Professor H. M. Kuitert, “Understandest Thou What Thou Readest?” (I)

A Conversation

Mr. Churchmember: “We are only simple people, used to reading the Bible just as it is written.”

The Pastor: “What do you mean?” Mr. Churchmember: “I mean that we take the first chapters of Genesis literally, that is, we read them just as they are written.”

The Pastor: “Do you mean that you’d like the first chapters of Genesis to be understood as a description of events which actually occurred in a former age?”

Mr. Churchmember: “Yes, precisely.”

The Pastor: “In Genesis 3:21 we read that the Lord made garments of animal skins for the man and his wife. Must we read this literally, understanding it just as it is written?”

Mr. Churchmember: “Oh, but that is something altogether different!”

This imaginary conversation is taken from a small book by Prof. Dr. H. M. Kuitert of the Free University, Amsterdam. When we speak of it as “a small book” we are not reflecting upon the significance of its content but upon its physical size. It is only 84 pages. It was published by J. H. Kok as a part of the well-known series, Cahiers voor de Gemeente (something like “Workbooks for the Congregation” –J.H.P.). The title is: Understandest Thou What Thou Readest?, and the purpose of the book is to provide the church member with some insight into things now current in theology. To that end the author has sought to popularize certain things that he would like to have known from out of the area of present-day theological activity.

He has, in our opinion, succeeded. Although this book scarcely qualifies as something easily read while, say, taking a train ride, anyone who has a genuine concern and will put out some concentrated effort will gain trustworthy information. Dr. Kuitert belongs to what might be called the Reformed renovationist group of theologians. And we ought not to deny him right to the name Reformed too hastily. If we would do that we would deprive ourselves of the opportunity to speak to him from out of the Reformed confession.

Kuitert’s book opens with the conversation cited above. This conversation is much like an opening move in a chess match. It has great signi6cance for the entire book. In it as an overture we note the theme and tempo of the whole piece. It is worthwhile to give this conversation close examination all by itself, disregarding for the moment later elucidation and further correction.

Dr. Kuitert observes that it is “a little conversation, one which anyone might experience, for the purpose of illustration” (p. 7).

This we doubt.

In thirty-6ve years of pastoral experience we have never participated in such a conversation, nor initiated one. Nor is it possible for anyone to share in such a conversation. That is possible only when the conditions required for such a discussion are present. It can happen only when a church member says to his pastor, “we are only simple people, used to reading the Bible just as it is written,” for then the member is either attacking or defending against his minister whom he knows not to read the Bible “just as it is written.” He knows that his attitude toward the Bible is different from that of his pastor. Which, in fact, quickly comes to light! This conversation is very “situational.” It presupposes tension between a disturbed church member and his minister.

The Parties in This Conversation

Those sharing in this conversation are a single church member (who also speaks in behalf of others: “we…”) and his pastor. They are two brothers in the communion of faith. So they are repeatedly identified by the designations church member and pastor. In reality, however, these two are not speaking on the same plane. Their conversation takes place at a distance. The one speaks as a simple person, which, according to the context, means an individual without formal. advanced education. The other allows himself to be spoken to as a not-simple person, which means here that he is a theologian, a man of some scientific theological standing. This the pastor does not bother to correct.

The relationship, therefore, is that of a “layman” to an “expert.” For that reason this conversation has little chance to succeed, which is very evident at its close. The church member by his pastor, the layman by the expert is admittedly argued into a bind, although he remains unconvinced and refuses to concede defeat. “Oh, but that is something altogether different!”—this is the familiar defense of the defenseless, one who has actually been put out of action. but who is not willing therefore to concede defeat.

Rightly viewed, of course. this conversation is not a dialogue. It is a pair of monologues tacked on to each other. In them each one sticks tenaciously to his point as the partners succeed to injure each other. but do not actually reach a meaningful contact. The unrighteousness in this conversation is perpetrated mainly by the pastor, whose activity bears some resemblance to violence.


Within the church. the congregation of believers, such a conversation as Kuitert sketches is illegitimate. As a rule a pastor has studied theology. Let us assume that after graduation he continued studying. His office as pastor in the church is not therefore a scientific. theological office. He occupies the pulpit not as a theologian but as a member of the congregation of believers. In the exercise of his ecclesiastical service he can and may and must make use of much of that which the science of theology has enabled him to learn. but that which he says and teaches and does in the church may never be said and taught and done upon the basis of an appeal to his scientific knowledge. Nor may he ever use that knowledge as a means by which he lakes advantage of his congregation and renders it speechless and dumb.

On the contrary. the minister may defend and maintain the rightness of his ministry only by an appeal to the Holy Scriptures. which are entrusted to the members of the congregation as well as to him. The pastor is but one member of the congregation. and it remains to be seen if he is one of its noblest. The scientific knowledge which he has gained is not a knowledge of a higher order. The real mystery or secret of the Scriptures is unlocked not by science but by use of the key of faith.

