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SIN, by G. C. Berkhouwer, translated from the Dutch by Philip C. Holtrop; Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1971; 599 pp., $9.95. 

Prof. G. C. Berkhouwer continues to produce additional volumes in his series “Studies in Dogmatics.” This volume, appearing along with the others in an English translation, includes two separate volumes on the general subject of sin which were entitled “De Zonde I; Oorsrpong en Kennis der Zonde” and “De Zonde II: Wezen en Verbreiding der Zonde.” That is, Part I: The Origin and Knowledge of Sin and Part II: The Essence and Spread of Sin

Berkhouwer is always difficult reading, and this book is not a book which can be read and enjoyed by everyone. There is something ironic about this. In a review in The Banner on this book by James Daane, Daane praises the book highly. One of the reasons for such high praise is given as:

Stated positively, Berkhouwer’s theology contends that all theologizing and every legitimate theology, must be an articulation of the Christian faith, and therefore a help to the pulpit and, accordingly, that every theology that arises outside of the Christian faith and Church pulpit is speculative, something that unsettles the Christian faith and muffles the voice of the pulpit. 

There is considerable and convincing evidence for the truth of Berkhouwer’s contention. Every one of the above mentioned Berkhouwer affirmations (affirmations which Berkhouwer sets forth in this book, H.H.) can be preached and believed unto salvation, and every position which these affirmations reject are positions that can neither be preached, nor believed unto satiation. . . 

Authentic Christian theology is the point where theologians and babes meet, for the former only scientifically reflects on what is revealed to babes. And this point of meeting is a reflection of the Christian pulpit in which the man of the pulpit, the preacher of the gospel, must speak, and can speak, the gospel powerfully and effectively to the greatest theologian and to the youngest occupant of the pew.

If what Daane writes is true, then one would surely expect that Berkhouwer’s writings would be so clear and simple that any child of God, young or old, could sit down with a volume and read it for his edification. Anyone will admit that this is far from the truth. Even trained theologians have difficulties understanding what Berkhouwer means. This is evident even from the reviews of this book which have come out. Not all are by any means agreed concerning the position which Berkhouwer holds. To read the book is just p1ain hard work, and even a trained theologian finds the whole thing rough going. If it is true as Daane writes, that “authentic Christian theology is the point where theologians and babes meet,” then this book is anything but authentic Christian theology. 

This is not to disparage Berkhouwer’s vast learning. One stands amazed at his knowledge of theology in the past and present and his familiarity with the thinking of all the theologians of the centuries. One cannot help also but be impressed with Berkhouwer’s penetrating insights into difficult theological problems and his ability to jump to the heart of an argument. For these and other reasons, Berkhouwer’s books are always stimulating and provocative. 

Before I proceed, however, to some comments on the book itself, there are a couple of points which ought to be gotten out of the way at the outset. They are, to me, troubling points; indeed, points which all but make Berkhouwer’s theology suspect from the outset.

In the first place, Berkhouwer has a knack for asking a long series of questions concerning some particular point of a truth long held by the Church. Now, of course, it is not in itself wrong to ask questions concerning these points even. But Berkhouwer has a knack for asking them in such a way that the questions themselves leave doubts in the mind of the reader concerning these points of the truth. This may be, in Berkhouwer’s mind, a mere pedagogical device to force the reader to “think through” theological problems; but there is always serious danger in framing questions in such a way that the small seeds of doubt and suspicion are sewn. This becomes especially important in Berkhouwer’s writing because oftentimes Berkhouwer, as we shall see below, takes a position at odds with the historic Christian faith. The following quote will illustrate what I mean. It is taken from p. 425, where the subject of original sin is introduced. It reads:

The question, then, is this: In confessing the doctrine of original sin are we really obliged to adopt a view of “arbitrariness” or a concept in which the guilt of one man is merely “imputed” to another? (Notice that the use of the word “arbitrariness” and “merely” suggest already that there is something “arbitrary” and “simplistic” about the traditional view of original guilt. H.H.) Is it the meaning or the thrust of this doctrine to give us a causal explanation for the existential plight of the human race by pointing to the guilt of “someone else”? Are the results of that guilt with us today in a very uncanny manner, and to such an extent that they are really considered our guilt? All the objections to this doctrine center in this “great presupposition” which its critics say must under lie its confession: the concept of an alien guilt or a peccatum alienum.

