The Nature and Extent of Biblical Authority – Notes on a Report

Finally the report appeared.

Synod decided in 1968: “To assure the Fruitland consistory that Synod has full confidence that the professors of theology at Calvin Seminary will carefully study all new developments in theology and evaluate them in the light of Scripture and the creeds, and serve the churches with the results of their research and discussion” (Art. 122).

Synod decided in 1969: “To instruct the InterChurch Relations Committee to consider whether any of the changes which have occurred in the Gereformeerde Kerken (Synodical) would warrant a change in our relationship to these Churches and to advise the next Synod of its findings” (Art. 76).

Synod decided also in 1969: “To appoint a committee to study the nature and extent of Biblical authority, and in particular the ‘connection between the content and purpose of Scripture’ as the saving revelation of God in Jesus Christ and the consequent and deducible authority of Scripture, to evaluate critically in the light of the above-mentioned study and our confessional standards the manner of interpreting Scripture presently employed by some contemporary Reformed scholars, and to serve the churches with pastoral advice in these matters” (Art. 140).

One of the grounds of the last-mentioned decision was: “In this way the pastoral concern of Overture 5 can be met.”

What was that pastoral concern of Overture 5?

The Notes added to that Overture pointed out concretely which new teachings caused concern: “The denial of the historical existence of our first parents in Paradise, the subsequent denial of original sin, the denial of the historicity of historical parts of both the Old and the New Testaments, the surrender to the newest form of Biblical criticism and to the scientific dogma of evolution” (Acts, pp. 502–504).

Now finally the Report has appeared.

We are still looking forward to the promised results of the research and discussion by the professors at Calvin Seminary. But we have the report.

That report has even been made available to the churches in booklet form. It has been submitted to the churches for study and reactions.

Some contemporary Reformed scholars – The committee which drew up the report was fully aware of the fact that it should “evaluate critically the manner of interpreting Scripture presently employed by some contemporary Reformed scholars.” But, after having quoted these words from its mandate, the report continues with a restriction: “Our task is not to adjudicate charges brought against any person nor to assess the acceptability of any particular book, but to evaluate methods or principles that are visible in the interpretation of Scripture by some contemporary Reformed scholars . . . Since we are considering methods and not persons, we have decided not to mention theologians by name.”

Methods, and not persons.

It seems as if the report tries to transport us into a Platonic realm of ideas! What was the concern, the pastoral concern, of the Overture quoted in the mandate? It was, that Dr. Kuitert had taught, also in Canada and America, that there was not a historic Adam and a historic paradise and a historic fall; it was that Dr. Hartvelt had taught that something must have happened with Jericho, but not that which is written in Joshua 6; it was that Dr. Lever had taught that an evolution took place on earth including all living beings, also man.

But it was not only the Overture that mentioned names and facts; also the Reformed Ecumenical Synod in the letter quoted in the Overture and quoted again in the decision of Synod did the same. In that letter we read: “We take the liberty of referring to the two extensive ‘Dogmatic Studies’ on Holy Scripture by Prof. Dr. C. C. Berkouwer and to the Cahiers voor de Gemeente in which series Prof. Dr. J. L. Koole has published his Verhaal en Feit in het Oude Testament, Drs. Tj. Baarda his De Betrouwbaarheid van de Evangelien, and Prof. Dr. G. P. Hartvelt his Over Schrift en Inspiratie.”

All these persons had come with new ideas; not only with new methods, but also with results of these methods; and exactly these results had caused concern in the Reformed churches in the Netherlands and also in America and Canada.

But the report speaks only of methods.

The apostle Paul once said: “I do not box as one beating the air.” But in the report we find boxers against methods.

This is, to say the least, very unsatisfactory.

No real confrontation – Because the names of “some Reformed scholars” are not mentioned, and their works related to the issue at stake are not quoted, there is more than once a lack of real confrontation.

I would like to mention some instances of this regrettable defect.

