Thursday, 16 April 2015

Berkouwer and Arminius

Berkouwer’s understanding of divine election is best understood in terms of the Dutch Reformation. There, one finds a similar struggle to avoid determinism and thus emphasize the sincerity of the Gospel offer. These motifs are found in the writings of the Dutch Reformer, James Arminius. The strong similarities between Berkouwer and Arminius should not to be taken to mean that Berkouwer regards himself as standing – unequivocally – in the line of Arminius.
While rejecting the equal ultimacy of election and rejection, Berkouwer insists that his own position need not involve the acceptance of an Arminian position (Divine Election, p. 189, n. 31). In his book, Faith and Justification, he explains how his his own position differs from ‘Arminianism’. He opposes, in Arminianism, a most dangerous ‘overestimation of faith as a spiritual achievement’ (p.87). Alongside this criticism of Arminianism, we must set Berkouwer’s favourable attitude towards recent criticism of the very document which opposed Arminianism (the Canons of Dordt). He sees, in such criticism of the Canons of Dordt, the deepest intentions of the Arminians of the seventeenth-century (A Half Century of Theology, pp.104-105). In seeking to describe Berkouwer’s view of Arminius and Arminianism, it may be useful to distinguish between the view of Arminius and the later development of Arminiianism.
In his book, Arminius: A Study in the Dutch Reformation, Carl Bangs has made a number of observations about Arminius which suggest a striking similarity to Berkouwer (I have reviewed this book in Reformed Review, 40, 2, 145).
(i) The historical situation in Holland was not a simple one of Calvinism coming in, Arminius nearly ruining it and the Synod of Dordt restoring it. Bangs comments, ‘The earliest Dutch Reformed leaders don’t seem to be Calvinists at all. They rise out of the soil, here and there, nurtured by the old Dutch piety, not seized by dogmatic insights but steadily pressing toward a purified life of faith, according to Scripture’ (p.21). This emphasis is similar to Berkouwer’s insistence that election is not a special gnosis for the theological elite. Rather, it is a confession of faith arising from the hearts of those who have come to know the grace of God (Divine Election, p.216).
(ii) Arminius’ theological method is ‘practical and through faith’: ‘For the Theology which belongs to this world, is practical and through faith: Theoretical Theology belongs to the other world, and consists of pure and unclouded vision. For this reason we must clothe the object of our Theology in such a manner as may enable us to worship God, and fully to persuade and win us over to that practice’ (cited by Bangs, p.63, from ‘Oration on the Object of Theology’ in The Works of James Arminius, I, p.264).
(iii) In Romans 9, Arminius finds the message of justification, the message of the freedom of God’s mercy, by which he determines that it will be the believer who will be saved. Bangs maintains that this interpretation of Romans 9 may be viewed as an affirmation of predestination. God has predestined to salvation all who believe in Christ. He also argues that Arminius stands in the Reformed tradition, since he insists that salvation is by grace alone and that human merit must be excluded as a cause of salvation. Only faith in Christ places the sinner in the company of the elect. Arminius’ understanding of Romans 9 is remarkably similar to the view expounded by Berkouwer as Reformed(Divine Election, pp.64-79, 209-217).
(iv) Against synergism – ‘half the work is God’s and half the work is man’s’ (see quotation from Sell, citing Duncan, below in (v)), Arminius affirms that grace is essential for the beginning, continuation and consummation of faith. He does, however, reject the distinction between a universal call which must be resisted and a special call which must be heeded – ‘Whomsoever God calls, he calls them seriously, with a will desirous of their repentance and salvation’ (Bangs, p. 343, citing ‘Certain Articles’ in The Works of James Arminius, I, p.497); ‘The whole controversy reduces itself to this question, “Is the grace of God a certain irresistible force?” … I believe that many persons resist the Holy Spirit and reject the grace that is offered’ (Bangs, p.343, citing The Works of James Arminius, pp. 253-254). Arminius’ point is that grace is not a force. Grace is a Person, the Holy Spirit, and in personal relationships there cannot be sheer overpowering. This is precisely what Berkouwer is concerned to maintain in his protest against the ‘ potestas absoluta’ (Divine Election, pp. 60ff.; The Return of Christ, p.444). It is precisely what Berkouwer means by his idea of the divine sovereignty as ‘the personal superiority of love and grace’ (Divine Election, pp. 49, 46).
