Dooyeweerd and the Word of God
by John M. Frame
Note, 2/19/07: In the early 1970s, I got involved in some theological battles with some disciples of the great Dutch Christian philosopher Herman Dooyeweerd. These disciples had founded the Institute for Christian Studies (ICS) in Toronto, Canada. They held conferences throughout North America and published books and papers. Under the influence of this movement, a number of our students at Westminster Seminary, Philadelphia, where I taught at the time, attacked traditional Reformed theology as “scholastic,” dualist,” and so on, especially because of our teaching concerning the Bible. Other ICS-influenced zealots tried to influence other Christian organizations (schools, churches, seminaries) to follow their lead.
I took issue with the ICS teaching, particularly about the Word of God, but also more broadly (see my booklet, The Amsterdam Philosophy, at https://frame-poythress.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/08/FrameJohnAmsterdamPhilosophy1972.pdf). The following articles deal with various aspects of this controversy. “The Word of God in the Cosmonomic Philosophy” was published in the Presbyterian Guardian in 1972.The second article, also from the Guardian, consists of notes taken by the Guardian’s editor, the Rev. John Mitchell, of a lecture by me. The notes are accurate. I was trying there to present a positive view of Scripture, interacting with AACS formulations. Dr. Bernard Zylstra of the ICS was gracious enough to respond to me, and so the third article here is my reply to him. The fourth article, “Toronto, Reformed Orthodoxy, and the Word of God” appeared in Vanguard, the publication of the Association for the Advancement of Christian Scholarship, (AACS) which supported the ICS position. After that third paper, there was a kind of truce: they and I more or less agreed to disagree. They, and I, toned down our militant rhetoric, and the atmosphere quieted. There were not many attempts after that by the ICS people to disrupt institutions committed to traditional Reformed views.
The Word of God in the Cosmonomic Philosophy
John M. Frame
[This paper was published in two parts in The Presbyterian Guardian, Oct., 1972, 123-125, and Nov., 1972, 140-142.]
The “philosophy of the cosmonomic idea,” first formulated in the 1920s by Herman Dooyeweerd and his associates at the Free University of Amsterdam, has in the last few years become a popular movement in Reformed circles in North America.
Organizations such as the Association for the Advancement of Christian Scholarship (AACS), the Institute for Christian Studies in Toronto, and the National Association for Christian Political Action (NACPA) have been formed to study, revise and apply the insights of this philosophy to various areas of human life. This movement has become influential also in older Christian organizations, such as the National Union of Christian Schools, and has attracted some enthusiastic followers in the Christian Reformed Church and the Orthodox Presbyterian Church.
Serious criticisms, however, have been raised against many of the distinctive teachings of this philosophy, and perhaps the most serious have been directed toward the “cosmonomic” view of the “Word of God.”
This article will attempt to discuss some of these issues in a popular, though hopefully not oversimplified way. We should keep in mind at the outset that not everyone in the AACS, for example, would accept all the views here attributed to the cosmonomic philosophy. Nevertheless, it is clear that a general consensus has developed in the movement. Published works from members of the circle never deviate very far from the position I shall attempt to describe.
I. THE WORD AS EVENT
Dooyeweerd is fond of emphasizing “the distinction between the Word of God in its full and actual reality and in its restricted sense as the object of theoretical thought.”1 We must ask first of all, what is that “Word of God in its full and actual reality”? This concept is not altogether clear to me, but certain things may be said about it:
1. The word to man’s heart
The word in its “full” sense is addressed to the heart of man, not merely to his intellect, senses, aesthetic sensitivity, or any other “aspect” of man’s nature.2 It strikes the very core of my being and determines the overall direction of my life. Paul Schrotenboer, one of the leadingAmerican “cosmonomists” says,
God does not just give us rules for this and that; He gives us a law word that directs,the entire life of man. God’s word does not direct itself to one or other action or situation but it directs itself to man’s heart and it takes in the entire creation.3
It is certainly scriptural to say as these men do that the word addresses man’s heart and effects comprehensive change in our life-direction. I doubt very much,
however, whether the Bible justifies such a severe split between comprehensive direction and “rules for this and that” as Schrotenboer envisages.
God’s speech, according to Scripture, does make a comprehensive demand upon human life (e.g., Deut. 6:4f.; 1 Cor. 10:31). But it also makes many detailed demands (e.g., Exod. 21-23; 1 Cor. l6:lf.). These detailed demands are not in conflict with the comprehensive demand; on the contrary, they are manifestations of it. It is true enough, of course, that “God does not just give us rules for this and that”; but to say that “God’s word does not direct itself to one or other action or situation” is going too far, and places an arbitrary restriction upon the relevance of God’s word.
2. The word as process
The word in its “full” sense is an event, a process—-the total process by which God’s word reaches the heart of man.4 Prophetic utterance, biblical inscripturation, preaching, the testimony of the natural world—all of these are elements in the process, but none is the complete process. These, therefore, are the “word of God” only in a secondary and derivative sense.5
Again, I must question the scripturality of this construction. It is true, no doubt, that such a “process” of revelation exists. But Scripture rarely puts any particular emphasis on it, and it rarely even designates such a process as “word of God,” let alone making this process the Word par excellence!
In Scripture, we should remember, the term “revelation” is rarely used to describe divine-human communication. In general, the God of Scripture is not a God who “reveals himself”; he is a God who speaks. He is a God who speaks words, and those words may be heard or not heard, obeyed or ignored, by man. Therefore, when God speaks to man, there may or may not be a “process of revelation” by which God’s words take root in the human heart. If man ignores or rejects the word, there is no “revelation-event”; but, in such a case the word remains the word! The word remains powerful to judge the rebellion of that man.
The point is that Scripture does not elevate any “event of revelation” to the position of Word par excellence. God’s words are God’s words, whether part of a total “process” or not. His spoken words, written words, prophetic words—all have an equal status on a scriptural view. It is true that these words all point “beyond themselves” in a sense to the one who speaks them and to their divinely ordained purpose. But that fact does not make them the word in a “secondary or derivative” sense.
3. The word as power
Further, on the cosmonomic view, this word as “event” is conceived of as a “power.”6 This is understandable, for it is precisely the event by which changes are wrought in the heart of man (and the rest of creation also). Members of this school of thought do not often refer to Christians as those who “believe” or “obey” the word of God; they prefer to speak of them as those “in- the grip of”7 or “directed by”8 the word.
These latter expressions are more indicative of the “powerful” character of the word. The emphasis is a scriptural one. But in this philosophy it is often not properly balanced by a corresponding emphasis upon the meaning of the word. The word of God according to Scripture, after all, is not a blind power. The power of the word is the power of God’s language: its “effects” are the effects of language.
God’s creatures obey his commands, believe his statements, trust his promises, rebel against his directives, reject his expressions of love, etc. (cf. Psalm 119). Christians, furthermore, are not “gripped” by the word as by some irrational force. They hear the word, believe it, trust it, obey it.
These are scriptural ways of talking, and the lack of emphasis upon them in the cosmonomic philosophy is disturbing. For in many liberal theological movements today there is the tendency precisely to see God’s word as a “blind power”—a power that “affects” us even when the language itself may be false. We could wish that the cosmonomic thinkers would use language better calculated to avoid confusion with such false modernistic teachings.
