Thursday 17 May 2007

On textbooks: Hendrikus Berkhof

I reckon one of the best texts for theological students is Hendrikus Berkhof’s profound and exciting work, Christian Faith: An Introduction to the Study of the Faith (Eerdmans, 1979). Although this book is dated in several important respects, in other respects it’s still far more “up to date” than many recently published works. Berkhof is a real theologian who really knows what theology is all about: he grapples intensely with the history of theology, with the best biblical scholarship, with the surprises and possibilities of other Christian traditions, and with the specific demands of contemporary faith and proclamation.

In the opening pages of Christian Faith, Berkhof rightly notes that systematic theology is “not something to learn so much as something to do and practice” (p. xii), so that the task of a textbook is simply to induct students into this practice. Or, as he puts it in a later essay: “Theology is not so much a set of convictions, but a way of discoveries.”


Anonymous said...

If one is going to use a 1-volume text, this is certainly one of the best. I am glad I have read it several times. I remain unsure that one should begin by discussing revelation & Scripture before God, but this typical Reformed pattern is not done as a form of foundationalism in Berkhof.

Also, Berkhof's was the first thorough argument for universal salvation that I gave serious consideration.

Suzanna said...

I'm a theology student at Lithuania Christian College in Klaipeda, Lithuania and have just finished reading this book for an independent study. Loved it!

Shane said...

“Theology is not so much a set of convictions, but a way of discoveries.”

I don't think I agree with this sentiment.

How can you discover anything new without a solid grounding in what has already been done?

If I were teaching an introduction to theology class I would begin with the scripture and the fathers. Have them read the gospel of mark and then Athanasius's De incarnatione. Then it's on to reading the gospel of John and the cappadocians on the trinity. Then it's on to the Pauline epistles and Augustine's De doctrina christiana. It'd be an intense course with lots of readings, but I think all of these texts are easily within the grasp of undergrads and laying the course out where you have a biblical text and then the comments of somebody like athanasius or augustine let's you see exactly how theological thinking takes places, while at the same time introducing the student to the core convictions of the faith without putting those forward in a handbook fashion.


Patrick McManus said...

Hi Ben,

do you know Gunton & Holmes' The Practice of Theology: A Reader (SCM, 2001)? It's a great reader on 'doing theology' and covers the whole of the tradition. It really is worth taking a look at.

michael jensen said...

Hmm: theology has to begin and end with convictions, surely... John Webster is very good on this kind of thing: his lecture on 'Theological Theology' is a case in point.

Paul W said...

Hi Ben,

A great recommendation. I thought I would point out that _The Christian Faith_ came out in a second English edition in 1986.

Anonymous said...

It's the '86 edition in which Berkhof commits himself fully to universal salvation.

Michael J., I'm not certain that theology has to begin with convictions. The late James Wm. McClendon, Jr. noted that convictions differ from opinions. The latter are the normal stuff of debate and discussion. We acquire them quickly and may shed them just as quickly. They require thought, but little commitment. Convictions, on the other hand, are less readily expressed, but more tenaciously held. We do not change them easily and cannot change them at all without becoming significantly different persons (and/or communities) than we were.
Theology is "the discovery, understanding or interpretation, and transformation of the set of convictions of a convictional community, including the discovery and critical revision of the their relation to one another AND TO WHATEVER ELSE THERE IS." This is broad enough to include non-Christian, even atheistic theologies.
So, with theological ethics, the Church asks about its moral convictions, "How must I live in order to be a faithful disciple of Jesus Christ? How must we live in order faithfully to be the church of Jesus Christ in this time and place?" In doctrinal theology, the church asks, "What must we teach in order to live that way?" "What must the church teach in order to be authentically the church here and now?"

So, conviction and discovery are involved. In denying that theology is a "set of convictions," I think Berkhof is denying that one can simply repeat convictions by rote. If I simply regurgitate Calvin's Institutes or Menno's Foundation of Christian Doctrine, or Wesley's Standard Sermons or Barth's Dogmatics in Outline, etc. I should not kid myself that I have kept the faith unchangingly. Regurgitating any of these worthies in a different time and place ensures change--even if only in emphasis.
Nor should we think (and this I believe to be the heart of Berkhof's warning) that any such simple regurgitation is doing theology. Theology involves risk, involves discovery. Jesus invites such risky exploration--every since he went beyond asking the disciples for an opinion survey ("Who do people say that I, the Son of Man, am?') to asking them to risk being theologians themselves ("Who do YOU say that I am?").

Anonymous said...

Hi Suzanna! I taught English at LCC in the summers of 1991 and 1992. It wasn't called LCC yet then. I'm so pleased to see one of their students reading this blog! I've ordered Berkhof's book from Interlibrary Loan, looking forward to reading it.

Carol R.

Anonymous said...

