Dogmatics is Peace Service
On the website of the Theological University in Kampen we came across an essay by dr. J M Burger entitled Theological reflections on day-to-day life. It contains many of his dogmatic ideas and their backgrounds.
In this essay Burger considers the question: How can the Bible be a lamp to your feet and a light on your path? (Ps 119:105).
Because dr. Burger is our new dogmatist at the TUK, we read his story with great interest. We would like to briefly reflect here some of his thoughts.
Among the footnotes in Burger’s essay we found a reference to the booklet In the service of peace [In dienst van de vrede], written by our former dogmatist prof. J. Kamphuis on the occasion of his appointment as docent in dogmatics. In this booklet he presents his thoughts on The ecclesiastical consensus as dogmatical factor. Speech held at the transfer of the chancellery of the Theological College of the Reformed churches in the Netherlands on December 6, 1979.
We will also give a summary of this speech, limiting ourselves to chapter 3: The consensus as dogmatical factor in today’s neo-protestantism.
Some thirty-five years have passed between the two publications. What stands out? What about that consensus, and what is Dr. Burger's view of that consensus and Scriptural faith? Are the ideas in line? And is the definition of dogmatics[i] still valid, or is it due for renewal?
To gain insight, we begin with some quotes from chapter 3 of In the service of peace, and then take a look at dr. Burger’s essay. This way we hope to find some answers to our questions.
Prof. J. Kamphuis
The ecclesiastical consensus as dogmatical factor
The term ‘neo-protestantism’
Immediately we are confronted with the term neo-protestantism. What does that term mean?
Prof. Kamphuis describes it as indicating on the one hand that it seeks to be positively aligned with the Reformation of the 16th century, and on the other hand that theologically speaking it is positioned over against that same Reformation and her confession. A form of theologising has been set in motion that, though pretending to connect with the Reformed tradition, is at odds with the faith of the Reformation.
Neo-protestantism against the unity of Scripture
Prof. Kamphuis observes that neo-protestantism rejects the consensus of the Reformation that is founded on the belief in the unity of Scripture as the Word of God both explicitly and implicitly. Here lies, apart from all other dissent and contrast, a factual consensus, albeit in the negative. The biblical faith of the christian church and of the Reformation is eagerly presented and dismissed as ‘fundamentalism’. A ‘fundamentalist’ is someone who considers the Bible to be absolutely authoritative in content and in form, as a whole and in every part.
A contemporary understanding of the Bible
This is a negative consensus which is destructive and has consequences in a number of issues. Prof. Kamphuis takes his starting point in the series of lectures that was given at that time in the Theologische Etherleergang [a public radio Course] of the NCRV. In the remainder of this chapter he orientates himself on that contemporary material.
Neo-protestantism and the autonomy of history-critical research.
Neo-protestantism bases itself on the good right of autonomous history-critical bible-research. The Bible is seen as a human book, and history-critical research which is part of general human science therefore does not need to stop at any boundary. The testimony of the Holy Spirit in our hearts that the books of the Holy Scripture ‘are from God’ (Article 5 BC) ‘escapes’ not only every form of scientific registration, but can also never ‘stand in the way of pure scientific research.’ For faith in Scripture has in fact been disabled in the familiar partitioning between faith and science. Despite the awareness of the influence that can possibly be exerted by philosophical presuppositions, this cannot stop the fundamental neutralism in the method of Bible research. It is emancipated science, independent of the authority of the Word of God. That’s why that Word ‘drowns’ in that of human witnesses. This consensus of the experts brings to light who is ruling the church. Chomjakov (of the Eastern Orthodoxy) already in the 19th century told Western protestantism of his day: the infallibility of the Pope has been replaced by the infallibility of the university professors, which basically means the same thing. Thus we regard the pope and the professor as the mouth of a developed (destructive) consensus.