4. The word, beyond analysis
In the “full” sense the word, on the cosmonomic view, may not be theoretically analyzed.9 Why?
a. Dooyeweerd tells us that the word in this “full” sense is “a matter of life and death to us, and not a question of theoretical reflection.”10 I must say that this argument rather perplexes me. I never have been able to see why a “matter of life and death” cannot also be a “matter of theoretical reflection.” The present ecological crisis is in one sense a “matter of life and death”; but surely no one would argue that this makes the ecological crisis incapable of scientific investigation. On the contrary, that fact makes the scientific study of ecology all the more urgent.
The word of God, of course, is a “matter of life and death” in a much stronger sense. But it surely is not evident that this fact makes it any less capable of analysis.
b. There are other arguments made by these thinkers on this point. The “central theme” of Scripture—creation, fall, and redemption— “cannot become the theoretical object of theological thought, since it is the very starting point of the latter, insofar as theology is really biblical.”11
I do not doubt, of course, that the word must be our “starting point.” It furnishes the basic presuppositions of all thinking that is truly Christian. And, to be sure, there seems to be something paradoxical about the idea of “analyzing one’s presuppositions.” After all, how can we analyze them except on the basis that those very presuppositions supply? But that paradox is only on the surface. In fact, “examining presuppositions” is something we do all the time in theology, and should do. These presuppositions (insofar as we hold them consistently) will indeed supply the basis for their own analysis; but that does not invalidate the analysis. To put it in simpler terms, each of us tries to understand his basic commitments in order to understand himself better and to carry out those commitments more effectively. To say this can’t be done is a manifest absurdity.
c. Schrotenboer argues: “In the sense of that one central, multiform Word of God, the Word is not the object that we investigate, anymore than we investigate God.”12 Here he seems to be saying that the word-as-event partakes of God’s own incomprehensibility, so that to “investigate” the word is an act of presumption, an undue exaltation of the human mind against the mystery of God.
Now it is certainly true that God’s thoughts are not our thoughts, that God cannot be comprehended by any human “investigation.” But we must also keep in mind that God has spoken to us, and has spoken clearly. Because God has taken the initiative, we can understand the word and can understand him through it. In one sense, therefore, “investigation” of the word—and of God himself!—is our divinely given privilege and duty. We mustsearch the Scriptures so as to understand God’s self-revelation to the best of our God-given ability.
But why then should that “searching” exclude the use of sophisticated theoretical equipment? Surely such exclusion is arbitrary. We may not, to be sure, go beyond the bounds of what God has revealed. That indeed would be presumption. But we must “study” the word with all the “scientific” and “nonscientific” tools at our disposal. To forbid such study is not an act of pious humility; it is a denial of the clarity of God’s self-expression, and an arbitrary limitation upon the believer’s understanding of (and obedience to!) that revelation.
5. The word as basic theme
Although these thinkers insist that the word-as-event cannot be theoretically analyzed, they do believe that it can be characterized in various (presumably “non-theoretical”) ways. Dooyeweerd describes the word in this sense as “the basic theme of Holy Scripture, namely that of creation, fall into sin and redemption by Jesus Christ in the communion of the Holy Spirit.”13
Note also the following in which, as I understand it, Dooyeweerd is expounding again the “basic meaning” of the word-event, but here in terms of its normative force: “The entire divine Law for God’s creation displays its radical unity in the central commandment of Love, addressed to the heart, i.e., religious center of human life.”14
I have no quarrel with these as general descriptions of the content of the word of God. We shall see later (in part II, 2) how these descriptions can be used in unwholesome ways. Remember also the danger noted earlier (in I, 1) of thinking that the word supplies comprehensive, but not specific direction to us. The emphasis on general descriptions of the contents of the word is that such an emphasis may encourage such thinking.
1 Dooyeweerd, H., In the Twilight of Western Thought (Nutley, N.J., Craig Press, 1968), p. 143. 3 Ibid., p. 136; cf. pp. 42, 125.
3 Schrotenboer, P., “Orthodoxy and the Bible,” Calvinist-Contact (Feb. 21, 28, 1972), I, p. 3. Cf. de Graaf, A., Understanding the Scriptures (Hamilton, Ont., Guardian Press, 1968), pp. 98., 29, passim.
4 Schrotenboer, op. cit., I, p. 4; II, p. 3. (“We will not understand the many thousands of words in the Bible unless we see the One Word, God-in-his-coming-to-me.” In an unpublished discussion paper, “The Bible as the Word of God,” pp. 17ff., Schrotenboer expounds on the proposition that “revelation is process.”)
5 Schrotenboer, “The Bible as the Word of God,” pp. 6, 178.
B Dooyeweerd, op. cit., pp. 42, 125, 136, 144; Schrotenboer, “Orthodoxy, Etc.,” II, p. 3 (“not so much information and rules but Power”); Von Meyenfeldt, F., The Meaning of Ethos (Hamilton, Ont., Guardian Press, 1964), pp. 278.; Runner, H. E., The Relation of the Bible to Learning (Hamilton, Ont., Guardian Press, n.d.), p. 36, passim.
7 Dooyeweerd, op. cit., p. 125; Schrotenboer, “Orthodoxy, Etc.,” I, p. 4.
s Schrotenboer, “Orthodoxy, Etc.,” II, p. 3.
” Dooyeweerd, op. cit., pp. 42, 125, 136, l43f.; Schrotenboer, “The Bible as the Word of God,” pp. l6ff.
10 Dooyeweerd, op. cit.. p. 125.
11 Ibid., p. 144.
12 Schrotenboer, “Orthodoxy, Etc.,” I, p. 4; cf. Dooyeweerd, op. cit., p. 136.
13 Dooyeweerd, op. cit., p. 136; cf. pp. 41f., 125, 144.
14 7feW., p. 123; cf. Schrotenboer, “Orthodoxy, Etc.,” I, p. 3; De Graaff, op. cit., pp. 24, 35, 37f.; Von Meyenfeldt, op. cit., pp. 4lff; Zylstra, B., “Thy Word Our Life,” International Reformed Bulletin (Spring-Summer 1972), p. 60f.
]ohn Frame is a professor in systematic theology at Westminster Theological Seminary. In the second portion of this article he discusses the “forms” in which the Word of God can become an “object of theoretical thought” according to the cosmonomic thinkers. Of particular interest is the relation of the word of God to and in creation and the word of God in Scripture and their normatii’ity for us today.
[In the first portion of this article, appearing in the October issue of the Guardian, Professor Frame pointed out the distinction made by many of the “cosmonomists” between “the Word of God in its full and actual reality and in its restricted sense as the object of theoretical thought.” In the “full” sense, God’s word is seen as a power or process directed to the heart of man, and not subject to theoretical analysis.
[In this concluding portion of the article, the focus is on the “restricted sense” of God’s word, particularly on the various “forms” in which that word is said to come to us. (As in the first portion, we have not capitalized God’s word except when quoting others, or when it is used as a title for Scripture.)–Guardian Editor]
II. THE FORMS OF THE WORD
We have seen how the cosmonomic thinkers speak of the word of God in the sense of the total process of God’s making himself known to the heart of man. We have seen that in their view the word in that sense is essentially a “power,” incapable of theoretical analysis, characterized as a message of creation, fall, redemption, and love. We must recall, however, that Dooyeweerd distinguishes sharply between the word in this “full” sense and the word as “object of theoretical thought.” We must therefore discuss the views of the cosmonomic thinkers concerning the word in this second sense.
The “media” of revelation
In the “process” of revelation, God makes use of certain media: the created world, prophets, apostles, written scriptrue.1 Even Christ is a “medium” of revelation in one sense, for he “relays” words from the Father to his disciples (e.g., John 17:8). These are ways in which the divine speech gets from God’s mouth into the human heart.
