Review of The Nature and Extent of Biblical Authority (Christian Reformed Church, Report 44)

by John M. Frame

 

[Supplement to “Modern Views of Revelation and Scripture”]

This document is the report of a study committee to the Synod of 1972. It was in response to a request from the Reformed Ecumenical Synod which, in turn, was prompted by a request for joint discussion by the Gereformeerde Kerken in Nederland. The GKN later produced as the result of its study, the document God With Us. The RES (and the CRC also) had made earlier declarations about the authority of Scripture, but the GKN questioned whether these documents were adequate to deal with the issues of today. In particular, they failed to discuss 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” (emphasis theirs) (16).

To accept the GKN’s formulation of the problem at this point, of course, is to prejudice significantly the sort of answer one will arrive at. We have seen this “content/authority” issue in Berkouwer and GWU, and we have seen how it can lead us into danger. Certainly, in some senses, authority is derivable from content:

1. Most of us come to know Jesus first, the authority of Scripture second. We are attracted to Scripture because it tells us of Christ.

2. And, indeed, the authority of Scripture is, in the final analysis, the authority of Scripture’s content (what else?). It is the authority of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

3. It is not just any book which could be the inspired Word of God; only a book with truly divine content could have such a nature.

4. The specific nature of God’s authoritative will, what he wants us to believe and to do, is a function of the content of Scripture. We find it through applicatory exegesis.

Therein lies the plausibility of the GKN’s formulation. But without further elucidation it can lead us into error. One might mistakenly accept ideas such as the following:

1. That our belief in Scripture is not based on Scripture’s self-attestation, but upon our autonomous value judgment concerning the significance of Scripture’s message.

2. That some parts of Scripture are somewhat irrelevant to the central message and therefore can be treated as merely human words.

The fact is that “content” and “authority” are not related to one another in some simple causal way. The content of Scripture is, usually, the means by which human beings come to recognize the authority of Scripture. But the content is not the efficient cause of scriptural authority; it is not what makes Scripture the Word of God. What makes Scripture the Word of God is simply the fact that God has spoken it. Furthermore, Scripture makes plain that all of it (II Tim. 3:16, II Pet. 1:20f) is God’s Word, not just those parts which modern scholars deem to best reflect the “message.” The fact is that God gave us his message within a rather large context of history, poetry, prophecy, gospel, epistle, apocalyptic. None of this is dispensible. In the largest sense, all of it is his message. All of it is his Word.

Now I wish that the CRC statement (henceforth NEBA) had analyzed the GKN formulation forthrightly as I have tried to do above. On p. 16, indeed, NEBA does reject the possibility of a ”canon within the canon” or “kernel and husk.” It affirms that the whole Bible is the inspired Word of God. Yet it also affirms the need “to make some distinctions in interpreting the concrete expressions of Scripture’s authority.” The example they give is the “traditional distinction between historical and normative authority,” a distinction I approve of, but which I doubt is relevant to the GKN type of thinking. Anyhow, they go on to say that form and content are not to be separated “in a dualistic fashion” (emphasis theirs). I note the hand of committee chairman Gordon Spykman here; he often talks about ”dualisms,” drawing as he does upon Dooyeweerd. But what is a dualistic separation as opposed to some other kind of separation? I find this rather confusing. Are we allowed to separate the two, if only we don’t do it dualistically? What sort of line does this distinction draw for us? What does it rule in? What does it rule out?

The statement goes on to proscribe separations (now it appears to be all separations, not just dualistic ones!) between ”formal and material aspects of Scripture,” between “Jesus Christ as the content of Scripture” and “the garment of Scripture in which he comes to us.” NEBA rejects the idea that “certain aspects” (?) can be “removed or isolated from” scriptural authority. Scripture is a “single, unified, authoritative Word of God,” an “integrated whole.”

