F. G. Oosterhoff Clarion, v. 53 (27 August 2004), n. 18, pp. 438-441 (edited for Reformed Academic, 3 November 2009)
Some years ago a book appeared in the Netherlands which deals with Reformed views on the authority of the Bible. Entitled Woord op schrift, it contains essays by four men, all of whom have (or have had) connections with the theological university of the Reformed Churches (liberated) in Kampen.1 Some of these essays have caused a good deal of discussion and even controversy among Reformed people in the Netherlands. This is especially the case with the contributions of A. L. Th. (Ad) de Bruijne, professor of ethics at the university. Within our own churches little or no attention has been given to the matter. In my opinion the issues De Bruijne raises are important enough, however, to demand further notice. After all, we have a relationship with the Dutch churches and we should know what is going on among them. Indeed, we may even learn from them. I therefore decided to devote a series of articles to De Bruijne’s essays. A global view The issues De Bruijne raises are hermeneutical ones, which means that they concern the rules of biblical interpretation, specifically as these apply to the use and understanding of the Bible in modern times. A specific question he seeks to answer is whether Reformed theology will benefit if it makes greater use of figurative or non-literal explanations of parts of Scripture than has generally been done in the past. De Bruijne’s articles are technical and therefore not always easy to understand. They are, as I said, also controversial. Although some Reformed theologians have expressed appreciation for the work, others have censured and rejected it. The term ‘biblical criticism’ has even been used. This charge (which has been rebutted by a majority of Reformed theologians) is based in part on speculative statements by De Bruijne, some of which he has since withdrawn or qualified. In part it is also a result of the essays’ technical nature and, perhaps, of careless reading. Occasionally, it seems to me, critics base their accusations on arguments that have been taken out of context and are analysed apart from the author’s qualifying statements. All this is not to deny that there are aspects in De Bruijne’s work that demand further discussion. We will come to that in due course. I only suggest that, especially because of the level of difficulty, misunderstandings about his views and intentions easily arise. I realize that they may arise also in connection with my rendering of De Bruijne’s arguments. In an attempt to keep them to a minimum, I will begin by giving an overview of his message and in doing so avoid technicalities wherever possible. Once his intentions are clear, details should fall into place, and this should make it easier for the reader to evaluate the work. In my overview I follow an article which de Bruijne himself published in the Reformed periodical De Reformatie.2 The article was based on an oral explanation of his views to a congregational gathering somewhere in the Netherlands. Recognizable questions In this article De Bruijne points out that in Woord op schrift he is dealing with questions concerning the Bible which we all recognize. One of these is why today we keep some biblical commands and not others. The Bible states, for example, that we should not ask interest on our money; that we may not swear an oath; that we are not to sell our land; that women must cover their heads when praying. Today we believe that this type of command is conditioned by the 1

culture and time of writing and therefore no longer applicable. But increasingly people suggest that if on these points we can interpret the Bible in our own way, then the same should be possible in other areas. And so they ask for the possibility of bypassing biblical commands in such matters as divorce, remarriage after a divorce, women in office, homosexual relationships, pre-marital sex and cohabitation, and so on. Another type of problem concerns historical passages in the Bible. Biblical authors followed an approach that differs from the modern-western one. For one thing, they placed a much greater stress on story or narrative than is the case in modern history writing. They also left room for what may appear to us as discrepancies. Some of these are caused by a symbolic use of numbers. Examples can be found in Old Testament genealogies and also in the genealogy of Jesus in the first chapter of Matthew.3 In many cases, it appears, the composer of the genealogy left out names, a thing that would be unacceptable in modern history writing. And there appear to be discrepancies in other parts of the Bible as well. Bible-critical scholars have long used such apparent errors as proof that the Bible is not God’s inspired Word but simply a human document. This Bible-critical scholarship has a wide reach and has over the years been instrumental in drawing many a member of the church away from the faith. Rather therefore than ignoring the problems in question, De Bruijne says, and also rather than simply repeating traditional answers, Reformed theology must deal with the issues, and this is what he attempts to do. He emphasizes that he is not dictating answers but is simply making suggestions that can be evaluated by others. In this manner, he hopes, can the discussion get underway and progress made in our understanding of Scripture. Are the confessions not sufficient? Critics have asked De Bruijne if it is really necessary to search for new answers. Isn’t the Reformed doctrine about the Bible sufficiently explained in the Belgic Confession? De Bruijne replies that he fully endorses this Reformed symbol. He also points out, however, that the Belgic Confession originated in the sixteenth century and that it was directed against Roman Catholicism and Anabaptism. Since that time much has happened with respect to our knowledge of the Bible and of the times and cultures wherein it was written; and Reformed people who agree on the confession can have different opinions with respect to issues that arose later. Biblical inspiration De Bruijne uses the doctrine of biblical inspiration as an example. Disagreements exist as to its nature, with some claiming that inspiration is essentially mechanical (the ‘dictation’ theory), while others promote an organic view. That difference cannot be resolved with reference to the confession, for it is silent about it; and this applies to various other matters as well. Some of the modern-day problems have come to the fore, as I mentioned, because of modern Bible-critical scholarship. De Bruijne refers to the reaction of Abraham Kuyper and Herman Bavinck to this scholarship. Both men, he observes, sharply rejected the Bible-critical approach and its conclusions. Yet they also admitted that critical theologians sometimes come with new knowledge and insights, and that we may not ignore their findings. It was in part because of such new knowledge that Kuyper and Bavinck proposed their theory of organic inspiration. According to this theory God did not ‘dictate’ the contents of the Bible but employed human authors whose personality, experience, and specific gifts affected the manner in which they wrote. To be sure, these men were guided by the Spirit and therefore proclaimed not human wisdom but God’s own word. Nevertheless, the human element was not to be denied. Kuyper and Bavinck were unable, however, to answer every question concerning biblical inspiration and authority. And in l981 professor J. Kamphuis wrote that the doctrine of organic inspiration was not really satisfactory either. Further reflection continued to be necessary. [See in this connection 2

John van Popta’s remarks on Reformed Academic regarding Dr. J. Faber’s suggestion that perhaps we should speak of “covenantal inspiration” instead.] The need for further reflection on this and other issues has not been denied in Reformed circles. Mentioning Synod Assen 1926 (the synod that condemned Dr. J.G. Geelkerken’s views on Genesis 3), De Bruijne shows that the theologians who censured Geelkerken knew that a simple “No!” was not enough. Also among the later liberated Reformed theologians (for example in Dr. K. Schilder’s weekly De Reformatie), suggestions were made to come to a new formulation of the doctrine of scriptural authority. And when Dr. C. Trimp in 1967 issued a sharp protest against the synodical churches’ retraction of the verdict against Geelkerken, he at the same time made clear that the Reformed Churches would be remiss if in their reflection upon the Bible’s authority they stopped with ‘Assen 1926.’ Continued reflection is necessary, De Bruijne believes, not in the last place for the sake of the younger members of the church, those within as well as those outside the university. They often get the impression that Reformed theology is simply ‘walking around’ questions about the Bible and in fact ignoring them, even though the questions are very real to these members themselves. They are confronted with them in their studies and their general environment. Those who find themselves in this type of situation easily adopt an ‘either-or’ attitude: either they take the questions seriously but then find it difficult to remain Reformed, or they decide to remain Reformed but do their best to ignore the questions. They hide their head in the sand, so to speak. De Bruijne believes that if Reformed theology does not act here, it will contribute to a situation wherein more and more people doubt the Bible and leave the church. He adds that as a pastor in a university city (Rotterdam) he himself knew of many who had left because their questions remained unanswered. In short, more must be done than simply repeating traditional responses. Attention must be given (always within the framework of the confessions) to questions with which today’s believers struggle. Biblical history After this general introduction, De Bruijne explains in the Reformatie article the views he expressed in Woord op schrift. In his contributions to that book, he points out, he dealt with two issues, namely history writing and ethical commands in the Bible. As to the first topic, critics of his work have left the impression among some church members that according to him we don’t have to take biblical history all that literally. Such an impression, he writes, is altogether mistaken. His argument is, rather, that the Bible gives real, literal history and presents it with great exactness. He therefore emphatically rejects the view that since ancient-eastern culture stressed symbolism a great deal, historians belonging to that culture were not really concerned with literal historical truth, but simply and unconsciously mixed fact and symbol. Over against such reasoning he insists, with specific reference to recent studies on the topic, that ancient-eastern historians were quite capable of distinguishing between literal and symbolic language, that in fact they did so distinguish, and also that they were very much concerned with literal truth. And what applies to eastern historians in general applies to the writers of biblical history in particular. They, too, were careful to distinguish between fact and symbol and to stress the truth element. Narrative conventions The biblical authors’ concern for literal truth and accuracy, De Bruijne says, is his primary message on biblical history writing. Within that framework he develops his secondary thesis, which is that if we may see biblical authors as real ancient-eastern historians, then we must also note that they used the conventions of ancient-eastern historiography. An instance of 3

such a convention is the conscious use of symbolism in a historical narrative, such as the nonliteral use of numbers, a point to which I already referred. This is only one example. There are various other usages in biblical narratives that, as typically ancient-oriental, differ from modern ones. Do such insights help us? De Bruijne is convinced they do. In the first place, they can enable us to resist the lure of Bible-critical ideas. In opposition to the assertion that Scripture is not at all interested in ‘what really happened,’ we can show that serious modern research (also research by non-Christians) has reached an entirely different conclusion. Secondly, they can help us relativize so-called discrepancies in the Bible. These will often disappear – not because we resort to an old-fashioned kind of ‘harmonizing,’ which frequently comes across as artificial, but because we recognize that our problem is caused by the narrative strategy the historian followed. Thirdly, knowledge of biblical narrative conventions helps to clarify to us the meaning of the historical passage in question. For by the manner in which a historian narrates a certain history he conveys his vision on that history. This means in the case of the Bible that in the manner of narration the Holy Spirit Himself reveals an aspect of the meaning of a certain event. I hope to come back to this in a later article. Ethics Turning to ethical commands in the Bible, De Bruijne mentions the lamentable fact that as a Reformed community we hardly have a lifestyle any more wherein one can recognize what the Bible calls the ‘image of Christ.’ We know God’s commands very well, but in an everincreasing number of instances we suggest that the one we happen to be concerned with was conditioned by the times and culture in which it originated and is therefore no longer relevant for us. As to the cause of this situation, he suggests that at least part of the answer must be sought in the manner we use Scripture in determining our lifestyle and ethics. That manner, he believes, is (1) too small, and (2) too individualistic. The Bible’s overall theme Firstly, our manner of using Scripture in ethical matters is too small. We try to derive our lifestyle as closely as possible from the Ten Commandments and from other Bible texts that are written as commands. But that does not always work. Sometimes more than one explanation of the specific command is possible. Sometimes we realize that the biblical situation was quite different form ours. And sometimes we have to acknowledge that the Bible does not provide us with a direct answer to our specific question. Quite often the result of all this is that we decide to follow our own opinion. This happens today with different themes: the keeping of the Sunday as day of rest, divorce and remarriage, and so on. To overcome this restricted usage of the Bible in ethical matters, De Bruijne suggests that we begin our reflections on good and evil by concentrating on all God’s works and words; that we also consider the way God is directing our own lives; and that we attempt to answer questions about good and evil from these perspectives. This means that if on certain points there are no direct commands, we are not without guidance. Aware of the Bible’s overall theme and intention, we will often know how we are to direct our lives. This approach will also frequently enable us to ‘translate’ an ancient command into present-day terms and so to apply it to our own time and situation. For to stress the Bible’s overall theme does not mean that this theme is to replace God’s concrete demands. Attention to scriptural teaching as a whole may never push aside a specific command of God which is applicable today. That would suggest a diminishing of the Bible’s influence on our life and lifestyle. Rather than diminishing that influence, he wants to enlarge it. 4

