Church & World December 1996


GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (November 21, 1996) URNS – Dutch theologian Dr. Jan Veenhof arrived at Calvin Seminary this fall with widespread fanfare as the seminary’s second-ever “distinguished visiting professor of theology.” Less than three months later, he is leaving in a quite undistinguished manner, having been terminated by the seminary board of trustees for his pro-homosexual views.

Veenhof brought highly respected credentials and an illustrious background to the position. Most recently a parish pastor in the Swiss Reformed Church at Basel where his congregation included the widow of neo-orthodox theologian Dr. Karl Barth, Veenhof had succeeded Dr. G.C. Berkouwer as professor of theology at the Free University of Amsterdam—one of the most prestigious positions in the Christian Reformed denomination’s “mother church,” the Gereformeerde Kerken in Nederland (GKN). While a professor in the GKN, Veenhof served several times as a fraternal delegate to the annual Christian Reformed synod in Grand Rapids, where he made the acquaintance of a number of CRC leaders. According to Calvin Seminary president Dr. James A. De Jong, that connection and Veenhof’s academic credentials led to his appointment as distinguished visiting professor, assuming seminary courses previously taught by Dr. Neal Plantinga, newly-appointed dean of the chapel at Calvin College. Plantinga’s new contract specified that Calvin Seminary must keep his former position open for three years in case he wishes to return to the seminary from the college.

The Veenhof family name is well-known in Dutch Reformed circles. Veenhof’s father, Dr. Cornelis Veenhof, assisted Dr. Klaas Schilder in leading a 1944 conservative secession known as the Vrijgemaakt (“Liberation”) from the Gereformeerde Kerken in Nederland. Veenhof’s father broke with Schilder in 1967 and formed anew denomination over the issue of the binding authority of synods; Jan Veenhof returned to the GKN and served as a leading figure in that denomination before moving to his current pastorate in Switzerland. His position at Calvin Seminary called for him to teach during the fall of 1996 and 1997 as well as give speciallectures on theological topics, but was not a permanent position and did not carry with it voting rights at faculty meetings or a share in setting the policies of the seminary.

“Veenhof, as we’ve pointed out in our newsletter, is an expert in the theology of Herman Bavinck, and that’s an area of expertise that we wanted and needed in our program this year and next year, especially Dutch Reformed theology, ”said De Jong. “We’ve had several distinguished visiting professors and lecturers over the years; it refers to a person who has achieved a level of recognition and stature in their field and it’s not just a person of ordinary credentials or experience but one who has distinguished himself for his teaching and his writing.”

De Jong said Calvin Seminary’s only previous “Distinguished Visiting Professor” was internationally-recognized evangelical theologian Dr. Carl F.H. Henry, father of former Calvin College professor and US Congressman Rep. Paul Henry, although a similar position was held under a different title by John Calvin scholar, Dr. Ford Lewis Battles.

While Veenhof’s academic writing led to significant acclaim in the academic realm, his other writings led to trouble in the United States. Some attention focused on a book, From ‘Liberation’ to Freedom, which Veenhof co-authored with Alida Schilder, niece of Vrijgemaakt leader Dr. Klaas Schilder, describing their personal pilgrimages as children of very conservative parents who became broader in their theological views.

However, the biggest problem centered on some of Veenhof’s less-known work,particularly a chapter entitled, “The Bible and Homosexuality” which Veenhof contributed to a larger book on homosexuality by GKN members entitled, Who Am I That I May Not Do This? This book appeared ten years ago in the Dutch language and until last week Veenhof’s chapter had never been translated into English.

Veenhof’s contribution followed his 1981 role as one of ten members of the GKN’s Commission for Church and Theology, which submitted a report on the Biblical data pertaining to homosexuality which was adopted by the GKN Synod of 1981 as a further explanation of its decision in 1979 to allow the ordination of practicing homosexuals to all offices of the church. This 1981 report and the earlier 1979 synodical decision led to a storm of criticism in the CRC and have led to sixteen years of demands by Christian Reformed conservatives that the eRC sever relationships with the Gereformeerde Kerken in Nederland.

According to De Jong, Calvin Seminary was not aware of Veenhof’s role in helping write the GKN report on homosexuality and had not seen Veenhof’s chapter in the book until it was called to the seminary’s attention by the conservative publication Christian Renewal.

“It was not something we were aware of,” said De Jong. “We probably should have been but we weren’t.”

