Decision Rather Than Postponement

When the 1966 Synod of the Christian Reformed Church met in Pella, Iowa, one of the most important items on the Agenda was the report of the Doctrinal Committee; the committee appointed by the Synod of 1964 “to study in the light of Scripture and the Creeds the doctrine of limited atonement as it relates to the love of God, the doctrinal expressions of Professor H. Dekker beginning with and relative to his article entitled ‘God So Loves…All Men’ and other related questions which may arise in the course of their study…” (Acts of Synod, 1964, Art. 122, p. 88). According to the recommendation of the advisory committee on Doctrinal Matters, the Synod decided to

1) “…recommit this report to the Study Committee for further reflection and improvement, taking into account the above observations, and that the Committee report to the Synod of 1967.”

2) “…refer the report to the churches for study and evaluation urging the churches to submit their responses to the study committee by January 30, 1967” (Acts of Synod 1966, Art. 92, p. 69).

When Synod convenes in Grand Rapids, in June of 1967, the report of the Doctrinal Committee will again appear on the Agenda. We can expect some revisions, especially in the recommendations and their grounds. And yet the essentials of the report will probably be the same as when it was first presented, for the advisory committee of 1966 did observe that “the report expresses essentially the Reformed tradition in the areas discussed” (Acts of 1966, p. 69).

We recognize the danger of trying to predict what the Synod of 1967 will do with this report. And yet we sense that, before the report and recommendations are considered in detail, the Synod will be called upon to decide whether or not there should be further postponement of a decision on this matter. We recall that, prior to the Synod of 1966 Dr. Henry Stob wrote in The Reformed Journal:

The upshot of this is simple: Let Synod when the Report of the Committee is presented declare that, since no article of faith has been put in jeopardy, the theological inquiry must proceed unimpeded, but with all caution and responsibility. This means quite concretely that the recommendation of the Committee should not be accepted and that, in indefinite postponement, (italics ours) the whole Report should be referred to the Churches for study. (The Reformed Journal, May-June 1966, p. 5.)

Furthermore, there were two overtures at the Synod of 1966 which requested postponement of a decision for “at least one year.”

This suggests to us that there may be further requests for postponement. And this raises the question, should the Church take an immediate and definitive position on this matter or not? We would answer this question in the affirmative, and wish to state reasons for our answer.

First, the Church should make a clear and definite statement concerning its understanding of the doctrine of the atonement because this matter concerns the Creeds of the Church. From the very beginning the question has been whether or not the position enunciated by Professor Dekker is in harmony with the teaching of Scripture and the Creeds. Professor Dekker recognizes this, for he has endeavored repeatedly to assure the Church that his position is not out of step with the Creeds. The Synod of 1964 recognized this when it appointed its committee, “to study in the light of Scripture and the Creeds (italics ours)…” (Acts of 1964, p. 88). The Doctrinal Committee recognized this when it presented its study and recommendations “in the light of Scripture and the Confession (italics ours)…” (Acts of 1966, p. 505). And the Synod of 1966 recognized this when they observed that the grounds for the Committee’s recommendations failed “to reflect adequately the Biblical and Confessional (italics ours) support found in the report…” (Acts of 1966, p. 69).

The fact that the issue confronting the Church is creedal in nature makes it absolutely necessary that the Church come to a definite understanding on this matter. The very nature of the Creeds requires this. Over-against those who deny the necessity of the Creeds, as a Reformed Church we insist that the Creeds are necessary for the effective instruction of our members, for the unity of the Church, for the defense of truth against error, and for a witness to the truth of God’s Word in the world. Therefore, not only the Creeds themselves, but also our interpretation of the Creeds must be precisely stated and clearly understood. If the Church permits prolonged confusion concerning the meaning of the Creeds, their very purpose is thereby nullified.

Second, there must be a definite decision concerning this matter to maintain the force and the significance of the Form of Subscription.

By means of the Form of Subscription all office-bearers in the Church declare;

…that we not only reject all errors that militate against this doctrine (the doctrine contained in the Confession and Catechism of the Reformed Churches) and particularly those which were condemned by the above mentioned Synod ( National Synod of Dordrecht, 1618–19),but that we are disposed to refute and contradict these and to exert ourselves in keeping the Church free from such errors. And if hereafter any difficulties 01′ different sentiments respecting the aforesaid doctrines should arise in our minds, we promise that we will neither publicly nor privately propose, teach, or defend the same,either by preaching or writing, until we have first revealed such sentiments to the Consistory, Classis, or Synod, that the same may there by examined, being ready always cheerfully to submit to the judgment of the Consistory, Classis, or Synod, under the penalty, in case of refusal, of being by that very fact suspended from our office. (Form of Subscription, Psalter Hymnal, p.71.)

