In my previous editorial on this subject I made the point that there was no concrete case presented to the Chr. Ref. Synod of 1964, that there was nothing before Synod to warrant official ecclesiastical treatment and action with respect to Professor Dekker’s writings on the love of God and the atonement. Officially no one expressed suspicion concerning Professor Dekker’s views; neither did any individual or consistory or classis charge the professor with doctrinal error. Ecclesiastically, therefore; Dekker is one hundred per cent in the clear; and there is no more reason—ecclesiastically speaking—to investigate the doctrinal expressions of Prof. Dekker than to investigate the expressions of Prof. R.B. Kuiper or anyone else. From this point of view, the Dekker case is now put somewhat in the category of “leer geschillen” (doctrinal differences) that were synodically studied in the Gereformeerde Kerken some years ago and that climaxed in the deposition of the late Dr. K. Schilder.
On this score, Professor Dekker certainly would have had every right to complain against the appointment of the synodical study committee and to refuse to work with it. For some reason or other, Professor Dekker did not object officially; in fact, he expressed satisfaction with the decisions taken. This is evident from his address to the Synod (cf. Article 147, Acts of Synod, 1964). Nevertheless, the decision taken by Synod was not entirely to Dekker’s liking, as is also evident from his speech before the Synod. If I had to analyze this address of Dekker, I would say that it all comes down to the fact that there was no concrete case before Synod and that Synod is subjecting to official ecclesiastical study without proper grounds what Professor Dekker believes should be left to free and spontaneous study, research, and discussion. There are several elements in Prof. Dekker’s speech which point to this conclusion. Permit me to mention some of them:
1. Professor Dekker repeatedly makes the point that both from his own viewpoint and that of the churches he is loyal to the confessions. Thus, for example, he states:
“I wish to assure you that I have written as I did only because I seek to be obedient to the Scriptures, to defend and to teach the confessions and to serve the cause of the gospel. In a word, it is because I love the Reformed faith. Really, I ask you, why else would a man persist in writing on an issue like this in face of the criticism and harassment which have arisen? Indeed, some of this criticism has been responsible and intelligent, but not a little of it has been misinformed, misdirected and seemingly suspicious of disloyalty to that very Reformed faith. If it were not for devotion to the gospel and loyalty to the Reformed faith, I would have stopped writing about this long ago.” p. 109
Again, on the same page, he states:
“I also wish to say something about the questioning of common doctrinal conceptions in the Church. Some seem to think that to do this is objectionable. I have indeed questioned a common doctrinal conception. However, let it be clear to all that I have not questioned any teaching of the confessions. To the contrary, three Classes and at least one Consistory have explicitly rejected or set aside charges that my writings are in conflict with the confessions.”
This assertion is repeated at the end of his address:
“Be assured, then, that I aim to continue my study and writing in obedience to the Scriptures, in loyalty to the confessions . . . .” p. 110
2. Professor Dekker takes exception to the concern about unrest which is expressed in the first ground of Synod’s decision. Writes he:
“Much has been said about unrest in the Church as a reason for synodical action. (This is true; not only is it mentioned in the grounds, but it was repeatedly mentioned on the floor of Synod. H.C.H.) Some of this is difficult for me to believe. Some baffles me. What is difficult to believe is that there is as much unrest as supposed, sufficient to warrant synodical action. Surely the Board of Trustees, representing all the Classes, did not sense such unrest. What baffles me is that there are those who now deplore a certain unrest in the Church, who at other times are inclined to deplore doctrinal indifference. Do they really think that they can have vital doctrinal interest without some unrest, or that they can have doctrinal complacency without doctrinal indifference?”
3. Professor Dekker was personally not in favor of the method of a synodically enacted study of the issues, even though he expressed ultimate satisfaction with Synod’s decision. This is evident from the following excerpt from his address:
“There is so much to do in the Reformed study of missions. Little has been done in past generations. So let us be patient and tolerant with one another in our study of this subject. Moreover, let us remember that the history of missions is full of mistaken notions which have hindered the performance of the missionary task. From this standpoint one may welcome the appointment of a synodical committee to study an aspect of the doctrine of missions. However, for myself, I am persuaded that it would be better for the study of these matters to go forward quite spontaneously and freely, in the way of the discussion we have already had. This, it seems to me, would be in closer accord with the resolution of the Board of Trustees, which has now been used as a ground for appointing a study committee.”
