Dutch Synod Speaks (2)

The Synod of the Gereformeerde Kerken in The Netherlands (there are two denominations by this name in The Netherlands. The one here referred to is the church of which Professors Berkouwer, Kuitert, Hidderbos et al. are members) was faced with a crticial decision. The question was: What to do with the teachings of one of the professors of the Free University, Dr. Harry M. Kuitert, concerning the historicity of Adam and Eve and of their fall into sin? From speaking to some of the delegates of that Synod during the earlier sessions, the present writer knows with what trepidation the discussion of this question was anticipated by some of the synodical delegates. This crucial matter has now been brought to its provisional conclusion. In order to understand the full import of the decision which the Dutch Synod made regarding Dr. Kuitert’s teaching it is necessary to refer briefly to the background of the current dispute.

Earlier Decisions Re Paradise and Fall – Since the year 1926 the Dutch churches had a decision which stated that: the tree of knowledge of good and evil, the serpent and its speaking, and the tree of life, according to the obvious intention of Genesis 2 and 3, were to be understood in a real and literal sense and thus were sensuously perceptible realities. This decision was set aside by the Synod of Amsterdam 1967–1968, which, after stating that it shared the concern of the Synod of 1926 that the authority of Holy Scripture must be respected by the church, went on to declare that “it did not consider itself competent to form a judgment concerning the specific nature of the scriptural story in Genesis 2 and 3 that would be sufficiently well established to continue to follow the exclusive way in which the Synod of Assen expressed itself on the obvious meaning of specific details of this story.”

The same Synod went on to declare, however, that “at the same time, that which is articulated verbally in the Confession of the church concerning the origin of sin and the effects of the fall into sin (Heidelberg Catechism, Lord’s Day 3 and 4; and Belgic Confession, Articles 14 and 15) clearly expresses the fundamental meaning which the Old and New Testaments (e.g., Romans 5) attribute to this history, and therefore should be maintained by the church as being of essential importance for the proclamation of the gospel…”

Between Amsterdam and Sneek – In spite of the fact that the Amsterdam Synod had made explicit reference to certain confessional statements concerning the “sin and disobedience of our first parents, Adam and Eve, in Paradise” (Heidelberg Catechism, L.D. III), the opinions of those who, like Professor Kuitert, denied the historicity of Adam and Eve and hence of the fall in the traditional sense continued to be voiced within the church. This caused great anxiety to many in the Gereformeerde Kerken as well as elsewhere. No less than two hundred overtures pertaining to this matter were sent to the Synod of Sneek, which began its sessions in the spring of 1969 and concluded them in November of this year.

Some of those who overtured Synod wanted to repeal the entire decision of Amsterdam by which the 1926 decision concerning the trees, the serpent, etc. had been set aside. Others were at least desirous of having the decision of Amsterdam with its clear-cut reference to the confessional teachings on a historical fall into sin duly honored by all the theologians of the church who subscribe to these confessions.

A committee was called into being to deal with these and other causes of unrest in the church. This committee was made up of a number of theological professors and ministers plus one cider. The professors who participated were; ). T. Bakker (Systematics), J.L. Koole (O.T.), H. N. Ridderbos (New Testament)—all of Kampen; and J. Van Den Berg (Church Polity and History of Missions) of the Free University. Some of the ministers who were members of the committee were: F. L. Bos, A. Kruyswijk, J. Overduin, E. C. Van Teylingen.

A “both-and” Report – As was stated earlier, the report of the committee dealt not only with the question of the historicity of the fall, it also entered into other causes for concern within the church. Among the latter was the question of the so-called horizontalism with its corresponding lack of concern for the coming of the kingdom in an eschatological sense. In this connection the committee’s report assumed a “both-and” position. It pointed out that it would be wrong to condemn one-sidedly the concern for the Christian’s duly to be the salt of the earth and the light of the world. The zeal, the hope, and the courage which are shown in the attempts to make the gospel’s blessed power more evident in the world of today should be duly appreciated. On the other hand, that for which we hope and pray may not be restricted to this life and to the present world. The committee urged that no lack of understanding or uncertainty concerning these matters should exist in the church.

The committee also addressed itself to the question of the function of the confessions. It turned against those who with an appeal to the confessions think they can too easily prove the unassailability of their own opinions. But it also rejected the opinions of those who, in their zeal to make the gospel accessible to modern man, believe that the confessions have had their time, and who hold that every binding to a confession is a threat to the necessary room which one needs within the church, and hence is in conflict with the liberty wherewith Christ has made us free.

The committee also condemned the attitude of those who would have nothing of any attempt to shed a favorable light on that which is considered by them to be nothing but a sign of apostasy and retrogression. It argued that the differences in actual fact were not as great as they might seem. Newer opinions, after some patient explanation, appear to be not only not subject to censure, but even positively commendable.

The Committee on the Confessions – The committee pointed out that the confessions express the contents of the Word of God as this was understood by the framers of these confessions. As time progresses, a growing gap may develop between the understanding of the Word then and now. The church’s confession concerning the fall, if formulated today, would be stated by many in a manner different from that followed in the past, yet there might be cordial agreement concerning the essence of the matter as presented to us in Scripture.

On the other hand, there must not be a lack of clarity or a difference of opinion concerning the matter itself. The Synod of Amsterdam, when it referred to the confessions, wanted to prevent having the fundamental significance which Scripture attributes to the origin and the consequences of sin be called into question. It wanted also to prevent all sorts of opinions and explanations of Genesis 2 and 3 which would minimize this significance.

