Berkouwer and the Battle for the Bible (1)

This month and next month, Dr. Bogue focuses on Dr, G.C. Berkouwer’s view of Scripture, which is of course, the fatal flaw which produces error on many other issues. It must be understood at the outset, that here again, we see an early Berkouwer and a later Berkouwer.

In 1938 Berkouwer produced a book (Het Probleem derSchriftkritiek) in which he charges the critics of the Bible with “subjectivism” (making their own reason and feelings the basis of judgment), He was especially critical of those who questioned the historicity of the early chapters of Genesis, In his book, Berkouwer placed the modern “subjective” treatment of Scripture in opposition to the orthodox view of Scripture as the revelation of God.

Thirty years later, Berkouwer produced another book on Scripture (De Heilige Schrift), Here Berkouwer demonstrates that he has moved far beyond his stance of 1938. He never repudiates his earlier position, but it is obvious from what he says in the new book that his thought has substantively changed. For example, when Berkouwer discusses “the certainty of faith,” he does not ground that certainty in an infallible, inerrant Scripture, but rather, on a subjective “embrace of faith,” He rejects the idea that “the certainty of faith” is specifically linked to the truth of the Scriptures, the Word of God (as in, “Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so”).

Berkouwer rejects what he calls a “mechanical” view of the inspiration of the Bible which asserts that, although God used human writers, these writers nonetheless spoke the Word of God without error. Those who hold to this classic Reformed view of the inerrancy of Scripture, Berkouwer would describe as fundamentalists. Further, Berkouwer would characterize their position as a “religio-psychological” need for absolute certain ties which the doctrine of inerrancy provides. In fact, Berkouwer would declare that it is impossible to assign certainty to anything in the phenomenal (tangible, observable) world. In his view, certainty can only exist in the noumenal realm (one’s own subjective perception).

Another very important tenet of Berkouwer’s view on Scripture is that the inspiration of the Scripture by the Spirit of God applies only to whnt the Bible INTENDS to teach. Thus, the Gospel (Matthew, Mark, Luke, John) accounts of Jesus are portraits of Jesus Christ, not actual historical reporting. One then can not insist on the accuracy of all the details contained in the written records. In this way Berkouwer pits Biblical intelect against Biblical accuracy.

It should come as no surprise then that Berkouwer has great hesitation concerning the historicity of Adam. He also states that Paul did not render timeless propositions concerning womanhood or marriage. With such a view, what in the Bible, is really true? What is really binding?

Next month, in our editorial introduction to Dr. Bogue’s article (Part 2) on Berkouwer, we will draw some parallels between the thinking of this Dutch theologian and the echo it has had in the Christian Reformed Church.

The Editors

If Lindsell is correct in The Battle for the Bible when he calls biblical inerrancy “the most important theological topic of this age,” with the battleground being the evangelical commnunity, then the significance of Berkouwer must not be underestimated. His influence is considerable in the shift of the doctrine of Scripture manifesting itself among neo-evangelicalism. Krabbendam sees Berkouwer as “the fountainhead of a new type of thinking” which “led him and his followers to the denial of…inerrancy.”109 Gordon Lewis, in a paper on “The Human Authorship of Inspired Scripture,” calls Berkouwer’s view of Scripture “both inadequate and unorthodox.”110 John Gerstner says Berkouwer’s view of Scripture “does more than ‘damage reverence for Scripture’” it “damages reverence for God.”111 If the battle is for the Bible, then Berkouwer is a major combatant!

Concerning Berkouwer’s view of Scripture I would make two qualifying comments which could well apply to the whole article. In the first place I will be very selective. This is necessary simply because of the amount of material. But I am also being selective in dealing with what appears to me to be problem areas. I will not spend time relating all the good things Berkouwer has to say, but I will purposely choose that material which suggests deviation from the more generally accepted Reformed doctrine of verbal inerrancy. This is not a balanced study, and is not intended to be, but I believe it is justified.

The other qualification I would make concerns the way Berkouwer writes. When he treats the historical development of a doctrine along with the exegetide and theological questions to be considered, there is usually great clarity. But when it comes to a forthright statement of his own view on an area of controversy within the Reformed heritage, there is a studied lack of forthrightness. Here the issue of biblical inerrancy is a prime example. While Berkouwer has been more candid in recent years, one still does not find blatant denials of inerrancy. It is there in rhetorical questions and implication. He is not interested in the “battle for the Bible” as Lindsell and others might formulate it. Berkouwer does not wish to state boldly there are errors in the Bible, but under the assumption that there are errors, he wants us to see the authority and certainty questions from a different perspective.

