The Battle for the Bible: The Verhey Case

What is coming to be publicized as the most important religious news in our time is the struggle taking place within traditionally evangelical churches about the infallibility of the Bible. Dr. Harold Lindsell’s best-selling book, Battle for the Bible, did not provoke the struggle, as some critics have alleged; it called attention to it—and it became a best seller because it pointed out clearly what many people around the country were beginning to see was happening.

One of the developments within the Christian Reformed Church compelling the churches to give attention to this struggle has been the “Verhey Case.” Since it has had much publicity but little explanation, let us review it.

The Examination – A little over a year ago Dr. Allen Verhey, who had taught for three years at Calvin Seminary and then taken a teaching position at Hope College, asked to be ordained as a Christian Reformed minister. In the long examination before Classis Grand Rapids East he answered many of the questions very capably, but the convictions he revealed about the proper way to interpret the Bible disturbed many delegates as well as the synodical deputies.

Those convictions came out especially clearly when he said that he did not believe that the serpent spoke to Eve as reported in Genesis 3 and that he believed that the earthquake reported in Matthew 28:2 should be understood as an eschatalogical symbol and not necessarily as a fact. These opinions about two texts were not exceptions in an otherwise excellent examination, but they appeared rather as characteristic of his convictions about how the Bible should be studied and interpreted. The results of such a view of the Bible came out at other points, particularly in his stand on moral questions. He disagreed with the churches’ strong condemnation of abortion, stated that such Bible teachings as “servants obey your masters” no longer apply in our time and that the same principle applies to the proper status of women in the church. One cannot identify the words of Bible authors with the words of God in another time.

The Synod Decision – After the decision was made to approve Dr. Verhey’s ordination, that decision was appealed to a following classis meeting and then to last year’s Synod. That Synod, after more than a day of argument about the matter refused to rule whether the objections brought against his ordination because of his defective views of the Scriptures were valid or not and instead said that since he was already a minister any question about his loyalty to the church creeds must follow the procedures outlined in the Form of Subscription and Church Order. The Synod by a vote of 72 to 69 approved the work of its deputies in permitting his ordination.

Where does this place our churches in the current “battle for the Bible”? The Synod by its action permitted a minister to deny events the Bible says happened. It was in fact thereby permitting its ministers to deny the inerrancy of the Bible. The same Synod, inconsistently, in another case repeated the warning issued in 1972 “against the use of any method of biblical interpretation which excludes or calls into question either the event-character of the revelational meaning of biblical history, thus compromising the full authority of Scripture as the Word of God” (Acts 1976, p. 26; Acts 1972, p. 69). Where do our churches stand today, if they have a stand, in the “battle for the Bible”?

A number of churches and classes throughout the denomination have been troubled by this unsatisfactory state of affairs in which our churches seem to be officially wavering in their convictions about a matter as basic to their faith as loyalty to the Scriptures. At this point it is apparent that a number of appears are being made against last year‘s Synod decision. Last year’s decision reminded “the appellants that if they remain convinced that the position of Dr. Verhey brings him into conflict with the confessions they must follow the procedures outlined in the Form of Subscription and Church Order” (Acts, p. 95).

This suggested the need to give some further attention to the convictions expressed by Dr. Verhey on this matter. His denial of the Biblical events as recorded in Genesis 3:1–5 (and I Cor. 11:3) and Matthew 28:2 has already been mentioned.

The Articles on Divorce – In addition to these examples of his views let us notice what he has written about Jesus’ view of divorce.

The Gospel of Matthew informs us that Jesus said, I say unto you, that everyone that putteth away his wife, saving for the cause of fornication maketh her an adulteress (Matt. 5:32). I say unto you, whosoever shall put away his wife, except for fornication, and shall marry another, committeth adultery (Matt. 19:9).

In the May-June 1976 Reformed Journal Dr. Verhey denied that Jesus actually said this. It would be interesting historically to know precisely what position Jesus took. It is difficult, if not impossible, to identify the “very words” of Jesus behind the record of them in Paul and the gospels.

What we have, then, are not the “very words” of Jesus about divorce, but rather the accounts of them by Paul, Mark, Luke. and Matthew. The content of the original words of Jesus was very likely an absolute prohibition of divorce. . . . Now whatever difficulties surround the quest for the historical Jesus, he was at least convinced that the kingdom of God was breaking in or would soon break in. The command, then, is to be understood not as a moral rule but as an invitation or permission to share in the freedom Jesus gives to live marriage as God intended and intends (pp. 18, 19).

In the second installment of this article in the July-August issue Dr. Verhey concluded the discussion.

With this perspective on scripture and its use in moral reflection, it is possible, I think, to discern the voice of God amid the variety of voices. God does not give us specific legal requirements. But divorce is sometimes necessary “between the times” for the protection and honoring of marriage itself. . . .

