Form of Subscription…To Dialogue…To Vague Inconclusiveness: A Study in Synodical Procedure

The history of the handling of the doctrinal matter of the love of Cod and the atonement at several synods of the Christian Reformed Church leaves one in a troubled frame of mind. This history runs from the first appearance of the matter at the Synod of 1963 to the decision in terms of “ambiguous” and “abstract” in 1967. if this history is to suggest a pattern for the church’s handling of doctrinal questions in the future, the prospect of confessional integrity in the church I love and serve does not look promising.

At the very outset of this discussion a puzzling question must be faced. How is it that the Synod of 1967 arrived at a decision in this much discussed matter that is unsatisfactory to so many? When one appraises the work done by the Synod in 1967 on other key issues, he comes to the conclusion that this was what some call a “good” Synod. Significant issues were dealt with on the basis of solid biblical principles. For the present writer the Synod’s handling of the question of membership in the World Council of Churches, for instance, leaves little if anything to be desired. And when one examines the documents involved in the processing at Synod of the issue we arc now concerned with, one feels that the brethren gathered there were committed to the upholding of a sound confessional position on the questions raised in the discussion on the love of God and the atonement. Then why a decision that is so lacking in definiteness and clarity? a decision that can hardly be of much help to the Church and its membership in this important doctrinal issue? Indeed, it is a decision that must be largely meaningless to many in the church due to the fact that at the crucial point it turns around two vague and highly academic terms.

An answer to the above question is here proposed. It is this: the Synod of 1967 brought this doctrinal issue of five years’ standing to a decision of vague inconclusiveness because of a process of procedural decay that has marked tile handling of this matter

from the very start. It is the burden of this article to trace this process.

“The City of Truth”

Before tracing this process we pause to reSect briefly on a most important consideration. Procedures are only servants and not laws in themselves. They are processes and methods established for the gaining or maintaining of some higher purpose. And what, in the present context, is that purpose? It is to maintain the church of Jesus Christ as that which Zechariah describes as “the city of truth” (Zech. 8:3). What we say here is of no moment whatsoever except it be in the context of a deep commitment to the proclamation and maintaining of a body of truth regarded as sure and binding because it issues from and is based on the Word of God. The Christian Reformed Church was born in the holy determination to perpetuate a confession of faith, a body of orthodox truth, the Reformed faith. Its whole character and history as a church have been stamped with this determination, as J. H. Kromminga makes so clear in his book The Christinn Reformed Church – A Study in Orthodoxy. The vows which the office-bearers take upon ordination bear out this specific quality. The ministers take these vows with the declaration, “I do, with all my heart.” And, in addition, every office-bearer signs his name to the Form of Subscription, by which signature he pledges himself to be strictly faithful to the doctrinal standards of the church and to reject all notions that “militate against this doctrine,” especially those notions that do not accord with the teachings of the Canons of Dort.

From all of this it seems altogether proper to conclude that if the Church is true to her character and commitment, there is no higher concern in the Christian Reformed Church than to maintain and propagate the truth of God’s Word as that is enunciated in the confessional standards of the Church. It is for the honoring of and for the furthering of this dominating concern that the procedure of which this article speaks has been established. We are, therefore, speaking of a decay of procedure in terms of the very high purpose such procedure is intended to serve. It is altogether proper to observe, then, that one’s awareness of the gravity of this decay will be in direct proportion to his understanding of and devotion to the high purpose just described.

The process of procedural decay can be traced in four stages, stages whose sequence is temporal and/or logical. Let us now look at each stage in turn.

Stage No.1 – Failure to Honor the Form of Subscription

The first step was the biggest and the most significant one. It took place at the Synod of 1963, when the matter of the love of God and the atonement as raised in the writings of Professor Dekker in the Reformed Journal first came before synod. At that Synod the very fine procedure that the Christian Reformed Church has for the arresting of teachings suspected of being false was not honored. This procedure is laid out in the following terms of the Form of Subscription: “If at any time the Consistory, Classis, or Synod, upon sufficient ground 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.” The beauty of this procedure is its spirit. This spirit is that of a warm fellowship of truth in which every participant, out of concern for the truth confessed by the Church and for the body of believers, is always freely willing to clarify his views for the sake of the church of Jesus Christ when these views are questioned on “sufficient grounds of suspicion.”

