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Berkof and the Virgin Birth

The RES News Exchange, April 7, 1981, gives an updated report on one of the doctrinal developments in the Netherlands. Nothing, of course, sounds strange from that source any more. Yet we ought to be reminded of the developments—and be on our guard. The report states:

Centraal Weekblad, whose Chief Editor is Prof. Dr. K. Runia, every month carries a rubric “Views in discussion.” Contributors to this rubric are from outside the Editorial Committee but hold views that are considered to be significant for the information of the reader. The contributors, themselves, feel that their views, though disputed, are legitimate within the Christian Church. 

In the issue of 4 March 1981, Prof. Dr. Hendrikus Berkhof, who teaches systematic theology in Leyden and whose major work Christian Faith appeared in English last year, writes on the virgin birth. Lately Prof. Berkhof has been in the news because of his contention that the virgin birth may not be regarded as being of the same weight as the resurrection. Reformatorisch Dagblad published an article with the heading (“misleading” in Berkhof’s judgment): “Berkhof Doubts Virgin Birth.” 

In the Centraal Weekblad article, “The Specific Gravity of the Narratives about Jesus’ Virgin Birth,” Berkhof carefully yet forthrightly articulates his view. The term “specific gravity” he derives from Prof. Koole’s 1965 essay on “The Specific Gravity of the Historical Parts of the Old Testament.” Berkhof feels that the distinction introduced by Koole is also useful for the New Testament. 

Of the four evangelists, only Matthew and Luke talk about the life of Jesus prior to the beginning of His public ministry. Mark and John either did not consider that part of Jesus’ life important or were not familiar with it. Both Matthew and Luke wrote late and were dependent for their material on oral and written tradition. 

Berkhof considers it noteworthy that from Chapter 3 on, when they could make use of Mark and the so-called logica-source, Matthew and Luke make no more mention of the events concerning Jesus’ birth, not even where one might expect this, as for instance in

Matthew 13:46-50

and

Luke 8:19-21

In contrast, it seems important that in their use of

Mark 6:3

they have the hearers say: “Is not this the carpenter’s son?”

Matthew 13:55

“Is not this Joseph’s son?”

Luke 4:22

without correcting these hearers. Apparently, except for what is found in the synoptic gospels, the birth narratives did not gain wide currency.

Rom. 1:3

Gal. 4:4


Berkhof concludes that the birth narratives are an incidental part…in the New Testament. More significant is that they are not found in the earliest brief confessional summaries of the gospel message. These confessions, also those in the New Testament, are centered in Jesus’ coming, His death, and His resurrection. 

Do the narratives of the virgin birth rest on historical fact? Berkhof says that this can neither be proven nor disproven. In his present judgment, the evidence is, however, against it. If the virgin birth rested on historical fact, if, for instance, Mary would have told the apostles about it, the New Testament would have been full of it. Moreover, in antiquity it was quite customary to authenticate the supra-human nature and work of heroes and religious leaders by ascribing to them a birth in which the deity assumed the place of the human father. 

Could that have led to the confession: Conceived by the Holy Spirit? Berkhof expresses full agreement with that confession and calls it a confession with which the Christian faith stands or falls. However, in that case the birth narratives are to be considered as attempts to express this confession in biological terms. An additional consideration is that in antiquity it was thought that only the male was regarded as having an active part in the begetting of a child; the mother was only an instrument and a channel. We know better today. 

The systematic theologians have never quite known what to do with the virgin birth. For the Roman Catholic theologians it did not offer enough to serve as a basis for the incarnation of the Son of God. For Protestant theologians the exclusion of marriage and sexuality in the birth of Jesus was not necessary as a basis and explanation of the incarnation. 

Berkhof’s final verdict is: allow freedom of opinion.

Such teaching sounds still extremely strange and heretical in the ears of Reformed people of God. Yet it is being heard increasingly in Reformed circles. 

What would our objection be to the above presentation? First, what a horrible thing is done to Scripture! It is treated as neither inspired nor infallible. Because only Matthew and Luke speak of this virgin birth of Christ, does that make it less trust-worthy? Because they do not elaborate upon this in later chapters, does that mean that likely they were not too convinced? Because these writers may have written many, many years after the event, because they may have been “dependent for their material on oral and written tradition,” is that reason to question the truthfulness of the account? To answer “yes” is to deny the infallibility and inspiration of Scripture. Shame on a “Reformed” professor for even suggesting this. Shame too to say that one should have “freedom of opinion” when Scripture states this matter so clearly. 

There was a time, not too long ago, when “Reformed” men questioned certain historical events of Scripture—insisting that they firmly believed in the infallible revelation concerning the work of salvation in Christ (including the accounts of His conception and birth). Now, the theories which used to be applied only to the Genesis account, are being applied also to the gospel accounts. It points out the fact that questioning of the infallibility of Scripture inevitably leads to a questioning of the wonder of salvation in Christ. 

