Berkouwer's Theology of Social Concern

Berkouwer refuses to separate personal faith and social concern. He provides a perspective through which Christian theology can avoid the twin dangers of (a) a preoccupation with social concern which implicitly conceives of personal faith as a flight into illusion; and (b) a preoccupation with individualistic and 'other-worldly' religion which fails to provide any significant expression of social concern. In his introduction to the symposium, At the Edge of Hope, Christian Laity in Paradox, H Butt insists that 'transcendent hope ... immanent hope ... must cohere ... in order to intersect and overcome despair - the loss of expectation for God's eternal Kingdom and expectation for the improvement of this world ... transcendent expectation and ... immanent expectation form one complete Christian hope. The first says, turn to God because the human prospect is so bleak; the second says, the human prospect can be changed because of God' (pp.6-7). Butt continues, 'Everything is hopeless but God. Everything is hopeful because of God ... we and our societies are nothing compared with God ... we and our world are beloved of God' (pp.8-9).
Like Butt, Berkouwer discusses social concern in relation to hope. He discusses the significance of 'the earthly horizon' in relation to 'the outlook on the future, the relationship between our actual todays and our expected tomorrows, between our narrow horizons and the hope that leaps over them into the promised future' (A Half Century of Theology, p.179). He insists that a proper understanding of the theology of social concern demands a proper understanding of Christian hope. He distinguishes between a caricature of Christian hope and a profile of Christian hope - 'Escape into the future is not eschatology, but eschaton fever ... To become 'this-worldly' is not to empty the future of its radical character of 'beyond this world'. What it does do is close the door to flight into the 'beyond'. It tells us that such a flight is a caricature, not a profile of Christian hope. The summons to 'this-worldly' living is a response ... to "God's redeeming love for the world in all its dimensions"' (p. 181, 214).
In his analysis of transcendent and immanent hope, Butt rejects the competition-motif - 'Conservatuve 'otherworldly' hope and liberal 'this worldly ' hope are dangled like competing pearls of great price before the laity today. What tragedy, when they really form a single unified reality' (At the Edge of Hope, p.7). Like Butt, Berkouwer rejects the competition-motif. Speaking of 'the unfortunate dilemma - horizontalism or verticalism?', he writes, 'When we create false dilemmas like this we lose our vision of the many dimensions of reality' (A Half Century of Theology, 189-190).
The reality which guides Berkouwer's theology of social concern is the reality of God's salvation. When the question of social concern is set in this context, it becomes clear that '(i)t is a question that goes beyond typical differences between optimists and pessimists'. It zeroes in on the significance for the present of the salvation that has appeared and is confessed and preached by the church of Christ' (p.181).
When the question of social concern is related to God's salvation, it may be formulated thus: 'Does the Christian faith call us away from the world or does it push us into it?' (p. 189). Berkouwer points out that '(i)n the total context of Christian faith almost no one contends for total indifference to the world. The gospel testimony is too strong to allow complete unconcern. The image of him who was ever ready to stop, to see and care for the blind, the deaf, the sinner and publican, the poor and sick, the sheep without a shepherd, to stop and be moved to compassion - the image of such a concerned One is too sharp to excuse indifference' (p. 190).
Taking into account both our Lord's concern for people and His proclamation of God's Word, Berkouwer emphasizes that 'a scale of priorities is contrary to the gospel' (p. 191).
This conviction is rooted in the understanding of the Gospel, found in his book, Divine Election. (i) In its proclamation of divine salvation, the Gospel never minimizes the significance of human activity: 'The divine act makes room, leaves open the possibility for man's act. That possibility is not absorbed or destroyed by divine superiority, but created, called forth, by it ... There is a superiority which is not that of mechanical causality or of a coercion that obstructs man's activity; it is the personal superiority of love and grace, which in man's experience is making room for him to act by not destroying his freedom' (pp.46, 49).
(ii) In its proclamation of eternal salvation, the Gospel never minimizes the significance of the temporal sphere - 'it is necessary to understand ... how the words "time" and "eternity" function in the gospel ... They are not placed in a context in which they make us dizzy in the face of an unapproachable "eternity"' (p.150).
