REFLECTIONS ON ASSEN AND LUNTEREN
In 1926 the Synod of the Gereformeerde Kerken in the Netherlands deposed a certain Dr. Geelkerken from office for denying that the two trees which God placed in the Garden of Eden were actual trees and that Satan actually talked with Eve through the serpent which spoke. He denied the literal, historical interpretation of Genesis 3. Last year the Gereformeerde Kerken reconsidered this decision and decided they had been wrong in condemning Geelkerken; that his interpretation of these chapters in Genesis was a permissible interpretation and did not constitute a denial of the authority of Scripture.
In the last article of the Reformed Journal Prof. Lewis Smedes comments on last year’s decision of the Gereformeerde Kerken taken at Lunteren and finds himself pleased with it.
He is pleased, first of all, because he finds in this decision an act of humility: the Church was willing to confess past error and concede that the Church on earth is a fallible institution.
He is also pleased that the Church was honest. It could have permitted the decisions of Assen to atrophy through disuse. It could have maintained these decisions which would have involved a thorough housecleaning of present professors and ministers who teach the same thing that Geelkerken taught. But it chose to be honest and retract the decision.
Now whether this was really honest or not depends entirely on one’s agreement or disagreement with the decision of Assen; and Smedes, by calling it honest, has already tipped his hand that he agrees that Assen was a mistake and that Geelkerken should have been permitted to teach his views. Certainly it was dishonest when the Gereformeerde Kerken which condemned Geelkerken should now tolerate men who believe as he did. If this is all that was involved, then honest indeed the decision was.
But supposing now that Assen was a correct decision. Then the action of the Church at Lunteren in retracting it was anything but honest. It was then simply a matter of expediency and a recognition of the fact that the Church no longer possessed the spiritual strength to cast out of her fellowship those who denied the truth. This strength she still had in 1926; she has lost it, to her shame.
But there is another point which Smedes makes in the article that is far more important. He insists correctly that the Church did not really approve of Geelkerken’s interpretation of Genesis 3 when it struck down Assen’s decision. The church only said that this was a matter of exegesis and not of faith. That because it was a matter of exegesis, and not of faith, it was a tolerable view within the Church whether it was right or wrong. “Nointerpretation of the words of Genesis chapter three should be accorded the status of an article of faith.”
It is on this basis that Smedes rather contemptuously condemns those who find a connection between the literal interpretation ofGenesis 1-3 and the resurrection of Christ. Rather off-handedly and without much proof he says that “the argument is bad on many counts;” and adds:
There is a notion abroad that we can somehow bolster faith in the risen Christ by demanding a literal interpretation of Genesis. It is in fact a very mistaken notion. Anyone whose faith in the resurrection rests on the necessity of a literal interpretation of Genesis is the better off the sooner he finds a better basis for his faith.
But is the matter indeed as Smedes presents it?
We ought to mention, first of all, that, while indeed a distinction must be made between exegesis and faith, it is not the kind of distinction Smedes implies. It is certainly true (and Smedes himself would be the first to agree) that the faith of the Church is derived from exegesis of Scripture. Geelkerken was not condemned for faulty exegesis. He was condemned for denying important points of the Christian faith. If it is true as Smedes insists that “no interpretation of the words of Genesis chapter three should be accorded the status of an article of faith” then certainly this is true of any interpretation of any text, including the interpretations of those texts which have to do with the resurrection of Christ. Inasmuch as the whole of the Christian faith is founded upon interpretation of Scripture, Smedes will have to concede (and might be ready to concede) that there is really no article of faith in the whole body of Christian belief which is not fair target for the heretics.
But there is also a question of the method of exegesis involved here—something which Smedes himself points out. And the method of exegesis, it must be granted, already presupposes a doctrine of Scripture. Proper exegesis can only be conducted on the basis of a prior commitment of faith in Scripture as the infallibly inspired Word of God. Proper exegesis is possible only when it is first of all accepted by faith that God reveals Himself on the pages of Holy Writ which pages contain infallibly inspired writings. Anyone who departs from this commitment has already ruined all possibility of proper exegesis and is no longer to be trusted as a responsible expositor of Scripture. And this is precisely what has happened when Genesis three is interpreted in another way than literally and historically. To deny the reality of the two trees and the reality of the speaking serpent reveals that the one who does this denies that Scripture is infallibly inspired. This is grounds for excommunication. Assen was right. Lunteren was wrong.
Smedes’ answer to this would be that many parts of Scripture are to be interpreted in a way other than literal and historical. He himself refers toRevelation 21 as an instance. We concede the argument, of course. But we deny that Genesis 3 is the same kind of writing as Revelation 21. The difference is quite plainly that the entire context ofRevelation 21 assures us beyond a shadow of doubt that this was a vision given to John which has to be interpreted as a vision. Even a child, it seems clear, would understand that when the apostle John, on the island of Patmos, received this description of a new heaven and a new earth, of a holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down from God out of heaven prepared as a bride adorned for her husband, that this was a vision granted the seer of Patmos. Is this the language of Genesis 3? Was Genesis 3 a vision given to Adam perhaps? Let Smedes prove this from the context. Every indication in the whole book of Genesis is that we have historical fact before us. Genesis 3 must also be included as historical fact. If there are those who think not, let them show where the context indicates this. Smedes concedes that this is the telling point: “The only question we should ask. . .is how the text and context requires (require?—H.H.) us to take it.”
