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Suggestions for Improving Synod

In this issue and the next a few suggestions will be offered toward the improvement of our synodical gatherings. These are based, for the most part, on my observation of the activities of the Synod just completed in June. Most, if not all, of them could be followed without bringing about any formal change in the rules; some of them merely involve adhering more closely to rules and practices which we already have. My motive for making these suggestions—if I must give account of it—is, as the title of this editorial suggests, that I seek the improvement of our synodical gatherings. 

My first suggestion concerns the matter of voting for members on our various standing committees and for such officers as stated clerk and synodical treasurer and their alternates. For as many years as I can remember this voting has always taken place at the very end of our synodical sessions. It has taken place in a somewhat informal atmosphere—sometimes too informal. It has followed the old-fashioned procedure of nominations from the floor, balloting, and then tallying the votes (sometimes on a chalkboard) in the presence of the whole Synod. It often takes place at a time when Synod is rushing to finish its business, so that the delegates may go home. Sometimes, as this year, it takes place in a session lengthened past the normal adjournment time—something which seems to add to the haste with which this work is performed. At our most recent Synod, for example, we were suddenly informed—after adjournment and after the reading of the concept minutes—that two Western delegates had to leave for home the next morning. Suddenly and without any possible formal decision (we were adjourned!) it was decided to reconvene and to meet right through the supper hour to complete the remainder of Report IV and to take care of voting. Besides, the whole procedure of voting at the end of Synod is rather anticlimactic and not conducive to a dignified conclusion of our broadest assembly. 

In my opinion, there would be two possible methods of bringing about improvement and also greater efficiency in this regard. 

A first method would be simply to take care of voting for various committees and functionaries as the occasion arises in connection with their reports. Thus, for example, if the Domestic Mission Committee’s report is treated by Advisory Committee I, and it is reported that the terms of a minister and an elder expire this year, take care of voting for replacements immediately, rather than waiting till the end of Synod. This would result, of course, in scattering the voting throughout the sessions of Synod. But it would avoid many of the disadvantages of the present method. Two disadvantages of this suggestion might be that it tends to interrupt the work of Synod when from time to time it must vote like this, and that it might be disadvantageous to vote separately rather than to get an over-all view of the personnel needed on various committees. 

A second method would be as follows: 1. Appoint a committee on elections immediately at the very first session of Synod. This could either be the committee on committees or it could be an altogether separate committee. 2. This committee would survey the personnel needs of the various standing committees and functionaries, would prepare a list for Synod (or use the list usually prepared by the Stated Clerk), and bring this to the attention of Synod, again at that opening session. At this time nominations would be made by Synod and recorded by the committee. 3. The committee would then prepare printed ballots and distribute them to the delegates on Thursday. 4. These ballots would then be collected and tallied by the committee, after sufficient time was allowed for the delegates to mark their ballots. 5. In case of a lack of majority in a given instance, the committee on elections would be empowered to make a decision concerning voting between the two or three highest and to submit a new ballot to the delegates. After the whole process is completed, the results can be announced to Synod. All of this could be accomplished with very little inconvenience, with no interruption of the work of Synod, and with almost none of Synod’s time expended on it. Besides, the important matter of voting for committee personnel could be accomplished when Synod is fresh and alert, rather than when the delegates are weary and rushing to adjourn. 

If necessary, an arrangement like this could, by overture, be made part of the rules of Synod. At present, however, there is nothing in the rules, as far as I can tell, which would prohibit Synod from initiating a procedure like this. It only awaits someone’s action. 

There is one more item in this connection which needs attention. I believe our method of making nominations could be improved. As matters stand now, it is a bit hap-hazard. Sometimes there is doubt as to eligibility and availability. Sometimes qualified men are overlooked. Sometimes there is ignorance on the part of the delegates, as, for example, when delegates from Classis East must vote for committees whose constituency is from the West and vice versa. I have the following suggestions in this regard: 

1) The various standing committees could makesuggestions as to nominees. I want to emphasize that these should be suggestions, not nominations. We should not open the door to committees becoming self-perpetuating. 

2) The delegates to Synod themselves should give advance study to this matter of nominees, so that they are prepared to make intelligent nominations. 

