of service to our author?
Notwithstanding, however, he broadly intimates that he has much confidence in his success, his language would seem to imply that he has some apprehension that he may, after all, fail in his super-human enterprise. "If it lives any longer than we do, it shall not be our fault." He will at least make a conscientious use of the strength he possesses. He feels that a solemn responsibility rests upon him in the premises—that much has been given him and therefore much will be required of him. The blood of all the controversialists flows through his veins—the strength of all the champions of Arminianism nerves his arm"—"his height is six cubits and a span" (1 Sam. 17:4), and he is commanded to use his resources for the annihilation of Calvinism. Will he come up to his responsibilities? If he fails it shall not be his fault! But suppose Calvinism should not be accommodating enough to die when he attacks it, how will he infallibly know that he has acquitted himself as in duty bound? We fancy that we see him now harassed by the most painful uncertainty. Some months ago he made his first attack and discharged at his enemy seventy-two paragraphs (all numbered off), and since then silence has reigned over the field of operations. If he fancies that this silence is caused by his complete success and that Calvinism lies among the slain, it becomes our painful office to inform him that it is not dead but sleepeth and that we are the only one of its friends that seem to have been awakened by the noise of the attack! But then what becomes of his conscientious determination so to act as to avoid blame? Could he not have hurled one paragraph more? Did he have no other shot to fire? Perhaps another shot, more lucky than the rest, might have reached his enemy’s heart and freed the world of bondage. Why then did he not discharge it? If he did all that he could, what becomes of his ostentatious profession of strength? Verily there seems to be an antagonism here—Strength vs. Conscience. His exalted conceptions of himself, or his conscience, one or the other, must give way. Our author’s estimate of his powers must be lowered, in the present aspect of the case, or (his conscience remaining lively) he must be in the most painful state of uncertainty as to whether he is to be any longer responsible for the existence of Calvinism. Verily, Atlas requires much strength to sustain the weight of the world!
"I am determined, that if it survives my attacks!" Surely Mr. Reneau’s perception of the ludicrous must be defective? Calvinism has never heard of him before, and if its advocates ever think of him hereafter, it will never be in a connection flattering to his vanity!
We confidently believe that no publication in the language of the same length, contains as great an amount of bitterness and as many examples of misrepresentation as that upon which we are animadverting. The author seems to have written with the feelings of the man, who having the most self-satisfying confidence in his own prowess, and having ostentatiously called upon the whole world to witness the ease with which he would demolish his antagonist, is made conscious at last of a disgraceful failure, and vents his impotent rage by abusive epithets at a respectful distance. Like the Mexican Chief, who soothed the mortification of repulse by pronouncing the American General so ignorant of military science as not to know when he was defeated—or, more properly, like the blustering quarrelsome urchin, who said if he could not chastise the larger boy he could make faces at him.
The following examples of his style and spirit, under appropriate heads, are given, not because they are the worst of their kind, but because they are shorter and can be more easily extracted.
His Courtesy and Liberality. — "But in order to carry out their Calvinistic scheme, this talk, &c., has been made a part of their visionary scheme and theories; —To exhibit still further the mad scheme of this system," &c., (p.16). "No man that prefers the truth to his own prejudices, it would seem to us, could doubt that Jesus did intend on this occasion to teach that his disciples might lose their religion." "Calvinists holding on to their error with a zeal worthy of a better cause." —"if we were to admit this foolish hypothesis" (p.19). "No man can mistake here provided his prejudices have not blinded him and so wholly perverted his understanding, that nothing could instruct him" (p.21). "Is there a man on this Camp-Ground stupid enough to believe such to be the true meaning of these texts of Holy Writ? Every one who has sense enough to know the road to the mill knows better" (p.23). "We feel that enough has been said to satisfy every honest inquirer after truth, that it is possible for a man to receive the grace of God in vain and thus perish everlastingly" (p.23). "Do Calvinists think the world dull enough to believe that such argument makes out their doctrine?" (p.27).
His Candor. —"It is palpable that Calvinists hold that God’s elect are ordained to everlasting life without any regard to their Christian character" (p. 14).
