The first main section of Dr. Howard Van Till’s The Fourth Day is entitled “The Biblical View.” It is against this section that this critique is directed. His position stands or falls with this section. His “The Scientific View,” the second main section, stands if his “The Biblical View” meets the test of Scripture and the creeds; it falls if this test is failed.
What is this Biblical view, according to Dr. Van Till?
Chapter 1 is entitled “Taking The Bible Seriously.” To take the Bible seriously, according to him, “means to respect the Bible for what it is and to respond to it appropriately,” p. 4. And again, “it involves the following four actions: (1) affirming its true status, (2) respecting its multifaceted character, (3) promoting its proper function, and (4) engaging in a disciplined study of what it has to say,” p. 5.
All of this is outstanding for its vagueness and its lack of specifics. But even more, it represents an incorrect starting-point. A Reformed man teaching in what is supposed to be a Reformed college, where he is required to subscribe to our Reformed creeds, might surely be expected, it seems to me, to turn to our Reformed creeds and to Scripture itself. Our Belgic Confession certainly furnishes us with much more specific language than the above. Article 3 tells us very clearly and with plain reference to Scripture itself how the written Word of God came into existence, what its source was, and why we call Scripture holy and divine. Article 5 teaches us that Reformed believers are characterized by “believing without any doubt, all things contained in” the Scriptures and tells why we so believe. Article 7 also speaks clear and pertinent language concerning the sufficiency of Scripture and its being the only rule of faith: “We believe that those Holy Scriptures fully contain the will of God, and that whatsoever man ought to believe, unto salvation, is sufficiently taught therein.” And again: “Therefore, we reject with all our hearts, whatsoever doth not agree with this infallible rule, which the apostles have taught us, saying, Try the spirits whether they are of God. Likewise, if there come any unto you, and bring not this doctrine, receive him not into your house.”
But Dr. Van Till does not follow Reformed methodology, which appeals to Scripture and the creeds. He simply starts out with his own ideas and later expands on them, without reference to the faith of the church and without reference to what Scripture says about itself.
Next he creates a distinction between the “status” of the Bible and the “form” of the Bible. Such a distinction might, perhaps, be all right in itself; but the author uses it to serve his own ends. He creates a disjunction between “status” and “form.” According to him, “the Bible has the status of ‘holy Scripture’—the ‘Word of God’ expressed in the form of human language and literature.” Again: “Though it has the status of the ‘Word of God,’ the. Bible comes to us in the form of thoroughly human language and literature.”
And where does he go with this distinction? Notice:
The Bible is the “Word” of God, not the “words” of God. The Bible did not drop from the sky by an act of divine magic. (As if anyone in the Reformed tradition ever taught this! This reminds me of the opening words of a lecture by Harry M. Kuitert some years ago at Calvin. HCH) God did not circumvent human means of writing, editing, and assembling the body of legal, historical, and literary documents that constitute the Bible. Yet, while the words of the Bible were produced by human writers, the Bible as an organic whole functions (Note the term functions. He does not say: is. HCH) as God’s Word, holy Scripture.
How does Dr. Van Till make use of this disjunction of status and form?
He claims that we must be “alert to two ways in which the status of the Bible is often incorrectly identified.” One of those ways is the “error of placing the Bible entirely within the category of human literature . . . .” This statement leaves the impression of a degree of orthodoxy. But listen:
There is on the other hand the error of placing the Bible entirely outside the category of human literature as if it were divinely dictated to mechanical printing machines. Such an approach, and others closely related to it, lead to the all too common phenomenon of breaking the Bible into many separate pieces, which, when isolated from one another, or isolated from their cultural, historical, literary, and canonical contexts, can be forced to support all manner of bizarre speculations (as we will see later).
Here he sets up a straw man, and a very old one at that. Who in the Reformed tradition ever taught such mechanical inspiration? When and where in the mainline of the church and of the faith was this taught? And which are the unspecified, unnamed, and undocumented views of Scripture “closely related to it”? Van Till should not create or conjure up bogey-men!
Meanwhile, what is Dr. Van Till going to do with the clear teaching of Scripture that “holy men of God spake as they were moved (borne, carried) by the Holy Ghost?”
Later (pp. 8, 9) he professes an aversion for such terms as “organic inspiration,” “verbal inspiration,” and “plenary inspiration.” Here he begins to get rid of the ideas expressed by such terms and to depart from the Biblical and confessional doctrine of infallibility by drawing a further distinction between Word and words, p. 5:
The true status of the Bible, then, is properly identified by the phrase “Word of God.” This clearly indicates that it occupies an elevated position relative to other human literature. (Note: only an “elevated position,” HCH) And if we understand that the term Word is being used in a metaphorical sense to acknowledge divine revelation, rather than in the restricted literal sense to indicate mere words, then we can also avoid the error of denying the form in which God has chosen to reveal himself to us.
