EVEN MORE WORDS
Anadiplosis (Devices V)
Paronomasia et al
Symploce et al.
Legal Words I
Legal Words II
Legal Words III
Bill Long 11/27/05
One of the signal joys of attending an Evangelical Seminary with strong commitment to the Reformed Theological tradition in the 1970s was that when people berated you, you learned new words. One of the first things I was called, lovingly no doubt, by one of my new-found friends was a reprobate. The guy who called me this was a friend of the guy who used to call me a troglodyte. At first I wasn't exactly sure what he meant by reprobate, but I soon learned that a reprobate was someone, from the perspective of Reformed theology, who was "passed over" by God and thus was destined for eternal torment in separation from God. Actually, I believe it is technically correct to call the "decree" of God's passing over people "preterition," while the active consignment to hell is reprobation, but when your destination is the same dismal place it might not be of much use to quibble over terms describing how you got there. The purpose of this essay is to explore the use of reprobate in both theological and legal contexts in the last 500 years.
Let's begin with a surprising absence of the term reprobate or reprobation. The Westminster Confession of Faith, the product of the Westminster Assembly in the mid-1640s, was a quintessentially Calvinist document. The Confession formed the theological basis for much of American Protestantism, at least until the acids of Enlightenment Deism and Arminianism had worn away the Calvinist underpinnings of religion in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. The most Calvinist article of the Confession is in Chapter III, "Of God's Eternal Decree." After speaking in general terms of God's purposing whatever comes to pass and saving the "elect," the Confession teaches the following:
"The rest of mankind, God was pleased, according to the unsearchable counsel of his own will, whereby he exendeth or withholdeth mercy as he pleaseth, for the glory of his sovereign power over his creatures, to pass by, and to ordain them to dishonor and wrath for their sin, to the praise of his glorious justice" (III.7).
Though the word "reprobation" isn't used here, God is said to "ordain them (those whom he passed over) to dishonor and wrath." It doesn't take long to decide that the doctrine of preterition or reprobation is one of the most unappealing things about Calvinism. But if you look at religions long enough, you begin to see that each one has skeletons so huge that they wouldn't fit into any closet known to man. It just happens that Calvinism's relates to the idea of reprobation.
Reprobation in the 16th Century
The reason that the word reprobate/reprobation (meaning to condemn, cast off, censure, reject or exclude) became so important in Protestantism is that it was used in various Scripture translations or expositions in the 16th century. Referring to Romans 9, John Bale could say in 1545: "Declare them first of all to the worlde, to be the reprobate veselles of disonour..." An author from 1550, referring to Romans 1:28 could say, "God hath given them up in to a reprobate mind." And, the Geneva Bible, the precursor to the KJV and the favorite of the Reformed community in the late 16th century, has these verses. From 2 Tim. 3:8: "Men of corrupte mindes, reprobate concerning the faith." Or, from Jer. 6:30: "They shall call them reprobate silver, because the Lord hath rejected them." Indeed, the adjective reprobate was a popular term in metallurgy, to denote something impure or of inferior quality, as indicated by this 1665 quotation: "There is a great deal of reprobate Silver which carries the image of the King and looks like Sterling."
The theological sense of reprobate, as one hardened in sin or rejected by God, dominated its usage in the 17th -19th century. Norton's 1561 translation of Calvin's Institutes had this (1.2): "Those men that are in themselves reprobate and accursed. All the "great writers" were aware of the theological usage. From Thomas Hobbes' Leviathan: "The end of Miracles, was to beget belief, not universally in all men, elect, and reprobate; but in the elect only." From Paradise Lost we have, "Their..Strength and Art are easily outdone/ By spirits reprobate. And, Harriet Beecher Stowe, in Uncle Tom's Cabin, herself the spouse of a professor at a Reformed seminary, used the word correctly in the theological sense when she said, "Hard and reprobate as the godless man seemed now..." I especially like the theological use of a form of the word reprobance invented, surprise surprise, by Shakespeare. In Othello V.ii, where the bed is just beginning to be loaded with corpses (we only have Desdemona dead so far), Gratiano looks on the scene and speaks of Desdemona's deceased father:
"This sight would make him do a desperate turn,/ Yea, curse his better Angel from his side,/ And fall to reprobance" V.ii. 207-209.
A secular usage of it, to mean one who was an "abandoned or unprincipled person" appeared beginning with Shakespeare ("What if we do omit This Reprobate.. til he were well inclin'd"--MfM) and is attested in authors as various as DeFoe and Macauley.
Reprobation in Law
I ran across an interesting use of the verb reprobate in law that is not attested in the OED. In about five state law cases in the last 200 years the phrase "reprobate the will" has occurred. Of course this suggests a resubmitting of the will to probate rather than some kind of condemning the will, but I thought it was interesting that courts could make up this usage.
The verb reprobate appears in law and means "to reject as not binding on one." It is mostly used in Scottish law, according to the OED. From 1726: "An exception lies against the Tenor of an Instrument by other Proofs and Evidence in Writing: and this Method (among others) is the best way of reprobating an instrument." But the more common use of the verb in law is in opposition to approbate. A grantee of a deed cannot "approbate and reprobate the same deed." Or, explaining the phrase, from 1899: "The clerical objector cleaves to the one set of laws and rejects the other. He seeks to approbate and reprobate." This took on the flavor of a legal maxim (original Latin is quod approbo non reprobo--"that which I approve I cannot condemn") and means something similar to the more modern American maxim, "Don't bite the hand that feeds you." It is like complaining of the inadequacy of a gift--you don't receive someone's gift and then declare how insufficient it is all in the same breath.
But one other use of a word similar to reprobate in law ought to receive attention: reprobature and reprobator. In Scottish law a reprobator is "an action for the purpose of proving a witness to be liable to valid objections or to a charge of perjury." As John Erskine says in his classic 1768 treatise An Institute of the Law of Scotland, "The party objecting may protest for a reprobator, i.e., protest that he may be allowed afterwards to bring evidence of the witness's enmity to him, or of his partial counsel in some other article." In order to prove a reprobator, you had to declare, under oath, the grounds of your objection to the witness and then bring like testimony from other witnesses. Finally, reprobature is similar to reprobator, and is illustrated nicely by this 1681 quotation: "Prompting, and instructing witnesses how to depone [i.e., give a deposition] or threatening them..are pregnant grounds of Reprobature."
I think the word still has a utility to describe an utterly despicable person, even if we don't import the traditional theological meaning to it. Can you think of anyone who might fit the bill?
Copyright © 2004-2008 William R. Long