However, the seminary began to look into the matter shortly after the Dutch language original was provided to Christian Renewal by the Vrijgemaakt daily newspaper in the Netherlands, Nederlands Dagblad, and forwarded to De Jong for review. An October 15 article in another conservative Dutch daily newspaper, Reformatorisch Daghlad, acted that “rumors” were circulating in Grand Rapids about Veenhof’s views on homosexuality. On November 11, Christian Renewal ran a full-page review of Veenhof’s article. Four days later, the executive committee of the Calvin Seminary board of trustees unanimously voted to terminate Veenhof’s teaching at the end of the fall quarter.

“We did that with regret, he had done a wonderful job; the issue had never come up here, but when we became aware of the attention given to it in the Dutch press we felt we had to take this action,” said De Jong. “Neither the Christian Reformed Church nor Calvin Seminary nor its faculty are in agreement that trothful homosexual relationships are Biblically legitimate.”

“That’s a rather fundamental point,” said De Jong, noting that failure to deal with Veenhof’s views would have called into question Calvin Seminary’s earlier opposition to a report on homosexuality by a study committee of the CRC’s Classis Grand Rapids East, the regional ecclesiastical body to which most Calvin Seminary professors belong, that also received widespread media attention. “We made that plain to Classis Grand Rapids East a year or so ago and it is right to be consistent with that.”

The unexpected termination puts Calvin Seminary into a difficult position. “We’re using a combination of people from Calvin College, retired people; I’d have to get the roster out to see who we’ve got coming to teach,” said DeJong. “It’s basically the college Religion and Theology department and retirees, and some of the Ph.D. students are doing some teaching.”

Veenhof, who left the United States one day before his termination on November 15, could not be reached for comment.

What Does Veenhof Believe?

In his chapter on “The Bible and Homosexuality,” Veenhof articulated a closely-reasoned and nuanced position which by GKN standards would be moderately conservative. Veenhof’s position stops short of advocating gay marriages, but he doesn’t oppose homosexual practice in committed monogamous relationships.

Veenhof’s chapter begins with a note that it is impossible to listen to the experiences of homosexuals “without also becoming in one way or another emotionally involved, and whoever is involved desires to react.”

To structure that reaction, especially with regard to homosexual ministers, Veenhof begins with an extended section on Biblical authority, discussing the five Biblical texts (Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13, Romans 1:22–27, I Corinthians 6:10, and I Timothy 1:9–10) which are most commonly cited to address homosexuality. Noting that his chapter can only summarize the relevant principles of Biblical interpretation, Veenhof focused most closely on the texts in the Old Testament book of Leviticus and the Apostle Paul’s New Testament letter to the Romans.

“Sometimes we ourselves are trying to get out of the Bible texts what we beforehand would like to see come out,” wrote Veenhof. “Good exegesis has to guard itself against this.”

Veenhof wrote that Leviticus not only prohibited homosexual relationships but also assumed that the purpose of all sexuality was the bearing of children, an assumption not shared by the surrounding cultures which would use sexuality in religious rituals of various sorts. To engage in homosexuality, which by definition cannot result in children, is to “change” God’s plan for sexuality, according to both Leviticus and Romans.

“The conclusion of all this cannot be in doubt,” admitted Veenhof. “Just as Leviticus, Paul also rejects homosexual practice. Thus it is described what these texts in their original context want to say.”

However, the original context of the Scriptures isn’t necessarily conclusive, wrote Veenhof. “Simplicity is not always the sign of truth, especially not this simplicity,” wrote Veenhof. “Reality shows that this simplicity is not so convincing, not as ‘simple’ as it is often supposed. For in fact no one deals with these texts as it is here suggested.”

According to Veenhof, a “simple” reading of Scripture would force Christians to advocate the execution of practicing homosexuals (Leviticus 20:13). Surrounding Levitical passages in chapters 17–26, generally known as the “Law of Holiness,” are not observed by Christians today, including the law of Jubilee, the sabbath year of rest for farmland, prohibitions on charging interest or rent to the poor, and eating of blood. These prohibitions are not all removed by the New Testament; Veenhof noted that the Jerusalem Council of Acts 15 prohibited eating of blood because of the offense it would give to ethnic Jewish believers in Christ and also raised further questions about the argument that homosexuality is “against nature” by the prohibition in I Corinthians 11:14 on men wearing long hair on the grounds that long hair for men is also “against nature.”

“If in one case we give no heed any more to Paul’s conception (time bound as it is) concerning nature, then we shall have to give weighty grounds on which to do so in another case,” wrote Veenhof.