As we have seen, on the cosmonomic view none of these media is equivalent to the whole process, and therefore each must be sharply distinguished from the “full” word. These media are, after all, created things (except, presumably, Christ in his divine nature), and therefore point beyond themselves to God who speaks through them, and to otherelements in the “process.”2 Further, these particular created things (unlike the “full” word), because they are created and experienced in space and time, may properly be studied in a theoretical way.3
On the other hand, the message conveyed by these media is the word of God itself. Therefore the media are not only media; they are “forms” of the word.4 The message of a prophet or of the written Bible is the very word of God. What they say, God says.5 Therefore, the cosmonomic thinkers often attribute to the forms of the word those qualities belonging to the “word as event,” for in a real sense, those forms are the word.
Thus to hear the “form” is to hear the word of God; to disregard it is to disregard the word. Not only the word as event, but also the written Bible is addressed to the “heart.”6 Scripture, like the “full word,” is a “word of power.”7 It too, is in one sense, incapable of scientific analysis. It too, is a message of creation, fall, redemption, and love.8
The cosmonomic thinkers say nothing unusual about Christ as the word of God. But we should look a bit more closely at their treatment of two other “forms”:
a. The word in creation
This form of the word is very important to the cosmonomic philosophy. That philosophy speaks often of the “law-word,”9 the word spoken to creation and through creation to man.10
“General revelation,” of course, is not a new idea. What is unusual in the cosmonomic construction (in comparison with traditional Reformed thinking) is the use of general revelation to discover divine commandments or norms beyond those in Scripture — divine commands by which the human conscience may be bound. J. M. Spier, for instance, tells us that a study of art will reveal aesthetic “norms.”11 To transgress such a “norm” is sin. Examples of “sins” against aesthetic norms are the building of “churches in the Roman style” or the writing of “a book in the language of the 17th century.”12
As I see it, the Bible does not speak of any “word of God in creation.” It is true that according to Scripture God speaks to creation and creation obeys (Psalm I47:15ff., etc.). It is also true that God reveals himself throughcreation (Psalm 19, Romans 1:20). But that revelation through creation is not in words and sentences, and it is dangerous to pretend that it is. You cannot “read” a tree as you read a book. The revelation in creation is indirect.Furthermore, the idea that the human conscience may be bound by extra-scriptural “commandments” is in direct contradiction to 2 Timothy 3:17 and repugnant to all Christians who have struggled against the bondage of human theories and traditions.
b. The word in Scripture
As we have seen, for the cosmonomic philosophers Scripture is both a form of the word of God and a created “human artifact.”13 Its “basic theme” of creation, fall, and redemption may not be scientifically analyzed. That theme affects the heart of man by the pure sovereign action of the Holy Spirit.14
As a created “human artifact,” however, as an object in time and space, Scripture can be studied theoretically. And the first thing such study teaches us is the basic character of this Bible-artifact — it is a “book for faith.”15 The point seems clear enough on the surface. What is the Bible? Not a science text, not a mere literary creation, not a mere history, not a book of mere ethical lessons. Its purpose has to do with our faith — our primary assurances of life.
So far the view seems uncontroversial. But the implications derived from it are a bit shocking. Dooyeweerd, for instance, tells us that because the Bible is a faith-book, the “days” of Genesis 1 cannot be chronological. They must be faith-days, whatever that might mean.16 Schrotenboer, too, tells us that because the Bible is a faith-book, its doctrine of election cannot be “causal.” And for good measure, he adds that the numbers “three” and “one” in the doctrine of the Trinity are in some sense non-mathematical numbers!17
It certainly seems that to call the Bible a “faith-book” in this scheme is to adopt a most unusual system of Bible interpretation! I must say that the concepts of “faith-days” and “faith-numbers” are virtually unintelligible to me. In any case, the cosmonomic thinkers at this point appear to be imposing a philosophical scheme on Scripture which has no basis in Scripture itself and which ‘has very little to do with the biblical meaning of faith. Few of us, surely, ever dreamed that such a scheme was involved in our simple confession of the Bible as a “book for faith.”
A sharply curtailed Scripture
This approach that would see the Bible as only a “faith book” seems to permit the sciences and philosophy to work in relative autonomy. Since the Bible contains only “faith-concepts,” or since at least all biblical statements about God must be read as “faith-statements” in the peculiar cosmonomic sense, the Bible as “artifact” can say nothing much of direct interest to scientists and philosophers.
Dooyeweerd often says, to be sure, that scientists and philosophers must respect the “central basic motive” of Scripture18 (i.e., creation, fall, redemption) ; but he seems to regard the detailed teachings of Scripture as of little interest to non-theologians. It thus seems that scientists and philosophers in their theoretical work can pretty much ignore the Bible, except for an occasional nod toward the “basic motive.” The cosmonomic movement, which once appeared to many of us as a movement opening the Bible to all fields of learning, now appears rather to be closing the Bible.
The Bible, further, is even more “closed” by those cosmonomic thinkers who regard Scripture as directed almost exclusively to a past age. Schrotenboer, for instance, discusses some of the problems we face in applying biblical commandments to the modern cultural situation, and comes to the conclusion that even the ten commandments are not normative for us in the same way that they were normative for the people of Moses’ day. No, the Decalogue is not the absolute changeless law, it is rather an adaptation or expression of God’s law for a particulartime and place.19
But if the decalogue is only an “adaptation” of law, where do we go to find the law itself? Schrotenboer answers: “The great and only comprehensive commandment is the love commandment, both to God and to our fellows.” How do we decide, however, how God wants us to “love” in our particular time and place? Schrotenboer says that the particular injunctions of Scripture are “illustrations of how we should do it.” Imitating the biblical writers therefore, “The church today must do for its age what the apostles did for theirs.”19
Scripture, in other words, does not tell us what God wants us to do, except in those passages where the love-command is stated. Outside of those passages, the Bible presents only examples of how ancient man applied the love-command to his circumstances with God’s help. The Bible gave to ancient man the definitive interpretation of the love-command; but it does not give us such an interpretation. To get the latter, we must write our ownBible! It may, of course, be an uninspired Bible, in comparison with the original Bible which was inspired. But it must be a Bible, in the sense that it will replace the old one in determining God’s specific will for us. We must, like Moses and Paul, derive specific commandments from the law of love; but we must do so without benefit of inspiration.
The “law-word” — most basic form
Arnold De Graaff, who holds precisely the same view, tries to be a bit more helpful. He says that we have something to help us today besides the love-commandment and the biblical “illustrations.” We also have the “law-word.”20 It appears that for both De Graaff and Schrotenboer, the “law-word,” the creation-word, is the most basic form of revelation. After all, even the law of love can be found in creation!21
Scripture, therefore, tells us nothing that the “law-word” doesn’t tell us. Scripture is merely an application and illustration of general revelation! Some might object, indeed, that Scripture at least goes beyond general revelation in that it contains the gospel of salvation. But think about that in relation to what Schrotenboer and De Graaff have said. What is the gospel ? It is the offer of eternal life conditioned upon a command to repent and believe in Christ. But Schrotenboer and De Graaff have told us that all biblical commands are merely applications of the law of love. Thus it would seem that even the command to repent and believe in Christ is an application of the law of love for a particular time and place. Even the gospel, then, if this cosmonomic view is carried out consistently, becomes a mere adaptation of general revelation. And Scripture loses all uniqueness of content.