The hesitation of Berkouwer to bedrawn into a commitment to inerrancy or errancy is illustrated by an incident related by Lindsell in his recent book. With reference to Berkouwer, he writes:

He was a contributor to the Current Religious Thought Column of Christianity Today for some years. When readers raised the question about his belief in biblical inerrancy, I wrote to him for clarification. Despite extended correspondence, I could get no answer from him either affirming or denying inerrancy. When a man refuses to reply to a direct question about his continued acceptance of inerrancy, the only conclusion that can be drawn is obvious.112

I believe it is increasingly obvious, and for those who see this as a critical issue, the time is past for giving his “no comment” the benefit of the doubt.

In treating this subject I made a decision to use something of an historical framework. I have mixed feelings about this method, inasmuch as there will be some duplication which might be confusing. Yet there is a general consensus that Berkouwer had moved in his personal understanding, that there is an early and late Berkouwer, and that consequentIy we must note this change in his doctrine of Scripture.113 There is, of course, much truth in the evaluation that Berkouwer’s position has changed. We will begin and end with reference to the contrast. Yet it is also true that the seeds of what he would consider his “mature” view were present in those early years. Interestingly, in his later publication he chose not to repudiate his early work on Scripture but to see it as a different emphasis.114

The historical, or chronological, exposition of Berkouwer’s doctrine of Scripture will begin with a book published almost six decades ago and continue through his work published at the close of his active teaching in which he surveyed the past fifty years of theology as he experienced it. I hope to conclude with some references to disciples of Berkouwer which dramatically illustrate the bearing of his doctrine of Scripture on the current debate over inerrancy.



In 1938 Berkouwer’s first of two major works on Scripture appeared. Almost 400 pages long, Het Probleem der Schriftkritiek was a positive statement of the Reformed doctrine of Scripture in relation to the debates raging at that time. A central theme was the contrast of the Reformed doctrine to the “subjectivism” of the increasingly popular biblical criticism. According to Berkouwer, “the modern Scripture examination stands in sharp antithesis with that of orthodoxy,” and “if the Scripture is lost the context of the Christian faith is lost.”115 He apparently saw the deception of the modern critic of Scripture. “The battle against petrification of orthodoxy,” says Berkouwer, “was in reality a letting go of Scripture revelation,” and the “self-sufficient autonomous subject” dominates the “modern” reflection on Scripture.116

We should pay attention to the striking contrast here to the later Berkouwer. In his later work on Scripture, it is precisely this battle against the petrification of ortho-doxy which became his battle, but it is now affirmed. that it does not involve a “letting go of Scripture revelation.” This contrast is put in bold relief by Berkouwer’s more recent doubts about the early chapters of Genesis. In the 1938 work, opposing those who questioned the history of these early chapters, his position is quite orthodox. Modem theology distinguishes, he says, “between form and content or between the kernel and the husk, between fact and the clothing of that fact.”117 Such a form-content distinction is part and parcel of most of Berkouwer’s dogmatical studies and especially his work on Scripture, but hear what he said about it in 1938: “The natural question is what remains of the religious significance when the historical surroundings are considered doubtful.”118 The crux of the matter is how one receives certainty in the “religious connection” if the “religious relation’s indissoluble connection to the historical givens is devalued.”119 A few pages later he writes: “According to Scripture the character of sin cannot be established apart from the historic fact of the fall and the surrounding trustworthy communications given to us.”120

The prevailing message of that early work is clear. A modern “subjective” viewpoint is clearly set in opposition to the orthodox view of Scripture as revelation of God. There was resistance to all forms of subjectivism which denied the indissoluble connection between the form and the content. Van Til is basically correct, I believe, in seeing Berkouwer in this early work as opposed to the neo-orthodox view of Scripture, a view Van Til now sees as Berkouwer’s own.

It was almost thirty years later when Berkouwer wrote an even larger work on the doctrine of Holy Scripture. Entitled De Heilige Schrift, it appeared in two volumes in 1966 and 1967, the next to last in his Studies in Dogmatics. The English translation appeared in a somewhat abridged one-volume edition in 1975. The translation is done by Jack Rogers of Fuller Seminary, and it is from this edition that I will be citing.

