A Reformed approach to the bible has never focused on a hyper-literal reading of the text. For John Calvin, the truth of scripture comes through God’s accommodation to our human condition. This is the beauty of a Reformed hermeneutic that takes the human aspects of the bible seriously. And yet, a hyper literal reading of the bible has made inroads into the Reformed community. Along with this is an underlying anti-intellectualism that lumps wisdom and schooling together. While Christian academic institutions are not beyond critique, they are increasingly under attack by those who are suspicious of higher education and the liberalizing effect they believe it has upon young people. Social, cultural, and political issues have been collapsed into a debate over how to read the bible, or what it means to be a true Christian.

This approach to reading the bible is at odds with reformational thinkers whose work provide the foundation for Christian institutions of higher learning. Within the Dutch reformational tradition, Abraham Kuyper and Herman Bavinck established a framework for Christian education in which faith is integral to the exploration of the various creational spheres. They saw the bible as:

“…The book for Christian religion and Christian theology. For that end it is given. For that end it is suited. And therefore it is the word of God, poured out upon us through the Holy Ghost.”

(Bavinck Reformed Dogmatics p.416)

However, the Calvinistic principles of accommodation once again inform the scope of the bible. Bavinck writes,

The writers of Holy Scripture probably knew no more than their contemporaries in all these sciences, geology, zoology, physiology, medicine, etc. And it was not necessary either. For Holy Scripture uses the language of daily experience which is always true and remains so. If the Scripture had in place of it used the language of the school and had spoken with scientific exactness, it would have stood in the way of its own authority.

Bavinck Reformed Dogmatics p. 417

Kuyper describes how scripture bears the mark of a servant:

As the Logos has not appeared in the form of glory, but in the form of a servant, joining himself to the reality of our nature…so also, for the revelation of His Logos, God the Lord accepts our consciousness, our human life as it is…The spoken limitation of our language, disturbed as it is by anomalies. As a product of writing, the Holy Scripture also bears on its forehead the mark of the form of a servant.

Kuyper Principles of Sacred Theology p. 419

Neither Bavinck nor Kuyper held to a fundamentalist view of biblical inerrancy. Bavinck writes:

In the thoughts are included the words, and in the words, the vowels. But from this it does not follow that the vowel points in our Hebrew manuscripts are from the writers themselves. And it also does not follow that all is full of divine wisdom, that each jot and tittle has an infinite content. All has its meaning and significance very certainly, but there in the place and in the context in which it comes forth.

Bavinck Reformed Dogmatics p. 419

This view of biblical authority and interpretation encourages the exploration of the world through science. Knowing that the message of the bible is the revelation of God and God’s love for this world frees the Christian community to take seriously the insight gleaned from these forms of study. There will always be conflict at the boundaries as Christians explore new ideas and new insights, but these conflicts do not undermine the fundamental reformational view of the bible as God’s Word.

Whether people outside of the reformational tradition accept what Calvin, Kuyper, or Bavinck say about scripture is not the point. More problematic is when people within the tradition import a view of biblical authority and inerrancy that is not part of their theological heritage.

5 Comments

  • Scott Postma says:

    Over the years, I have moved away from emphasizing what reformed thinkers have written about the Bible. And this article illustrates why. To suggest the Bible is not inerrant opens up a huge Pandora’s box. Paul states in his letter to Timothy that all of scripture is God breathed (2 Tim 3:16). Reformed thinkers were human and their works were not inspired. This means there are going to be errors in their writings. Any writing which is in conflict with the clear teaching of scripture is suspect.

    Your very last sentence is concerning. You state: “More problematic is when people within the tradition import a view of biblical authority and inerrancy that is not part of their theological heritage.”.

    If the Bible is God’s word (as you correctly state), why would it not have authority, or be inerrant?

