The GKN on the Nature of the Authority of Scripture (1)

In November of 1980 the Gereformeerde Kerken van Nederland (the Reformed Churches of the Netherlands, hereafter referred to as the GKN) at their General Synod reached what is, in my opinion, the most significant decision of all the synodical decisions taken during the entire downgrade trend of the GKN in the last twenty or twenty-five years. Before the Synod was an 84-page report from its Commission on Church and Theology on “The Nature of the Authority of Scripture.” This report had been some six or seven years in the making; actually its occasion lies even farther back in history, for we must remember that the Kuitert case (at the bottom of which lay the question of Scripture) is already some ten years old. 

The General Synod considered this long report for a morning and an afternoon and then decided by aunanimous vote that it is “a clear and confessionally responsible explanation of the manner in which Scripture wants to be understood in order to be able to hear what the God of the Word has to say to us.” (quoted from Kerkinformatie by Waarheid en Eenheid; translation mine) A version of the report will be distributed in the churches during the first part of 1981. The official report has already been distributed to the secular and the religious press, and in some quarters (Waarheid en Eenheid, Evangelische Omroep, and De Reformatie especially) is undergoing considerable criticism. It is claimed that the publicly distributed report will undergo no change in content. However, there has been a considerable hue-and-cry raised about the fact that in some quarters the content and claims of the report/decision are already being publicized and subjected to sharp criticism. I cannot understand this, unless there was some plan afoot to try to make the publicly distributed report more palatable (and deceptive?) to the general membership of the GKN, a plan now stymied to an extent by the fact that some have divulged and criticized the contents of the report/decision allegedly prematurely. After all, asWaarheid en Eenheid correctly pointed out in a recent issue, the report was publicly treated by the General Synod; besides, it is this report that constitutes the official decision of the Synod, not the later, edited report; and it is this report/decision which belongs to the churches and church membership, so that it is their right to know it and to criticize it; and besides, this report was made public to the press. What is secret about it? Why should the public not be made acquainted with it? Why can it not be criticized? 

Partly, undoubtedly, to stymy this criticism, and partly to foil the plan to publish another version, and partly to show that its own criticism of the report/decision is entirely accurate and justified, Waarheid en Eenheid(the paper of the “concerned” in the GKN) recently published a special issue in which it reproduced the entire 84-page report. I am glad about this, For it shows that Waarheid en Eenheid is not about to be intimidated by any powers that be in the Netherlands, as well as demonstrating that Waarheid en Eenheidwas none too severe in its criticism. 

But I am also glad because this made the official report available to the Standard Bearer, which receives Waarheid en Eenheid regularly by air mail. Now we do not have to wait for the coming English version of the report; nor are we dependent on secondhand information to learn about the report. 

The report/decision itself is appalling! I already began to have suspicions of this when I read a brief but rather vague and colorless report about Synod’s decision inRES News Exchange of December, 1980. My suspicions grew when I began to read criticisms inWaarheid en Eenheid. But when I finally had the opportunity to read the full report, I was simply appalled. This decision of the GKN is, in my opinion, nothing less than a complete denial of the Reformed, not to say Christian, doctrine of Holy Scripture. I do not hesitate to say that while it purports to set forth the nature of the authority of Scripture, it actually denies and cancels out that authority, so that anyone can make Scripture say what he wants it to say and make it teach any doctrine which he wants it to teach. 

There has been considerable concern expressed from time to time about trends in the GKN and about some of its failures to exercise doctrinal discipline and discipline of the promoters of heresy when confronted by clear instances of heresy. And this concern, as we have made plain from time to time in these columns, was completely justified. There has been concern expressed, too, about decisions in the GKN with respect to life and practice. Just recently there has been the decision of the GKN concerning homosexuals in the church. At last summer’s Reformed Ecumenical Synod in Nimes, France, that decision was discussed in connection with continued membership of the GKN in the RES. It was claimed by some that the decision did not mean that practicing homosexuals could have a place in the GKN and at their communion table. But last November the General Synod made it plain that these defenders of the GKN’s decision were wrong: the decision does indeed mean that the GKN are open to practicing homosexuals. Also this concern about the GKN’s attitude toward practical matters of life is completely justified. 

