Genesis, Evolutionism and the Churches (I)

The adjustment of the interpretation of the first chapters of Genesis to the hypotheses of evolutionism is, of course, not recent. This has been done ever since Darwinism became popular. What is recent, however, are the inroads which this philosophy is making into two Reformed denominations—the one in the Netherlands, caned De Gereformeerde Kerken, and the other in America, called the Christian Reformed Church.

Until the twentieth century was well on its way these denominations seemed to be rather impervious to the influences of evolutionism. Among them the first few chapters of Genesis were generally considered historical accounts of things which had actually occurred. Such leaders as Kuyper, Bavinck, Geesink, Honig, Berkhof, and many others, rejected evolutionism and accepted the accounts of Genesis as historically true. The struggle began in the Netherlands churches after the first quarter of the current century. In 1926 the Synod of Assen met and the interpretation of Genesis 2 and 3 as accounts of actual happenings was by that Synod maintained and confirmed. However, these synodical resolutions did not subdue the trend. Synodical resolutions seldom do that. In fact the new trend developed to such an extent that some Christian men of science taught evolutionism, and shortly after the first half of this century an (theistic) evolutionist was appointed to a chair in biology at the Free University of Amsterdam. The inevitable occurred. A clamor, more or less general in certain circles, was heard for a repeal of the resolutions of the Synod of Assen (1926). Synods were overtured to that end. That process is going on today and we should be intensely interested in it.

The attack of evolutionism upon the constituency of the Christian Reformed Church in America came later, after the present century was half spent. The conRict is developing not only because it is being imported from the Netherlands (that too, I suppose), but especially because theistic evolutionism is being taught by at least one instructor at Calvin College. Donald R Wilson wrote an article on HOW EARLY IS MAN? in Christianity Today (Sept. 14, 1962). He introduces himself as “Visiting Instructor” at Calvin College. He is that today. In this article Mr. Wilson sets aside the familiar chronology of archbishop Ussher. He does that upon the basis of an interpretation of Biblical genealogies. This interpretation is proper as far as it goes, for, as is generally known, these genealogies arc not incorporated in Holy Writ for the purpose of dating events. But upon the rejection of that chronology Mr. Wilson appears to throw the field wide open for evolutionary and/or uniformitarian ideas. He writes, “…Scripture teaches us nothing concerning the physical appearances of early man. Our basic definition of man, both from the standpoint of Scripture and of science, is functional rather than structural. That is, we define man in terms of what he can do rather than in terms of his appearance.” Of course, in this way Wilson suggests, to say the least, a development or evolution of man from “sub-human” to “human.” It is not difficult to figure out what kind of harvest the sowing of such seed is bound to yield. We should, therefore, be intensely interested in these movements, and we should be interested in them now, today.

Besides, the situations in the Gereformeerde Kerken in the Netherlands and the Christian Reformed Church in America are not exactly parallel, at least not as far as their educational institutions are concerned. The Free University, in which evolutionism is taught, is not an ecclesiastical institution. The churches there can hardly be held directly responsible for the contents of its teachings. However, Calvin College is an ecclesiastical institution. Whether this is proper or not, the Christian Reformed denomination as church is responsible for the doctrines taught by its instructors. Though limits of time and space forbid a full discussion of these matters, yet a few remarks should be made in this and in a following article.


1 should like to turn to the Gereformeerde Kerken of the Netherlands first. Admittedly, the influence of these churches and its theologians and men of science upon the constituency of the Christian Reformed Church is not as great as it used to be. Today the language barrier is becoming increasingly more obstructive. Yet this influence is there and operative. Besides, the Netherlands denomination is a “sister church” to the Christian Reformed Church, and mutual interest in each other requires no apology.