What he is trying to do in the matter of ethics, De Bruijne explains, is what Reformed theologians have long tried to do in the field of dogmatics. Precisely as a result of the renewal of redemptive-historical Bible-reading around the middle of the previous century, the insight grew that we must not base doctrine on all sorts of disconnected proof texts. These are all too often taken out of their context. Rather, Reformed theologians said, we must base our doctrine on the totality of the Bible’s redemptive history. This means that biblical history is not to be treated as illustration of a timeless dogma that has been derived from loose and disconnected proof texts, which are often quoted out of context, but that it is recognized as the foundation of dogma. In the same manner, he adds, he does not want to derive ethics from a ‘timeless’ universal law, but from God’s deeds in history, and within that framework to localize the divine commands. Individualism The manner in which we use Scripture in ethical matters is not only too small, De Bruijne believes, but also too individualistic. At times we operate unconsciously with the idea that we have to find out privately, all by ourselves, what is good and evil. In times when there is still something like a consensus on ethical matters in society at large, such an approach is perhaps not too dangerous, but in a secular and radically individualistic society like ours it leads to ongoing fragmentation. One can point to God’s unchanging commands, but all too often the answer is: “That’s how you see things; I explain them differently.” Yet the Bible teaches that the Christian lifestyle is a thing that characterizes the Christian community, and that as such it must be clearly recognizable to unbelievers. De Buijne therefore pleads for a type of ‘congregational ethics’ – an approach wherein believers together discover from the Bible what is good and evil. He makes clear that by using the term ‘congregational ethics’ he does not imply a replacement of the biblical message by communal deliberation. The term is chosen, rather, to stress the need for a congregational, communcal listening to the Bible. He believes that if we do this – if we learn to follow Christ together, as a community, in our post-Christian society – we will again recognize that God’s Word speaks to the situation and the questions of today. So much for this general and non-technical overview of de Bruine’s position on biblical authority. In the next instalment I will turn to his articles in Woord op schrift.

C. Trimp, ed., Woord op schrift: Theologische reflecties over het gezag van de Bijbel (Kampen: Kok, 2002). Contributors are professor-emeritus C. Trimp, prof. B. Kamphuis, the rev. J.J.T. Doedens, and prof. A.L.Th. de Bruijne A. L. Th. De Bruijne, “Woord op schrift: de bedoelingen,” De Reformatie, May 3, 2003, pp. 564-68.


For examples of the symbolic use of numbers in the Bible, see NIV Study Bible, Introduction to Genesis, “Literary Features.” As is well known, the numbers 7 and 10 and their multiples signified completeness. For the use of these numbers, see the genealogies of Cain, with 7 names (Gen. 4), Seth, 10 names (Gen. 5), Shem to Abraham, 10 names (Gen. 11), Perez to David, 10 names (Ruth 4), and Abraham to Christ, 3x14 names (Mat. 1).



F. G. Oosterhoff Clarion, v. 53 (10 September 2004), n. 19, pp. 462-465 (edited for Reformed Academic, 7 November 2009)

We turn to the first of Ad de Bruijne’s essays. It is entitled “Hermeneutiek en metaforie” and deals with the use of figurative language in biblical exegesis in general. In the other two essays, which I hope to discuss later, De Bruijne focuses respectively on the use of figurative language in historical passages in the Bible, and on the question whether a non-literal approach can help us in our search for biblical guidance in matters of lifestyle and ethics. In all three essays the author is in discussion with the Reformed theologian B. Loonstra,1 who promotes an extensive use of non-literal explanations in the belief that this will help overcome the “strangeness” of the Bible for modern people – a strangeness that is caused by the cultural differences between biblical and modern times. Because much of what De Bruijne writes is in reaction to Loonstra, I will in what follows more than once state the latter’s position before discussing De Bruijne’s own. Metaphor – its nature and use When speaking of non-literal or figurative language, De Bruijne often makes use of the term “metaphor.” Before I proceed with the discussion of his work, some preliminary remarks about the meaning and usage of this term are in order. The word “metaphor” is derived from the Greek verb for ‘to transfer,’ and this naming is apt: when we speak metaphorically, we speak of one thing in terms that are transferred (or borrowed) from another. When we do this primarily for adornment, we speak of a literary metaphor. In our days it is increasingly recognized, however, that metaphors have also a cognitive function – which means that they play a role in the process of knowing and understanding. One reason why this is so is that language and knowing are connected, and that it is difficult for us to understand something new unless we can approach it with words and images that are already familiar. These words and images the metaphor supplies. Metaphors are used in all fields of knowledge, including theology. Among theologians who were aware of the role played by figurative language in religious understanding was John Calvin, who often spoke of the use of metaphor in Scripture and in scriptural exegesis.2 He referred to it, for example, when explaining the Bible’s anthropomorphic speaking about God, such as His sleeping and waking up, His hands and feet, His eyes and ears. The Bible speaks here metaphorically. It uses words and images from our earthly reality in order to acquaint us with a different reality, namely a spiritual one. Calvin shows that the Bible uses metaphoric language to convey other truths. The description of hell as a place of punishment by fire and sulphur and brimstone, for example, is metaphorical. So is the description of heaven. Here again, this-worldly terms (such as golden streets, pearly gates, and so on) are employed, and necessarily so, for it would be difficult for us to envision, in Calvin’s words, “the blessed immortal life, unless it be shadowed out by some figures adapted to our capacity.”3 Metaphor and image Metaphors, then, help our understanding by describing the unfamiliar in familiar terms. They serve not only our logical, but also our imaginative understanding. There is something pictorial about the metaphor; and what applies to pictures, namely that they can be “worth a thousand words,” applies to metaphors. Let us take as an example the truth that God cares for us and gives us what we need for this


life and the life to come. This can be stated in literal language, and the Bible often does so. But Scripture gives the message also by using metaphors, and in doing so opens up new and unexpected associations. One such metaphor is God’s speaking of Himself as the shepherd of his people. By using this figure of speech He conveys the message of his care and providence, just as He does in literal language. But as the author of the Twenty-third Psalm shows, there are additional meanings which are not communicated by a more literal statement. The metaphor brings to the psalmist’s mind the abundance of green pastures and still waters, it reminds him that he does not have to fear evil even when going through the valley of the shadow of death, it speaks to him of a shepherd’s rod and staff that not only discipline but also bring comfort. When the Lord Jesus applies the metaphor to Himself, further meanings are disclosed. We learn that his sheep hear and recognize his voice, that He knows the name of each one of them, that He seeks the sheep that goes astray and carries it home on his shoulders, that He not only protects his sheep but gives his life for them (John 10). We learn also something about ourselves – about our stubbornness, our proclivity to go our own way, our helplessness, our utter need for guidance. In those senses we are indeed like sheep. (See also the well-known words of Isaiah 40:11 on God’s care for us as our shepherd, and the passage on shepherd and sheep in Ezekiel 34.) What applies to the metaphor of the shepherd applies to other figures of speech the Bible uses when speaking of God and Jesus Christ – such as those referring to God as a rock and fortress, a sun and shield, a fountain of living water, a vine-dresser; and those referring to Christ as the door, the way, the vine, the bridegroom, the cornerstone, and the Lamb of God. Another example of metaphoric speaking in Scripture is Christ’s statement at the Last Supper that the bread and wine are his body and blood. Here again the associations are many, as Lord’s Days 28 to 30 of the Heidelberg Catechism make clear. This example reminds us at the same time that we may not forget the special nature of metaphors. They refer to something that is real, but they do not give a literal description. While they tell us something about reality, they do not tell us everything. They both reveal and conceal. The example of the Lord’s Supper further reminds us that we can go astray when interpreting something literally that is meant metaphorically. In explaining the Lord’s words in the upper room, the Roman Catholic Church has failed to distinguish between literal and figurative. Its teaching that bread and wine become the literal body and blood of the Lord has led to a magical view of the sacrament. Finally, it must be kept in mind that metaphors focus on one aspect or set of aspects while leaving out others. We are therefore often given many different metaphors. But this limitation does not make the cognitive value of figurative language inferior to that of literal language. We are finite beings, and as is increasingly recognized in our days, all our knowledge is partial, also that which is conveyed in a literal manner. What is important is not the type of language that is employed (literal or figurative), but which of the two conveys most clearly the intended message. Sometimes this is best done by literal, sometimes by figurative language. And again, the former is not necessarily more expressive than the latter. Here, too, we can learn from Calvin. He wrote, as we saw, that the biblical description of hell as a place of punishment by fire and brimstone is a metaphorical one. But as one of his commentators points out, “this is certainly not to say that Calvin regarded flaming fire and brimstone as what some of our contemporaries (even theological contemporaries) would naively call a ‘mere metaphor,’ meaning thereby that it means either nothing or almost nothing. For Calvin it meant the ultimate horror of separation from God, ‘which we can neither imagine nor express properly…with our words’”4 May we replace biblical descriptions? De Bruijne gives much attention, we noted, to B. Loonstra’s views on the role of metaphor in the Bible and in biblical exegesis. An important element in the latter’s theory (an element that De Bruijne rejects) is the idea that all biblical language is metaphoric and that the “strangeness” of the Bible can be removed, or at least alleviated, if we interpret certain elements that the author intended literally in a 2

