[Editor’s Note. In the previous issue Prof. Hanko began this critique. The final statement of the first installment was: “We must never forget that the battle is between faith and unbelief.” The opening statement of the present installment is a reference to this.¹
But just because Kistemaker fails to deal with this, he concedes to the critics certain very precious truths. For one thing, Kistemaker is very emphatically of the position that the gospel writers were dependent upon each other and perhaps even dependent upon other documents which no longer exist. Now it is not our intention to enter into the rather complicated problem of dependence in this review; and Kistemaker himself does not offer a definite solution. But we do want to point out that the whole so-called “synoptic problem” which deals with the question of dependence is a problem which arises out of higher criticism. There has never been the slightest iota of proof for other documents which no longer exist but which were used by the gospel writers. And, it simply is a fact that the parallel passages in the gospels are easily explained both with respect to their similarities and differences within the context of inspiration. We need not, as Kistemaker does, end a discussion on this point with a series of unanswered questions:
Though the redaction critic has devoted his attention to the theology of Matthew and has said little about the gospel tradition which the evangelist received, sooner or later he must face the question concerning the origin of this tradition. Should he say that the evangelist used the Gospel of Mark as a source, he would have to explain how Matthew adopted Mark’s text but not his theology. And if the three Synoptic evangelists have received a common tradition, which brought about interdependence among the evangelists, would they have been able to present three separate theologies? In short, the question arises: what, if any, is the relationship between the theology of Matthew, of Mark, and of Luke? (p. 103.)
In the second place, Kistemaker makes a concession to the whole dangerous “Sitz-im-leben” idea. This theory teaches that the gospel writers (and all the men whom God used to write the Scriptures) were influenced also in their writings of the Scriptures by the views held in their day, views which were often erroneous. He speaks of the apostle John as being influenced by the Qumran settlement and writes: “How is it possible that of the four Gospels that of John reveals close affinity in language and thought to the literature of the Dead Sea settlement?” (p. 123.) Or again,
Third, we need to consider the life-setting of the early Christian community and of the writer of the Gospel. Everett F. Harrison makes this observation: “Any writer, however objective, finds it difficult, if not impossible, to avoid reflecting his own situation to some extent. He cannot write in a vacuum.” (pp. 83, 84.)
We do not mean to deny, and to our knowledge, no child of God has ever denied, that God used men in their own times and circumstances to write the Scriptures. What we object to is the fact that remarks such as the one above are made outside the context of and without any reference to, divine inspiration. The result is certainly that any reader naturally conclude! that the writers reflected also their erroneous conceptions of things. The suggestion is at least implied that God did not preserve the men whom He used to write the Scriptures from any conceivable kind of error. And the result is the position which men like Kuitert take who deny huge sections of Scripture in the name of such a “Sitz-im-leben” theory.
Of course, the gospel writers knew each other. Of course, they talked together about the events and teachings of Christ. Of course, the whole Church talked about these things. No one in his right mind would ever deny this. And we do not need pages of proof to assure us that this is so. But when the gospel writers were moved by the Holy Spirit, they were so directed that they wrote what God wanted them to write in every detail. This does not preclude the account of eyewitnesses and does not shut the door to a certain oral tradition, But it does answer all the questions which arise in such a way that the gospel narratives are God’s Word, not man’s in any respect.
In the third place, Kistemaker makes a big point of oral tradition. He asks the question (p. 86): “The point is whether the book of Acts and the various Epistles furnish any evidence that the tradition of Jesus’ teaching was available to the early Christians. The question, in other words, is whether the early church was in possession of the words of Jesus before the written Gospels began to circulate.”
I do not understand why this is such a big question. The answer, quite obviously, is, of course. Who in the world ever denied this? It would be silly to deny that this was precisely the case.
But Kistemaker goes to great lengths to prove that this was surely the case. He has a whole line of argumentation which you may find on pp. 86-93. I suppose if one wants to go to great pains to prove the obvious, this is all right. But it does seem just a bit unnecessary.
