The above is the title of the inaugural oration of Prof. Dr. Klaas Runia at the time of his installation as professor of practical theology at the Theological School in Kampen, The Netherlands. This oration received more than passing notice in some of the church papers; and it has now been published as one of the series of publications from Kampen known as the Kamper Cahiers. This editorial comment will serve at the same time as a review of this booklet which was sent to us by the publisher, J. H. Kok, of Kampen.
We are interested in this publication for several reasons. In the first place, we are interested because we became acquainted with the views of Dr. Runia in connection with the controversy in Australasia when he expressed his views about Scripture, and particularly about Genesis 1-3, at the time when he was professor at Geelong Theological College in Australia. At that time, you will recall, we were critical of the views of Dr. Runia; and now his inaugural oration is on a subject very intimately connected with his view of Scripture, so that we should be able to test our former criticism. In the second place, we are interested because of the fact that this subject is also connected with much of the controversy—if such it can be called—that is presently going on in the Gereformeerde Kerkenconcerning the authority and infallibility of Scripture. It was claimed by some, when Dr. Runia received and accepted an appointment to Kampen, that this was the appointment of a conservative and that Dr. Runia would strengthen the so-called conservative cause in The Netherlands. This address should give some indication whether this expectation was correct or not. In the third place, we are interested because of the fact that also in this country the whole question of Scripture, and particularly of historical-critical research, is at issue in more than one denomination. This is, in fact, from a technical hermeneutical point of view the issue in all the debate going on about the authority and infallibility of Holy Scripture. This is true, for example, in the Lutheran Church (Missouri Synod), as is plain from the many reports in Christian News concerning Concordia Seminary. This is at bottom the issue, I believe, in the current debate in the Christian Reformed Church about Report 36, on the Nature and Extent of the Authority of Scripture. Hence, it is worth our while—let alone the fact that this subject is of considerable interest and value in itself—to give our attention to this published address of Dr. Runia.
In the main, we would characterize Dr. Runia’s oration as an attempt to find a place for historical-critical research of the Bible in a Reformed and orthodox view of Scripture. To us, this is a hopeless attempt. It is an attempt to reconcile what is fundamentally irreconcilable. Scripture and historical-critical research mix like fire and water. But this is also a very dangerous and deceptive attempt. In the main, this is what has been going on in the Gereformeerde Kerken for some time; theologians have assumed a critical stance over against Scripture, and have principally adopted the methods and the views of so-called higher criticism, meanwhile claiming that these are consistent with a Reformed view of the inspiration, authority, and infallibility of the Word of God. This has been the problem with regard to Holy Scripture in the case of such men as Kuitert, Baarda, and Koole. And, of course, the more one leaves the impression of a Reformed and orthodox view of Holy Scripture, emphasizing apparently strongly that Scripture is the Word of God, the more inconsistent, but also the more deceptive and dangerous is the attempt nevertheless to find a place for the historical-critical method. This, we believe, is characteristic of Dr. Runia’s inaugural address. To us, the attempt of Dr. Runia is not only altogether inconsistent, as we hope to show; but it is also the more dangerous because he attempts to leave the impression that he stands in the tradition of the Reformers and wants to maintain Scripture as the Word of God, though he finds a place for the historical-critical method. Instead, therefore, of standing without compromise in the line of Luther and Calvin, he leaves the impression of doing so while he nevertheless departs in a very subtle manner, but in a fundamental respect. Personally, we have more respect for a man who forthrightly adopts the position of higher criticism than for one who claims to reject it, but nevertheless finds a place for its methods.
But let us take a look at Runia’s position.
Dr. Runia begins by calling attention correctly to the emphasis of the reformers upon preaching, and that, too, preaching of the Word of God, according to the Scriptures. He next calls attention to the fact that today on every hand this traditional reformation vision of the preaching is no longer shared, and that it is maintained by the critics that it is no longer possible. Moreover, thus he explains, the critics maintain that it is no longer possible because the reformers’ principle of Scripture can no longer be maintained. He refers in this connection especially to Wolfhart Pannenberg, who teaches that there is a two-fold gap for modern theologians, which distinguishes them from the Reformers: in the first place, a gap between the New Testament documents and the actual history of which they testify; and, in the second place, between the documents and our present situation. Runia points out, further, that if you ask the critics what had happened since the reformation that makes the modern theological situation so totally different, their answer is: the rise of a new historical mode of thinking and, consequently, the rise of historical-critical research of the Bible.
