“New” Views of Scripture

Recently we received two booklets written by Reformed scholars in the Netherlands. They arc part of a new series, called “Cahiers voor de gemeente.” Their purpose is to explain topical theological problems to interested “laymen,” The first two booklets deal with the doctrine of Scripture. Dr. J. L. Koole. Professor of O.T. in the seminary at Kampen, writes on “Story and Fact in the Old Testament.” Mr. Tj. Baarda, M.Th., assistant in the N.T. department of the Free University at Amsterdam, writes on “The trustworthiness of the Gospels.” As many of our readers are naturally interested in what is going on in Reformed circles in the Netherlands, we have decided to discuss these two booklets together.

We shall first give a short survey of the contents of each booklet and then make some critical comments.

“Story and Fact in the O.T.”

In the first chapter Prof. Koole shows the important place history occupies in the O.T. The biblical revelation is inseparably linked up with history.

Ch. II deals with the question: How did the O.T. authors write history? From the O.T. itself it is clear that they used various written sources. This is also true of the so-called Pentateuch ( the first five books of the O.T.). Prof. K. has no objection to accepting the so-called source-hypothesis, but he explicitly dissociates himself from the unbiblical presuppositions which characterized this hypothesis when it was framed in the 19th century. Much emphasis is placed on the oral tradition, in which for centuries stories were transmitted from the one generation to the other. It is characteristic of oral tradition, according to Prof. K., that more attention is given to vividness of style than to exactness of fact (p. 26). This is evident in historical poetry (cf. Judges 5, compared with ch. 4 ), but also in “popular stories” (volksverhalen), novels (e.g., the Joseph stories) and miracle stories (e.g., around Elijah and Elisha). Yet the author maintains: “Thus the historians of Israel reported the facts in the light of God’s plan that had been revealed to them” (p. 35).

The most important chapter is eh. III that deals with “historical trustworthiness.” Prof. K. rejects both the 19th century hyper-critical approach, which destroyed the historicity of large parts of the O.T., and the orthodox reaction, which maintained that every story and every detail of every story was literally infallible. Yet he himself also wants to uphold the authority of Scripture. To solve the tension he virtually introduces the distinction between centre and periphery (p. 47). In addition, inspiration does not exclude research on the side of the Bible writers (48). We should further realize that not only a poet but a story-teller as well has a certain liberty. Not every story is meant as a literal report. Prof. K. illustrates his views by a very short discussion of the problems connected with Gen. 1–11, the miracle stories, the often exceptionally large numbers in the O.T., and the relation between the O.T. and archeological findings. In connection with the latter he also discusses the story of the conquest of Jericho and Ai, in Joshua 6–8. He accepts as final the conclusions of recent excavators who have had said that Jericho had already been destroyed 500 years before Joshua. The best solution is to regard Joshua 6–8 as a symbolical story. Something great may have happened at the time of the conquest, but the form in which the story is told is a matter of “preaching” rather than of fact.

In a very brief final chapter (pp. 62-65) Dr. K. only touches upon the question of inspiration. He rejects the identification of inspiration and infallibility. The fact that the O.T. is inspired means: that God is at work in history; that he fulfills his plan; that he acts in a covenant-relationship with his people Israel.

“The Trustworthiness of the Gospels”

In the introduction to his booklet Mr. Baarda mentions the traditional-Reformed view which he describes in the following words of Prof. Grosheide: “All that the N.T. tells is true in the sense of having happened as it is described.” Mr. B.’s own thesis is that this is no longer tenable.

Ch. I deals with “Historical Problems.” There are many things in the Gospels which do not tally. Several examples are mentioned. There are the various schemes of Jesus’ journeys. According to Mr. B., Matthew several times “corrects” Mark’s scheme. There are different chronologies. Did Jesus’ public ministry last one year (as the first three Gospels seem to indicate) or three years (as John says)? There are diverging stories, such as those of Jesus’ baptism by John, the calling of the diSCiples, the raising of the daughter of Jairus, the healing of the blind man at Jericho, etc. There are differences in the accounts of Jesus’ words; e.g., in the Beatitudes, the Lord’s Prayer, the confession of Peter, the story of the rich young ruler, Jesus’ apocalyptic discourse, etc. At the end of the chapter Mr. B. concludes: not everything did really happen in the way it has been reported in the Gospels. But this. he says, is no wonder, for there was a rather long interval between the original facts and the writing of our present Gospels.

