When the Synod of the Christian Reformed Church met in June of this year at the Knollcrest Campus of Calvin College there were many very important items on the Agenda. But the matter which caused the most concern and attracted the most attention was the doctrinal issue raised by the writings of Prof. Harold Dekker in the The Reformed Journal.
As a member of the Program Committee, I can testify to the fact that the men chosen to serve on “Committee IX – Doctrinal Matters” were selected with the utmost care. When this committee met their materials consisted of a 93 page study committee report, a 36 page response to the report by Prof. Dekker, and more than thirty overtures and appeals.
As each session of Synod began, the delegates searched the distributed material for the report on doctrinal matters. But it was not until Thursday of the second week that the report was mimeographed and distributed to the delegates. The late appearance of the report indicated not only that the committee had struggled hard and long, hut also that they desired to help Synod reach a definite conclusion on the matter.
The report was presented by way of majority and minority recommendations. However, there was also an initial area of agreement. The committee was united in recommending:
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.
Four grounds were given for the second recommendation, but the basic reason was fear of making “isolated extra-creedal statements.” We find it difficult to understand this fear. In certain situations extra-creedal pronouncements are beneficial and, we believe, necessary in the application of a creedal teaching to a concrete situation. But this fear was present in the minds of a majority of the delegates and both of the recommendations were adopted.
It is well to note that, at this juncture in the debate, the reporter for the Study Committee indicated he would not insist upon a consideration of the Study Committee’s recommendations, because the substance of the recommendations was to be found in the report of the minority. And thus Synod was brought to that point in the report of the Advisory Committee where there was significant difference of opinion and position.
The majority (consisting of seven members of the Advisory Committee) observed that many statements of Prof. Dekker (such as, “There is one love of God and this one love is redemptive in nature,” “God loves all men with a redemptive love,” etc.) had caused “extensive discussion and controversy in the churches.” Therefore they recommended that Synod declare that such statements should not be used in an “isolated way” and also that Synod warn against them. Further, however, the majority committee felt constrained to observe that there are statements which can be used in such a way as to obscure and not do justice to the well-meant over of salvation. Therefore they recommended that Synod warn against such statements as well. The committee then went on to recommend that Prof. Dekker be commended for his desire to be sound in mission motivation; that Prof. Dekker be admonished for imprecise and indiscreet use of certain statements; and that Synod recognize the need for further and careful study of the issues raised in Prof. Dekker’s writings.
Contrary to the proposals of the majority, the minority (consisting of six members of the advisory committee) recommended that Synod declare that “in the light of Scripture and the Creeds it is unwarranted—
1. To state ‘that God loves all men with a redemptive love.’
2. To state that ‘the atonement itself is inherently universal’ and ‘there is neither need nor warrant for retaining the concept of limited atonement, as it has been traditionally used among us.’
3. To state, ‘Redeeming efficacy lies neither in the love of God nor in the atonement as such, but rather in the redeeming work of the Holy Spirit.’
4. To ‘insist on a universal atonement, in the sense that…Christ died for all, and a particular redemption based on God’s decree to save only the elect,’ and incompatible with the statement: ‘At the same time I recognize…that the redeeming work of the Holy Spirit is a fruit of and is dependent upon Christ’s atonement.’
5. To state: ‘We may say to every man individually…“Christ died for you’”; or to state ‘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 .. . I would not want to use the word expiation to describe what Christ has done for all men.’
6. To state that ‘the doctrine of limited atonement, as commonly understood and observed in the Christian Reformed Church…tends to inhibit missionary spirit and activity.’
The minority also recommended that Synod require Prof. Dekker “to refrain from using such statements in his future teaching, writing and preaching.”
The debate which followed the presentation of these recommendations uncovered the basic differences of position represented at Synod, differences which still exist in the denomination at large. While no one arose to defend the position of Prof. Dekker as such, those who spoke in favor of the majority and against the minority recommendations
– insisted that Prof. Dekker had not placed himself outside the creedal position of the Church, as the minority recommendations implied.