(iii) In its proclamation of gracious salvation, the Gospel never minimizes the significance of the Church's responsibility to turn towards the world in service.
Regarding the antithesis between God's believing people and the unbelieving world, he writes,
'The constant warning of the Word of God is not that we must speak no more of the reality of the antithesis, but that the antithesis must be correctly understood as being legitimate only by virtue of the grace of election ... in the antithesis we are confronted with a truly unique contrast. This uniqueness finds its origin in God's mercy, and that is the reason why it finds its true expression not in isolation from the world, but in turning to the world ... This by no means implies a weakening of the distinction between good and evil, faith and unbelief. Rather, the church, because of the seriousness of this antithesis, goes out into the world to witness. She does not do so despairing that the world cannot be saved, for then she would forget her own former lost condition as well as the sovereign election of God which called her from her darkness to His marvellous light. Every trace of a proud and legalistic antithesis is absent here. It is replaced by an apostolic fervour, which ... knows itself compelled by the love of Christ' (pp. 324-325, 327).
While these passages from Divine Election do not refer directly to social concern, their relevance to this discussion is clear. Berkouwer's rejection of the competition-motif with respect to divine authority and human activity, time and eternity, and salvation and service is of great significance for his development of a constructive theology of social concern.
Discussing 'the earthly horizon', he insists that '(h)uman activity ... cannot be reduced in priority to a 'secondary' issue, as though it is of less importance to whatever is given top priority'. He maintains that 'the gospel we believe is far removed from the picture of a future without bearing on the present, a heavenly hope without concern for the neighbor and his world'. He emphasizes that '(w)e are not dealing with a synthesis between religion and morality ... (but with) the divine concern for life within our human horizon'. He contends that the Christian is called to 'a life of involvement in the deep divine philanthropy that has once for all appeared in history'. Faith refuses 'to let our full obedience become a tension between primary and secondary accents' (A Half Century of Theology, p. 190, 214, p.191, 195). The significance of Berkouwer's theology of social concern is integrally related to his concern with the problem of polarization. This concern, which runs through his entire theology, is not merely pragmatic. His concern is that the fullness of Christian truth is properly represented in both Christian theology and Christian living. A theology which emphasizes one aspect of truth to the exclusion of another is reflected in a life which fails to live in accordance with the fullness of truth. The call to the Christian Church is, in Berkouwer's theology, to allow both its thinking and its living to be governed by the fullness of God's truth.
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A Biblical Theology of Social Concern
Any theology which claims to be a Biblical theology is requires by that very claim to relate its understanding of social concern to its understanding of Scripture. A truly Biblical theology of social concern seeks to hear and heed all that Scripture has to say on the matter. We need to listen to the Gospel which stands over against both the tendency to conform to the mood of the moment and the tendency to ignore the social problems of the day. There are two inadequate approaches which a truly Biblical theology of social concern must seek to overcome:
(a) a theology which is chiefly man's justification for positions taken on
quite independent -social rather than Biblical - grounds;
(b) a theology which suggests that the mere proclamation of God's
justification of believing sinners does, by itself, ensure that social injustice is overcome.
Throughout Berkouwer's theology, there is an intensely practical emphasis. The practical character of his theology is observable in every doctrinal discussion. The practical value of his discussion of social concern is derived not merely from the 'practical' character of the subject but from the practical character of every theological statement. Man cannot speak of God rightly without being practically involved. This practical note runs through the entirety of Berkouwer's theology.
Berkouwer emphasizes that a truly Biblical theology of social concern will call for 'a life of involvement in the deep divine philanthropy that has once for all appeared in history', a life which gives expression to'the divine concern for life within our human horizon', a lifwe in which neither God nor the neighbour are ignored. He insists that a truly Biblical theology of social concern calls for full obedience without introducing a tension between primary and secondary accents (A Half Century of Theology, pp. 191, 195).
Berkouwer's Biblical theology of social concern is developed from his exegesis of significant Biblical passages drawn from both Testaments. He draws attention to the inseparability of love for God and concern for our neighbour.
