Understanding Christian Truth

Berkouwer emphasizes that, if we are to understand God’s truth, we must take account of two important points:
* The question of truth in itself cannot be asked without also involving ourselves in the question of truth for me.
* To ask the question of truth for me is to find that truth for me has its foundation in truth in itself (Holy Scripture, pp. 9-10).
We will explore the relationship the relationship between truth in itself and truth for me by looking at what Berkouwer says about (a) God; (b) Man.
(a) God
Insisting that the question of God is more than an abstract question concerning His existence, Berkouwer maintains that we must enquire about God with the kind of religious attitude expressed in the words of Micah 7:18 - ‘Who is a God like Thee, pardoning iniquity, and passing over transgression … ‘. When we ask the question of God in this way, we open ourselves to the atmosphere of ‘a latent doxology, a rapturous hymn (A. Weiser)’, an atmosphere ‘that leaves all doubt behind as it revels in admiration of Israel’s God’. Observing that ‘(m)any of the questions of our time arise not in doxology but in doubt’, Berkouwer points out that discussion of the traditional arguments for the existence of God is a far cry from asking the question of the living God. While the God of the old natural theology can be discussed abstractly, the living God can never be removed to such a comfortable distance. Maintaining that the God of Christian theology - the God of revelation - is more than a deduction which can drawn from the traditional proofs for His existence, he insists that we must move beyond the question ‘Does God exist?’ to the next question, ‘Who is God?’. Describing this second question as ‘a most existential and relevant question’, he contrasts it with the first question, pointing out that it is ‘not a theoretical question about God’s existence as a “thing”‘. He insists that asking the question, ‘Who is God?’ involves us in our entire experience of life as we enquire about its meaning and purpose. Enquiring about God in this way leads us on to further questions - ‘What do we mean by his presence in the world? Where does he reveal himself here and now?’. An openness to God and His revelation allows the possibilty of asking the question of God doxologically. Doxology is the only appropriate alternative to doubt. Doxology does not depend on the foundation of a faith that is built on a natural theology. On the basis of God’s salvation (and not that of natural theology’s attempt to prove God’s existence), the believer is deeply moved to worship God (A Half Century of Theology, pp.76-77; General Revelation, p.134).
(b) Man
For much of modern theology, the question, ‘What is man?’ must precede the question, ‘Who is God?’. The approach which begins with man (theology from below) is often set against the approach which begins with God (theology from above). In this situation of much confusion - with one side speaking out against the other side without really listening to what is being said from the other side - , Berkouwer’s doctrine of man has been commended as ‘a middle course between conflicting theologies … achieved by a strenuous independence of mind’ (These words of A. Willingdale - from a review in The Evangelical Quarterly - are cited on the front / inside dust cover of Berkouwer’s book, Man: The Image of God).
* Berkouwer emphasizes that man cannot be understood properly apart from God - ‘man’s nature … is not self-enclosed, and … can never be understood outside of its relation to God’ (Man: The Image of God, pp.22-23).
* He insists that divine sovereignty and human freedom are not be set over against each other. Emphasizing that the divine superiority 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’, he writes, ‘The divine act makes room, leaves open the possibility for man’s act. That possibility is not absorbed or destroyed by divine superiority, but called forth by it’ (Divine Election, pp. 49, 46).
* He emphasizes that man’s relation to God is inescapable so that, even in his guilt, the life of man is affected by divine grace. Taking full account of the radical effect of sin by emphasizing that there is ‘not … some last reserve in man, some untouched and untouchable ‘part’ of man which has escaped the power of in and corruption’ Berkouwer insists that man has not been dehumanized. Despite the fact that we have sinned and fallen short of God’s glory, we still remain man created in God’s image and called to glorify Him in our life as His creation - ‘Man stands and remains standing in his human responsibility and in his human guilt over against God’ (Man: The Image of God, pp. 127, 135).
* In emphasizing the relation between God and man, Berkouwer takes care to avoid the ‘erroneous’ interpretation of ‘the concept of relation’ which suggests that ‘man exists only in relation to God, and God exists only in relation to man’. Over against any suggestion that God is no more than a figment of our imagination and we are no more than a figment of His imagination, he maintains that, in using the concept of relation - God and man are understood in relation to each other - , we must speak also of ‘reality’. By emphasizing both reality and relation, we are maintaining ‘the Biblical outlook’ which ‘does not sacrifice reality to relation’ (p.35). When we emphasize the relation between man and God, we acknowledge that we cannot, without reference to God our Creator and Redeemer, give an adequate answer to the question, ‘What is man?’. When we ask this question Biblically, we think not only of man but also of God. To inquire - in a Biblical way - about the meaning and purpose of our human experience is to move from the pathway of defiance - we don’t need God - into the pathway of doxology - we worship God. In worship, we do not only ask, ‘What is man?’. We ask, ‘What is man that Thou art mindful of him … ?’ (Psalm 8:4)..
Returning to our initial observation regarding truth in itself and truth for us, we make two important points concerning Biblical truth.
* Biblical truth is truth in itself regardless of whether we believe it. If, however, we persist in unbelief, it is, in our experience, truth which stands over against us as a judgment upon our sinful unbelief. We cannot escape the presence of God simply by asserting, ‘I don’t believe in Him’. We may choose not to take God seriously. He will continue to take us seriously - in His judgment.
* Biblical truth remains truth which stands over against us in judgment until, through faith in Jesus Christ our Saviour, it becomes truth for us, a powerful, life-changing truth which leads us to glorify God as we learn to honour Him as our Creator and Redeemer.