A “New” Approach to the Interpretation of Scripture

One who loves his Bible and believes it to be the inspired and therefore inerrant Word of God cannot but be disturbed by recent theological trends in Reformed circles in the Netherlands.

A few months ago the Editor of Trowel and Sword criticized two Dutch publications, one by Dr. J. L. Koole, professor at the Theological Seminary, Kampen, the Netherlands, and the other from the pen of Mr. Tj. Baarda, M.Th., a lecturer at the Free University, Amsterdam. Dr. Runia made it clear that both authors in actual fact deny the historical reliability of Scripture.

In the opinion of this present writer the same holds true for another Reformed theologian, Dr. H. M. Kuitert, who not long ago was appointed as professor of Ethics and Introduction to Dogmatics at the Free University.

In his book “De realiteit van het Geloof” (The reality of the Faith) Dr. Kuitert suggests a new approach to Scripture and its interpretation, or as he himself calls it “a new starting-point for Hermeneutics” (p. 159).* As Dr. Runia in a brief review of the book has already pointed out, Dr. Kuitert gives first of all an excellent analysis and refutation of existentialism with its denial of the vital importance for the Christian faith of the historical, saving acts of God, Christ’s physical resurrection included. To Dr. Kuitert the history of salvation is a real history and he regards the resurrection of Jesus Christ as fundamental to the Christian faith.

Thankful though we may be for this fact, our gratitude turns into disappointment when in the second part of his book Dr. Kuitert discusses the question how we in our day have to regard, understand and interpret the Bible, particularly in view of the fact that the books of the Bible are all historically dated. How does this fact influence our faith?

There can be no doubt that this is a most important question, worthy of serious consideration particularly today, now that from all sides, even in Reformed circles (see the works by Dr. Koole and Mr. Baarda) various historical narratives of the Bible are interpreted in such a way that the historical reality of the facts described is denied. The situation has become the more serious since such faith-undermining theories are presented in a popular form, to instruct the “laymen” in the new views. Many children of God have already become confused and are asking: What can I believe when I read my Bible? Can I trust its contents?

One is prepared to listen eagerly when in such a situation an able Reformed theologian like Dr. Kuitert arises and presents us with a study which according to his own words “has no other purpose than to offer students, ministers and any other interested reader a thread to find his way through the theological labyrinth of our day.”

Of course, the first thing one expects in such a case is a clear statement of faith, based on evidences from Scripture itself, concerning the nature of the Bible as the inspired and therefore infallible, inerrant Word of God. And whatever new approach to the understanding and interpretation of Scripture such an author may suggest, the least one expects is that he supports his ideas with some Scriptural proof. For it is a basic biblical and Reformed principle that Scripture is its own interpreter.

Alas, here already Dr. Kuitert fails. He recognizes that the authority of Scripture is in dispute (p. 159), but in discussing this authority he presents only his personal views on the Bible and his personal opinion on the way Scripture should be understood and interpreted. Not a reference to Scripture itself is to be found in his book, nor any discussion of the many testimonies of the Bible, relative to its nature and interpretation. One wonders if the time has come that we are required to depend on the opinion of learned theologians instead of on the Word of God itself.

However this may be, the question arises how Dr. Kuitert’s silence as to the testimony of Scripture itself is to be explained. It cannot possibly be a matter of simply overlooking some points in the discussion. The importance which all Reformed theologians always attached to the testimony of Scripture itself, as well as the great ability of Dr. Kuitert, guarantee that here it is not a matter of “overlooking” things. It is to be feared that the reason is much more serious and that it is to be found in Dr. Kuitert’s faulty, non-Reformed conception of Scripture.

In the first place; Dr. Kuitert denies emphatically, time and again, that the Bible would impart supernatural truths and trustworthy formulas, which must be accepted by faith on the authority of others (viz. the authors of the books of the Bible). According to him traditional Orthodox Protestant theology has made a great mistake by believing this (pp. 116, 167). “The Christian truth,” we read, “can be formulated in an historical way only” and is therefore differently formulated “from generation to generation” (p. 165). This means that the authors of the Bible expressed THEIR (historically defined) faith in God and his saving acts “in words, expressions AND CONCEPTIONS which originate from a time and cultural period which are completely different from ours” (p. 17).

