Synodical Decision in the Wiersinga Case
Shortly after the April 15 issue, in which we reported the stand of the Consistory of Amsterdam in the case of Dr. H. Wiersinga, went to press, the decision of the General Synod of theGereformeerde Kerken came to our attention. InCalvinist Contact, April 3, 1972, the following report appeared (we translate):
The Synod of the Gereformeerde Kerken in the Netherlands (Synodical) has spoken extensively concerning the objections against the doctrine of atonement which the student pastor of Amsterdam, Dr. H. Wiersinga, developed in his dissertation on the atonement, for which he received the degree of Doctor of Theology at the Free University. After a session which lasted from 9 o’clock in the morning to 11 o’clock in the evening, the Synod came to the conclusion that Dr. Wiersinga’s views indeed depart from the Confession and that there must be further discussion with him because he agrees as well with the pronouncement about the atonement which the synod published in October, 1971.
Here follows the literal text of the synodical decision which was adopted unanimously:
The Synod has taken note of:
a. The protests which were filed against the doctrine of atonement as presented by Dr. H. Wiersinga in his dissertation, “The Atonement in Theological Discussion,” which were brought to general attention through a published edition.
b. The letter of the Consistory of Amsterdam (January 7, 972) with the attached report.
The Synod considers:
a. Dr. Wiersinga in the work referred to rejects certain expressions in the confessions concerning the atonement; namely, in Articles 20 and 21 of the Belgic Confession the expression “to make satisfaction in the same, and to bear the punishment of sin by His most bitter passion and death; the laying by God of our iniquities upon Christ; the appeasing of God’s wrath by full satisfaction; the suffering for the remission of our sins,” in Questions and Answers 11, 12, 13, 14, 16, 17, 56, and 60 of the Heidelberg Catechism words such as the following: “that the wrath of God against sin is a requirement of God’s justice; that there must be satisfaction of God’s justice; that the justice of God requires satisfaction for our sins; that Christ must bear the burden of the wrath of God (see also Lord’s Day 15); that because of the satisfaction of Christ forgiveness of sins is given us, and the perfect satisfaction granted and imputed to us,” and in the Canons of Dordrecht, II, 1-4, the entire exposition of the doctrine that there must be satisfaction of the justice of God.
b. Dr. Wiersinga testifies nevertheless to his complete agreement with the pronouncement of the synod concerning the atonement, October 6, 197l.
c. He declares that he agrees with the faith in the only work of Christ unto reconciliation, and in the gracious character of salvation as the gift of God. According to our conviction, faith is the work of the Holy Ghost and finds its certainty only in Christ.
d He retracts the expression “alternative doctrine of atonement” because he “does not want to exchange the entire traditional doctrine of atonement for another.”
e. Dr. Wiersinga objects against the doctrine of atonement in the confession as being in his opinion one-sidedly juridical, and wishes to make corrections and additions to this.
The Synod declares:
a. The freedom to test the confession of the church, as this is contained in her confessional documents, by Holy Scripture must continue to be maintained unabridged.
b. 1. It has not appeared that Dr. Wiersinga has demonstrated from Scripture in convincing fashion that he correctly has rejected certain expressions in the confessions concerning the doctrine of atonement as mentioned in consideration “a”.
2. Our churches have correctly called the attention of Synod to this departure from the confession.
c. Consequently the churches must continue to hold in preaching and instruction to their confession with respect to the atonement.
d. Seeing that with respect to this important point of doctrine, obedience to Scripture and the unity of faith and confession are in a far-reaching manner at issue, the Synod considers it necessary that there by further discussion with Dr. H. Wiersinga because he, on the one hand, thinks it necessary to reject certain expressions concerning the atonement in the confessions, and, on the other hand, has declared agreement with the synodical declaration of October 6,197l.
The Synod decides:
a. To appoint a committee which shall speak with Dr. Wiersinga for the purpose of coming to more clarity concerning his views and to seek a solution for the problems which are raised in the church by his publications and by the protests filed on account of them.
b. She requests Dr. H. Wiersinga to declare himself ready to conduct the discussion about his published objections against the confessions with this committee, in the expectation that during this discussion Dr. H. Wiersinga and all concerned will preserve the pastorally required reserve and self-control.
c. She requests the churches and church members to accompany the further discussions with trust and intercession.
d. She furnishes notice of her decisions to those who have addressed her, to Dr. H. Wiersinga, to the Consistory of Amsterdam, and to the churches in common.
