“ISSUES” IN THE CHURCH
It is not easy to say which matters on a synodical agenda are more and which are less important. For example, a seemingly unimportant decision made in 1955 concerning a Nigerian Seminary turned out to be the beginning of a major dispute which has not been fully resolved until this present moment. There are, in our estimation, no really unimportant matters in the work of the church. The things which make the ecclesiastical headlines are often the outcome of a very slow and imperceptible process. It is just because this process is so slow and imperceptible that the so-called issues become issues at all. They would not be issues if the church had guarded at the proper time over the purity of its teaching. the regularity of its church polity, the respect for properly constituted authority, and a host of other basic elements which make the church truly church.
In view of the above we would do well not to divert our attention from these basic matters to the more spectacular “issues” any longer than is strictly necessary. These issues, we repeat, are but the outcome of a long process. It is the process, more than the solution of the issue, which should have the church’s major interest and prayerful attention. Issues serve a useful purpose in the church by helping to point out that these processes exist and that they require close supervision. They also serve the purpose of calling a sudden halt to a certain process and by demanding of the church that she take stock of her resources.
THE INFALLIBILITY ISSUE — ITS RECENT ASPECT
One of the “issues” before the Synod of 1961 was that concerning the infallibility of Holy Scripture. In order to describe the process which led to this issue one would have to write a history of the Christian Reformed Church covering at least the second fifty years of her existence. This, of course, is not feasible. There is also a more recent history to this issue which we shall not repeat at this point, assuming that it is still relatively fresh in the mind of our readers. We are therefore going to state in a few brief words what the Synod of 1961 did with the issue of infallibility, not forgetting anything of what was observed above.
THE “PERIPHERY” QUESTION
As is well known, an extensive study report covering some 75 pages in the printed agenda was submitted to Synod on the questions of inspiration and infallibility. The matter of infallibility had become of denomination-wide interest through the publication of an article in a student magazine at Calvin Theological Seminary and through subsequent developments. The specific occasion which brought it to the Synod of 1959 were the charges brought by Dr, M. J. Wyngaarden against statements made by Dr. J. H. Kromminga in a document which sought to remove misunderstandings that had arisen in connection with the student article.
The Synod of 1959 already adjudicated this matter to quite some extent. But it withheld judgment on one important point. This point concerned Dr, Kromminga’s use of the word “periphery” in the sentence: “Granting that the Holy Spirit infallibly conveyed what He intended to teach, how shall we interpret Scriptural items which are on the periphery of that teaching? How shall we answer the objections which others—unbelievers, critics, or what have you—raise concerning the infallibility of such items?”
Since the word “periphery” here occurred in the broader context of a student article, in which it was contended that the believer may grant to the unbeliever that there are certain kinds of “mistakes” in the Bible, Dr. Wyngaarden raised the objection that this use of the word periphery came in conflict with the Belgic Confession which states that we must believe “all things contained in them” (the Scriptures), Art. V.
Dr. Kromminga, already in 1959, indicated that he did not use the word periphery in the sense of “this or that word” in Scripture, but rather “some aspect” of the content of the words which is not germane to the Spirit’s purpose. Synod, moreover, made it abundantly clear that it did not wish to speak of an area in Scripture in which it is allowable to posit the possibility of actual historical inaccuracies. And Dr. Kromminga also affirmed that he believed that Scripture in its whole extent and in all its parts and in all its words is the infallible and inerrant Word of God.
THE REPORT OF THE STUDY COMMITTEE ON THE PERIPHERY QUESTION
In spite of all these significant admissions the Synod decided to withhold judgment on the periphery (aspect) matter. It wished to find out whether at this point the view of Dr. Kromminga was consistent with the creeds.
The study committee prepared a voluminous and lucid report of admirable quality. The Synod of 1961 decided to “commend this study committee report to the Church.” Synod felt that this report would serve “to remove misunderstandings that have arisen” and that it would be “a framework for further study of the nature of the relationship between inspiration and infallibility.” Synod also declared that “both Scripture and the Creeds establish an essential relationship between inspiration and infallibility, in which the infallibility of Scripture is inferred from inspiration and inspiration secures the infallibility of all of Scripture.” In a note a number of quotations of the study report were appended to this declaration. One of these quotations reads: “Divine inspiration establishes Scripture as an infallible rule and sufficient canon for all of Christian faith and life and by securing it against falsification, error, and deceit.”
In the matter of Dr. Kromminga’s view on a periphery (or: aspect), not germane to the Spirit’s purpose, the study committee engaged in a somewhat superfluous defense of the concept of periphery as such. This concept had never been challenged in the abstract. The committee did not discuss the later explanation of this expression as given by Dr. Kromminga in 1959, which was: “some aspect” of the content of the words which is not germane to the Spirit’s purpose.
