Berkouwer: Interpreting the Scripture (2): Confessions of a Disciple

Due to space constraints in this issue, we will place a wrap-up editorial on Dr. Berkouwer’s views and their echo in the Christian Reformed Church in the November issue of The Outlook.

I have elsewhere referred to Berkouwer as “the hole in the dike” throughwhich a flood would come.169 Of the many small streams that are making upthat flood I have selected Jack Rogers of Fuller Seminary for particular reference. A variety of circumstances has made him something of a spokesman for Berkouwer’s thought in this country. Theinclusion here of a disciple is justified in that disciples are sometimes quicker to draw conclusions and thus are frequently bolder in stating their goals than are their masters.

Rogers is certainly a zealous supporter of Berkouwer, and he is not without impressive credentials. His doctoral dissertation on the doctrine of Scripture in the Westminster Confession was under Berkouwer’s supervision, and he is the translator of Berkouwer’s Holy Scripture. Furthermore, he sees himself as leaving behind his “conservative” background and its “rigidity” while finding deliverance” in Berkouwer. “It is possible to avoid the extremes of both conservatism and liberalism and yet develop into an outstanding evangelical theologian. My example is G.C. Berkouwer of The Netherlands.”170

Rogers claims to have been “a straight, uptight, conservative Christian.” While his self-deception often sounds like pietistic moralism rather than healthy orthodox Christianity, his critique does not distinguish between the two. He wants to be “less conservative and more evangelical.” Before being enlightened by Berkouwer he “needed an idealized Bible.”171 No more:

I can no longer be conservative and talk about what the Bible must be, or ought to be—reasoning logically from some idealized human notion of perfection. I want to be evangelical and accept the Word that God has given me, with all its magnificent surprises in both content and form.172

The reason there are such “surprises” for Rogers is found in the subjectivism of his philosophical presuppositions. Convinced of Hume’s skepticism, he finds a way to “keep the faith” in Kant’s philosophy which”turns our attention from the objective world outside to what we subjectively bring to it.”173 The “way out” becomes the “way up” to “supra-history” where one is not bound to the logic of space and time, cause and effect. Or, to use Berkouwer’s expression, he is seeing things “in faith.”



The imprint of Berkouwer on Rogerswas clearly seen in 1966, when his published dissertation, Scripture in tile Westminster Confession, appeared. There was tremendous research involved, giving us important information on the background of the Confession. In my judgment, however, it is most significant as a reinterpretation of the Confession, making it read like Berkouwer on Scripture. The difference is that the attack, I fear a slanderous attack, was fully in the open. According to Rogers, “Princeton Theology’s…emphasis on the inerrant original autographs of the Bible signaled a change from the approach of the  Westminster Divines.”174 How was it different? “Princeton Theology undervalued the witness of the Holy Spirit” and relied on rationalism. There was “a lack of emphasis on the living dynamic Word of God in preaching,” and there “was an under-emphasis on the scopus or purpose of Scripture.” There was “an under-valuation of the human element in Scripture.”175 Furthermore, the New Princeton theologians in the then “proposed” “Confession of 1967” for the United Presbyterian Church, “acted rightly in restoring the emphasis on the witness of the Holy Spirit and on Jesus Christ the Savior as being the central content of Scripture,” an emphasis Rogers thought lost in “American Presbyterian orthodoxy.”176

Not surprisingly, Jack Rogers appears in the current battle for the Bible. Significantly, he is the editor of Biblical Authority, a collection of articles specifically attacking Lindsell’s book, by men opposed to inerrancy. Rogers’ own article purports to be an historical survey of biblical authority. In reality it is a vehement polemic against inerrancy which is open to challenge on almost every page. Apart from an amazing zeal to promote a Platonic-Augustinian philosophical foundation for his doctrine of Scripture,177 the article is characterized by repeated quotations or paraphrases of Berkouwer’s work on Scripture. The primary conclusion, aimed at Lindsell’s The Battle for the Bible, is that “it is historically irresponsible to claim that for two thousand years Christians have believed that the authority of the Bible entails a modem concept of inerrancy in scientific and historical details.”178 However one might view Lindsell’s book, it is apparent that Rogers has entered the battle in opposition to inerrancy.

To return again to Rogers’ “confessions,” we find him asserting that Berkouwer did indeed change his position on Scripture and that in doing so he was following the “good” Dutch Reformed tradition as opposed to the “bad” American Reformed tradition. Of Berkouwer’s Holy Scripture he writes: “I believe that this work on Scripture really does break the liberal-conservative dilemmas we have wrestled with for a century. It offers a genuinely evangelical middle way.” Then, referring to Berkouwer’s early work on Scripture, he says:

It encourages me to see how his thinking has changed and developed in this mature work…The extremes—formalism and subjectivism, rationalism and existentialism—have been rejected. We do not have to choose one or the other of those extremes as so much of our American theology has suggested. 179

“Warfield left on his followers the imprint of the apologist and polemicist. Bavinck influenced the generations after him to be theological scientists and churchmen. Berkouwer reflects this influence.”180 “In the nineteenth century, while Hodge and Warfield were building defenses against Biblical criticism, Kuyper and Bavinck were meeting the issue openly and constructively.”181 “G.C. Berkouwer has taught that the choice between conservatism and liberalism is a false dilemma.”182 Rogers has thus found a comfortable, platonic, Kantian home in Berkouwer’s “evangelical middle way.”

