Calvin Seminary and the New Hermeneutic

There are apparently rumors abroad that Calvin College and especially Calvin Theological Seminary has adopted "The New Hermeneutic." That is, there are those in the Christian Reformed Church particularly who believe that Calvin Seminary has adopted principles of Biblical interpretation which deny the truth of 1 the infallible inspiration of Scripture. In a recent article in The Banner, John Stek, associate professor of Old Testament in Calvin Seminary, takes note of this. He writes:

It has come to my ears that there are rumors abroad that "the New Hermeneutic" is accepted at Calvin Theological Seminary. That rumors should be around in these confusing and anxious times is, I suppose, not surprising, however regrettable. And the mere presence of rumors could hardly be enough to evoke a public comment, much less a comment of this length. But it appears that the rumors have been given credence by persons in responsible positions in the churches so that here and there consistories are beginning to wonder if they may continue to channel financial support to the seminary, or recommend the Seminary to young men wishing to prepare for the ministry.

These are serious suspicions, to be sure, which have risen in the minds of various parts of the constituency of the Christian Reformed Church. And it is little wonder that Prof. Stek is interested in allaying these suspicions and putting these rumors to rest once and for all. The article from which the above quote is taken is intended to do that. 

In order to accomplish this, Prof. Stek reviews an article which originally appeared in The Expository Times and in which the author adopts this new hermeneutic. It is a relatively liberal presentation of this new hermeneutic, and Prof. Stek finds much in it with which he disagrees. He concludes this review with the categorical statement:

It is transparently clear that no one committed to the faith confessed in the historic Reformed creeds can work theologically out of the "New Hermeneutic."

In applying this to the situation in Calvin Seminary, he writes:

But it ought to be evident . . . that these rumors, so damaging in their effect, if they are not malicious, can only arise from confusion as to what "the New Hermeneutic" is, or from an irrational fear in the face of the many dangers, both real and imagined, which besiege the Reformed faith in our day. 

The times call for sobriety, not mindless anxiety; for brotherly confidence and concern, not harbored suspicion and distrust; for open and orderly inquiry, not irresponsible reception of rumors and wild accusations; for truth spoken in love, not falsehoods accepted with credulity.

It would be for me personally a joy if we could accept the word of Prof. Stek at face value and believe with all our heart that this assertion of his is true. How wonderful it would be if there were no evidence of this "New Hermeneutic" in Calvin Seminary; but that rather the teaching there was based upon a Hermeneutics which had as its fundamental principle the organic and infallible inspiration of the Holy Scriptures. 

And, indeed, we would be ready to accept Prof. Stek's word for it if there was no evidence which pointed to an opposite conclusion. And this is, as a matter of fact, the case. Prof. Stek, and other college and Seminary professors, have written on this question in other places. And their other writings seem to contradict what Prof. Stek says here. It is true that the most liberal views of the New Hermeneutic are probably not adopted by those who teach in the Seminary—liberal views of Hermeneutics which produce a social gospel and liberal theology. But the New Hermeneutic takes on. many different forms, not principally different from the kind of Hermeneutic so expressly repudiated by Prof. Stek in his article in The Banner. One of these hermeneutical ideas is the so-called Sitz im Lebentheory of Scripture. What this theory teaches, in brief, is that the writers of Scripture were influenced by the "situation in life" in which they found themselves and that these influences are also to be found in God's Word. For example, it was commonly believed by those who wrote the Scriptures that the earth was flat. This, we now know, was a misconception; but their incorrect understanding of the spherical shape of our planet was a misunderstanding which found its way also into their Scriptural writings. In other words, the Holy Spirit, Who inspired Scripture, did not preserve the men whom He used to record God's revelation in written form from these errors. Hence the Scriptures are not, in this sense, infallible. 

Now it is quite obvious that there is a good sense in which this whole idea of Sitz im Leben can be applied to Scripture. Surely the books of the Bible are written in such a way that they are addressed to particular circumstances which existed in the Church in the days in which Scripture was inspired. For example, Paul wrote his epistle to the Galatians to show the evil teachings of those who wanted to cling to the works of the law as a means of salvation. And the men who taught these views were hard at work in the Churches to which Paul wrote, most probably the churches Paul established in Asia Minor on his first missionary journey, to undermine the work of the apostle and to lead these churches away from the truth as it was in Christ. Furthermore, to give one more example, the parables which Jesus taught in the days of His earthly ministry were parables taken from the life of Israel as Israel lived that life while the Lord was on earth. No one would deny that these things are true. 

But this is quite different from saying that the erroneous views of people who lived during the years in which Scripture was written were incorporated into the Scriptures. This is a denial of the infallibleinspiration of Scripture. 