figurative sense. This can be done, for example, by “modernizing” some of the Bible’s figurative language. Loonstra’s argument runs as follows. In inspiring Scripture the Holy Spirit adapted Himself to the culture of the times. This explains why the human authors of the Bible describe spiritual and other unfamiliar truths metaphorically, i.e., by using words and images from their own world. This is a proper procedure; only in this manner could the original readers understand the message. But because worldview and world-picture keep changing, later readers will have difficulty understanding and applying the message unless they replace the original descriptions and metaphors with ones that reflect the way in which they themselves visualize reality. Such a replacement, according to Loonstra, is therefore justified and sometimes even required. There are exceptions. Loonstra distinguishes between foundational metaphors and illuminative ones. The former, to which God in the course of history gave a special redemptive-historical content, must be retained. Loonstra mentions in this connection covenant, creation, atonement, incarnation, resurrection, final judgment, and kingdom of God. Furthermore, the Bible teaches that redemption takes place by means of God’s deeds in history. If the abandonment of certain metaphors places the historicity of these deeds in jeopardy, then again their replacement is unacceptable. In short, foundational metaphors must be kept, no matter how strange they may seem. Illuminative ones, on the other hand, may be”updated” in order to prevent unnecessary estrangement (pp. 116f.).5 An example: Christ’s ascension Loonstra gives various examples. I am using the one concerning Christ’s ascension, because it not only gives a clear description of Loonstra’s theory but also shows the differences between his views and those of De Bruijne. In describing the ascension, Loonstra writes, the biblical author made use of the then current conception of the universe, which was a hierarchical one. Heaven was situated at the highest level, then came the earth, and then hell, which was located at the very bottom, within the bowels of the earth. According to this world-picture [sometimes referred to as that of the three-decker universe], Christ “ascended” literally when leaving this world – that is, He moved up to a higher place. The modern image of the universe is very different from the one we meet in the New Testament. For people living today, the earth, rather than being the centre of the universe, is a mere planet circling around its sun and occupying an infinitesimal spot in boundless space. In the modern picture of the universe there is no longer an up and down, an above and below. And so, while the event of Christ’s return to the Father is to be interpreted as truly historical and factual, we are justified, according to Loonstra, in replacing the particular New Testament presentation of the event by a more modern one, according to which Jesus did not ascend from an earth below to a heaven above, but moved to another dimension, namely to “the space of God” (115f., 144, 148). De Bruijne disagrees with Loonstra’s replacement theory. While admitting the role of the then current world-picture in the event and narration of Christ’s ascension, he questions the assumption that modern readers can give meaning to the text only if they replace the original presentation with a modern one. Much of the estrangement we moderns feel in our contact with the Bible, he suggests, is a result of the fact that we absolutize our modern world-picture and want to know things on our own terms. But that is not a proper approach. A better means of bridging the gap between then and now is to relativize our present-day way of looking at things and to develop a real interest in what is different from our situation and culture. If we look at the Bible as an object of knowledge, we will understand that we indeed should attempt to understand it on its own terms, for we do the same with other things we seek to know. What we must realize is that it was not only in the narration of the ascension event, but also in the manner in which it in fact took place, that God accommodated Himself to the views of the times. In reading of the event, we simultaneously realize that what we are told really happened and that the people to whom it was first revealed had another view of reality than we have. There is no need to replace that view with 3

our own, although it is possible, if we wish, to supplement the biblical presentation with a modern one, such as that of a multi-dimensional universe (144f). To believe that biblical metaphors can be replaced is, De Bruijne believes, to misjudge the uniqueness of the language God used in giving His revelation. Also when replacing only those metaphors which (in Loonstra’s words) do not have a redemptive-historical content, we risk losing essential aspects of the biblical message. This is evident in the example of the ascension. It is true that the historicity of Christ’s return to the Father does not depend on a world-picture that places heaven above the firmament. But that presentation involves associations and incorporates meanings that are lost when we replace it with the modern view of the universe. For one thing, in the description of Christ’s return to heaven as a going from low to high, we are reminded of God’s ascending Mount Zion in David’s times, an event that forms a type of fore-shadowing of Christ’s ascension (Ps 68, Eph 4). Furthermore, the association between heaven and height is found in other biblical messages. Examples: Jesus receives the highest place; after His suffering and death He rises above sin and misery; we can lift up our eyes to heaven; from heaven He looks down to oversee and govern all things; the heavenly Jerusalem where God’s throne is established fulfills a type of central function with respect to the earth, just as Zion did with respect to the country of Israel (148f.).6 All this, De Bruijne concludes, strengthens him in his conviction that we must not replace biblical descriptions and metaphors, no matter how strange they appear to us. The fact that God used them in His providential care means that they have a particular fitness to be vehicles of His revelation, a fitness that our substitutes lack. Although we tend to describe them as pure metaphor, it is possible to speak here of a form of “literalness.” In any case, we must hold on to the fact that Christ has literally ascended; that He looks down on us so that we can look up to Him (149). Knowing in relationship In the foregoing we concentrated on one disagreement between De Bruijne and Loonstra, namely that concerning the question whether biblical descriptions and metaphors can be replaced. We must give attention to yet another disagreement, which also falls within the general category of figurative speaking in the Bible. It concerns Loonstra’s assumption that all biblical language is metaphoric and that this is necessarily so, because if God wants to reveal something about Himself He must speak metaphorically and use representations from our world. De Bruijne disagrees with this view. For one thing, he points out, it threatens to make God and His revelation dependent on our experience and on the language that we, human beings, have come to see as significant in our interaction with the world. But this ignores the fact that God Himself chooses words and that He takes these words not as metaphors from a reality that is foreign to Him, but from a human language to which He has from the very beginning given the capacity to speak rightly about Him (143, 145f.) Furthermore, Loonstra’s teaching suggests that there is an absolute separation between subject and object, or between man and God. De Bruijne believes, however, that we can and must speak of knowledge in relationship. He refers to the work of the English theologian Colin E. Gunton, who has written about the role that this concept plays even in fields of secular knowledge, including science. Philosophers of science are beginning to realize that knowledge of the world of nature is possible for us because we are connected with that world, being part of the same reality. This suggests that the old idea of a radical dualism or division between the subject (the knower) and the object (the known; in this case the world of science) is being replaced by a more integrative and holistic one (141f.). A noteworthy implication is that we are no longer imprisoned by our language and its metaphors, as indispensable as both are in the process of knowing. There are other avenues to knowledge and truth. Again following Gunton, De Bruijne believes that the same concept can be applied to religious knowledge and understanding; that there also we can speak of knowing in relationship. As there is a connection between the human spirit and the surrounding world, so there is one between the human spirit 4

and God. It is true – and De Bruijne strongly emphasizes this – that we are speaking of different realities, and that the relationship is not the same as that between the human being and the world. It should also be kept in mind that God teaches us directly and personally; that His Spirit dwells in us. But the point of comparison is that in both cases our knowing and speaking is not to be seen apart from our relation to “the other” (143). Conclusion Loonstra tries to remove some of the “strangeness” of the Bible for modern readers by a more extensive use of the possibility of non-literal interpretation. He suggests two specific ways. One, which we discussed in the foregoing, is to interpret elements in the Bible which the author intended as literal, in a figurative sense. Part of this procedure is to replace “outdated” descriptions and metaphors in the Bible with modern ones. For reasons that will have become clear in the foregoing, De Bruijne rejects this approach. He adopts, however, the other suggestion of Loonstra, which is that we should be open to the possibility that biblical writers may consciously have included metaphorical elements in passages where we do not expect them, and that we should take care to interpret such elements as intended. With Loonstra, he warns against an attitude in Reformed theology according to which figurative language is held by definition to be less capable of conveying truths than literal language (152-59). Such an attitude, he argues, has a restrictive effect on biblical exegesis. When meeting problems (for example in historical sections) it is not in principle wrong to assume that the writer may have intended parts of these sections metaphorically. De Bruijne admits that it can be difficult to decide when we can speak of such metaphorical elements in a literal context, but concludes that we do not have to rely on literary pointers alone (160). In what follows we will see how he applies these views.

1 Loonstra is a member of the Christelijke Gereformeerde Kerk in the Netherlands; de Bruijne of the Gereformeerde Kerken (liberated).

Calvin did so in the context of his theory of accommodation (according to which God in His revelation accommodates Himself to the limits of our intellectual and moral capacities). For examples of Calvin’s views on the role of metaphors and related tropes in Scripture and biblical exegesis, see Roland M. Frye, “Calvin’s Theological Use of Figurative Language” in John Calvin and the Church: A Prism of Reform, ed. Timothy George (Westminster/John Knox Press, 1990), pp. 172-94; and Dirk W. Jellema, “God’s ‘baby-talk’: Calvin and the ‘errors’ in the Bible,” The Reformed Journal, April 1980, pp. 25-27.


Jellema, p. 26. Frye, p. 179. Page references within the text are to Woord op schrift.



6 For a similar explanation by John Calvin (who more than once admitted that “scientifically speaking there is no place above the skies”), see Frye, p. 177.


F. G. Oosterhoff Clarion, v. 53 (24 September 2004), n. 20, pp. 488-491 (edited for Reformed Academic, 7 November 2009)

We now turn to De Bruijne’s second essay, wherein he deals with the question whether it will help Reformed theology if, more so than is normal within the Reformed tradition, some aspects of historical passages in Scripture are explained not literally but metaphorically.1 In seeking an answer to this question, De Bruijne is still in discussion with his colleague B. Loonstra. One of Loonstra’s arguments is that ancient historians (including biblical ones) were not greatly interested in historical accuracy. They wrote their accounts not first of all because they wanted to relate what actually happened, but in order to frame a theological message. In the process they used a variety of conventions, such as metaphors and other non-literal language as well as saga, elements of myth, and pseudepigraphy (the placing of a text on the name of a well-known person who had not in fact written it). They did so not to deceive but because the approach was a normal one at the time, and because no strict distinction between literal and non-literal was required (112-16). Because he believes this to be the nature of biblical historiography, Loonstra concludes that we can interpret certain historical passages figuratively even when the biblical authors presented them as literal. This means in effect that we can deny their historicity. But because biblical accounts do not have the pretension of being historically exact, such a denial is no real problem, although, as we saw in the previous instalment, an exception must be made for descriptions with a redemptive-historical content. Biblical historicity: a Jewish view Having summarized Loonstra’s argument, De Bruijne refers to the work of two scholars who have specialized in the study of biblical and other ancient historiography. Both men contradict Loonstra’s conclusion, showing that ancient-eastern historians were vitally interested in historicity and truth, and that the same applied to biblical authors. The first of De Bruijne’s witnesses is the Jewish Old Testament scholar and ancient historian Baruch Halpern, who in one of his studies focuses on the historical books of Joshua up to and including Kings (162-7). Halpern shows that these books intend to do justice to the facts, including even the smallest details, and that in this respect they do not differ from modern-western historiography. An investigation of the sources the biblical historians used, as well as a comparison with what we know from extra-biblical sources, are among the factors that lead to this conclusion. Halpern distinguishes between “what happened” and “history.” The former term refers to the endless number of occurrences that we experience from day to day, often without being able to make connections. “History” is the discipline which organizes (some of) these facts into a coherent whole. It is a means of representing the past. As such, history necessarily has a literary dimension. It needs a narrative structure to show connections, deal with cause and effect, offer interpretations, and also to bring a message; for history always has an ideological or didactic or tendentious component. All this means that the writer concentrates on some facts, rather than on others. There is no true historian who does not select. Sometimes he focuses on political data; at other times he leaves such data out and restricts himself to facts dealing, for example, with religious matters. In historical narratives, Halpern continues, there are also “white spots” – areas where the sources are very limited. The historian tries to fill in these spots as well as he can, but historical accounts necessarily have a measure of probability. They are also apt to contain errors: e.g., an inaccurate date, or a mistake caused by the misunderstanding 1