– declared that the issues raised by Prof. Dekker were in the area of mystery which defied human understanding and precise definition.
– saw in the recommendations of the majority a balanced approach which would allow for both positions to exist side by side in the Church and also engender further reflection and study.
On the other hand, those who spoke in favor of the minority and against the majority
– argued that the minority report addressed itself to the heart of the issue, and that it did so with a precision not present in the majority report.
– expressed dissatisfaction with warnings against obscuring and doing an injustice to the well-meant gospel offer, insisting that this was not the issue and that, therefore, the warning was aside from the point.
– claimed that adoption of the minority recommendations was essential to maintain the doctrinal integrity of the Christian Reformed Church.
Obviously there was a basic difference between the majority and the minority reports. To us the difference seemed to be this:
– the majority recommended that Synod warn against statements which would deny the teaching of Scripture and the Creeds concerning the doctrine of limited atonement as it relates to the love of God.
– the minority agreed that a warning should be issued, but recommended further that Synod declare that when one says, “That God loves all men with a redemptive love,” etc., he has denied the teaching of the Scripture and the Creeds concerning the doctrine of limited atonement as it relates to the love of God.
The discussion on Friday evening and Saturday morning indicated that Synod was far from ready or willing to come to a decision on this important matter. As a result the Synod made an unprecedented decision on Saturday morning, June 24. It was decided that Synod recess and recommit the entire matter to the advisory committee for further study and consultation “with the Doctrinal Study Committee, Prof. H. Dekker, and any others deemed necessary.” It was further decided that Synod reconvene on August 29. No grounds were stated for this decision. However it was evident that, while Synod did want to come to a decision on this important issue, it wanted its position precisely stated and, if possible, in such a way that a sizeable majority could agree with the decision taken.
The Advisory Committee met and by the end of July a combined report was in the hands of the delegates. Even though the report and its recommendations expressed a united position on the part of the former majority and minority, no one was surprised to learn on August 29 that the Doctrinal Study Committee had a recommendation to present, for the advisory report was still at variance with the recommendations of the Study Committee. Therefore the Study Committee recommended:
That, in view of the fact that at the time when Recommendation C3 (Report IX-A, page 2) of the Advisory Committee was under discussion the Study Committee yielded because it could go along with the recommendations of the Minority report, and in view of the fact that the Minority report of the Advisory Committee has been liquidated, that part of the Study Committee’s recommendations which was embodied in the Minority Report be given precedence.
This recommendation was adopted, and a long debate over procedure was happily avoided.
And thus, for a second time, Synod was called upon to decide whether or not it would declare that “In the light of Scripture and the Confessions it is unwarranted to speak of one love of Cod which is redemptive in nature for all men distributively.” The debate which followed the presentation of this recommendation was, in large part, an echo of the debate which closed the synodical sessions in June. There were, however, a few additional elements in the discussion. For example, according to the report of the Advisory Committee Prof. Dekker had stated, “I have always maintained and do now reaffirm the following:
1. The sovereignty of divine grace in man’s salvation.
2. The limited saving efficacy of the atonement.
3. The uniqueness of God’s saving relationship to the elect and their distinctive experience of his love.
4. The necessity of the call to repentance in the communication of the gospel.
5. T!le necessity of preaching the wrath of God.
6. The antithesis which is evident in the decisive character of belief and unbelief.
7. The covenant of grace which is open through the gospel to all who meet its conditions of repentance and faith.
8. The inadmissibility of universal salvation.”
In the light of these declarations Prof. Dekker was asked if these statements meant that he was now willing to agree that “It is unwarranted to speak of one love of God which is redemptive in nature for all men distributively.” To this Prof. Dekker responded with an emphatic “No.”
