In All Honesty

About the authority of the Bible in the Christian Reformed Church.

Some years ago I was struck by the term “dishonesty” in a Dutch Reformed (Gereformeerd) church-magazine; the editor used that term to indicate his concern about the fact, that in spite of their personal signature under the subscription-form some of his colleagues publicly deviated from the doctrine of their church. The words of that form are well-known: “We promise diligently to teach and faithfully to defend the aforesaid doctrine, without either directly or indirectly contradicting the same by our public preaching or writing.” Recently I was struck by the same term “dishonesty” in the very informative book of the R. C. professor James Hitchcock: The Decline and Fall of Radical Catholicism, who repeatedly speaks of the dishonesty of the “reformers” in his own church: in spite of lip-service to the mainstream of Roman Catholic tradition they deviate from it in many ways; he quotes Daniel Callahan who suggested that “the private dishonesty of progressives lay in their belief that everything they did was in the service of the Church, when in reality they were perhaps suffering fundamental but unacknowledged doubts” p. 32; publ. by Herder and Herder, 1971).

Sometimes one gets the impression that the accepted doctrine of the church is one thing, but that the private opinion of a minister in that church is quite another thing; it is for that reason that I would like to submit some theses, relevant to the present-day discussions; they are the following:

1. The Christian Reformed Church has expressed and expresses her conviction concerning the authority of Scripture in her confessional standards, of which the officebearers declare by their subscription that they do fully agree with the Word of God.

(Belgic Confession Art. 2–7; Heid. Cat. Answ. 19, 21, 25, 95, 96; Canons of Dort, passim; Form of Subscription).


a. The historical origin of the Form of Subscription in the Reformed and Christian Reformed Churches and its repeated reinstatement (1618/19; 1834; 1886; 1892; the translation in use in the CRC was approved by the Synod of 1912) show two things: in the first place that the Dutch Reformed Churches and the Christian Reformed Church have tried to formulate a genuine adherance to the doctrinal standards (Forms of Unity) excluding any Anninian or Arian subscription. I found a very typical description of such a so-called “Arian subscription” in the words of Rev. O. Waterland (in his Works, ed. 1823): “Those gentlemen make no scruple of subscribing to our Church’s forms; it is their avowed principle that they may lawfully do it in their own sense agreeable to what they call Scripture.”

In the second place that even the best form of subscription is no guarantee against human ambiguities and dishonesty; the form had to be reinstated more than once, because its undersigning had gradually become a mere formality.

The actual situation in the Christian Reformed Churches is, however, that no office-bearer in these churches is allowed to criticize or to deviate from the accepted doctrine, formulated in the confessional standards, apart from the way of a gravamen directed to the assemblies of these churches.

b. The confessional standards are unmistakably clear on the authority of Scripture. The Canons of Oort which do not offer a special doctrinal statement on Scripture, quote it again and again in this way: “As it is written. . .”; “since Scripture declares . . .”; “As the doctrine of election is clearly revealed in the Scripture both of the Old and the New Testament, so it is still to be published in the Church of God for which it was particularly designed . . .”; “men are drawn away from the simplicity of Scripture”; “this is repugnant to Scripture . . .”; “this is contrary to the testimony of Peter, Paul, John, Christ Himself.”

The authority of Scripture in these standards is above any other authority, undisputed, definite, it means the end of all contradiction.

2. According to the Belgic Confession Holy Scriptures are the revealed Word of God committed to writing (art. 3), or the inscripturated Word of God fully containing the will of God, and . . . whatsoever man ought to believe unto salvation is sufficiently taught therein (art. 7). This confession places the Reformed confessing community in an isolated position.


The meaning of the confession is clear: its words in their historical context exclude criticism of Scripture. With the term “criticism” I do not indicate here, of course, the use of our analytical function. I take the term in its conventional meaning of judging a matter according to the precepts of certain higher standards; such a standard may be the human reason of which rationalism has something to say; it may be the fluctuating results of present-day science, of which scientism has something to say; it may be the common Christian sense of which Schleiermacher has something to say; it may be the tradition of the church, and the most up-to-date Roman Catholic advancement seems to be that Scripture is subsumed under the living existential tradition of the church; it may even be the living Christ, of which mysticism has very much to say; but in all these ways Scripture is subordinated to some extra-Scriptural standard, either rational, pragmatic, hierarchical or mystical; and the end of the story is that those parts of Scripture which do not seem to fit in the frame of reference, are criticized or eliminated, have lost their authority in favor of a higher authority, in other words: Scripture itself (of which our Lord has told us that it cannot be broken) has lost its authority.

