In its decision, quoted in full in a previous editorial, the Christian Reformed Synod not only decided that Professor Dekker expressed himself ambiguously about the love of God and the atonement, but also that he expressed himself in an abstract way. Moreover, the implication of Synod’s decision to “admonish Professor Dekker” for this is, of course, that it is wrong to express one’s self in an abstract way. For certainly one is admonished for expressing himself well, but only for expressing himself wrongly.
In a well-formulated decision, therefore, one might expect the following:
1) A clear statement of what Synod means by abstractness.
2) Proof that such abstractness is wrong and that, therefore, one who expresses himself abstractly is worthy of admonition.
3) Proof that Professor Dekker indeed expressed himself abstractly and that, therefore, he was subject to admonition.
First of all, let us examine Synod’s decision in the light of these three criteria.
Does Synod anywhere explain what it means by the term “abstract”?
The answer to this question is negative. One may search the decisions of Synod from beginning to end, but nowhere will he find an explanation. Even when we consider the “Preliminary Observations” of Report IX-D, there is no help to be found. In its preliminary observations the committee does two things. It lists the statements of Professor Dekker which “have caused extensive discussion and controversy in the churches.” And it informs Synod that it is convinced that Professor Dekker has erred in making ambiguous statements and using them in an abstract way.” But in vain does one look for any definition of what is meant by this charge.
But someone might object that this kind of reasoning, according to which Synod was duty bound to explain what it meant by this charge, would involve the Synod in endless explanations and endless debate. After all, words have meaning; and a Synod may certainly assume that its delegates are of normal intelligence and understand the meaning of those words. Moreover, the Synod may assume also that the ministers and elders of the churches will understand plain English, and that even the membership will, for the most part, understand this language. To this my answer is as follows:
1) There certainly was no evidence at Synod that the delegates, by and large, knew what they were adopting. There was no real inquiry into the meaning of this decision. There was no debate as to whether the decision was true. And there was no debate or discussion about the rightness or wrongness of being abstract. True, there was references made by some delegates to this idea of abstractness; and there were several references to what some call the “kerugmatic situation,”—a much used (or: abused?) expression which is so little defined that it is itself much more open to the charge of “abstract” than are Dekker’s statements. But there was absolutely no evidence that in the concrete situation before them the delegates clearly understood what they were saying. And even if this had been clearly before the minds of the delegates, or if it had become clearly evident in the discussion, the mind of the delegates and the discussion on the floor of Synod is not part of the official record. The result is that it is anyone’s guess what this charge really means.
2) This element of “abstract” was, as far as the official proceedings of the Dekker Case are concerned, an entirely new element which arose on the floor of Synod and in the report of the Advisory Committee. It will not be found in the recommendations of the Doctrinal Committee. It was not one of the issues in the interchange of ideas between Professor Dekker and the Doctrinal Committee. In fact, this element was introduced as a “way out” of the impasse to which Synod had come. Especially in this light it became incumbent upon Synod to explain what it meant. The Synod discarded the Report of the Doctrinal Committee, a report which was the result of three years’ labor. And it adopted a new charge on the spur of the moment practically, without giving account of its meaning. Of the report of the Doctrinal Committee, whether one agreed with it or not, one could at least say that its meaning was clear; but the best that can be said of the present decision, taken at face value, is that it leaves matters undefined, and, to that extent, undecided.
3) It is indeed true that words have meaning. Anyone, therefore, has the perfect right to turn to the dictionary in order to discover, if he can, what this charge of being “abstract” means. However, when we attempt to apply the dictionary meaning of the term “abstract” to Dekker’s statements, we discover, as I shall point out later, that there is nothing abstract about them.
What really happened, then, when Synod adopted this charge and decided to admonish Professor Dekker? On the surface of things, this charge appears to be innocent. It is undefined. It is rather meaningless, apparently. It did not decide very much. And because of its very vagueness, this term apparently served as a means of deciding the case without deciding the issues. For it must be remembered that the basic issue before the Synod was this: are Professor Dekker’s statements in harmony with the creeds, or are they in conflict with the creeds? From a formal point of view, this issue was shelved: it was twice tabled. From a material point of view, however, it was not shelved. Synod twice refused to declare Professor Dekker to be in conflict with the creeds. Twice the Synod declared, in effect, that Professor Dekker, as far as Scripture and the creeds are concerned, may continue to teach his Arminian views.
But there is even more to be said concerning this charge of abstractness. It is an innocent term only on the surface of things. It is apparently innocent only because Synod did not give account of its meaning. But that term “abstract” is like an iceberg. In the synodical decision you only see that part of the iceberg which is above the surface of the ecclesiastical waters. By far the largest part of that iceberg is lurking below the surface; and the real danger is in that part which lurks below the surface of this synodical decision. This I will prove later.
There are two more questions which we must face before we go into the deeper implications of this charge, however.
One question is this: did Synod show that it is wrong to be abstract, and that, therefore, one who is abstract is worthy of admonition?