Already some of the so-called conservatives in the Netherlands have hailed this decision of Synod as a kind of victory—at least enough of a victory that members of the Gereformeerde Kerken may be encouraged to remain with the denomination for the time being. The latter does not imply that up to now there has been any considerable tendency toward a “split” or a reformation in the Netherlands. On the contrary, while there has been some attrition on the part of individual ministers and members, there has up to now been no sign of a genuine reformatory movement even though there has been much complaining, and even protesting, about the liberalism in the GKN. Now, however, some of the so-called conservatives seem to find ground for renewed hope in this decision of the Synod.
We find this synodical decision to be at best another Laodicean-type of decision, that is, neither hot nor cold. It is evidently calculated to throw some kind of sop to the conservatives by leaving the impression that Synod is maintaining the confessional position on the atonement, and at the same time to avoid the forthright condemnation of the heretical position of Dr. Wiersinga and the exercise of doctrinal discipline by what has now become a favorite device in the GKN, discussion. At worst, however, it is a decision in which the synod gives evidence of not having the courage of its convictions concerning the truth of the atonement, but of leaving the door open to flagrant denial of this truth and of protecting heretics.
An analysis of this decision will bring out how little good substance there is in the entire decision and how devious is the method by which the Synod avoids the exercise of discipline.
First of all, let us take a look at the case itself. There is one item on which apparently everyone agrees, including Wiersinga himself, the Consistory of Amsterdam, the protestants, and the Synod: Dr. Wiersinga has publicly set forth in his doctoral dissertation views that are contrary to the confessions and in which he specifically departs from certain key expressions of the confessions concerning the atonement. Now in plain language this means that Dr. Wiersinga is guilty of HERESY. Of course, nowhere in the ecclesiastical pronouncements on this case is that naughty word used. It has virtually become contraband in the Netherlands to use such language. And undoubtedly here we have one of the keys to this entire sad history. If those concerned would call things by their right name, they would almost be compelled to take correct and decisive action, too. At least, it is very difficult plainly to face up to the reality of heresy and then to do nothing about it.
But how did the case develop? There are several factors here. Let us note some of the more important ones.
1) Dr. Wiersinga’s sponsor was the reputed and influential Dr. Berkouwer. His degree was granted by the Theological Faculty of the Free University. This means, of course, that Wiersinga sallied forth with his heretical views with considerable backing. It also means—because in the true sense of the word, academic approval of a doctoral thesis in theology and Scriptural and confessional soundness cannot be separated—that for good or for ill the Theological Faculty of the Free University (which is supposed to be under ecclesiastical supervision) was immediately involved in this case. But strangely enough, the synodical decision does not breathe a word about this. Even from their own point of view and in their own miserable discussion-spirit, Synod might also have decided that there should be discussion with the theological professors of the Free University who granted Wiersinga his degree.
2) The Consistory of Amsterdam refused to condemn Wiersinga, maintaining his alleged right to test the confessions, meanwhile passing the buck to Synod. This, remember, is a serious mistake: for it is primarily the duty of a consistory to exercise discipline over the officebearers within its jurisdiction. Meanwhile, also the Consistory of Amsterdam no.t only became, suspect, but became guilty by association with Wiersinga. Also about this, however, the synodical decision breathes not a word. It only states that the decision will be sent to the Consistory.
3) Dr. Wiersinga apparently made some concessions. One was his declaration of agreement with the October, 197 1 declaration of the Synod in which the latter apparently took its stand with the confessions, tried to calm the fears of the churches, and meanwhile stated that there had to be long and careful study of the case. No details are furnished; nevertheless Wiersinga’s concession on this is rather mystifying, and, on the surface of it, rather self-contradictory. How can he agree with that declaration of the Synod, and at the same time reject confessional statements on the atonement? But let it be noted that this is not reason for discussion. No, he should have been put on trial before Synod and given the opportunity to demonstrate and defend this alleged agreement. But what the Synod does in considerations “a” and “b” and “c” is to leave matters unresolved. Another concession was Wiersinga’s retraction of the expression “alternative doctrine of atonement.” This may seem to be a ray of hope in the case, but it certainly is not. It merely means that Wiersinga takes the untenable and contradictory position of trying to maintain both his own heretical views and the confessions. This is a favorite device of heretics: take ten heretical steps forward, and take one little step backward, and thus deceive the unwary. The same is true of Wiersinga’s characterization of the confessions as being “one-sidedly juridical.” This business of being “one-sided” is a real red herring, you know. The question, however, is whether something is true or false, right or wrong; not whether it is one-sided or two-sided.
