“The Fall of Assen”

A review article of the book, “DE VAL VAN ASSEN,” by DR. J. SCHELHAAS H ZN., Uitgeverij Bolland, Vlaardingen, 1968, 92 pp., f 5.25.

Perhaps a fair number of our readers have never heard of Assen, let alone its fall, which is the title of this book under review.

Assen is a city of the Netherlands in which the synod of De Gereformeerde Kerken met in 1926 to deal with the question of how “the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, the serpent and its speaking, and the tree of life” (p. 8), of Genesis 2 and 3 were to be interpreted. A minister of De Gereformeerde Kerken, Dr. Geelkerken, alleged at that time that the historic actuality of the above-mentioned factors could be regarded as “disputable,” and that this viewpoint could be held by him (and others) without being in conflict with Articles 4 and 5 of the Belgic Confession. In a word, Dr. Geelkerken sought a freedom to hold to a view other than that of the literal in the interpretation of the opening chapters of Genesis. And while he never actually specified what another interpretation of the opening chapters might be (p. 12), he maintained that their interpretation revolved about the question of exegesis.

The synod of Assen, however, ruled that the matter of interpreting the opening chapters of Genesis was not a question of exegesis, but one of belief or unbelief of the only interpretation possible (p. 49), that of literal acceptance of facts as obviously set forth in a record which clearly purports to be an account of events which actually took place in history.

Assen’s ruling led to a disruption, with Dr. Geelkerken and others with him leaving De Gereformeerde Kerken. But as a ruling, it nevertheless held the day in that church for forty-one years—until being set aside as 00 longer binding by the synod of Amsterdam/Lunteren in 1967 (p. 64).

Some of the reasons given by the majority of the committee of synod, which had for several years dealt with this question and which advocated setting aside the ruling of Assen, as given in their report are:

1 ) While the more or less confirmed results of science can never of themselves be the basis for the acceptance or the rejection of a specific exegesis of a portion of Scripture, they may nevertheless lead to asking again whether a traditionally accepted exegesis is the only one or not (p. 15).

2) In exegeting Genesis 1–11, it is obvious from the results of natural science that the more than 500,000 years of human history and agrarian development must be taken into account. And if this be so, then it is self-evident that “the combination of this standpoint with the traditional exegesis of Genesis 1–11 creates difficulties” (p. 15).

The report of this committee which led to Assents “fall” was not, however, unanimous. There was one dissenting member of the committee, the author of this book under review, who expressed his dissent in a minority report. In writing to justify the position he took in this report, which was to “maintain the ruling of Assen and cause it to function in our Churches in its proper sense once more” (p. 91), Dr. Schelhaas gives the following telling arguments:

1) Are the supposed “assured results” of science indeed such? Are they not in fact nothing more than hypotheses? Moreover. are not some not only improbable but even untenable? ( i.e., evolution; the exact age of the earth; the processes by which age is determined, which may have been variable. though science must presuppose their regularity; the evidences of catastrophism, such as the biblical flood which science tends to minimize or ignore—pp.17–20).

2) Does the modern interpretation of Scripture, in seeking to stress the human element in the writing of Scripture, do justice to its own claim of inspiration? (cf. 11 Tim. 3:16, II Peter 1:21, etc., p. 35). Too often modem theologians, even in Reformed circles. present a viewpoint which makes the authors of Scripture “children of their own time,” which in effect is then made to mean that they incorporated into the Scriptures the “mistaken” and unscientific views of their time. Which, if true, puts one “in conflict with the infallibility and trustworthiness of Holy Scripture according to its own teaching and in agreement with the Reformed witness” (p. 21).

3) It is admitted that the New Testament plainly presupposes the historic reality of the first chapters of Genesis. The following places merit specific attention:

a ) Re: Adam as a historic person: Luke 3:38; Rom. 5:12 ff.; I Cor. 15:22, 45; Jude 14 (cf. also in the Old Testament, I Chron. 1:1, Job 31:33, Hos. 6:7).

b) Re: the temptation account: I Tim. 2:13–14; II Cor. 11 :3 (where the serpent is also specified).

c) Re: the creation of the woman: I Cor. 11:8.

d ) Re: the institution of marriage: Matt. 19:4–8; Eph. 5:31.

e) Elsewhere in the Old Testament, the Garden of Eden is referred to in Isaiah 51 :3; Ezek. 28:13; 31:9, 16, 18 (pp. 40 and 90).

Dr. Schelhaas’ book deserves close study by all who can read the Dutch language. Not because he argues for the maintenance of a traditional form of exegesis. After all, no tradition is necessarily sacrosanct. We must ever be open and ready to accept any further insights to such truth as the Author and Teacher of it may open our eyes to re: a greater understanding and appreciation of it. But has the synod of Amsterdam/Lunteren, in setting aside the ruling of Assen, given us an example of doing this? We sincerely wonder if its decision is not rather due to the acceptance of an alien principle of Scriptural interpretation which has heretofore been successfully resisted by Dc Gereformeerde Kerken, as was exhibited by the ruling of Assen. Assen sought the basis of its ruling in the analogia fidei (i.e., the agreement of Scripture with Scripture when compared for its interpretation and exegesis), and on this basis could come to no other conclusion than that the account of the opening chapters of Genesis must be interpreted from a historical and literal standpoint.

Amsterdam/Lunteren, however, while paying lip service to the principle of the analogia fidei, nevertheless makes allowance for the authority of another discipline than that of the Scriptures, namely, science, thus introducing into its system of interpreting the Scriptures the tension of two, sometimes mutually contradictory, views. And when once this alien principle, which is based upon the authority of man’s reason and “wisdom,” has been accepted as valid, the resolve of the tension thus produced inevitably leads to the detriment of Holy Scripture in its being progressively compromised until the “experts” have “resolved” everything by rationalistically explaining it away!

If the first step of an alternative explanation of the opening chapters of Genesis is to be, or figurative, or mythical (Amsterdam/Lunteren does not specify which alternative besides that of the historical-literal is to be followed -perhaps thus allowing for the freedom of all of these others?), what will the last step be? If the first Adam is not to be taken literally because science says such a view of him is unacceptable, then how can its assault upon the supernatural aspects of the Person and redemptive work of the second Adam be successfully withstood (or long).

We must agree with Dr. Schelhaas whcn he says, “Whoever wishes to make the biblical material agree with the hypothetical results of natural science, not only violates a traditional form of exegesis, but also a certain view of Scripture. And not only a certain view of Scripture, but rather the Holy Scripture itself as to its authority and content” (p. 46).

Would that De Gereformeerde Kerken might yet once more come to agree with this conclusion! The hour is late!

Rev. R.O. Zorn is pastor of the Reformed Church in Sydney, Australia.