In his series of articles concerning the Dekker Case, Dr. James Daane turns his attention to the subject of limited atonement in an article in the December, 1964 issue of the Reformed Journal. The main thrust of the article seems to be that there is not and never has been a Reformed doctrine of limited atonement. This is also indicated in the title of the article, “What Doctrine of Limited Atonement?” To this bit of confused, unscriptural, and un-Reformed argumentation we now give our attention.
PROFESSOR DEKKER ON THE ATONEMENT
For a proper understanding of Dr. Daane’s “theologizings” on this matter, we should remind ourselves, first of all, of Prof. Dekker’s position.
The reader will recall that Prof. Dekker maintains, in the first place, that God loves all men redemptively. A distinction has been attempted between a redemptivelove of God and a redeeming love of God in this connection. But no one has been able to prove that this distinction is legitimate on the basis of Scripture and the confessions, nor has anyone shown that with respect to God this distinction has any significance.
Secondly, when Prof. Dekker began to speak of a redemptive love of God for all men, he was naturally confronted with problems concerning the revelation of that so-called redemptive love of God. This landed him squarely in the domain of the doctrine of the atoning death of Christ. In this connection, Dekker taught that it is proper to say to every man, “Christ died for you.”
In the third place, however, the latter teaching of Dekker immediately raised problems concerning the nature of Christ’s atoning death, in connection with the question of the extent of the death of Christ. Dekker was accused of denying what is commonly known as the doctrine of limited atonement and of teaching general, or universal, atonement. And in an attempt to divorce himself from the out-and-out Arminian heresy that Christ died for all men and every man, Prof. Dekker attempted to distinguish four factors in speaking of the design of Christ’s atoning death. These four factors are: sufficiency, availability, desire, and efficacy. Concerning these four factors Prof. Dekker wrote:
“There are, therefore, three senses in which we may legitimately speak of the atonement as being universal in design, i.e., the sufficiency and availability of salvation for all men and the divine desire that all will receive it. The only point at which Scripture and the Reformed confessions point to a limited design in the atonement is at the point of efficacy. Only there can a doctrine of limited atonement be formulated which does not do clear violence to Biblical teaching concerning the universal love of God.”
I do not intend at this point in the discussion to repeat all that has been written by way of criticism of the above view in these columns. Certainly, neither the terminology nor the distinctions expressed by it can stand the test of Scripture and the confessions. From a dogmatical point of view, however, I deem it important to note at this point:
1) That Prof. Dekker speaks here of design. This surely places the whole matter in the realm of God’s eternal counsel, according to which the design of the atonement was established. This is true of all four distinctions which Dekker makes here, and more particularly of the third one, i.e., the divine desire.
2) That when Prof. Dekker maintains that in the first three senses the atonement is universal and only in the last sense limited, the criticism is certainly justified that he has a doctrine of universal atonement which is non-efficacious and a doctrine of limited atonement which is efficacious. But then the question presses to the fore: what is a non-efficacious atonement? And the answer is ready at hand: a non-efficacious atonement is no atonement whatsoever, for it does not atone. And if we press this a bit farther and turn it on Dekker’s factors of sufficiency and availability and desire, it becomes evident that they are all three vanity. They are air. They are nothing! And I want to emphasize that this is not just a bit of adroit but specious reasoning. This is precisely what becomes of any idea of the atonement as soon as you make it universal: you have no real atonement left.
3) That on Christian Reformed grounds (of the First Point of 1924 and its well-meant offer of salvation) Prof. Dekker nevertheless stands on solid ground. Dekker’s point is, from a Christian Reformed point of view, well-taken when he writes in connection with his element of availability: “Otherwise the well-meant offer of the gospel is a farce, for it then offers sincerely to all men what cannot be sincerely said to be available to all.” We, on the basis of Scripture and the confessions, deny both the availability and the well-meant offer of salvation to all. Prof. Dekker tries to maintain both. The defenders of the First Point wanted to avoid the former and to maintain the latter. Consistency demands that one either maintain both or deny both. And Scripture and the confessions demand the latter.
4) That the writings of both Dekker and Daane on this subject of Christ’s atonement are sorely lacking in definition and preciseness. There are several important instances of this. Here are just a few: a) What is the meaning of the atonement? I have yet to see from either one an adequate definition. b) Dekker fails often to distinguish between the conceptsatonement, redemption, and salvation. It would seem to be evident that when you discuss the death of Christ and the atonement, you are operating in the field ofChristology and of the objective work of Christ for His people. Frequently, however, both Dekker and Daane seem to be operating in the field of Soteriology, i.e., the doctrine of the application of the blessings of Christ to His people. While the two are related, they must be carefully distinguished; if they are not, the result will be confusion. c) In close connection with “b”, neither Dekker nor Daane has furnished an adequate definition of the efficacy of the atonement. Certainly, this is not the same as the doctrine of efficacious, or irresistible grace. The latter has to do with theapplication of the blessings of salvation to the elect sinner. The former has to do with the question what was objectively accomplished and realized in behalf of the elect through the substitutionary death of Christ. Yet, again, when speaking supposedly of the atonement and its efficacy and its extent, both Daane and Dekker fail to distinguish and seem to be operating in the field of the application of salvation to man. d) What is the main subject. of Canons II, 8, which has so often entered this discussion? Is it speaking of the efficacy of the atonement as such, or is it speaking of the efficacy of the grace whereby the benefits of the atonement are actually applied to the beneficiaries?
