As reported previously in the Standard Bearer, there were several significant matters to be decided by the Christian Reformed Synod, all of which were more or less directly related to the current tension between liberals and conservatives in the Christian Reformed Church, as some would put it. Personally, I am convinced that it is more correct to speak not merely of a tension between liberal and conservative wings but of a growing trend toward liberalism, i.e., toward a non-distinctive and non-Reformed position, which is the direct and inevitable outgrowth of the fundamental position taken by the CRC in 1924. It is because of this latter conviction that the Standard Bearer also takes an interest in the current issues and tensions in the CRC and lets its testimony go forth, for the instruction and warning of all who may read it.
Undoubtedly the most important matter before the 1967 Synod of the Christian Reformed Church was a doctrinal matter, that of what is popularly called the “Dekker Case.” Since the Standard Bearer has followed, reported on, and commented on this case from the very beginning, it is but proper that our readers be kept informed as to what has taken place. Undersigned, along with some of his colleagues, was present at as many sessions of the Synod as possible in order to present a prompt and accurate report especially, though not exclusively, on this matter.
An Advisory Committee on Doctrinal Matters, consisting of thirteen delegates, finally distributed its report toward the end of the second week of Synod’s meetings, on Thursday, June 22. Late on Friday afternoon, June 23, the synod began to deliberate and to decide on the recommendations of the advisory committee. In its “Analysis” of the various Agenda materials committed to it, which is nothing but a brief summary of the reports and overtures on the “Dekker Case” appearing in the Agenda, the committee is unanimous. Also in its first set of recommendations, concerning “The Report of the Study Committee,” the committee was unanimous. From that point on the Advisory Committee was divided, seven to six, and came with a Majority Report and a Minority Report.
The unanimous recommendations of the Advisory Committee, i.e., those under “C. The Report of the Study Committee” are as follows:
- That Synod receive the report of the Doctrinal Committee as information and express its gratitude to this committee for its faithful and diligent work.
- 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.
- That Synod refrain from adopting the recommendations contained in the report of the Doctrinal Committee (pp. 453-61).
a. Although the Doctrinal Committee proposes “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. 454-55).
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).
By way of explanation, let me insert that the “Note” referring to “extra-creedal statements” being used “as though they are creedal by the Doctrinal Committee” refers to the Study Committee’s first recommendation. That first recommendation claims that “In the light of Scripture and the Confessions a distinction must be maintained between God’s benevolence toward all His creatures; His love of compassion for every sinner; and His unique love for His own (the elect). It is therefore unwarranted to speak of one love of God which is redemptive in nature for all men distributively.” And for its alleged three-fold distinction in the love of God the committee, of course, could find no Scriptural and confessional proof. Hence, in their grounds they appeal to the First Point of 1924 and its proposition that “according to Scripture and the Confession it is evident that there is, besides the saving grace of God shown only to the elect unto eternal life, also a certain favor or grace of God, which He manifests toward His creatures in general.” It is to this “creedal” use of the First Point that the Advisory Committee refers in the above note.
What happened to the above recommendations?
They evoked very little discussion, pro or con. And with little ado, the Synod adopted all three. In fact, I was not a little amazed that there was no opposition to these decisions. Whether or not, from a Protestant Reformed point of view, one would agree with the recommendations of the Study Committee is not the question. But that from a Christian Reformed viewpoint recommendations “2” and “3” could simply be adopted amazed me. It would appear to me that any would-be opponents of Prof. Dekker’s position gave away considerable ground in agreeing to these recommendations. But about the meaning and significance of these decisions I will comment later.
Now let me return to my report.
At this point the Advisory Committee was confronted by the question of the doctrinal expressions of Prof. Dekker. And it is at this point that the committee became divided. The Majority Report is rather lengthy, but I will try to present the thrust of it, partly by summary and partly by quotation. It is very definitely an attempt at whitewashing the entire case. It leaves the impression of saying something while it actually says nothing definitive. It neither condemns the position of Prof. Dekker nor the position of those who disagree with him. It is a studied attempt to throw oil on the troubled waters of the CRC and to leave the real issues unsettled and the door open for further discussion.
Under “D. The Doctrinal Expressions of Professor Dekker,” it makes, first of all, some “Preliminary Observations.” These observations call attention, in the first place, to the statements of Professor Dekker which “have caused extensive discussion and controversy in the churches.” These are Prof. Dekker’s well-known and often quoted statements teaching a universal redemptive love of God and a universal atonement; they need not be quoted here. Then the report goes on to say: “Because of the confusion created by the faulty use of such expressions the advisory committee deems it necessary for Synod to issue warnings concerning them in the light of the Creeds.” Notice the trend. The report speaks only of confusion. Moreover, it speaks not of faulty expressions or heretical expressions; but it speaks of the “faulty use of such expressions.” The plain implication is that there is also a correct use of such expressions.
Next, in the typical language of compromise the report comes with a “however.” It states, without any proof or motivation, the following:
b. However, we should not lose sight of the missionary concern which Professor Dekker has sought to express. Nor should we overlook the fact that it is possible to misuse statements such as, “Christ died for the elect only” and “Christ died only for his own.” Misuse of such statements obscures and does not do justice to the well-meant gospel offer.
