How Trustworthy is the Bible? (1)
Written by Cornelis Pronk
|Reformed Practice - The Bible|
Higher Criticism of the Bible is not a new phenomenon but a problem that has plagued the church for over a century and a-half. Spawned by the anti-supernatural spirit of the eighteenth century movement, the Enlightenment, Higher Criticism has undermined the faith of millions in the trustworthiness of the Bible, with the result that today God's Word is generally regarded as an essentially human book which bears all the characteristics of human imperfections. The influence of this destructive approach to Scripture has been widespread and many erstwhile doctrinally sound theological seminaries have gradually succumbed to its pressure, including not a few Reformed institutions of learning.
The Free Reformed Churches of North America and their sister churches, the Christelijke Gereformeerde Kerken in the Netherlands (CGKN), have by the grace of God so far escaped the pernicious influence of Higher Criticism. We may say with thankfulness to the King of the Church that in our denomination the Bible is viewed as the infallible and inerrant Word of God. None of our ministers espouse, much less propagate, any notions that can be traced to liberal critical scholarship.
I believe we may say the same thing of the churches with which we maintain a full corresponding relationship. The Christian Reformed Churches in the Netherlands (CGKN) subscribe to the same Three Forms of Unity as we do and hold to a high view of Scripture. There is no question but that the Theological University at Apeldoorn stands solidly in the tradition of classic Reformed theology and so do all the ministers and other office bearers, since all are required to sign the Form of Subscription when they assume their office in the church.
It is no secret, however, that in recent years developments are taking place in our sister churches that give rise to serious concern. Back in 1972 Dr. B. Oosterhof, then professor in Old Testament studies, wrote a book entitled How do we read Genesis 2 and 3? in which the author cautiously proposes a different approach to interpreting these early chapters than the one we have been accustomed to, namely a less literal and a more figurative one. More recently, in 1994, Dr. B. Loonstra, who pastors a church in Hoogeveen, the Netherlands, has written a book with a similar thrust, The Trustworthiness of the Bible.
At a recent office bearers conference Dr. Loonstra stated that one reason for writing this book was to lend a helping hand to those who have difficulties with the traditional way of reading the Scriptures. Especially young people attending high schools and universities are exposed to views and ideas which sharply deviate from the teachings they have received at home and in church. Consequently they have many questions which do not always receive the answers they deserve, either because parents and church leaders are not able to deal with the issues at hand or else they would rather not see these questions raised.
Loonstra begins his book by affirming his complete trust in the Bible as the Word of God. "In the Scriptures of the Old and New Testament," he says, " we have to do with the written Word of the living and trustworthy God." But after this reassuring statement of faith he raises a number of questions which, though legitimate in themselves, are answered by him in such a way that one begins to wonder whether his concept of trustworthiness is the same as what traditionally has been understood by that term. The basic question he is asking is this: does the principle of the trustworthiness of Scripture imply that one has to regard everything recorded in the Bible as literally true? In other words, is trustworthiness inseparable from inerrancy?
Loonstra does not think so. There are in Scripture numerous examples of scientific inaccuracies and internal inconsistencies which make it impossible for him to hold on to the concept of inerrancy as traditionally understood. Among the problem passages and areas he cites are: the fear of Cain of meeting enemies, the number of Israelites crossing the Red Sea, the identity of Goliath's killer, the genealogy of Jesus, the stories surrounding Christ's birth, resurrection and ascension, the conflict between the Genesis account of the creation and the fossil record, the flood theory, the conquest of Jericho and Ai and the conflicting accounts of the Gospel writers.
According to Loonstra to insist, as many do, that everything in Scripture has to be understood as literally and factually true is a typically Western approach. It is the result of Greek rationalistic thinking according to which something can only be true if it accords with verifiable scientific or historical facts. The Hebrew mind does not work that way. Truth for the Hebrew is more a matter of the trustworthiness of the speaker than of the content of his speech. In Loonstra's words, "emet, [the Hebrew word for truth], does not so much point to the objective truth of a matter as to the subjective integrity of the speaker (p.152). Truth for the Hebrew is not theoretical, but first and foremost practical. The important question here is: what does truth lead to? Does it produce faith and obedience in the recipient? For the Hebrew, objective truth is inseparable from a subjective faith-response.
According to Loonstra, the Hebrew way of looking at truth has for many centuries been overshadowed by the Greek concept of truth characterized by abstract, rational and objectifying thought processes. In recent years, however, there has evolved in the academic world a definite shifting away from this Greek way of thinking toward a view that is closer to the Hebrew concept of truth. There is a growing consensus among scientists, philosophers and theologians that truth is relational and the result of a correlation or interaction between the observing subject and the observed object. The implications of this new relational concept of truth are momentous, especially for theology. For one thing it means that we can no longer make propositional truth statements about God apart from our faith-relationship to Him. In other words, the Bible is true only for those who believe. Here the influence of Barth is obvious.
In fairness to Loonstra it should be pointed out that he does not agree with those who say that truth has no objective existence apart from faith. He distances himself also from the extreme position that truth is more or less a creation of the human mind.
This latter position can be traced to Immanuel Kant (1724-1804). This German philosopher is famous for causing a Copernican revolution in epistemology (the science of knowledge which studies the methods whereby we acquire knowledge). Just as Copernicus had demonstrated that the sun rather than the earth, is the centre of the solar system, so Kant tried to show that man, not God, is the centre and source of all valid knowledge. The basic principle of his "Copernican Revolution" is that objects we observe in the world around us conform to the operation of our minds and not our minds to the objects.