of a source. These various elements do not detract, however, from the historian’s intention to do justice to the past. They characterize all serious historiography. Narrative conventions Although the desire for accuracy is the same, Halpern states that there are differences between the historiography of biblical times and of today. Far more so than their modern counterparts, ancient historians presented their history in story form. They also made use of narrative conventions that were current in their times. These were well known to their readers, but they are unfamiliar to us and their usage must therefore be explained. One of these conventions is the symbolic meaning of numbers, which I mentioned before. Another is the use of dialogue and direct speech. When a modern historian has to give the words of a historical figure he does not usually have an exact text before him and reports indirectly. That is, he gives a summary or a paraphrase of what was said. But in the same situation historians in the ancient orient (and also in classical Greece) often used direct speech, and so left the impression that they were quoting literally. This was done also when it concerned words spoken in secret, and even when the historian referred to a person’s unspoken thoughts. The fact that we cannot take such direct speech as literal does not mean that it is historically unreliable. The convention served the goal that all proper historians pursue, namely to give a faithful presentation of what was actually said and thought. Another convention Halpern mentions is that of hyperbole or exaggeration. The original readers recognized this convention and interpreted it properly, whereas we have to be alerted to it. A report, for example, that a tyrant “ripped open all pregnant women” does not necessarily imply numerical exactness, but may simply be a means the author used to indicate that great cruelties were visited upon the tyrant’s victims. In the same way, we must assume that hyperbole is used when we read that a city was destroyed ”to the last man” when later it appears that there were still men present. And various other examples could be given. Halpern also believes that sometimes fictional elements were inserted into the narrative. He himself disbelieves in miracles and therefore considers a text like 1 Kings 13 (which relates the story of the man of God who in the days of Jeroboam I came from Judah to prophesy at Bethel) as fictional. Halpern thinks that this story may have been consciously inserted as figurative, although he also considers the possibility that the author mistakenly believed that the events had actually taken place. But generally, this type of story, he believes, was recognized as figurative and inserted to throw light on the total message; and while we have difficulty distinguishing such fictional stories from the historical ones surrounding them, this was not the case with the immediate readers, who were familiar with the convention. To summarize: Halpern rejects the view that biblical history as a whole is metaphoric, that it serves as nothing more than a means of conveying a message, and that it does not claim true historicity. He esteems the reliability and professionalism of biblical witnesses much higher than many critical scholars do. He also makes clear that, if we want to understand the biblical message, it is essential that we keep in mind the different narrative conventions. At the same time he criticizes confessional scholars for trying to explain all claims as historical and factual and so ignoring the possible figurative aspects of a story. Their belief in the historicity of 1 Kings 13, which he himself considers fictional because it contains miracles, serves him as an example. Halpern’s attitude toward the supernatural makes clear, De Bruijne concludes, that we can make only a critical use of his work, while nevertheless admitting its value for a biblical hermeneutics. Especially valuable are his arguments in support of the Bible’s historicity and his explanation of ancientoriental narrative conventions (168).


An evangelical voice The second expert De Bruijne introduces is the Old Testament scholar V. Philips Long, an evangelical theologian who, unlike Halpern, believes the Bible to be the infallible word of God. De Bruijne concentrates on Long’s study The Art of Biblical History, 1994. In this book Long builds on Halpern’s work but, because of his Christian convictions, comes with additional information that can help Reformed hermeneutical reflection (168-83). Like Halpern, Long distinguishes between history as the totality of past occurrences on the one hand, and history as it is told and written (historiography), on the other. Again like Halpern, he points out that written history does more than simply recount facts. It is a composition, which means that it takes the form of a narrative wherein events of the past are presented in a coherent and ordered manner, so that their significance becomes clear. History as the totality of past occurrences and written history, Long points out, are both part of God’s revelation. His work of salvation is established in his historical deeds. The significance of these deeds He Himself explains by means of the historian’s selection, ordering, description, and explanation of the historical facts. Unlike Halpern, Long does not believe in automatically assigning supernatural elements like miracles and divine revelations to the domain of the non-historical. He suggests a method for determining whether a certain passage in the Bible is meant historically or not. Among the things that he suggests the exegete has to keep in mind are the following two: (1) The exegete must determine what type of truth claim the historian makes. Does a certain book have the intention of giving historical information or not? The claim for the book as a whole affects the parts according to a “top-down” structure. If it appears that the author presents his entire text as history, then this applies also to the parts, unless these are clearly meant figuratively. The fable of Jotham in Judges 9 and the parables of Jesus have characteristics which distinguish them from the surrounding passages and are clearly not meant to be taken literally. In the case of the speaking donkey of Balaam (Numbers 22) such distinguishing characteristics are absent, and therefore this section must, with the book of Numbers as a whole, be taken as historical. (2) The exegete must apply the test of internal consistency (i.e., are there contradictions which give rise to doubt as to the text’s historicity?) and of external consistency (i.e., does the passage come into conflict with what we know from other sources?). “If Jericho was not razed…” Long considers also the question whether, in attempting to establish the historicity of certain texts, we can distinguish between the central message of the Bible and what would appear to be more peripheral or marginal information. We have seen that Loonstra makes this type of distinction when he insists that certain presentations in the Bible can be taken figuratively (even though presented as literal) but that this may not be done with texts that have a redemptive-historical content. Long questions the validity of such a distinction. In this connection he refers to the destruction of Jericho (Josh. 6), an event that liberal historians have often presented as non-historical. He borrows from another author, who quoted Paul’s confession, “If Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain” (1 Cor. 15:14) and who paraphrased it by asking, “If Jericho was not razed, is our faith in vain?” Long believes that we have to take that question seriously. The book of Joshua, he points out, claims to give history, and this claim is compromised if we should conclude that the destruction of Jericho did not take place. That would have consequences for our trust in the Bible’s central message. We accept that message as true for the same reason that we accept the account of Jericho’s razing as true, namely through the witness coming to us in the Bible. If we conclude that the account of Jericho’s razing is not to be taken literally, although it is clearly presented as such, then our confidence in the trustworthiness of Scripture as a whole cannot remain unaffected. De Bruijne appears to agree with this point of view. He further remarks that in any event it is difficult to establish precisely which texts are “central” and which “peripheral.” The so-called 3

redemptive-historical facts are not restricted to what we confess, for example, in the Apostles’ Creed. As several of the Psalms show, the category also includes elements not mentioned in the Creed, such as the flood, events occurring in the times of the patriarchs, the exodus, the desert experience, the conquest of Canaan, the history of David, and so on. Often it is impossible to distinguish between biblical Fact and fact (179f.). Some applications Applying the arguments of Halpern and Long, De Bruijne shows how they correct a number of Loonstra’s conclusions, and also how they can help us with various problems in biblical interpretation. As examples of the latter he mentions, inter alia, elements in the accounts of the beginning of Saul’s kingship and of the conquest of Canaan, as well as the fact that in the New Testament the first three gospels place the cleansing of the temple at the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry whereas John places it at the end (172-6, 180, 181f.). An awareness of narrative conventions and the application of literary analysis enable us, he shows, to eliminate what have long been considered inconsistencies or contradictions in biblical history. By ignoring these conventions, and in general by attempting to explain literally what is intended figuratively, we do not uphold the Bible’s truth claim but in fact obscure its message. De Bruijne therefore stresses once again the need for greater openness among us for the presence of narrative conventions and other figurative elements in the Bible (184f). While rejecting Loonstra’s conclusion that all biblical language is metaphorical, de Bruijne emphasizes once again that a text can have a literal as well as a metaphorical meaning. We had an example of this in his explanation of the biblical account of Christ’s resurrection (see the previous instalment). Returning to the same Bible passage, De Bruijne mentions the cloud that, according to Acts 1:9, hid Jesus from the disciples’ sight when He ascended. In the light of Long’s criteria there is no reason, he writes, to believe with Loonstra and others that the cloud may not have been literally there. We must regard it, however, as a literal element which has at the same time a metaphorical “surplus value.” The cloud was there, and by its very physical presence it symbolized the divine glory (178). De Bruijne sees a similar metaphorical message in some of the direct speech we find in Scripture. Agreeing with Halpern that the use of direct speech was an ancient-eastern narrative convention, he mentions the difficulty some Reformed believers have in accepting it as non-literal. In many instances the Bible itself, however, claims no absolute literalness for direct speech. The differences among the evangelists in their rendering of human words, and even of the words of Jesus Himself, make this clear, as do other parts of Scripture. As to the possible metaphorical “surplus value” of direct speech, De Bruijne draws attention to the words of Rahab to the two spies (Josh 2), and suggests that the narrator (that is, the Holy Spirit) used the convention here to reveal the meaning of the episode. Rahab’s speech repeated promises that God had given to Joshua with respect to the conquest of Canaan. What Rahab actually said and what is recorded is materially the same; but the specific form served to underline the specific promises given earlier. These promises required faith. Rahab’s message confirmed that God’s promises were indeed reliable (183). Summary To summarize what we have covered so far: With reference to the work of experts like Baruch Halpern and V. Philips Long, De Bruijne has argued convincingly that biblical authors were as much concerned with historical accuracy as are modern historians. Rather than considering historicity of only secondary interest, biblical historians knew that the truth of their message depended on that historicity. Texts that were clearly intended as literal and literally accurate must therefore be interpreted as such. At the same time De Bruijne has made clear that figurative elements do play an important role in historical accounts. Such elements the author has consciously incorporated in his historical narration. In various cases they form a second layer on top of the literal meaning of the text and depend on that 4

meaning. In addition, there is the matter of ancient-oriental narrative conventions. An awareness of these conventions and their nature makes it possible, De Bruijne has shown, to resolve a good many “problems” in historical accounts in the Bible. Elements that used to be labelled “discrepancies” or “errors” make perfect sense when the narrative conventions are kept in mind. This applies not only to the symbolic use of numbers, the use of dialogue and direct speech, and the use of hyperbole, but also to apparent repetitions, “gaps,” and other literary usages in narrative accounts. Another function of narrative conventions is that they allow the author to show the meaning of the events he narrates and explain them as acts of God. Questions The insights related above have been quite widely accepted as positive among De Bruijne’s Reformed colleagues. His essay on biblical history contains, however, a number of controversial elements as well. They include the following: 1. Although he rejects Halpern’s view that accounts of the supernatural are necessarily figurative, De Bruijne agrees that ancient-eastern narrative conventions allowed for the inclusion of fictive elements in historical accounts, and that we may meet this convention also in the Bible. Referring to Halpern’s idea of “white spots,” he suggests that this may apply, for example, to the book of Genesis – especially to the first 11 chapters, but to a lesser extent also to the history of the patriarchs (187-90). For these early events there were few literary sources available. Although it is possible that God revealed directly much of what happened, it is also possible, he argues, that the historian was forced to make use of popular traditions, which, as he will have realized, will have contained facts as well as fiction. It will have been necessary for him, moreover, to paint lengthy and complex periods with simple brush strokes. De Bruijne believes that in such cases the possibility of inaccuracies in the account increases. Rather than implying direct revelation, inspiration means that, here as elsewhere, the Holy Spirit led the historian’s work in such a way that the outcome gave a reliable account of the period in question. “The special guidance of the Spirit did not replace the historian’s normal craft but directed it to God’s special goal” (187). I should add here that De Bruijne later qualifies the above by stating that the sources the historian used may well have contained divine revelation to earlier believers. A case in point is Abraham. In Genesis 18 God revealed to Abraham his plans for the future. It is to be expected, De Bruijne writes, that God will have given his prophet information about his work in the past as well. On he same occasion De Bruijne also comes back on his statement that in the use of his sources the historian may have been inaccurate and made errors. He now calls that “a useless and groundless speculation.” Although such errors are theoretically possible, one can assume them only if one meets a concrete problem. General statements on the matter are speculative and should be avoided.2 (2) Another controversial element concerns De Bruijne’s proposed explanation of Genesis 6:1-4, where we read about the “sons of God” who married “daughters of men” (190-93). Although he does not want to give a definitive interpretation, he considers the possibility that the biblical author made use of well-known pagan myths according to which gods had sexual relations with human beings, and that he consciously applied these myths in an antithetical manner, namely in order to denounce them. We may have an account here, he suggests, of humankind before the flood trying to establish a connection with heaven on its own conditions – specifically by the creation of idols. The flood would then be God’s judgment on human idolatry. More about these issues, and about the discussion to which they have given rise, in the next instalment.

