– A Critical Study 4
The Committee on the Offer
THE COMMITTEE SEES THE POINT
We have already noted that the mandate given the Study Committee in the Dekker Case obviously has in view the First Point of 1924. For this mandate is interested in the question whether it is valid to make a qualitative distinction between the general love of God and His special love for the elect. This of course, precludes any Reformed conclusion on the part of the committee. It means that they are bound to the idea of a general love of God. They may conclude that there is, or is not, a qualitative distinction between God’s general love and God’s special love. But to the theory of a general love of God they are bound. From the outset the committee has the millstone of the First Point hanging about its collective neck. And this means that unless the committee has the courage to go beyond its mandate and to say that the Christian Reformed Church was wrong in 1924 and to tell the CRC that the alternative posed in its mandate is a false one, the Report is doomed to failure: the failure of being un-Reformed.
The committee, therefore, had the choice of approving the theory of Prof. Dekker and going in the direction of full-blown Arminianism with respect to the love of God, the death of Christ, and the preaching of the gospel; or the choice of following the covert, half-way Arminianism of the First Point, which tries to connect the so-called offer of the gospel with common grace, but which nevertheless speaks of a general, well-meant offer of salvation. It had the choice of following more consistently the Arminian track with respect to the preaching of the gospel or of attempting to continue to follow a double-track theology.
The committee took the second option, and it tries desperately to maintain it. In fact, while the committee’s efforts reveal many of the same methods, the same inconsistencies, and the same desperation tactics which have characterized all those who have tried to run on two tracks, and while the committee tries probably more desperately than ever before to maintain the First Point without becoming “too” Arminian, — something which perhaps accounts for the lengthy meanderings of their report, — the fact is that anyone who studies the report must be left altogether un unsatisfied, — even on a Christian Reformed basis, — as to the question how a general, well-meant offer of salvation can be an evidence of so-called common, non-saving grace. The fact is, too, that this dissatisfaction appears in the points raised by the committee of pre-advice at the last Christian Reformed Synod. For two of the “related problems” which the committee of pre-advice said were in need of “theological clarification and precise statement” have to do with this matter. They are: 1) “The relationship between election and the sincere offer of salvation.” And it should be remembered that in Christian Reformed parlance the word “sincere” means “well-meant.” 2) “The universal implications of the atonement.”
It is too bad, by the way, that the committee of pre-advice did not add this problem as being in need of theological clarification: the relation between sovereign reprobation and the general, well-meant offer of the gospel. Or should I say “disjunction” instead of “relation?”
Fact is, too, that in the end the committee falls flat on its collective nose. For in its conclusions and recommendations the committee ends by making basically the same statements as the First Point of 1924 without resolving the problem which we Protestant Reformed always raised with respect to the First Point and which Dekker and Daane have raised from their point of view.
This I will show in due time.
But I also want to show how the committee reached this conclusion, or rather, maneuvered themselves into this position and played hocus-pocus with the facts and with the Reformed truth until they came up with this conclusion.
For as in 1924, so also today, this requires some very devious maneuvering. And the admonition of the 1966 committee of pre-advice to avoid poorly defined categorical statements and ambiguous terminology may very well be applied, above all, to the Study Committee.
First of all, therefore, let us note that the Study Committee apparently saw the point at issue rather clearly. They immediately place their entire study in the context of the First Point of 1924 and the well meant offer of the gospel. For one thing, they refer openly to the fact that Prof. Dekker and Dr. James Daane have written in the context of 1924 and “compel us once more to take a good look at the decisions of our Synod of 1924 and the interpretation of these decisions that was given by the Synod of 1959.” And again, they write: “For we are convinced that now as then we are again wrestling with the age-old problem concerning the grace of God.” And thus they finally say: “Let us briefly review 1924 and its aftermath in .our ecclesiastical history.”
And what the committee states concerning 1924 reveals that they see the point rather clearly. Permit me to quote the following from pages 441 and 442 of the Acts of Synod, 1966:
In 1924 the Revs. H. Danhof and H. Hoeksema stressed the exclusiveness of God’s grace at the expense of leaving no room at all for the doctrine of so-called common grace. Prof. Dekker, and perhaps some others with him, are inclined to wipe out the distinction between special and common grace. Yet both meet on this point that both would maintain that God’s grace is one. The former, however, would limit that one grace of God to the elect alone; and from their standpoint draw the conclusion that any mention of common grace or even general favor or benevolence on the part of God towards the non-elect is forbidden. Fact is, the Rev. Hoeksema contended that God could manifest only His wrath towards those whom he labeled the reprobate. Not for one moment could God be favorably disposed towards any one who did not belong to his elect people. Even when the prophet Ezekiel says SO plainly that the Lord “has no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his way and live;” these deniers of the doctrine of common grace went so far as to aver that this text refers only to the elect wicked. The others God delights to visit with His wrath.
I must interrupt the quotation for a few pertinent comments. They are the following:
1/ The committee does not have its historical perspective correct here. In the first place, the Revs. Hoeksema and Danhof stressed this position long before 1924. In the second place, there was no “doctrine” of common grace before 1924. There was a theological opinion held by some; and up to 1924 it was possible to discuss common grace as an extra-confessional matter. But there was no “doctrine” of common grace until the Synod of 1924 officially established it in the Three Points.
