A Look at Books

Herman Ridderbos: PAULUS; ONTWERP VAN ZIJN THEOLOGIE, 653 p. Kampen: J. H. Kok, price f.39.50.

Not too frequently does the Reformed community experience the thrill of receiving from one of its spiritual mentors a book which holds within its pages the promise of a large degree of permanent worth. Too many of our books arc penned for the purpose of meeting immediate and pressing needs. Such we need; but without volumes filled with more solid and substantial learning we would remain impoverished indeed. A book of this second sort, dealing with the theology of Paul as this comes to expression in the epistles which the Bible ascribes to him, comes from the pen of Professor Herman Ridderbos, highly respected and unusually competent New Testament scholar. In the past many have profited from his De Komst van het Koninkrijk (1950) and Paulus en Jezus (1952). The discerning reader will Quickly recognize the close relationship which the present volume on Paul sustains to those volumes and other writings of the author.

Professor Ridderbos here presents the theological world with a work which second to none deals in depth with the message which Paul was commissioned to bring to the nations in his day. The choice of the subject alerts the reader to the fact that this is no small undertaking. Of all the New Testament writers none looms so large or has left so strong a mark on Christian thought through the centuries as this missionary-preacher-pastor. In any discussion of the facts and meaning of the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ the words of Paul must necessarily come under consideration. Here within the compass of one volume the wide range of that apostle’s message is analyzed and systematized and clarified with unusual insight, amazing erudition and balanced argumentation. What was already apparent in the professor’s earlier works now bears an even richer and riper fruit. No book within the past few years has so charmed and challenged the reviewer as this one. Each time he turns to it, new treasures are uncovered for him. It is not a book that can be finished within a week, within a month, not even within a year.

To review within the space of a few columns such a scintillating and stimulating volume is impossible without doing it gross injustice. Like some large piece of embroidery it charms both by its comprehensive and commanding sweep and by its meticulously executed detail. Hardly a question which has been raised by scholars concerning Paul’s message escapes the writer’s attention.

The first chapter constitutes a instructive survey of approaches to Paul and his message taken throughout the ages. Particular attention is paid to the many divergent interpretations which have won adherents for a time during the past century and a half. And it is against this background that Dr. Ridderbos states his approach. He urges that the historical survey indicates how easy it is to hinder and to narrow one’s understanding of Paul’s presentation of the gospel by selecting one or more facets and absolutizing these at the expense of other equally valid emphases found in the Pauline epistles. “The entire content of this proclamation (i.e. by Paul) finds its unifying character in this, that it is the proclamation and explication of the eschatological salvation-time (“heilstijd,” dispensation of grace and/or salvation) which followed upon the coming, death and resurrection of Christ” (p. 40). In the light of this judgment he lists the basic elements of Paul’s theology which he calls “grondstructuren” (basic structures, patterns, motifs). Mention of these should convince the reader of the seriousness with which Professor Ridderbos has attempted to justice to all aspects of the teaching and preaching of the apostle: (1) the fulness of time (the revelation of the mystery ); (2) the mystery of Christ (eschatology and Christology); (3) the First-born of the dead (the last Adam ); (4) In Christ, with Christ (the old and the new man); (5) Manifested in the flesh (Flesh and Spirit); (6) Christ the Son of God and the Image of God; (7) the First-born of all creation; and (8) Christ the exalted and coming Lord (Kurios). This is followed by ten chapters, each of which treats some dominant theme or thread which is woven into the fabric of the epistles—life in sin, the revelation of God’s righteousness, reconciliation (atonement), the new life, the new obedience, the church as people of God, the church as body of Christ, baptism and Lord’s supper, the building up of the church, and the return of our Lord. Each of these ten themes is thoroughly treated. Repeatedly reference is explicitly made to the Old Testament, against the background of which the author believes it is alone possible to grasp the profound significance of Paul’s gospel for the believer and the church of all ages. Thus he distantiates himself vigorously from all those scholars who would explain Paul largely in the light of his Hellenistic environment. Throughout the author is fully aware of the many who differ more or less from his positions. These contrary views he mentions simply and clearly, seeking to show the inadequacy or incorrectness of those positions by careful exegesis. In this labor he does not hesitate to differ from other Reformed scholars, some of them his colleagues and friends.

The volume is relatively expensive, even for the proverbially bulging American purse, yet only a pittance in proportion to its worth.

Would you and your friends present a token of esteem to your pastor or your theologically-articulate friend? Consider buying this book as a gift. Really, no Reformed pastor or professor or high-school teacher should be without it. For this reason we hope that this volume will soon appear in English translation, so that many who now have no access to it may profit from its pages.

Because of our high esteem for the professor and his product, however, we feel constrained to posit a few questions. Here we will not deal with any of the details on which undoubtedly there will remain differences of opinion among Reformed readers.

