The following remarks were made before the students of the Junior and Senior Classes of Calvin Theological Seminary, after requests had been received to make some comments on the issue of infallibility. They were reproduced upon request for distribution among the students who desired to have a copy.
The original lecture was prefaced with the remark that, however important the present discussion concerning infallibility may be, the student should not forget that a complete mastery of the actual contents of the Bible, of the Old as well as the New Testament, is of no less importance than to assert the doctrine of the verbal inerrancy of Scripture. I deem this remark to he of sufficient importance to reproduce it at this point.
Marten H. Woudstra
*The first two pages of the manuscript of this very thought-provoking lecture are omitted because they are of an introductory character and are not essential to an understanding of the main body of Prof. Woudstra’s contribution.
1. LETTING SCRIPTURE SPEAK FOR ITSELF
Coming now to the issue itself I am struck again by the extreme complexity of the picture before us. Certainly everyone among us wants to let Scripture speak for itself. But in this very phrase some of the most crucial issues of human thought are involved.
The expression to let Scripture speak for itself cannot possibly mean that we expect a neutrally-approached and neutrally-analyzed Scripture to impress on us the claims of its divine origin and perfection. The most objective type of exegesis involves the investigator in a basic commitment. This is fully recognized by those who practice the tenets of higher criticism. It is, so I should expect, recognized by us as well.
That is why I feel that the real issue before us in this matter of verbal inerrancy is first of all a matter of method. Not the accuracy of certain historical details, however essential to the question at hand, is the first item to be discussed. The question which must be discussed prior to that is: What do we mean when we say that we wish to let Scripture speak for itself?
Dictionary’s Use Is Limited
To explore this point a bit further let us first consider for a moment the use of the term infallibility and its applicability to Scripture. It seems to me that in the current discussion among us we have too much been operating with a concept of infallibility which was based on dictionary definition. It was with that concept that we approached the Scriptures. Upon finding out that the dictionary definition did not fully apply to the written record we were ready to criticize the term as no longer suitable. And we did so upon the alleged claim of letting Scripture speak for itself. But in the meantime we were quite willing to ignore the fact that the very concept which we used and applied to Scripture was not actually based on what Scripture says for itself. The dictionary, in the nature of the case, must work with an infallibility concept which applies 10 more things than just Scripture alone. Yet it is only in connection with Scripture that the term receives its full meaning, a meaning that is gathered from Scripture rather than carried to Scripture.
“Yes” And “No” At The Same Time
To put it differently: when raising the question whether we mean by the term infallibility all that the term implies we can expect the answer to be both positive and negative at the same time. It is negative if an infallibility concept, foreign to the Scripture’s purpose, is set up as a standard of its infallibility. It is positive if in our very concept of infallibility we incorporate Scripture’s claims.
It is obvious that with the term infallibility, just as with any other term used for the qualities of Scripture, we should mean nothing else than w hat Scripture itself teaches. But it should also be obvious that it is methodologically incorrect to choose a term without regard to Scripture’s character and purpose, then to approach the Bible with it and see if the Bible will stand the test. If we should proceed in that fashion the Bible is sure to be the loser. Moreover, we have contradicted ourselves, for we wished to let Scripture speak for itself. But we failed to do so in the critical matter of choosing our method.
As I see it, the doctrine of verbal inerrancy (without error in its very words–K) is implied in any attempt to elicit from the Bible its own divine claims, i.e., its doctrines, its binding and permanently valid teachings. The claims of Scripture are truly divine. They regulate my conduct, they bind my conscience, they support and add to my faith.
The Divine Claim: Product of Grammar and History
But how are these claims established? What is the way in which we ascertain the precise content of the divine claim concerning any doctrine of our Christian faith? It is quite clear that the answer must be that this is done by means of the reading and exegesis of the written record. By that process alone can I be assured of discovering the precise content of the divine claims of Scripture for my life. I employ the means of grammatical-historical exegesis (interpretation–K), and while doing so I am absolutely confident that in that way I arrive at an understanding of God’s revelation.