Also this question must be answered negatively. Neither the grounds of the decision nor the preliminary observations of the advisory committee show this. There is not an iota of proof furnished. The decision simply assumes that it is wrong to be abstract, or to express one’s self in an abstract way. In other words, Synod’s decision begs the question. It assumes that which should be proved. Moreover, as I will show when we study the deeper implications of this charge, both Scripture and the confessions make so-called “abstract” statements in the same way in which Professor Dekker makes “abstract” statements. Again, therefore, the conclusion in regard to Synod’s decision is: tried, and found wanting!
The second question is this: were Professor Dekker’s statements indeed abstract,—understanding the term “abstract” in the ordinary sense of the word?
According to the dictionary, “abstract” is the opposite of “concrete.” It refers to that which is “considered apart from any application to a particular object.” Or, the term “abstract” is defined as “dealing with a subject in its theoretical considerations only.”
Apply these descriptions, if you will, to the three sets of statements which the committee quotes in Report IX-D.
Do they fit? Are they apt descriptions of Dekker’s statements?
Even as with that term “ambiguous,” so it is with this term: a calm and careful consideration of Dekker’s statements, whether taken all by themselves or taken in the context of the entire discussion as he introduced it in the Reformed Journal, will reveal that there is nothing abstract about them. To be sure, they aredoctrinal statements; but that is not the same as “abstract.” Indeed, they are objective statements; but that also is not the same as “abstract.” Surely, the question may be raised whether these objective, doctrinal statements are true or false; but that is an altogether different question than the question whether they are abstract.
What is the truth about Professor Dekker’s statements?
First of all, we point out that the professor from the very beginning of his writings was dealing with a concrete problem and a concrete situation. The problem, according to Dekker, was that the Christian Reformed mission program was ineffectual: it did not produce enough converts. The solution to the problem, according to the professor of missions, lay in the fact that the mission message was not correct. Specifically, Professor Dekker maintained that the mission message was not correctly understood on two counts: the love of God and the atonement of Christ.
In the second place, we should note that as a solution to the concrete problem Professor Dekker proposed two correctives: 1) The (to him) gospel must be proclaimed that God loves all men with a redemptive love. This, according to Dekker, must be the contents of the preaching. 2) The (to him) gospel must be proclaimed that Christ died for all men, head for head and soul for soul. We may say to any man (seeing that Christ died for every man), “Christ died for you.”
In the third place, in the course of the discussion with the Doctrinal Committee, Professor Dekker was confronted by the question whether he included the idea of expiation in the death of Christ for every man. This question he answered affirmatively and in the most concrete language possible: “I mean to say that Christ has actually’ suffered for his sins and has in that sense expiated his guilt.”
I ask: what is abstract about Professor Dekker’s language?
Is the love of God an abstraction? Is the oneness of God’s love an abstraction? Is the redemptive character of God’s love an abstraction? Is “all men” an abstraction? Is the death of Christ, or the atonement, an abstraction? Is expiation abstract? Are all these things theoretical considerations? Did Dekker consider the love of God or the atonement of Christ apart from any application to a particular object?
The answer to these questions is plain. Professor Dekker was dealing with what to him was a concrete problem in missions, that of the content of mission preaching. And when he dealt with this problem he did not speak of abstractions, but of concrete realities, of such eternal verities as the love of God, the atonement of Christ, the expiation of sin and guilt. Moreover, although indeed he maintained that the love of God and the death of Christ are universal, that is, all-inclusive, he did not separate that love and atonement from particular objects. He exactly maintained that the particular objects concerned in that love and atonement were “all men,” that is, every member of the human race, and “every man,” that is, every human being to whom a missionary speaks or whom he might possibly meet.
There might indeed be room for applying the term “abstract” when Dekker employs such terms as “inherently universal” and “concept of limited atonement.” But such language is “abstract” only in the sense that we all use abstract language,—to express a concrete truth in concept form. There is nothing wrong about this, especially not when the concept is generally understood and when it is made in a context which leaves no doubt about its concrete implications.
What, then; is the only possible conclusion?
Professor Dekker did not make abstract statements. He made very concrete statements as to what he maintains is the objective truth and the objective content of the gospel.
Synod’s decision to admonish Professor Dekker for expressing himself in an abstract way is absolutely unfounded.
But it is worse than unfounded. It is deceptive.
For Dekker’s expressions are not abstract, even as they are not ambiguous. They are concretely and unambiguously Arminian. They constitute a concrete and unambiguous denial of the Reformed faith.
Synod’s decision is deceptive, too, because that term “abstract” has deeper implications. It carries with it a freight of which perhaps some, even many, delegates were unaware. It is expressive of a cancer that is eating at the vitals of the Reformed faith, both in this country and the Netherlands. This I shall show next time, D.V., when I discuss: The Evolution of the Charge “Abstract.”
If you are curious about this subject, read Professor Hanko’s report of what the RES News says about the Dekker Case decision.