Yet it seems as if this is precisely what Prof. Stek wants—in spite of what he writes in his Banner article. In the Calvin Theological Journal, Vol. I, No. 2, Prof. Stek writes a review of two books which support the doctrine of creation in six days of twenty-four hours. These two books are "Creation Revealed: A Study of Genesis Chapter 1 in the Light of Modern Science" by F. A. Filby and "Studies in the Bible and Science or Christ and Creation." by H.M. Morris. Prof. Stek, in this review, expressly rejects the position these men take with respect to creation. And he does so by means of a certain Sitz im Leben hermeneutical principle. He writes:

Undoubtedly

Genesis 1

was written, not for the few, but for the many and, consequently for the "common man". But it was written for the "common man" of Israel at a given time in Israel's history. Its mode of speaking is, therefore, very much historically conditioned, and far more than the Hebrew language stands between the modem reader and

Genesis 1.

Three thousand years of human history, including many cultural revolutions of which the last is but the most radical, intervene. 

Only by a painstaking recovery of the modes of thought of ancient Israel to whom these words were first addressed can we finally resolve the question of the precise mode of speaking present in

Genesis 1.

Now it is plain that, while Prof. Stek is not prepared to say whether Genesis 1 is saga, myth, legend, poetry or whatever, he refuses to adopt a literal interpretation of this passage and refuses to accept the fact that this passage records actual historical material and gives to the Church a description of how God, in six days of 24 hours, created by the Word of His power the heavens and the earth. And he refuses to accept this because it does not take sufficiently into account the fact that "the mode of speaking" in Genesis 1 is "historically conditioned." And it fails to reckon with the fact that "many cultural revolutions of which the last is but the most radical" have intervened. This can only mean that Moses, who was used by God to write this for the Scriptures, permitted error of one sort or another to be incorporated into his narrative—error to which he himself was prone because of the times in which he lived. The Holy Spirit failed to keep error from his writing. 

Prof. B. Van Elderen, who also is professor in Calvin Seminary, does the same. In an essay in the bookJesus of Nazareth: Saviour and Lord, edited by Carl F.H. Henry, Van Elderen has an article on this whole matter of Sitz im Leben. (cf. pp. 113ff.) He distinguishes between the Sitz im Leben of Jesus in the gospel narratives and the Sitz im Leben of the authors of the gospel narratives. Concerning the Sitz im Leben of Jesus, he writes that this is almost impossible to recover although a tentative formulation may be of aid in Scriptural interpretation. 

Concerning the Sitz im Leben of the gospel authors, Van Elderen explains the differences between the four gospels as due to this. He writes:

Can the Gospels still be described as inspired writings? Most assuredly so. These were written under and through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. In other words, the Spirit of Jesus through the Evangelists is interpreting the ministry and sayings of Jesus to meet the peculiar needs that had arisen in the Church some thirty years after the resurrection. Hence, these are authoritative and trustworthy accounts and interpretations. In some cases it will be impossible to recover the ipsissima verba of Jesus, since at times these have been adapted and interpreted to meet the needs of the Sitz im Leben des Verfassers. However, it is more honest and respectful to Scripture to recognize this than to engage in dubious harmonizations which the genre of New Testament literature scarcely allows.

Although the language is careful, here already Dr. Van Elderen seems to suggest that this Sitz im Lebenallows for mistakes of one sort or another. No real harmony of the gospels is possible. And this is due to the Sitz im Leben of the authors. This can only mean that somewhere, somehow there are errors. 

This suspicion is strengthened by the fact that in a personal "confession" of his views concerning inspiration, Van Elderen omits any reference to infallible inspiration. He writes:

I consider the Bible to be the Word of God. It is in this book that I have been confronted with a call to repentance in the person and work of Jesus Christ. Through the Holy Spirit I have heard the voice of God speaking to me in the Bible. Since this book has the unique role of revealing the way of redemption in Jesus Christ, it as the Word of God, is authoritative, trustworthy, reliable—the product of the inspiring guidance of the Holy Spirit. Because of this experience of redemption revealed in this book, I accept it in faith as the Word of God (Note here that Van Elderen makes no mention of the fact that our Belgic Confession speaks of our receiving Scripture as authoritative because they carry the evidence of this in themselves and because the Spirit witnesseth of this in our hearts. Cf. Art. V.—H.H.) and recommend, defend and proclaim it as such.

Why does Van Elderen leave out of this "confession" any mention of infallible inspiration—especially because he is speaking of the authority of Scripture? It is perfectly obvious that the Scriptures cannot be accepted as authoritative because of one's subjective experience of redemption. This is subjectivism. But when one rests the authority of Scripture upon Scripture itself, as all the Reformers did, then one must rest this authority upon an infallible book. This Van Elderen refuses to do. And apparently he refuses to do this because he accepts Sitz im Leben as a hermeneutical principle.

Is it any wonder then that there are suspicions in the Church? After all, the differences between these views and the liberal, Scripture-destroying views of Bultman are only differences of degree. Basically it seems as if Stek and Van Elderen have accepted Bultman's position. 

We would be very interested in any article in which Prof. Stek would demonstrate how he avoids the "New Hermeneutic" in his article quoted above.