“The Gospels In Current Study”

THE GOSPELS IN CURRENT STUDY, by Simon Kistemaker; Baker Book House, 1972; 171 pp., $2.95 (paper). 

The rise of higher criticism has sharply divided the ecclesiastical world into two distinct camps. There are the higher critics in the one camp who approach the Scriptures as a human document and examine it as they would examine the writings of any ancient author. They refuse to believe that the Scriptures are the Word of God. Their approach is one of unbelief. In the other camp are those who maintain that the Scriptures are infallibly inspired; that they are therefore, the authoritative Word of God; that they constitute a unique book differing from any other book which has been written. The key then, to the understanding of the Scriptures is faith—a faith which receives the Scriptures as God’s Word and bows in humble submission to them. 

The trouble is that, increasingly in our day, there are those in the latter camp who, while they receive the Scriptures as the Word of God, nevertheless no longer recognize as fully as they ought, that the only key to unlock the Scriptures is indeed faith. While they surely do not accept the presupposition of the higher critics that the Bible is only a human document, nevertheless they permit themselves to use the tools invented by the higher critic as the means to gain entrance into the teaching of Scripture. And, when they are called upon to give answer to the destructive criticism of these higher critics, they permit the higher critics to choose the battleground and engage in the conflict on terms dictated by the enemy. The result is that they attempt to answer higher critical studies with the weapons of human reason and rational argumentation as these methods are divorced from faith. They forget that the battle is not between two sets of arguments based on available evidence, but is, rather, a struggle between faith and unbelief. They forget that the result of the battle is not determined by who has superior knowledge or whose arguments are the most convincing, but that the outcome of the battle is determined by the victory of faith over unbelief. 

When they fall into this trap, the results are uniformly bad. They, in the course of their argumentation, lose sight of the truth of inspiration, fail to give a proper place to the fact that Scripture is God’s Word, and end up making all sorts of concessions to the higher critics which finally rob the Word of God of its power and truth. 

I do not know the reasons why conservative scholars so often do this. Perhaps there are various explanations. It is, e.g., customary for conservative scholars to make a distinction between what is traditionally called “the divine element” and “the human element” in Scripture. (Cf. in this connection the important series of articles which were written by Prof. H. Hoeksema and which have just been concluded in the Theological Journal.) And perhaps this distinction leads them to place so much emphasis on the human element that the divine element is forgotten. 

Then again it sometimes appears as if conservatives are overly sensitive to the charge that, if they maintain inexorably, the truth of infallible inspiration, they are less than scholarly. This criticism seems to hurt. And, in an effort to appear scholarly, they answer the higher critics on their own ground of rational argument and lose the approach of a humble faith as the way to the mysteries of the Word of God.

Whatever may be the reason, Kistemaker in his latest book has fallen into that error. This is particularly sad because Kistemaker is considered to be a conservative New Testament scholar and many look to him for leadership in the defense of the truth concerning Scripture. After teaching for a while in Dordt College in Sioux Center, Iowa, he went to the Reformed Theological Seminary in Jackson, Mississippi, a conservative Seminary in the Southern Presbyterian tradition. 

His book is intended to examine recent developments in the field of New Testament studies, particularly as these studies have dealt with questions relating to the four gospel narratives. In the first two chapters, which are intended to be introductory, the author discusses some of the more recent manuscript finds and the influence they have had on textual studies, and gives a brief introduction to the field of textual criticism. In chapter 3, under the title “Criticism,” the author discusses “Source Criticism,” “Form Criticism,” “Red action Criticism” and “Audience Criticism.” Chapter 4 deals with hermeneutical problems, particularly with the question of the historical reliability of the gospel records. In Chapter 5, Kistemaker discusses how the gospel narratives came into being and their relation to the oral tradition which was present in the Church from the days of Christ. Chapter 7 deals with the gospels individually and discusses such questions as dependence (whether the gospel writers were dependent for their material on each other or on other documents or on both), authorship and purpose in writing. The final chapter deals with three theological questions which arise from the gospel narratives: What is the origin of the name “Son of Man?”; What is the origin of the name “Son of God?”; and, Is the historical evidence sufficient to justify the historicity of the resurrection of Christ? 