Commenting on the Old Testament understanding of the relationship between love for God and concern for our neighbour, he writes, 'It is ridiculous to suppose that the Old Testament is guilty of being too heavily accented and one-sidedly concerned with the horizontal dimension of life, as though love for God might somehow get shortchanged by it. The service of the God of Israel and total concern for life within our horizon are inseparable ... His people can truly give all their attention to him without being lured away from their neighbors' (p.193).
This interpretation of the Old Testament is based on his exegesis of significant passages drawn from the Pentateuch, the Psalms and the Prophets (pp. 192-193). In the Pentateuch, the poor and needy are to be the concern of Israel, God's redeemed people (Exodus 23:1-9). In the Psalms, there is no competition between God's praise and man's need (Psalm 146). In the Prophets, there is a call for worldly concern which does not re the transcendent message (Amos 5).
Berkouwer continues this concentration on both God and man in his exegesis of significant New Testament passages (pp. 191-192, 195). The Gospels demand that neither nor love of God are to be neglected since man's relationship with God may not be isolated from his relationship with his fellow-man (Luke 11:42Matthew 5:23-24). In the Epistles, concern for man is not regarded as a secondary matter since there is 'a radical unity between the love of God and concern for man'(p. 191) (Romans 13:8-101 John 3:17).
A Reformed Theology of Social Concern
The Reformed character of Berkouwer's theology is directly related to its Biblical foundation. Discussing the Reformed principle - Scripture alone - , he writes, 'The function of the sola Scriptura in the Reformation was to focus attention on God's Word as a principle of interpretation over against human arbitrariness' (Holy Scripture, p.306). A proper understanding of this principle requires a clear understanding of what he is not saying as well as what he is saying.
The 'Scripture alone' principle may not be isolated from the Gospel since it emerges from a clearer understanding of the Gospel and points to the place where the Gospel is to be found. Berkouwer emphasizes the unbreakable connection between the 'Scripture alone' principle and the doctrine of the Gospel: 'The phrase sola Scriptura expressed a certain way of reading Scripture, implying a continual turning toward the gospel as the saving mesage of Scripture' (p. 306).
The 'Scripture alone' principle does not arise from a general preference for the old but from a rediscovery of the Gospel - 'The Reformers were aware of being confronted with the original and canonical gospel, not because it was ancient as such, but because of this concrete and qualitative "originality"' (p. 306).
The 'Scripture alone' principle does not represent a general distaste for tradition but a re-establishment of the Gospel tradition in the life of the Church - 'the term sola Scriptura represented "the struggle for the genuine tradition"' (p. 306). Berkouwer maintains that '(t)he Reformers did not wish to endanger the principle of tradition; rather, they wished to protect it' (p. 313).
There is, in the Reformed principle of 'Scripture alone', a 'radical rejection of addition', but not a 'simple repetition without new responsibilities for new times' (p.304). The function of this principle is to preserve the Church from being alienated from the Gospel in the face of the challenge of communicating the Gospel effectively in an ever-changing world.
The 'Scripture alone' principle is not the product of high-handed exclusiveness which draws attention to the pride of its proponents rather than the message of Scripture. Rather, it is a 'unique exclusiveness, deriving its structure from the broadness and universality of the gospel' (p.308). Since the Gospel is aimed at the whole world, proclaiming salvation to all peoples, the 'Scripture alone' principle becomes important not for the sake of sectarian exclusiveness but for the sake of a clearer understanding and more effective communication of the Gospel of salvation (pp. 308-309).
Berkouwer points out that, in this unique exclusiveness, the 'alone' must be understood in the light of the 'Scripture': 'The confession of'Scripture alone' does not begin with the 'alone' as a general principle, but with Scripture. For the meaning and weight of the 'alone' can be perceived only along that route' (p. 306).
