Charles’s quotes


"It is surely ours to combine these elements of mourning for sin and joy in our salvation in one complex and composite experience which keeps us perpetually humble and yet perpetually joyful too."— Rev William Still

Monday, 26 February 2018

Karl Barth the Preacher: “Keep before your eyes our Lord Jesus Christ”

Prior to his ‘forty years as a professor’, Barth spent ‘twelve years as a preacher’ (Evangelical Theology: An Introduction (from the Foreword to the German Edition). As a theologian, he never lost sight of the importance of preaching. Although he worked for so many years in the university, he always saw his theological work as part of the church’s work: ‘I said to myself. “If I am a theologian, I must try to work out broadly what I think I  have perceived as God’s revelation. What I think I have perceived. Yet not I as an individual but I as a member of the Christian church”. This is why I call my book Church Dogmatics. “Church” here does not mean that the church is responsible for all that I say, but that I as one member of the church have reflected on what may be perceived in revelation and tried to present it to the best of my conscience and understanding’ (A Karl Barth Reader, 113, emphasis original).
Barth’s theological work was a part of the church’s work. Ultimately, however, it was a part of God’s work. At the heart of his work lay his relationship with God, a relationship which involved him in listening to God and speaking to God. Concerning the importance of listening to God, he writes: ‘The object of theological work is not some thing but some one… The task of theological work consists in listening to Him’. Stressing the importance of speaking to God in prayer, Barth insists that ‘without prayer there can be no theological work’. He stresses that this ‘rule… is valid under all circumstances pray and work!’ This does not mean that we begin with prayer and then regard prayer as incidental to the work which is done - “theological work does not merely begin with prayer and is not merely accompanied by it’. Barth stresses that ‘prayer… is work… very hard work’. He insists that the work itself is essentially a prayer: ‘every act of theological work must have the character of an offering in which everything is placed before the living God’ (Evangelical Theology: An Introduction, 163 (emphasis original), 160).
As we hear Barth speaking of the importance of prayer, we come to the very heart of the man not simply the theologian before his students, not merely the preacher before his congregation, but the man before his God, the man listening to God and speaking to God, the man who says to us, ‘Keep before your eyes our Lord Jesus Christ’ (A Karl Barth Reader, 104).

A Critique of A. L. Baker’s book, “G. C. Berkouwer’s Doctrine of Election: Balance or Imbalance?”

The book, “G. C. Berkouwer’s Doctrine of Election: Balance or Imbalance?”, made its first appearance as a Th.D. dissertation (Dallas Theological Seminary, 1976), entitled “A Critical Evaluation of G. C. Berkouwer’s Doctrine of Election.”
It is my view that, apart from providing a catchy title, the revision of the original title adds nothing but ambiguity.
Showing distinct displeasure with Berkouwer’s treatment of ‘reprobation’ and with his interpretation of the Canons of Dort (pp. 39, 41-42, 115-126), Baker clearly holds that Berkouwer’s doctrine of election does not give a balanced account of the Biblical teaching on election.
Berkouwer, on the other hand, would argue that the strength of his doctrine of election is closely related to his rejection of the ‘balance’ of the equal ultimacy concept (cf. Divine Election, “Election and Rejection”, Chapter Six, pp. 172-217).
In view of this ambiguity, the original title might have been preferred unless, of course, this element has been deliberately introduced to arouse interest. There is, however, hardly any indication that Baker is aware of this ambiguity.
Maintaining that Berkouwer has continually failed to expound the full teaching of Scripture concerning the ‘before’ element of divine election, Baker insists that “Berkouwer cannot communicate what the Bible means by ‘election’ if he neglects such a determinative concept” (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).
Berkouwer does not wish to dispense with the ‘before’ element in God’s election. Rather, he seeks to understand it in a way that does not diminish the significance of the historical revelation of God’s love in Jesus Christ.
Baker contends that, in his interpretation of Ephesians 1:4 - “chosen before the foundation of the world” - , Berkouwer has undermined the ontological foundation of divine election. There is, in Baker’s view, a suggestion that he has not distanced himself sufficiently from his own outlook in order to understand more sympathetically and accurately Berkouwwer’s understanding of the language of predestination.
In his critique of Berkouwer’s doctrine of election, A. L. Baker writes, “Berkouwer desires to maintain a dynamic concept of election, but instead lays most of his emphasis on the human response to the gospel. He continually warns against ‘an objectivized election that goes its own way without consideration for faith and unbelief” (G. C. Berkouwer’s Doctrine of Election: Balance or Imbalance?, (1981), p. 67, citing Berkouwer, The Return of Christ, p. 333).
In response to this criticism, it should be pointed out that, as well as placing a proper emphasis on the human response to the Gospel, Berkouwer, in his exposition of the doctrine of election, repeatedly emphasizes the divine origin of our salvation:
“… in Scripture the election of God … does not come out of works but out of grace” (Divine Election, p. 51),
“God’s electing plan prepares the way of salvation in which man learns that salvation is obtained only as a divine gift and never as an acquisition because of good works” (p. 68).
“… salvation … has its eternal foundation in the love of God” (p. 168).
“election is not of works but of Him who called” (p. 217).
“God’s election is sovereign and gracious, and hence not based on any human quality” (p. 308).
In view of Berkouwer’s repeated affirmation of the divine character of election, it must be denied that most of his emphasis is laid on the human response. Rather, it should be pointed out that Berkouwer’s penetrating analysis of the competition-motif enables him to place due emphasis on the human response without threatening the divine character of God’s gracious election .
Berkouwer emphasizes that a full emphasis on the significance of faith does not relativize the gracious character of salvation - “The character of faith resolves all tension between objectivity and subjectivity, For faith has significance only in its orientation to its object - the grace of God. Thus sola fide, instead of directing our attention to the believer, points us away from him to grace and God … Sola fide and sola gratia mean the same thing.” (Faith and Justification, pp. 29, 44, italics original).
In response to Baker’s contention that Berkouwer has continually failed to expound the ‘before’ element in election, it may be argued that Berkouwer has expounded this element. He has offered a different kind of exposition from that which Baker is asking for. An alternative exposition must, however, be distinguished from the absence of any exposition.

Predestination And Preaching

In his discussion of the 'pre' element in predestination, G. C. 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." He maintains that the inadequacy of our words is particularly felt when we speak of before and after with respect to God. In his attempt to understand the language of predestination, Berkouwer speaks of the "depth-aspect" of salvation. 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." Seeking to understand the idea of "before the foundation of the world", he writes, "These words do not occur in Scripture as 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 ... When we speak of the depth-aspect, we mean that eternity does not stand in contrast to what in time became 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."
 * A proper understanding of theological language is only attainable within the context of the obedience of faith. Here, we are emphasizing the integral relationship between Christian doctrine and Christian experience. We need both the Holy Scriptures and the Holy Spirit. The Word of God speaks to us of the Gospel which does not arise from our human experience. The Holy Spirit brings this Word from the Lord, and it becomes real in our human experience, changing us so that we become grateful to God and obedient to Him. The language of predestination may be understood as a form of expression, which the believer, who has willingly submitted himself to the authority of grace, uses to confess his faith in Christ.
 * A proper understanding of theological language is only attainable within the context of encounter with God. This does not imply a retreat into subjectivism since faith's subjectivity has meaning only in relation to the God in whom we put our trust. The language of predestination is understood in direct connection to the Gospel through which we come to know God in Christ. Set in this context, predestination need not be regarded as a form of determinism which threatens to strip human experience of decisive significance. Jesus said, "He who has seen Me has seen the Father" (John 14:9). When we place His words at the heart of our understanding of the gospel of God's sovereign grace, we can rest assured that, in our encounter with Christ, the revelation of God's love for us is not threatened by  a hidden God whose secret will cannot be known.
 * A proper understanding of theological language involves the recognition of the inexpressible character of the God whom we come to know in faith. The gift of God's grace, in Christ, is "an inexpressible gift" (2 Corinthians 9:15). 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 certain ambiguities and which, at worst, will suggest misleading impressions if his language is not understood as a groping after a form of expression that is worthy of a virtually inexpressible Reality.
     Through this approach to the doctrine of predestination, we are able to preach the Gospel as a joyful message, which is filled with true gladness. When 'the mirror of election' (Calvin) is a clearly reflecting mirror, which points us clearly to Jesus Christ, and not away from Him to an unknown God, we will preach the Gospel with both joy and urgency. 

