In the July-August issue of The Reformed Journal, Dr. G. Brillenburg Wurth, professor at the Kampen Theological Seminary in the Netherlands, writes about “Ecumenical Developments in the Netherlands.” The purpose of the article is to allay the fears that have arisen among us about certain developments among our Reformed brethren in the old country. The writer of that article admits that it is not easy for us to follow those developments and that therefore “it is easy [that is, for us] to lose in some measure our confidence in our sister church.” Prof. Wurth then seeks to explain why there is in his church much interest in and sympathy for closer relationship with the Reformed Church (Hervormde Kerk) and even for affiliation with the World Council of Churches.
It is not our purpose in this article to pass judgment on Prof. Wurth’s analysis of the religious situation in the Reformed Churches of his country. We can appreciate many of the statements made in his article though he does not satisfactorily explain and justify the readiness of some of his fellow-members to join the World Council We do wish to make it plain that the uneasiness which we feel about conditions in our sister-church is not due merely to the favorable attitude of some of its leaders toward the World Council. There are other trends in the life of that Church which are even more serious than the leanings to the kind of ecumenicity which can not pass muster in the light of Scripture.
We have read articles by Reformed men in Dutch magazines which truly alarm us and make us wonder whether the principles of church correspondence adopted by our synods do not require that we give official expression to deep concern.
There was a time when the theologians and scholars of the Reformed Churches were a source of inspiration to many of our leaders and church members. Their writings increased and deepened our understanding of the Reformed faith and their system of Christian schools, their church societies, and Christian political and social organizations were an incentive to Christian corporate activity in various areas of our own religious life. We were always happy to see our Seminary graduates go to the Free University for graduate study and those who went almost invariably returned with new insight in and new zeal for the Reformed faith and for the Calvinistic world and life view. Frankly, we are not so happy now to see our budding theologians of today follow that example. We would much rather see them go to Westminster Seminary, now that the doctor’s degree can be given by that school, knowing that it still stands foursquare for the Reformed faith.
What is the situation? For one thing, men of the stamp of Dr. J. Lever and other scientists and theologians who express agreement with his views entertain radical ideas about creation and evolution. Significantly, the title of the much discussed book of Dr. Lever is Creation and (not: or) Evolution. That in itself might not be too Significant but the author makes it plain that he seeks to harmonize what the Bible teaches about the creation of the universe with modern theories concerning the origin of the world and of the human race. He even grants the possibility of man’s descent from ape-like ancestors.
But now there are men in the Reformed Churches who boldly apply the principles according to which Lever and others interpret the first chapter of Genesis to the second and third chapters, in fact to the first eleven chapters of this book. We wish to call special attention, to a 57-page contribution to the magazine Bezinning by . Drs. (doctorandus?) H. A. L. Vander Linden, pastor of the Reformed church of De Bilt, and his collaborators, Prof. Dr. J. Veldkamp, professor of geophysics at the university of Utrecht; Drs. A. A. Manten, paleontologist; and Dr. H. G. Schulte Nordholt, in charge of the department . of cultural anthropology at the Free University of Amsterdam.
This extensive article is devoted to the defense of a position which to say the least questions the historicity of much of what is contained in the first eleven chapters of Genesis. The authors do not take the account of the creation of Adam and Eve literally. They do not believe that Adam and Eve were the first human beings, although they were probably the first couple who were fully human. To make this view acceptable the writer makes use of the distinction which Karl Barth also makes between “historie” and “geschiedenis.” “Historie” is the course of events “as visible to the human eye,” while “geschiedenis” (we know of no equivalent in the English language), in distinction from “historic,” is God’s supernatural work in the history of our race and of Israel. It is defined as “the working of God whereby he in the midst of the world works the miracle of Israel, causes his Son to come forth of Israel and through him delivers the world from destruction.” In describing Israel’s history the writers of the Bible have done this “in the form and in the manner in which oriental writers of history of their own day did this” (pp. 25, 26).
