A WORD OF INTRODUCTION
The report referred to in the above caption is, of course, the report of the study committee appointed in the so-called “Dekker Case” by the Christian Reformed Synod of 1964. this committee, you will recall, submitted its report after two years to the 1966 Synod. The Synod postponed consideration, at the same time referring the report to the churches for study (results of which study were to be sent to the Study Committee by the end of January, 1967) and posing some additional questions, or problems, in connection with the report.
Some months ago I wrote that I would offer criticism of that report, and this I now begin to do.
There is ample justification for this critical study by an “outsider”. One reason lies, of course, in the fact that the Standard Bearer has been following the “Dekker Case” from the beginning, particularly because of its roots in 1924. Another reason lies in the fact that theStandard Bearer is, and always has been, vitally concerned and interested in any matter which concerns our Reformed heritage, and is especially interested in this matter, which lies so close to the very heart of that heritage. From this point of view, this study may also serve for the instruction of our Protestant Reformed people, in order that they not only may be kept informed about what is being done with our Reformed heritage in other circles, but also may learn anew how vital it is to maintain the Reformed faith in all of its precision and to guard against every departure there from. Another important reason lies in the fact that the Standard Bearer continues to count it an ongoing duty to testify and to warn our Christian Reformed brethren concerning the dangerous consequences of the doctrinal position adopted in 1924. It is also our hope and prayer that there are those who will heed the Standard Bearer’s witness in this regard.
It is not the intention of this study to follow the Doctrinal Report step by step from the beginning to the end. For one thing, the Report is too lengthy for this. But more than this, the Report is altogether too confused to allow for such a method. I have seldom seen such a piece of confusion. The Janus-head is made to spin so rapidly by the committee that the reader of the report has difficulty in determining which face of Janus he is beholding at any given moment. The basic reason for this confusion, of course, is the fact that throughout the 70 pages of the Report the study committee is striving mightily to do the impossible, namely, to condemn the position of Professor Dekker and to uphold the First Point of 1924 and its well-meant offer of the gospel. In the course of this study, this most basic failure of the Report, I trust, will become abundantly evident. And if the Christian Reformed Church ever hopes to succeed in effectively shutting the door on Arminianism and universalism, they must first honestly face up to the fact that in the First Point they have hand-cuffed themselves with a doctrinal position which makes it doctrinally and morally impossible for them to do this.
Hence, rather than to attempt a paragraph-by-paragraph treatment of the Report, this critical study will attempt to draw some definite lines and to call attention to the fundamental failings and errors of the Report and its conclusions, referring to and quoting from the Report as necessary.
THE PRACTICAL FAILURE OF THE REPORT
One feature of this Doctrinal Report which, it seems to me, all should note is the fact that the very real and practical problem involved is not actually touched. That very real and practical problem is the fact that a seminary professor publicly propagated the heresy of Arminian universalism in the religious press, undoubtedly also taught it in his seminary courses, continued to maintain it publicly in the churches, and, presumably, is continuing to maintain this position today.
The committee obviously recognizes this fact in the body of its report. For they repeatedly criticize the doctrinal position of Professor Dekker on confessional and Scriptural grounds. Yet the conclusions and recommendations of the Report contain not a single word of condemnation of this action of violating the Formula of Subscription, not a single charge of heresy, — in fact, not a single word of any kind about what the churches should do about the fact that ever since 1962 their seminary professor has been teaching doctrines in conflict with the adopted doctrinal position of the Christian Reformed Church and has been inculcating these doctrines into their future ministers. Even apart from any proposing of disciplinary measures, the Report does not utter a direct word of condemnation. Throughout its recommendations the report speaks impersonally and abstractly, as though it were merely making some recommendations on an academic theological question.
This is a sad thing.
For when all is said and done, the simple fact remains that the CRC was and is faced by the intensely practical problem of a seminary professor flagrantly violating the Formula of Subscription and the problem of what to do about it. That problem was not faced when it first arose in 1962, and it has not been faced to this very day. And the Report of the Doctrinal Committee does not face it.
