“The Heart of the Church”

In his book, A Half Century of Theology, G C Berkouwer has a chapter on “The Heart of the Church” (Chapter 4).

In this chapter, he is concerned to emphasize the importance of the doctrine of election: “If we take seriously the conviction that election lies at the cor ecclesiae, at the heart of the church, we find ourselves at the centre of the church’s faith when we focus on the question of election.” (79).

The apologetic value of Berkouwer’s doctrine of election is directly related to a number of inter-related factors.

(i) He discusses the harmful effects of a deterministic doctrine of election:

“this doctrine has been all but comforting … an offence, with ho real liberating and tension-relieving power … a decision that was extremely difficult to rhyme with a gospel of love comforting to the heart.” (79).

(ii) He acknowledges that the deterministic interpretation of election has, for many, proved to be an obstacle to faith:

“the confession of divine election did come to the fore in a very direct pastoral way; people in the congregations have been plagued by questions concerning election and human responsibility, questions about the certainty of one’s own salvation.” (78).

(iii) He affirms the primacy of revelation over human thought.

His approach to the problem of determinism involves a reinterpretation rather than a denial of election. To ignore this problem with an implicit denial of election is to present a superficial apologetic, the value of which is relativized by its failure to take this problem seriously. Such an apologetic demonstrates “a willingness to sacrifice successive points in the line of defence as they come under attack from critics.” (25). This defensive apologetics does not compare well with authentic apologetics which “can occur only from within the context of the gospel.” (56).

(iv) He refuses to be content with “the construction of defensive syntheses.” (89).

“We knew that we had to go further – in concern for the heart of the church – than the construction of defensive syntheses.” (89).

A thoroughgoing reinterpretation of election was essential if it was to be made clear that” divine election was not an arbitrary decree that opened the door to a fatalism and determinism in which the events of our time and history were robbed of all genuine meaning” (89).

(v) He has thought seriously about difficult theological concepts and biblical passages.

Concerning the interpretation of divine sovereignty, he writes,

“one has to be on guard against isolating and abstracting words, including the word ‘sovereignty’. If we are not, we may use words that violate the heart of the church.” (90).

Such counsel is not given “with a desire to replace determinism with an indeterminism” (91), for that would be to follow defensive apologetics in an implicit denial of election. His concern is to develop an interpretation of election which points to the trustworthiness of God:

“the knowledge of divine sovereignty is possible only within knowledge of the God in whom there is no arbitrariness.” (91).

Concerning the interpretation of divine freedom, he warns, “waving the banner of absolute divine autonomy does not dam up anguishing questions, and is certainly not likely to lead to praise.” (92).

His concern is not to question the divine freedom. It is to clarify its meaning in way that “phrases like ‘incontestable freedom’ and … ‘absolute possibility'” (91) fail to do. He insists that the New Testament “avoids a dialectic between divine freedom and human freedom.” (101). Divine freedom should be understood in connection with divine goodness” (91; referring to Matthew 20:15). Divine freedom reminds us that we must not presume on divine goodness. Thus, divine freedom serves as “a summons to conversion.” (91; referring to Matthew 22:14 and Matthew 20:16).

Relating his understanding of divine sovereignty and divine freedom to the interpretation of Romans 9-11, he writes,

“Words like ‘sovereignty’ ought not to be approached abstractly via a formal concept; this can only create the impression that we are capturing our own understanding or words in transparent definitions and then applying them directly to God without deeper consideration, as though he naturally fits the definition garnered from human experience. Not surprisingly, this abstract notion of sovereignty has a profound effect when theologians apply it to … Romans 9.” (91).

“If divine freedom explains everything … how is it possible that Paul … in … Romans 9-11 … does not end with a reasoned conclusion that the destiny of everything and everyone is sealed from eternity, Why does he, rather, end with a breathtaking doxology?” (92; referring to Romans 11:33).

When Romans 9-11 is understood as referring to “God’s revelation of mercy … and not a ‘naked sovereignty'” (90), the illegitimacy of the human protest against God and the “mystical delight” (93) of Paul’s doxology are seen quite differently from their deterministic interpretation. The human protest is recognized as entirely inappropriate because “the doctrine of election is an ‘inexpressible comfort’ for both the believer and the nonbeliever since it proclaims that there is hope for the ‘most miserable of men’.” (103; By citing H. Bavinck’s reference to ‘the nonbeliever’, Berkouwer is not suggesting that we should move in the direction of universal salvation – all will be saved.)

Concerning Bavinck’s statement, Berkouwer writes,

“Here … is the suggestion of a positive view of election, one that does not reason in terms of two groups of people eternally separated from each other by the decree, but of a single humanity made up of sinners, in the light of him who justifies the godless without respect to works.” (103-104).

Paul’s doxology is recognized as entirely appropriate because it expresses faith’s response to the divine mercy in which “there is nothing of ‘the inexplicable arbitrariness of power that moves one put his fingers to his lips.” (93).

Throughout his discussion of these difficult issues, there is theological integrity since his reinterpretation of election “has nothing to do wit a devaluation of divine sovereignty. It is not motivated by respect for the autonomy of the free man.” (95).

(vi) Through honest questioning, he has reached a positive position in which he affirms divine election while avoiding the dangers of determinism.

Describing the process by which he reached this position, he writes,

“in the Bible’s radical and open character, I found a way of speaking that is not defined by some darksome eternal background, but by the way of history … ” (100);

“I did not have to posit indeterminism over against determinism.” (101).

As his thought moved from abstract concepts towards the person and work of Christ in whom the grace of God is clearly revealed, he found that he was not denying the free sovereignty of God. He was recognizing its character as the free sovereignty of grace (102; Here, he cites H. Ridderbos who “sees election connected, not with a definite number of people, but with Christ.”; 103, Here, he cites Dijk who holds that “it is better ‘not to speak of another decree that lies behind the gracious choice that is in Christ’ lest we cut election loose from Jesus Christ.”)

He describes the direction of his thought in this way:

“the reconsideration of election has tended … not in the direction of a double decree that merely waits to be executed, but in the direction of grace as the nature, the character of election.” (102).

He has achieved a position with enormous apologetic value for the person who finds the doctrine of election an an obstacle to faith:

“anyone who expects salvation from grace rather than works is set immediately within the sphere of election; but he need not encounter alongside or over election in grace a decision that was made in a hidden decree.” (102).


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