The infamous Dekker Case Decision of the Christian Reformed Synod of 1967 has been followed, for the most part, by journalistic silence on the part of Christian Reformed writers. Apart from a couple of mildly critical articles in Torch and Trumpet there has been little journalistic opposition voiced to the decision. And from the Reformed Journal there has been a rather strange silence about the entire subject. Are the men of the Reformed Journalperhaps still stunned from their rather total victory in the recent controversy? Even Professor Dekker seems to maintain a rather sphinx-like silence. I had rather expected that by, this time he would have recognized the fact that the Synod did not condemn his doctrine, but only his alleged ambiguity, and that therefore he would have stated his doctrinal position with respect to the love of God and the death of Christ in still more unambiguous language than heretofore, if that were possible. In fact, I am still hopeful that he will break his silence; after all, there should be liberty of theological expression under the decision of 1967! If only one is not ambiguous and abstract!
It appears, therefore, that the said decision is thus far having its intended effect, namely, to calm the troubled waters without removing the cause of the trouble.
But that the cause of the trouble has not actually been removed, and that here and there are souls who are troubled about this issue, and that the decision in question has produced the pathetic situation in which such troubled souls cannot be satisfied,—all this is plain from a question and answer which appeared in the department “The Reader Asks” in The Banner of February 23, 1968. In the interest of fairness I will quote the question and answer in toto before I comment on Dr. John Bratt’s answer.
Here is the question:
A Westerner who is a firm believer in brevity writes: “Dear Dr. Bratt: I have three questions that I would like answered in your column. It is not that I do not know the answers (every believer does), but because men talk and write about them as if they do not know. That it may be clear to everyone, I desire a simple Yes or No answer. First, did Jesus die and pay the penalty for every man’s sin? Second, Does anyone for whom Jesus suffered and died go to hell? And third, If anyone answers the first two questions affirmatively is he a believer or is he a heretic?”
And here is the answer. It should be kept in mind, by the way, that the author of this answer was a member of the Doctrinal Committee which proposed that Synod declare Prof. Dekker’s statements contrary to Scripture and the confessions.
If I were pressed for a simple answer to question number one I might say Yes, and for proof quote among other texts
“Christ Jesus, who gave himself a ransom for all.”
Or I might say No and quote
“He. . . shall save his people from their sins,” in conjunction with
“The Son of man came . . . to give his life a ransom for many.”
If I were pressed for a simple answer to question number two I might say Yes and cite
“False teachers, who shall privily bring in destructive heresies, denying even I the Master that bought them.”
Or I might say No and quote the Lord’s words in
“I give unto them eternal life. . . and no one shall snatch them out of my hand.”
Arminian and Lutheran Christians answer these two questions affirmatively; we Reformed answer them negatively.
I do not mean to be facetious in the afore-stated remarks. I mean to emphasize the truth that there is a body of particularistic teachings about redemption in the Bible, but also a body of universalistic teachings on it. And we need to do justice to both and place the proper qualifications on each one. We may not overdo the particularistic passages so as to obscure Christ as cosmic Savior, and on the other hand we may not overwork the universalistic ones so as to lose the biblical teachings of election and reprobation. There is a tension here and when the correspondent, whose request for a clear and unambiguous answer is perfectly understandable, asks for a simple affirmative or negative answer, he is asking for the impossible.
Let us not forget that the Bible contains the thoughts of God. As such it is a deeply profound book. True enough, its basic message is simple and clear. The way of salvation is plain to all. The Bible’s fundamental redemptive message is: “Christ died to save sinners.” But at the same time, God’s thoughts—imbedded as they are in the Scriptures—are vastly superior to ours,
This will mean problems and questions that do not lend themselves to easy solution. Our recent discussion on the atonement and the love of God was eloquent illustration of this fact. We did not resolve the particularistic-universalistic tension. But we were driven back to the Scriptures for reexamination and restudy. We asked once again: What does God’s Word really say? And that can only be for the good.
PATHETIC AND FRUSTRATING
Thus I would characterize the situation when a questioner and the readers of the Banner cannot get a straightforward answer to a simple and direct question concerning the truth of the Word of God. Consider that this questioner asks three very simple and clear questions. Consider that his questions concern the very essence of Reformed doctrine.
