The Rationalistic Attack on Scripture (Louis Praamsma) — 4

Today we’ve got the final installment of Dr. Louis Praamsma’s article from the December 1979 issue of The Outlook (part 1 here, part 2 here, part 3 here).  Praamsma was responding to a weakening of the doctrine of Scripture in the CRC especially with men like Allen Verhey and Harry Boer.  Within five years, the exodus out of the CRC began.  Some of those who were the first ones to leave ended up at the Canadian Reformed Churches.  Now these people are watching with deep concern as history seems to be repeating itself.  One correspondent mentioned the old saying, “The price of freedom is eternal vigilance.”

Will the Canadian Reformed Churches succumb to the spirit of the age?  If the experience of the CRC is indicative, this question will be answered by what parents tolerate in the elementary and high schools, who is allowed to teach at the federational seminary, the questions that are asked of seminary students/graduates at classis exams (and how the answers are evaluated), and where children are sent for post-secondary education.


Bavinck and Machen

Must I mention more names?  Must I speak of Herman Bavinck who absorbed all the wisdom of liberal Leyden of his days and kept his faith, faith in an infallible Bible?  Must I mention Gresham Machen who absorbed all the wisdom of liberal Germany in the beginning of our century and wrestled with it until he had conquered it and then became that outstanding champion of truth?  Machen wrote, “I hold that the biblical writers, after having been prepared for their task by the providential ordering of their entire lives, received, in addition to all that, a blessed and supernatural guidance and impulsion by the Spirit of God, so that they were preserved from the errors that appear in other books and thus the resulting book, the Bible, is in all its parts the very Word  of God, completely true in what it says regarding matters of fact and completely authoritative in its commands” (The Christian Faith in the Modern World, 36-37).

The point is again that not the valiant Machen wrote those words, but that Machen, who wrestled with all the intellectual problems which then and now are brought in against inerrancy and had conquered them, wrote those words.

Must we draw the conclusion now that Augustine and Calvin, that Kuyper, Bavinck and Machen, not to mention many more, belonged to a certain kind of Reformed tradition which should be described in Dr. Boer’s words as “an unprincipled ruthless exercise that bends any desired Scripture in its foreordained meaning”?

Mind well what Dr. Boer means: he wants to tell us that those men made use of their own logical foreordination, not of that of God.

Escape from Unbelieving Rationalism

We should not draw that conclusion.  We should say that those theologians had escaped from that rationalism which wants to mould and model Scripture after a pattern of time-bound human logic.  Their eyes had been opened to the limits, the defects, often the arrogance of that human logic.  They knew that even the best-informed human scholar does not know everything.

Those “best-informed scholarly theologians” are now referred to as form-critics.  They always speak about documents which they can never produce.  They always refer to a tradition-behind-a-tradition which they construct with all the ingenuity of first-class detectives.  They are the professionals who know – know what?  Next year they will tell you which hypotheses are more probable than those of last year.

The Rationalistic Attack on Scripture (Louis Praamsma) — 2

Karl Barth, prominent twentieth-century critic of biblical inerrancy.
Karl Barth, prominent twentieth-century critic of biblical inerrancy.

Today we’re continuing our serialization of an article from the December 1979 issue of The Outlook.  Dr. Louis Praamsma was responding to Dr. Harry Boer’s attempt to marginalize biblical inerrancy so as to make room for other aberrant views.  Part 1 is here, in case you missed it.  Here’s part 2:


The Suggested Change

It seems that we now live in another climate.  A distinction is being made between infallibility and inerrancy; it is said that we certainly have an infallible Bible, which, however, contains many errors.

Dr. Harry Boer wrote a book about this topic (Above the Battle: the Bible and its Critics) which has been largely discussed by Dr. Alexander De Jong (Christ’s Church, the Bible and Me).  I need not repeat what has been said by these two able men.  I would recommend that every reader study the brochure of Dr. De Jong.

Alleged Discrepancies

In his book Dr. Boer adduces (mainly in parallel columns) some ten passages or groups of passages in which the Bible seems clearly to contradict itself with respect to specific data of circumstance, time, place, person, number, and phraseology.  As a point in case he refers (in his reply to Dr. De Jong) to the account of the death of Judas Iscariot both in Matt. 27 and Acts 1.

Apparently he is convinced of the fact that both stories cannot be true; one of them must be in error.  If the logic of Dr. Boer holds, it might even be assumed that both Matthew and Luke may have been in error; each one of them may have jotted down some rumour from the many stories circulating in the first congregations.  However, who is qualified to say what really happened?

But all this does not matter, in Dr. Boer’s view, as far as the infallibility of Scripture is concerned.  That infallibility, in his opinion, is “the massive idea of the unbreakable, ever-valid revelation of the creation, redemption, and consummation of all things in Christ.”

Echoes of Barth

It is small wonder that I, reading those things, was immediately reminded of the position of Karl Barth.

