The Synod of 1963 and the Orange City Overture

A considerable number of voices have come to the attention of this writer expressing concern over the action of the Synod of 1963 in dealing with Overture No. 20. This overture had to do with the published views of one of the seminary professors on the subject of the love of God and “limited atonement.” Some of these voices express themselves in the form of puzzled questioning. Others express overt dissatisfaction regarding the matter.

The present writer shares this dissatisfaction in some good measure. This dissatisfaction can be pin-pointed as follows. Classis Orange City (representing fourteen congregations with almost three thousand communicant members) came to Synod by way of overture with a genuine concern over a doctrinal issue that had been raised in the church through the writings of one of the seminary professors. This concern had support in the published criticisms of these views by the editors of both the official church papers and by the president emeritus of Calvin Seminary. The overture referred to these criticisms of the professor’s views as furnishing significant evidence of “suspicion” of those views, and then appealed to the “Form of Subscription,” which every minister, professor, eider and deacon in the Christian Reformed Church has signed. The appeal was to this part of this important declaration: “And further, if at any time the Consistory, Classis, or Synod, upon sufficient grounds of suspicion and to preserve 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…”

In response to this genuine concern over a doctrinal issue that had received such critical attention from highly responsible spokesmen the Synod said that it could take no action because the overture was technically unsatisfactory. Classis Orange City did not, said Synod, “supply adequate grounds for its charges,” or “submit sufficient grounds for its suspicion” (Acts of Synod 1963, p. 95).

It must be granted at once lhat the overture* had fonnal deflciencies. But it is hard to avoid lhe feeling that there is something highly unsatisfactory in the manner in which the burden of the overture was left untouched just because the overture was formally deficient. The question is properly asked, In what spirit are such matters dealt with in the church of Jesus Christ? If in elders’ meeting an elder raises a question relative to the doctrinal correctness of the pastor’s preaching at some point, does the pastor respond to the query or objection of the elder by saying, “Your objection to my preaching is based on faulty reasoning. I do not have to answer you and I will not answer you until you put your case against me in good order.” It is safe to say that except in very extraordinary circumstances no pastor would proceed in this manner. It seems to the present writer that the spirit of the Form of Subscription is one of humble and cheerful willingness to answer a sincere challenge on a point of doctrine when that challenge comes from a responsible party in the church, so that the precious truth of the gospel may by all means be maintained. It is difficult to find in the language and spirit of the Form of Subscription the kind of resistance to interrogation that appeared at the Synod of 1963.

Misconstruing the Overture

Synod determinedly concerned itself with the formal and technical aspects of the overture, and resolutely kept at bay all discussion of the doctrinal issue raised in the document. It appears to the present writer that Synod’s preoccupation with the formal and technical aspects of the overture led Synod into placing a construction on the overture which was never intended, which it does not bear, and which consequently contributed materially to the failure of Synod to deal with the real burden conveyed to it by Classis Orange City.

The overture was understood by Synod as bearing both a charge of heresy and a request for interrogation because of suspicion of the professor’s views. The question immediately presents itself; Did Classis Orange City in its overture present a charge of heresy against the views at issue? We remember that Synod concentrated on the formal and technical aspects of the document. Does this overture contain a formal charge? It seems perfectly obvious that it does not. The language in the overture which Synod construed as carrying a charge is as follows: “This we believe is an unscriptural interpretation. Since we believe that if God loves all men redemptively all men must be saved, Prof. Dekker’s position conflicts with the creedal statement of articles 8 and 9 of Chapter II in the Canons of Dort.” It should be strictly observed that this language, though carrying an adverse judgment on certain published opinions, does not constitute a charge in the sense of a formal call for judicial action. To express the judgment that a person is guilty is not the same as preferring charges against such a person.

Where did this faulty understanding of the overture come from? It appears in writing in two different places, and it is not clear just how the two statements may be related. Professor Dekker himself held to this understanding of the overture. In the statement which he read to Synod we find this paragraph: “This overture is inconsistent. It has two parts which do not fit together very well. The first paragraph consists of a charge of heresy, alleging that my position ‘conflicts with the creedal statement of articles 8 and 9 of the Canons of Dort.’ The second paragraph consists of a petition ‘that Synod require Professor Dekker to give further explanation of his position.’ There is an anomaly here. If Classis is already convinced that my position is in conflict with the Canons, why does it not substantiate its charge rather than call for further explanation of my views? If, on the other hand, Classis is sincerely seeking further explanation, why does it prejudge the question by introducing a charge of heresy? Classis can scarcely be equally in earnest about both parts of the overture.”

