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A Debate (1)

The scene of this debate may be in any of our Young People’s Societies, either here in Michigan or as far west as Bell­flower, California. However, I like to think of it as being conducted in a so­ciety of one of our mid-western churches on a Sunday evening. (Sunday evening is the set time for Young People’s So­ciety meetings in the mid-west. And around the calendar year, you must know.) The leader of this society is an industrious minister, who has already preached twice during the day, with not too long a noon hour to recuperate, and possibly has had a catechism to teach after the afternoon service for good measure, not to forget the few shovels of coal that he threw on the furnace fire “to meet” the janitor. But love for the sheep of Christ and an intense desire to feed and nurture them in the fear and admonition of the Lord makes this task of leading the Covenant Youth on Sun­day evening a most pleasant work.

This industrious minister has an equal­ly industrious Young People’s Society.

All kinds of questions both of a prac­tical and also of a more doctrinal nature are discussed. From time to time in the after-recess program recitations are giv­en, poems are read (yes, by the one who composed it) and book-reports are ren­dered. And now they also intend to have a debate on a very doctrinal, practical and pivotal question. It is the question which is, and rightly so, the Shibboleth between those who are Reformed and those who are Pelagian-Arminian.

The minister suggests, that the subject to be debated be the following: “Re­solved: That the Responsibility of Man Does Not Postulate His Ability to be Obedient to the Command of the Gospel.”

The Minister realizes that those who are to take the negative side in this de­bate will be placed on dangerous ground. They will have to debate, not from the conviction of what they believe on this question, but will have to do their best even if driven into the Pelagian-Arminian corner, to defend the negative side of the debate. But their slogan too is: epi pasin aleetheia, that is, above everything the truth.

The minister selects the young people, who he thinks will best be able to con­duct this debate. He himself will give them their source material and will have a conference with each team separately. For convenience sake the team taking the affirmative side we will call Norman and John and the team to argue the negative side we will call Christina and Lavern.

Both teams have prepared their argu­ments and defined the terms. The par­ticular Sunday evening has come. Let us quietly slip into, the rear of the church auditorium and listen in.

The first speaker of the affirmative side rises and addresses the society mem­bers, visitors, etc. His task is to define the terms for the affirmative side. At least he will attempt to direct the debate in the right direction. He calls attention to the fact that the terms of the subject to be debated are: “The Responsibility of Man”. And he also calls attention to the fact that it is the burden of the af­firmative to prove that from this re­sponsibility of man it does not follow that he is “able to obey the command of  the Gospel”.

Norman, therefore, gives his definition of the term “responsibility”. It is: Our being legally and morally answerable for the discharge of a duty, trust or debt, and having the intellectual and moral ca­pacity to perceive the difference between right and wrong”. Such is, in the main, the definition given by the English dic­tionary, Funk and Wagnalls. That this is the correct definition is born out by the derivation of the term. It is derived from the Latin verb respondeo—meaning: to reply, to give an answer back.

Norman also points out the meaning of the closely allied term: Accountability. The term “accountability” is closely as­sociated in meaning with the term “re­sponsibility”. However, there is a differ­ence in viewpoint. That the meaning of the term “accountability” differs from “responsibility” is evident from its deriv­ation. The former term is derived from the Latin verb: ad-computo. Ad—means: to, and computo means: to recon to­gether, to estimate numerically, calcu­late, recon. And thus to come to the final sum be it in addition or subtraction or other combinations. And, thus, Nor­man continued, to compute, to give ac­count, refers to the final sum of any­thing. It is the end of the problem. It is the proof of the sum. And applied to man’s responsibility it is period behind of all of a man’s existence, the account that he must give of his deeds before God, whether it be good or evil. It is the period, God’s period behind history when the “books are opened”. In these books, which are the books of our con­sciences, all our “responses”, our answers to the commands of the Gospel and to the law of God are recorded. The re­sponse of the deepest spiritual attitude of the heart and mind.

Norman, as the first speaker of the affirmative, points out that it is impor­tant to see this distinction. Responsi­bility is the ability to give a moral re­sponse to the Word of God whether it comes as Law or Gospel. Accountability is the having to give account before God for these responses in the day of judg­ment. In their respective order Re­sponsibility is before accountability. Only the responsible creature is accountable in a corresponding manner.

Now this responsibleness of man, be­fore God does not presuppose, it does not postulate the ability to respond properly and believingly to the command of the Gospel. According to Norman, the first speaker in the affirmative, this is the only point of contention in the debate. He, therefore, insists that this be kept very clearly in mind in this debate.

Now the first speaker of the negative side takes the floor. It is the task of Christina to show that responsibility pre­supposes the ability to believe the gospel and to obey its command.

She too emphasizes that responsibility comes from the Latin verb respondeo. It refers to man’s answerableness to a charge, trust or duty. However, she in­sists that the first speaker of the af­firmative had not told the whole truth. The whole truth is that Punk and Wagnalls also states that responsibility includes: “the ability to meet obligations”. She, the first speaker of the negative, would plead that this be not forgotten. This is a very current usage of the term “responsibility” in every day speech. Re­sponsibility suggests to the average man not only the “must” but also the “can” to meet our obligations. And, therefore, there can be no reasonable doubt, that it ought to have this meaning also in the terms of our debate.

Her conclusion is that responsibileness to the preaching of the gospel and to the command of Christ ought to include the ability to choose for the obedience to the gospel, for otherwise how can man be reasonably accountable before God. It surely is not reasonable to have re­sponsibility without having the ability to respond, does it? Surely the fact that the gospel is addressed to us with the command to repent and believe implies that we have the ability to respond, does it not? Did not even the affirmative speaker tell us, that responsibility im­plies the “capacity to intellectually per­ceive the difference between right and wrong”? Then surely when this differ­ence comes to us in the preaching re­sponsible man can make this intellectual response to the command of the gospel, can he not?

She holds, as first speaker of the nega­tive that responsibility implies the ability to respond intellectually-morally to the preaching of the gospel. Were this not the case, man would not be accountable and God would not be just when He judges!

And so we must have the whole truth!

By this time the debate really has be­come serious. But let us be cautioned. We must not be swayed by specious argu­ments nor by the power of rhetoric and rhetorical questions. Which of the two is guilty of this we leave to the reader.

But we must go on. The next time we shall hear the remainder of this debate.