2/ The committee plainly suggests an aversion for the term “reprobate” in this paragraph. They evince this same aversion throughout their report. And this aversion is common to many in the current discussion. All seem to prefer to speak of the “non-elect.” Note that this is the committee’s term here; and they speak of those “whom he (Rev. Hoeksema) labeled the reprobate.” The reader should beware of this terminology. We are all perhaps automatically inclined to understand and mentally to read “reprobate” when this term “non-elect” occurs. I find myself doing this. But the terms are not the same. The term reprobate is a positive term; the term non-elect is strictly a negative term, that is, it does not say anything about those who are not elect except that they are not elect. This is a covert denial of double predestination which is becoming very common. Here is a good question: why does virtually no one today want to speak of reprobation? Here is another: why does the committee, which wants to maintain common grace and a common love of God, consistently prefer to speak of the “non-elect” rather than of the reprobate?
3/ Let me remind you, in connection with my quotation of Calvin in the April 1 issue of the Standard Bearerthat “these deniers of the doctrine of common grace” are in good company when they deny that the passage in Ezekiel refers to the reprobate wicked. The committee seems to raise its hands in holy horror that anyone could “go so far as to aver that this text refers only to the elect wicked.”
4/ Let it also be noted, however, that this reference toEzekiel 33 already places the discussion in the context of salvation and damnation, not in the context of so-called “non-saving benefits of the death of Christ,” nor in the context of so-called common grace, which is concerned only with so-called temporal blessings.
The committee continues as follows:
Our Synod of 1924 rightly repudiated this conception of God, and stated emphatically that “on the basis of Scripture and Confession it is certain that there is, besides the saving grace of God shown only to the elect unto eternal life, also a kind of favor or grace of God which He manifests towards his creatures in general.” Moreover, in the two points of doctrine, which followed that first point, Synod declared that this general favor of God manifests itself in a “restraint of sin” and in this that “unregenerate men, though incapable of any saving good, are capable of doing civil good.”
Once more I must interrupt for comments:
l/ Here we have an accurate statement of the main proposition of the First Point. The Second and Third Points are less fully stated; but we may ignore this at present, since the issue is the First Point.
2/ The committee correctly discerns that there is a conception of God at stake here. In other words, this discussion goes to the very heart of doctrine, namely, theology. I must, however, remind the readers that while surely one’s conception of God is one of the fundamentals, yet the Synod of 1924 declared Hoeksema and Danhof to be Reformed with respect to the fundamentals. Strange, is it not?
But now comes the paragraph in which the committee makes it very plain that they see the point at issue:
Nevertheless, although the Synod of 1924 made these clear and definite statements in regard to the doctrine of common grace, it soon became evident that there were still several problems left in the area of God’s grace that remained unresolved. For example, there was, first of all, the question about the so-called “favorable disposition of God toward all His creatures in general” that gave rise to a long debate. (But how can the committee call this an unresolved problem when the Synod established this as binding doctrine? Does the Synod establish problems as binding? H.C.H.) But more important than this was the problem that was presented by what Synod had adduced as one of its grounds for the position taken in the first point, and which Rev. Hoeksema called “the little point of the does Synod establish problematical grounds for its doctrinal pronouncements? History shows that none of the defenders of the First Point considered this a problem; but Hoeksema, Danhof, Ophoff, and others made it very uncomfortably problematical for men like Berkhof, H. J. Kuiper, Heyns, Keegstra, Zwier, and Jan Karel Van Baalen to maintain this position of Synod. H.C.H.) This ground stated that this certain favor or grace of God toward all His creatures in general appears from the well-meant offer of the gospel, which the Canons of Dort presents as coming to all men promiscuously (II, 5 and III & IV, 8, 9). It was this point especially that became the main target of Rev. Hoeksema’s attack upon 1924; and it is this same point that is also calling forth the shades of 1924 in our present controversy.
We understand, of course, that when the committee speaks of the Canons of Dordrecht as presenting the well-meant offer of the gospel, they are speaking from a Christian Reformed point of view. The Canons of Dordrecht do not speak in these articles, or anywhere else, of any well-meant offer of the gospel which comes to all men promiscuously. But this is the consistent Christian Reformed misrepresentation of the Canons which the committee slavishly follows. If only they had refused slavishly to follow this position, they might have accomplished something worthwhile in their report; and they certainly would have had no difficulty in refuting and condemning Dekker’s position.
Nevertheless, I wish to make the point that the committee in so far is correct, namely, that they see the point. The point at issue is the so-called general, well-meant offer of the gospel in relation to the love (or grace) of God and in relation to the atoning death of Christ. Still more: the point at issue concerns the particular, redeeming love of God and the limited, or definite, atonement of Christ. How in the light of the latter is it possible to speak of a general, well-meant offer of the gospel?
This point the committee sees rather clearly.
But this same point the committee tries mightily to avoid and to obscure.
To this I shall call your attention next.