G C Berkouwer Brief Biographical Sketch essay

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According to Elwell this group of fourteen works, all of which have been translated into many languages including English form "the most monumental evangelical theological project of this century." (151) Elwell goes on to describe the works as, "written in an almost conversational style, these volumes deal with topics of theological concern, such as divine election, faith and sanctification, Holy Scripture, and the church, rather than presenting a tightly argued system of thought." (151) Finally according to Elwell and despite Berkouwer's shift in theology regarding human dealings, i.e. regret for spreading lack of tolerance for human differences of opinion Berkouwer, "never wavered from his commitment to the principles of Scripture, faith and grace alone." (151)

Berkouwer also wrote works of criticism against other theologian, most notably Karl Barth and Catholicism which are well read and famous in their theological arguments and as representative of his mid life shift in thought. His first work on Barth entitled simply Karl Barth (1937) was significantly more critical than his later the Triumph of Grace in the Theology of Karl Barth (1954)

Henry 97)

Cochrane 67), as was his first work critical of Catholicism, Conflict with Rome (1948) and his later work written after his experience as a Protestant observer at the Second Vatican Council in 1962 (the Second Vatican Council and the New Catholicism). (Elwell 151)

Berkouwer accepted Pope John XXIII's invitation to be an official observer at Vatican II, to sit in the observers' box, to attend all public debates, and to mingle with bishops and theologians over coffee during the sessions and at meals after them. Before the Council ended he published a second book, as erudite and even more fascinating than the first. The second was an analysis of the first two sessions (1962-63), especially of their implications for the inner life of the Catholic Church and for relations to evangelical churches. What we have with the two books is one of the most valuable comments by Protestants on Roman Catholicism in the twentieth century, a comment that could not have been made by a Van Til or perhaps even a Karl Barth. Remaining completely faithful to the Reformation's sola Scriptura, he criticized Rome's insis- tence on the role of the Roman and episcopal magisterium in the supposed normative interpretation of it:it is in this area that Berkouwer raised his most serious complaint against Roman Catholic theology. In his Conflict with Rome, the Dutch edition of which was published in 1945, he pointed out that the Roman Catholic dependence on two sources of authority -- scripture and tradition -- often relegates scripture to the background. Berkouwer later viewed the developments of the second Vatican Council as promising because there was a shift away from the reliance on two authorities. Nonetheless, he wrote in the Second Vatican Council and the New Catholicism that the central problem still remained. For whenever church tradition serves to guarantee the interpretation of scripture, it acts as an a priori authority that bypasses the need for living faith. 43

Shea 176-177)

According to another expert on Protestant theology Berkouwer deserves serious commendation for his treatment of Barth and others whose theology he disagrees with;

Berkouwer represents the finest flowering of a Calvinist tradition that has developed primarily in terms of its own inner dynamics rather than as a response to the changing intellectual environment. He is, however, surprisingly open to the new winds that are blowing in other theological circles and has written one of the most perceptive accounts of the theology of Karl Barth. 51 He takes to task his conservative brethren when they simply dismiss the theology of Barth because of its differences from the system of thought that they have identified as orthodox. 52 for Berkouwer the only final criterion is loyalty to the Word of God, and in so far as Barth is open to that Word, his thoughts are to be considered seriously and appreciatively.

According to a modern expert on Berkouwer the Reverend Dr. Charles Cameron, author of the Problem of Polarization: An Approach Based on the Writings of G.C. Berkouwer; L.B. Smedes describes Berkouwer's theological method thusly;

The truth of the Gospel... is known and understood only within the total context of both revelation and the obedience of faith. Theology, whose task is to restate that truth, is determined in its methods and limited in its conclusions by the nature of the Gospel as it is heard and obeyed in faith' ('G C. Berkouwer' in PE Hughes (ed), Creative Minds in Contemporary Theology, p.95)." (Cameron "The Theology of Berkouwer" NP)

Berkouwer frequently stresses the idea of others, even when divergent from his own as more or less reflective of the message of scripture. He is even interpreted as one of the most logical ecumenical theologians in his ability to completely avoid divergence into anti-Semitism in his interpretation of scripture.

Though highly biblical in his theological work, Berkouwer seems almost devoid of anti-Jewish sentiment. He universalizes those passages that speak of the Jews as the opponents of Christ, applying them to humanity as a whole. Though there are still traces of negativism in Berkouwer, they are focused more on "historical Pharisaism" than on the Jews. His treatment is generally fair and a good example of how a thoughtful exegete can go about interpreting Christianity from a biblical base while transcending anti-Semitism.

Rousseau 11)

In many ways this makes him one of the most ardent of Calvinists, as Calvin and his followers deem it the responsibility of each individual to learn from scripture that which they are themselves capable of learning, rather than simply acknowledging the dictation of the church (in any form) and learning only what has been interpreted for them by others.

The Bible, Berkouwer argues, attributes only the divine election to God as its cause. On the other hand, this does not mean that Berkouwer questions that many are lost or that the divine sovereignty is less clearly manifest in condemnation than in election. He rejects also any effort to make the divine condemnation conditional upon God's prevision of man's lack of faith. 58 to accept any of these alternatives to the doctrine of double election would be just as unfaithful to Scripture as is that doctrine itself. The theologian's task is to faithfully affirm what is affirmed in Scripture, and not to attempt to reconcile apparently conflicting emphases in a rational scheme. 59 Although Berkouwer feels free to criticize Calvin and the Calvinist confessions at those points where they have gone beyond the teaching of Scripture, they function for him as guides and norms by which to check his own reading of the Bible. Hence, on each doctrine that he investigates, he devotes much of his attention to the teaching of the church in which he stands. Since this teaching includes the acceptance and reaffirmation of the ecumenical creeds of the early church, these also function as guides to the interpretation of Scripture. 60 However, for Berkouwer, these creeds are accepted ultimately because they accurately reflect the meaning and intention of Scripture, not because they have been accepted by the church.

Cobb 139-140)

Berkouwer is more or less driven by the idea that the future of the faith is to allow divergence as long as such divergence is reflective of individual learning and that dialogue and debate form the backbone of dogmatic interpretation. His fourteen volume (in English) Dogmatics form the crucible of his works, and are based on just such conflicts and standards, as they are developed out of the problems and associations he himself dealt with in his debates and conversations within his theological classes, and the prolific writings he produced as a result of these conflicts and conversations in a newsletter he penned for many years on a weakly basis for the GKN. According to the authors affiliated with Globaloneness, in their encyclopedic entry on Berkouwer's Studies in Dogmatics was formed from three logical sources;

First, Berkouwer wrote a new theological short essay in almost every issue of the GKN weekly Gereformeerde Weekblad, which garnered responses from clergy and laity all over the Netherlands and beyond. Second, a good part of the articles arose from class lectures to his students at VU, where the newspaper letters of response might carry some weight and sometimes occasioned Berkouwer's refinements for his students at least. Third, the newspaper theological-articles, letters of response, and classroom refinements in turn led to the publication of books over many years under the general series name, Studies in Dogmatics (the latter word being rendered in English usually as systematic theology). The number of titles in the SiD series eventually came to a total of 14 in English, due to the combination of some paired Dutch volumes rendered into a single volume in…[continue]

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