THE WORK OF CHRIST, by C. C. Berkouwer. William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company. Grand Rapids, Michigan. 358 pages. Price: $7.50.
This work represents the latest volume of the series which Professor Berkouwer is preparing under the general title: Studies In Dogmatics. These volumes are precisely what the title declares. They arc not strictly speaking works on systematic theology. However, we must add quickly, that in the main they cover the crucial themes discussed in the more technical works on Systematics.
The present volume discusses the “Work of Christ,” a basic section of dogmatic theology. Concerning this theme one comes to grips with the central intent and message of the apostolic kerugma: that God was in Christ reconciling a world unto himself. In the introduction the author makes it crystal clear that we can arrive at the true answers to the many questions that arise in this area only when we listen carefully to what the Word of God declares and to what the Christian church through the ages has confessed. Thus the normative significance of scripture, as written, and the importance of the confessing church both receive their due emphasis. This is a solid Reformed persuasion and it needs reiteration today.
In answer to the age-old question: What think ye of the Christ? a great variety of answers is currently given. The author reminds us that there is hardly a single aspect of the “multilateral work of Christ” in which there is general agreement. For the Christian a study of this theme cannot remain purely theoretical and abstract but rather a beneficial, profitable, wholesome exercise, because it is in and through Christ’s work that our salvation is gained. To err in this area could mean the loss of salvation personally; and, to preach a Christ not adequate to save from sin. Obviously, fine distinctions must be made to disentangle one from the many errors that have arisen relative to this subject. After all is said, one must allow for much that will remain mysterious, which cannot be fully analyzed or understood by man’s darkened understanding. In those areas the Christian bows in humble adoration, confessing the inscrutable mystery of the Word become flesh, the miracle of the Virgin Birth, the unity of the two natures of the Christ in One Person, etc. The church has never claimed to be able to solve all the questions that arise in this area of discourse. At best the church has managed to prepare some protective formulations to guard us from what we believe to be errors which deny the full Godhead and the full manhood of our Saviour. The confessing church has ever maintained that He is vere Deus et vere homo. Most errors in Christology arise either from a denial or obscuring of the full truth of his Deity or his humanity. Thus we find that the old heresies that appeared in the early centuries reappear time and again in new dress. A good, solid course in the history of dogmas would seem to be imperative in any reputable theological curriculum. Without it we lack sensitivity to the errors of much current theological discussion and we lack appreciation of the church’s answer to these errors.
God was in Christ reconciling a world unto himself. This is the basic theme. No more has one repeated this scriptural affirmation and immediately we recognize that we are dealing with revelation, with an act of the supernatural, an act of God. Consequently we must be warned over and over again that we cannot operate here with pure human logic. Berkouwer tells us time and again: we must listen closely to what the Word says, and he chides those who wander into speculative pastures. They must have, says he, a very low view of scripture and very little confidence in the trustworthiness of the gospels! The Word of God as written, must ever remain normative. We have no right to set our mind above it; it judges us; we do not judge it.
True indeed, systematic theology must gather these scriptural givens and set them in some order and logical arrangement. Yet here we must move cautiously ever rechecking the results of our work with the infallible given: the Scriptures. It is imperative that one make an unreserved and total commitment to the authority of the Word.
By carefully listening to what the Word declares Berkouwer has a firm rule and criterion whereby to judge the speculative theories set forth by Barth and Brunner et alia, The author reminds us that the gift of Christ, the Immanuel and the totality of His work is an invasion of God’s grace to deal with the problem of sin and guilt; it is God’s action; the action of the Sovereign God designed for man’s salvation. All of his work is soteriologically oriented. 1t can only be understood and appreciated in that frame of reference. From that point of view it was not too difficult to answer the speculative question whether Christ would have come in the flesh, regardless of man’s sin.
Those operating with a speculative concept of God are again engaged with this question and they would pose as those who have a high view of God. The argument is: could such a stupendous event as the Word becoming flesh be merely a reaction of the Sovereign Holy God to a mere creature’s default and rebellion against him? Berkouwer declares that this is posing a purely speculative question and warns in no uncertain terms that we must not embark on that road, for once we have forsaken the solid scriptural truth that God was in Christ reconciling a world unto himself, or in other words, that the incarnation is soteriologically oriented, we will not be able to get back to the scriptural position.
