Monday, 21 May 2007

G. C. Berkouwer on divine and human action

In his brilliant work on Divine Election (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1960), the Dutch Reformed theologian G. C. Berkouwer argues that the relationship between divine and human action must not be understood in competitive terms – as though there were either a conflict or a mere “distribution of work” (p. 50) between God and human beings.

Berkouwer observes that divine sovereignty and human responsibility have often been viewed “as factors that limited one another on … the same level” (p. 21). Although such a competitive construal is clearly flawed, Berkouwer does not suggest that the relationship between divine and human action is simply a “complementary relationship.” Rather, in polemic against both Catholic and Protestant forms of synergism, he insists that divine and human action are not “component factors, functioning side by side” (p. 44). Faith is not the complement of grace, but its correlate.

What, then, is the nature of this correlation? “The divine act makes room, leaves open the possibility for man’s act. That possibility is not absorbed or destroyed by divine superiority, but created, called forth, by it” (p. 46). God’s action is thus a summons to human action; grace creates the space within which the human response becomes possible. Here, Berkouwer draws directly on Karl Barth’s polemic against synergism. Barth speaks of the theological “fear-complex” (Angstkomplex) which causes God’s action to be viewed as a threat to creaturely freedom: “as though we were perhaps ascribing too much to God and too little to the creature, as though we were encroaching too far on the particularity and autonomy of creaturely action and especially on human freedom and responsibility! As though there could be any sense in sheltering from such an intrusion under the safe cover of a crude or subtle synergism!” (CD III/3, pp. 146-47).

This is precisely Berkouwer’s point as well: there can be no thought of a competition between divine and human action, since God is the one who makes room for human action in the first place. To be human is to exist in the “space” of God’s grace.

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