1. I read on page 279 of the report (in the Acts of Synod): “Due to our distance from the time in which the various books were composed, we often do not possess an awareness of situations, concepts or trends well known to those to whom it was originally addressed. Therefore, scholarly research can contribute to an explanation of the authority which the Bible possesses as the Word of God. This does not mean that our confession of its authority is dependent upon such research, but only that such research can be an aid to faith’s understanding of the Word.”

Nobody will have any quarrel with these well-chosen words.

However, the question which should be answered is: are these words sufficient in the given situation of “some contemporary Reformed scholars”?

Is it really so that these scholars in no way made their confession of the authority of the Bible dependent on the critical research of the ideas of the men to whom the Word of God was originally addressed?

I want to quote only Dr. Kuitert.

In his speech on “Creation and Evolution” (1966) Dr. Kuitert told his audience that the traditional exegesis of Genesis 1–3 was deficient for scientific reasons (evolution) but also for reasons of our present knowledge of the original background. He said: “It seems to be so that we approach the real situation best when we state that Israel’s creation-story expressed in words the wandering tales current in the culture in the antique Middle-East.” He adds that Israel annexed this material and reconstructed it in a polemical way; the final product was a confession of the God of the covenant who had brought Israel out of the house of bondage. His conclusion is, that the contents of the first chapters of Genesis are by no means exact: “it is, as we may conclude from the mythological origin of the material, a kind of interpretation, used by Israel as a ‘teaching-model’ or ‘model of interpretation,’ in order to know human reality in relation to God” (Report of the Conference on Evolution-problems, 1966, pp. 29–35).

It is small wonder that Dr. Kuitert in this connection speaks of the problem of certainty. He qualifies the conception of certainty of the average orthodox Protestant as rationalistic, because such a man seeks his ground in “the being inspired of the Bible and the therefore being infallible of the Bible.” Kuitert says: “The Bible need not be always right” (p. 34).

But precisely these and similar expressions were the concern of the consistory which presented an overture to Synod.

The report, however, did not come to terms with this actual situation.

2. After having spoken of the historicity of the Gospels and of the historical Jesus in general, the report makes a special point of the Resurrection.

This is without gainsaying a most central point, but it is not the only one, and it is not treated satisfactorily due to a lack of concrete confrontation.

It is not the only one.

In the overture presented to Synod also the Virgin birth was mentioned and the following quotation was given, from an interview:

Kuitert: ‘The virgin birth is no shibboleth; this is the point that Christ is the Son of God. Many orthodox believers cannot accept the virgin birth, for instance Emil Brunner. But they don’t doubt that Christ is the Son of God: Baarda: ‘We should note what John 1:46 writes; that Jesus was called the Son of God, the King of Israel. That last-mentioned expression does not enter into competition with his being a son of Joseph. Properly speaking, all believers are born virginally’” (Acts, p. 504).

This is not treated satisfactorily.

The report states: “Because of the complexity of this discussion and the ease with which misunderstandings can arise, we wish to emphasize that no one associated with the new hermeneutics in the Reformed communion denies the factuality of the resurrection of Jesus Christ.”

This emphasis is understandable and this statement is nice; I don’t want to deny it, but I certainly do want to qualify it; a confrontation with “some Reformed theologians” is unavoidable.