Ben, your recommendation of Hendrikus Berkhof's book has sparked off a number of thoughts drawn from Berkouwer and Bavinck as well as Hendrikus Berkhof himself. I hope you find these comments of some interest.
Here are some more useful points made by Hendrikus Berkhof.
* His book is called "Christian Faith ... ".
He writes, "the title of the book is not 'The Christian Faith.' Such a claim would be presumptuous" on the part of "little people, still on the way" toward understanding the inexhaustible riches of the
Gospel (p. xii).
In his sub-title, he speaks of the faith while emphasizing that "(t)here are bound to be many articulations of the faith" (p. xii). His use of the expression "the Christian Faith", in the section entitled, "Study of the Christian Faith", pp. 26-40, should be understood within the context of his reminder to us that we are little people and the Gospel is inexhaustible.
* He begins his book with the words of Alfred Tennyson: "Our little systems have their day and cease to be: Thou, O Lord, art more than they."
* Here's another interesting quotation from the book. Speaking about the relationship between judgment and proclamation, he writes, "The Bible speaks much about the terror of the judgment, but almost exclusively it concerns God's enemies ... all who knowingly and willingly oppose the proclamation and realization of his holy love in the world. Who are the ones who do that knowingly and willingly? We cannot point them out. The judgment will reveal it ... Ours is the duty to call people to conversion in this life, and what God does with them in eternity is not our business." (pp. 530-531).
* Comment on his words: systematic theology is "not something to learn so much as something to do and practice" (p. xii). Here, his words are a living echo of the Scriptures which speak of the relationship between faith and truth in terms of doing the truth (John 3:21), walking in the truth (2 John 4, 3 John 4), being set free by the truth (John *:32) and being sanctified through the truth (John 17:19).
In connection with this emphasis, we may also note G C Berkouwer's comments about the "completely fruitless" debate concerning "whether Scripture was also truly God's Word 'before and apart from its use' or whether it became God's Word 'only by its use' ("Holy Scripture", p. 317).
The reality of Scripture being God's Word is not to be set against the working of God through the words of Scripture.
To make the 'is / becomes' dilemma the context for discussing Scripture is to make the dynamic aspect of truth (the powerful operation of the Spirit through the words of Scripture) a factor which is additional to the basic concept of truth, thus creating an unnecessary tension between two inter-related aspects of truth.
* Comment on his words from a later essay, "Theology is not so much a set of convictions, but a way of discoveries". These words bring to mind G C Berkouwer's words from the Foreword to his book, "A Half Century of Theology": "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 carved out for ourselves and lose our feel for new perspectives and new opportunities for enrichment. Besides, withot the tensions of curiosity 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 passionatre 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." (pp. 7-8).
In our theological study, we must never fail to distinguish between certainty and truth. Our experience of certainty is so changeable. Beyond our changeable feelings, there is the God who loves us with a love that is unchanged, unchanging and unchangeable.
As we read about discoveries and we are encouraged to maintain curiousity, it is good to be reminded of the words of the hymnwriter, Horatius Bonar: "I change, He changes not ... His truth not mine the resting place". We look beyond the turmoil - the "challenging terrain" of theological study. We catch a glimpse of a resting place. It is not in ourselves. It is in the Lord.
* In the words of Hendrikus Berkhof and G C Berkouwer, we have an echo of Herman Bavinck. He begins his book, "The Doctrine of God", with a chapter entitled, "God's Incomprehensibility". He stresses that "Mystery is the vital element in Dogmatics, emphasizing that "Dogmatics has throughout to do with God the Incomprehensible". He begins with the timely reminder that "the believer cannot fully comprehend revealed truth." (p. 13).
* It is importnat that we understand what Bavinck means when he speaks of incomprehensibility: "According to Scripture God is incomprehensible yet knowable". The words "according to Scripture" are most important. Here, Bavinck is affirming his conviction that "God has revealed himself." (pp. 13-14).
* While acknowledging the many difficulties in Biblical interpretation, we, as theologians, will serve the Church well when we emphasize that "God has revealed himself." Whatever difficulties there may be in interpreting Scripture, the principle - "according to Scripture" - does give the contemporary Church a criterion by which a whole variety of views of God can be evaluated. We encounter a highly rationalistic view of God which appears to rob God of His greatness and we ask, "How does this match up to the teaching of Scripture?" We hear of an extreme approach which seems to make God very remote from the problems we face in today's world and we ask, "Is this how Scripture teaches us to think about God?"
* When Bavinck speaks of mystery as the vital element of Dogmatics, we are hardly surprised to find him writing, "the more it (Dogmatics) meditates on him ... the more it is transformed into worship and adoration." (p. 14). When he writes of God's incomprehensibility and our response in worship, Bavinck does not mean to lead us into a ghetto, where God has been marginalized, where He has been kept within the confines of inner experience.
* We must not become so proud of our opinions that we dare to reduce God to the size of our own particular theological system. He is always greater than any and every system of theology. The last thing the Church and the world needs is "theologians who are more interested in their own thoughts about God than in God himself." (H. Berkhof, "Christian Faith ... ", p. 30).
* We need humility if we are not to be drawn back into an authoritarian stance. We need humility if we are to encourage people to listen to and learn from others of a different persuasion. Being open-minded does not, however, mean being empty-minded. We do not abandon our conviction that God has revealed Himself. We affirm our conviction - "according to Scripture" - by continuing to read the Bible regularly in age in which many have set aside the Bible as a book which belongs to the past and no longer concerns modern men and women.
* If our listening to and learning from others is constantly accompanied by listening to and learning from the Bible, we will be better equipped to continue worshipping and serving God in the face of many pressures towards either unbelief (the rejection of God) or distorted faith (the accommodation of God - the kind of rationalism which cuts God down to size by accommodating Him to our ways of thinking; and the
marginaliztion of God - the kind of mysticism which tends to limit God to a world of inner experience, distancing Him from the difficult issues of the world out there).

Ben Myers said...

Thanks, Charles, for this very interesting comment!

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