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A Critical Study

The Committee on the Atonement

The Atonement in the New Formulation 

Since my last editorial on this subject was written, the revised report of the doctrinal committee has been published in the Agenda for the 1967 Synod of the Christian Reformed Church. The appearance of this revised report somewhat upsets my planned criticism in so far as it was based on the committee’s original formulation. I had intended to continue my critique along the lines begun in the May 15 issue of theStandard Bearer. Now, however, I must change my plans somewhat. We may ask the question whether or not the committee has substantially improved its conclusions on the doctrine of the atonement in its revised report. 

It would be interesting to make a detailed comparison of the two reports in this respect, and to lay the reports side by side. However, space does not permit this. The concluding recommendations in the revised report are very lengthy, due to the fact that the committee has added many Scriptural and confessional grounds. For the propositions themselves, I refer the reader to Prof. Hanko’s department in this issue of our magazine. The reader should remember, however, that due to the addition of grounds from Scripture and the confession, the “Conclusion and Recommendations” of the committee have now grown from 2 l/2 pages to 9 l/2 pages in the Agenda. The number of propositions has also increased from 5 to 6. What has happened in this revised formulation to the doctrine of the atonement? This is the important question. 

In answer to this question I present the following: 

1) From a formal point of view, the committee has certainly improved its report. I refer to the addition of numerous grounds from Scripture and the confessions. It will, be recalled that in its original report the committee repeatedly used the phrase, “In the light of Scripture and the Confession,” but cited almost nothing from either Scripture or the confessions as grounds. This is, therefore, a formal improvement. It will, ─at least, if the committee’s report is actually submitted for adoption at the coming Christian Reformed Synod, ─ open up the whole report for extensive debate also. For the adoption of any proposition depends upon the grounds of that proposition. And now that the committee has stated its grounds in greater detail and with an appeal to Scripture and the confessions, there is something to debate about, namely, whether the grounds prove the committee’s propositions. 

2) It must also be admitted that the grounds from Scripture and the confessions give the report, at first glance, a more Reformed appearance. The reader might almost be fooled by this, in fact. The committee presents some very sound and beautiful proofs from Scripture and the confessions. And if one divorces these grounds from the propositions whit supposed to prove, he might arrive at the that this new report is much more Reformed than the old one. However, a more careful analysis of the conclusions will show that the grounds from Scripture and the confessions serve as grounds only for the Reformed elements in each proposition, while the elements which are not Reformed have no proof from Scripture and the confessions. This is painfully obvious, it seems to me, already with the very first proposition, which speaks about the love of God. All the proofs from Scripture and the confessions are very good proofs for God’s sovereign and particular love, His love for His people in Christ Jesus. However, this same proposition now also speaks of “God’s general benevolence toward all His creatures” and of “God’s love of compassion for every sinner.” And for these two elements there is not one iota of proof from Scripture and the confessions. What does the committee do? It adds a third kind of grounds, ─ synodical decisions! And, of course, those synodical decisions are the decisions on common grace. 

This same policy is followed throughout the conclusions. All the elements in the conclusions which are not Reformed have no proof from Scripture and the confessions. And in some cases, especially when it comes to the matters concerning the universal offer, the committee cites grounds from Scripture and the confessions which do not prove a universal whatsoever, but prove the thoroughly Reformed truth of the general proclamation of a particular promise and the necessity that the preaching of the promise always be accompanied by the demand of faith and repentance. 

3) In this same connection, the committee has undoubtedly removed from its conclusions some expressions which would be very troublesome to them and which would open up areas of valid criticism on the part of the pro-Dekker forces. I refer especially to proposition IV of the old report, which has been replaced by proposition V in the new report. This is also true, to an extent, of proposition V in the old report as compared with proposition VI in the new report. Space does not permit me to go into detail on this matter. But I submit that the committee has not changed its position essentially. What has happened is that the committee has made its own position more vague and ambiguous. The committee, of course, must be Reformed enough to condemn Dekker’s position; but it must not be so Reformed that it lets go of the First Point of 1924 and its well-meant offer. The result is that it recedes as much as possible into the ambiguity of the traditional double-track theology. A Reformed man will not be satisfied with this doubletalk; and the Dekker forces will not be fooled by it, I predict. 

4) But has the committee changed its position on the atonement? Absolutely not! Certainly, the committee in part has taken a very Reformed position on the atonement. Moreover, the committee has furnished abundant grounds from Scripture and the confessions for this position. The committee has even emphasized the very key element that the Holy Spirit Himself, Who applies the benefits of salvation to the elect, is a gift merited for God’s people by Christ’s atonement. However: 

a) The committee continues to speak, ─without an iota of proof from Scripture and the confessions, and in contradiction of the Reformed doctrine of the atonement, ─of “certain universal and undeserved benefits accruing to all men from the death of Christ.” This is basically, ─ though the committee tries vainly to make a distinction, ─ universal atonement. 

b) The committee continues to speak of the “world” which God loved and for which He gave His only begotten Son, John 3:16, as “an undifferentiated totality.” Note: it is a totality! And as surely as the whole is equal to the sum of its parts, that undifferentiated totality of the committee is equal to all men. This is universal atonement, pure and simple. 

c) The committee continues to make the very same Christ-crucified concerning whom it insists in part of its report that He was crucified for the elect only, ─ they make that same Christ-crucified universal in the preaching. For they maintain the universal, well-meant offer of grace. This is universal atonement.