G C Berkouwer and Apologetics

Berkouwer, Gerrit C. (1903-1996)
Throughout his lengthy career as Professor of Systematic Theology at the Free University of Amsterdam, he sought to understand the gospel more deeply. Best known for his multi-volumed Studies in Dogmatics, his chief work was in dogmatics rather than apologetics. His writings contain valuable insights relating to the work of apologetics. From his Studies in Dogmatics, there are two important discussions - 'Apostolicity and Truth' in The Church and 'Faith and Criticism' in Holy Scripture. Also of considerable interest are two chapters in A Half Century of Theology - ' The Era of Apologetics' and 'Faith and Reasonableness'. Distinguishing between an authentic authority and an unwarranted authoritarianism, he affirmed the essential reasonableness of the gospel. The call to faith in Christ is not a call for blind obedience. Believing in Christ does not require a sacrifice of the intellect. He also affirmed the spiritual character of the gospel, distancing himself from the kind of apologetics which tends to place undue emphasis on the capacity of human reason to bring people to faith in Christ. He rejected the idea of faith as a sacrifice of the intellect without ever suggesting that faith is no more than an act of unaided human reason. Recognizing the value of apologetics without attaching an exaggerated importance to it, he emphasized the need for both humility and courage in the defence of the Christian faith. In humility, apologetics must take care to avoid an unattractively militant approach. Resisting the temptation to trim the content of its message in search of relevance, apologetics should, with courage, affirm the gospel's irreducible content. Emphasizing the gospel's own inherent apologetic significance, he was critical of the kind of apologetics which shows little interest in those elements of Christian faith adjudged to be less apologetically relevant.
Bibliography
G. C. Berkouwer, A Half Century of Theology (Grand Rapids, 1977), pp. 25-38, 144-178; Holy Scripture, (Grand Rapids, 1975), pp.346-366; The Church, (Grand Rapids, 1976), pp.232-256
C. M. Cameron, The Problem of Polarization: An Approach based on the Writings of G. C. Berkouwer, (Lewiston, Queenston and Lampeter, 1992), pp. 247-284

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I wrote this article for the "New Dictionary of Christian Apologetics."
New Dictionary of Christian Apologetics

Common Grace and Saving Grace

The doctrine of common grace is important for the discussion of the relationship between the church and the world. where common grace is ignored, a radical dualism develops between the church and the world. Where the idea of common grace is dispensed with for the sake of accentuating the saving character of grace, there tends to be a failure to do justice to the biblical call to faith. the concept of common grace is a difficult idea which requires to be interpreted sensitively if theology is to avoid moving in the direction of either dualism or universalism. Neither dualism nor universalism does justice to the complex relationship between the church and the world. Dualism fails to appreciate the value of the world as created humanity. Universalism fails to appreciate the distinctiveness of the church as redeemed humanity. While the doctrine of common grace can be misused, its main thrust is commendable in that it seeks to preserve two important emphases - the church has a distinctive identity in the world; the life of the church never ceases to have relevance for the life of the world.
Berkouwer makes some important observations concerning common grace: "grace is at work even in fallen man ... common grace is constantly at work 'to bend partially back in the right direction those human powers and endowments, which were man left to himself would be wholly perverted'" (Man: The Image of God, pp. 153-154, emphasis mine); "common grace ... an imperfect solution ... does centre our attention on the gracious act of God in protecting man's corrupt and apostate nature from total demonization" (Man: The Image of God, p. 169).
With all its difficulties, the doctrine of common grace has a distinctive emphasis, which is most relevant to the discussion of the relation between the church and the world. It directs our attention to the grace of God and the constancy of his working in the world. Where the emphasis is placed on the constant working of his grace, the relation between the church and the world may be seen in terms of openness.
When we speak about saving grace and common grace, we should draw attention to the word "grace" rather than simply saying, "That's common grace. It's not saving grace" or "We're talking about saving grace. It's more than common grace." When we emphasize the word "grace", we emphasize that the God is constantly at work in our world is always ready to bring us beyond our everyday experience of His "common grace" and into the wonderful enjoyment of His "saving grace."

Berkouwer on “‘Luther and Calvin’ on ‘Paul and James’”

