G. C. Berkouwer and T. F. Torrance on the Doctrine of Election

T. F. Torrance contributed an article to a collection of essays written in honour of G. C. Berkouwer.

The book is Ex Auditu Verbi, Theologische opstellen aangeboden aan Prof. G. C. Berkouwer, (J. H. Kok, Kampen, 1965), edited by R. Schippers et al.

Torrance’s article is found at pp. 272-296. This article – “The Epistemological Relevance of the Spirit” – was first published, as Chapter 7 (pp. 165-192), in his book, God and Rationality, (Oxford University Press, London, 1969).

Torrance has made some helpful comments which suggest a basic framework within which Berkouwer’s concept of the depth-aspect of salvation may be understood.

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(Here’s a summary of what Berkouwer has said about the depth-aspect of salvation. This will give you an idea of the context within which I am interpreting Torrance’s understanding of election.)

In his discussion of the ‘pre’ element in predestination, Berkouwer insists that “he who speaks of God’s counsel in terms of human categories will have to be aware of the inadequacy of his words” (Divine Election, p. 152).

In this respect, Berkouwer builds on the work of Bavinck who, in his discussion of predestination, insists that “one cannot speak of before and after with respect to God” (p. 152; This statement is made in the particular context of the discussion of the doctrine of election and should not be applied indiscriminately to every theological statement. In The Person of Christ, Berkouwer cites favourably the words of H. de Vos: “One cannot avoid Christ’s pre-existence: if Jesus Christ be God, then he existed before he became man” (p. 54). In this statement , as in Divine Election, p. 152, Berkouwer’s concern is to emphasize that the historical is grounded in the eternal and that both the historical and the eternal are grounded in the love of God. This divine love undergirds the eternal salvation which has become historical reality in Christ, Divine Election, p. 168.)

Recognizing the inadequacy of human language, Berkouwer seeks to understand the language of predestination in connection with what he calls the “depth-aspect” of salvation (Divine Election, pp. 113, 150, 168).

He emphasizes that “the depth-aspect of salvation … is not a matter of hiddenness which goes beyond the knowledge of faith … not something fardistant, not a vague, threatening reality, but the foundation of salvation …” (pp. 113-114; Here, he is discussing Biblical statements concerning “the Book of life”).

With this idea of the depth-aspect of salvation, Berkouwer seeks to understand the idea of ‘before the foundation of the world’ (For a biblical statement which uses this expression, see Ephesians 1:4. This phrase also occurs in John 17:24 and 1 Peter 1:20. In interpreting these passages, it is important that we take into account the context and content of each passage rather than artificially imposing a uniformity of use and meaning.)

He emphasizes that “These words do not occur in Scripture as a threat, but in the decisive depth-aspect of salvation. they are not placed in a context in which they make us dizzy in the face of an unapproachable ‘eternity’, … but they are intended to show us the source of our eternal salvation … ‘Before’ indicates that this divine act of salvation, preached to us by the gospel, is free from what we know in the world to be arbitrary and precarious … in this depth-aspect of God’s salvation it becomes … evident that this salvation did not originate in our flesh and blood, and that it is by no means of human merit or creation. But precisely this fact does not obscure the way; on the contrary, it illumines it. ‘Before the foundation of the world’ means to direct our attention to what can be called the opposite of chance and contingence” (pp. 150-151. Berkouwer also stresses that the depth-aspect of salvation should be recognized in the use of the expression, “God’s good pleasure”, concerning which he writes, “This pleasure does not stand in contrast to the historical gospel” (p. 151). In his article on “G. C. Berkouwer” in Creative Minds in Contemporary Theology, (edited by P. E. Hughes), L. B. Smedes writes, “The ‘good pleasure of God’ according to which we are chosen in Christ is sometimes taken to mean that God simply does anything that He arbitrarily decides, whereas the ‘good pleasure of God’ is His gracious purpose to save: Christ is the revelation of His ‘good pleasure’” (p.77, n. 32). The idea of God’s good pleasure occurs in the Authorized Version’s rendering of Ephesians 1:5, 9. The idea of God’s good pleasure is also found in Philippians 2:13 (Authorized Version and Revised Standard Version) and 2 Thessalonians 1:11 (Authorized Version). In these latter passages, the theme is sanctification and there is no suggestion of arbitrariness at all.)

