Sunday, 29 May 2016

Some interesting themes in Berkouwer's theology

In my work on Berkouwer, I focused on "the problem of polarization." Here are a few of the themes that have interested me.
(a) "his relation to Barth"
This is interesting. There are many people who don't know that much about Berkouwer. They tend to associate him with Barth because he wrote a book on Barth. This is a mistaken impression of Berkouwer. His book on Barth is a penetrating and insightful critique of Barth. Berkouwer is critical of the doctrine of election associated with Reformed scholasticism. He does not , however, replace it with the approach to election, taught by Barth.
* Writing about Berkouwer's relation to Barth can have the effect that it perpetuates the idea that Berkouwer is closely associated with Barth. Those who aren't enthusiastic about Barth's theology (even if they don't really know that much about him - except through hearsay) are not likely to read much about Berkouwer if they see his name being associated with Barth.
* Those who are so wrapped up in Barth studies may not take notice of work that concentrates more on Berkouwer rather than Barth. If they don't read very closely what's written about Berkouwer, they may continue to associate him with Barth.
* I'd love Berkouwer to get more attention for his own work and not simply as an interpreter of Barth. I think, however, that Berkouwer has received so little attention that work on him might be hardly noticed if it wasn't also work on Barth.
* Berkouwer's book on Barth ("The Triumph of Grace in the Theology of Karl Barth") is, in my view, an excellent book, Berkouwer's main work is "Studies in Dogmatics." The question is - Do we say, 'Forget about Barth and concentrate on Berkouwer'? or Do we take the approach that helps people to find their way to the "Studies in Dogmatics" by way of "The Triumph of Grace ... "? This second approach may attract some but it will alienate others who have been warned to avoid Barth.
(b) "his understanding of Scripture"
Berkouwer has been written off by people, who emphasize the adjective "conservative" in the label, "conservative evangelical." Very often, their negative comments seem to me to show very little understanding of Berkouwer. Even those who are, after many years, beginning to break out of a "Warfield" dominated outlook, find it difficult to go as far as saying that they share Berkouwer's view. One recent writer, while distancing himself from Warfield, has concentrated his discussion on Bavinck and Orr. I appealed to him, before publication, to give closer consideration to Berkouwer - not least because Berkouwer is much more recent than Bavinck and Orr. There is a tendency to associate Berkouwer with Rogers and McKim. While I can't say that I know a great deal about them (especially McKim) I'm not sure how helpful it is to associate Berkouwer too closely with them. Rogers translated Berkouwer's "Holy Scripture." He has also written appreciatively of Berkouwer in his book, "Confessions of a Conservative Evangelical." While these facts are significant, I think that we should take care not to associate Berkouwer too directly with the theological journey taken by Rogers in the decades that have followed his doctoral work, which was done under Berkouwer's supervision.
At the time when I was doing my PhD work, I came across the book, "Biblical Authority", which was edited by Rogers. It was a response to Harold Lindsell's book, "The Battle for the Bible." I felt that Berkouwer's work was extremely relevant to this debate. I've written a fair bit about this in my own book. I think that Berkouwer's perspective, while it may be more common now than it seemed (to me) to be back in the 1970s, is still relevant. It helps us to break free from extreme conservatism without rushing into careless liberalism. I think that his voice still needs to be heard today - not least because I'm not sure that it's really been heard all that much. One really doesn't see much reference to Berkouwer in theological books. When he is mentioned, it tends to be a conservative criticism, which doesn't show much understanding of his writings, a reference to his work on Barth which doesn't engage with his argument, or a footnote referring to one of his books because it's on the theme under consideration. In other words, I don't get the impression that many theologians have actually read that much of Berkouwer's writings.
(c) A subject, which could engage with contemporary debate, concerns the way in which Berkouwer has an existential emphasis without being an existentialist. He emphasizes that the Gospel is relevant to the entirety of our existence, but he doesn't suggest that we should follow Bultmann's demythologizing approach to understanding the Gospel. I think that this is an important distinction.
(d) In his book, "The Return of Christ", Berkouwer distinguishes between concentration and reduction. He is not a slave to literalism, but he does not de-historicize the Gospel, leaving us with no future hope. This is very relevant. Some are caught up in eschatological speculation. Berkouwer challenges them to come back to the present day. Others have got bogged down in this world. Berkouwer says to them, "There is something more than this world."
(e) The relevance of Berkouwer's work to apologetics, especially his comments in "A Half Century of Theology", is interesting. It has been said, by Bruce Demarest, that Berkouwer skilfully threads his way between "mindless fideism and faithless rationalism." It has been pointed out that Berkouwer's thought is similar to that of Blaise Pascal - "The heart has its reasons ... " The relationship between theology and philosophy is related to this. Berkouwer's work shouldn't be dismisssed as unphilosophical. I think that he challenges philosophers to have an approach which takes more account of the whole person rather than being too heavily academic.
(f) I'm not really that interested in questions like "How much continuity is there between Berkouwer and Bavinck?" or "Is Berkouwer's view of divine election in line with the teaching of the Westminster Confession of Faith?" I'm much more interested in whether I can hear, in Berkouwer's work, an authentic echo of the voice of Holy Scripture.
(e) Berkouwer's approach to ecumenism is very interesting. Discussion of this subject is centred on his book on "The Second Vatican Council and the New Catholicism." In one sense, this is historical - but it is concerned with events from Berkouwer's own lifetime rather than with figures from a more distant past. While that book is, in a sense, a commentary on a particular event from the 1960s, it opens up systematic issues with which we continue to wrestle in the 21st century. Berkouwer's book, "The Church" is also very relevant to the ecumenical discussion. The extent to which Berkouwer's work on "The Church" is relevant to our day is an interesting question. I think that there are plenty of seeds in Berkouwer's work which could be very helpfully drawn out and applied to our present situation.

