At the conclusion of my last editorial on this subject I promised to say more about this matter of being “abstract.” This I now do. And I do it because I am convinced that here we are getting at the heart of the entire. theological conflict exemplified in the “Dekker Case,”—not indeed from a material point of view, but from the point of view of theological method.
I suggested that some, if not many, delegates were unaware of what they were adopting when they gave their approval to this charge. This stands to reason: the term was not explained in Synod’s decision. Nor did Synod say what it meant when it decided in particular that Professor Dekker’s expressions on the atonement and the love of God were abstract. Nor did Synod give any proof whatsoever that the charge was true. As I suggested before, this is a thoroughly unworthy way of making decisions. Nevertheless, thus matters stand.
To me it is not inconceivable that when the first reluctance to discuss these subjects disappears, and when some of the former disputants are brave enough to resume the debate, there may even be considerable difference of opinion about what is meant by “abstract.” When synodical decisions leave matters vague and ill-defined, such decisions have a way of rising to plague the churches anew. One may say in the future, “Synod meant this.” Another will retort, “No, that was not my understanding of the matter when I voted in favor of that motion.”
However, much as it may seem so, a term like this is not simply pulled out of thin air, so to speak. It did not find its way into Synod’s language by some kind of magical hocus-pocus.
Hence, let us investigate the evolution of this charge. Let us trace, if we can, its origin. Probably it will have to be granted that the evidence is circumstantial. That is due only to the fact that Synod did not give account of the meaning and the reasons for its own decision. But when the evidence is in, I think the reader will have to agree that the case is strong, if not airtight. It may even be that some delegates to the 1967 Synod, if confronted with this evidence, will cry, “We’ve been taken!” But that will be only because they failed to do their home-work; or could it be that they were so very eager to have “unity and peace” that they were tricked into accepting the decision only because it seemed to be a way out of a difficult situation?
The first ancestor of Synod’s decision is, of course, the preliminary observation of the advisory committee in Report IX-D. The committee said: “After long consideration and much discussion….your advisory committee is convinced that Professor Dekker has erred in making ambiguous statements and using them in an abstract way.” (emphasis mine) Judging from the record, Synod simply took over this judgment of the committee (altogether ungrounded and undefined, mind you) and said, “Yes, abstract!”
But where did the Advisory Committee get this idea?
The answer is that the second ancestor of Synod’s decision is in Report IX-C of the same Advisory Committee. This was the report, you will recall, which was drawn up in the interim between the June and August sessions. That earlier report already advised to “admonish Prof. Dekker for the ambiguous and abstract way in which he has used” certain quoted statements. But this report had more to say on the subject of being abstract. For you find in it this recommendation, followed by an anonymous “Elaboration”:
That Synod warn against making abstract theological statements which may give the impression that either the doctrine of particular atonement or the well-meant gospel offer is being denied.
(Elaboration: The following statement was submitted to the ‘advisory committee as an illustration of ‘a concrete approach to the problem that faces us—an approach that, seeks to avoid the abstract theologizing warned against in recommendations a and b immediately above.
“A statement like ‘God loves all men with a redemptive love’ is ambiguous and liable to be misunderstood. For if the word ‘redemptive’ be understood in the sense in which it is used in the Canons of Dordt, II, 8 (‘effectually redeem…all those, and those only, who were from eternity chosen to salvation’), the statement says more than Scripture or the creeds permit us to say. Because this is the sense in which the word ‘redemptive’ is commonly used among us, the above statement is likely to be so understood.
“Again, a statement like ‘Christ died for all men’ is ambiguous and likely to be misunderstood. If it is understood to mean that all men will eventually be saved, it says too much; if it is understood to mean that Christ only gives men an opportunity to be saved, it says far too little. Besides, the statement, ‘Christ died for me,’ is a confession one can only make in faith, not an abstract statement which holds true whether one has faith or not.
“Other types of abstract theological statements may give the impression that we may not urge every man to whom the gospel comes to believe in Christ and be saved.
“We can therefore best solve the problem which here confronts us, retaining full loyalty to Scripture and the creeds, and at the same time doing full justice to the well-meant gospel offer, by following a concrete, kerugmatic approach both in theologizing and in preaching. For example, instead of saying ‘Christ died for all men,’ we can better put it this way, ‘We may say to any man whom we confront with the gospel, “You must believe that Christ died for you.'” Or again, instead of saying, ‘God loves all men with a redemptive love,’ we can better put it this way: ‘We may say to any man whom we confront with the gospel, “God shows his love for you in entreating you now, through us who bring the gospel, to be reconciled to Him.'”
“If this approach be followed we shall be able to retain the essence of what Prof. Dekker has been driving at, while at the same time avoiding expressions which are ambiguous, confusing, and which can easily be misinterpreted.”)
In a way, it is too bad that this part of Report IX-C never came up for discussion on the floor of Synod. That might have been very interesting. And it would be very interesting, too, to compare Prof. Dekker’s statements with the above example with respect to ambiguity. Talk about a studied effort to be ambiguous!
The discerning reader will recognize, I take it, that the entire difficulty in the above quotation is basically this, that the anonymous author (who could that be?) is trying desperately to reconcile the irreconcilable, that is, Reformed truth and Arminianism, or, Reformed truth and the well-meant offer of grace. Or perhaps he is trying desperately to avoid the necessity of attempting to reconcile the two.