What happened to this important procedure in 1963? Let’s see. Classis Orange City came to Synod with a request that “Synod require Prof. Dekker to give further explanation of his position” on the basis of the terms of the Form of Subscription referred to above. Preliminary to its request for clarification the Classis expressed its own conviction that “Prof. Dekker’s position conflicts with the creedal statement of articles 8 and 9 of Chapter II in the Canons of Dort,” along with a citation of “crucial expressions of his position.” A majority of Synod’s advisory committee recommended that Synod accede to the request of Classis Orange City. But Synod did not concur in this advice. Rather it chose to adopt the advice of a minority of one that Synod “not accede” to the overture from the Classis. Synod adopted these two grounds for its action : “1. Classis did not supply adequate grounds for its charge. 2. Classis did not supply sufficient grounds for its suspicion.”

What shall we think of these grounds? The present writer has always looked upon them with deep dissatisfaction. This combination of grounds appears to him to be a most deceptive confusion of factors—a deceptiveness that is not here thought of as purposeful, of course. The first ground appears to the present writer to be based on a fallacious assumption. Classis Orange City brought no “charge” of anti-confessionalism or heresy in the technical and official sense of the word in which the Synod as a judicial body was bound to take the term “charge.” Yes, in the parlance of ordinary conversation it could be said that the Classis brought such a charge. But neither Classis nor Synod was sitting as a casual gathering of discussants. Synod was sitting as a court of the church of Jesus Christ, as a judicial body called upon to ad judicate in good order a petition brought to it according to the proper procedures of the Church. Classis Orange City, in support of its appeal for an honoring of the terms of the Form of Subscription, declared its own conviction that the professor’s published views violated the Church’s confession at important points. Would a Classis that had no such fcelings about the views in question come to Synod with such an overture? The ql1estion is answered in the asking. This declaration of Classis’ conviction regarding these views together with the reference to “the voices raised…within our denomination” as “indications of suspicion,” should have served as abundant grounds for Synod’s accedence to the overture of Classis Orange City. But for reasons that are most obscure Synod decided to elevate this strong ground of suspicion (Classis’ own judgment of the views in question) to the position of a formal “charge,” and then proceeded to knock it out by saying “Classis did not supply adequate grounds for its charge.” Of course Classis didn’t supply such “adequate grounds.” They didn’t come with a formal “charge.” If they had, they would have come with far more material to buttress the “charge.” Indeed, their whole approach to the matter would have been different. Then, after Synod had knocked out this major ground for the overture in this puzzling manner, it could go on to say that “Classis did not supply sufficient grounds for its suspicion.” Please take note after Classis had expressed its conviction that the views in question were out of line with the Canons of Dort at important points, Synod said that the Classis had not supplied sufficient grounds for its suspicion. We ask in astonishment: what more sufficient grounds could there possibly be for suspicion on the part of the Classis?

The failure to honor the terms of the Form or Subscription for reasons here alleged to be invalid was the first and major step in the procedural decay of which we are speaking. This failure came about technically in the manner described in the previous paragraph. But this technical action with respect to the Form of Subscription is not the greatest disservice that has been done to the Church. A far greater disservice is the violation of the spirit of this strategically important document. This admirable spirit has been dishonored and the unity of the Church as a loving fellowship of truth has therefore been impaired.

This first and major step in the process of procedural decay means that the Church’s prime instrument in dealing with questions of suspected doctrinal deviation had been set aside. Unless direct charges of heresy should be forthcoming, judicial handling of the matter in proper order was now virtually ruled out. This leads us to the next step in our study.

Stage No.2 – A Study Committee and a Mandate

Naturally there were those who were not satisfied with the action of the Synod of 1963. Therefore the matter came to Synod again in 1964 by way of an overture from the First Christian Reformed Church of Orange City, Iowa, requesting Synod “to appoint a committee to study, in the light of Scripture and the Creeds, the doctrine of limited atonement as it relates to the love of God, giving special attention to the issues raised by Prof. Dekker in the Reformed Journal; and to subsequently declare its position relative to this matter.”

