THE TRAGIC DECISION ANALYZED
In a previous editorial on this subject we looked at the August decision of the CR Synod in the “Dekker Case” from a formal point of view. We are now ready to enter into the contents, the material, of the decision.
We shall concentrate first on what is undoubtedly the “meat” of the decision, namely “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.” As I have remarked before, Point 3 of Synod’s decision, which has to do with not adopting the recommendations of the Doctrinal Committee and which is based on the fear of adopting extra-creedal statements, is also important, probably more crucial than many realized when it was adopted in June. Moreover, there is a goodly measure of ecclesiastical hypocrisy in its reference to the decisions of 1924. But to these matters we shall return later. All have recognized that the crucial decision is the one quoted in the beginning of this paragraph. This was the thing for which Synod recessed and reconvened. This is the “upshot” of the “Dekker Case” at the 1967 Synod.
Let us analyze the decision itself, first of all. What does it say, judging by its language?
In the first place, the decision accuses Professor Dekker of expressing himself in his writing on the love of God and the atonement in an ambiguous way.
What is the meaning of that word ambiguous?
Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, Fifth Edition, gives this:
Doubtful or uncertain, esp. from obscurity or indistinctness; capable of being understood in either of two or more possible senses; equivocal.
Now I am at a complete loss to understand how the committee and the Synod arrived at this judgment concerning Prof. Dekker’s writings about the love of God and the atonement.
Nor does the decision of Synod make this plain whatsoever. There is not even the slightest attempt, in fact, to prove this claim. Take note of the grounds. The first ground reads: “His writings have resulted in considerable misunderstanding and confusion within the churches concerning the doctrine of the atonement.” Now let us note that this again is in itself an altogether unproved statement. It may be true; in fact, I believe it is true. But this by no means proves that Dekker’s writings were ambiguous. It might indeed prove that the churches were so poorly founded in the truth concerning the love of God and the atonement that when Dekker began to write, they easily became confused. And I suspect that this is true: there are many in the Christian Reformed Church who no longer know the truth concerning the love of God and the atonement and who are unable to discern and who become easily confused. This “ground” might also prove that the Christian Reformed Church by its, decisions of 1924 and by its preaching and writing ever since has created considerable misunderstanding and confusion within the churches concerning the doctrine of the atonement. But the ground DEFINITELY DOES NOT PROVE that Prof. Dekker was ambiguous.
The second ground reads: “His presentation of his views has resulted in widespread uncertainty concerning his adherence to the creeds.” Again, this statement itself is only a claim, and an unproved claim at that. It may be that there was some uncertainty on this matter in the minds of some. That it was widespread is open to serious doubt indeed. As I read the various journalistic writings and the documents on Synod’s Agenda (and I think I have read nearly everything that was written on the matter), and as I listened to the discussion on the floor of Synod, I certainly did not gain the impression that there was much uncertainty on the score of Prof. Dekker’s adherence to the creeds. I rather gained the distinct impression that there were two opposing camps with respect to this question. On the one hand, there were those who vehemently claimed that Prof. Dekker was entirely loyal to the creeds, and that the matters involved in the “Dekker Case” were strictly extra-creedal matters, and that therefore there must be room allowed for an on-going discussion. This, generally speaking, was the position of the liberals. And, as is well known, this is the position of the Reformed Journal, particularly of Dr. Henry Stob. I will not enter into the intellectual honesty of this claim here, except to say that it seems to me that this case is so clear that the above claim almost necessarily must be made with tongue-in-cheek. On the other hand, there were those who were firmly convpnced that Prof. Dekker’s writings were in conflict with the creed. This was the position of the Doctrinal Committee: did they not repeatedly begin the negative part of their recommendations with the words, “It is unwarranted in the light of Scripture and the Confessions….?” And in these recommendations did they not deal literally with Dekker’s statements? This was also the position of many of the overtures sent to the Synod of 1967, even to the extent that they asked for Dekker’s suspension under the Formula of Subscription. And this was the expressed position of a goodly number of delegates during the course of the discussion on the floor of Synod,—until that fateful evening of August 30, when suddenly these same delegates conveniently overlooked their creedal convictions and said they would be satisfied to call the professor ambiguous.
These are simply the facts. This second ground is far from the truth. But even conceding. that it might be the truth, is it a ground for calling Prof. Dekker’s expressions ambiguous?
What could “widespread uncertainty concerning his adherence to the creeds” be a ground for? It might indeed be a ground to examine the doctrinal soundness of the churches. It might be reason to investigate whether the churches are even able and willing to judge someone’s adherence to the creeds any longer, seeing that Prof. Dekker is so plainly in conflict with the creeds and so rankly Arminian in his doctrine, and seeing that the churches had before them for more than a year a report which rather plainly showed that Dekker was in conflict with the creeds. It might also be very good ground for examining Prof. Dekker. For if there is such widespread uncertainty, is it not logical to find out and to decide once and for all whether or not a seminary professor is in harmony with or in conflict with the creeds?