We continue to quote: “It is a peculiar coincidence that in our knowledge of history Abram is the first biblical figure whom we can somewhat identify (“plaatsen”). What precedes him in the Old Testament lies, as far as our present knowledge is concerned, in the pre-historical period. This does not give us the right to characterize the content of Genesis 1 to 11, inclusive, as unhistorical. That there is ‘geschiedenis,’ divine revelation, in those chapters is beyond doubt. But to what extent this ‘geschiedenis’ bears a historical character in our sense of the word, we cannot know” (p. 29). A remarkable statement for a Reformed theologian!
In what follows the writer offers some examples. In regard to the tower of Babel it is not at all certain, he states, that the words of Gen. 1:11 (“And the whole earth was of one language and of one speech”) really means just what it says to you and me. The writer contends that “whether there was such an original language (oertaal) is a matter which perhaps can be solved by a study of the languages” (p.29).
Another example is the Flood. It is a historical fact, says the author, that there were great floodlike inundations in Mesopotamia. But he does not even grant that there was a Bood which inundated the entire plain of the Euphrates and the Tigris, much less that the whole earth was covered with the waters of the deluge. They ask whether it is exegetically sound to understand what is said in chapters 6 to 9 of Genesis as real history (namely that God destroyed all flesh and that all living things in the earth except those in the ark perished) and at the same time to deny the universality of the flood by interpreting the words that “all the high mountains that were under the whole heaven were covered” as being merely a hyperbole (a figurative exaggeration ) in the same sense as when we say: the whole city was in turmoil (p. 30). Apparently the writer does not even consider the possibility of a universal flood even though this is plainly taught in the New Testament (e.g. II Peter 3:5, 6). By the way, those who have doubts on this score do well to read the recent volume by Morris and Whitcomb on The Genesis Flood.
Not less disturbing to us is the denial that the descendants of Seth listed in Genesis 5 actually lived for hundreds of years. At least, the writer suggests that one may put the question whether in this case also we have oriental material (oosters materiaal), possibly stemming from the universal inclination to idealize the primitive time as the time of heroes. We wonder why the writers who hold such views do not frankly state that such chapters are mythical or legendary; still more frankly, that they do not believe in the trustworthiness of the biblical record in Genesis (pp. 30,31).
Yes indeed. The writer finds that there are “traces of the historical tradition” in chapters in Genesis 5 to 11. Only traces! But in Abraham we really begin to find history. But as far as creation and paradise and the fall of man are concerned, we cannot really speak of direct historical tradition (p. 31).
In regard to the tree in the garden and the serpent, the writer declares that it is impossible to answer the question whether they were subject to sense perception and in that sense historical (p. 33).
On page 37 we read: “When my catechumens put the well known question about the origin of the human race, I am accustomed to begin my answer with the remark: ‘Whenever it is truly demonstrated that man descended from the animal, this makes absolutely no change in our faith’.” The writer adds that the Church should give its members freedom of opinion in this matter.
The authors of the article we are discussing felt that their conception of the first chapters of Genesis is bound to influence their view of certain basic New Testament teachings. This applies especially to their idea that Adam was probably not the first man, in fact that the name Adam may not indicate one specific individual but may be a collective term for “man” or “men.” This has a very direct bearing on the doctrine of original sin, especially as this is developed by Paul in Romans 5:12–21. The writer readily accepts the doctrine of original pollution, but he balks at the doctrine of original guilt; that is, the teaching that the guilt of the one sin of the one man Adam, which he committed as our representative in the covenant of works (the eating of the forbidden fruit ) was imputed to all his descendants. We read: “Much more difficult is the question of original guilt, whereby is understood that the transgression of Adam as the transgression of the covenant head was imputed to all his descendants [pp. 41–44] . For with a literal interpretation of Gen. 2 and 3 it remains not only a stumbling block for our faith and reasoning that one sin (the eating of the forbidden fruit) caused such a sea of misery to flow over the world and all its history, but the question especially grips us how a sin for which we are not personally guilty and whereby we were not present can be charged up to us.” (Note: Would it not be a logical conclusion for the writer to doubt also the justice of the imputation of the righteousness of one man Jesus Christ to those who are unrighteous and wicked in themselves?)