It might be objected at this point that no proper protest against Prof. Dekker’s doctrine has ever been received by the Synod, that he has not been formally charged under the Formula of Subscription. It might be objected, too, that all that Synod had before it in 1964 was an overture requesting a doctrinal study. It might also be objected that the Doctrinal Study Committee was not instructed by Synod to pass any judgment or recommend any judgment of this kind, but simply to make a doctrinal study. Moreover, — looking at it from Prof. Dekker’s viewpoint, — I would have serious church political objections against the commencement of some kind of heresy trial in this fashion and at this date.
Nevertheless, the fact as such remains that rank Arminianism has been publicly taught by a seminary professor. What is the Christian Reformed Church going to do about it, if anything? Nothing more than adopt some doctrinal propositions which propose absolutely nothing new? Still more.
The Study Committee had the mandate “to evaluate its findings and study.” When this part of the mandate is put in connection with the first part of the mandate, namely, “To study in the light of Scripture and the Creeds the doctrine of limited atonement as it relates to the love of God, the doctrinal expressions of Professor H. Dekker. . . . and other related questions . …” it might well be argued that the Christian Reformed Church might expect some direct and pointed and concrete recommendations as to the heretical or nonheretical character of Professor Dekker’s teachings. But the propositions which the committee recommends are merely the kind of propositions one might expect a debating society or a ministerial or theological conference to adopt.
A reading of the introductory paragraphs of the “Conclusion and Recommendation” of the Report leave the distinct impression that the Committee intentionally follows this course, hopes that its recommendations will serve as oil upon the troubled waters, and for the rest wishes to let the past be forgotten and allow for future theological reflection and dialogue. The paragraphs which leave this irenic and compromising impression are the following:
By way of conclusion we wish to state that in the pursuit of the assigned study the committee has consulted frequently with Prof. Dekker and with the professors in the departments of Dogmatics and Exegesis at Calvin Seminary; and we feel that a sincere expression of appreciation is due them for their willing and enlightened assistance.
As we noted in our preliminary observations, all must remember that in connection with the matters touched upon by Prof. Dekker we meet with great difficulties. ,No one is able to give a completely satisfactory solution of the problems which they raise. There will always be mysteries that will baffle our finite minds. And, since we desire to fully recognize these mysteries and paradoxes, we are of the opinion that no undue and artificial restrictions should be placed upon those who wish to take part in the theological reflection and dialogue in which the Reformed community is presently engaged.
There are, however, certain affirmations which must be made in connection with these theological discussions so that we may avoid both, the Scylla of undue universalism which repudiates definite atonement and leads into Arminianism and the Charybdis of an undue particularism whereby mission ardor and zeal would be stymied or curtailed. Therefore, in order that these theological discussions may be carried on in the proper scriptural and creedal framework, we recommend that Synod adopt the following propositions….
This very serious failure of the Report is intensified by the fact that in the course of his contacts with the study committee Professor Dekker made his doctrinal position more explicit and made statements to the committee which give adequate reason to charge him with further error. These matters are referred to in the body of the report, but they are not directly referred to and condemned in the “Conclusion and Recommendation.” These I shall enumerate under the next heading.