    • mm Jason Lief says:

      Thanks for your comment. The battle over inerrancy establishes a way of reading the bible that closes off other readings. What I mean is both liberals and conservatives are playing by the same rules, worried about history and whether or not events happened exactly as they are described. Liberals, using historical criticism, insist that it couldn’t have happened that way, while conservatives insist that it did. Both are approaching the bible same way, trying to prove historicity or trying to prove scientific truth. Your comment “Why didn’t God just tell him to move” misses the point of the Noah story. Was there a flood? Yes, I believe there was. How big was it? Don’t know, and honestly, don’t care. The biblical account is not trying to give us historical or scientific information about such a flood, it is communicating something about God, human sin, and salvation. For example, the fact that the word used for Ark in the Noah account is the same word used for the basket that Moses is placed in Exodus, (along with other details) shows us the author is making a connection between these two narratives. The water is significant… the ancient view of water matters. In both narratives it is about God’s deliverance of his people through the water, which can be seen throughout the biblical story. If by inerrant you mean that the bible is true in what it trying to communicate (without error) I can whole heartedly agree with you. The bible communicates the revelation of God’s salvation. Inerrancy, as you argue for it (meaning every single detail), is a modern 20th century approach that takes a very modernist approach to language and truth. I happen to believe that both the liberal historical critical approach and the fundamentalist approach have a very thin view of truth, and therefore a very thin view of the bible. I also understand that people who hold this view don’t care about the reformers because they’re human. The problem, however, is then whose interpretation is the correct interpretation? Or are we left with individuals all trapped within their own interpretation? But you’re human too… and I’m human. And the people who wrote the confessions are human, unless you want to say the confessions (HC, BC, and CofD) are inspired? But I’m guessing most people wouldn’t say that. The fact that we’re human, according to your argument, negates every one of our interpretations. The author of the article you linked to is human… what makes their interpretation correct? Christians have always recognized the importance of a community of interpretation, which is why I refer to the reformers.

  • Scott Postma says:

    Note: The last words should have said “or not be inerrant?”

  • Scott Postma says:

    Thanks for your response. A lot is written here, but i will take just a small sliver. You say “who’s interpretation is correct?” I don’t believe that question is very relevant. In the end, we all stand before God to give an account of our lives. Salvation is not complicated, and it can’t be complicated if God wants no one to perish (2 Peter 3:9). God reveled himself through the scripture; not through reformed writings. I believe it would be a shame for someone to spend more time reading reformed writings than God’s inspired words in the Bible.

    The reason it is important for me to read a more literal biblical interpretation is because the Bible gives clear instructions about how to treat those around us, as well as live our lives honoring him. If I say, it wasn’t 24 hour days, it wasn’t a global flood, Joshua didn’t cause the sun to stand still, etc., I have set myself up to potentially casting aside clear instruction about how I am to live my life, or not live my life. After all, the examples above don’t affect my comfort level at all. But if my personal comfort is at stake, how I make my choices could radically change.

    For example, in Revelation 13 Jesus shows John that those that receive the mark (to buy or sell) on their right hand or forehead, and worship the beast will drink from God’s undiluted wrath (hell). If I have spent most of my life discounting certain parts of scripture at not literal, I have set myself up for being deceived later when the pressure really starts to intensify, as outlined in Revelation. It would be very easy to say “Well this scholarly person said that you can take the mark because God would not want you to suffer especially if you have a family to feed.”. In the end times, this particular scenario is not something you want to try and walk to line on. God’s word is crystal clear on what to do in this future situation and its salvation implications. How I interpret the Bible now, is a foreshadowing of how I will interpret it later.

    • mm Jason Lief says:

      I understand what you’re saying. However, the bible doesn’t interpret itself. The bibles we read are translations by people who make interpretive choices. We’re still stuck with interpretation and having to decide whose interpretation we choose to listen to. For example, Revelation is apocalyptic writing that is highly symbolic. What does it mean to read symbolic writing literally? Reading Revelation the same way we read the gospels doesn’t really get at the meaning of the book. The meaning is tied up in the language and structure of the writing. Thus, to take the bible literally, which I believe we should, means taking it literarily-taking seriously the style of writing.

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