Obviously the intent of the framers of the overture was that Synod should still deal directly with the central problem, that of the doctrinal issue of the “limited atonement” as raised in certain specific writings. But the Synod of 1964 was no more minded than was the Synod of 1963 to deal directly and specifically with the issue. Therefore Synod adopted as its “answer” to the Orange City overture a general provision calling for a “study in the light of Scripture and the Creeds [of] the doctrine of the limited atonement as it relates to the love of God.” The “study” would also include “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.” Then, attached to this already very general and broad mandate were seven suggested “related questions” for the study committee’s consideration.

Thus the Church launched a study on a broad sea of interlocking theological questions and problems. The central issue, the matter of concern that had been properly raised in the Church, was almost lost in this expansive mandate. It is understandable that the Committee felt it had to restrict itself to the “two subjects that seem to us most fundamental in the consideration of our task” (Acts 1967, p. 382). Thus in some measure the Committee sought to bring the problem hack to its specific character as it had arisen in the Church, although they thereby invited the charge that they did not live up to the terms of their mandate. The Committee also felt constrained to keep their reflections on the “related problems” outside the body of their main report, since “they do not touch the heart of the matter” (Acts 1967, p. 462), and included this phase of their study in a separate report to Synod.

After Synod refused to deal concretely with the issue in 1963 when properly brought before it and after Synod in 1964 appointed a study committee with such a very broad mandate, should anyone have entertained the hope that the specific issue raised in the professor’s writings would be resolved? Should the bearers of the overture in 1964 have expected that such a broad mandate would give what they asked for, namely, a declaration of Synod’s position “relative to this matter”? (italics by EH). With benefit of hindsight we can assert that no one should really have been surprised when finally at the Synod of 1967 the report of the Study Committee was put away in the back section of ,the lower drawer in which the Form of Subscription had already been laid, and the scripturally and confessionally supported recommendations of the Committee were put into “file 13.” And thus, instead of definite and clearcut decision, which so many of the Classes and consistories had asked for, we got what is now discussed under the next stage.

Stage No.3 – Dialogue

More than one delegate to the Synod of 1967 has said to the present writer that if Synod had had in its purview only the original published articles that raised the issue under discussion, the outcome of Synod’s deliberations would have been quite different. This judgment is probably correct. But such specific handling of the issue was no longer a viable option after 1963 and 1964, as we have seen. What then was left?

At the September 1967 meeting of Classis Florida the present writer asked the ministerial delegates to the Synod of 1967 whether the Synod had assured itself of Professor Dekker’s belief that Christ, in expressing the special love of God for the elect, died for the elect and for them only in the specific redeeming intent of the atonement. The answer on the floor of Classis was that Synod had not assured itself at this point and that this question is still a matter of continuing discussion in the Church. Thus the central issue in this whole discussion, that of the “limited atonement” as indicated in the very first written article, was left unsettled. And thus there was “dialogue” or theological conversation at Synod. Interesting questions, significant matters were discussed—such as the tension between “limited atonement” and the free offer of the gospel to all men, and such as differing attitudes that were present at the great Synod of Dort. Dialogue there was and apparently dialogue there is to continue to be.

What is wrong with dialogue, some one may ask. Not much, in its place. And we must be careful to define just what kind of dialogue is meant. No doubt there are all degrees of openness in theological dialogue, ranging from a very limited openness with many fixed points regarded as non-negotiable in discussion to a wide open affair in which both sides agree that everything is up for discussion, re-evaluation and possible reformulation. There are all sorts of possibilities for such dialogue with whatever degree of openness the participants may agree to. Conferences and consultations of all sorts are arranged for such dialogue with their varying degrees of openness.

