Herman Ridderbos’ Redemptive History and the New Testament Scriptures

In Redemptive History and the New Testament Scriptures, Herman N. Ridderbos has presented the reader with a concise and penetrating defense and explanation of the Reformation maxim, sola Scriptura.  He evaluates and exposes the problems of deficient defenses of the canon as well as attacks upon the canon and then proposes and elucidates his own position.  Namely, Ridderbos contends that the authority of the canon lies not in the Church’s recognition of the canon, nor in the believer’s experience with it, nor even in the fact that it reveals the revelation of God.  Instead, the New Testament canon is itself the revelation of God in that it stands as the authoritative written pronouncement of the words and acts of God in Christ communicated through the divinely commissioned apostles of Christ.  As such, the canon belongs to redemptive history, to the saving acts of God in history, and therein receives its authority.

This entire discussion of the canon is precipitated by the rather astute question of why and on what basis Protestants accept and affirm the twenty-seven books of the New Testament as authoritative.  The ecclesiological presuppositions of the Catholic Church allow it to point to its own pronouncements on and recognition of the canon as its basis of authority and to subsequently conclude that “the church made the canon.”  However, with their obvious rejection of the Catholic Church, Ridderbos proceeds to outline how Reformed Protestants have arrived at their view that, in fact, “the canon made the church.”

He begins by outlining four flawed concepts of the canon.  He notes that Luther’s questioning of various books within the canon and his defining of the canon as that which “urges Christ” introduced the concept of “a canon within a canon.”  This questioning of books within the canon implied that the believer need not necessarily accept the canon in toto but rather only books within it that conformed to certain criteria (be it Luther’s or, presumably, any other), a concept that was resoundly rejected by the Reformed churches (4).  Secondly, Ridderbos highlights Zahn’s view that the canon receives its authority as the Church in any age recognizes it (5).  Thirdly, he notes Diem’s position that the canon’s authority is found in its everyday proclamation and preaching (6).  Lastly, he speaks of Kasemann’s view that the canon is verified and receives its authority in and through the believer’s experience and interaction with it (6-7).

Ridderbos’s criticism of all of these views may be summed up in the general argument that any attempt to establish the authority of the canon by any means other than the canon itself opens the door for a subjective, existentialist arbitrariness that is inherently unverifiable and deficient.  All four of these positions lead us, Ridderbos contends, to the inevitable conclusion that “the final decision as to what the church deems to be holy and unimpeachable does not reside in the biblical canon itself.  Human judgment about what is essential and central for Christian faith is the final court of appeal” (7).  On this basis, Ridderbos argues that we must look elsewhere in order to establish canonicity.

I am particularly moved by Ridderbos’s contention about the inadequacy of the above mentioned theories of canonicity.  With the benefit of thirty-eight years of hindsight since the initial publication of the first translation of this work, it may be pronounced with some confidence that the hermeneutical, ecclesiastical, and homiletical confusion that seems to be reigning in many if not most Protestant churches has born out and verified Ridderbos’s concern.  The general shift from theology to anthropology as the foundation of much modern, individualistic Protestantism, and, particularly, of much modern, Protestant interpretation of Scripture bears testimony to the fact that a view of the canon that looks to man and his experiences with, critique of, and proclamation of the canon as the basis of its authority have wreaked havoc in the church.  The theories of a canon within a canon, and, perhaps more damaging, of the canon bearing authority only insofar as it is validated by the experiences of the believer, have passed from the ivy halls to the pews.  The modern pastor and churchman realizes this and can attest to the very real danger of deficient views of canonicity.

Time and again I encounter these flawed concepts of canonicity among many who do not realize the nature and logical consequences of their own views.  Regardless of whether or not these views emanate from the studied principles and informed hypotheses of a Luther or the generally unknown yet culturally absorbent mindset and worldview of the largely biblically- illiterate laymen, the results are equally disastrous.  Thus, I cannot view Ridderbos’s criticism of these views and their potential to act as portents for existentialism and (frankly) humanism in the church dispassionately.  He is correct, and the fruit of these inadequate views is tragically obvious to all who want to see.