In my view, this is a horrendous distortion of the truth. Just think! On this scheme, everything except the law of love is culturally relative! Everything except the law of love could lose its validity as the result of cultural change! At some future date, murder might be a good thing to do! Perhaps by the year 2000 it will no longer be in accord with the law of love to command all men everywhere to repent and believe in Christ! Perhaps by the year 2500 the law of love might require us to worship four or five gods instead of the one God who spoke and is spoken of in the ancient Decalogue!
No! to this detraction of Scripture
To all of this, the orthodox Christian can only answer “No!” To be sure, there are difficulties in applying biblical commands to the modern age. No one ought to be so naive as to say that we apply these commands in all cases precisely the way the ancient Israelites did. But difficult as these problems may be, these difficulties do not justify the absurd suggestion that only the law of love is permanently valid. The law of love holds a central place in Scripture; but nothing in Scripture even remotely suggests that this command is the only permanent one. We need not fear that God will require us to commit adultery at some time in the future. We need not fear that some day there will be two ways of salvation.
The cosmonomic scheme, in summary, detracts from Scripture in two ways: (1) It detracts from the sufficiency of Scripture by binding us to extra-scriptural norms derived from the “law-word.” (2) It detracts from theauthority of Scripture by accepting only the love command as permanently authoritative, and by restricting that scriptural authority to the so-called “realm of faith.” This philosophy, therefore, turns us away from Scripture where God has spoken, and turns us toward an alleged “law-word” full of human speculations.
It may be that these thinkers are not aware of the implications of their scheme. They may not see the seriousness of the problem. I do not question the heart-commitment of any of these men. But a philosophy that turns men away from the written Word of God and which binds them to human philosophical speculations is a philosophy that should be decisively rejected by the Reformed community.
1 There is no fixed number of media recognized in the movement. The most common list is simply “creation, Christ, Scripture”; cf. Olthuis and Zylstra, “Confessing Christ in Education,” International Reformed Bulletin(Summer 1970), pp. 4lf. (reprinted in The Presbyterian Guardian; October 1972, p. 120). Others add “preaching”; cf. Schrotenboer, “The Bible as the Word of God,” pp. 7, lOf.
2 Cf. especially Schrotenboer, “The Bible, Word of Power,” International Reformed Bulletin (Jan.-Apr. 1968), pp. 1-4.
3 Dooyeweerd, In the Twilight of Western Thought; pp. 136, 143; Schrotenboer, “Theology, Its Nature and Task” (a mimeographed paper), pp. 4f.
4 See the references in notes 1 and 2 above on the concept of “form.”
5 Members of this school do not say very much about biblical inspiration, and sometimes (as we shall see in subsequent discussion) they almost seem to have forgotten about it. There are, however, occasional affirmations to the effect that the Bible is the word of God. So De Graaff, in preface to Understanding the Scriptures, affirms, by citing the Belgic Confession, that he believes “without doubt all things contained in the holy Scriptures.” Note also Zylstra, “Thy Word Our Life,” pp. 66f.; J. Olthuis, “Ambiguity Is the Key,” International Reformed Bulletin (July 1969), p. 8; Olthuis and Zylstra, op. cit., p. 41 (p. 120 in the Guardian reprinting).
6 Schrotenboer, “Orthodoxy and the Bible,” p. 3.
7 Ibid.; cf. Schrotenboer, “The Bible, Word of Power.”
8 Dooyeweerd, op. cit., pp. 136; cf. pp. 4lf., 125, 144, noting how the Bible is mentioned.
9 Olthuis and Zylstra, op. cit., p. 41 (p. 120 in the Guardian), seem to be saying that the “law-word” is the most basic “form” of the word of God. It is, however, hard to distinguish in this article (and in other cosmonomic literature) between the “law-word” and the “word-as-event.” They do appear to define the word of God as “the very law-order of creation,” but later they speak of creation as one of three “forms” of the word. It is at least clear that Olthuis and Zylstra think that the “law-word” is the most neglected “form” of the word today, and that it is the form most in need of publicity. Cf. also Olthuis, “Ambiguity,” pp. 15f.
10 Schrotenboer, “The Bible, Word of Power,” pp. 9f.
11 Spier, J. M., An Introduction to Christian Philosophy (Philadelphia, Presbyterian and Reformed Pub. Co., 1954), p. 88.
12 Ibid., pp. 119f.
13 Schrotenboer, “Orthodoxy, Etc.,” p. 4.
14 Dooyeweerd, op. cit., p. 42. I must confess, however, that I do not see how this distinction between the “basic theme” of Scripture and (presumably) the details of Scripture can be maintained. How does Dooyeweerd know that the Spirit brings only the “basic theme” of Scripture to bear upon our heart? Why is it only the “basic theme” that is incapable of theoretical analysis ? If the whole Bible is God’s Word, then why not say that the “message” of Scripture cannot be analyzed at all? Then the only “sciences” involved with Scripture would be those sciences studying the human environs into which the message came.
15 Dooyeweerd, op. cit., p. 143; Schrotenboer, “Theology, Etc.,” p. 4.
16 Dooyeweerd, op. cit., pp. I49ff.
17 Schrotenboer, “Theology, Etc.,” p. 6. Note also De Graaff, op. cit., p. 10, where he says that to ask whether the events described in Scripture “actually happened in every detail and in the order in which they are presented is to ask the wrong question.” De Graaff doesn’t say so, but I presume he would elaborate by saying that such questions are not “faith-questions” in some sense. At any rate, De Graaff also rather severely, in my view, restricts those subjects concerning which Scripture can “speak to us,” and such restrictions seem fairly typical of the cosmonomic movement.
18 Dooyeweerd, op. cit., pp. 145, 148.
19 Schrotenboer, “Orthodoxy, Etc.,” p. 3; emphasis his.
20 De Graaff, op. cit., p. 37.
21 Dooyeweerd, op. cit., p. 123.
John M. Frame is a professor in systematic theology at Westminster Theological Seminary. The material in this article has been prepared and published not to “put down” any of the writers mentioned above. It is only just to point out that much of what has been written on the “Word of God” by ” cosmonomists” lacks the consistency of a carefully developed formulation. Frankly, however, the tendencies visible in what has been written would lead to dangerous and unacceptable conclusions if consistently developed. It is our hope that open discussion — before this developing approach becomes rigid — will serve to clarify and improve the understanding of the vitally crucial importance for a right view of Scripture. –Editor.
What is God’s Word?
John M. Frame
[Originally published in The Presbyterian Guardian (Nov., 1973), 142-43.]
[This is a very condensed summary of a paper presented by Professor Frame of Westminster Theological Seminary at a conference in April 1973 sponsored by the Westminster Student Association. It was greeted as a helpful approach in the “dialog” between Professor Frame and others at Westminster and representatives of the Association for the Advancement of Christian Scholarship.
The summary has been made by the Guardian’s editor and he should be held responsible for any unfortunate expressions in it.
1. The Word of God is divine.
The basic ontological [i.e., referring to whatever basically exists] distinction in Scripture is between Creator and creature; everything that is has been created except for God himself. There are no in-betweens, no half divine or semi-created beings.
This is not to say that there may not be cases where you have both. Certainly you have both in the incarnate Christ who is fully God and fully man. But it is to say that there are no missing links, no tertium quid, no chain of being between God and his creation.
Is the Word of God a creature, Creator, or both? Well, if by the Word of God the heavens were made (Psalm 33:6), then the Word is not itself created but is Creator. It is co-eternal with God (John l:lff.); the Word of God wasGod; the Word of God is divine.
So then, to obey the Word is to obey God; to disobey it is to disobey God. But the Word in Scripture is God come in human form; it is an incarnation. The Bible is both Creator and creature, as Jesus is both God and man.
