Dr. Stob, Synod, the Committee, and Professor Dekker

This editorial might also be entitled “Sequel to Tensions in ‘The Teaching.'” For Dr. Stob himself confirms what I wrote in the last issue concerning his desire for freedom of doctrine. 

As might be expected, the Reformed Journal is not at all satisfied with the Report of the Committee to Study the Doctrinal Expressions of Professor Harold Dekker. In the May-June issue this dissatisfaction is expressed in no less than three articles, by Dr. Henry Stob, Dr. James Daane, and Dr. Harry Boer, staunch defenders of Professor Dekker, who for some unexplained reason has not of late spoken for himself. Dr. Stob writes a brief editorial which does not deal with the contents of the Committee Report under the title “Synod, the Committee, and Professor Dekker.” The burden of this article is a plea that the Christian Reformed Synod should not proclaim the Committee’s propositions as dogma, that is, as binding doctrinal propositions in the Christian Reformed Church. He wants the doctrinal issues in the Dekker Case to remain open issues, in other words. This plea he states as follows:

What I am chiefly concerned to say, however, is that, whether one considers the Committee’s propositions true or not, he should not counsel the Synod to proclaim them as ‘dogmas’ to be honored by all who are charged to think Christianly about the biblical givens. This burden the theologian who is concerned to be faithful to Christ, and to live in the freedom that Christ has conferred this burden he cannot bear. Instead of this he must ask for the yoke of Christ, which is easy, and for the burden of Christ, which is light.

This plea Dr. Stob attempts to motivate and to justify as follows:

What is at stake in the case of Professor Dekker is, among other things, the freedom of theological inquiry. Professor Dekker, let it be noted, calls nothing sacred into question. He believes wholeheartedly in the creeds. He accepts the infallibility of Scripture in all matters of faith and practice. He believes that Cod is completely sovereign, and that none are saved except by His good pleasure. He believes that Christians are what they are by nothing save the sovereign grace of Cod. He believes, on the basis of the Scriptures, that not all men will be saved: he emphatically rejects universal salvation. In all points that affect the faith he is at one with the most simple and the most earnest member of the church. 

What divides him and some members of the Church is not the faith, but the theological expression of it. The faith is one thing; theology is another. The faith is what draws all members of Christ’s Church into one confessing communion; theology is a scientific endeavor into which not all people can be drawn. 

The call has sometimes come for committed creativeness in theology. The answer to that call is at hand. Men have been appointed to Calvin charged with giving new form to the age-old Gospel. They are responding; not the least Professor Dekker. Let him and all of us pursue our course. Should Professor Dekker or any other of us depart from the faith that is confessed in the living community of the Church, let us be called to account. But let us not be subjected to theological criteria by an ecclesiastical court, for then the theological enterprise is tragically arrested and we are robbed of our vocations.

Dr. Stob, therefore, advises that the Christian Reformed Synod should declare that “since no article of faith has been put in jeopardy, the theological inquiry must proceed unimpeded, but with all caution and responsibility,” and that the recommendation of the Committee should not be accepted, but instead postponed indefinitely, with the Report being referred to the Churches for study. 

All of the above is rather revealing, and it confirms my suggestion in last month’s editorial that the Reformed Journal favors freedom of doctrine on issues on which the Reformed churches have long ago expressed themselves confessionally. I realize full well that Stob’s position is that “no article of faith has been put in jeopardy.” In fact, he attempts to picture Prof. Dekker as being soundly Reformed and as being wholeheartedly devoted to the Reformed faith. With all his pleading, however, Stob really ignores the fundamental issue. For while he claims that Dekker believes the creeds wholeheartedly, that he holds to God’s sovereignty and to salvation by sovereign grace, and that he rejects universal salvation, he ignores the fact that Prof. Dekker has denied the doctrine of particular atonement. Instead, he holds that all that Prof. Dekker taught was in full harmony with the creeds: for “no article of faith has been put in jeopardy.” 

Here, of course, is the crux of the issue. If no article of the confession has been contradicted by Prof. Dekker, then, of course, all that he has written must be considered as legitimate theological inquiry and expression within the boundaries of the confessions. And then all the controversy that has raged about Dekker’s position must be placed in the category of a difference of theological opinion within the confines of the confessions. If, however, the opposite is true, as the Report of the Committee seems to imply, and if Dekker’s position cannot stand the test of Scripture and the confessions, then it is in order for the Christian Reformed Church to censure Dekker’s statements, to demand retraction, and to discipline. 

