The Christian Reformed Church is Still on Trial

The May-June issue of this magazine contained an article by the present writer on the subject “The Christian Reformed Church On Trial.” The article, it may be recalled, dealt with the issue of the love of God and the atonement as it had been raised in certain writings by the Professor of Missions at Calvin Seminary. Since that time the Synod of the Christian Reformed Church has dealt with the matter and has rendered a decision after holding an historic adjourned session in August. The title of this article suggests an evaluation of that decision.

One hears varied reactions to the decision of Synod in this matter. In summary one can say that these reactions run the gamut from the observation: “It’s the best that could be done under the circumstances” to the judgment “an utter tragedy.” Whether one must greet this decision with qualified satisfaction or with dire judgment depends largely on the answer to the question, What will the Christian Reformed Church do with this decision? It would seem correct to say, then, that the key to response to the decision lies in the observation that the Christian Reformed Church is still on trial.

As one speaks with men who were delegates to the Synod of 1967 he senses something of the difficulties under which they labored. One wonders whether some of these difficulties were not brought on by a questionable concept of and exercise in judicial procedure (subject for a later article). It does seem clear that the real intent of Synod was to repudiate writing and speaking that are not confessionally true and clearcut, and to call for the avoidance of such utterances in the future. A review of the full course of procedure and discussion at the Synod bears this out. And it seems obvious that in handling this issue the delegates wished to be fully loyal to the Scriptures and the doctrinal standards of the church. And, of course, Synod did render an admonition with respect to the writings involved.

Factors such as those just mentioned are occasion for joy and encouragement. However, a significant point must be punctually observed. In the last analysis the Church will be guided, not by the intent of the delegates to the Synod of 1967, nor by the commendable attitudes of the brethren gathered there, nor by the details of the synodical processing and discussion of the matter, but rather by the specific language of the actual decision.

Let us look carefully at the terms of the decision. In the first place Synod decided to “commend the report of the Doctrinal study committee to the churches for guidance and as a valuable contribution, within the Reformed tradition, to the discussion of the matters contained in the report” (Acts of Synod 1967, p. 99). This action may prove significant in the life of the Church. On the other hand a more realistic appraisal of this action may well be that by this decision this excellent report was buried with a beautiful graveside eulogy that will soon be forgotten. After all, Synod refused to adopt the Scripturally and confessionally based recommendations of the report, recommendations that concretely expressed the substance of the report. If Synod refused to adopt the recommendations that flow out of the report, then of what real significance is it to “commend” the document with fine words?

And what are we to understand by the phrase “within the Reformed tradition”? It has been said that this language means the same as “the Reformed faith” as expressed in the confessional standards of the Christian Reformed Church. Does it? Again, this may have been the understanding and intent of a large majority of the delegates to Synod. But again, will the Church be guided in the future by the understanding and intent of the delegates to this historic Synod, or will it be guided by the actual language of the decision? There are many people today, including Karl Barth, who would insist that the teachings of this celebrated theologian fall “within the Reformed tradition.” Is the report of the Doctrinal Study Committee with its stress on historic Reformed particularism to be placed “within the Reformed tradition” alongside of Barth’s teaching with its own brand of universalism? In other words, if the phrase “within the Reformed tradition” is given a broad scope the action of Synod in commending the report to the churches may mean nothing. However, if the phrase in question means what many or most of the delegates probably took it to mean, then the commending of this report to the churches may have real meaning for the confessional integrity of the Church. The Synod has chosen to use a phrase that has a large measure of ambiguity in today’s theological situation. This phrase in the context of Synod’s decision could easily be a “sleeper” that will contribute to the doctrinal weakening of the Church. Clearly the Christian Reformed Church is still on trial.