Reformed theologians have never been afraid of discussing openly and frankly views which were at odds with the Scriptures. Nor have they shied away from treating in their writings all the objections which have, over the ages, been brought against the truth which the Church maintains. But they have never dealt with these objections by asking questions in such a way that the very formulation of them leads to suspicion and doubt concerning these matters in the mind of the reader. Berkhouwer of ten does this—not only in this volume, but in all of them. 

In the second place, it is often difficult to glean from Berkhouwer’s writings what his own views are on a matter—at least his positive views. He often discusses a particular problem of theology at length and from every conceivable point of view, sometimes in chapter after chapter. He discusses objections against the traditional view; he discusses other views; he brings in the writings of many other theologians; he faces difficulties of every imaginable sort. All the while one is wondering what Berkhouwer himself is going to say as his position. You have to be alert to find it sometimes. It can happen that, after a discussion of some fifty or sixty pages, Berkhouwer’s own position is found in a sentence or two in a paragraph. That is all. One can almost read over it without realizing that he has now had Berhouwer’s own statement about the matter. 

This is disconcerting. Theology has been, above all, positive development of the truth. While Berkhouwer may have many fine things to say about various theological questions, there is a paucity of positive development. 

In the third place, Berkhouwer is a representative of the “New Theology” in the Netherlands. Daane, in the review mentioned above, recognizes this and, in his enthusiastic endorsement of the book, points out that the book is so soundly orthodox that we here in this country need not fear the “New Theology”; it is obviously and genuinely Reformed. 

It is true that Berkhouwer is not nearly as outspoken as, e.g., Kuitert. It is also probably true that Berkhouwer is not nearly as radical as Kuitert and does not reject as many of the historic Christian doctrines as Kuitert does. Nevertheless, Berkhouwer is all the more dangerous just for this reason. It never ceases to amaze me that, in the reviews on Berkhouwer’s book, there have been, for the most part, songs of praise sung to Berkhouwer and his theology. This is by men who claim to be Reformed. It is true that they have some minor criticisms here and there on certain points. But on the whole, the reviews have consistently endorsed Berkhouwer’s position. The fact remains that Berkhouwer, in all his books, and in this one as well, has made fundamental departures from the Reformed faith. Our survey of the contents will bear this out. 

We are not able, in this review, to give a complete analysis of all Berkhouwer’s thoughts. The book itself is nearly 600 pages long. We can but skim over the most important points which Berkhouwer makes and briefly treat them. 

Nor can we discuss in this review the all-important question of Berkhouwer’s theological method. If any of our readers are interested in this subject, Prof. H. C. Hoeksema has made some comments on this subject in Volume I, No. 2 of The Protestant Reformed Theological Journal. Unfortunately, this issue is out of print, but it can be obtained-on-a-loan basis from the Seminary Library. 

To turn now to the contents of Berkhouwer’s book, it seems to me that the principle departure which Berkhouwer makes (and which determines the course of the entire book) is his refusal to recognize the sovereignty of God over sin. There are several points which Berkhouwer makes in this connection, for this subject is the main subject of the first section of the book. 

In the first place, Berkhouwer emphatically insists that God is not, in any sense, the cause or author of either sin or the fall. He spends a great deal of time on this subject and, in fact, belabors the point unnecessarily. I say that he belabors the point unnecessarily because, to my knowledge, there has never been a genuine Reformed theologian who has taken this position; and one gets the feeling that Berkhouwer is beating straw’ men over the head. Already our Canons of Dordt specifically reject this position: “The cause or guilt of this unbelief as well as of all other sins, is no wise in God, but in man himself . . .” (I, 5). “And this is the decree of reprobation which by no means makes God the author of sin (the very thought of which is blasphemy) . . .” (I, 15). Berkhouwer’s preoccupation with this idea seems to stem from the notion that anyone who holds that God is sovereign over sin falls into the error of making God the cause of sin. And it is in this way that Berkhouwer prepares the way for a rejection of this view. 

