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"No one, with the exception of Karl Barth, ever had as many American students study under him as did Berkouwer. Among those students was R. C. Sproul."
Gerrit C. Berkouwer
"...we are obligated to deal with the accented nearness of the kingdom found in the New Testament..."
The Non-Occurrence of Prophecy)
"Yet is it not reasonable to wonder whether consistent eschatology may not have had a point after all? Years, decades, and centuries have passed since the New Testament was written." (ibid, p. 94)
"So we are face-to-face with the theme of the delay of the parousia, a theme that has been the concern of many twentieth-century scholars." (p. 65)
"...the actual course of history did not correspond to these repeated references to the nearness of the parousia." (ibid. p. 83)
"The kingdom has already come; and the believers must see, discover, and recognize that." (The Return of Christ, 87)
(On 2 Timothy 2:18)
(On the Eschaton)
By Ronald Gleason
Recently, a friend of mine sent me a clipping from the Dutch newspaper, Het Nederlands Dagblad (The Dutch Daily), which contained the obituary of Dr. G. C. Berkouwer. It is not saying too much to state that his death marks the passing of an era. No one, with the exception of Karl Barth, ever had as many American students study under him as did Berkouwer. Among those students was R. C. Sproul.
Berkouwer's works are extensive. He is probably best known for his magnum opus, the Studies in Dogmatics (Dutch: Dogmatische Studien), which has been translated into English, although he has many other articles, sermons, and speeches to his credit. It should be noted that many of the earlier translations of Berkouwer's works are very accurately and faithfully translated, while some of the later works are substantially condensed and rather poorly translated.1 In many ways, Dr. Berkouwer made significant strides in communicating Reformed theology to the world, yet in other ways it must be said that his "later" theology deviated from traditional Reformed orthodoxy.
When I was studying at the Free University of Amsterdam, I had the privilege of having a three hour audience one afternoon with Dr. Berkouwer. In that interview, he spoke of his own changes and the various developments in his theological method and I want to take the time to document them, present them to you and to comment on them briefly from a Reformed perspective.
But before I do that, I want to take a few lines to express what a gentle and warm character Dr. Berkouwer was. He made one feel comfortable in his presence and loved his students as well as studying and teaching theology. He was fluent in many languages, was well and widely read, and was very gracious to friend and foe alike. To my recollection, I only heard him preach once while I was living in Holland, but the message was God-centered and exalted Christ. He was deep enough for the greatest theological mind, yet simple enough for a child to grasp the beauty of the message he brought from Scripture.
While he did not seem to be quite as much at home in North American theology as he was with German theology, he corresponded with a number of prominent English-speaking theologians such as James Barr and Cornelius Van Til, just to mention two.
His manner of answering questions from students was gracious and intriguing, taking the time to ensure he had understood the question and then, extemporaneously, would speak on the subject in detail and at length. When he came to the point of really wanting to express himself with pin-point accuracy, he would excuse himself for his lack of ability with a particular foreign language and request to continue speaking in Dutch.
There were several influences in Berkouwer's life as well as certain key interests. Possibly and arguably his greatest influence was his own Reformed heritage. Raised on the Heidelberg Catechism, the Belgic Confession, and the Canons of Dort, when one reads Berkouwer's earlier works, one finds a deep and genuine concern for the valid place of the confessions of the Church. Those earlier works especially breathe the theological atmosphere of Scripture and confession. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of his later works.
Certain theologians affected him, too. Certainly no two influenced his thinking more than Herman Bavinck (1854-1921) and Karl Barth (1886-1968). These two theologians are different in many respects: Bavinck, a traditional Reformed theologian and Barth, neo-orthodox. Even his later works show that even though he departed from the strictly Reformed tradition, he always knew himself to be under the influence of Bavinck.
Berkouwer was always interested in the developments in Roman Catholicism, devoting several works to the subject, such as his little work, Recent Developments in Roman Catholic Thought (translated into English and still very worthwhile reading). Berkouwer was also invited to attend Vatican II as a Protestant observer.
His first important publication was his doctoral thesis in 1932 entitled, Faith and Revelation in Recent German Theology (Geloof en Openbaring in de Nieuwere Duitsche Theology). In this work Berkouwer discusses important German theologians such as Albrecht Ritschl, Wilhelm Herrmann, Ernst Troeltsch, Rudolf Otto, Karl Heim, Emil Brunner, and Karl Barth. It is interesting to read his trenchant criticism of these theologians and their theological methodologies. Of particular note are two things.
