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.


Anonymous said...

I've read Berkouwer on providence but not on election. How far - if at all - would you say that Berkouwer distinguishes between God's act and man's act in the latter's repentance and awakening to faith, and between God's act and man's act in general?

Anonymous said...

1) Am I wrong in thinking that these are footnotes to Aquinas?

2) I wish someone would whisper this (correct) understanding of the relationship between divine and human agency into the ears of theodicists of the "free will defence" variety.

Halden said...

Great stuff. Perhaps I must add Berkouwer to my list of good theologians on divine-human action. For me, Balthasar has always topped the list.

Ben Myers said...

Kim, I'm sure you're right -- in fact, I reckon even Barth's brilliant account of divine/human action is largely "footnotes to Aquinas".

Terry, I'm not sure I've understood your question -- but Berkouwer emphasises the fact that God does not bring a person to faith through any sort of "causal" influence; instead, God (irresistibly) influences human action in the mode of personal confrontation, through the kerygma.

Anonymous said...

I think all I'm asking is whether you think that Berkouwer understands the entire relation between divine and human agency in this way or whether it applies specifically to his understanding of two relation in the matter of human repentance. But your answer as it is does help me to a large extent, so thanks.

Shane said...

This is not Thomas Aquinas's view. For Aquinas, you get baptized, and then afterwards you have to work synergistically or cooperatively with God's grace to be saved. The baptism is 'monergistic' if you want to call it that, which is why Aquinas's position isn't pelagianism. But, there is a lot more than a 'correlation' of human and divine activity in Aquinas.

But what's so bad about synergism? It's in the New testament, after all (at least the verb sunergo and its correlates). True, in the NT the word has a missional rather than soteriological function. But I think the protestant sola fide is the problem here. Which is why I follow st. augustine in rejecting it.



Anonymous said...

Hi Shane,

I was hoping for your input here. I won't rise to your bait about the sola fide, which is often seriously misunderstood - the magisterial Reformers, at least, were not antinomians, and Calvin in particular has subtle accounts of sanctification and the tertius usus legis - nor pursue the point you make about sunergein in the NT - the non-soteriological function is not incidental but crucial - but rather continue to pick your brain about Aquinas, whom I continue to strive to understand.

You say that, for Aquinas, the baptised "have to work synergistically or cooperatively with God's grace to be saved." Does this mean that divine and human activity could be in competition with each other? I ask this because of the following passage from that great contemporary interpreter of the Angelic Doctor, Herbert McCabe:

"God's activity ... does not compete with mine. Whereas the activity of any other creature makes a difference to mine and would interfere with my freedom, the activity of God makes no difference. It has a more fundamental and important job to do than making a difference. It makes me have my own activity in the first place."

Rowan William also speaks of the non-competetive nature of human and divine agency. He would agree with McCabe that "the idea that God's causality could interefere with my freedom can only arise from an idolatrous notion of God as a very large and powerful creature - a part of the world."

Can you help me here?

Finally, as a rider, I don't know any responsible and sensible Protestant theologian - and certainly neither Barth nor Berkouwer - who want to do dirt on human autonomy, works, etc. Rather their project is to "set aside the bad habit of polarizing divine and human freedom, and ... display how the gospel concerns their integration" (John Webster).

Anonymous said...

Hi again Shane,

No need to reply now. I've just been over to the great discussion under your st. augustine above. Highly recommended. Thanks.

Shane said...

Hi Kim,

I can't pass up an invitation, even after it's been retracted!

My point is not at all to make divine and creaturely activity competitive--I don't think Thomas does that at all. To say that human beings must cooperate with grace precludes the idea of competition, i think. If i'm not wrong, the concern so many protestants have with the word 'cooperate' comes from a competitive account of divine and human activity.

If there is a competition (my doing X means God is not doing X, or God's doing Y means I'm not doing Y) then co-operation would seem heretical, since it would seem to imply that I was able to save myself, at least to some extent.

If you reject the competitive account though, i don't see what the problem with the language of cooperation is.

That's basically what I'm getting at.


Anonymous said...

If someone could point me to the passages in Aquinas that are under discussion here, I'd appreciate it. Thanks in advance.

Shane said...

Summa theologiae 1a2ae, qq. 109-114.

look especially at q. 109, a. 6 and q. 113 a. 3.



Anonymous said...

Thanks, Ben, for your post on Berkouwer's theology of the relationship between grace and faith.
The more I thought of my own work on Berkouwer, the more I came to feel that the key Biblical text is Ephesians 2:8 - "By grace you have been saved through faith".
The emphasis is on the absolute necessity of both grace and faith.
It is not 'by grace you have been saved without faith'. It is not 'by faith you have been saved apart from grace'. It is 'by grace you have been saved through faith'.
The full emphasis on both grace and faith is most important for our understanding of the relationship between the divine and the human aspects of our salvation.
In his book, "Faith and Sanctification", Berkouwer leads us on from the words, 'by grace ... through faith' to the words which follow, 'for good works', emphasizing that, in the life of sanctification, we remain firmly within this context - 'by grace ... through faith'.
You will see from my Berkouwer blog that the concern with overcoming polarization in our understanding of the divine and the human lies at the heart of my work on Berkouwer. Quite a number of my posts touch on this theme in one way or another.
Here's something I haven't posted yet (I will do so once I've sent this comment). It's from my book - "The Problem of Polarization: An Approach based on the Writings of G C Berkouwer", pp. 296-297. Page references are to "Faith and Sanctification except one reference to "A Half Century of Theology". You may find it helpful.
"Berkouwer approaches social concern from a Biblical and Reformed perspective. In Ephesians 2:8-10, the emphases 'by grace' and 'through faith' lead directly on to the emphasis 'for good works'. Berkouwer underscores this connection between 'Sola Fide and Sanctification' (Chapter II, pp. 17-44). He emphasizes that the true nature of good works cannot be understood apart from Christ who is our 'sanctification' (1 Corinthians 1:30)(p. 21). Sanctification is not 'the humanly operated successor to the divinely worked justification (p. 78). 'Genuine sanctification' has a 'continued orientation toward justification' (p. 78). Berkouwer emphasizes the 'by grace .. through faith' context in which the 'for good works' character of sanctification expresses itself. He draws attention to the nature of the Spirit's work in sanctification: 'The Spirit alone could perform the miracle of making man walk on the road of sanctity without a sense of his own worth' (p. 78). The life of sanctification has a gracious character which Berkouwer observes in the parable of the unprofitable servants (p. 41) and a social context which he sees in the parable of the good Samaritan (A Half Century of Theology, p. 191). A Reformed theology, grounded in the 'Scripture alone' principle, seeks to rightly represent the purpose of Scripture - 'to instruct you for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus ... that the man of God may be complete, equippes for every good work (2 Timothy 3:15, 17). Berkouwer, in his discussion entitled 'The Imitation of Christ' (Chapter VII, pp. 135-160), emphasizes both the gracious character and the social context of the Biblical teaching concerning sanctification."

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