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The GKN on the Nature of the Authority of Scripture (3)

Before we continue our discussion of Chapter I of the Report/Decision, a bit of news about further developments in the Dutch churches in connection with this Report. You will recall that Waarheid en Eenheidwas accused of violating the law when it published the entire report, even though the report was public and had been dealt with in open session by the General Synod of the GKN and had, in fact, been distributed to the press. The official Information Service of the GKN even demanded an immediate promise fromWaarheid en Eenheid to cease and desist in its distribution of the report. The suspicion was expressed—and I entertained this suspicion myself—that perhaps the intention was to edit and revise the report in order to make it more palatable to the general membership of the churches. A recent issue ofWaarheid en Eenheid carried the news that the Report/Decision has now been officially published and distributed in the GKN. The Report as such was apparently not changed; it was only preceded by an introduction of several pages. Whether the original intent was to publish a revised version or not, we shall never know, I suppose. It is possible, of course, thatWaarheid en Eenheid’s publishing of the Report foiled the plan of Information Service to publish a revised edition, if so, so much the better! 

And now we return to our discussion. 

Last time we called attention especially to the philosophical method and approach of Chapter I. 

This time we call your attention to the contents and argumentation of Chapter I. 

This chapter begins by calling attention to the fact that there are certain basic words, root terms, which form the undertone of our thinking and of the manner in which we experience things. These basic terms are not unchangeable, but especially in a time of development and change they also frequently receive another content. Their meaning does not become totally different, but there is development. One such word is “truth.” And it is the intention of this section of the Report to point to the positive insights involved in the present day changes in the conception of truth. 

First of all, there is the most common conception of “truth” which may be called the objective conception. According to it, truth is the agreement between the human presentation of things and the things themselves. “True” is to state things as they actually, objectively, are. This conception proceeds, on the one hand, from the objective situation of things, and, on the other hand, from the human consciousness which is able to reflect these things. According to this view, man is passively receptive. This objective view, it is said, has been found in widely varying circles: with the Greek philosophers, with Thomas Aquinas, with the classical Reformed theologians, with the logical thinker Bertrand Russell, with the Marxist Lenin. The advantage of this conception is said to be that one realizes that in order to speak truth one must acknowledge an external norm. The disadvantage is said to be that it makes man so passive and fails to recognize that speaking and knowing truth involves exertion, investigation, wrestling. It negates the activity of man. 

On the other hand, there is the subjective conception of the truth. According to it, man must himself bring forth and produce truth. Truth comes into existence through difficult labor. Animals may perhaps reflect the world round about them, but with animals there is no question of truth or untruth, truth or lie. Man is higher than the animals and is called to subdue and investigate the world. Only man knows such things as reasoning, speech, symbols, culture; and all this has to do with truth. And so there is this subjective conception of truth, according to which the root of truth does not lie in the state of affairs, objects, but in the activity of the subject (man). This involves an active rather than a passive knowledge of the truth. This view is found in the circle of philosophical idealism, of existentialism, and of much of modern theology. The advantage of this conception is said to be that the truth is not an object which simply lies there for the taking, but is something which must be brought to light with difficulty. It involves the devotion of a man, the total devotion of his being—not merely his sensuous perception and his understanding, but the whole man. The disadvantage is said to be that one soon thinks that the truth is produced by man. Truth threatens to become subjectivistic: man determines and projects the truth, and anything normative outside of man is lacking. 

Parenthetically we may remark that according to the second view truth does not merely threaten to become subjectivistic; it is subjectivistic. The trouble is that the third view which the author is about to propound, the view adopted by the Report, is also ultimately pure subjectivism: man becomes the standard of the truth. This probably accounts for the mildness which appears already at this point with respect to subjectivism. 

According to the Report, there is change coming about with respect to the basic concept “truth” in all of modern existence. Neither the objective conception nor the subjective conception is satisfactory. 

What is that current conception of “truth” that is supposed to be a positive development in the understanding of what is truth? 