In his first book on Barth (written in 1936), Berkouwer was very critical of the very foundations of Barth's theological methodology.2 In 1954 when the Dutch edition of Berkouwer's, The Triumph of Grace in the Theology of Karl Barth, appeared there was more appreciation for Barth than criticism.3 Karl Barth's influence on the "later" Berkouwer was profound. Apart from his above mentioned work on the triumph of grace, perhaps no book points us to a more decided and calculated shift in Berkouwer's theology than the one on divine election that appeared in 1955. It is precisely here that we are able to discern a noticeable shift in Berkouwer's theological paradigm.
The second important point is Berkouwer's emphasis on the notion of "correlation," the idea that there is a co-relationship between faith and God's revelation. That is, Berkouwer posited a mutuality between faith, as a gift from God and the revelation given to man by God in Scripture. This mutuality goes something like this: Faith is directed by the Holy Spirit to the Word of God in Scripture to form and inform it. Once this happens the Word and Spirit influence faith and cause it to grow and be nourished. Then the process begins anew. So there is this continuous correspondence between the believer in the life of faith and the Word and Spirit.
Dr. W. D. Jonker, former professor of systematic theology at the University of Stellenbosch, (South Africa), wrote an article in which he reiterated that for Berkouwer's understanding of theological method, this fundamental relationship must be present.4 Hendrikus Berkhof had already noticed the important and key place which the notion of correlation occupied in Berkouwer's theology in an article in a book presented to Berkouwer on the occasion of his 25th anniversary as a professor of theology.5 Berkhof designates three "phases" of what he calls a "clear continuity" in Berkouwer's theological method.
The first phase is the complete authority of the Scripture.6 In the already cited doctoral dissertation, Berkouwer had insisted that virtually every theological problem that the recent German theologians had was firmly rooted in their letting go of the authority of Scripture.7 This was Berkouwer at his best! One can only wish that he had remained faithful to the notion of the complete authority of God's Word for all of doctrine and life.
In his "early" years, Berkouwer wrote an important book entitled, The Problem of Scriptural Criticism (Het Probleem der Schriftkritiek) that deals with the distinctives of the Reformed doctrine of Scripture and contrasts them with the subjectivism of modern critics. This book followed the lines of his doctoral dissertation and was an excellent work. Just to give you a bit of the flavor of the book I'll give you some words found on just one of the pages. This could be multiplied, but for the sake of brevity I'll practice some uncommon restraint and give you one page. He says, "The battle against the scholastic tendencies of orthodoxy was in reality a letting go of Scripture revelation," and the "self-sufficient autonomous subject" dominates the whole "modern" reflection on Scripture. In short, the loss of Scripture inevitably brings with it a loss of the Christian faith.8 One will readily see that by saying this he squarely places all "modern" or "liberal" reflection on Scripture in the category of unbelief.
The second "phase" had to do with the redemptive-historical content of the Scripture. This phase is not all that important for our purposes, but in passing it should be noted that the concern here was to take all of Scripture in its redemptive-historical content and development and to avoid moralism and moralizing sermons such as, "be a good person because Moses was a good person."9 This was a "phase" or condition in Berkouwer's theology that he never really abandoned. In fact, according to his memoirs, it was a preaching methodology that intrigued him for years.10
The third and last "phase" had to do with the "existential" drift of Scripture.11 Berkouwer was insistent that Scripture was to be taken personally and applied to life. Like Bavinck, Berkouwer was never satisfied with a mere cerebral approach to Reformed theology. There was always the compunction to know and live the Christian life.12 This is a very important part of what made Bavinck such an important and relevant theologian. For those who have never read any of Bavinck's works, I would like to suggest that you find a copy of Our Reasonable Faith and make it part of your theological library.
Berkouwer cannot be understood apart from his religious upbringing and heritage. He was raised in an orthodox Reformed home and from his youth was acquainted with the Reformed confessions used by his Church. In keeping with his understanding of the Heidelberg Catechism, Berkouwer affirmed that faith was composed of two integral parts, namely a true knowledge (head; intellect) and a firm confidence (heart). In rejecting the scholastic method, Berkouwer thought he saw in that method too great of an emphasis on the head, the intellectual at the expense of the heart.