COMPOUNDING OF ERROR
In more than one way Prof. Dekker clarified his doctrinal position in his correspondence with the committee, and, at the same time, either made his errors more explicit and intense or added to them. Let me mention the following and prove them by quotations:
1. Prof. Dekker has abandoned all distinctions in the love of God and maintains in the most absolute sense that God’s love is one and universal. It is simply a redemptive love of all men. Previously, you will recall, he attempted to distinguish between a redemptive love and a redeeming love. Now he no longer makes that distinction. This is plain from the following paragraph of the committee’s report in which a letter from Prof. Dekker is quoted: (Acts of Synod of the CRC, 1966, p. 448)
In his articles, published in The Reformed Journal, Prof. Dekker tried to point up this difference by the use of such terms: redemptive and Redeeming love. However, in a later statement to our committee he admitted that this distinction was ineffectual in expressing his real meaning, “because of semantic confusion between the two terms and because of its suggestion of two qualitatively different loves.” Therefore he now prefers “to speak simply of the one love of God as redemptive to all men.” But he adds, “I recognize, of course, that this one love of God is experienced differently by the redeemed. This was my intent in using the term ‘redeeming love.’ ” Yet, after he writes this, he still adds another sentence in which he states: “another consideration which favors abandoning the distinction of redemptive and redeeming love is that, strictly speaking, it is not the love of God as such which redeems. Rather it is God Himself who redeems through His Word and Spirit.”
We understood, of course, that the redemptive-redeeming distinction never did hold. But now Prof. Dekker clearly abandons it. According to him, God’s love is universal, and His love for elect and reprobate is exactly the same.
This not only makes the professor’s position in regard to the alleged universal love of God very explicit, but it also necessarily involves him in the error that God’s love (which he equates with God’s grace) is resistible. For the simple fact is that also in Professor Dekker’s view that same redemptive love does not redeem all men.
2. Prof. Dekker not only teaches that God’s alleged universal love is redemptive, but also that God actually performs redemptive acts in behalf of the reprobate. This is plain from the following statement of Dekker quoted by the committee (page 449):
. . ..In my view God does perform redemptive acts on behalf of the non-elect. Such redemptive acts must then belong to His intent, for nothing that God does is excluded from His intent. What are these redemptive acts? They are the same, it seems to me, as those which He performs for all men, for example, the restraint of sin, the giving of His Word, the incarnation and the atonement of Christ, and the preaching of the gospel. It remains to answer the first part of the question. I would say that the universal love of God does not include any ultimate intent to bring about the eternal salvation of the non-elect. On the other hand, it remains true that Christ is the Savior of all men
and that all men experience salvation in certain proximate ways, e.g., the continuation of life and well-being, the conquest of evils such as sickness which result from sin, social order, peace, and justice, and physical resurrection.
Now there is a goodly measure of theological double-talk in the above quotation and the same plaguing lack of definition of such concepts as atonement, redemption, and salvation. The committee is almost as guilty of this as Prof. Dekker is, — as will become evident later. It is sheer nonsense, for example, to speak of “experiencing salvation in certain proximate ways.” And it is also sheer nonsense to speak of the restraint of sin, the giving of His Word, and the preaching of the gospel as a redemptive act. But note that Prof. Dekker states in plain words that God performs redemptive acts on behalf of the non-elect (reprobate). Note, too, that he includes in these redemptive acts of God both the incarnation and the atonement.
3. Professor Dekker abandons completely any idea of an atonement that is limited in any way, and with this abandons the idea of efficacy in the atonement. You will recall that formerly he made a four-fold distinction in the atonement: as to sufficiency, availability, divine desire, and efficacy. And he taught that the atonement was universal in the first three senses, but limited in the last sense. Now he abandons the idea of efficacy. I will simply quote without comment his own words, as quoted by the Report (page 463):
Further study and reflection have led me to see that the atonement as such has no efficacy (the sense in which I previously said it is limited). Redeeming efficacy lies neither in the love of God as such nor in the atonement as such but rather in the redeeming work of the Holy Spirit. Here too is the sovereign freedom of divine grace (cf.
The atonement itself is inherently universal, as both the Scriptures and the Confessions it seem to me, teach (cf. Canons II, 8 and Catechism Q. 37). Moreover, the Canons speak only once of the atonement itself as being efficacious (II, 8) and this statement must be seen in its immediate and larger contexts. It seems to me that there is neither need nor warrant for retaining the concept of limited atonement, as it has been traditionally used among us. At the same time I recognize, of course, that the redeeming work of the Spirit is a fruit of and is dependent upon Christ’s atonement.
