Monday 10 July 2006

For the love of God (23): Why I love G. C. Berkouwer

A guest-post by Charles Cameron

At a conference for Scottish students in 1975, I met two Dutch visitors, one of whom was a theological student. On the bookstall, there were some books written by the Dutch theologian G. C. Berkouwer (1903-1996). Some of my conversations with this theological student focused on Berkouwer.

After the conference, I showed the Dutch students around our capital city, Edinburgh. We visited a Christian bookshop where I bought the book Creative Minds in Contemporary Theology, which contains an article on Berkouwer (written by Lewis B. Smedes). Describing Berkouwer’s contribution to contemporary theology, Smedes writes: “Berkouwer has called orthodox Reformed theology away from its love affair with metaphysics…. [H]e has called it back to its proper and humble service as hand-maid to the preaching of the gospel” (p. 96). For Berkouwer, “divine election is identical with the grace of God that was revealed in Jesus Christ … [and is] not to be confused with a notion of an arbitrary, graceless decree of a purely Sovereign Deity” (p. 74). After reading this I said, “I must read Berkouwer!”

In 1976, while visiting Canada, I bought Berkouwer’s book Holy Scripture. Living out of a suitcase, I didn’t have many books with me. What did I do? —I read Berkouwer. Reading became studying and writing. By the time I met him in his home in 1986, I had written a PhD thesis based on his writings. I spoke with him for one hour, but I felt like I had known him for a decade. Long before I ever laid eyes on him, I had loved him as a “father in the faith” (1 Cor. 4:15). He had helped me to praise God and to preach the gospel of grace with joyful thanksgiving.


Anonymous said...

Are not the so-called "metaphysical" inferences concerning divine election unavoidable? We can talk all we want about God's unconditional love in electing us in Christ, but what about the reprobate? Did God not love them? Why did God choose some and not others, since it is absolutely unconditional? Why is God merciful to some (the elect) and only just to others (the reprobate)? And so on. The only solution to the Reformed believer is to affirm God's election of all of humanity in Christ (as the Barthians do) or to reject the Reformed belief in the unconditional election/rejection (like most Catholics, Orthodox, Lutherans, Anglicans, Methodists, Baptists, evangelicals of various sorts, and even most mainline Reformed and Presbyterians).

Ben Myers said...

Hi Kevin. This is a good point, and it's well worth considering Berkouwer's own approach to the question of "reprobation" (see Divine Election, especially ch. 6).

For Berkouwer, election is essentially euangelion, the glad tidings of the gospel. Election is not a decretum absolutum or a deterministic power -- instead, it is the act of God's grace in Jesus Christ. Thus Berkouwer argues that it is impossible "to abstract the election of God from Jesus Christ, the Word that became flesh" (p. 171).

In contrast, though, he notes that Scripture portrays reprobation only "as a reaction [in history] to man's sin and disobedience, not as its cause"; it is not absolute or "static", but "a dynamic relationship" (p. 183). Further, he suggests that this historical and conditional reprobation finds its ultimate purpose in election, since "God did not send the Son to condemn the world but that the world should be saved through Him" (p. 202).

For Berkouwer, this means that there can never be a "balance", "symmetry" or "parallelism" between election and rejection (p. 202). The will of God for humanity revealed in Jesus Christ is simply election! And so the church can never "bring a dual message ..., namely, an eu-aggelion and a dys-aggelion". There is no "Book of Death" alongside the Book of Life (p. 174).

In all this, Berkouwer is essentially following Bavinck (see Bavinck's Reformed Dogmatics, Vol. 2, ch. 7), although Bavinck places even greater emphasis on the non-causal nature of God's decree. And Bavinck has a very moving discussion of the universal or "organic" nature of election: the doctrine of election does not mean that "a few people from the world" are loved by God, but that "the world itself is the object of God’s love", since the whole world is "predestined for the Son as its heir" (p. 404). Thus the purpose of this doctrine is not to separate some human beings from others, but rather "to invite all" to receive God's free grace (p. 402).

Anyway, sorry for the length of this comment: but I think the approach of Bavinck and Berkouwer is well worth considering as an alternative to the rather simplistic election/rejection dualism that is offered by some Reformed theologians.

Anonymous said...


To what extent is the Berkouwer/Bavinck approach congenial with that of Calvin and the Westminster Confession of Faith (assuming that the WCF itself is a valid expression of Calvin's thought)? Though I am a Catholic, my interest in this stems from most of my friends being Presbyterians (PCA, not PCUSA). In my circle of friends, this stuff actually matters (yes, we're a little odd).