The views of Luther and Calvin regarding the relationship between Paul and James - this is not merely a matter of historical curiosity. Rather, it points towards a way of overcoming the evangelism - social concern polarization.
Both Luther and Calvin were committed to the principles of “grace alone”, “faith alone”, “Christ alone” and “Scripture alone”. Both viewed the epistle of James in relation to what was regarded as “the incontrovertible and central message of salvation” (Berkouwer, Holy Scripture, (1975; Dutch, two volumes, 1965, 1967), p. 95).
They did, however, reach different conclusions concerning this epistle. Luther held that it “has no evangelical nature to it” (p. 93; cf. C. E. B. Cranfield, “The Message of James”, Scottish Journal of Theology, Vol. 18, No. 2 (June 1965), p. 182). Calvin wrote that “it contains nothing unworthy of an Apostle of Christ” (Calvin’s Commentaries - from “The Argument on the Epistle of James”; cf. Cranfield, “The Message of James”, p. 183).
Berkouwer insists that Calvin’s favourable estimation of the epistle of James does not reflect a weaker commitment to the doctrine of the Gospel (Faith and Justification, (1954; Dutch - 1949), pp. 131-139). His interpretation of the Paul-James question is in line with Calvin’s view.
Berkouwer holds that Luther’s criticisms of James reflect a limited insight into the relationship between Paul and James (Holy Scripture, p. 96). He interprets Luther critically and appreciatively. His perceptive remarks are most pertinent to the development of a theology of social concern. Critical of Luther’s principle “that which sets forth Christ” in his interpretation of James, Berkouwer insists that every exegetical principle must proceed on the basis of the recognition of “the limitations and continuing growth of our insight” (p. 96; cf. Cranfield, “The Message of James”, p. 182, n. 6 where it is suggested that words written by Luther two days before his death (cited from W. Niesel, Reformed Symbolics: A Comparison of Catholicism, Orthodoxy and Protestantism, (1962), p. 227) “seem to indicate a humbler attitude toward Scripture, and perhaps Niesel is right in seeing in them something of a recantation of earlier too cocksure utterances” (p. 183 - continuing n. 6, begun on p. 182; referring to Niesel, p. 230)). Berkouwer says, “It is incorrect to say that Luther later retracted his criticisms (of the epistle of James) ” (Holy Scripture, p. 95, n. 111, brackets mine). Berkouwer is quite correct since there was no specific retraction of Luther’s criticism of the epistle of James. Irrespective of the particular question of Luther’s view of the epistle of James, the words written by Luther two days before his death embody an important recognition of the limitation of theology’s grasp of the meaning of the Scriptures.
Appreciative of the Biblical character of Luther’s understanding of the Gospel, Berkouwer issues this warning to contemporary theology: “the methodology of every ‘canon-in-the-canon’ is dangerous, especially when it manifestly contradicts the church’s - and Luther’s - recipere of the gospel” (p. 97; “and Luther’s”, emphasis mine; “recipere”, italics original). Like Luther, Berkouwer emphasizes the relationship between Scripture and the Gospel. The confession of Scripture’s canonical authority does not, for Berkouwer, involve an assertion that “its boundaries must be readily provable and perspicuous” (p. 89; cf. Chapter 10, pp. 267-298). He relates this confession to “the message of salvation … the foundation on which the church is built” (pp. 90-91). the Church confesses that she has heard and received the Biblical testimony concerning Christ (p. 90). The Church was, in Berkouwer’s view, “led, in the matter of the boundaries of the canon, by a basic commitment centred in the gospel” (pp. 102-103 - “A true confession of Holy Scripture is possible only when one has yielded himself to the testimony of Scripture … one can never legitimately devaluate Scripture while intending to pay attention to the content of the message”). This search for Christ in the Scriptures need not lead to “distinctions between ‘center’ and ‘periphery’ in the canon in a manner which presupposes that the periphery is unimportant” (p. 90). The idea of “a reduction to the ‘canon-within-the-canon’ is fraught with the danger that the canon of Scripture will be replaced by “a canon of our own creation … a projection of our own minds” (p. 103). This danger must be carefully avoided if Christian living is not to be impoverished by a one-sided emphasis on either personal faith or social concern.
In his interpretation of the relationship between Paul and James, Berkouwer uses theological principles employed by Luther. He does not, however, reach Luther’s conclusions. Berkouwer points out that “Luther is able to speak of the sure fact that Scripture is a light clearer than sunlight … it stands in immediate relationship to saving faith, and difficulties with some words do not affect the clarity” (p. 277).
Luther emphasized the importance of the ‘Scripture alone’ principle: “We must let Scripture have the chief place and be its own truest, simplest and clearest interpreter … I want Scripture alone to rule, and not to be interpreted according to my spirit or that of any other man, but to be understood in its own light and according to its own Spirit” (A Commentary on St. Paul’s Epistle to the Galatians , (1953), p. 9 ; cited in the “Editor’s preface” from the Weimar edition of Luther’s Works, (1938), Vol. 7, pp. 97 ff.).
The relationship between Luther’s view of Scripture and his view of the epistle of James is complicated (Berkouwer, Faith and Justification, p. 130, n. 50). Luther did not regard the epistle of james as apostolic yet he did regard it as canonical. he held that the epistle of James was, compared with Paul’s epistles, “truly an epistle of straw”, yet he frequently quoted James without criticism, especially 1:18 for which he had “a special love” (p. 130, n. 50, citing J. Haar, Initium creaturae Dei, (1939), pp. 28 ff.).
The tension between Luther’s concern with “the apostolic, evangelical content of Scripture” (Berkouwer, Holy Scripture, p. 93) and his principle, “Scripture is its own interpreter” is not, in Berkouwer’s view, an insurmountable tension. he suggests that Luther’s criticisms of James reflect an “impetuous” (Faith and Justification, p. 130, n. 50) reaction to “Roman Catholic opposition … (which) emphasized the words about being justified ‘not by faith alone’” (Holy Scripture, p. 94 - Berkouwer points out that Luther “at first, in his commentary on Romans, … saw no contradiction between Paul and James (and that) he later arrived at his critical position regarding the latter” (brackets mine); cf. Luther, Lectures on Romans, (1961), pp. 100-102).
Berkouwer maintains that Calvin, who faced similar opposition, “saw a harmony in the witness of Paul and James which Luther missed” (Faith and Justification, p. 131). This harmony becomes clear when the “difficulties with some words” (Holy Scripture, p. 277) are understood in the light of luther’s principle, “let Scripture … be its own truest, simplest and clearest interpreter” (Luther’s Works, (Weimar edition), Vol. 7, pp. 97 ff.)
Berkouwer’s view of the Paul-James question is most instructive for the discussion of the evangelism-social concern polarization. he holds that “James is concerned with those who have not understood nor brought into practice the close connection between faith and works” (Faith and Justification, p. 132). He states that “on this point there is no divergence from Paul” (p. 133). Discussing James’ reference to demonic faith (2:19), he states that”the mere faith James is against is existentially aloof from its object” (p. 134) and that “this ‘merely believe’ is quite different from Paul’s ‘through faith alone’” (p. 134).
A proper understanding of the relationship between Paul and James is, in Berkouwer’s view, grounded in the recognition that Paul, in Romans 4:3, cites Genesis 15:6 - “Abraham believed God and it was reckoned to him as righteousness” - while James (2:21) begins from Genesis 22 - Abraham’s willingness to offer his son Isaac (p. 135).
Berkouwer observes the relationship between Genesis 22 and Genesis 15 in the thought of James:
“As to this ‘work’, this act of faith, James makes this surprising statement that the Scripture is therewith fulfilled, which says, ‘And Abraham believed God and it was reckoned unto him for righteousness; and he was called the friend of God’ (James 2:23). James too, then, quotes the text from Genesis 15 which Paul has used. But James cites it in a special connection; Genesis 15 is fulfilled in what occurs in Genesis 22. Faith and work - James sees their inter-woven congruency over the totality of life” (pp. 135-136, emphasis original).
Berkouwer contends that James’ attack on “dead faith” (p. 137, emphasis original) and his protest for faith as “a truly experienced reality” (p. 136), which dominates the whole of life, does not conflict with Paul who speaks against the works of the law but not against the works of faith.
“That this whole whole James vs. Paul affair could have arisen at all is ascribable to a failure to distinguish between works of the law and the works of faith” (p. 137).
This interpretation, which refuses to be caught on the horns of a faith-works dilemma, is of great significance for the discussion of the evangelism-social concern question. It presents a perspective in which the fullness of truth is preserved over against every tendency to misinterpret the message of the Gospel by emphasizing one aspect of the other out of its Biblical proportions.

Calvin's Description of Christ as "the Mirror of Election"

On the whole, Berkouwer shows considerable agreement with Calvin. Where there is disagreement, this tends to be minimized through sympathetic interpretation which accentuates their agreement. Whenever disagreement is inevitable, it is always respectful disagreement. Berkouwer’s criticisms of Calvin are never offered without the greatest respect for the great Reformer.
While Berkouwer offers much sympathetic exposition and interpretation of Calvin, it is clearly not his intention ‘to defend every one of Calvin’s utterance concerning the doctrine of election’ (Divine Election, p. 190). In particular, he is critical of the ‘imbalance in the causa-concept which we observe in Calvin’ (p. 181). Even here, however, Berkouwer’s criticism is sympathetic rather than scathing. He refers to an imbalance which requires correction rather than presenting an equally unbalanced and categorical rejection of Calvin’s valid insight into the central importance of the doctrine of election.
Emphasizing the close connection between between election and pastoral concern, Berkouwer commends Calvin's idea of Christ as the ‘mirror of election’. In this idea, Berkouwer sees a way of emphasizing the close relation between election and the certainty of salvation. Berkouwer commends Calvin for his pastoral sensitivity.
Berkouwer is not, however, convinced that Calvin has ‘on the basis of this conception … in all respects drawn the proper conclusions and formed them into a harmonious “system”‘ (The Triumph of Grace in the Theology of Karl Barth, p. 285). He regards some of Calvin’s exegesis (e.g. Romans 9-11) as questionable. Nevertheless, he maintains that Calvin’s basic insight concerning Christ as the mirror of salvation demands that he be given a much more sympathetic interpretation than he has frequently been given.
By sympathetic criticism and creative reinterpretation, Berkouwer has offered an approach which may well prove to be of great value in contemporary discussions of divine sovereignty and human freedom. In his frequent discussion of Calvin’s insights, Berkouwer has warned us against the danger of dismissing Calvin as ancient history. He has reminded us that, while we may not feel bound to absolute agreement with every detail of Calvin’s theology, we can still learn a great deal from this seminal thinker whose significance goes far beyond his own generation.