The context just referred to involves the use of two words that must seem strange and highly academic to many. They are the words “ambiguous” and “abstract.” With these two words Synod described writings bearing on doctrinal matters that are at the very nerve center of our precious faith and admonished against such writings. Would a consistory handle a doctrinal question in this way? one feels constrained to ask. It seems clear that to ask the question is to answer it. A consistory would handle a doctrinal question confessionally and would simply ask, Is the utterance in question in clear conformity with the confessions of the church or is it not? Why then, one asks, does the enlarged consistory, namely the Synod, deal with a doctrinal issue by means of such elusive terms? A simple logic drives one to the position that an ambiguous and abstract (whatever that may precisely mean) doctrinal statement is not confessionally valid, for in the very nature of the case the historic Reformed confessions have been formulated and adopted precisely for the purpose of avoiding ambiguity and abstractness. Why not then declare that such ambiguous and abstract utterances are ipso facto confessionally out of order? He who speaks ambiguously and abstractly in a doctrinal matter is not speaking confessionally. Of what real significance for the Church can such terms be, one must ask, in dealing with an issue that calls for confessional integrity? The actual decision of Synod contains no reference to the confessions of the church (the so-called Three Forms of Unity) except to say that the writings in question brought uncertainty as to the professor’s “adherence to the creeds.” The recommendations of the Doctrinal Study Committee plainly asked Synod to deal with the issues involved in confessional and Scriptural terms. This was not done, but Synod rather chose to operate with the words “ambiguous” and “abstract.”

What must be the result of such a decision in the life of the Church? This remains to be seen. The Christian Reformed Church is still on trial. The Church has chosen to resolve a sharply debated doctrinal issue with the use of these two academic terms. Is it perfectly clear to all that by this decision the Church is saying to its membership that it will no longer tolerate the kind of writing on the love of God and Christ’s atoning work that caused such a stir in the Church over the past five years?

The plain fact is that this is not clear to all. Convincing evidence of such ambiguity rising out of Synod’s own decision appeared in a news article on the action of Synod in the Grand Rapids Press of September 16, 1967. This news article was apparently written out of dissatisfaction with an earlier story in the same paper in which an editor’s headline using the inaccurate word “censure” captioned an accurate account of Synod’s action. The later article quite correctly indicated that Synod did not “censure” the individual involved but rather “admonished” him. The really important paragraph in the article was as follows: “What is important is not only what Synod did, but what it did not do. It did not dismiss Prof. Dekker from the seminary, it did not declare his views heretical and it did not in any way limit his freedom to continue teaching and writing essentially the same things” (italics by EH).

This is what Synod’s decision meant to at least one person of considerable intelligence with a high degree of familiarity with the facts and documents in the case. How many share this reaction? Is this newspaper article to be dismissed simply as the work of some reporter? If so, then it is deeply dismaying to think that a reporter of obvious intelligence and with the newsman’s bent for objective reporting should so understand Synod’s decision. But it seems clear that this was not simply the work of an objective and neutral reporter. The article was too obviously slanted. This bias is revealed in the statement that the professor’s “first article, entitled ‘God So Loved…All Men,’ contained certain passages which didn’t set too well with some of the Old Guard of the church.” The slant of the newspaper account is further revealed in the statement that “what was lost sight of early in the controversy was Prof. Dekker’s concern for the mission. The discussion got side-tracked on certain dogmatic points which were not in the focus of the original presentation.” This statement is false in point of fact; the very first article of the writings in question declared plainly that the doctrine of limited atonement as understood in the Christian Reformed Church was being challenged. Furthermore, the statement makes the wholly obnoxious suggestion that concern for missions can be separated from matters of doctrine.

It is probably correct to say that Synod’s decision in this critical matter in terms of the words “ambiguous” and “abstract” was “the best that could be done under the circumstances.” Will this decision prove to be a blessing to the Christian Reformed Church, my church? For this gladdening result one naturally must hope and pray. On the other hand, will the decision prove to be an “utter tragedy”? Has the church’s central and preciOUS message of sovereign grace been sharpened, untouched or weakened by this decision? The answer to that question depends on what the Church does with Synod’s decision. The answer depends on how the Church “lives with it,” to use language employed by some. The Christian Reformed Church, my church, is still on trial.