The PostBarthian

Herman Bavinck on the Inspired Scripture’s Capacity for Errors

Herman Bavinck (source: wikipedia)

Herman Bavinck (source: wikipedia)

The Dutch Calvinists, such as Abraham Kuyper, Herman Bavinck, and G.C. Berkouwer, were not paralyzed by the mechanical theories of the Inspiration of Scriptures as their American Calvinist counterparts at old Princeton did with Inerrancy, including Charles Hodge, B.B. Warfield and A.A. Hodge.  In the following brilliant selection from Herman Bavinck's Reformed Dogmatics (4 vols.), the Inspiration of Scripture does not exclude a capacity for error.

When some theologians deduce from this dogma that Scripture is absolutely infallible in all the matters it contains, this is just as one-sided as the position of others who assume the presence of errors and mistakes in Scripture. Scripture is most certainly true but true in the sense in which Scripture itself intends to be and not in the sense we with our exact natural and historical science would impose on it. Hence before everything else, as we consider every narrative and report in Scripture, we are obligated to examine what the author, and what God through the author, intended to say by it. In general we can already say at this point--and in the abstract this is conceded by everyone--that the Bible is not a handbook for geology, physics, astronomy, geography, or history. That does not mean that Scripture does not contain various statements about them, but in each case we have to examine what the author intended to say by it, whether he really wanted to give us information pertaining to those sciences or whether he included and recorded these statements for another purpose. If in a handbook on logic a sentence is quoted (say: "Gaius is a criminal"), it is not the purpose of the author to communicate a historical fact but only to make known the logical content of that sentence. This is frequently the case in Scripture also. Psalm 14 contains the words "there is no God"; this is not the opinion of the author, however, but a pronouncement cited by him to convey to us the sentiments of a godless person. Paul often uses ad hominem arguments, but this is not to give us a lesson in logic, nor to bind us to his argumentation but only to the matter he wants to prove.

This truth must now be expanded and applied to the whole of Scripture. Readers must distinguish between absolute and relative (or economic) truth, between formal and material errors, between what the authors say and what they mean by it, between strictly (natural), scientific or historical truth and literary or poetic truth in general, between the manner in which we write history and the way the ancient Semites did it. If we carefully keep this distinction in mind [so it is said] and apply it in our criticism and exegesis of Scripture, it may very well happen that many parts of Scripture, which up until now we had viewed as history, prove upon study not to be history in our sense at all and were not so intended by the author, hence by the Holy Spirit, either. Materially, therefore, these parts may be fables, myths, sagas, legends, allegories, or poetic representations, which the author, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, took from other sources or from popular oral traditions, not to tell us that everything literally  happened in this way, but to teach us some religious or moral truth by such an illustration. This is, so they argue, probably the case with the creation story, with the story of Adam and Eve in paradise, with many narratives in the first eleven chapters of Genesis and in patriarchal history, etc. Even the authenticity of the books of the Bible may be freely examined. Even if the Pentateuch is not from Moses, and many Psalms attributed to David are not from David, and the second part of Isaiah is from another author than the first part, this does not detract from the divine inspiration and authority of Scripture. The inspiration is certain, but the authenticity is an open question. As a divine book the Bible is above all criticism, but as a human book it may, like all literature, be examined by historical-critical methods and standards.

Bavinck, Herman. Reformed Dogmatics: Prolegomena. Ed. John Bolt. Trans. John Vriend. Vol. 1. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2011. 412-13. Print.



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Posted by Wyatt

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  1. A point of clarification is required about this blog, due to some deserved criticism of this post over at:

    Hi Daniel, thank you for taking the time to read and review my blog, and to keep me honest. You are correct that this quotation is within his criticism of Modern Catholicism section, but it is not purely a summary of this modern Catholic position void of his own opinions. I’ve received similar feedback that the post confuses readers into thinking that Bavinck’s position is that which he’s criticizing. And the particular quotation I chose is confusing as well. I had intended to revise this post, but have been distracted by other things. I attempted to clarify this with a subsequent post:

    Banvinck has developed an “Organic Theory of Inspiration of Scripture” that he contrasts with a “Mechanical Theory of Inspiration” (equivocal to inerrancy). My point was to emphasize that Bavinck was on a different trajectory than Old Princeton’s Inerrancy/Mechanical theories. My point was to demonstrate that Bavinck lies between Calvin and Berkouwer, and even if he is somewhat closer to fundamentalism than I as a PB would like, it still demonstrates that the Reformed Church has not always held to Old Princeton’s Inerrancy.

    My reading may be more theological than historical, or having a tendency to read Barth into his modern forefathers. It is not my intention to claim that Bavinck was a Barth before Barth (because he was not). I decided it was easier to focus on Berkouwer than to backtrack to bavinck to prove my point:

  2. Thanks for sharing this. Brilliant!

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