Formally and officially the matter began fit the special synod of the Gereformeerde Kerkcn held from January 26 to March 17 of 1926 in the city of Assen. A complaint against the doctrinal soundness of Dr. J. G. Geelkerken, minister near Amsterdam, had been processed through classis and particular synod. Thereupon it was brought to the general synod especially convened for this purpose. Now it should be understood that Dr. Geelkerken did not deny that the tree of knowledge of good and evil, the serpent and its speaking and the tree of life were, according to the obvious intent of the accounts of Genesis 2 and 3, to be considered actually and literally existing, so that they were observable and verifiable realities. He did insist, however, that SUCH was not the only possible and permissible interpretation of those chapters. One could, so he appears to have held, interpret Genesis 2 and 3 symbolically, without conflicting with articles 4 and 5 of the Belgic Confession. What Geelkerken, therefore, appears to have done is to make the interpretation of Genesis 2 and 3 a matter of dispute, thus making the traditional interpretation of those chapters doubtful. Upon the refusal of Geelkerken to comply, Synod deposed him from office. Moreover, Synod required that all classes demand a declaration of agreement with the resolutions of Synod from every candidate admitted to the ministry.

Since Dr. Geelkerken’s church and a few others left the Gereformeerde Kerken, it seems as if at least outwardly peace had been produced by the resolutions of synod in regard to the views of Geelkerken. However, the spirit of Geelkerken was not destroyed. I have the impression, looking at the situation from a distance, that there has been a great deal of gestation so that the spirit and basic principle of Geelkerken developed throughout the years following the Synod of Assen. Finally overtures reached the Synod of the Netherlands churches proposing a repeal of the resolutions made in 1926. The latest Synod, the Synod of Groningen-Lunteren (1963), received a report from a study committee, apPointed by the preceding Synod. which proposed a drastic repeal of the decisions of Assen and, therefore, a posthumous rehabilitation and reinstatement of Geelkerken. The Synod (1963) did not yield to that proposal altogether. However, it practically made an “about face.” It acknowledged the fact that the doctrinal decisions of the Synod of Assen (1926) do not at present operate (functioneren) fully. It further judged that it is not desirable at the present stage of development to employ means which would produce a full operation of those decisions, and likewise that, in connection with present-day views of the first chapters of the Book of Genesis, there is a need for greater clarity in regard to the question, whether and to what extent the doctrinal pronouncements of the Synod of Assen should be set aside and eventually be replaced by other pronouncements. Synod appointed a study committee to consider these matters and report to the next Synod (19(6). Matters are, therefore, in a great flux in the Netherlands. (Gereformeerd Weekblad, 7 February, ‘64, should be consulted for the above information.)



What explains the direction in which the Gereformcerde Kerken appear to be moving? Did all of this drop out of a clear sky?

In answer, I should state that there is reason to doubt that the resolutions of the Synod of Assen (1926), in regard to Dr. Geelkerken’s views, were received with general approval by the membership of the Gereformeerde Kerken. There must have been considerable dissent. The Acts of the Synod should be consulted. The practice of approaching Synod by non-delegates, for the purpose of influencing the decisions which are about to be made, appears to be rather usual in the Netherlands. In such cases letters or telegrams are sent to Synod expressing opinions and urging action one way or another. In that way the Synod of Assen (1926) was approached by seven prominent men, members of the Gereformeerde Kerken, of which Dr. J. P. de Gaay Forbnan seems to have been the leader. These men urged Synod to take no action in the Geelkerken case, but to appoint a committee to study the problem. Natural scientists were, according to this proposal, to be included in the constituency of this committee. One of the grounds upon which this proposal was based is significant. It was said to be the conviction “…that we now (in 1926!) live in a time, in which important scholarly problems exist of theological, epistemological, scientific and juridical character, all of which are connected with the view of Holy Writ, and the solution of which is urgently desired, if not to be considered absolutely necessary, if the unity of our churches (the Gereformeerde Kerken of the Netherlands) is to be retained and the faith of the church strengthened.” Moreover, this request, which was at the same time somewhat of a threat or warning, was not only signed by the seven men, no less than 167 (one hundred sixty-seven) persons declared their agreement with it. Among these were 11 ministers, 11 jurists, 23 medical doctors, 44 instructors in high schools and 60 principals and teachers of (Christian) schools.