Moreover, Professor Dekker (and by now it is evident from the recent articles by Dr. Daane and Prof. Boer that they are of the same mind),—Prof. Dekker does not intend to have the discussion stymied by the fact that a synodical committee is working. For he adds:
“I assure you that I will continue to study and write in the spirit of the Board’s resolution when it says that there are issues worthy of further inquiry . . . and that future exchanges of research and opinion on these issues will be profitable to the Church. I pledge also that I will cooperate with the study committee to be appointed. Moreover, I expect to remain in consultation with the members of the Seminary Faculty. In this connection it should be noted that the Faculty has already had some informal discussions regarding this subject.”
From all this it is evident that while Professor Dekker accepted Synod’s decision and even promised to cooperate with the study committee, he nevertheless had some serious reservations about the entire decision, and, in fact, in his address expressed disagreement with no less than three, if not all four, of the grounds. And indeed, from a Christian Reformed point of view, and on the basis of the material that was ‘actually before the Synod in Overture No. 45, I would maintain that the decision of Synod is poorly grounded and that the whole decision is church politically improper. Moreover, I believe, especially on so serious a matter as this, that a decision improperly taken cannot have good results, but must needs prove detrimental, or at least ineffectual. A church cannot violate sound church polity with impunity.
Let us consider the grounds adduced by Synod for the decision.
In order to do this we must remember, in the first place, that the advice offered by Synod’s committee and adopted by Synod was substitute advice. This is important in order to have the whole picture. At an earlier session, you will remember, Synod, upon the advice of its committee, declared the overture (No. 45) of First Orange City to be legally at Synod. The grounds for that decision were already faulty, and they certainly were no grounds for declaring an overture legally before Synod. Those grounds were: “a. There is no action in re this matter pending in Classis Orange City and this allows this consistory the liberty to employ its right to overture Synod in a matter with which it is deeply concerned. b. The materials referred to in the overture are of great moment and have caused unrest and deep concern to the churches at large.” Now surely, neither of these grounds is proper. The mere fact that there was no action pending in Classis Orange City on this matter is no reason why the overture was legally at Synod, even though this is ‘but one reason why the overture might not beillegal. For there are other factors involved in the matter of legality. And, to be sure, just because some matter happens to be of deep concern to a consistory is no reason for the legality of an overture to Synod. But the second ground is altogether faulty. Because the materials. referred to in an overture are of “great moment,”—and this is only the claim of the committee,—does that make an overture legal? And does the mere, unproved claim that these matters have caused unrest and deep concern to the churches at large make an overture to Synod legal? The answer to these questions depends largely on the nature of the matters referred to, of course,—even apart from the correctness or incorrectness of the claims about unrest and deep concern, etc. If the overture had only presented a concrete case instead of an abstract question, if there had been forthright objection to Prof. Dekker’s doctrinal views, as in 1963, then the grounds might have been valid. Nevertheless, the overture was declared legal. This was, after all, the first and basic mistake in procedure.
Thereafter the committee came with the astounding advice to hold a doctrinal conversation with Prof. Dekker. This was, as the whole proposal shows, called a “doctrinal conversation,” but was, in fact, anexamination such as would be conducted under the Formula of Subscription. It was hardly a wonder that the proposal met with very vocal opposition on the floor of Synod and was later withdrawn by the committee. For there were no charges pending against Dekker, and the conversation was not proposed on the basis of the Formula of Subscription. Besides, members of Synod would have the opportunity to submit to the committee “unsigned written questions pertinent to the issues involved,” but with no guarantee that the questions would be asked, since such questions would only “be considered and possibly used in formulating the final set of questions to be employed in this conversation.” Some proposal! I say again: small wonder that it was hastily withdrawn without being brought to a vote. Besides, what would have been the outcome of such a procedure? Would it have ended with a declaration that Dekker’s answers were either satisfactory or unsatisfactory? And if they were unsatisfactory, would Synod itself then have preferred and drawn up charges against Dekker?
