Interpreting Genesis 2 and 3

Thursday September 21, 1967 marked the end of a forty-one-year period in the history of the Gereformeerde Kerken in the Netherlands. On that day, their General Synod meeting in Lunteren declared that the literal interpretation of Genesis 2 and 3 advocated by the well-known Synod of Assen (1926) is no longer binding and that the members of the churches are given the freedom to interpret these chapters in accordance with the intention of the writer of Genesis 2 and 3.

What Synod of Lunteren 1967 did by terminating the validity of the literal-interpretation statement was to remove the yoke which seemed to chafe the neck of a number of people within the Gereformeerde Kerken. These people, especially in the last decade, asked questions such as: “Do we have to understand and believe all narrative accounts literally? Did Paradise exist from the beginning and were there among the trees of the Garden of Eden a tree of knowledge of good and evil and a tree of life? Do we actually have to accept as reality that a serpent who had the ability to speak deceived Adam and Eve? Do we visualize God coming down from heaven to make clothes for Adam and Eve?”1 These people came to the conclusion that the doctrinal statement of Assen 1926—that Genesis 2 and 3 ought to be interpreted literally—obstructed their view of Scripture and placed a binding yoke upon their shoulders.


For the first two decades after 1926, the doctrinal statement of the Synod of Assen was accepted without question in the Gereformeerde Kerken. However, when the Lowlands were liberated after the second World War and once again breathed the air of freedom, the people within the Gereformeerde Kerken longing for ecclesiastical—if not theological—freedom began to question the authority of the doctrinal statement adopted by the Synod of Assen.

Some of the questions concerning Genesis 2 and 3 were raised by natural scientists who as members of the Gereformeerde Kerken pursued and conducted research at the Free University of Amsterdam. Whereas in the 1920’s the faculty of natural science was not yet conceived and born, after the World War II the Free University expanded and created this faculty. Understandably, the creation of this faculty opened up new vistas for the academic community within Reformed circles, for the Gereformeerde Kerken no longer had to be guided by or look askance at the research performed by those outside of their own circles. In former years, leaders of the church had been somewhat skeptical of scientific findings which seemed to conflict with the literal interpretation of Scripture. Now that the faculty of natural science was opened, not only theologians but the entire church had to take note of what their own scientists discovered and concluded. When these scientists looked at Scripture and considered the binding doctrinal statement of Assen 1926, they began to ask questions concerning the validity of this statement.

Lunteren 1967

During the course of 1961, a chaplain ministering to the students M the University of Groningen wrote a letter in which he requested the General Synod of the Gereformeerde Kerken, in session at Apeldoorn, to appoint a committee with the mandate “to investigate how far or in what respect the decisions of the Synod of Assen 1926 are still binding.” When the General Synod convened two years later in the city of Groningen, the committee advised that the doctrinal statement of Assen be revoked. The delegates at this Synod were of the opinion, however, that without further study of the matter no decision should be made. What the Synod of Groningen did observe was that the doctrinal statement of Assen no longer functioned adequately in the churches and that it would not be desirable to take measures to make that statement effective once again. Thus Synod appointed a committee which was to report two years later (1965). But when at that time the report was received, Synod learned that in order to bring the matter to an acceptable conclusion a new committee should be appointed. When this second committee consisting of nine members was appointment, it was given the mandate to give, in general terms, an account of the character of authority inherent in Scripture.

This committee published a majority report, supported by eight members, and a minority report written by the ninth member of the committee. These reports were sent to all consistories of the Gereformeerde Kerken during January 1967 with the request that all office bearers use the necessary wisdom when giving their opinion on the subject discussed. When Synod of Lunteren met in the fall of 1967, the interest in this mailer was widespread. Many people attended the sessions of Synod which dealt with the doctrinal matter; they were well-informed and eager to know what Synod would decide concerning the doctrinal statement of Assen 1926.

And Synod did speak in the evening session of Thursday the 21st of September. The members of the committee supporting the majority report and the synodical committee agreed in advising Synod thnt the doctrinal statement of Assen could no longer he considered valid and that the churches were no longer restricted by this statement. This advice Synod adopted. At the same time Synod declared that whatever the confessions (L.D. 3 and 4 of the Heidelerg Catechism and Articles 14 and 15 of the Belgic Confession) say about the origin of sin and the fall ought to be maintained as authoritative.