The Thesis on the Use of Scripture – Further light is shed on Dr. Verhey‘s view and use of the Bible by a study of his doctoral thesis presented to Yale University in May 1975. This 315-page work is entitled, The Use of Scripture in Moral Discourse: A Case Study of Walter Rauschenbusch. It attempts to deal with the question of how the Bible is to be used in making moral decisions by making an extensive study of how Walter Rauschenbusch (who lived from 1861 to 1918 and was known as the father of the “social gospel”) used it. Then it makes a shorter comparison with the way Carl Henry, the well-known modern evangelical, uses it.

Throughout this study Dr. Verhey holds that, although the Bible is to be regarded as authoritative, we may not move from it to any present applications of what it says without the use of “warrants” for doing so. What sort of “warrants” are needed to justify applying what the Bible says to present moral questions? Among such “warrants” he mentions “the moral certainties whose source is other than scripture,” “the congeniality of certain warrants to the modern mind,” and “the relevance of judgments about historical method in general and about the life-relation of the interpreter with historical texts in general.” He says, “It is possible and important to recommend that also in its use of scripture ‘Christian ethics cannot get underway in any adequate and fundamental fashion unless it comes to terms with, and relates itself to, natural man‘s understanding of his own moral existence as man.’ Similarly, it is possible and important to recommend continuing discussion about the nature of modern science, both natural and historical science, its relation to religion, and its relevance to reading scripture” (pp. 219, 220). In this vein he recommends

. . . that Christian moralists and communities be self-consciously attentive to the other “authorities,” tradition, community, reason, and experience, that they be self-consciously attentive to their situation, that they not be satisfied with the attempt to repeat in each new cultural setting what the scriptures meant once. Even our reading of scripture (and our recommendations (or the use of scripture) must be constantly open to analysis, criticism, and reformation that might come from the community, tradition, new experience, and reason as well as scripture itself (p. 222).

Attack on Sola Scriptura – Holding this view, Dr. Verhey sharply criticizes even the common evangelical claim that Holy Scripture is the supreme and nnal authority in matters of faith and conduct, the “sola scriptura” as it has been called since the Reformation.

The slogan, sola scriptura, is methodologically deceptive. This conclusion too is demanded by our candid analysis of Rauschenbusch’s argument.

Whether the claim was an authorization for moving from scripture to claim or the judgments on the nature of scripture, the question appropriate to scripture, or the message of scripture, which are peculiarly relevant in warrant-establishing arguments, Rauschenbusch’s argument could be traced back to other kinds of “authorities” than scripture, including tradition, community, reason, and religious experience.

The formula sola scriptura is deceptive not only because, as we saw, there are sources for dam besides scripture in moral argument (which sow scriptura never intended to deny) but also because the argument for the very authorizations licensing the use of scripture can he traced back to other sources of data.

Sola scriptura is methodologically deceptive (p.221).

Later he again emphasizes this, his conclusion:

The analysis of Henry has even confirmed our conclusion that sola scriptura is methodologically deceptive. The arguments Henry uses to establish his warrants for the use of scripture can be pressed had to diverse kinds of data, including other “authorities,” particularly tradition and experience (p. 283).

The Supremacy of Man‘s Experience – In his discussion of these “warrants” needed to justify applying what the Bible says to present moral decisions, Dr. Verhey again and again assigns the unique and decisive role to man‘s own experience.

There is simply no way to get behind the experience of the authority of scripture. It has an important priority in discerning and establishing warrants for the use of scripture (p. 212).

This ability of an experience of the authority of scripture to propagate itself is evidence of its authenticity. For it is by it and it alone finally–that the question suggested as appropriate to scripture is established as a vital question. And it is by it and it alone—that the message recommended as what one understands when one understands the scripture is established as a vital message. That is, it is by the experience of the authority of scripture that scripture comes alive. That power to make alive is the vital priority of experience in the discernment and recommendation of authorizations for moving from scripture to moral claims (p. 214).

Dr. Verhey insists on drawing this conclusion from studying Carl Henry’s writings even where Henry would emphatically disagree:

Tn the morphology of each of the three warrant-establishing arguments the experience of the authority of scripture has a place of important prominence, even if Henry gives such appeals comparatively little space and even though he contends against subjective emphasis on the creative contribution of the knower to the epistemic situation (p.278).

He affirms this supremacy of man‘s experience again and again:

Among all the sources of data observed in the establishment of warrants for the movement in argument from scripture to moral claim, experience has a unique importance. The experience of the authority of scripture in the interpreter’s moral life establishes the limit of arguments where the claims are authorizations for moving from scripture to moral claims (p. 222, 223).

