Signals from Kuitert

Signals from the Bible is a small (95 pages, paperback) hut significant book by the well-known professor at Amsterdam, Dr. Harry M. Kuitert. It has been translated into English by Dr. Lewis H. Smedes of Fuller Theological Seminary. This review of the book is by Rev. Edward Heerema, pastor of the Bradenton Christian Reformed Church, Bradenton, Florida. Wm. B. Eerdmans of Grand Rapids. Michigan, is the publisher. Price $1.95.

This little book is presented by the author, Dr. Harry M. Kuitert, as “a modest offer to help in reading the Bible” (p. 9). The publisher’s back-cover promotion declares that “Dr. Kuitert has provided a modern guide” to be used “wherever Christians want to know what the Bible really says.”

“A brain-cracking venture” – Understanding the language of the Bible is difficult, we are told, because of the tremendous cultural differences between Israel of old and the modern world. Adding to the problem is the special status of Israel among the nations of the world. And so the translation of the Bible is a “brain-cracking adventure. Can we really grasp what these ancient writers meant to say?”

Of the Bible Kuitert says, “Everyone can read it. But can everyone get hold of what the writers themselves understand by their words, their figures of speech, their own special idiom?” (pp. 8–9). The author concentrates especially 011 the Old Testament as he explicates different words and phrases, for, says he, “the Old Testament was the whole Bible for the writers of the New Testament.” In this connection he refers to John 5:39 and Luke 24:21 (p. 10).

After all of this stress on the need to get at the meaning intended by the original writers of Scripture and the difficulties attending such effort due to the cultural and intellectual differences of ages far separated, it is more than a little surprising to see Kuitert launch into his discussion of a concept (The Glory of the Lord) by “starting with ordinary language . . . . We often talk about ‘status symbols’ things that give me standing. We can start with this” (p. 92). This surprising element also finds its way at times into the discussion of the Son of Man (pp. 64–69).

Treacherous ground – More seriously we must ask whether we are not on treacherous ground. Do we and can we understand the Bible when we think we have discovered what the “ancient writers meant to say?” when we think we have got “hold of what the writers themselves understand by their words?” Did Moses understand the real meaning of Genesis 3:15, Genesis 12:1–3, Exodus 12? Did Isaiah understand the real meaning of his words in 7:14, 9:6–7, chapter 53?

What conception of inspiration is at work in this little book? What happens to the hermeneutical principle that Scripture must interpret Scripture? That the Old Testament must be understood in the fuller light of New Testament revelation? Kuitert should have taken a longer look at his own reference to Luke 24:21 (“And beginning from Moses and from all the prophets, he interpreted to them in all the scriptures the things concerning himself”).

Do we get the authentic Word when we emphasize the cultural conditioning of the writers and neglect the mind of the primary author of the Scriptures the Holy Spirit? Perhaps we can find an answer to our questions as we examine Kuitert’s handling of certain biblical words and concepts.

Writing that leaves one dizzy – The important subject of “God and the gods” is discussed. What sets God apart from gods? The gods “cannot do what a god can be expected to do. They cannot give grace and they cannot execute judgment. ‘There was no voice; no one answered, no one heeded,’ says the reporter about the response the prophets of Baal received on Mount Carmel (I Kings 18:29). These gods? They don’t do anything at all” (p. 11). The logic here appears to be rather frayed. The total lack of response at Mount Carmel is hardly an apt illustration of the failure to exercise the grace and judgment that are expected to demonstrate the reality of true deity.

Furthermore, we must ask whose expectation Kuitert is talking about—of believers? of unbelievers? Listen to Kuitert again on this. “But when the Bible preaches that the Lord is God, it amounts to this: God demonstrates His reality by doing what He should be expected to do. And this is why biblical preaching is tied to action. The fact that in the midst of all the gods and lords (I Cor. 8:5) there is one real God and one real Lord, means that there is only one under whose lordship life is good, only one who dares to look at blood, but would rather shed his own. Under the regime of the gods, people become useless, too. But in the Kingdom of the real God people become real people. For the real God can be recognized in a crowd of thousands by one thing: He is for man, pro-people. Wherever we meet something or someone who is against people, we can be sure we have come across a mere god—even today” (pp. 12-13).

Such writing leaves one more than a little dizzy. Is the character of God almighty determined by the expectation of men? What about Psalm 115:3? Is human expectation as to when “life is good” a measure of the reality of God? Is it the obvious human decision that God is always “for man, pro-people” and never “against people?” What about the experience of Job? What about chapters 13–24 of Isaiah? What about the inhabitants of Canaan that God ordered the Israelites to wipe out? What about Matthew 7:22–23? And what about the “goats” on the day of final judgment?