According to Kant, the mind brings something to the objects which it experiences. As an active agent, the mind organizes human experiences by projecting onto objects its own way of knowing. In a sense therefore, the mind creates knowledge. The mind receives simple sensations from the world, but then it imposes organization and structure upon those impressions. Since knowledge begins with our perception of the phenomenal world (physical reality), our senses passively receive sensory data. Our minds, however, sift these experiences through certain categories such as quantity, quality and relation. These categories are built-in structures of the mind through which sense data are filtered, organized and synthesized. One could say that these categories serve as our mind's 'spectacles' through which we see everything we know. The implication of this is that there is no such thing as objective truth. We cannot know a thing in-itself (das ding an sich) apart from our experience of it.
Kant also made a clear distinction between the phenomenal world (the world of physical entities) and the noumenal world (the realm of the supernatural). Only of the former we can obtain true, empirical knowledge, i.e, knowledge based on sense experience; the latter, the noumenal realm, does not yield real knowledge as it lies beyond sense experience. Kant knew of course, that man has an irrepressible awareness of God, a moral consciousness, as well as other spiritual realities. But these are all matters of faith; they do not qualify as knowledge.
It is impossible to understand modern theology without realizing the impact Kant has made with his revolutionary distinction between the phenomenal and the noumenal realm. Whether it is the old 19th century liberalism or 20th century neo-orthodoxy or contemporary neo-evangelicalism--all are influenced by this dichotomy.
Getting back to Loonstra, it is clear from his book that he is fully aware of what is going on in contemporary theology. He knows that many theologians, even in Reformed circles, have gone far beyond Kant. Kant still believed in God, be it only as an object of personal faith rather than empirical knowledge, but many of his modern disciples question or even deny the objective existence of God and of truth apart from the thinking subject.
Loonstra disagrees with those who teach that our concept of God and truth is completely dependent upon our historical situation and cultural context. According to this relational hermeneutic (science of interpreting Scripture), our understanding of God and truth are shaped and structured by our culturally and historically conditioned modes of thinking. In other words, whatever concept we have of God and of truth at any given point in time, that is God and that is truth for us. Loonstra rightly rejects this relativistic notion of truth and insists that eternal, objective truth exists quite apart from any believing or knowing subject. Yet he does not want to think of God or the Truth as an abstraction similar to Plato's Ideas. The Hebrews did not do that either, he says. For them God was not an abstraction, but a Person Who demonstrated His covenant love and faithfulness to them by His redemptive deeds in history (p.186)
The concept of "eternal truth" means something different in Biblical discourse than in the context of western-philosophic thought. In Scripture the truth is Jesus Christ Who is the same yesterday, today and forever. The focus here is on the power and influence of the Person of Christ which extends to the farthest reaches of the future rather than on some supra-temporal abstract principle of eternal existence.
Loonstra acknowledges that the New Testament comes close to expressing itself in Greek-philosophical categories when it speaks of the pre-existence of the Son (John 1:1,2; Phil.2:6-8, election from before the foundation of the world (Eph.1:4) and predestination (Rom.8:29). But for him it is a real question whether these passages need to be interpreted in terms of abstract and static categories in order to do them justice. His "solution" is to try to get away from the critical-analytical- objectifying type of thinking that is so deeply ingrained in our Western mind and to start looking at truth as the Hebrews did, namely as truth filtered through one's cultural and historical categories.
Here we have the key to understanding Loonstra, I believe. As we have seen, for Kant the mind imposes on the object it investigates certain qualities. One could say, in the process of interpreting the object we add something to it, namely our own interpretation. Loonstra sees it differently. We look at an object--in this case the Word of God or the Truth--through culturally coloured glasses, but in doing so we do not add anything to the truth. Rather, we end up with less than the whole truth. By that he means, we understand only so much of the truth as our culturally conditioned minds (filters) will let through. The truth is simply too big, too vast and too many-sided for any one person, people or culture to assimilate. There may be other cultures with different truth-concepts which are able to absorb other aspects of the all-inclusive truth of God which may have eluded us due to our limited mental capacities. Those various culturally conditioned truth-concepts need not oppose each other; rather they should complement each other (p.188). We should be careful, therefore, not to absolutize our Western rationalistic approach to Scripture, as if that is the only legitimate method. There is an alternative way, namely the way of understanding the Bible as the Hebrew people did, namely figuratively, or more precisely, metaphorically (Dutch: overdrachtelijk).
What is a metaphor? Webster's Dictionary's definition is as good as any: Metaphor, from the Greek verb metapherein, to carry over or transfer. A figure of speech in which a word or phrase literally denoting one kind of object or idea is used in place of another by way of suggesting a likeness or analogy between them.
In his book Loonstra goes into great detail to explain the implications of reading the Scriptures through metaphoric spectacles. What these implications are I will try to answer next time. But let me say this now already: they are momentous and for ordinary, unsophisticated believers as most of us are, very disturbing and very distressing.
Rev. Cornelis (Neil) Pronk is an emeritus pastor of the Free Reformed Churches and the editor of the FRC Messenger. This article was printed in the FRC Messenger and is republished here with permission.