Doesn‘t this letting man‘s experience determine when and how the Bible is to be used become pure subjectivism? Dr. Verhey believes that it does not because the experience is an experience of the authority of the Bible:

The important priority belongs not to experience in and of itself, not to pure subjectivity, but to the experience of the authority of scripture (p. 224).

But to present the matter in this way is misleading. It overlooks the fact that what is to be decided is exactly what in Scripture and how the Scriptures are to be applied. When personal experience is given the decisive authority, at that point it is no longer God’s Word but man that is in control.

One may try to justify this making man’s experience the decisive test of how and when to use the Bible by calling this “the testimony of the Holy Spirit.” Using this orthodox-sounding expression does not change the fact that one is now putting man’s experience above the Bible in deciding what he must believe and do. Whenever anyone does that he no longer has any way to decide whose experience is right and who’s is wrong. The Bible warns:

Beloved, believe not every spirit, but prove the spirits, whether they are of God; because many false prophets are gone out into the world (I John 4:1).

We are told that we must test the spirits by the gospel. But such a test cannot be made when one, with Dr. Verhey, puts man’s experience above the gospel. Then everyone’s experience becomes equally decisive and there is no way to distinguish true from false and right from wrong in whatever anyone may claim the Spirit teaches.

Dr. Verhey would try to save liS from such complete relativism by suggesting that it must be the experience of the Christian community rather than that of each individual that will make the decisions. But this does not really help us because whole communities and churches have departed and are departing from the Scriptures and from the Christian faith. That this view does give men veto power over the Bible is further shown when the thesis says:

The inability or unwillingness to be consistent with a recommendation (for the use of scripture) counts against it.

The recommendations here are that the first-order recommendations which the Christian community is unable or unwilling to act on consistently be disestablished (p. 219).

This radical subjecting of the Bible and its use to man’s own experience is not only plainly stated in the author’s conclusions. It is already implicit in the whole thesis, which is a study of the career of Waite; Rauschenbusch (who, Dr. Verhey points out at great length, held very critical and liberal views of the Bible), in order to determine how the Bible is used and is to be used in moral decisions! What the Bible itself says about its proper use in making moral decisions (the point which our 1961 Synod said should decide the Christian‘s view of the Bible, Acts 1961, pp. 294, 78), gets no serious conSideration in this thesis. Where Carl Henry holds this same view that the Bible determines its proper use, Dr. Verhey dismisses it with the terse remark:

The appeals to scripture to establish the question appropriate to scripture and the nature of scripture were inevitably circular; final appeal had to be made to some other “authority” (p. 283).


1. The more closely and extensively one studies this material, the more evident it becomes that we are dealing with a view which is in sharp conflict with the teaching of the Bible itself. Although Dr. Verhey may declare his belief in an inspired Bible he “interprets” it in a way that contradicts its claims concerning itself. That Bible, claiming that it conveys to us “all things that pertain to life and godliness,” insist’s that no “prophecy of scripture is of private interpretation. For no prophecy ever came by the will of man; but men spake from God, being moved by the Holy Spirit.” Therefore it warns us against “false teachers who bring in destructive heresies” (II Pet. 1:3, 20, 21; 2:1). The word translated “heresy,” as Lenski (p. 309) observes, is derived from the verb meaning “to choose” and “means a view, an opinion, a doctrine that one chooses for oneself. . . .”

Claiming God‘s authority for itself as God‘s Word, the Scripture in other places too warns against self-chosen opinions that diverge from it. Compare Romans 16:17, 18; I Timothy 6:3, 4; II John 9–11. The Bible insists that its gospel message includes “the whole counsel of God” and everything “profitable” for us (Acts 20:27, 20) and that as “scripture inspired of God” it is “profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for instruction which is in righteousness: that the man of God may be complete, furnished completely unto every good work” (II Tim. 3:15, 16).

Tile Bible claims God’s authority not only for a few main teachings such as the resurrection, but for the whole of it including its details and words, for “every jot and tittle” of it, as our Lord said (Matt. 5:18). The apostle Paul claimed God’s inspiration and authority not only for the revelation but equally for the words with which he must convey it: “which things also we speak, not in words which man’s wisdom teacheth, but which the Spirit teacheth . . . .” (I Cor. 2:13).

The Lord reprimanded His disciples, “O foolish men, and slow of heart to believe in all that the prophets have spoken” (Luke 24:25). While the disciples were quite willing to believe that in the Bible which they could relate to their own experience, the trouble with them (as with the view of Dr. Verhey) was that they were not willing to believe that in the Bible which they could not fit into their experience. This putting man’s experience over God‘s Word is exactly what the serpent in paradise tempted Adam and Eve to do. It is the sin of Israel which the Lord through His prophet and in person condemned as rejecting the commandments of God to replace them with their own traditions and opinions (Mark 7:6–9). The Bible ends with a promise of blessing to the one who “keeps the words of the prophecy of this book” and a stern warning to anyone who adds to or takes anything away from “the words of this prophecy” (Rev. 22:7, 18, 19) that he thereby asks for its judgments and deprives himself of a share in its promises.