Page references within the text are to Woord op schrift. De Reformatie, May 31, 2003, p. 644.



F. G. Oosterhoff Clarion, v. 53 (8 October 2004), n. 21, pp. 510-513 (edited for Reformed Academic, 7 November 2009)
REACTIONS We now come to the reception of De Bruijne’s essay on biblical historiography. Various Reformed periodicals have published articles about his work, but we will concentrate on the weekly De Reformatie. On May 17, 2003, that periodical, in cooperation with the theological university in Kampen, hosted a conference at which six Reformed theologians from different church backgrounds discussed and evaluated De Bruijne’s contributions. In the morning three of these men dealt with the essay on biblical history, in the afternoon the other three discussed the one on ethics. De Reformatie subsequently published these speeches, together with De Bruijne’s introductions and responses.1 The majority of my references will be to these presentations. Is a hermeneutical overhaul necessary? The presentations suggest that one reason for the disagreements on De Bruijne’s work is one’s view of the need for comprehensive hermeneutical work by Reformed theologians. As De Bruijne points out in his introduction to the conference, the conviction that inspired his work was that this need is indeed urgent. It is more than time, he believes, for Reformed theology to deal with questions about the understanding and use of the Bible in modern times. He adds that those who do not share his conviction – who have, as he puts it, no ‘antenna’ for the hermeneutical question – will for that very reason already have reservations with respect to his essays (p. 642). The first speaker at the conference, Dr. G. van den Brink, admits that he belongs to that category.2 Attempts at a serious hermeneutical overhaul, he points out, often lead to polarisation among believers and are in any case unnecessary, since we have an excellent consensus on scriptural authority in articles 3 to 7 of the Belgic Confession. Why add to that? he asks. He himself feels at home with the remark of A.A. van Ruler that it is far more interesting and worthwhile to reflect upon the contents of Scripture than to labour on a definition of its formal nature. That, he argues, is in any event an impossible task, just as it is impossible to come with a fully satisfactory theory of biblical inspiration. The Bible is too great a book to be caught in human formulas. He is convinced, moreover, that we will never be able to protect the Reformed doctrine of biblical authority fully against the dangers coming from the Bible-critical tradition on the one hand, and fundamentalism on the other. We must of course do what we can, but the best means of guarding against negative influences from both left and right is still to be found in the confession. But if he rejects the need for Reformed theology to come with a new hermeneutics, Van den Brink believes that there is a need for a periodical reflection on hermeneutical issues – primarily as a means to stay informed about what is happening in the field. When it is seen in these terms, he heartily welcomes De Bruijne’s work, which he finds informative and helpful. Especially important, he says, is the evidence it provides about the striving for historical accuracy among biblical historians. He believes that in drawing attention to the work of experts like Baruch Halpern and V. Philips Long, and in general in insisting upon the literal-historical intention of biblical historians, De Bruijne leads Reformed theology in the right direction. He does that also by showing the potential of literary analysis and of an awareness of narrative conventions such as those of dialogue and direct speech. Fiction and myth Van den Brink questions, however, De Bruijne’s idea that ancient-eastern and biblical narrative conventions allowed for the introduction of fiction into what was presented as a literal-historical passage. 1

He believes that on this point De Bruijne follows Halpern too uncritically, and that by doing so he contradicts his own primary thesis – namely that biblical authors were careful to distinguish between fact and fiction. If they intended to introduce fiction or myth in an historical account, we may assume that they marked that very clearly. Van den Brink believes that occasionally we may be able to notice such markings, for example in the statement about the “sons of God” in Genesis 6, but even here he has his questions. Generally, he writes, he agrees with the theologian A. Noordegraaf, who urged caution “because elements like myth and saga have all too often been used to deny the factuality of the event.” Halpern’s decision to consider 1 Kings 13 to be fiction because of his disbelief in miracles teaches us to be extraordinarily critical with respect to any suggestion about the presence of myth or other forms of fiction in historical texts – unless, of course, there are explicit pointers to such a presence. A similar conclusion is reached by the German theologian A.D. Baum, a New Testament scholar who studied in Kampen.3 Baum also mentions De Bruijne’s suggestion that the practice of inserting fiction and myth may have been followed, especially in cases where sources were scarce. Questioning that assumption, he states that he knows of no historical sources from the Greek and Roman (and therefore the New Testament) period that mention such a usage. He also doubts that it existed in Old Testament times. As has been well attested, biblical historians wrote with literal-historical intent. Historicity and metaphor Although expressing doubt on the matter of fictive elements in historical accounts, Baum welcomes De Bruijne’s statements regarding the truth claim of biblical history. As to the historical books of the New Testament, his own area of expertise, he fully endorses De Bruijne’s position. New Testament historians lived in the Greco-Roman world, and the available evidence makes clear, he remarks, that a primary rule for historians in this world was to tell the literal truth. We have manuscripts from ancient historians and philosophers wherein they state this in so many words. That New Testament historians honoured the same rule is evident, for example, in the work of Luke. This author shows his close association with the prevailing practice by modelling the prologue to his books on that of contemporary secular historians and by emphasizing that he has “carefully investigated everything from the beginning” (Luke 1:3). Baum concludes that Greco-Roman and New Testament historians were inspired by the same love for truth as modern ones are. Because he is not an Old Testament scholar he hesitates to make a similarly definitive pronouncement with respect to Old Testament historiography, but he is inclined to support De Bruijne here over against Loonstra. Baum further agrees with De Bruijne that Reformed theologians should be more open to the metaphoric potential of historical texts in the Bible – for example, by noticing the possible metaphoric ”surplus value” of literal passages. The New Testament itself provides examples here. Paul interpreted the Israelites’ passing through the Red Sea as pointing to baptism and saw in the two sons of Abraham an allegory of two covenants. At no point did Paul state that the passages were intended as figurative; he simply interpreted them as such – but without denying their literal-historical truth. Something similar applies to the New Testament accounts of Jesus’ miracles. The accounts of his healings, for example, refer to what literally happened but symbolize at the same time a different event, namely the forgiveness of sins. And finally, Baum supports De Bruijne’s reference to ancient narrative conventions. One of the most striking ways in which biblical history writing differs from its modern counterpart is in its dealing with quotations and in the use it makes of direct speech. When quoting from the Old Testament, New Testament writers often do not do so literally. And the statements Jesus made at certain occasions are usually reported differently in the different gospels. The same convention, he remarks, was evidently followed in the Old Testament. In the books of Genesis up to and including Kings there are close to 100 instances where people’s statements are cited in direct speech, and in practically all cases the choice of words in the second citation differs from that of the first. By way of example, Baum suggests a comparison between Genesis 24:1-27 and Genesis 24:34-49. 2

Baum goes on to show that this usage was an accepted convention in Greco-Roman historiography, and that it was not seen as detracting in any way from the accuracy of the statements in question. Ancient historians took pains to make this clear, explaining that although their choice of words differed from the original, the meaning remained the same. In short, as Baum concludes, “The literary freedom of the ancient historian concerned only the form of the direct quotations and not their historical content. Both writers and readers…realized this.” He remarks that the convention may seem strange to us, but that at least in one respect we come close to following it. His reference is to the work of translation. A translator uses different words from those used in the original, but this in itself does not make his work unreliable. As long as it gives a correct translation of the original words in the receiving language, it is considered an accurate and legitimate rendering. Inerrancy and infallibility The last of the three speakers on biblical historiography is H.J. Room, pastor of the Reformed church at Harderwijk.4 Room, who specializes in Old Testament studies, joins Van den Brink and Baum in expressing doubts about De Bruijne’s suggestion that fiction and myths may have been inserted in what is presented as a literal historical passage. With respect to De Bruijne’s statements regarding “white spots” and broad brush strokes in Genesis 1-11, he remarks that much in these chapters is, in fact, narrated in detail and with great precision. In his opinion the differences between Genesis 1-11 and the rest of the book are not as profound as is sometimes assumed. At the same time, he expresses appreciation for De Bruijne’s initiative and emphatically rejects allegations that his work is of a Bible-critical nature. De Bruijne’s goal is, rather, to achieve a clearer understanding of the Bible’s intention and message. In the process he does not hesitate to refer to questions and issues that tend to come to the fore in discussions on biblical authority. This openness makes him vulnerable, for misunderstandings arise easily, but it does not justify the accusation of a Bible-critical attitude. Room emphasizes that he makes his presentation as part of a discussion that is being held within the legitimate boundaries of Reformed theology. It is in this context that he raises a number of questions of his own. The most important one is a methodological one: in his opinion De Bruijne approaches many of the issues he raises in too global a fashion. Much of Room’s presentation is devoted to attempts to refine the method. In this connection he also touches upon the matter of biblical inerrancy. De Bruijne spoke of possible errors and discrepancies in the Bible, and considered the possibility that these existed already in the original manuscripts and not only in the copies we now have (Woord op schrift, pp. 185-7). Room agrees with him on this point. He also believes, however, that de Bruijne could have spoken more guardedly on the topic of biblical errors. Apparent errors always occur within a context, and that context may be unclear to us. Often the problem is a lack in our understanding, as a result of which we see errors where they do not necessarily exist. He believes that in any case we should be sparing in using the word “error” when speaking about the Bible. After all, we are dealing with the Word of God. At the same time Room notices that we are confronted here with a gap in Reformed teachings about biblical authority. As far as he can see, Reformed theology has never explained the relationship between the doctrine of biblical infallibility and the possibility that the Bible contains errors. It has often rejected the fundamentalist theory of inerrantism (according to which there are no errors in the original manuscripts, only in the later copies), but without explaining how the inerrrantist position differs from that on biblical infallibility. Room concludes by suggesting that we will be wise in our reading of Scripture to pay attention to the manner in which the Lord Jesus Himself spoke about the Bible. Response In his response,5 De Bruijne gives a good deal of attention to the issue of fictive elements in accounts that are presented as historical. Criticisms on this point had reached him from more than one 3

