In the brief report given in the September 15 issue I promised to report more fully and to offer a more detailed criticism and evaluation of the tragic decision in the “Dekker Case”. That critique I begin to present now.
A word is in order, I think, about the proper approach and basis of this evaluation. At bottom, of course, we are as Reformed people interested in evaluating this decision in the light of Scripture and the confessions. That is, and ought to be, our main concern. But in connection with this main concern there are several factors which enter into the picture. There is, first of all, the factor of the data of the so-called “Dekker Case” itself. The writings of Prof. Dekker, but also the writings of others, either in sympathy with or opposed to Dekker’s position, belong to the data,—or at least form part of the background of the case. Past synodical dealings with the case, including the appointment of and the report(s) of the Study Committee, belong to the data. The proceedings of the 1967 Synod, both in June and in August, and inclusive of the four (yes, four!) reports of Synod’s advisory committee, belong to the data. In the second place, there is also the factor of the deliberations and discussion which took place at the Synod itself. I realize full well that these do not belong to the official record. But they do belong to the record of history. Moreover, they are recorded,—and is not that something to contemplate?—in the record book of the Judge of heaven and earth. And I deem it important for getting the “feel” of a decision and for analyzing the trend that one witness the discussion and debate. It was partly for that reason, and not only because I wanted to witness the decision itself, that I attended especially the sessions which dealt with this doctrinal matter. But there is another factor that is also important. I refer to the factor of the broader historical and doctrinal background of the “Dekker Case.” Especially do I have in mind the historical and doctrinal background that is represented by the date 1924. I think no one present at the recent Synod, whether sympathetic to or opposed to Prof. Dekker’s position, and, for that matter, no one who is at all acquainted with the entire Dekker Case, will deny that 1924 and the First Point played an important part both in the controversy and the decision. This has been too obvious to allow for denial.
All these factors must be taken into consideration in evaluating this tragic decision in the light of Scripture and the confessions.
As indicated above, there is considerable data which belongs to the synodical proceedings of this and previous years. It is both impossible and unnecessary to mention or quote all the material at this point. I shall refer to and quote some of this material as occasion requires. Besides, the Standard Bearer has, I think, kept its readers well-informed on this score since the inception of the “Dekker Case” a few years ago.
However, I deem it important,—even though I have already reported on the decisions taken both in June and in August,—that before we proceed with our discussion, we get the complete picture of the decision. When I visited the sessions of the Synod, I was able to obtain copies of the various reports, and thus was able to note the decisions taken. These decisions are embodied in Parts C, D, and E of Report IX-D, the report of the Advisory Committee On Doctrinal Matters. These three sections of this report follow below:
Report IX-D (Parts C, D, and E)
C. The Report of the Study Committee Recommendations:
1. That Synod receive the report of the Doctrinal Committee as information and express its gratitude to this committee for its faithful and diligent work.
2. That Synod commend the report of the Doctrinal Committee to the churches for guidance and as a valuable contribution, within the Reformed tradition, to the discussion of the matters contained within the report.
3. That Synod refrain from adopting the recommendations contained in the report of the Doctrinal Committee (Agenda, pp. 453-461).
a. Although the Doctrinal Committee proposed “that Synod do not make isolated extra-creedal statements,” there is danger that adoption of these recommendations would make them just that. (Note: Propositions not initially intended as extra-creedal statements are in fact being used as though they are creedal by the Doctrinal Committee in its present report to Synod (pp. 454-455).
b. Such propositions may be a hindrance to seeking unity with other Reformed Churches, as is evident from the report of the Contact Committee with Canadian Reformed Churches (Report No. 15, Agenda, 1967, pp. 56-57).
c. Such propositions may tend to curtail legitimate discussion in the churches.
d. This course of action is in keeping with that taken by the Synod of 1961 regarding the report on the doctrine of infallibility. (Acts, 1961, pp. 78-79). (Note: All of the above recommendations were adopted at the June session of the Synod. The following section was before Synod on August 30. HCH)
D. Actions with Respect to Professor Dekker
1. Preliminary Observations:
a. Especially the following statements of Professor Dekker have caused extensive discussion and controversy in the churches:
1) “There is one love of God and this one love is redemptive in nature.” “God loves all men with a redemptive love.” (Agenda, pp. 390, 391)
2) “The atonement itself is inherently universal” and “there is neither need nor warrant for retaining the concept of limited atonement, as it has been traditionally used among us.” (Letter to Study Committee, Nov. 17, 1967, Agenda, 1967, pp. 390, 407-408.)
3) “We may say to every man individually, ‘Christ died for you,'” “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.” (Agenda, p. 409)
b. After long consideration and much discussion with Professor Dekker, members of the Study ‘ Committee on Doctrinal Matters, and others, your advisory committee is convinced that Professor Dekker has erred in making ambiguous statements and using them in an abstract way.