His Dogmatism. —"This is indeed a very convenient method of proving an unscriptural doctrine" (p.6). "If we believe no more concerning predestination than the Bible teaches, we will never believe the Calvinistic notion on that subject" (p. 11). "Neither these" (passages of scripture) "nor any others prove anything at all in their favor" (p.27).
His Refinement. — "If a poor reprobate were to commit such crimes, eternal damnation in Hell-fire would be the consequence, but let one of these predestinated pets commit them, and they will have the headache or some other punishment and then bask in heaven’s smiles world without end" (p. 15).
Any where else than in a sermon, this would be called slang. Other examples under this head we deem it proper to suppress, as they are too gross to meet the eye of our lady readers.
His Deference to the Bible. —"Convince us that Christianity tolerates such things, and we will plead its cause no more" (p.15).
Finally, in the way of extracts: "We fear our Calvinistic friends will not easily forgive us for our frank dealing with their favorite doctrines" (p.17). "If our Calvinistic brethren feel hurt, they may rest assured that we deliver these sentiments out of no unkind feelings. It is because we thus believe that we thus preach" (p.12). We hope that after this none of our Calvinistic readers will be so unreasonable as to continue dissatisfied. True, our author says that they are "silly" and "dull" and "stupid" and "prejudiced" and "dishonest" and "without sense enough to know the road to the mill", but "it is because he thus believes that he thus writes." Let us, therefore, be grateful for his tenderness and repress our complainings.
The Bible addresses us in plain and intelligible language. While there are many mysteries in it that angels desire in vain to look into and many things difficult to be understood which the perverse frequently wrest to their own destruction, those truths which pertain to eternal life are revealed in the most unambiguous language. God does not dishonor Himself and trifle with His creatures by making their salvation to depend upon the reception of doctrines that are either unintelligible or contradictory. His system of heavenly truth is harmonious and consistent; and revealed with perspicuity and precision. Commencing here on earth with the first "principles of the doctrine of Christ" —with "repentance from dead works and faith toward God," it ascends a glorious chain, each link shining more brightly as it rises into the pure heavens above until it glitters in the effulgence that shines from God’s throne. We are not only commanded to search the scriptures, but we are encouraged by the promise that we shall know if we follow on to know the Lord. Like his sanctification, the path of the Christian’s knowledge is as the shining light that shines more and more unto the perfect day. God designed that His people should understand His truth—nay, He has made their salvation to depend upon their belief of it—and it is His will that they should all come into the unity of the faith, that they should be one as Christ and the Father are one. Why then is there such a diversity of sentiment in the Christian world? Why is it that even evangelical sects draw from the scriptures systems so diametrically opposite? That good men do differ in theological sentiment is indisputable and is as lamentable as it is true; but the reason is not to be found in any ambiguity in the word of God. Some of the difference, perhaps, is to be ascribed to the diversity of their mental constitution and the different way in which the same evidence strikes different minds; much to the force of early bias, to the influence of association, and to the distorted media, therefore through which the truth is seen—much to the carelessness with which many read the scriptures and to the indolence which causes them to construct a system out of fragments of Bible truth; but without doubt no inconsiderable part of the disagreement is to be attributed to presumption. Professing Christians (sometimes unconsciously) not infrequently form in advance an idea in their minds—drawn from the teachings of others or from their own reflections—of the character of God and of the doctrines which he ought to promulgate and then afterwards consult the Bible to prove that their views are correct; and some carry their presumption to such daring lengths as to reject the Bible if it fails to sustain them in their positions. May not those opinions, which would rob Christ of His divinity, which deny the doctrine of the trinity—and those others which would make eternal life the portion of all mankind, have their origin here?