It would be a serious error to suppose that this work represented anything other than the combined development of this thinking during those thirty years, now put down in a somewhat systematic fashion. Berkouwer’s view of Scripture was not unknown prior to this 1966 publication. Indeed, one could without too much difficulty as certain his doctrine of Scripture from his other writing during that time, not the least of which would be his books and articles on the Roman Catholic Church and the “new theology” emerging there. For the sake of space, however, I want to concentrate now specifically on his work, Holy Scripture (De Heilige, Schriff).

The fact that Berkouwer’s view on Scripture was generally known prior to this publication is not without significance. I was living in the Netherlands at that time, and there was an air of expectancy as people wondered to what extent Berkouwer would repudiate his 1938 book. It was my impression of both church and university circles that no one really doubted that Berkouwer had moved considerably from his early work. What made his new book newsworthy was to find out whether he would ignore, repudiate, or reinterpret it. Those familiar with Berkouwer’s style will not be surprised that he did a lot of ignoring, some reinterpretation, and a studied avoidance of explicit repudiation.

A common denominator in the modernist-fundamentalist debate in the early part of this century and the “battle for the Bible” today is the question of certainty with regard to our faith. Berkouwer begins his book with a chapter on Holy Scripture and the certainty of faith. It is not a faith certainty that is grounded in an infallible Scripture, but a recognition that Scripture is the Word of God, a recognition which grows out of one’s existing faith certainty. It is “an incorrect conception of theology,” according to Berkouwer, “which considers it possible to discuss Holy Scripture apart from a personal relationship of belief in it.”121 He acknowledges “that for a long time during church history certainty of faith was specifically linked to the trustworthiness of Holy Scripture as the Word of God,”122 but this traditional view is “an incorrect conception of theology.” The correct view is a correlation between faith and the object of faith, namely, God and His Word. “Only God himself can give us definite and indubitable certainty and place us for time and eternity on an immovable foundation.”121 Berkouwerdoes not tell us how God does this. He says he does not mean “a miraculous voice of God,” and he strongly denies charges of mysticism, spiritualism, or subjectivism. Yet his correlation is strongly influenced by the existential character of modern theology, what Berkhof calls Berkouwer’s third phase of “the existential direction of Scripture” with its kerygmatic-existential correlation.124

Berkouwer sees a strong parallel with the struggles within Roman Catholicism over the certainty question and sympathizes with the approach of neo-orthodox type liberal Roman Catholics. The final chapter of A Half Century of Theology is entitled “Concern for the Faith,” and has this same certainty theme. Some people feel betrayed and threatened, he says, “For Protestants, it is tied to a fear that the complete trustworthiness of Scripture is somehow being subverted. For Catholics, it is related to a loss of respect for the authority of the church as the last word for questions of faith.”125 Both books by Berkouwer on the Second Vatican Council and subsequent developments are illustrative of this. But one page from A Half Century of Theology will dramatically illustrate how this parallel between Rome and Protestantism functions.

Hans Kung, according to Berkouwer, “called for a hard look at the actual history of papal statements in which error was, as a matter of fact, mixed with truth. He wanted complete honesty and integrity.”126 We, of course, agree with Kung that there is a great deal of error in papal statements. But remember, Berkouwer is drawing a parallel with the Protestant doctrine of Scripture. “The church is, Kung insisted, indefectible. But this does not require, as a conditio sine qua non, that its teachings are infallible nor that the church’s path is marked by irrevocable statements.”127 The church is “indefectible,” but the particular teachings are fallible. If you understand that concept from Kung, you will be prepared to understand what men like Berkouwer mean when they say Scripture is infallible but not inerrant!

Berkouwer continues to paraphrase Kung with words very similar to the neoorthodox banner: follow the living Lord, not a dead book. “We should rather thinkin terms of being guided and sustained by the Spirit as he leads us through the valleys of possible error….Kung talked in the same vein as Bavinck did and as the Belgic Confession does: the church is preserved by God as it walks amid enemies (Article XXVll).”128 That is a remarkable statement. Kung’s view of an infallible church with fallible teaching is likened to the Belgic Confession teaching the church is preserved by God as it walks amid enemies. Berkouwer here equates enemies with errors, and in the Scripture parallel to the Roman Catholic discussion, the infallible purpose of Scripture is preserved by God as it dwells amid error.