This is one problem that rather pervades NEBA. Terms like ”separate,” “isolate,” “dualism,” “apart from,” “in relationship to,” “in terms of,” “holding together,” “division,” “divorce,” ”atomism,” “cutting loose,” “dichotomy” are thrown around rather recklessly, as if they had some obvious meaning. In fact, this language is very vague, and without explanation it is quite unsuitable for theological purposes, common though it is in theological literature. It is not at all clear what is meant, e.g., by “separating form and content.” There are many different relations between form and content which might be described by some people (usually not all) as “separations.” It is far more interesting and important to describe precisely what kind of relation we are talking about (as, e.g., I have tried to do above), rather than to talk vaguely about “separations,” etc. These terms, used by themselves, are usually counter-productive. They paint various images in the mind of the reader so that some readers think they understand the issues when they really don’t. Many (like Spykman, evidently) think that these terms give them an extraordinarily “deep” insight that more precise terms would not give. I consider that feeling of depth quite illusory.

I have described this problem elsewhere (in DKG and in my Studies in Modern Theology)as “anti-abstractionism” (“abstract” being a common synonym for “separate,” “isolate,” ”divide,” though, to be fair, I was unable to find it used in NEBA). This sort of language is one source of the plausibility and apparent “depth” of Barth’s theology and that of Berkouwer especially, and to a lesser extent of many others. But when this language is analyzed, it proves highly vague. I am disappointed to note such aheavy reliance on this sort of vague rhetoric in a document of the CRC.

Interestingly, however, after its preliminary analysis, NEBA determines not to focus any longer on the GKN’s content/authority distinction, but rather to explore a different, though related problem, the problem of relating divine to human aspects of Scripture (16f). Or, to put it differently, “Is the authority of Scripture in any way influenced or qualified by its historical character?” (17) In my view, this latter sentence is, like the aforementioned anti-abstractionism, a very vague way to formulate the problem. Obviously the historical character of Scripture does have some influence on the nature of its authority. The true question is, what influence? In other words, and here I continue my critique of anti-abstractionism, it is not enough to say that history and authority are related; we must also show what that relation is.

The question of divine/human aspects of Scripture was posed at the Synod of Apeldoorn of the GKN in 1961, which was the fountainhead of the discussions in the RES and CRC which led to NEBA. Another “subsidiary” (17) concern at Apeldoorn was “the desire to avoid an atomistic approach to the concept of inspiration and authority (i.e. one that views each word or verse as being inspired and authoritative in and by itself)” (17). Cutting through the anti-abstractionist rhetoric, I take this to be a plea to interpret Scripture in its proper contexts, especially the context of the saving message of Christ. This concern is a proper one, but can also, if abused, lead to the two errors mentioned earlier in connection with the content/authority issue.

NEBA then moves on to the main body of its discussion. First it surveys the confessions’ teaching on biblical authority. I have no serious debate with them here, though I think the sentence “We can never adequately define but only acknowledge and confess God’s authority” smacks of Dutch irrationalism. How do we acknowledge and confess something that we cannot define at all? What is meant by definition here?

On 20 begins a discussion of what NEBA said it would not be focusing on, namely the relation between content and authority. If one ignores some anti-abstractionist vagueness, the discussion is pretty good. It emphasizes that Scripture’s authority isdivine, its extent pervasive, that it is plenary and verbal. It brings “content” into the discussion only by saying that “When the entire Scripture speaks with divine authority, this divine authority is understood concretely and specifically only when one takes account of what God said, how he spoke, to whom he spoke, etc.” In other words, all of Scripture is authoritative, but the only way to discover what specifically God is saying authoritatively is by looking at the content, that is, through contextual exegesis. That is a fairly obvious point, but one which ought to motivate us toward serious study of Scripture. P. 22, then, excludes the positions of Roman Catholicism, liberalism, Barth, Bultmann, Ebeling, Fuchs. That is good; certainly these exclusions mark NEBA as a far more conservative document than either Berkouwer’s Holy Scripture or GWU.