Dissent in the Bible
As a result we see a multitude of theological concepts within the Old and New Testaments. This leads to a plurality of confessions, which has given rise to an extensive discussion whether we can possibly speak of a ‘canon within the canon’ or of a ‘middle of the Scriptures’. It is an endless discussion with countless variations. Hence, if there is still something to be saved from the book that is called the Bible, people speak of the consensus in a basic formula: ‘Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God.’ They see in the revelation of the Bible different characteristics, perhaps modalities, each one-sided, and all together many-sided. Perhaps we should even speak of directions in the Bible, because the truth enters into humanity which contains also their untruth, so that internal contrasts arise. [so: we find truth and untruth in humanity and therefore also in those who wrote the Bible, which leaves open the possibility of untruth in the Bible].
A biblical ‘basic formula’?
So there is a ’basic formula’ of Scripture, a ‘middle’, however unknowable, since every theology takes possession of it through its own interpretation. Yet this theoretically unprovable proposition must be maintained, for there must be, somewhere, a refuge for the faith. Just as the autonomous theologian wants to have a legitimate place ‘somewhere’ in the church.
That then is the ‘harmony’ between science and faith produced by the ‘contemporary understanding of the Bible’. But it is a harmony that provides security for the theologian in and over against the church rather than security for the church over against the claims of theology. Because: craftsmanship must remain mastery. The church is at the mercy of the craftsmanship of the theologians and their consensus.
Agreement in the university creates ecclesiastical power. When ‘sola scriptura’ is given a question mark, the need for theological consensus is given an exclamation mark!
The weak canon
This consensus makes the canon of Scripture as weak as suits the theologian’s mind. On the one hand the concrete historical account of Scripture evaporates, and on the other hand the closed worldview demands its toll. What is historical is ‘filtered’, both with regard to the creation and to the future.
And the closed worldview? Angels are, for example, declared an afterthought, to say nothing about devils.
This consensus is never final, always coming into being. However it possesses great power. The congregation is at her mercy. She decides what the congregation needs to hear, what it is allowed to hear, and in what order. The resurrection ranks above the virgin birth, and while the doctrine of the creation is important it is still secondary to the doctrine of the covenant, while the creation out of nothing can continue to be a matter of dispute in the congregation.
The emergence of neo-protestant consensus
How does this consensus that is practically normative for the church arise?
This is a complicated process. The neutralism of the Bible sciences plays a decisive role. But they are of course far from neutral. ‘The views of modern man’ are quite capable of resisting. The apostle Paul may well write about the position of women in the church as he does, but when modern man’s views on life fight back the Word is deprived of its voice. Then all at once the Bible is antiquated, old-fashioned: We know better!
For many people the link-up with the progressive trend of today’s modern views is of great significance. Does a theological thesis allow an opening to the future according to current ideas? Neo-protestant theology wants a synthesis between selected elements from Scripture and the current closed worldview including the modern outlook on life.
Thus with this synthesis people are hoping for an ongoing consensus and are working in that direction. And insofar as this has been achieved, keep working on that basis with negation of unwelcome sounds.
This is strongly backed up with philosophical perspectives. Then the secularised philosophy takes the place of the rejected Scriptural faith. Ever since the Enlightenment the situation has been determined by the synthesis between ‘protestant’ theology and philosophy. The theologian is the man who brings to light the consensus of modern life and the prevailing mindset, and provides it with the necessary religious consecration.
Secular philosophy: mainstay and grave
But the price is high! For this autonomous philosophy fills the vacuum that arose because of the removal of the doctrine of Scripture being the authoritative judge. And that happened where people grant themselves the name of church!
But when revelation is crowded out, pseudo-revelation immediately pushes forward. That is the role of autonomous philosophy. But the sages, the philosophers, alternate. Theology no longer leads science as it did in the Middle Ages and during the Reformation, but conducts rearguard skirmishes. One philosophy has hardly appeared or it is relieved by the next. This is how the ecclesiastical enlightenment comes limping after the development of the humanities.
For enlightenment you can also write ‘neo-protestantism’ and think of the past centuries. ’The secular philosophy is her necessary mainstay and her equally necessary grave.’
We shall before all other things ‘in the service of peace, the peace of the church’, and for the sake of the true consensus, have to return to the faithful recognition of the authority of the one and only Scripture and the one and only doctrine of salvation!
So far prof. Kamphuis.
Dr. J. M. Burger
Theological thinking in practice
We will now listen to dr. Burger.