In the second place, let us look at the Synodical declaration in this case. Synod declares that the freedom to test the confession of the church by Holy Scripture must be maintained unabridged. Let us note, however: 1) That this was not the original issue in the case. The issue was one of heresy. This matter of “testing the confessions” was introduced by the Consistory of Amsterdam. And now what happens? Synod’s very first declaration is about thisissue, not about the case. 2) That in the context of the case, this declaration means that there is complete doctrinal freedom in the GKN. For remember, this declaration does not say that one may test the confessions by Scripture in the carefully prescribed way of the old Formula of Subscription. This is neither stated nor implied; and, in fact, the old Formula of Subscription has now been discarded in the GKN. This declaration apparently means by “unabridged” exactly that: without any limitation as to method or mode.
Further, the Synod makes only a negativedeclaration concerning Dr. Wiersinga: “It has not appeared that Dr. Wiersinga has demonstrated from Scripture in convincing fashion. . . .” Take careful note of this. For: 1) It avoids the issue of heresy completely. The issue was not whether Wiersinga had in the correct and prescribed and orderly way demonstrated anything from Scripture. The sole issue was whether his public and published doctrine was heretical, i.e., contrary to the confessions. 2) Even at that, the statement is negative: “It has not appeared. . . .” This even leaves the matter open, suggests that it can still appear—perhaps from the further discussion. Meanwhile, the Synod adds a declaration as big as a barn which no one had questioned: the churches correctly called attention to this departure from the confession. A pat on the back for the churches!
Declaration “c” is also deceptive. For one thing, it does not belong to the case proper. For another, it states a fact which goes without saying: must not the churches always hold to their confession in preaching and instruction unless and until that confession is set aside or changed? This appears to be nothing more than a kind of diplomatic move on the part of Synod to calm the fears of some and to leave the impression of loyalty to the confessions.
And, finally, declaration “d” does not even properly follow from the preceding weak stand of the Synod. The least one might have expected is that Synod would have placed Wiersinga before an ultimatum: either make it appear that you have in convincing fashion demonstrated from Scripture that certain expressions of the confessions are to be rejected, or recant the position published in your dissertation. Even this would not have been a good decision, you understand: for Wiersinga should have been de facto suspended from office long ago, on the ground of violating the Formula of Subscription. But the above would at least have been a logical decision in the context of the whole of Synod’s stand. Now, however, Synod merely concludes that further discussion is necessary; and it does not even promise that there will be a resolution of the case after this discussion.
In the third place, notice the decision proper. The first item speaks of appointing a committee to conduct a discussion with Wiersinga. But what is the purpose? To convince him of the heresy of his views? No! To persuade him to make complete retraction? No! “To come to more clarity concerning his views!” As though they were not clearly in conflict with the confessions! As though they were not simple heresy, and that, too, with respect to the very heart of the gospel of salvation!
I ask: what comfort can any conservative take from such a decision?
Besides, the purpose is: to seek a solution for the problems which are raised in the church by his publications and by the protests filed on account of them. So now this has become a matter of problematics! And those who have protested heresy are in part responsible for the existence of the problem. I ask: since when has the existence of plain heresy in the church been a “problem” in the church? An evil? Yes! The work of the Evil One? Indeed! Something to be rooted out? By all means—whether by retraction or by expurgation! But a problem???! And I ask, too: must a solution besought for? Is not the solution simple? And is not the solution prescribed—in Scripture, the confessions, and the church Order?
And again I ask: what solace can conservatives find in such a decision? And if a “solution” for the “problem” is found, what guarantee is there whatsoever that it will be a proper solution?
No, it appears more and more that the Synod is forcing the Gereformeerde Kerken in the direction of a modalities-church, i.e., a denomination in which there are permanently two wings: a conservative, believing wing, which wants to hold to the confessions; and a liberal, unbelieving wing, which wants complete liberty (license) of teaching. And that is a Laodicean situation of the worst sort!
How it is possible that Synod dares to ask the churches to accompany the projected discussions with “trust and intercession” is beyond my comprehension. As far as trust is concerned, Synod, by this and past actions, has forfeited any right to expect trust. And as far as intercession is concerned, hypocrisy is not the proper attitude and atmosphere for it: how can one expect and pray for the Lord’s blessing upon such hypocrisy?