In section C (22), NEBA makes the point that an understanding of Scripture’s purpose is necessary for good exegesis. True and important. On 24 they speak of progressive revelation and the fact that “not all the words or commandments of Scripture apply to us in the same manner in which they were applied to those to whom they were first spoken” though all those words remain divinely authoritative. Quite right. Then they affirm that the human purposes of the authors are important for understanding and applying the texts. Again, I have no problem. (I would not endorse the distinction on p. 26, taken from Krister Stendahl, between “what it meant originally” and “what it continues to mean.” There are dangers there. Meaning is potential use, and all the potential uses are in the words as originally given, though not all uses are appropriate to every situation.)

On p. 27 begins NEBA’s evaluation of “Current Methods of Interpreting Scripture,” topic IV, and probably the topic of greatest interest to the church. I shall review it following their outline.

A. Biblical Interpretation and Scientific Findings (27ff)

NEBA recognizes the danger here to the principle of Scriptura ipsius interpres (“Scripture is its own interpreter”). It points out that this principle was mostly used against allegorical and spiritualistic forms of interpretation, and in favor of the alternative, namely grammatico-historical interpretation. But the latter requires some knowledge of language, archaeology, etc. The operative principle is that ”these findings may not dictate an interpretation of Scripture contrary to its own intent; but certainly these findings may, and in fact, must, be used to help to understand the intended meaning of Scripture” (28f).

What of new scientific theories? NEBA points out that Calvin did not oppose Copernicanism. Science may not dictate the interpretation of the Bible, as in liberal teaching concerning miracle (30). Without naming the culprits, NEBA also criticizes some (presumably this gets closer to home than nineteenth century liberalism) who may assert “that science makes it impossible to believe any longer that there was historically an original man and woman who were the ancestors of the human race” (30). In this case, “the principle that Scripture is its own interpreter is no longer being maintained” (30). ”However, scientific discovery does compel us to ask whether a traditional interpretation reflects the intent of the Bible, or whether it is a reading of the Bible in the light of out-dated scientific conceptions” (29). “Although scientific evidence may become the occasion for a reexamination of a traditional interpretation, any reinterpretation must be based on principles germane to and garnered from Scriptureitself” (30).

These formulations are pretty good; I wouldn’t actually disagree with any. I do wish, however, they had said something about the enormous extent to which science (much more in our day than in Calvin’s) has bought into dogmatically anti-Christian presuppositions, making it necessary for us to engage in some radical critique before using any of its conclusions. The principle of antithesis is entirely missing from NEBA. There is no suggestion that we are fighting a spiritual battle in the area of science. Rather, NEBA seems to assume that science and Christian thought are simply looking at the world from different perspectives, which hinders communication somewhat even though the two disciplines are basically headed in the same direction.

B. The Use of the Historical Method

NEBA disavows the old liberal form of what is sometimes called the “historical-critical” or merely “historical”1 method which operated explicitly on non-Christian presuppositions– closed universe, etc. (30). Still, they affirm the need to make use of the discipline of history in order to understand, say, the synoptic problem. Illustrations:

1. The Historicity of the Gospels

NEBA makes the point common among evangelicals that the gospel writers did not adhere to modern criteria of “notarial precision” in writing their books. But then NEBA says this point is “no longer considered adequate” (32). Why not? Because, NEBA says, it doesn’t answer all the questions as to how the writers report events, etc. That doesn’t seem to me to indicate any inadequacy in the point about notarial precision, only a desire to supplement it with further analysis.

NEBA goes on to say that many differences in the synoptic gospels may be traced to differences, not in the incidents reported, but in the purposes of the individual writers. This is not, they insist, to “divide” event from report, but only to ”distinguish.” (In my estimation, this and other language in the last paragraph of 33 is anti-abstractionist gobbledigook.) It is not, they say, ground for speaking of the “unreliability” of Scripture (34). For the writers were simply doing what all historians do, mixing fact and interpretation.

I agree with the broad point. Were I writing NEBA, however, I would have included a warning about how this principle can be abused.