The story of Pierre Berton is well-known as told by himself in: The Comfortable Pew. Writes Berton: “I took my confirmation instruction seriously, examining the sacraments with awe and piety. I remember being genuinely shocked when some of the other boys spoke flippantly of the use of wine in the communion. During this period I was both pious, God-fearing, and fully aware that 1 was a sinner, probably incapable of salvation. Certain questions nibbled at the fringes of my rationale, but I preferred to put them aside. Where, for instance, did myth end and reality begin? The rector explained that the seven days of Genesis were symbolic—a tale invented for primitive people who could not comprehend modern theological findings. So too, with Jonah and Noah and other Biblical figures of the Old Testament. On matters equally miraculous, such as the raising of corpses from the dead, and the puzzling business of the virgin birth, he was less explicit. Though something deep inside me was beginning to ask questions, these questions were never properly formed in my mind or voiced in class. Nor were they ever answered” (p. 18).

The rector (of the Anglican church) with his criticism of certain passages of Scripture opened the door to Berton’s later agnosticism. This is a very old story, and yet it is always new. Calvin opposed Castellio because he criticized the canonicity of the Song of Solomon, and Castellio became more and more a first-class humanist. Orthodox Lutheran and Reformed theologians in the 17th century defended the authority of the Bible against both Jesuits and Arminians. The parallels with our own time are very interesting: the Roman Catholic theologian Albert Pighius held the view that the evangelists might have written some untruths in their gospels, because they merely followed the reports of others; and certain Arminians in the 17th century defended the position that the Holy Spirit in inspiring Scripture accommodated Himself to common errors and misconceptions of that time (cp. R. Preuss, The Inspiration of Scripture, 2d. ed. 1957, pp. 81 and 83).

The main battle, however, started in the 18th century with Spinoza and Lessing who opened the way to that rationalistic criticism of Scripture which reduced the Bible to an old and venerable Hebrew and Hellenistic book, principally on a par with all other old and venerable religious books and, although full of factual errors, of a high value for its moral lessons.

When this way of thinking penetrated the continental churches in the 19th century, the fathers of the present Christian Reformed Church protested; the men of the Dutch Secession of 1834 maintained with the Belgic Confession that the Holy Scriptures are (and not contain) the revealed Word of God committed to writing. The greatest of their sons was Herman Bavinck, who in his Reformed Dogmatics stuck to the absolute authority of the written Word of God, rejecting the conceptions of a dualistic (and also of a dynamic) inspiration. The men of the Doleantie, the second Secession of the established Dutch Reformed Church (1886) did the same under the leadership of Abraham Kuyper, who fought like a lion against the prevalent liberal and mediating criticism of the Bible. Both Reformed leaders were in essential agreement with their great American contemporary Benjamin Warfield, and they formed a school of famous Dutch exegetes of whom T only mention the names of J. Ridderbos, G. Ch. Aalders, S. Greydanlls and F. W. Grosheide who defended with sound scholarship the complete inspiration, inerrancy and authority of the written Word of God.

In the 20th century criticism of Scripture appeared in its neo-liberal and neo-orthodox forms, and professor G. C. Berkouwer wrote in 1937, after having presented a penetrating analysis of the current methods of modem exegesis, about the isolation of the Reformed position. In his book, The Problem of Criticism of Scripture, he quoted for instance Paul Althaus who had written: ”The dogma of infallibility collapsed under the attack of scientific thinking, and the authority of the Bible obviously fell down simultaneously, because its real sense and ground was recognized no longer.” In other words: the common opinion outside Reformed circles was that criticism of the Bible had won the day, and Berkouwer concluded that the Reformed conception of Scripture stood in an unmistakable position of isolation. Berkouwer, however, was not ashamed of that isolated position, under this condition, that our confession of Scriptural authority would not only be a theoretical statement, but a confession of faith including a total and cordial subjection to that authority; and he added that for that reason this confession should not only bear a defensive, but also an aggressive character (pp. 296 II.). My conclusion is here that the character of the Christian Reformed Church in its origin and history is qualified by its complete subjection to the Word of God written.

