From time to time in our religious periodicals we are presented with the idea that by some canons of interpretation the language of the Bible may turn out to be nonsense. The question bas come up in the discussion of the infallibility of the Bible.1 The question of sense and nonsense also comes up in the discussion of the meaning of theological language in general.2 When such questions arise, the layman may want to ask, Are we not to take the Bible at face value? Is there any possibility of nonsense in the Bible? What do the theologians and philosophers mean when they raise such questions? In the following it is my purpose to discuss some of these questions as they relate to the claims and the language of the Bible. The question of the meaning of religious language more generally lies beyond our present purposes.
LITERAL AND FIGURATIVE LANGUAGE IN SCRIPTURE
No doubt all those who study the Bible will agree that all its language cannot be taken literally. As an obvious example, let us take Psalm 91: 4. “He shall cover thee with his feathers, and under his wings thou shalt trust: his truth shall be thy shield and buckler.”3 This is figurative language. No one will insist that the Almighty has wings under which one will literally be able to hide. Jesus said to the woman at the well in Sychar, “God is a Spirit; and they that worship him must worship him in spirit and in truth.” It may be more difficult to distinguish the literal from the figurative in other parts of the Bible. We can insist, however, that there is a distinction. In other words, we have a canon of interpretation whereby we quite regularly decide that certain expressions in the Bible have a figurative and not a literal meaning. An important aspect of that canon is the regula Scripturae.*
There are other canons or rules which are variously used to test the meaning and sense of the Bible. These depend in large part on the assumptions which one makes as to the nature of reality and the ways by which man does and can know the truth. In fact, one uses his canons of verification to decide what he will accept as truth and what he will reject. So it is well for us to proceed to the examination of some of these canons, as we shall designate them, to see how men satisfy themselves as to the validity and meaning of Biblical statements and claims.
FALSE CANONS OR RULES
1. The Uniformity of Nature
The law of the uniformity of nature is often used by the naturalist (philosophic naturalist) to decide upon the truth and credibility of Biblical narratives. This law asserts that natural processes in all places and at all times follow patterns which arc not subject to change by extraneous intervention. It rules out intervention by divine command or for supernatural purposes. If we use this canon of verification, we must assert that the virgin birth and the bodily resurrection of Christ are impossibilities. To accept these events as fact we must set aside the operation of natural law. This, says the naturalist, cannot be done. As a result, by this canon, it does not make sense to talk about such events as if they were actual occurrences. It is then necessary to find some other explanation for their inclusion in the Bible.
2. Verification by the Senses
Again, there are those who insist that according to their canons of verification there are many other declarative assertions in the Scriptures which must be held as meaningless and must be classified as nonsense. In philosophy there are the logical positivists and those who would reduce philosophy to the analysis of language. To such the declarative assertion, God is love, is nonsense. In fact, they do not allow such statements declarative status. For them, declarative statements that are meaningful are statements which can be verified by the use of the senses. We should be able to go and inspect the state of affairs round about us in order to conclude that God is love. Obviously this cannot be done. The best we can do is to discover that a certain number of people claim they believe God is love. We may perhaps count a number of people also, few no doubt, who act as if God is love. In making these discoveries, however, we have learned certain things about people and not about God. By this standard, we are not really asserting anything when we claim that God is love. It may be a wish of ours. It may be a hortatory suggestion. But by the test of sense to the positivist and others it actually is a nonsense statement.4
3. Logic, or Reasonbleness
Logic is also often used as a test of truth. If we may use so clumsy a word, we may call it the test of reasonableness. The rational approach is held to be the right approach. (We must suggest that none of these canons is necessarily used singly. They are more often used in combination though one may be used as the final point of appeal.) The rationalist insists that truth must meet the demands of the law of noncontradiction. Nothing can be both A and non-A at the same time. The Reformed conception of predestination may be used as an example. Many conclude that predestination and human responsibility cannot be congruent, as Reformed doctrine would have it. They conclude that predestination and human responsibility must be mutually exclusive. To entertain the two concurrently is to insist that A can be both A and non-A at the same time. Only one of two contradictories can stand. The other must be rejected. So rules the canon of rationalism. Our affirmations or denials depend upon the deliverances of reason. Applied to the Bible, reason must decide what has meaning and what is nonsense.