Berkouwer and Systematic Theology

Sometimes, it is said that Berkouwer's theology is not very systematic. I think that, to appreciate the systematic quality of Berkouwer's theology, you need to get deeply into it, reading quite a bit of his work and thinking along with him.
I have tended to regard his work on 'Holy Scripture' & 'Divine Election' as important though, admittedly, many others are less happy with these volumes).
The more I reflected on these books, the more I felt that he wasn't being unsystematic. He was opening up perspectives which shed new light on these doctrines.
In my book, I expound Berkouwer's doctrines of Scripture & election, seeking - along the way - to defend his approach against his critics.
An important aspect of Berkouwer's approach is summed up in the two principles - Speak where Scripture speaks. Remain silent where Scripture remains silent.
There is, however, another aspect of Berkouwer's approach which is worthy of mention. He was a creative thinker. The first book to alert me to Berkouwer was P E Hughes (ed.), Creative Minds in Contemporary Theology'. By describing him as a creative thinker, I'm not suggesting that he goes his own way, creating his own theology while paying little attention to the Scriptures. He has, however, shown a willingness to re-think theological interpretations which many have thought were settled & not up for discussion.
An example of this is found in his way of handling the doctrine of election where, being unwilling simply to set divine sovereignty & human responsibility over against each other and leave it at that, he suggests a way in which we might affirm both in a more harmonious manner.

The Purpose of Scripture

Berkouwer emphasizes that “the purpose of the God-breathed Scripture is not at all to provide a scientific gnosis in order to convey and increase human knowledge and wisdom, but to witness of the salvation of God unto faith” (Holy Scripture, p. 180). He insists that “This approach does not mean to separate faith and knowledge. But the knowledge that is the unmistakable aim of Scripture is the knowledge of faith, which does not increase human wisdom, but is life eternal” (p. 180).

Saturday, 24 February 2018

Hearing and Speaking the Word of God

"If theology is to speak adequately of the gospel of Jesus Christ, it must be thoroughly committed to hearing “the powerful witness of the ‘tremendous’ Word that always speaks against us so that we can learn to stop speaking against it.” (A Half Century of Theology, p. 74).
This quotation is taken from Berkouwer’s account of Karl Barth’s reaction to the theological method of Rudolf Bultmann.

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).

Berkouwer’s Contribution to the Ecumenical Movement

The challenge of the  theological  discussion of the doctrine of the Church extends far beyond the bounds of Protestantism.
E. Schlink emphasizes that “the Reformation Churches … do not take ecumenical discussion seriously unless they are prepared to enter upon discussion with the Orthodox and the Roman Catholic Church” (The Coming Christ and the Coming Church (1967), p. xii). 
Berkouwer’s major ecumenical contribution has been concerned with the relation between Protestantism and Roman Catholicism. His theological method is also of relevance to the East-West conflict.
Berkouwer’s theological method is (a) doxological and (b) confessional.
(a) Doxological  - “The work of theology must be climaxed, not with the satisfaction of having solved an intellectual problem, but with a doxology to the God of grace” (L. B. Smedes, “G. C. Berkouwer” in P. E. Hughes, (editor), Creative Minds in Contemporary Theology, edited by , p. 69).
This theological method is similar to the approach to “(d)ogma in the Eastern Church (which) is quite apparently determined to a large degree by the structure of doxology” (E. Schlink, p. 272).
(b) Confessional - “Only those matters that the believer can and ought to confess as his  personal faith… are the proper conclusion of theology” (L. B. Smedes, pp. 65-66).
This theological method is similar to the Eastern approach to “dogma (which) is determined by the creedal confession of the services of worship” (E. Schlink, p. 272).
These points of similarity suggest that Berkouwer’s approach might prove fruitful in the East-West dialogue.
Since, however, Berkouwer has concentrated his attention more directly on Protestant- Roman Catholic relations, I will, in this series of posts, focus attention on that particular Berkouwer “was invited by Pope John XXIII to be an official observer at the Second Vatican Council” (The Second Vatican Council and the New Catholicism (1965), p. 4 , from L. B. Smedes’ Translator’s Preface).
With his involvement in both the World Council of Churches and the Second Vatican Council, Berkouwer would agree with the Roman Catholic scholar, Hans Kung, who has written, “The work of the World Council of Church on the one hand and the Second Vatican Council on the other is bearing fruit” (The Church (1968), pp. 276-277).
Berkouwer has written two earlier books on Roman Catholicism - The Conflict with Rome  and Recent Developments in Roman Catholic Thought (both 1958).
Highlighting the major importance of Berkouwer's book, The Second Vatican Council and the New Catholicism -  Berkouwer, “extremely well qualified to report on the theological problems” associated with Vatican II”, has written “both wisely and critically - just the way we Catholics need it!” (from the outside, rear dust cover of the book).

Tuesday, 20 February 2018

G C Berkouwer, “A Half Century of Theology”

In my book on Berkouwer ("The Problem of Polarization: An Approach based on the writings of G C Berkouwer"), I wrote quite a bit about his book, “A Half Century of Theology.” I focused on what he had to say about apologetics and social concern. The discussion ranged quite widely,drawing upon passages from all over the book.
At the outset of this discussion, I made the point that a study of Berkouwer’s theology would be incomplete without any detailed discussion of this late work, ‘A Half Century of Theology’ (Dutch, 1974; English, 1977).
This is the way in which I introduced the discussion.
“This discussion of Berkouwer’s appreciative analysis of apologetics and social concern focuses attention on his later work, ‘A Half Century of Theology.’ Having ‘personally experienced this half-century of theology… as a continuing event’ (p. 7), Berkouwer discusses today’s questions in its light: ‘even at the beginning questions were being raised and answered that are still nagging us today… That we are wrestling today with questions put on the agenda a half-century ago commends modesty in our address to today’s challenge. But it may also encourage us to accept that challenge with a curiosity aroused by that which is truly new, the gospel of Jesus Christ who makes all things new, the gospel which theology is dedicated to understand and translate for our generation’ (p. 9). Modesty and curiosity are important elements in theology’s development. Both a willingness to learn from the past and a readiness to face the future are required.” (”The Problem of Polarization: An Approach based on the writings of G C Berkouwer”, p. 246).

G C Berkouwer - Scholarly, Pastoral And Evangelical

These comments are taken from the Jack Rogers book, "Confessions of a Conservative Evangelical" (Philadelphia, 1974).
Berkouwer was reared in a denomination which "began in rather conservative isolation ... he has developed a scholarly, pastoral, evangelical stance. And he has brought a whole denomination with him" (p. 143) - "you can become less conservative and more evangelical" (12).

