What is Happening in the Netherlands (IV)

Again we ask the question: what is happening to our sister-church in the Netherlands? Without any doubt the dean of theologians in this church is Prof. Dr. C. C. Berkouwer, a man internationally known both for his erudition and kindness. I n his younger years he was an apologist of Assen (1926) as is evident in his book: flet probleem der Schriftcritiek (The problem of criticism of Scripture); during this time he was an opponent of Karl Barth.

Knowing him only from these years it would seem rather simple to assess his present position concerning Scripture. But Prof. Berkouwer has changed and, as a, Hervormd colleague rightly observes, “It is not so simple to find out precisely what his position is.”1 Another clear-minded Hervormde observer distinguishes three phases in the development of Berkouwer’s theology as far as the doctrine of Scripture is concerned.2 According to him Berkouwer defended the absolute authority of Holy Scripture in his first phase, and even as late as 1949 he criticized a creedal statement of the Hervormde Kerk, because it did not express itself on the formal authority of Scripture. In his second phase, however, he stressed the contents of Holy Scripture; he stressed the fact that the Bible is not a formal authority but an authority in its contents; in other words: the message of salvation in Christ is authoritative. And in the third phase the existential scope of Scripture is underlined; there is not and there never can be any neutral information in Scripture, or any theoretical exposition; all revelation is always correlated with personal faith.

Professor H. Berkhof wrote of the revolutionary tendency of this conception of Scripture which, in his view, must lead to some fonn of criticism; as a matter of fact he detected traces of such criticism already in Berkouwer’s second volume on Eschatology in which he implicitly criticized the Bible by detracting from its information on the signs of the times preceding the return of Christ, by his actualistic reinterpretation.3 This was a keen observation , and Berkhof’s prophecy that Berkouwer’s second volume on Holy Scripture would become of central importance has been fulfilled. Since these words were written, De Heilige Schrift II has appeared. It is a great work in which, for the first time, a Reformed theologian tries to analyze all the implications of the concept “organic inspiration” and it shows again all the erudition, all the scholarship and all the flexibility of Berkouwer’s mind. It is, of course, quite impossible to do justice to this book in this short article, but I want to make some observations in connection with the present situation in our sister-churches.

In the first place it is most clear that Berkouwer knows the works of Kuitert, Koole and Baarda, and that hc agrees with their method and accepts their results: he quotes them without any trace of criticism.4

In the second place: Berkouwer does not get tired of stressing the fact that the Bible has no formal authority. This is a very meaningful, a very pregnant idea; it means much more than a mere protest against formalism in our use of the Bible. It marks a definite limit both in the way in which the Bible has been written and in our hearing of the gospel. As far as that writing is concerned Berkouwer criticizes the term “instrument” and “instrumental”; he shows a de6nite hesitation to use the term “verbal” and he concludes here: “Theopneusty (i.e. inspiration) is not formal, not generally instrumental, but connected with the reality of salvation of which Scripture witnesses.”5

Men have spoken in terms of their own times and within the limited horizons of those times of the reality of salvation. It is for this reason that we should not apply to them a formal conception of inerrancy; error is not making a mistake in factual information, but making a mistake in the proclamation of salvation. It is possible, therefore, according to Berkouwer, that there are notions in Scripture which are not in conformity with reality, but which have nothing to do with the scope of revelation.6 We should recognize this completely human factor so much that we never should try to harmonize the gospels (or other parts of the Bible); Berkouwer calls these attempts of harmonization even harmful7 and he adds that the variations in the gospels are not caused by a special purpose of the Holy Spirit, but by human motives, and that, because the gospels do not have the intention to offer a biography of Jesus, we should not expect any exactness of facts in them.8 In all these areas Berkouwer criticizes the formal attitude of any reader who would say: “This is a totally inspired book and therefore it is totally inerrant and therefore I must believe all its factual and doctrinal information”; he favors the existential attitude of the man who, in listening to all the words, finds their scope in the proclamation of salvation.

The big question which arises here time and again is how Berkouwer really knows what is “in conformity with reality”; which standard he uses; and how he really knows when and where the purpose of the Spirit ends and the human motives start; when and where the exactness is present or absent; in other words this is the burning question whether this method does not inevitably lead to a dualism in Scripture.

