The Atonement Issue In The ‘Dekker Case’
There are, as I see it, three main issues in the debate concerning the “Dekker Case,” all of which are closely related.
The first issue concerns the preaching of the gospel, especially the questions concerning the nature of that preaching (is it grace to all who hear?) and concerning the contents of that preaching (is it a well meant offer to all who hear?), as these questions are, of course, related to the First Point of 1924. We must not confuse these questions with the question whether the gospel must be promiscuously, or generally, proclaimed. The latter is not and cannot be in question. No preacher can possibly avoid proclaiming the gospel promiscuously. Moreover, it is the Reformed position that the gospel must be promiscuously proclaimed to all to whom God in His good pleasure sends it. But the question is: what gospel must be proclaimed promiscuously? Is it a general gospel or a particular gospel? The position of the Christian Reformed Church, adopted in 1924, is that the gospel is a general and well-meant offer of grace and salvation to all who come under the preaching. The trouble is that this position was adopted along side of the position of our confessions, which is the very opposite position. Besides, there has always been a certain amount of confusion due to the fact that in the First Point the Christian Reformed Church actually adopted two doctrines, — the Kuyperian doctrine of common grace and the Arminian doctrine of general grace. But Prof. Dekker took hold of the First Point and carried it to its logical conclusion. The Doctrinal Committee, as we have seen, felt the pinch of the First Point, tried mightily to avoid the compulsion of Prof. Dekker’s reasoning, but failed. They ended, as was to be expected, by saying in effect, “Yes, the preaching of the gospel is a well-meant offer of salvation and grace to all who hear it.”
I call this the first issue because it is historically first. We must remember that the underlying issue in the entire “Dekker Case” is this: what must be preached, especially on the mission field? This was Prof. Dekker’s basic approach, an approach to which he was led by his dismay about the meager fruits of bluntly, Prof. Dekker really came to the conclusion that his denomination was not consistently and to the fullest extent conforming its preaching to the well meant offer position of the First Point.
And in a very real and practical sense this is indeed the first issue. Always the church has been confronted by the question as to the nature and contents of the preaching of the gospel. And it is inevitable that as soon as one says anything about the nature and contents of the preaching, he is bound to say something about the facts of salvation, that is, about the objective work of Christ that lies at the basis of the gospel-message and that forms the content of it, — hence, about the atonement. And then, in turn, it is inevitable that one is bound to say something about the divine purpose and motive and intent that lie behind that atonement of Christ and that are revealed in it. And thus one arrives at the deepest issue, the issue of God’s love and grace, and, inevitably, the issue of election and reprobation.
That is also the reason why in this critical study I treated the matter of the so-called offer first. And that is also the reason why I have pointed out not only that this matter of the offer has bothered the committee throughout its report, but also emphasized that as long as one takes the position that the preaching of the gospel is a general offer of grace, — is, in fact, an offer at all, — there is no solution possible for the difficulties which Prof. Dekker has caused by his writings. The position of the First Point and its offer of grace is intrinsically an Arminian position, and it will inevitably give rise to Arminianism as respects the atonement and as respects the love of God and predestination. Basically, therefore, the Doctrinal Report is just as Arminian as Prof. Dekker’s writings are. The only difference is that the latter are more consistent and less confused.
And now we come to the second main issue, that of the atonement.
In this part of our evaluation we are not confronted by the question whether Prof. Dekker holds to the Reformed doctrine of the atonement. It is plain that he does not. It has become plain from his writings, and plainer still from his statements to the committee, that Prof. Dekker’s position as to the atonement is one hundred per cent Arminian. He denies all efficacy in the atonement, and he even denies, in effect, that the atonement is expiatory in character. What could be more Arminian?
The question is rather one concerning the committee’s position. Does the committee correctly and consistently and justifiably condemn and refute the position taken by Dekker? Does the committee itself hold to the Reformed and confessional and Scriptural doctrine of particular (limited) atonement?
The Importance Of The Question
It remains to be seen, of course, whether the coming Christian Reformed Synod will actually adopt any recommendations of its committee whatsoever or whether it will again try to avoid saying anything definitive. I will not prophesy the outcome; but sometimes I get the impression that nothing definitive will be said. There surely are loudly critical voices, both journalistic and official, clamoring that the Report of the Doctrinal Committee must not be adopted, and, in fact, that nothing at all of a binding nature must be adopted.
Frankly, I cannot see how anyone, whether pro- Dekker or anti-Dekker, could be happy with the adoption of the committee’s work, even from a Christian Reformed point of view.
