Stepping back from the synodical story for a bit, we need to look at some of what was being written about Scripture in the CRC during the 1960s. It should be noted that these things were written by men who expressed loyalty to the Reformed confessions. But as we survey some of these viewpoints, we can easily understand why Louis Praamsma and the Fruitland CRC (and others of like mind) were becoming increasingly concerned.
Rudolf Bultmann was a German theologian who attempted to “demythologize” the New Testament. Bultmann worked with a distinction between what actually happened (history) and what we believe (faith). The historical reliability of the Bible was not only called into question, but considered to be relatively unimportant. In an article in the Reformed Journal in September 1963, Bastiaan Van Elderen (a professor at Calvin Seminary) expressed appreciation for Bultmann’s contribution to biblical hermeneutics.
John Timmer and William La Fleur were CRC missionaries in Japan. In a July/August 1966 article in the Reformed Journal, Timmer and La Fleur argued that the book of Isaiah should probably be regarded as having multiple authors and having been written either during or after the Exile in Babylon, a staple position of higher critics. They argued that holding to the old position (which also happens to be the position of the New Testament) is “consonant to a large degree with the modern and Western value placed upon individual creativity.” Again, I would draw your attention to the fact that these men expressed loyalty to the Three Forms of Unity. After all, there is nothing in the Three Forms that binds anyone to believe that Isaiah had only one author.
Academics also contributed to this latitudinarian drift. In the same issue of the Reformed Journal (July/August 1966), Peter Berkhout urged his readers to accept theistic evolution. With words that sound very familiar, Berkhout wrote, “Whether we like it or not, we will have to put the old wine, the truth of Scripture, into new skins. Our young people are clamoring for it….You cannot suppress truth forever.”
In 1968, the Association for the Advancement of Christian Scholarship invited Dr. Arnold De Graaff and Dr. Calvin Seerveld to give some lectures on “Understanding the Scriptures.” These lectures were later published in a booklet with that title. There are a great many troubling statements in this booklet, but let’s just take two. According to De Graaff, the Psalmist intended “to preach, and not first of all to relate historical events. Generalizing, we can say that we cannot deduce a history of Israel from the O.T., just as little as we can reconstruct the life of Jesus from the Gospels.” In other words, forget about history, and concentrate on the message. He went on to insist that the creation account in Genesis is not to be taken as literally true. He explained further,
This does not imply that Genesis is irrelevant for geology or biology, on the contrary, in a very special way the creation story serves as the religious basis and directive for the Christian biologist’s and geologist’s theorizing. It does mean that the references to God’s creating do not answer our scientific, biological or geological questions, just as little as the Bible answers the questions of the historian or the anthropologist. The Bible is just not that kind of a book. It is not a textbook for any science, not even theology! The Scriptures ‘only’ intend to recite God’s mighty acts in Jesus Christ through Whom he created and re-created his world. And this recital is inscripturated for our edification, in order that we might take it to heart and thus find eternal life. That is how the Scriptures want to be read.
It was these sorts of positions (and many more could be cited), both in North America and in the Netherlands, that led growing numbers of people in the CRC to be concerned about the direction of their church. Despite professed loyalty to the Reformed confessions, there was a discernible latitudinarian drift, especially among the neo-Calvinistic academic community. During the 1960s, this drift manifested itself in the acceptance of higher critical views of Scripture. By necessary implication, this was also a clear rejection of biblical inerrancy.