Berkouwer’s Theology of the Christian Life

Berkouwer places great emphasis on the practical character of theological reflection.
This emphasis is grounded in his understanding of the doctrines of (a) God; (b) revelation; and (c) reconciliation.
Underlying his interpretation of these doctrines is his understanding of grace.
The divine grace which comes to us through revelation and reconciliation is not, in Berkouwer’s view, a coercive power which devalues the significance of human activity.
Human activity is not, however, given an entirely autonomous significance that is quite independent of divine grace.
Man knows, through divine revelation and reconciliation, that he is dependent on divine grace without being destroyed by divine power (Divine Election (DE), pp. 47-50).
The Practical Significance of Berkouwer’s Doctrine of God
Berkouwer seeks to construct a theology which does full justice to both the true objectivity of the Christian faith and the necessity for that faith to be a subjectively experienced faith.
We are not to think of grace as “God is everything, man is nothing” (A Half Century of Theology (HCT), p. 208, citing Karl Barth). We are not, on the other hand, to turn the ‘God is everything, man is nothing’ on its head and make man the centre of our thinking. Man’s true freedom is found in willing and glad submission to the sovereign God of salvation. In seeking to understand our life in relation to God, we are concerned with the whole man and not simply a ‘religious’ part of man.
As we seek to understand and proclaim the Gospel, we must never forget that it is both the Gospel of God and the Gospel for man. As the Gospel of God, it is a Gospel of grace. As the Gospel for man, it is a Gospel which calls for faith.
* Berkouwer’s rejection of the idea that ‘God is everything’ and ‘man is nothing’ enables him to reject an ethical passivity which lacks the urgency of the Gospel’s ethical imperative (DE, Chapter 7, “Election and the Preaching of the Gospel”, pp. 218-253).
* By refusing to turn this notion around and make man the centre of his thinking, he is able also to reject an irreligious moralism which operates independently of the Gospel’s gracious initiative (the title of Berkouwer’s book, Faith and Sanctification, emphasizes the unbreakable connection between faith and sanctification).
* Berkouwer’s rejection of any conception by which God is restricted to a ‘religious’ sphere of life enables him to reject an individualistic otherworldliness which lacks the comprehensiveness of the Gospel’s orientation towards the whole man. Here, we may note Berkouwer’s comment on Bonhoeffer’s emphasis on the “deep this-worldliness of Christianity”. He says that it “close(s) the door to flight into the ‘beyond’ without ‘de-eschatologiz(ing) the Gospel’” (HCT, p. 214).
A proper understanding of the Christian life is, in Berkouwer’s view, rooted in a proper understanding of the doctrine of God.
* Ethical passivity is excluded by the Gospel’s demand for obedience.
* Irreligious moralism is excluded by the Gospel’s demand that such obedience is to be offered with gratitude to God.
* Individualistic otherworldliness is excluded by the Gospel’s demand for the obedience of the whole man.
The character of Christian living and its relationship to God is well expressed by Berkouwer in a passage where he contrasts conformity to God’s law and obedience to God: “A conformity is possible which is abstracted from the consideration of the Giver of the law, while the defining characteristic of obedience lies in listening to God’s command … The commandment of God is not an inert law, which man can impersonally fulfil or not, but something which calls for a total and personal relationship, in the giving over of the heart, and therein of the whole man, to obedience. In this relation, any abstraction is illegitimate. Obedience is always response to the divine demand and excludes every merely legalistic understanding of the law” (Man: The Image of God, pp. 177-178, emphasis mine).
Such a personal relationship with the living God, characterized by thankful obedience, is the indispensable foundation upon which Berkouwer builds his theology of the Christian life.
The Practical Significance of Berkouwer’s Doctrine of Revelation
When we speak of the importance of divine revelation, it is vital that we emphasize its connection with the Christian life. If theological reflection is to avoid becoming barren intellectualism, it is important to remember that the faith of the Church “comes out of the experience of God’s people struggling to hear his Word in the context of life” (M E Osterhaven, The Faith of the Church: A Reformed Perspective on Its Historical Development, p. 7).