The writer appeals to what Dr. J. C. Berkouwer states in his second volume of his dogmatic study on De Zonde (Sin) on the subject of original guilt. Whether he interprets Berkouwer correctly we dare not say for sure, though we doubt it. But Vander Linden does make a valiant attempt to explain the classical passage from Romans 5 in such a way as to bolster his position. But it is very significant that he enlarges only on verses 12 to 17 but says nothing about verses 18 and 19 where Paul draws the sharpest parallel between the imputation of Adam’s guilt to his descendants and the imputation of Jesus’ righteousness to those who believe on him. In these verses Paul speaks of the one trespass and the one man’s disobedience (Adam’s of course) through which the many were made sinners and declares that thus through the one act of obedience of the one man (namely, Jesus Christ) the many were made righteous, justified. As justification is the imputation, not impartation, of the righteousness of Christ, so Adam’s one trespass became ours by imputation. This can be nothing but original guilt. When Paul speaks of the “trespass of the one” he of course thought of one individual, the father of the human race. Therefore the conclusion of Vander Linden can never stand that “even if in Gen. 2 and 3 ‘the man’ and ‘his wife’ are a sort of personification of the entire human race, this makes no change at all in the signification of these chapters and of Paul’s argumentation.”
In the concluding pages of this study the writer tackles the question of the inspiration of Scripture and presents his objections to the doctrine of verbal inspiration. Here no attempt is made to construct a doctrine from what the Bible itself teaches about its own inspiration and authority. The writer follows the (to us) familiar pattern of basing all his arguments on the “phenomena” of Scripture, the so-called errors or discrepancies in the historical portions of Scripture, and rejects the idea that the original writings, the autographa, were infallible and inerrant.
In a brief closing chapter Dr. H. G. Schulte Nordholt expresses his agreement with the views presented in the main body of the study, charges that a “fundamentalistic” trait accounts for the fact that not sufficient emphasis has beeD placed in Reformed circles on the human side of the testimony of prophets and apostles, and deplores the deposition of Dr. Geelkerken by the Reformed Synod of 1926 because he taught that the tree of the knowledge of good and evil and the serpent in Paradise might not have to be regarded as strictly historical.
These 57 pages are a striking illustration of the fact that a consistent application of the evolutionary principle to the biblical record in Genesis 1–3 is bound to work havoc with the orthodox faith. It imperils the Scriptural doctrine of the l~aJl of man. This in turn will compromise what we have taught and believed about the work of redemption through Christ. It also requires a denial of the doctrine of verbal inspiration. And where will all this end? If much of the history of the Bible is untrustworthy, how can we retain our faith in the accounts of the miracles of the Old Testament and of the New?
All the men who have collaborated in the production of the Bezinning article are members of the Reformed Churches of the Netherlands. What repercussions, if any, will this and other deviations from our traditional theology have in the church courts? There is great fear of another rupture after the disastrous schism in the days of Schilder and the establishment of the “Liberated churches.” Let us pray for our sister Church. We cannot refrain from anxiously wondering whether the Gereformeerde Kerken approve these new ideas, or tolerate them and perhaps drag our own Christian Reformed Church along with it into the muddy waters of unsound doctrine. We pray earnestly that the many sound theologians in that Church will set their faces like flint against the scientism and the higher criticism which now have some staunch defenders in its midst.
When we decided to write about the doctrinal disturbances in a sister Church we had in mind not only the contribution in Bezimling but also certain articles in Gereformeerd Weekblad by Dr. A. D. R. Polman, one of the highly respected theologians in that Church. In these articles Dr. Polman frankly expresses his disagreement with Article 15 of chapter one of the Canons of Dort. This is the article which deals with the doctrine of reprobation. Dr. Polman does not merely register objection against a single statement in the article. Though he believes in an eternal unchangeable decree of election, he denies that there was also an eternal, unchangeable decree of reprobation.
We shall tell our readers something about the position of Dr. Polman in our next issue, the Lord willing.