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Berkouwer on "Divine Election"

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 closely follows Bavinck who, in his discussion of predestination, insists that "one cannot speak of before or after with respect to God" (Divine Election, p. 152). Recognizing the inadequacy of human language, Berkouwer seeks to understand the language of predestination in connection in terms of 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 far distant, not a vague threatening reality, but the foundation of salvation ... " (Divine Election, pp. 113-114).
Maintaining that Berkouwer has continually failed to expound the full teaching of Scripture concerning the ‘before’ element of divine election,  A. L. Baker insists that “Berkouwer cannot communicate what the Bible means by ‘election’ if he neglects such a determinative concept” (“G. C. Berkouwer’s Doctrine of Election: Balance or Imbalance?”, pp. 102-103). Referring to the phrase “before the foundation of the world” (Ephesians 1:4; John 17:24; 1 Peter 1:20), Baker states that “Berkouwer has never commented at any length in any of his Dogmatics on the significance of these words” (p. 102).
It may also be argued that Baker’s failure to discuss at any length Berkouwer’s concept of the “depth-aspect” of salvation weakens his criticism of Berkouwer’s interpretation of the ‘before’ element of election.
Here, we may note what Berkouwer says about the depth-aspect of salvation.
Recognizing the inadequacy of human language, Berkouwer seeks to understand the language of predestination in connection with 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 far distant, not a vague, threatening reality, but the foundation of salvation … ” (pp. 113-114 - in a discussoion of Biblical passages which speak about “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.’ 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’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 to 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).
Here's an attempt to bring some things together. (1) Man knows of grace through revelation. (2) Divine revelation comes to man in the form of human language. (3) The inadequacy of human language as a vehicle of divine revelation demands that due care be taken in the interpretation of Scripture. (4) The inadequacy of human language as a vehicle of divine revelation demands an avoidance of undue dogmatism regarding the precise meaning of Scripture. (5) The idea of a depth dimension points beyond the limitations of human language to the profound spiritual realities of the eternal God and His eternal salvation.
Berkouwer's concept of the depth-aspect of salvation may be viewed as a serious attempt to understand the complex problem of the relation of human language to divine revelation. It need not be dismissed as a denial of what Scripture says. It may be regarded as an interpretation of what Scripture says, an attempt to understand what a particular passage teaches in relation to the "entire Biblical message" (Divine Election, p. 18). The recogniton of a depth-aspect of salvation need not involve a denial of Biblical authority. We may regard it as a way of asking the question, "Is this what the Bible is really saying?", a way of developing a penetrating analysis which recognizes that we must make a clear distinction between Scripture itself and theological interpretations of Scripture. This distinction emerges directly from the nature of human language, the precise meaning of which is not immediately evident in its reference to God.
Berkouwer insists that a proper understanding of theological language is only attainable within the context of the obedience of faith. The language of predestination may be understood as a form of expression which the believer, who has willingly submitted to the authority of grace, uses to confess his Christian faith. Set in this context, the language of predestination need not be viewed as a form of determinism which threatens to strip human experience of decisive significance. Emphasizing that "he who has seen Christ has seen the Father" (John 14:9), Berkouwer maintains that the believer, in his encounter with Christ, comes to know the revelation of God as something which is not threatened by the idea of a hidden God whose secret cannot be known (Divine Election, p. 124).
Berkouwer insists that a proper understanding of theological language involves the recognition of the inexpressible character of the divine object of faith which the believer encounters in the obedience of faith. The gift of God's grace in Christ is an "inexpressible gift!" (2 Corinthians 9:15 - Revised Standard Version). When the believer seeks to express his gratitude to God for this inexpressible gift, he finds it quite impossible to give adequate expression to this gratitude which he feels so deeply. He is almost certain to use language which, at best, will contain ambiguities and, at worst, misleading impressions if his language is not recognized as a groping after a form of expression that is worthy of a virtually inexpressible divine Reality.
Berkouwer emphasized the importance of the doctrine of election - "if we take seriously the conviction that election lies ... at the heart of the church, we find ourselves at the centre of the church's faith when qwe focus on the question of election" (A Half Century of Theology, p. 79). He also discerned the harmful effects of a deterministic doctrine of election - "this doctrine has been all but comforting ... an offence, with no real liberating and tension-relieving power ... a decision that was extremely difficult to rhyme with a gospel of love comforting to the heart" (A Half Century of Theology, p. 79).
Berkouwer recognized that the deterministic interpretation of election has, for many, proved to be an obstacle to faith - "the confession of divine election did come to the fore in a very direct pastoral way; people in the congregations have been plagued by questions concerning election and human responsibility, questions about the certainty of one's own salvation" (A Half Century of Theology, p. 78). Berkouwer's approach need not be dismissed as a denial of election. He does, however, offer us a reinterpretation - "We knew we had to go further - in concern for the heart of the church - than the construction of defensive syntheses" (A Half Century of Theology, p. 89).
