The Case That Went Nowhere: Willis De Boer in the CRC

28 February 2013 by Wes Bredenhof

Dr. Willis De Boer
Dr. Willis De Boer

Dr. Willis De Boer

Dr. Willis De Boer was a professor of religion and theology at Calvin College from 1962-1988.  He was also a minister in the Christian Reformed Church; retired now since 1988.  Nearly a decade into his time at Calvin, questions began to arise in the CRC over De Boer’s views on Genesis 1-11.  These questions came particularly from the Central Avenue CRC in Holland, Michigan.  Rev. Thomas Vanden Heuvel and the rest of the Central Avenue consistory were concerned that Dr. De Boer was fudging on the historicity of the first chapters of the Bible.

In 1970, the Central Avenue consistory began correspondence with Dr. De Boer about their concerns.  On July 30, 1970 they sent a letter to De Boer with a series of questions.  They submitted them to the professor with the hope that he would answer them in writing and then visit with the consistory to discuss the answers given.

Dr. De Boer sent a response on September 18, 1970 and then a meeting was held on September 21.  Some of the questions and answers are worth sharing.  In the answers, one must pay special attention not only to what is said, but also to what is left unsaid or unanswered.

Central Avenue CRC:  2.  Was the first man created as a unique man from the dust of the earth and not from a primordial being?

Dr. De Boer:  Scripture uses the phrase ‘dust of the earth.’  The question is what does it mean to say by this phrase.  Is it scientifically and literally describing the material God used in His forming of man and the condition of that material before God went to work on it?  Isn’t the truth here being conveyed not some clue as to the form of the stuff from which man was made, but rather the fact that man shares with the rest of creation the same basic stuff?  Notice that even as a living man he is still dust (Genesis 3:19).

Central Avenue CRC:  3.  Was the first man the Adam of Genesis?

Dr. De Boer:  Yes.

Central Avenue CRC:  5.  In the account of the fall, we read the Satan came to Eve in the form of a serpent.  Does this mean a literal serpent?

Dr. De Boer:  Technically, I don’t read about Satan in the account of the fall.  All I read about is the most subtle of all beasts.  Here it seems that it is helpful to note how ancient near-eastern literature was repeatedly using the serpent symbol to personify the forces of evil.  In Genesis 3 we once again have a picture most exquisitely drawn.  It is a picture of a fact — man’s fall.  But I do not think we must press for a literal serpent speaking human language.  Rather I would propose the serpent can recognized by all of us who have had strange, sinister, shocking thoughts arising within us from nowhere — thoughts that have a pull to them; we toy with them, tease ourselves with them, and sometimes even make rash quick actions on the basis of them.  It strikes me that puzzling over the literalness of the snake is not a helpful way to placing oneself open to the powerful word of God at work in this account.  It’s an eye-opener on what man is — and on what I am.  It’s a painting of a fall that once happened and affected us all.  But it also keeps happening over again in each one of us.

Central Avenue CRC:  14.  How do you interpret Paul’s usage of Adam and Eve in 1 Timothy 2:13,14, ‘For Adam was formed first, then Eve, and Adam was not deceived, but the woman being deceived was in the transgression.’  Did Paul consider Adam and Eve to be historical in every sense of that term?

Dr. De Boer:  I find it hard to understand just how Paul is using Scripture here and how his use of this Scripture really makes the point that women ought to be in subjection to men and not speak in public gatherings.  I suspect Paul is here making use of some rabbinic exegetical method in which he was trained in his earlier life.  I confess I don’t understand the passage very well.  Paul views Adam and Eve as the first man and the first woman.  He appears to view the details of the temptation story as giving some kind of information on basic relationships between men and women.  I do not detect that Paul was aware of the modern observations regarding the nature of this early Genesis material, or that he gives us much help on this score.  He is using Genesis material in a way that was acceptable and effective in making his point in the Jewish community of his day.

Central Avenue CRC:  What is the relationship between general and special revelation?

Dr. De Boer:  These two revelations are basically one revelation, for they both reveal the same God.  Hence ultimately they must agree.  Where they don’t appear to us to agree, we must be misreading either or both of them.

In this and other correspondence, Dr. De Boer insisted that he accepted the Bible as the inspired Word of God.  But answers like the above didn’t exactly inspire confidence with the Central Avenue consistory.  Dr. De Boer had evaded the second question about Adam having ancestors.  Despite Scripture’s clear teaching elsewhere about the serpent in Genesis 3 (Rev. 20:2, 2 Cor. 11:3), and despite the assertions of the Reformed confessions (BC 14, CD 3/4.1, HC QA 9), De Boer did not want to insist on a literal snake.  It turned out that De Boer believed Paul was lacking important “modern observations” about Genesis when he made his statements in 1 Timothy 2.  Here De Boer betrayed his imbalanced view of Scripture — he affirms it as the Word of God, but in practice the human aspect dominates.  In the last question, he was given an opportunity to affirm that special revelation is the means by which we properly understand general revelation, but instead he put them on the same level.

The concerns of the Central Avenue consistory were not allayed.  They continued correspondence with Dr. De Boer and became more concerned about his views.  In the meeting following the letter, for instance, he acknowledged that his views opened the way to a denial of the virgin birth.  Central Avenue submitted an appeal to CRC Synod 1972 to investigate Dr. De Boer.  The material in the appeal was withheld from the full body of the Synod, despite the request of the Central Avenue CRC to the contrary.   Instead, an advisory committee looked at the matter and made a recommendation to the Synod to clear Dr. De Boer of the charges since he “indicates his belief in the trustworthiness of Scripture” and the Central Avenue CRC had failed to show that he was in conflict with the confessions.  This recommendation was adopted merely on the say-so of the advisory committee.

In 1975 an attempt was made to reopen the matter.  Baldwin Street CRC of Jenison, Michigan submitted an overture to CRC Synod 1975 to have another look at the case.  They argued that the full body of the Synod should have the opportunity to hear both sides of the matter.  The case had never really been heard.  The decision of 1972 was made blindly.  However, Synod 1975 denied this overture as well.  Dr. Willis De Boer went on to complete his teaching career at Calvin College.  This episode was another nail in the coffin of orthodoxy in the CRC.