direction, and he had already in his introduction to the conference admitted that in Woord op schrift he too readily followed Halpern on this point (644).6 De Bruijne repeats this admission in his response to the three speakers, but adds that much is still unclear. While it is not possible to state definitively that the convention existed in Old Testament times, it is equally impossible to prove that it did not exist. There are indications, also in the work of conservative scholars on ancient historiography, that may point to the contrary. Further research is necessary (739f.). De Bruijne leaves it at that. But as critics have rightly argued, such a convention, if it indeed existed, would seem to contradict de Bruijne’s principal thesis that biblical historians took great care to distinguish between fact and fiction. Another topic in his response concerns the matter of errors and discrepancies in Scripture, for example in the early chapters of Genesis (although not only there). In connection with Room’s remarks, de Bruijne admits (as he already did in his introductory speech) that he should have spoken with greater reserve. He also agrees with Room’s comments regarding the lack of consensus among Reformed theologians on the question of biblical infallibility. On the one hand, many a Reformed exegete speaks freely about possible “errors” in Scripture, but on the other we subscribe to the doctrine of biblical infallibility. It is often stated that this doctrine does not imply faultlessness. But then what does it imply? De Bruijne continues to reject, as he did in Woord op schrift, the theory that although the manuscripts we now have may contain some “errors,” the original manuscripts were faultless. That, he says, is pure speculation; and it fails to explain why God should have provided faultless original manuscripts, which got lost, and then allowed errors to appear in the manuscripts that were preserved. De Bruijne says he understands why people hold to this theory. Fearing a careless use of the Bible, they sooner adopt a forced explanation than allow questions about the trustworthiness of the scriptural text. He believes, however, that offering forced explanations is in the end counter-productive and will only aggravate the problems. It is time, he thinks, to improve our theology regarding biblical infallibility. But in the meantime we should indeed be careful in our speaking of possible “errors” in the Bible. If we continue using the word, it would be good always to speak of “apparent errors,” or “problems for which the idea of an error would seem to offer the most satisfactory solution” (752f.). The use of myth Lastly, there is the matter of the antithetical use of myth in the Bible. We have seen that de Bruijne suggests that possibility in connection with the passage in Genesis 6 about “sons of God” marrying “daughters of men.” According to this view, the passage would be interpreted not literally but metaphorically. In spite of the criticism the suggestion has aroused, De Bruijne maintains his original position. To make a critical use of myth (and in the process to negate it), he argues, is different from inserting a fictive story. In response to the concern his suggestion has aroused he does, however, introduce some qualifications. Firstly, he admits that he knows of no other convincing example in Scripture, so that the use of the convention, if it indeed existed, will have been exceptional. Secondly, he explains that the idea is not to be defended simply because ‘it could happen’ in ancient-oriental historiography. The exegesis must do justice to the biblical text. Scripture explains itself. At the same time, he adds, the text must not be isolated from its context. It is in the interaction between text and context (biblical, but also historical and cultural) that we seek to understand the text as God gave it at a specific time and place (753). De Bruijne further points out that none of the prevailing literal interpretations does justice to all aspects of the text. Earlier he had already argued that it is not uncommon among orthodox theologians dealing with this passage to rely heavily upon external context – something for which he himself has been criticized. He mentions that orthodox theologians have suggested, for example, that the ‘sons of God’ may have been angels, or else that the term may have referred to tyrants, and both explanations have been supported with reference to extra-biblical sources.7 A major difference between these suggestions and de Bruijne’s, however, remains: in the former cases the literal-historical meaning of the text was preserved, whereas in de Bruijne’s it is not. One problem with his suggestion is no doubt his use 4

of the word “myth” (see in this connection the warning by A. Noordegraaf), but another is that his proposal is once again difficult to square with his principal thesis that what is presented as literal in the Bible must be interpreted as such (although it may be shown to have a metaphorical surplus value’). In conclusion, it may well be that de Bruijne’s suggested interpretation of Genesis 6:1-4 raises as many questions as it seeks to solve. It would seem that the most we can say at this moment about the passage is, in the words of H.J. Room (p. 672), that “we do not (yet) quite understand what we are told here,” and leave it at that. In the next instalment we turn to de Bruijne’s essay on ethics.

See the issues of May 31 up to and including July 26, 2003. References to these presentations within the text will have only the page number(s) of De Reformatie.
2 1

Dr. van den Brink teaches dogmatics on behalf of the Nederlands Hervormde Kerk at the University of Leiden. His

presentation appears in De Reformatie of May 31, 2003, pp. 645-9.

For Baum’s presentation, see De Reformatie, June 7, 2003, pp. 663-9. For Boon’s comments see ibid., pp. 669-675. For De Bruijne’s response, see De Reformatie of June 28 and July 5, 2003, pp. 737-41 and 751-5 respectively. His opening speech to the historiographical discussion appears in De Reformatie of May 31, 2003, pp. 642-5.




See de Bruijne in Woord op schrift, pp. 190f., and also in Nader Bekeken, May 203, pp. 138f., where he is in discussion with Dr. H.J.J.C.J. Wilschut, Reformed pastor in Assen.



By F. G. Oosterhoff Clarion, v. 53 (22 October 2004), n. 22, pp. 543-547 (edited for Reformed Academic, 7 November 2009)

Christian ethics and the Christian lifestyle are the topics of A. L. Th. de Bruijne’s final essay in Woord op schrift. The question he seeks to answer is to what extent it is possible today to apply biblical passages containing ethical directions not literally but metaphorically. My references in what follows will be primarily to this essay, although I will give attention also to two explanatory articles which De Bruijne wrote later and which were published in the weekly De Reformatie.1 The hermeneutical question In the first instalment of this series I mentioned some of the problems people meet today when attempting to base their ethical choices on the teachings of the Bible. One of these concerns matters on which Scripture is silent, such as today’s medical ethics and other issues that are unique to modern society (forexample the use of the media, tourism, and investments).2 Another is why today we follow some of the biblical commands, but not all of them. The Bible says, for example, that we may not sell our land, take interest on money, or swear an oath; yet modern Christians do all these things. Apparently, this type of command was embedded in and conditioned by the culture within which it was given. The question that is being asked today is why this is not true of other commands as well – for example of those concerning divorce and remarriage, women in office, the observation of the Sabbath, pre-marital sex, and homosexual relations. How do we know that biblical guidelines on these matters are not also time-bound? In an explanatory article De Bruijne explains that the question how we are to base our ethical choices on the Bible is not new (Ref., p. 688). The early church already dealt with it. In our times, however, it has become more urgent, partly as a result of our openness to the outside world. Reformed people have never believed in isolating themselves from the surrounding culture but have always interacted with it. This was not too risky as long as that culture honoured a moral code that was in many respects derived from the Bible. Today, however, our society is post-christian and pluralistic, and the wind of a postmodernist relativism freely enters the church through its open windows. It is this factor that goes a long way in explaining the urgency of the hermeneutical question – a question, De Bruijne believes, that we cannot ignore if we do not want to add to the deterioration of the Christian lifestyle. A contributing factor in today’s situation is that in our ethical deliberations we have often been rationalistic and individualistic. We have tended to see the Ten Commandments, for example, as a timeless, universal legal code, which could be divorced from every historical context and interpreted quite apart from the community of believers. Focusing on the commands as timeless rules, the individual Christian could by careful logical reasoning, all by him or herself, come to the proper ethical choices (Ref., 689). This usage, De Bruijne says, has led to a reaction in our postmodern age. It is true, the spirit of individualism is still strong, but the trust in logical reasoning has greatly weakened. We have learned that human reason is never neutral, and also that demonstrative certainty generally escapes us. Reasoning gets us no further than plausibility, that is, conclusions of greater or lesser probability. Even contradictory positions are often defended by logical reasoning. Those who want to prove that the Bible forbids homosexual relations, for example, can set up a rational demonstration that many will find convincing. But those who want to prove the contrary can set up a logical discourse that seems no less persuasive to others (227f.). 1

The subjective element – specifically the belief that one’s personal desires and feelings should be considered – plays a role in this type of reasoning, even though the element is covered up. It can also play a more overt role – in the matter of homosexual relationships and in other situations, such as those concerning divorce and remarriage. De Bruijne gives an example. He writes that one of the problems a pastor meets when referring to the Bible in matters of ethics and lifestyle is that the other person explains the argument as the pastor’s subjective, personal vision. He counters it with his own vision. For example, if he has been issued a warning, based on the Bible, against a second marriage after an unjustified divorce, the answer frequently is: “That is your exegesis; my opinion is different. Why would God ask of me such an impossible way of life? When I read the Bible, I cannot see that” (Ref., 784). In short, what we experience today are an individualistic approach in the making of ethical choices, a tendency toward rationalism and legalism, and a turning away from the Christian lifestyle and the command to follow Christ. Narrative and discipleship These developments have convinced him, De Bruijne says, that in ethical matters we must learn to look at the Bible in a different manner than we have been used to. He refers in his essay to the work of yet another American theologian, namely Richard B. Hays, ethicist at Yale University. With Hays he believes that we must stop looking at Scripture as a book of rules and concepts and receive it for what in fact it is, namely the history of God’s redemptive deeds in Christ. That history comes to us in narrative form. This means that it is presented as a consciously composed story, all the way from the first chapter of Genesis to the last one of Revelation. By God’s grace we have been given a place in this story, together with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob and all the saints of the Old and New Testament. In this way we are connected to the narrative of Christ, as it is related in the New Testament. If we receive Scripture as narrative rather than as a formal discourse with timeless moral rules and concepts, its message reaches us at a deeper and more personal level. Stories have that effect. The emphasis in the biblical narrative is on God’s acts in the history of redemption, on words and events and examples by means of which He speaks to us today. This is what we need for our Christian life. For it is not a moral rule, but the story of Christ that wants to have authority over us and determine our lives as believers. We must live the history of our own lives in the light of Christ’s history. This means that the central issue in Christian ethics is discipleship, namely a following of Christ, a process wherein Christ forms us (199). When speaking of following Christ, De Bruijne does not have in mind an “imitation ethics,” as we meet it for example in the well-known rule “What Would Jesus Do.” Such an approach would deny the uniqueness of Jesus’ history and imply an ethics that is reduced to timeless rules. It would ignore the fact that it is not in abstract rules that as Christians we find our identity, but in the historical events of the life of Christ – namely those of His way of cross and resurrection. It is important to note that that identity, as the Bible teaches, has an effect on our moral thinking and knowing. It implies a renewing of our mind, as a result of which we are able “to test and approve what God’s will is – his good, pleasing and perfect will” (Rom. 12:1,2). We are enabled spiritually to discern, and to determine what really counts. The Bible speaks in this connection of our having “the mind of Christ” (1 Cor. 2:16). The Holy Spirit places upon us the stamp of Jesus’ life and history in such a way that we begin to think, experience, and apprehend in the style of Christ and in terms of His history of cross and resurrection to new creation (201, 206). Elsewhere in his essay De Bruijne shows the relevance of this discipleship ethics for the issue we referred to earlier, that of remarriage after an unjustified divorce. He does it in a discussion with his colleague B. Loonstra, who had argued that to forbid remarriage in such a situation would go counter to the biblical theme of love. De Bruijne replies that if our Christian identity is indeed formed by the story of Christ, then Christ’s way of cross and resurrection will become evident in our lives and we will not so easily say that having to stay unmarried is contrary to the totality of the biblical message. Rather, it is by 2