The chapter on the States of Christ, viz., his humiliation and exaltation, is rather involved and abstract. He tries to make clear however, that all of the work of Christ is of one piece. We may need the distinction of the two states, but we may never divide his work into atomistic segments; it must ever be viewed as a totality. He ends that chapter with the observation that “It is clear that the church’s confession of Christ’s humiliation and exaltation had no other intention than to speak of him who had come not to be ministered unto, but to minister, and whose greatness in this ministration was so great and inexpressible that He may proclaim a marvelous secret ‘If any man serve me, him will the Father honor.’”
In a similar vein he warns against making too sharp distinctions when we discuss the three offices of Christ. As the whole of man’s salvation must be oriented to a theological point of view, so the work of Christ must be viewed in its totality. “None of the three offices of Christ can be isolated.” We must ever view them “in the unique and unmarred harmony of the munus triplex.” This “munus triplex tolerates no competition.” Obviously, this has far reaching consequences when it is made a touchstone whereby we judge the Roman Catholic position relative this matter. For it is integral in Roman Catholic theology that the priest make daily sacrifice of the Christ in the Mass. However thus the “munus triplex is mutilated in the core of its sacramental-soteriological economy.”
The chapter on the Great Mystery, in which the author discusses the Incarnation, is thorough, stimulating and challenging. The positions of Barth and Brunner receive considerable attention and are roundly rejected. Berkouwer reminds us that this remains a deep mystery, it is not an obvious truth arrived at by human reasoning; it is God’s revelation of him Who was sent and has come. The mystery of it all is the man Jesus Christ. “Faith alone is able to understand the miracle.” It is a “powerful act of God.” We are bound in this area wholly to the Word and as long as the scriptures were accepted as trustworthy, the “church did not want to go beyond and above what was written” and it was “accepted and confessed without any crisis of conscience.” The church confessed it not as a result of “speculative or mythological motives,” but simply as the teaching of scripture. And now it is “this simplicity of the Church which is at stake,” in the present theological dialogue.
The question is much debated today as to how Christ can be fully human if he is not the product of both sexes. Barth’s position is carefully delineated. Our author declares that the Virgin Birth may not be “burdened with the problematics of sign—fact or form—contents, relationships, let alone with Barth’s specific sign-concept of the function of the male in the world’s events.” So today we are finding both sharp criticism of and no less an appreciative approach to the orthodox faith: natus ex virgine, as “indication, sign, of God’s sovereign grace: virgin birth over against the invasion of synergism, which so often triumphantly entered the doctrine of salvation,” Berkouwer warns against such atomizing of scripture and relativizing of its authority. No man has a right to relegate what he supposes to be of secondary value when the totality of it is revelation of God.
The author reminds us that the virgin birth has often been made the foundation of Christ’s sinlessness. But this places the divine institution of marriage in a questionable light. Pages 113 thro 116 take up the much disputed bearing of the Isaiah 7:14 passage. Isaiah employs the word alma (young woman) and not bethula (virgin). Yet in the account of Matthew where evidently the gospel writer is referring to Isaiah, the word alma is translated by the Greek word for virgin: parthenos. The question here involved is whether the sign was a young woman’s faith or the miraculous birth. Berkouwer is favorably inclined to the interpretation of N. H. Ridderbos, who claims that the prophet was not speaking of a miraculous birth. Nevertheless, both scholars admit that the prophecy obtained “its essential fulfillment in Christ.” Berkouwer puts it in these words; “whereas in Isaiah Immanuel was a sign of God’s saving activity, in the fulfillment Immanuel Himself came into full light.” To the present reviewer the reasoning is a bit thin and fine-spun and seems to devaluate the trenchant bearing of the Isaiah passage on the miracle of the Virgin Birth.
The problem of the relationship between the virgin birth and the sinlessness of Christ is given careful consideration. Bavinck claimed that it is not the essential ground or ultimate cause of Christ’s sinlessness; and that it is “linked up not only with Christ’s Deity and pre-existence, but also with his absolute sinlessness.” Berkouwer claims that this comes dangerously close to speculation. To insure the full humanity of Christ, Vollenhoven claims that the fatherly factor may not be excluded, and so it follows, says Vollenhoven, that with respect to Christ a new male seed was created. This is judged by Berkonwer as an abstraction.
The church will on the basis of scripture accept the uniqueness of the incarnation, “the miracle of the assumptio humanae naturae, and she will continue to confess the natus ex virgine.” Christ’s birth is entirely unique; it is the mystery of the incarnation.