3) I see no reason why consistories could not make suggestions in this regard. Often they are in the best position to know which elders or ex-elders would be both capable and available to serve on some of our committees. 

4) Sometimes a few words of identification of nominees would be helpful, provided this would not lead to any “campaigning.” 

Perhaps other suggestions could be made. I am convinced, however, that this is one area of Synod’s work which is long overdue for some streamlining. 

My second suggestion is connected with Synod’s decision last June not to treat three overtures in the Agenda which had not been properly processed from consistory to Classis to Synod. 

First of all, let me explain Synod’s decision and the grounds for it. You will recall that I reported the decision of Synod to reject three overtures as not being legally before Synod. This does not mean that the overtures themselves had no merit and that they were rejected as to their content. It simply means that they were not treated at all, and that if they should come to Synod next year in the proper way, they could very well be treated and even adopted then. In the grounds of this decision, Synod cited Article 5, B, 3, a and b of the Rules of Synod: “The following matters shall be considered by Synod: a. All overtures forwarded by the Classes. b. All overtures rejected by the Classes, but which are forwarded by their authors without classical approval.” Further, Synod referred to Article 30 of the Church Order, “. . .In major assemblies only such matters shall be dealt with as could not be finished in minor assemblies, or such as pertain to the churches of the major assembly in common.” Still further, Synod called attention to precedent. The Advisory Committee called Synod’s attention to the fact that from 1948 through 1981 there were at least 47 overtures to Synod. Of these 45 went through Classis first, while only two (in 1980) did not. And finally, Synod cited as a ground the fact that three former professors of church polity (Rev. G.M. Ophoff, Prof. Hoeksema, and Prof. Hanko) have maintained this position in their notes on Article 46 of the Church Order. Prof. Hanko states it this way in his notes:

An overture is a request on the part of a minor assembly to a major assembly to take some positive action on a matter within the jurisdiction of a major assembly. These overtures may originate with an individual, a Consistory, a Classis. They go to broader assemblies via the minor assemblies. Each minor assembly ought also to consider its value and come to a formal decision on it. This is quite important.

The late Rev. Ophoff wrote as follows:

There is also this question. Can a Classis bring upon the Synod a matter that has not been brought upon the Classis by a consistory through its delegation? This is not very well possible, for it would mean that the delegates to Classis present to Classis a matter or matters that they were not instructed to present by the consistories who delegated them. And this they may not do. For as to its essence the entire “agendum” of the Synod must originate with the local churches, must, in other words, rise from the bosom of the churches. The Synod cannot treat matters that, as to their essence, were not brought upon the Synod by the Classis, and the same holds true of the Classis in relation to the consistories. But this of course does not mean that the matter must be brought to the Classis by every consistory, but it must be brought there by at least one consistory. Common members of the church can also bring matters to Classis, but the rule should be that they do so through the consistory, or at least not without the knowledge of the consistory.

Synod, therefore, simply reinforced a rule which we have had and have practiced for many years. And the principle is a sound one: what is treated by a Synod must arise. out of the bosom of the churches. 

My suggestion in connection with this decision of Synod is that we must very really live by this rule. Synod must not simply become a dumping ground for all kinds of frivolous or ill-considered proposals; and the churches must not take the attitude that after all Synod will sort out the various overtures, disposing of the poor ones and adopting the good ones, and that this can be safely left to Synod. This means, therefore, that consistories and Classis must not think they are abiding by this rule when they merely rubber stamp an overture rather than given it careful study. Nor may consistories and Classis pass on overtures “without comment” or “without prejudice.” On the contrary, there are several things to consider here. We note the following: 

1) When an overture is presented to a consistory by an individual or by a consistory to a Classis, the first thing to check is the rule of Article 46 of the Church Order: “Instructions concerning matters to be considered in major assemblies shall -not be written until the decisions of previous Synods touching these matters have been read, in order that what was once decided be not again proposed, unless a revision be deemed necessary.” And let it be noted, that if “a revision be deemed necessary,” the burden of proof lies with those bringing the overture. 