It would seem that this is quite obvious in a fellowship which is not founded by or upon science but is built upon the foundation, Jesus Christ, as laid by the apostles and prophets. Jesus Christ was not a theologian, still less the apostles and prophets, “I was no prophet. neither was I a prophet’s son; but I was a herdsman and a gatherer of sycamore fruit; and the Lord look me as I followed the flock….” Amos 7:14, 15. The confusion of faith’s knowledge with that of scientific theology, of the pulpit with the academic, professorial chair, has often proved fatal for the church, And no scientific title. not even a scientifically theological one. confers upon its bearer the right and the competence as such to speak authoritatively in the congregation of believers, This qualification comes only from the Holy Spirit.

Any church member, therefore. who humbly kneels before the theologian is being influenced by a misplaced meekness. and any pastor-theologian who allows himself to be addressed in terms of such homage is being moved by a misplaced feeling of his own significance.

Anyone who breaks into the sheepfold of Christ by the gate of scientific theology—we are not talking now of intentions and motives!—is one of those who “climbeth up some other way.” John 10:1.

The Conversation Itself

In the conversation it appears that the “layman” and the “expert” read the Bible in different ways. The layman says that he (and others) are “only (!) simple people,” and that they are “used to reading the Bible just as it is written.” The preacher-expert asks further about this customary, familiar way of reading. Such an observation on the part of a church member does not just fall out of the air, of course. It presupposes that an unresolved difference exists between pastor and church member, a difference, among others, as to the meaning of the first chapters of Genesis. What the minister already well knows is repeated (redundantly!) by the church member: “I mean that we take the first chapters of Genesis literally. that is, we read them just as they are written.”

This repeated explanation implies also that Mr. Church Member knows that his pastor docs not read the Bible that way, And he has an explanation for this. The difference is traceable to the fact that he is “only a simple” person, and the minister is educated. Still more: Mr. Church Member believes that in spite of his learning the minister ought to read the Bible “just as it is written.” There is a distinct trace of resistance in that which Mr. Church Member says to his pastor. It is resistance against a science that would reduce him to a spiritually immature child without the right to say anything in the church. Against a science which would hinder him from reading the Bible literally, and bind him in his use of Scripture to the leash of the pastor-expert.

And that church member is for all the world most right!

For he is of age (Dutch: mondig).

He can read the Bible.

He belongs to that people to whom Cod already gave His Word in lhe Old Testament so that uneducated Israelitish fathers could teach their children diligently that which their Lord had commanded by Moses, “when thou sittest in thine house. and when thou walkest by the way. and when thou liest down, and when thou risest up.” Deut. 6:6, 7. And that Word was so near, so accessible that no intermediary was required to bring it back from beyond the sea of to bring it down from out of heaven. Deut. 30:11–14. Still more, the fathers who knew that Word could tell it in all simplicity to their children, Ps. 78:5–11.

This grace is not less in the New Testament, but more abundant, Rom. 10:4–15. The entire congregation shares in the anointing of Christ, I John 2:20, 27, not to mention the promise in Joel 2:28–32 which is fulfilled on Pentecost by the sending of the Spirit, Acts 2.

Let no one cast against this the objection that the church has often erred in its understanding of Scripture. That cannot be denied. But he who maintains therefore that the church must depend upon the support of scientific theology is leaning upon a rod which is sure to splinter and pierce our hands. The history of theologies reveals that they have erred as often in their understanding of Scripture. From the days of the Jewish scribes to the present moment.

As to the point at issue: One ought only to read as recommended by Mr. Church Member, that is, literally, just as it is written. So alone ought we to read the poetry of Homer, the dialogue of Plato, the daily paper and our love letters. By that procedure a great deal of foolishness and a little bit of wisdom will come into view.

Such respect for the text, for that which has been written is no less proper in our reading of the Holy Scriptures. In them the Lord Jesus raised the question, “What is written in the law? how readest thou?” Luke 10:26. And then it soon became evident that the sense of that which was so read does appear in conjunction with its reading.

In the meantime it is evident that the pastor wants no piece of the expression: “reading just as it is written.” He asks of his member further clarification: “You mean that you’d like the first chapters of Genesis to be understood as a description of events which actually occurred in a former age?”

This seemingly very simple question really conceals a great deal more than might appear on the surface. To illustrate: What are “the first chapters of Genesis?” Genesis 1 and 2? Genesis 1 to 3? Genesis 1 to 10? or 1 to 11? Why not 12 to 14? And: What is meant by the word “events”? Does it mean the creation of heaven and earth as described in Genesis 1, by which the very basis for all historic happenings was laid? Was this creation itself “an event,” a historic happening? Isn’t the pastor-expert confusing a few things, namely, the truthfulness of this or that thing with its possible historicity?