For point of reference, here's the WCF on God's eternal decrees:

Chapter 3
3. By the decree of God, for the manifestation of His glory, some men and angels are predestinated unto everlasting life; and others foreordained to everlasting death.

5. Those of mankind that are predestinated unto life, God, before the foundation of the world was laid, according to His eternal and immutable purpose, and the secret counsel and good pleasure of His will, hath chosen, in Christ, unto everlasting glory, out of His mere free grace and love, without any foresight of faith, or good works, or perseverance in either of them, or any other thing in the creature, as conditions, or causes moving Him thereunto: and all to the praise of His glorious grace.

6. As God hath appointed the elect unto glory, so hath He, by the eternal and most free purpose of His will, foreordained all the means thereunto. Wherefore, they who are elected, being fallen in Adam, are redeemed by Christ, are effectually called unto faith in Christ by His Spirit working in due season, are justified, adopted, sanctified, and kept by His power, through faith, unto salvation. Neither are any other redeemed by Christ, effectually called, justified, adopted, sanctified, and saved, but the elect only.

7. The rest of mankind God was pleased, according to the unsearchable counsel of His own will, whereby He extendeth or witholdeth mercy, as He pleaseth, for the glory of His sovereign power over His creatures, to pass by; and to ordain them to dishonour and wrath for their sin, to the praise of His glorious justice.

There you have it. The "decretum horrible" (i.e., terrifying decree). It is quite unfathomable that any Christian can confess such a thing; though, following Emil Brunner's discussion of it, I think it comes from their devotion to scripture which, they believe, undeniably teaches such a belief in, primarily, Romans 9. Thus, they must hold two contraries at once in faithfulness to scripture.

Guy Davies said...

I would agree with the WCF's theology of election, as a summary of the biblical teaching. But it would be wrong to suggest that the WCF teaches that decrees of election in Christ and reprobation are in any way symmetrical.

God does everything posssible to secure the salvation of those he has chosen in Christ (3: 5 & 6 quoted above). In reprobation, he simply passes people by on account of their sin (3:7). The formal cause of God's wrath and judgement on the lost is not his decree, but human sin.

Anonymous said...

The formal cause of God's wrath and judgement on the lost is not his decree, but human sin.

Yes, but, according to the WCF, He did foreordain that certain people (the reprobate) would be "passed over" and not chosen, and such choosing and not choosing is not based on anything whatsoever in the person himself (e.g., beliefs, dispositions, actions) but entirely on the choice of God ("the secret counsel and good pleasure of His will"). Thus, only the elect can come to justification in Christ. The reprobate are not provided the means. Thus, it is dependent upon God's decree, as well as human sin. The infralapsarian position you espouse is no solution to what is still a horrible, terrible doctrine. All men may deserve, through the Fall, reprobation, but God loves all and Christ died for all. The WCF denies this in limiting God's mercy to a chosen few.

Guy Davies said...
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Guy Davies said...

Hi Ben,

God has chosen to withold his mercy and salvation from some and apointed them for judgement and wrath. That is His sovereign decree. But the basis of the reprobate's condemnation is their sin, not God's decree. WCF:

and to ordain them to dishonour and wrath for their sin, to the praise of His glorious justice.

I would dispute your statement,

"The WCF...limits God's mercy to a chosen few".

I expect a great multitude that no man can number to be redeemed from every tribe, tongue and nation. Not a tiny minority suggested by your "chosen few". In fact BB Warfield argued in his essay Are they few that be saved? that the saved will vastly outnumber the lost.

This does not remove the problem of some human beings enduring eternal punishment for their sins rather than being saved. But this problem originates not in Reformed Theology, but in the Bible itself. Calvin did not invent hell and the wrath of God.

Ben Myers said...

Kevin, you asked: "To what extent is the Berkouwer/Bavinck approach congenial with that of ... the Westminster Confession of Faith?"

One very important difference is that the thinking behind the WCF is wholly shaped by the notion of causality. God's decree is depicted as a "first cause" at the beginning of a causal sequence that ends finally in the two states of salvation and condemnation. In contrast, Bavinck and Berkouwer are trying above all to move away from this kind of crude causal schema. For them, God's decree is not a "cause", nor is reality some kind of neat linear sequence -- instead, the decree is simply historical reality itself as willed by God in all its interrelatedness and complexities. So whereas the WCF is quite happy to speak simply of a double decree, for Bavinck and Berkouwer there can be no such simplistic division of reality into the schema of "election and rejection". For them, reality is an organic whole that finds its meaning and purpose in Jesus Christ.

So although I don't think Bavinck and Berkouwer offer a fully satisfactory reformulation of predestination, I do think they succeed in moving a long way beyond the painfully inadequate formulation of the WCF.