2) When an overture is presented, a consistory or a Classis should consider such an overture carefully and on its merits. It may be that the assembly comes to the conclusion that the overture is ill-advised and then refuses to add its adherence. In such an instance, an individual or consistory still has the right to insist that the overture go through to Synod, and it will appear in the Agenda, but without consistorial or classical approval or even with express disapproval. It may also be that an individual or a consistory becomes persuaded that the overture should be withdrawn, and then it will not even appear in the Agenda. 

3) When such an overture is presented, a consistory of a Classis can also conceivably improve upon it and add some modifications. 

4) Finally, the minor assemblies also have the opportunity—and to my mind, the duty—to take care of some of the “homework” that might be connected with an overture. Sometimes information is needed, for example, with respect to costs, manner of execution, or even the possibility of execution. Why should all this work be dumped in the lap of Synod or a synodical study committee when it could better and more efficiently be done at the local or regional level? 

If, therefore, we try conscientiously to live by this rule, the result can only be salutary for our Synods and our churches.

The “eodem modo” Rejected in the Conclusion of the Canons

[In the June 1 issue we continued to call attention to the misuse of this expression, noting that on the part of Dr. Berkouwer this led ultimately to an outright rejection of the doctrine of double predestination, Then we began to look at what American theologians have done with this expression. We noted that Dr. Harry Boer saw it as a “drawing back at the brink from the enormity of the consequences of a theological rationalism” by men who “did not have the courage to stand by what they had written,” but “refused to break with the logical premise that led them to it.” We now continue with our discussion of the misuse of this expression.] 

In passing we may note that the Study Report does not see this expression in the same light as does the Boer Gravamen. It does not recognize a conflict between the statement in the Conclusion and the doctrine of reprobation as set forth in Canons I. This is not due, however, to a basic disagreement with Boer and to an embracing of the teachings of the Canons. After all the Study Report first twists Articles 6 and 15 of Canons I, and then in its recommendations reduces reprobation to a kind of limited election. Except for a weak clinging to a notion of “deficient causality,” the Study Report is in agreement with Boer. But the Study Report sees no conflict between the body of the Canons and the Conclusion simply because it has first changed the meaning of the Canons with respect to reprobation, and therefore finds no need of “drawing back at the brink” when it comes to the Conclusion. 

Dr. James Daane, in his The Freedom of God, goes beyond all bounds in his misuse of the Canons’ rejection of this “eodem modo.” We may note, incidentally, that he is very careless in his reference to this expression. More than once in his book he cites the Latin incorrectly as “in eodem modo” rather than “eodem modo;” and more than once he writes as though the Canons simply say “non eodem modo (not in the same manner)”—something which the Canons do not say in so many words, though they indeed reject an Arminian slander in the Conclusion. More than this, however, Daane gives to this expression much broader implications with respect to the whole concept of what he calls “decretal theology” than it was ever intended to have by the Synod of Dordrecht. And above all, it must not be forgotten that all of Daane’s illegitimate appeal to this expression in the Conclusion is for the purpose of denying the very doctrine which the Canons teach, the doctrine of sovereign reprobation. In other words, Dr. Daane lands where Dr. Berkouwer landed. Daane makes this very plain when he writes, p. 200: “This means that any doctrine of reprobation is illegitimate by biblical standards except that which biblical teaching sanctions: that he (sic) who rejects God, God rejects.” 

To cite in context and to refute all of Daane’s misuses of this expression would probably result in another book as long as his. Permit me, however, to give a few instances. 

On pages 31 and 32 he writes:

When Van Til and Hoeksema speak this way, they contend that they are articulating authentic Reformed theology. Their differences come within the context of a much deeper agreement. Both expound a decretal theology in which God’s decree is not identified with his freedom, but with his essence, and thus with God Himself. On this position God Himself is—and is in the same manner (in eodem modo)—the cause and therefore the explanation and rationale of “whatsoever comes to pass, ” including election and reprobation—a principle the Canons of Dordt reject. It is evident that nothing in decretal theology is new, special, unique, specifically gracious, truly gospel, that everything is essentially neutral, of the same nature and accomplished “in the same manner.”