(v) Regarding the enigmatic character of Arminius, Bangs writes, ‘Some Calvinists, finding that his writings do not produce the heresies they expected, have charged him with teaching secret heresy unpublshed. Many Arminians, finding him too Calvinistic, have written him off as a transitional thinker, a “forerunner”‘ (p. 18) (Here, we may also note the comment made by A P F Sell, in his book, The Great Debate, Calvinism, Arminianism and Salvation – ‘in important respects Arminius was not an Arminian’ (p. 97)). Berkouwer stands in the line of this element of the Dutch Reformation. To those who like to classify theologians as ‘Calvinists’ or ‘Arminians’, he is an enigma. He does not seem to fit. Perhaps, this is because he recognizes that the Gospel itself does not fit neatly into our systems (Again, we may note another comment from Sell – ‘Armnianism says that half the work is God’s and half the work is man’s. Calvinism asserts that the whole is God’s and the whole is man’s also’ (p. 1, citing Colloquia Peripatetica … being notes of conversations with the late John Duncan, p. 29). Note that Arminius’ rejection of this kind of ’synergism’ (see above in (iv)) is one of ‘the important respects’ in which, according to Sell, he was ‘not an Arminian’. For more of my own thoughts on Arminius in relation to ‘the five points of Calvinism’, see ‘Arminius – Hero or Heretic?’ in Evangelical Quarterly, 64:3 (1992), 213-227.)
(vi) Arminius was committed to the Reformed Confessions and their creative interpretation. He was concerned to teach nothing other than the teaching of the Dutch Confession of Faith and the Heidelberg Catechism (Bangs, pp. 460-461). he sought to present his teaching on predestination as true to the historic teaching of the Church, by which he meant the Belgic Confession and the Heidelberg Catechism (p. 350). nonetheless, there was a curious duality about his relationship to the Confession and the Catechism. he believed his views were consonant with them yet he wanted them revised, reduced to the essentials, to remove the ambiguities that allowed for the views of his opponents (p. 315).
If Arminius is understood according to his deepest intentions and not according to a Pelagian distortion of his meaning, he can be regarded as a Reformed theologian, committed to the Confession and the Catechism, while maintaining an element of ambiguity with respect to them. This is essentially Berkouwer’s position. He seeks to interpret the Reformed standards, being careful to state which interpretation he favours and which he avoids. His favourable citation of recent developments in the confessional life of the Dutch Church has been noted, with the observation that his concern, in such discussions, has been for the interpretation rather than categorical rejection of the Canons of Dordt.
* Bangs points out that the historical situation in Holland was not a simple one – Calvinism coming in, Arminius nearly ruining it and the Synod of Dort restoring it:
“The earliest Dutch Reformed leaders don’t seem to be Calvinists at all. They rise out of the soil, here and there, nurtured by the old Dutch biblical piety, not seized by dogmatic insights, but steadily pressing toward a purified life of faith according to Scripture” (p. 21).
This emphasis is similar to Berkouwer’s insistence that election is not a special gnosis for the theological elite. Rather, it is a confession of faith, arising from the hearts of those who have come to know the grace of God (Divine Election (DE), p. 216).
* Bangs observes that Arminius’ theological method is “practical and through faith”: “For the Theology which belongs to this world, is practical and through faith: Theoretical Theology belongs to the other world, and consists of pure and unclouded vision. For this reason we must clothe the object of our Theology in such a manner as may enable us to worship God, and fully to persuade and win us over to that practice” (p. 63, citing “Oration on the Object of Theology”, The Works of James Arminius, D. D. (WJA), (London edition 1825, 1828, 1875), I, p. 264).
This understanding of theology bears an amazing similarity to Berkouwer’s doxological approach which sets the doctrine of election in the context of praise and thanksgiving (DE, pp. 26, 65).
* Bangs looks closely at Arminius’ exposition of Romans 9 (Chapter 14 – “Theology in Amsterdam: Romans 9; The Conference with Junius”, pp. 193-205).
In Romans 9, Arminius finds the message of justification, the message of the freedom of God’s mercy, by which He determines that it will be the believer who will be saved. This is an affirmation of predestination. God has predestined to salvation all who believe in Christ.
