The Verhey Case – Why Press It?

The case of Dr. Allen Verhey, which was before our Christian Reformed synods two and three years ago (and ought to have been settled then) again confronts the whole denomination as it is to reappear at our next synod. Why should this matter continue to trouble the churches? What makes it worth pursuing for more than three years? A summary (shorter than the April, 1977 OUTLOOK article) may interest our readers.

How It Started – the Examinations

In the Fall of 1975 when Dr. Allen Verhey was being examined by the classis with a view to being ordained as a Christian Reformed minister he repeatedly stated that he would teach people to read the Bible critically. Questioned further about this point, · he stated 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 eschatological symbol and not necessarily as a fact. The consistory of the Dutton church, convinced that these views were in conflict with the Bible and the creeds of the church, brought its objections to the decision to ordain him first to Classis Grand Rapids East and then to the synod of 1976. That synod after lengthy debate refused to rule whether the objections were valid or not on the ground that the man was already ordained. If we were convinced that these views were in conflict with the confessions we must bring charges against him as a minister, following the procedures outlined in the Form of Subscription and Church Order.

The Church Order Way

The Consistory, followed the synod’s instructions and confronted Dr. Verhey with its objections to his views. Discussion of the matter with him instead of removing the objections, confirmed them. Therefore the Dutton Consistory took the next prescribed step and brought its objections to the Neland Ave. Church Consistory who hold his ministerial credentials. The Neland Ave. Consistory, after a year had elapsed, judged that his method of interpreting the Bible to which objections had been raised was permissible. The Dutton Consistory thereupon appealed the matter to the classis. The classis, after extensive discussion accepted the recommendations of a majority of its study committee and sustained Neland Ave. Consistory’s defense of Dr. Verhey’s views. Now the Dutton Consistory, still convinced that his views are in serious conflict with the Bible and the Creeds, must take the next step of appealing the matter to the synod of 1979.

The Substance of the Case

Dr. Verhey says that he believes that the Bible is the authoritative and inspired Word of God (and his consistory and the classis, mainly on that ground, defend his views). The objections, however, are not to what he says he believes about the Bible, but to his use and defense of a way of interpreting it that permits him at will to deny what the Bible plainly says.

Although Genesis states repeatedly that the serpent spoke to Eve (Gen. 3:1-5, 13, 14) and the Apostle Paul in the New Testament (I Cor. 11:3) also says that the “serpent beguiled Eve,” Dr. Verhey says that he does not believe that the serpent spoke to Eve.

Although Matthew 28:2 says “And, behold, there was a great earthquake” he says that he does not believe that this actually occurred because Mark did not mention it. Such contradictions of what the Bible says also appeared in his writings in the Reformed Journal (May-June, July-August, 1976). Although Matthew states that Jesus regarding divorce spoke of one “putting away his wife, saving for the cause of fornication” (Matt. 5:32, cf. 19:9), Dr. Verhey denies that Jesus made any such exception, conjecturing that He said something else. The strict condemnation of divorce except on grounds of fornication (which Matthew attributes to Jesus and which our churches traditionally maintained), Dr. Verhey rejects as “perhaps” traceable to moral pride.

It is plain that this method of “interpreting” does not concern only one or two texts. It is not a minor inconsistency in an otherwise Reformed use of the Bible. Dr. Verhey uses and defends this way of contradicting and denying what the Bible says as a proper method of dealing with the whole of it. This treatment of the Bible comes to expression in his disagreement with the church’s stand on abortion, his view of the status of women in the church, and many other moral matters.

His doctoral thesis written for Yale University in 1975 on The Use of Scripture in Moral Discourse sheds further light on the way his views of the Bible affect his treatment of moral questions. Although there too he says that he believes the Bible to be authoritative, he insists that we may not apply anything it says to present day matters unless we have other “warrants” or “authorities” which justify doing that. Among such other necessary “warrants” or “authorities” he mentioned such things as “the moral certainties whose source is other than scripture,” “the congeniality of certain warrants to the modern mind,” “natural man’s understanding of his own moral existence,” “tradition,” community, and reason. Accordingly he also repeatedly objected to the common evangelical claim that the Holy Scripture is the supreme and final authority in matters of faith and conduct, which since the Reformation has been called “sola scriptura.”

Dr. Verhey insists that among the “warrants” needed to apply anything the Bible says to present matters one’s own “experience” is the most important and “decisive” one. “It has an important priority in discerning and establishing warrants for the use of scripture” (p. 212).

Conflict with the Bible, Creeds and Synod Decisions

1. The Bible’s pervasive teaching about its own authority as the inspired Word of God (2 Pet. 1:20, 21, 2 Tim. 3:15, 16), its warnings against tolerating self-chosen opinions (literally “heresies”) (2 Pet. 2:1) alongside of or diverging from this inspired teaching, and the insistence of our Lord and His Apostle that this Divine inspiration extended even to the words of scripture (Matt. 5:18, 1 Cor. 2:13) plainly forbid the method by which Dr. Verhey sets aside the Bible’s plain teachings and statements. 2. This method of interpreting and using the Bible is in conflict with the Confessions. One cannot deny what the scriptures say about the serpent in Genesis 3 and 1 Cor. 11:3 and about the earthquake in Matthew 28:2 and what Jesus said about divorce in Matthew 5 and 19 and still consistently confess to “believing without any doubt all things contained in them” (Art. 5 Belgic Confession).

Insistence that we may not apply anything in the Bible to current situations without the “warrant” of extra-biblical authorities, especially of our own experience cannot be harmonized with the way the Heidelberg Catechism applies God’s law as directly valid for us in questions and answers 94, 96, 99, 103, 104, 105, 111, 112 and 113. His denial of the sole and sufficient authority of Holy Scripture (“sola scriptura”) contradicts Article VII of the Belgic Confession on “The Sufficiency of the Holy Scriptures to be the Only Rule of Faith,” particularly its statement “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.”

The denial that the earthquake reported by Matthew actually occurred 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, Art. 52,3e, decision on Report 44).

Because these views are in conflict with Scripture, our Confessions and Form of Subscription, and the decision of our Synod, and because the use of this method is destructive of our Christian faith and life, the Dutton consistory felt that it must appeal to the Synod to declare that this method of interpreting and using the Bible is not to be tolerated in the Christian Reformed Churches and to take whatever measures may be needed to prevent its being preached and taught by Dr. Verhey as a minister in our churches. Because recent practice has excluded such matters, as this from the printed Agenda even when they are part of the synod’s proper business and prevents even most synod delegates from receiving such material, the consistory decided also to notify all of our other churches of its action in this case. In this important “test case,” are our churches going to maintain the requirement that all holding office must be obedient to the Scriptures and faithful to the Confessions or are they going to officially abandon this principle? This is an issue that may no longer be evaded.