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

The Nature of this Book

Prof. Kuitert…invites “the congregation” to a conversation on the thematic idea of this book, namely, the understanding of Holy Scripture. AI· though this book has its own theological and philosophical starting-points, the author has not placed these on the docket for discussion, but rather a number of faith-judgments regarding the Bible. among which is THE faith-judgment of the Belgic Confession (Art. 5): “We receive all these books, and these only, as holy and canonical, for the regulation, foundation, and confirmation of our faith.”

Now Prof. Kuitert is not of a mind to reject the Holy Scriptures as the only rule of faith. That may serve, therefore, as the fixed starting-point for our discussion. What we arc talking about concerns that confession, of course, which is to say that it really has to do with the Scriptures’ own testimony about itself.
What does it mean when we say, The Bible is the Word of God?

The Bible is the Word of God…?

Prof. Kuitert argues that when we declare that the Bible is the Word of Cod we are not by virtue of that declaration finished with the matter. We are not therefore out of every difficulty.

Kuitert’s observation on this score does not represent something new. N0 one, busying himself with the task of understanding the Bible from out of the prior judgment that it is the very Word of God, has posited that thereby all difficulties are eliminated. This confession is not a magical formula. Even the Reformed Bible interpreters “of the old stamp” knew of more than one crux interpretum, of more than one all-but-insoluble difficulty in connection with the interpretation of Scripture. We mention here only men out of our own immediate circle and of more recent times: Aalders, van Gelderen, J. Ridderbos, Grosheide, and others. They were not ashamed more than once to conclude with a non liquet: “we just aren’t going to get out of this difficulty.”

Also the Reformed dogmaticians—we limit ourselves again to the more recent -even though they upheld the principle of the perspicuity (“plain to the understanding,” J.H.P.) of Scripture, never denied that certain difficulties remained: Kuyper, Bavinck, Honig, Hepp, Schilder. Of the older theologians we mention Calvin. The latter never ventured an interpretation of the Book of Revelation, for example. And yet these men confessed that the Bible is the Word of God.

For that matter the Bible itself does not deny that there are such difficulties. Peter writes that there are in the writings of “our beloved brother Paul” some things “hard to be understood” (II Peter 3:15, 16). Of the knowledge which the Bible gives us the apostle asserts that it is “in part” and that we “prophesy in part.” Things puzzling abound! The confession of the sufficiency of Holy Scripture, that it provides a knowledge sufficient for salvation and to know how to live to God’s glory (Belgic Confession, art. 7) does not exclude that fact that God has not revealed everything to us. But that, in turn, docs not exclude the fact that the Lord Jesus Christ has held the Scriptures up before us as an integral unity which “cannot be broken.”

Difficulties…the obsolete Commandments

The first of the “difficulties” which accompanies as a kind of a testing the confession that the Bible is the Word of God consists—so Prof. Kuitert -herein that there are commandments of God in the Bible which no Christian any longer obeys. For example: the sabbath command, innumerable other Old Testament laws, the prescriptions of Acts 15 regarding the association of Christians of Jewish origin and those from a heathen background. He draws therefore the conclusion that the proposition, The Bible is the Word of God, certainly does not mean that “we must do all that is contained in the Bible” (p. 9).

Thereafter the writer goes a step farther: when we confess that the Bible is God’s Word this does not mean that everything it relates has actually taken place. That fact appears, he maintains, also from a number of contradictory reports in Scripture: 11 Chron. 26:33 over against II Kings 15:7; I Kings 9:11ff. over against 11 Chron. 8:2; 11 Sam. 21:19 over against I Chron. 20:5 and I Sam. 17. “It is difficult, if not impossible to bring into agreement the Books of Samuel and the Kings on the one hand, and the Books of I and II Chronicles on the other.” Similarly with the Gospels. These facts “demand a very careful Bible reading, which is most often done for us, vicariously, by the exegetes.” “These differences have to do with that which the Bible writer (as preacher) had to say.” The telling of these things served “only as illustrative material, in order to let it be seen that it is not easy to say, The Bible is the Word of God.”