But, soon the real reason behind this long train of argument comes out. Already as one reads the proof, one becomes somewhat suspicious. For, although the point being proved is perfectly plain and the proof an extensive belaboring of the obvious, nevertheless, the proof is, in the final analysis, thoroughly inadequate. It is, admittedly, a bit ironic. A point which does not need proving is extensively proved with proof which does no proving at all. One begins to wonder.
Part of the proof is Luke’s “Prologue.” This is found inLuke 1:1-4. Kistemaker argues, among other things, that, because this passage gives evidence of other gospel narratives, there is proof that Luke used these narratives as a source of tradition. The implication is that Luke added his narrative to many others; and, that, from the viewpoint of their accuracy, Luke’s stood on a par with the others. There is no question that Luke used sources in the writing of his gospel. But his claim is precisely different. He insists that he is adding to the narratives which have already been written just because his will stand in a class by itself and be an authoritative account—and that, in distinction from the others. He claims “perfect understanding” (vs. 3), something which the others did not have. He writes his gospel so that Theophilus may “know the certainty of those things, wherein thou hast been instructed.” (vs. 4). Now Luke could make these claims and set his gospel apart only because he was conscious that he was infallibly led by the Spirit. Why does not Kistemaker enter into these emphatic assertions of the text?
Kistemaker also quotes a number of passages from I & II Thessalonians to prove his point that the apostles used an oral tradition. But these passages do no such thing. A few of them are:
2:13: “For this cause also thank we God without ceasing, because, when ye received the word of God which ye heard of us, ye received it not as the word of men, but as it is in truth, the word of God, which effectually worketh also in you that believe.”
Kistemaker has underscored the words “received” and “heard” and finds in them proof for the use of oral tradition. I do not see this.
“Remember ye not, that, when I was yet with you, I told you these things?”
“For even when we were with you, this we commanded you, that if any would not work, neither should he eat.”
Proof for the use of oral tradition here? I can’t find it.
One is a bit puzzled by all this. Why belabor a point so obvious and muster proof which is not really proof?
But the reason soon becomes apparent. Once again, there is no mention made in all this of inspiration. And the result is that Kistemaker evidently takes the position that the writings of the apostles both in the epistles and in the gospel narratives were theological developments, of oral tradition. This is apparently why he stresses so strongly that the gospel narratives are theological treatises: “The modern trend of looking at the evangelist as a theologian has much in its favor.” (p. 58). (There are also other places where this is discussed.)
But this position is clearly set forth.
Teaching for Paul and the church at Thessalonica was a matter of receiving and delivering; it was the transmission of a tradition. . . . (p. 89).
We wish to draw the conclusion that the whole body of Jesus’ teaching was available to the apostles and, through them, to the early Christians before the canonical Gospels were written. The apostles’ teaching
consisted of a pattern which comprised the facts about the Lord Jesus Christ.
That is, the apostles proclaimed the good news by teaching the people the life, words, and doctrine of Jesus. They developed this teaching, they gave it form and shape, they standardized it. One of the reasons why the apostles remained such a long time in Jerusalem after the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost was to formulate the so-called apostles’ teaching. (p. 93).
There you have it. Without any mention made of divine inspiration, the assertion is made that the gospel narratives and the apostolic writings were the development of oral tradition.
There are many passages of Scripture with which this can be disproved. But one especially striking passage is Galatians 1. Paul’s apostleship was under attack in the Galatian Churches. Paul, therefore, spends a great deal of time proving that he is an apostle along with the other eleven. And in order to prove this, he offers, inGalatians 1 and Galatians 2, a sort of autobiography of his conversion and of the events in his life following upon his conversion. In this section he is intent on proving one point in defense of his apostleship. That point is that the gospel which he received, he did not receive from men, but from God. He writes this in so many words in Gal. 1:11, 12: “But I certify you, brethren, that the gospel which was preached of me is not after man. For I neither received it of man, neither was I taught it, but by the revelation of Jesus Christ.” And, again, inGal. 1:15, 16: “But when it pleased God, who separated me from my mother’s womb, and called me by his grace, To reveal his Son in me, that I might preach him among the heathen; immediately I conferred not with flesh and blood.” What could be clearer? And his autobiography is intended precisely to prove this point. This is even true of his mention of his fifteen day stay with Peter in Jerusalem. (vs. 18). Kistemaker exactly twists this around: “At that time he stayed with Peter for a fortnight, and we may presume they did not spend all the time talking about the weather.” (p. 93).