Getting back to the first chapter of Berkouwer’s Holy Scripture, we find another theme that will be frequently repeated—“the transition from a more ‘mechanical’ to a more ‘organic’ view of Scripture.”129 He sees a continuity between the traditional view where “certainty of faith was specifically linked to the trustworthiness of Holy Scripture” and what he calls a mechanical view of inspiration. By contrast, the rise of historical criticism focused attention on the human aspect. This resulted in taking seriously the human “organ” of revelation, and thus, almost self-evident according to Berkouwer, came the preference for an organic view of inspiration. With this also came problems which Berkouwer recognizes. “Students of Scripture began to wonder…whether Holy Scripture as God’s Word was truly beyond all criticism,” and questions were raised concerning the meaning of “is” in the confession: Holy Scripture is the Word of God.130

Again, Berkouwer’s sympathy with Roman Catholic parallels is interesting. In a chapter on “Exegesis and Doctrinal Authority” in his book on the Second Vatican Council, he deals with the tension within the Roman Church growing out of two encyclicals. The 1943 encyclical, Divino Afflante Spiritu, “carries a hint of new directions” for biblical studies. In it Pius XU introduced “the questionas to the nature” of scriptural authority,granted an area of freedom and “emphasized the necessity of interpreting theBible according to its own intent and purpose.”131 Without denying inspiration, the door was nevertheless opened. One of the results was a challenge of the accuracy of the Genesis stories while emphasizing their religious intent. One is reminded of Barth’s comment that the literal existence of the serpent is not important, but what the serpent said! A 1950 encyclical, Humani Generis, was necessitated by the erosion of previously proclaimed infallible doctrines regarding the origin of human life. The expected loss of fallible form was resulting in the loss of “infallible” content as well.

This is a fascinating area of study, with a wealth of material which we cannot go into now. The Roman Church will probably never be the same because of it. But it is important to us in understanding Berkouwer, since he is not only sympathetic with the new and unorthodox Roman exegetes, but sees Protestantism faced with the same issue. Note carefully the similarities described in this rather lengthy quotation:

We must acknowledge that we are not able to look on the tensions within the Roman Catholic Church on this point from a restful Reformed eminence, as though Reformation theology is untouched by similar problems. One could maintain such an illusion only by supposing that exegesis is an individual and not a Church concern and that exegesis is secured against error by the motto, sola Scriptura. Actually, the question of Scriptural authority is a most pressing one within Reformed churches. Ever since they abandoned a mechanical view of Scripture’s inspiration and came to terms with an “organic” view, they have been faced, wittingly or not, with problems parallel to Catholicism’s problem of the Church’s teaching authority and free exegesis of Scripture. Pius XII wrote in his encyclical, Divino Afflante Spiritu, of the writers of Scripture as “organs” and “living, rationally gifted instruments” of the Spirit. He emphasized the authority of Scripture, but his acknowledgment of the human writers as “organs” opened the question of how the organs functioned in the service of revelation and how their dynamic function affects the character of Scripture’s authority. Evangelical theology faces the same question. The witness of Scripture itself along with the “biblical studies of our time” faces evangelical churches with problems that only a docetic view of Scripture can ignore.132

Berkouwer’s commitment to a confessional church gives him great empathy with the liberal Roman Catholics who want their heritage and changes too, and the solution for both is sought not in orthodoxy, but a “neo”-orthodoxy.

I think it is clear that Berkouwer is not satisfied with past formulations. There is a move, he says, from mechanical to an organic view of Scripture. And it is important to understand something of his criticism of the alleged enemy, mechanical inspiration, as well as who the enemy is before before moving on with his own view. Unhappily, Berkouwer does not clearly identify the enemy. There are hints; there are indicators. Yet many readers will surely be asking themselves, “Who is he referring to?” or “Is he implying I am guilty of that?” The task of identification is further complicated by what Berkouwer himself acknowledges, namely, that “no one deliberately takes the side of a mechanical idea of inspiration.”133 Thus his criticism of persons holding a “mechanical view,” if they are not to be straw men, they are persons who deny that theirs is a mechanical view.

It is thus necessary to make an assumption which some may not like. I believe it is a valid assumption founded on my whole experience with his lectures as well as his writings. And while disciples are not necessarily true reflectors of their teacher, those who espouse Berkouwer’s doctrine of Scripture would give confirmation of my assumption. My assumption is this: When Berkouwer speaks of a mechanical view of inspiration, or fundamentalism, or a formalized doctrine of Scripture, he is in the broad sweep referring to those of us who hold to the clas· sical Reformed doctrine of biblical inerrancy. I believe he means Warfield and Old Princeton. On the contemporary scene, I believe he means John Gerstner or J.I. Packer or Cornelius Van Til or many others who hold to an inerrant Bible. I think it is important to say this, since it is very easy to read Berkouwer’s criticisms with approval, assuming he is attacking the same abuses you would, while in reality he means your own position. It is to some of these charges we now turn.

