How Trustworthy is the Bible? (2)
Written by Cornelis Pronk
|Reformed Practice - The Bible|
Last article I began a review of Dr. Loonstra's book "The Trustworthiness of the Bible," and explained that his main thesis is that the principle of the trustworthiness of Scripture does not require that we take everything in the Bible as literally true. In other words, trustworthiness is not synonymous with inerrancy as traditionally understood. The author contends that in light of new scientific discoveries in all areas of learning we need to adopt a less literal and more figurative way of reading Scripture. Basic to this new approach to Scripture is his assertion that God reveals Himself to us in His Word metaphorically. A metaphor is a figure of speech whereby one thing is described in terms of something else. We all use metaphors in our everyday speech. When, for instance, we say, that woman is a real serpent, everyone knows this is not to be taken literally. The idea conveyed by this expression is that the lady in question exhibits the kind of cunning and deceitfulness that one normally associates with snakes. Scripture abounds with metaphors. Jesus made frequent use of them. In Luke 12:32, for instance, He says to His followers, "Fear not, little flock; for it is your Father's good pleasure to give you the kingdom." Here Christians are described in terms of a small number of defenseless sheep who are nevertheless destined for greatness. Metaphors are easily understood and no one will take them literally. So, wherever metaphorical language is employed in Scripture the reader will recognize it immediately.
The problem is however, that in recent times there has been a trend in hermeneutics (the science of interpreting Scripture) to see metaphors where they have never been seen before. Not only in the figurative sayings of our Lord or in the poetry of the Psalms and other parts of Scripture which are obviously figurative in nature, but also in historical and narrative sections many claim to find evidence of metaphorical language. Proponents of the so-called Form Critical method examine both biblical and non-biblical literature in order to determine the literary genre of a given passage or book. As a result, many Scripture passages which traditionally were interpreted as narrative rooted in history, are now said to be poetic in nature or at least that they contain non-literal elements (p.127).
Dr. Loonstra has much appreciation for the discoveries made by the form-critical school during the last hundred years or so, although he does not agree with its more radical conclusions. He professes to have learned much from this approach as it has helped to shape his own understanding of Scripture as God's revelation to man in metaphorical form. For Loonstra all of Scripture is metaphor, even where the Bible employs the language of historical narrative. There are things in the Bible, he says, which must be interpreted in a metaphorical sense, even if the authors themselves did not consciously intend them to be understood metaphorically. The reason for this was that for them those things were not figurative at all. They expressed themselves in terms of concepts and insights which were shared by everyone in their time and culture, and whose accuracy they did not question.
The simplest illustration here is the idea of the sun revolving around the earth. For us this is a figurative, inexact manner of speaking, but for the Israelite it was a statement of fact. Today we have come to accept as established scientific fact that the earth revolves around the sun, but as Loonstra points out, this Copernican revolution met with much opposition, not just by the Roman Catholic hierarchy in the 15th century when it was first proposed, but also by many Reformed divines right up until the late 17th century. The reason why they were so strongly opposed to the new scientific way of viewing the cosmos was that they understood what was at stake. The question was whether one could on the basis of extra-biblical arguments interpret certain biblical statements in a non-literal way even if the Bible itself gave no occasion for a figurative reading. (p.175). It is Loonstra's contention that since the universal acceptance of the Copernican view of the cosmos this question can no longer be answered negatively. The steady stream of subsequent scientific discoveries have made it impossible for us to hold on to a literal interpretation of many Scripture passages especially those that deal with scientific and historical details. This poses a disturbing question, namely how far are we allowed to go in the direction of metaphorically interpreting texts which were not meant to be so interpreted by their authors? (p.176).
Loonstra does not want to go as far as Rudolph Bultmann who advocates a radical demythologizing of the Bible. For Bultmann all references to supernatural events in Scripture are mythological in nature. The miracle stories in the New Testament, for instance, contain important truths but these must be recovered by removing the wrappings in which they are concealed. Thus the accounts of the bodily resurrection of Christ must not be interpreted literally, but should be viewed as expressing the existential self-understanding of His followers.
Loonstra repudiates this extreme position on the grounds that it leaves no room whatever for any historical foundation of the Biblical record. He does believe, however, that it is possible to interpret many Scripture passages in a non-literal, metaphorical way, while yet maintaining the basic truth content of the text. And by truth he does not just mean some nebulous existential, philosophical idea as with Bultmann, but real truth rooted in God's redemptive acts in history. (p.176).
The fact that Scripture contains many figurative statements, therefore, does not imply that the Bible is for that reason less trustworthy. It has pleased God to reveal Himself to man in this metaphorical way because it is the only way the communication gap between God and man can be bridged. For Loonstra the metaphor belongs to the basic structure of divine revelation and he regards the use of figurative language in Scripture as evidence of God's willingness to accommodate himself to man's limited capacity for understanding divine truth.
Loonstra appeals to Calvin as the pioneer of this approach, although the early Church Fathers paved the way for it by their allegorical interpretation of Scripture. Although Calvin rejected the allegorical method in favour of a more literal interpretation, he did set forth a theory of accommodation according to which God speaks to man in such a way that he can understand Him (p.61). Calvin sees man--even before his fall--as a creature far removed from his Creator. Human language is utterly insufficient to bridge this gap. Therefore God speaks to man as a nurse speaks to infants using baby talk (Institutes, I,13,1). Whether it is God's revelation in nature or in His Word, the language is always "geared down" to the human level. God meets man where he is in his creaturely finiteness and especially, since the fall, in his sinful finiteness.