This should alert all of us to the fact that we have come to the point in the history of our Church where we are all using the same words, but some have given these words different meaning. This is disturbing, to say the least, for it will result in increased confusion concerning the doctrinal positions of our leaders. It also indicates that we must increaSingly ask, when carrying on discussion and debate, “What do you mean by that word, that statement?”
As the discussion On the above-mentioned recommendation was, in large part, an echo of the previous discussion, so was the impasse to which Synod came. It was not long before the recommendations of the Study Committee were tabled and Synod turned to the report of the Advisory Committee.
It was evident that the Advisory Committee had succeeded in presenting a united report, had attempted to be precise, and had desired to lead Synod to a decision on this vexing matter. But it was also evident that there were many weaknesses in the report and that the committee’s attempts and desires were not realized. We cannot give an exhaustive evaluation of the report in this article, but do wish to cite a few examples of the weaknesses which caused Synod ultimately to reject the report.
In the preliminary observations concerning the statements of Prof. Dekker, the committee declared, “However, we should not lose sight of the missionary concern which Prof. Dekker has sought to express. Keeping this concern in mind, the advisory committee desires to emphasize that one should never interpret the creeds in any way
1. That could undermine the Scriptural approach to men in preaching and witnessing which includes a most urgent invitation to men to faith in Christ, to repentance from sin and unbelief, and to service for Christ (Heid. Catechism, A. 84; Canons of Dart, II, 5; IIIIV, 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, A. 54; Canons, 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, 11, 3).”
Many of the delegates stood to state, and rightly so, that these observations did not speak to the issue at hand. There was, in Fact, a measure of justifiable resentment at the suggestion that there was a significant movement in the Christian Reformed Church which would interpret our Creeds in such a way as to stifle “the zeal and joy of the Church in proclaiming” the gospel.
Some parts of the report were in conflict with others. For example, the Advisory Committee observed that they had “not been convinced that ProF. Dekker’s position is in conflict with the creeds.” But they then went on to “warn against any use of such statements as those mentioned in D, 1, b above (statements of Prof. Dekker) that does deny the unique love-relationship of God to the elect; etc.” This, of course, raised the question as to whether the committee was convinced that Prof. Dekker’s position was in harmony with the creeds, yes or no.
It was also felt that the Advisory Committee had addressed itself to the issue in a way which was far too vague, especially when the issue involved an essential aspect of the creedal position of the Church. They recommended that Synod “Warn against any use of such statements…that does deny the unique love-relationship of God to the elect; etc.” (Italics ours). Obviously the use of statements which deny the cardinal doctrines of our faith calls for repudiation rather than warning.
Such were the weaknesses of the Advisory Committee report, and such were the reasons for Synod’s unwillingness to adopt its recommendations.
Synod had come to another impasse. Toward the close of the Wednesday morning session the officers of Synod suggested that the Advisory Committee and the Doctrinal Study Committee meet in an attempt to formulate and present recommendations which would enable Synod to come to a decision. It was moved and adopted that this be done. The two committees met Wednesday afternoon and, after the suppcr hour, presented the following:
D. Actions with Respect to Professor Dekker. L Observations:
a. Especially the following statements of Professor Dekker have caused extensive controversy and discussion in.the churches:
1) “There is one love of God and this one love is redemptive in nature.” “God loves all men with a redemptive love” (Reformed Journal, Jan., 1964, p. 8).
2) “The atonement itself is inherently universal” and “there is neither need nor warrant for retaining the concept of limited atonement, as it has been traditionally used among us” (Letter to Study Committee, Nov. 17, 1967, Agenda, 1967, pp. 390, 407–8).
3) “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” (Letters to Study Committee, Nov. 17, 1965, and Jan. 28, 1966; Agenda, 1967, pp. 407, 409).
b. 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.
a. 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.
1. His writings have resulted in considerable misunderstanding and confusion within the churches concerning the doctrine of the atonement.