What is more, the seemingly wholesale, yet subconscious, acceptance of existentialistic views of the canon in many churches has made the preaching task imminently more difficult.  The preacher who accepts Ridderbos’s view of the canon is fully cognizant of the fact that he and many of his parishioners are starting from different points.  The preacher views the text as the authoritative word, whereas those who adhere to one or many of the above mentioned views see the text and its pronouncements generally in terms of how they respond to it and whether or not they choose to accept it as authoritative in their lives.  I believe that this is not a matter of mere selective hearing, but rather of the acceptance of flawed concepts of canonicity on the part of many within the Church.

Ridderbos responds to these views of the canon by proposing that the authority of the canon rests ultimately in the canon’s place in  redemptive history.  He believes that this was essentially the position of Abraham Kuyper and, indeed, the early Reformed churches as well (11-12).  He argues that the canon “represents a formal authority structure” in that it gives an “authoritative and exclusive” testimony of God’s acts in history (13).  What is more, he points to the Jewish juridical nature of the apostolate in which an apostle is imbued with legal authority to speak on behalf of another as if he actually were that other (14).  Thus, while recognizing that any attempt to establish the authority of the canon on the basis of the canon’s claims is insufficient in that this approach is necessarily circular and reflexive, he nonetheless contends that it is in the canon that we are able to establish its standing within the flow of redemptive history.  In other words, when the apostles spoke, they spoke with the authority of God.

Ridderbos argues that Christ is the canon, but that the pronouncements of the apostles speak with His authority and thereby establish the canon.  He then seeks to show that God’s authority therefore necessarily rests upon the written form of the teachings and pronouncements of the apostolate and that, in fact, the apostles themselves understood their writings to be, in this sense, canonical (15,22).  Thus, the canon itself belongs to redemptive history.

From here, Ridderbos moves on to a brief discussion of canonics proper.  The criteria for canonicity, he contends, is Christological in the sense that those who wrote did so with His authority and, juridically, in His stead (32).  He notes that the majority of the New Testament writings were recognized as authoritative very early on in the life of the Church and those which were disputed were judged in the light of those which were not (40-41).  As such, the process of canonization was not one in which the Church gave certain texts authority by their pronouncements, but rather one in which the Church formally encapsulated those texts that had been operating with authority within the Church from its inception.

Ridderbos is particularly persuasive in his arguments.  His objective is obviously to build each step of his argument as he goes.  His first step is to establish the principle that there is no viable or verifiable position on the authority of the canon that finds its origin in man’s own criteria.  Next, through his discussion of the juridical nature of the apostolate, he successfully shows that apostolic teaching is itself authoritative.  We find the evidence of apostleship, or, at least, apostolicity within the canon itself.  Thirdly, he establishes the fact that the apostles’ teaching was intended to be recorded in written form even by the apostles themselves.  Necessarily, then, these writings must be seen as authoritative in the same juridical nature as the apostle’s oral teachings.  By arguing this, Ridderbos has established a valid defense of the canon.

Of course, it can be argued that all of this falls apart if the concept of redemptive history is itself rejected.  This is the plight, as Ridderbos points out, of secular evaluations of canonicity.  From their a priori assumptions, secular canonical criticism is incapable of establishing any basis for canonicity, though such criticism serves a function in an academic and historic sense (49).  Yet, the fact remains that Ridderbos’s view of canonicity must begin with a postulate of faith in the redemptive work of God through Christ.  As such, this view will never commend itself to those who reject the notion of redemptive history.

That being said, it must be admitted, even by those who disagree with Ridderbos’s premise, that his arguments are valid if his premise is true.  If, in other words, the foundation of redemptive history can itself be laid, and the juridical nature of the apostolate confirmed, the rest seems to follow fairly well.  I personally believe that Ridderbos has done a masterful job in establishing the Christological basis of canonicity.

It might be argued that the juridical nature of the apostolate is the key here.  His argument concerning the intended written form of the apostles’ teachings is compelling, and the subsequent conclusion that the written form of the canon therefore bears the authority of God is hard to refute given the truthfulness of the other premises.  The juridical nature of the apostolate actually has great ramifications on the task of preaching.  On this basis, the preacher does not proclaim the opinions of the apostles.  He does not preach the conjectures of those who knew Christ.  Instead, he preaches the authoritative words of Christ himself.  Insofar as he proclaims “the teachings of the apostles,” he proclaims the teachings of Christ.  The importance of this fact on the entire homiletical task cannot be overestimated, for it touches on the source, manner, object, and intention of preaching itself.