Berkouwer maintained that a thoroughgoing reinterpretation of election was essential if it was to be made clear that "divine election was not an arbitrary decree that opened the door to a fatlism and determinism in which the events of our time and history were robbed of all genuine meaning" (A Half Century of Theology, p. 89).
Berkouwer gave much serious thought to difficult theological concepts and Biblical passages. Concerning the interpretation pf divine sovereignty, he wrote, "one has to be on guard against isolating and abstracting words, including the word 'sovereignty.' If we are not, we use words that violate the heart of the church" (A Half Century of Theology, p.90). He did not seek "to replace determinism with an indeterminism" (A Half Century of Theology, p. 91). He sought to develop an interpretation of election which points to the trustworthiness of God: "the knowledge of divine sovereignty is possible only within knowledge of the God in whom there is no arbitrariness" (A Half Century of Theology, p. 91).
Concerning the interpretation of divine freedom, Berkouwer gave this warning: "waving the banner of absolute divine autonomy does not dam up anguishing questions, and is certainly not likely to lead to praise" (A Half Century of Theology, p. 92). He did not wish to question the divine freedom. He sought to clarify its meaning in a way that "phrases like 'incontestible freedom' and ... 'absolute possibility'" (A Half Century of Theology, p. 91)fail to do. He insisted that the New Testament "avoids a dialectic between divine freedom and human freedom" (A Half Century of Theology, p. 101). He emphasized that divine freedom should be understood in connection with divine goodness (A Half Century of Theology, p. 91 - referring to Matthew 20:15). He maintained that divine freedom reminds man that he must not presume on divine goodness. He emphasized that divine freedom serves as " summons to conversion" (A Half Century of Theology, p. 91 - referring to Matthew 22:14 and Matthew 20:16).
Relating his understanding of divine sovereignty and divine freedom to the interpretation of Romans 9-11, Berkouwer wrote, "Words like 'sovereignty' ought not to be approached abstractly via a formal concept: this can only create the impression that we are capturing our own understanding or words in transparent definitions and then applying them directly to God without deeper consideration, as though he naturally fits the definition garnerd from human experience. Not surprisingly, this abstract notion of sovereignty has a profound effect when theologians apply it to ... Romans 9" (A Half Century of Theology, p. 91). He asked this question: "If divine freedom explains everything ... how is it posssible that Paul ... in ... Romans 9-11 ... does not end with a reasoned conclusion that the destiny of eveything and everyone is sealed from eternity. Why does he, rather, end with a breathtaking doxology" (A Half Century of Theology, p. 92 - followed by the words of Romans 11:33).
Berkouwer maintained that, when Romans 9-11 is understood as referring to "God's revelation of mercy ... and not to a 'naked sovereignty'", the illegitimacy of man's protest against God and the "mystical delight" of Paul's doxology are seen quite differenty from their deterministic interpretation (A Half Century of Theology, pp. 90, 93; Divine Election, pp. 65, 147-149). Man's protest is recognized as entirely inappropriate because "the doctrine of election is an 'inexpressible comfort' for both the believer and the nonbeliever since it proclaims that there is hope for the 'most miserable of men'" (A Half Century of Theology, p. 103). Paul's doxology is recognized as entirely appropriate because it is faith's response to the divine mercy in which "there is nothing of 'the inexplicable arbitrariness of power that moves one to put his fingers to his lips" (A Half Century of Theology, p. 93).
Berkouwer emphasizes that his reinterpretation of election "has nothing to do with a devaluation of divine sovereignty. It is not motivated by respect for the autonomy of the free man" (A Half Century of Theology, p. 95). He sought to affirm divine election while avoiding the dangers of determinism. Describing the process by which he reached this position, he wrote, "in the Bible's radical and open character, I found a way of speaking that is not defined by some darksome eternal background, but by the way of history" (A Half Century of Theology, p. 100; Divine Election, p. 71) - "I did not have to posit indeterminism over against determinism" (A Half Century of Theology, p. 101).
As Berkouwer's thought moved from abstract concept towards the person and work of Christ in whom the grace of God is clearly revealed, he found that he was not denying the free sovereignty of God but rather recognizing its character as the free sovereignty of grace (A Half Century of Theology, p. 102).He described the direction of his thought thus: "the reconsideration of election has tended ... not in the direction of a double decree that merely waits to be executed, but in the direction of grace as the nature, the character of election" (A Half Century of Theology, p. 102). He gave this summary of his understanding of election: "anyone who expects salvation from grace rather than works is set immediately within the sphere of election; but he need not encounter alongside or over election in grace a decision that was made in a hidden decree" (A Half Century of Theology, p. 102).

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