On the whole, Berkouwer shows considerable agreement with Calvin. Where there is disagreement, this tends to be minimized through sympathetic interpretation which accentuates their agreement. Whenever disagreement is inevitable, it is always respectful disagreement. Berkouwer’s criticisms of Calvin are never offered without the greatest respect for the great Reformer.
While Berkouwer offers much sympathetic exposition and interpretation of Calvin, it is clearly not his intention ‘to defend every one of Calvin’s utterance concerning the doctrine of election’ (Divine Election, p. 190). In particular, he is critical of the ‘imbalance in the causa-concept which we observe in Calvin’ (p. 181). Even here, however, Berkouwer’s criticism is sympathetic rather than scathing. He refers to an imbalance which requires correction rather than presenting an equally unbalanced and categorical rejection of Calvin’s valid insight into the central importance of the doctrine of election.
Emphasizing the close connection between between election and pastoral concern, Berkouwer commends Calvin’s idea of Christ as the ‘mirror of election’. In this idea, Berkouwer sees a way of emphasizing the close relation between election and the certainty of salvation. Berkouwer commends Calvin for his pastoral sensitivity.
Berkouwer is not, however, convinced that Calvin has ‘on the basis of this conception … in all respects drawn the proper conclusions and formed them into a harmonious “system”‘ (The Triumph of Grace in the Theology of Karl Barth, p. 285). He regards some of Calvin’s exegesis (e.g. Romans 9-11) as questionable. Nevertheless, he maintains that Calvin’s basic insight concerning Christ as the mirror of salvation demands that he be given a much more sympathetic interpretation than he has frequently been given.
By sympathetic criticism and creative reinterpretation, Berkouwer has offered an approach which may well prove to be of great value in contemporary discussions of divine sovereignty and human freedom. In his frequent discussion of Calvin’s insights, Berkouwer has warned us against the danger of dismissing Calvin as ancient history. He has reminded us that, while we may not feel bound to absolute agreement with every detail of Calvin’s theology, we can still learn a great deal from this seminal thinker whose significance goes far beyond his own generation.