Wednesday, 31 August 2016

What is man?

For much of modern theology, the question, “What is man?” must precede the question, “Who is God?” The approach which begins with man (’from below’) can be set against the approach which begins with God (’from above’). Berkouwer’s doctrine of man has been commended as “a middle course between conflicting theologies … achieved by a strenuous independence of mind” (these words of A. Willingdale . from a review in  The Evangelical Quarterly,  are cited on the front / inside dust cover of Berkouwer’s Man: The Image of God.
Berkouwer writes, “all sorts of theoretical knowledge does not answer the question, What is man?” (Man: The Image of God, p. 20).
He insists that “man’s nature … is not self-enclosed, and … can never be understood outside of its relation to God … The relation of man’s nature to God is not something which is added to an already complete, self-enclosed, isolated nature; it is essential and constitutive for man’s nature, and man cannot be understood apart from this relation” (pp. 22-23).
This is not an authoritarian imposition of theology upon anthropology. It is a consistent development of the faith in the living God which holds that since man has been created in the image of God, he cannot be understood properly apart from God.
It is worthy of note that D. Lyon, in his book, Christians and Sociology, describes Berkouwer’s book, Man: The Image of God  as “full of insight relevant to the sociologist” (in the list of books suggested by Lyon for “Further Reading”).
Berkouwer emphasizes that the divine revelation in creation and reconciliation does not stand over against man as a purely heteronomous factor.
Insisting that God’s sovereignty, rightly understood, forms the true foundation for human freedom, he writes, “The divine act. That possibility is not absorbed or destroyed by divine superiority, but created, called forth by it” (Divine Election, p. 46).
He describes the divine superiority as “the personal superiority of love and grace which in man’s experience is making room for him to act by not destroying his freedom” (Divine Election, p. 49).
In his book, Man: The Image of God, he discusses “Human Freedom”, emphasizing that man finds his true freedom in and through real submission to the divine sovereignty (Chapter Nine, pp. 310-348).
He stresses that any other conception of human freedom leads to man’s sovereignty and the reduction of God to an idea. He points out that the freedom of autonomous man “is not honored with this name in the New Testament, but is rather rejected and unmasked” (p. 325).
He insists that the New Testament presents freedom as “freedom in and through Christ”, pointing out that such freedom is “no … abstract concept of freedom but … freedom … in a completely relational sense” (p. 321).
Berkouwer emphasizes that man’s relation to God is inescapable so that, even in his guilt, the life of man is affected by divine grace.
A proper understanding of the relation between total corruption and common grace helps to overcome the heteronomy - autonomy dilemma.
He insists that there is “not … some last reserve in man, some untouched and untouchable ‘part’ of man which has escaped the power of sin and corruption”, emphasizing that “man through sin became wholly corrupt in his disobedience and enmity … but he still remained man” (Man: The Image of God, p. 127).
Insisting that we are not concerned here with “a simple ‘part corrupt, part not’, a simple quantitative reduction” (p. 128), he maintains that “man (does) not have the power to begin by himself any change in spiritual things” (pp. 131-132, brackets mine, emphasis original).
He holds that, even in his fallenness, man’s humanness is preserved and that fallen man cannot escape from his relation to God into an area beyond humanness and responsibility (as is implied in expressions such as demonization and dehumanization) (pp. 134-135).
He describes fallen man’s relation to God thus: “Man stands and remains standing in his human responsibility and in his human guilt over against God” (p. 135).
Discussing the significance of the Flood in Genesis, he emphasizes that “‘The continuance of life’ has its ground not in the relative nature of man’s sin but rather in the divine ‘nevertheless’, in the grace … of God” (p. 141).. He writes, “Thus (there is) total corruption, but a limited curse; but the limit of the wrath of God is never derived from a limited corruption … it is the light which shines in man’s total corruption as the light of mercy” (p. 142).
Berkouwer holds that, while the question of man must always be related to the question of God, it is by no means swallowed up by the question of God. This understanding of theological anthropology promises to overcome the heteronomy - autonomy dilemma in philosophy, the ‘from above - from below’ dilemma in theology.
His understanding of the divine - human relation is set over against erroneous uses of the concept of relation, which threaten to produce polarization.