The 'Scripture alone' principle may not be isolated from the other principles of the Reformation - 'grace alone', 'faith alone' and 'Christ alone'. Removed from the context of the rediscovery of the Gospel in Scripture, it becomes a rather colourless principle which lacks depth of understanding of the meaning of Scripture. When, however, the principles of 'grace alone', 'faith alone' and 'Christ alone' are allowed to operate independently of each other and of the 'Scripture alone' principle, theological speculation reaches dangerous conclusions.
An important implication of the 'Scripture alone' principle is the recognition of the importance of the whole of Scripture. Theology requires this perspective if it is to avoid the dangerous selectivity which is governed by personal preference. The tendency to overemphasize what one wants to hear while ignoring what one does not want to hear requires to be kept in check by the insistence that every part of Scripture has its proper place and function and that no part of Scripture is to be regarded as unimportant.
This emphasis on the importance of every part of Scripture does not amount to a levelling procedure by which every part of Scripture is ascribed equal importance. Scripture is to be regarded as an 'organic whole' (p. 192). No part of Scripture is to be arbitrarily lifted out of this context.
This emphasis on the whole of Scripture is important in the face of
(a) the distortion of the 'grace alone' principle which suggests that we
can be saved by grace without faith (The Return of Christ, pp. 422-423);
(b) the distortion of the 'faith alone' principle in which there is an overestimation of faith at the expense of grace (Faith and Justification, p. 87);
(c) the distortion of the 'Christ alone' principle which tends to replace rather than complement the doctrine of creational revelation (General Revelation, pp.104-107).
This emphasis excludes the heavy-handed approach to Scripture which tends to regard as insignificant those portions of Scripture which do not appear to place such a heavy accent on the 'grace alone', 'faith alone' and 'Christ alone' principles.
The 'Scripture alone' principle, with its emphasis on the importance of the whole of Scripture, is of paramount importance for the discussion of social concern. The evangelism - social concern polarization results from a failure to listen to all that Scripture says concerning Christian living.
This polarization can be overcome only where there is a determination to submit every theological preference to the authority of the whole of Scripture. A truly biblical and Reformed theology of social concern calls for a resolute refusal to bolster one's own theological preferences by emphasizing one's favourite passages while other passages are tacitly ignored.
A Contemporary Theology of Social Concern
Berkouwer's theology of social concern is set in the context of his conviction that 'theological reflection cannot survive as a repetition, a preservation of once-for-all achieved and now unchangeable dogmatic systems'. Concerning the challenge of interpreting the Christian faith for the contemporary world, hre writes, 'surely Reformation thinking is by definiton willing to accept the challenge' (A Half Century of Theology, p.8).
As a Reformed theologian, Berkouwer seeks to be a biblical theologian, the boundaries of whose reflection are set by Scripture. As a Reformed theologian, he seeks to be a contemporary theologian who refuses to be limited by the boundaries set by a theological interpretation which has tended towards a fossilizing of the Christian faith.
Berkouwer approaches the contemporary social situation with the principle - ' Personal conversion and sanctification is not able to overcome the immorality of society' (A Half Century of Theology, p. 185). Rejecting the personal faith - social concern polarization, Berkouwer echoes the teaching of Calvin who insists that while 'civil government ... is distinct from the spiritual and internal kingdom of Christ ... they are not adverse to each other' (Institutes, IV, xx, 2).
The deepest roots of Berkouwer's approach to the contemporary social situation are not to be found in the sixteenth century but in Scripture.
The moral law calls for a right relationship with both God and man. The words and works of Jesus represent a radical reversal of economic, political and social ideologies which are governed by self-interest rather than justice and mercy.
World-flight is excluded by a movement towards the world with a view to world-transformation.
A Biblical and Reformed theology confesses its faith in the sovereignty of God over the whole world and the love of God for the whole man. It cannot settle for the 'sacred' realm of inner piety while the 'secular' world is treated as though it existed independently of the sovereign love of God.
Contemporary society is increasingly threatened by demoralization and dehumanization as the love of power and the love of money militate against the love of God and the love of the neighbour.
This dual responsibility of love for both God and the neighbour demands that Christian witness in the contemporary situation may be neither reduced to its social implications nor emptied of them.

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