2. The Word reflects God’s plurality.
The Word is not only identified with God, it is distinguished from God (John 1:2). It is by the Word that the heavens were made, so that the Word is a tool. There is a unity and a distinction which we cannot account for.
There is a mystery here like that of the Trinity, the one God in three persons.
It should not surprise us to learn that there is also a unity and a plurality in God’s speaking even as there is in God himself. God speaks one Word; God also speaks many words. The Word reflects the unity of God’s speaking. All of nature and history is governed by a single unified plan of God. But within this unity there is a richness of detail, a vast diversity. There is one Word and many words.
3. The Word addresses man in its unity and plurality.
When God speaks to man, we hear one Word and we hear many words. God’s Word has a single unified theme — call it the theme of creation-fall-redemption, if you will. But Scripture presents that theme in a multitude of stories, songs, prophecies, letters, etc. God’s Word imposes on us the single command of love; but that command is presented in a variety of commands on many issues covering the whole of human life.
Both the unity and diversity of God’s Word are binding upon us; they are equally powerful, equally true, equally authoritative. The one central message of God’s Word grips man’s heart; the many details of God’s Word also grip the heart of man.
4. The Word addresses man in his unity and plurality.
Man in God’s image is also a one and many even as God is one and many. The Word of God grips man’s heart; but it also grips all of his faculties. The one central message grips all man’s faculties, gifts, concerns, cares, worries, and fears; but the details of the Word also grasp all our fears, needs, heartaches, questions, and concerns.
Both the central message and the details of God’s Word address both the heart of man and all of man’s functions and concerns. The Word of God is comprehensive and specific, to the heart of man and all his faculties, to the whole person in all areas of his life.
5. The Word is accessible to all human faculties.
God’s Word, in its central meaning and in its detail, is addressed to all of our faculties. God expects that Word to be appropriated, accepted, and obeyed by the heart and by the faculties. We cannot begin to comprehend the Word of God exhaustively; but the Word is to be understood, accepted, and obeyed. We are obligated to mobilize all our gifts in appropriating the Word, to use our senses, feelings, rationality, our historical sense, lingual capacity, economic skills, our esthetic sensitivity, moral sense, our unity, and whatever else there may be. To withhold any faculty is unbelief.
What God wants us to know, the norms God commands us to obey, are clear and accessible. They can be understood and appreciated and obeyed. To say that the Word is beyond our faculties may sound humble; but it is actually a form of disobedience and arrogance. God spoke clearly in human language, accommodating his revelation to us. We can, therefore, speak the Word, study and analyze it, apply and obey it. To limit the Word’s freedom to speak to us is to limit the authority of the Word over us.
6. God’s Word comes as both power and meaning.
The gospel is the power of God unto salvation. But it is not a bare power or raw force. The power of the Word reflects God’s wisdom, knowledge, and understanding. It communicates these to us. God’s Word is a word, is language, having not only power but meaning. The power of the Word saves us when the meaning is believed and obeyed.
Now the power of the Word is not something more basic than its meaning. God’s Word is powerful because its meaning is truth. God’s Word is true and means what it says because it has the power to do what it sets out to do. Because God’s Word is not a blind force upon our heart, it can and does engage all of our faculties as we approach the meaning of God’s Word.
7. Scripture embodies the unity of God’s Word.
The Scriptures are a kind of incarnation of the Word of God. Scripture is God’s Word, but it is also the words of men. It has a human and a divine nature. It has all the truth, power, holiness, and majesty of God; yet it conveys also the personalities of the human writers, speaking their language, their experience, faith, hopes, questions, and concerns.
Nevertheless, in this incarnate form the Word of God loses none of its truth and perfection. It is God’s Word with supreme authority for us. It cannot be tested by anything else; it is not subordinate to some other Word of God. The words of the Bible do not merely witness to some other law, nor are they applicable to one cultural setting in contrast to some other more valid Word for other times and places. No, Scripture is law, and has the authority of the one Word of God. It brings God’s demand and God’s promise to bear on man’s heart and upon all areas of man’s life.
8. Scripture embodies the diversities of God’s Word.
Scripture carries to us the full force of the one Word of God. At the same time, it is one Word of God among many. It does not contain everything God said. Instead, Scripture conveys a special message. It is necessary for a particular purpose that is not fulfilled by God’s revelation in nature. It brings to us a message not found elsewhere, the message of redemption in Christ.
Thus, Scripture is not revelation in general, but is specifically the gospel, the power of God unto salvation. The Gentiles were not left to natural revelation alone. But God has spoken a particular Word that they must have, the
Word that names the name of Christ by which alone men can be saved.
9. Scripture is sufficient for all good works.
As the one Word of God, Scripture conveys the whole will of God to us. It needs no supplementation (2 Timothy 2:15-18). Scripture is profitable for the man of God that he may be thoroughly furnished unto every good work.
But obviously the Bible does not contain everything we need to know. How can we say it is sufficient for all good works? Put it this way: Scripture does not contain all the knowledge we need, but all the commandments.Scripture does not tell us how many kinds of trees there are, but it tells us to use the trees to God’s glory.
When I obey the speed laws I obey Scripture. Scripture requires me to obey that speed limit. I do not discover that this is God’s Word from some other source. When I apply Scripture to my present situation — and obey the speed law — I have truly appropriated the teaching of Scripture.
Since Scripture conveys God’s whole will for us, it covers all areas of our lives (1 Corinthians 10:31). Scripture certainly does have a focus — the message of salvation. But that focus does not limit Scripture’s message to some single area of man’s life. The message of salvation is of salvation for all of life, for history, philosophy, esthetics, psychology. Scripture corrects our ideas in all of these areas, both tke naive and theoretical. It is the height of presumption to claim that Scripture cannot speak on any matter of human life or concern,
10. Scripture has a distinctive function in revelation.
As one Word of God among many, Scripture has its distinctive function in the process of God’s revelation of himself to us. Not only should we make use of God’s Word in Scripture, but we should also make use of God’s Word in nature and history. The scientist will study God’s world as well as the Scriptures. He will realize the world is controlled by God’s plan and reflects God’s wisdom and power.
Then when we come to the Scriptures, we bring many things from our study of the world. We bring all sorts of ideas we have learned elsewhere, from ordinary experience, from philosophy, theological systems, or history. We bring our world-and-life views to bear upon our study of Scripture.
Yet we must remember that God has given us Scripture because without it we are blind to God’s revelation in the world. Scripture was given to save us from our sinful wisdom, to correct our sinful ideas. The words of Scripture must take unconditional precedence over any ideas we have gained from other sources. We must bring our philosophies, sciences, world-and-life views, all to the Scripture.
We must use all these in interpreting the Bible. But we must hold such things loosely. We must allow Scripture to resist our attempts to interpret it through those means. We must allow Scripture to question our world views, our scientific views, naive ideas, theoretical ideas, our philosophies.
This is not to say that Scripture is more authoritative than the words of God in creation, or than the living Word, Jesus Christ. It is simply to admit that one distinctive function of Scripture, as one Word of God among many, is to correct sinful misconceptions of God’s general revelation. Scripture must be allowed to surprise us, to be what it is, to be the Word of God himself.
In other words, Scripture must be allowed to be God’s Word in all of its meaning and power, its unity and plurality, its power and authority and justice and holiness and purity and wisdom and truth.