Observing that ” … the concept of relation has often been interpreted in ways which are erroneous. It can be interpreted to mean that man exists only in relation to God, and God only in relation to man”, he insists that “such misuses of the concept may not deter us from giving due weight … to the Biblical concept of relation to God”. He emphasizes that we are not asked to choose “relation over reality”. He holds that “such a dilemma … is not at all in line with the Biblical outlook, which does not sacrifice reality to relation, but shows us reality existing as reality, full created reality, only in this relation to God” (Man: The Image of God, p. 35).
Berkouwer claims that, in theological anthropology, we are dealing “not … with an abstract idea  of man, but … actual man” (Man: The Image of God, emphasis original). He challenges all forms of idealistic anthropology to engage in self-criticism: “any search for a hidden center in man’s nature which turns from the actual man to look for the ‘real’ man must face the question whether this shift is justified” (p. 18). This challenge is directed to both humanism and existentialism. His basic challenge to both views centres on the question of evil. He insists that “we cannot escape considering evil” (p. 13, emphasis original). Commenting on the words of Jeremiah 17:9 - “The heart is deceitful above all things … “, he notes both the uniqueness (”above all things”) and the universality of man’s evil (p. 13). he then poses the question “whether such an ‘abysmal’ view of man … is not an extreme  exaggeration … but rather a genuine description of the real man … ” (p. 13, emphasis original).
Berkouwer notes the complexity of contemporary humanism’s treatment of man: “On the one hand, it is frequently critical of exaggerated optimism about man, and, on the other hand, it remains unwilling to give up the humanistic transition from the ‘actual’ man to the ‘real’ man” (Man: The Image of God, p. 14). He points out that “contemporary humanism … does not want to be identified with the earlier, naively optimistic faith in man ‘yet’ in the last analysis humanism’s outlook as regards the ‘real’ man still remains” (p. 15).
In his discussion of existentialism, Berkouwer contends that despite “the existentialist stress on evil in man” (Man: The Image of God,  p. 24), there remains  a trace of idealism in “the existentialist emphasis on human freedom” (p. 24). He maintains that “the problem of the search for the hidden center, the search for the ‘real’ man, again becomes acute” (p. 24). Berkouwer’s criticism of existentialism is that it “does not continue its concentration on man’s misery, but points to his (self-produced) salvation” (p. 25). Berkouwer holds that such an anthropology can be described as “a new form of humanism” (p. 28). Berkouwer holds that “The antithesis to a Biblical view of man lies in idealistic anthropology - even if it incorporates within itself a certain amount of realism and unmasking of man’s evil” (p. 25). His fundamental criticism of both humanism and existentialism concerns their anthropocentricism: “the essential religious aspect of man’s being is lost in a horizontal type of analysis … the way to self - knowledge is impossible to traverse with this kind of horizontal analysis, since the decisive dimension of man’s nature, his relation to God, remains outside the analysis” (p. 29, emphasis original).It is not being suggested here that all existentialist thinkers should be grouped together indiscriminately. There is a difference between religious and atheistic existentialism. There are differences within both religious existentialism and atheistic existentialism.  One only has to mention the names - Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Heidegger, Camus, Sartre and Buber - to highlight the different types of existentialism.In highlighting Berkouwer’s criticism of existentialism (chiefly directed against the philosophies of Sartre and Heidegger, pp. 28-29), we should not overlook the fact that Berkouwer himself stresses the “existential character” of the question of man (p. 18). when we seek to understand ‘man’, we are seeking to understand “ourselves” . We are involved within the entirety of our own existence (p. 18).
Berkouwer’s theological anthropology presents a demanding challenge to atheistic philosophy. It suggests that there are weighty reasons for questioning the adequacy of the atheistic anthropology. it suggests that the atheistic philosophy has difficulty in remaining within the framework of a horizontal analysis without implying questions which go beyond the scope of its own analysis.
Berkouwer’s theological anthropology questions the adequacy of the atheistic exclusion of the religious dimension from the analysis of human life. It questions the adequacy of the atheistic analysis of such questions as the origin and destiny of human life. It questions the adequacy of the atheistic treatment of questions relating to the meaning of human life.
Here, we may note the thought - provoking words of R. Brow who maintains that we can choose to give meaning to our own existence - “egotheism”: “I believe in myself, only giver of meaning” or we can find the meaning of our life in God our Creator (Religion: Origin and Ideas, p. 77).