Consider, moreover, that these are questions which are not only of dogmatic importance, but that they are very intimately connected with the Christian comfort, with the believer’s assurance of salvation: this is very evident from the second question, “Does anyone for whom Jesus suffered and died go to hell?” Consider, further, that this questioner specifically asks for a Yes or No answer to his questions. Consider, too, that he furnishes a reason for his questions: “because men talk and write about them as if they do not know (the answers).” Consider, besides, that this questioner expected that Dr. Bratt and the Banner . . . would not “talk and write. . . as if they do not know” the answers to these questions.
And then consider the answers given. “I might sayYes. . . Or I might say No.” And mark you well: Dr. Bratt does not intend to be facetious when he says this!
True, he also states that “we Reformed answer them negatively.” But he immediately contradicts this faint note of certainty by claiming that there is a body of particularistic teachings and a body of universalistic teachings in the Bible, and that justice must be done to both. While he can understand the desire for a simple affirmative or negative answer, such an answer, he claims, is an impossibility. Moreover, he ultimately attributes the impossibility of a clear simple affirmative or negative answer to God and His Word. True, he employs many words to make this point; but that is the point, nevertheless: God Himself does not give us a simple affirmative or negative answer in His Word!
This I characterize as frustrating, first of all. For is it not the purpose of “The Reader Asks” Department to furnish answers to questions, to furnish solutions to problems? And may not a member of a church rightfully expect that his church will answer questions concerning fundamentals of the faith? And is it not the duty of the church to spell out what is orthodox and what is heterodox, what is the faith and what is heresy? And is it not as clear as the sun in the heavens that the answers to these questions cannot be both Yes and No? And especially in the light of the fact that the Synod itself took cognizance of the fact that there was “considerable misunderstanding and confusion within the (Christian Reformed) churches concerning the doctrine of the atonement,” and “widespread uncertainty concerning his (Professor Dekker’s) adherence to the creeds,” due to the alleged ambiguity of one of its seminary professors on this very subject, might not a church member expect of an official ecclesiastical paper like theBanner some clear-cut and unambiguous answers to burning questions? And more especially still, when the questioner himself mentions that the very reason for his questions at such a time of “considerable misunderstanding and confusion” is the fact that men talk and write about these questions as if they do not know the answers, might this questioner not expect that surely the Banner would step into the breach and furnish some unequivocal answers?
Would a reply like this not make one rub his eyes in disbelief?
Would it not almost cause a questioner to tear his hair out in frustration and to exclaim: “That is not what I sought! I told you that the very reason for my question was the fact that men talk and write as if they do not know the answers. And now you are exactly like these other men. You say neither Yes norNo. You try to say both Yes and No. Where, where, can I get answers to my questions? What is truth and what is heresy? Did, or did not, Jesus die and pay the penalty for every man’s sin? Does, or does not, anyone for whom Jesus suffered and died go to hell? Answer me!”
But the situation is pathetic, besides.
For make no mistake about it: this reply reflects the situation in the Christian Reformed Church today,—the official situation. It has become impossible with respect to the questions put by Dr. Bratt’s questioner to furnish a firm, binding, official, ecclesiastical answer to these questions. In this respect Dr. Bratt is not to be blamed personally for his frustrating reply: he is writing as a faithful son of the Christian Reformed Church. For the Synod of 1967 was unwilling to affirm the doctrine of definite atonement, but also unwilling expressly to deny it. It was unwilling to condemn the doctrine of-universal atonement, but also unwilling expressly to affirm it. Though thrice confronted by the issue of what was orthodox and what was heretical, the Synod deliberately sought to avoid that issue. And thus the situation obtains today that there is no firm, unequivocal, yes-or-no answers to the questions put.
This is very really the situation.
Prof. Dekker can answer and can teach in the seminary that the answers to these questions are Yes. And remember: nothing was decided at last year’s synod to prevent him from teaching universal atonement! Only, he must not be ambiguous!
Dr. Stob is free to say that we must not even ask such questions, and then by some legerdemain to agree with Prof. Dekker’s position after all.
Dr. Bratt is free to say that the answer must be Yes-No, and that a simple affirmative or negative answer is impossible, but that we must be ambiguous in our answer.
Others are free to say that the answer must be No, but they are not really free to say that an affirmative answer is heretical: they may only say with synod that an affirmative answer is ambiguous and abstract!
And in this day of many and fierce winds of doctrine the ordinary member of the church who seeks real answers to his questions is simply set adrift by his own church!
This is pathetic! It is lamentable!
Oh, if it were a question of some minor difference, if it were a question of some dark exegetical problem, or if it were a question of some practical problem about which there was room for difference of judgment, then a reply like this could be understood. But here is a question of the fundamentals of the Reformed faith, the truth of the gospel, a question about which Scripture itself is exceedingly clear, and a question which was decided in the Reformed churches three hundred fifty years ago!