3. The written Word of God was inspired by the Holy Spirit in order that we should believe that Jesus is the Christ the Son of God, and that believing we may have life in His name (John 20:31). This is the heart of the matter.

Holy Scripture is a tendency-book; it has not been written impartially or neutrally; it is a book with a bias.

Its tendency is that or the call to faith in Jesus Christ; its bias is that all men are liars and that only God is trustworthy; it e1aims that it speaks the Word of that God who is the Sovereign over all and who in His Sovereignty loved the world in Jesus Christ and calls His people to faith and obedience.

The Holy Spirit inspired this Word and the mystery of this inspiration escapes our definitions; the fact of it, however, is so self-evident in the mind of the writers of the New Testament when they quote the Old Testament, that Warfield in his classic study on The Inspiration and Authority of the Bible rightly states that “they appeal to the Old Testament as to God Himself speaking; and then he continues to speak about the fact that “they make an irresistible impression of the absolute identification by the writers of the Scriptures in their hands with the living voice of God” (p. 299). One needs only to read the relevant chapter of Warfield’s book to be impressed by the overwhelming evidence for this thesis.

The Holy Spirit inspired (“theopneusted”) Scripture in order to witness of Jesus Christ: this is the tendency of the Bible.

This term “witness” brings us in the midst of present-day theological problematics. It is often used, as much as the term “kerugma” (proclamation) to the effect that a kind of dualism is introduced into the concept of the authority of Scripture.

Both terms are frequently used as a kind of battering-ram against the Refonned conception of inspiration which identifies the Bible with the Word of Cod written; that identification has been considered as a means to freeze the Word of God in an orthodox ice-box; and Karl Barth has claimed that the freedom of God was made null and void by it. He accused orthodoxy of Docetism (that is the old error that Jesus did not share our complete humanity) and he contended that the authors of the Bible were real men with all human defects and sins also in the act of writing the Word of God; therefore he claimed that the Bible was a fallible and often failing and erring book; the real Word of God is Jesus Christ, and the authors of the Bible have done nothing but witness of Him in their human and defective language.

From this point of view it is only one step to that of the more recent forms of Farm-criticism which claim that the Gospels were not written by eyewitnesses but by second-or third-generation authors who witnessed of Jesus Christ with the (defective) voice of the Christian community of their time; all we are left with is the witness, the kerugma of the early church, and the real historical validity of that kerugma is uncertain and should be considered critically by some experts.

I would raise a very strong protest here on several grounds.

In the first place I must honestly say that I greatly dislike the idea that I must read my Bible with the help of the eye-glasses which some experts have provided for me.

In the second place I must as honestly say that I don’t trust these experts very much; it has often been said that (in the comparative area of the Pentateuch-criticism): the experts come with documentary hypotheses without having documents; they speak of document J and E and P without having ever seen the slightest little scribble of these “documents”; in other words: it is all sheer speculation.

And in the third place: the use of the term “witness” is not an accurate one in this area. I n his doctoral thesis “Witnesses of Christ in the New Testament” professor R. Schippers presents a careful word-study of the term “witness” (martyr, martyria) in the N.T. and he stresses the objective, juridical meaning of this term in the Bible. It does not function as an expression of our own personal, subjective impressions, but as a testimony of a witness in a court who point to facts; a witness in the Bible is a person who brings forward the facts of Christ’s birth, death and resurrection, and in that manner he functions as the mouth of the Holy Spirit; witnessing is not the individual expression of personal faith, but the statement of facts which objectively happened. Two additional remarks must be made in this area.

In the first place: the Christo-centric purpose of Scripture is not a limiting concept; in the second place: the Christo-centric purpose of Scripture is neither a limited concept.

