“Limited Atonement and Evangelism” (Reformed Journal, May-June, 1964) is the title of an article by Prof. Harold Dekker in which he continues his discussion of missions and the love of God. This article by Prof. Dekker is devoted especially to the proposition that “The doctrine of limited atonement as commonly understood and observed in the Christian Reformed Church impairs the principle of the universal love of God and tends to inhibit missionary spirit and activity.”
A large part of this article is devoted to Prof. Dekker’s criticism of what he calls the “doctrine of limited atonement as commonly understood and observed in the Christian Reformed Church.” Dekker maintains that the latter view is “comparatively recent in our theological tradition,” that it is not the position of our Canons, that the doctrines of election and reprobation are. not the theological starting point nor the dominant doctrines of the Canons, and that “the Christian Reformed Church might have achieved a better theological understanding of missions and a more successful performance of the task if it had dealt more directly in teaching and preaching with the Canons themselves rather than accepting uncritically the highly particularistic and Supralapsarian interpretation of the Canons advanced by certain influential theologians.”
In most of this first part of his article the professor presents nothing essentially new to the discussion. And although he certainly makes some statements about the Canons which can by no means be called an accurate representation of the Synod of Dordrecht, all that he says is quite consistent with Dekker’s original faulty interpretation of Canons II, 8; and we shall at present not return to that discussion.
Before passing on to the second part of Prof. Dekker’s article, I must, however, express amazement at the concluding statement of the first section, quoted above. I refer to Dekker’s reference to “the highly particularistic and Supralapsarian interpretation of the Canons advanced by certain influential theologians.” I stand amazed at that statement. Who are these influential theologians who advanced such an interpretation? Since when has it become the vogue in Reformed churches to criticize Supralapsarianism as over against the Canons? Besides, are not the Canons themselves, though infra-, both in their historic opposition to Arminianism and in their theology, highly particularistic? If in all the history of the, Reformed churches there has been any confessional statement that was highly particularistic, it has been the Canons. Everyone, both within and without the Reformed churches, knows this to be the reputation of. Dordrecht! It does not require a “highly particularistic” interpretation to make the Canons “particularistic.” It rather requires an alleged interpretation to get away from the particularism of the Canons.
But what is more amazing still is Prof; Dekker’s claim that the Christian Reformed Church has accepted uncritically this “highly particularistic and supralapsarian interpretation of the Canons.” I can hardly believe that this statement is historically accurate. Is it not rather true that the Christian Reformed Church and its spokesmen have manifested a distinct aversion for Supralapsarianism,—especially since 1924, although the issue of 1924 was not fundamentally that of supra- or infra-? And was not the tendency of 1924 exactly away from particularism?
Prof. Dekker and others may not be satisfied with thedegree or the quality of the universalism of the Three Points. They may want to advance beyond the Three Points, and make explicit what was implicit, in them. But let it not be said that the Christian Reformed Church has uncritically accepted a highly particularistic and supralapsarian interpretation of the Canons. They have been extremely,—and sometimes, snidely,—critical of “supra.” And they have strained against the leash of particularism.
At present however, I am more interested in the second part of Prof. Dekker’s article, the part dealing with “Evangelism.” For I believe that in this part of the article is expressed one of the basic concerns in all of Prof. Dekker’s writings, if not the basic motivation of his writing. And I believe that this part, of the professor’s article betrays a fundamentally faultymethod of approach to the whole matter of missions.
I shall try to represent Dekker’s position accurately, and therefore I quote him rather at length:
“I have tried to say something about the common conception of limited atonement in our Church and on what basis I felt constrained to challenge it. How then does this conception tend to inhibit missionary spirit; and activity?”
“This question opens up a large and difficult subject, one on which I hope to write further some other time. What it opens up is the nagging, perplexing, problem of what is wrong with evangelism in the Christian Reformed Church. A good deal has been, said and written about this matter. Before attempting a more thorough diagnosis, I wish to give consideration to some statistical data I am gathering. At this time I only suggest that the basic factors are theological.”
At this point Dekker goes on to speak of the “inept and ineffective” performance of the CRC in its evangelism, and to prove this by pointing to the fact that the 1963 Yearbook shows an average gain through evangelism of only 1.4 per congregation, a gain which he considers startlingly poor, the more so because it represents gains realized through organized missionary work conducted by the CR Board of Home Missions, classical home missions committees, and local home missions agencies. He then goes on to say:
“Why do we have so little gain in our mission to our own communities? It seems to me that the basic explanation is theological. Principles work through. Doctrine has its effect in life.
“How does our doctrine affect our missions? In many different ways certainly. However, as far as our weaknesses are concerned, it seems to me that our doctrine affects our missions especially by the particularism of our conceptions of the covenant and election, due recognition not being given to the universalism of divine love; and by our conception of the atonement as limited, due recognition not being given to its aspects of universalism. It seems to me that our attitude toward men outside of Christ tends to be distorted and our missionary approach to them is impaired if we fail to recognize that God loves them and that Christ died for them.”