In Veenhof’s estimation, such “weighty grounds” do not exist with regard to homosexuality. In a section entitled “We Know More,” Veenhof argued that it was not inappropriate to say that modern Christians know more than the Apostle Paul knew about homosexuality. This may not be said flippantly or casually, wrote Veenhof, nor may we say “that we know everything without exception better than Paul.”

“It is rightly pointed out in this connection what Paul said about slavery. Paul reckoned it as obvious at the time that the slave should serve his master, but taught also by elements of the preaching of the same Paul, we think differently about it,” wrote Veenhof. “In most churches they are convinced that we may also think otherwise than Paul about the place of women.”

Might this be true not only of slavery and the ordination of women but also of homosexuality?

To answer that question, Veenhof argued that modern Christians should make use of Dutch theologian Dr. Herman Bavinck’s distinction between “the central” and “the periphery” in the message of Scripture. “The Bible is not a scientific textbook of history, geology, or nature, nor even one of theology or ethics even though we may derive contributions to these activities from the Bible,” wrote Veenhof. “According to its own nature and intention the Bible is the witness of God’s love for human beings. That is what we must put first in all our use of the Bible as in our reflection on that use.”

In Veenhof’s estimation, the recognition that “God’s love for men in Jesus Christ” is the central message of Scripture will lead to a more positive view of homosexual practice than a simple read-ing of the specific texts of Scripture would indicate.

“Within Reformed circles in recent years the thought has grown that this love includes the acceptance of one another as heterosexuals or homosexuals,” wrote Veenhof. “It asks therefore of the heterosexual Christian that they receive homosexual fellow Christians in their being so and being different. This has to do not only with the inclination but also with the practice of it in relationships characterized by love and faithfulness.”

“The letter of the law murders many homosexuals but the Spirit makes alive as seen from (standpoint) of Jesus Christ, and according to his teaching as well (Mark 2:27), man was not made for the law but the law for man,” wrote Veenhof. “So homosexual love can also be a matter of gift and purity sanctified in Christ.”

Scripture clearly prohibits “unbridled (off the track) sexuality which leads to amoral conduct,” wrote Veenhof, but “the Bible does not speak directly about homosexual relationships in which the values of love and loyalty are upheld.”

“This can contribute to the true and hearty acceptance of homosexual fellow men,” wrote Veenhof. “The acceptance of homosexual officebearers is, as it were, the proof in the end of the real acceptance of homosexual church members.”

“I am convinced that such acceptance also contributes to the welfare of the actual congregation,” wrote Veenhof. “A minister who, as a homosexual, must, contrary to his deepest inclination, live as a celibate, will in his work discover the negative consequences. The chance is great that he will overturn himself emotionally in certain respects. Over against this a minister who is homosexual, who lives with a partner and accordingly experiences the joys and hardships of a relationship can put himself in the place of others in what happens in their partnership.”

Noting that unmarried ministerial candidates in The Netherlands were sometimes suspected of being homosexual, even when they were not married for some other reason, Veenhof wrote that “much would be gained if space were created wherein congregations could really get acquainted with candidates and their partners so that contact would not break off almost as soon as it is begun.”

“I have discovered repeatedly that when you become acquainted with two people who have a homosexual relationship in the way of personal contact, within the ordinary everyday things, the strangeness disappears,” wrote Veenhof. “Such a chance, candidates ought to have in the churches. We all have the task to respect one another whatever our lifestyle, to give space to one another, and to encourage the once-chosen relationship in a sphere of respect and openness by love and faithfulness, and to give it beauty and lasting quality.”

Responses to the Termination

Conservative leaders in the Christian Reformed denomination who are often critical of Calvin Seminary said they were pleased by Calvin’s prompt response. “We’re happy that they are sticking by the synodical stand and that of course is what all the conservatives are anxious about,” said Rev. Andrew Cammenga, chairman of the Interclassical Conference of CRC conservatives which met earlier this month in suburban Chicago to plan a response to liberalizing trends in the CRC, including the issue of CRC members who have called for a revision of the CRCs position that homosexual practice is contrary to Scripture.

Cammenga, however, wasn’t happy that it took media attention to alert Calvin Seminary to Veenhof’s views. “They didn’t do a very good investigation and interview, but we’re happy with the outcome of it,” said Cammenga. “I’m just a little bit surprised that the investigation of this man was rather sloppy and failed to discover some rather obvious positions. One would think that for such an important position they would have one more checking.”