The above are all fundamental questions to which there ought to be clear and well-defined answers. I invite Prof. Dekker and Dr. Daane to speak out on these matters and furnish some definitions. I am fairly certain that my definitions cannot agree with theirs. But then at least we can clearly discern one another’s positions.
DR. DAANE ON “LIMITED ATONEMENT”
As I already indicated above, Dr. Daane, in taking up the theological cudgels for Dekker, appears to go farther than the latter. The thrust of Daane’s article seems to be that there is no Reformed doctrine of limited atonement.
Permit me, without quoting extensively, to attempt a summary of Dr. Daane’s at-times-confusing theological meanderings.
1) Daane approaches the subject from the point of view of what he calls “the nature” of the atonement. He attributes this approach to those who oppose and those who are uncertain about Dekker’s doctrine of the atonement; as well as to the mandate given the synodical study committee in the Dekker Case. The first question in said mandate speaks of “the nature of the atonement.” Prof. Dekker speaks of the “design” of the atonement. Apparently, therefore, since Daane interprets Dekker as asserting “that the atoning work of Christ on the cross is of such nature (italics added) that it expresses a redemptive love of God for all men.” Daane here equates nature and design.
2) Daane asserts that both groups in. the Chr. Ref. Church who are troubled about Dekker’s doctrine (those who are opposed and those who are merely uncertain) “are rather less than wholly satisfied (i.e., with Dekker’s simple assertion that nevertheless Christ’s atonement saves the elect only) because they feel that the nature of the atonement determines the end-results.” According to this reasoning, “if the nature of the atonement is a redemptive love for all men, then all men must finally be saved . . . . (but) if only the elect are saved, then the atonement as a universal redemptive love for all men loses its sovereign character.”
3) Daane asserts that both groups “make the mistake of thinking that the limited end-result of the atonement (the salvation of the elect only) means that the atonement is limited in its nature.” According to this method of reasoning, the results are read back into the nature of the atonement: if the results are limited, the atonement itself must be limited. Moreover, Daane ascribes this same kind of reasoning to the mandate of the synodical committee because this mandate calls for a “study in the light of Scripture and the Creeds of the doctrine of limited atonement . . . .” and because the first question asks, “Whether the nature of the atonement and the decree of election allow for. . . . .”
4) Daane confidently asserts that this approach (of studying Dekker’s position from the nature of the atonement is limited) will lead nowhere. And apparently he thinks to “pull the rug from under” both Dekker’s opponents and the synodical committee by asserting that the study is unnecessary and the conclusions foregone. The ground of this assertion is that Prof. Dekker “bases his whole case upon, and argues from, the unlimited character of the atonement. Dekker, according to Daane, appeals “to the accepted Reformed view that the atonement is unlimited in its sufficiency, in its availability, and in its expression of God’s unwillingness that any should perish, and that therefore there is a redemptive love for all men, and that therefore it is permissible in preaching the gospel to say to every creature: God loves you, and Christ died for you.”
5) On the contrary, Daane asserts that what is popularly meant by the doctrine of limited atonement is not a doctrine at all, but a mere slogan. He maintains this again and again throughout his article. He asserts emphatically that neither the creeds of the Christian Reformed Church, nor for that matter any other Reformed creed, teach the doctrine of limited atonement. He maintains that the Canons teach the very opposite in Articles 3 and 4 of the Second Head, and that the Heidelberg Catechism teaches the same. Finally, he asserts in italics: “The atonement in its nature is not in any sense limited; if it were, we would yet be in our sins.” Further Daane appeals to both Articles 6 and 8 of Canons II in order to show that “limited atonement” is not a proper term even to designate the truth that the atonement does not save all men. And he concludes that no objections can be raised against Prof. Dekker’s doctrinal assertions on the basis of the nature of the atonement, and that, on the contrary, if anyone is skirting the heretical on the matter of the nature of the atonement, it is not Prof. Dekker, but his critics.
The remainder of Daane’s article is devoted to an attempted explanation of the reasoning of Dekker’s opponents, a relating of this entire subject to the matter of gospel preaching, and to an amazing assertion that Christ died at least for the original sin of every man. To this part of Daane’s article we shall give our attention later.
For the present, we must discuss the major thrust of his article. In it he makes some amazing and untenable assertions. To these we will give our attention next time, D.V., and show that Daane’s reasoning is altogether wrong, that it is not Reformed, and that it is thoroughly confused and confusing.
Meanwhile, let us remember again that while Daane is dead wrong, his position, according to his own admission, is in essential harmony with the general, well-meant offer of the gospel which was established as Christian Reformed dogma in the First Point of 1924. As long as the First Point is maintained, no one can effectively destroy (nor even do they have the moral right to oppose) the doctrinal position of that Arminianizing quartet of Dekker, Daane, Boer, and H. Stob.