Barth, the man who with a mighty voice and great talent, once opposed the liberal theology of his days, also declared: “The prophets and apostles as such, even in their function of witnesses, even when writing down their witness, were real historical men as we are, and therefore sinful in their actions and indeed guilty of error in the spoken and written word” (Church Dogmatics I.2, 529).

Barth also once wrote: “As far as the relativity of all human words, including those of Paul, is concerned, I share the opinion of Bultmann and of all intelligent people” (Romerbrief, XXXI).

It was quite a remarkable, I am almost inclined to say, a most un-Barthian thing, to appeal to “intelligent,” i.e. critical people.

I was also reminded of something else.

A Much Older Problem

Is it only in our time, the time of refined historical methods, the time of endless hermeneutical problems, the time of an existentialistic relativism and loneliness without measure, that we are struck by “historical inaccuracies” and “discrepancies” in Holy Scripture?  We should know by now that the fight for the Bible is by and large as old as the Christian church itself.

The first adversaries of the church were not blind, even as the church fathers were not blind.

Among those early adversaries was Celsus.  He knew the Bible.  He claimed that it taught falsely that God changes His mind, that He chooses favorites among the human race, and that it is full of childish legends.  There was also Julian the Apostate.  He claimed that the Bible teemed with contradictions, obvious at first sight by a comparison between the genealogies of Jesus in Matthew and Luke.

The Rationalistic Attack on Scripture (Louis Praamsma) — 1

Dr. Louis Praamsma was the pastor of the Fruitland Christian Reformed Church, near Hamilton, Ontario.  By 1979, he was officially retired.  However, he continued to write and especially to contribute to the fight for orthodoxy in the CRC.  In the late 1970s, men such as Allen Verhey and Harry Boer were undermining biblical inerrancy and the CRC tolerated it.  It was in this context that Louis Praamsma wrote a pair of articles for The Outlook.  There he interacted with Harry Boer’s rejection of the doctrine of reprobation.  That happened in the second article published in the January 1980 issue of The Outlook.  In his first article (December 1979), he took on Boer’s attack on Scripture and specifically his accusation that the doctrine of biblical inerrancy is rationalistic.  Though our contemporary context is not exactly the same, there are some parallels and for that reason I think it’s worthwhile to revisit what Dr. Praamsma wrote on this.  This is especially because there is often correlation between an undermining or denying of biblical inerrancy and compromising on creation.  This four-part series was originally published on Yinkahdinay.  Here’s part 1:


“Rationalism” an Old Charge

Calvinism has often been accused of rationalistic tendencies, of attaching too high a value to reason and indulging too much in reasoning.  Such charges started already with Luther who accused Zwingli of rationalizing about the mystery of the Lord’s Supper, and they continued with persons who called themselves genuine Lutherans (Gnesio-Lutherans) who mercilessly attacked Calvin on the same ground, although Calvin had taken issue with Zwingli and clearly taught the mystical union with Christ at His table.  Calvin and the Calvinists have also been accused of reasoning too much in the area of predestination; the Arminians of the first hour and their most recent successors have never stopped saying that Calvin built a colossal system, starting with an eternal decree of God, and ending with consigning some of the creatures made in His image to heaven, but most of them to hell.  That system, it is said, was not founded on Scripture but a product of the logical arguments of the scholar of Geneva.

Finally, Calvin and the Calvinists have been accused of rationalistic tendencies in the area of revelation; liberal, modern, and neo-orthodox theologians have asserted time and again that Calvinists are the people of a book-religion; that they have included the living Word of God in a book with propositional truths; that they have applied all their logical acumen in order to harmonize the disconnected and discordant words of that book.  One of the last ones (to my knowledge) to make this kind of accusation has been Dr. Harry Boer, when he wrote, “We have learned that reprobation exegesis in the Reformed tradition is an unprincipled, ruthless exercise that bends any desired Scripture in its foreordained meaning” (Acts of Synod of the CRC, 1977, 678).

It is at this point that I would ask the question: rationalism – on which side?  Bending of Scripture – on which side?  And I would like to point out two things that are presently under discussion among us and are referred to as ‘problems’ nowadays, firstly that of the authority of Holy Scripture and secondly that of predestination (election and reprobation).

Historic Faithfulness to Scripture

As far as the first point of doctrine is concerned, I would stress the fact that Calvinism in general and the Christian Reformed churches in particular, thus far have been marked by their faithfulness to Scripture.  Without any hesitation the Bible was called an ‘infallible rule’ (BC article 7), and faith was considered ‘a sure knowledge,’ whereby I hold for truth all that God has revealed to us in His Word (HC QA 21).  Even more significantly, our churches owe their identity to, have been fathered and mothered by courageous men and women who seceded from larger and heterogeneous churches, because the latter were infested by eighteenth- and nineteenth-century criticism of Scripture.

One thing was certain beyond any doubt: we stood upon the solid rock of Scripture and that Scripture could not be broken.

Click here to continue to part 2.