Further, the author asserts: “There is apparently no one (I) in Reformed Protestantism who even considers (or worse: who intends) to attack the confession with respect to the sacred Scriptures,” and he reproduces again the opening words of Article 5 of the Belgic Confession: “We receive all these books, and these only, as holy and canonical, for the regulation, foundation, and confirmation of our faith.” That is even starting to penetrate more and more into Roman Catholicism. Both in Protestant and Roman Catholic Christendom does one find a movement which is out “to honor the Holy Scripture, to allow it to come into its own by making it understandable once again, this time for the world of the 20th century, understandable for both the world and the church” (p. 11). Those people who approach the Bible “in the old style” (that expression: the old style, is not Dr. Kuitert’s, but mine, C.V.) allow themselves to utilize only half of the light and the life which the Scriptures with its me…sage of salvation comprehends. Those of “the new style” are “rewarded with new courage and a highest liberation, for example, a faith liberated from all human fear.” This renders it impossible for them “to exchange their new understanding for the old” (p. 12).

In this last sentence Prof. Kuitert has given the matter sharp formulation: there is no way back for the people of the new style.

The reader has already understood that the author is giving us here considerably more than a mere introduction. He indicates plainly that the writers of the “historical books” of the Bible altered those old and familiar stories in connection with their task as preacher. To the message (kerugma) of the Bible the facts are completely subordinate (p. 11). In the Bible things have to do with the message of salvation and not about historical accuracy (p. 12). If that which is told actually took place at all, or if it took place just as the Bible writers relate it, is not of vital importance. All that matters is what the authors intend to preach: the salvation of God.

Is that so?

As evidence for this position Kuitert points to the many commandments found in the Scriptures, both in the Old and New Testaments, which once were to be obeyed by certain people at certain times, but are not any more of such validity. That is a fact, of course, which is not to be denied. The probationary command given by God to Adam, transgressed by Adam, is no longer in force in that form. Likewise the command given by God to Abram (“Get thee out of thy country…unto a land that I will shew thee”). The same is true of the entire Law of the Covenant at Horeb. Kuitert says, these are commandments “which not a single Christian any longer keeps.”

We go still a step farther. We say that no Christian may keep them in the form and in the same manner which the Lord prescribed for believers before Christ. Circumcision was a holy institution of God, and the passover as well, and all of Israel’s worship. But today anyone who circumcises children not for medical but for religious reasons would be violating the Lord’s Covenant. “If ye be circumcised, Christ shall profit you nothing” (Gal. 5:2). He who keeps the Old Testament passover today transgresses the command of Christ who gave a new Covenant, not secured by the blood of the paschal lamb, but by his own. And anyone who today would live by “the blood of bulls and goats” denies the one sacrifice of Christ on the cross. That is the instruction, the thora of the entire letter to the Hebrews. Today anyone who would regulate marriage by the marriage laws of the Horeb covenant would bring disaster upon the New Testament Church. Likewise disaster would be brought about by anyone who would attempt to establish a society according to the provisions of the law of the Covenant of God with Israel.

But that has not been taught us by some theology which has come to this by a new understanding of Scripture, by a new method of Scripture interpretation. That is taught us by the Bible itself! That is taught us by Christ and the apostles. Scripture itself teaches us that the Lord has led his people from Adam to Abraham, from Abraham to Horeb, from Horeb to Christ.

Impossible to understand, therefore, is Dr. Kuitert’s attempt to marshal such facts to prove that We are not yet where we ought to be when we make the simple confession, The Bible is the Word of God. For the Bible itself does not place us before these difficulties. It announces already centuries before Christ, in Jer. 3J, for example, that the Horeb Covenant would be replaced by a new Covenant, and that already in Jeremiah’s days the Horeb Covenant “decayeth and waxeth old and is ready to vanish away” (Heb. 8:13). God’s Covenant with man undergoes a history. It has known a period in which the covenantal congregation compared to the New Testament Church was in a position of minority, a situation which obtained until it gained the position of full sonship (Gal. 4:1–11).