Reply to Prof. Zylstra
First, I wish to express my sincere thanks to Dr. Bernard Zylstra for his article “the word of God, the Bible and the AACS.” Although I find much to disagree with in the article (as will be evident shortly), I am pleased with its constructive spirit and with its potential value as a contribution to a continuing dialogue. Although I have been making rather serious criticisms of the AACS for about four or five years now, Dr. Zylstra is the first adherent of that movement, to my knowledge, who has given my arguments any kind of serious scrutiny.
I did not come to Westminster Seminary with the idea of becoming a militant anti-AACS polemicist. I had hoped, originally, that I could get to know some of the AACS people and learn from them while they learned from me. My attempts at such dialogue, however, proved almost entirely futile. Doubtess this futility was partly my own fault. But the situation was certainly not helped when my arguments were met with Gnostic replies (“you don’t understand”) and even with gratuitous attacks on my character. And the arguments themselves were never seriously discussed.
It is generally such breakdown of communication that turns brotherly disagreement into heresy hunting. The most distinctive characteristic of a heretic is his unteachableness, his unwillingness to participate in serious discussion with brethren of a different mind on an issue. When dialogue breaks down, our only recourse is to warn the church about the errors which concern us. And that means heresy-hunting; that means polemics. I would much rather discuss than polemicize any day; and if Dr. Zylstra’s article opens up again the channels of brotherly communication, I can only praise God.
Now a few comments on the content of the article:
1. The “Third Category”: The following quote from Dr. Zylstra’s article pinpoints one of the crucial issues:
In this booklet Frame asks the fundamental question: What is the relation of law to God? Before he answers this question he formulates the frame of reference within which the answer can be given: “The Scriptures teach that God is creator, the world is his creature, and that there is nothing in between, no third category.” (p. 29). Here, we submit, Frame departs from the teaching of the Bible, which clearly posits a “third category”, namely the Creator’s law for creation, the statutes, ordinances, and words that creatures must obey and do. The absence of this “third category” in Frame’s conception makes it extremely difficult for him to understand the bible on this score, as we will see later.
It seems that the issue is pretty clear-cut: Zylstra says there is a “third category”; Frame says there is none. But perhaps we need to be clearer on what we mean by “category.” Now there is a sense in which you can have as many “categories” as you like – for instance: God, the world, God’s law, God’s love, God’s justice, God’s eternity, etc., etc. None of these phrases is synonymous with one another; each says something a little “different.” Each, therefore, might be a “category” all its own; thus, you might have nine, twelve, twenty-five or a hundred two categories if you like. Obviously, however, I wasn’t saying there are “two” categories in that sense of “category.” In my usage, “two categories” does not mean “two non-synonymous designations.” Why did I say there were only two? Simply because “creator” and “creature” exhaust the universe. Everything is either created or creature. By Jesus Christ all things were created, in heaven and earth (Col. 1:16f). Christ created all things except himself. All things are creative or created. There is nothing outside these categories.
Many heresies in the history of the church have tried to posit some intermediary between God and his creation. It seemed to them that God could not create or redeem the world directly, that there must be some “link.” The Gnostics had a great ladder or mediators between God and man. None of them were exactly divine, but none of them were creatures either, exactly. The Arians thought that Christ was such a mediator – neither fully divine nor really a creature. In contrast with these heretical views, the Bible boldly proclaims that there is only one mediator between God and man. And that mediator, rater than being some half-divine “link” between God and creation, is fully God and fully man – both creator and creature. In Scripture, God does not need some “third category” in order to create, redeem and govern; he comes into direct contact with his world. He speaks clearly to his people, acts with direct and personal power. Any other view removes God from his world and calls in question the clarity of his revelation and the personal power of his sovereignty.
Now what about “law”? Is law creator or creature? Well, that’s easy’ isn’t it? Law is that word of God by which all things were made (Gen. 1:3, Psm. 33:6, John 1:1-3, Heb. 11:3, II Pet. 3:5). The law has divine attributes (Ps. 19:4-9, 119:89, 160, etc.) To obey law is to obey God; to disobey law is to disobey God. God’s law, God’s Word, is God Himself (John 1:1).1 The law is divine in the same way God’s justice, love, grace, eternity are divine. In fact, in some mysterious way, the divinity of the Word is the divinity of the Son of God Himself (John 1:1ff). To make the law a “third category” in Dr. Zylstra’s sense is to place upon that law an unbiblically low estimate. To make law a “third category” in this way is to place a mediator between God and man, other than the one mediator who is fully divine and fully human.
2. The Word of God as “Linguistic Communication”: I have said that “word of God” in the bible may be understood as a kind of “linguistic communication.” Professor Zylstra thinks that this is a “reductionist” view. I must say that I am entirely baffled. What is a “word”? A word is a “linguistic communication.” “Word” and “linguistic communication” are synonyms; in fact they are so closely synonymous that to define one in terms of the other doesn’t tell you very much. If you don’t know what a word is, chances are you won’t know what a “linguistic communication” is either. Honestly, I never thought I was saying anything momentous in defining the word of God “linguistically”! I certainly never thought I was saying anything controversial, let alone offering a “reductionist” view. Now of course I know that God’s “Word” is more than mere human language; that is to say, God’s language is not our language. But the Bible presents God’s language as language – as Word; and can we find any better way to talk about it?
Or put it this way: how, in Dr. Zylstra’s view, is God’s Word more than “language”? (i.e., in what way is “God’s Word” more than “God’s language”?) That seems a bit like asking “How is Peter more than Cephas?” But Dr. Zylstra has several answers. At one point, by what is at best a bizarre exegesis, he suggests that “word” refers to manna and clothing in Matt. 4:4 and Deut. 8:3. I confess I find it rather difficult to take such a suggestion seriously. However, his most serious answer to our question runs as follows: The word is more than language because it is God’s power, God’s decree that governs and upholds all things. God’s word is power, and therefore more than language. Here we must make some observations: (a) language is powerful; it accomplishes great things in the world. The president declares war, thousands are killed. Scripture abounds in reference to the power of language: cf. Gen. 11:6, Rom. 1:16, James 3:1-8. One cannot argue “power, therefore more than language”; for language itself is a power. (b) The power of God’s Word is presented in Scripture as the power of divine language. God is the great king who speaks and his subjects obey. (Psm. 33:9, 147:15, 148:5-8, etc.) Scripture never suggests that we must think of God’s decree as something supra-linguistic. It is more thanman’s language, to be sure; but (again) Scripture persists in calling it language, and I can’t see any reason to reject the Scriptural usage.
But why does Scripture so regularly speak of God’s power as a kind of language? Obviously, some will insist, this usage is metaphorical; for god does not have a mouth; his speech need not be limited to the utterance of sounds. Why, then, is the “linguistic” terminology so important? It is important (and I wish this point were acknowledged occasionally in the AACS literature) because the power of God is never a blind power. It is never araw force. In all situations, it reflects God’s wisdom and understanding. Thus his power (like language!) is a revelation of his mind. God’s word, that is, is not merely “power”; it is also meaning. It is interpretation, communication, revelation; it is language. God’s power does not come upon us as an ineffable, indescribable, unanalyzable “experience.” Rather, it clearly reveals God to us (Rom. 1:20) so that we know God and know his requirements (Rom. 1:32). This is why God’s word is a word. It is not merely power; it is powerful language. Dr. Zylstra’s argument “Power, therefore more than language” confuses this important biblical truth.
