The Shadow of Ambiguity

Synod 1967 the Christian Reformed Church said that “Professor Dekker has erred in making ambiguous statements and using them in an abstract way,” and the brother was admonished for his errors in this regard.

The present writer has described this decision as one of “vague inconclusiveness.” Synod did not define its use of the two elusive words “ambiguous” and “abstract.'” Synod did not say how or in what manner the writings or statements in question were ambiguous and abstract. Synod did not say how these utterances failed to meet scriptural and confessional standards. Thus after five years of “intense concern which our churches have about these matters” (from report of Synod’s advisory committee brought to the adjourned session in August 1967—Acts of Synod—1967, p. 734). the Church has on its hands a decision that settled nothing, as many on all sides freely admit. Thus after five years of “intense concern” and after an historic prolonged session at which Synod dealt with the matter, the Church is just where it was when the period of “intense concern” started.

Actually this last statement is not correct. It must be revised. The Church today is not where it was when the discussion started late in 1962. The Church’s position is less favorable than it was then. At that time there was little reason to doubt that the Church held steadfastly to its grand teaching of sovereign and efficacious grace in a definite atonement, a teaching to which the Church has held consistently and without equivocation for the more than one hundred years of its life. Now, in view of Synod’s failure to deal confessionally and unequivocally with doctrinal questions that lie in this sensitive central area of the faith. the shadow of ambiguity has been cast over this altogether crucial and blessed teaching of the Church. When the Synod dealt vaguely and inconclusively with this important doctrinal issue in terms of ambiguity and abstractness, by that very act Synod brought the Church and its message under the shadow of ambiguity even more than the one individual involved.

The natural rejoinder to what has just been said is that the Church still has its confessional standards. These have not been changed. How then can one justifiably speak of ambiguity in the Church’s teaching? And why then be so concerned about Synod’s decision? Why not let it rest and have the Church live with it?

Let it be said that the present writer would find it personally very desirable to do what these questions imply. A disputation of this sort in which even a decision of synod is challenged, a decision arrived at under rather special circumstances, is not lightly or easily entered into. But the compulsion of duty moves one to act and to speak. Several elements enter into the making of that sense of duty. One element stems from personal involvement in some stirring history of the Presbyterian churches in our land. This history had to do with the birth of what is now called the Orthodox Presbyterian Church in protest against the liberalism of the larger church now known as the United Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. There were doctrinally sound men who refused to go along with the organization of the new denomination because, they said, the Church has not officially changed its confession. The answer to this correct statement of fact was simply this: the Church no longer takes its confession seriously. (How true this was then. Of course, its full truth did not become completely apparent until the slow, relentless movement of time always involved in such things brought forth the Confession of 1967 and the Westminster Confession was placed in the museum, with the new creed plainly contradicting the old at many points.) The only reason for referring to this history at this point is to underscore the fact that it doesn’t mean as much as it should to say that the Church still has its teaching as given in its confession (s). The question is properly raised whether the Church did take its confession(s) seriously in the doctrinal controversy over the love of Cod and the atonement. A classis tried to get the Church to face this issue confessionally in 1963 and failed. A synodically appointed study committee worked on this matter for three years and came to Synod 1967 unanimously with recommendations calling upon Synod to declare that certain statements which had been made were biblically and confessionally unwarranted. But again Synod failed to deal with the issue confessionally. When an important doctrinal question is not dealt with in clear-cut confessional terms, the position of the confession in the Church is thereby weakened. For this reason, therefore, the claim is made here that the Church is in a less favorable position today after Synod 1967 that it was in 1962.

Ambiguity in Interpreting Synod’s Decision

In further support of the claim that the Church’s position is weaker than it was in 1962 because the shadow of ambiguity has lengthened to becloud the church’s central message of grace, we must take note of the fact that Synod’s vaguely inconclusive decision means different things to different people—a development which could have been predicted in view of the language of the decision. We refer especially to a certain consistent line of interpretation which occurred first in a news article in the Grand Rapids Press. Here it was stated that Synod’s decision “did not in any way limit his freedom to continue teaching and writing essentially the same things” (see article by the present writer in TORCH AND TRUMPET, Dec. 1967). Essentially the same line of interpretation appears in an evaluation of Synod’s decision in the October 1967 issue of the Reformed Journal over the initials “B.S.” We take these initials to represent the name of Professor Henry Stob of Calvin Seminary, and we do well to listen attentively to this respected writer’s views.