2. The Historical Jesus

NEBA is critical of both old and new “quests.” The latter reduces our knowledge of Jesus to five or six basic facts, because it dismisses much gospel material as biased by the faith of its authors. NEBA considers this restriction wrong, illegitimately dictating “the limits of historical possibility” (35). The new questers claim that much of the gospels represents post-Resurrection thinking. Jesus could not have claimed Messiahship or deity before the Resurrection. Thus much of this is the creation of the early church, fabrication rather than history. NEBA rejects this extreme aproach, while maintaining a legitimate role for form criticism (37f). They conclude that “any view that allows the actual creation of events for the sake of the message calls into question the reliability of the gospels” (38). I agree with their treatment on the whole.

3. The Resurrection of Jesus Christ

NEBA says that “no one associated with the new theology in the Reformed community denies the factuality of the Resurrection of Jesus Christ. The question under discussion is only what the historian can say concerning the fact of the Resurrection as recorded in the gospels” (38).

There is first the assertion that the historian “as historian” can say nothing about the Resurrection as such, for he cannot speak about anything unique (38). NEBA disavows this concept of history. Certainly, they say, the Christian historian at least should be able to include the Resurrection on the list of historical events, even if it is in some way a matter of faith (39). And what basis do these people have for saying that the Resurrection even took place? Clearly they are not basing their thinking on Scripture, and the authority of Scripture has been compromised. I agree with NEBA.

C. The First Chapters of Genesis

NEBA affirms the historicity of Gen. 1-11, while recognizing there the presence of selectivity, reflection of the later time of Moses, figurative and symbolical language. It insists that those who claim that various things are figurative must argue their case “by means of careful exegesis and sound biblical exposition. No one may make such claims simply because he thinks that modern science has made it impossible to understand Scripture in the traditional Reformed way” (42). Still, we should be open to hear the scriptural rationale for new interpretations (43). Well said.

The Reformed Confessions insist that creation and historical fall are events at the beginning of human history (43). However, they allow some flexibility on details. They do not contain any official position on the length of the creation days, in NEBA’s view. NEBA does not criticize theistic evolution as such, but it exhorts those who study it to avoid the temptation to let science dictate biblical interpretation (44f). Those who deal with that matter should “do so with a clear and unambiguous adherence to Scripture as the authoritative Word of God, and in agreement with our Reformed Confessions which are subordinate to that Word” (45). True, but I wish they had said something very specific against theistic evolution.

Genesis 3, they say, is not a mere “teaching model.” People who say it is either make science dictate interpretation, or else they misconstrue “rabbinic” tendencies in Paul, who affirms the Genesis 3 account in Romans 5. Romans 5 does not include any rabbinic-type stories, only Genesis 3 itself, which the rabbis clearly considered historical. Good point, good argument.

On 46 is a brief excursus saying that the Christocentric character of Scripture does nothing to undermine its historicity. Christ himself is related to creation and history, and the basic gospel does not eliminate the legitimacy of asking other sorts of questions. I like to see the Berkouwer type of rhetoric (“you avoid the serious questions”) used against the Berkouwer-type message-monism.

NEBA concludes with pastoral advice offered to the church at large. There is a bit too much heart-searching about this for my taste; the actual advice is not very controversial. There is a certain amount of anti-abstractionist blather (“divorce” on 53, several phrases on the bottom of 58). The rather technical terms ”event-character” and “revelational meaning” are used on 55 without nearly enough explanation. But for the most part, the pastoral advice and its explanations merely restate the positions of the preceding report.

I wish myself that NEBA had been more specific, addressing theologians by name and critically analyzing their proposals. The “Dutch family” atmosphere in the CRC seems to prevent any such mutual criticism, however. Failing that, the overall position is good, though at times it is stated too vaguely and the anti-abstractionism should be replaced by some serious analysis. I would have written it very differently, and I would have given the GKN a clearer answer on the content/authority issue. But I don’t disagree with the most of the positions actually taken by NEBA.

 

 


1 I prefer not to use “historical” as NEBA does synonymously with ”historical-critical.” The latter term is generally associated with naturalistic presuppositions, presuppositions which are masked when we shorten it to “historical.” NEBA does seem to think that there is a kind of “historical-critical” method (top of 31) which is acceptable for Christians. If there is, I would prefer to find some other label for it than ”historical-critical.” But of course these are only verbal questions.