“Preaching and Historical-Critical Research”

By the time this appears in print, we are assured, Volume 3 of The Triple Knowledge, An Exposition of the Heidelberg Catechism, will at long last be available—at the price of $8.95. This means that the entire reprinted set is now available. For those who have not purchased the volumes separately, the complete set can be purchased for $24.95. And, by the way, these books would make a fine graduation gift for someone! If you hurry, you can get them before most graduation dates! 

We call special attention to two articles in this issue. First of all, we mention Prof. Hanko’s critique of Key ’73 and of the book Who In The World? Secondly, we call attention to Rev. Decker’s, first (of two) article on Pentecostalism. Read these for yourselves, and be instructed. And when you have finished, pass them on to a concerned Christian Reformed, friend. Or better still, send that friend a gift subscription under our TEN for TWO introductory offer.

In our previous editorial about Prof. Dr. Klaas Runia’s inaugural address on the above subject, we saw that at the outset Dr. Runia adopts a dualistic view of Scripture and makes room for what he calls criticism in a good sense by pointing to an alleged “humanness” of Holy Scripture, a la Dr. Berkouwer. We pointed out, however, that already at this point he fails to distinguish successfully this criticism in an alleged good sense from criticism in an evil sense. He fails to show how anyone can engage in criticism without sitting in judgment above that which he criticizes. This is a crucial point, I believe, in Runia’s address; and it is one which can be traced through the entire address. At no point does he show how it is possible to engage in historical-critical research and at the same time to maintain the absolute, divine authority of Scripture. He tries, in a measure, to maintain both; but he fails to reconcile the two. And it is our contention that the two are fundamentally incapable of being reconciled. 

Dr. Runia, however, insists that such historical-critical research is absolutely necessary for both theologian and preacher, (I translate):

All this, then, means at once that today no one can escape this historical research, also not the preacher. He may not be a professional theologian, but as soon as he opens his Bible and bows over his text in the preparation of his sermon, especially if it is a text from the historical parts of Scripture (but certainly not exclusively in such portions!), he confronts the question: what is the historical quality (gehalte) of this text? This question is not simply answered by the fact that he as Reformed preacher believes that this text is a text from the Word of God inspired by the Holy Spirit. Of course, this is of great importance for his approach to the text. It means, among other things, that he comes to this text with deep reverence. Still more, in the faith that in this text, as in the entire Scripture, he has to do with the trustworthy Word of God. He also knows that it is his task to pass on to the congregation the specific message of this specific text as God’s Word. But the acceptance of inspiration does not solve the historical problems. It remains the task of the theologian—both the professional theologian and the preacher-theologian—to ask: what factuality is here imparted, and how is this factuality imparted? 

It is plain that the posing of these historical questions touches the basis of the entire Christian message and of the entire Christian faith. The Christian faith is after all an ‘historic’ faith, in this sense, that it is founded upon definite historical facts. C.H. Dodd says in his book History and the Gospels: “Christianity rests on the affirmation that a series of events happened in which God revealed himself in action for the salvation of men. . . . Christianity does not repudiate the revelation of God in nature or spiritual experience. But Christianity as based on the O.T. and N.T. finds the primary field of Divine Revelation in History because it is the field of Divine Action. If God is the Maker and Ruler of all Mankind, there is a sense in which his action may be discovered anywhere in History. But this is not what Christianity means primarily by affirming that God is revealed in history. . . . Christianity takes the series of historical events recorded and reflected in the Bible from the call of Abraham to the emergence of the Christian Church and declares that in those series the ultimate reality of all history is controlled by the supreme event of all—the life and death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. This valuation of the series is not imposed on it from without, but is an integral part of history itself.” 

This proclamation, however, does not come directly out of heaven to us, but is transmitted to us through a number of documents which are written by a great number of authors and date from widely different ages. In other words, it comes to us through the means of historical documents which as such in principle stand open for so-called historical-critical research as this takes place according to the historical-critical method.

A few remarks are in order here. 

In the first place, it is very plain that Runia here insists upon the inescapable necessity of historical-critical research. The reader should not be confused, by the way, by Runia’s interchanging of the terms historical research and historical-critical research. The former can refer to what is frequently called “the historical method” of exegesis. This is a proper part of the sound, believing exegetical method. It simply means that the exegete takes into account the historical setting, background, circumstances, etc., of any part of Scripture as these are set forth by Scripture itself, and in so far as Scripture itself makes plain their significance. This, however, is by no means the same as historical-critical research. The former is recommended by any Reformed teacher of hermeneutics. But the latter is carefully distinguished by almost every sound text-book on hermeneutics from the so-called grammatical-historical method. And the fundamental difference lies exactly in the word “critical.” Runia wants historical criticism! But it is deceptively inaccurate to speak of this as merely “historical research,” 

In the second place, here is an example of a deceptive ambivalence toward the authority of Scripture which is so often characteristic of those who claim to have a “high view” of Scripture but who want to make concessions to higher criticism. It is a “Yes . . . But” position. Yes, the text is part of the Spirit-inspired Word of God. Yes, this is of great importance in one’s approach to the text. Yes, it implies deep reverence in approaching the text. Yes, it means that one is dealing with the trustworthy Word of God. BUT this acceptance of inspiration does not solve the historical questions! Even apart from this miserable two-handedness, it should be noted that there are certain things Runia does not say in this paragraph. He does NOT say that the Scriptures are infallible and inerrant. He does NOT speak of unconditionally bowing before the authority of Scripture, but only of “deep reverence.” I claim that no Reformed man should speak this kind of language. 

