Berkouwer's Theology - Systematic And Experiential

For many years, G C Berkouwer (1903-1996) served as the Professor of Systematic Theology at the Free Univesity of Amsterdam. He wrote many substantial books on Christian doctrine. These books are known collectively as his ‘Studies in Dogmatics’.
In his work as a systematic theologian, Berkouwer emphasized that Christian faith is to be experienced. It is not simply a faith to which we must give intellectual assent.
He was very aware of the danger of attaching the wrong kind of importance to the theological system.He emphasized that, in the work of expounding Christian doctrine, we must not lose sight of its connection to Christian experience.
By drawing attention, throughout his writings, to the importance of Christian experience, he was not suggesting that we are to retreat into sheer mysticism. He was, however, emphasizing that true faith is always something which takes hold of us, something which changes us, something which leads us to give glory to God. The life-changing and God-glorifying dimensions of faith in Jesus Christ must be at the centre of any exposition of the Christian faith.
For Berkouwer, placing an appropriate emphasis on the significance of Christian experience did not involve moving away from the work of systematic theology to focus on producing devotional literature. Rather, it meant viewing our theological work as an expression of our faith, worship, witness and service.
We may give a flavour of Berkouwer’s approach to theology by highlighting a few comments made by Jack Rogers in his book, Confessions of a Conservative Evangelical. (An American Presbyterian, Rogers did postgraduate work at the Free University of Amsterdam under Berkouwer’s supervision. His thesis - Scripture in the Westminster Confession was published by Eerdmans in 1967. He translated Berkouwer’s work on Holy Scripture into English.)
(1) Berkouwer’s approach to theology does not create a great distance between the professional theologian and the ordinary believer.
Commenting on a definition of theology given by Berkouwer to first-year students - ‘Theology is scientific reflection on the normativity of revelation for faith’ - , Rogers writes, ‘The scientific theologian and the simple believer both begin from a personal faith commitment to God revealed in Jesus Christ. They both accept revelation as normative for them … they treat the biblical data as having ultimate value and valid
application to their lives … The professional theologian is distinguished from any other believer only in that the theologian has the training and tools for doing “scientific” reflection’ (p.56).
(2) In his approach to theology, Berkouwer emphasized the importance of the sense of wonder which lies at the heart of both true worship and profound theological understanding.
Describing his first impressions of Berkouwer’s theological lectures, Rogers writes, ‘(H)e was excited and dynamic! I began to hear certain words repeated again and again. One of them was boeiend , which means ‘fascinating’. Everything about theology fascinated Berkouwer. His enthusiasm was catching. After listening to him, you wanted to grab the nearest theological book and devour it. Talking to him was even more stimulating’ (p.52).
(3) In his approach to theology, Berkouwer emphasized the importance of the pastoral context within which the Word of God is to be brought to the people of God.
Describing a visit made by Berkouwer to a church in the USA, Rogers writes, ‘The worshippers were disappointed by his sermon. They could
understand it! They expected the great professor to be profound (i.e. abstract, dull). Instead, he preached a simple gospel sermon of pastoral comfort and affirmation. For Berkouwer, theology is always and only the servant of the church. Theology is good only if it can be preached!’ (pp. 141-142).
* Following on from these observations concerning the vital connection between theology and believing, worshipping and preaching, we must note the breadth of the context within which Berkouwer developed his systematic and experiential theology. He carefully avoided the narrowness of outlook which refuses to listen to and learn from those whose theological perspective was considerably different from his own. Alongside this listening to and learning from others, he emphasized that our highest priority is listening to and learning from God’s Word.
(a) Berkouwer was willing to listen to and learn from those whose theological perspective was quite different from his own.
‘In America we often do theology as if it was a game of cops and robbers. We choose … sides, thinking that the ‘good guys’ (those we agree with) say and do all the good things and that the ‘bad guys’ (those we disagree with) say and do all the bad things. Life isn’t like that. I can remember how puzzled I was when I started reading G C Berkouwer to discover him quoting Rudolf Bultmann, for instance, with great approval in one place and then a few pages later vigorously disagreeing with him. He didn’t seem to need to add a footnote to remind us that Bultmann was a bad guy. He dealt with the issues instead of putting down the people’ (Rogers, p.60).
(b) Berkouwer emphasized the importance of a continuing commitment to this demanding yet promising task of listening and learning.
‘I believe that without genuine curiosity … theology will not do well. I regret every sign that theologians have lost their curiosity. It happens when we are satisfied with a small territory we have created for ourselves and lose our feel for new perspectives and new opportunities for enrichment. Besides, without the tensions of curosity there is little hope for any essential corrections in one’s own insights. A complacency sets in, a feeling that the gospel has been adequately thought about and understood, and that we can restfully settle down with what has already been said. A curiosity that works itself out in passionate study and serious listening to others promises surprises, clearer insight and deeper understanding - no matter from which direction they come. And so curiosity brings a certain joy as we walk through the challenging terrain’ (A Half Century of Theology, pp.7-8).
(c) Berkouwer emphasized, as the most important thing of all, listening to and learning from the Word of God.
On being personally attacked because of his involvement in ecumenical affairs, Berkouwer cited ‘II Tim. 2:9 … “The word of God is not bound”‘, emphasizing that ‘as long as we read the same Bible with conservatives or liberals, Catholics or sectarians, we can’t predict the outcome. God’s Spirit will work through his Word’ (Rogers, p.142).