Kuitert in the United States and Canada (2)

Lecturing to about 300 ministers at the Ministers Institute held at the Knollcrest campus of Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Mich., during the first week of June, Dr. H. M. Kuitert spoke on the subject “A New Approach to Creation and Evolution.” The title of the lecture already aroused the interest of the ministers attending the institute; and when the speaker began to set forth his views on creation and evolution the audience not only listened attentively but afterwards, in the discussion period, directed various questions. to the lecturer.

What did Dr. Kuitert say about creation? The Amsterdam professor asserts that we should not read the first chapters of Genesis as a story that happened, for this emphasis on literalism we have inherited from the 17th century. We have to free ourselves from this emphasis and look at the first chapters of Genesis through 20th century glasses. Studying the creation story of Genesis and related stories of the Chaldean world, the theologian must come to the conclusion that Israel’s creation story is a distinct verbalization which at one time was making the round through the Chaldean world. Studies in comparative literature indicate that parallels of this story and the terms used in the account clearly betray the origin of Israel’s creation story.

What then took place when the first chapters of Genesis were put down on paper? Simply this: God used the writer of these chapters in the historical context in which he lived. The creation story had entered the boundaries of Israel and became part of the nation. However, Israel had annexed this material for a distinct purpose: it had captured the narrative for Jahweh, Israel’s covenant Cod. Of course the story contained many undesirable elements, such as references to foreign gods. Israel removed all these references, filtered—so to speak—the narrative, and remodeled the creation account so that it became a story of creation acceptable to Jahweh. Israel knew that Jahweh had made a covenant with her, and that therefore not the heathen gods had created the world, but God Jahweh. Therefore the purified creation story is dedicated to Jahweh; in fact, the process of purifying this heathen story is a religious act in which Israel dethrones the gods worshipped by the surrounding heathen nations and elevates Israel’s God Jahweh.

The writer of the first chapters of Genesis, says Kuitert, took this purified story of creation and, guided by the Holy Spirit, made it part of Scripture.

What effect docs this approach have on the teachings of the Church? Well, quite a bit. For one thing, the first chapters of Genesis do not give us history, for the origin of the biblical creation story comes to us in a form borrowed from the heathen nations neighbouring Israel. Actually, it is best to make the distinction between form and content of Israel’s creation story. Genesis 1, for example, corresponds very closely to Babylonian and Egyptian lists which categorically enumerated the various parts of the universe and all living beings. With the help of these lists, the writer of Genesis 1 was able to give a summary of creation. To be sure, this summary is merely the form in which it is presented. Behind the outward appearance the reader meets the content of the creation story. The content of Genesis 1–3 is what counts.

If we approach these first chapters of Genesis in the thought-pattern of the traditional teaching of the Church -that is, if we accept these chapters as literal history—we simply cannot understand the form and content of the creation and paradise stories. And why can we not accept Genesis 1 and Genesis 3 literally as an account of what happened at the dawn of human history? Because, in the opinion of Kuitert, history cannot be retraced; we cannot find out what happened in the hoary past and, furthermore, the writer of Genesis 1–3 had no intentions of giving his readers a literal description of early human history. Dr. Kuitert concludes that this new view of the origin of the creation story ought to be accepted and the traditional teaching of the Church must be set aside. He who maintains the new view does not do violence to Scripture, for he reads these chapters correctly, that is, he classifies them as a certain type of literature that does not convey history. On the other hand, he who reads these first chapters of Genesis as history does violence to Scripture for he makes Scripture teach what it does not intend to teach.

Has the Church read the first chapters of Genesis incorrectly for all these years? Yes, answers Kuitert, and the reason for this is that in orthodox circles the human factor in the writing of the creation and paradise stories is kept as small as possible. The human factor was always kept at arm’s length, for recognition of this factor meant a threat to the certainty of faith. Therefore, the Church always stressed the doctrines of inspiration and infallibility of Scripture as guarantees for the certainty of faith. But, says the professor of the Free University, if the certainty of faith has to rest in these doctrines, it rests on a theory; the certainty of faith is not based on theory, but is the result of trust in Christ revealed in the Gospels.

Why does professor Kuitert say that we must stop speaking about the infallibility of Scripture? Because the persons of Adam and Eve are not important; because we cannot speak of Paradise as an actual place; and because we cannot maintain that Adam and Eve could have lived forever. In short, because the first chapters of Genesis do not intend to teach us literal history we may not say that form and content are infallible and an exact description of what happened many thousands of years ago.

Professor Kuitert observes that the traditional order of creation, fall, and redemption have been taught in Reformed theology—as a historical sequence; however, this teaching is incorrect, for this pattern does not exist as an infallible historical account. We must unravel Genesis 1–3 from this traditional pattern and in the light of the new view of these chapters of Genesis use the creation story as a teaching model—a model that can be used in teaching the creation story to children. But, repeats Kuitert, the model itself has nothing to do with an historical sequence.

Of course, theologian Kuitert realizes that the new view of the creation and paradise stories raises a number of questions, particularly on the doctrine of sin. What is sin? Replies Kuitert: sin is a contrast, it is negative, it is regression. Sin is the reverse of what it should be. Sin is the power which holds all people in its grip. Redemption from sin is only fully revealed in Christ. Hence original sin is not a historical incident which happened in Paradise, and original sin is not an explanation for the coming of sin into this world. What then does original sin mean if it has no connection with the traditional sequence taught in Reformed theology? Original sin, according to professor Kuitert, is a confession of guilt. The sinner confesses first that original sin is a power which dominates all people, and second, he confesses that no one can redeem himself from sin.

The above is a skeleton report of the lecture given by Dr. Kuitert and presents a new approach to creation and evolution. The audience listened carefully to the words spoken by the professor of the Free University; when the time for discussion had come, the questions from the audience were keen and penetrating.

In the following article, I will take up the questions which were asked and the answers which Dr. Kuitert gave.

Dr. Simon Kistemaker is Professor of Bible at Dordt College, Sioux Center, Iowa.