Part and parcel to the non-organic, mechanical view of inspiration was a supposed overemphasis on the supernatural or divine aspect. According to Berkouwer, the tendency in the church was to minimize the human aspect of Scripture.” In what borders on a false dichotomy, he says, “The human element of Scripture does not receive the attention it deserves if certainty of faith can only be grounded in the divine testimony, for then it can no longer be maintained that God’s Word came to us in the form of human witness.”134 In this context the word “Docetism” appears Docetism was the heresy of stressing the divine nature of Christ to the neglect of the human nature. Berkouwer raises the question, “whether a kind of Docetis possibly lay behind the so-called theory of mechanical inspiration,” and assures, that it is a “totally wrong concept of Scripture” which thinks “that the trustworthiness of Scripture is protected by means of a docetic view.”135

From a discussion of certainty which is grounded in a docetic view of Scripture, Berkouwer moves into the discussion of fundamentalism. He is critical to the “very defensive character” of fundamentalism.

To be sure, many expressions from the fundamentalist camp frequently give the impression that the acceptance of a fundamental truth and a certainty that cannot be subjectified are at stake, especially when its members gladly accept the name “fundamentalist” to set them apart from those who have fallen victim to the influence of subjectivism. This, however, terminates the discussion at the point where it actually should begin.136

Berkouwer claims the same “simple and childlike acceptance of Scripture” as the fundamentalist. The problem is that the fundamentalist fails to see the complexity of the problem.

The fact that Berkouwer sees implicit Docetismin the inerrancy of fundamentalism is illustrated in the following quotation:

I believe that I am judging no one unfairly when I say that fundamentalism, in its eagerness to maintain Holy Scripture’s divinity, does not fully realize the significance of Holy Scripture as a prophetic-apostolic, and consequently human, testimony. It is true that fundamentalists do not deny the human element in Scripture, but they allow their apologetics to be determined by the fear that emphasis on the human witness may threaten and overshadow Scripture’s divinity.137

According to Berkouwer, the real point at issue is not the acceptance or rejection of the voice of God, as the fundamentalist insists. In what many fundamentalists would see as grossly unfair, if not slanderous, he writes:

They suggest that…an a priori acceptance of Scripture’s infallibility precludes all dangers. Thus, they manifest great tolerance for all who maintain the fundamentalist view of Holy Scripture. They tend to relativize concrete obedience in understanding Scripture. The result is that their apologetic, which is meant to safeguard Scripture’s divine aspect, threatens in many respects to block the road to a correct understanding of Scripture, which is normative, by ignoring and neglecting its human aspect.138

I want to pursue this theme in some detail because these charges are serious.Here are some more of Berkouwer’s extreme charges against the fundamentalist or inerrant view of Scripture. The fundamentalist sees Scripture “as though it were a string of divine or supernaturally revealed statements, ignoring the fact that God’s Word has passed through humanity and has incorporated its service.” The fundamentalist is said to be guided by the “wholly divine or wholly human” dilemma, opting for the “wholly divine.” “Thus to them the human aspect of Holy Scripture lost all constitutive meaning and became blurred through the overwhelming divine reality of God’s speaking.” The fundamentalist “greatly obscures the contexts in which God himself gave us Scripture.” There is “an unconscious wish not to have God’s Word enter the creaturely realm,” and “this background…determines fundamentalist apologetics.”139

Berkouwer takes another line of attack against the psychological fundamentalism of defenders of inerrancy. Citing critics of post-Reformation theology with apparent approval, he describes the danger thus:

An incorrect connection between Scripture and certainty of faith can be made by proceeding a priori from the premise that for our certainty of faith we need an immovable basis to the conclusion that we can find this only in an infallible Scripture. It is especially the so-called orthodox view of Scripture that came to the fore in this analysis.140

Verbal inspiration is thus “an attempt to make the basis of certainty of faith immovable by an a priori preclusion of every element of uncertainty because of the unique, supernatural, divine quality of Holy Scripture.”141 Faith in Scripture is called a “religious postulate,” and the “religio-psychological explanation” of a need for absolute certainties is seen as the source of the doctrine of inerrancy.