Dr. Burger seeks to answer the question: how can the Bible be a lamp to your feet and a light on your path? He wants to do this from the viewpoint of practical life. And that is what theology does: it reflects critically on practical life from a theological perspective.
Practical life does not appear out of the blue, hence Burger begins with the background of what we are currently doing. Is there foundational thinking, and what does the end of foundational thinking mean?
Next Burger wants to talk about the question of what hermeneutics means to him in order to further examine the relationship between revelation and experience. Finally, he says something about the bipolar model of Heitink.
1. Foundationalism and its demise
Foundationalism is a classic western theory about the way in which we theorize that has been developed and gained influence especially in modern days. This theory reveals a desire for truth and certainty. Scientific knowledge must be infallible knowledge, true knowledge. We need a solid foundation of facts to build on.
But to this solid foundation dr. Burger connects fear, the fear of Descartes, Cartesian anxiety, the fear of uncertainty. The absence of certainty would leave us with subjectivity and relativity only.
Here Burger makes a connection with christian orthodoxy, which supposedly has been forced on the defensive by foundationalism. And Burger’s question is whether in that defence christian orthodoxy has not adopted too much the weapons of foundationalism and surrendered itself too much to modernity.
How modern is reformed theology?
In opposition to the [Roman Catholic] church and the authority of the pope foundational thinking developed almost simultaneously with modernity.
‘Then it is tempting to characterize that Bible as an alternative foundation for secure and true knowledge. It is the same foundation model with a different foundation.
Just as in modernity, questions about the theory of knowledge were given much attention. Thus the doctrine of revelation was given a major place in reformed theology. The justification of the christian assurance of faith was isolated from the doctrine of salvation and given formal treatment at the beginning of dogmatics.’
How can there be absolute certainty?
‘This question was answered by making a distinction between an objective rule of knowledge (the revelation and Scripture, with inspiration as the ensuring underlying condition) and a subjective rule of knowledge (the faith, with regeneration and enlightenment of the Holy Spirit as the ensuring underlying condition). Furthermore, you sense the fear of Descartes in the background of the texts of Kuyper and Bavinck.’
But what is wrong with this?
‘The answer is that foundational thinking is doomed to failure.’
Post-modernity can be understood as a crisis, the failure of foundationalism.
What are the problems of foundationalism?
‘There is no foundation that is self-evident. (-) Also the Bible is not able to serve as the absolutely certain foundation. There are too many elements of uncertainty around the preserved text, the translation and the interpretation of the Bible that make the required absolute certainty impossible. (-) A satisfactory account of the transition from certain knowledge to the certain foundation is thus missing.’
‘Foundational thinking wrongly assumes that these certainties must be translated into an absolute theoretical certainty. It confuses a theoretical concept of absolute certainty with a practical concept of deep seated conviction.’
‘From a philosophical point of view people do not need absolute theoretical certainties. Relative certainties will do just fine. It is not true that the alternatives are either objective knowledge or subjectivism and relativism.
Theologically viewed, the anxiety of Descartes harbours a deep desire for certainty. This problem can not be solved by theoretical knowledge. It is God who must provide the solution by redeeming us.
Under the influence of foundationalism Reformed theology presents a formal statement of certainty. This does not do justice to the soteriological, the redemptive nature of the certainty of faith that relates to factual and personal motives: the content of the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Foundationaism leads to the need to stash away uncertainties because they undermine the absolute infallible nature of the foundation. This obstructs honest reflection on text-critical and hermeneutical questions. For these are the questions that undermine the desired theoretical certainty.
Honest reflection on hermeneutical questions is bound to undermine foundationalism and demonstrate its failure. They clash. This turns a discussion between supporters of foundationalism and those of a hermeneutical approach into a tiresome affair.’
‘In what was said before I distance myself from a filosophical theory on theory forming and from a theological reaction to it in reflection on Scripture and the certainty of faith. This does not mean that the Scriptures should no longer have to play an important role. It has also not been denied that certainty of faith is possible. I only distance myself from a theory about Scripture and about certainty of faith. The foundation metaphor also does not have to be given up. For it is a biblical metaphor. But I do think it is important to see that Christ is mentioned first when it comes to the foundation, and not the Bible (1 Cor 3:11).’