But there are those who apparently would consider it tragic if the committee’s position would not be adopted. There are also those who would consider it tragic if the committee’s position would be adopted. And both groups seem to have the same reason, namely, that they think that the committee holds to the position of particular (limited) atonement.
Now I certainly would have no criticism if the Christian Reformed Church would reaffirm the confessional and Scriptural doctrine of limited (particular) atonement as such. Notice that I say: reaffirm. The doctrine of limited atonement cannot be adopted by a church that holds the Reformed confessions, for the simple reason that in those confessions the doctrine of particular (limited) atonement was adopted long ago. In fact, even at Dordrecht it was only reaffirmed confessionally, and, of course, made more explicit. But if the Christian Reformed Church would reaffirm the confessional doctrine of particular atonement, I could only rejoice in that fact as such. How could a Reformed man do anything but rejoice about that? I hasten to add, however, that should the Christian Reformed Church do that, they would do it very inconsistently; nor would they have solved the problems that have plagued them ever since 1924.
But the question is: would the adoption of the committee’s work be equivalent to such a reaffirmation?
I gather that the committee thinks so, for they speak of “Scripture and the Confessions” in their conclusions. I gather, too, that the Reporter of the doctrinal committee, Adam Persenaire, seems to think so, — even though in The Banner (April 7) he continues to be blind to the connection between limited atonement and 1924. I gather also that Editor Vander Ploeg of The Banner seems to think so: for he evidently writes in the same April 7 issue with an eye to Mr. Peters’ criticism of the committee, as is plain from his answer to the very strange question, “Does the fact that our Protestant Reformed brethren are emphatic in affirming limited atonement mean that this doctrine is therefore to be regarded as suspect?” Editor Vander Ploeg also tries to avoid this implication of “guilt by association” by denying the connection between limited atonement and the First Point. But underlying his and others’ position seems to be the assumption that the committee actually holds to the Reformed and Scriptural doctrine of particular atonement .
This is also the assumption of many opponents of the committee’s report. An example of this is the article of Mr. Leo Peters in The Banner of April 7. Incidentally, I deny that my doctrine of limited atonement is “a personal theology outside of the official creeds.” I also thank him for characterizing my articles on the atonement as “vigorous.” I also am happy that he finds us “at the other end of the scale” from Arminianism, for the latter we certainly want to avoid like the plague, and we wish to be known as anti-Arminian. I also suggest, to put it mildly, that Mr. Peters does not seem to know what fatalism is. But my main point is at present that Mr. Peters assumes that the committee holds to limited atonement, as is evident from the fact that he wants to put the committee in the same bed with me.
Now, frankly, I rather resent that; and I think the committee resents that also, though for a different reason. My reason is that the committee does not hold the same doctrine of the atonement that I do, although I can understand that Mr. Peters thinks they do. But because we do not hold the same doctrine of the atonement, we do not belong in the same bed.
The question to be faced, therefore, is: does the committee actually hold to the Reformed and Scriptural doctrine of limited atonement?
And, as far as the importance of the question is concerned, the question is this: by adopting the position of the committee would the Christian Reformed Church be re-affirming the Reformed and Scriptural doctrine of limited atonement?
It is my conviction that the answer to this question is: No. It is my conviction that basically the committee, as well as Prof. Dekker, departs from the doctrine of limited atonement. And it is my conviction that if the Christian Reformed Church adopts the report of its doctrinal committee, it will make official a doctrine which is not found in the confessions or in Scripture. This I propose to show.
The Atonement In The Committee’s Mandate
The committee has been severely criticized for not carrying out its mandate from Synod, especially from the quarter of The Reformed Journal. It will be recalled that in 1964 the Synod of the CRC listed seven items in the study committee’s mandate to which the committee was to give specific attention. These seven items the committee reduced to what some have charged is an altogether different and self-charted mandate. I shall let the committee itself state this:
. . ..Instead, we have taken the liberty to single out two subjects which seem to us most fundamental in the consideration of our task. If we shall be able to give Synod a clear exposition of these two subjects, then we believe we shall also have dealt with all the questions which the Synod of 1964 put to us.
The first subject concerns the love of God and the question whether, in the light of Scripture and the Confession, it is valid to make a qualitative distinction between the general love of God for all His creatures and His special love for the elect. The second subject concerns the doctrine of the atonement and raises the question whether, in the light of Scripture and the Confession, we may properly speak of a universal atonement, or whether the traditionally Reformed terminology about an atonement which is limited and particular should be maintained. After this study we also wish to consider the following two questions, namely, whether it is proper to say to every man “Christ died for you,” and whether “the doctrine of limited atonement as commonly understood and observed in the Christian Reformed Church impairs the principle of the universal love of God and tends to inhibit missions.” And finally, we expect to present to the Synod certain propositions flowing forth from our study, with the recommendation that Synod adopt these.
