.PHILOSOPHY AND SCRIPTURE, a study in Old Princeton and Westminster theology, by John C. Vander Stelt; Mack Publishing Company, 1978; 354 pp., $12.95 (paper). (Reviewed by Prof. H. Hanko)
This book was written by a professor in Dordt College as his doctoral dissertation. Without any direct reference to the A.A.C.S., it has as its main purpose a defense of the teachings of the A.A.C.S., especially as these teachings apply to the doctrine of Scripture. It is indicative of the fact that A.A.C.S. views are being held in Dordt College and taught openly. I write this because this has sometimes been denied; this book is proof of the truth of this assertion.
The approach which Vander Stelt takes is a lengthy discussion of the views of Scripture as maintained by leading Princeton and Westminster theologians as these views were taught in Princeton College, Princeton Theological Seminary, and Westminster Theological Seminary. An analysis of these views makes up the major part of the book. It is from an analysis of these views that Vander Stelt proceeds to a critique of these views and, by this critique, paves the way for a discussion of the views of the A.A.C.S. on the doctrine of Scripture.
This book was not sent to the Editorial Office of theStandard Bearer for review; it was sent to me by an individual who asked me to write a review with a view to the threat which the teachings of this book constitute in the teachings of Dordt College and in the propagation of A.A.C.S. doctrine in general. I agree that the point is sufficiently worthwhile to discuss the matter in our paper.
In his analysis of the views of Scripture as held by the Princeton theologians (John Witherspoon, Samuel Smith, Ashbel Green, James McCosh, Archibald Alexander, Samuel Miller, Charles Hodge, Archibald Alexander Hodge, Benjamin B. Warfield, Francis Patton, Caspar Wistar Hodge, Jr., J. Gresham Machen, and Cornelius Van Til), Vander Stelt’s chief criticism is that they were influenced in their thinking by Scottish Common Sense Philosophy. Their commitment to Common Sense Philosophy made them basically dualistic on their views of the relation between the natural and the supernatural, body and soul. All the Princeton theologians adopted the presuppositions of this philosophy to a greater or lesser degree. Tension over this issue brought about disagreement between those who emphasized God’s transcendence and its corollary, God’s revelation to man, and those who emphasized man and his role in Scripture. Or, to put it another way, the tension was between those who emphasized that Scripture was God’s work with the result that Scripture was infallibly inspired, and those who emphasized the human factor in Scripture. The former stressed the objective character of revelation and put the stress on infallible inspiration.
The issues were, in Vander Stelt’s judgment, more complicated than that and involved the relation between Scripture and the Word of God in creation, faith and reason, science and theology, etc.; but this is the central issue as it is developed in the book.
We are not of a mind to enter into the detailed and involved argumentation of the book in this review. That would serve no good purpose. We may comment, however, that Vander Stelt’s charge that the Princeton theologians were sometimes rationalistic in their theology, in the sense that they appealed to natural reason in support of certain truths, is a correct one. However, Vander Stelt’s assertion that their rationalism was a dominating motif in their theology is wrong. Furthermore, the Princeton theologians also taught, as Vander Stelt maintains, that truth is reasonable. Vander Stelt faults them for this as evidence of rationalism. I suppose that one can argue concerning the meaning of the “reasonable,” but the fact is that the truth of God’s .revelation is indeed reasonable, for if it is not, true knowledge would be impossible.
In how far Common Sense Philosophy indeed influenced Princeton I leave an open question. There is some evidence that Vander Stelt is correct in this, and others have pointed out the same thing. But into this we do not intend to go. We are, for purposes of this review, interested in the whole question as it relates to the inspiration of the Scriptures.
That the Princeton theologians believed firmly in the infallible interpretation of Scripture is known to all. That a convincing case can be made for the assertion that this view of the Princeton theologians derived from their basic commitment to Common Sense Philosophy is not so clear. Vander Stelt never says as much, but the implication is clear that any one who, holds to such a view of Scripture is also guilty of rationalism and philosophical formulation of this doctrine.
We have seen in the previous chapters how it was indigenous to the genius of the Old Princeton theology to he a historical embodiment and manifestation of the culturally highly formative movement known as Scoto-American CSP (Common Sense Philosophy). As an inherently dualistic philosophy, this movement was predicated on the ontological distinction between an unmoved First Cause and (a number of) moved secondary causes, and on the anthropological dualism of a physical and a psychical world.
In the measure that its confessional intentions and stance were scriptural, Presbyterian theology could not wholly accept this dualistic way of thinking. It faced, therefore, the formidable task of having to harmonize two fundamentally contrasting ways of thinking. In connection with this attempt, it must be said that inasmuch as Presbyterianism was not fully scriptural, particularly in its philosophical understanding of reality and man, it jeopardized its own otherwise confessionally orthodox aims and position, and it thereby created a number of misleading and deeply troublesome theoretical problems. p. 272.
What is Vander Stelt’s position on these matters? is clear from this book that his basic presuppositions are the views of the Word of God as developed by the Amsterdam philosophers (Dooyeweerd and Vollenhoven) and carried over into this country by the A.A.C.S. His views come out in several passages in the conclusion of the book, all of which we cannot quote. But a few references will be of help. In criticism of Princeton he writes:
In the Princeton conception of God’s revelation, revelation came increasingly to be thought of as the Scriptures. This narrowing of focus to the Bible jeopardized the full scriptural meaning of all revelation, including creational revelation. What was lost sight of in this way of thinking about revelation was not only the integral unity of reality . . . and the radical oneness of man . . . but also the true unity of all revelation.