What bothers me about such an attack is an apparent disregard for the question of truth. Defenders of inerrancy take that position because of a supposed psychological need for certainty. They are categorized with “Islam’s evaluation of the Koran” and Roman Catholicism’s evaluation of the pope, with the common denominator being a need for certainty. I find that personally offensive. Berkouwer says, “Faith is not and cannot be based ona theoretical reflection on what, according to our insight, must be the nature of the divine revelations.”142 None of my teachers on inerrancy ever claimed to arrive at their conclusion on what their “insight” told them it must be. They believed, with good reason, that inerrancy was taught by God and did not originate as a result of their own creation. The traditional doctrine appears on firm ground between the existential direction of Berkouwer and the straw man of human wisdom envisioned in his criticism. We look next at the testimony of the Spirit, and while this alone could be a large topic since it relates to Berkouwer’s whole methodology, we must at least see how it functions in his Scripture doctrine. I must say that it is my experience to see in Berkouwer’s treatment of this doctrine something quite different from what is generally understood by the testimony of the Holy Spirit.

Berkouwer sees traditional apologetics and inerrancy as exemplifying the same problem, and he raises the issue in the context of the testimonyof the Spirit. He is using Bavinck to summarize his criticism. (Let me say parenthetically that Berkouwer is continually citing Bavinck with deep appreciation. He sees himself as in line with Bavinck’s direction. I am no authority on Bavinck. I have read a master’s thesis on Bavinck’s view of Scripture by Jack Rogers, and I’ve read the quotes from Berkouwer. As best I remember, I never had problems with Bavinck’s own words, but only the paraphrasing and inferences Rogers or Berkouwer drew from Bavinck.) Here, then, is what Berkouwer writes:

The doctrine of the testimonium was somehow revived again when it was realized that rationalism was untrustworthy and apologetics unfruitful. In this connection he mentions Kant’s criticism of the proofs for the existence of God. Once again there was room for the conviction that it is meaningful to speak of a testimony of the Spirit, because it was seen that the ultimate basis of faith cannot lie outside of us in proofs and arguments, the church, or tradition, “but can be found only in man himself, in the religious subject.”143

You see the relevancy for inerrancy. Whether apologetics in general or Scripture in particular, certainty is denied possibility in the phenomenal world. Certainty, religious certainty, is possible only in the Kantian noumenal realm of suprahistory and existentialism.

According to Berkouwer, “only the Holy Spirit himself can give certainty and conquer all doubts.”144 The certainty of Scripture is not in the realm of reason; we cannot speak of its objective truth apart from a believing subject. Are we not in the realm of existential theology’s “truth as encounter”? Berkouwer mentions this view approvingly in The Second Vatican Council, where it is said that revelation “is not a reservoir of intellectual propositions” but rather “a personal self-disclosure by God in which He encounters the total person.”145 It is obvious, says Berkouwer, “that there are not two separate kinds of witness, one that must be called the outer and the other the inner testimony.”146 He states further: “A merely natural recognition of Scripture as a supernatural phenomenon with the consequential ‘rational’ proofs is not possible.”147 In this framework the question of inerrancy is irrelevant.

I find also a confusion by Berkouwer between “faith” in Scripture and “faith” in Christ, or saving faith. This affects many areas. But he confuses them intentionally via his exposition on the testimony of the Spirit. According to Berkouwer, “there can be no splitting of the testimonium into two separate testimonia, namely, one regarding our sonship, and another concerning the truth of Scripture.”148 It is certainly true that the regenerating, light-giving, eye-opening work of the Holy Spirit wins our acquiescence in both Scripture and the Savior. The issue, however, is not our “faith” in Scripture but the truth of Scripture, whether we acquiesce or not. Is it objectively true or only existentially true?

For Berkouwer the message, if not the medium, determines the medium’s veracity. “On the basis of the New Testament, the confession of the Spirit is first of all related to salvation in Christ; anthen the Word of God is discussed.”149 He can use the same full meaning of faith with regard to both Scripture and Christ since faith in Scripture is really is not Scripture at all, but in the message of Scripture, namely, Jesus Christ. This is what Berkouwer says:

True belief in Scripture is possible and real only in relation to the message of Scripture….When the “acceptance” of Holy Scripture as the Word of God is separated from a living faith in Christ, it is meaningless and confusing to call this acceptance belief in Scripture or an “element” of the Christian faith.150

But again the issue is not whether we should call acceptance of the Holy Scripture as the Word of God “belief” or “faith,” but whether it IS the Word of God or only BECOMES the Word of God when one is related to it as a Christian. Berkouwer’s position is clear. “The confession of the Testimonium Spiritus Sancti once and for all precludes every separation of faith in Christ from faith in Scripture. Faith in Scripture is not a separate belief that must be complemented by trust.”151