Ch. II deals with the problem: How did our Gospels come into existence? Mr. B. sees it as a long process of development that took place in four stages. (a) The original facts. These arc very hard to find. This is not only so because the other stages lie as “layers” on top of these facts, but in particular ‘also because after the resurrection of Christ the believers could not but see all the original facts in the light of the resurrection (pp. 50ff.). They immediately projected the image of the victorious Lord back into his earthly life and saw his life before the resurrection already in this glorious light. (b) This leads immediately to the second stage. The facts of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection became part of the preaching of the early church. Tn this preaching the facts were seen in the light of the O.T. prophecies. Often the facts were told in the words of these prophecies and at times the facts were transformed (52). In this way the story of Jesus became part of the “tradition” of the early church. Naturally all kinds of interests in the early church itself (catechesis, defense of the Gospel, edification of the church, etc.) influenced this tradition. Sometimes words and stories were put into Jesus’ mouth, which had never been really said or done by Jesus himself (63f.). (c) Gradually several collections of words and stories came into existence, which have served as basic material for our Evangelists. (d) Finally, our present Gospels were written. The authors wanted to tell the story of Jesus, the living Lord, but in doing this each one of them had his own theological motive. John, for instance. wants to show that the redemption is not a matter of the future only, but also of the present, and so he emphaSizes that Jesus is the Redeemer. This explains why we find all these “I am…” statements of Jesus in his GospeL Most likely these were teachings of the N.T. prophets, put into Jesus’ mouth (75).

The conclusion of Ch. In is, naturally, inescapable. The Gospels are not “historically trustworthy” in the traditional sense. The author admits even the possibility of saga’s and legends in the N.T. (81). Several stories (such as that of the withered fig tree in Matt. 21:18-22, the fish with the shekel in its mouth in Matt. 17:24–27 and the resurrection of the saints in Matt. 27:52, 53) may be nothing else than “popular stories” (volksverhalen). At the same time Mr. B. wants to maintain that the Gospels Me trustworthy, but then in a religious sense: they still move people to accept Jesus as the Christ and Saviour.

Some General Observations

On purpose we have given these rather extensive summaries of the two booklets. We do realize that at times the indications are somewhat “technical” and that not all our readers may be able to follow these arguments in all details. Yet we felt it necessary to give these details in order to do justice to both the authors and the problems they discuss.



In many ways these booklets are characteristic of what at the moment is going on in the Reformed Churches of the Netherlands. It is not surprising that many people in and outside the Netherlands are bewildered. Twenty-five years ago it would have been impossible for Reformed theologians to write such things without getting into “difficulties.” What is more, Reformed theologians would have refused to teach such things. They were firmly committed to the classical Reformed doctrine of Scripture.

What then has changed? Prof. Koole mentions two facts. First, there are the data of science. Even Christian scientists now generally believe that hundreds of thousands of years ago there were man-like beings on earth. But how can one square this with the genealogies of Genesis 5 and 10, which seem to indicate that Adam lived c.4000 B.C.? Secondly, there is the development of the study of Scripture. We now know more about the way the Bible books have actually been written and it is not as simple as it was often thought in the past.

I believe that it cannot be denied that there is some truth of these facts. It is true that science confronts us with problems which were not as pressing for the previous generations as they are now. It is also true that the “human” side of Scripture is better understood in our time than ever before. In a way I appreciate the honesty of the two scholars whose booklets we are discussing. They do not “beat about the bush,” but frankly state what they believe. But, of course, honesty is no guarantee of truth. Personally I have some very serious objections to both booklets. No doubt, the views of both authors are not identical. Prof. K. is much more careful than Mr. B. and his results are by far not as radical as those of Mr. B. Yet I believe that basically both share the same approach and use the same method.

Critical Comments

(1) Both authors have adopted the so-called inductive approach. In the past Reformed theologians always used the deductive approach. That means, they always started from Scripture’s own testimony about itself. Scripture claims to be the inspired Word of God. It claims that the authors have written under a special guidance of the Holy Spirit (II Tim. 3:16; 11 Pet. 1:21; etc.). For this reason the whole Bible is the Word of God. Only after this, and within this context, Reformed theologians used to study the history of the books as they lie before us, i.e., the human aspect of the Bible.

The “new” approach is the other way round. It starts with the study of the books themselves. How have the books been written? What is their structure? What processes of tradition can we find in them? etc. In other words, all emphasis is laid on the human side. Only after this the inspired character of the books is discussed. At least, that is what Dr. K. does. In the last chapter he says a few things about inspiration. But it is indeed, only “a few things”! The guidance of the Spirit is not denied, of course, but its nature and extent is determined by the scientific conclusions reached by the scholar. In the case of Mr. B. it is even worse. He never really discusses the inspiration of the Gospels. They seem to be just human documents. Whether the Holy Spirit has anything to do with it, is passed over in silence.

Personally I believe that this whole approach is wrong. These theologians start at the wrong encl. If you do not start with Scripture’s own claim, you will never get a proper doctrine of Scripture. Your view of the real nature of Scripture will always depend on the conclusions of the historian. If this historian is rather radical (as Mr. B. is). the resulting doctrine of Scripture will be one which strongly emphasizes the historical unreliability of Scripture. If he is more moderate (as Dr. K. is), the historical reliability will be maintained to a large extent. But in both cases it is a matter of human evaluation, and the difference is one of degree only.