Then, after referring to some earlier correspondence, which he cites with approval, the professor continues as follows:
“. . . . Indeed the Christian should have no attitude to his fellow man but the attitude that God has. Now if in approaching an unbeliever with the gospel he is not sure whether God loves or hates this person, are not certain mental reservations inevitable? Will not these reservations tend to compromise his own loving concern and impede the whole-souled outgoing in love that the evangelistic encounter needs? Also, will he not be inclined to give up rather easily if there is a strongly negative reaction to the gospel, or if the response is one of indifference or procrastination? Will he not then be tempted to justify giving up the effort with the thought that after all God does not love everyone anyway? Furthermore, will not the notion that Christ died only for the elect tend to have similar consequences for his witness to unbelievers?
“When such individual inhibitions are collectivized in a congregation or denomination, the impairment of evangelistic effectiveness becomes even more deadly. For then these inhibitions are hardened into a pattern of restraint, indifference, and rationalization that is standardized by the group and passed on with approval to each rising generation.
“Given the common conviction in the Christian Reformed Church that God does not love all men redemptively and that Christ did not die for all men, it is really not surprising that our record in evangelism is so poor. It is not surprising that we receive few converts. It is not surprising that few of our members are active as personal witnesses for Christ. It is not surprising that we are so little concerned with results.
“The latter, incidentally, is in itself an interesting point. Over and over we have heard it said that all we are called to do is to preach and then leave the results to God. Again and again the apostle Paul is quoted in what he said about one planting, another watering and God giving the increase. But did Paul mean to say that planting and watering are not important with respect to results? Surely not. Did he even mean to say that those who plan and water should have no concern for results? Hardly. Did he preach the gospel without a passionate concern and an arduous effort to-win converts? Clearly not. Yet we often rationalize our failures in evangelism by disparaging results and laying responsibility for the lack of them upon God. How often have we not said that our duty is merely to preach the gospel and that we must leave the rest to God? In this way we blithely brush off the responsibility for earnest self-criticism and even ‘agonizing reappraisal’ when our work shows little success. We assume that we have done our duty when we have somehow gotten the gospel out. Is this not a distortion of the doctrine of sovereign grace? Certainly if Christians believe that God loves all and Christ died for all, they will not be satisfied with that kind of missionary outlook and effort.”
Prof. Dekker concludes with this claim:
“The conviction that God loves all men and that Christ died for all, as this truth is taught in the Scriptures, could revolutionize the missionary motivation and program of our Church and make us truly effective in the evangelization of the United States and Canada . . . . Any real improvement in our missionary performance awaits a change in certain of our theological misconstructions.”
Hence, it is very plain that Prof. Dekker has taken a long look at the results of, his church’s evangelism program, has viewed these results solely from the viewpoint of the positive fruit (number of converts) of that evangelism, has come to the conclusion statistically that those results are very meager, and has reasoned from those results to the proposition that there is something radically wrong with the message. It is too articularistic; it ought to be universalistic!
That the above is indeed Dekker’s approach to missions is more directly stated in the first part of his address to the CR Synod of 1964 (see Acts, pp. 108, 109):
“This is a day when world population is growing three to four times faster than the number of Christians, when the Church is a shrinking minority and historic non-Christian religions and modern cults are increasing more rapidly than the world Church. This is also a day when great issues such as race, poverty, nuclear armament and world Communism press upon us. And in this day the Christian Reformed Church loses more members than it wins and denominational gains through evangelism average a mere 1.2 per congregation per year, including baptized children in families received. Such is our record in spite of the millions of dollars and the billions of hours we invest each year in our mission to the United States and Canada.
“Surely in a day like this, if ever, we must do our utmost in theological study and discussion so that our missionary motivation may be Biblically correct and strong, that our gospel message may be presented properly and effectively in our world, that any misconceptions we may have concerning the principles of missions may be removed, and that our Reformed confessions become accurately relevant to our mission—in sum so that the Scriptures may be faithfully set forth in all their bearing on our witness to the world.
“That is why I have written as I have regarding missions and the love of God. I sincerely believe that in so doing I have been doing what the Church has called me to do in the service of her mission to today’s world.”
Here again it is plain that Prof. Dekker has viewed with dismay, if not alarm, the meager positive fruit on Christian Reformed evangelism. It is also plain that he attributes the meagerness of this fruit to both an incorrect motivation and an improper message. In the context of the entire discussion it is evident that Dekker’s corrective for this two-fold fault is hisuniversalism, applied to God’s love and Christ’s atonement.
I expect to criticize this position in the next issue, D.V., and to show that his entire approach is faulty, and that too, in the light of Scripture and the confessions.