Berkouwer writes two chapters on the God-breathed character of Holy Scripture, and within these chapters the fundamental issues are raised, some of which we have already touched. Berkouwer’s concern for the intent orpurpose of Scripture predominates. The word inspiration may be difficult to fully grasp, but the “functional character of Scripture” which concerns salvation and the future is what we must comprehend. “Scripture is the Word of God,” says Berkouwer, “because the Holy Spirit witnesses in it of Christ.”152 “Seen from the perspective of sola Scriptura, this will not be an abstract and empty confession. The concreteness of the goal idea is of great importance.”153 John’s words are cited: “These things are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ” (John 20:31). In A Half Century of Theology Berkouwer calls this a “religious pragmatic,” an “awareness that the gospel records were portraits of Jesus Christ rather than ordinary historical reporting,” with the result that “closer attention hadto be paid to the purpose of the Gospel writers.”154 You must realize that defenders of inerrancy will make a similar emphasis, but Berkouwer is placing the purpose in opposition to inerrancy. In his own words: “The mystery of the God-breathed Scripture is not meant to place us before a theoretical problem of how Scripture could possibly and conceivably be both God’s Word and man’s word, and how they could be ‘united.’ It rather places us before the mystery of Christ.”155

The scopus, or intention, of Scripture is the primary thrust of Berkouwer over against “verbal inspiration” and its concomitant “inerrancy.” “Believing Scripture does not mean staring at a holy and mysterious book, but hearing the witness concerning Christ.”156 There is room for error growing out of the time boundedness of Scripture. The concept of “accommodation” is introduced in making a “distinction between essential content and time-related form.”157 “The scopus of Scripture,” according to Berkouwer, means “a concentrated attention…to the Word in the midst of many words, to its intent and purpose.”158 He then cites the Pharisees’ misunderstanding of the Sabbath commandment as an example of missing the “intent” of the Sabbath. But all that text teaches is that the Pharisees had a faulty understanding of the law, not that the law was an errant statement pointing to an inerrant intention. Berkouwer implies an either/or choice between his scopus idea and Scripture as “many words without the goal” in which “its God-breathed character is thereby neglected.”159 Happily, we are not confronted with such a dilemma.

Berkouwer, in criticizing inerrancy as set forth by Warfield, will speak of an inerrancy in the sense of “sin and deception.” But inerrancy as Warfield advocates is a “serious formalization” which is “far removed from the serious manner with which erring is dealt in Scripture.”160 Recognizing the good intention of inerrancy, Berkouwer nevertheless maintains that “the formalization of inerrancy virtually destroys this intention” by ignoring the organic nature of Scripture and its testimony.161 Inerrancy in addition to infallibility is not needed “to guarantee the full and clear message of Scripture.”162 Inerrantists, then, according to Berkouwer, are “fascinated by a miraculous ‘correctness’ that forever disregards every problem of time relatedness,” and “in the end it will damage reverence for Scripture more than it will further it.”163

It is undoubtedly a long way from Berkouwer’s 1938 book on Scripture to his more contemporary writings. Reflecting on that 1938 book, Berkouwer remarked that the appeal—“It stands written” made a powerful impact on him. In 1974 he wrote:

As I reread my book of 1938, I sense the difference between then and now is not that I was at that time impressed with “It stands written” and that later, in my volume on the Scriptures, I was less committed to it. I still wish to stand, attentively and devoutly, by that appeal, made by Christ.164 Who will question, however, that the phrase “It stands written” functions differently for Berkouwer now?

In 1938 he rejected the form-content distinction. The intention, the religious meaning, was inseparable from the historical surroundings. Later, such a distinction was the key to the scopus or intention of Scripture. In 1938 he defended the historicity of Genesis 3, as the Gereformeerde Kerken had done in 1926. The Gereformeerde Kerken officially abandoned that position forty years later, and Berkouwer saw no break with the church’s past. In 1971 Berkouwer publicly asked the question, “Is there room in the Reformed Churches for persons—and I reckon myself among them—who at this stage of their reflection have great hesitations concerning the historicity of Adam?”165