Well, if all this is true then all biblical statements concerning the nature, reliability, interpretation etc. of Scripture, statements such as made by Paul, Peter and others, are also nothing else but statements of THEIR historically defined faith, influenced by the conceptions of THEIR day. For that reason they cannot be regarded as imparting any supernatural truth which we must accept by faith on their authority. Paul’s view of the Old Testament and of the historical narratives of the Old Testament, for instance, need not necessarily he ours. His and others’ testimonies on the nature, understanding etc. of Scripture can as well be left out. They are not decisive.

That this must be the reason becomes even more obvious when, secondly, we give some more detailed attention to what Dr. Kuitert writes about the nature of Scripture and its interpretation. It is striking already that nowhere in this study the Bible is called the Word of God, nor its infallibility stated. One-sidedly Dr. Kuitert emphasizes what is called the human side of Scripture, its human authors and the way they tell us about God’s saving acts. True, it is stated that through them God’s revelation comes to us. This, however, is different from saying that what they have written IS God’s revelation and therefore GOD’s Word.

This becomes fully clear when we read that through them God’s revelation comes to us in the form of ISRAEL’S KNOWLEDGE of it and of human statements of FAITH, made by Israelites who witness to what took place in history between Israel and Israel’s God (pp. 17, 116, 163).

Now when Dr. Kuitert repeatedly emphasizes that the authors of the Bible present their knowledge of God’s revelation and saving acts in statements of FAITH, he cannot possibly mean that they really meant and believed what they wrote down. Who in Reformed circles has ever doubted the subjective honesty of the authors of Scripture? And how could confirming their sincerity ever be a new starting-point for understanding the Bible, as Dr. Kuitert presents his view?

1n the context of the whole of his study he can only mean to say that the authors of the Bible, in describing the history of salvation and God’s saving acts in Israel’s history, expressed THEIR PERSONAL OPINION on these things and gave their PERSONAL INTERPRETATION, by the light their faith had in the speci6c period of time in which they lived. This implies that here the word “faith” has lost its biblical meaning of being absolutely sure of that which it believes because GOD has spoken and revealed the things believed, wherefore it is impossible that faith can be mistaken.

That the authors of the Bible, making their statements of “faith” could be mistaken according to Dr. Kuitert, is confirmed by his repeated emphasis on the fact that these statements were historically defined: all their images, DECLARATIONS, CONCEPTIONS, NARRATIVES ETC. were those OF THEIR TIMES. Here again we must realize well what Dr. Kuitert means. Could it be only this that in our interpretation of Scripture we should always take into account the historical background? So that, for instance, when Paul says that a woman must cover her head in public worship (I Cor. 11:2ff.) we must give due attention to the special circumstances prevailing in Corinth’s congregation and to the customs of those days, circumstances and customs which were very much different from ours? The answer must be: No, this cannot possibly be what Dr. Kuitert means, for this is so completely commonplace in Reformed literature and especially in Reformed commentaries that one cannot imagine a man like Dr. Kuitert to emphasize and repeat such a worn-out exhortation in a study which suggests a NEW approach to the understanding of Scripture.

The situation is again much more serious. What Dr. Kuitert obviously wants to impress upon us is this that the authors of the Bible, giving their personal witness and stating their personal faith concerning God’s dealing with his people, were so much children of their times that in several respects they could be and actually were—wrong and mistaken. In those days ideas, conceptions etc. were prevailing which they regarded as correct and which they, in good faith, passed on to later generations in their prophetic, historical and apostolic books, but—as we have come to see now—were incorrect. History does not stand still, ideas and conceptions change with the times, science makes ever new discoveries, and consequently we in our day have outgrown those wrong conceptions etc. of the authors of Scripture.

In this light it is fully understandable that Dr. Kuitert goes on to state that theology must carefully distinguish between “the real matter” of God’s revelation on the one hand, and the “wrapping material” in which this real matter is presented in the Bible; the “wrapping-material” being the subjective, historically de6ned interpretations of the “real matter” given by the authors of Scripture (pp. 169-174).

This shows that there was reason to place the word “new” in the heading of this article in quotation-marks. What Dr. Kuitert suggests is not really something new. It is just a modern version of the unreformed and unbiblical idea: The Bible IS not the Word of God, but God’s Word is IN the Bible, and we have to try to find out what GOD says in distinction from what can be discarded as just the opinion and interpretation of HUMAN authors, who as children of their times did not know better.

In the next article we hope to say more about it.

*Translation and Capitals in this article are mine, J.A.S.

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