Theological Connections between G. C. Berkouwer and Herman Bavinck: Understanding the Idea of Predestination
I only refer to Bavinck twice in this post (once at the beginning and another time later on in the post). The insight drawn from Bavinck is, however, very significant in the development of Berkouwer’s interpretation of the idea of predestination. That’s why I’ve included the name of Bavinck in the title of this post.
In his discussion of the ‘pre’ element in predestination, Berkouwer insists that “he who speaks of God’s counsel in terms of human categories will have to be aware of the inadequacy of his words” (Divine Election, p. 152).
In this respect, Berkouwer builds on the work of Bavinck who, in his discussion of predestination, insists that “one cannot speak of before and after with respect to God” (p. 152; This statement is made in the particular context of the discussion of the doctrine of election and should not be applied indiscriminately to every theological statement. In The Person of Christ, Berkouwer cites favourably the words of H. de Vos: “ONe cannot avoid Christ’s pre-existence: if Jesus Christ be God, then he existed before he became man” (p. 54). In this statement , as in Divine Election, p. 152, Berkouwer’s concern is to emphasize that the historical is grounded in the eternal and that both the historical and the eternal are grounded in the love of God. This divine love undergirds the eternal salvation which has become historical reality in Christ, Divine Election, p. 168.)
Recognizing the inadequacy of human language, Berkouwer seeks to understand the language of predestination in connection with what he calls the “depth-aspect” of salvation (Divine Election, pp. 113, 150, 168).
He emphasizes that “the depth-aspect of salvation … is not a matter of hiddenness which goes beyond the knowledge of faith … not something fardistant, not a vague, threatening reality, but the foundation of salvation …” (pp. 113-114; Here, he is discussing Biblical statements concerning “the Book of life”).
With this idea of the depth-aspect of salvation, Berkouwer seeks to understand the idea of ‘before the foundation of the world’ (For a biblical statement which uses this expression, see Ephesians 1:4. This phrase also occurs in John 17:24 and 1 Peter 1:20. In interpreting these passages, it is important that we take into account the context and content of each passage rather than artificially imposing a uniformity of use and meaning.)
He emphasizes that “These words do not occur in Scripture as a threat, but in the decisive depth-aspect of salvation. they are not placed in a context in which they make us dizzy in the face of an unapproachable ‘eternity’, … but they are intended to show us the source of our eternal salvation … ‘Before’ indicates that this divine act of salvation, preached to us by the gospel, is free from what we know in the world to be arbitrary and precarious … in this depth-aspect of God’s salvation it becomes … evident that this salvation did not originate in our flesh and blood, and that it is by no means of human merit or creation. But precisely this fact does not obscure the way; on the contrary, it illumines it. ‘Before the foundation of the world’ means to direct our attention to what can be called the opposite of chance and contingence” (pp. 150-151. Berkouwer also stresses that the depth-aspect of salvation should be recognized in the use of the expression, “God’s good pleasure”, concerning which he writes, “This pleasure does not stand in contrast to the historical gospel” (p. 151). In his article on “G. C. Berkouwer” in Creative Minds in Contemporary Theology, (edited by P. E. Hughes), L. B. Smedes writes, “The ‘good pleasure of God’ according to which we are chosen in Christ is sometimes taken to mean that God simply does anything that He arbitrarily decides, whereas the ‘good pleasure of God’ is His gracious purpose to save: Christ is the revelation of His ‘good pleasure’” (p.77, n. 32). The idea of God’s good pleasure occurs in the Authorized Version’s rendering of Ephesians 1:5, 9. The idea of God’s good pleasure is also found in Philippians 2:13 (Authorized Version and Revised Standard Version) and 2 Thessalonians 1:11 (Authorized Version). In these latter passages, the theme is sanctification and there is no suggestion of arbitrariness at all.)
Berkouwer’s basic understanding of the depth-aspect is defined thus: “When we speak of the depth-aspect, we mean that eternity does not stand in contrast with what in time becomes historical reality, but rather that the salvation accomplished by Christ’s death of reconciliation cannot be merely historical, but that it has its eternal foundation in the love of God” (p. 168).
* Berkouwer shares Bavinck’s protest against the description of God’s counsel as “an act of God in the past.” He emphasizes that the word ‘decree’ can be thoroughly misleading when it is “interpreted out of its context in Scripture” (p. 152).
James Philip discusses helpfully the relation between time and eternity in his series of sermons, The Westminster Confession of Faith: An Exposition, Part I, Chapters 1-8, (this series was given at Holyrood Abbey Church, Edinburgh in 1966 a nd was published as four booklets): “The word ‘decree’ has a rather unhappy and unfortunate connotation in its use in the thought of election and predestination. It is not in fact used in the New Testament in relation to this subject … The word suggests something completed long ago … The phrase ‘before the foundation of the world’ implies something away back at the beginning of time, and behind us in relation to the direction in which we are now travelling … time is thought of in terms of a straight line, with eternity at either end of it … we may ask ourselves whether this linear conception of time and eternity is really what the Scriptures mean to convey. It is by no means a self-evident conception … there is a sense in which it is self-contradictory. We should perhaps think of eternity as something all round us and liable to break in at any moment … This is rather how the New Testament speaks of eternity. We speak of the gospel breaking into the darkness of a man’s soul. Where … does it come from? Not far away; “The word is nigh thee, even in thy heart and in thy mouth …’ As near as that! Life as we know it is surrounded and encompassed by eternity, which touches it at every point” (pp. 26-27, emphasis mine).
This criticism of the linear conception of time does not imply that time is co-eternal with eternity. The temporal character of time is emphasized in the Biblical doctrines of creation and eschatology. Criticism of the linear conception in relation to predestination does not imply criticism of either Christ’s pre-existence or the reality of the Christian hope. (For Berkouwer’s protest against a demythologizing of Christ’s pre-exitence and the de-eschatologizing of Christ’s return, see The Person of Christ, p. 54 and The Return of Christ, p. 16.)
The affirmations concerning the person of Christ and the return of Christ emphasize the eternal character of salvation which has neither its ultimate origin nor its ultimate goal in man’s present experience.
Life as we know it is neither ‘everything‘ nor ‘nothing.’ The ultimate significance of man’s present experience is not found in that experience itself but in the eternal God whose eternal purpose transcends man’s present experience.
The eternal God and His eternal purpose does not strip away man’s present experience of significance but rather gives to it eternal significance.