Whether you want to call that revelation infallible or not is really immaterial. It is infallible! All truth, all divine truth, is infallible. And you have established this divine truth through scientific exegesis of the written text of Scripture. This written record therefore must possess the same immediacy as a means of knowing God and His will as do other non-written means of God’s self-disclosure.
This is what is also stated beautifully in the Westminster Confession, one of the Reformed creeds, when it says, chap. I, 1: “…therefore it pleased the lord, at sundry times and in divers manners, to reveal himself, and to declare that his will unto His Church; and afterwards, for the better preserving and propagating of the truth, and for the more sure establishment and comfort of the Church against the corruption of the flesh, and the malice of Satan and of the world, to commit the same wholly unto writing”.
It is this immediacy of the written record as the God-ordained means whereby He should convey His will to us for our surety, comfort, and protection, which has been to me one of the most potent arguments in favor of the Scripture’s own inerrancy. This point will have to be explained more fully. Before we do this it will be well if we look at Scripture’s own testimony with regard to this specific point.
“The Word Is Very Nigh”
Scripture itself never leaves a bit of doubt as to the complete identity between spoken and written words. There are many more words spoken than were written. But those that were written possess the same qualities as those that were spoken. Moses points this out to the children of Israel in Deuteronomy 30. In this immediate context he has spoken 10 them of the book of the law, vs. 10. In vs. 11 ff. he continues to point out to his audience that since this word is now in its written form it is not far away from them, they need not travel large distances to obtain it. It is near, very near unto them, in their mouth and in their heart, that they may do it. Procksch comments on this verse and observes that the Word as Moses is here using it is contemporary revelation, and not only that, but he observes further that this word “bears within itself the power of realization” (Kittel’s Worterbuch, IV, p. 98).
“Dynamic” Writing As Old As The Bible
This same emphasis is found in the prophets. The latter were the recipients of the divine revelation in a very direct way. But these same prophets append to their written prophecies the same formula as is used when they introduce God’s spoken word to a particular audience. The spoken word is “the word of the lord”, but no less so the written word. It too is the “word of the Lord”. There is no loss of immediacy as these words are written down. Originally the word was received in a vision, or by means of a direct self-communication of God. But the written record is adorned with the same name as those other modes of revelation bore previously. Perhaps no better example of this can be found than in the book of Jeremiah. It is of all the prophetic books perhaps the one in which the dynamic character of the word of God is stressed most. That word is like a “burning fire”, shut up in Jeremiah’s bones (Jeremiah 20:9). It is like “a hammer that breaketh the rock in pieces” (Jeremiah 23:29; cf. 23:9). Yet it is that same word which ca n be channeled into the written record without in any way suffering a loss of dynamic power, as is clear from passages such as ch. 36:2 ff., where the reading of the written prophecy is leaving its profound impact upon the people and provokes the king to anger. These words will also have their effect seventy years from the point they are written down, ch. 25: 12, 13. In fact that is precisely the reason why they must be committed “wholly unto writing”, cf. also ch. 30:1 ff.
The Sadducees and the Burning Bush
To quote just one more example of this self-attestation of Scripture, the Lord Jesus also considers the Scriptures in that light. When faced by a question on the part of the Sadducees concerning the resurrection the Lord first rebukes his opponents for not knowing the Scriptures, nor the power of God (Matthew 22:29). This refers to their erroneous conception of the belief concerning the after-life. But then he proceeds to furnish Scripture proof of the resurrection. At this point we are not concerned with the nature of this proof so much as with the formula with which this proof is introduced. The quotation comes from Exodus 3, which relates the words of God spoken to Moses at and from the burning bush: “I am the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.” How does Jesus introduce these words to the Sadducees? He says: “But touching the resurrection of the dead, have ye not read that which was spoken unto you by God, saying…” (vs.31).