The reason for such a growing preoccupation with a reduced meaning of revelation is that the Word of God was thought of almost exclusively in terms of its incarnation and inscripturation. However, the Word of God as the One through whom God created the world was either relegated to the wings or thought of in terms of a mild form of Logos speculation. This reductionistic understanding of the Word of God resulted in the growing tendency of Princeton theologians to find the truth character, that is, the certainty, of all reality in a Bible conceived of primarily as a system of truth. p. 309.
Vander Stelt’s distinctions between various aspects of the Word are evident from the following quotes:
Scripture itself is not to be equated with this Word. This Word is in a sense presupposed in the Scriptures. p. 316.
From the recognition of the distinction (not a disjunction or a separation) between the written Word and the mediating Word proceeds the possibility of knowing that the God of the Scriptures is also the God of creation and that, therefore, there must somehow be a confluence of scriptural truth with the truth of creational revelation. p. 317.
The emphasis on the creational Word in A.A.C.S. thinking comes out clearly in his teaching that the creational Word is also normative:
Withour proper recognition of the existence and normativity of the creation Word, reality is deprived of a necessary ordering principle. p. 317
The point of this distinction is that the creation Word has a certain normativity apart from the Scriptures and becomes, as such, the basis for the development of Christian thought in other spheres of life than the Church. Into this area Vander Stelt does not enter, and we shall not touch upon this aspect of A.A.C.S. thinking in this review. It is his view as it affects his doctrine of Scripture that is of interest. On the basis of this distinction Vander Stelt rejects the historical doctrine of inspiration and its corollaries, Scripture’s infallibility and inerrancy.
The real problem that lies at the source of this way of thinking about inspiration and the original writings of Scripture is the element of supernaturalism that is basic to the philosophy of theism.
This emphasis on the supranatural origin of Scripture presupposes an erroneous way of thinking about the relationship between God and man’s activities. It tends to minimize what is human or natural. p. 326.
What is Vander Stelt’s own view on Scripture? This is not clearly set forth in the book, but he suggests in various places that the Scriptures are man’s response to the Word of God. He writes:
In this Mediator lies man’s security. To point out this Mediator to the sinner is Scripture’s unique and indispensable function. Knowing this clear and sufficient message of redemption, the believer is challenged to confess the infallibility or trustworthiness of what God has done and is doing in Jesus Christ and through His Spirit. The inspiration of Scripture has been determined by the content of this unique revelation, and that content calls for man’s confession of (not speculation about) that to which theopneustic Scripture refers.
This confession character of Scripture and of man’s response to it in no way limits (in any neo-Kantian sense) the nature, content, and knowability of Scripture. The theopneustic nature of Scripture indicates that God has taken man into His service, worked in and through him, maintained his full creatureliness or humanity, and has thus authorized him to make known in a human-apostolic way His love.
There are various other elements included in Vander Stelt’s attack on Scripture, but these come to the heart of the matter.
Nor can we include in this review a detailed analysis of these views. Much has been written on them already and it would not be worth our while to reproduce what has already been said. The following remarks will have to suffice.
In the first place, the view of the A.A.C.S. and of Vander Stelt on the Word of God is erroneous. It is ironic to say the least that Vander Stelt accuses the Princeton theologians of rationalism, while his basic position, his view of the Word of God, is thoroughly philosophical and rationalistic. And let it be clearly stated and understood that one’s conception of the Word of God must come from Scripture (Cf. e.g.,Proverbs 8, John 1:1-14, Hebrews 1:1-3, Col. 1:15-19, etc.) and not from the philosophizing of the A.A.C.S. If only those philosophers will receive the teaching of Scripture, they will find the true and proper distinctions and unity between the various aspects of the Word of God. In the second place, Vander Stelt gives to the Word of God in creation a normativity alongside of and equal to (superior to?) that of Scripture. He writes, e.g.:
Although Scripture is the only (written) Norm for the redemption of reality, it is not the only source of all forms of truth. The reduction of God’s Word to Scripture has fostered the theory that only in Scripture, not in creation, the source of truth is to be found. With the creational foundation for scientific truth removed, however, all ultimately reliable truth is thought of biblicistically, as having its empirical anchor in the Bible. p. 320
Again, we cannot go into detail on this question, but it is a rejection of Calvin’s correct description of the relation between the Word of God in Scripture and in creation. Calvin describes the Scriptures as the eyeglasses through which alone we are able to see the Word of God in creation. Vander Stelt wants none of this.
In the third place, and in connection with this, the A.A.C.S. refuses to reckon with the seriousness of sin. Not only did the entrance of sin in the world bring about the curse upon this creation so that the Word of God there cannot be heard any more because it is drowned in the word of the curse, but man himself became so depraved that he is blind to that Word of God. The Scriptures are indispensable.
In the fourth place, in his interest in preserving the human element in Scripture, Vander Stelt loses the Scriptures altogether. He may inveigh ever so strongly against the Princeton theologians and against the historical view of Scripture’s infallibility, but he will never succeed in destroying the fundamental truth that Scripture is God’s Word and God’s Word alone. It is given by God by divine inspiration so that “holy men of God spake as they were moved by the Holy Spirit”; it is God’s infallible and inerrant record of His own revelation in Jesus Christ His Son; it is the Scripture before which we must bow in total and humble submission with the prayer of Samuel upon our lips: “Speak, Lord, for thy servant heareth.” It is the abiding hope and comfort of the child of God in all this life. If Vander Stelt, c.s., would understand and believe that Scripture is part of the wonder of grace, the miracle of salvation in Christ, then he would not trouble the Church with all these erroneous ideas.
Finally, if Dordt College has committed itself to this position it has lost the Scriptures and the foundation for a truly Christian college.