2. His presentation of his view has resulted in widespread uncertainty concerning his adherence to the creeds.
b. That Synod declare that the decisions taken under “C” and “D’ of this report constitute its answer to Overtures 20A–20Z, 20aa and 20bb, and to the appeal letter of Mr. J. Bosman, Sr.
(These recommendations were added to those already adopted in June. We present the observations and the recommendations in their amended form.)
After brief and rather subdued discllssion the recommendations were adopted. The recommendations satisfied Synod because, though brief. they spoke to the heart of the issue. And yet there was also much dissatisfaction expressed.
There were some, who had spoken in support of Prof. Dekker’s position (although no one indicated a desire to identify himself completely with Dekker’s teachings) who felt that the admonition was too strong.
On the other hand there were those who stated that the recommendation said too little. With these we agree. Indeed, the statements of Prof. Dekker were ambiguous and abstract. But is this not exactly what has caused such -difficulty over the past 4 1/2 years? And does not this very ambiguity and abstractness make Prof. Dekker’s position erroneous? And should not Synod have said therefore that Prof. Dekker erred? We would answer these questions in the affirmative. The sound of the trumpet must be clear, not muffled. When it is muffled error results. And it is for this error, recognized in the observations of the advisory committee, that Prof. Dekker should have been admonished in the decisions taken by Synod.
But the Synod of the Christian Reformed Church has spoken. It has spoken softly, but it has spoken. And now, for the sake of the welfare of Our Church, we must endeavor to live and work with this decision in all seriousness.
In conclusion we would make some observations.
First, we believe that Synod’s decision and the discussion which preceded it indicate a genuine concern on the part of the Christian Reformed Church to maintain her doctrinal integrity. Even an admonition against ambiguity and abstractness constitutes a charge to all to respect our creeds, to adhere to them with devotion, and to articulate their meaning with eare and precision because they are based upon the inspired and infallible Word of God.
Second, we believe that Synod’s decision and the discussion preceding it indicate that the Christian Reformed Church is not concerned to stifle discussion of doctrinal issues. This is an accusation which is often leveled against the Church. But this accusation is not true. One of the reasons for not adopting the recommendations of the Study Committee was Synod’s fear that such adoption would tend to curtail discussion in the churches. But Synod also spoke of “legitimate” discussion, indicating that there is a proper and an improper way to carryon discussion. This is all too often forgotten. Legitimate discussion is to be carried on within the framework of the Scripture and the creeds. And should anyone have a problem with the teaching of the creeds, there is a proper way to seek a solution to that problem—the way of consistory, classis, and synod.
Third, and in connection with the above, we believe that Synod has also said something concerning future discussion of the doctrine of limited atonement. In no instance has Synod recommended the teachings of Prof. Dekker to the Church’s consideration. But Synod has decided to “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.” This decision should be taken seriously.
Fourth, by its decision Synod has admonished Prof. Dekker. We are confident that the admonition will be received in all seriousness. We are confident, further, that Prof. Dekker will find in this admonition a positive charge, a charge to carefully and precisely clarify his teachings on the love of God and the atonement. Such a statement will be welcomed by the Church.
Finally, though much more can and undoubtedly will be said about Synod’s decision, we wish to point out that there is in this decision an implied charge to the entire Christian Reformed Church, a charge to defend the Reformed faith with courage, to proclaim the Reformed faith with clarity and vigor, and to live the Reformed faith with Spirit-wrought devotion. God give us the grace to respond to this charge unto the glory of our God and the salvation of those for whom Christ died.
The doctrinal matter concerning the Love of God and the Atonement which engaged the attention of Christian Reformed synods for the past few years has been officially resolved. What this should mean for the churches and all the members is discussed in this article by the Rev. John B. Hulst, pastor of the Twelfth Ave. Christian Reformed Church of Jenison, MI, and a delegate to the synod of 1967. Of importance are especially his comments on what constitutes “legitimate” theological discussion within a confessional Reformed church.