Kuitert’s activism – The Bible does not “explain God,” but rather “God is God in the doing of His wonderful acts” (p. 3, italics by K.). This activist God is revealed as Covenant-Partner. The covenant idea is prominent in Kuitert’s little book. He identifies Covenant with Partnership. God is not revealed as .. “‘ultimate being’ or some such nonsense.” Rather “God is a He, a Someone, who spoke His binding word—first to Abraham, then to Israel, and finally to us in His Son (Heb. 1:1). God is Covenant-Partner God” (p. 18).

Interestingly enough, Kuitert looks upon the story of Abraham as “preface” to God’s great acts as Covenant-Partner. This means, it would seem, that God’s promises to Abraham are not of the essence of the covenant, but that we have the real covenant in a great act of God like the rescue of his people from Egypt. In other words, Kuitert does not see this dominant element in divine revelation in terms of an abiding structure of divine commitment and promise (truth), but rather in terms of divine actions in the divine-human partnership. We are constrained to ask, why not see both Word and action in a beautiful harmony, as Scripture seems so plainly to present them, with the divine acts always Bowing out from and authenticating the divine Word?

Kuitert’s activism appears also when he speaks of Matthew as preaching “Jesus as the great liberating act of God in history” (p. 17). Furthermore, Jesus, spoken of by Paul as the image of God in Colossians 1:15, “in his life of action is as like God as one drop of water is like another.” Hence Kuitert renders John 14:9 as follows: “He who has seen me [in action] has seen the Father” (pp. 32–33).

Truth according to Kuitert – We get more of this type of thinking in the discussion of “Truth.” There is no reason to question the linkage of “truth” and “trustworthiness,” a linkage that Kuitert stresses. But we find no hint of the teaching on this important theme that God’s Word is truth. “Truth is, first of all, characteristic of the actions of a covenant-partner his acts of fidelity to the covenant” (p. 45).

We cannot resist the question whether a vagrant should not be spoken of as a man of truth when he is loyal to the so-called code of honor among thieves. Kuitert in his discussion of covenant puts all covenants—God-man and man-man—into the same package. Kuitert’s rejection of an abstract or philospohical notion of truth is biblical, of course, but his relating of “truth” to what God has done rather than to what God has spoken is quite unsatisfactory. (See The Belgic Confession, Article VII and Article VIII, opening clause.)

Righteousness and Sin – The same fault appears in the discussion of righteousness and of sin. Righteousness is not described in terms of God’s character or attributes, nor is sin described in terms of violation of what the righteous God has commanded. Using illustrations like “righteous ways” (Psalm 23:3) and “righteous scale” (Lev. 19:36), Kuitert says the “basic meaning” of righteousness is to say that “a thing functions properly, meets its purpose; a thing is justified, therefore, if it does what one may expect (n.b. EH ) it to do” (pp. 36ff).

“All in all,” we are told, “righteousness is the demonstration of covenant faithfulness. Righteous acts are acts which clearly stamp the doer as the authentic, tried-and-true covenant partner” (p. 38). It is noteworthy that of the number of biblical references found in the two chapters on Righteousness, none is taken from Psalm 119, the great Psalm on the Word of God and righteousness.

In the chapter on Sin (pp. 61ff.) there is no hint of the teaching that sin is a violation of the revealed law of God. The most significant summary statement that Kuitert seems able to make about the several words the Bible uses for sin is that “all of them point to the actual comings and goings of real people” (p. 61). “Being a sinner,” we read, “amounts to acting in a way that misses what human actions ought to achieve. The sinner is, in that sense, a creature who has missed the mark of humanity; being a sinner means he has failed to do and be what is basic to human life. He is a caricature of the covenant-partner man” (p. 62).

One does not call such observations false in themselves, but in the absence of the all· important thing that should be said in description of sin, they are wholly inadequate and in that sense false.

No heaven? – There is at least one among these short chapters that brings a smile of satisfaction to the face rather than a frown. It is the chapter on the meaning of the word knowing in the Bible (pp. 88–92).

But for the rest? Does Kuitert really help us by calling election God’s preference (pp. 73ff.)? And do we experience clarification in biblical understanding when the earth, not heaven, is designated as the locus of man’s ultimate blessedness? “But,” Kuitert puts the question, “are we not going to heaven when we die? Thank God,” comes the reply, “the Bible talks only sparingly of this . . . . Our final reward is earth, the Kingdom of God that shall come here”–and the appeal is to Matthew 6:10 in support of this teaching (p. 29).

Has Kuitert given us this little book a “guide” to “understanding” the Bible? This reviewer’s candid reaction is that we have here a guide to a confused understanding of the Bible. The book is really not properly titled. It should not be called Signals From The Bible, but rather Signals From Kuitert.