In the second place, he points out that to make God the author of sin is rooted in man’s attempt to excuse himself for his sin. This is, no doubt, true. And this theme of “self-excuse” is a theme which runs throughout Berkhouwer’s entire book. In fact, he returns to it again in his discussion of original sin, and uses it as a jumping off point to reject the historically Reformed position in this matter. But once again, the Scriptures see no problem here—although, admittedly, Scripture is not interested in solving all our theological difficulties. Nevertheless, to cite but one example, we read in II Samuel 24:1: “And again the anger of the Lord was kindled against Israel, and he moved David against them to say, Go, number Israel and Judah.” While this surely indicates beyond contradiction God’s sovereign control over sin, we read in vs. 10 of the same chapter: “And David’s heart smote him after that he had numbered the people. And David said unto the Lord, I have sinned greatly in that I have done: and now, I beseech thee, O Lord, take away the iniquity of thy servant; for I have done very foolishly.” Scripture does not see the problem which Berkhouwer sees. 

In the third place, in discussing the origin of sin, Berkhouwer insists that there cannot be an explanation for sin. He insists that sin, in its very nature, is irrational and unintelligible. Sin is therefore, its own cause. Any attempt to explain the origin of sin is Biblically wrong. 

The problem of the origin of sin is, of course, a difficult one. Nevertheless, through Berkhouwer’s process of reasoning he succeeds in putting sin outside the will of God entirely. This is an involved question, and one into which we cannot enter in detail in this review. Berkhouwer’s chief point is, however, that sin cannot be included in the will of God’s decree; and, although it can perhaps be said that sin belongs to the revealed will of God, even in the latter it is revealed only in such a way that the law of God opposes sin and Christ triumphs over sin by His cross. In other words, Berkhouwer steadfastly resists the idea that God has determined the entrance of sin into the world and that He controls sovereignly sin. 

This is a critical and extremely important part of Berkhouwer’s book. There are several objections against this which we ought briefly to mention. 1) Although in his book Berkhouwer resists adopting the position of dualism (the position which holds to sin being a separate and independent power in the world apart from God), we cannot understand how Berkhouwer escapes this position. Sin is either under God’s control, or it is not. If it is not, it is a force and power independent from God. This is dualism. 2) Berkhouwer takes a position which is contrary to all Reformed and Calvinistic theologians. While the difficulties in the problem have been freely admitted, our Reformed fathers have always insisted nonetheless, that Scripture teaches God’s sovereignty over sin. 3) And it is indeed true that this is precisely the teaching of Scripture. We refer to the following passages among many others: II Sam. 16:10Prov. 21:1Is. 6:10Acts 2:23Acts 4:27, 28

There is some indication in the book that after all, Berkhouwer would like to maintain some idea of sovereignty in this matter. I refer, e.g., to a passage such as appears on p. 30:

Various confessions refer to God’s power in and over man’s sin. But this sovereign utilization of sin (or this divine reversal of evil for good) in no way threatens the Deus non causa peccati (God is not the cause of sin.)

But it is clear that Berkhouwer means something quite different in this statement than that God is the sovereign of sin. 

It is, I am convinced, this that leads Berkhouwer astray in other important areas of the truth. 

Although Berkhouwer rejects the Reformed view of predestination and discusses his position in detail in his book on “Election,” there are passing references to this subject in this book. In his chapter on “Sin and the Law,” Berkhouwer writes:

In opposition to this law, with this content, the sin of man is now “Exceeding sinful.” For sin misleads a man by radically reversing and confounding the meaning of that law which God has now “added.” The issue here is not the general “deteriora” of Ovid but only the deteriora of a central and total transgression of God’s most holy law. Therefore we see that sin, in fact, did increase. Sin completed itself within the realm of history and within the circle of God’s activity in and over Israel. This increase resulted from Israel’s antagonism to God’s gracious election. For election was manifest in that command of God which was raised up for his own people.

No Reformed man would speak of the doctrine of election in this way. 

It is not surprising that there appears in this book an Arminian conception of the gospel. The gospel “compels man to make a choice.” (p. 176). The cross is “the invitation—God’s final invitation—to be saved.” (p. 417). And:

The preaching of the Gospel will show us that only in the rejection of God’s good invitation can we possibly see that “border” from which we are constantly called forth, no matter what our offense, back into the promised land. (p. 345).