Now, an officially appointed committee of Our Synod has already declared that Professor Dekker’s teaching concerning the atonement is not in harmony with the teaching of Scripture and the Creeds. And an Advisory Committee of Synod has stated that the report of this committee “expresses substantially the Reformed tradition in the areas discussed” (Acts of 1966, p. 69). To say the least, Professor Dekker’s position is suspect. Therefore it should be obvious that we may not prolong a situation in which he, as an office-bearer in the Church, is permitted to hold office while maintaining this doctrinal position. Further, by signing the Form of Subscription, an office-bearers in the Church declare that—

Synod, upon sufficient grounds of suspicion and to preserve the uniformity and purity of doctrine, may deem it proper to require of us a further explanation of our sentiments respecting any particular article of the Confession of Faith, the Catechism, or the explanation of the National Synod, we do hereby promise to be always willing and ready to comply with such requisition… (Psalter Hymnal, p. 71).

However, in its report the Doctrinal Committee states that, when Professor Dekker was asked to give this definition of the atonement, “He declined to do so” (Acts of 1966, p. 465). If this situation is allowed to continue, signing the Form of Subscription is going to mean little or nothing at all.

Does this mean that we are “head-hunting,” with our eyes fixed particularly on the head of Professor Dekker? Not at all. We are saying that Synod should not prolong this matter. Rather, let Synod declare what is the teaching of Scripture and the Creeds concerning the atonement, so that all office-bearers in the Church, including Professor Dekker, may know what is required of them in relation to the Form of Subscription and act accordingly.

Third, the Church should clarify its teaching concerning the doctrine of the atonement of Christ because hesitation in doing so will increase the confusion which already exists in the minds and hearts of many members of the Church.

In the previously mentioned article, Dr. Henry Stob suggested that the problem now confronting the Church is a theological issue, and that it concerns “a scientific endeavor into which not all people can be drawn” (The Reformed Journal, May-June, 1966, p. 5). Of course, even if this were a purely scientific, theological endeavor on the part of Professor Dekker, we would insist that it should be carried on within the framework and limitations of the Creeds. The fact is, however, that Professor Dekker has not carried on a theological and scientific study, either privately or in conversation with fellow theologians. Nor has he, according to the procedure prescribed in the Form of Subscription, first revealed his “sentiments to the Consistory, Classis, and Synod.” He wrote several articles, all of them concerned to explain why he was convinced that “the doctrine of limited atonement as currently understood and observed in the Christian Reformed Church impairs the principle of the universal love of God and tends to inhibit missionary spirit and activity” (The Reformed Journal, December, 1962). These articles were read, not only by theologians but also by pastors, elders, deacons and church members. Therefore the general membership of the Christian Reformed Church has been drawn into this discussion.

When the report of the Doctrinal Committee comes before Synod for a second time, four and one half years will have passed since Professor Dekker wrote his initial article. During these four and one half years innumerable articles have appeared in our church paper and journals, some agreeing and others disagreeing with Professor Dekker’s position. Many sermons have been delivered making specific reference to the debate in the Church. The problem has been discussed in catechism classes and societies. “The Dekker Case” has been the subject of conversation when our people have visited together. And for the last six months this issue has been discussed in consistories and classes. The membership of the Christian Reformed Church knows about and has discussed this problem.

Do we decry this intense discussion of one of the most important doctrines of the Church? Of course not. Do we judge that the membership of the Church is not capable of profitable discussion concerning such matters? Not at all. We rejoice when our people are concerned to exercise their office as believers. But prolonged discussion, especially when it is carried on in reference to a publicly expressed position which is suspect, soon results in confusion, doubt and division within the Church. We have reached that point. Decision is now the order of the day.

There arc doubtless other reasons which could be given to indicate the need for definite action by the Synod of 1967. We trust that the reasons we have given will serve to demonstrate the need for decision rather than postponement concerning “the doctrine of limited atonement as it relates to the love of God, (and) the doctrinal expressions of Professor H. Dekker…” (Acts of 1964, p. 88).

In this article the Rev. John B. Hulst urges that the Christian Reformed Church at its synodical meeting of 1967 resolve the doctrinal issues concerning the love of God and the atonement which have agitated it during the past four years. Mr. Hulst is pastor of the Twelfth Ave. Christian Reformed Church of Jenison, MI.