Berkouwer and Barth : The Character of Certainty

Certainty is concerned with knowing and is, therefore, closely related to truth. One can only know when the truth has been made known to one.

For Barth, God’s “Yes” is the all-important decision (Berkouwer, The Triumph of Grace in the Theology of Karl Barth (TG), pp. 30. 33). God’s gracious affirmation of sinful man is precisely the content of the doctrine of election. This understanding of election leads him to adopt the highly speculative concept of the ontological impossibility of unbelief (Berkouwer, TG, p. 266, citing Kirchliche Dogmatik (KD), Vol. IV, 1, p. 835).

Thus, he teaches that the unbeliever is one who does not yet know that he has been redeemed by Christ. The believer knows he has been redeemed and the unbeliever does not (Berkouwer, TG, pp. 264-265. See also C Brown, Karl Barth and the Christian Message (KB), p. 137, n. 8).

This antithesis between believers and unbelievers as those who know and those who do not yet know fails to do justice to the Biblical emphasis on the absolute necessity of faith if men are to pass from death to life (In TG, p. 257, commenting on Ephesians 2, Berkouwer makes some helpful observations concerning the importance of the change which takes place in man’s relationship to God at the point of his conversion).

Barth’s view of certainty – despite his emphasis on the work of the Spirit – tends to confuse knowledge and faith. A lack of knowledge is different from a lack of faith. The unbeliever’s problem is not that he does not know that his eternal destiny has already been established according to the “Yes” of God’s grace. Rather, it is that he has not believed in Christ, through whom eternal salvation is received by faith.

This distinction between knowledge and faith does not mean that knowledge and faith are unrelated. Certainty must be related to the facts made known in the Gospel, the making-known of the salvation of God (Berkouwer, TG, p. 276). This making-known is not, however, the proclamation of a decision which has already been taken by God for every man. Rather, it is the making-known of God’s salvation which is to be received by faith. Thus making-known is “full of exhortation to faith” (Berkouwer, TG, p. 276, emphasis original). The idea that some know while others do not know about an a priori and identical decision taken with respect to both tends to reduce the proclamation of the Gospel to “a giving of ‘information’ about a given state of affairs” (Berkouwer, TG, p. 275, emphasis original. Taking note of Barth’s conception of the ‘open situation’ of preaching (TG, pp. 275-276), Berkouwer contends that this conception is an inadequate attempt to lessen the tensions inherent within Barth’s theology (TG, p. 296).

Barth acknowledges that the certainty into which the Gospel invites men to come is the assurance of faith and that the knowledge which the believer possesses is the experiential knowledge of the God of our salvation.

The problem arises when these emphases are placed within the ontic structure of his theology. The noetic aspect – man’s knowledge of God is grounded in the ontic aspect – God’s determination of man’s nature as “an essence unchanged and unchangeable by sin” (Barth, KD, Vol. III, 2, pp. 43-50, 54-55, cited in Berkouwer, Man: The Image of God, p. 91, reference given in n. 54) – is understood in such a way that the Biblical call for conversion appears to be reduced to a call to man to recognize what he already is.

This critique of the ontic structure of Barth’s view of certainty should not, because of its emphasis on human responsibility, be construed as suggesting that faith itself provides the basis for Christian assurance. The believer’s assurance finds its true foundation in Christ alone.

Barth correctly observes this when he writes, “On principle, we literally cannot assign any other definition of content to the new existence of men convinced by God Himself than that they know, and that they cannot and do not want to know, anything else except that they are in Christ, by Christ” (CD, Vol. I, 2, p. 240).