At the same time, Prof. Dekker insists that this universality of the atonement and especially the universal availability of the atonement is not merely a matter of what the committee calls “the concrete presentation of the gospel.” Here he gets down to the important question which we have often asked concerning the theory of a general, well-meant offer of salvation, namely: if Christ did not atone for all, how can God offer salvation to all graciously? Prof. Dekker insists that this question can only be answered by maintaining that Christ in objective reality atoned for all men. Here are his own words, quoted by the committee, p. 464:
. . ..Surely, as the committee suggests, the factor of availability is involved in the offer of the gospel. However, it is then also necessarily involved in the atonement which is revealed by the gospel. May we separate between what is revealed in the gospel and what actually exists, in a way to eliminate the latter? If the notion of availability is limited to ‘the concrete presentation of the gospel,’ without some objective reality behind it, does not the gospel offer itself become unreal? It seems to me that the integrity of Cod and the sincerity of the offer of the gospel are at stake here.
4. Prof. Dekker gives serious reason to doubt whether he actually believes that the atonement is expiatory in nature. He seems to insist that it is, but only on the basis of his own definition and qualification of atonement and expiation. If one considers his view in the light of the Reformed confession of these truths, then one must come to the conclusion that he denies the expiatory nature of the atonement. Here are his own words again, quoted by the Report, p. 464:
When I say, ‘Christ died for you’ to any man, I mean to say that Christ has actually suffered for his sins and has in that sense expiated his guilt. If, however, the word ‘expiate’ is intended by definition to include the idea of effectuation, which to my mind it need not include, I would not want to use the word expiation to describe what Christ has done for all men.
The facts, however, are these: 1) According to the Reformed faith, the atonement is efficacious. 2) This efficaciousness of the atonement is the basis of what Dekker calls the effectuation of the atonement (This effectuation is the application of the atonement and its benefits to the heart and life of the elect sinner by the Spirit of Christ. HCH). This effectuation is inseparable from the efficacy of the atonement, and it follows from the latter necessarily. 3) When Prof. Dekker, therefore, excludes this idea of effectuation, and therefore the idea of efficacy, he by his own expressed qualification denies and is compelled to deny that the atonement is expiatory. This is indeed a serious error. But let me remind the reader that in my still unfinished series on The Nature of the Atonement, I insisted that the choice was between a universal atonement which was not expiatory, i.e., was not satisfaction for sin, or a definite atonement which was expiatory, i.e., was satisfaction for sin. Prof. Dekker has not literally chosen the former; but he has done so by clear implication.
Now what is the conclusion from the above?
Note, in the first place, that Prof. Dekker’s errors are very, very plain. Any Reformed man will recognize them spontaneously.
In the second place, we must remember that the committee had all this material before them. They treated it; they analyzed it. They quoted it and to an extent criticized it in the body of their Report.
In this light, it is simply inconceivable to me that the “Conclusion and Recommendation” of the Report says not a single word directly about Prof. Dekker’s errors, fail to condemn them as heresy, fails to reckon with the fact that he has gone on teaching those errors for more than four years, and fails to breathe a word concerning any disciplinary action. There really is not even so much as a word of warning in the committee’s “Conclusion and Recommendation.”
It might be objected that the committee had no mandate to do the above. I doubt this. But eve if it were true, I cannot understand how a committee can have knowledge of such obvious and such serious and explicit errors, errors more explicit and serious than originally appeared in Prof. Dekker’s writings, and then fail completely to do anything about it. In fact, they apparently failed even to warn the Synod of 1966 that postponement of consideration of the report would result in allowing their seminary professor to continue promulgating these errors for another year.
No one sounded the alarm!
No one preferred formal charges!
If any in the Christian Reformed Church are in dead earnest about trying to remain at all Reformed, they had better wake up and act!