It should be noted first of all that Jesus is appealing to the written record (“have ye not read”). But the effect of that written record is apparently so immediate that it was just as good as having God speak to the Sadducees directly from the bush. Although this original revelation was most likely given in an audible voice, its meaning is not the least impaired, or detracted from by being now safely embodied in a number of letters, and phrases which can be read. The revelation in both cases serves the same purpose. Both times the message is a direct one, “that which was spoken to you by God”, but the difference lies in the fact that, since this revelation took place originally, God was pleased to commit His will “wholly unto writing”. (Cf. also Peter’s words [II Peter 1:17-19] in which he compares the voice “borne out of heaven” with “the prophetic word”. Of the latter he remarks that it is “made more sure”. It is in that same context that he affirms the doctrine of inspiration. But the preceding context ought not to be ignored; cf. Romans 9:17 “for the Scripture says to Pharaoh,” etc.)
The Scripture therefore clearly views its written testimony to be the direct, and unequivocal self-communication of God, in no way less effective and immediate than other non-written form s of revelation. As to these other forms no one could well maintain the position thai they were a mixture of truth and error. God simply spoke, and revealed His will. He had previously prepared the men through whom He spoke, and had selected them from eternity (Jeremiah 1:4, 5). To assume that this earlier form of God’s self-disclosure contained an element of error would be going against Scripture’s own view concerning the relationship between God the Creator and man the creature. Even an avowed enemy of Christ, Caiaphas, is made to speak prophetic words of deep spiritual significance. These words are not just to be separated from the words of Caiaphas no, the very words he speaks are also the words which God wants to use for his prophecy.
Book Prior to Bible
The written record, as we noted above, possesses the same qualities as the spoken word. As a written record it is naturally subject to the laws applicable to all writings. In other words, the Bible is first a book before it is a Bible, it is first Scripture before it is sacred Scripture. Anyone who denies that most important point is simply playing with words. The Bible is sacred SCRIPTURE, and as such it possesses the same qualities as the more direct modes of God’s self-revelation. This implies that the reading of the book must and does bring us face-to-face with the express will of God.
To get back to an expression used earlier, if we shall “let Scripture speak for itself” we must do exactly that, and not anything less than that. This means that we must expect the will of God to be bound up so immediately with the Word of God written that the inerrancy of the will of God must reflect immediately in the inerrancy of the form to which this will of God is now “wholly committed”.
Bavinck is also very clear on this matter of “letting Scripture speak for itself”. They who hold that position, thus Bavinck, contend that “in order to understand the Scripture’s testimony with regard to itself fully and correctly, we must consult the facts”. With these “facts” they mean the data discovered in an investigation of the origin and history of Scripture, its contents and composition (bestand). Only such an inspiration doctrine is correct, thus the people whom Bavinck is criticizing, which is compatible with the phenomena of Scripture and derived from these phenomena. Oftentimes those who hold such views accuse their opponents of forcing an a priori view on Scripture. The claim is made that over against all kinds of theories and systems they wish to let Scripture speak for itself. Orthodoxy, thus it is held, lacks true reverence for Scripture. It does violence to the facts of Scripture (H. Bavinck, Geref. Dogmatick, 2nd ed., Vol. I, p. 446).
Bavinck admits that this view at first sight appears to be fair and acceptable, but upon closer investigation it proves untenable.
The first reason is that the doctrine of inspiration is a fact taught by Scripture. It is quite clear in this context that Bavinck simply does not think of separating inspiration from infallibility as two entirely unconnected matters, of which we could possibly affirm the one and deny the other. For immediately after stating that the Scripture teaches its own inspiration he continues to say something about the phenomena of Scripture. This would not be necessary if Bavinck thought of the two as somewhat distinct, inspiration on the one hand, and infallibility on the other. Only if one sees the one implied in the other is it necessary to introduce the phenomena of Scripture in the discussion of its inspiration. This is what Bavinck actually does. After affirming that Scripture teaches its own inspiration he continues; “The so-called phenomena of Scripture cannot overthrow this self-testimony of Scripture” (op. cit. ibid.). And if this were not already strong enough an assertion he adds to it; “They (i.e. the phenomena) may not even be appealed to as party (to the discussion)” (ibid).