And today the Christian Reformed Church is impotent to give an unequivocal answer!
This is nothing less than pathetic!
From whence did this pathetic situation grow?
From 1924 and its First Point and its well-meant offer of grace!
To be ambiguous is to express one’s self in such a way that what he says has a double meaning. It is to talk out of two sides of your mouth. It is to express one’s self in such a way that you leave two different impressions and rule out neither of the two.
And to be unambiguously ambiguous is to be straightforward and clear and unequivocal about one’s ambiguity.
This characterizes Dr. Bratt’s reply.
If pressed for a simple answer to these questions, he might answer Yes; or he might answer No. In other words, the answer is Yes-No.
There is a body of particularistic teachings; but there is also a body of universalistic teachings. Both are Scriptural. And there is a “tension” between the two! In other words, Scripture pulls one in the direction of universalism; but it also pulls one in the direction of particularism. The teachings of Scripture are particularistic-universalistic. Or in other words, they are ambiguous.
Or again, “The Bible’s fundamental redemptive message is ‘Christ died to save sinners.'” Do not be fooled by this apparently Biblical-sounding expression. In this connection, that statement is ambiguous. It may mean: Christ died to save elect sinners, His people, from their sins. But it may also mean: Christ died to save all sinners.
But why question the matter? Dr. Bratt himself says in plain language that it is impossible to give clear and unambiguous answers to the questions put to him: “There is a tension here and when the correspondent, whose request for a clear and unambiguous answer is perfectly understandable, asks for a simple affirmative or negative answer, he is asking for the impossible.” Now it is plain that if a clear and unambiguous answer is impossible, then the only possibility left is an unclear and ambiguous answer.
And by the same token, it is plain that Dr. Bratt is deliberately and unambiguously ambiguous!
And it is also plain that Dr. Bratt flatly contradicts himself. For in the last paragraph of his reply, when he philosophizes about the deeply profound character of the Bible in order to cover up his ambiguity, he makes this statement; “The way of salvation; is plain to all.” Yet the very questions asked by his correspondent are questions concerning the way of salvation. It would be difficult to imagine questions which more deeply concern the way of salvation. Is this not a question which goes to the heart of this way of salvation: “Did Jesus die and pay the penalty for every man’s sin?” And is this not a question also which is very seriously concerned with the way of salvation: “Does anyone for whom Jesus suffered and died go to hell?” Especially when you consider the latter question, it seems to me, it becomes plain that these are real question, life-and-death questions, about the way of salvation! And yet Dr. Bratt plainly states that the answers to these questions are not clear: an unambiguous answer is an impossibility! How then can he at the same time say that the way of salvation is plain to all?
Again, he is unambiguously ambiguous!
And this ambiguity is devastating with respect to the truth of the gospel.
These words constitute my final comment on Dr. Bratt’s reply.
In August of 1967 the Synod decided to admonish its professor of missions for the ambiguous and abstract way in which he expressed himself when he said, “The atonement itself is inherently universal” and “there is neither need nor warrant for retaining, the concept of limited atonement. . . ” Now I do not believe that Prof. Dekker was ambiguous. Certainly he was far less ambiguous than the editor of “The Reader Asks.” For Prof. Dekker gave an affirmative answer to these questions. It was the wrong answer; it was Arminian. But it was not ambiguous. Nevertheless, Synod declared that he was ambiguous and said that it was wrong to be ambiguous: Prof. Dekker was admonished for this.
In February of 1968 the official journalistic voice of the Christian Reformed Church is with respect to the very same question of the atonement deliberately ambiguous. It is even maintained that it is impossible to be unambiguous in answering two pointed questions concerning the atonement. It would seem to me that Dr. Bratt could not help being reminded of Synod’s admonition to Prof. Dekker when he penned the words “unambiguous” and “impossible.”
In effect, therefore, the Banner is stating that Synod demanded the impossible of its seminary professor.
And if this is true, it is sheer hypocrisy.
Or will the 1968 Synod perhaps admonish the professor of Bible at Calvin College for the unambiguously ambiguous way in which he expressed himself in his writing on the atonement? If only the concluding words of Dr. Bratt’s reply were true!
If only the Synod had asked or will still ask, “What does God’s Word really say?” If that question is asked in truth and sincerity, there are surely answers; and the answers dare unambiguous! “And that can only be for the good.”
But God is not mocked!