My third observation is that Berkouwer, in my opinion, is too much and too easily impressed by the great scientific progress of the last decades. Time and again he refers to “our time with its breath-taking widening of all horizons of knowledge.”9 This terminology reminds one of that great period of human cultural history which is called the “Enlightenment” in which, according to its philosophers, the darkness of the former ages had been dispelled by the light of human reason; and of that other period in the history of the church which is called the time of Modernism, in which modern man (who had read his Darwin and who would read his Freas) could no longer accept the supernatural concepts of the Bible. It is beyond dispute that in both periods the most progressive men were convinced of the breath-taking widening of all horizons of knowledge; and it is ah a beyond dispute that much of the knowledge of those particular times has been rendered out of date and that the deepest knowledge has been kept by the people of God with their Bible.

Berkouwer stresses the importance of the scope of Scripture when he speaks of the widening horizons. Because our present knowledge differs from that of the Bible-times we can criticize the limited knowledge of its authors without doing any harm to that scope. But this remains the nagging question: how do we know that scope? In my opinion we know it by means of all the elements of knowledge of the Bible which are coherent as the cells of a body.

My fourth observation follows: Berkouwer accepts criticism of Scripture; as a matter of fact he is able to quote Grosheide for the use of this term when it is related to that faculty of the human mind which is always sifting and sorting out in all areas of science. He warns in his second volume as he did in his first against all hypercriticism, a warning with which any critic wholeheartedly agrees. But his method must lead and does lead to a criticism of that human form of the Bible which, in his opinion, is time-bound and can be—in a way–subtracted from the scope. As far as Genesis 1–3 is concerned, Berkouwer writes that it is possible to find here a “symbolizing” (inkleding) or “figuration” (uitbeelding) of the reality of creation as a good and blessed act of God, and of man’s fall and guilt. In this connection he quotes Kuitert about the scope of the stories to the effect that the contents of the kerugma is that the relation between creation and sin is irreversible. He repeats this idea on the following pages. He tells us that he does not reject all symbolizing and figuration, but only such as weakens the radical dissociation of creation and sin. The depth of our guilt and of the apostasy from God are indicated in human reproduction and depiction (menselijke weergave en uitbeelding).10

There is no essential difference between the views of Kuitert sketched in my former article and those of Berkouwer. And the same is true of those of Baarda. Berkouwer refers to the fact that the exegetes of a former period (Grosheide and Greydanus) made objections to the form-critical method; but he holds that a good use of this method is possible and that only “a continued refined research-work in details” of the Synoptic problem protects against “uncontrollable arbitrariness” (of the simple reader of the Bible).11 The nagging question remains: how is that simple reader of the Bible to be protected against the uncontrollable arbitrariness of those men of science who fabricate legends and symbols in the Bible where he has found information of things which his great God and Father really did?

Berkouwer criticizes Greydanus who had written something on the importance of the inner attitude of the scholar in these words: “This is an internalizing of the problem without perspective.”12 I looked for the words of the former Kampen exegete and still found some perspective in them. Here they are: “It is most important from a principal point of view, in order to find an answer to the Synoptic problem, to know one’s inner attitude to the historic parts of the gospels; whether one believes that Jesus Christ is the Son of God in the sense in which it is presented here, God and man at the same time, crucified for our sins, resurrected from death and the grave, ascended to heaven, and whether or not one believes the miracles told therein. If one accepts as true the stories of the Gospel, the problems of the possible literary relations of the gospel become not only subordinate questions, they are also easier to solve. But if one denies Christ’s divinity, resurrection and miracles, for instance as told in Matthew 8:1–17, John 11 etc., and if one supposes that the Lord cannot have spoken the words related in Matthew 11:27, John 5:21 etc., then the difficult question arises how these things could be said of the Lord or put into his mouth. And, in as far as one will not suggest intentional deceit of the authors, one is forced to take his refuge to the forming of legends, unknown authors and writings, mutual dependence, in order to explain the slow genesis of our gospels in the form in which we have them.”13

1. Prof. Van Niftrik of Amsterdam: “By Bcrkouwcr is het niet ze eenvoudig er achter te komen waar hij nu precies staat” (In: Is de Gereformeerde wereld veranderd? 1966, p.371).

2. Prof. H. Berkhof of Le:tden in: The method of Berkouwer’s Theology. (In: Ex Auditu Verbi, 1965, pp. 37–55).

3. o.c. pp. 51, 52.

4. pp. 306, 307, 316, 439.

5. p. 51.

6. p.92.

7. p. 224.

8. p. 210.

9. pp. 68, 98, 251, 300, 312, 325, 326.

10. pp. 320, 321

11. p. 273.

12. p. 435.

13. Bijbels Handboek II, 1935, pp. 97, 98.

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