Christian Doctrine and Christian Experience

Describing Berkouwer’s theological method, L B Smedes writes, ‘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 P E Hughes (ed), Creative Minds in Contemporary Theology, p.95).
Writing from this perspective in which Christian truth never ceases to be existentially challenging to his readers, Berkouwer has produced some very valuable studies in Christian doctrine.
We can illustrate this point by noting some relevant passages in his Studies in Dogmatics.
At the outset of his book, Holy Scripture, he criticizes ‘an incorrect conception of theology, a conception which considers it possible to discuss Holy Scripture apart from a personal relationship of belief in it, as though that alone would constitute true “objectivity”‘ (pp. 9-10).
He holds that a misguided fear of subjectivism lapses into a false objectivism with the suggestion the Christian truth can be considered without direct reference to the believer’s personal involvement with that truth.
He emphasizes the importance of having a proper understanding of the relationship between faith and its object: ‘faith is decisively determined by the object of faith, namely, God and His Word’. He emphasizes that this ‘does not … imply that Scripture … derives its authority from the believer’s faith’. He insists that ‘this idea is already rendered untenable by the very nature of faith, which rests on and trusts in the Word of God’ (Holy Scripture, p. 10).
Using the word, ‘relativity’ to describe the correlation between faith and its object, Berkouwer distances himself from any suggestion of ‘philosophical relativism’. He does not intend to call in question the authority of Scripture for theological reflection. Seeking rather to understand the true nature of that authority, he points out that his use of the idea of ‘relativity … refers simply to the relation of a thing to something other than itself’ (Faith and Justification, p.9). Our theology is to be ‘relative to the Word of God’. This means that we must be ‘occupied in continuous and obedient listening to the Word’ (Faith and Justification, p.9). A true acknowledgment of the authority of God and His Word involves us in walking in the way of Christ as our lives are lit up by the lamp and light of God’s Word (Holy Scripture, pp.33-34).
Berkouwer has consistently emphasized both objectivity and subjectivity. He has stressed that faith’s subjectivity and certainty is rooted in the truth of the Gospel: ‘Faith involves a certain subjectivity … a subjectivity which has meaning only as it is bound to the gospel’ (Faith and Justification, p.30).
With this dual emphasis on both objectivity and subjectivity, he seeks to avoid the twin pitfalls of objectivism and subjectivism. Emphasizing that ‘the authority of God’s Word is not an arbitrary, external authority … (but) a wooing and conquering authority’, he points out that ‘Scripture’s authority does not demand blind obedience’. What it does call for is ‘a subjection that spells redemption … a subjection to Christ whereby he is never out of view … in which acceptance occurs with joy and willingness’ (Holy Scripture, pp.349-350).
Seeking to acknowledge fully both the objectivity of Biblical authority and the subjectivity of the believer’s experience of that authority, Berkouwer emphasizes that his view is ‘not a subjectification of authority, which might only become reality through acknowledgement.’ He is seeking rather to point to ‘the unique authority (which) can only be acknowledged and experienced on the way’ (Holy Scripture, p.348).
By adopting this position, Berkouwer is seeking to address the problems arising from both objectivism – theology’s tendency to exaggerate its own capacity to systematize divine revelation – and subjectivism – theology’s tendency to forget that it must always remain under the authority of divine revelation.
While the dangers of objectivism and subjectivism are distinguishable, it must be pointed out that they are closely related. They both arise from theology’s failure to recognize its own limitations. Theology is limited by Scripture. Over against objectivism – overconfidnce in our capacity to systematize divine revelation – , we must insist that theology is not permitted to systematize where Scripture does not. Over against subjectivism – overconfidence on our capacity to pass judgment on divine revelation – , we must insist that theology is not permitted to speculate where Scripture does not.
Throughout his Studies in Dogmatics, we see Berkouwer seeking to hold together the obective and subjective elements in Christian faith.