While these ideas are not, of course, discussed in detail in this volume, they describe the preaching in Arminian terms and within an Arminian framework. Also eternal forgiveness of the sins of the elect is denied:

This “forgiveness of sins” is not a declaratory pronouncement from the depths of eternity but a real actuality in the midst of history. For that reason it is totally impossible to cast a wary eye on the apostles and to say that they “complicate” the message of forgiven sins. (p. 394).

This position is entirely in keeping with another idea of Berkhouwer which is discussed more in detail. This idea concerns the whole question of God’s immutability. Berkhouwer denies this immutability of God in the sense that God cannot show real wrath and then withdraw that wrath in order to show His love and mercy. He argues that God’s wrath is not an attribute. It is a response to men’s conduct. Hence, it is conditional. Nor, says Berkhouwer, is grace an attribute. It, too, is a response to what man does with the gospel. Man’s response to the gospel changes the situation and this involves a very real change in God’s response. 

Daane, in his review referred to above, claims that this is not Arminianism, but a rejection of God as the cause of sin and a rejection of a philosophical view of absolute sovereignty. That is, it is a rejection of a sovereignty defined in terms of itself, not in terms of a response. This is, of course, a hobby horse of Dr. Daane. 

What is striking in this discussion of Berkhouwer, however, is the fact that he nowhere properly distinguishes between wrath and hatred. In fact, he rarely, if ever, speaks of hatred. It is certainly true that God is wrathful towards His people. We even sing in our Psalter: “In thy wrath and hot displeasure, chasten not thy servant Lord.” But this is something quite different from saying that God hates His people. He hates the wicked with an eternal hatred. He hated Esau. Cf. Rom 9:10-13. But He loves His people with an eternal love. This love for His people does not preclude His anger with them for their sins. Indeed, when His people walk in the way of sin, they experience that wrath of God which fills them with fear and brings them to the sorrow of repentance. This was certainly true of Christ Himself. Never could it be said that Christ was anything but God’s beloved Son in Whom God was well-pleased. But on the cross Christ experienced the full depths of God’s wrath; so much so that He anxiously c cried out to ask why He was forsaken. We have an earthly picture of this. A godly parent certainly loves his children. But this does not preclude the possibility that he becomes angry with them. Indeed, his anger is a manifestation of his love; for he desires to see his children walk in the ways of the Lord. 

Berkhouwer has a changeable God. This God is not the God of the Scriptures: “I am the Lord, I change not; therefore ye sons of Jacob are not consumed.” (Malachi 3:6). 

There is one other important matter that needs discussion in this review. This is the matter of original sin—a subject which Berkhouwer treats at length in the second part of the book. In fact, his discussion of this subject covers no less than five chapters. 

The discussion ranges freely over the entire problem. It discusses not only original sin in the sense of original guilt, but also in the sense of original pollution. It discusses in detail the key passage of Rom. 5:12-14. It discusses the views of the Reformers on this subject as well as the position of our Reformed creeds. And all of this is once again within the general context of Berkhouwer’s fear that we shall fall into the error of using the doctrine of original sin to excuse ourselves. 

There are several aspects of this question which deserve some brief attention. 

In the first place, Berkhouwer rejects both the position of “Realism” and of “Federalism.” The former is the view that all men are “‘co-sinners’ with Adam in the fullest meaning of that word.” The latter teaches that all men are guilty for Adam’s sin because Adamrepresented all men and sinned as federal head. We shall return to this in a moment. 