The Report states that it would be easiest to say that this newer conception is a combination of the objective and the subjective conceptions. Then the truth would consist of two parts: the objective outside of man plus the subjective in man. But it goes on to say that this is too simplistic and does not escape the old dilemma—truth either objective or subjective. Truth is not simply something outside of man, nor only an exertion of man, nor the sum of the two. It concerns not merely the finish-line in the contest, but also the contesting on the way to that finish-line. It is the hid treasure in the field and the digging and the finding of that treasuretogether (ineen). Stated complexly: precisely in and with the subjective aspect, the objective comes to clearer light. At the same time, precisely in and with the objective aspect the subjective better attains its rightful place. What is involved is not a truth (objective) which must subsequently be appropriated (subjective), but both together (ineen). [Note: This word “together” I have twice italicized because it seems to be a key term in this concept.] 

The Report then goes on to state that this newer conception sheds light but also presents some difficulties, and it seeks to explain further. This newer conception is called “relational.” This means simply, according to the Report, that the truth is delineated always within a relation, within the involvedness of man in something else. Truth is not merely to be found outside the human subject, like a stone which one can pick up. Nor is it to be found purely within that man, like a suddenly arising feeling. Truth is more: it is the relation between subject and object, better yet an interaction of both. 

At this point an example is given. A traffic sign (for example, a symbol indicating one-way traffic) is really of no meaning whatsoever conceived of apart from the people who can comprehend it and who have conceived of it (an animal will not obey it). In that sense it is human, “subjective.” And that holds for all human symbols, in religion, art, and daily life. But it is much more than only human subjective. It indeed indicates something objective: a traffic rule, a norm, a measure which must protect the life of the fellow man. That normative comes to manifestation, becomes visible, exactly in that traffic sign. And again that holds for the entire human culture with its many symbols (numerals, letters, traffic signs, scientific formulas, religious symbols such as the tree of life). 

The preceding paragraphs set forth briefly the so-called “relational” conception of the truth. This forms the background of the view of Scripture and of how Scripture came into being and of how the truth is present in Scripture which is maintained by the Report. Our explanation of these latter aspects will have to wait until the next issue: But it is not difficult to see that this so-called “relational” conception will radically affect one’s view of Scripture, and that, too, in the direction of contradicting the truth that the ground of the authority of the Word of God lies in that Word itself. There is no longer any such thing as the objective truth of the objective Word of God. But further explanation will have to wait until next time. 

But, in conclusion, notice how the Report not only proceeds philosophically but also assumes that which, even from its own point of view, ought to be proved. It sets forth the various conceptions of “truth,” assumes that both the objective view and the subjective view are incorrect, and then proceeds on the assumption that this so-called “relational” view is the correct one and that somehow this conception has to be applied to the doctrine of Holy Scripture and its authority. This would never have happened if the Report had proceeded from Scripture and the Confessions instead of from philosophy. 

A Worthwhile Project

Elsewhere in this issue you will find an announcement concerning an “informal commit- tee” that is interested in publishing a complete index to all fifty-six volumes of the Standard Bearer. The purpose of this brief editorial is to add emphasis to that announcement. 

As some of our readers will know, up to this time there has been but one usable index published; that is an index to the first ten volumes published many years ago. There was another index to the second ten volumes published, but that one was virtually useless. Starting with Volume 21 there has been an annual index, which is helpful to a degree but does not fill the bill for those who are doing research on a subject. Hence, some of our seminary students conceived the ambitious project of a complete and accurate index to all the volumes. 

We realize that such an index will be valuable only to a limited number of people, i.e., those who have a partial or complete set of bound volumes or those who have saved their loose issues over the years. But while this number is limited, to them such an index will indeed be valuable. 

This makes it all the more imperative that, if you are interested, you write to this committee immediately. The publication of this index will not be undertaken if there is not sufficient response. So do not leave the task of responding to your neighbor. Do it yourself, and without delay! The committee means what is says: “No response, no index!” 

I urge all those who keep the bound volumes in their libraries to respond promptly!