While we are far from the bigotry which would make us assert that the denomination to which we belong are the only people exempt from this presumption, and as far from the illiberality which would induce us to apply it to any individual who may differ from us—while we are free to grant, until evidence appear to the contrary, that all evangelical Christians who differ from us are as honest seekers after truth as we are; we feel no hesitation in placing any one in this category who openly confesses it to be his appropriate place. Such our author has done. He has, in effect, declared that, if it can be shown to him that the Bible teaches Calvinism, he will reject it, and turn his back upon it. "Convince us that Christianity tolerates such things, and we will plead its cause no more" (p.15). Like the madman in "The World’s Anti-slavery Convention" who said: convince me that the Bible sanctions slavery, and I cast it to the winds and learn my religion from the flowers of the field. The "things" he refers to here are such as he ascribes—it matters not whether justly or unjustly—to Calvinists, and which do not therefore, by universal consent, bear upon their face the infallible marks of falsity. Convince him that the sentiments of Edwards, and Doddridge, and Baxter, and a host of other worthies—who lived in the faith, and who being dead yet speak—are tolerated by the word of God, and he will plead its cause no more! Verily he has placed himself in a dilemma from which it is impossible that he can be extricated. If he knew in his heart that these sentiments, which were so horrifying to him, were no less decidedly rejected by all other Christians, and that he could therefore with safety stake his reverence for the Bible upon their falsity, then he was guilty of bearing false witness against his brethren. But if he sincerely believed that they were the sentiments of his opponents, then he stands convicted of prescribing terms to Almighty God and of saying to Him that if it can be proved that He sanctions Calvinism, he will plead His cause no more!
He utters a threat that, in a certain contingency mentioned, he "will plead the cause of Christianity no more."It is evidently his intention here that somebody should take warning—But who? Not his opponents, surely; for if their measure of his efficiency come up to the half his pretensions, they would rejoice that there is a prospect of his quitting the field: not his friends and co-laborers; for they are innocent of any blame in the premises. Against whom then is the threat uttered? Is it possible that our author is unconscious of its impious nature!
The advocates of Calvinism seem to be in a strait here betwixt two. If they permit the argument to go against them by default, they give up what they conceive to be important scripture truth: if they vanquish their assailant, they do it at the expense of making an infidel of him—or we should rather say, of driving him into open connection with infidels; for his threat contains already all the essential elements of infidelity. No explanation can make it much better for him, but we would fain hope, that this sentence escaped him in the heat of chronic passion!
And this is the man that with so much confidence intimates that he is destined to exterminate Calvinism from the land! How will he do it? He has fallen upon a poor expedient to prepare the way for success. We thank God that, in this highly favored land, the doctrine of the Reformation so generally prevails: "The Bible, without note or comment, the only and the all sufficient rule of faith and practice." The people profess to yield themselves with humble submission to the teachings of God’s word, and they will say to him and to all others like him, "Let God be true, but every man a liar."
It is a rule in parliamentary proceedings that if the provisions of a bill do not conform to its title, it is to be rejected. Were our author’s first sermon tried by the same principle, it would meet with the same fate. It has seldom been our lot to read a production (as far as the argument is concerned) so desultory and incongruous. He uses his arguments in as arbitrary a manner as he does the figures with which he begins his paragraphs. Question them as closely as you may, you will fail to learn from them their adaptation to the case in hand. Old as they are and as much as they have seen of the world, we venture the assertion they have never found themselves in such strange connections before. What dependence they have upon each other and what support they mutually afford, it is difficult to discern. And yet they need all the assistance they can obtain; for, divest them of the martial livery put upon them by their present owner and exorcise them of the evil spirit with which they are possessed, and they are exhibited to be of the most feeble and attenuated nature with hardly strength enough to maintain a perpendicular attitude. Besides, being employed from their youth for other purposes now that old age and hard usage are added to constitutional weakness, they do not possess the flexibility which would make them useful auxiliaries in an employment so contrary to their natures and their habits. Never, perhaps, were very innocent arguments so badly treated. Another example, doubtless, tending to establish the truth of the old saying—that we esteem that lightly which cost us little.
But, we have said that the production is desultory and incongruous. In the title, the author proposes to attack Calvinistic Predestination; but, in giving a description of it, he defines (in a lame and ungrammatical way) Election; while the attack itself is leveled chiefly at the doctrine of necessity, as opposed to the Arminian idea of Liberty or self-determining power! Why is this? Is it because he is ignorant of that which he professes to assail; or, aping a skillful General, does he design to weaken the point aimed at, by compelling the garrison (as expecting a general attack) to occupy, at the same time, the whole line of defense? Does he amuse us with feigned attacks, that he may mask his real intentions? If so, we submit to him whether this comports with the confidence, more than hinted, that his forces are sufficient, by dint of mere strength, to raze our fortress to its foundations and to put the garrison to the sword? And it may be well, too, for him to bear in mind that, while deceptions on a warlike theatre and on a large scale are called by dignified names and, when successful, are applauded in a more limited sphere, they degenerate into mere tricks which not infrequently bring their perpetrators into merited contempt.