Now let it be clearly observed that we are not now talking about conferences and consultations that have no official binding character. We are now talking about an assembly of the church of Jesus Christ. A Church sitting as an official assembly is a very different something from such conferences and consultations. Such assembly in a confessional church is bound by the terms of its confession(s). And, let it be carefully noted, the assemblies of the Christian Reformed Church are bound by the terms of the Form of Subscription with their special reference to the deliverances of the Synod of Dordt. Therefore any tenet plainly taught in the Church’s confessions is not an item for open discussion at an assembly of the Church in the sense that it is up for re-evaluation or possible reformulation. An obvious exception would be, of course, that the Church itself would set up machinery for such overhauling of some tenet when properly overtured to do so, or when some point of confessional teaching has been challenged by way of “gravamen.” The tenet of “limited atonement” did not come to Synod in this way.

Is the teaching of the “limited” or “definite” or “particularistic” atonement a clear datum of the confessions of the Christian Reformed Church? To the present writer the answer to that question is an unqualified “yes.” The words “and those only” of the Canons of Dort II, 8 are unmistakably clear. The elect referred to in these crucial words are the object of “the sovereign counsel and most gracious will and purpose of God.” It is for “those only” that Christ died in the holy purpose of God, a purpose “proceeding from everlasting love towards the elect” (II, 9; see 1,7 also). This being the plain teaching of one of the Church’s doctrinal standards, it is not to be placed in the open forum of dialogue. It must rather be regarded as a fixed point until the Church shall officially revise or reformulate it. Until such time this tenet is non-negotiable in open dialogue. And it should always remain that so long as the Christian Reformed Church is true to its confession, its character and its history. This is so much a desideratum because the doctrine we are discussing is most intimately involved in the most precious concept and reality that God has bequeathed to the sinful creature man, namely, that of the pure, irresistible and efficacious grace of God. It is by this reality rightly conceived that sinful man can stand free, clean, strong and brave before the face of the Almighty.

The present writer is convinced that the vast majority of the brethren gathered at Synod in 1967 believed that this point of a definite or limited atonement by efficacious grace is a non-negotiable datum of Reformed truth. There is no intention in this writing even to hint that they thought otherwise. The point we wish to make here is that once the Church had left the high ground of proper procedure in dealing with the central issue as a question of confessional faithfulness, the issue could not again be restored to its true status as a concrete and specific confessional matter. The only course left was dialogue. Incidentally, it is not surprising to read that at certain crucial points in the handling of the matter at the Synod of 1967 the assembly seemed uncertain as to where to turn next in its procedure. (See the fine detailed coverage of the sessions of Synod 1967 in Calvinist Contact, Sept. 8, 1967.) Such must inevitably be the case when dialogue replaces proper ecclesiastical procedure.

Stilge No. 4 – Vague Inconclusiveness

Thus the Synod of 1967, in an historic adjourned session, ground to a decision of vague inconclusiveness. There is no need to repeat here what the present writer has already said by way of reaction to this decision (see Torch and Trumpet, Dec. 1967). Supplementing what has already been said we take note of the fact that the decision was not conclusive. This is being freely admitted on every hand and needs no elaboration here.

Also, the decision is vague. It asserts that “Professor Dekker has erred in making ambiguous statements and using them in an abstract way.” But, this fact must be most carefully observed: the decision says nothing as to precisely how the professor’s statements were ambiguous or abstract. What can such a decision mean for the Church? And what can it mean for the individual admonished for using such statements?

Here an important question presents itself. Twenty-eight overtures and one letter of appeal from an individual came to Synod in 1967 with respect to this issue. Of the eleven Classes that overtured Synod in this matter seven asked that the matter be dealt with positively and “conclusively.” An eighth Classis (Grand Rapids West) also asked for decision without further delay, but did not specify in any way what character this decision should have. One Classis (California South) asked for delay; another (Muskegon) asked for restraint; and another (Lake Eric) asked that the report of the Doctrinal Study Committee be rejected. Of the sixteen consistories that overtured Synod in the matter eight asked for positive action, and others asked for delay (six consistories) or rejection of the Study Committee report (one consistory) or adoption of certain suggested principles (one consistory). The Christian Reformed Missionaries in Nigeria asked for delay, while the personal letter of appeal asked for positive action.

