by Vern S. Poythress

[Published in the Westminster Theological Journal 37/3 (spring 1975): 410-413. Used with permission.]

Harry L. Downs: The Distinction Between “Power-Word” and “Text-Word” in Recent Reformed Thought: The View of Scripture Set Forth by Some Representatives of The Philosophy of the Law-Idea. Nutley, New Jersey: The Presbyterian & Reformed Publishing Co., 1974. xix, 144. Paper, $3.50.

 

Pastor Downs has provided us with a semipopular historical and critical study of the teaching concerning the word of God advanced by the AACS

 

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(Association for the Advancement of Christian Scholarship). His work was originally presented as a Th.M. thesis at Calvin Theological Seminary, but he has written in a style intelligible to the informed layman. The book basically consists of two sections: a historical and expository section (Chapters I-IV, pp. 1-79), and a critical-evaluative section (parts of Chapter IV, plus Chapter V and the Conclusion, pp. 55-114). Downs’s own conclusion is that AACS teaching does separate “power-Word” from “text-Word” in a manner dangerous to the authority of Scripture and contrary to the Reformed creeds.

Throughout the book Downs shows a commendable concern for better understanding and reconciliation between opposing parties. He is not a heavy-handed polemicist. As a result, his historical section presents a generally fair description of the development of the AACS word-of-God controversy. Objectivity is impaired only by his early introduction of the terms “power-Word” and “text-Word,” and by some scattered remarks anticipating his later conclusions.

The book’s critical section has three serious faults. First, and most important, the whole discussion is dominated by the categories “power-Word” and “text-Word.” This tends to beg the question. Many representatives of AACS strenuously resist the use of this terminology to describe their position.

To be sure, Norman Shepherd has argued that Herman Dooyeweerd’s thought is pervaded by a distinction between the word of God speaking to us in our hearts and the word of God, the Bible, as a text open to analytical investigation.1 The former Shepherd called power-Word and the latter text-Word. The difficulty with Downs is that, unlike Shepherd, he gives no step-by-step argument to justify his use of the terms “power-Word” and “text-Word.” The terms are introduced at the beginning and the data fitted into them; better would have been to begin with the data and determine afresh all the kinds of distinctions that occur.

Moreover, Downs is not clear in his own use of “power-Word” and “text-Word.” When he first introduces “power-Word,” he apparently wants to use it as a synonym for various AACS expressions:

In their writings the leaders of the AACS use various synonyms for the term ‘power-Word’ or ‘supra-temporal power-Word.’ For example,

 

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they use such terms as the following: ‘directive power,’ ‘integral Word,’ ‘the integral Scriptures,’ … ‘the infallible Word of Scripture,’ ‘the Word,’ ‘the Word of God,’ ‘the republished Word of Scripture,’ …(p. 115.)

However, not all these expressions are synonymous (interchangeable) in AACS language. And some of them (“the infallible Word of Scripture,” “the integral Scriptures”) surely refer in some way to the written text. Downs does not tell us why these expressions are subsumed under his “power-Word” and other expressions (which others?) are not. Nor does he tell us what he means by “text-Word.” (Using “text-Word” as a synonym for “the Bible” is not adequate, because certain leaders in the AACS make glowing statements about the Bible, seen as a unity.)

I would agree with Downs that certain statements by Hendrik Hart probably should be interpreted as involving a power-word/text-word distinction very similar to that uncovered by Norman Shepherd. However, Downs’s own use of “power-Word” and “text-Word” is sufficiently unclear that his analysis loses cogency.

A second fault is that Chapter V too often lumps together “the leaders of the AACS.” It is claimed that they support some views which in fact only the most extreme representatives (e.g., Hendrik Hart) would support. This is all the more surprising because in Chapter III Downs recognizes important differences within the AACS, between moderate and extreme parties.

Third, Downs does not use with adequate care the scholarly apparatus for quotation. The terms “power-Word,” “text-Word,” and “supratemporal power-Word” always occur in quotation marks. Especially when a footnote is adjoined, the unwary reader might assume that they are terms actually occurring in the literature of the AACS. Downs baldly asserts:

Before an evaluation can be undertaken, it is necessary first to clarify the meaning of the term ‘power-Word’ as it is used in AACS literature. This is necessary because of the variety of expressions which are usedinterchangeably with the term ‘power-Word’ (p. 80, italics mine).
It has already been pointed out that they [AACS leaders] do not use the term ‘power-Word’ or ‘supra-temporal power-Word’ simply as another term for God (pp. 85-86).

However, I cannot find a single case where the book exhibits an occurrence of the hyphenated word “power-Word” or the phrase “supratemporal power-Word” in AACS literature. So far as I know, neither expression everdoes occur in their literature.

 

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I suggest, then, that the reader actually look up the footnote references in Chapter V, in order to get an accurate picture of what AACS leaders say. This advice is more difficult than it sounds. Not only are all the footnotes collected at the back of the book, but for some reason, in Chapter V, many of the notes are of the form, “See p. 40, n. 4.” Moreover, several of the references contain printer’s errors (the repeated reference to p. 11, n. 6 should be to p. 4, n. 6). At least twice (p. 101, n. 58; p. 102, n. 62) what is claimed to be a damaging direct quotation is not a direction quotation (or else the reference is wrong). This is all the more serious when the references are to unpublished works and works that cannot be readily obtained.

The historical section of this book will prove useful to those interested in understanding the controversy. The critical section is a good negative demonstration of the fact that cogent criticism demands of the critic a much more careful use of language than the AACS itself exhibits.

Vern S. Poythress
Cambridge, England


1 Shepherd, “The Doctrine of Scripture in the Dooyeweerdian Philosophy of the Cosmonomic Idea,” The Outlook, 21 No. 2 (February, 1971), 18–21 and 21 No. 3 (March, 1971), 20–23. Shepherd treats especially Herman Dooyeweerd, A New Critique of Theoretical Thought (Philadelphia: Presbyterian & Reformed, 1953), and, In the Twilight of Western Thought (Philadelphia: Presbyterian & Reformed, 1960).