Election and the doctrine of Necessity are important parts of Predestination, but they do not constitute the whole of it. Why, then, did he not give to his readers a definition of Predestination in the very words of its advocates and attempt, fairly and in a manly way, a refutation of it in all its parts and as a whole? Only two suppositions can be given. Either he did not comprehend that to which he was objecting, or he designedly left it in uncertainty that he might avail himself of all the prejudices and misapprehensions of his hearers—that, by using disjoined parts (and disfigured at that) of the Calvinistic system, united with others of his own invention, he might construct a hideous image (adapting it to his capacity as an adversary) and call it Predestination; and, having demolished this, his depraved creature (to the relief of Calvinists, no less than of Arminians) might set up a shout of triumph, as if he had gained a victory over Calvinism. This course may have been very successful (on a small scale) for the time; but our author will find that it will react, with retributive force upon himself. He may have thought, while skipping about, with such marvelous agility over all parts of the field (excepting the right one)—making so much noise and raising such a smoke—that he would bewilder his adversary and gain the admiration of the lookers-on; and, if he should fail of victory, find at least in the smoke and dust a concealment from the resentment he provoked. But let him know that Calvinism, if it feel so disposed, can trace him out in the deep obscurity he has created, and, having dragged him forth into the light, can bestow upon him before the world the chastisement which will be salutary, not only for his correction, but as a warning to all like him inclined.
Our author possesses some of that ingenuity which is efficient in misrepresenting an opponent and is gifted in no ordinary degree with the powers of denunciation and abuse; but he seems to be entirely destitute of analysis. We defy any one to extract a complete skeleton from this sermon. It would seem as if he sat down to write, without any system in his mind, and with nothing to guide his ideas but the bitter feelings by which they were impelled. The only difficulties, therefore, in the way of answering his arguments consist 1st—in finding out what they are, and 2nd—in perceiving what bearing they have upon the subject after they are discovered. In his title, he essays to give us a treatise on Predestination; but, excepting the arbitrary use of the word, his denunciation is of any other Calvinistic doctrine rather.
Institui; currente rota cur urceus exit?
Again, he professes to treat of Calvinistic doctrines; but, in his statement of them, he quotes from the writings of Dr. Hopkins! Now, every polemic theologian ought to know that the Doctor was the founder of a distinct school and is not acknowledged as a Calvinist at all. Many of his sentiments, doubtless, as well as those of James Arminius, conform to our system; but this makes the one, not more than the other, a disciple of John Calvin. Why, then, is Dr. Hopkins cited in this connection? If he meant not to violate the common principles of fairness, he furnishes us with another instance of his inability to pursue steadily the object before him. Having a grudge against the Calvinists, he belabors the Hopkinsains! Let him take care lest he may by mistake kill the wrong man. That would be very sad and may be, if possible, a source of regret even to him. But, why did he not quote from those exclusively who are universally acknowledged as standard Calvinistic writers? To have done so would have given him less opportunity perhaps for the exercise of his peculiar gifts; but it would have been more candid, and we will say also more manly. It matters not though the language quoted from Dr. Hopkins expressed exactly Calvinistic sentiments; it is enough to know that we are no more responsible for him than we are for Mr. Reneau. And this is another specimen of his candor! It would seem that he is so bent on the destruction of Calvinism as to feel authorized for this purpose to adopt the Roman Catholic principle that the end sanctifies the means. This, however, is not one of the most glaring of the misrepresentations with which his pamphlet abounds. We do not know that it will be of any avail; but we would advise him, hereafter, to take pains in advance to understand any thing before he attacks it and to endeavor to treat his opponents with justice and candor. It may make him feel better and fare better—"All they that take the sword shall perish with the sword."