Berkouwer on Holy Scripture

A new Berkouwer book lies before me; one of his great series: Dogmatic Studies. It is a long-expected one, not only because the doctrine of Holy Scripture is basic to the conception of all other doctrines, but also because this doctrine is most relevant to all present-day discussions.

This first volume differs in methodology from the usual treatment of this subject. It does not begin with the concept of inspiration or theopneustia, which is reserved for the next volume, but with that of the relation between Scripture and certainty. Berkouwer paints to the fact that many have been driven into a crisis of faith by the questions raised by the historical criticism of Scripture. On the one hand he stresses the word of Paul who declared that “we should not go beyond the things which are written” (I Cor. 4:6); on the other hand he warns against a “docetic” view of Scripture which does not fully recognize its human qualities. According to Berkouwer especially the post-Reformation-theology misinterpreted the dictum: “Sacra Scriptura est Verbum Dei,” (Holy Scripture is the Word of God) and he does not want to start with the givenness of an inspired book which might be read as a source-book of supernatural truths. Instead, he desires to be bound to the gospel, to the Christ of Scriptures, from which alone a reflection upon Holy Scripture can result (p. 36). It is constant stress is on the correlation of faith and Word of God, by which he means that the authority of Scripture is never a formal one but always refers to its content, and that faith is never creative but always receptive (pp. 42, 136, 164, 165).

In his second chapter the author wrestles with the problem of the testimony of the Holy Spirit. He speaks of the impenetrable mystery of the relation of Word and Spirit, refuses constantly to speak of a testimony of the Spirit apart from the message of Scripture as a kind of apriori, Or apart from the certainty of faith in Jesus Christ, and does not chose between the dilemma cum verbo (with the word) or per verbum (through the word) but states that the mystery intersects (doorkruist) all exclusive formulations (p. 74).

The third chapter contains an exposition of Holy Scripture as canon. The author does not agree with A. Kuyper who pointed to God’s providence as the key to the understanding of the formation of the canon (p. 95); he rejects also the Roman Catholic view of the authority of the church as the decisive factor; he does not want any apriori construction, but points to the history of the formation of the canon in which the (Christo-logical) contents played a dominant role (p. 108, 109), and he refers again to the correlation of faith and Word of God (p. 112). He points to recent discussions of a “canon in the canon,” of a “functional” Bible and of the unity of Scripture. Finally he speaks of the problem of the Apocrypha and the Septuagint, and his conclusion is that our listening to the Bible is not threatened by the scientific examination of Scripture, but only by stumbling over the “skandalon” (offence or stumbling-block) that appears in Christ (p. 137).

The last chapter of this book discusses Authority and Interpretation. Berkouwer points to the danger of all kinds of subjectivism in interpretation. He rejects so-called charismatic or pneumatic exegesis and criticizes the existentialistic exegesis of Bultmann, because the. gospel in its structure and horizon cannot be approached from our human existence in itself, but only from the contents and direction of the gospel (p. 175). What is that direction, what is the scopus of Scripture? Berkouwer speaks of the hermeneutical rule of the Reformation: Sacra Scriptura sui ipsius Interpres (Scripture is its own interpreter). In connection with that sui interpres he points to new questions regarding the world-image (wereldheeld) of the Bible and its view of history (p. 191). Scripture has its history-bound aspect, connected with the customs of its times, which became evident e.g. in the decision of the Dutch Gereformeerde Kerken concerning women as officebearers (p. 193), and in the questions concerning Genesis 1–3. Parallel developments also appear in the Roman Catholic Church. Berkouwer denies that science, in these developments, became a second authority next to Scripture, and prefers to speak of the inducement (aanleiding) of science (p. 206). Quoting his colleagues Koole and Ridderbos he warns against applying to Scripture requirements of reliability which belong to our time and world, and not to those of Scripture itself (p. 213–215). He ends with the word of Luther: Spiritus Sanctus non est Scepticus (the Holy Spirit is not a sceptic).