But this decision about the authority of Scripture is in another category, you see. When you talk about Scripture and its authority, you are talking about that which is basic to, that which constitutes the foundationof all other doctrines and teachings about life and practice in the church. Scripture is the foundation of the confessions themselves, as well as of all the preaching and teaching and discipline of the church. And now it is true, of course, that in the recent past there have been many incidents cited in the Dutch press of professors and ministers who in one way or another denied the inspiration and authority of Holy Scripture. Names such as Kuitert, Baarda, Koole, and Boelens come to mind. Yes, and also the name of Dr. G. C. Berkouwer in his two volumes on Holy Scripture. It is also true that the General Synod, though often asked to do so, has failed to exercise doctrinal discipline. But the horrifying aspect of this recent decision on the Authority of Scripture is that it has now become the official position of the GKN. In effect, this means total doctrinal freedom has become the official position of the GKN. You can no longer appeal to Scripture for a basis of protest against any false doctrine. You can no longer appeal to Scripture for a basis in upholding the teachings of the confessions. All is lost! 

I assure you that this is not exaggeration on my part. In coming articles I will make this abundantly plain. 

All of this has far-reaching implications. 

In the first place, it has implications for the members of the GKN. Anyone even slightly acquainted with the situation in the Northlands—and I make no pretentions of more than a slight acquaintance by means of the various Dutch papers I receive—knows that there has long been a group of “concerned” (verontrusten) in the GKN who have been the chief and most outspoken critics of the liberalism in the churches. From time to time, some of them have left the GKN for other denominations; they were unable to endure the conditions in the GKN any longer. Not a few have found their way eventually into the Liberated Churches. Others have followed the course of establishing “noodgemeenten,” or emergency congregations,within the denomination—a rather lawless course of action, in my opinion, although thus far the several congregations of this kind have not been officially attacked by the GKN’s General Synod. Still others have simply stayed wherever they were, tolerating and grieving and complaining over the corruption in the churches, especially if they belonged to a congregation with a rather conservative minister and consistory. Significantly, there has been a great reluctance—no, resistance is a better word—with respect to the idea of reformation-by-separation. This would, if my count is correct, result in the formation of an eleventh Reformed denomination in the Netherlands. Now I can understand and even have sympathy for this reluctance to separate, in the light of past history in the Netherlands. Besides, I have some doubts from time to time about the doctrinal strength even of the so-called concerned. For it often appears to me that the situation has deteriorated in the Netherlands so far that the issue is no longer one of Reformed-or-not-Reformed but one of fundamentalism vs. liberalism. But what now? If the foundations be destroyed, what will the righteous do? Personally, I cannot see how a Bible-believing Christian can in good conscience remain a member in the GKN, which has now become officially a Bible-denying denomination. Does it not now become duty to separate? 

A second implication of this decision is the question with which it confronts those churches throughout the world, including the Christian Reformed denomination in this country, who have official ecclesiastical fellowship with the GKN. There have long been those in various Reformed denominations who had grave doubts as to the advisability and ecclesiastical honesty of such fellowship. As mentioned above, the GKN decision on homosexualism has created even greater doubts in some circles. But what now? Can ecclesiastical fellowship with an officially Bible-denying denomination be maintained? Can it be justified? Will the denominations concerned have the courage to break off relationships? In the Christian Reformed Church in the past there was much concern about the denomination’s decisions concerning the nature of Scripture-authority. There were, and perhaps still are, those with grave objections against Report 36/44. But I assure you that Report 36/44 is child’s play in comparison with the GKN’s decision. There is nothing veiled-about the decision, nothing compromising. What will be done? 

The same, in the third place, holds for the RES. Again in the past year the perennial question of GKN membership in the RES was considered and, as usual, postponed. What will happen as a result of the latest decision of the GKN? Will the RES at last have the courage of its convictions when the issue comes up again? Or will it continue to evade and postpone? 

These are some of the implications of the GKN decision. Because of the importance of the decision, we plan to give considerable attention to this subject, beginning with our next regular issue (the March 1 issue will be a special Missions number).