The issue of January 1970 of the Dutch magazine Voorlopig was totally devoted to the problematics of the Resurrection. In it Professor Augustijn distinguishes between his being a historian and a Christian; as a Christian he believes the resurrection; but as a historian he cannot answer the question: what happened at that occasion? And Dr. Kuitert states: “The evangelists want to tell us something unique that, according to its own nature, cannot be recorded historically. This implies that we misunderstood the stories of the resurrection if we would read them as historical information (in the modern sense).” Kuitert then opens twelve possibilities, he gives twelve answers to the question: What does it mean that Jesus was raised? Any reader may pick his choice according “as he would like most to confess the resurrection of Jesus.” The first answer is “With the words: ‘Jesus was raised,’ we mean to say that we have discovered the unique meaning of Jesus’ life and crucifixion for our life. Believing in Jesus’ resurrection is, properly speaking, the same as believing in Jesus, that is believing that I would be nothing without Jesus.” The third answer is: “When we confess the resurrection of Jesus we mean to say that Jesus, although He died, lives on among men until today as Christ, namely as model or example of being man that—to our big surprise—always again is imitated.” In my view a confrontation with these modern ideas would have qualified the emphasis of the report.

A permissible position? – The Dutch instructor Tj. Baarda writes in his booklet, The reliability of the Gospels, that New Testament prophets quoted words of Jesus which He never spoke; that they laid words in the mouth of Jesus; and that we find some of these so-called words of Jesus (being presented as His real words) in the New Testament (De Betrouwbaarheid der Evangelien, 1967, pp. 64, 65).

The report does not take up this position, it does not discuss it. But it considers as a permissible position that the one evangelist changed the words of the other one, interpreting these words (under the guidance of the Holy Spirit) and it says: “Thus the gospels are not merely ‘objective’ descriptions of events or verbatim records of Jesus’ words. They are proclamation, kerygma, i.e., events and sayings plus the interpretation which the Holy Spirit leads the authors to give as they bring that message to a variety of persons and audiences.” If this means (and it looks like it) that the evangelists have sometimes added words to the words of Jesus or to the words of anyone else, it seems to follow that they ascribe words to Him which He really did not speak; and I would object to such a position.

If this means, however, that they repeat in their own words what Jesus really said (for instance, by way of abbreviation, selection or translation from the many words which the Lord has spoken), nobody can object.

What do we really know about the genesis of the gospels?

The one hypothesis follows the other one, and in spite of all ingenuity it is and remains a hypothesis.

Must the church really declare that such a hypothesis is permissible? Or must it rather state that this is a hypothesis, that the Lord did not call His talented men to invent hypotheses on undocumented situations in the first century and that He did call them to be exegetes of the Word as it pleased Him to bring it to our attention?

A wrong consequence – From the foregoing, the report draws a consequence in speaking of approaches to Genesis 1–11. We read on p. 294: “Must these chapters be interpreted literally thus implying that they are for the most part literal descriptions of past events? But we noted in our discussion of the gospels that even where one is dealing with reports stemming from eyewitnesses, it is not possible always to treat the report as a literal description of a past event. Hence an affirmation of basic historicity does not necessarily commit one to the view that the narrative is a literal description of an event.”

This is a so-called consequence, but it is a wrong one, and I must honestly say that (with all due respect) I have seldom found in the report of a synodical study committee a similar unconvincing approach.

The first sentence is striking either because of its redundancy or because it offers a loophole; redundancy, for it is clear that a literal interpretation implies a literal description; keeping open a loophole, for it is said that this literal description is only valid for the most part. The point is that neither a sharp definition is presented of the term “literal” nor an analysis is offered for what is meant by “the most part.”

The report evidently means to say that sometimes a literal interpretation does not imply a literal description of past events; but it neglects to explain when and why. Anyone who accepts the unity of the book Genesis and its historical character will have difficulties with this first sentence.

The second sentence strikes one because of its jump from a hypothesis (which has only been labeled permissible and nothing more) to a proven fact. This hypothesis was inclined to lay words in the mouth of Jesus or His contemporaries which they never spoke, and we objected to it. But now it is said that this hypothesis is true to fact, because it is impossible to treat some reports of eyewitnesses as literal descriptions of past events. This suggested impossibility is the point of departure for a conclusion. The same method which was applied to the Gospels is also available for the first chapters of the Bible. This is very amazing and, as far as I know, something new. More than once I have read that Reformed scholars labeled the description of history in Genesis 1–11 as prophetic history, and compared it with the prophetic (better apocalyptic) writing of history of the Revelation of John. But here the report puts the historiography of Genesis on a par with that of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Both have the same character of sometimes not giving a literal description of a past event. That means, of course, that the total historiography of the Bible is included. The conclusion from a so-called permissible hypothesis on the Synoptic problem is, that sometimes the Bible in relating history adds something to the facts as they really happened.