In the third place, Runia uses the worn out “red herring” that the Bible “does not come directly out of heaven to us.” Now no one in his right mind has ever claimed this, especially not among Reformed theologians. In fact, any Reformed theologian will not only recognize the fact that Scripture came to us through “holy men” and over a period of many centuries; but a sound Reformed theologian will even emphasize that this enhances the wonder of Scripture. But why, pray tell, do theologians who want to make room for a “human element” in Scripture and for a certain amount of historical criticism keep on talking about this? It is a belittling of Scripture’s divine authorship, nothing less. And, if it does not mean that Scripture’s divine origin and authority and infallibility are called in question, then how in the world can the conclusion be drawn that Scripture is “in principle” open for historical-critical research? This Runia never explains; and he cannotexplain it. 

At this point in his oration, Dr. Runia enters into a description and criticism of the method of, historical-critical research. He points out that the method has its philosophical basis in the Enlightenment, according to which the wonder was excluded. He shows that the Enlightenment and the historical-critical view have a radically different view of reality and of history than does the Christian faith. And while the emphasis in this section—in which he also criticizes several modern theologians of the critical school—is not sharply on the faith-unbelief antithesis and is not sharply formulated in terms of the authority and infallibility of Scripture, nevertheless, on the whole his criticism at this point is rather well made. At least, for the purposes of this critique, I would not fault it.

What is inexplicable to me is the fact that after all this, Runia does an about-face, and writes: “All this does not mean at all that he (the ‘Christian) may not investigate this history, which is proclaimed in Scripture, according to the historical method which we previously sketched briefly. But it means that this method must be employed now in the context of the concept of reality derived from Scripture itself.” However, Runia fails completely to show how this is possible. He fails to show how there is room for historical criticism in a Scripture which is above all criticism. 

But yet there can be no doubt about it that Runia wants real criticism. For on page 18 he becomes very specific, and writes: “This does not mean that he (the preacher) has it very easy and need not conduct any historical research. On the contrary, he has to do with historical documents, and he has to use the various techniques which in the course of years have been developed in historical-critical research. All the usable critical techniques: those of textual criticism, literary criticism, form-historical criticism, redaction-historical criticism, and whatever more there may be, stand in principle at his disposal. (italics added) Of course, he will have to use them within the frame of Biblical presuppositions. But within that frame, then, hemust also use them.” 

It is plain, therefore, what Runia wants. He wants genuine criticism. 

But once more, he fails utterly to show how this is possible under a Reformed view of Scripture. With the exception of textual criticism, which is a legitimate theological science and which Runia has no right to lump together with the techniques of higher criticism, Runia is trying to mix fire and water! But he never shows how they can be mixed. Nor can he show this! If he wants the fire of the Spirit, he must throw the cold water of rationalistic criticism away; and if he insists upon the water of criticism, he must sacrifice the fire of the Spirit in the Scriptures! 

Nor must Runia, as he tries to do at the conclusion of his address, attempt to say that he is in the line of the Reformers. While he concedes that the Reformers did not know of the modern methods, he claims that his position represents a contemporaneous advancement of what the Reformers did in the 16th century. He even claims that Calvin “certainly was not un-critical in his approach to Scripture,”—something for which I would like explicit proof! 

For my part, I prefer the position stated by Dr. Robert Preus, who is engaged in a controversy about historical criticism in the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod. This is in a Lutheran context, to be sure. But on the doctrine of Scripture Luther and Calvin stood together. And here is what Dr. Preus writes in answer to a Dr. Arthur Repp:

Brother Art. assumes that the historical-critical method can be used with “Luther an” presuppositions, a Great Myth which I think must have its origin on this campus (Concordia Seminary, H.C.H.). But this is methodologically impossible. To my knowledge no reputable scholar outside our circles has ever suggested the possibility of such a procedure. Why? Because the historical-critical method with the presuppositions peculiar to it is incompatible with Lutheran hermeneutics (as elicited from our Confessions). To impose Lutheran presuppositions (gathered, I presume, from our Confessions) upon the historical-critical method would eo ipso destroy the foundation underlying the method and the method itself. Let me give an example. Historic Lutheranism in its Confessions holds to the divine origin of Scripture and of biblical doctrine. The historical-critical method holds to the human origin of Scripture and of biblical doctrine. It is simply not possible that two such totally contradictory principles as these, each essential to a certain way of approaching Scripture and doing exegesis, can be used together and consistently by an exegete. Either he must deny a presupposition essential to the entire historical-critical enterprise or he must so radically modify the sola Scriptura authority principle of historic Lutheranism as to abandon it altogether as a working principle. (Christian News, April 17, 1972, page 6)

According to Preus, no reputable and consistent practitioner of the historical-critical method today would or could operate faithfully and consistently with these Lutheran principles as he carries out the exegetical task. I would add: the same is true of Reformed principles of Holy Scripture. 

Dr. Runia cannot have things both ways. 

He must choose.

Or is it more correct to say that he has chosen?