This information, supplied by the Acts of the Synod of Assen, should not be neglected. In present-day Dutch publications the plea is made that developments and conditions have changed since the Synod of Assen (1926) to such an extent that a change in the church’s position is wholly warranted. Dr. Herman Ridderbos writes in Gereformeerd Weekblod of January 5, 1964, “Certainly at present more and better arguments are used than those against which the Synod of Assen had to choose its position.”

Although a great distance separates me from the scene and I should speak with caution, I cannot refrain from wondering at such statements. Have changes really occurred? The sentiment favoring Geelkerken’s position at the time of the Synod of Assen may have, and doubtlessly has, gained in popularity, so that evolutionism or uniformitarianism of some kind is openly taught at present. Yet it certainly did not arise in post-Assen days. Dr. A. Noordtzij, professor at the State University of Utrecht and, 1 believe, a member of a Gereformeerde Kerk, published a book two years before the Synod of Assen (1924), in which he advocated the so-called “framework theory” concerning Genesis 1 (God’s Word en der Eeuwen Getuigenis, p. 77ff.). This theory subverts the traditional interpretation of the first chapter of Genesis and is in our own time, not produced, but elaborated by Dr. N. H. Ridderbos of the Free University. Moreover, I have been assured that basically (therefore, as to its controlling principles and not as to the accumulation of alleged data) evolutionism has not changed since the days of Darwin. One, therefore, wonders to what changes reference is made by certain Dutch authors.


Dr. G. J. Goslinga—I am not in position to state to what extent there is dissatisfaction with the direction in which the Gereformeerde Kerken are moving. I have, however, consulted Gereformeerd Weekblad and find Dr. C. J. Goslinga taking position against the movement. Goslinga is a minister in the Gereformeerde Kerken and a reputable Old Testament scholar, who has produced some worthwhile commentaries on such books as Judges, Ruth and Samuel. After the manner of the seven men, who addressed themselves to the Synod of Assen at the time, Dr. Goslinga has turned to the Synod of Groningen-Lunteren (1963). In an article in the weekly mentioned (November 8, ‘63) he expresses his disappointment with the fact that his letter addressed to the Synod in regard to the interpretation of Genesis 2 and 3 and the “binding” character of the decisions of the Synod of Assen (1926), was not read to Synod. It was only reported that, “Dr. Goslinga argues upon the same grounds as did (the Synod of) Assen at the time.” Goslinga states that he did more than that. He called the attention of Synod to such New Testament passages as II Corinthians 11:3 and I Timothy 2:13, 14; and also the fact that the Reformed Ecumenical Synods of Amsterdam (1949) and Potellefstroom (1958) have made pronouncements in regard to this matter. Dr. Goslinga thereupon quotes the first general principle adopted by the Synod of Potchefstroom, “The historicity of revelation in Genesis 1 and 2 must be maintained undiluted. Neither of these two chapters gives any grounds for the symbolic or visionary interpretation, or for regarding the account of creation as an allegorical myth” (Acts p. 57). He also remarks. “This naturally also holds for Genesis 3, which constitutes a unit with Genesis 2. T would certainly consider it undesirable if our General Synod (of the Gereformeerde Kerken) would make decisions disagreeing with this general principle.”

In the issue of Gereformeerd Weekblad of February 28, ‘64 Dr. Goslinga writes, “If anyone among us is of the opinion that we are dealing, for instance, with a poetic or symbolic account in Genesis 2 and 3, then it would be incumbent upon him to indicate this with arguments which have been deduced from that section of Scripture first of all, in an exegetical way he must show that the account does not require to be taken as history (also in regard to the fall into sin and the promise to the woman–3:15). In the second place the question should be asked what light other books of the Bible cast upon these chapters. (This is) according to the classical rule, ‘Holy Scripture is its own interpreter.’ This holds especially for the New Testament, in which we -according to the Reformed conception have an indisputable witness which confirms the data of the Old Testament innumerable times…

“I do not wish to enlarge on this, but desire to indicate emphatically, that the profound connection between Biblical data should keep us from loosening a stone (i.n the structure) anywhere. Most often much more is being disturbed then.”