Now I do not intend to enter into the whole quarrel about the mandate. From a Protestant Reformed viewpoint, of course, neither the committee’s version nor the Synod’s version would be acceptable, chiefly for the reason that both mandates assume the heresy of a general love of God, whether that love is qualitatively distinct from God’s love of the elect or not. Besides, I believe that from a church political point of view the entire case is illegal. It must surely be kept in mind that although for convenience’ sake we speak of the “Dekker Case,” there is not any case pending against Prof. Dekker. Nor did Synod of 1964 intend, according to its mandate, to make a case against Prof. Dekker. There should, indeed, have been a case brought by way of protest and on the basis of the Formula of Subscription. But there never has been a case. And even if the committee’s position would be adopted by Synod, in my opinion it is doubtful whether a case would or could then be made against Dekker; and I certainly believe it would be highly unethical to do so. What the 1964 Synod intended was a peaceful study, nothing more. And this peaceful study the Synod instituted without having a concrete case before it, — supposedly, according to the first ground, to allay unrest in the churches.
However, I do believe that the committee is guilty of oversimplifying its mandate. In the first place, it should be noted that the doctrine of the atonement is involved in every item of Synod’s mandate. In fact, the atonement is so involved in every item of the mandate that if the committee had followed their original mandate, they would have been faced by some very sticky problems; I would even hazard the guess that if they had openly faced these problems without too many prepossessions, they might have come up with a genuinely helpful report, one which could have led the CRC back to single-track Reformed theology. But it is perfectly obvious that the committee wanted to avoid these sticky questions. Hence, they separated two main questions out of the mandate (the two quoted above), and they treat these questions, which are interwoven throughout the original mandate, separately. This is surely not what Synod wanted in 1964.
Moreover, it is also true that the answers the committee is going to give to its reformulated questions are a foregone conclusion. How, in the light of the First Point of 1924, could a Christian Reformed committee give anything but an affirmative answer to the first question? And how, — amazing though it is that the second question could even be raised, —how could any man who claims to be Reformed dare to say that in the light of Scripture and the Confessions the traditionally Reformed terminology about an atonement which is limited and particular should not be maintained?
Yet I maintain that when we study the committee’s work with respect to their second question, we will discover that though they do lip-service to the doctrine of particular atonement, they contradict themselves.
The Atonement In The Committee’s Recommended Propositions
That the committee gives lip-service to the doctrine of particular (limited) atonement, but basically contradicts that doctrine, becomes evident very plainly in their second proposition, which reads as follows:
II. That, in the light of Scripture and the Confession, the doctrine of a definite or particular (limited) atonement must be maintained.
A. Although in accordance with Christ’s universal dominion which He exercises as a reward for His sacrifice on the cross there are universal and undeserved benefits accruing to all men from His death, yet Christ’s atonement, in its specific character as atonement, — expressed by the words: obedience, expiation, satisfaction, propitiation, reconciliation, and redemption — was not made for all men, but only for the believers or the elect.
B. The particularistic terms used in the Scripture, such as “sheep,” “His people,” “Church,” etc., are intended to speak exclusivistically.
C. The word “world” in
and related passages is to be interpreted not distributively, but as referring to an undifferentiated totality. Also the words “all” and “all men” used in such passages as
should be interpreted in the light of the delimitations evident in the context.
Notice, first of all, that this is the committee’s chief and positive proposition concerning the atonement. The first proposition does not speak of the atonement at all. And the remaining propositions are negative, except for the last one. But this second proposition is supposed to be the pillar of all the recommendations. And indeed, although the proposition does not go into detail and definition whatsoever, it is, in itself, a wholly sound proposition. Any Reformed man should be willing to subscribe to it. This, of course, is the fooler in the committee’s recommendations: it has led many to think that the committee holds firmly to the doctrine of limited atonement.