We would ask, first of all, whether it is really defensible to present Paul as a theologian. Doesn’t this tend to create an erroneous impression in the mind of the reader, especially in our day when theology has become such a highly-disputed science? Paul as apostle whose sermons and writings have at least in pari been preserved under the Spirit’s guidance for the church of all ages was chiefly preacher and pastor. Paul does not seem to discuss at length, to define with meticulous detail, to present and evaluate opposing points of view. In season and out of season he proclaimed, and that according to his own affirmations by divine revelation and constraint. Although his divinely inspired and therefore authoritative writings are a veritable “gold mine” for Christian theologians as well as missionaries and preachers, it seems less than legitimate to label his writings as providing us with a theology. In addition, may not this title which does color the book throughout strengthen the altogether too prevalent notion that Paul had a fuller (and perhaps better or worse?) theology than had James and Peter and John?

We also wonder why this volume, which aims at providing us with a true perspective into Paul’s presentation of the gospel, omits from consideration what the book of Acts records as his words. Even though written down by another than Paul himself and likely only in the form of “summaries,” are not those records—because they too were produced under the special guidance of the Spirit—fully as reliable in telling us what the apostle thought and said as are his own writings? Perhaps a consideration of such passages would have thrown an even fuller light on Paul and his work precisely because they show him proclaiming the glory of God’s grace in Christ Jesus in face-to-face confrontation with people in many different life-situations.

Does, perhaps, the strong, sustained emphasis which the writer places on the “salvation-history” (heilshistorisch ) approach of the apostle, with a related stress on “corporate-personality,” tend to throw an obscuring shadow across the equally emphatic insistence of Paul on the personal (“for me”) dimensions of Christian proclamation and the faith-response to which it challenges the hearer? Rightly the author reacts against the preoccupation with the “ordo salutis” which has at times characterized the Reformed approach to Paul’s message. However, isn’t this there too, and that possibly in a more pervasive way than the author seems to indicate? Also, the seemingly uncritical assumption of an intimate relation between this “corporate-personality” motif and the general Semitic background in which it flourished has somewhat puzzled the reviewer. At several points the author does not hesitate to disavow any correlation between Paul’s theology and the Hellenistic world-culture in which the apostle lived and labored. But much as we appreciate Dr. Ridderbos’ insistence on the basic “Jewishness” of Paul’s appropriation and declaration of the gospel message, we cannot help but wonder whether the book intends to imply that the Semitic background (here much broader than the Old Testament Scriptures!) could be more easily and legitimately integrated by the apostle into the Christian message than what came out of the Graeco-Roman world.

All these questions in some sense lead up to the final ones. Why is there not in this volume a chapter which in some depth and detail treats Paul’s understanding and use of the Old Testament Scriptures? We realize that the esteemed professor did not intend to deal with the question of the “source” or “sources” (if we may speak in the plural, in the light of what Paul also says, “For I received of the Lord” etc.). Yet that this was of central significance in and for Paul’s apostolic message cannot be denied. Time and again those portions of Scripture are referred to, quoted and even made determinative for his argument as he seeks to declare the Christ of God. Without a treatment of this crucial aspect of Paul’s own teaching to which he himself referred so consistently, it seems that much of the unity, authority and comprehensive sweep of Paul’s “theology” becomes somewhat inexplicable.

These questions and comments, however, should not be construed as reflecting adversely on the book. As a study of Paul’s thought it stands today without a peer. Unreservedly it is to be recommended, and no Reformed preacher should undertake to preach on any “pauline” passage without consulting this work in depth. It will prove to be a healthy corrective for much superficial and one-sided preaching on the glorious gospel of God’s work and word in Christ for a lost world. We cannot refrain from expressing the sincere hope that amid all his many tasks Dr. Ridderbos will find time in the not-too-distant future to enrich our understanding and appreciation of God’s Word with still another study in the field which he knows so well and treats so competently. He is, indeed, a workman in the Word who need not be ashamed. May the gracious Lord of the Church give him many more years of faithful and fruitful service.


J. L. Koole: VERHAAL EN FEIT IN HET OUDE TESTAMENT, 63 p. Kampen: J. H. Kok.

Among the issues facing the church few are more basic and crucial than that of the reliability of the facts recorded in the Old Testament. Although this is by no means the first encounter of the church with this question—witness the attacks leveled already against God’s Word in the days of the early church fathers—it now confronts us in new form and with new dimensions.

This should occasion no surprise. Evangelical Christians have for years taken the position that if the Bible is not dependable in its account of what it claims took place, then the way is wide open to the denial of every miracle, even the resurrection of our Lord. Christianity by such an approach is progressively reduced to little more than spiritual ideas and ideals. The willful wanderings of theologians today should reinforce this conviction. We find, however, that many who claim to be evangelical and confess Christ as Savior and Lord according to the orthodox confessions no longer are willing to champion the historicity of what the Old Testament relates as facts.

Since this issue of its reliability in recording what are declared to be God’s mighty acts affects the total message of Scripture, church members everywhere should alert themselves and others to the important dimensions of this question. This Dr. Koole, professor at the Kampen Theological School, sets out to do for them. This booklet is presented to the reading public as the first in a series a brief but incisively and clearly-written presentations of major theological problems.