Again, there would be some difficulty in arguing Ridderbos’s view with an unbeliever.  To do so would, of course, necessitate arguing Christ, for Christ is the foundation of Ridderbos’s view.  Yet, within the community of believers, his arguments can have great weight.  If one professes Christ, and if they can be shown the proper understanding of the nature of the apostolate, then proper conclusions can be drawn concerning the need for the believer to view the canon itself as authoritative.  In short, Ridderbos has established a workable theory in which a high view of the canon may be argued with effectiveness among those who accept Christ.  While his arguments will have little affect on those who do not accept Christ, they will serve as an important corrective against an existentialistic selectivity concerning the various components of the canon.

Ridderbos’s argument that the majority of the New Testament was actually accepted rather early on by the Church is a rather refreshing departure from the standard line being propagated by many other historians.  One gets the picture from these that the processes of canonization was wrought with mass confusion and disputes.  This impression is given, of course, by an incessant highlighting of the problems surrounding the disputed texts.

His discussion of tradition and his contention that the Church did not, in fact, codify the texts of the canon primarily in response to Marcion’s or anybody else’s challenging of the accepted books but rather because of the need to formally recognize what the Church largely already viewed as authoritative was compelling as well.  By doing this, Ridderbos shows that the canon is not the product of reaction but rather of intention.  This is extremely important to our view of the canon and, especially, to our preaching of the canon as well.  The preacher may know that he speaks from an intended canon with intended authority.  He may have confidence in the object of the hermeneutical task.  He may speak boldly and forthrightly on the basis of the canon’s authority.

Ridderbos next turns to his discussion of the nature of the authority of the New Testament.  He notes that historical, secular approaches to the question are deficient in that they reject any possibility of the canon bearing divine authority.  The possibilities are removed by the foundational ideologies of secularism and are, therefore, deficient.  On the other extreme, however, Ridderbos notes that a spiritualistic concept of authority exalts the Spirit’s work to the neglect of history and is equally deficient on the other end of the spectrum.  As a solution, Ridderbos contends that the answer is not found in some type of synthesis between these two approaches, but rather is to be found in “redemptive-historical categories” that will reveal the nature of New Testament authority (49-50).  Specifically, Ridderbos discusses the categories of “kerygma (proclamation of redemption), marturia (witness to redemption), and didache (teaching about redemption)” (50).  Due to the interrelatedness of these categories, I will summarize Ridderbos’s handling of all three before evaluating his position.

Kerygma refers, in a general sense, to the revealing of some truth or reality.  Ridderbos shows that the New Testament concepts of preaching, appearance, and gospel relate to the kerygmatic nature of the New Testament.  He goes on to argue that the kerygmatic nature of the New Testament has been misunderstood for some time by those who use it in an attempt to treat the gospels purely as detailed biographies.  The inevitable conflicts that arise from such an approach, resulting from its own mistaken premises, lead many to conclude on the one hand that there is virtually no reliable history in the gospels or, on the other hand, to conclude that the question of historicity is largely irrelevant (53).  This latter assumption has led to the search for the “Christ of faith” over the “Christ of history” and all of the variances that such a concept entails.

Ridderbos responds by noting that the validity of the kerygmatic proclamation necessarily rises and falls upon its historical veracity.  Furthermore, the kerygma must be seen as Scripture in that it is itself a proclamation of the redemptive-historical acts of God.  Thus, the kerygma is authoritative because it is the inspired proclamation of the apostles of the redemptive-historical events of God.

Ridderbos’s second category, marturia (witness), refers to “content of the gospel in its original, historically visible and audible form” (58).  Again, Ridderbos appeals to the juridical nature of the concept of a “witness” as somebody that speaks authoritatively in another’s stead.  He then notes the very strong concept of marturia in Luke’s writings, as well as those of John and Peter (59-60).  As such, he shows that the witnesses of the redemptive-historical events were themselves part of redemptive-history and not merely human relaters of those events.  Ridderbos then shows that the concepts of kerygma and marturia are linked in that the New Testament kerygma is the witness of the apostles and furthermore that the witness of the apostles is kerygmatic in that it is primarily preached (61, 64).  Furthermore, kerygma and marturia are related in that they both stake their validity on the historicity of the events they proclaim and reveal (68).

