Berkouwer’s “Holy Scripture” and E J Young’s “Thy Word is Truth”
E J Young argues that one’s doctrine of Scripture is derived from either experience or Scripture, either natural man or supernatural God. Young does speak of the human character of Scripture. It does, however, seem that the supernatural-natural dichotomy underlies his doctrine of Scripture. He turns to the Bible “to discover what it has to say of itself” (p. 40). It is questionable, however, whether his view is not grounded in a notion which tends to set divine and human activity over against each other. Young rejects a mechanical theory (p. 65). It does, however, appear that his own view is really no more than a modification of this view. His interpretation of the working of the Spirit in the inspiration of Scripture is not directly identifiable with mechanical dictation (pp. 79-80). It does seem, however, that there is a tendency to move in that direction.
* Here are some statements from Young.
- “Without Him (God) there could have been no Bible. Without man there could have been” (p. 79, brackets mine).
- “What lies before the Church at the present time is the old issue of supernatural versus man-made religion” (p. 40).
- “Modern theories wish more and more to give a larger place to the activity of man and a lesser place to the activity of God” (p. 23).
- “What kind of a God is He who cannot reveal to the world a message that is free from error?” (p. 73).
- “To maintain that there are errors in it (the Bible) is the same as declaring that there are flaws or errors in God Himself” (p. 123, brackets mine).
- “the Scriptures in matters of historical and geographical detail are infallible” (p. 99).
Young rejects a limitation of Biblical authority to the realm of faith and practice as an untenable dualism between faith and other types of knowledge (see his discussion of the question, “Is the Bible infallible only in faith and practice?”, pp. 99-103).
He does not suggest that the Bible is a textbook of geography or geology. He does say that, when the Bible speaks on such matters, it speaks infallibly.
Berkouwer insists that theology must carefully avoid the “various dangerous conclusions” reached “with a ‘supratemporal’ conception of Scripture that honoured its vertical dimension but not its horizontal dimension” (p. 190). He insists that full account must be taken of Scripture’s time-relatedness and its purpose. Recognizing that “the impression of a dualism … cannot be avoided” (p. 190), he emphasizes that “Scripture … is time-related and has universal authority” (p. 194, emphasis original). He insists that “The reference to background, goal and intent does not … imply a method of subtraction. It desires to understand the Word of God in its ‘absolute significance’” (p. 190, emphasis mine). Though aware of “all the dangers of using the form – content scheme in a destructive manner”, Berkouwer insists that “no one can avoid this time-boundeness” (Verontrusting en Verantwoordlijkheid (Concern and Responsibility), p. 119, cited in a book review by L Praasma, Westminster Theological Journal, 33: pp. 73-80). He is not concerned simply to be modern. Modernity of outlook is, by itself, irrelevant. The question of how divine revelation relates to the modern world is secondary to his primary concern with the proper understanding of divine revelation.
Berkouwer's theology is based on the principle: “we may not be silent where God speaks … we may not speculate beyond the boundaries which God in His wisdom has set us” (Divine Election (DE), p. 15. This principle is used to guard against both an objectivism which tends to impose a system on Scripture (where Scripture is less systematic than advocates of the system might wish) and a subjectivism which tends to make a norm of its own interpretation of human subjectivity rather than receiving the instruction of the Scriptures concerning human subjectivity in the light of the Gospel. He speaks of “the problem of the boundary of our speaking in the light of the entire Biblical message” (DE, p. 18, emphasis mine), thus acknowledging the difficulty of determining the precise boundaries of God’s speaking and His silence. He points out that “Scripture itself in a very explicit way speaks about its intention” (Holy Scripture, p. 125 where he cites
John 20:31, Romans 15:4, Romans 4:23-24, 1 Corinthians 10:11, 2 Timothy 3:16 and 1 Timothy 1:18-19). He emphasizes that his approach is not “an arbitrary approach to Holy Scripture” (p. 125), based on a modern outlook which places a restriction on Biblical authority. Rather, it is an approach, based on Scripture itself, which seeks to understand the proper nature of Scripture’s absolute authority.