What makes Bavinck come out so strongly against making use of the phenomena of Scripture for the construction of a doctrine of Scripture? Bavinck is known fa be a biblical theologian par excellence. It could not be that he did not wish to let Scripture speak for itself. Bavinck’s objection fa this kind of reasoning is thoroughly Scriptural, though in a different sense from that of those who appeal to Scripture in order to virtually set aside its own self-attestation .
This is what Bavinck gives as his reason for not allowing an appeal to the phenomena of Scripture. Says he: “For he who makes his doctrine of Scripture dependent upon the historical investigation concerning its origin and structure, begins with rejecting Scripture’s witness and hence no longer stands in the faith in that Scripture”.
“Cuius Opinio, Eius Doctrina”*
Moreover, thus the same author cautions us, this study of the phenomena is the result of lengthy investigations of historical criticism; it is subject to many changes and depends much on the standpoint of the individual critic. A theologian who would want to build his doctrine of Scripture on the basis of those investigations virtually puts scientific insight over against Scripture’s own doctrine concerning its elf. Historical-critical research does give us a dear insight into the origin, history and structure of Scripture, but it never gives us a doctrine of Scripture. This can only be built upon Scripture’s testimony concerning itself.
The same could be said, thus Bavinck, of an attempt to build the doctrine of creation, of man, of sin, etc. upon an independent study of the facts rather than on the testimony of Scripture with regard to these things.
Bavinck then sums up his position on this point and contrasts it with that of others by saying; “On the one side, then, it is contended that only such inspiration is acceptable, which agrees with the phenomena of Scripture, but on our side it is held that the phenomena of Scripture, not as they are viewed by criticism, but as they are in themselves, are compatible with its self-attestation” (op. cit., p. 447).
The discussion thus far does not yet touch on the question whether alleged errors in matters of subordinate detail affect the message of Holy Writ. That is a matter somewhat distinct from the question now before us. We cannot deal with it now. All that is attempted at this point is to show how immediately the written record is bound up with the revelation of God. There is nothing in between. The very reading of the letter of Scripture in a saving way places us face-to-face with God and his will.
We are here concerned with method. Our method of investigation of the question of infallibility must be wholly consistent with the nature of Scripture. It is in and through the reading of a book that we ascertain the contents of thaI book. Those contents are not detachable from that book, they can only be arrived at through the careful reading of the book itself. At no time can the contents of the book be ascertained by somehow detaching ourselves from the book. If that were the case all of our exegetical labors would be doomed to futility. We would never be sure that we had arrived at the Spirit’s intent.*Men make doctrines of their opinions–K.
2. THE SPIRIT’S TESTIMONY TO SCRIPTURE
This whole mailer also touches on the exact nature of the Spirit’s testimony to the Scriptures. The believer, I should judge, always reads the Scriptures under the impulse of that testimony. If, then, he should arrive at the conclusion that there are actual errors in the Bible such too must be done under the Spirit’s influence.
The Spirit’s Witness: “Yes” and “No”?
Here again I must confess to a real difficulty. For it is also the Spirit’s testimony which assures me of that same Bible that it is absolutely reliable, fully perfect, a sufficient means to obtain God’s will by the medium of the printed page, and not in spite of this medium. In other words, the Spirit’s witness has convinced me of the divine perfections of the work, but that same witness supposedly makes me discover its imperfections.