What is man?

For much of modern theology, the question, “What is man?” must precede the question, “Who is God?” The approach which begins with man (’from below’) can be set against the approach which begins with God (’from above’). 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 Man: The Image of God.
Berkouwer writes, “all sorts of theoretical knowledge does not answer the question, What is man?” (Man: The Image of God, p. 20).
He insists that “man’s nature … is not self-enclosed, and … can never be understood outside of its relation to God … The relation of man’s nature to God is not something which is added to an already complete, self-enclosed, isolated nature; it is essential and constitutive for man’s nature, and man cannot be understood apart from this relation” (pp. 22-23).
This is not an authoritarian imposition of theology upon anthropology. It is a consistent development of the faith in the living God which holds that since man has been created in the image of God, he cannot be understood properly apart from God.
It is worthy of note that D. Lyon, in his book, Christians and Sociology, describes Berkouwer’s book, Man: The Image of God  as “full of insight relevant to the sociologist” (in the list of books suggested by Lyon for “Further Reading”).
Berkouwer emphasizes that the divine revelation in creation and reconciliation does not stand over against man as a purely heteronomous factor.
Insisting that God’s sovereignty, rightly understood, forms the true foundation for human freedom, he writes, “The divine act. That possibility is not absorbed or destroyed by divine superiority, but created, called forth by it” (Divine Election, p. 46).
He describes the divine superiority as “the personal superiority of love and grace which in man’s experience is making room for him to act by not destroying his freedom” (Divine Election, p. 49).
In his book, Man: The Image of God, he discusses “Human Freedom”, emphasizing that man finds his true freedom in and through real submission to the divine sovereignty (Chapter Nine, pp. 310-348).
He stresses that any other conception of human freedom leads to man’s sovereignty and the reduction of God to an idea. He points out that the freedom of autonomous man “is not honored with this name in the New Testament, but is rather rejected and unmasked” (p. 325).
He insists that the New Testament presents freedom as “freedom in and through Christ”, pointing out that such freedom is “no … abstract concept of freedom but … freedom … in a completely relational sense” (p. 321).
Berkouwer emphasizes that man’s relation to God is inescapable so that, even in his guilt, the life of man is affected by divine grace.
A proper understanding of the relation between total corruption and common grace helps to overcome the heteronomy - autonomy dilemma.
He insists that there is “not … some last reserve in man, some untouched and untouchable ‘part’ of man which has escaped the power of sin and corruption”, emphasizing that “man through sin became wholly corrupt in his disobedience and enmity … but he still remained man” (Man: The Image of God, p. 127).
Insisting that we are not concerned here with “a simple ‘part corrupt, part not’, a simple quantitative reduction” (p. 128), he maintains that “man (does) not have the power to begin by himself any change in spiritual things” (pp. 131-132, brackets mine, emphasis original).
He holds that, even in his fallenness, man’s humanness is preserved and that fallen man cannot escape from his relation to God into an area beyond humanness and responsibility (as is implied in expressions such as demonization and dehumanization) (pp. 134-135).
He describes fallen man’s relation to God thus: “Man stands and remains standing in his human responsibility and in his human guilt over against God” (p. 135).
Discussing the significance of the Flood in Genesis, he emphasizes that “‘The continuance of life’ has its ground not in the relative nature of man’s sin but rather in the divine ‘nevertheless’, in the grace … of God” (p. 141).. He writes, “Thus (there is) total corruption, but a limited curse; but the limit of the wrath of God is never derived from a limited corruption … it is the light which shines in man’s total corruption as the light of mercy” (p. 142).
Berkouwer holds that, while the question of man must always be related to the question of God, it is by no means swallowed up by the question of God. This understanding of theological anthropology promises to overcome the heteronomy - autonomy dilemma in philosophy, the ‘from above - from below’ dilemma in theology.
His understanding of the divine - human relation is set over against erroneous uses of the concept of relation, which threaten to produce polarization.
Observing that ” … the concept of relation has often been interpreted in ways which are erroneous. It can be interpreted to mean that man exists only in relation to God, and God only in relation to man”, he insists that “such misuses of the concept may not deter us from giving due weight … to the Biblical concept of relation to God”. He emphasizes that we are not asked to choose “relation over reality”. He holds that “such a dilemma … is not at all in line with the Biblical outlook, which does not sacrifice reality to relation, but shows us reality existing as reality, full created reality, only in this relation to God” (Man: The Image of God, p. 35).
Berkouwer claims that, in theological anthropology, we are dealing “not … with an abstract idea  of man, but … actual man” (Man: The Image of God, emphasis original). He challenges all forms of idealistic anthropology to engage in self-criticism: “any search for a hidden center in man’s nature which turns from the actual man to look for the ‘real’ man must face the question whether this shift is justified” (p. 18). This challenge is directed to both humanism and existentialism. His basic challenge to both views centres on the question of evil. He insists that “we cannot escape considering evil” (p. 13, emphasis original). Commenting on the words of Jeremiah 17:9 - “The heart is deceitful above all things … “, he notes both the uniqueness (”above all things”) and the universality of man’s evil (p. 13). he then poses the question “whether such an ‘abysmal’ view of man … is not an extreme  exaggeration … but rather a genuine description of the real man … ” (p. 13, emphasis original).
Berkouwer notes the complexity of contemporary humanism’s treatment of man: “On the one hand, it is frequently critical of exaggerated optimism about man, and, on the other hand, it remains unwilling to give up the humanistic transition from the ‘actual’ man to the ‘real’ man” (Man: The Image of God, p. 14). He points out that “contemporary humanism … does not want to be identified with the earlier, naively optimistic faith in man ‘yet’ in the last analysis humanism’s outlook as regards the ‘real’ man still remains” (p. 15).
In his discussion of existentialism, Berkouwer contends that despite “the existentialist stress on evil in man” (Man: The Image of God,  p. 24), there remains  a trace of idealism in “the existentialist emphasis on human freedom” (p. 24). He maintains that “the problem of the search for the hidden center, the search for the ‘real’ man, again becomes acute” (p. 24). Berkouwer’s criticism of existentialism is that it “does not continue its concentration on man’s misery, but points to his (self-produced) salvation” (p. 25). Berkouwer holds that such an anthropology can be described as “a new form of humanism” (p. 28). Berkouwer holds that “The antithesis to a Biblical view of man lies in idealistic anthropology - even if it incorporates within itself a certain amount of realism and unmasking of man’s evil” (p. 25). His fundamental criticism of both humanism and existentialism concerns their anthropocentricism: “the essential religious aspect of man’s being is lost in a horizontal type of analysis … the way to self - knowledge is impossible to traverse with this kind of horizontal analysis, since the decisive dimension of man’s nature, his relation to God, remains outside the analysis” (p. 29, emphasis original).It is not being suggested here that all existentialist thinkers should be grouped together indiscriminately. There is a difference between religious and atheistic existentialism. There are differences within both religious existentialism and atheistic existentialism.  One only has to mention the names - Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Heidegger, Camus, Sartre and Buber - to highlight the different types of existentialism.In highlighting Berkouwer’s criticism of existentialism (chiefly directed against the philosophies of Sartre and Heidegger, pp. 28-29), we should not overlook the fact that Berkouwer himself stresses the “existential character” of the question of man (p. 18). when we seek to understand ‘man’, we are seeking to understand “ourselves” . We are involved within the entirety of our own existence (p. 18).
Berkouwer’s theological anthropology presents a demanding challenge to atheistic philosophy. It suggests that there are weighty reasons for questioning the adequacy of the atheistic anthropology. it suggests that the atheistic philosophy has difficulty in remaining within the framework of a horizontal analysis without implying questions which go beyond the scope of its own analysis.
Berkouwer’s theological anthropology questions the adequacy of the atheistic exclusion of the religious dimension from the analysis of human life. It questions the adequacy of the atheistic analysis of such questions as the origin and destiny of human life. It questions the adequacy of the atheistic treatment of questions relating to the meaning of human life.
Here, we may note the thought - provoking words of R. Brow who maintains that we can choose to give meaning to our own existence - “egotheism”: “I believe in myself, only giver of meaning” or we can find the meaning of our life in God our Creator (Religion: Origin and Ideas, p. 77).

