In evaluating the action of the Christian Reformed Synod in the so-called “Dekker Case” it is certainly important to consider the matter, first of all, from a formal, church political point of view. We must ask the questions: 1. Did this matter come before the CR Synod in a proper, legal way? 2. Was the “Dekker Case” as it was presented to Synod a proper matter for Synod to consider and to treat? Probably it needs no special mention that any business transacted by an ecclesiastical assembly must be properly treated under the Church Order; nevertheless it is well to stress this even though it would seem to be a self-evident truth, especially because the importance of good order and of so-called “technicalities” is frequently minimized in our time. It must always be remembered that unless good order and sound church polity are observed, one cannot expect successful results in any case which becomes the official concern of the churches.
Hence, the very first element which all parties concerned, including the Christian Reformed Synod, should have considered was this church political aspect of the case. And it is the main contention of this editorial that the CR Synod erred in this respect and considered the church political aspect of the Dekker Case only partially. The overture of First Orange City was declared legally before the Synod; and this was perhaps technically true, although I have serious doubts whether this was a matter for overture, instead of protest and appeal. But the main question, namely, whether this was a proper matter for an ecclesiastical assembly to treat, that is,—and I stress this,—as it was presented to Synod,—this question the Synod apparently never considered. This I would call a fundamental mistake, and one that could conceivably have very serious practical consequences in the further development of the “Dekker Case.”
Let me attempt to make this clear.
In the first place, we may take note of the fact that Classis Orange City beat a hasty retreat after the Synod of 1963. You will remember that in 1963 Classis Orange City came with an overture asking Synod to require of Prof. Dekker further explanation of his position under the provisions of the Formula of Subscription. Classis Orange City believed Prof. Dekker’s interpretation of John 3:16 to be unscriptural, claimed that Dekker’s position was contrary to Canons II, 8 and 9, and referred to the amount of journalistic comment as evidence of suspicion. Synod rejected the overture on the grounds: “1) Classis did not supply adequate grounds for its charges. 2) Classis did not submit sufficient “grounds for its suspicion.” That overture was basically a sound one. It presented a concrete case, in effect asking for an examination of Prof. Dekker under the Formula of Subscription. Synod deemed the overture insufficiently grounded. And although one might disagree as to the justice of Synod’s decision, it seems to me that Synod gave Classis Orange City a clue as to the direction it should follow, namely, come with adequate grounds for its charges and sufficient grounds for its suspicion. One would have expected the classis to spell out its overture more fully and to pinpoint its charges and then to come back to the Synod of 1964 with an airtight case. Then the Synod would be compelled to take a stand and either to justify or condemn the position of Dekker. That certainly would have brought matters to a head and to some kind of conclusion, one way or the other.
For some reason or other, however, Classis Orange City was sidetracked. They put off any further overture to Synod “until it has fully evaluated the position of Professor Dekker . . . .” Moreover, classis dismissed its study committee. Apparently, therefore, the whole matter is ended in Classis Orange City unless and until some consistory begins action anew.
In the second place, there were negative votes recorded at Classis Orange City by delegates from Hospers and from First Orange City. The former then addressed a letter to the Board of Trustees. While we do not know the contents of that document, we do know that the Board of Trustees preferred no charges against Dekker, and, in fact, expressed appreciation of his interest and confidence in him. First Orange City forwarded an overture to Synod, No. 45, which Synod decided was legally before it.
Meanwhile, in the third place, Classis Wisconsin also became sidetracked in a discussion with the Board of Trustees, with the result that the consistories of Delavan and Racine could not get a hearing at Synod on the ground that their matters were still in process in a minor assembly.
The upshot of all these proceedings is that actually Synod had nothing before it, and therefore erred in its decision.