Some Synodical Decisions – A lengthy debate concerning this report, carried on in part in executive session, followed.

There was an amendment proposed by Rev. C. Van Halsema who wished to include other churches in the discussion concerning these vital matters. This amendment with sixteen votes in favor, failed to carry. Another amendment, proposed by Rev. P. Van Til, was supported by some ministers and elders. It asked Synod to make a clear pronouncement concerning the fact that Scripture derives its authority from the fact that men spoke on God’s behalf so that Scripture should be received not as a word of man but as God’s Word. The same amendment dealt with the norms for a truly scriptural exegesis, and it stated also that thus far no acceptable exegesis had been presented which would leave room for the opinion that the historicity of our first parents may be denied. This amendment was subsequently withdrawn after a consultation with the members of the study committee.

Voting on the first part of the committee’s recommendations, the Synod, by an overwhelming majority, expressed its concern about the increasing influence of a mode of life and thinking that is secular and alienated from Scripture. This mode of life and thought threatens the church, its outward-directed activities, its theology, and its preaching. Synod expressed special apprehension concerning the attempts to relate the significance of the person of Christ, of the Kingdom which He proclaimed and of His resurrection from the dead, to the modern mind in such a way that what Paul called the offense of the cross would be eliminated from it.

Synod stated that today the churches must find their strength and unity in the proclamation of the unabridged gospel of Jesus Christ and in their submission to the confession of the Christ of Scripture, of justification by faith alone, of election and the atonement, of the infinite value of the sacrifice of the Lord for the world’s life—as this is expressed so powerfully and so unambiguously in the confessions of the Reformation.

Synod urged the churches to see to it that there be no building on any other foundation than that of the apostles and the prophets, as this is given us in the Scriptures.

The Synod stated further that within the churches a fairer judgment is needed of one another, and that one should speak with greater balance and greater differentiation about each other. Letters which have reached Synod and publications in the church have violated this rule.

The Synod, by a strong majority, rejected the overtures which requested complete repeal of the decisions of Amsterdam 1967–68 concerning paradise, the trees, the serpent, etc. In that same context, Synod decided to issue a pastoral letter to the churches. In the letter the nature of Scripture’s authority as the norm for doctrine and life will be elucidated in connection with the unrest and the concern present in the church. This letter will speak in two directions. It will honor the task of the church to make the gospel intelligible for modern man, but it will caution against the danger that the concern to make the gospel intelligible becomes the norm for what can be accepted as revelation and hence demands obedience.

The pastoral letter will speak also of the phenomenon of horizontal ism, It will seek to safeguard the Christian expectation of the future both for this life and for the life to come. Also in this area, one-sidedness will be avoided. On the one hand the full emphasis will be placed on the Christian’s calling to strive in this world for the renewal of life and of the world, in the reliance on Christ’s promise that He makes all things new. On the other hand the pastoral letter will reject the idea that God’s kingdom is to be expected solely as the result of human activities within our present dispensation.

Concerning the confessions the Synod will state that it rejects any formalistic handling of the confession, but it will also warn against tendencies to relativize the confessions so that the door would be opened for doctrinal license.

Decisions re Professor Kuitert – The committee report had not recommended in so many words that the Synod make a pronouncement with respect to the teachings of Professor Kuitert re the historicity of Adam and Eve, the fall into sin, etc. However, Synod’s final decision definitely refers to this matter.

The Synod adopted the following six points which are here presented in a free translation:

1. The objections adduced against Prof. Kuitert’s position bear a fragmentary character and as such possess little power of proof.

2. Synod nevertheless states that the denial by Dr. Kuitert of the historicity of the fall into sin as man’s turning away from God at the beginning of human history, is not in accord with that which the Synod of Amsterdam 1967–1968 in its pronouncement under point 3 indicated;

3. In the meanwhile it has become evident that Dr. Kuitert, also at Synod, does not stand alone in his opinion.

4. In this situation, however unsatisfactory it may be with respect to the question of internal unity, it ma}, nevertheless be observed with joy that all members of Synod adhere to the confession that God has created man good and for a fellowship of love with Him, but that man in wilful disobedience has refused and refuses to live in this fellowship, that all of humanity is estranged from God, has fallen prey to the slavery of sin and can be saved only through God’s gracious intervention.

5. Synod is therefore of the opinion that the unity of ecclesiastical confession must not be deemed to be in jeopardy to such extent (op een zodanige wijze) that further decisions concerning this matter would have to be made at the present moment.

6. Synod is to appoint a committee to carry on the discussion in this situation in an earnest search for mutual unity, also in those matters in which clear difference of opinion has become evident.

Summary – The above are the decisions of the Synod of Sneek, reached on November 5, 1970. It is clear that Synod drew certain lines and rejected certain positions. It referred to the confessions, be it indirectly, by referring to the decision of Amsterdam 1968-}969. And it said that to deny the historicity of the fall into sin at the beginning of human history, is not in accord with the Amsterdam decision. If Synod is also willing to stand by that decision and to enforce it, then it would seem, one of two things will happen. Professor Kuitert will have to reconsider his position and retract some of his statements, or his place within the Gereformeerde Kerken will have become untenable. However, it is clear from Synod’s own words that others besides Dr. Kuitert are involved in this dilemma.

At this time we can only hope and pray that the committee appointed for the purpose of further discussion will be successful in persuading many in the church that Synod’s position is the biblical one and hence should be accepted without gainsaying.