Monday, 29 August 2016

G C Berkouwer - "a father in the faith" (1 Corinthians 4:15).

This post, written by myself, was first posted at the "Faith and Theology" blog -  For the love of God (23): Why I love G. C. Berkouwer
At a conference for Scottish students in 1975, I met two Dutch visitors, one of whom was a theological student. On the bookstall, there were some books written by the Dutch theologian G. C. Berkouwer (1903-1996).
Some of my conversations with this theological student focused on Berkouwer. After the conference, I showed the Dutch students around our capital city, Edinburgh. We visited a Christian bookshop where I bought the book Creative Minds in Contemporary Theology, which contains an article on Berkouwer (written by Lewis B. Smedes). Describing Berkouwer's contribution to contemporary theology, Smedes writes: "Berkouwer has called orthodox Reformed theology away from its love affair with metaphysics…. [H]e has called it back to its proper and humble service as hand-maid to the preaching of the gospel" (p. 96). For Berkouwer, "divine election is identical with the grace of God that was revealed in Jesus Christ … [and is] not to be confused with a notion of an arbitrary, graceless decree of a purely Sovereign Deity" (p. 74). After reading this I said, "I must read Berkouwer!"
In 1976, while visiting Canada, I bought Berkouwer's book Holy Scripture. Living out of a suitcase, I didn't have many books with me. What did I do? —I read Berkouwer. Reading became studying and writing. By the time I met him in his home in 1986, I had written a PhD thesis based on his writings. I spoke with him for one hour, but I felt like I had known him for a decade. Long before I ever laid eyes on him, I had loved him as a "father in the faith" (1 Cor. 4:15). He had helped me to praise God and to preach the gospel of grace with joyful thanksgiving.