Paul insists, in unequivocal language, that the gospel which he preached he received by means of the revelation of Jesus Christ; he did not receive it in any sense from men.
Finally, in the last chapter, Kistemaker deals with three questions. He describes them himself in these words:
We begin with the topic of the Son of Man debate and listen to the answers given to thy questions raised. Next, we attend the “trial” of Jesus and learn from the evidence presented whether Jesus of Nazareth is the Son of God. And last, we examine the Easter events which describe the resurrection of Jesus. (p. 132).
Now it is true that in dealing with and answering all these questions, Kistemaker finally comes to the conclusion that Christ did indeed call Himself “The Son of Man”; that he surely was “The Son of God”; and that His physical resurrection is an historical fact.
What bothers us is that the questions are dealt with on the grounds of textual and higher criticism. Kistemaker examines the evidence. He finds the evidence satisfactory. The trouble is that dozens of others, scholars as great as Kistemaker, have also examined the evidence. They have found it inconclusive at best and unsatisfactory in many cases. Whom are we to believe? Is it merely a question of examining the evidence, such as it may be? Do we decide the issue on the grounds of who has the best arguments? who debates with clearest and most precise logic? who is honest with the evidence?
There is one part of the evidence which no one (not even Kistemaker) brings into court. And that evidence is the fact that the Scriptures are God’s Word. It is true that Jesus called Himself “The Son of God.” But this is true, not because a careful examination of the documents forces one into that conclusion; but because it is the infallible Word of God which says that this is true. God says so. We believe that Jesus is the Son of God. But we receive this truth, not because we have sufficient historical evidence of this fact. God’s Word asserts it. We bow before that. We believe that Christ rose from the dead. But the “proofs” of the resurrection are not what convince us. God’s Word asserts that this is so. We listen to God.
To do anything else is fraught with danger. If the Scriptures are mere historical documents which must be critically examined and which must be treated in ways similar to the “Dialogues” of Plato, then I for one cast my vote with the higher critics. Without fail, they have the best of the argument. And anyone who treats Scripture in this way is bound, sooner or later, to come to the same conclusion.
But if Scripture is received as the infallible record given by the inspiration of the Spirit and containing the revelation of God in Christ, then the only calling of the child of God is to bow before that holy Word of God.
This does not mean that he cannot give answer to all the vain and empty philosophies and wildly speculative theories of the higher critics. Indeed, he has a solemn obligation to do precisely this. But he does so, not on the grounds of the critics themselves, but on the grounds of the Word of God alone.
And then the issue is between faith and unbelief, light and darkness, the truth and the lie. Unbelief cannot and will not accept Scripture as God’s Word. The work of faith is necessary for this. And faith is the gift of God.
We do not mean to imply by all this that Kistemaker denies the inspiration of Scripture. I do not know what his views are on this matter. I am sure he would accept the doctrine of inspiration; but whether his views extend to verbal inspiration, I do not know. He writes, for example, on p. 32: “The sacredness of the words of Jesus is not inherent in the words as such, but in the message conveyed.” But when he fails to deal with all the problems of the higher critics in his book from the viewpoint of an infallible Bible, he goes astray and concedes such fundamental points to the critics that he will, if he is not careful, presently lose the whole of the Scriptures. History has proved this; especially has recent history in the Netherlands shown this to be the case.
Does the book then have no value?
Indeed, it does.
It is a valuable and clear description of recent trends in the field of gospel studies. Anyone interested in more recent developments can find much in this book that is of worth.
Kistemaker does make, at times, some very pointed criticism of the higher critics. Particularly striking is his criticism of the new hermeneutics that it makes man, instead of God, the center of its studies. (p. 76) In fact, this point could very well have received much more extensive development in the book than it has.
But we are sorry and dismayed that the book does not proceed from the principle of inspiration. This is its weakness. One must, therefore, read it with caution.