While all of Christ’s work is significant, we shall agree that it comes to central focus in the confession that Christ suffered. Our author declares that this is more than a confession of faith; it is a “redemptive-historical, gracious, and reconciling fact.” Here we deal with “sacrifice, self-surrender, ransom, reconciling suffering.” And in scripture this is ever set against the background of man’s sin and guilt, which occasioned this suffering. Man’s role in Christ’s suffering must not be soft-pedaled; it is a co-operation in “malem partem,” which in no way eliminated man’s full responsibility. Yet “it is God’s hand which holds the reins through-out.” This is made even more emphatic when our author declares: “God’s action does not nm like a second line beside the line of men’s action, but is like an invisible, mysterious hand which rules and guides all human actions from beginning to end.” This is a solid, scriptural and Reformed emphasis, that all of it is firmly anchored in the sovereign will and good pleasure of God. Berkouwer reminds us that the age old controversy concerning the significance of Christ’s work has focused particularly upon the meaning, the sense and significance of his suffering and that this is an “alarming controversy, for the very purpose of Christ’s suffering is at stake.”
Naturally, we ask then, what was that purpose? Its meaning can be gained only by the light of “the whole scripture” and we “catch a glimpse of this revealing light” when we look to the oft recurring words: “for us.” Precisely on these words, for us, vehement controversy has centered. Suddenly, on the next page, we find a radical turn in the argument, when the author states, “no matter how great the differences of opinion concerning the ‘for you’ may be, they may never keep us (rom earnestly and continually seeking the light of scripture so that we by faith and a true knowledge of Christ may know this ‘for you’ as ‘for us’ p. 151.
To this reviewer there is in this chapter, a most crucial one in the book, a deliberate and yet most regrettable omission. While the author correctly states that Christ suffered for us, we feel that he has greatly weakened his argument when he introduced the words: for you. One would expect that at this point the crucial question would have been discussed, namely, precisely for whom d id Christ suffer? Who are the: for us? He has informed us over and again that the totality of scripture must be allowed to speak; and that we must listen to the confessing church. It is my conviction that the church has spoken decisively and definitively on this crucial question; and that she did so on the basis of scripture. Indeed, it is not difficult to find a number of scriptural passages that speak in a universalistic direction. It is no more difficult to find many others which give definite limitation. Ought not our doctrinal and confessional position have been set forth in this instance? How about the Canons of Dort II, art. 8? Does this not speak clearly as to the extent and the precise purpose of his suffering? Let none say that this is only the traditional view! This happens to be our doctrinal position, affirmed by the church to which we as those of Reformed persuasion affix our signature. The omission of a discussion and answer to this crucial question seems to be the more inexcusable in consideration of the current debate on it; inexcusable too in consideration of the Barthian universalistic emphasis, and the Arminian tendencies rife among most evangelical churches throughout the world.
In the final and rather long, Significant chapter of the book the author discusses four aspects of the Work of Christ. One of them is: reconciliation. It is in that part of the book that the author refers to the immediately above mentioned questions. He makes the following remark, which is significant and revealing: “It becomes more and more evident that the background of the doctrine of reconciliation is the doctrine of the attributes of God,” p. 266. This has tremendous implications.
In the consideration of the basic question: for whom did Christ die, we do well to listen to the words of the genial Dr. B. B. Warfield, who in his treatise entitled “The Plan of Salvation,” a masterful piece of scholarship, declares “Should we not stop to consider that, if so be we seem to open salvation to whosoever will on the one hand, on the other we open it only to whosoever will…and the real point of difficulty is; how, where, can we obtain the will? Let others rejoice in a whosoever will gospel, for the sinner who knows himself to be a sinner, and knows what it is to be a sinner, only a God will gospel will suffice.” He declares further: “Overagainst all attempts to conceive the operations of God looking to salvation universalistically…Calvinism insists that the saving operations of God are directed in every case immediately to the individuals who are saved. Particularism in the processes of salvation thus becomes the mark of Calvinism.” It is our deep conviction that this is not only Calvinism but that it is Christianity in its purest and best; a message that most adequately reflects the totality of scripture. We believe that this basic truth should have been spelled out more clearly and with emphasiS in the book under discussion.
1f there is to be a future edition, note should be taken that on page 178 a line or some words seem to be missing.
We can recommend this book to all ministers, teachers and seminary students. We believe that the discerning and intelligent layman too will greatly profit by it. We are thankful to the author for his already imposing list of scholarly works, and we look forward with keen anticipation for others, still to come from him.
WILLIAM H. RUTGERS