Berkouwer’s basic understanding of the depth-aspect is defined thus: “When we speak of the depth-aspect, we mean that eternity does not stand in contrast with what in time becomes historical reality, but rather that the salvation accomplished by Christ’s death of reconciliation cannot be merely historical, but that it has its eternal foundation in the love of God” (p. 168).

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There’s a certain similarity between Torrance and Berkouwer on election. Torrance, like Berkouwer, insists on the centrality of grace – “Authentic theological thinking must carry its inquiry into the very heart of grace” (Theological Science, (OUP, 1969), p. 128).

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For many years, Torrance was associated with Edinburgh (New College). Here’s another helpful comment from another minister who served, for many years, in Edinburgh. James Philip (Holyrood Abbey Church), in his booklet, The Westminster Confession of Faith: An exposition, Part I, Chapters 1-8, writes, “The notion that God predestinates first, then proceeds to be gracious is a falsification of the truth. Grace is eternal. We may look back as far as we will, but will never discover a time when God is not gracious.” (p. 29).

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Torrance, like Berkouwer, aims to overcome “the temptation … to convert this living … election into … a deterministic, predestination alien to the New Testament” (Theological Science, p. 128, n. 2).

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Another quotation from James Philip. Commenting on the Westminster Confession of Faith, he insists that we are “not to enter into a world of logical speculation and speak of a God who before all worlds damned men for His pleasure” since “predestination … simply means ‘God in action’, the hand of God stretching out from beyond to claim men for a destiny bright beyond all understanding and almost beyond belief” (p. 36).

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Torrance’s understanding of election is grounded in an analogy to the person of Christ: In his article, “Predestination in Christ”, Evangelical Quarterly , XIII, (April 1941), he writes,

“just because in Jesus Christ is no docetic person but also man and real man, personal and historical, then election must be understood as an act also in the field of time and history. It does not mean the repudiation of human freedom but its creation, and the repudiation of bondage” (p. 119).

“the approach of God in Christ … the invasion of eternity into time, means that God takes seriously the relations of time such as human reactions, choices and decisions, and predestination means that precisely these are brought face to face with the Eternal, man’s will is not overcome” (p. 120).

Torrance’s approach to the doctrine of election is rather different from Berkouwer’s. Torrance draws an analogy between Christology and election. Christ is truly human and truly divine. Election is understood as a really human decision as well as a really divine decision. Berkouwer does not use this kind of analogy in the development of his doctrine of election.

While there is a significant difference in the approaches of Torrance and Berkouwer, it should be noted that there are certain common emphases in the writings of both of these great theologians.

(a) Both deplore the idea of a hidden will of God behind His revealed will in Christ (”Predestination in Christ”, p. 117; Divine Election, Chapter 4 – “Election and the Hiddenness of God, pp. 102-131).

(b) Both emphasize the graciousness of God’s election in which He “exercises His freedom to break the bondage of a sinful world, and to bring Himself into personal relations with men” (”Predestination in Christ”, p. 117; Divine Election, p. 153, n. 38).

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Berkouwer emphasizes that “divine election is identical with the grace of God that was revealed in Jesus Christ … (and) is … not to be confused with the notion of an arbitrary, graceless decree of a purely Sovereign Deity” (L. B. Smedes, “G. C. Berkouwer” in P. E. Hughes (ed.), Creative Minds in Contemporary Theology, (Grand Rapids, 1969), p. 74).

Emphasizing that it is only out of the experience of divine grace that we can speak of divine election, Berkouwer carefully avoids any suggestion of a Christological objectivism in which ‘man’ and ‘the world’ are understood to be standing in a relationship of grace by virtue of the incarnation and apart from faith.

the ‘personal relation’ of which Scripture speaks is “a relation as it becomes visible in and through the reality of salvation”, a relation which it is “completely impossible to hypostasize .. as an actuality in se, since Scripture’s ‘in Christ’ and ‘by faith’ so clearly determines it” (Man: The Image of God, p. 101, emphasis original).

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(c) Both reject the concept of ‘free will’ since “The man who knows himself to be chosen by God cannot say that he himself chose God” (”Predestination in Christ”, pp. 117-118), for it os only through grace that a sinner is brought out of bondage into his true freedom which is bondage to grace (Man: The Image of God, Chapter 9 – “Human Freedom”, pp. 310-348).