The Atonement in the Body of the Report 

When one turns to the body of the committee’s report, he finds the same ambiguity and the same double-track theology with respect to the atonement as in the conclusions. I had intended, prior to the appearance of the revised report, to enter into this aspect in greater detail. Now, however, space and time do not permit this. If, after the coming Christian Reformed Synod, it is still pertinent to do so, I shall enter into these matters at a later date, D.V. 

Now, however, I wish to point out, briefly, the following: 

1) Although the committee has revised its report and removed the statement that no Reformed person would maintain that the atonement is limited in itsnature, (probably in order to take away the ground for criticism such as Dr. Daane has made on this count), at no point does the committee state that the atonement is limited in its very nature. But this is the most basic issue. If this is not maintained, ─ and it is not maintained in the report, ─ the battle for the Reformed doctrine of the atonement is lost. 

2) The committee, also in the body of its lengthy report, has absolutely no proof from either Scripture or the confessions that there are universal and undeserved benefits which accrue to all men from the (atoning) death of Christ. We have seen that this is true of the committee’s conclusions. But it is also true of the body of the report. What the committee offers as proof ismere statements of theologians. They quote Murray and Stonehouse and Vos. And what is the reason for this? It is very simple: the committee’s propositioncannot be proved from Scripture and the confessions! Meanwhile, the fact remains that while the committee does not want to go as far as Dekker does, they nevertheless concede the basic point that the atonement is general. 

3) And when the committee confronts Prof. Dekker’s claim that the universal, well-meant offer of salvation demands a universal atonement, they continue to insist, of course, upon the universal offer. And remember: this universal offer means actually nothing less than this, that Christ-crucified, though actually crucified for the elect alone, is in the preaching of the gospel made general and undifferentiated! But what is the committee’s solution for this contradiction? Do they come with Scripture and the confessions? Of course not; this is impossible! They come with a “very illuminating illustration” by Dr. Roger Nicole. It is the illustration of a department store offering for sale a brand name refrigerator at the cost of $199.95! Now apart from the fact that it is very well possible, both from the point of view of the Dekker forces and from a Reformed point of view, to shoot this illustration full of holes, the simple fact is that such work is altogether unworthy of a doctrinal study committee. The committee should have come with Scripture and the confessions. This they could not do. Instead the committee resorts to the method of rationalism, ─ the same rationalism with which we have always been unjustly charged in connection with 1924. They come with human reasoning’s and human illustrations apart from Scripture and the confessions. And these human reasoning’s are altogether unsatisfactory. If rationalism we must have, then give me Prof. Dekker’s rationalism: universal availability of salvation (in the general offer) requires universal atonement. That makes sense, at least, even though it is not true! But why, ─ this is the important question, ─why must the committee resort to this method? Because when it comes to the well-meant offer, they must agree that in that offer Christ crucified is universal, while they do not want to admit to Prof. Dekker that Christ-crucified on Golgotha nineteen hundred years ago was universal. In other words, the committee is basically committed to the doctrine of universal atonement, but does not want to face up to this reality. 

The Most Important Issue In The Report 

For the time being we may conclude this critical study at this point and await further developments. But in conclusion I must point out that-the underlying issue of the entire “Dekker Case” is that of the love of God. 

In this connection, the committee wants a threefold love of God: His general benevolence toward all His creatures, His love of compassion for every sinner, and His unique love for His elect. (Proposition I) 

As I have already pointed out, it is only for the last of these three that the committee offers proof from Scripture and the confessions in its conclusions. For the other two it offers proof from “synodical decisions.”

But it is in this proposition of the committee that the fundamental question is involved, ─from a Reformed point of view. From this point of view, the stand of Dekker (though more consistently Arminian) and that of the committee offer little choice. 

And I can put the matter, as far as the committee’s statement is concerned, very succinctly. 

1) The committee’s divine “love of compassion for every sinner” presents a compassion and a love that is not worthy of God! It is a love so compassionate that it allows its objects to go to hell! 

2) By this doctrine the committee presents the God of the supposed Reformed faith as a weak God, ─- as weak as the God of the Arminians. Though He loves the sinner and is filled with compassion toward him, He is unable to prevent the sinner’s destruction. 

3) By this doctrine the committee must needs accept the implication that the sinner is a powerful sinner, ─ as powerful as the Arminians’ sinner, more powerful than God. For though God loves him and is filled with compassion toward him, the sinner is able to overcome the love and compassion of God by his sin and unbelief and goes lost in spite of divine love! 

This is not the God of the Reformed faith, however. 

It is the God of the First Point of 1924! 

And until the Christian Reformed Church forsakes and repudiates the errors of 1924, it will never be able to fight Arminianism, but will continue to be swallowed up by it. 

And to those seriously Reformed believers who want neither the Arminianism of Prof. Dekker nor the Arminianism of the committee’s double-track theology (the theology of 1924), but who want the God of the Reformed faith, ─to them I say in all earnestness and good will: Come out, exercise your right of reformation, and stand with us! We are Reformed according to Scripture and the confessions!