Dr. H. Wiersinga Cleared by Amsterdam Consistory
Previously we have reported to you concerning the case of a Dr. H. Wiersinga, who denied the truth of substitutionary atonement in a doctoral dissertation for which he received a degree from the Free University of Amsterdam. In October, 1971 the Synod of the Gereformeerde Kerken published a decision in which they attempted to quiet the fears which have arisen in connection with this flagrant denial of the atonement by apparently reaffirming the teachings of our confessions on this subject and by stating that Dr. Wiersinga’s views required careful study before a synodical pronouncement could be made. Thus far we have seen no report concerning the action of Synod in regard to the several protests registered against Wiersinga’s views. As we have suggested earlier, it should not take a Reformed synod—or any assembly, for that matter—much time to deal with such a literal and flagrant denial of the central doctrine of the atonement as this is. This would seem to be a simple case, so simple, in fact, that if the Synod cannot take a clear-cut stand in condemnation of Wiersinga, matters have become altogether hopeless in the Gereformeerde Kereken.
But by this time we have learned not to expect clear-cut decisions from the Gereformeerde Kerken, except for the fact that in clear-cut fashion they open the door wide for doctrinal liberty.
Perhaps we have a sample of the kind of decision the General Synod will take in the decision already taken by the Consistory of Amsterdam, under whose jurisdiction Dr. Wiersinga, a student pastor, resides. A report of the consistorial decision appears in Friesch Dagblad, January 20, 1972. In brief, the Consistory of Amsterdam expressed that Dr. Wiersinga is not guilty of unfaithfulness, but that he wants to subject the confessions to the test of Holy Scripture. In a brief introductory paragraph of a long article, Friesch Dagblad gives the substance of the consistorial decision, as follows (in translation):
The consistory of the Gereformeerde Kerk of Amsterdam (central) has expressed “That the view of the doctrine of atonement set forth in his dissertation by Dr. H. Wiersinga deserves to be taken up as a theological-scientific contribution to the discussion about the atonement, in which he exerts himself to do full justice to all the Scriptural givens. That thereby he comes in conflict with certain expressions which are established in the confessions may, in the present stage of consideration, consequently not be blamed on him as unfaithfulness to the confessions, but deserves to be noted as a legitimate testing of the confession of the church by Holy Scripture. The merits of this testing deserve to be more closely investigated on the scientific level.”
The article then goes on to explain, first of all, that Dr. Wiersinga had asked his consistory whether “within our churches there must be room for the study of his discussion without his faithfulness to the confession of the church being made an issue.” The Consistory of Amsterdam referred this question to a committee and, following the advice of this committee, answered the question of Dr. Wiersinga affirmatively. According to the report, the Consistory assumed, too, “that Dr. Wiersinga would, within the room requested by him, exercise the pastorally required reserve and self-control.” The report goes on to state that the Consistory also decided to alert the congregation to continue to give its trust to Dr. Wiersinga and to conduct the discussion about the very central doctrine of atonement prayerfully.
As we reported earlier, various representatives of the “Verontrusten” had filed a formal protest against Wiersinga’s views with the Consistory of Amsterdam. They had requested the Consistory of Amsterdam to take disciplinary measures. To these protestants the Consistory answered that while they could understand their feelings of alarm, nevertheless in the present stage they saw no reason to proceed with disciplinary measures.
Finally, the Consistory also decided to ask the general synod “to stimulate a closer investigation of the doctrine of atonement on a scientific-theological level,” and only after a rather complete scientific consideration to weigh the consequences involved.
According to this same report of Friesch Dagblad, the Consistory of Amsterdam took several factors into consideration in reaching this decision. Rather than translate all of this material literally, we will rather freely give the gist of these points, as follows:
1. The freedom to test the confession of the church by Holy Scripture as the only rule of faith must especially be guaranteed when it concerns the central points of doctrine (Cf. Art. 7 of the Belgic Confession). [The particular part of Article 7, which speaks of “the sufficiency of the Holy Scriptures to be the only rule of faith,” to which the Consistory refers is not mentioned. But I would guess that the reference is especially to the following: “Neither do we consider of equal value any writing of men, however holy these men may have been, 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, for 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 doth not agree with this infallible rule, which the apostles have taught us, saying, Try the spirits whether they are of God. Likewise, if there come any unto you, and bring not this doctrine, receive him not into your house.” Imagine! Justifying and protecting a vicious denial of and attack upon this most central truth of the gospel in our confessions in the name of the confessions themselves! What hypocrisy!]
2. For this testing it is essential that there be room for scientific-theological study and discussion proceeding out of the unity of faith with the confession of the fathers.
3. Especially with respect to the doctrine of atonement, it must continually be kept in view that not only theological discussion, but also the speech of the confessions, and even the testimony of Scripture in human words, figures, and presentations brings us into contact with a dealing of God unto our salvation in which man is indeed extremely concerned, but which bears the character of a divine mystery which by man can be only proximately investigated and worshipfully experienced (Cf. Rom. 11:33, ff; I Cor. 2:9; I Tim. 3:16).
4. a. In view of his connection with and the particular character of the Gereformeerde Kerken in the Netherlands, it may be expected of Dr. Wiersinga that in his official actions and speech he will take into consideration the reserve which is proper with respect to views which are still in the sphere of theological-scientific research.
b. Because of this same bond of unity it may be asked of the churches that they do not equate faithfulness to Holy Scripture and faithfulness to the confession and that they will evince understanding of the provisional character of scientific expressions, also when these expressions are brought in public.