But this is not the point at present. We are tracing the evolution of the charge “abstract.” And here it is evident that some time during the summer recess of Synod this idea had found its way into the report of the Advisory Committee.
Where did it come from?
You will not find it in Report IX-B, the Minority Report of June. Nor will you find it in Report IX-A, the Majority Report of June. You will find what was perhaps a first cousin of it in the Majority Report. That Majority Report does not speak of “ambiguous” and “abstract.” It refers, in connection withy. Prof. Dekker’s statements, to the “faulty use” of such expressions. It also recommends that “Synod admonish Professor Dekker for the imprecise and indiscreet way in which he used” the quoted statements (emphasis mine). And especially if one studies the Majority Report in detail and recalls some of the mention of paradoxes and of the “kerugmatic approach” by adherents of the Majority Report’s position, he can see a relationship. The fact remains, however, that while there is a similarity between the two reports, Report IX-A does not literally mention the charge of abstractness.
Again, therefore: where did this idea originate? How did it find its way into Report IX-C, then into Report IX-D, and finally into Synod’s decision?
An investigation into the many writings about the Dekker Case and into the various opinions, pro and con, which have been expressed will lead the investigator to hut one conclusion. This charge of abstractness came directly from the pro-Dekker camp. It came from those who, at all costs, did not want the recommendations of the Study Committee adopted and did not want to see Prof. Dekker’s position condemned as being anti-confessional.
In other words, Synod, as far as the language is concerned, though it did not define its terminology, adopted literally the position of the pro-Dekker camp. I say again: I do not know how many delegates were aware of this and knew what they were really voting for. But the fact is very plain.
And here is the evidence,—at least, the clearest piece of evidence; there are several more such items which could be presented. I quote from the article by Dr. Henry Stob in the Reformed Journal of May-June, 1967, pages 5 and 6. It is entitled “Synod, The Committee, and Professor Dekker—Again.”
What has become plain in the last few years is that the issues raised in Professor Dekker’s article of December 1962 are complex and not easy to resolve. And what has become equally plain is that the scientific method which we have customarily employed in our address to theological issues is in need of patient review and important revision. No one is here entitled to cast stones at any other; all of us have in the past been victimized by what increasingly appears to be an abstract and rationalistic method of doing theology (italics mine, HCH); but we can ill afford now, when we are just beginning to reach out for a new and more biblically oriented method of theological understanding and construction, to arrest our advance by making pronouncements dictated by a purely objectivistic mode of thinking (italics mine, HCH).
We are experiencing today a theological renaissance (winds of change? HCH), and as in every case of rebirth and renewal, there exist in the present theological world a number of excesses and aberrations. Hut, on the other hand, the Holy Spirit is manifestly renewing the Church’s understanding of things divine. New and responsible biblical studies have taught us to recognize that inherited Greek-philosophic modes of understanding are not suited to the Revelation given by the living God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob and by the eternal Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. We are beginning to understand that biblical truth is historical, kerygmatic, and existential, and that it exists and has meaning, not in static isolation, apart from the divinely addressed human situation, but only within the context of man’s response, only within the context of belief and unbelief.
It has become evident to many of us—the point has often been made by Dr. Daane and is currently being made by Dr. Pietersma and Rev. J. DeMoorthat the present dispute revolves about a pseudo-problem, a problem stated in terms of non-biblical categories, and a problem, therefore, which cannot be solved by the biblical givens. Neither Professor Dekker nor the Committee is questioning the faith; both wish to honor the Scriptures and the Creeds. But both are caught in the toils of a method—the Committee, I’m afraid, much more than Professor Dekker—which prevents them from resolving their differences. Both, though in significantly different degrees, disengage biblical truth from the kerygmatic situation and, by abstracting it (italics mine, HCH), inadvertently, and contrary to every intention, falsify it.
Take, for example, the question: Did Christ die for everybody? Consider that as an abstract (emphasis mine, HCH) question of fact, consider that as a scientific question concerning an objective state of affairs (italics mine, HCH), and you have an insoluble question on your hands. If you answer Yes!, how is it then that not all men are saved? If you answer No!, how is it then that the crucified and risen Christ can be genuinely and unreservedly offered to all? To avoid this impasse, to escape this cul-de-sac, we must descend from the cold heights of abstract “truth” (italics mine, HCH) and ask the biblical question: What is every man who hears the preached Gospel—every such man without exception—called upon to believe?
Dr. Stob at this point attempts to answer this question. We shall return to that matter later, when we criticize this “new” method of theology. We are busy now investigating the evidence, remember. And in this connection I must quote one more paragraph.
It is this, I am sure, that Professor Dekker wished to say…..But partly in accommodation to inherited modes of thought, and chiefly in forced response to abstract questions framed in isolation from the existential situation of Gospel preaching, he was led to make less felicitous objective assertions about the atonement which were qualitatively no better, but certainly no worse, than those the Committee has hitherto been urging for adoption. (italics mine, HCH)
There you have it. Synod’s, language is obviously; by a process of evolution, the language of the Reformed Journal.
As I reread this language of Dr. Stob, I am constrained to say that when he spoke of a “miracle” on the floor of Synod, he probably meant,—be it, then, only sub-consciously—that the red miracle was that the view of the Reformed Journal had officially gained the field!
(to be continued)