Christian Doctrine and Christian Experience

Describing Berkouwer's theological method, L B Smedes writes, 'The truth of the Gospel ... is known and understood only within the total context of both revelation and the obedience of faith. Theology, whose task is to restate that truth, is determined in its methods and limited in its conclusions by the nature of the Gospel as it is heard and obeyed in faith' ('G C Berkouwer' in P E Hughes (ed), Creative Minds in Contemporary Theology, p.95).
Writing from this perspective in which Christian truth never ceases to be existentially challenging to his readers, Berkouwer has produced some very valuable studies in Christian doctrine.
We can illustrate this point by noting some relevant passages in his Studies in Dogmatics.
At the outset of his book, Holy Scripture, he criticizes 'an incorrect conception of theology, a conception which considers it possible to discuss Holy Scripture apart from a personal relationship of belief in it, as though that alone would constitute true "objectivity"' (pp. 9-10).
He holds that a misguided fear of subjectivism lapses into a false objectivism with the suggestion that the Christian truth can be considered without direct reference to the believer's personal involvement with that truth.
He emphasizes the importance of having a proper understanding of the relationship between faith and its object: 'faith is decisively determined by the object of faith, namely, God and His Word'. He emphasizes that this 'does not ... imply that Scripture ... derives its authority from the believer's faith'. He insists that 'this idea is already rendered untenable by the very nature of faith, which rests on and trusts in the Word of God' (Holy Scripture, p. 10).
Using the word, 'relativity' to describe the correlation between faith and its object, Berkouwer distances himself from any suggestion of 'philosophical relativism'. He does not intend to call in question the authority of Scripture for theological reflection. Seeking rather to understand the true nature of that authority, he points out that his use of the idea of 'relativity ... refers simply to the relation of a thing to something other than itself' (Faith and Justification, p.9). Our theology is to be 'relative to the Word of God'. This means that we must be 'occupied in continuous and obedient listening to the Word' (Faith and Justification, p.9). A true acknowledgment of the authority of God and His Word involves us in walking in the way of Christ as our lives are lit up by the lamp and light of God's Word (Holy Scripture, pp.33-34).
Berkouwer has consistently emphasized both objectivity and subjectivity. He has stressed that faith's subjectivity and certainty is rooted in the truth of the Gospel: 'Faith involves a certain subjectivity ... a subjectivity which has meaning only as it is bound to the gospel' (Faith and Justification, p.30).
With this dual emphasis on both objectivity and subjectivity, he seeks to avoid the twin pitfalls of objectivism and subjectivism. Emphasizing that 'the authority of God's Word is not an arbitrary, external authority ... (but) a wooing and conquering authority', he points out that 'Scripture's authority does not demand blind obedience'. What it does call for is 'a subjection that spells redemption ... a subjection to Christ whereby he is never out of view ... in which acceptance occurs with joy and willingness' (Holy Scripture, pp.349-350).
Seeking to acknowledge fully both the objectivity of Biblical authority and the subjectivity of the believer's experience of that authority, Berkouwer emphasizes that his view is 'not a subjectification of authority, which might only become reality through acknowledgement.' He is seeking rather to point to 'the unique authority (which) can only be acknowledged and experienced on the way' (Holy Scripture, p.348).
By adopting this position, Berkouwer is seeking to address the problems arising from both objectivism - theology's tendency to exaggerate its own capacity to systematize divine revelation - and subjectivism - theology's tendency to forget that it must always remain under the authority of divine revelation.
While the dangers of objectivism and subjectivism are distinguishable, it must be pointed out that they are closely related. They both arise from theology's failure to recognize its own limitations. Theology is limited by Scripture. Over against objectivism - overconfidnce in our capacity to systematize divine revelation - , we must insist that theology is not permitted to systematize where Scripture does not. Over against subjectivism - overconfidence on our capacity to pass judgment on divine revelation - , we must insist that theology is not permitted to speculate where Scripture does not.
Throughout his Studies in Dogmatics, we see Berkouwer seeking to hold together the obective and subjective elements in Christian faith.
In his volume on Sin, he maintains that by trying 'to construct abstract and causal answers to this question of sin's origin', we 'have violated the very limits of objectivity'. He provides us with these words of caution: 'Whoever reflects on the origin of sin cannot engage himself in a merely theoretical dispute; rather he is engaged, intimately and personally, in ... the problem of sin's guilt' (p.14).
Commenting on the 'Nature Psalms' in his book, General Revelation, he writes, 'This understanding and seeing, and hearing, is possible only
... in the enlightening of the eyes by the salvation of God'. He points out that 'this seeing and hearing is not a projection of the believing subject,
but an actual finding and seeing and hearing!' He emphasizes that 'here nothing is 'read into', but is only an understanding of the reality of revelation' (pp.131-132).
In his book, The Providence of God, Berkouwer relates providence to both the grace of God as the object of the believer's faith and the believer's faith by which providence is subjectively experienced. Maintaining that 'in the doctrine of Providence we have a specific Christian confession exclusively possible through a true faith in Jesus Christ', he insists that 'this faith is no general, vague notion of Providence'. He emphasizes that the doctrine of providence 'has a concrete focus: "If God is for us, who is against us? He that spared not his own Son, but delivered him up for us all, how shall he not also with him freely give us all things?" (Rom. 8:31-32)'. Drawing attention to 'the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord', he offers this comment, 'There is no purer expression of the depth of man's faith in God's Providence' (pp.45, 47).
In his book, The Person of Christ, he relates christology's content and method thus: '(T)heology is not practised apart from faith, prayer and adoration ... The whole subject matter of Christology is most intimately
related to the secret of revelation ... the enlightenment of the eyes' (pp.10, 14).
In his book, The Work of Christ, he describes the purpose of christology thus: '(T)he object is not a purely theoretical knowledge but a profitable,
wholesome knowledge of the salvation of God in Jesus Christ' (p.10).
Berkouwer's work on Faith and Justification is undergirded by this foundation-principle: 'The character of faith resolves all tension between objectivity and subjectivity. For faith has significance only in its orientation to its object - the grace of God' (p. 29).
His work on Faith and Sanctification is undergirded by the same principle: 'The sanctification ... demanded is always an implicate of the
sanctification that originates in God's mercy. Hence the sanctification
of believers is never an independent area of human activity ... (W)e can speak truly of sanctification only when we have understood the exceptionally great significance of the bond between Sola-fide
and sanctification ... (T)he Sola-fide ... a confession of 'By grace alone we are saved' ... is the only sound foundation for sanctification' (pp.26, 42-43).
His work on Faith and Perseverance is based on this same foundation: 'the perseverance of the saints is not primarily a theoretical problem but a confession of faith ... a song of praise to God's faithfulness and grace' (p.14).
Berkouwer's principle for understanding justification, sanctification and perseverance may be summed up thus: 'Sola fide (faith alone) and sola gratia (grace alone) ... mean the same thing' (Faith and Justification, p.44).
Concerning the confession, ' Credo Ecclesiam' (I believe in the Church), Berkouwer, writing in his volume entitled, The Church, insists that the Church's objectivity is not subjectivized by the affirmation that 'the only framework in which the Church can be and can remain the Church of the Lord (is) the framework of faith, prayer, obedience and subjection' (p.19).
Discussing reality and symbolism in his book, The Sacraments, he writes,
'Only if we reject false dilemmas ... it will be possible to delve deeper, to discern the sovereign manner in which God stoops down to us, taking up simple earthly elements and using them for the affirmation and strengthening of our faith' (p.26).
Throughout his Studies in Dogmatics, we find that Berkouwer is deeply concerned with developing an adequate understanding of the relationship between objectivity and subjectivity. If we are to appreciate the strength of Berkouwer's theology, it is vitally important that we have a clear understanding of the centrality of this concern in all of his theological work.