* By emphasizing the divine initiative in revelation, Berkouwer rejects an anthropocentric subjectivism which makes human experience the ultimate criterion by which truth is judged
* By emphasizing the active character of man’s reception of revelation, he rejects an authoritarian objectivism which tends to remove the confession of Biblical authority from its context in the life of faith.
* By emphasizing the decisive character of man’s reception of revelation, he rejects an ontological speculation which tends to minimize the significance of man’s believing response to Christ.
A proper understanding of the Christian life is, in Berkouwer’s view, rooted in a proper understanding of the doctrine of revelation.
The Christian life is to be lived by man. Its foundation is not, however, to be found in man – “This directedness of the gospel is and remains focused on man, but cannot in its structure and horizon be hermeneutically approached from human existence itself – through a neutral analysis – but only from the content and direction of the evangel itself” (Holy Scripture (HS), pp. 123-124).
With this emphasis on the content and direction of the evangel itself, Berkouwer dissociates himself from three dangerous theological interpretations which tend to distort the character of the Christian life.
(i) The normativity of the evangel excludes the idea of human experience being given “constitutive importance in the determination of the central focus of Holy Scripture” (HS, p. 124).
The normativity of the evangel demands that there be no disrespect for the “concrete words” of Scripture through which the Spirit seeks to bind men to Christ (HS, p. 166).
(ii) The normativity of the evangel excludes the idea of Biblical authority being isolated from the evangelical purpose of Scripture: “When the ‘acceptance’ of Holy Scripture as the Word of God is separated from a living faith in Christ, it is meaningless and confusing to call this acceptance belief in Scripture or an ‘element’ of the Christian faith. This does not imply an underestimation of Scripture or of belief in it, but rather a great respect for Scripture, which addresses itself to our faith” (HS, p. 54).
Insisting that “(b)elieving Scripture does not mean staring at a holy and mysterious book but hearing the witness concerning Christ”, Berkouwer refuses to separate the acceptance of the Bible’s authority from the experience of “being gripped by the message to which its words testify” (HS, pp. 166-167).
The meaning and intention of the words must be understood if their authority is to be properly acknowledged.
(iii) The normativity of the evangel excludes the idea of the self-revelation of the gracious God being related to the existence of sinful man in a manner which lacks the urgency of the Biblical proclamation which “cannot be silenced … (and) is the very opposite of passivity or fatalism” (HS, p. 328): “’Behold, now is the acceptable time: behold, now is the day of salvation’ (II Cor. 6:2) … the gospel … does not only seek man in a timeless sector of his life – his intellect or feeling – but seeks to reach him in his total and concrete existence. It is not sufficient to refer here to preaching in its ‘objective’ reality, with which any kind of subjectivity must correspond. God’s word does not address man in abstract isolation but in his real life” (HS, pp. 328-329, emphasis mine).
Salvation is “not presented to us as a deed which as a matter of course comes to all, but as a calling of God … an invitation, a call to conversion” (Divine Election, pp. 235-236).
The personal relationship with the living God which is, for Berkouwer, the indispensable presupposition of the Christian life is entered upon through receiving with faith the Christ to whom the Biblical witness points. The sustenance of this relationship is rooted in a continual turning to this Christ in faith.
This emphasis requires to be maintained in the face of both a materialism which seeks to live by bread alone and a mysticism which, though it may continue to speak of a ‘Christ’, has dispensed with the Biblical Christ.
Biblical faith is neither a retreat into an ‘other-worldliness’ which sees no real significance in this world nor a retreat into a ‘this-worldliness’ of the secularist type.
The Practical Significance of Berkouwer’s Doctrine of Reconciliation
There are three inter-related aspects of divine reconciliation – (a) reconciliation to God, (b) reconciliation between human beings, (b) reconciliation within man himself. These aspects of divine reconciliation may not be arbitrarily separated from each other.