Notice here already the preoccupation with the First Point of 1924 and its well-meant gospel offer. Notice, too, that the committee does not state how it is possible to misuse the statement that Christ died for the elect only. Notice, too that the committee injects this matter into the discussion; this is not the issue in the Dekker Case whatsoever.
On the basis of the above preliminary observations the Majority Report next comes with three recommendations:
a. That Synod declare that such statements as mentioned in D, 1, a (Prof. Dekker’s statements, HCH) should not be used in an isolated way because so used they are subject to interpretations not warranted by the Creeds.
b. That Synod warn against any use of such statements:
1) That denies the unique love-relationship of God to the elect. (Belgic Confession Art. 20; Heidelberg Catechism A. 37, 70; Canons of Dort II, 9; III-IV, 7, 16; V, 6)
2) That denies the unique benefits of the death of Christ for the elect. (Belgic Conf. Art. 21; Heid. Catechism A. 40, 67; Canons of Dort, I, 7; II, 8)
3) That denies the ultimate efficacy of God’s love and of Christ’s death for the redemption of the elect, (cf. references under immediately preceding statement)
4) That denies the unity of the work of Christ and of the Holy Spirit in man’s redemption. (Heid. Catechism, L. Day 20; Canons of Dort, V, 7)
5) That denies that “the wrath of God abides upon those who believe not the Gospel.” (Canons of Dort, I. 4)
c. That Synod warn against the use of such statements as mentioned in D, 1, b:
1) That could undermine the Scriptural approach to men in preaching and witnessing which includes a most urgent invitation to faith in Christ, to repentance from sin and unbelief, and to service for Christ. (Heid. Catechism, A. 84; Canons of Dort, II, 5; III-IV, 8)
2) That suggests that the Scriptural and Creedal doctrine of election does not itself contribute to a loving concern for those who have not heard the gospel. (Heid. Catechism, L. Day 21, Canons of Dort, I, 6, 7)
3) That stifles the zeal and joy of the Church in proclaiming that “the death of the Son of God is the only and most perfect sacrifice and satisfaction for sin, and is of infinite worth and value, abundantly sufficient to expiate the sins of the whole world.” (Canons of Dort, II, 3)
Space does not permit a detailed analysis and criticism of the above at this time. Besides, it is still a question whether these recommendations will even come before the synod. But note three things: a) That there is no single word of condemnation of Dekker’s doctrinal position as such; in fact, the first recommendation again presupposes that Prof. Dekker’s statements can be used in a way consistent with the Creeds. Imagine I Arminianism justified by the Canons of Dordrecht! b) These recommendations are entirely negative; they are a warning with a double edge. But they fail completely to state positively either what is the correct use of Dekker’s statements or what is the correct use of such statements as, “Christ died for the elect only.” c) That the confessional proofs under recommendation “c” do not prove what they are supposed to prove. The committee should have offered as its proof under this recommendation the First Point of 1924.
The next section of the Majority Report is “E. Actions with Respect to Professor Dekker.” In this section is expressed the real thrust of the report from a practical point of view. It contains five recommendations which actually settle nothing, except that Prof. Dekker is doctrinally in the clear and that the door is open for further discussion,—that is, should the synod approve anything of this kind. Here they are:
- That Synod commend Professor Dekker for his “desire to be biblically and theologically sound in mission motivation.” (Report 41, Agenda, 1967, p. 379)
- That Synod admonish Professor Dekker for the imprecise and indiscreet way in which he used the statements mentioned in D, 1, a above.
a. He has not made clear that his use of these statements is in conformity with the creeds.
b. He has publicly and dogmatically expressed his own underdeveloped interpretation of the creeds in opposition to a commonly accepted interpretation.
c. That Synod recognize the need for further theological discussion on the doctrinal issues raised in the writings of Professor Dekker.
a. The confessions do not present a definitive or binding exegesis of the disputed passages.
b. There are varying interpretations of the disputed passages among reformed scholars past and present.
3. That Synod warn that such discussion take place within the framework delineated in the recommendations under D-2.
4. That Synod accept Professor Dekker’s oral statement that he is resolved to concur with the above recommendations.
This is followed, finally, by recommendations that a pastoral letter be addressed to the Christian Reformed Churches. This letter is to inform them of the decisions and counsel them to guide their thoughts and actions along the lines of these decisions. And the aim is to promote peace and unity within the churches. This letter is to be drawn up by the officers of Synod.
Thus far the Majority Report. It has not as yet been treated on the floor of Synod, although synod’s president promised that before the Minority Report would be brought to a vote, there would be opportunity to consider the Majority Report.
THE MINORITY REPORT
Against this background the Minority Report must be considered.
What does it propose?