Exit verbal inspiration—the Scriptural and confessional truth that “holy men of God spake as they were moved by the Holy Ghost!”
Where does all this end?
I will not weary the reader with a detailed summary and critique of all the meanderings (with an appeal to such writers as Meredith Kline, Leland Ryken, Gerhard Lohfink, and even C. S. Lewis) concerning the literary forms and qualities of Scripture. I must point out again, however, that Van Till’s method is wrong. Instead of inquiring what the Bible says about itself he puts the Bible on the laboratory table, so to speak; and he tries, unavoidably, of course, with all his own presuppositions, to take it apart and analyze it and determine what it is.
But Dr. Van Till ends with what he calls “the vehicular model of the Bible.” What is this? We shall let the author speak for himself:
Scripture is often referred to (by whom and where? HCH) as a vehicle of God’s communication to humanity. This is an apt metaphor, pointing to the fact that indeed if there is to be a message carried or conveyed from God to mankind, then there must be some concrete, or at least identifiable, means of conveyance: there must be a vehicle that transports the message from sender to recipient.
But let us press the vehicle metaphor a bit further. Just as in the world of commerce many types of vehicles are used to convey goods from producer to consumer, so too there are many types of literature, many literary genres, that God uses in the Scriptures to convey his message to his audience, his people. As the type of vehicle is chosen according to the nature of the goods to be carried, so in the Bible the literary genre is suited to the message it must convey. Simple matters of historical record may be conveyed by a matter-of-fact chronicle of events. Profound truths of immense magnitude, however, cannot always be adequately expressed in the genre of straightforward expository discourse; they are often expressed better in a more symbolic or poetic form. How often we say, “Words just can’t describe what I want to express.” Our best alternative, then, is to shift from expository discourse, which does constitute an attempt to contain something in words fully, to poetry or some other highly symbolic form that makes no pretense of exhaustively describing some great thought or event or emotion, but instead freely admits that it is simply pointing in a certain direction that readers must creatively and imaginatively follow if they are to get even the beginning of an understanding of that profound idea. (pp. 14, 15)
Pay careful attention to the last few sentences of the paragraph just quoted.
Dr. Van Till then goes on to assert that the Scriptures must be conceived of in terms of many such vehicles.
But there are not only vehicles but also packaging, p. 15:
To press the model still further, we might note that when goods are carried by a vehicle, it is wise to package the goods appropriately in order to protect the contents from damage and to provide convenient units for handling and delivery. Similarly in the Scriptures, each vehicle is loaded with its content (God’s message) contained in appropriate packaging—the specific story or account of an event; the particular symbolism used in a poem; the specific cultural patterns that form the context of commentary or instruction or description.
And here is the rest of the picture, pp. 15, 16:
To complete the introduction to this vehicle model of Scripture, let me note, finally, that the Bible can be viewed as a complete unit, including the vehicle (literary genre), packaging (specific story, symbols, etc.), and contents (God’s message to us). The message or teachings of the Bible come from only one source – God. Scripture ought never to be viewed as a mixture of God’s teachings and man’s teachings. Since all of the teachings of Scripture come from God they are trustworthy and authoritive. We can be confident that all of the content of God’s message in the Bible is delivered to us undamaged and unspoiled. It ought never to be viewed as a mixture of teachings, some true and others false. However: (and here comes the crucial “however,” HCH), as our model suggests, just as a consumer must first unload the packaged goods from a delivery vehicle and then carefully unpackage those goods for use or consumption, so we as readers of Scripture must be studiously and prayerfully wise in separating the contents [the trustworthy teachings of God) from the vehicle and the packaging. Neglecting that separation would be as foolish as attempting to eat a granola bar without first removing it from its wrapper or, more absurd yet, without distinguishing it from the truck that delivered it to the store.
And so, as Dr. Van Till makes plain in the conclusion of this chapter, the task of the interpreter becomes: 1) that of distinguishing between vehicle, packaging, and goods. 2) that of extracting the contents from the vehicle and the packaging.
In conclusion, the following:
1) This is a view of Scripture which has been imported from the Netherlands. It is the view of men like Dr. Harry M. Kuitert and Dr. G. C. Berkouwer. It is a departure from the Reformed position.
2) Clearly, the whole task of explaining Scripture, under this view, becomes totally subjective. Man determines what is vehicle, what is packaging, what is contents. Under this view, you can make Scripture say almost anything you want it to say.
3) Under this view, you take the Bible away from the people of God, just as Rome did prior to the Reformation. The people of God must have the “experts” to interpret the Word of God and to tell them how to read it. The hierarchy of the experts is substituted for the hierarchy of the church.
4) Having adopted this view, Dr. Van Till has prepared the way for his denial of the Genesis record, as we shall see.