The above survey of this very important Berkouwer study is far from complete, and to everyone who desires to know more about it I can only say: tolle, lege (take up and read). As all the books of this author, it makes very worthwhile reading. One of its main features is its analytical and phenomenological character: Berkouwer is one of the most weB-informed and one of the most careful theologians of our time. With painstaking care he tries to penetrate into the mainstreams of thought and to describe in detail what is going on.

Perhaps precisely for this reason some questions seem to remain unanswered or hardly answered, and in spite of all appreciation there is room for some criticism.

1. In the first place: in reading I became more and more aware of the aptness of Polman’s criticism (Gereformeerd Weekblad, 15 April 1966) concerning Berkouwer’s method; with him 1 would have preferred a beginning with the concepts of inspiration and inscripturation of Scripture. Especially the warning against a “docetic” Bible and the stress on its history-bound character leave some questions unanswered which should have been answered in a chapter on the work of the Auctor Primarius (primary author).

2. I must also agree with the remarks of Prof. Smedes in his instructive Berkouwer-essay in Creative minds in Contemporary Theology, concerning Berkouwer’s style. “One could wish,” says Smedes, “that he would now and then develop a line of thought more concisely, more pointedly than he docs. An AngloSaxon may be forgiven for wanting at times less circumlocution and more succintness.” And at the next page Smedes writes that Berkouwer at times gives the impression that he slides off a given theological problem into the area of personal faith (pp. 93, 94). I was struck by the correctness of these observations when reading this last Berkouwer book. It was in typical Berkouwer-style that he exclaimed at two crucial points: “The Word of God is not bound,” and “The Holy Spirit is not a Sceptic,” exclamations which made a kind of mystic impression, highly to be appreciated, but having the appearance of avoiding a clearer answer.

3. It would have been helpful if the author had indicated a change in his position. His former major work on Holy Scripture was a definite apology of the Synod of Assen (1926). One of the main chapters was entitled: “The Isolation of the Reformed Conception of Scripture.” The stress on this isolation has disappeared in this later book. He starts with speaking on the “untstrittene Bibel” (disputed Bible) as a fact that seems to threaten also our certainties; and he appears to have abandoned some of the positions of his former book, especially that on the world-image of the Bible.



4. I regret that the author did not analyze fundamentalism more sharply than he did on the pp. 20–26 of his book. I fully acknowledge the valuable elements of this analysis, but some questions were not solved. In the first place, it would have been very helpful if Berkouwer bad informed us of his opinion not only on the American, but also on the Dutch forms of “fundamentalism.” According to Prof. Jan Lever the traditional Reformed exegesis of the first chapters of Genesis, represented by G. Ch. Aalders and J. Ridderbos, has been marked by “fundamentalism.”

In the second place: Berkouwer quotes Burgon as an extreme fundamentalist, because he wrote that every word and every letter of Holy Scripture is a direct utterance of the Most High. Although he must admit that Burgon rejects the mechanical inspiration-theory (p. 24 ) Berkouwer accuses Burgon of a lack of preciseness in speaking that way, because he completely ignores the human character of the Word of God. But is his interpretation the only possible one? As far as I can see there are two possibilities. The one is that of the complete elimination of the human element. The other is the recognition of that human element, but with an emphasis on the completeness of inspiration of which no single part of Holy Scripture may be excluded. I would have liked to be informed of Berkouwer’s view of that last-mentioned possibility.

5. I have serious problems with the fact that Berkouwcr, in opposing any apriori or any postulate-theory concerning the saying “Holy Scripture is the Word of God,” applies his correlation-scheme in such a manner, that he says that we “first should be bound to the gospel, to the Christ of Scripture, from which alone a reflection (bezinning) on Scripture can result.” What must I say to a man who declares: “No finite religious authority (church, creed or even Scripture) can compel conformity of conviction. Every man’s faith must be his own faith?” (J. Dillenberger and C. Welch. Protestant Christianity, 1954, p. 287). Must I agree or disagree? Berkouwer will answer that I must lead him to the Christ of Scripture and only then speak of the authority of that Scripture. But the crucial question remains: Is not the definite authority of Scripture an essential part of the gospel of Jesus Christ, according to his own words: “If they hear not Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded, though one rose from the dead?” (Luke 16:31).