The Spirit’s witness to the Scripture does not just testify to the authority of that which is authoritative in Scripture or to the inerrancy of that which is inerrant. No, the Spirit’s witness convinces me that this Scripture is worthy to be trusted for its own sake, it convinces me of the self-accreditation of Scripture, it makes me accept that Scripture as the wholly reliable embodiment in written form of God’s revelation. This is what we usually call Scripture’s sufficiency. It is significant that the “statement on Scripture”, put out by the lutheran Church, Missouri Synod, speaks in one breath of the “inerrancy and sufficiency of Scripture” (cf. Concordia Theological Monthly, February, 1959, pp. 136–139). But the testimony as to the Scripture’s sufficiency extends not to the content only, which would be contrary again to the self-attestation of Scripture, it extends to the form as well. That form is all-important for its content. The form is as it were its own content. (See also No.6 below.) Bavinck refers to some modern theologians who would hold to a T. Sp. Sancti (testimony of the Holy Spirit–K) extending to the content rather than to the form as something that is not acceptable and out of accord with Calvin’s thought on the matter (op. cit., p. 629).
3. THE BIBLE AND THE UNBELIEVER
Coming now to the evaluation of what the creeds have to sayan this matter there is an important passage in the Heidelberg Catechism which must not be entirely ignored. I am referring to the Catechism’s description of what true faith is. This passage, as I see it, has something to say about our attempts 10 rid the Bible of that which we consider to be unnecessary encumbrances which have been placed upon it, so it is held, by overly zealous apologetes.
The thing to be noticed in this 7th Lord’s Day, question 21, is the fact that the assent (assensus, as the older theologians would call it) to the contents of Scripture is just as much a part of saving faith as the confidence (fiducia) that I myself share in the saving benefits set forth in the gospel. We shall have to appeal to this important fact a little later on. Before we do so a few more general remarks about a Reformed apologetic (defense–K) for Scripture are in order.
Naturally, much good must be said of any attempt to present to the unbeliever a view of the Christian religion which is in keeping with Christianity’s intrinsic genius and yet faces modern man with the challenge of the gospel.
But a word of caution must be added here. The apologete for the Scripture should not forget that his opponent’s enmity against Scripture is not based on some peripheral (incidental–K) matters concerning what he deems to be scientific inaccuracy. Bavinck correctly points out; “Opposition to Scripture is in the first place a manifestation of the enmity of the human heart” (op. cit., p. 466). Hence, so he remarks; ‘“It remains the duty of every man, to put down first of all this enmity against the word of God and to lead all thoughts captive to the obedience of Christ” (p. 467).
Of course this does not excuse us from removing any unnecessary obstacles which we may have put in the unbeliever’s way. But much care should be taken how we proceed in doing so. Under no condition can the unbeliever be permitted to influence my definition of Christian doctrine with a reasoning that is basically alien to the thoughts of Scripture. If that should happen, then my definitions had ceased being definitions of faith. The only correct apology, then, for the Christian faith, in all its facets, is to sum up the unbeliever’s difficulties not upon his own terms but in the terms of God’s Word-revelation. There is not one element of our faith which at one time or other we share with the unbeliever. The assent part of our faith, of which the Heidelberg Catechism speaks, is just as much part of the Christian faith as the confidence part. To assert that the Bible misstates certain matters of historical detail is to assert that the Bible is a tolerably reliable, though not fully reliable record, and that in making that assertion believer and unbeliever are fully and happily agreed. But what has happened in the meantime to my “assent”, my “holding for truth” all that God has revealed in his Word? Have I now moved that element of my faith to the area where I meet and agree with the unbeliever? But then it has ceased to be that which the Heidelberg Catechism says it is, i.e., part of the true faith.
4. NOW TO THE PHENOMENA!
Perhaps this is just as god a place as any to introduce at least a preliminary discussion of the data of Scripture which the unbeliever says are giving him so much trouble to accept the Bible’s infallibility. As was noticed previously, we should avoid at this point to submit the Scripture to a standard or measurement as to its own infallibility which would be out of accord with its own genius. If the unbeliever should be tempted to do this it is our duty to point out to him that he is in error at this point. The proofs of Scripture’s claims are somewhat comparable to the proofs for God’s existence. The latter have no real value in proving God’s existence. Neither has an argument or standard not derived from Scripture any real applicability in this matter of ascertaining the precise claims of Scripture.