* The full meaning of divine reconciliation is not exhausted by an ethical analysis of human existence. Even where such an analysis proceeds on the basis of the ethical teaching of Jesus of Nazareth, it must be adjudged to be inadequate. If we are to achieve an adequate theological understanding of both the work of Christ and the human experience of reconciliation, we must build upon this foundation – reconciliation to God (Berkouwer discusses reconciliation in The Work of Christ (WCh), pp. 254-294).
* The full meaning of divine reconciliation is not exhausted by the individualistic notion of a reconciliation to God which does not significantly affect relationships between human beings. Those who are brought into fellowship with God through Christ are brought into fellowship with one another in Christ’s Church which is called to be “one body in Christ” (Romans 12:4; Berkouwer, The Church (Ch), pp. 78-81).
Insisting that “the severance of unity is a catastrophe for the world”, Berkouwer writes, “John 17 says as much, but we are so accustomed to disunity that we are in danger of becoming immune to its warning” (Ch, p. 46).
* The full meaning of divine reconciliation is not exhausted by an anthropology which relates God to a ‘religious’ part of man. It is the whole man who is both reconciled to God and called to live under the Lordship of Christ. Reconciliation to God involves neither a form of emotional escapism by which we commit intellectual suicide nor a form of other-worldly mysticism which is irrelevant to the concerns of this world.
Here, we emphasize that apologetics and social concern are not artificially attached to the gospel of reconciliation. They are integrally related to it.
(a) Discussing the meaning of Christ’s work of reconciliation, Berkouwer writes, “Reconciliation can be misconceived by ascribing the final decision to man, but also by objectifying it in preaching and by disqualifying unbelief not as sin and guilt but as a relatively unimportant foolishness (compared with God’s decision).” (WCh, p. 294, brackets original).
* Rejecting the former misconception, Berkouwer insists that “The admonition ‘be ye reconciled to God’ is … not an admonition to co-operation in the work of reconciliation, but the call to live in faith out of this reconciliation” (WCh, pp. 291-292).
* Rejecting the latter misconception, he contends that “God does not so much call our attention to the abyss from which we have been saved and the judgment tat lies behind us, as to the judgment that lies ahead, ‘namely, if we do not believe that in Christ (the former judgment) lies behind us” (WCh, pp. 293-294, citing H Berkhof, Crisis der Middenorthodoxie, pp. 37-40). H Berkhof comments helpfully on the relationship between judgment and proclamation – “The Bible speaks much about the terror of the judgment, but almost exclusively it concerns God’s enemies … all who knowingly and willingly oppose the proclamation and realization of His holy love in the world. Who are the ones who do that ‘knowingly and willingly’? We cannot point them out. The judgment will reveal it … Ours is the duty to call people to conversion in this life, and what God does with them in eternity is not our business.” (Christian Faith: An Introduction to the Study of Faith, pp. 530-531).
* Rejecting the idea that “God works half, and man the other half” and emphasizing that “God works all, and man does all” (A P F Sell, The Great Debate: Calvinism, Arminianism and Salvation, p. 98, emphasis mine, citing the words of John ‘Rabbi’ Duncan from W Knight (editor), Colloquia Peripatetica …, p. 30), Berkouwer draws attention to the Gospel’s emphasis on the absolute necessity of both grace and faith.
Concerning the significance for the Christian life of the ‘by grace – through faith’ character of reconciliation, he writes, “it is the marvel of the work of the Holy Spirit that those who really respond to the proclamation of reconciliation claim no merit whatsoever for that response, but rather find the essence of their joy and gratitude in God, who reconciled us unto himself” (WCh, p. 294).
There is no question of overemphasizing either grace or faith. Both are to be given the full emphasis given to them by the Gospel. There can, however, be a wrong emphasis – a failure to give both grace and faith their full emphasis.
This represents a misunderstanding of the relationship between grace and faith, which produces a distorted view of the Christian life.
