A “New” Approach to the Interpretation of Scripture (II)

We have seen that according to Dr. Kuitert we are to find out what is “the real matter,” i.e. God’s revelation and message for us today, and what can be discarded as “wrapping material,” i.e. the subjective, historically defined conceptions etc. of the human authors of Scripture.

It is obvious that this task is of the utmost importance, for it concerns the vital question what God wants us to believe and do. Here our eternal salvation is at stake.

One wonders what authority Dr. Kuitert would suggest to sit as judge over Scripture, sifting for us the chaff (“wrapping material”) from the wheat (“real matter”).

There can be no doubt: Dr. Kuitert allots this task to Theology as a science (pp. 156, 159–162). In a scientific way and therefore employing the historical-critical method Theology has to make investigations and examinations to arrive at an answer to the question: “What is the origin of this tradition?,” etc. (p. 160). In other words: from what sources have the authors of the Bible derived the material for their narratives? How have the sources influenced them? How are we, consequently, to understand the meaning of their narratives, the real matter, in contrast to the wrapping material? (p. 176: “the historical events IN THEIR MEANING AND TENDENCY, apart from the question whether or not these historical events actually happened”).

To put it in a concrete way, taking the instances from other publications by Dr. Kuitert later to be discussed: From what sources did the author of Genesis derive his narrative of Creation, Paradise, the Fall. etc? And: What is the real matter in these narratives which we have to believe. the rest being just “wrapping material”? Or in connection with the New Testament: Which words. recorded in the Gospels as spoken by Jesus. must be regarded as actually spoken, in distinction from other sayings that must have been put into Jesus’ mouth by a pious early Church but were never spoken by Jesus Himself?

Dr. Kuitert is aware of certain dangers inherent to the application of this historical-critical method. Therefore he urges Theology to “see to it that its (own) historical-critical method does not make unacceptable statements” (p. 162). We must, for instance, not follow such liberal theologians as Bomkam and Bultmann, who declare Jesus’ resurrection impossible, simply because it was a unique event (pp. 162, 180).

Dr. Kuitert admits, however, that even if the historical-critical method is employed with certain restrictions, the result of the investigations “will create a great number of problems for the Christian Theology” (p. 162), due to the fact that “matter” and “wrapping-material” are “so closely connected that we can distinguish the two only in a general way (in grote lijnen)” (p. 184).

Since historical-criticism may lead even Reformed Theologians (Dr. Koole! Mr. Baarda!) to deny the historicity of certain events, which in Scripture are recorded as actually having happened, the question arises whether the Church should not reject the historical-critical method.

Dr. Kuitert declares that the Church has nothing to fear from this method and its results. We wonder: why not? Is it because the inspiration of the Holy Spirit guarantees the historical reliability of Scripture in all its aspects, so that the Church may be sure that historical-critical investigations have drawn a wrong conclusion as soon as they lead to a denial of the historicity of certain events described in the biblical historical records?

Alas. here Dr. Kuitert does not bring in the Inspiration at all, nor the subsequent infallibility of Scripture. The reason why, according to him, orthodoxy need not be afraid of the results of historical-critical investigations is: “our faith is not founded on historical investigations” (p. 181). It is even a misunderstanding to think that such investigations “must be done with much enthusiasm to strengthen the faith”!

That Dr. Kuitert means to say that it is irrelevant to our faith whether or not certain events actually took place. appears from his reference to Luke 1:1–4. where the evangelist speaks of his historical investigations in order that Theophilus might “know the truth concerning the things of which you have heen informed.” Here Dr. Kuitert in a footnote on page 181 quotes with apparent agreement Dr. Gunter Klein, who “discovers the beginning of this misunderstanding already in Luke 1:1–4.” In other words, Luke was already mistaken when he thought that his historical investigations could strengthen the faith of Theophilus!

There is another question of the utmost importance which, as Dr. Kuitert admits, is rightly asked by Orthodox Protestantism: “Is there a criterium which can decide whether we are dealing with the Biblical witness as such (the real thing) or with elements of the ‘soundboard” of that witness?” (p. 175). In other words: what norm, what standard must Theology use to find out what God actually wants to tell us, in distinction from what is nothing else but the irrelevant conceptions etc. of the HUMAN authors of the Bible.

The answer to this vital question is very disappointing. Dr. Kuitert says that it is not incorrect to say that Christ is the real matter, but the difficult question is: “WHEN does Scripture witness concerning Christ?” (p. 175). To this question, which in the context of Dr. Kuitert’s “new” approach is of the utmost significance, he gives no proper answer at all. A few vague remarks are made concerning the real matter, which consists of “the historical events IN THEIR MEANING AND TENDENCY, apart from ‘the question whether or not these historical events actually happened (echt gebeurd zijn) (p. 176), but not one word about HOW to decide what is the meaning and tendency of an historical event EVEN IF IT DID NOT ACTUALLY HAPPEN! On the contrary, a few pages further we are again told that it is “a difficult problem what precisely constitutes the real matter and what is the wrapping material” (pp. 188/9).

Despite this problematic character of the “real matter”” Dr. Kuitert insists that the Church should give “ever new explanations of its (the real matter’s) significance” (p. 186). And for this task Dr. Kuitert demands complete freedom for Theology, without any binding to past or present formulations of the truth laid down in the Church’s confessions. In this connection Dr. Kuitert pays even tribute to the theology of bishop Robinson, which theology, he says “has created such a sense of liberation, particularly for numerous Orthodox Protestant Christians. This concerns particularly the way in which he would permit the Christian to leave behind yesterday’s language and use that of today” (p. 189).

As to the Person and work of the Lord Jesus. Dr. Kuitert regards the history of Jesus Christ as “a unique history…in which we are included: we died with Him and were raised with Him (Rom. 6:4)” (p. 197). He speaks also of “the reconciliation which took place once for all in the past…this substitutionary act of Christ…the forgiveness which we daily experience in our life…and the living hope to which the Christian Church—in a really new life—is born again (I Pet. 1:3)” (pp. 198–202). That all this was “for us” is evidenced. according to Dr. Kuitert, by the fact that Jesus’ own witness was full of this idea (p. 197).

If one would object that according to historical-criticism there is no certainty that Jesus really made the statements concerned. Dr. Kuitert again leaves the inspiration and historical reliability out of consideration. He defends the reliability of Jesus’ own witness by making the merely NEGATIVE statement: “If one would consider all the statements of the Gospels concerning Jesus’ Messianic consciousness to be pure theology of the Church, then it would be impossible to understand how Christianity could ever have come into existence” ( Footnote page 197).

Dr. Kuitert believes also that Jesus Christ as the living Lord, speaking through the biblical historical witnesses, “creates a hearing for himself, and obedience.” This he does “as the Spirit, about whom however Dr. Kuitert makes the astonishing statement, which makes one think of a denial of the essential Trinity: “This living Lord in his powerful operations is usually spoken of as the Spirit. With ‘Spirit’ Paul does NOT MEAN SOMETHING DIFFERENT FROM JESUS but Jesus Himself in His regenerating, freedom-producing POWER in this world (II Cor. 3:17)” (p. 204; capitals mine, JAS.).

Dr. J. Schep is emeritus Professor of the Geelong Theological Seminary, Geelong, Victoria, Australia.