Dr. Koole treats this subject as thoroughly as the limitations of space allow. Anyone reading the material will acquaint himself with some salient aspects of the discussion. Since it is impossible to deal with the many issues, major and minor, which are raised, we must content ourselves with a survey of the contents. In the introductory chapter the author states his problem. Thereupon he discusses Israel’s relationship to history. This brings him and the reader face to face with the unique form of Old Testament writing of history (historiography) and what is meant by its reliability. Although the first and last sections are the briefest, they provide the setting and state some of the conclusions of the writer.

Our readers will sense at once that this subject has immediate relevance for the Reformed brethren in the Netherlands. For some years the decisions of the synod of Assen (1926) on the facticity of specific details recorded in Genesis 3 have been seriously questioned. A recent synod declared that said decision “no longer functions fully (completely) in the church.” This led to the appointment of a committee to report on what that decision of a recent synod involves, also in so far as it relates to the nature and reliability of Biblical history. Koole opines that the issue is basic to the faith-life of the church today because of (1) the development of science in our day which requires that we take its findings (not: its theories or presuppositions) seriously; (2) the increase of Biblical studies in our day which have produced a deeper awareness of the role which the human factor played in the inscripturation of the Word; and (3) the inescapable importance of the nature of history for us who live in a fast-changing world.

The first chapter signalizes the importance of history for Israel as God’s people in relation to the covenant and the covenant-word of Jehovah. Here the total man is always involved by God. In the life of both individuals and peoples there is a “before” and an “after” which indicate the decisive role which history plays in man’s life, as it confronts us inescapably with making choices. In dealing with how Israel wrote history, Koole stresses strongly the presence of various “literary genres.” All Biblical historical writing, he claims, must not be read in the same way. While objecting to the evolutionary hypotheses with which most higher critics worked in the past, he makes mention of their contributions to our understanding of various kinds of writing found also in the historical books.

The fourth chapter mentions the conflict between science and Scripture. Koole is convinced that this is basically an unreal one and can be solved when the church learns to read the Old Testament correctly! Here we find several indications of his position. Relying heavily (almost exclusively, perhaps) on Luke 1, he stresses strongly the human factor. In objecting to the “old” approach to the Scriptures, he, to the reviewer’s mind, contrasts much too sharply historical reading and faith-reading. The presence of inaccuracies in the account should not disturb us. In this connection he mentions the “contradiction” between Joshua 8:3 and 8: 12 and suggests that since the writer could not choose between two conflicting traditions handed down to him. he inserted both in his account. “The Holy Spirit wanted to employ human weaknesses and errors (gebreken) in his service.”

Much of the book. and perhaps that which interests the reader most directly, is devoted to introducing the four main areas of debate: the historical character of Genesis 1 through 11, the miracles of the Old Testament, the statistics which in our editions conflict with each other, and the relation between Biblical accounts and archeological data.

In this connection many questions and problems are introduced. None is dealt with at length or in depth, but the presentation is clear. Koole claims these problems arise from Scripture itself and should be faced honestly. To be sure, there is a sincerity, openness and frankness in the booklet which should be appreciated. He not only insists that the believing church should be involved in the work of theology; he writes so plainly that no reader need be in doubt as to his stance. What distresses us deeply, however, is that he presents this material as if now for the first time these objections to the reliability of Scripture are being raised and faced honestly. Nowhere does he indicate that for generations many theologians have discussed them. Nor does he even suggest that these men in the past have presented their answers for the strengthening of the church’s conviction that the Bible in its details as well as in its totality, in what it actually says and what it announces as the meaning of the recorded facts, is completely trustworthy. Too easily many a reader will be able to conclude that in the past almost everyone read the Bible wrong. Perhaps this is not Dr. Koole’s intention, yet this conclusion seems imbedded in his whole approach to and discussion of the issues. Although he states his own views most circumspectly—“it seems,” “perhaps,” “it could be”—the reader is frequently left in a fog. No mention is made of what the Bible says of itself. While affirming Biblical inspiration and claiming a uniqueness for the redemptive message of Scripture and its reliability, the divine factor and consequently the “mystery” of the Scriptures which the church has so long confessed by faith are too lightly dismissed from the reader’s mind. Not for a moment would we deny that the believer has “problems” with God’s Word; not even that some of these problems spring from Scripture as we by God’s grace possess it today. And these problems ought not be swept under the rug. But precisely because this book only raises problems and, we believe, at times magnifies them out of their proper proportion, it will hardly prove helpful in strengthening the church’s convictions in the fierce spiritual battle against the spirit of this age. The path on which this book would set our minds to reflect on the “story” and “fact” of the Old Testament record has been proposed and pursued before, be it in slightly different form and with other arguments. It seems so interesting and intriguing. But as it leads step by step through the deepening mists of uncertainty and doubt, it brings those who follow it consistently to the abyss of spiritual ruin. We pray fervently that none of the readers will be tempted to follow it.