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G. C. Berkouwer and the Experiential Theology of Early Dutch Calvinism

The experiential theology of early Dutch Calvinism finds its clearest expression in the writings of a number of seventeenth century writers, such as William Ames, T J Frelinghuysen and William a Brakel.
William Ames, probably the most well-known representative of this type of theology, opens his book, The Marrow of Theology, with a definition of theology as “the teaching of living for God” (I, i, 1). (In his book, Historical Theology: An Introduction, G W Bromiley devotes several pages to discussing the views of Ames (pp. 307-316, 324-328, 332, 336-338). Acknowledging Ames’ intention of “relating theology more closely to life”, Bromiley suggests that there might be “a legalistic element” in the type of covenant theology propounded by Ames (pp. 310, 316).)
The experiential theology of early Dutch Calvinism was noted for its distinctive understanding of Christian doctrine. Doctrine was not meant merely for the mind to reflect upon. Doctrine was seen as arising out of the Christian experience in which the whole man had encountered God in Jesus Christ. Doctrine was seen as speaking to the whole man in the totality of his existence.
Experiential theology tended to emphasize such teachings as the new birth, conversion, sanctification with a view to the believer’s growth in an experiential knowledge of God’s saving grace.
The mood of this movement was that of zeal – zeal for spiritual growth. Its method was that of existential personalism, insisting that the whole man in the totality of his existence must be affected by religious experience which makes him aware of the centrality of his relation to God.
This method involved experiential theology in a reaction against scholasticism which was inclined to revel in logic and speculation.
Experiential theology was “an attempt to strike the same note found in Calvin and the Heidelberg Catechism, and grounded in Scripture, that man is called to live to the glory of God. There was nothing new in the teaching; much of it already appeared in medieval Dutch mysticism … It is a striking example of profound spirituality” (M E Osterhaven, “The Experiential Theology of Early Dutch Calvinism”, Reformed Review, Spring 1974, Vol. 27, No. 3, p.188).
Both the emphases and the roots of experiential theology are strikingly similar to those of Berkouwer.
* In Berkouwer’s writings, we see similar emphases to those of experiential theology – the emphasis on the whole man (Man: The Image of God (Man), pp. 312, 194), the centrality of man’s relation to God (Man, pp. 31-33, 195-196), the zeal for spiritual growth (the inclusion of a volume on Faith and Sanctification, in Berkouwer’s Studies in Dogmatics, emphasizes his concern for spiritual growth), the reiteration of personal motifs (the volumes on Faith and Justification, Faith and Sanctification and Faith and Perseverance, emphasize the importance of the personal motif in Berkouwer’s thought) and the critical attitude towards scholasticism (S Meijers observes that Berkouwer’s theology demonstrates “a consistent apologetic intention … directed at scholasticism” (Objectiviteit en Existentiialiteit (Objectivity and Existentiality), p. 448. In personal correspondence (Spring 1979), Meijers informed me that Berkouwer acknowledged the validity of this observation).
* The roots of experiential theology in “Calvin … the Heidelberg Catechism … Scripture … medieval Dutch mysticism …” (Osterhaven, p. 188) are similar to those of Berkouwer.
Berkouwer’s creative interpretation of Calvin and the Reformed Confessions must be understood in relation to his close affinities with the old Dutch Biblical piety.
* In his treatment of Calvin, he is concerned to move away from the more speculative development of later Calvinism to the warm Biblical piety of Calvin himself.
* In his treatment of the Reformed Confessions, he is concerned to interpret them according to their intentions, being careful to distinguish between the changeable form and the unchangeable content of the historically-conditioned confessions (Berkouwer, “Vragen rondom de belijdenis”, Gereformeeerde Theologische Tijdschrift, Februart 1963, Vol. 63, pp.1-41. This article is concerned with questions regarding the interpretation Of Confessions of faith. It pays special attention to the Canons of Dort).
The Reformed Confessions which Berkouwer seeks to interpret faithfully, have been formative in his religious thinking since early childhood when he was steeped in the confessional and catechetical instruction of the Dutch Reformed Church.
This element in Berkouwer’s background is surely closely related to the profound respect with which he treats the Reformed Confessions, even when he ventures to be critical of their historically-conditioned and, therefore, changeable form.
Of all the Reformed standards, the Heidelberg Catechism comes closest to Berkouwer’s own style of theologizing: “ … the Heidelberger was the great ‘existential’ catechism – if one can accept that word in a sixteenth-century context. It was anthropologically oriented, emphasizing not only the first person but even the more personal first person singular … Essentially, the Catechism was related to the spiritual life of man, not wrestling with theological abstractions … It propounded no subtle theological niceties but rather was a catechism characterized by such phrases as ‘How are you reminded and assured …’ and ‘What benefit do you receive …’ True Christian spirituality was not defined in terms of right doctrines, for ‘even the devils believe and tremble,’ but in terms of right actions” (J Tanis, “The Heidelberg Catechism in the Hands of the Calvinistic Pietists”, Reformed Review, Spring 1971, Vol. 24, No. 3, pp. 156-157).
This type of spirituality, found in the Heidelberg Catechism, formed an important source of inspiration for the experiential theology movement.
It is also highly characteristic of the spirituality of Berkouwer who is constantly searching for the “existential direction of Scripture” (H Berkhof, “De Methode van Berkouwer’s Theologie”, Ex Auditu Verbi: Theologische Opstellen Aangeboden aan Prof. Dr. G. C. Berkouwer, edited by R Schippers, G E Meuleman, J T Bakker and H M Kuitert, pp. 37-55. This book of theological essays was dedicated to Berkouwer on the occasion of his twenty-fifth anniversary of teaching at the Free University of Amsterdam. It contains essays written by notable theologians such as K Barth, O Cullmann, H Kung and T F Torrance. Berkhof uses the expression, “the existential direction of Scripture” to describe the theological tendency of the later Berkouwer (pp. 48-53)).
Berkouwer seeks continually to relate Christian truth to man in his primary relation to God (Man: The Image of God, p. 27; Divine Election, pp. 307, 326-329; The Return of Christ, p. 248).He reminds his readers repeatedly that the heart of Christian faith is to be found in a saving relationship to God (Holy Scripture, pp. 180. 322 where he emphasizes that the goal of Scripture is to bring knowledge of God).
Berkouwer may be regarded as a twentieth-century heir of the experiential theology movement of the seventeenth-century.
The best representatives of this movement – such as William Ames (The Marrow of Theology, I, xxvi, 26, 28; G W Bromiley, Historical Theology: An Introduction, pp. 336-338 – discussion of the teaching of Ames on sanctification – were careful in their emphasis on subjectivity not to lapse into subjectivism.
This has been a major concern of Berkouwer’s. He has places a strong emphasis on subjective experience without making that experience the norm for theology. He has emphasized that Christian theology gives expression to the truth which can only be known by faith yet is not itself produced by faith (Holy Scripture, pp. 9-10). The divine Reality can only be known through being in a relation of faith toward that Reality (Man: The Image of God, p. 35).

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