THE TEST OF DIVINE AUTHORITY
There is still another canon of verification which has been used with respect to the Bible. It is the canon of authority. Generally and traditionally in Reformed circles authority has been taken as the authority of the Bible itself. And the Bible is authoritative because it is God-breathed. Here we find the focal point of difference among those who are seriously concerned about the Bible as God’s revelation.
In the Christian Reformed Church, the traditional view insists that the veracity of God is the ground for the truth of the Bible. It is inferred that this makes the Bible completely reliable in its whole extent. This is the position of the Infallibility Report of 1961. The position of some of the critics of this position, for example Hoogland and Boer5, seems to be that we must grant that the Bible speaks inerrantly as to its soteriological intent, that is when it speaks about the way of salvation, but not as to its history. When we apply the canon of historiography, the canons of empiricism and rationalism, we find that the Bible is often in error. This need not bother us, however, because it was not the intention of the Bible to be accurate in this area.
RESULTS OF APPLYING THE WRONG TEST
At the focal point of difference between the Report and its critics, it would seem, the question is this: what canon can we use to decide what is to be judged historically meaningful and what is to be judged soteriologically meaningful? The alternative to traditional deductive approach is the scientific approach whereby we apply the canons of rationalism and empiricism, the use of reason and the use of sense data. Using this method we draw our conclusions by subjecting the details of the Biblical text to scientific scrutiny and then accept the result.
Dr. Boer is dissatisfied with the work of the Committee of Synod because it did not discuss the apparent discrepancies in the Biblical account.6 By this neglect the committee has laid itself open to the charge of obscurantism. But those who accept the inerrancy of the Bible in its full extent are always open to this criticism. What is the alternative to “obscurantism” of this type? Is it the use of the scientific method for the determination of the accuracy and inerrancy of the Biblical account? But then what canon can we use to decide between the historically meaningful and the soteriologically meaningful? Are the canons of scientific method to apply here also?
Whereas the application of what the scientific mind calls blind faith may lead to obscurantism even in religion where faith is given its greatest reach, the scientific method has throughout history resulted in the steady erosion of Biblical truth to the point where the soteriological intent is no longer retained. This has been the history of American Protestantism since the advent of critical methods of Biblical study. It has been accelerated by the influence of Darwinian evolution. The question is, Can this erosion be avoided in the Christian Reformed Church if the same canons of verification are used? If so, how?
It seems to me that these are some of the questions which ought to be answered in future discussions around the Infallibility Report. Those who would lead us away from our traditional position should be willing to show us what we can expect as the result of our movement from the ways of the past. We ought to be shown how we can avoid the conclusions of Naturalism. We ought to be assured that the Bible will remain for us revelation and not merely the vehicle of revelation. Most of all, it must be substantiated, if indeed such substantiation is possible, that we will never be deprived of the soteriological message of the Bible. as has been the sad case with so much of Protestantism in the past. Without those authentications surrender of our traditional position would obviously be the height of folly.
1. Cf. Marvin Hoogland, “Infallibility 1961,” The Reformed Journal, Nov., 1961, and rejoinder by John Stek, “Interpreting ‘The Infallibility Report’,” TORCH AND TRUMPET, Feb., 1962.
2. Philosophy of Religion, New York, 1962. This recent volume in symposium form has an interesting section on the language of religion with contributions by several noted theologians. It is edited by C. L. Abernethy and T. A. Langford.
3. See Hoogland, Op. cit., p. 11.
4. Cf. A. J. Ayer, Language, Truth and Logic, London, 1947.
5. Hoogland, Loc. cit., and Harry Boer, “The Report on Infallibility,” The Reformed Journal, May 1961.
6. Boer, Op. cit., p. 11.