The History of Christian Doctrines, by Louis Berkhof. Baker Book House (Twin Brooks Series) Grand Rapids, Mich., 1975. Paperback, 285 pp. $4.95. [Reviewed by Rev. Mark H. Hoeksema]
This book is a new paperback reprint of what was originally the historical volume of Berkhof’s well-knownReformed Dogmatics (later entitled Systematic Theology). According to the author, though the study of the history of dogma is intimately connected with that of systematic theology, yet this discipline is a separate study and deserves separate treatment. This is evidently the reason for the reprint under separate cover. At the same time, however, it is meant as a companion volume to Systematic Theology, and should be used in connection with it, since it contains the historical material related to it.
As far as the book itself is concerned, Berkhof begins in the prolegomena by speaking of the subject matter, task, method and divisions, and history of the history of dogma. As to his method of treatment, Berkhof uses the vertical method, i.e., traces each of the major doctrines from its inception down through the history of the Christian church up until more recent times, doing so also from the standpoint of what he calls the confessional method, which means the evaluation of various views from the perspective of Scripture as interpreted by his own confession, although he does not specify what that confession is. He then devotes a short section to the apostolic fathers, setting forth their views in brief and treating various developments in the early church, including Gnosticism, Montanism, and Monarchianism. It should be noted here that although it is difficult to know exactly what the author means, it is disturbing to find the heresy of Marcion called a “movement of reform.” Berkhof then goes on to deal with the development of the major doctrines roughly along the lines of the six loci of dogmatics, spending considerable time with the Middle Ages and the Reformation, as well as mentioning some of the more recent developments of the 19th century.
There are several weaknesses in this book. For one thing, the treatment of the history of the various dogmas is very brief, and often assumes further knowledge on the part of the reader. Though the author obviously did not intend a lengthy and detailed study of the history of dogma, one often wishes for a little more light, not only concerning facts, but also regarding depth. Secondly, the confessional presuppositions from which the author claims to proceed are not always as evident as they could be. It seems reasonable to assume that the various views and doctrines are judged in the companion volume,Systematic Theology. But at the same time, there is not enough evaluation, which should be the task of the dogmatic historian, especially one who proceeds from a confessional basis. Assuming that by his confessional basis the author means the Reformed confessions, then it must be remarked that it is often difficult to see his Reformed standpoint clearly. There is not enough emphasis upon the roots and development of Reformed, theology in its various shades and manifestations, as one might expect from a Reformed writer. Finally, the book stops too soon in the history of dogma. There are those who caution against evaluating too quickly the events of recent history. And though we may heed that caution, it is unfortunate that a book which originally came out as late as 1937 does not include more of the doctrinal developments in the Reformed churches, both here and abroad.
But the book also has its strong points. Somewhat paradoxically, its brevity is also its strength, because it sets forth briefly and concisely, almost with outline clarity, the history of dogma. If this is what the reader is looking for, the book will serve admirably. Especially helpful are margin notations indicating which subjects are treated on each page. Also helpful are the three indexes, those of literature, names, and subjects. And encouraging is the lack of footnotes, the perennial stumbling blocks of easy and steady reading. The questions at the end of each chapter are also helpful, providing incentive for review and food for further thought as well.
If the purpose of the book is remembered and it is read with its companion volume, no doubt it will be instructive and informative. With the above reservations, the book is recommended as worth obtaining and using.