These three hang together.
When in 1924 the Synod of the Christian Reformed Church raised to the status of a dogma the theory of universal (better known as “common”) grace and, with it, the error of the general, well-meant offer of grace, it was predictable that in the years to come the Arminian heresy of universal atonement would rear its ugly head in that denomination. It was only a matter of time before this would happen. Our leaders predicted this in the late 1920s.
This prediction was fulfilled in the 1960s, when Calvin Seminary’s professor of missions, Rev. Harold Dekker, openly taught and defended the propositions that God loves all men and that Christ died for all men.
And in 1967 the Synod of the Christian Reformed Church was unable and unwilling to condemn that rank Arminianism. The way out was to declare this plain heresy only “ambiguous and abstract.”
Because the errors of universal grace and universal atonement hang together. Maintain the former; and you must, to be consistent, maintain the latter. Condemn the latter; and you must, to be consistent, condemn the former. And it is a matter of record that the one big obstacle in the path of condemning Prof. Dekker’s Arminianism of the 1960s was the First Point of 1924, which had to be maintained at all costs.
And when in the 1960s the heresy of universal atonement was tolerated, it was inevitable and predictable that sooner or later the error of universal salvation, or rank universalism, would be taught in the Christian Reformed Church. And it was predictable too, that this error would not be forthrightly exorcized from the church. In fact, when the Dekker Case was making headlines, the Standard Bearer warned that the logical consequence of the error of universal atonement was universal salvation.
Today, less than ten years after the Dekker Case, that heresy of universal salvation has been set forth by a Christian Reformed minister.
The story of this seems to be buried in the Acts of the Synod of 1974. It received only slight journalistic notice in the various reports of the Synod’s activities. No alarm was sounded in any of the papers. And while at the time of the Dekker Case there was no small stir, what could be called the Ellens Case has thus far appeared to have created scarcely a ripple on the ecclesiastical waters of the Christian Reformed Church. A clear instance this is of the truth that principles work through. Doctrinal principles work through, and common grace has now borne its consistent fruit: outright universalism. Ethical principles work through, and the result has been that in a denomination which refused to turn back from what was plainly the path of false doctrine blatant heresy hardly creates a ripple. Worse yet, it has become increasingly impossible to move ecclesiastical assemblies to take firm and incisive disciplinary action in case of doctrinal deviation.
What is the Ellens Case?
It is indeed difficult to get a detailed picture of the case. The Christian Reformed Church follows the detrimental custom of printing no “personal appeals” in its Agenda or Acts. There is room, of course, for the prevention of spreading abroad matters of a strictly personal and private nature through a synodical agenda; I am heartily in favor of that. But to exclude all appeals from individuals; even in cases involving public doctrinal deviation, cases involving the public preaching and teaching of officebearers, cases involving the maintenance of the confessions and of the Formula of Subscription—that is a bad rule. It means that the churches are kept in ignorance. It means that an appellant has little, if any, chance of getting his case directly before the ecclesiastical assembly which must adjudicate the complaint. And it means that the case is filtered down to synod through an advisory committee, with neither the delegates nor the churches at large usually being in a position to judge the accuracy and fairness of the advisory committee’s handling of the matter and advice. Hence, in the Acts of the Christian Reformed Synod of 1974 the information is rather scant and is filtered through a committee. I will quote that information in toto from theActs of Synod, 1974, pp. 96-99:
II. Appeal of Dr. John A. Kraft against Decision of Classis Lake Erie (Reporter: J.J. Hoytema)
1. Letter of approval to synod. Personal Appeal 7 of Dr. J.A. Kraft.
2. Minutes of the September 1973 meeting of Classis Lake Erie.
3. Minutes of the May 1974 meeting of Classis Lake Erie.
4. Report of the Committee to examine doctrinal matters with Dr. J. Harold Ellens to Classis Lake Erie, May 1974.
B. Background: Dr. John A. Kraft, a member of the University Hills CRC protests the decision of Classis Lake Erie in regard to an alleged doctrinal matter concerning Dr. Ellens. Dr. Kraft met privately with Dr. Ellens but the matter was not resolved to the satisfaction of Dr. Kraft. Dr. Kraft then took his protest to the steering committee of the University Hills CRC and then to the Cherry Hill CRC which was the supervising church. From there the matter was taken to Classis Lake Erie.