Karl Barth and Paul Tillich: Responding to Theological Liberalism

Two quite different responses to theological liberalism are represented in the theologies of Karl Barth and Paul Tillich.
In his protest against theological liberalism, Barth seeks to re-emphasize the lost emphases on man the sinner and God the Judge. In his article, “Liberal Protestantism, Liberal Theology, Liberalism” in A. Richardson (editor), A Dictionary of Christian Theology, (London, 1969), J. Richmond points out that Barth “has stressed the centrality and the kerygmatic character of the biblical writings, the radical discontinuity between God and human nature, and has made much of the concepts of crisis, judgment and grace” (p. 193).
In his attempt to overcome the defects of theological liberalism, Tillich advocates a symbolic reinterpretation of the Christian message. Richmond maintains that the theology of Tillich (and Bultmann) is “partly continuous with the liberal tradition” (p. 193). together with Bultmann, Tillich has “tried to avoid the excesses into which the older liberalism fell; but … their critics frequently bring against them the criticisms which were brought against their theological predecessors in the second decade of the twentieth century” (p. 194). The theologies of Barth and Tillich are governed by two contrasting forms of ontic thinking which threaten to relativize the urgency of the call to sinners to respond to God. Barth tends to approach man via a consideration of the divine transcendence. Tillich tends to move in the direction of the divine immanence via a consideration of man.
Barth’s theology stand over against liberalism in a way that the theologies of Tillich and Bultmann do not. A few weeks before his death, in a conversation with T. F. Torrance, Barth affirmed his faith in the “bodily resurrection” (T. F. Torrance, Space, Time and Resurrection, (Grand Rapids, 1976), p. xi). While Barth’s theology is very different from the theologies of Tillich and Bultmann, there is still some force in the cautious words of A. P. F. Sell concerning Barth’s theology as well as the theologies of Tillich and Bultmann: “Sadly, such theologians as Barth , Bultmann and Tillich have been in danger of disengaging the gospel from history in all its ambiguity and messiness” (God our Father, (Edinburgh, 1980), p. 14). The point at which the difficulty in relating Barth’s view of the divine transcendence to historical reality is most observable is the point where he seeks to speak adequately of the urgency of the decision between faith and unbelief. Barth’s ontological conclusions - the ontological inevitability of faith and the ontological impossibility of unbelief - tend to weaken his protest against theological liberalism. Despite Barth’s rejection of a priori universalism, it should be observed that these ontological conclusions do suggest that Barth has propounded “a natural theology of his own” by presenting “a form of universalism highly palatable to modern man” (C. Brown, Karl Barth and the Christian Message, (London, 1967, pp. 12, 137, emphases mine).
From the perspective of his doctrine of God as Being, Tillich may be viewed as heavily accenting the transcendence of God over all that is finite and conditioned. In this post, I am not highlighting this aspect of Tillich’s thought. My concern is with the contrast between the theological methodologies used by Barth and Tillich. Broadly speaking, this is the contrast between the ‘from above’ and ‘from below’ approaches. Tillich’s ontological analysis of being, through which man’s being is presented as grounded in God as the Ground of Being tends to lead in the direction of an uncritical affirmation of modern man (as an illustration of this tendency, Brown (p. 78, n.3) refers the reader to Tillich, The Shaking of the Foundations, (Harmondsworth, 1962), pp. 63 ff.). Despite his rejection of rationalism, Tillich’s theology is highly appealing to rationalistic man. J. H. Thomas maintains that “(t)he liberal roots of Tillich’s theology are very evident” (Paul Tillich, (London, 1965), p. 5). Tillich’s interpretation of Christian truth is highly appealing to rationalistic man who does not take the Biblical witness to Jesus Christ particularly seriously. The weakness of the opposition of Barth and Tillich to theological liberalism lies not in the mere fact that both theologies, each in its own distinctive way, have a considerable appeal to modern man. rather, it lies in their failure to do justice to important aspects of the New Testament proclamation of the Gospel.
Tillich has failed to do justice to the historical revelation of the Gospel (B. J. R. Cameron, “The Historical Problem in Paul Tillich’s Christology”, Scottish Journal of Theology, Vol. 18, No. 3, September 1965, pp. 257-272). Barth has failed to do justice to the human response to the Gospel. In highlighting Barth’s emphasis on divine transcendence, I am not overlooking the fact that Barth has written perceptively on The Humanity of God, (Atlanta, 1960) in which he write, “It is when we look at Jesus Christ that we know decisively that God’s deity does not exclude but includes His humanity” (p. 48, emphasis original). It should be noted Barth’s use of the expression, “the humanity of God” does not carry with it any suggestion that “Barth’s theology is humanistic” (J. Macquarrie, “Barth, Karl” in A Dictionary of Christian Theology, p. 30). Barth’s concern is to emphasize that the doctrine of God is not to be approached from the vantage-point of an abstract conception of deity. Rather, it is to be approached from the standpoint of the incarnation. This emphasis on the incarnation is essential if the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ is to be clearly distinguished from the God of natural theology. The particular way in which Barth relates his whole theology to the incarnation does, nevertheless, raise the question of the adequacy of his treatment of the human response to the Gospel.
Both Barth and Tillich have allowed the structure of their theological systems to determine which aspects of New Testament teaching are to be emphasized and which are to be virtually ignored (C. Brown, Karl Barth and the Christian Message, pp. 12, 152; K. Hamilton, “Paul Tillich”, in P. E. Hughes (ed.), Creative Minds in Contemporary Theology, (Grand Rapids, 1969), p. 473). Thus, neither is fully able to overcome the tendency of theological liberalism to allow reason to become predominant over revelation. The simple fact that both theologies proceed on the basis of divine revelation does not diminish the fact that, in the course of interpreting the revelation, the interests of the theological system have not lent themselves to a proper understanding of the entire Biblical proclamation of the Gospel. Christian theology must take care to avoid emphasizing a particular Biblical truth in such a way that other aspects of Biblical truth, equally important for a clearer understanding of the Gospel, tend to be misrepresented.