Notice, in the second place, however, that when it comes to grounds for this proposition, this is a woefully weak and vague statement for a Synod to adopt. “In the light of Scripture and the Confession,” the committee says. Now what would one expect to find in the grounds? I would expect to find, first of all, abundant proof from the confessions. But not a single item from the confessions is found. I would expect to find clear proof from Scripture in the grounds. But the only explicit references to Scripture are references to passages containing terms that are frequently used by Arminians in a universalistic sense. I claim that even in this light it is wholly justifiable to say that this proposition merely gives lip-service to the doctrine of particular atonement. No content is given to the doctrine; no definition is made; no explicit proof, or even references to proof, from the confessions and from Scripture! A statement like this is not worthy of adoption by an ecclesiastical assembly.
Incidentally, let me point out that throughout the five recommendations of the committee there is a sore famine when it comes to proof of the repeated expression “in the light of Scripture and the Confession.” Only in proposition II is there any reference to Scripture; and only in proposition III is there any reference to the confessions. For the rest, the committee simply makes an ungrounded claim: “…in the light of scripture and the Confession…”
But notice the vagueness of language also. Consider the language of ground B. “The particularistic terms used in the Scripture . . ..are intended to speak exclusivistically.” Talk about vagueness! I could imagine that an Arminian would go along with such a statement. Intended to speak? Do they indeed speak? Exclusivistically? But then the question remains: who are excluded, and who are included? Moreover, how is the exclusion accomplished? Besides, these so-called “particularistic terms” are not even connected in ground B with the atonement. In ground A the same vagueness is found. What is meant by an expression such as “Christ’s atonement, in its specific character as atonement?” Does the atonement also have a nonspecific character as something other than atonement? And even the last expression in ground A is vague: “for the believers or the elect.” Mark you well, I do not say that this expression is Arminian; but I do say that in its vagueness it does not exclude an Arminian connotation.
But the worst aspect of proposition II is that it is plainly contradictory. The committee actually has a new and strange brand of universal atonement. True, it is a common grace brand of universal atonement. That is, it has reference not to an atonement with actual saving power and saving results, but only to an atonement with the power to provide all men with some temporalbenefits. But universal it certainly is! True, the committee cloaks this doctrine in extremely vague and round about language; but if you grope your way through that language, the conclusion is as clear as the sun in the heavens on a cloudless day. Reduce the “although….yet” statement of ground A to its simple and direct form, and the result is not a concession, but a contradiction. And the contradiction is this: although Christ’s atonement is in a sense universal, yet it is not universal, but only for the elect. Yes, yes: these universal benefits are “in accordance with Christ’s universal dominion,” whatever that may mean. But then again, that universal dominion is a reward “for His sacrifice on the cross,” that is, His atonement. Besides, these “universal and undeserved benefits accrue to all men from His death,” that is, His atoning death!
Hocus-pocus! The atonement is particular, but also universal!
True to form, by the way, Dr. James Daane reveals himself again as being right, but dead wrong. For he has 20/20 vision on the committee’s contradiction (seeThe Reformed Journal, March, 1967). Finally, let it be noted in this same connection that when in ground C the committee speaks of the Scriptural term “world” as being “an undifferentiated totality,” this is not only an extremely vague term, but actually a thoroughly universalistic expression. It certainly is not an expression which, as an interpretation of the term “world,” will assist anyone in understanding and maintaining that the atonement is for the elect, and for the elect only. The opposite is true: in effect the committee excludes from the term “world” any idea of election and reprobation.
What, then, is the conclusion thus far?
In the first place, this is a new doctrine for the Christian Reformed Church. In no official decision heretofore has the Christian Reformed Church ever connected common grace with Christ’s atoning death. If this is adopted, therefore, it is indeed a change, but a change for the worse. In the second place, let no one in the CRC comfort himself with the thought that the Report of the Doctrinal Committee is strong on particular atonement. At the very best it is afflicted by the weakness of a both — and, a yes-no, position. It is contradictory. But in its contradiction the report concedes the basic point to Dekker: the atoning death of Christ is for all men. The only remaining point of disagreement is: in what sense is it for all men?
In the third place, although the anti-committee, pro- Dekker forces are not at all satisfied with the committee’s position, due to the fact that the committee also maintains that the atonement is limited, yet it seems to me that fundamentally they have already gained the field. They need not be nearly as perturbed about the committee’s report as the anti-Dekker forces. For if the committee has conceded the basic principle of universal atonement, it can only be a matter of time before the doctrine of limited atonement will be denied altogether.
But all this is sad, very sad, for any man who is Reformed at heart!
And those in the Christian Reformed Church who love the Reformed faith must make up their minds that they must do more, much more, than wring their hands in despair if they expect to keep their heritage for themselves and their children. They must rise up and fight for their heritage. They must engage in the proper work of Reformed believers, namely, Reformation!
(to be continued)