One begins to see why Undsell calls it a battle rather than an intramural skirmish. It is not just how we get the message, but it is a conflicting message. Berkouwer speaks of the same infallible content in the fallible form. But in time what he said in 1938 proves correct. The form and content are bound together, and we see new content emerging. The new position of Berkouwer on the historicity of Adam and the relationship to Genesis 3 and Romans 5 is but one of several problems. The wholequestion of Paul’s statements on womanhood and marriage is involved also. “At one time,” says Berkouwer, “virtually no attention was given to time-boundedness in these passages.” They were read out of context, with a faulty view of inspiration, creating insoluble problems. “But Paul, in contrast, did not in the least render timeless propositions concerning womanhood.”166

Berkouwer is not unaware of the uneasiness surrounding these developments. In chapter one of Holy Scripture and in the concluding chapter of A Half Century of Theology, he speaks with fear, uncertainty, and alarm within the church. The last page of his Holy Scripture affirms that his approach “is the true and only way to obedience.”167 The last page of Half a Century of Theology encourages us not to lose courage and “lapse into skepticism,” but be stimulated by the promise: “Seek and ye shall find.”168 Berkouwer is convinced that his way most honors the authority of Scripture. The question that must be asked, however, is this: When part of God’s truth is surrendered, will the time not come when the Gospel itself will also be surrendered?


109 Krabbendam, Summit Papers, p.15.1.

110 Gordon R. Lewis, “The Human Authorship of Inspired Scripture,” Summit Papers, p.9:11.

111 John H. Gerstner, “The Church’s Doctrine of Biblical Inspiration,” The Foundation of Biblical Authority, ed. James Montgomery Boice (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1978), pp.49–50.

112 Lindsell, The Battle for the Bible, p. 135.

113 Cf., for example, Krabbendam, Summit Papers, pp.15.1–15.3 where a very helpful study is made comparing Warfield and Berkouwer on their views of Scripture as God’s Word and man’s word. The general conclusion is that the early Berkouwer and Warfield are in basic agreement, while the later Berkouwer has capitulated to what is basically a neo-orthodox view.

114 Berkouwer, Half Century, p.139.

115 G.C. Berkouwer, Het Probleem Der Schriftkritiek (Kampen: J.H. Kok, 1928), p. 44.

116 Ibid.

117 Ibid, p.129.

118 Ibid, p. 131.

119 Ibid.

120 Ibid, p. 135.

121 Berkouwer, Holy Scripture, p. 9.

122 Ibid, p.11.

123 Ibid, p.15.

124 Berkhof, Ex Auditu Verbi, pp.48ff.

125 Berkouwer, Half Century, p.215.

126 Ibid, p.222.

127 Ibid.

128 Ibid.

129 Berkouwer, Holy Scripture, p.11.

130 Ibid, pp.13, 17.

131 Berkouwer, The Second Vatican Council, pp.113–114.

132 Ibid, pp.141–142.

133 Berkouwer, Holy Scripture, p. 153

134 Ibid, p. 18.

135 Ibid, pp.18–19.

136 Ibid, p.21.

137 Ibid, p.22.

138 Ibid, pp.22–23.

139 Ibid, pp.24–25.

140 Ibid, p.30.

141 Ibid, p.31.

142 Ibid, p.33.

143 Ibid, p.47.

144 Ibid, pp.47–48.

145 Berkouwer, The Second Vatican Council, p.68.

146 Berkouwer, Holy Scripture, p.58.

147 Ibid, p.63.

148 Ibid, p.52.

149 Ibid, p.52–53.

150 Ibid, p.54.

151 Ibid, p.55.

152 Ibid, p.162.

153 Ibid, p.124.

154 Berkouwer, Half Century, p. 121.

155 Berkouwer, Holy Scripture, p.162–163.

156 Ibid, p.166.

157 Ibid, p.175.

158 Ibid, p.184.

159 Ibid.

160 Ibid, p.181.

161 Ibid, p.182.

162 Ibid.

163 Ibid, p.183.

164 Berkouwer, Half Century, p.139.

165 Quoted in Lindsell, The Battle for the Bible, p.135.

166 Berkouwer, Holy Scripture, p.187, Cf. Rogers, Confessions of a Conservative Evangelical, p.116: “Jesus was a feminist.”

167 Ibid, p.366.

168 Berkouwer, Half Century, p.263.

Dr. Bogue, pastor of Faith Presbyterian Church (PCA) in Akron, OH, lecturer and author of numerous books, articles and papers, graduated Cum Laude from Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. Subsequently he earned his Th.D. from the Free University of Amsterdam, The Netherlands. His major professor was Dr. G.C. Berkouwer whose thought is the subject of this discourse.