Berkouwer and the Free University of Amsterdam
Berkouwer’s confrontation with scholasticism has been immediate. The Free University of Amsterdam, at which he taught, as Professor of Systematic Theology, from 1945 until his retirement in 1973, provides an interesting study of the influence of scholasticism in Dutch Reformed theology. Berkouwer’s predecessors in the Chair of Systematic Theology were Abraham Kuyper, Herman Bavinck and Valentinius Hepp. The contrasting way in which Berkouwer has treated the views of his predecessors provides a useful illustration of his own relationship to scholasticism. It should be noted that Kuyper, Bavinck and Hepp are not equally scholastic in their theological method. Berkouwer’s evaluation of the theological significance of each of his predecessors varies rather directly with the extent to which each of them were able to free themselves of scholastic influence.
A. Kuyper, H. Bavinck and G. C. Berkouwer
Berkouwer frequently cites both Kuyper and Bavinck. Citations of Bavinck are, however, generally more frequent than citations of Kuyper. In most discussions of any given theme, he introduces the opinions of Kuyper and Bavinck. He is generally more critical of Kuyper than he is of Bavinck. He rarely criticizes Bavinck. He seeks constantly to interpret Bavinck in a way that will minimize any disagreement.
Any comparison of Kuyper, Bavinck and Berkouwer must focus its chief attention on the theological trend away from scholasticism. Generally speaking, Kuyper inclines towards scholasticism more than Bavinck.
Contrasting Kuyper and Bavinck, J. Timmer writes, “Bavinck was a man with a deep concern for evangelism. If Kuyper placed the emphasis on the anti-thesis (i.e. the negative stance vis-à-vis the world), Bavinck was more likely to place it on the thesis. Bavinck’s theology is more open-ended. The divine mysteries play a much more significant role in his thought. Although Kuyper did recognize the element of mystery, he had the tendency to have the system prevail over the evidence. His theology inclines toward the scholastic” (“Recent Developments within the Reformed Church (Gereformeerde) in the Netherlands”, The Reformed Journal, Sept-Dec 1969. This quotation is from the September article. The December article is on Berkouwer).
This contrast between Kuyper and Bavinck can also be applied to the relation between Bavinck and Berkouwer. Although Bavinck begins his book, The Doctrine of God, with the words, “Mystery is the vital element of dogmatics” (Banner of Truth, 1977, p. 13), his style of writing is quite different from that of Berkouwer. The format of the book is quite different from any of Berkouwer’s writings. There is more of an orientation towards scholasticism in Bavinck than there is in Berkouwer. In Berkouwer, there is a more consistent attempt to rid his thought of scholastic influences.
This contrast between Bavinck and Berkouwer has been noted and discussed by S. Meijers in his book, Objectiviteit en Existentialiteit (Objectivity and Existentiality) (J H Kok, Kampen, 1979). Meijers examines the theologies of Bavinck and Berkouwer (as well as those of H. M. Kuitert and A. A. van Ruler), asking the question to what extent each theologian allows one concept to stand over against the other – “either the objectivity of revelation – Bavinck – or the existentiality of knowledge emanating from faith – Berkouwer” (and Kuitert and van Ruler) (p. 446). Meijers shows that “Bavinck puts great emphasis on the objective nature of scriptural testimony and makes existentiality take root in this objectivity” (p. 446).
In emphasizing both objectivity and existentiality, Bavinck intends to reject both the dualistic starting-point of the ethisch-gereformeerden (“ethical theology”, prominent in 1920, “was not easy to define precisely … But generally … was characterized by the slogan: ‘not dead doctrine, but the living Lord’ … an anti-dogma slogan …”, implying a “false antithesis”, Berkouwer, A Half Century of Theology, p. 11).) on the one hand and scholasticism on the other. When, however, Bavinck attempts to make his own starting-point comprehensible, he lapses into objectivism, calling in the help of scholasticism.
In his analysis of Berkouwer, Meijers stresses that Berkouwer follows Bavinck in putting “full stress on the nature of objectivity” (p. 447). Berkouwer understands the relation between objectivity and existentiality differently from Bavinck.
Acknowledging a “congeniality of intention between Bavinck and Berkouwer” (p. 448), Meijers points out that “Bavinck approaches existentiality via objectivity, Berkouwer follows the reverse route” (p. 447).
Both wish to oppose anti-dogma subjectivism and scholastic objectivism. There is, however, some distance between Bavinck and Berkouwer in the content of their respective theologies.
In a letter to myself (Spring 1979), Meijers stated that Berkouwer has responded to his thesis with two comments.
First, he emphasizes the accuracy of Meijers’ emphasis on his “consistent apologetic intention … directed at scholasticism”. He sees himself as following through, with greater consistency, the protest against scholasticism which had been characteristic of Bavinck before him.
Second, he claims a greater affinity with Bavinck than Meijers gives him credit for. Meijers acknowledges their similar intention and sees the difference between them residing more in specific aspects of their respective theologies. While Meijers “calls attention to the distance separating them” (p. 448), Berkouwer, a theologian for whom “intention” is absolutely crucial in his theological analysis (C. W. Bogue, A Hole in the Dike, p. 8), prefers to underline his affinity to Bavinck rather than his distance from him.
One may view Berkouwer in terms of his affinity with Bavinck continuing, in Bavinck’s line, to rid theology of scholasticism – or his differences from Bavinck – less scholastic on specific details of theology. Either way, it cannot be denied that the movement from Bavinck to Berkouwer is a movement further away from the influence of scholasticism in theology.
The movement from Bavinck to Berkouwer is a movement from a theologian who has written on the doctrine of God as a topic in itself to a theologian who – perhaps because of a fear of lapsing into scholasticism – has not written on the doctrine of God as such.
Berkouwer believes in the existence of God. He also believes that God can only be known by faith. The seriousness with which Berkouwer takes this faith-dimension is highlighted by the fact that he has written of God only in His relation to man, e. g. General Revelation – God revealing Himself to man, Divine Election – God graciously saving man, The Providence of God – God caring for and providing for man (each of these doctrinal themes is understood in the context of salvation – General Revelation, p. 131, Divine Election, p. 153, n. 38, The Providence of God, p. 178).
In this post, I have focused attention on Berkouwer’s relation to Kuyper and Bavinck. I did, however, include the name of Valentinius Hepp in the title of this post. What are we to say about Hepp? I’ll restrict myself to a brief comment. Hepp was a scholastic. Berkouwer rarely mentions him – ‘Let’s bypass Hepp and go back to Bavinck.’