Bangs argues that Arminius stands in the Reformed tradition, since he insists that salvation is by grace alone and that human merit must be excluded as a cause of salvation. Only faith in Christ places the sinner in the company of the elect (p. 340). Arminius’ understanding of Romans 9 is remarkably similar to the view expounded by Berkouwer as Reformed (DE, pp. 64-79, 209-217).
* Against synergism, Arminius affirms that grace is essential for the beginning, continuation and consummation of faith. He does, however, reject the distinction between a universal call which must be resisted and a special call which must be heeded.
“Whomsoever God calls, he calls them seriously, with a will desirous pf their repentance and salvation” (Bangs, p. 343; citing “Certain Articles”, WJA, (London edition 1956), I, p. 497).
“The whole controversy reduces itself to this question, ‘Is the grace of God a certain irresistible force?’ … I believe that many persons resist the Holy Spirit and reject the grace that is offered” (Bangs, p. 343, citing WJA, 1956, pp. 253-254).
Arminius’ point is that grace is not a force. Grace is a Person, the Holy Spirit, and, in personal relationships, there cannot be sheer overpowering. This is precisely what Berkouwer is concerned to maintain in his protest against the ‘potestas absoluta’ (DE, pp. 60ff; cf The Return of Christ, p. 444). It is precisely what Berkouwer means by his idea of the divine sovereignty as “the personal superiority of love and grace” (DE, pp. 49, 46).
* Regarding the enigmatic character of Arminius, Bangs writes,
“Some Calvinists, finding that his writings do not produce the heresies they expected, have charged him with teaching secret heresy unpublished. Many Arminians, finding him too Calvinistic, have written him off as a transitional thinker, a ‘forerunner’” (p. 118; cf. A P F Sell, The Great Debate, Calvinism, Arminianism and Salvation (GD) – “in important respects Arminius was not an Arminian” (p. 97)).
Berkouwer stands in the line of this element of the Dutch Reformation. To those who like to classify theologians as ‘Calvinists’ or ‘Arminians’, he is an enigma. He does not seem to fit. Perhaps, this is because he recognizes that the Gospel itself does not fit neatly into our systems.
In his booklet, A Hole in the Dike: Critical Aspects of Berkouwer’s Theology, C W Bogue has difficulty in classifying Berkouwer within his own Calvinist – Arminian distinction (p. 19).
A helpful manner of stating the difference between Calvinism and Arminianism is found in A P F Sell, GD. – “Arminianism says that half the work is God’s and half the work is man’s. Calvinism asserts that the whole is God’s and the whole is man’s also” (p. 1, citing Colloquia Peripatetica … being notes of conversations with the late John Duncan, 6th edition, 1907, p. 29).
* Arminius was committed to the Reformed Confessions and their creative interpretation. He was concerned to teach nothing other than the teaching of the Dutch Confession of Faith and the Heidelberg Catechism (Bangs, pp. 460-461).
He sought to present his teaching of predestination as true to the historic teaching of the Church, by which he meant the Belgic Confession and the Heidelberg Catechism (p. 350).
Nonetheless, there was a curious duality about his relationship to the Confession and the Catechism.
He believed his views to be consonant with them yet he wanted them to be revised, reduced to the essentials, to remove the ambiguities that allowed for the views of his opponents (p. 315).
* If Arminius is understood according to his deepest intentions and not according to a Pelagian distortion of his meaning, he can be regarded as a Reformed theologian, committed to the Confession and the Catechism, while maintaining an element of ambiguity with respect to them.
In essence, this is Berkouwer’s position. He seeks to interpret the Reformed standards, being careful to state which interpretation he favours and which he avoids.
In his favourable citation of recent developments in the confessional life of the Dutch
Church, his concern is with interpretation rather than categorical rejection of the Canons of Dort.
A child of the Reformation, Berkouwer seeks always to interpret, rather than categorically reject, the Reformers and the Reformed Confessions.
He bears a marked affinity to the Dutch reformation, “nurtured by the old Dutch biblical piety, steadily pressing toward a purified life of faith according to the Scriptures” (Bangs, p. 21).
When we make a connection between Berkouwer and “the old Dutch biblical piety”, we should note also his “consistent apologetic intention … directed against scholasticism” (S Meijers, Objectiviteit en Existentialitet (Objectivity and Existentiality), p.448).
His work is done in a pietistic rather than a scholastic perspective. This does not lead him into subjectivism. It does enable him to deal with the living character of God’s Word.