It is not limiting in this sense that our only purpose should be to find those passages in Scripture which evidently refer to Christ, and neglect or criticize the rest; Scripture cannot be broken (John 10:35) and the reading of such a passage as I Corinthians 9:9, 10 should make us very careful.

But it is also not a limited concept; we should not stand still after having found the way to Christ, because Christ in him points to the Father and to the Holy Spirit. He is sent by the Father and conceived by the Holy Spirit; He goes back to the Father and sends the Holy Spirit; He wants us to say: “This is my Father’s world” and He wants us to pray: “Come, Holy Spirit, heavenly Dove.” In other words the Christo-centric purpose of Scripture implies the Trinitarian, Theocentric framework of the Bible which is the backbone of true Christian religion.

4. The written W ord of God was inspired by the Holy Spirit who moved men to speak from God (II Peter 1:21); the comparison of Scripture with the humanity of the Lord Jesus is deficient. If it is applied, it makes sense only if His sinlessness is included.

Reformed theology has never taught a docetic (not really human) Bible; Calvin sometimes used the strongest terms on verbal inspiration, speaking of the authors as amanuensces of God and of the dictates of God; but he also recognized the fact that the writers of the Bible used varying styles each according to his own personality, and he expressly distinguished between the inspiration of Balaam, who mechanically produced that which did not come from his own soul, and the inspiration of the true prophets. And Reformed theology has followed in his steps and, as Warfield wrote “never held a mechanical theory of inspiration.” They have always proclaimed, as he expresses himself “that all is divine and all is human.”

It is worthwhile to note in the ongoing debate on the term “organic inspiration” that Warfield writes: “(My definition) purposely declares nothing as to the mode of inspiration. The Reformed Churches admit that this is inscrutable” (pp. 420–422). Very recently professor Hartvelt of the Reformed Seminary of Kampen criticized the term “organic inspiration” because (in his opinion) it was still used in a too mechanical way with its connotation of verbal inspiration, and he invented a new definition: “The Bible is good for God’s Word.” (Over Schrift en Inspiratie, 1967, p. 71.) Any neo-orthodox man will agree with him, but the distinction between Bible and God’s Word leads into the direction of a new form of dualism.

The comparison wit h the two natures of Christ is an old one: verus Deus, verus homo (really divine and really human); professor Berkouwcr has stated and restated, however, that this comparison is deficient (The Problem of Criticism of Scripture, p. 377) and he has some cogent reasons for it. If, however, anyone would be fascinated by some parallels between incarnation and inscripturation, he should at any rate heed the word of H. Bavinck: “As the human nature of Christ, in all its weakness and humility, remained free from sinfulness, so also Scripture is sine labe concepta” (conceived without sin) (Ref. Dogm. 4th ed., p. 406).

5. Infallibility is neither a dogmatic or philosophic a priori, nor an apologetic demonstration of facts, but a truth revealed by God in His Word and to be accepted in faith.


After having stated that “the Holy Scriptures fully contain the will of God, and that whatsoever man ought to believe unto salvation is sufficiently taught therein” the Belgic Confession continues: “Therefore we reject with all our hearts whatsoever does not agree with this infallible rule.”

Holy Scriptures are called here an infallible rule and why does our confession use this kind of terminology? Is it stating an a priori, is it fixing a logical axiom, from which it wants to deduce with necessity all its following conclusions?

Professor Berkouwer in his books on Holy Scripture warns very seriously against such an a priori-position, but our Confession does not use the term “infallible” in order to have a kind of Cartesian point of departure, but only because it wants to be a confession faithful to Scripture, as is apparent in the following words (in art. 7): “As the Apostles have taught us saying: ‘Prove the spirits whether they arc of God,’ likewise: ‘If anyone cometh to you and bringeth not this teaching, receive him not in your house.’”

It is evident, therefore, that the author of the Belgic Confession has found in Scripture itself the testimony of its completeness and infallibility, and that he accepted that truth not as a philosophical a priori, but in the obedience of faith.

6. The fact that the Bible is neither a book of science nor a historical textbook does not imply in correctness in its geological or historical statements; future and meaning of its information must be defined in connection with the context of chapter, book and Book.