Ridderbos’s third category is didache, teaching.  He contends that the apostles were not only concerned with the dissemination of the events of redemptive-history, but with teaching that derived from the content and authority of their witness (69).  This does not mean, however, that there is a dichotomy between kerygma and didache.  They are, in fact, closely related.  The apostles taught on the basis of the kerygmatic content of their proclamation.  Any distinction between the two is merely formal.  Didache involves instruction.  Kerygma involves proclamation (70).

The central question surrounding the category of didache is the identification of its content.  What should we teach?  Ridderbos rightly contends that this question is primarily hermeneutical.  Through the application of hermeneutical precepts we arrive at what the apostles taught.  Then, given the redemptive-historical nature of their teachings, we teach the same (73-74).

Section two of Redemptive History and the New Testament Scriptures contains Ridderbos’s attempt to explain the nature of the authority of the New Testament in terms of redemptive-historical categories.  He handles the kerygmatic, marturian, and didactic nature of the New Testament very well.  In addition to this, his treatment of the corollary issues surrounding these categories provides him a venue in which to discuss the further implications of their place in redemptive history.

Ridderbos’s overarching contention is that the New Testament kerygma, marturia, and didache do not relate to or reveal redemptive history, but are rather themselves a part of redemptive history.  Thus, to put it simply, God, not man, stands behind the proclamation, witness, and teaching of the New Testament, though it was through man that God revealed these.  This argument is extremely important.  It matters greatly, for instance, whether or not the apostles were men giving a human testimony of the events of God in history, or whether or not that testimony is itself one of God’s works in history.  Here, as in so much of Ridderbos’s thesis, much depends upon the juridical nature of the kerygmatic proclamation, witness, and teaching.  If, in other words, the kerygma is announced juridically with God’s authority, then the proclamation bears authority.  It seems to me that Ridderbos has done an admirable job in constructing his schema of the redemptive-historical authority of the New Testament on this basis.

In addition to this, section two of the book deals with the question of history in a compelling manner.  Although Ridderbos was writing before the spectacle of the Jesus Seminar, efforts to divorce the “Jesus of history” from the “Jesus of faith” were already firmly ensconced in the tenets of dialectical theology and neo-orthodox ideologies.  As such, this discussion of history is more than pertinent.  What is more, the questions being raised by a seemingly unfettered glorification of experience over propositional truth bring these questions to the forefront again.

In all of these instances, the question of the historical veracity of the content of the New Testament proclamation is paramount.  In so many words, Ridderbos is saying that the kerygmatic and didactic proclamations lose all weight and force if severed from the truthfulness of their content.  His observation is timeless and may arguably be called “ground-zero” for many of the battles being waged over the Bible today.

I believe that Ridderbos has hit the proverbial nail on the head.  His arguments provide us with a valuable critique of those arguments which contend that we may yet derive hope from a resurrection that may or may not have happened, put our trust in a Jesus that may or may not have lived, and frame our personal and corporate ethical systems around teachings that derive from events that may or may not be true communicated through the mouths of disciples who may or may not be deluding us.  What is more, the reality of the crumbling ethical systems of many in our churches that knowingly or unknowingly accept an agnosticism concerning the historicity of the New Testament events bears elucidating testimony to this view’s insufficiency and, frankly, supposed value as well.  Ridderbos is absolutely correct in his indicting assessment of those who would remove the anchor from these redemptive-historical categories.

All of this bears, of course, heavily upon the preaching task.  It seems that the primary homiletical point to be gained from Ridderbos’s discussion of redemptive history and the new testament is one of confidence and authority.  Namely, on what basis can the preacher trust the New Testament and on what basis can he venture to speak with authority?

According to Ridderbos, the modern preacher may speak with authority because he proclaims a New Testament kerygma that is itself part of redemptive history.  It bears authority because it is a divinely intended function of the redeemed.  The modern preacher may speak with authority because the redemptive historical marturia is true, historical, and itself authoritative.  The modern preacher may teach with authority because the redemptive historical New Testament didache emanates from apostles bearing juridical authority in their teaching.

Thus, it can be argued that Ridderbos’s argument for the redemptive historical basis of New Testament authority is not only thoughtful, erudite, and logically coherent, but that it also avoids the dangers of existentialistically and humanistically originated concepts of authority.  His arguments appeal to the scriptures themselves yet manage to avoid the snare of reflexivity and circularity in reasoning.  In its most basic form, Ridderbos’s argument depends ultimately upon the presence of God, His working in human history, and the human postulate of faith in these realities.

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