“The reference to ‘ambiguity’ means,” we are told, “that in Synod’s judgment certain statements of Professor Dekker are of doubtful meaning and therefore open to various interpretations, some good and some bad. There is no suggestion here that the meaning intended by Professor Dekker is bad or in any way unacceptable. Nor is there a suggestion here that Professor Dekker is guilty of equivocation. It is merely declared that the meaning of some of Professor Dekker’s statements is obscure and that in their presence the unwary may be tempted to wander into ambivalence.”

With regard to the word “abstract” we are told that this “means something else. It means that in Synod’s judgment Professor Dekker did not wholly disengage himself from the nonhistorical, nonkerygmatic, nonexistential mode of thinking that has in the past infected large tracts of dogmatic theology. . .” The question naturally presents itself: did the word “abstract” mean precisely this to a majority of the delegates to Synod? Did it, really? And, if “ambiguous” meant simply “obscure” to the majority of the delegates, then are we to think that this majority believed that these “obscure” statements reflected a rather definite “mode of thinking” as described by Professor Stob?

With this interpretation of the two key and vague words “ambiguous” and “abstract” before us we now see in its true light the statement Stob makes as to the meaning of Synod’s deliverance regarding the central issue of the discussion. We ar.e told that on the substantive issue Synod’s action means this: “Professor Dekker, and all who in substance share his views, are accordingly left free to proclaim the truth of God’s agapic love to all men and to challenge every man to believe that Christ died for him” (italics by EH).

Serious questions can be asked about the content and thrust of this statement, itself not without ambiguity. Does this statement, for instance, mean to suggest that those who disagree with these views hold that God in no sense directs his agapic love to all men? Furthermore, the statement is hardly an adequate summary of the views in question. A far more adequate and accurate summary would be as follows: “God loves all men indiscriminately with the same redemptive-redeeming love. Motivated by and carrying out this love for all men Christ died for all men. However, only the elect are actually saved. In bringing this gospel of divine love to all men one can approach any person indiscriminately and say to him “‘God loves you’ and ‘Christ died for you’” (see TORCH AND TRUMPET, May-June 1967, p. 4) . This teaching, Professor Stob says, is now a fully allowable teaching in the Church, according to the decision of Synod 1967.

Is Professor Stob saying what the majority of the delegates wanted to say in August of 1967? Is this all that the admonition to Professor Dekker meant? This interpretation plainly means that so far as the doctrinal issue debated these past five years is concerned Synod said absolutely nothing. Let every doctrinally sensitive member of the Christian Reformed Church ponder this seriously. And let every one of the honorable men who were willing to make concessions in August 1967 for the sake of the peace of the Church ask himself whether this must be the result of his generous and sincere gesture. At the same time, however, let it be frankly acknowledged that the vaguely inconclusive language of Synod’s decision leaves room for the kind of interpretation Professor Stob has given, unsatisfactory as that interpretation may be to many.

With reference to Professor Stob’s commentary on Synod’s action we would make two further observations. The first pertains to the terms “nonhistorical, nonkerygmatic, nonexistential” in his definition of Synod’s term “abstract.” Anyone even slightly conversant with modern trends in theology would do well to ponder the profound implications of these terms thus used in the present context. It would be well if we were told what elements in theology the writer subsumes under the “mode of thinking” thus defined. The question must be asked: what determines the Church’s theology and message? Are the Church’s theology and message determined by the factors we discern in our historical and existential situation, or in the preaching situation? Or are they determined solely by what the Scriptures teach as this teaching is construed in the Church’s confessions and accepted exanimo by every office-bearer in the Church? What determined that which the greatest missionary called “the whole counsel of God” and which he faithfully declared (Acts 20:27)? The second not wholly unrelated observation on the professor’s commentary on Synod’s action is that nowhere does he refer to the Scriptures or the confessions in evaluating the validity of Synod’s decision.