A proper understanding of the Christian life is based on a proper understanding of the Gospel of reconciliation, in which both sides of its ‘by grace – through faith’ character are given their full emphasis.
(b) Berkouwer discusses the meaning of ‘Fellowship’ in terms of both privilege and responsibility: “The fact of belonging to Christ – in indicative and imperative, in gift and calling – entrusts a great deal to the Church, specifically the right, even in brokenness, to testify to true, new fellowship” (Ch, p. 101, emphasis mine).
The privilege and responsibility of fellowship is rooted in “God’s saving, reconciling action … (through which) (e)very individual need receives His undivided attention; yet, at the same time … by which the individual receives a human fellowship, ending all individualism” (Ch, p. 77).
By emphasizing both the privilege and the responsibility of fellowship, Berkouwer rejects both a pessimism which is insufficiently aware of the reality of grace and an apathy which pays insufficient attention to the responsibility of faith.
Berkouwer has absolutely refused to develop his theology in the direction of a religious individualism which pays scant attention to complex ecclesiological issues.
The perspective in which he sets those issues is most valuable because of his concern for both unity and truth. He affirms the importance of both unity and truth from the standpoint of involvement.
He does not seek a ‘unity’ which tends to ignore the complexity of the problems which have given rise to pessimism and apathy.
He does not, however, advocate the kind of commitment to ‘truth’ which is narrowly sectarian in outlook.
He expresses his view thus: “the search for common denominator ecumenicity is a fruitless way to seek unity. But it is no compromise of the faith to point to a common call to discipleship of Jesus Christ and to the gospel Paul preached, Jesus Christ and Him crucified” (The Second Vatican Council and the New Catholicism, p. 257). Concerning the “mistaken kind of ecumenism which glosses over genuine differences and seems to suggest that every point of view is equally valid, so long as it is sincerely held”, J Macquarrie writes, “Those who think in this way are really saying that there is neither truth nor untruth in theology; and this implies, in turn, that the whole theological enterprise is a waste of time” (Principles of Christian Theology (PCT), p. viii).
(iii) Berkouwer emphasizes that “it is the whole man who is restored and saved” (Man: The Image of God, p. 229). In view of the comprehensiveness of God’s salvation, no single aspect of Christian communication – proclamation, apologetics, social concern – can be regarded as the entirety of Christian witness.
Finding “its basic resources within the gospel itself”, apologetics will carefully avoid turning the Gospel into “an echo of what was present in our heart before we came to it, a rewording of what we had already thought” (A Half Century of Theology, pp. 177, 73).
Grounded in the Gospel, social action will complement rather than compete with devotion to “prayer and … the ministry of the word” (Acts 6:4 – The episode described in Acts 6:1-6 is most instructive for the modern Church. “Prayer and the ministry of the word” and social concern are not treated as mutually exclusive alternatives. Neither are expendable since they belong together in the total context of the Church’s witness in the world.
The Gospel of reconciliation excludes an intellectualism which remains rather remote from the life of fellowship, and an otherworldliness which remains rather remote from the life of service. In PCT, J Macquarrie seeks to avoid the dangers of (a) an intellectualism in which theology, forgetting “its roots in experience … becomes a mere scholasticism” (pp. 5-6); (b) an individualism in which theology becomes “subjective, introspective and individualistic” because of a failure to “keep in view the experience of the whole community of faith” (p. 6) and (c) an otherworldliness in which theology insulates itself against “all contact with the changing forms of secular culture” and thud fails to address itself “to its own day and generation” (p. 13).
We may note with interest Macquarrie’s concern with maintaining “a proper balance … between …experience and revelation” (p.7) without “try(ing) to be modern for the sake of modernity, … (without) accomodat(ing) the revelation to the mood of the time” (p. 13).
Contemporary theology requires to give close and careful attention to “(t)he problem … of maintaining a fine balance … (, of) find(ing) a way between … dangerous extremes” (p. 13).
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).