(d) Both reject a priori universalism which, in Torrance’s words, “commits the dogmatic fallacy of systematizing the illogical” (”Universalism or Election?”, Scottish Journal of Theology, 2 (1949), p. 313). Recognizing that Torrance has “correctly” rejected a necessary universalism as a violation of free grace, which threatens to make the Cross of Christ meaningless, Berkouwer maintains that Torrance has difficulty in rejecting universalism in view of his idea of universal election (The Triumph of Grace in the Theology of Karl Barth, pp. 363, with accompanying notes 17-19). In Divine Election, pp. 230-241, Berkouwer speaks of the universality of the Gospel without speaking of a universal election.

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Torrance’s use of the Christological analogy in connection with election marks a significant difference between these two great theologians. We should, however, note that Torrance’s comments regarding the depth-dimension in theological language may help us to understand Berkouwer’s idea of the depth-aspect of salvation.

Torrance writes,

“God reveals Himself to man … in the medium of the creaturely existence … and uses the sign-world of inter-human communication in order to communicate Himself to man” (God and Rationality, p. 184).

” … true statements about God have a dimension of depth which they acquire through pointing to the infinite and eternal truth of God who far transcends all our thoughts and statements about Him … our statements are more true the more open they are to the ultimate Truth … The Spirit is thus the act of God upon us which keeps our concepts or cognitive forms open, so that our thought and speech are stretched out beyond themselves toward the inexhaustible nature of the divine being … open concepts are not irrational because they are open, for to be open vis-a-vis the eternal God is the true mode of their rationality, prescribed for them by the nature of the divine Object of knowledge … Thus the very ‘inadequacy’ of these concepts to their objects is essential to their truth, for they would not be true unless they pointed far beyond any ‘adequacy’ they have to the infinite and eternal God” (pp. 186-188).

Torrance’s comments are not directly related to the doctrine of election. It is, however, possible to see how they can help us to understand the doctrine of election.

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In any attempt to understand the nature of divine grace, five important observations require to be made.

(1) Man only knows of grace through revelation.

(2) Divine revelation comes to man in the form of human language.

(3) The inadequacy of human language as a vehicle of divine revelation demands that due care be taken in the interpretation of Scripture.

(5) The idea of an open concept indicates a depth-dimension which points beyond the limitations of human language to profound spiritual realities.

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Berkouwer’s concept of the depth-aspect of salvation may be viewed as a serious attempt to understand the complex problem of the relation of human language to divine revelation. It should be noted that he does not advocate a ’spiritualism’ which devalues the words of Scripture (Holy Scripture, pp. 57-59, 288-290). Berkouwer’s idea of the depth-aspect of salvation is not a denial of what Scripture says. Rather, it is an interpretation of what Scripture says, an attempt to understand what a particular passage teaches in relation to the “entire Biblical message” (Divine Election, p. 18). The recognition of a depth-aspect of salvation does not involve a denial of Biblical authority. Rather, we are asking the question, “Is this really what the Bible is teaching?” In asking this question, we make a clear distinction between Scripture itself and theological interpretations of Scripture.

Berkouwer insists that a proper understanding of theological language is only attainable within the context of the obedience of faith. Such obedience does not reflect a retreat into sheer heteronomy. Predestinarian language is understood as a form of expression which the believer, who has willingly submitted to the authority of grace, use to confess his Christian faith.

Berkouwer insists that a proper understanding of theological language is only attainable within the context of an encounter with the divine object of faith. This encounter does not reflect a retreat into subjectivism. Faith’s subjectivity has meaning only in relation to the divine object of faith.

Predestinarian language is understood in direct connection to the kerygma through which we encounter God in Christ. set in this context, predestinarian language may not be regarded as a form of determinism which threatens to strip human experience of decisive significance.

Emphasizing that he who has seen Christ has seen the Father, Berkouwer maintains that the Christian, in his encounter with Christ, comes to know the revelation of God which is not threatened by a hidden God whose secret cannot be known (see his citation of John 14:9 in Divine Election, p. 124).

Berkouwer insists that a proper understanding of theological language involves the recognition of the inexpressible character of the divine object of faith. the gift of God’s grace in Christ is an “inexpressible gift” (2 Corinthians 9: 15, R.S.V.). When the believer seeks to express his gratitude to God for this inexpressible gift, he finds it quite impossible to give adequate expression to this gratitude which he feels so deeply. He is almost certain to use language which, at best, will contain certain ambiguities and, at worst, misleading impressions if his language is not recognized as a groping after a form of expression that is worthy of a virtually inexpressible Reality.

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