Now, the altogether strange part of the book is that there is, in the whole of the book, almost no mention made of inspiration. Two or three times this doctrine is referred to, but then only in passing. One such reference, quoted in its entirety, reads:

We believe that the Holy Spirit stood behind the author of the Second Gospel, so that the Holy Spirit is the primary author and Mark the secondary author of this Gospel. We begin with the Holy Spirit and end with the Gospel writer. (p. 59)

I am not saying that the author was obligated to spend a large part of the book in spelling out and defending the truth concerning the inspiration of the Scriptures. But one would expect, in a book of this sort, that a conservative scholar would have not only made clear what the doctrine of inspiration is, but would have shown how this doctrine must be the final answer to the higher critics. Or, if he chose not to do this, one would expect that he would, at least, answer the various problems which the higher critics ask within the context of inspiration. But he never does this. Always the critics are answered on their own grounds. The truth of inspiration has no role to play. It is politely and continuously ignored. 

It is but natural to expect that, when this is done, concessions of major proportions are made to the higher critics. These concessions are not on peripheral matters, but are on matters which strike at the very heart of the Church’s confession of the truth. And the inevitable result of such a procedure will be that Kistemaker also will soon go the way of those who deny the Scriptures altogether. 

We do not intend, in this review, to discuss exhaustively the contents of the book. But the serious charge which we have made ought to be substantiated. What concessions does Kistemaker make? 

Perhaps not of critical importance, but nevertheless of significance is the fact that Kistemaker often has praise for the work which the higher critics have done. This is a rather customary procedure in our day. No matter how violently one may disagree with the writings of an individual, one seems almost to be obligated by the manners of the times to find something good to say about him. Kistemaker does this repeatedly. In discussing the form critics, Kistemaker writes:

On the positive side of our evaluation, we do express our appreciation to the form critic. By means of his scholarly studies on the formation of the Gospels, he calls every serious reader of the New Testament to reconsider the period of oral tradition most seriously. The form critic invites the student of the Bible to study the background of the four Gospels anew. And that ia an invitation no one may decline. (p. 49.)

Now this may be so. But the question is: Do we need the form critic for this? The fact is that, historically, students of Scripture have already done this before higher criticism ever made its appearance. Further, in discussing the redaction critics, Kistemaker writes:

What shall we say about redaction criticism? Now that the pendulum has swung back from extreme left and is now, so to speak, on its way to center, should we be grateful to the German theologians who have studied the interpretation of the Gospels as redaction critics? what are the results to which they have come in their studies? 

For one thing, we are thankful that the redaction critic looks at the Gospel in its totality. . . . The redaction critic sees the personality of a redactor in the individual Gospel who is working out his own theological purpose. (pp. 57, 58.)

Must we be thankful because a higher critic looks at the Gospel as a unity? Really, now. Have not faithful students of Scripture always done this ever since the time of the Reformation, and even before? And we praise the critic because he tells us that the redactor of the Gospel is working out his own theological purpose? Whose theology is contained in the Scriptures? The redactor’s? Or is the theology God’s? 

What is so troubling about this is the fact that the basic issues are lost sight of in this kind of approach. The higher critics stand on the ground of unbelief. They refuse to receive the Scriptures as the Word of God. They treat them as historical documents. And, although they may differ as to the precise nature of these historical documents, they agree completely that the Scriptures are of human origin. They rule out of their thinking from the very outset that’ the Bible is God’s Word. The battle is very real between the believing Bible student and the higher critic. It is the battle between faith and unbelief. Are we now going to pat these enemies of God and His Church, who seek to rob God’s people of the Holy Scriptures, on the back and express gratitude to them for all the marvelous benefits they have given to us as they systematically go about destroying God’s Word? 

It can, of course, be argued that the higher critic has called attention to problems which exist and has thus forced the believing child of God to answer these arguments. There is no question about that. This is, as a matter of fact, the way the truth is usually developed in the history of the Church. Unbelief attacks the truth; and the Church is called upon to defend it. And, in defense of the truth the Church develops that truth as it is contained in the Scriptures. But we need no, I think, thank Arius for denying the divinity of Christ even though his foul attack on this truth led to the development of this doctrine. And we need not thank Pelagius for his destructive errors even though it was the immediate occasion for the development of the truths of sovereign grace on the part of Augustine. 

We must never forget that the battle is between faith and unbelief.

(to be contintued)