Ambiguity in the Church’s Message

As suggested above there should be no surprise at the appearance of this interpretation of Synod’s decision, in view of the language used in that decision. Indeed, such surprise should have been ruled out in the light of an incident at Synod 1967 reported by John B. Hulst. In the light of certain declarations of his personal belief “Prof. Dekker was asked if these statements meant that he was now willing to agree that 1t 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’” (TORCH AND TRUMPET, October 1967, p. 4).

What then is the upshot of Synod’s decision in this matter? The upshot of it is that the Church has been placed in a position of ambiguity so far as its central message of grace is concerned. It seems perfectly correct to conclude from the mixed reaction to the vague deliverance of Synod 1967 that it is now altogether proper in preaching and teaching to give either one of two answers to the question “For whom did Christ die?” on the one hand we can say with the Compendium of the Christian Religion (the latest text of which was approved by Synod 1957) that “Christ died for all those whom God in sovereign grace has chosen to be His people” (Lesson 15, Q-A 41). On the other hand it now would seem to be equally proper to answer the question thus: Christ died for all men. It should be quite obvious to all that this ambiguity at so central a point in the Church’s theology and message must inevitably involve ambiguity in other closely related areas of the Church’s teaching and preaching. Indeed, to the present writer it seems clear that to follow the lead of the two professors calls for a complete overhauling of the Canons of Dort, Or an honorary retirement of this great statement of faith to the museum of venerated theological relics, much as the United Presbyterian Church in the USA did with the Westminster Confession in 1967.

Yes, let us see how this shadow of ambiguity reaches some of the most sensitive areas of the Church’s theology and message. Here is ambiguity. By Synod’s decision, we are told, it is now permissible to teach that Christ died for all men. Therefore it is now permissible to hold that Christ died for those who go to hell as well as for those who go to heaven. Of what real significance then is an atonement that ambiguously gains heaven for some and hell for others?

Here is ambiguity. According to some it is now permissible, by Synod’s decision, to teach that Christ’s atoning death satisfied for the sins of all men. Satisfaction is of the very essence of the atonement, as the Heidelberg Catechism makes clear in so many places (see Q-A’s I, 12, 13, 14, 16, 40, 60,61). According to some, then, we are to understand that Christ’s death fully satisfied the holy demands of God’s justice for all men alike. And yet there are many who will suffer eternal punishment for their sins. In other words, there are those for whose sins satisfaction is made twice once by Christ on the cross and again by the unbeliever in eternal torment. Shall ambiguity so dreadful be permitted to becloud the Church’s teaching and message at so delicate and vital a point? God forbid.

Here is ambiguity. When we say that “Christ died for us” we mean that Christ died in our stead, in our place, as our substitute (Heid. Cate., Q-A 39). So we speak in heartfelt gratitude of the substitutionary atonement, or vicarious atonement. To say that Christ “died for” all men is to say that Christ took the place of all men in his sufferings for sinners. What ambiguity this brings upon this hallowed point of saving truth when it is said that there are those hosts of men in whose place Christ bore the full wrath and curse of the just and holy God upon their sins, and yet these many shall bear the curse of God in eternal judgment.

Further illustrations are hardly needed to make the point clear. Ambiguity at the central point of the definite, particularistic or limited atonement leads us into ambiguity in all crucial matters of the meaning and efficacy of our Saviour’s redemptive work. This ambiguity is not relieved by the teaching that finally it is only the elect who are actually saved. The present writer regards “election” as absurd in the views we are contesting, an irrational element coldly abstracted from the love of God in the redeeming intent of the atonement wrought by the Son. This unrelieved ambiguity is confessionally intolerable, it is intellectually intolerable, and it is spiritually intolerable.