In the first place, it presents six statements for Synod to adopt which embody the negative part of the Study Committee’s recommendations. The Study Committee’s recommendations were quoted (without the grounds) in the June 1 issue of the Standard Bearer (see All Around Us); hence, I shall not quote the Minority Report in full. Its first six recommendations are those parts of the Study Committee’s recommendations which read, “In the light of Scripture and the confessions it is unwarranted to state that….’ Thus, for example, the first recommendation of the Minority Report read originally: “That Synod declare that in the light of Scripture and the confessions it is unwarranted to speak of one love of God which is redemptive in nature for all men distributively.” The wording here was later changed to include a literal quotation of Prof. Dekker’s statement, “that God loves all men with a redemptive love.” To each of these six statements the Study Committee’s grounds are appended.
In the second place, the Minority Report proposes “That Synod require Professor H. Dekker to refrain from using such statements in his future teaching, writing and preaching.” Notice that no retraction or apology is required: only a promise to behave in the future!
And, finally, the Minority Report recommends “That Synod warn against the use of any statements” such as those mentioned by the Majority Report, “That could undermine the Scriptural approach to men in preaching and witnessing, etc.” Here follow the same three statements against which the Majority Report warns and which we have already quoted.
Thus far the Minority Report.
WHAT HAPPENED AT SYNOD?
On Friday afternoon the first recommendation of the Minority Report was presented to the synod. It immediately became evident that there was no agreement on this proposition, and a prolonged debate began, which was continued in an evening session until about 11 o’clock. At this time synod adjourned for the night, but the debate was by no means finished. If memory serves me correctly, synod’s president said that he still had fourteen names on his list of those who wanted to speak on this proposition. And this was only the first recommendation, though, undoubtedly the most fundamental one!
But on Saturday morning a motion was presented to recess. After a long discussion, this motion was passed. Synod is to reconvene on Tuesday, August 29. In the interim the Advisory Committee must meet again, and they may consult with Prof. Dekker, the Study Committee, and anyone else of their choosing. They are supposed to present a unified report if possible, and this report must be in the hands of the delegates two weeks prior to the date when Synod reconvenes. In the meantime, the various Christian Reformed papers are supposed to keep silence on the Dekker Case.
I will not venture to prophesy what the Advisory Committee will advise nor what the synod will decide at the continued session. It seems to me, however, that it should not be very difficult to harmonize the two reports. There is only a difference of degree between them, and neither one really decides the crucial issues involved, all of which center about the impossibility of consistently maintaining the First Point and its general, well-meant offer of salvation alongside the creedal position of sovereign predestination, particular grace, and definite (limited) atonement. For that reason also, the synod is essentially no farther today than it was a year ago, when it postponed consideration of the Doctrinal Report. It has simply marked time for a year; and today it confronts the very same difficulties as a year ago. For that reason I believe that no matter what the Synod may decide, it will only decide something about the case without actually deciding the issues, UNLESS,—and that I do not expect, much as I could wish it,—it has the ecclesiastical honesty to face up to the errors of the First Point of 1924.
This, it seems to this observer, is substantiated by several items.
In the first place, there is the very fact that the Synod deliberately refrained from adopting the Study Committee’s recommendations. It is in the positive part of these recommendations that a traditional but grossly inconsistent interpretation of the First Point is embodied. This very matter has been a burning issue in the Dekker Case. And the synod has already decided not to adopt the Study Committee’s recommendations; and whether even the negative part of those recommendations will be passed in some form by the Synod is at this stage highly doubtful, apart from the fact that it will not really solve any problems.
In the second place, in the limited amount of debate thus far it has been very striking that the nub of the problem has been the First Point and the alleged “paradoxes” in which it involves one. And “paradoxes” is exactly the term employed more than once in the course of the debate. The difficulty is that these alleged paradoxes are plainly contradictions. And such paradoxes no one can leave unexplained; inevitably there will be those who can be satisfied only by following completely the Arminian line or by following consistently the Reformed line.
In the third place, listening to the debate, I gained the distinct impression from some of the remarks that not only is Prof. Dekker correct when he claims that many of the Christian Reformed missionaries will be stymied because they want to preach and are preaching exactly what he teaches, but that there are also pastors in the home churches who want to preach and are preaching what Dekker proposes. Looking at it from a “pastoral situation,” as one delegate put it, they would be at a loss as to what and how to preach if Dekker’s doctrinal position should be ruled out.
But above all, to this observer it was an amazing thing that a synod which goes by the name “Reformed” could debate for hours without coming to a conclusion on the proposition which was debated: “That in the light of Scripture and the confessions it is unwarranted to say that God loves all men with a redemptive love.”
A proposition like that should not require ten minutes to decide.
Or how long do you think the fathers of Dordrecht, or the fathers of the Afscheiding or of the Doleantie would have needed?
But the Christian Reformed Synod of 1967 recessed without having adopted that simple proposition!
This is a concrete example of just how far the cancer of the First Point has eaten into the vitals of the Christian Reformed denomination.
It is shameful; and it is sad!
When I see this, I am humbly glad that I am Protestant Reformed; and all our people should be thankful for it. They should be strengthened, too, in the conviction of their rightness.
And those in the Christian Reformed Church who earnestly desire to hold to the Reformed faith should begin to see that they and their generations cannot hope to do so in the Christian Reformed denomination and under the yoke of the First Point of 1924.