On the other hand, gay Christian Re-formed minister Rev. Jim Lucas expressed concern that the Veenhof termination would have a chilling effect on discussion of homosexuality in Christian Reformed circles.

“Basically what I would be concerned about is the message that this action might potentially send out to gay people that they’re not welcome in this denomination, that the church is not willing to provide a safe place for dialogue,” said Lucas. “That’s not making a judgment about whether they did the right or wrong thing, it’s only how I think this decision will be perceived by gays in the Christian Reformed Church and outside the Christian Reformed Church. It will be one more thing that says the Christian Reformed Church is not a safe place for gays to raise their questions, concerns, and the cries of their hearts, and about that I grieve.”

Lucas, who serves as chaplain of the “As We Are” homosexual support group, is personally celibate but has consistently declined to state his position on whether gay marriages are permitted by Scripture, preferring to focus on pastoral care to hurting people rather than theological questions. “The first thing I’d like to see in the Christian Reformed Church is a genuine desire to listen to the cries of gay and lesbian members; I see very little willingness to listen,” said Lucas. “We need to care enough to simply listen for a while. If we could do that we would be miles and miles ahead of where we are now. At this point in history I feel people are so afraid of the issue they are not willing to listen.”

Lucas said the CRC has been much more willing to apply its official synodical prohibition of homosexual practice than the emphasis on ministry to homosexuals which was also urged in the same synodical report. “I’m just asking the church to do what it said it would do in 1973,” said Lucas. “Everyone agrees that the church has miserably failed in its ministry according to 1973. That’s to the shame and discredit of the denomination and to the terrible pain of gays and lesbians and their families.”

Darrell Todd Maurina, Press Officer United Reformed News Service [English translation of Dutch articles courtesy Rev. Charles Krahe]


PITTSBURGH (November 20, 1996) URNS – By this time next year, the Christian Reformed denomination may be faced with suspension or expulsion from the major fellowship of conservative Reformed and Presbyterian denominations in the US and Canada, an organization the CRC helped to begin 21 years ago.

Meeting in Pittsburgh on November 19 and 20, the North American Presbyterian and Reformed Council (NAPARC) voted to study suspending the Christian Reformed Church from membership because of the CRC’s decision to ordain women ministers, elders and evangelists. At 292,000 members, the CRC is the organization’s largest member denomination.

Similar to but much smaller than the National Council of Churches, NAPARC counts seven conservative Reformed and Presbyterian denominations as full members. Any move to suspend or terminate CRC membership will require a two-thirds vote and approval within three years by two-thirds of the national synods or general assemblies of the member denominations.

The proposal came from one of the CRC’s longstanding supporters, the 271,000member Presbyterian Church in America (PCA), whose 1995 General Assembly mandated its delegates to use “all due process afforded to them to remove the CRC membership in NAPARC” unless the CRC voted to “repent of and rescind the action of the 1995 synod” to ordain women. Since the 1996 CRC synod voted down numerous overtures asking for an end to the ordination of women, the PCA brought a motion to this year’s NAPARC meeting noting “with deep regret and heartfelt concern” the CRC decision not to stop ordaining women and proposing “that NAPARC initiate the process to suspend the CRCNA from its membership.”

After extended procedural questions about the legality of the motion, NAPARC voted to refer the suspension proposal to its interim committee, which will report back to the next NAPARC meeting in Atlanta in November 1997.

“Last year our General Assembly put us under mandate to deal with the situation with the Christian Reformed Church and what has been going on and I understood that there was something from the Orthodox Presbyterian Church that was coming,” PCA stated clerk Dr. Paul Gilchrist told the NAPARC delegates. “The position that we have taken is we value the relationship we have with the CRC in NAPARC, and our desire is to continue in that relationship; however we are grieved and distressed by the action of the Christian Reformed synod.”

A technicality delayed and almost derailed the PCA’s efforts. Although the PCA notified both NAPARC and the CRC of its decision last year, the PCA didn’t place a formal request for discipline on this year’s NAPARC agenda, assuming that last year’s notification was sufficient.

NAPARC chairman Rev. Jack Whytock, of the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church, initially ruled that because the NAPARC agenda had already been adopted it was too late to add the proposal to discipline the CRC.

That might have been fine with Gilchrist. “We thought we had already communicated this to NAPARC last year and we thought the OPC was going to come here with something this year,” said Gilchrist. “We wish to follow the OPC’s lead.”

