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.