Classis then appointed a committee “to study the charges of Mr. John Kraft vs. Rev. H. Ellens.” This committee came back to classis with the following recommendations:
“1. That classis appoint three persons to examine with Dr. Ellens his beliefs that it is a possibility that all men go to heaven and that this possibility is supportable on the basis of Scripture.
a. The studied opinion of the present committee is that Dr. Ellens’ statement appears to be contrary to the Reformed creeds. This action would give him a chance to clarify and document his thoughts and examine them with representatives of the church community.
b. We believe Dr. Ellens would be best served if representatives of the church community could examine with him the degree of his agreement or disagreement with the Reformed creeds.
c. Hasty action is inadvisable. Careful investigation and study are necessary, since this is a central issue for Reformed theology. d. This action takes seriously the efforts and concerns of Mr. Kraft in this matter.
“2. That this committee examine with the Rev. Mr. Ellens the doctrine of hell, eternal punishment, election, and limited atonement, and the inspiration of Scripture in view of their relationship to his beliefs stated in (1) above.
“3. That this committee meet with Dr. Ellens frequently enough to thoroughly examine and clarify the issues and hopefully bring this matter to a resolution. This committee could advise Dr. Ellens on how to proceed with his examination of the issues; could offer him correction if needed, or could encourage him to present a gravamen if necessary.
“4. That this action be declared an answer to Mr. Kraft’s charges and appeal, assuring him that classis will pursue the matter and seek a resolution.”
These recommendations were adopted.
The newly appointed committee reported to the May classis meeting. This committee in its conclusion states: “We, with Dr. Ellens conclude that it is not proper to publicly reveal his question and/or investigations without having worked through the matter in the context of the creeds and of his responsibility as an ordained pastor of the CRC. It appears that Dr. Ellens did not make it clear to his congregation when he was discussing “possibilities” and questions and when he was stating definite solutions, and thus gave occasions for confusion in the minds of some members of the congregation, such as Mr. Kraft.”
Classis then adopted the recommendations of the committee which read as follows:
“a. That classis advise Dr. Ellens that at this stage of his investigation his statement that it is a possibility that all men go to heaven and that this possibility is supportable on the basis of Scripture disagrees with the statements and intent of the Reformed Creeds.
“b. That classis urge Dr. Ellens to remember his responsibility as an ordained pastor of the CRC, and, in any further investigation of this issue, to carry out the investigation in the context of the creeds, as well as the context of Scripture.
“c. That classis advise the consistory of the University Hills CRC to assist Dr. Ellens in fulfilling recommendation (b) above.
“d. That classis accept this report as the fulfillment of the mandate given to this committee ‘to examine with Dr. Ellens his beliefs that it is a possibility that all men go to heaven and that this possibility is supportable on the basis of Scripture.’
“e. Motion to thank the committee for their work and to adopt the four recommendations (a-d).
Dr. Kraft then appealed to synod. In his letter of appeal he states, “I am appealing this matter to synod. Rev. Ellens has preached and taught that it is a ‘possibility’ or a live option that all men go to heaven and that this view is supportable on the basis of Scripture. He did this without fast presenting his views in the form of a gravamen and getting approval of the church as required in the form of subscription. . . . . In my judgment any CRC minister who so preaches and teaches should be required to confess and repent of his heresy or be removed from the ministry of the CRC. This has not occurred. My call is for discipline.” Dr. Kraft furthermore states that the action of Classis Lake Erie is only a warning.
On the one hand the charge that Dr. Ellens preaches and teaches “that it is a possibility or live option that all men go to heaven and that this view is supportable on the basis of Scripture” is a charge that is not substantiated by Dr. Kraft nor reflected in the decisions of Classis Lake Erie. On the other hand Classis Lake Erie did declare, “that classis advise Dr. Ellens that at this stage of his investigation his statement that it is a possibility that all men go to heaven and that this possibility is supportable on the basis of Scripture disagrees with the statements and intent of the Reformed creeds.” The classical committee in its conclusions also states that it appeared that Dr. Ellens did not make clear to his congregation when
he was discussing “possibilities” and questions and when he was stating deftite conclusions, and thus gave occasion for confusion.