Loonstra finds even more support for his metaphorical approach to Scripture in the writings of the German Lutheran scholar Johann Georg Hamann (1730-1788). Basic to Hamann's view of God's revelation is his conviction that God is love and that this love seeks entrance into human existence (p.120). God does this by "coming down" to man in a variety of ways. Through creation and providence and especially in the incarnation and death of His Son, God has demonstrated His condescending love to man. Also His revelation in Scripture must be seen as an illustration of this divine condescension. The inspiration of the human authors of Scripture by the Holy Spirit represents God's stooping down and accommodating Himself to man's limited capacity to form concepts and express himself in language. The totality of God's revelation therefore is characterized by humility and involves His taking on the form of a servant.
The implications of this divine accommodation are far reaching. They include the idea that God makes use of our human sense organs because that is the only way in which we are able to identify and comprehend higher spiritual matters (p.121). Practically, it means that He accommodates Himself to our finiteness in all its facets. Not only does God take into consideration our weaknesses, but He also makes use of our passions and peculiarities and even our prejudices. It is in this human and imperfect form that God comes to us in Scripture.
So far, there is not much difference between Hamann and Calvin's concept of accommodation. But the following statement shows that Hamann takes this concept farther than the Reformer of Geneva ever did. According to Loonstra, Hamann has no problem recognizing certain irregularities (oneffenheden) that have been brought to light by historical-critical studies. For him, these irregularities or unevennesses do not diminish the trustworthiness of Scripture in any way. Rather, they confirm the Bible's trustworthiness because they help us grasp the idea of revelation as God's condescending act of entering into our state of infirmity and imperfection.
Hamann does not even have a problem with accepting a mythological use of language. Myth for Hamann is simply a symbolic pointing to God's deeds in history. Therefore, myth and history are not mutually exclusive concepts. Myth is the imaginary and pictorial expression of history and its purpose is to bring out its deeper meaning. This deeper meaning cannot be discerned by a mere listing of bare facts (p.122).
For Hamann all recorded events in Scripture are pictures or illustrations of divine mercy. These events, however, take on real meaning for us only if they resonate within our hearts. In other words, they have no real significance apart from the believing subject. Here we detect the influence of Kant and even an anticipation of Barth!
According to Hamann, a text may be interpreted in more than one way. The original meaning assigned to a passage by its author is not decisive here. Later readers of the text may find an entirely different meaning in it. Our interpretation of Scripture, therefore, will be determined by the situation in which we find ourselves and the meaning we attach to words in our cultural setting. Human language is always historically conditioned and so is our understanding of Scripture. The upshot of all this is that for Hamann there is no such thing as objective truth apart from our historical context. We read Scripture through our cultural glasses and this means that truth has different meanings for different people.
In his evaluation of Hamann's views Loonstra strongly disagrees with the latter's claim that objective truth does not exist apart from a subject who understands and believes it. Yet Loonstra finds much here that he appreciates and with which he is in basic agreement. It is especially the notion that in Scripture God speaks to us in a figurative or metaphorical way that Loonstra finds very helpful. It offers a way out of the dilemma faced by many people who are troubled by the claims of higher critics that the Bible contains many contradictions and even factual and historical inaccuracies. What Loonstra seems to say is that even if this charge is true, this does not mean that the Bible can no longer be viewed as trustworthy. Many of these alleged or real inconsistencies and inaccuracies can be accounted for by realizing that the human authors of Scripture lived in a pre-scientific age and could only express themselves in language and concepts of that time and of that culture. The amazing thing is, says Loonstra, that God has entered into the experience-world and cultural context of the Bible writers. Indeed, He has so humbled Himself that He is willing reveal His truth by means of stories which contain mythological elements and which can be traced to sagas and legends (p.195).
We see here what happens when the human aspect of the Bible is emphasized at the expense of the divine. There was a time, no doubt, when theologians did not pay enough attention to the human factor involved in the writing of Scripture. The inspiration of the human authors by the Holy Spirit was understood in a very mechanical way as if these men were completely passive in the process. This "dictation" theory of inspiration eventually made way for the much better "organic" theory which takes into account the character, personality, education, cultural milieu as well as the active participation of the human authors in the production of the Holy Scriptures. But today the pendulum has swung too far the other way again, so that all the emphasis is being placed on the human factor.
It is commonly believed that the very fact that human beings were involved in the writing of Scripture implies that the Bible contains errors. I'm afraid that Loonstra has capitulated to higher criticism in this regard. True, he wants to safeguard the trustworthiness of Scripture by saying that God can and does reveal His truth in literal as well as non-literal ways. But can God's accommodation be stretched to the point where it includes His using myths, sagas and legends as vehicles for His truth? Surely, here Loonstra has crossed the line and entered forbidden territory for a Reformed exegete. How can he square this with Article 4 of the Belgic Confession in which the Reformed Churches confess: "We believe that the Holy Scriptures are contained in two books, namely the Old and New Testaments, which are canonical, against which nothing can be alleged?"
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.