It is against the background of this first proposal of the committee and its obvious ignominious failure that we must view the substitute advice that was eventually adopted. That substitute advice was as far removed from the original advice as east is from west. It takes the primary attention away from Prof. Dekker and his views, and, in fact, does not even require that the committee pass judgment on Prof. Dekker’s doctrinal purity and confessional loyalty.
But I do not want to call attention to the material side of the decision and to the contents of the mandate at this stage. I merely want to quote the main proposition of the decision in order to consider the grounds adduced for it. That main proposition is: “That Synod appoint a committee 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 beginning with and relative to his article entitled ‘God So Loves . . . All Men’ and other related, questions which may arise in the course of their study . . . .”
The first ground adduced was: “A mandate to study these matters will allay much of the unrest which prevails in the churches.”Concerning this ground I comment as follows: 1) The mere presence of unrest and the mere desire to allay unrest is not necessarily a reason for appointing a study committee. 2) The ground assumes, without any proof, that there is such unrest and that the unrest ought to be allayed. The question as to the real nature of that unrest was never faced; nor is the allaying of unrest always desirable. It can end in a very undesirable brand of peace,—the peace of the cemetery. 3) A mere mandate to study will not necessarily allay unrest, In fact, the renewed writings on this subject very likely will, and certainly ought to, stir up more unrest. In a way this ground has already been proved false since Synod adopted it. 4) The ultimate allaying of unrest would certainly depend on the quality of the committee’s study and on its findings and evaluation of its findings. Conceivably the committee could stir up a veritable hornet’s nest!
The second ground reads: “Such a study will help clarify the Reformed witness to our generation.” My comments are as follows: 1) This ground assumes, without proof, that the “Reformed witness” is in need of clarification. 2) The ground speaks of clarification while it should have spoken of purification of the Reformed witness; but it could not speak of the latter because there were no charges of impurity. 3) The ground does not define this clarification. 4) Again, this clarification all depends on the outcome of the study. Conceivably such a study would only succeed in muddying the waters and in confusing the issues.
The third ground is simply an unproved claim: “This study may assist Professor Dekker in carrying forward his own work of carefully examining the various matters which he has raised.” It would be fully as valid to say: “Such a study may hamper Professor Dekker in carrying forward his own work . . . .”
The fourth ground is: “This carries forward the spirit of the report of the Board of Trustees which reads, ‘After the discussion the board concluded that there are issues worthy .of further inquiry and it trusts that future exchanges of research and opinion on these issues will be profitable to the church.”‘ Professor Dekker is certainly correct in his comments on this ground, which I quoted above. An official synodical study will stand in the way of “future exchanges of research and opinion.” And it will also stand in the way of spontaneous and free discussion,—unless, of course, the appointment of the study committee is merely the synodical “burial” of the issues.
The fifth ground, namely, that “A study of this nature is requested in Overture No. 45,” is, of course, not in itself a ground. A mere request is not a ground for granting the request.
All in all, therefore, the ecclesiastical treatment of the Dekker case, both by First Orange City, Classis Orange City, and Synod was, church politically speaking, a succession of blunders. In one word, it was a “fizzle.”
And why did this come about?
No one brought a concrete case to Synod. But was this because a concrete case was not possible? Absolutely not! There could have been a concrete case, a protest against Professor Dekker’s doctrinal expressions, brought on the basis of the confessions. Many are filled with unrest about Dekker’s writings. Some are undoubtedly filled with fear and consternation and deep concern about their Reformed heritage. But no one,—emphatically no one,—brought a case. All the overtures avoid the issue, skirting it, walking all around it without touching it. That issue is, bluntly: are Prof. Dekker’s views confessionally Reformed?
The answer is simple: the Three Points, and especially the First Point, and more especially what has often been called “het puntje van her: Eerste Punt,” that is, the general, well-meant offer of the gospel, constitutes a horse collar, effectually preventing any real opposition to and attack upon Dekker’s views. This is very obvious from the fact that to this very day no one has been able to write on the Dekker Case without reference to 1924.
This is also very obvious from the contents of the study committee’s mandate.
But to this I will call attention next time, D.V.