forgoing a second marriage in the expectation of the new creation that something becomes visible of Jesus and his work. We deny ourselves something for the sake of the kingdom (Matt. 19:12). As we read in Philippians 3:10f., we become like Christ in his death in order that we may also come to the resurrection from the dead. This choice may serve, moreover, as an example within the Christian community and so help prevent a situation wherein the way of divorce becomes an acceptable alternative among us (210f.). Metaphorical “leaps” It is through the Holy Spirit that the Christian becomes part of the biblical narrative. The believer has at the same time, however, his own story, embedded in his own time and culture and worldview, all of which are different from the biblical ones. Because of these differences, it becomes necessary to reason by analogy, or to make, as De Bruijne calls it, “metaphorical leaps”; to translate from the biblical context into our own. For the differences we encounter must not result in our ignoring certain biblical passages. We are not to cut the Bible into two parts, one of which is “time-bound” and as such irrelevant for us, while the other transcends time and is therefore applicable to all periods, cultures, and situations. In that case, the historical element in the Bible will count for us as no more than the wrapping of supra-historical truths. Once we have unpacked these truths, we can discard the wrapping. In the matter of ethics it will mean that we will try to deduce from the Bible general rules which we can then interpret apart from the historical situations wherein they originated. That approach, however, does not work. We cannot peel the historical from Scripture, for the entire Bible is steeped in its own time and culture. If we ignore this we will end up (as today’s situation shows all too clearly), by doubting the relevance and moral authority of practically everything in the Bible (200). But if we are not to cut the Bible up into two parts, neither are we to adopt in an uncritical manner all the rules and principles that come with the biblical passage in question. To do this would again imply a denial of the historical element. There are redemptive-historical differences between “then” and “now”: we are part of the same story as the believers of the Old Testament, but we are at a different point within that story, and that difference must be kept in mind (214). The switch from Sabbath to Sunday can serve as example (Ref. 689). Also instructive is the Old Testament prohibition of the taking of interest. The command fitted the economic order of the time, which was non-capitalistic, small-scale, and primarily agricultural. One borrowed only in case of poverty. Our economic order on the other hand is capitalistic, commercial, dependent on large-scale operations, often inflationary, and focused on profit. Borrowing is now primarily a tool for investment. The Bible does not ask that we reject our modern economic order in favour of that of earlier times. What it does tell us is to interpret and translate the command in present-day terms. Although we may invest our money to gain interest, we are as followers of Christ instructed to do well to the poor, both at home and abroad. Serious financial sacrifices on behalf of the needy are still being asked of us. Similarities and differences, in short, will come to the fore in a variety of ways (201, Ref. 690). The use of metaphor in ethical matters is not restricted to directions that are clearly conditioned by their historical context, such as the prohibition of taking interest. It applies, De Bruijne says, also to Bible texts that we recognize as containing a direct command, for these commands also originated within a specific historical and cultural context (212f.). He illustrates this with reference to the Decalogue. Although the Ten Words must be received as authoritative for all times, they are nevertheless coloured by the time and culture of their period. The sixth commandment, for example, tells us that we may not murder. Literally, however, this command forbids vendettas and blood-feuds, usages we no longer follow. How then can such a command direct us? It can do this because we make a connection between the situation of today and that of the biblical world and note the similarities. It is in that way that we experience the normative character of the commandment. The necessity of making a metaphorical leap 3

applies equally to other commands in the Decalogue. In addition to the sixth, De Bruijne specifically mentions the fourth and the ninth. The metaphor theory, in short, helps us realize that, in spite of redemptive-historical differences, the entire Bible is relevant for us today (205). It further shows us the need to approach the Bible not only with our analytical reason, but also, and primarily, with our imaginative understanding (200). The role of the former is not to be denied (229), but in attempting to apply biblical commands and examples we do not first of all depend on logical reasoning. Rather, we “recognize” the relevance of God’s commands for our lives in spite of the differences in time and culture. We learn that these commands are more than moral rules. They are the living words of God whereby He directs us on our way (213). Law as Torah De Bruijne refers in this connection to the work of the American ethicist J. W. McClendon, who has described how the Ten Commandments, together with other instructions in the Pentateuch, were given to the concrete community of Israel when, after the liberation from Egypt, it had to live a life of service to the Lord in the land of promise. He points out that with the word “law” we must not think first of all of abstract moral rules. The Old Testament speaks of “Torah,” a word that we can better translate not as “law,” but as “instruction” or “giving direction.” In the Torah God showed His people the way in which they had to walk in Canaan (213f.). The Ten Commandments must not be removed from the rest of the Torah, nor are they to be seen as the only moral guides. The history of the Torah has moral significance as well. The Torah is also not to be divorced from its own time and place. Its meaning was the formation of a community around the worship of the one true God in a specific phase of history and at a specific place: the land of Canaan. It is in its very concreteness that the Torah is universally valid: God is via that preliminary community of Israel on His way to His new world for all nations. The Torah shows how we have to follow God on that way. It is therefore not an arbitrary way but points to God’s coming kingdom. But the same concreteness also explains why it is not possible to apply the commandments without further ado to all other times and places. In the history of redemption there will be issues that remain the same and issues that differ. Our traditional view of the law, De Bruijne believes, also fails to do justice to the central place of Christ in the ethical life. Jesus does more than maintain and explain the Ten Commandments. He gives a new Torah, for the way to the kingdom is now no longer restricted to the people of Israel but runs via a new community, one that is composed of all the peoples of the world. Jesus as mediator opens that new way and also embodies it, and his disciples must follow him and keep his commands, his Torah. Just as the Torah of Moses assumed the community of Israel, so the Torah of Jesus assumes the context of the Christian congregation. The change from Old to New Testament does not mean that the Torah of Moses with its Decalogue is forgotten. Jesus did not come to abolish the law, but to fulfil it. But with the coming of Jesus the Torah of Moses has been given a place within a different framework (Ref. 689f.) Focal images In the realm of ethics, we saw, the Bible gives us both normative commands and normative examples. We are not to ignore any of these as “time-bound” and therefore irrelevant; but neither are we to remove them from their historical context. Taking into account that they originated in a different time and culture, we must translate them from their original context into our own. As to the ethical cases about which the Bible is altogether silent, we must attempt to find solutions that are, as far as we can ascertain, in accordance with the teachings of the Bible. To be able to do this we have to be aware, De Bruijne writes, of the overall theme and intent of Scripture. He speaks in this connection of “focal images,” that is, images which serve as lenses through which we discern the unity and central message of the Bible. Following Hays, he distinguishes in the New Testament the following focal images: community, cross, and new creation. These three “call forth for us the image that must guide our use of the New Testament in ethical choices. Together they present 4

to us…the narrative unity of the New Testament. This is the narrative of God, who forms around Christ the community of the new covenant, a community that is to follow Him on the way via the cross to a new creation” (198). Congregational ethics In our following of Christ we are led by the Holy Spirit, who rewrites our narrative by means of the biblical narrative and places us under the authority of the history of God’s salvation in Christ (203, 232). He does this within the framework of the congregation, for the Christian identity is a communal identity. We must form a communal consensus and conviction regarding our lifestyle as part of the Christian identity. The Spirit’s guidance and the congregational framework provide an answer, De Bruijne believes, to a question that inevitably arises with the metaphorical and narrative approach, namely that of arbitrariness and subjectivism. For how does one know that the choices one makes along that route are indeed valid? An analytical, rational approach seems safer, since it allows one to ground ethical conclusions on the firm foundation of timeless, universal moral rules and commands. Within a narrative approach, demonstrative proofs are much harder to come by. Dependence on the Spirit, who will lead us in the truth, is therefore essential. And instead of rational proof, which the individual can reach by his or her own individual reasoning, there is the “test” within the congregation. To have one’s life guided by the narrative of Christ, in short, is a matter of Christian practice and interaction within the community of believers. The congregation uses as guiding marks in this testing specific biblical commands and examples as well as the commonly held focal images. No less important is congregational prayer, not just as an extra by the ethical reflection but as a necessary part of that reflection (203). In this connection De Bruijne refers to 1 Corinthians 12, which speaks of the different gifts that the Spirit distributes among the members of the congregation. This network of gifts is indispensable if we are to grow as congregation in the Christian life. De Bruijne uses the following illustration of this use of the Spirit’s gifts: When a pastor speaks with a homosexual member and tries to convince him that his participation in Christ’s narrative demands a life of abstinence, then he requires the help of other members of the congregation. He needs, for example, members with the gift of compassion; he needs people with the gift of “faith,” who show with their own life that trust in God makes possible what may appear to be impossible; he needs those who can by their example and teaching show how a life of discipleship can take form and how it is rewarded in this life and in the life to come (Luke 18:30); he needs members who can “discern the spirits” and expose the dynamics in differing points of view; and so on. Ethical choices become convincing first of all because they “square” with the history told by the Bible. And this ‘squaring’ is evident not only and not in the first place on the level of our thinking, writing, and debating, but on that of the Christian life (227). The more mature the congregation is in faith and Christian life, De Bruijne believes, the better it will be able to read and apply the Bible and understand its ethical guidelines. Where the message of the Bible is not practised, believers make it difficult for themselves and for others to understand it. The proper interpretation begins with a life of discipleship. And therefore De Bruijne can say that the hermeneutical problem is essentially an ethical problem. Its resolution can never be given in a fully rational formula. It is to be found in a life of conversion within the congregation (204). Discipleship is a matter of the congregation as a whole (232). In the next and final article we turn to the reception of this essay among Reformed theologians.
1 References to the essay in Woord op schrift will appear in the text with page number only, those to articles in De Reformatie as Ref. with page number. The Reformatie articles to which I refer appear in the issues of June 14 and July 26, 2003, pp. 688-91 and 784-88 respectively.


De Reformatie, June 16, 2003, p. 688.


F. G. Oosterhoff Clarion, v. 53 (5 November 2004), n. 23, pp. 566-569 (edited for Reformed Academic, 7 November 2009)

On May 17, 2003, a conference was held where Reformed theologians of different church backgrounds discussed De Bruijne’s essays in Woord op schrift. In this concluding article I deal with the evaluation of the last of the three, namely the one on ethics. The men involved in the discussion were Prof. Dr. G. C. den Hertog, ethicist at the theological university at Apeldoorn (Christelijk Gereformeerd), Dr. J. Hoek, director of the theological college of the Gereformeerde Bond (Nederlands Hervormd), and Dr. H.J.C.C.J. Wilschut, pastor of the Gereformeerde Kerk at Assen-Zuid. The presentations by these three theologians, as well as De Bruijne’s own opening speech and his responses, were published in the weekly De Reformatie. My references in this article will be to that periodical.1 Is the Word still central? Referring to John Calvin’s accommodation theory, Den Hertog (691-6) admits that the metaphor theory as used by De Bruijne is indispensable in biblical interpretation. Also valuable in De Bruijne’s approach, he says, is the insight that Christian ethics must not be seen as a simple obeying of abstract rules, but that the entire human being is moved by the story of the Bible and its call to discipleship. Den Hertog further underlines the need for a congregational ethics. He wonders, however, if De Bruijne does not stress narrative and image at the expense of the Word and of the universal validity of God’s commands. He fears that the idea of an “image,” as called forth in us by the biblical narrative, comes in the place of God’s living Word, which always breaks through our subjective images and frees us from them. In short, it seems to him that De Bruijne makes the human process of knowing too independent from the working of the Word. The imagination, Den Hertog concludes, must be more closely tied to the Word. Narrative and normative Dr. Hoek begins by saying that as a Nederlands Hervormd ethicist, educated at the University of Leiden, he has learned much from Reformed theologians like J. Douma and W. H. Velema (pp. 713-6). He admires their faithfulness to Scripture and their simultaneous openness to the ethical challenges and questions of today. Hoek contrasts their attitude to Scripture with that of the Bible-critical theologian H. M. Kuitert, who teaches that the biblical narrative simply gives examples of the wisdom of earlier generations, which we are free to follow or not. For Kuitert, “narrative” and “normative” are mutually exclusive. On the other hand there are those who see the Bible as an ethical handbook with a specific answer to every specific question. This view is often combined with the opinion that all the prescriptions of God’s law must be literally followed unless the Bible has clearly abolished them, or unless one can legitimately assume that they were embedded in ancient-biblical culture. Commands and examples that have not been explicitly abolished but are nevertheless no longer followed (such as, for example, the prohibition of taking interest, or the foot-washing of John 13) belong to the second category and are to be explained away as conditioned by their times. This means that the Bible is only partly relevant for us today. It is here that De Bruijne’s theories of narrative, metaphor, and the role of our imaginative rationality are important. They do justice to the existence of differences in the one redemptive-historical narrative but show at the same time that the entire Bible remains relevant and puts its stamp on our lives. The biblical narrative is fully normative. Hoek’s evaluation of De Bruijne’s work is positive. 1

