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.