What the Synod will do about this situation I do not know, and I will not venture to predict. It would seem, however, that if the suggestion of Dr. Stob is not followed, conflict is bound to result. For the Journalseems rather adamant, if not downright militant, in its support of Professor Dekker’s orthodoxy and his right to express himself. 

Nevertheless, it should be noted:

1. That the Christian Reformed Church is confronted by a clear case of heresy. Professor Dekker has taught a universal and redemptive love of God; thereby, by implication he has denied sovereign election and reprobation, no matter how vociferously some may assert the contrary. Moreover, he has taught universal atonement and has denied the Reformed and confessional doctrine of particular (or definite or limited) atonement, no matter how vociferously some may emphasize that he does not teach universal salvation (and what Arminian ever taught universal salvation?). 

2. That liberty of theological inquiry is not at stake here, as Dr. Stob claims. After all, theological inquiry is a private matter. It is limited to one’s study and research. Any theologian has unlimited rights toinquire into the truth and to inquire even into the validity of the Reformed confessions. Professor Dekker,—and everyone, including Dr. Stob, knows this,—did far more than inquire. He expressed himself; and he did so publicly: and he did so contrary to the Reformed confessions, and contrary to Scripture. He himself stated that the Christian Reformed Church was .in error in its commonly understood doctrine of limited atonement. It is precisely at the point that an officebearer begins to express himself, either publicly or privately, in a manner contrary to the confessions that he becomes subject to the provisions of the Formula of Subscription. 

3. That if in this obvious case of heresy the Christian Reformed Church does not have the firmness and resolution to take a condemnatory stand, and if, on the contrary, they follow the suggestion of Dr. Stob, then the door is flung wide open, and complete liberty of doctrine will be the order of the day. Then indeed the Christian Reformed Church may expect from theReformed Journal open criticism of the confessional position on the doctrine of the eternal decrees and open promulgation of theistic evolution, and who knows what more. Particularly with respect to Arminianism all restraint will be removed. 

4. That all this has nothing to do with liberty of theological development, nor with true liberty of theological expression. There has always been ample room in Reformed churches for such development and expression. It should be remembered that such development (“creativeness,” if you will), if it is to be true and constructive development, must be in the line of the truth and in the line, therefore, of the confessions. If it is not the latter, it is not constructive, but destructive; it is not development, but departure; it is not progress, but retrogression. This is the only limitation of the Formula of Subscription. That theologian who is not willing to exercise this kind of freedom and who chafes at the restraint of any binding subscription is not to be trusted. And that theologian who complains when others wish to subject his opinions to the agreed upon test of the confessions renders himself suspect. The cry of heresy-hunting and the plea for liberty of doctrine has only too often been a “red herring” in the history of the church. 

5. That, however, the opponents of Professor Dekker have not been without fault from a procedural (and ethical) point of view. It should not be forgotten that Dekker’s views have been made the object of investigation through the back door, so to speak. The present committee report is the result of an overture, not of a protest. Charges under the Formula of Subscription are not pending against Dekker and were not the occasion of the Study Committee’s report and recommendations. For the same reason, of course, the Study Committee lacked the power to recommend any disciplinary action against the professor, even though such disciplinary action should logically follow their recommendations. Also from this point of view, as well as from the point of view of the fact that Dekker’s position is the logical outgrowth of 1924, and that as a faithful son of his church he developed his views, my sympathies lie with Dekker. This only points up the fact that the only way out for the Christian Reformed Church is to repudiate the heresy officially promulgated in 1924, to return to the confessions, and resolutely to oppose (not merely in the press, nor by sidewise overtures, but by forthright protest) all doctrines repugnant thereto. If any other course is followed, I can foresee only continuing decay and ultimately chaos, and with it the complete loss of the Reformed heritage. That may take time; but in view of recent trends, it may not take much time! And there may be those who are satisfied to say, “There will be peace in my time.” But let them be mindful of their children and their children’s children, as well as of their own peace!