3. “Word” and “Bible”: It shouldn’t be necessary to make the following point, but for some reason our AACS brethren keep expecting us to make it again and again. Let me say as clearly as possible that I do not “simply” identify “Word of God” and “Bible.” Nor do I “reduce” the Word to the Bible. The Bible is a particular utterance of the Word of God, but it is not the only such utterance. Many words of god are not found in the bible. Jesus said many things that are not recorded in Scripture; God says many things to the sun, moon and stars that are not recorded in Scripture, the persons of the Trinity speak to one another in eternal communication, a communication which no human language, not even Scripture, can exhaust. I have never “reduced” the Word to Scripture in Zylstra’s sense, nor has Norman Shepherd, nor has any other critic of the AACS so far as I know. We do, however, want to insist on certain important continuities between “Word” and “Bible”, such as (a) The Words of the bible are Words of God, not merely words of men: (b) Therefore the Words of the bible are law for us; they are not merely (as is suggested in some AACS literature) “applications” of God’s law to a particular cultural situation. (c) Scripture need not be supplemented by other divine commandments; for it contains all that we need to be “complete, thoroughly furnished unto every good work” (II Tim. 3:17). (Again, it is not clear to me that the AACS enthusiasts recognize this crucial Scriptural principle.) (d) Because it is the Word of god, Scripture is self-8interpreting and self-attesting; it is not in need of a philosophical system to tell us what it is about. (e) because it is the word of God, all of Scripture (not merely the “basic motives”) must be studied and applied to all areas of human life.
To me these “continuities” between Word and bible are terribly important. And in my view, the AACS witness to these continuities is at best unclear. Therefore, when I write about Dooyeweerd, the AACS, etc., I generally focus on these “continuities.” Perhaps, therefore, I have given some the impression that I “reduce” the Word to Scripture in Dr. Zylstra’s sense. I hope Dr. Zylstra and his colleagues will accept my word that I don’t intendany such “reductionism.” But at the same time I would like to have some clear testimony from them that they affirm the “continuities” about which I am so concerned.
The issues between us are still quite large; I trust, however, that we are coming to understand one another better. Thank you again, Dr. Zylstra, for speaking to the central questions.
Toronto, Reformed Orthodoxy, and the Word of God: Where Do
We Go from Here?
by John M. Frame
‘Dr. John M. Frame is professor of Systematic Theology at Westminster Theological Seminary, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
Well, I guess if Nixon can visit China, then Frame can write for Vanguard! Why not?! Seriously, it’s good to note something of a thaw in the cold war between the AACS and the more traditional Reformed theology. Honestly, brethren, I did not come to Westminster Seminary originally with the idea of becoming a militant, anti-AACS polemicist; in fact, heresy-hunting is one phase of theological work that I would prefer to leave to other people. I had hoped, when I began teaching five years ago, that I could get to know some of the AACS people and learn from them while they learned from me. My attempts at such dialogue, howevier, proved largely futile. Doubtless that futility was partly my own fault, but the situation was certainly not helped when my arguments were met with gnostic replies (“You don’t understand.”) and even with gratuitous attacks upon my character, and when the arguments themselves were never seriously considered. Things have changed lately, however. I’ve had some helpful discussions with Bernard Zylstra, James Olthuis, and others during the past year; I’ve had someToronto-oriented students who actually made helpful contributions in class, rather than simply writing me off as an enemy (relieving my apprehensions that the latter approach had been the official AACS policy.) And now I’m, writing for Vanguard! Well, praise the Lord! When Christian brothers can sit around a table and talk to one another, the need for warning the church, about one another diminishes substantially.
Now where do we stand in the discussion concerning the Word of God? That’s rather hard to say at the moment. My present bafflement chiefly derives from a rather paradoxical feature of the “Toronto approach.” On the one hand, the rhetoric of the movement suggests that-the, AACS is urging upon the church an exciting, new view of the Word of God, a view which, though taught in Scripture itself, has been buried under centuries of rationalistic, scholastic, nature-grace dichotomizing theology and has recently bepn rediscovered through the monumental intellectual energies ofDooyeweerd and his disciples, thus liberating the Christian community from the shackles of the past. On this view, the contemporary villains are the orthodox Reformed theologians who do not appreciate these great AACS,rediscoveries and thus are perpetuating a traditionalism which in the present context is counter-reformational. Such rhetoric fires the hearts of young zealots. Students go off to weekend conferences and come back prepared to subject the whole theological tradition to a “radical transcendental critique.” Their ministers, parents, and seminary professors, of course, are incapable of understanding these new insights: how could they possibly understand, caught up as they are in the chains of nature-grace thinking?
On the other hand, on at least three different occasions when I have presented what I considered to be sharp criticisms of the Toronto approach and have presented my own positive view (which I consider fairly traditional), I have been told by rather prominent AACS people (Peter J. Steen, James Olthuis, Paul G. Scrotenboer) that my views did not differ substantially from theirs, that in fact they ”agreed” with me.
Now, brethren, where do we really stand vis a vis one another? do you really “agree” with me, or do you insist that my approach is hopelessly mired in nature-grace thinking and in need of some Sort of radical reformation? If your view really is radically different from the tradition, how is it new? And don’t tell me that the AACS has discovered general revelation! A few others have beaten you to it. And don’t say that you have discovered the “power” of the Word, for most any “traditional” Bible commentary on John 1 or Psalm 33 or Romans 1:16 will show you that. And don’t say you have discovered that the Bible ought to be interpreted in terms of its central message, because that point too, though important, is a theological commonplace. On the other hand, if you really “agree ” with us traditionalists, if our differences are merely differences of detail or of emphasis, then why not cool the rhetoric? You’ve no idea, I suspect, of how much trouble has been caused by this bombast in churches, Christian organizations, seminary classrooms. Why divide the body of Christ over details ? Why the “Red guard” tactics among the young AACS fanatics?, Why not teach them to behave themselves?
Well, for what it’s worth, here’s where I stand at the moment. Despite your professions of “agreement” with me, I still suspect that we disagree on some pretty important matters. At the same time, I am becoming more impressed by the ambiguities in the discussion and feel that once all of us gain more clarity on the issues we may find ourselves closer together than we had expected. Particularly; I would like some help in the following areas:
I. The Word and God
I still find Toronto people (especially Bernard Zylstra) writing in a way that suggests that the Word of God is some kind of intermediate reality between God and the creation: a tertium quid — neither fully divine nor created; neither Lord nor servant.
Now I realize that in certain contexts it is helpful (for specific purposes) to use a scheme God- Word- Creation. Sometimes it is helpful also to speak of God-Christ-Man-Universe to indicate spheres of kingdom authority. One gets the impression, however, that for Zylstra the God-Word-Creation scheme is more than a convenient device for making certain points; rather he seems to wish to deny to the Word full divine, authority, dignity, capacity. When I point out the scriptural teaching concerning these “divine attributes” of the Word, I am told that there are also distinctions to be made between God and the Word,, and the whole matter is left up in the air. I insist, however, that these divine attributes be acknowledged and stressed, else we fall into the error of the Gnostics, Arians, and all “chain of being” thinkers – the error of supposing that God’s involvement with us is less than direct and personal, that God needs semi-divine mediators of various sorts to carry out his business, and that there is something in the universe other than God which does not serve Him as His creature (contra, e.g., Rev. 4:1).