Here Goes The Paradigm!*
Does the Scripture contain grammatical mistakes? In a recent article in the Jewish Quarterly Review of January, 1959, the answer to that question is put negatively as far as the Old Testament goes. There is a more excellent way than to call the irregularities of Scripture language mistakes. In this article entitled: “Toward Broadening the Scope of Hebrew Grammar”, William Chomsky argues the point that the masoretes and scribes, due to whose efforts we now have the text of the Old Testament, were not conversant with the grammatical rules evolved at a later period. It would be wrong to attempt to fit the many unusual forms of the Bible into a Procrustean bed of conjugations. “To stigmatize these forms as exceptions, corruptions, or scribal errors is to evade the problem, not to solve it. A more satisfying solution must be sought” (op. cit. p. 181). The author then proceeds to point out a more “organic” way of explaining these alleged errors, a way in which full allowance is made for the natural processes of the language in the preparation of the Bible text. Though this is said with reference to the Old Testament, the same could be maintained with respect to the New Testament as well. Bavinck, e.g., when defining the concept of organic revelation, admits that we need not deny that “barbarisms and solecisms” occur in the New Testament. But he avoids calling them mistakes, though the dictionary may do so!
The present speaker has always felt this point to be of considerable importance. It is the more important because in the minds of some it is just self-understood that these grammatical irregularities must be called mistakes. But a more natural explanation can be found. Does this not by implication have a bearing on the whole range of the phenomena of Scripture?
*Paradigm: a grammatical model; an example of a noun or verb in its various forms.
Ignorance Was Not Bliss
I personally .have the feeling that the origin of our present discussion lies in the fact that the concept of organic revelation as developed by Reformed theology was not fully known, or, if k nown, not fully grasped. When reading Bavinck on Ihis point it is hard to find anywhere a more frank statement of the phenomena of Scripture. These phenomena are fully recognized by him. But at no point is the word mistake used with regard to them. It is here that the difference in method appears. Bavinck fully recognizes the unique purpose of Scripture. It is a very good feature of the current dispute that this purpose is again given much emphasis. It is Scripture’s purpose to make salvation known to man by means of an historical record, so that man may serve God after having been redeemed from his sin. Within that purpose and in harmony with it the “onnauwkeurigheden” of the written record, the non-scientific mode of speaking and olher details receive their proper place and recognition. Bavinck admits thaI the language of
Scripture is that of daily observation. The Bible does not choose between two world views. It is even admitted that the Bible authors in matters of science knew probably no more than their contemporaries. Hence to attribute such statements of natural fact to erroneous conceptions of science is simply irrelevant. In other words, it is not so that it was irrelevant to the Spirit’s purpose to correct such mistakes. They were not even mistakes and hence needed no correction. To insist upon calling them mistakes is not in the best interest of the Christian faith, and it does not help the unbeliever. The latter should simply be made to see that he is utterly misjudging the Scripture when applying to it the categories of scientific accuracy in the sense of the 20th century.
Scripture-Event Ruled Out!