2. A Reformed hermeneutical approach
Dr. Burger then gives an interim report on his current position.
a. He perceives hermeneutics as reflection on understanding, whereby he regards it wider than reflection on the Bible.
b. As sinful people we need redemption. Hermeneutics is therefore part of the doctrine of soteriology. The doctrine of Scripture belongs to the means of salvation, not at the beginning of dogmatics. That’s why the question ‘What does the Bible say?’ always stands in the context of the larger question: ‘What is God’s way by which He wants to set us free from sin and renew our lives?’
c. Renewal of our lives begins with the renewal of our understanding, but salvation is much broader and yet impossible without that new understanding. So we get
- a new understanding of Scripture, those old books have a focal point and a central message: the good news of Jesus Christ.
- a new self-understanding. I see myself as a great sinner who at the same time is freed from sin, who is allowed to be in Christ, died to sin, a new creation, temple of the Holy Spirit, God’s child.
- a new world understanding. This world is not a chaos, abandoned to chance and fate, not a battleground of good and evil forces, but a creation willed by God, fallen through sin, but also destined to be redeemed.
d. This new understanding is related to the action of the triune God. To understand is, from a theological perspective, being redeemed, gaining new insight. And it is not until we share in Christ through the Holy Spirit and begin to cooperate with God that our hermeneutical competence is of use. Passivity comes first, dependence on the action of God himself.
The Father is looking for us in love and reveals himself.
The Son addresses us, is our life, dies for us and rises again for us. This is how he redeems us from sin, gives us a new identity and a new position. He frees us from self-assertion, egoism, delusion, pride, stupidity and lies that stand in the way of our insight and understanding. From there, we are allowed to know again. To share in Christ also means beginning to share in his relationship with the world and so to look with his eyes.
The Spirit leads us in the truth and lets us share in Christ. He illuminates our hearts and eyes and lets the fruit of the Spirit ripen in our lives which includes also hermeneutical virtues.
Dr. Burger continues with a few additional theses.
- Theological reflection is a form of theoretical reflection that always occurs in response to practical problems. Thinking begins in day-to-day life and we think in order to serve day-to-day life. It is therefore important to always remember what was the practical reason and what are the practical interests.
- Theological reflection is a human activity, bound to human finiteness. Out of that sinful finiteness problems arise. ’I am shaped by my nature and sin, my life, my church tradition, my current life situation. That perspective comes through in my understanding, interpreting, thinking, speaking, acting.’
- ‘It is extremely important to realize that first of all I myself need redemption. My understanding needs renewal. My view on God, my insight in the Scriptures, my self-image and my view on the world affect my understanding and reflection. This is how I find myself in the presence of Father, Son and Spirit. Love for God, communion with Christ and guidance of the Spirit are prerequisites for understanding.’
- Hermeneutical virtues are: trust, love, capacity for self-criticism, repentance, openness, honesty, loyalty and patience (Gadamer). We need to talk first about these virtues, and only then about hermeneutical competence.
Perspectives. Here dr. Burger mentions five kinds of perspectives (practical, historical, systematic, etc.), but adds in a note:
‘Incidentally, this list of perspectives and the formulation of their own nature stems from the conviction that systematic theology (dogmatics and ethics) must be fundamentally practical. The practical perspectives mentioned here differ from a practical-theological perspective that as a textbook science focuses on the actions of the church and its members.’
- He continues: ‘Every theologian from past and present has his own perspective; but also the Bible written by multiple authors contains many perspectives. Moreover, it should be taken into account that theological reflection should be done in relation to the christian faith as tradition has it, contemporary life experience, and what counts as scientific knowledge at any given time, the ecclesiastical establishment, social organisations of state, politics, law and economics, while the theologian himself should not be kept out of range.’ Dalferth).
3. The many perspectives and the one Bible
The perspectives together form one hermeneutic movement. But in practice they run together, otherwise a creative thought process will never get going. Dalferth says that theology consists of the art of combining different perspectives.
What place does the Bible then still have?