2. Recommendations: That Synod admonish Professor Dekker for the ambiguous and abstract way in which he has expressed himself in his writing on the love of God and the atonement:
a. His writings have resulted in considerable misunderstanding and confusion within the churches concerning the doctrine of the atonement.
b. His presentation of his views has resulted in widespread uncertainty concerning his adherence to the creeds.
That Synod declare that the decisions taken under “C” and “D” of this report constitute its answer to Overtures 20A-20Z, 20aa and 20bb, and to the appeal letter of Mr. J. Bosman, Sr. (Note: Only the recommendations, of course, were adopted. I included the “Preliminary Observations” under “D” for background. Various editorial corrections were made in the committee report, especially in the quotations of Prof. Dekker’s statements. However, I took careful notes; and I believe that all the corrections are correctly included above. HCH)
All will recognize that, though the decision in C-3 is not to be minimized, the substance of the entire decision is embodied in D-2, the few lines which begin, “That Synod admonish Professor Dekker for the ambiguous and abstract way…..”
This I characterize as ridiculous!
It is unworthy of any ecclesiastical assembly, let alone the broadest gathering of the denomination!
It is an insult to all concerned!
Consider the situation. Consider that this matter has been before the ecclesiastical public for some four and a half years. Consider that three years ago Synod itself appointed a committee to study the doctrinal expressions of Professor Dekker in the light of Scripture and the confessions. Consider that this committee spent two years in preparing its report and another year in polishing it. Consider that the committee had arrived at the studied conclusion that Professor Dekker’s expressions were not warranted by Scripture and the confessions. Consider that many consistories and classes expended time and energy in studying this report and expressing themselves about it. Consider that Synod had on its table several overtures expressing agreement with the Study Committee’s propositions, some of which made reference to the Formula of Subscription and asked for the suspension of the professor or for retraction under penalty of suspension. Consider that even those overtures which sought postponement or asked for no binding doctrinal declarations recognized, in a sense, the seriousness of the issues involved. Consider that in June the Synod, though its advisory committee had met for long hours, had not been able to come to a decision, but had deemed the matter so very serious that the extraordinary measure had been followed of taking a recess and of reconvening Synod in August. Consider that thousands of hours and thousands of dollars have been expended on the matter. Consider that on the floor of the 1967 Synod not a few voices had been raised which at first insisted that the doctrinal expressions of Professor Dekker must be declared to be contrary to the confessions. Consider that one delegate (was it not Dr. Rutgers?) had even declared the day before this decision was taken that if Prof. Dekker’s position was not declared anti-creedal, he and others would be compelled to go up and down the country speaking. Consider that heretofore no one had fingered this claimed ambiguity and abstractness as the root of the problem, in spite of the long hours spent in study.
And now the Synod comes up with this decision! In a few hours and in a few lines, it says that the sum and substance of the entire Dekker Case is that its own seminary professor has been ambiguous and abstract in expressing himself about the love of God and the atonement!
Synod has in effect decided that there was no serious question of Scripture and. the confessions involved whatsoever.
Yes, yes! Our professor was a little foggy in the way he expressed himself. He had some expressions capable of a double meaning. And he engaged in some abstract theoretical considerations. And he was not very discreet: he should have been more careful to make his meaning clear. The result has been “consider able misunderstanding and confusion within the churches concerning the doctrine of the atonement” (not about the love of God?). The result has been, too, that there has been “widespread uncertainty concerning his adherence to the creeds.” But really, you have all been nincompoops! There was no serious problem here about Scripture and the confessions. You only thought there was a problem. And we will assess the chief blame on our professor. We will tick him on the fingers for not being clear and for engaging in abstract speculation.
And now let everyone get back to normal. All the sound and fury were really about nothing. The journalistic discussion may also continue, but let the professor guard against ambiguity and abstractness.
I ask: is this the ecclesiastical manner?
Is it indeed the business of a synod to decide whether one has been clear or ambiguous in his expressions, whether one has been abstract or concrete?
Or is it rather the business of a synod to decide whether one’s doctrinal expressions are in harmony with or opposed to Scripture and the confessions?
I ask: was the former matter on Synod’s Agenda? Or was Synod confronted by numerous overtures to decide on the latter question and by recommendations from its own Study Committee to do the same?
It would have been at least more honorable if the Synod had faced up to the motion (and this motion was before Synod both in June and in August) to declare Professor Dekker’s doctrinal expressions to be unwarranted in the light of Scripture and the confessions. This motion would undoubtedly have been defeated. But the defeat would have been more honorable.
Now they sought to avoid a showdown.
And as we shall see when we enter into the material of the decision, the showdown was not really avoided. Instead, the opponents of Dekker’s position conceded. The opposition faded. It collapsed completely,—and dishonorably !
Indeed, Synod came to the birth. . . .and brought forth the wind!
And those who are in earnest about the rank Arminianism taught by their seminary professor and others, which has now been implicitly stamped with Synod’s approval, should rise up in holy indignation! This is their solemn duty!