The same thing can also be said with respect to historical detail. It is at this point that a prior observation is called for. Not only the so-called historical portions of Scripture come under this heading. All of Scripture is historical. It is from beginning to end an historical record; its poetic sections, its prophecies, its “doctrinal” parts, its narratives, its apocalypse; they are all intensely historical. Not just the events recorded therein are historical and hence supposedly subject to the possibility of misstatement . The Scripture itself is a historical event of the first order. It is so through its inspiration, which is a “mighty act of God” as the lutheran document puts it. For such a “mighty act of God” the scientific way of history-writing simply cannot make allowance. For this confronts history with an inescapable claim which disrupts once and for all the cause and effect connection of “ordinary” history-writing. Hence the fierce discussion carried on in Biblical Theology as to the nature of a historical revelation. When, therefore, a certain view of history is applied to Scripture, not just part of it but all of it must needs be pervasively fallible. But we may not apply that kind of historical canon to Scripture. Bavinck tells us that Higher Criticism is placing that unjust demand upon Scripture. He informs us that Scripture just can not and must not be judged by that standard. History viewed through the eye of the unbeliever is not what Scripture says it is, the purposeful unfolding of God’s plan for mankind. Hence the very event of Scripture cannot be placed anywhere in the historical framework of human history. Only a pervasively fallible Bible can.
If, then, we should apply this same canon of scientific history-writing to the Bible in matters of certain historical details we would run the risk of ending up denying the entire possibility of the Bible as an inspired record in history. If it was not the purpose of the Spirit to prevent some historical inaccuracies, judged by modern scientific standards, from getting into the sacred record, we fail to see how this more ultimate denial of Scripture’s very existence In history can consistently be avoided. But to grant this possibility would leave us with a subjectivism which is boundless. Exegesis would not avail us in really making sure of God’s will. And if we somehow thought we had made sure of it, this will of God would lack authority, it would share the relative with that which is relative. Only my faith could possibly invest it with authority, but that faith itself would have been reduced to a mere subjective experience.
5. RECENT FORM CRITICISM LINKS FORM AND CONTENT
G. Von Rad’s recent attempt to build up a Biblical Theology in combination with a history of the traditions of Israel is perhaps as strong a negative proof for the existence of infallibility as can be imagined. His work proceeds on the basis of a complete denial and of a complete affirmation of the Old Testament canon (Theologie des Alten Testaments, by Gerhard Von Rad, 1957). Considerably more time and effort must go info the precise formulation of this point which is still relatively new in my thinking. But I do think it to be an important argument in the present discussion. Von Rad seeks to build or reconstruct the canon of Scripture out of the elements of Israel’s faith. These elements of Israel’s faith are, upon the assumption of inspiration, the inspired content of the Bible. Of this inspired content of the Bible it appears to be necessary for modern Old Testament scholarship to find a solid support in the canon of Scripture. Apparently the two are so closely allied that one is driven to explain the one in terms of the other. In other words, every single element of Israel’s experience is here deemed important in order to explain the product called the Old Testament. The canon, according to Von Rad, is the precipitate of Israel’s faith experience, and Israel’s faith experience can be traced only by means of a verbal analysis of the canon. Apparently the two mutually support each other and can properly be explained only in terms of each other. The canon is seen to grow gradually out of the elements of Israel’s faith, and the elements of that faith are closely interwoven with, better yet, identical with that canon. In terms of our faith in inspiration this means that the inspired will of God for our salvation is immediately linked up with the written canon which embodies it, in its entirety and its parts.
6. DO THE CREEDS EVER FAIL US?
Perhaps a few more remarks should be made at this point concerning the creeds and their place in the present discussion. It is not our purpose to analyze at this point or in this lecture the exact content of the creed. There is another point which seems to be even more important at the present moment. It concerns the way in which the creeds must be used in order to judge a certain opinion as to its soundness or lack of soundness. This holds good for those who wish to judge other opinions than their own; it also holds good for those who wish to further Reformed thought and action by developing new thoughts of their own.
One sometimes hears it said that there are certain points on which the creeds simply have nothing to say. Such points consequently are said to be incapable of being judged in the light of the creeds. They are apparently outside creedal control. It is even conceivable, according to this type of reasoning, to consider a position unsound and yet to declare that this position is not in conflict with the creed.