Danger of subjectivism Far less positive is the evaluation by Dr. Wilschut, the third speaker (717-21). Wilschut does appreciate various aspects of De Bruijne’s vision. He agrees, for example, with his protest against a rationalistic use of the Bible and with his emphasis on discipleship. The life with God does not consist in obedience to a number of rules but implies a following of Christ. He further acknowledges that obedience to God’s will requires a “translation” of the biblical data into the present-day context, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. On these points, he believes, De Bruijne is right. Wilschut’s main objection to De Bruijne’s approach is that it makes room, in his opinion, for what he calls an “uncontrollable subjectifying.” This is in large part a result of the emphasis De Bruijne places on the role of the congregation in the believers’ understanding and use of the biblical message. Wilschut quotes De Bruijne’s statement: “The life in the Spirit within the Christian congregation must become the hermeneutical key in our association with the Bible.” This suggests, he believes, that the will of God becomes clear not first of all in Scripture as such, but in the Spirit-guided interaction between Scripture and congregation. It leads De Bruijne to the statement that “Only in the inter-subjectivity of the network lies the guarding of the objectivity.” Wilschut fears that such a position contradicts the doctrine that the Bible stands over against our human ideas and critiques them. “Is our point of departure still the word of Scripture,” he asks, “or is it the impression which this word – through the Holy Spirit – makes upon the congregation?” If the latter, how can Scripture still speak for itself? Wilschut remarks that our communal and personal ethics must have the Word as external gauge and standard. He draws also attention to the fact of our sinfulness, a condition that makes it particularly dangerous to assume that the meaning of the Spirit-guided congregation is necessarily the meaning of the Spirit Himself. It is true that the discernment of God’s will is a matter of the believers together, but not even a collective judgment will guarantee that the process is objective. In the end, scriptural argumentation must be decisive. When visiting the congregation, Wilschut writes, he prefers to say “Thus says the Lord” (that is, when it is indeed justified and when discussion is no longer possible), rather than “Thus is the Spirit-guided feeling of the congregation.” Wilschut concludes that De Bruijne’s attempt to integrate a number of modern-theological insights into a Reformed framework has been unsuccessful. Response: the centrality of theWord We come to De Bruijne’s closing presentation. Den Hertog had suggested that De Bruijne makes the believers’ ethical knowing too independent of the Word. Responding to this criticism (769-73), De Bruijne remarks that there is a misunderstanding here. Instead of ignoring the Word, he sees it, with Den Hertog, as central. It comes from God, and rather than depending on our knowing, it comes before that knowing. What he wrote was not to replace the Word, but to analyse what happens when the Word directs us in our life. In trying to answer that question he did not repeat what we already know (the Word is central) but tried to find out what we did not know so well (how does this Word lead us in our making of ethical choices). To interact properly with what he wrote, one should not restrict oneself to speaking true big words about the centrality of the Word, but also say something about the manner in which we base our ethical reasoning on that Word. He further points out that he does not suggest a turning away from an ethics that stresses God’s specific commands. The Bible does present us with concrete moral rules and direct commands from God, and he is not setting a congregational ethics over against a command ethics. His intent is to place the manner in which we are accustomed to making our ethical choices within a specific framework and in that way to supplement it. But again, unlike some advocates of a congregational ethics, he does not remove from that framework the concrete moral rules and direct commands of God. These remain fully normative. 2

Subjectivism Dr. Wilschut, the last speaker, had expressed the fear that, by promoting congregational ethics, De Bruijne’s work implied an “uncontrollable subjectifying.” Wilschut preferred visiting the congregation with the message: “Thus says the Lord,” rather than with the words, “This is the feeling of the congregation.” In his response to Wilschut (784-8), De Bruijne says that he agrees with this sentiment. He too, when visiting the congregation, prefers to speak in the name of the Lord. In fact, he would never confront believers with the words: “This is the feeling of the congregation.” Whoever suggests that has missed the point. His mentioning of the role of the congregation was not intended over against the Word, but over against the increasing individualism and subjectivism in the use of the Word. He did not say, “So far we have spoken of good and evil on the basis of God’s Word, but from now on it must be done on the basis of the consensus of the congregation.” He is saying, rather, “At the moment each individual draws his personal conclusions from God’s Word regarding good and evil. Instead, we must together as congregation apply that Word in our lives. For the Bible wants to be read and applied within the community of the church.” In accusing him of subjectifying the biblical message, De Bruijne remarks, Wilschut seems to ignore the fact that a radical subjectivism exists already. There is an increasing number of issues on which individual believers have different opinions. Rather than encouraging such an individualistic and subjectivist use of the Bible, he wants to counteract it with his stress on the duty of studying the Bible together. Hence his statement, “Only in the intersubjectivity of the network lies the guarding of the objectivity.” If we leave the matter in the care of the individual conscience, we are asking for trouble. The Bible has been entrusted to the congregation. The same Spirit who speaks in the Bible lives in the congregation. Those who in dependence on the Spirit and “together with all the saints” search in the Bible for God’s meaning will necessarily have to let go of their absolutely personal view. To seek together God’s will in His Word is therefore not to endanger but to guard the objectivity. There is also the problem, De Bruijne points out, of the instances where the Bible does not give a specific word. We can think here again, by way of example, of new medical technologies. In such cases it can become especially risky to say, without further ado, “Thus says the Lord.” To do so could well mean that the pastor sells his own insight into the consequences of the Word for that Word itself. That easily becomes a sin against the third commandment – an error that has not always been avoided among us and that constitutes one of the causes of the present-day subjectivism and relativism within the church. With ethical questions that can’t be resolved with a direct word from the Bible, the danger of subjectivism and individualism is of course also greater than in other cases. And the Bible gives room for differing conclusions (Rom. 14:6). Nevertheless, the unity of the believers in their following of Christ must become clear. There must be a growing towards each other (Phil. 2:2ff., Eph. 4:14ff.). Too idealistic? De Bruijne mentions that not only Wilschut, but others as well, have suggested that he may be too idealistic in his view of the congregation and that he forgets the power of sin. He admits that this warning is to the point, but remarks that the same charge of idealism has been levied at the current approach. People have warned that to mention only the command is to forget the sinfulness and brokenness of life. But we should be careful that we do not use our sinfulness as a cover for our unwillingness to change. According to the Bible it is indeed “normal” that sin occurs in the congregation, but according to the same Bible it is also “normal” that the congregation outwardly and inwardly shows the image of Christ. We must pray for renewal and leave it up to God how and when He will hear us. The Lord does give to us according to our faith and our expectation. The use of the words “idealism” and “impossible” can imply a scepticism regarding the work of the Spirit. If we expect less than we have been promised, we also receive less. 3

Substantial agreement De Bruijne’s writings on the hermeneutical question have met with approval but have also caused a good deal of questioning and unrest in Reformed Holland. Many a theologian is concerned, and so is many a person in the pew. Why is this do? An important factor is the suspicion that De Bruijne unjustly tries to integrate, in Dr. Wilschut’s words, “modern-theological insights into a Reformed framework.” The reference here is to concepts such as “narrative,” “image” and “imaginative rationality,” as well as “metaphor” and “congregational ethics.” The first three are indeed largely of modern-theological vintage and will for that reason alone already be suspect. The other two, although they have been around longer, are also under a cloud. Whereas John Calvin was very open about the fact that he gave metaphorical explanations, later orthodox theologians have been more circumspect and have used the term far more sparingly, if at all. A major reason is that their modernist colleagues employ it as a means to downplay the historicity of Scripture. The same goes for the word narrative, which is often given the meaning of “mere fiction.” And the term congregational ethics is in the Reformed tradition tainted as well, again especially because of its abuse by liberal theology, which uses it to replace the authority of the Bible in ethical matters with that of the congregation. De Bruijne believes that these and similar concepts, in spite of the wrong use that has been made of them, can and should be reclaimed for Reformed theology. His critics, including two of the theologians whose reaction I just described, disagree. Yet there is ambivalence here, for both Den Hertog and Wilschut, while avoiding some of his terminology, appear to agree with much of the substance of De Bruijne’s views. Den Hertog admits that the metaphor theory is needed in biblical interpretation, and Wilschut, while avoiding endorsement of the term, agrees that it is necessary to “translate” the biblical message into the modern context. Both also underline De Bruijne’s criticism of a rationalistic and legalistic approach in the making of ethical choices, asserting that we are not asked to obey some abstract rules, but are called to discipleship, to a following of Christ. And finally, both condemn, at least by implication, an individualistic approach in ethical matters. Den Hertog admits the necessity of “reflecting on something like a congregational ethics,” and Wilschut, although again avoiding the term, states that the discernment of God’s will is to be done not by the isolated individual but by the believers together. There is much to be learned In spite of the critical tone, then, there is substantial agreement. It is good to note this, for I believe that De Bruijne helps us in important ways to a deeper and richer understanding of Scripture. That applies, as I showed earlier, to his work on biblical historiography. Many of the problems believers have for centuries struggled with in that area turn out to be quite capable of solution, thanks to new research on the nature of ancient historiography and of ancient narrative conventions. This research makes it possible to give definitive answers to many a question posed by Bible-critical scholars. De Bruijne’s work on ethics is of a different nature. Here the stress is not on new scholarly insights, although a number of these are indeed used. But the core of the essay is a summary of the ancient and well-known biblical message regarding the Christian life. It is the message not of a detached and legalistic obedience to rules, but of discipleship, of a following of Christ via the cross to the resurrection. That message has always been heard in Reformed churches. At every baptism, for example, the congregation prays that the baptized child may be incorporated into Christ, so that it may be buried with Him by baptism into death and raised with Him to walk in newness of life. And the life of discipleship, as Reformed theology has always stressed as well, is to be lived within the framework of the congregation, which is the body of Christ. As to the centrality of the Bible in Christian ethics, De Bruijne is essentially telling us that we must live according to the spirit of the law, rather than according to the letter. This can be risky, as his critics have rightly pointed out. It can lead to subjectivism, to an overemphasis on the differences rather 4

than the similarities in the redemptive-historical narrative, and to an under-emphasis on the continuing authority of concrete, direct biblical commands. Questions can legitimately be asked on these scores. The same applies perhaps to the use of certain terms and concepts. As De Bruijne himself admits, he has not necessarily spoken the last word on all these matters. But that his core message is fully biblical seems to me to be without doubt. In fact, as I have shown, it is implicitly admitted by some of his more prominent critics. I hope that the discussion will continue and that believers in Canada and elsewhere pay attention, listening not only to one side but to both. There is, indeed, much to be learned.
1 The presentations are in the issues of June 14, June 21, July 12, and July 26, 2003, pp. 688-96, 713-21, 769-73, and 784-88 respectively. In my references I again give page numbers only.