Berkhof’s position too ignores the effect of his view on the sinlessness of the nature of Christ. Does not the Matthew and Luke account exactly present the truth which can account for the sinlessness of Christ in our human nature? Though we may not understand all of this wonder, we know that Christ was not tainted by the original sin of Adam—and this must also be by virtue of the fact that He had no human father. But then, Berkhof probably also does not believe in the historical character of Adam either. 

Also: Report 44 and the Infallibility Question

The Christian Reformed Church has been increasingly troubled by the same insidious views which have arisen in the Netherlands. They have had their “Verhey” case and others. Nor has the difficulty been solved. Report “44” appears to allow what it also condemns. It is two-faced. It has not settled the “infallibility” question in the C.R.C. Rightly, there is deep concern about this by many members of the C.R.C. We too, though another denomination, are likewise concerned. We are concerned what this view of infallibility, adopted by many in C.R.C. leadership, must do to those weak in faith or of limited spiritual understanding. What happens when a generation arises who have been taught and encouraged by leaders who have forsaken the old and Scriptural paths? And, how will this affect our own churches in the future? 

The Banner, April 6, 1981, gives a brief indication of the seriousness and spread of the error of denying infallibility as historically confessed by the church. In a report from the Calvin College and Seminary Board of Trustees report, the following is briefly presented (without further remarks or clarification):

Professor John Stek was instructed by the board, “in his teaching office, to correlate the findings of his research and the event character of

Genesis 1-11

with a view to doing full justice to the church’s confessional view of these chapters as elucidated in point E of the Acts of Synod 1972, p. 69: Synod warns against the use of any method of biblical interpretation…which calls into question…the event character…of biblical history, thus compromising the full authority of Scripture as the Word of God.”

Some of the same concern is expressed by that prolific letter-writer, Rev. J. Tuininga, from Lethbridge, Alberta C.R.C. In a letter to the editor, he writes in theOutlook about this same problem:

…There is more to be said, however. One problem the “frustration” that you mention. One senses and knows that there is something wrong, but how do we get to the bottom of it, and how do we go about correcting it? The fact that Calvin College and Seminary are so far removed from a large part of the church is a complicating factor. Who really knows what is going on in Grand Rapids? Some of the things that should be known by the whole church are never reported on in the church papers. Executive committees and boards try to insure that nothing “wrong” gets out. At the very present an issue is being dealt with “secretly,” more or less. And this is often done with an appeal to

Matthew 18

But such an appeal misses the point.

Matthew 18

deals with private sins; but matters which are taught in the college and seminary are anything but private—that’s for “public consumption.” What a professor says in class he should be able and willing to defend publicly before the church. These professors are, after all, appointed by and are responsible to, the church. So let’s quit appealing to

Matthew 18

when it doesn’t apply. 

As to what is wrong, the whole church ought to know about Verhey. And that matter has never really been definitively dealt with by the church. It’s still somewhat of an “open case.” Synod never spoke clearly on the issue. And everyone knows that some of our professors are at least very sympathetic to his views. 

But now I want to become more concrete yet. In the last (Aug. ’80) issue of the RES Theological Forum dealt with the problem of creation vs. evolution. Dr. Egbert Schuurman of the Netherlands presented the main paper, and a number of participants responded. One of these respondents was Dr. Sierd Woudstra of Calvin College. He makes clear in his response that he holds to a radical, unReformed view of Scripture. He says among other things that “many Christian scientists” now agree that “many species of animals had become extinct long before anything like a human being appeared on earth, and that the human race is far older than even the most flexible reading of the Bible would seem to allow for.” Well, that’s still somewhat debatable, I would guess. But what does one make of this: “I venture to say that one who holds that the universe is a few billion years old and that also the human race is of fairly high antiquity (30,000 years? 50,000 years?) must in principle concede the hermeneutical validity of the view of those who honestly question whether today one can still maintain an actual Garden of Eden, etc. etc. That in turn has immediate consequences for the approach to the whole of Scripture.” (That last statement deserves an Amen!, J.T.) He then goes on to say that the “bridge of the traditional conservative reading of the biblical passages on creation, notably

Genesis 1&2

is perilously creaking under the combined weight of what Christian scientists believe their studies tell them about the origin of the world and the human race.” 

Well, that’s language difficult to misunderstand. And that is precisely the issue under discussion at present in the seminary. Was there a garden of Eden? Were Adam and Eve really “our first parents” as the Catechism says?

Tuininga hits the “nail on the head” when he treats this sore point. One would hope and pray that the C.R.C. might return wholeheartedly to its old stand—but the prospects do not appear bright in that regard.