Monday, 19 February 2018

Karl Barth and Universalism: Comments from Berkouwer, Brown, Bromiley and Bloesch

By asking us to consider the question, “How convincing is Barth’s rejection of universalism?”, Berkouwer is really calling in question Barth’s understanding of election. He is really asking, “Does Scripture teach this idea of universal election?”
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Colin Brown has also been forthright on this point. He suggests that Barth’s reservation with regard to universalism should have taken place not at the point of drawing possible consequences from his theology. It should have taken place at the outset of his Christological approach to theology.He maintains that “the trouble is that all Barth’s theology is made to centre around an idea of Christ. But it is not exactly the biblical idea of Christ” (KB, p. 138). Brown concludes that “it is a Christ-idea that often gives Barth his characteristic emphases” and that this has meant that “Some important aspects of the New Testament teaching had to be stretched to make them fit, while others had to be lopped off” (KB, p. 152. See also p. 12).
Contrasting Barth’s idea of Christ with the Biblical idea of Christ, Brown writes, “Whilst God deals with men through Christ, Christ is not equally all things to all men. To some he is Saviour, to others He is Judge. According to … the New Testament …, God deals with men in two ways … as they are in themselves apart from Christ. And … as they are in Christ. The two spheres are not identical … All men are by nature in the first. Some are by grace in the second” (KB, p. 139).
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G W Bromiley is also critical of Barth’s theology. He has summarized Barth’s view thus: “The lie cannot overthrow the truth, but God may finally condemn the liar to live in it” (“Karl Barth”, Creative Minds in Contemporary Theology(CM), edited by P E Hughes, p. 49, citing CD, Vol. IV, 3, Section 70, 2), Bromiley observes, in Barth’s view, “the trend toward an ultimate universalism” while acknowledging that “universalism in the sense of the salvation of all individuals is not a necessary implicate of Barth’s Christological universalism” (CM, p. 54). Bromiley suggests, however, that Barth’s reservation with respect to ultimate universalism is “not really adequate” (CM, p. 54). What Bromiley says here is similar to what Berkouwer has said. He acknowledges that Barth and others after him have attempted to dissociate themselves from universal salvation. The question remains, “How convincing is their rejection of universalism? If we find it unconvincing, we can either (a) go with those who tells us that universal election leads us on to universal salvation; or (b) move back from oour questioning of the idea of universal salvation to think of election differently from Barth.
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The view of Donald G. Bloesch is also of interest. Following Barth’s suggestion that ‘Jesus is Victor’ expresses his theological emphasis better than Berkouwer’s title, ‘the triumph of grace’, D G Bloesch, entitled his book on Barth, Jesus is Victor! - Karl Barth’s Doctrine of Salvation. Bloesch, nevertheless, reached similar conclusions to those of Berkouwer. Acknowledging that Barth’s idea of universal election is neither a metaphysical presupposition nor a rational conclusion but an affirmation of faith and hope, which Barth holds, is implied in the Biblical witness, Bloesch argues that Barth has failed to to hold together the objective and subjective poles of salvation and that his logic leads in the direction of universalism.
Since Bloesch’s title takes account of Barth’s reaction to Berkouwer’s title, we should pass comment on Barth’s comments on Berkouwer’s title While seeking to be fair to both Barth and Berkouwer, we may ask whether Barth’s criticism of Berkouwer’s title has really done very much to lessen the force of Berkouwer’s argument - ‘the asking of the apokastasis question (universalism) … is warranted by the simple fact of taking Barth seriously’ ‘Barth’s express rejection of the doctrine of the apokatastasis must be fully taken into account but it is precisely when we do so that the tensions within his teaching become the more visible’ (The Triumph of Grace in the Theology of Karl Barth, 112, 266 - brackets and emphasis mine).
It is precisely because Barth is, by his own profession, not a universalist that the discussion of his theology is so important. The answer to the question, ‘Is Karl Barth a Universalist?’, must, if we take Barth’s own words seriously, be ‘No’. This, however, raises another question, ‘Is Karl Barth’s rejection of universalism convincing?’ This is the central issue raised by Berkouwer. He never states that Barth is a universalist on the basis that he must be a universalist. He acknowedges that Barth dissociates himself from universalism. He does, however, question the effectiveness of Barth’s rejection of universalism ( T of G, Chapter X, ‘The Universality of the Triumph’, 262-296).
Berkouwer commends Barth for his concentration on Jesus Christ. This is what gives Barth’s theology its ‘triumphant and joyful character’ (T of G, 212). While he does not suggest that human sin should be taken more seriously than divine grace, Berkouwer does insist that we need to take great care if we are to understand the precise nature of the relationship between divine grace and human sin. He insists that ‘there can never be a question of too strongly accenting the grace of God’. He emphasizes that ‘the question is, how shall we lay the proper emphases and how can we most purely praise this grace. It is never the full accent but the wrong accent that obscures the gospel of God’s grace’ (T of G 349).
In his critique of Barth’s theology, Berkouwer lays great emphasis on the importance of both grace and faith. His emphasis on faith ensures that his theology does not lean towards the kind of universalism which Barth seeks to avoid. By emphasizing that ‘faith has significance only in its orientation to its object - the grace of God’ (Faith and Justification, 29), he seeks to avoid the kind of theology which draws our attention away from the God of grace.
We may ask, whether Berkouwer - with his great emphasis on our response of faith as well as the initiative of divine grace - leads us away from the sovereignty of God over the whole of reality to a sovereignty of God within the heart of the believer. It may be argued that Berkouwer proclaims the sovereignty of God no less emphatically than Barth. He does, however, offer interpret divine sovereignty differently from Barth.
The sovereignty of God over the whole of reality may be viewed as the demonstration that salvation is salvation in God’s way - by grace through faith. When salvation in God’s way - by grace through faith - is properly understood, there is no suggestion that we are moving away from the sovereignty of God over the whole of reality to a sovereignty of God within the heart of the believer. In God’s way of salvation, we see the sovereignty of God over man. God’s way of salvation - by grace through faith - is vindicated over against man’s attempt at achieving salvation through his own works.
This view of God’s gracious sovereignty maintains that reconciliation is God’s work, accomplished in God’s way. There is no movement in the direction of universal reconciliation. There is no wrong emphasis on faith which leads us to give faith a significance that is independent of divine grace.
The question is not one of human decision versus divine decision. Rather, it concerns the understanding of the truth.
The idea of a single truth concerning mankind seems far removed from the Biblical emphasis on the decisiveness for his eternal destiny of man’s relation to the truth. In one sense, there is a single truth. Jesus Christ is the Truth. The Truth concerning Him is that He is the Way by which men receive Life (John 14:6). This understanding of Truth requires to be carefully distinguished from the idea of a single truth concerning mankind which can be deduced from the affirmation of Christ as the Truth without reference to the presence or absence of faith in a man.

Sunday, 18 February 2018

Berkouwer, Barth and Brunner: A Discussion of General Revelation and Natural Theology

In his book, 'General Revelation', Berkouwer rejects natural theology while affirming the doctrines of general revelation & common grace. He places himself between Barth & Brunner. Barth rejects both general revelation & natural theology. Brunner teaches both general revelation and natural theology.
In connection with common grace, here are two important observations made by Berkouwer: (i) 'grace is at work even in fallen man ... common grace is constantly at work "to bend partially back in the right direction those human powers and endowments which were man left to himself would be wholly perverted'.
(ii) 'common grace ... an imperfect solution ... does centre our attention on the gracious act of God in protecting man's corrupt and apostate nature from total demonization' (Man: The Image of God, pp.153-154, 169).

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