After tracing the rise and development of historical criticism, Runia makes the point that the Reformed theologian also has something to do with all this. He points out that for a long time in Reformed circles there was sharp opposition against historical-critical research and that this opposition was also quite understandable because especially in the nineteenth century and in the beginning of the twentieth century this research was characterized by a purely rationalistic approach to Scripture. Nevertheless, appealing to Berkouwer, he points out that even Bavinck and Grosheide found a possibility of true criticism which respects the nature of Holy Scripture. But he goes on to state that it cannot be denied that in recent years (he is speaking about Reformed circles) there has been a much greater openness for critical questions than the previous generation thought possible (page 9). This is undoubtedly connected with the fact that in recent years we have come more deeply under the impression of what Berkouwer calls the “humanness of Scripture.” “We have learned better to see that God indeed speaks to us in human words and that therefore historical-critical research is ‘legitimate and necessary.'” Thus Runia, quoting Berkouwer. Nor, according to Runia is this a typically Reformed matter; one finds the same development, for example, also among the ‘Evangelicals’ in the English speaking world and also in Roman Catholic theology.
This is a rather critical juncture in Runia’s address. In a way, it is the turning point of the entire address, both from the point of view of the fact that here Runia introduces the element of the so-called “humanness” of Holy Scripture, without which it is absolutely impossible to speak of historical-critical research, and also from the viewpoint of the fact that in a footnote he attempts to make plain what he means by “criticism” in a good sense. The footnote reads (I translate the Dutch portion):
The word ‘criticism’ itself is, of course, heavily loaded historically and for many includes the idea of standing critically above Scripture and critically sifting within the Scriptures, whereby the researcher determines what is and what is not God’s Word. In this sense the word functions in the well-known combination of Scripture and criticism in the term ‘Scripture-criticism.’ When Grosheide speaks of ‘true criticism,’ he uses the word in its original meaning of judgment, evaluation. George E. Ladd means the same when he writes: “‘Criticism,’ as we would define the term, does not mean sitting in judgment on the Bible as the Word of God. Criticism means making intelligent judgments about historical, literary, textual, and philological questions which one must face in dealing with the Bible, in the light of all the available evidence, when one recognizes that the Word of God has come to men through the words of men in given historical situations.” The New Testament and Criticism, 1967, 37.
This is also the manner in which we ourselves understand the word ‘criticism’ when we speak in this oration of the legitimacy of historical-critical research. Cf. also Berkouwer, who emphatically rejects the prokrima, op. cit. 427.
This is a crucial point in Runia’s position. In the first place, we should note that the entire position hinges on the recognition of an alleged “humanness” of Scripture. This can only mean that there is indeed an element, an aspect, a side of Scripture, which can be subjected to criticism. This is a dualistic view of Scripture, not in harmony with the organic conception of inspiration—although I am well aware that organic inspiration has frequently been incorrectly reduced to this two-factor, two-element (divine and human) characterization of Scripture.
In the second place, we should note that for all the attempt to distinguish this allegedly legitimate idea of the term “criticism” from illegitimate criticism, the effort fails. It is a simple fact that according to the very term, first of all, the idea is that of judgment. This implies the idea of a judge, one who sits above the Scriptures and passes judgment upon them. This becomes very plain from the last sentence of the quotation from Ladd: “Criticism means making intelligent judgments . . . in the light of all the available evidence, when one recognizes that the Word of God has come to men through the words of men in given historical situations.” Over against all this, I insist that there is only one “judge,” or “critic,” of Scripture, namely, Scripture itself. As soon as you depart, in any sense, from the principle which the Reformers always strongly insisted upon,that Scripture is its own interpreter, be it ever so mildly, you have principally joined the camp of the higher critics and set yourself up as a judge over Scripture. As soon as “all the available evidence” includes outside evidence, evidence other than Scripture itself, you have acknowledged the existence of a critical standard to which Scripture does, or does not, conform.
And if, in that case, you attempt, as Runia does in a measure, to cling to the truth of Scripture as the Word of God and to allow for criticism, you have a contradictory position. The result can only be a continual erosion of Holy Scripture until you finally have nothing left, but have been forced to concede everything to the critics!
This becomes clearer in the remainder of Runia’s address, which we will discuss in the next issue, the Lord willing.