Christian Doctrine and Christian Experience

Describing Berkouwer's theological method, L B Smedes writes, 'The truth of the Gospel ... is known and understood only within the total context of both revelation and the obedience of faith. Theology, whose task is to restate that truth, is determined in its methods and limited in its conclusions by the nature of the Gospel as it is heard and obeyed in faith' ('G C Berkouwer' in P E Hughes (ed), Creative Minds in Contemporary Theology, p.95).
Writing from this perspective in which Christian truth never ceases to be existentially challenging to his readers, Berkouwer has produced some very valuable studies in Christian doctrine.
We can illustrate this point by noting some relevant passages in his Studies in Dogmatics.
At the outset of his book, Holy Scripture, he criticizes 'an incorrect conception of theology, a conception which considers it possible to discuss Holy Scripture apart from a personal relationship of belief in it, as though that alone would constitute true "objectivity"' (pp. 9-10).
He holds that a misguided fear of subjectivism lapses into a false objectivism with the suggestion the Christian truth can be considered without direct reference to the believer's personal involvement with that truth.
He emphasizes the importance of having a proper understanding of the relationship between faith and its object: 'faith is decisively determined by the object of faith, namely, God and His Word'. He emphasizes that this 'does not ... imply that Scripture ... derives its authority from the believer's faith'. He insists that 'this idea is already rendered untenable by the very nature of faith, which rests on and trusts in the Word of God' (Holy Scripture, p. 10).
Using the word, 'relativity' to describe the correlation between faith and its object, Berkouwer distances himself from any suggestion of 'philosophical relativism'. He does not intend to call in question the authority of Scripture for theological reflection. Seeking rather to understand the true nature of that authority, he points out that his use of the idea of 'relativity ... refers simply to the relation of a thing to something other than itself' (Faith and Justification, p.9). Our theology is to be 'relative to the Word of God'. This means that we must be 'occupied in continuous and obedient listening to the Word' (Faith and Justification, p.9). A true acknowledgment of the authority of God and His Word involves us in walking in the way of Christ as our lives are lit up by the lamp and light of God's Word (Holy Scripture, pp.33-34).
Berkouwer has consistently emphasized both objectivity and subjectivity. He has stressed that faith's subjectivity and certainty is rooted in the truth of the Gospel: 'Faith involves a certain subjectivity ... a subjectivity which has meaning only as it is bound to the gospel' (Faith and Justification, p.30).
With this dual emphasis on both objectivity and subjectivity, he seeks to avoid the twin pitfalls of objectivism and subjectivism. Emphasizing that 'the authority of God's Word is not an arbitrary, external authority ... (but) a wooing and conquering authority', he points out that 'Scripture's authority does not demand blind obedience'. What it does call for is 'a subjection that spells redemption ... a subjection to Christ whereby he is never out of view ... in which acceptance occurs with joy and willingness' (Holy Scripture, pp.349-350).
Seeking to acknowledge fully both the objectivity of Biblical authority and the subjectivity of the believer's experience of that authority, Berkouwer emphasizes that his view is 'not a subjectification of authority, which might only become reality through acknowledgement.' He is seeking rather to point to 'the unique authority (which) can only be acknowledged and experienced on the way' (Holy Scripture, p.348).
By adopting this position, Berkouwer is seeking to address the problems arising from both objectivism - theology's tendency to exaggerate its own capacity to systematize divine revelation - and subjectivism - theology's tendency to forget that it must always remain under the authority of divine revelation.
While the dangers of objectivism and subjectivism are distinguishable, it must be pointed out that they are closely related. They both arise from theology's failure to recognize its own limitations. Theology is limited by Scripture. Over against objectivism - overconfidnce in our capacity to systematize divine revelation - , we must insist that theology is not permitted to systematize where Scripture does not. Over against subjectivism - overconfidence on our capacity to pass judgment on divine revelation - , we must insist that theology is not permitted to speculate where Scripture does not.
Throughout his Studies in Dogmatics, we see Berkouwer seeking to hold together the obective and subjective elements in Christian faith.
In his volume on Sin, he maintains that by trying 'to construct abstract and causal answers to this question of sin's origin', we 'have violated the very limits of objectivity'. He provides us with these words of caution: 'Whoever reflects on the origin of sin cannot engage himself in a merely theoretical dispute; rather he is engaged, intimately and personally, in ... the problem of sin's guilt' (p.14).
Commenting on the 'Nature Psalms' in his book, General Revelation, he writes, 'This understanding and seeing, and hearing, is possible only
... in the enlightening of the eyes by the salvation of God'. He points out that 'this seeing and hearing is not a projection of the believing subject,
but an actual finding and seeing and hearing!' He emphasizes that 'here nothing is 'read into', but is only an understanding of the reality of revelation' (pp.131-132).
In his book, The Providence of God, Berkouwer relates providence to both the grace of God as the object of the believer's faith and the believer's faith by which providence is subjectively experienced. Maintaining that 'in the doctrine of Providence we have a specific Christian confession exclusively possible through a true faith in Jesus Christ', he insists that 'this faith is no general, vague notion of Providence'. He emphasizes that the doctrine of providence 'has a concrete focus: "If God is for us, who is against us? He that spared not his own Son, but delivered him up for us all, how shall he not also with him freely give us all things?" (Rom. 8:31-32)'. Drawing attention to 'the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord', he offers this comment, 'There is no purer expression of the depth of man's faith in God's Providence' (pp.45, 47).
In his book, The Person of Christ, he relates christology's content and method thus: '(T)heology is not practised apart from faith, prayer and adoration ... The whole subject matter of Christology is most intimately
related to the secret of revelation ... the enlightenment of the eyes' (pp.10, 14).
In his book, The Work of Christ, he describes the purpose of christology thus: '(T)he object is not a purely theoretical knowledge but a profitable,
wholesome knowledge of the salvation of God in Jesus Christ' (p.10).
Berkouwer's work on Faith and Justification is undergirded by this foundation-principle: 'The character of faith resolves all tension between objectivity and subjectivity. For faith has significance only in its orientation to its object - the grace of God' (p. 29).
His work on Faith and Sanctification is undergirded by the same principle: 'The sanctification ... demanded is always an implicate of the
sanctification that originates in God's mercy. Hence the sanctification
of believers is never an independent area of human activity ... (W)e can speak truly of sanctification only when we have understood the exceptionally great significance of the bond between Sola-fide
and sanctification ... (T)he Sola-fide ... a confession of 'By grace alone we are saved' ... is the only sound foundation for sanctification' (pp.26, 42-43).
His work on Faith and Perseverance is based on this same foundation: 'the perseverance of the saints is not primarily a theoretical problem but a confession of faith ... a song of praise to God's faithfulness and grace' (p.14).
Berkouwer's principle for understanding justification, sanctification and perseverance may be summed up thus: 'Sola fide (faith alone) and sola gratia (grace alone) ... mean the same thing' (Faith and Justification, p.44).
Concerning the confession, ' Credo Ecclesiam' (I believe in the Church), Berkouwer, writing in his volume entitled, The Church, insists that the Church's objectivity is not subjectivized by the affirmation that 'the only framework in which the Church can be and can remain the Church of the Lord (is) the framework of faith, prayer, obedience and subjection' (p.19).
Discussing reality and symbolism in his book, The Sacraments, he writes,
'Only if we reject false dilemmas ... it will be possible to delve deeper, to discern the sovereign manner in which God stoops down to us, taking up simple earthly elements and using them for the affirmation and strengthening of our faith' (p.26).
Throughout his Studies in Dogmatics, we find that Berkouwer is deeply concerned with developing an adequate understanding of the relationship between objectivity and subjectivity. If we are to appreciate the strength of Berkouwer's theology, it is vitally important that we have a clear understanding of the centrality of this concern in all of his theological work.

Wednesday, 24 August 2016

Reality and Symbolism in the Sacraments

Discussing reality and symbolism in the sacraments, Berkouwer writes, "Only if we reject false dilemmas ... it will be possible to delve deeper, to discern the sovereign manner in which God stoops down to us, taking up simple earthly elements and using them for the affirmation and strengthening of our faith" (p. 26).