This decision of Lunteren 1967 was not reached hastily, because Synod in session dealt with the issue for more than 16 hours, not counting recesses. During these sessions both the majority and the minority reports were discussed in detail. The strongest argument against the majority report was advanced by the writer of the minority report, who stated that the doctrinal statement of Assen 1926 should be maintained unless on exegetical grounds it could he shown that the statement ought to be annulled, but because no scriptural arguments were adduced to abrogate the doctrinal statement, said he, the decision of the Synod of Assen ought to be upheld.2 Speakers defending the majority report of the study committee pointed out that a revocation of the decision of Assen certainly is not a change in doctrinal direction because many people in the Gereformeerde Kerken have disregarded this decision for years already; a return to Assen would indeed be a change in doctrinal thinking. To the delegates at Synod, the revocation or the forty-one-year old doctrinal statement seemed a justifiable and wise decision. When the vote to revoke Assen 1926 was held, 64 delegates voted yes, 2 cast a negative ballot, and one abstained.

New Direction

In the wake of this revocation, a number of articles have appeared in various papers cautioning the people not to fall into the error of making an idol out of the freedom Synod has provided.3 Others say that because of the decision of Synod the road to liberalism is wide open—the gate has been removed.

It is certain that the churches have adopted a new course of theological thinking, for the decision of Lunteren docs not merely concern Genesis 2 and 3. To be sure, the interpretation of these chapters had been the focal point of discussion for nearly half a century. But the interpretation of Genesis 2 and 3 embodies the thinking that many things in the first chapters of Genesis do not have to be interpreted literally; the author expresses himself symbolically much the same as the writer of Revelation who uses imagery and signs.

Though the Synod of Lunteren did not deal with the theological trend now current in the Netherlands, yet from the various publications circulating in the Gereformeerde Kerken one may learn that actual recorded history begins with Genesis 12; the first eleven chapters of this book may contain some history though in the main they are made up of stories which circulated in Israel and which in earlier times had been borrowed from the nations surrounding Israel. When the author of Genesis gathered these stories, he removed those elements in the stories under the guidance of the Holy Spirit which were contrary to God’s revelation and thus inspired wrote the first eleven chapters of the first book of the Bible. He did not intend to describe exact history, which ol1ght to he understood literally, because he, unlike other writers of Scripture, could not make use of reports of eyewitnesses and oral tradition which had been handed down from father to son.4 Briefly, the interpretation of these chapters of Genesis concerns a particular type of historiography.

The members of the study committee who signed the majority report were of the opinion that chapters 2 and 3 of Genesis reveal a special type of history-writing. And when the Synod of Lunteren spoke in similar terms, it followed the advice given by this study committee. According to Lunteren, Genesis 2 .1Ild 3 do not have to be understood literally for they contain elements which in symbolical language point to sin and its consequences.


When Lunteren decided to revoke the doctrinal statement of Assen 19–26, it did not say that a literal interpretation of Genesis 2 and 3 is no longer valid. Also, it did not say that the new interpretation is the one advocated by Synod. It did say, however, that Synod is not qualified to give such sound judgment on the specified nature of the Scriptural account of Genesis 2 and 3 that it considers the statements concerning certain particular features (the two trees and the speaking serpent) as the only possible statements.

In short, Lunteren said that besides the literal interpretation of the two trees and the speaking serpent in Paradise there are other interpretations. Although Lunteren said that it is not qualified to speak on interpreting Genesis 2 and 3, by this very statement it admitted incapability of checking the new trend of interpreting Scripture; Synod merely set the new interpretation of the first chapters of Genesis alongside of the doctrinal statement of Assen.

Nevertheless, Synod is not an impersonal body but an assembly which represents the people of the churches. In adopting the majority report instead of the minority report, Synod voiced the opinion of the people and certainly of the leaders within the Gereformeerde Kerken. For these leaders supported the majority report, which, as was pointed out repeatedly on the floor of Synod, has no exegetical basis; it does not rest on Scripture but on an assumption. Those who support the majority report assume the possibility that the writer of Genesis 2 and 3 did not receive an historical trustworthy account of creation, paradise, and the fall, by way of oral tradition from father to son, but that he gathered stories which he, guided by the Holy Spirit, arranged to show that man, created good, became bad through disobedience. That, in their opinion, is the heart of the matter.