‘The Sola Scriptura is a hermeneutic illusion’, says dr. Burger. ’Seen by itself it is an abstraction that hermeneutically cannot be maintained. The ‘Sola Scriptura’ was needed over against a church that erred. The aim was to call the church back to the right path. But the development of modern Bible science shows that the Bible text by itself is insufficient to let Scripture function. What remains is a fragmented Bible and a pluralist church (Dalferth).’
Can Scripture then still be canon?
Can the Scriptures indeed be a unity that points out a clear path? Or is that impossible? Should we return to the church and tradition as guardians of the truth? But then we are back at Rome.
But Burger’s intention was to give the Bible the casting vote. The Bible is not a choir of dissonant voices, but one with a clear centre: Jesus Christ. It can therefore be given the deciding vote in theology, and be and stay canon. For now, Burger does not want to speak of the Bible as foundation, but the Bible as canon.
The Bible can be read as sola scriptura only if it is connected to the other solas: solus Christus, sola fide and sola gratia.
The realisation of letting Scripture be decisive can in no way be absolutely theoretically guaranteed. The fact that we still succeed in doing so is a gift of God’s grace. These four solas can only exist within the church as the body of Christ.
4. Bipolarity: revelation and experience
What does dr.Burger think about this, and how does he view the relationship between revelation and experience?
Heitink's model is based on two poles: God remains God and man becomes man. Doctrine and life, (-), revelation and human experience, divinity and human reality are so involved with each other that the one element cannot come into its own without the other. Dr. Burger has objections against this model because there are many more perspectives. It does not do justice to the multiplicity of perspectives and to the creative art demanded from the theologian-hermeneut in bringing these together. He also believes that the model shows too little of the intent to give Scripture the decisive place in the conversation which the Bible as canon is entitled to.
But what solution does dr. Burger see here?
Theology is not normative. The Bible is important for theology, but that does not change the situation. The canon is normative; theological science is not.
The issue in the tension between perspectives is the conflict of interpretations. People take different positions. The conflict can therefore not be resolved by appealing to a standard and also not with an appeal to authority. For a solution we depend on redemption.
This redemption is much richer than normativity. We’re dealing with reconciliation, restoration, new life. Hermeneutics is interested in much more than normativity: it is also about truth and significance. Normativity is important in questions about behaviour. Good theology is in harmony with the Bible.
Are we justified in claiming that we know something or are convinced of a particular belief?
These questions of the ethics of the faith are also normative questions. And within practical theology when it comes to proper, adequate ecclesiastical behaviour. Scripture can also in that situation be referred to as canon and norm.
But it is about more than normativity, for we are not justified by our actions but through faith alone. What matters in the faith is to be and truth. The rest will come later.
Burger shows that Dalferth, Wolterstorff, O’Donovan and Milbank each from his own perspective are trying to shape normativity. And he concludes that whoever believes in Jesus Christ is allowed to develop a personal faith perspective that makes it possible to evaluate the multitude of perspectives. And all our perspectives find themselves in the field where God as acting person is present. He saves us and leads us into the truth, and that has significance for how we deal with the multitude of perspectives.
Revelation and experience are two massive and formal concepts that raise a barren contrast. But if you look at both from the perspective of God’s working, that contrast disappears. Both concepts become more dynamic.
Revelation is not a static given. God reveals himself to us, but he does that in Christ and through the Holy Spirit. And that is how he lets the intention grow in us to follow Him in everything.
Our experience is therefore also not a static given. If the Spirit leads us into the truth, that will affect our experience (Heitink).
Therefore, Burger continues, it is important to always question something that is being presented as experience. This does not only concern the question whether that experience is consistent with the Bible. That is just the beginning. It is mainly about the question how that experience relates to the working of the Triune God. Is it his work, or is it the result of a mentality that goes against God? These questions ‘ask for wisdom, faith, matured insight, for people who are full of God’s word, of his love, of his Spirit, and who have learned to think out of God’s perspective.’
‘In the case of theology and psychology it would be my ideal to strive for integration of the two. The gospel has psychological implications, just as sin does. We must not hand these over to a non-theologically trained helper. On the contrary, in pastoral care the pastor must deal especially with those psychological implications.’
