Book Reviews

CHRISTIAN FAITH (AN INTRODUCTION TO THE STUDY OF THE FAITH), Hendrikus Berkhof (translated from the Dutch edition by Sierd Woudstra); Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., Grand Rapids, Mich. 568 pp. (cloth) $20.95 [Reviewed by Prof. H.C. Hoeksema]

This large volume is not a book for a relaxing evening of light reading. Whoever reads it must put on his thinking-cap. Although it does not go by that title, it is a dogmatics. It can also be called a Reformed dogmatics, but only if the term “Reformed” is understood in the broadest possible sense. About this later. 

As far as the format of the book is concerned, it is divided into large-type sections and small-type sections in each chapter. The author himself explains that in the large-type sections he tries to put into words how he understands the truth of God. He goes on to say, “In the small-type sections I give readers the opportunity to see how I arrived at my formulations, and in particular 1, nudge them to move beyond what I have said with the use of the informal direction provided there.” It is possible, therefore, to confine one’s reading to the large-type sections and from these to understand the author’s position. Nevertheless, one cannot fully understand the author’s thought without reading the small-type sections as well.

Anyone who expects a rather traditional Reformed dogmatics from this book will be bitterly disappointed. At very few points does the author’s position resemble that of classical Reformed dogmatics. At many points the author deliberately departs from and expresses disagreement with the classical Reformed position. Three examples of this are his views of predestination; of original sin, and of the deity of Christ. But in this reviewer’s opinion the basic error of Berkhof, the error which explains all the others, is his view of revelation and of Scripture. In the course of this review we cannot enter into a detailed explanation and refutation of Berkhof’s Prolegomena. But here is a sample, page 87: “After all, Scripture cannot be identified with revelation. It is the human reaction to it. Here we meet revelation indirectly, in the mirror of the human witness. And when this witness is itself the product of the history of interpretation, we have to speak of a double indirectness. In general this indirectness is presupposed and respected in the language of the church. One who has a Bible in his pocket will not say that he has the Word of God in his pocket.” Along with Berkhof’s view of Scripture goes his acceptance of modern hermeneutics, page.89: “Modern hermeneutics teaches us to make a threefold distinction in the Bible: (a) between what is said and what is intended with it; (b) between the different authors, books, and witnesses; and (c) between then and now. Once we are aware of this distinction, an indiscriminate appeal to a text is no longer possible; instead we have to restate what the authors intended to say, in its agreement with as well as deviation from other biblical writers, in such a way that we today can hear it as the Word of God. Theological hermeneutics thus serves to facilitate the double process of making the connection with the past and of interpretively passing this on to the present. In this study of the faith we shall keep this threefold distinction in mind, and it will determine whether or not and the manner in which appeal is made to the authority of Scripture.” 

Nevertheless, while I cannot recommend this book for its Reformed contents and its sound development of the Reformed faith, I do recommend that our ministers and theological students add this book to their libraries. Our students can consult this work when they study dogmatics at the seminary, and perhaps at least some of our pastors will use some of their leisure time during the summer to read through this work. I make this recommendation for two reasons: 1) Hendrikus Berkhof is a force to be reckoned with in the field of Reformed dogmatics, and our men should be acquainted with his positions and be able to refute them. 2) There is no question about it that Berkhof’s writing is rather fresh and stimulating of one’s thinking. Every now and then one comes across a suggestion or a fresh way of stating something which, if followed and developed in a proper Reformed manner—something which Berkhof rarely, if ever, does—could be fruitful. Hence, while I cannot recommend this book for its good content, I do recommend it for either one of the reasons stated above.

UNCONDITIONAL GOOD NEWS (Toward an Understanding of Biblical Universalism) , Neal Punt; Wm. B. Eerdmans Publ. Co., Grand Rapids, Mich. 169 pp. (paper) $6.95. [Reviewed by Prof. H.C. Hoeksema]

Neal Punt is a Christian Reformed minister. He is another in a growing number of such ministers who try to solve the dilemma posed by the double track theology introduced by the First Point of 1924 by choosing and following—almost, but not quite—the universalist track of that theology. 

His book is supposedly dedicated to the proposition that “all persons are elect in Christ except, those expressly declared by the Bible to be lost.” This is supposed to be the “unconditional good news.” 

One could write an entire book in refutation of the numerous doctrinal and exegetical errors found in this strangely self-contradictory little book. Suffice it to say that it stands completely in the line of the teachings of Professor Harold Dekker, who in the 1960’s taught that God loves all men with a redemptive love, and that Christ died for all men; and of Dr. Harry Boer and Dr. James Daane who have openly repudiated the Reformed doctrine of reprobation, and thus of predestination. 

In the first place, Punt’s own statement of the main proposition of this book, quoted above, is not an accurate statement. In the course of the book it becomes: “All persons are elect in Christ except those who refuse to have God in their knowledge—this is the good news Scripture declares in the universalistic texts.” Or again: “Biblical universalism impels us to declare to others the grace which comes to them—and to us—in Jesus Christ. The assumption with which we work is that all persons are elect in Christ. On the basis of this assumption we must tell all people what God has done for them in His Son! The awesome truth about God’s wrath is to be reserved for those who remain indifferent to or reject this good news which the church has been commissioned to proclaim to all people.” (p. 132) In other words, Punt’s “unconditional good news” becomes conditional bad news. Because of this, his unconditional good news is not really unconditional at all, but conditional. It inevitably becomes: all persons are elect in Christ if they do not refuse to have God in their knowledge, or if they do not remain indifferent to or reject this good news. Now put this together with the doctrine of total depravity, and Punt’s alleged unconditional good news surely will become universal bad news. I realize, of course, that the author will not accept the consequence just described. This is what happens when he tries to draw back from the brink of absolute universalism. 

In the second place, in addition to what is stated above, it becomes plain in the book that “unconditional” is for the Rev. Punt conditional after all. He merely changes the term condition to “redemption imperatives,” (p. 88). 

In the third place, the basic error of Punt’s book is his denial of sovereign reprobation. This is not an inference drawn by this reviewer, but it is plainly stated by the author in Chapter VII, entitled “Biblical Particularism.” The author does not want what he calls a “two-camp” configuration of predestination, but a “one-camp” configuration. This is why I stated that Punt is in the camp of Dekker, Boer, and Daane. 

It is a conundrum to me that the Christian Reformed Church does not depose from office men who so plainly violate, the Formula of Subscription with their obvious false doctrine. Or perhaps it is not a conundrum. It is becoming increasingly evident that the Christian Reformed Church is morally and doctrinally incapable of exercising such discipline as long as they continue to cling to the First Point of 1924.