5. Only when the scientific study of the views of Dr. Wiersinga has reached a certain rounding off will it be possible to weigh the consequences which the results of this research will have for the confession of the church, her preaching, and her catechizing. This weighing ought to take place in ecclesiastical assemblies. Finally, according to this report, the consistory expressed its joy at the declaration of Dr. Wiersinga that he agreed fully with the content of the synodical pronouncement of October 7, 1971 with respect to the atonement.
Thus far the report of Friesch Dagblad on this matter.
We may notice, in the first place, that the subterfuge by which Wiersinga’s heresy is defended and protected ecclesiastically is the calling of the church to test the confessions by the test of Holy Scripture. But, you ask, is this not correct? Is it not true that we may not put our confessions on a level with Scripture, but must test them by Scripture? The answer to this question is, in the first place, that it is indeed true that Scripture is our only infallible rule of faith and that our confessions are subordinate standards. This does not mean, however, that we live in the church with continual question marks behind our confessions. On the contrary, we subscribe to our confessions as being the expression of the truth of Scripture. And we maintain that subscription until the opposite appears, i.e., until it has been made plain, and that too, ecclesiastically, that Scripture teaches differently. And, in the second place, the method for every member of the church—and especially for officebearers—is the method of gravamen, not the method of publicly proposing contrary views. This is plainly set forth by the Formula of Subscription, by which Dr. Wiersinga was also bound at the time when his doctoral thesis was published. By now, of course, the Dutch churches have set aside the Formula of Subscription and have decided to substitute a meaningless vow which will officially allow full doctrinal liberty.
We recall that this subterfuge is the same as that of the Arminians at the time of the Synod of Dordrecht. And is it not ironic that this should happen at the very time when the present general synod of theGereformeerde Kerken is also called the Synod of Dordrecht? And is it not ironic, too, that this pronouncement should come from the Consistory of Amsterdam, the very city where Arminius was a pastor and where he met his first opposition from Plancius, his fellow pastor? The Arminians, too, denied the vicarious satisfaction of Christ. And the Arminians, too, did not want to be tried by the Synod of Dordrecht as heretics, but wanted to test and revise the confessions—so they alleged—by Holy Scripture.
How is the gold become dim!
In the second place, the ground for this decision to shield Wiersinga’s heresy is that of academic freedom, specifically the freedom to practice the science of theology. Again, this sounds good. We must certainly have academic freedom. How otherwise can the dogmatician practice his science? How can he theologize? How can there ever be any development and enrichment of the truth? What is forgotten, however, is the fact, first of all, that there is a vast difference between liberty and license. The theologian may and must exercise the science of theology, by all means. But he may and must do so as a member of the church with which he is united, and therefore within the limits of the creeds to which he has voluntarily subscribed as being the true expression of Scripture in all points of doctrine, and therefore, too, in harmony with the provisions—in case of disagreement—of the Formula of Subscription. When the libertarian becomes a libertine, and when liberty is subverted into licentiousness, then true academic freedom has been destroyed!
But it has long been the slogan in the Dutch churches that there must be academic freedom, that there must be the proper climate for the development of theology. It is under this same banner that all the representatives of the new theology are shielded. The Free University—but not it only—has been a hotbed of this kind of theological ferment and revolution. Meanwhile, heresy is allowed to gnaw like cancer at the very vitals of the church and of the faith.
Nor should we have any illusions about the provisional character of views such as those of Wiersinga. Just how provisional, I ask, are views which have been so carefully studied and so well set forth and documented that in the judgment of the “experts”—the theological faculty of the Free University—they merit the degree of Doctor of Theology? Nor should we have illusions about the “pastorally required reserve” of these heretics. For one thing, can you imagine that if Dr. Wiersinga is convinced of the truth of his position, he is going to keep silence about it? This is morally impossible, and in the nature of the case improbable. And remember: Dr. Wiersinga is a pastor for students—the most impressionable as well as the most inclined to be radical and revolutionary! And secondly, I have seen no evidence in others of this reserve. On the contrary, the Netherlands has been swamped by the propaganda of men like Kuitert, Augustijn, Baarda, and others, in speech and in writing. They always propagandize the churches long enough that finally their positions are adopted and become the official positions of the churches. And the churches have tolerated this propaganda. In fact, when anyone tries to cry, “Stop!” there arise from the theologians cries of a simulated holy horror about spoiling the climate for theological discussion and debate.
In the third place, the decision of the Consistory of Amsterdam is quite in line with the kind of decisionsthe Synod has been making in the cases of Kuitert, Baarda, and others. Either the members of the committee in this case had learned their lesson well or they received advice from the Amsterdam theologians. Or possibly some of these influential theologians are in the consistory of Amsterdam. I know not. But the decision is so smoothly and piously worded and so much in the spirit of the preliminary synodical pronouncement of October that I could well imagine that the Synod could almost take over the consistorial decision verbatim. Time will tell.
Meanwhile, we repeat what we stated in an earlier editorial: this doctrine of the atonement is so important, and its denial is so serious, that if Wiersinga’s heresy is approved, or even tolerated, it must be said without reservation that theGereformeerde Kerken are become the manifestation of the false church. Think of what Scripture says of those who “crucify to themselves the Son of God afresh, and put him to an open shame” (Heb. 6:6), and of those who have “trodden under foot the Son of God, and (have) counted the blood of the covenant… an unholy thing” (Heb. 10:29), and of those who deny the Lord that bought them (II Peter 2:1, ff.).