Berkouwer and Philosophy
Berkouwer approaches the questions of God, man and evil differently from philosophical theology. It should not, however, be thought that his approach is unphilosophical. He is concerned to think clearly about these issues. He is, however, concerned to deal with “actual knowledge of God” (This expression is used by T. F. Torrance in God and Rationality, p.165. It occurs in his chapter, “The Epistemological Relevance of the Holy Spirit.” This chapter first appeared in Ex Auditu Verbi, a collection of articles published in honour of Berkouwer, pp. 272-296) and the perspective such knowledge offers concerning “actual man” (Man: The Image of God, p. 13) as he faces the “existential” problem of evil (Sin, p. 15). This perspective refuses to build an independent system and then apply it to the questions of God, man and evil (cf. T. F. Torrance, God and Rationality, pp. 165ff.). In adopting such an approach, Berkouwer is allowing his philosophical thinking to be dominated by the reality of God. He recognizes that, in any Christian philosophy, God’s revelation of Himself must precede man’s knowledge of God (Holy Scripture, p. 10; cf. T. F. Torrance, God and Rationality, p. 181). The recognition of the priority of revelation is understood in neither a fundamentalist nor an existentialist context (cf. T. F. Torrance, God and Rationality, pp. 168, 177). It is set within the context of the affirmation of “the epistemological relevance of the Holy Spirit” (T. F. Torrance, God and Rationality, pp. 165-192) in both the revelation of God and man’s reception of that revelation (cf. Holy Scripture, Chapter Five – “The God-Breathed Character of Holy Scripture”, pp. 139-169; T. F. Torrance, God and Rationality, pp. 168, 185).
When the philosophical framework of Berkouwer’s theology is understood, it becomes clear how he is able to deal with the criticism that he has not answered the philosopher’s questions. Such a criticism of Berkouwer may also be an implicit criticism of the philosopher’s way of asking questions rather than Berkouwer’s theological method. The consistency with which Berkouwer follows through the conviction that God is the living God is most impressive. He allows the living Object of faith to inform his faith at every point (cf. Holy Scripture, p. 10; T. F. Torrance, God and Rationality, p. 115; J. Rogers, Confessions of a Conservative Evangelical, p. 58). Throughout his theology, he proclaims the living God who cannot be reduced to an abstraction, even for the purposes of theological discussion. His theology proclaims that man has to do with the living God and, therefore, man cannot be discussed without taking this God into account (cf. Man: The Image of God, p. 27, where Berkouwer emphasizes that a true knowledge of man is not possible apart from the self-knowledge which comes through knowledge of the living God).
What is the essential difference between Berkouwer’s theology and philisophical theology? We must not suggest that the one approach is philosophical while the other is not. It is a difference in the way of asking questions (cf. D. G. Bloesch, The Ground of Certainty, p. 124. Concerning the problem of evil, he writes, “Christianity offers no all-encompassing explanation of evil. But it does point to the sure and final answer – Jesus Christ.” The conclusions reached concerning a particular question reflect the way in which that question is asked). The Christian asks his questions about God, himself and evil in a spirit of faith because he knows that he is not simply ignorant man seeking intellectual knowledge but sinful man seeking divine forgiveness.
Berkouwer’s theology does not seem to be particularly suited to overcome the polarization between the believer and the unbeliever. It appears to accentuate this polarization. This impression is, however, only apparent. His theology promises to overcome polarization within the believing Church of Jesus Christ, so that she might be set free from asking the wrong questions in the wrong way (cf. D. G. Bloesch, The Ground of Certainty, p. 61. He holds that Berkouwer’s greatness as a theologian is directly related to his ability to “explain what the faith does not mean as well as what it means”), and thus be be set free for the real task of proclaiming Christ to an unbelieving world. Through such proclamation, the polarization between faith and unbelief is overcome not by argument but through conversion .
The value of Berkouwer’s approach to the issues with which philosophy has concerned itself lies in his consistent emphasis on the existential character of these questions. This existential character requires to be recognized by all who discuss these questions, if the discussion is not to be merely theoretical and lacking in moral seriousness. Thus, the Christian’s concern is not simply with winning an argument but with leading others in the entirety of their existence to faith in Christ. This can happen when the non-Christian approaches the discussion with a real openness to the possibility of being converted to Christ.