As we affirm our faith in God, we must also emphasize the importance of a life-transforming experience of His grace. God is not merely the object of study for the academic discipline we call theology. He is the One who changes our life. To believe in Him is to be changed by Him. If we believe the Christian faith, we must also live the Christian life. We must reject a man-centred subjectivism which makes human experience the ultimate criterion by which truth is judged. If, however, theological reflection is to avoid becoming barren intellectualism, we dare not forget that the faith of the Church ‘comes out of the experience of God’s people struggling to hear his Word in the context of life’ (M. Eugene Osterhaven, The Faith of the Church: A Reformed Perspective on its Historical Development, p.7).
These two important points – the normativity of divine revelation for our understanding of human experience and the significance of Christian experience in the development of our understanding of Christian truth – lie at the heart of Berkouwer’s theology.
He emphasizes that the normativity of the Gospel excludes the idea that human experience should ever be given ‘constitutive importance in the determination of the central focus of Holy Scripture’ (Holy Scripture, p.124). He stresses that we only make a true affirmation of the authority of Scripture when we commit ourselves to living the life of a true believer – being a believer in deed.
Making the connection between what we believe and how we live, Berkouwer writes, ‘When the ‘acceptance’ of Holy Scripture as the Word of God is separated from a living faith in Christ, it is meaningless and confusing to call this acceptance belief in Scripture or an ‘element’ of the Christian faith’. In making this point, he emphasizes that ‘(t)his does not imply an underestimation of Scripture or of belief in it, but rather a great respect for Scripture, which addresses itself to our faith’. Insisting that ‘(b)elieving Scripture does not mean staring at a holy and mysterious book, but hearing the witness concerning Christ’, Berkouwer refuses to separate the acceptance of the Bible’s authority from the experience of ‘being gripped by the message to which its words testify’ (Holy Scripture, pp. 54, 166-167).
Drawing attention to the practical challenge of the Gospel, Berkouwer emphasizes that salvation is ‘not presented as a deed which as a matter of course comes to all, but as a calling of God … an invitation, a call to conversion’ (Divine Election, pp.235-236).