6. Although many references were made to the autopistia (divine character) of Scripture (pp. 71, 73, 83, 99), a clear exposition of this very relevant subject is lacking.

7. Berkouwer rejects Kuyper’s appeal to the providence of God as the decisive element in the formation of the canon (p. 95, 134). But when he finally states (quoting H. Ridderbos) that the canon is so closely connected with the history of salvation that it in a way participates in its uniqueness—is that really something else than providence? John Calvin wrote: “Those (books) which the Lord judged to be necessary for His church have been selected by His providence for everlasting remembrance” (Comm. on Gal. and Eph. ed. 1854, p. 249).

8. In spite of Berkouwer’s penetrating and important analysis of the place of historical criticism, especially in his first chapter, some clearcut distinctions are lacking. With A. Kuyper Berkouwer rejects the pneumatic exegesis of Scripture, but it is not clear what he does with Kuyper’s fundamental distinction between two kinds of science, the one founded on regeneration (palingenesia) and the other not.

And when I read an article of the late prof. G. Ch. Aalders on Criticism, I find that he raises serious objections against the terminology “Higher and Lower Criticism;” that he accepts textual criticism, and historical examination of authorship, time and genesis of the books of the Bible; but that in Aalder’s opinion nobody is qualified to criticize the contents of the Bible (note well, he does not say: the kerugma, but: the contents); nobody should try to learn whether what Scripture says is true or not (Christelijke Encyclopaedie, 1st ed. I, p. 522, 523). I would have liked to read similar distinctions in Berkouwer’s book. He quotes H. Ridderbos who wrote “that the authors of the Bible adapted themselves to (zich aansloten bij) all kinds of things which by education and tradition belonged to the world of ideas of their contemporaries, and that one cannot say: as soon as all this got a place in the Bible, it has become ‘revelation.’”

I must honestly say that I am very much disturbed about the application of the adaptation-theory. Berkouwer asserts that “a new rationalism is altogether out of the picture” (p. 199). I believe him wholeheartedly as far as his own theology is concerned, but when I look closely, I am inclined to say, sancta simplicitas! (what holy naivete!)

9. Should I substantiate these last words? When Berkouwer characterizes the present situation as n situation of “an everywhere-acknowledged increased light” (p. 217), he makes use of a very typical “Aufklarungs-Motif,” found also in the works of men like Semler, Hofstede de Groot, Busken Huet, and all the young liberals of the era 1865. When he refers to similar developments in Roman Catholicism, I must regretfully say that I met several similar instances. Some of this Roman Catholic criticism of Scripture is (to my taste) of a rationalistic character. And what about the complaint of Dr. A. H. Smit concerning a (Gereformeerd) minister who called the Christmas story a myth, or of another who denied the historiCity of the story of Jonah (Gereformeerd Weekblad, 14 Oct. ’66)? Let me mention again the name of Semler, quoted by Berkouwer himself. Semler was the protagonist of the criticism of Scripture by the German Enlightenment. Step by step he turned slowly from pietism to rationalism. He made a sharp distinction between theology and the religion of the heart. He supposed that he was able to apply the most “honest” criticism and at the same time safeguard his “private” religion against the consequences. Therefore he was at the end of his life considered to be a double-minded man by his own more radical students (Cf. the chapter on J. S. Semler in Nigg’s Die Kirchengeschichtsschreibung, Munchen, 1934).

I don’t mean to say with all this, that there arc no problems of Biblical historiography or hermeneutics; but I deny the assumption that our situation is a totally new one or that the answers given today are totally new answers.

Finally, these remarks are not intended to detract from the fact that Berkouwer’s book is a very stimulating one. It places us in the midst of the problematics of theology of our own time and we eagerly look forward to the second volume.

The appearance of Dr. G.C. Berkouwer’s first volume dealing with the doctrine of Holy Scripture has been eagerly awaited by many who have read with much interest and profit earlier volumes in his series of DOGMATICS STUDIES. Dr. Praasma, pastor of the Christian Reformed Church of Fruitland, Ont., surveys the volume, comments on its significance and raises some crucial questions.