And to the question, Why don’t we as Christians keep the Horeb Covenant any more? the Bible itself provides the answer. It is no longer permissible to do so, and that because the Bible forbids us to keep it.

Further: Kuitert says much too little when he asserts that “not a single Christian” keeps these laws today. Actually the Law, the whole Law of the Old Covenant, does retain for us its real significance. For all of the Old Testament is and remains what it was: the Word of God. Out of these Scriptures, out of all the Scriptures, we still learn today that God is, who he is, and what he would be for us, and that revelation is in terms of all his virtues. From our Old Testament neighbors (and that they are, one by one, if we listen as they speak of God!) we come to know God and ourselves. Article 25 of the Belgic Confession says this well:

We believe that the ceremonies and symbols of the law ceased at the coming of Christ, and that all the shadows are accomplished; so that the use of them must be abolished among Christians; yet the truth and substance of them remain with us in Jesus Christ, in whom they have their completion. In the meantime we still use the testimonies taken out of the law and the prophets to confirm us in the doctrine of the gospel, and to regulate our life in all honorableness to the glory of God, according to His will. (Italics inserted)

The Scriptures do not place us before great difficulties in connection with our recognition of the Bible as the Word of God when we look at those commandments which as positive injunctions no longer need be kept. The whole of the Bible not only was but is the Word of God. It brings along its own interpretation.

Difficulties regarding factuality

From the commandments which not a single Christian any longer keeps the writer comes to the other source of difficulty: that the Bible evidently tells us things which very obviously did not really happen. In this oook this is presented as an apparently self-evident, logical transition. It is actually, however, a transition to something of a completely different kind. Legislation or lawgiving and the recording of history are two different things. Prof. Kuitert illustrates the second kind of thing (things that did not so happen) with a few examples.

Of these we cite a few cases.

In II Kings 15:7 it is written that Uzziah (or Azariah) was buried with his fathers, while in II Chron. 26:23 it is said that Uzziah was just exactly not buried with his fathers, being interred in a plot alongside. This is then “the problem,” and proof of the fact that we are not through with the matter just for the making of the confession, “The Bible is the Word of Cod.” For, after all, these two accounts simply do not harmonize.

But with all the good will in the world we are unable to see what is really contradictory here. II Kings 15:7 says that Uzziah “slept with his fathers; and they buried him with his fathers in the city of David.” II Chron. 26:23 says, “So Uzziah slept with his fathers, and they buried him with his fathers.” Up to this point these accounts harmonize exactly. In the Chronicles this is added: “in the field of the burial which belonged to the kings” (in the Dutch version this appears: “in the field next to the burial place of the kings” -J.H.P.). The meaning of this added note simply cannot be that Uzziah was not buried with his fathers. After all, this fact is expressly stated in the reading found in the Chronicles.

The addition obviously carries the significance of a further amplification or specification: Uzziah was indeed buried with his fathers, but then so that he was placed just outside the burial place of the kings. These two accounts are just as contradictory as when we see two notices of one and the same burial. The first says, Mr. A. was buried in the Roman Catholic cemetery, while the second says, Mr. A. was buried in the Roman Catholic burial place, but in a remote corner and in unconsecrated ground because Mr. A. was a suicide. Nobody sees here a difficulty. The difference between II Kings 15:7 and 11 Chron. 26:23 is put forth by Kuitert as a difficulty with respect to the confession that the Bible is the Word of God.

It is really a very ordinary matter of a sympathetic reading.

A second example, and again a well-known old “question”: In II Sam. 24: 1 it is said that God’s anger “was kindled against Israel” so that he moved David to count the people, while in I Chron. 21:1 it says that “Satan stood up against Israel, and provoked David to number Israel.” Once again Prof. Kuitert reads a difficulty with respect to the confession that the Bible is the Word of God. But why? The two accounts do not need to be read as contradictory at all.