The third sentence strikes one because of its vagueness. It speaks of an affirmation of basic historicity. But it neglects to define what it means by “basic.” Evidently basic historicity is not the same as historicity. The term “basic” tries to qualify historicity. Does it mean that there is a historic core, a historic basis, a historic substratum, on top of which we find something less historic or unhistoric? Here we again find a lack of precision. And especially do we need precision here so much, because in the scientific world we here meet a jungle of opinions. What is a saga? What is a myth? What is a model? All these concepts work with the idea of some historical background, and they all deny, that “the narrative is a literal description of an event.”

Prophetic and kerygmatit history – The last point which the report proposes to be adopted by Synod contains the words: “Synod urges the churches to acknowledge that the redemptive events recorded in the Bible are presented as prophetic and kerygmatic history.”

This seems to be a good statement.

The history of the Bible has been called redemptive history or history of salvation, and also history of the revelation. The report itself uses some of these terms and tries now to define the specific character of this history in terms of prophetic and kerygmatic history.

However, verba valent usu; words get their meaning from the way they are used. I have already pointed to the fact that in recent times the term “prophetic history” has been used in order to define the history written in apocalyptic terms in the Revelation of John and, in an attempt to make an analogy, that of the first chapters of Genesis.

The term “kerygma tic history” has also been used in recent times, especially in the theology of Bultmann, in order to indicate that we don’t find history in the New Testament as history is commonly understood; we only know the kerygma, the message concerning Jesus Christ and the way in which that message was understood by the first church. We cannot answer the question whether real historical facts are the foundation of that kerygma.

Now I don’t want to bypass the fact that the report emphatically states in the same final conclusion that the biblical message is rooted in the historical reliability of the redemptive events recorded in the biblical message. But I rend in the elucidation that follows: “It is possible in certain instances to distinguish, partially at least, between an event as it actually happened and the way that event is recorded in Scripture.”

If this dangerous distinction (what consequences will a clever student draw from it?) is the legitimate exegesis of the term “prophetic and kerygmatic history,” I must take exception to the use of this term.

The term can mean: history of a prophetic and kerygmatic character. But it can also mean: prophecy and kerygma on some historic basis; and in that case a large amount of subjectivism has been introduced, or, for that matter, our knowledge of what really happened has been made dependent on the state of affairs of secular science.

The report on the nature and extent of Biblical authority has been submitted to the churches.

I am fully aware of the fact that my reflections on it are of a negative character. And I must confess that in writing this way I did not do justice to the many good observations and excellent remarks written in this report. But I did not consider it my duty this time to give a well-balanced judgment.

The report has not been written as an academic treatise, but in the midst of the actual problematics of the Reformed community of our time; and there are some very crucial issues.

In 1905 a Dutch Synod met in Utrecht, and the Conclusions of Utrecht are still well known in books on church history; there was a lengthy report, and the conclusions were well defined.

But in the course of time only one sentence stood out in the mind of the church people and remained a bone of contention. That was the sentence: “Covenant children are to be viewed as regenerate until the contrary appears.”

In the same way the report of the committee of 1971 on Biblical authority will become a historical document after some time; but, if it will be accepted as it now is, it will function mainly in the area of some sentences which show a lack of clarity. It has been my intention to call for such clarity that all ambiguity will disappear. And it is my serious hope that my criticism will serve the purpose of preserving the church in the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus Himself being the cornerstone.

Louis Praasma is pastor of the Christian Reformed Church of Fruitland, Ontario.