Intolerable Ambiguity

This shadow of ambiguity over the inner sanctuary of our personal relationship to our blessed Saviour is indeed spiritually intolerable. There is no more precious fact and reality to the Christian than the love of God. In the existential storms of history, in the face of the awesome possibilities of destiny, in that place where man stands alone and all of life’s secondary props have fallen away, what is it that gives amazing strength to the heart of the child of God? It is the great supporting conviction that God loves him, loves him with that love that has its uniquely glorious expression and its sure warrants in the gift of his Son for a sinful world. Therefore the Christian joins the apostle in voicing the exultant cry of victory with which he concludes the grand eighth chapter of his letter to the Romans: “For I am persuaded, that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

What is this love that stirs the apostle so, this love that is “in Christ Jesus our Lord?” Is it a love that embraces all men distributively and indiscriminately? It seems impossible that one can read the eighth chapter of Romans and come to that conclusion. Here we have God’s love for those whom he “foreknew … foreordained … called … justified … glorified” God’s elect ones. Jesus was speaking of this same intimate love when he said, “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me: and I give unto them eternal life; and they shall never perish, and no one shall snatch them out of my hand” (John 10:27–28). What a grievous misunderstanding it is to speak of this love as embracing all men alike, those who go to heaven and those who go to hell. Of what real personal meaning and blessedness is a love that indiscriminately and ambiguously loves one man to eternal splendor and another to eternal tragedy? Such “love” is a mockery, and not the solid rock on which the redeemed stand all aglow with the unwavering conviction that he who bought them with his blood and ceaselessly intercedes for them saves them “to the uttermost” (Heb. 7:25). For, let it be noted, there is an indissoluble tie between the high-priestly work of Christ in bringing the perfect sacrifice for sin on Calvary and his high-priestly work of intercession at God’s right hand (see Romans 8:32-34). If Christ’s atoning sacrifice was intended in God’s love for all men, then his intercession at God’s right hand must also be for all men. If the “for us all” of Romans 8:32 is to have universal reference, then the “for us” of 8:34 must also have such universal reference. This means that Christ is engaged in ceaseless intercession for those whose eternal lot will be utter alienation from God in hell. Such teaching brings us to the very nadir of religious belief and to further intolerable ambiguity.

And So…

Dear fellow church member—this ends what I have to say about the decision of Synod 1967 in the most important matter that confronted it, a matter that engaged the Church’s “intense concern” for five years. It had not been my intention to write about Synod’s decision. Awareness of the problems that Synod faced in reaching its conclusion in the matter and appreciation for the excellent things Synod 1967 did in other important areas made me feel it would be proper to see how the Church lived with the decision. But the appearance of the “certain consistent line of interpretation” of that decision referred to and dealt with in this essay placed me under compulsion to speak. I do not believe a majority of the brethren at Synod meant to say what this kind of interpretation” says it did. The loyalty of the delegates to the confessions of the Church was amply demonstrated in other areas. But, the simple fact is that the vague language of the decision invites the kind of interpretation dealt with here. Now the shadow of ambiguity lies across the face of the Church. That shadow must be lifted. The Christian Reformed Church has a very special theological heritage and thus a special place among the churches of Christendom. In the whole spectrum of reflection and teaching by Christian churches on God’s greatest gift to men, namely, his grace in Christ, this Church with few others has sought to hold consistently to the sovereignty, purity and efficaciousness of that grace. Now, in the aftermath of Synod 1967 ambiguity beclouds this special area of brightness and blessing. This shadow of ambiguity cannot fail to weaken the Church’s precious heritage and to betray her special place in the family of churches. And this in a day when men and churches, becoming increasingly spiritually disoriented, need so desperately to be confronted with the God of holy sovereignty and matchless love at the crucial point where sinful man stands before the face of God. This shadow of ambiguity must be removed if the Church is to be true to her character, her history and her confession. Therefore, the conclusion seems inevitable, hesitant as one may feel in saying it, that the task which confronted the Church in 1967 still confronts lhe Christian Reformed Church today. The job has really not been done.

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