D. Grosheide – It is striking that the same conflict occurs in the Roman Catholic Church, at least in certain European sections of that church, as in the Reformed denominations mentioned. There seem to be conservatives and so-called “progressives” in that denomination. The “progressives” seek to discover the type of literature found in the Bible and especially in the first chapters of Genesis. They appear to attach great significance to such discoveries. According to a book written by Robert Kaiser, Inside the Council, quoted by D. Grosheide in Gereformeerd Weekblad (Nov. 1, ‘63) Cardinal Ruffini said about the so-called genres or various types and categories of literature found in Scripture, “How can anyone suppose that the Church has during nineteen centuries presented the Divine Book to its children without knowing the literary genre in which it was composed, if this is the key to exact interpretation?” Grosheide adds, “The problems which are discussed at the (Second Vatican) Council, are in part closely connected with those present in our churches (the Gereformeerde Kerken). During the latest years there appears to be great interest ‘among us’ .in the method of literary genres, including the source theory. When one reads publications in which these things are pursued, one gets the idea that it is advisable to study theology first, before one begins to read the Bible. The understanding of God’s Word appears to be an especially complicated undertaking and not much remains of the obvious intent (klaarblijkeliike bedoeling) of Scripture, concerning which the Synod of Assen spoke in 1926. The question seems to be warranted whether this method of the interpretation of Scripture does not imply that not the Church, but that God Himself has for ages left His children in uncertainty as to how they should read Genesis 3, for instance. It strikes me that we are able to learn from a man such as Ruffini in regard to the implications of the confession of the perspicuity of Scripture.”

Dr. Herman Ridderbos – No doubt the Gereformeerde Kerken in the Netherlands face a very serious situation. There is a predicament, and all of us should pray that God may send His light and wisdom to the brethren there. They need understanding hearts in the Scriptural sense of that term. Repeal of synodical resolutions is always a serious business. Of course, no synod is infallible. If errors have been committed repeal may be the only proper course. But it becomes no synod, or any ecclesiastical gathering, to act rashly. A great deal too much is involved. This should be said with emphasis, especially when, as in this case, doctrines and not merely ecclesiastical policies are involved.

In the issue of Gereformeerd Weekblad of February 7, ‘64, Dr. Herman Ridderbos discusses the situation. It is impossible to comment on all his statements and views. Moreover, he states that he is not ready to discuss the cause of the situation fully. Nevertheless he asks: What has produced the changed attitude in the Netherlands churches in regard to the pronouncements of the Synod of Assen? In response he remarks, “There is a twofold factor (operating ) here; viz., the continuing (voortgaande) scientinc study of the Bible (bijbelwetenschap) and also the development (ontwikkeling) of Christian natural science (natuurwetenschap); and these two are dependent upon one another.”

Looking at the situation from this distance, I feel prompted to state, be it with due caution, that Dr. Ridderbos is right in describing the factors which are at present operating. They operate in many other places and churches as well. However, if that be the case, it should also he said that these factors have almost always operated and that their value and inter·dependence have been discussed at length by several scholars connected with the Free University as well as by others. I am thinking of such men as Kuyper, Woltjer, Geesink. Bavinck, Grosheide, Bouwman, Hoekstra and many others.

Moreover, the attempt to arrive at a proper appreciation and evaluation of these factors brings us in the immediate neighborhood of Article 2 of the Belgic Confession—the twofold revelation of God. An acknowledgment of the operation of these two factors should, therefore, not be considered new or recent. For that reason, it seems to me, the emphasis in Dr. Ridderbos’ description should be placed upon the modifier “continuing” and the noun “development.” Both indicate a change, and I venture to say that the change has occurred or is occurring especially in the place and function assigned to each factor. The question must be put: How and to what extent is the one to affect our evaluation of the other? Calvin spoke of Scripture as the spectacles through which nature was to be read and appreciated. One wonders whether the reverse is not occurring today, so that Scripture is read in the light of science, archeology and the evolutionary hypothesis. That question is, of course, exceedingly important. For that reason I should like to continue the discussion in the next issue.