In the first place, it is, to say the least, a very dubious procedure to come with an overture on a matter of this kind. It seems to me that the dissatisfied consistories in Classis Orange City should have followed the way ofprotest and appeal, both with respect to the decision of Classis and with respect to the teachings of Dekker. The decision of Classis Orange City by which they virtually abandon their position of 1963 was certainly a fit subject of protest and eventual appeal to Synod, especially after delegates from two consistories had registered their negative votes. And since Professor Dekker in his capacity as a seminary professor is directly under the supervision of Synod and its Board of Trustees, the way of protest against his public writings certainly stood wide open. But instead of a protest there came merely an overture.
In the second place, while in a technical sense Overture No. 45 was legally before Synod, I submit that the overture presents absolutely no concrete case. To put it in the language of the Church Order, the overture does not present an ecclesiastical matter. While I would suppose First Orange City wants to get at Prof. Dekker’s views, all the overture actually asks for is anabstract study, in the light of Scripture and the Creeds, of “the doctrine of limited atonement as it relates to the love of God.” Now surely, a study of doctrine is not an ecclesiastical matter, that is, not a matter for treatment by ecclesiastical assemblies. Study of doctrine belongs in the pastor’s study; it belongs in the catechism room; it belongs in the seminary classroom; it belongs in religious magazines. In fact, it belongs in every covenant home. We all can profitably study the doctrine of limited atonement as it relates to the love of God. But there is one place that mere study of doctrine does not belong, and that is in the official proceedings of ecclesiastical assemblies.
True enough, First Orange City adds: “giving special attention to the issues raised by Prof. Dekker in The Reformed Journal.” But what does this mean as far as ecclesiastical action is concerned? Absolutely nothing! They might just as well have added: “giving special attention to the writings of R.B. Kuiper in Torch and Trumpet, H. Hoeksema in, The Standard Bearer, and Prof. L. Berkhof in his Systematic Theology.” In fact, if the overture wants a study, there is no end to the writings which could be researched.
Moreover, the overture asks Synod “subsequently to declare its position relative to this matter.” What matter? Grammatically the words “this matter” can only refer to “the doctrine of limited atonement as it relates to the love of God.” But must a Reformed denomination in the 20th century declare its position on that matter? Is not that position declared in our Creeds? Just what does Orange City want? It is evident to all that they wanted to get a Synodical expression on Prof. Dekker’s views. But they bring no case whatsoever, and they ask Synod to do what they themselves are unwilling to tackle.
That the above is true is evident also from the weak grounds presented by First Orange City. In ground “1” they speak merely of the “position commonly held by the CRC.” This is vague and undefined. Is that the position of the Creeds? Then First Orange City could hardly come, as they do, with the hypothetical supposition that this position is “erroneous.” They must come with a gravamen against the Creeds then. Evidently they mean some current theological opinion within the limits of the creeds; but they leave it undefined. How can that be the subject of ecclesiastical investigation and decision? In ground “2” they do not assert that Prof. Dekker’s position is faulty, but they say, “If (it) is faulty . . . .” Well, if it is faulty, First Orange City should point it out, on the basis of Scripture and the Creeds, and then it would be the fit subject of ecclesiastical action. If it is not faulty, then let Dekker write and develop his views to his heart’s content. But it ought to be either-or. Ground “39” is equally vague and weak. It does not speak of doctrinal error or even suspicion of error. It speaks of a “variation of opinion and position.” Is there not room for such variation in Reformed churches? And how can such variation be “productive of a confusion which will disrupt the unity of the Church and weaken the Church’s doctrinal position?” Certainly, variation of opinion and free discussion and interchange of opinions is healthy, is it not? The only time when such variation can produce confusion and weaken the doctrinal position of the church is if there is heresy involved. But of heresy and doctrinal error Orange City mentions not a syllable.
Hence, I submit again: First Orange City had no concrete case to present to Synod.
And Synod, from this point of view, and on Orange City’s basis, should never have acceded to Overture No. 45.
This is not to say that First Orange City should not have had and could not have had a concrete case. I believe they could and should have had a case. But they did not present one.
Further comment will have to wait until the next issue, D.V.