 

Notice how already here the rejection of a calumny in the Conclusion of the Canons is elevated by Daane to a “principle” which the Canons reject, and that, too, with applications not only to reprobation but to the whole of God’s counsel. The theologians of Dordt would certainly not recognize their own theology in this presentation of Dr. Daane. 

In a similar vein he writes on pp. 35 and 36:

The Conclusion of the Canons of Dordt explicitly rejects—in fact, detests—the position that election and reprobation are related “in the same manner” [in [sic] eodem modo). God does not elect men in the same manner in which He rejects men. Election and reprobation are not simply two sides of the same coin. By rejecting the “in the same manner,” the Canons destroy the argument that the endorsement of a proper doctrine of election is automatically also an endorsement of a proper doctrine of reprobation. The relationship of election and reprobation is not a simple one, like two sides of the same coin, or the simple affirmation that one logically implies the other.

Again Daane goes far beyond what the Conclusion of the Canons actually states. Note carefully what it is that “the Reformed Churches not only do not acknowledge, but even detest with their whole soul.” It is this: “that in the same manner in which the election is the fountain and cause of faith and good works, reprobation is the cause of unbelief and impiety.” Daane, however, says that the Conclusion detests “the position that election and reprobation are related ‘in the same manner.'” Daane makes it that “God does not elect men in the same manner in which He rejects men.” He is trying to make the Conclusion state something about which it says absolutely nothing. Furthermore, Dr. Daane’s entire argumentation against the idea of a single decree of predestination which includes both election and reprobation is specious, since it is based on the misrepresentation and misinterpretation of the Conclusion just described. Nor does he have a satisfactory answer to the plain fact that the Canons themselves hold to such a single decree. 

This incorrect appeal to the Conclusion of the Canons, moreover, permeates Daane’s book. He returns to it in the chapter on “The Election of the Church,” pp. 149, 150, as follows:

The Conclusion to the Canons of Dordt asserts that God does not elect and reprobate in the same manner. Paul makes it clear in Romans that God does not elect Jews and Gentiles in the same manner. And it is equally clear that God does not elect Jesus Christ and the individual Christian in the same manner. But decretal theology cannot honor this rejection of the “in the same manner.” It insists that the simple divine decree is without distinctions, though it appears to finite minds to have them. But if so, the Canons’ insistence that God does not elect and reject “in the same manner” goes out the window. The rejection of the “in the same manner” causes decretal theology no end of trouble.

Notice, by the way, that here Daane expands his application of what he elevates to a controlling principle (not in the same manner) so that it applies not only to election and reprobation but even to different aspects of election (of Jews and Gentiles, of Christ and the individual Christian). It ought to be evident also from this that Daane goes far beyond anything the Canons ever intended to say in the Conclusion. 

Never tiring of combating what he calls “decretal theology” (though he frequently misrepresents it, and though he would find himself in conflict with every Reformed theologian from Calvin forward—and not merely with so-called Protestant scholasticism from Beza forward), he returns to the subject once more in the chapter on “The Freedom of God and the Logic of Election.” On p. 173 he writes:

Given the character of the decree as they see it, decretal theologians have sufficient reason for positing a logical nexus between election and reprobation. This logical nexus, however, requires that God elects and reprobates “in the same manner.” If the decree is a logical harmony, everything in it is logically and rationally interrelated in the same manner. Exhaustively rational relationships allow no distinctions. Election then implies reprobation as logically as reprobation implies election (sheer nonsense! HCH). But such a view violates the “in the same manner” rejected by the Canons of Dordt and leaves no room for the freedom of God. Election and reprobation both become necessary, and with this necessity theology loses all need for the language of grace. Indeed, we have noted earlier that the concept of grace is distorted in the thought of the thorough-going decretal theologian.

It is small wonder that Daane ends his fulminations against decretal theology by openly denying what has always been the Reformed doctrine of reprobation, as we have already noted that he does on page 200. Or did he perhaps begin with a denial of reprobation and imagine that he found in the Canons themselves a stick with which to lick the dog? Really, you know, it is a preposterous idea—if you know anything about the fathers of Dordt—that they should deny in the Conclusion what they so clearly asserted in the First Head of Doctrine!