Admittedly, Reformed theology and thinkers have this penchant for divorcing the head from the heart and life. There is the ever-present danger that theology becomes something entirely cerebral. Berkouwer vigorously opposed any such notion. Doctrine is given to us that it might be lived in our everyday lives. For this insight, we may be very thankful to Dr. Berkouwer.
Unfortunately, a decided shift took place in his thinking. The "later" Berkouwer was not the same man who wrote the dissertation in 1932. Let me just give a couple of examples of what I mean. One of the favorite words that the "later" Berkouwer used concerning Scripture was scopus. What he meant by that was the intent of Scripture. So far, so good. But a problem arose with the doctrine of infallibility. This problem was touched on in his volumes on Holy Scripture. Unfortunately, I do not have the English translation, but only the Dutch version. Therefore, the translation work will be my own and I leave it up to the interested reader to see if these quotations are even given in Rogers' English translation.
Berkouwer tells us that a doctrine of infallibility is an "impure way of relating Scripture and the certainty of faith."13 He documents his movement away from Scripture as propositional truth for us when he says, "Certainty may never be approximated by way of the postulate. Faith does not and can not rest in theoretical reflection about what in our view the character of divine revelation must be and how and in what form it must come to us to be able to guarantee its certainity."14
There is a very true sense in which Berkouwer wanted to direct our attention away from the "book" and toward the Christ it proclaims.15 His fear was that the written word would fall into "formalism and legalism."16 By directing our attention away from "the book," however, a major shift can be observed in Berkouwer's theology. Compared to his work on the problem of scriptural criticism, his volumes on Holy Scripture appear almost Neo-orthodox. That is, by referring to the scopus, he wants to see what is the "purpose" of scriptural revelation.
Rejecting the formal, causal, metaphysical, and traditionally orthodox explanation of inspiration, Berkouwer says this of Scripture: "It is the perspective of human witness."17 Anyone even vaguely acquainted with Neo-orthodoxy will recognize the language. If we take his statement a step further and ask what is the purpose, the scopus, the meaning of Scripture, Berhouwer tells us something like this: When one treats Scripture properly, it is not the "exact photographical-history" which one finds trustworthy, it is the kerygma, the gospel story that is "infalliable."18
Something similar happened in terms of his doctrine of election. As mentioned earlier, Bavinck maintained a most beautiful balance between the objective truth of Scripture and the existential living of that doctrine. In my opinion, even with his emphasis on the correlation between living Scripture and faith, Berkouwer could not maintain this same balance. He tipped the scales to the side of the subjective in his later years. Even Hendrikus Berkhof notices, in what we called the "third phase" of Berhouwer's development, a growing criticism of the Canons of Dort.
In particular, Berkhof points us to Berhouwer's criticism of the doctrine of election that is taught in the Canons.19 Berkhof rightly cites the article written by Berkhouwer as a monumental continuation of what the latter has already written in his volume on election.20 In his book on election, his criticism was directed more at the formulations of Calvin. This article in G. T. T., included criticism of Dort and of such Reformed theologians as B. B. Warfield.
I conclude and summarize by stating that Berkhower was an exceedingly important Dutch theologian who certainly played a key role in the shaping of much of Dutch (and American) theology. It is my assessment, after having read almost all of his works, that he could have left us with a better, more Reformed heritage. His debt to Karl Barth, his departure from an orthodox formulation of Scripture, and his views on God's election proved to be integral parts of his departure from traditional orthodoxy. And yet, there are still some valuable works that can be read profitably. I shall give you just a short list of them: Faith and Sanctification, Faith and Justification, The Person of Christ, Recent Developments in Roman Catholic Thought, and A Half Century of Theology.
The Rev. Ron Gleason is the pastor of Grace Presbyterian Church (P. C. A.). He studied at The Citadel, Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, The Free University of Amsterdam, and obtained his "doctorals" (Drs.) from the Theological School of the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands, and is currently a candidate for the Ph. D. at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, PA.
What do YOU think ?
Dr. Berkouwer has had a profound effect on my life beginning with my reading of his volumes on the Person and Work of Christ in 1973 at Winebrenner Theological Seminary in Findlay, Ohio. I am now reviewing his entire corpus at the age of 59 with a sense that he is for me now a theological mentor. I learned only today of his death, and believe that he is a seminal thinker, although little known. Please reply to: Rev. Steven D. Heintz email@example.com I welcome your responses.
Date: 21 Jan 2006
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