Dr. H. Bavinck once wrote in his “Reformed Dogmatics” (Vol. I, 394): “Everyone who makes his doctrine of Scripture dependent upon the historical examination of its formation and structure, in fact begins already with rejecting the testimony of Scripture and therefore does not stand any more in the attitude of faith in Scripture.”

(2) Both theologians seem to accept the so-called form-critical method in the study of Scripture. At this moment we cannot go into the details of this method (we hope to come back to this point in a later article), but, among other things, it means that in the period of oral tradition the believing community gradually altered, transformed and, at times, added to the basic facts. In the case of Mr. B. this is very evident. He assumes that the Christian congregation put certain utterances of later Christian prophets into the mouth of the historical Jesus. Prof. K., who is much more moderate and careful, also adopts this kind of view, especially in his interpretation of the story of the conquest of Jericho.

Personally I believe that, apart from the fact that it is a, matter of pure speculation, it is also a very dangerous method. In fact, it is the same method which, for instance. Rudolf Bultmann applies to the resurrection. According to him the stories of the appearances and of the empty tomb must not be taken literally. They are only attempts of the later Christian congregations to express their belief that in Jesus Christ we find the real deliverance from the power of sin. But there never was a real resurrection.

Let me immediately add that I do not want to suggest that either Mr. B. or Prof. K. denies the resurrection. On the contrary, both affirm it. I only say: there is no difference in method. If the story of Jericho may be taken as a piece of “theological interpretation,” why not the appearances and the empty tomb as well? How can one say to Bultmann and his followers that they go too far? Is this not a matter of subjective opinion?

(3) Both authors abandon the idea of the infallibility of Scripture. This has always been the view of the whole Christian Church throughout the centuries, at least lip to the 17th century, when the critical approach started. In spite of all the problems (which have always been recognized!) all theologians and all Churches, both the R. C. and the Reformation Churches, believed that Scripture is infallible in all that it teaches. The “new” views of Scripture no longer maintain this.

It is true, of course. that there are difficulties. Perhaps we are more aware of them than any generation before us. It is also true that in the past the term “infallible” at times has been handled in a way which cannot stand the test of Scripture itself. The infallibility of Scripture is definitely not a kind of “dictionary infallibility.” One of the characteristics of ancient historiography (and the Bible books are ancient writings in the full sense of the word ) is that it did not know our modern standards of accuracy. Hence the “rough” way figures, genealogies, etc., are handled. Yet this does not in any way affect the reliability which Scripture claims for itself. This claim is that it is the reliable revelation of God. In the NT , for instance, we read again and again of the “eye-and earwitnesses.” In his second letter Peter writes: “We did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty” (1:16). But what is left of this, if the “new” method· is consistently followed? Once again. I am sure that these authors still accept all the facts of salvation. We arc not dealing with their personal beliefs, not even with the results of their scientific work. We ask these questions with a view to their method. In our opinion the trustworthiness of Scripture has essentially been undermined by the adoption of the “new” approach and method.

(4) On purpose 1 have put the word “new” between quotation marks. In reality, of course, these things are not new at all. For a very long time they have been accepted in the “critical” theology. Admittedly, in the critical theologians these views are often combined with un-biblical presuppositions. Bultmann, for example, believes that miracles are impossible, for we live in a closed world, ruled by the iron Jaws of nature. I am sure that every Reformed theologian rejects all such presuppositions. Yet it cannot be denied that the critical methodology is now accepted as legitimate by some Reformed theologians. In this respect one can speak of “new” views, but the only really “new” aspect in it is that it is now being found in Reformed circles!

It all means, however, that there is no principal difference any more between these Reformed theologians and other critical scholars, as far as their approach to Scripture is concerned. Undoubtedly, there are many differences as to special points. But as to approach and method, they are working along the same lines.

All these critical comments are not meant to deny that there are difficult problems in the doctrine of Scripture. In fact, this has always been admitted. Augustine already knew about them, and Luther and Calvin, Kuyper and Bavinck, Hodge and Warfield as well. Yet they always took their starting point in Scripture’s own claim and discussed the problems within this context. I personally fully agree with Prof. H. Sasse of Adelaide, when he writes: “Whatever the answer to these questions may be, one thing Christian theology can never admit, namely, the presence of ‘errors’ in the sense of false statements in Holy Scripture.” This, of course, is a statement of faith. But what other attitude is possible when one deals with God’s Word?

Of determinative significance for every Reformed believer is the view of Biblical inspiration which is held by him, by his minister and by the church to which he belongs. No longer can it be said that even within confessional Reformed churches there is unanimity of conviction on this score. “New” views (which by no means so new as their proponents would have us believe) are being propagated. Prof. Klaas Runia of the Reformed Theological College, Geelong (Victoria), in Australia, analyzes and evaluates some of these views for the reader.