Commenting on 2 Timothy 3:16, Berkouwer writes, “Paul does not give a more accurate description of the word theopheustos (God-breathed), but he does underscore the great significance of the graphe (Scripture). The functional character of Scripture is most closely related to salvation” (p. 142). He emphasizes that the God-breathed character and functional character of Scripture may not be set over against each other. Scripture is “holy and thus ‘functional’” (p. 142). He stresses that the meaning of the word theopneustos is passive (God-breathed) rather than active (God-breathing or breathing out God) (pp. 140-141. E J Young makes the same point (p. 20). The difference between Young and Berkouwer does not lie at this point but at the point of interpreting how this activity of God relates to the activity of the human witness. Berkouwer emphasizes that there is “a deep relationship between origin and authority” (p. 143, emphasis original). Berkouwer insists that “Scripture … does not derive its authority from the fact that we use it, not even when we use Scripture in faith” (pp. 317-318, emphasis original). Young also emphasizes this point (pp. 22-23). Though Berkouwer and Young oppose subjectivism differently, it should be noted that they are united in their concern with opposing subjectivism.
Berkouwer rejects “all subjectivism regarding Scripture” (p. 318), insisting that Scripture’s functional character is “not the opposite of the God-breathed character of Scripture … (but) is a part of it” (p. 185). He emphasizes that “Scripture can be known only together with its purpose – implying both its use and application” (p. 318). Berkouwer’s perspective has its source in neither a preference for functionalism nor a tendency towards a subjectification of authority. Rather, it is grounded in his determination not to go beyond the boundaries of God’s speech. This approach enables him to describe as “completely fruitless” and offering “no true perspective on the God-breathed Scripture” the debate concerning “whether Scripture was also truly God’s Word ‘before and apart from its use’ or whether it became God’s Word only ‘by its use’” (p. 317). From this perspective, any reduction of the scope or intent of Scripture to the level of culture-boundedness may be regarded as a contravention of the Scripture – principle by which Scripture is regarded as God-breathed and functional (p. 190). It may also be argued that an inference in the direction of Young’s concept of inerrancy represents a transgression of the boundaries of God’s speech since it tends to move beyond the Biblical emphasis on the integral relation between the God-breathed character and the functional character of Scripture.
Young has proposed Biblical warrant for his concept of inerrancy -
2 Timothy 3:16, 2 Peter 1:21 (pp. 18-26); John 10:35 (pp. 26-27); Matthew 5:17-18 (pp. 48-49). It is, however, far from self-evident that the passages proposed can bear the full weight of his interpretation. Viewed in terms of the stated purpose of Scripture, these passages need not be interpreted in the way that Young suggests. His argument is based on inferential thinking by which his concept of inerrancy is inferred from the absolute perfection of God. The idea that the Bible must be inerrant, in the way that Young describes inerrancy, contains certain questionable implications.
It is not immediately apparent that the refusal to accept Young’s concept of inerrancy must be based on the idea that God is incapable of providing man with an inerrant Bible (This is what Young says on p. 73). It is not self-evident that the refusal to accept Young’s concept of inerrancy should be identified with the declaration that “There are flaws or errors in God Himself” (This is what Young says on p. 123). The idea that the presence of purely formal error in Scripture is incompatible with the moral perfection of God is questionable because it tends to define ‘perfection’ apart from the purpose of Scripture. Berkouwer’s criticism of the kind of inferential thinking used by Young is not based on a limitation of God’s power to reveal Himself in whatever way He chooses. His criticism of the kind of inferential thinking used by Young is not based on a rather empty conception of the freedom of God which he uses to avoid drawing necessary conclusions concerning the authority of Scripture. Rather, it is based on the recognition of God’s purpose in Scripture. Holding that the Bible is all that God wants it to be in accordance with His precise purpose, Berkouwer insists that it is unnecessary to posit a perfection which extends beyond the confines of the specific purpose of Scripture. From this perspective, Berkouwer challenges those who adopt Young’s view of inerrancy to consider whether they would be more Biblical in their thinking if they questioned their tendency to think in terms of how God must act.