Anonymous said...

Exiled Preacher,

You said, "Hi Ben," but I think you meant, "Kevin." Anyway, as for whether it's few or not, it doesn't matter (I said "few" b/c this is what Jesus seems to indicate, but let's hope for many). It could be all but one person is elected, and the problem with Calvinism still applies.

The basis for God's condemnation of the reprobate is indeed their sin, but we (or, at least, I and most Christians) believe in a God who loves all people and wants all people to be saved. The WCF teaches that God only provides the means of salvation to some and not to others. As I said, "All men may deserve, through the Fall, reprobation, but God loves all and Christ died for all." The WCF, plain and simple, denies this in teaching limited atonement. According to the WCF, God is merciful to some (the elect) and just to others (the reprobate). Calvinists can gloss this all they want by emphasizing how gracious God is in choosing us, or anybody for that matter, but the fact remains that Christ either died for all in that God extends his mercy to all; or Christ did not die for all, and God does not extend his mercy to all. I support the former; you support the latter.

Ben Myers said...

Just to add a historical clarification: the framers of the WCF certainly did think that only "a few" would be among the elect. This belief was widely accepted by 16th- and 17th-century Reformed theologians. John Bunyan summed up the typical Reformed attitude when he said that only "one of a thousand ... Men" and "for Women, one of ten thousand" are saved (see John Bunyan, A Holy Life, the Beauty of Christianity [London, 1684], p. 44).

It was only in the 19th century that Princeton Calvinists tried to modify this by arguing that the majority of human beings are in fact "elect". (And the Princeton theologians based this especially on their belief that all infants who die are elect -- a view which was also emphatically denied by Reformed theologians in the 16th and 17th centuries!)

Guy Davies said...

Hi Kevin,

I should have addressed by previous comments to you instead of Ben. Sorry.

I agree with the WCF's teaching on limited or definite atonement. Christ died to secure the salvation of his people, not to make salvation a possibility for anyone who would choose to believe. He lay down his life for his sheep. His sheep hear his voice and come to him (John 10).

If Christ did die for all people without exeption, why does the Bible speak of God's wrath on those who reject Christ, and the reality of hell? No one for whom Christ died wil suffer for their sins - Christ has atoned for them.

I happily affirm that God loves all people. God lovingly cares for and provides for those who will finally reject him. He takes no pleasure in the death of the wicked. But God loves his elect with an effective, saving love. Only Hyper Calvinists deny that Christ is to be offered to all. God commands all men everywhere to repent and believe the gospel.

See Here

As for Ben's point on the number of the elect. I am aware that some Calvinists such as Toplady and others have argued that the lost will greatly outnumber the redeemed. But the WCF does not speculate about that (whatever some of its compilers may have thought). The Bible suggests that a vast multitude of people will be saved.

Anonymous said...

Exiled Preacher,

Well, I think we've come to the end of the issue. I should probably stop, but I must make one more remark in response to your statement,

If Christ did die for all people without exeption, why does the Bible speak of God's wrath on those who reject Christ, and the reality of hell?

Because they (the reprobate) did just that -- they rejected Him. You're confusing the gift (i.e., Christ's sacrifice for all people) with the reception of the gift. Christ died for all, but all will not receive his offer of reconciliation.

Guy Davies said...

Hi Kevin,

Your view limits the effectiveness of the death of Christ. The New Testament says that Christ died to actually save his people, not to make salvation a possibility for those who would receive it. I would say that the grace to respond to the offer of reconciliation is the fruit of Christ's finished work on the cross. The sheep for whom Christ died will hear his voice and follow him.

May I point out that you too hold to a form of "limited atonement". But in your case, the saving power of Christ's death is limited by the responsiveness or otherwise of human beings. Man then has the last word. He can say "No!" to God's "Yes!" May I quote Donald Macleod?

"For him [the Arminian/Semi-Pelagian], God’s love does not go beyond offering salvation. The last word lies with the human will. The Almighty stands helpless outside the door of the heart, the handle on the inside. He is defeated by man’s No! Electing love, by contrast, means that God doesn’t take No! for an answer. He opens the door, not roughly, from the outside, but gently, from the inside, so that we come to Christ ‘most freely, being made willing by his grace’. (Behold Your God!, p. 215 1995, Christian Focus Publications)

Anonymous said...

Exiled Preacher,

I agree. I have no problem with being called a semi-Pelagian. I believe synergism to take full account of the New Testament witness.

Charlie Cameron said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Charlie Cameron said...

This is a comment from the writer of this post. The link to my blog won't work now. I closed down the blog. I have a new blog. Here's a link to the Berkouwer posts.

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