The question posed by the above array of facts is this: how could Synod 1967 say that its decision of vague inconclusiveness in this matter could “constitute its answer” to this significant number of overtures that asked for positive and “conclusive” action? A related question is posed by the number of overtures that came to Synod with appeal to the Form of Subscription. How is Synod’s decision “answer” to these seven overtures (three from Classes and four from consistories)?

“Extra-Confessional Statements”

In the discussions at Synod of the issue of the love of God and the atonement, one point came up again and again. It was that of “extra-confessional statements.” The point is that the Church must beware lest it reach decisions in doctrinal questions that will be used in the future as statements with confessional force. The point is plain enough and surely ought to be reckoned with. However, one must wonder whether this item was not somewhat exaggerated at the Synod of 1967, and throughout the whole discussion of this issue. The point can be pressed to a limit where it is not possible for Synod to say anything of a doctrinal character. Such a development is hardly in keeping with the Church Order, Articles 28 and 47. After the Synod of 1966 referred the recommendations of the Doctrinal Matters Study Committee back to the Committee for more biblical and confessional support, the Committee strengthened the recommendations and came to the Synod of 1967 with six specific recommendations well buttressed with scriptural and confessional material. Each recommendation was couched in both positive and negative language, the positive language giving the summary teaching of Scripture and the creeds on the particular point and the negative language indicating by the light of the positive teaching that some element in the professor’s views was not warranted. Yet, these recommendations thus carefully and thoroughly formulated and supported with ample biblical and confessional citations, were not adopted by the Synod of 1967. And this refusal to adopt them stemmed in good part from what would appear to be an exaggerated fear of extra-confessional statements. The Church would do well to avoid the situation in which the only expressions it can render on a doctrinal issue are “yes” and “no.”

In Conclusion

When we conjoin the larger element of procedural decay at Synod with the lesser element of fear of extra-confessional statements, we arrive at a point from which it is most distressing to contemplate the future of doctrinal integrity in the Church I love and serve. In a previous article already referred to it was suggested that we shall have to see how the Church lives with this decision of vague inconclusiveness. It is already apparent that it is living with it restlessly. A decision of vague inconclusiveness on so significant a doctrinal issue after five years· of unrest in the Church can hardly stand unchallenged in a Church where there are those who glory in being part of God’s “city of truth.”

There are those who are saying that the decision of Synod was good because it will prevent a split in the Church. Will it? The writer of these lines will be among the last to speak of a split in the Church. But let it be said that failure to come to grips with an important doctrinal issue and to seek to settle; such an issue with vague inconclusiveness is the path of appeasement that has been followed by so many, to disaster. A split may be postponed by such a decision, but most likely not averted. Such a postponed schism usually means that the process of decay has gone farther along by the time the inevitable reckoning comes.

Then there are those who are saying that the type of decision rendered in this doctrinal matter by Synod 1967 means that the Church has reached a point of maturity where we can live together as brothers in Christ and have different opinions on important matters until such time as such differences may be resolved, if resolved is what they should be or will be. This is impressive talk, that is, impressive in the sense of its haunting familiarity. From personal experience the writer can attest that such talk sounds like a recording of sentiments spoken in almost endless repetitiousness in communions where confessional loyalty was dying. How long shall questions that have to do with the very heart of our blessed faith be held in suspension? Another five years? Another ten years? Until the doctrinal loyalties of many shall have become dull or weary? The Christian Reformed Church will then have gone far toward joining the dismal ecclesiastical parade over which the banner of truth flies at half-staff and men are no longer challenged by the sovereign verities of the faith. May God in mercy keep the Church I love and serve from this road of deterioration in this day when men, growing increasingly sick from heavy dosages of humanistic, sociocentric religion, so sorely need confrontation with the simple, humbling, compelling gospel of sovereign grace.

In considering the following material the reader may wish to refer to an earlier article by the author entitled “The Synod of 1963 and the Orange City Overture,” appearing in TORCIH AND TRUMPET, October 1963.

In this second article on Synod’s decision regarding the doctrinal issue, Rev. Heerema traces the history of the handling of the case, concluding with the observation that the vague inconclusiveness of the decision arose because of a failure to take seriously the Form of Subscription.

Rev. Edward Heerema is pastor of the Bradenton, Florida Christian Reformed Church.