The Three “Forms of Unity” As Form of Commitment
This it seems to me is a point of view which operates with a particular conception of the creed’s place and function in the church which is not the Reformed conception. The creed, according to Reformed opinion, is not a somewhat antiquated statement of doctrinal beliefs held by the church over the years. Of course, the creed is a historical document. But in a creedal church it is also a form of Christian commitment, of contemporary Christian commitment.
How then do we proceed when developing new opinions ourselves or judging new opinions of others? Do we arrive at a certain point where the creed simply has no longer anything to say in the matter that engages us? But how do we determine that the creed at a given moment has nothing more to say? I should think that this conclusion can only be reached by examining the creed, by assessing its contents carefully, and by doing this IN THE LIGHT OF THE PROBLEMS BEFORE US. For that is precisely the purpose why presumably we turned to the creeds in the first place.
If, then, we have assessed the creeds with that purpose in mind we must have come to a conclusion as to what the creeds allow concerning the matter which occupies us. But this is a positive conclusion with regard to the creed’s bearing on the matter at hand. No negative judgment concerning the creed’s alleged silence on a certain point can be reached except through this positive evaluation of the creed’s teaching on the general subject of our interest. Which is really saying that the negative judgment is cancelled out by a prior positive judgment which we have made, either wittingly or unwittingly.
Unity of Doctrine
Christian doctrine is basically one, since he is one who gave it to us. All of its parfs are related to the whole of it. No new opinion launched is worthy of serious consideration unless tested in the light of the creeds. And the more basic the creed the easier it will be to find the relationship of our particular problem to its contents.
7. AVOIDING AN UNREAL DILEMMA
There are other aspects which could be touched upon in a lecture under this topic. The question could be raised: against what do we aim our polemic? What situation do we seek to cure? How do we intend to use our time most profitably? Where do we look for the greatest threat to our Christian faith when setting out on an apologetic effort of some sari? Is our greatest foe in the Christian Reformed Church the position of the fundamentalist? Is it, in this matter of de fin i n g our faith concerning Scripture, the view which holds to a mechanical type of inspiration and infallibility? As one listens carefully to some of the intelligentsia and observes their attitudes and aims as expressed orally or in writing, the opinion must be ventured that some of our efforts are perhaps too one-sidedly directed at a refutation of what we think are fundamentalist traits among us.
Personally, I think that fundamentalism, as usually understood in a sense distinct from the orthodox Reformed position, is indeed a serious threat to any Christian church which seeks to be Biblically oriented in the full sense of that term. I am willing to go further and assert that fundamentalism has often proved to be a fertile ground for modernism within American churches. But though this threat from the side of fundamentalism against our church may be serious, it will be actual only if we should find no other alternative to combat it than by means of a diluted form of liberalism. Only that polemic will prove successful and fruitful for our church which rises above the unreal and hence misleading dilemma of fundamentalism versus modernism and judges both in the light of a vigorous reaffirmation of the Reformed faith at its best. But in order to reaffirm this faith we shall have to know it, and love it, and take a delight in it. I should think that “casing Berkhof” is part, though not all, of this.
Let us all have the strength of convictions. But let us also remember that there is nothing very meritorious about the strength of wrong convictions or the strength of good convictions wrongly put.
In conclusion, let us bow before the authority of Scripture, and let us remember that this phrase, if it means anything at all, means exactly what it says: to bow before the authority of Scripture. It does not mean that we bow before that which is authoritative in Scripture, if by that we should mean that this authority of Scripture, though somehow bound up with Scripture, does not extend to all its parts. Such a position, however appealingly stated and however sincerely embraced, is not Reformed, neither is it Scriptural. It is spiritualistic, subjectivistic and a number of other “istics.” But he whose faith is nourished with nothing but the pure stream of the Word of God thanks his God for having been pleased to commit his will “wholly unto writing,” “for the better preserving and propagating of the truth, and for the more sure establishment and comfort of the Church against the corruption of the flesh, and the malice of Satan and of the world.”
Surely, “the word is very nigh unto thee, in thy mouth, and in thy heart that thou mayest do it.”