The report of the Minority of Synod’s advisory Committee on Seminary Matters also expressed this view of the overture. “This overture, in our judgment,” says this minority report, “deals with two distinct matters, namely, a charge that Professor Dekker’s position expressed in two statements is unscriptural, and secondly, a request that Synod require Professor Dekker to give further explanation of his position” (Acts of Synod 1963, p. 91).

How then should we understand that part of paragraph one of the overture (already quoted above) which Synod construed as carrying a charge of heresy? Should we not consider it as being no more than Classis’ own judgment on the professor’s views in support of its request that he be questioned? If we understand paragraph one in this way, then the rather uncomplimentary judgment that Classis brought an overture which is “inconsistent” and which “deals with two distinct matters” falls away. After all, there can be no grounds for questioning a man on his views because of suspicion of those views unless there is in some mind or minds the feeling or conviction that these views are at crucial points lacking in scriptural and creedal fidelity. In support of its request that the professor be questioned and in support of its allegation of suspicion of his views the Classis frankly stated its own critical opinion of those views. How curiously inappropriate, then, is the remark in the report of the Minority of Synod’s advisory committee that “Classis itself does not speak of its own suspicion.”

Furthermore, when we understand paragraph one of the overture in this way, the criticism voiced by many and expressed in part of Synod’s decision loses much of its force. These words in paragraph one of the overture were subjected to sharp criticism: “Since we believe that if God loves all men redemptively all men must be saved, Prof. Dekker’s position conflicts with the creedal statement of articles 8 and 9….” Such formulation is indeed open to criticism, as it bases the judgment of the views in question on the reasoning of Classis rather than on the plain language and intent of the writings themselves. And there· fore such formulation certainly cannot serve as grounds for a charge of heresy. But, we have maintained, there is no formal charge of heresy here and therefore the language referred to is not meant to be the grounds for such a charge. Rather, it is no more than part of Classis’ own opinion of the views at issue. This understanding of the language of the overture does not relieve the specific formulation of its unsatisfactory character, but does relieve it of the burden which Synod’s evaluation placed upon it.

Therefore the overture from Classis Orange City, the writer humbly submits, should have been construed as a request that Professor Dekker be questioned regarding his published views, on these grounds:

1. The terms of the Form of Subscription.

2. Suspicion of these views, as evidenced by

a. Classis’ own belief that the views in question are unscriptural and creedally untenable; and

b. Sharp criticism of these views by responsible spokesmen in the official church papers and in other Reformed periodicals.

Unfortunately the format of the overture as presented to Synod obscured what has here been argued was its real thrust and structure. However, it is a bit hard to understand how a sympathetic reading of the overture could construe it otherwise. If Synod had taken its point of departure from a position that has always been highly esteemed. in the Reformed tradition, namely that of concern for doctrinal integrity and for the good name of the individual whose views are under suspicion, and if Synod had not taken its point of departure from a position of rigidly exclusive preoccupation with formal and technical matters, Synod might have been spared from what is here regarded as doing an injustice to Classis Orange City and to its concern for doctrinal loyalty in seminary and church. In fact, it seems to the writer that such rigid preoccupation with purely technical and formal questions in a context in which a doctrinal issue has been raised is quite out of harmony with the high priority given to factors of truth in the stoutly confessional tradition in which the Christian Reformed Church lives and breathes and witnesses.

In Conclusion: The Aftermath

In the aftermath of Synod’s failure to construe and answer Overture No. 20 aright, as here alleged, is a situation that is far from satisfactory. An important doctrinal question has been left “up in the air.” One recalls the puzzled question of the delegate to Synod who asked whether the assembly’s decision meant that now the delegates could return to their churches and say that the views in question are all right. Of course, the question really missed the mark. Synod left the doctrinal question completely alone. But it appears that to this elder the decision of Synod suggested that the issue was really not so very serious and so the decision to him seemed tantamount to a removal of the matter from the church’s vital concern.

Furthermore, both the professor and the seminary remain under a cloud of suspicion. This cloud is not something appearing only in the vision of a few so-called “heresy-hunters.” It is abroad in the church and only the blind can fail to see it. Surely the criticisms of the views in question in the official church papers and other periodicals could have no other result. This means that students at the seminary can be expected in many instances to listen to the teaching of the professor concerned with minds affected by various extraneous attitudes. Some may listen with undue and thus unkind suspicion. Others may be influenced by strong but really irrelevant personal sympathies. Surely such attitudes are of no help in a seminary classroom. One has deep misgivings as to the salutary character of Synod’s action for the church, the seminary and the individual whose views are in question. (In this connection see the article “‘Seminary Matters’ at the 1963 Synod” by M. H. W. in Church and Nation, August 6,1963.) However, we believe Christ “defends and preserves” his Church, and in that faith and confidence we rest, always.

*The text of the overture appeared in the July-August issue of this magazine and appears on pages 456–457 of the Acts of Synod 1963.