In his volume on Sin, he maintains that by trying ‘to construct abstract and causal answers to this question of sin’s origin’, we ‘have violated the very limits of objectivity’. He provides us with these words of caution: ‘Whoever reflects on the origin of sin cannot engage himself in a merely theoretical dispute; rather he is engaged, intimately and personally, in … the problem of sin’s guilt’ (p.14).
Commenting on the ‘Nature Psalms’ in his book, General Revelation, he writes, ‘This understanding and seeing, and hearing, is possible only
… in the enlightening of the eyes by the salvation of God’. He points out that ‘this seeing and hearing is not a projection of the believing subject,
but an actual finding and seeing and hearing!’ He emphasizes that ‘here nothing is ‘read into’, but is only an understanding of the reality of revelation’ (pp.131-132).
In his book, The Providence of God, Berkouwer relates providence to both the grace of God as the object of the believer’s faith and the believer’s faith by which providence is subjectively experienced. Maintaining that ‘in the doctrine of Providence we have a specific Christian confession exclusively possible through a true faith in Jesus Christ’, he insists that ‘this faith is no general, vague notion of Providence’. He emphasizes that the doctrine of providence ‘has a concrete focus: “If God is for us, who is against us? He that spared not his own Son, but delivered him up for us all, how shall he not also with him freely give us all things?” (Rom. 8:31-32)’. Drawing attention to ‘the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord’, he offers this comment, ‘There is no purer expression of the depth of man’s faith in God’s Providence’ (pp.45, 47).
In his book, The Person of Christ, he relates christology’s content and method thus: ‘(T)heology is not practised apart from faith, prayer and adoration … The whole subject matter of Christology is most intimately
related to the secret of revelation … the enlightenment of the eyes’ (pp.10, 14).
In his book, The Work of Christ, he describes the purpose of christology thus: ‘(T)he object is not a purely theoretical knowledge but a profitable,
wholesome knowledge of the salvation of God in Jesus Christ’ (p.10).
Berkouwer’s work on Faith and Justification is undergirded by this foundation-principle: ‘The character of faith resolves all tension between objectivity and subjectivity. For faith has significance only in its orientation to its object – the grace of God’ (p. 29).
His work on Faith and Sanctification is undergirded by the same principle: ‘The sanctification … demanded is always an implicate of the
sanctification that originates in God’s mercy. Hence the sanctification
of believers is never an independent area of human activity … (W)e can speak truly of sanctification only when we have understood the exceptionally great significance of the bond between Sola-fide
and sanctification … (T)he Sola-fide … a confession of ‘By grace alone we are saved’ … is the only sound foundation for sanctification’ (pp.26, 42-43).
His work on Faith and Perseverance is based on this same foundation: ‘the perseverance of the saints is not primarily a theoretical problem but a confession of faith … a song of praise to God’s faithfulness and grace’ (p.14).
Berkouwer’s principle for understanding justification, sanctification and perseverance may be summed up thus: ‘Sola fide (faith alone) and sola gratia (grace alone) … mean the same thing’ (Faith and Justification, p.44).
Concerning the confession, ‘ Credo Ecclesiam’ (I believe in the Church), Berkouwer, writing in his volume entitled, The Church, insists that the Church’s objectivity is not subjectivized by the affirmation that ‘the only framework in which the Church can be and can remain the Church of the Lord (is) the framework of faith, prayer, obedience and subjection’ (p.19).
Discussing reality and symbolism in his book, The Sacraments, he writes,
‘Only if we reject false dilemmas … it will be possible to delve deeper, to discern the sovereign manner in which God stoops down to us, taking up simple earthly elements and using them for the affirmation and strengthening of our faith’ (p.26).
Throughout his Studies in Dogmatics, we find that Berkouwer is deeply concerned with developing an adequate understanding of the relationship between objectivity and subjectivity. If we are to appreciate the strength of Berkouwer’s theology, it is vitally important that we have a clear understanding of the centrality of this concern in all of his theological work.

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