In hermeneutics is it ultimately always a matter of assessment (Gadamer). Much can then be explained rationally, but there is also always an event ‘that happens.’ It is a combination of having been struck by something, being driven into something, weighing up and deciding. This requires hermeneutical skills. The guiding beliefs in all these assessments must also originate from living in communion with Jesus Christ, led by the Spirit, nourished by God’s word. Such beliefs are formed along with and in the interpretation of the Bible, and in systematic theology taught by the Bible.
How can we by summarising find an answer to the question posed at the beginning [of dr Burger’s essay]?
It is possible, says dr. Burger, by living with God and from there also with his word. Be free in Christ. Change by renewing your mind, so to discover what God requires of you and what is good, perfect and pleasing to him. Finally, remove craftiness and every defence that is set up against the knowledge of God, and make captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ.
So far dr. Burger.
A first reaction
If you had the patience to read it all, you will already have formed an opinion. A brief answer to the questions asked at the beginning should therefore suffice.
Some 35 years passed between the two publications. What stands out?
What we notice is the huge difference between the two publications.
Where prof. Kamphuis binds himself to the authority of the Word of God, we see with this latest publication a growing detachment from it. Dr. Burger elaborates on many things, but a firm binding to the authority of Scripture is for him a matter of secondary importance. There is first of all a searching after all kinds of ill-defined things, such as the working Father, the redeeming Son who grants freedom, and the Spirit who leads into the truth. But is our knowledge of these things not exclusively drawn from Scripture?
Putting Christ and the Bible over against each other is a false dilemma. Christ is the Word. ’Being in Christ’ means to love Him and keep His commandments. And how would we know what the Father, the Son and the Spirit desire if that had not been so completely revealed to us in the Bible?
We do not detect that submission to the Scriptures with Burger. What we do observe is a searching after many human perspectives, scholarly philosophical thoughts, secular (!) and psychological perspectives. Isn't the Word ‘drowning’ in human words, and are human experiences pushing themselves to the front at the expense of God’s promises and demands?
What about that consensus; and how does Dr. Burger look at that consensus and at the faith of the Bible?
While in former days our dogmatists emphasised consensus with the scriptural faith of our predecessors, the early church and the Reformation, Burger emphasises the consensus with many theological and philosophical ideas of our post-modern times. Fixed knowledge is not possible, at best convictions. To each his own.
And yet there is that searching for a foundation, although it does not exist and although even that is a conviction.
But with all this relativising one’s personal conviction is ultimately built on sand. For even that conviction is relative and can change again with new experiences.
As prof. Kamphuis rightly sets forth: “This new philosophy is her necessary mainstay and her equally necessary grave.” He said that about the neo-protestantism of his time. But nowadays that ‘silent revolution’ is being continued in stronger measure within our own churches.
A sad conclusion!
Are the ideas still in line with each other?
No, they are diametrically opposed.
And is the definition of dogmatics (see below) still valid, or is it in need of improvement?
Our impression is that the definition of dogmatics is excellent, but that at the TUK it is no longer upheld. At least not by dr. Burger. His reflections do not lead to submission to the Holy Scriptures in order to systematically examine and reproduce the content of the doctrine of the christian church and deal with problems that surface as a result. There is much more a loosening from the established norms of Scripture and a distancing from the Confessions in order to feel oneself free to pursue new autonomous and self-willed ways.
The definition of dogmatics is not in need of renewal, but dogmatics in Kampen is. We shall have to return to the faithful acknowledgement of the authority of the one and only Scripture and the one and only doctrine of salvation.
Only then will we ‘in the service of peace’, the peace of the church, and for the sake of the right consensus again have a future and be allowed to expect a blessing.
 The title of this article is in fact a definition of ‘dogmatics’ as given by J. Kamphuis, and consistent with the definitions of his predecessors K. Schilder and L. Doekes is: Dogmatics is the science which in submission to the Holy Scriptures systematically examines and reproduces the content of the dogmas of the christian church and deals with the problems that surface in this examination.
 normativity has been defined as ‘what ought to be’. Also: the adopted norm or standard, what is expected, the pattern of behaviour.