The point at issue is not here. It is agreed that the believer’s experience of assurance, produced by God Himself, is precisely the knowledge that he is in Christ. The point at issue arises when Barth objectifies and universalizes the term “in Christ” in his explanation of the above passage: “’In Christ’ means that in Him we are reconciled to God, in Him we are elect from eternity, in Him we are called, in Him we are justified and sanctified, in Him our sin is carried to the grave, in His resurrection our death is overcome, with Him our life is hid in God” (CD, Vol. I, 2, p. 240).

Barth’s emphasis on “in Him” is entirely correct. His position becomes more complicated when he continues, “in Him everything that has to be done for us, to us, and by us, has already been done” (CD, Vol. I, 2, p. 240). The complication increases as Barth progresses from “for us” to “in us” and then on to “by us”. His Christ-centredness is admirable yet one wonders whether Barth’s particular interpretation of the centrality of Christ has not led to a devaluing of historical experience and human responsibility. The complexity of Barth’s view is increased when he identifies “us” as the whole of mankind (CD, Vol. I, 2, p. 238).

In his understanding of the “subjective aspect” of Christian assurance, Barth rightly places the emphasis on “men convinced by God” (CD, Vol. I, 2, p. 240). This noetic aspect of being convinced by God is rightly described as the subjective aspect since Christian assurance is objectively grounded in Christ rather than man’s experience, understood apart from Christ. The ontic structure of Barth’s theology is such that it might be inferred that certainty can be deduced from what “has already been done” for us, to us and by us (CD, Vol. I, 2, p. 240. Despite Barth’s intention to point to Christ and to honour the Spirit, these emphases could lead to “a false and dangerous optimism” (C Brown, KB, p. 137) which fails to place adequate emphasis on what must be done for us – forgiveness, to us – regeneration, and by us – faith.

When we speak of personal salvation, we speak of both God’s action in Christ and our faith. The two belong together, They are not to be set over against each other. Our salvation has its foundation in Christ alone without diminishing the absolute necessity of faith for the reception of salvation.

The character of certainty must be understood in connection with this salvation. It is a salvation which comes from God. This is the foundation of our assurance. It is a salvation which is received by faith. This is the way in which we come to enjoy this assurance.

What are we to say about ‘biblical criticism’?

Berkouwer presents a view of biblical criticism which promises to overcome theological polarization. Keeping the Gospel at the centre of his thinking, he maintains that it is possible to acknowledge that there are “hesitations and doubts … present at many points (which) do not in themselves indicate a deep and final uncertainty” (A Half Century of Theology, p. 8).

This hearing of the Gospel in the reading of Scripture does not involve the presupposition of a ‘vox celestis, a heavenly voice … that human beings do not take part in” (Modern Uncertainty and Christian Faith, p. 19). Such a view would exclude biblical criticism.
One hears the Gospel in Scripture as one acknowledges what Scripture is, not as one speculates about what Scripture should be (Holy Scripture, p. 33, n. 70). The recognition that, in Scripture, one has ” … the Word written by men … The Word of God …  going the histioric way” (Modern Uncertainty and Christian Faith,  p. 19) leads to the view that the character of Scripture demands biblical criticism (Holy Scripture, p. 104).
When it is recognized, however, that “We hear the human voice and in that human voice we hear the voice of the Lord (Modern Uncertainty and Christian Faith, p. 19; cf. Holy Scripture, pp. 155, 165, 172), there remains an imperative to approach the Bible with a ‘childlike faith’ (Holy Scripture, pp. 346-348).
In emphasizing the importance of a childlike faith (Holy Scripture, pp. 346-348), Berkouwer insists that this is not put forward as “a cheap solution” (p. 346). It is the only appropriate response to the Gospel (pp. 346-347).
Commenting on Mark 10:15, he maintains that “on ehas all but lost a real scriptural faith if he does not immediately relate it to the call to become “as a child” … “receiving as a child … should not tempt anyone to … push aside … searching reflection … by means of a simplistic interpretation of this “childlikeness” … Someone whio is inclined in that direction has his own limited idea of “being a child”, interpreting this … as a form of naivety that can scarcely be distinguished from immaturity.” Recognizing that certain aspects of the child’s way of living are to be given up (1 Corinthians 13:11), he points out that this does not relativize Christ’s insistence on ‘receiving the kingdom as a child” (p. 347). He emphasizes that a childlike faith is a direct consequence of the belief that, in the human voice, we hear the voice of the Lord.
The close connection between Scripture and its message demands that our relation to Scripture should be understood in terms of obedience. Berkouwer emphasizes that the reading of Scripture with a view to obedience to its message is not to be thought of as “a form of naivety whereby serious questions and reflections are out of the picture” (Holy Scripture, p. 347). Childlike faith does not mean “the attitude of one who walks with closed eyes” (p. 347). Childlike faith seeks for the Gospel in Scripture, while fully acknowledging that ” … there is much left in Scripture that arouses doubt … there are and will be questions and struggles for a correct understanding of Scripture, objections and knotty problems that ought not to be disguised or hidden from view” (p. 347). The obedience of faith does not involve the exclusion of real questions about Scripture (p. 348, cf. pp. 134, 137).