It has often been stated, and rightly so, that the Bible is neither a scientific textbook nor a book in which the rules of modern historiography are applied.

Immediately one is inclined, however, to ask the question: What are those rules of modem historiography? Is there any generally accepted set of rules to which any historical book worthy of its name should respond? To get acquainted With the problematics involved. one should read the instructive book of professor Gordon H . Clark on Historiography (The Craig Press, 1971). Among my own historical books I have a small work written by the former bishop of London J. W. C. Land, published in 1948 under the title: The Spirit of Church History, in which the author in only 118 pages travels through the vast country of church-history; the last chapter: The Anglican Synthesis, is the apotheosis of this booklet, and the former chapters lead up to this final one.

Although many facts are omitted in this work as it goes by leaps and bounds from the one ccnhuy to the other one, it has a tendency and it selects its facts, it is, a very charming work, written with wit and great knowledge, and it makes the point it wants to make with great clarity. Is this work not an historical work, because of its omissions and tendency? does it not respond to the requirements of modern historiography? Only a fool would deny its claim to be history. The booklet in its own right is a valuable contribution to historical writing. The same may be said of the special historiography of the Bible.

However, let us take it for granted that the Bible does not intend to write science or history in the usual sense of those words; is the conclusion well-taken, therefore, that its statements concerning locations, rivers, countries, peoples, mountains, journeys etc.; and about chronological items, kings, emperors, governors and battles are untrustworthy and can and often should be corrected with the help of the data of modern science? This is an unjustified and unwarranted conclusion.

It must be stated emphatically that many books or other writings have been written without any scientific pretensions, while they are at the same time the bases of later scientific studies and contain true and unadulterated facts.

The right order has often been reversed.

When a given of Egyptology or Assyriology, when Flavius Josephus or any other contemporary author seemed to give information different from that of Scripture, almost instinctively priority was given to such an extra-Biblical source; more than once that method has been proved to be completely false, but great harm was done: many young students had been led on a wrong track or worse, they had lost their faith.

I would not recommend the method of Werner Keller in his book: Die Bijbel had toch recht; he tried to demonstrate in a sometimes rationalistic manner that the Bible was and is always right. But I would defend the position that the givens of the Bible, even in their smallest details, are trustworthy; and that the things written therein happened as they are written.

Of course, this statement must be qualified.

When I read poetry I should interpret it according to the rules of poetry; when I read prophecy, it should be explained according to the rules of prophecy; when I read a parable or allegory, it should be interpreted accordingly.

Therefore Abraham Kuyper in one of his most important works, The Encyclopedia of Sacred Theology, distinguished between several forms of inspiration, the lyrical, chokmatic, prophetic and apostolic inspiration, as the background of the graphic inspiration of Scripture, and he tried to describe the ways in which each of these forms of inspiration should be understood and interpreted.

A text is never something like the Greek goddess Pallas Athena, sprung from the head of her father Zeus.

And a senseless quotation of texts can be a great evil.

A text belongs to a context; it belongs to the particular context of the chapter, and the meaning of that chapter (or pericope) should be understood; that chapter belongs to a book, and the particular purpose of that book in the unity of the revelation of God should be found out; and that book belongs to the complete revelation of Jesus Christ who leads us to the Father.

Only in this way can the minister of the Word speak with authority.

With that authority which is expressed in the Christian Reformed Form of Ordination when it exhorts the congregation: “Remember that God Himself through rum speaks unto you and entreats you. Receive the Word which he, according to the Scripture shall preach unto you, not as the word of men, but, as it is in truth, the Word of God.”

1. This has recently been disputed and the position has been defended that not Scripture but only that “what man ought to believe unto salvation” is called an infallible rule. This position seems untenable in view of the fact that (art. 7) according to its title speaks of “The sufficiency of the Holy Scriptures to be the only rule of faith.” Cp. the French Confession of 1559 in which Scriptures are called “the rule of all truth,” and that “all things should be examined, regulated, and reformed according to them” (art. 5).

Louis Praasma is pastor of the Christian Reformed Church of Collingwood, Ontario, Canada.