In the second place, Berkhouwer rejects the idea of original guilt, in part because, in his opinion, the creeds of the Reformed Churches do not adopt this position. His argument is therefore, that the Reformed Churches have never dared to assume this position. This is incorrect. In the first place, while it is true that our Reformed Confessions do not speak specifically about original guilt, it is also true that the idea is nevertheless suggested strongly. E.g., in the Heidelberg Catechism, Q. and A. 56, the Church confesses that she believes that the truth of forgiveness of sins means, among other things, “that God, for the sake of Christ’s satisfaction, will no more remember . . . my corrupt nature.” This surely implies personal responsibility and guilt for the nature which I possess from the moment of birth. In the second place, the reason why our creeds which deal with this subject are silent on the matter is because the whole federal conception of the legal union of Christ and His people as well as of Adam and the human race was not developed in the theology of the Church till later. This is especially true of the Belgic Confession and the Canons of Dordt. Berkhouwer claims that Calvin denied that we are guilty for Adam’s sin. He writes:

It is not by chance that we never find in Calvin the later rigid distinction of “inherited guilt” and “hereditary corruption.” Certainly there is a more adequate reason for this than that Calvin did not reflect “deeply enough.” That reason can be found in his consistent repudiation of every appeal to the alienum peccatum. (p. 483).

While it is true that Calvin, in the same way and for the same reason as our Confessions, does not speak explicitly of a federal union between Adam and mankind, nevertheless, Calvin does write, e.g., in hisInstitutes: “And his guilt being the origin of that curse which extends to every part of the world, it is reasonable to conclude its propagation to all his offspring.” (II, 1, 5). 

The emphasis in our Confessions falls upon original pollution. But even here Berkhouwer has reservations. In more than one place, although he seems to accept the doctrine as such, he derides any attempts to explain the pollution of the human race in biological terms. In fact, he concludes that we really can never know just how it came about that all men partake of the corruption of Adam’s nature. 

It is significant in this connection that nowhere in this book does Berkhouwer give any attention to the doctrine of total depravity. One would think that a man who claims to be a Calvinist and to be Reformed would devote some time to the second point of Calvinism in a book on sin. But apart from passing references to the doctrine, there is no explicit discussion of the subject. 

However that may be, the question is, precisely what does Berkhouwer mean by a biological conception of sin? If he means that the propagation of the sinful nature cannot be adequately explained by the science of genetics alone, no doubt this is true. After all, sin infects the soul and heart as well as the body. But if he means that there are no biological implications at all in the doctrine of original pollution, he is flying in the face of Scripture and the Confessions. David writes in Psalm 51:5: “Behold, I was shapen in iniquity; and in sin did my mother conceive me.” Nor does one need to worry about this Scriptural teaching leading to self-excuse. For this very verse in Psalm 51 is part of a confession of sin on the part of David. He is pleading that it is his fault, that he is to blame for being shaped in inquity and conceived in sin. Furthermore, our Belgic Confession defines the “original sin” which is “extended to all mankind” as “an hereditary disease, wherewith infants themselves are infected even in their mother’s womb, and which produceth in man all sorts of sin, being in him as a root thereof.” In fact, that corruption of the nature, the creed says, “is sufficient to condemn all mankind” apart from any of their own personal sins. 

And so Berkhouwer inadequately treats both original guilt and original pollution. It is especially his inadequate and apparent denial of original guilt which is particularly troublesome. Not only is this truth taught in vss. 12-14 of Romans 5, but it is the entire thrust of Paul’s argument throughout this chapter. Cf. especially vss. 15-19 where Paul speaks of many being dead through the offence of one; of judgment to condemnation coming by one; of death reigning by one man’s offence; of many being made sinners because of one man’s disobedience. 

This is a very serious matter. A denial of these fundamental doctrines concerning sin in relation to Adam and total corruption is an undermining of the whole truth concerning salvation and the relation in which the elect stand to Christ both federally and organically. This is Paul’s whole point also in Rom. 5, for he is constantly comparing the Second Adam with the first, and the relation in which we stand to the first Adam as being analogous to the relation in which we stand to the Lord from heaven. Cf. I Cor. 15:21, 22.

And so it is not true that we need not fear the “New Theology” as Daane avers. It is probably true that Berkhouwer does not go nearly as far as his colleagues in the Gereformeerde Kerken who are popularizing and developing this new theology. But the foundation is laid in Berkhouwer. It is all there as a basis for the views of Kuitert c.s. If Reformed men condemn this new theology (as it ought to be condemned), they must also assert that Berkhouwer is not biblical and is not Reformed in his theology, for Kuitert and his ecclesiastical companions are the spiritual children of Dr. G. C. Berkhouwer.