II. The Word and the Bible
First, let me~freely acknowledge that . there is more to the Word of God than what is written in the Bible (cf. John 20:30f, Acts 1:3, Ps. 147:15, etc.) On this point, the traditional Reformed theology has given me perfectly adequate guidance with no need of help from the Toronto Institute. The real question, however, is: what is the “Word of God” and what is its relation to the Bible? I still hear the Toronto people saying that theWord is first and foremost a kind of “power.” Although I agree that the “power of:
the Word” is an important biblical concept, I think this is a most inadequate way of describing the basic character of the Word. The Word in Scripture has many other qualities besides power; and one of the most crucial in my view is “meaning.” The Word is something that can be obeyed, believed, understood, etc. (Even when spoken to inanimate things, it reflects God’s own understanding, wisdom, and knowledge.) “Toronto” has a strange aversion to emphasizing the meaning of the Word. This aversion is further underlined by the Toronto insistance that the Word is something other than language, This insistence is bafflingly paradoxical to one unacquainted with Dooyeweerd’s philosophical scheme, for how can a “word ” be nonlinguistic? (And, in my opinion, Dooyeweerd’s scheme only muddies the waters further.) Now when people emphasize the “power” of the Word with no corresponding emphasis on meaning, and when they fiercely deny the “linguistic” character of the Word, the relation between the Word and the text of Scripture becqmes problematic in the extreme. How can non-language be recorded in language? How can a “power” (and of course we are given the impression that this is an inarticulate “power”) be recorded on paper? I grant, of course, that God has said more than there is in the Bible. Yet I would maintain that part of the Word has actually been set down on paper. God’s utterances, I maintain, can be written down, because they are language. But in the Toronto view, it seems, none of the Word is language. If the word is not really a word, not really language, then how can it be written down in words and sentences? How can we understand it, obey it, take it on our lips? Scripture is not the whole Word of God — on that we agree. But is Scripture the Word of God at all? I know that “Toronto” wants to say that it is, in some sense. All things considered, however, I still am unable to*distinguish the Toronto position from neo-orthodoxy, “new hermeneutics,” etc. I await your help. Surely, though, brethren, you must admit at least that this is a confusing way to talk about the Bible.
III. The Bible and us
To reaffirm my credentials as a traditional Reformed scholastic, let me structure this discussion in terms of the traditional “attributes of Scripture.”
1. The Necessity of Scripture:
James Olthuis likes to talk about the Bible as a “republication” of natural revelation. Well, fine; but the Bible is not merely a “republication.” It also contains a distinctive message, one not available to men through a mere study of nature. To be saved from sin, one must hear the preaching of Christ. It is this distinctive message, especially, which makes Scripture necessary for us. Now I think James Olthuis agrees with this, but I would like to have him write to this effect and to be more joyful and less grudging about it.
2. The Authority of Scripture:
First, why is it that the “Toronto” literature sqys so little about biblical infallibility and inerrancy? If you don ‘t accept these concepts, of course, then there is a great gulf between you and me. If , however, you do accept them, you hqve surely committed a major tactical blunder in not emphasizing them, clarifying them, expounding them in an age when they are being challenged even in conservative Reformed communions. How can a Christian talk about the Word of God in Scripture -without stressing the infallibility of its authority? But further: not only does the AACS literature fail to stress these concepts; its positive teachings tend to call them in question. When, for instance, Arnold De Graaff (Understanding the Scriptures, p. 10) tells us that historical questions about the Bible are “wrong” questions, does he mean’ that biblical authority does not necessitate historical reliability? When he says (ibid., 35) that the love-commandment^ “relativizes” all other biblical commandments and that the ten commandments are positivizations of the . , love-command for “a particular culture in a particular ‘period of ‘history,” does he mean that in some cultures or some periods of history the love commandment might require adultery or murder instead of forbidding them? If he does not mean theset things, why doesn’t he or someone at Toronto say so? This sort of language certainly does little other than confuse the flock of Christ. I think myself that this confusing use of neojOrthbdox slogans together with the customary belittling of the orthodox tradition would fade away if some of the Toronto experts in the “Word” would actually read some of the traditional stuff. and if they would apply to the neo orthodox slogans the same critical zeal which they customarily reserve for “nature-grace” thought.
3. The Sufficiency of Scripture:
Does “Toronto” really believe that Scripture is enough so that “the man of God may be complete, thoroughly furnished unto every good work” (II Tim. 3:17)? I certainly hope so.
The church has undergone a lot of grief through the years at the htmds of those who would bind our consciences with extra-scriptural norms. Extra-scriptural knowledge, of course, is often needed for the proper ‘application of scriptural commands, but, like Luther, we must never permit ourselves to be tyrannized by human expertise! Now when I read that passage in J.M. Spier’s Introduction to Christian Philosophy (p. 88) where he suggests that it is sinful to “build churches in Roman style, or write a book in the literary style of the 17th century,” I still bristle! Where does the Bible say that I can’t do that if I want to ? Jim Olthuis once tried to convince me that Spier is operating on the basis of biblical norms, (e.g., don’t give offense, etc.), but the argument there is precarious, to say the least, both exegetically and logically., The key question, though, is this: Is “Toronto” willing boldly and forthrightly (again, not grudgingly! ), alongside its strong concern for general revelation, to proclaim the liberty of the Christian man from all alleged divine commands which cannot be validated thrdugh Scripture? For if “Toronto ” is out to entangle me in a yoke of bondage (even if that bondage be called the “Word for creation”), then I must stand with Paul, Luther, and the partisans of Christian freedom.
4. The Perspicuity of Scripture:
Now I know that in theory at least the Toronto position is that Scripture does not need philosophy to make it clear. That theory, however, sometimes appears to be compromised when other aspects of the Toronto approach are taken into account. For one thing, that approach does insist that all of us read Scripture through the spectacles of a “life-view,” and the proper life-view (by which Scripture can be correctly understood) always comes out sounding like the cosmonomic idea philosophy at least in general outline. It is, in any case, a life-view against which philosophical objections may be urged. Further, the insistence that, Scripture is a ”naive” book and in no degree or measure “theoretical” is an insistence which no one but a “cosmonomic” philosopher, would dream of making (and I might add, this is one of the least plausible features of the, cosmonomic philosophy in my opinion). Further, the insistence in Dooyeweerd that Scripture is a ”book of faith” and the related assertion of Olthuis that Scripture is “confessionally qualified” utilize concepts of “faith”and “confession” which are part and, parcel of at distinctive philosophical outlook. It is therefore clear to me that in the Toronto view, Scripture cannot be rightly understood unless the reader accepts at least certain important elements of the cosmonomic idea philosophy. In Dooyeweerd and others, this hermeneutic leads to some rather gross distortions of scriptural teaching. Olthuis’s “confessional qualification” appears to me much less likely to cause such distortions. The fact remains, however,, that for all of these men philosophy governs exegesis to one extent or another. Philosophy determines what Scripture can and cannot say. In my view, this philosophic imperialism seriously compromises the clarity of Scripture – the power of Scripture to speak for itself and thereby to correct our wayward philosophizing.
I am not committed to maintaining any of these criticisms down to my dying day. I’m willing to be taught if I have misunderstood or misjudged. I trust, however, that respondents to this article will try to tell me, not only that I am wrong, but also how and why. And if you Toronto people “agree” with me, would you please implement that agreement by a softening of the rhetoric, by clarifying these matters in your own writing, by working to alleviate the confusion that some of your previous writings have wrought in the Church of Christ?
1 True, John 1:1 also asserts a distinction between the Word and god, but not such a distinction as to compromise the deity of the Word. Such unity and distinction brings us to the heart of the mystery of the Trinity; it does not require (as Gnostics and Arians supposed) that the Word be something less than God.
3 Incidentally, let me clear up a minor misunderstanding at this point: I have defined god’s Word as “God’s linguistic communication.” I have never defined it (as Dr. Zylstra seems to think at one point in his paper) as “God’s linguistic communication to man.” Obviously on a Scriptural view God’s Word is not addressed solely to man.