Hence there is considerable plausibility in the argument which Smedes considers to be bad: “Toleration of error on this point seriously undermines the church’s ability to protect the faith at other more crucial points.” Supposing that Genesis three must be interpreted as a vision. This means, of course, that the fall is also not a historic reality, but a vision. What is to keep an exegete from interpreting any historical section in Genesis as a vision since Genesis three has the same kind of historical and literal “flavor” about it as Abraham’s offering of Isaac has? But one cannot then dodge the question of how Jesus could consider all these events as being historical. The only way out is to deny the divine nature of Christ. Here is the destruction of both the incarnation and the resurrection. And not only is this an abstract possibility; but history is replete with examples of this sort of thing happening all the time. And, as a result, history is strewn with the wreckage of churches who took this approach to Scripture.
Lunteren was not “a support for faith,” much less a “liberation of scholars,” but a concession to modernism and a serious threat to the existence of the Gereformeerde Kerken as a Reformed denomination.
ECUMENICAL NEWS ITEMS
Billy Graham continues in various ways to reveal that he is caught up in the ecumenical movement. He recently participated in a convocation of the Ecumenic Institute for Protestant, Catholic and Jewish clergymen at Belmont College in Belmont, North Carolina. This is a Roman Catholic institution which also, at the time of the convocation, conferred on Billy the honorary degree of Doctor of Humane Letters. Billy Graham was the chief speaker and in his acceptance speech spoke of the need for more understanding among Protestant and Roman Catholic theologians. This, he said, was possible because the Gospel which formed the basis of the College where he spoke was the same Gospel which he preached. This may very well be true.
Colgate Rochester Divinity School, affiliated with the Baptist Church, will join with Bexley Hall, a small Episcopal Seminary, in a new ecumenical endeavor. While the two seminaries will not merge, they will share their facilities, libraries and faculties. But this is only a first step towards the establishment of a proposed Rochester Center for Theological Studies which will probably include a nearby Roman Catholic Seminary and several other Seminaries in the area. This is but one instance of a nation-wide trend towards federation among seminaries of various denominations. If the churches are uniting, it seems but logical to merge seminaries as well.
Unity week is past. To most of our readers this may come as something of a surprise since few within our circles were even aware of the celebration of this event on Jan. 18 to Jan. 25. But to ecumenical leaders it was of utmost importance and eminently successful.
Several items stand out in importance.
Dr. Michael Ramsey, Archbishop of Canterbury in the Anglican Church appeared in London’s Roman Catholic Westminster Cathedral to dispense blessings in the glare of television floodlights.
In the Netherlands Dutch Roman Catholics and Protestants joined in many places in receiving the Eucharist in ecumenical Masses.
All the big cities in America witnessed a spate of pulpit-trading among clergy of different denominations. Rev. James Stuart of the Episcopal Church became the first Protestant to speak in Saint Patrick’s Cathedral. Catholics, Protestants and even a Salvation Army Band, joined in common prayer services in San Francisco. Even in the “Bible Belt” of the deep South a Roman priest confessed to Methodists and Baptists joined in worship with Roman Catholics. It is interesting to note that more and more emphasis in ecumenical activity is on the relation between Protestants and Roman Catholics.
A couple of news items concerning Southern Presbyterians are interesting especially in the light of the present merger talks between the Presbyterians and the Reformed Church of America.
It has long been evident that there are two groups within the Southern Presbyterian Church: one group which is liberal and favors union with the United Presbyterian Church and participation in the COCU talks; another group which is more conservative and is pressing for union with the Reformed Church of America. Recently, Dr. Marshall Dency, moderator of the Southern Presbyterians, called a conference between these liberal and conservative factions at which conference he urged both groups to disband in order to restore unity within the Church. The result was quite different. The lines between the liberal and conservative factions were more sharply drawn than ever, and it became plain that both could not agree on fundamental questions of doctrine and practice. The Southern Presbyterians will have to reckon with this deep division in their ranks as they pursue their ecumenical objectives.
Two congregations in the same denomination belonging to the Savannah, Georgia Presbytery have withdrawn from the denomination on the grounds that the denomination has substantially altered the historic stand of the Church. There was a question of property since the presbytery involved claimed the property and denied the congregation the right to it. The Georgia Supreme Court ruled unanimously that the two congregations were entitled to keep their property even though they withdrew from the denomination inasmuch as the court was of the opinion that the denomination had indeed altered the original tenets of faith and practice.
This decision was being hailed as having far-reaching implications for all congregations within the denomination and within other denominations who refuse to go along with the liberalism and ecumenism of their parent churches. It ought to give the ecumenists pause; for they were rather certain they could hold congregations by the threat of taking their property. It ought to encourage those who want no part of the liberalism rampant in the church today.