2. The position which Dr. Verhey has been advocating cannot possibly be brought into harmony with that which we confess in the creeds of our churches. One cannot deny what the Scriptures say in Genesis 3 and I Corinthians 11:3, in Matthew 28:2, and what Jesus said about divorce, and at the same time consistently confess that we “receive all” of the Scriptures as “canonical, for the regulation . . . of our faith; believing without any doubt all things contained in them” (Article V, Belgic Confession).

The claim of Dr. Verhey that we may not move from anything in Scripture to applying it to a present moral decision without the support of certain extra-biblical “warrants” or “authorities” cannot be harmonized with the Heidelberg Catechism’s direct application of the ten commandments as God’s authoritative guides for our conduct (see Questions 94, 95, 99, 103, 104, 105, 111, 112, 113).

Dr. Verhey’s repeated branding of the “sola scriptura” as “misleading” and insistence that other authorities, including especially man‘s own experience must decide whether or to what extent Scripture is to be used in determining our conduct contradicts Article VII of the Belgic Confession:


We believe that those Holy Scriptures fully contain the will of God, and that whatsoever man ought to believe unto salvation is sufficiently taught therein. For since the whole manner of worship which God requires of us is written in them at large, it is unlawful for anyone, though an apostle, to teach otherwise than we are now taught in the Holy Scriptures: nay, though it were angel from heaven, as the apostle Paul says. For since it is forbidden to add unto or take away anything from the Word of God, it does thereby evidently appear that the doctrine thereof is most perfect and complete in all respects.

Neither may we consider any writings of men, however holy these men may have been, of equal value with those divine Scriptures, nor ought we to consider custom, or the great multitude, or antiquity, or succession of times and persons, or councils, decrees or statutes, as of equal value with the truth of God, since the truth is above all; for all men are of themselves liars, and more vain than vanity itself. Therefore we reject with all our hearts whatsoever does not agree with this infallible rule. as the apostles taught us, saying, Prove the spirits whether they are of God. Likewise: If any one cometh unto you and bringeth not this teaching, receive him not into your house.

Notice in particular that the “warrants” or “authorities” which Dr. Verhey permits to decide whether anything in the Bible may be applied to our conduct include exactly the things whose authority we in this confession reject: “custom,”the great multitude,” “succession of times and persons,” etc.

3. The view we find here advocated conflicts with the decisions of our Synods regarding the Bible. It conflicts with the decision of 1961 that “the faith of the church is to be formed by the self-testimony of Scripture concerning its own infallibility” (Acts 1961, pp. 294, 78). It does exactly what the Synod of 1972 warned must not be done. It uses a “method of biblical interpretation which excludes or calls into question the event-character of biblical history, thus compromising the full authority of Scripture as the Word of God” (Acts 1972, p. 69).

This view, conflicting as it does with the Scriptures, creeds and decision of our churches’ synods, attacks the foundation of the churches’ faith in the Bible as the Word of God. Therefore we are convinced that it may not be tolerated in those churches. To permit it to be preached and taught is in principle to surrender our Christian faith at a time when it is under wide-ranging attack in the current “battle for the Bible.” Dr. Verhey, confronted by these objections, has not been able to answer them. The matter has now been brought to the consistory responsible for his credentials. Loyalty to the Scriptures as the Word of God and to our confessions of faith in them demands that our church assemblies deal firmly with it. Our churches are facing a test whether we are going to maintain the Biblical Christian faith or lose it, as many others have done. Let us pray for God‘s grace to maintain it.

Note: More could be said about the thesis. Reading it clears us some otherwise puzzling things in Dr. Verhey’s examination, his repeated remark, “That is the wrong question,” and his repeated reference to the resurrection as a kind of “canon” to decide what has to be maintained, for examples. Equally striking is the first of his own conclusions which deals with what is called “rhetorical and audience related uses of scripture.” By these he means using arguments you yourself do not believe valid but which you believe may carry weight with your hearers. He finds Rauschenbusch using them while Carl Henry (the evangelical) does not. Personally, he expresses approval of their use, reminding

. . . moralists and Christian communities of the possibility and need to make audience-relative arguments at certain times and in certain contexts where authorization for the use of scripture may be different or absent (p. 215).

While one may in argument try to show another the consequences of his own faulty position, maya Christian pretend to hold positions he considers invalid? Was not that procedure the “hypocrisy” the Lord often exposed as particularly obnoxious in the scribes and Pharisees?

Peter De Jong is pastor of the Christian Reformed Church of Dutton, Michigan.