In the one it is said that David’s instigation unto the census-taking was a punishment of God. In the other, that Satan played in this an evil role. Is that more strange than that which we were taught by Christ to pray: “Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one?” Than that which we read in the Romans when we are told that God gave the heathen over to uncleanness, to shameful lusts, to a reprobate mind, Rom. 1:24, 26, 28? And that meantime the Bible teaches in many places that they who do such things are driven by the devil?

Prof. Kuitert mentions other examples also. And it is not always possible to say, There is no difficulty here, or, It is possible to resolve these difficulties. But docs this prove that that which is told us as an historical occurrence did not actually happen? At the most we might say that we have two different accounts of one incident, and that we cannot find the solution. Or: perhaps we have here two separate occurrences. Older Reformed interpreters have often found such difficulties impossible to resolve, and calmly admitted that with a non liquet without going on to the conclusion that this means that we aren’t finished with the problems just by saying that the Bible is the very Word of God.

Yet another example. Dr. Kuitert writes (p. 9) : “No less noteworthy is the account in II Chron. 21: 12 about a letter of Elijah to King Jehoram, while according to the accounts offered about Elijah by the Kings, this prophet must have been long dead.”

Indeed, this is a strange situation. But the Catholic exegete, Dr. A. van den Born, does not find it so objectionable. He translates the text as follows:

Then was presented to him (King Jehoram) a writing which originated with the prophet Elijah. Therein was written: “Thus says Yahweh, the God of your father David, because you have not proceeded in the ways of your father Jehoshaphat and of your father Asa, the king of Judah, but have gone in the ways of the kings of Israel and have made Judah and the residents of Jerusalem to walk after idols, as the house of Ahab did, and because in addition you have murdered your brothers, the house of your father, while they were better than you, therefore Yahweh will strike mightily against your people, your sons, your wives, and all your possessions.”

And in his interpretation this Romanist exegete comments: “The punishment for that is announced to him in a noteworthy manner by a letter (I Kings 21:8) of the long deceased Elijah, who never concerned himself with Judah and about whom the Chronicles therefore speak not a word. We ought to conceive of this in this way that a disciple of Elijah took a dominant theme out of Elijah’s preaching and applied this in the name of Elijah to Jehoram in writing…” (The Books of the Old Testament, Chronicles, p. 184). It can also be that someone took a writing in which Elijah testifies against the sin of Ahab and addressed it with appropriate commentary to Jehoram.

It is again simply a question of sympathetic reading. Even if this account did not appear in the Bible, but was found in another book, men would reckon that it was proper to proceed in terms of such sympathy’ because of the fact that the author is a trustworthy person, feeling free therefore to reckon with the possibility that the writer tells his story in an abbreviated, compressed manner.

But we fear that Dr. Kuitert is being led about by his pre-judgment whenever he comes up against these and similar “difficulties” in Scripture. His prejudice on this point is expressed in the proposition: that which it is all about in Scripture is not the history, the stories in which the message of salvation is packaged, but about the message of salvation itself. Or: about “the religious element” in the Bible.

There, we think, lies the question.

But it represents an erroneous contrast.

The Bible has to do with the coming of salvation in history. And both of those: the salvation of God, and the coming of that salvation in history, are one. With the assured reliability of the history of salvation stands or falls salvation itself in and for humanity in its history. Our God is the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the God of our fathers.

Editor’s Note: This is a translation of the second of the Rev. Mr. G. Visee’s series of articles in response to one of Prof. H. Kuitert’s recent books, UNDERSTANDEST THOU WHAT THOU READEST? (published by J.H. Kok N.V., Kampen, The Netherlands, in the Dutch language). The translation is by Rev. John H. Piersma, pastor of Bethany Christian Reformed Church, South Holland, Illinois.