1. That synod appoint a committee in Zoco to investigate the matter presented by the appeal of Dr. John A. Kraft and to deal pastorally with the parties involved.
a. There are conflicting interpretations of the report of Classis Lake Erie on the issues involved.
b. The history of the appeal as presented to synod indicates the need not only of investigation but also of pastoral guidance that can best be given by a committee in loco.
2. That this committee report back to the Synod of 1975 for final adjudication of the appeal of Dr. Kraft.
(Note: The Rev. H. Petersen abstained from voting on the above recommendations.)
What about all this?
In the first place, the “Summary” by the advisory committee in this matter is rather astounding. The conflict which they claim to have discovered appears to have been sucked out of the committee’s thumb—unless, of course, there is information which is not recorded in the printed record. For there is no scintilla of evidence that the charge that Dr. Ellens preached and taught universalism was an unsubstantiated charge, or even that this was an issue in the case. On the contrary, when one reads the information given in “Background,” he can only come to the conclusion that both Classis Lake Erie and Dr. Kraft (and there is nothing to the contrary from Dr. Ellens in the record) were certainly agreed that in one form or another Dr. Ellens had preached and taught universalism to his congregation. And the striking thing is that though Dr. Ellens must have known that this matter was going to Synod, there is no indication in the printed record that Dr. Ellens disagreed with any presentation of alleged facts on the part of either Mr. Kraft or the classis. And if there is more information than is printed, then this should have appeared in the record to substantiate the committee’s summary and synod’s decision.
In the second place, the matter of “possibilities” or “definite conclusions” is of no merit for the case. If I propose the possibility of universal salvation as being Scripturally supportable, or if I propose the definite conclusion, I am equally guilty of violating the Formula of Subscription. In fact, it is the usual tactic of heretics to begin by suggesting possibilities rather than blunt conclusions.
In the third place, the decision of Synod is even weaker than that of Classis Lake Erie. The latter at least took a stand that Dr. Ellens’ position disagreed with the Reformed Creeds, though it failed to advise disciplinary action or to declare Dr. Ellens to be de facto suspended from office as is the requirement of the Formula of Subscription. But Synod decided upon investigation and so-called pastoral dealing.
In the fourth place, what about this “dealing pastorally with the parties involved”? Is that not a fine idea? Is that not the course of Christian love? I will admit that it has a fine sound. But it is deceptive! First of all, Synod is not a pastor, and cannot deal pastorally. This is basically a hierarchical notion of the power of ecclesiastical assemblies other than a consistory. In the second place, Dr. Kraft was not in need of “pastoral dealing.” So it is not correct to speak of “the parties involved.” He was only in need of an ecclesiastical decision sustaining or denying his appeal; and it should have been the former. Thirdly, the time for pastoral dealing in a case of violation of the Formula of Subscription is after, not before, a finding of error and sin; and it is, in the case of officebearers,after, not before, suspension from office. Then there is plenty of time for a consistory—not a synod—to deal pastorally with (admonish and rebuke and seek to bring to repentance) its erring minister. Moreover, with all this high sounding talk about dealing pastorally, a synod ought to consider that it is not dealing pastorally with a flock when it permits an undershepherd to poison the flock with false doctrine, and to do so with impunity even for a time. True pastoral dealing will surely take into consideration the true welfare of the sheep and will place the welfare of the flock above the seeming protection of an individual.
In the fifth place, the action taken by the Synod appears to be suspiciously like the kind of action taken by synods of the Gereformeerde Kerken in recent years. Synod promises “final adjudication” of Dr. Kraft’s appeal next year. Personally, I will have to see it to believe it—and even then, remember, it is a year too late. But by this failure to act incisively, by this choosing of the course of postponement and dialogue, Synod is putting the door ajar for all the .evils which are presently plaguing the GKN.
Meanwhile, common grace has borne its finished fruit—in blatant universalism.
And make no mistake! Dr. Ellens is not the only heretic. There are others. Harold Dekker’s rank Arminianism—never recanted—is incipient modernism and universalism. James Daane’s blatant denial of reprobation and his insistence that Scripture is only saving in its message is incipient universalism.
A question! How long will it take, and how bad must things become, before right-thinking Christian Reformed brethren and sisters recognize not only these intolerable evils but also the fact that 1924 is the root from which they have grown? And when will they exercise their right and duty of reformation—not by splintering, but by joining themselves where they can discern the marks of the church and where for well-nigh fifty years those marks have been manifested?