But ground for charging Prof. Dekker with ambiguity? It does not follow whatsoever.
These two grounds may be characterized as two buckets of whitewash. They constitute a “snow job.” The churches have been sold a bill of goods!
But then there is, one other place to turn to find a reason for Synod’s decision. I refer to “preliminary observation b.” That reads as follows:
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.
Yes, but the Study Committee on Doctrinal Matters was convinced that Professor Dekker was in conflict with the creeds. The Advisory Committee was not convinced that Prof. Dekker’s position is in conflict with the creeds (cf. Report IX-C, p. 2). And Prof. Dekker himself claims that he is loyal to the creeds. Moreover, I doubt whether Prof. Dekker feels himself to be guilty of any basic ambiguity, even though, according to Report IX-C, he expressed a willingness to accept the personal admonition proposed by the committee. Who the “others” were and what they thought, this the committee report does not tell us.
Now, of course, this was not a formal ground for the decision. But it was a “preliminary observation,” and as such it psychologically led up to the recommendation. For if the advisory committee, was convinced of this, they surely had to recommend it. As far as Synod is concerned, however, the only conclusion one can come to is that it acted simply on the say-so of the Advisory Committee.
However, if one delves back into Report IX-C (the unified report prepared in July, but tabled by Synod), he discovers certain facts. Personally, I wondered for a long time why this report was not adopted. For I considered it to be a much more thorough compromise, and a smoother one, than the report which synod finally adopted (Report IX-D). Actually the decision which Synod finally took was but one small item lifted almost literally out of Report IX-C. And I have come to the following conclusions about Report IX-C:
1) That it would inevitably have involved Synod in painful discussions about 1924, the well-meant offer, and, ultimately, the question of what is creedal and what is anti-creedal.
2) That because Synod would have to pass on a statement of Prof. Dekker included in that report, they would again have been confronted by the question of his loyalty to the creeds, something which he affirms in that statement.
3) That Synod would have confronted recommendations that “Synod recognize the need for further discussion on the issues raised in the writings of Prof. Dekker,” and that these recommendations would again, if debated, raise the question of the creeds.
4) That finally there was an agreement, supported by members of the Doctrinal Committee, to limit Synod’s decision to this one recommendation about Dekker’s ambiguity, leave the impression that at least to some degree Prof. Dekker was “ticked on the fingers,” and pass by in silence the nettlesome question of the creeds. But if there is any doubt about it, I will show later that this entire decision plays into the hands of the liberal, or pro-Dekker faction in the CRC. In fact, it even uses some of the language of the Reformed Journal.
BUT WAS PROF. DEKKER AMBIGUOUS? Does Synod’s decision ring true?
Let us apply it to the three statements of Prof. Dekker which are quoted in Report IX-D.
The first set of statements is as follows:
There is one love of God and this one love is redemptive in nature. God loves all men with a redemptive love.
Are these propositions ambiguous? Doubtful or uncertain, due to obscurity or indistinctness? Capable of being understood in either of two or more possible senses?
Mark well, the question is not whether they are true, whether they are according to the Scriptures and the creeds. But are they of a double meaning?
The answer is so obvious that I need not belabor it. The above statements have only one meaning, and that one meaning is perfectly clear. The meaning of these statements is clear even when they are read apart from the context of Dekker’s articles. “There is one love of God,”—not two or three loves, not a common and a special love; but one love of God. “This one love is redemptive in nature.” Using Dekker’s own explanation, “redemptive” means “tending to redeem.” What is ambiguous about it? Prof. Dekker means, and everyone knows that he means, that there is not a nonredemptive as well as a redemptive love. God’s love in its very nature tends to redeem. You may agree or disagree with the statement. I, for one, agree with it. To me, a love of God which would not tend to redeem its objects, in other words, a love which would tend to let its objects go lost, is inconceivable, is a contradiction in terms. But whatever you judge of the statement, it surely is not of a double meaning! The same is true of the third proposition: “God loves all men with a redemptive love.” Again, you may agree or disagree with the statement. I, for one, violently disagree and claim that it directly contradicts Scripture and the confessions. Or again, Prof. Dekker may have difficulty explaining why all men are not actually saved if this statement is true. But the statement as such is as clear as the sun in the heavens. It very forthrightly teaches a universal love of God which is redemptive in nature.
Whatever may be Prof. Dekker’s failings in this set of statements, one of them is not ambiguity.