In my estimation the committee could have solved this question by simply pointing out that words in a given context only have so many “aspects” as the context warrants. All other aspects which these words might have in other contexts, or out of all context, they cease to have within the particular context in question. Hence it is quite irrelevant and out of place to speak of “aspects” of the contents of words which are not germane to the Spirit’s purpose. The Spirit’s purpose is presumably fully set forth IN, WITH, AND THROUGH the particular context within which the words of Scripture occur. Hence, when the Spirit’s purpose is exhausted the aspects of the contents of the words also are exhausted. Anyone who wishes to speak about further aspects after this has been done, CEASES TO SPEAK ABOUT THE BIBLE WORDS IN THEIR CONTEXT AND HENCE CEASES TO SPEAK ABOUT THE BIBLE.
The study committee could also have pointed out that since Dr. Kromminga had affirmed that the Scripture in its whole extent and in all its parts and in all its words is the infallible and inerrant Word of God there simply could not he any “aspect” to a word in the Bible, when viewed in its proper context, which did not share in infallibility and inerrancy. For what else is an aspect of a word than, in a certain sense, a “part” of a word, an “extension” of that word, into one “direction” or another.
Not to make this article too long we now wish to set forth briefly what Synod did with this matter. It declared “that Dr. M. Wyngaarden’s charge (‘that President Kromminga makes an unwarranted distinction between this so-called periphery and that which does not belong to this periphery’ and that this view is inconsonant with the creeds) is unsubstantiated.” The grounds which Synod gave for this decision were first of all that “Dr.Kromminga has removed an ambiguity in the presentation of his view by stating that his use of the word ‘periphery’ was in no way intended as a limitation of the extent or the degree of the infallibility of Scripture.”
This important admission now spelled out in immediate conjunction with the question of the periphery should leave no doubt as to Dr. Kromminga’s intentions. These intentions, by the way, were never officially or publicly questioned. Ambiguities are of two kinds, one subjective, the other objective. The ambiguity of the term “periphery” (“aspect”) as used in the original context, was always felt to be one of an objective sort.
THE MERITS OF THE STUDY COMMITTEE’S REPORT
Be this as it may, we believe that it can indeed be argued that Dr. Kromminga’s admission, especially when seen in the light of the second ground attached to Synod’s decision, maybe deemed to be sufficient for the withdrawing of Dr. Wyngaarden’s charge. It should be noted that the original charge was made in a context in which it was. contended that the believer may grant to the unbeliever and to the “critic” that there are certain kinds of mistakes in the Bible and that these “mistakes” do not shake my faith one bit. Within that context the charge was justified. In the meantime the whole context of the charge has changed. A fine study report has been rendered. In that study report the term “error” as applicable to Scripture is rejected, There is a wholesome stress on the inerrancy of Scripture as well as on the need for reading things in their context.
All these things were in no way new. Every Reformed theologian, who is aware of what has been written by such men like Bavinck and Kuyper, knows that their inspiration concept of some fifty years ago closely resembles that of the study report. But apparently this truth was in danger of being forgotten in the Christian Reformed Church. Hence the very diverse reactions to the student article. Those who had assimilated the wholesome emphasis of Bavinck’s treatment and who were using it in their teaching saw in the student article nothing new. They only saw in it a dangerous and erroneous solution to a problem which had been faced long ago and in a Scriptural way. Others reacted to the student article from what possibly came close to a fundamentalist view of Scripture. Still other reactions could be noted.
Through the Study Report in the Christian Reformed Church we have, in one stroke, been brought up to date. But there is much more to be done. The Report does not materially advance beyond what has long been held in Reformed theology on this score. It does not come to grips with the problems which the Reformed exegete meets as he reads the current journals of theology in the light of his Reformed commitment. But that, indeed, would be an impossible task for an ecclesiastical committee. The background of theology constantly changes. New formulations and solutions of old problems are constantly proposed and must be tested. However, the Study Report did spell out some basic principles of Reformed interpretation. As far as it went it was essentially sound and Scriptural. The President of the Seminary declared that he could find himself in one of the formulations of the Report when it says regarding the “periphery,” that…“there is in the Scripture incidental and circumstantial data which has no independent revelational significance, but is dependent for its revelational significance upon the relationship it sustains to the central intent and purpose of a given passage. When viewed in this light, the term periphery must be judged not inconsonant with creedal teachings on infallibility.” Dr. Kromminga assured the committee of Synod that the above statement reflected his own view. This assurance was made a part of the second ground.
Hence the word “periphery” has now been placed within a much more wholesome context than that in which it originally occurred. Within this new context further helpful conversation on the academic level should prove possible without the cloud of suspicion which inevitably covered the dispute previous to the Synod of 1961. When judged in this light the decision of the Synod of 1961 could prove to be a significant step in the direction of a solution of some of the problems raised above.