Mr. Church Member replies that he would indeed read “the first chapters of Genesis” as “a description of events which actually occurred in a former age.” Having said this, he is forthwith argued down by his pastor with the observation: “In Genesis 3:21 we read that the Lord God made garments of animal skins for the man and his wife. Must we read this literally, understanding it just as it is written?”

Mr. Church Member is stuck, and can only answer: “Oh, but that is something altogether different!”

We have said earlier that although the non-professional participant in this conversation is hopelessly checkmated by the questions of his pastor, rendered defenseless, so to speak, he refuses to concede defeat. He wields the weaponry of the defenseless by replying, “that is altogether different.”

Genesis 3:21

Rightly viewed both pastor and member have run stuck, although not without a difference. They agree that Genesis 3:21 cannot be read literally. The difference is that the pastor-expert attaches to this the consequence that therefore the first chapters of Genesis in their entirety cannot be taken literally . The church member does not draw this conclusion. The pastor says: Genesis 3:21 says something which cannot be read just as it is written, and therefore it and the first chapters of the Bible are not descriptive of actual historical happenings out of a past age. The church member, on the other hand, maintains: I take the first chapters of Genesis literally and as a description of actual occurrences in spite of Genesis 3:21.

In any event the church member has a distinct advantage over his pastor. After all, if a narrative contains a passage which is not to be taken literally, does it justifiably follow that therefore the entire narrative is not to be read just as it is written? And, secondly, if that particular passage is not to be taken literally, does it necessarily follow that what it says never happened?

Does “not literally” mean the same thing as “never happened?”

If something revealed in the Scriptures is not to be read literally, does it follow that it never actually happened? When Stephen in his address before the Jewish council says, “But Solomon builded him a house,” Acts 7:47, one can hardly take this literally to mean that Solomon personally was busy with hod and mortar, with hammer and saw. Anyone who would take that text literally in such a fashion, justifying his interpretation by saying, “But that is the way it is written,” would be doing violence to the text. It is plain from the larger context of the Scriptures that Solomon was neither a mason or a carpenter, and that the text means that he was the one who took the initiative in the building of the temple, organizing, financing and supervising its construction.

Similarly the Bible speaks of God as the One who formed us in our mother’s womb, Ps. 139. And we ought to read Genesis 3:21 in the same way as we read such passages. When it says that God made garments out of animal skins for Adam and his wife and clothed them, the letter of the text does not at all require that we think that God himself did the work of a furrier or tailor. That does not really appear there. What is said is that the Lord God made garments for Adam and Eve out of animal hides, and that he clothed them therewith, and that all of this was done in the very same way in which Psalm 139 says that he formed our inward parts, and in the same manner in which Stephen could say that Solomon built for his God a house.

And that much is expressly, literally said in the text! As a statement of fact. Nor do we have to flee for refuge here with the late G. Ch. Aalders by taking Genesis 3:21 “as an anthropomorphic manner of speaking” (Korte Verklaring der Heilige Schrift, Genesis, I, p. 141). And it is altogether unnecessary with Aalders to be reminded of this statement from Calvin: “it is entirely in conflict with the spiritual, invisible being of God for us to imagine that the Almighty with His own hands slaughtered and skinned a few animals, sewing the hides together in order to be able to cover our first parents with the thereby manufactured garments.”

Nothing like that is said in Genesis 3:21 either.

How it all took place is not told us. The how of this matter is not to be sought in the way indicated by Calvin, nor by speaking of “an anthropomorphic manner of speaking.”

The Lord took care of our first parents. He made for them garments even as Solomon builded for him a temple.

And that really happened.

And the information, the knowledge of that historic occurrence we can get by reading the text of Genesis 3:21 literally, just as it is written, in the same way that we would read Acts 7:47.

With this we conclude our remarks on the conversation itself as presented by Prof. Kuitert. We must not fail to point out, however, that Prof. Kuitert has presented in this book certain things which deserve further discussion. We hope to return to these a next time.

Editor’s Note: G. Visee is a pastor in the Reformed Churches (Art. 31) of The Netherlands and a member of the Editorial Board of OPBOUW, a Dutch weekly. In this periodical he presented a serIe$ of articles in reaction to Prof, H. M. Kuiten’s recent book, UNDERSTANDEST THOU WHAT THOU READEST? (published. by J. H. Kok N.V., Kampen). Prof. Kuitert is well-known to many of us because of his lectures at the 1968 Conference of Christian Reformed Ministers, his writing’s and the comments upon these in various publications. In our opinion Rev. Visee’s review offers many valuable insights, and we will try to make the series available in this journal. The translator is John H. Piersma.