Now let us examine the second set of statements quoted by Synod:
The atonement itself is inherently universal. There is neither need nor warrant for retaining the concept of limited atonement, as it has been traditionally used among us
Again I say: one may accuse Prof. Dekker of many things in connection with these statements. He may agree or disagree with what the professor teaches. But one thing is certain: the statements are clear to the point of bluntness. In fact, has not that been exactly the history, that many were shocked when the professor so bluntly came out against limited atonement? The trouble was not that Dekker was not clear; it was rather that Dekker was much too blunt! Bluntly Arminian! And especially when these statements are taken in the context of his writings, they are exceedingly clear.
The atonement is inherently universal?
That is precisely the same as the Second Point of the Arminians: “Jesus Christ, the Saviour of the world, died for all men and for every man, so that he has obtained for them all, by his death on the cross, reconciliation and the forgiveness of sins.”
Neither need nor warrant for retaining the concept of limited atonement?
That means this: the doctrine of limited atonement has no basis in Scripture or the confessions. It is worthless, good for nothing. We must discard it, for it is both unnecessary and unwarranted. And do not forget that Professor Dekker exactly claimed that this unneeded and unwarranted concept of limited atonement actually constituted an obstacle to the mission work of his denomination!
Pray, tell me: what is ambiguous about all this? I cannot understand how there could be a single delegate on the floor of Synod who was convinced in his own conscience that this second set of statements was of double meaning, suffering from obscurity or indistinctness.
The only term about which there might be some question is that term “traditionally.” But, in the first place, Prof. Dekker himself made it abundantly clear in his writings that he certainly did not equate “traditionally” and “confessionally.” Dekker referred to a concept of limited atonement which he claimed had grown up in the Christian Reformed Church and which was by some thought to be and alleged to be the doctrine of the confessions. But Prof. Dekker made it very clear that he did not consider this traditional concept of limited atonement to be confessional; he claimed all along,—astounding though that may seem to a Reformed man,—that his doctrine of universal atonement was according to the confessions. He denied, for example, that he was in conflict with Canons II, 8, He affirmed that his doctrine was in harmony with Canons II, 3.
But even if we grant a degree of ambiguity on this point, who was the Synod to admonish Dekker for using this language? The Synod used the same language. In fact, that is the “sleeper” in Point 2 of Synod’s decision. They speak of the report of the Doctrinal Committee as “a valuable contribution, within the Reformed tradition, to the discussion of the matters contained within the report.” To many, I know, this means the same as “within the Reformed confessions” or “in the framework of the confessions.” But you may be certain that Synod did not say this and did not intend to say this. If Synod had attempted to say this, there would have been a prolonged debate on the point. That word “tradition” leaves the door open for Prof. Dekker’s idea of “the concept of limited atonement as it has been traditionally used among us.” But then Synod must not accuse its professor of being ambiguous. People who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones!
Now look at the third set of statements:
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.
Once again: whatever the fault of the above statements may be, one would be hard pressed to point out any ambiguity. In fact, one stands amazed that the Advisory Committee, let alone the Synod, had the audacity to call this language ambiguous! One could only with difficulty, it seems to me, express himself more unambiguously.
Every man individually? Does that not mean every last son of Adam whom one meets? Does it not mean men, individuals, without exception?
We may say? Was not Prof. Dekker writing about preaching on the mission field when he wrote these words? Do they not plainly mean that missionaries have the right (the may), and therefore the divine commission, to say this?
Christ died for you? Does not Prof. Dekker make it very explicit when he tells us that this means that Christ has actually suffered for every man’s sins and in that sense expiated his guilt? Who has any difficulty understanding such language?
Perhaps it might be objected by some that the last proposition in this set of statements is ambiguous. The answer to this objection is that this is not the fault of Prof. Dekker’s way of expressing himself. His language is very clear, and leaves no doubt as to what he means. He says: 1) That if the word “expiate” is intended to include the idea of effectuation, he would not want to use the word to describe what Christ has done for all men. 2) That he does not think that the word “expiate” necessarily includes the idea of effectuation. There is nothing cloudy or doubtful about what the professor says, therefore. This last proposition is simply the embodiment of the characteristic Arminian denial of the efficacy of the atonement. But ambiguity of expression there is not.
The conclusion of this investigation of Synod’s decision is plain for all to see.
The charge of ambiguity is not true.
The admonition was uncalled for.
The sad part is that the Synod did not even bother to examine and to discuss this question. Scarcely a word was said about it; and there was no debate about it.
But by means of this ruse Synod avoided the main issue: creedal or anti-creedal?
Next time, D.V., we shall discuss the charge of abstractness.