Throughout Berkouwer’s Holy Scripture, we see his positive attitude to both the Bible as the Word of God in the words of men and biblical criticism.

The basic principle upom which he builds this view centres on his understanding of ‘listening’: “listening to God’s voice does not need to be threatened by scientific research into Holy Scripture. Man’s listening is only threatened when he stumbles over the skandalon” (p. 104; cf. Faith and Justification, p.9 (emphasis mine)  – “theology is occupied in continuous attentive and obedient listening to the Word of God … listening, unlike remembering, is always a thing of the present moment.”
Berkouwer contends that the real question is whether one exercises faith in the Christ to whom the Gospel, by the Spirit and through Scripture, points. He argues that this approach is not based on a dualistic separation of history and faith. It is the view that is most in harmony with the specific purpose of Scripture – to point sinners to our Saviour, Jesus Christ (Holy Scripture, p. 180).
The important question of “Faith and Criticism” is not, for Berkouwer, an incidental matter. In his book, Holy Scripture, he devotes a whole chapter to the subject (Chapter Thirteen, pp. 346-366).
He distinguishes between two different types of criticism.
First, there is the kind of criticism that exalts itself above God, turning against the message of the Gospel. This kind of criticism is to be resisted, since it presents an obstacle to the knowledge of God (p. 356 – Citing Romans 9:20, he writes, “That kind of criticism … was resisted by Paul: ‘but who are you, a man, to answer back to God?’”
Second, there is the kind of criticism that recognizes “the way God speaks to us in His Word – in the form of a witness through human words” (p. 358). By recognizing the way of God’s revelation, we legitimize biblical research as a duty (pp, 358-359, 363).
The former type of criticism is to be overcome by obedience.
Berkouwer emphasizes that “When God speaks, we are not dealing merely with a margin of reliability alongside another margin of unreliability” (p. 356; cf. Chapter Nine, “Reliability”, pp. 240-266).
God’s Word calls for a total response: “It is not possible to exalt oneself above God’s speaking … God’s Word can only have one subjective correlate, namely, faith” (p. 356).
This faith is not a blind faith (pp. 349-353) – ” … the authority of God’s Word is not being enforced like an arbitrary external authority … ” (p. 349).
It is, through the Spirit’s “wooing and conquering authority” that man is drawn, in his entire existence, to believe the Gospel (p. 349). With this view of Biblical authority, Berkouwer is able to maintain that “Faith in terms of a sacrifice of the intellect is a perversion of the Christian faith and of obedience” (p. 351). In his rejection of blind obedience, he insists that ” … a sacrifice of the intellect is a dangerous view of faith; for faith would then be called to a decision without inner conviction regarding the object and content of the faith to which man is called” (p. 352).

Theological Anthropology

It might be argued that Berkouwer’s concentration on man’s relation to God is no more than the adoption of a particular religious theory of man rather than dealing with the real man.
Berkouwer insists that, from the standpoint of Christian faith, the situation is quite the reverse.
He insists that we are not dealing with “an abstract idea of man, but with actual man” (Man: The Image of God, p. 13, emphasis original).
From the standpoint of faith, it is the view of man in relation to God, and not the view of man as rational, free or personal, which deals with the actual man, who stands outlined in the searching light of the revelation of God” (p. 30).
Emphasizing “the indissoluble Biblical relation between knowledge of man and knowledge of self” , Berkouwer writes,”The Jew did not have a better understanding because he was able to judge the heathen. In the sphere of abstract morality this could possibly be said, but this is not Biblical morality - O man, who judgest others! … We can hardly say that the pharisee had an accurate ‘knowledge’ of man when he pointed to the sins (the real sins) of publicans and sinners. This judgment, which separated knowledge of man from self-knowledge, was as nothing in God’s eyes” (Man: The Image of God, p. 27, emphasis original).
True knowledge of ‘man’ involves growing in self-knowledge. Such knowledge of ourselves comes through knowledge of God. In making this point, Berkouwer cites favourably the words of Calvin: “man never attains to a true self-knowledge until he has previously contemplated the face of God and come down from from  such contemplation to look into himself”  (Man: The Image of God, pp. 20-21, citing Calvin, Institutes, One, I, 2).