However, PCA delegate Rev. Larry Roff warned that postponing action at NAPARC could cause problems within the PCA. “My sense is that the intention of the assembly was that it would be dealt with here,” said Roff. “It was my understanding that new business opens up any new business and not that each item of new business needs to be listed specifically on the docket.”

After seeking further advice from NAPARC secretary Rev. Donald Duff, who also serves as OPC stated clerk,Whytock ruled that the PCA proposal was legally on the NAPARC agenda and would be dealt with as an item of new business.

The Christian Reformed delegation was none too pleased by the PCA’s proposal to suspend them from NAPARC

CRC General Secretary Dr. David Engelhard strongly objected to the proposal and lack of prior notice. “This is not good procedure,” Engelhard told the NAPARC delegates. “Nothing was said, not one word, and then all of a sudden there was a really weighty decision. I understand the press and a whole lot of observers knew a lot more about this than we did and 1 feel that is offensive.”

The CRC gathered support for its procedural concerns from some unusual quarters. After the CRC objected that the PCA motion was not properly before NAPARC, a procedural motion passed to declare it legally before the council with the Orthodox Presbyterian Church being the only denomination other than the CRC to vote against consideration of the motion. Following the vote, Rev. Gordon Keddie of the Reformed Presbyterian Church in North America moved to send the PCA motion to the NAPARC interim committee for further study.

“That is scandalous, really,” said Keddie. “It is not something that in my judgment is properly to be dealt with 50 minutes before adjournment.”

While the NAPARC vote gives the CRC a year long reprieve, that doesn’t mean NAPARC is likely to be supportive when the matter comes up again next fall in Atlanta. So far, at least three denominations are on record calling for discipline of the CRC. In addition to the PCA, the Orthodox Presbyterian Church voted this past June to suspend fraternal relations with the CRC and to terminate relations next year if the CRC synod does not repent of allowing women’s ordination. At the NAPARC meeting, the Korean American Presbyterian Church announced a previously unknown decision last June to, by unanimous vote, “suspend fraternal relations with the Christian Reformed Church in North America (CRCNA) until such time as the said church repents of their sin and rescinds their position on opening church offices to women.” The Reformed Church in the United States had a history of difficulties with the CRC’s ordination of women and has sent observers to groups of churches which have seceded from the CRC over the women’s ordination issue. NAPARC also voted by a 4 to 3 margin not to admit the Evangelical Presbyterian Church to membership, in part because it allows the ordination of women ministers and elders.

Suspension or expulsion requires the affirmative votes of five member denominations. Ifeither the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church or the Reformed Presbyterian Church in North America vote to discipline the CRC, the necessary two-thirds majority will be reached. Both the ARPC and the RPCNA have ordained women deacons for many years, but both are on record opposing the ordination of women ministers or ruling elders.

“It’s disappointing the way it slipped onto the agenda,” said CRC general secretary Dr. David Engelhard, noting that the PCA had not responded to a letter sent by the CRC synod explaining its reasons for allowing the ordination of women. “We were thinking that our letter would initiate some discussion or conversation on their part.”

“This lack of a conversation is not treating each other as full believers in Jesus Christ, just coming in there and placing this kind of resolution on the agenda,” said Engelhard.

Despite the vote, Engelhard said the CRC would try to be cooperative with NAPARC “We believe this is an organization we should be part of,” said Engelhard after the vote, noting that the CRC will offer its conference call equipment to the NAPARC interim committee to facilitate discussion of the proposal, even though that discussion could lead to its removal from NAPARC.

Some in the CRC were more pleased by the vote. Rev. Tom Vanden Heuvel, pastor of First CRC in Byron Center who has accepted a call to begin a new PCA church in Holland, Michigan, said the PCA action was “a great encouragement to the conservatives in the CRC”

“I totally support the PCA in this action,” said Vanden Heuvel. “It does grieve me to see the stubbornness of the CRC and its recalcitrance to give heed to the admonition of its brothers and fathers in the PCA.”

Vanden Heuvel, who helped to begin NAPARCs predecessor organization in 1970 and took a leading role in conservative CRC circles before joining the PCA said he didn’t think his new denomination’s action would hurt his efforts to plant a PCA church in Holland—and might help. “I would say that the conservatives in the Christian Reformed Church will see that the PCA is very serious about its Reformed commitment and its desire to hold to the integrity of the Reformed confessions and will applaud it,” said Vanden Heuvel.

Darrell Todd Maurina, Press Officer United Reformed News Service