The long and the short of this interpretation is that divine revelation does not necessarily depend upon history, but that it can also be given by human beings inspired by the Spirit of God. The writer of Genesis may have gathered stories which at that time were part of Israel’s folklore, but which in former times originated in and belonged to nations surrounding Israel. These stories divested from undesirable elements served adequately to convey the truth of man’s creation and his fall in sin, and were at the same time familiar to those who first accepted divine revelation concerning the origin of man and sin.

This approach to Genesis 2 and 3, however, strikes at the root of the authority and content of Scripture and robs the Word of God of historical trustworthiness. The maxim “Scripture is its own interpreter” certainly applies to the first chapters of Genesis, for already in these chapters there is ample evidence that the writer does not symbolically convey a theory about the creation of man and his fall in sin, but that he writes history. And the rest of Scripture, especially the New Testament, refers to the historical accounts which happened at the beginning of cosmic time. For example, Paul refers to the serpent which beguiled Eve (see II Cor. 11:3). At times, supporters of the new interpretation of Genesis 2 and 3 adduce the argument that Paul was a child of his time, limited in understanding because of the cultural environment in which he lived.5 But if this is the case, Paul’s references to creation and the fall are without authority and content, because these references do not rest on historical trustworthiness.

Churches true to the Reformation have always believed and taught that revelation is history; they will never admit that fact and faith can be separable. The facts revealed in Scripture call for faith, and the believer depends on these facts in faith. The accuracy of the Scriptural account is accepted in faith. On the other hand, the new trend in Scriptural interpretation places the emphasis not on fact and faith but upon revelation; revelation may be expressed in a variety of forms, yet forms can never be revelation.6

The trend advocated by those who have accepted the new interpretation of Scripture does not stop at doubting the reality of the two trees and the speaking serpent in Paradise; besides doubting the historicity of the first eleven chapters of Genesis, advocates of the new interpretation of Scripture point to accounts such as the Nile turned into blood, the speaking donkey of Balaam, and the whale that swallowed Jonah; these cannot be interpreted literally. And many incidents recorded in the Gospels, according to these advocates, do not rest on actual occurrence but upon a proverb or talc; for example, the account of Peter catching a fish with a coin in its mouth does not have to be based on fact but may find its origin in a saying of Jesus.7 It is not the setting which gives importance to the Scriptural account but the message. The accent falls on revelation, not on the historical setting which merely serves to embellish the divine message.

Many questions are raised in view of the decision of Lunteren; questions concerning the future of the churches lie at the heart of many discussions. Therefore the question which ought to be considered seriously is the one that concerns the effect which the new trend of interpreting Scripture has upon the life of the churches. It is obvious that adopting a new course in thcology must affect established patterns in the churches. And these patterns based on the Scriptures must be re-examined and restructured in view of the new interpretation.

In recent years the Gereformeerde Kerken have considered the position of the woman in the Church, the evangelical view of Sunday observance, and in academic circles the theory of evolution has become a working hypothesis. These discussions and changes are indicative of the prevailing theological climate affirmed by the decision of Lunteren on interpreting Genesis 2 and 3.
1. See the article of Dr. A. Kruyswijk, “Afscheid van Assen” in Centraal Weekblad, Oct. 7, 1967, p. 3.

2. Dr. J. Schelhaas, “Assen 1926 getdood?” Waarheid en Eeuheid, Oct. 6, 1967, p. 1.

3. Editors of Gereformeerd Weekblad and a member of the Editorial Committee of Centraal Weekblad wrote articles of caution. See the articles of Dr. G. C. Berkouwer and Dr.H. N. Ridderbos in Gereformeerd Weekblad, Oct. 6, 1967.

4. Dr. J. L. Koole, Verhaal en Feit in het O.T., Kampen, J.H. Kok, 1966, p. 62.

5. Writcs Dr. J. T. Bakker, “Of course Paul has understood the Genesis story against his own horizon.” “Waar zijn we?” Gereformeerd Weekblad, Oct. 14, 1966, p. 93.

6. For an extensive discussion see J. Coert Rylaarsdam, “The Problem of Faith and History in Biblical Interpretation” Journal of Biblical Literature, Vol. 77, March 1958, pp. 27ff.

7. Among others, T. Baarda, De Betrouwbaarheid van de Evangelien, Kampen, J. H. Kok, 1967, p. 85.