On the theory that reading Berkouwer into the Westminster Confession salvaged it from the “conservatives,” Rogers collaborated with one of his former students to work the same “magic” on much of church history. Desiring to demonstrate to the reader that inerrancy is not the historic position of the church, Rogers and McKim did not narrow their focus. Norman Geisler has described The Authority and Interpretation of the Bible “as the most complete attempt by non-inerrantists to reinterpret church history in their favor.”183 Again, Berkouwer provided the model.

Though spoiled by the Aristotelian Scholasticism of Aquinas, Rogers and McKim see a basic consensus in the early church in Neoplatonic Augustinianism with no thought of inerrancy.184 After a bad Scholasticism in the Middle Ages, nominalism and mysticism “helped pave the way for a return to Neoplatonic Augustinianism.”185 The Reformers focused attention, not on inerrancy, but on the Bible’s saving function.186 Reflecting the neo-orthodox view, Rogers and McKim write: “For Calvin, the Bible was God’s Word. But he knew that God did not address human beings directly with divine words.”187 The Bible is God’s Word but not divine words! In contemporary terms, the Word is manifested in human (i.e., errant) words.

The real villain emerges in post-Reformation “Protestant scholasticism”188 with its Aristotelian-Thomistic approach where “Scripture came to be treated as a compendium of propositions from which logical deductions could be drawn.”189 Remarkably, the Westminster Divines were exempted from such scholasticism, but Great Britain generally went the way of the continent via Owen, Bacon, Newton, Locke, Thomas Reid, and John Witherspoon, who imported errant inerrancy to America.190

In America, Reformed Scholasticism was continued preeminently in Princeton TheolOgical Seminary with the teaching of Turretin’s theology and under the leadership of A. Alexander, the Hodges, B.B. Warfield and J.G. Machen.191 Rogers and McKim assert that though the leaders of that tradition thought themselves to be followers of Calvin and the Westminster Standards, “in actuality they believed and taught a theological method regarding the authority and interpretation of the Bible that was rooted in a post-Reformation scholasticism, an approach almost the exact opposite of Calvin’s own.”192

The direction that such historical revisionism takes for Rogers and McKim, as well as Berkouwer’s influence, becomes evident when the more modem counterparts of Rogers’ approved theologians are named. Charles Briggs, suspended from the Presbyterian ministry, is said to be “historically correct.”193 The Auburn Affirmation is implicitly approved in opposition to Machen and the conservatives.194 T.M. Lindsay and James Orr in Scotland are praised as “evangelical reactions to Reformed Scholasticism,” and so also are Kuyper and Bavinck (not Hepp) in The Netherlands and P.T. Forsyth in England.195

More recently Barth, Berkouwer, and the Confession of 1967 carry the banner for Rogers and McKim. Karl Barth “founded the authority of the Bible on its divine function” and in so doing “provided a way back to the Reformation focus.”196 Berkouwer’s difference from Barth is that he reacted to Scholasticism 197 while Barth had reacted to Liberalism. They both arrived at a Reformation focus on the Bible’s saving function in a way that excluded inerrancy. In the United Presbyterian Church “Barth provided a core of consensus,” and the Confession of 1967 restored “the Reformation focus on Christ as the content of Scripture.”198 With pride Rogers and McKim declare of the Confession of 1967: “The final document was a worthy modern version of the Reformation vision of the Bible.”199


We return in closing to the teacher. A look at the disciple has produced nothing to alter our evaluation of the professor. Armed with Berkouwer’s view of Scripture, one who professes to be a conservative evangelical, in time embraces Briggs and Barth as the true descendants of the Reformation. Not surprisingly, neo-orthodox and liberal Roman Catholics have increasingly embraced Berkouwer, while relations are strained within his own tradition.

The word “change” repeatedly appears as we survey Berkouwer’s “half century” of theological reflection. Rogers is “encouraged” by this change and finds support for his hostility to American Presbyterianism in what he calls Berkouwer’s “evangelical middle way.” Berkouwer’s evolution is from a conservative, orthodox, Reformed theologian to a contemporary theologian for whom conservative and liberal is a false dilemma.

The way out of that dilemma is not a “way” at all in the traditional sense. One of my professors described the post-Kantian developments in modern theology as “piety within the framework of the enlightenment.” Being convinced that rational investigation left faith defenseless, they sought a way to retain their “faith” anyway. Truth was equated with “encounter,” and the realm of the so-called “suprahistory” became a “storm-free harbor” to avoid the “critical historical flood tide.” Berkouwer’s “middle way” of doing theology “in faith” is meaningful only in this anti-meaning philosophical framework.

As alluded to earlier, the shadow of Immanuel Kant hangs heavy over Berkouwer. “The principle of causality is valid only within the limits of our experience.”200 Causality is thus valid only in what Kant calls the “phenomenal” realm, not the “noumenal” realm of “suprahistory.” It is this new view of causality that has resulted in Berkouwer’s growing criticism of the treatment of election in the Canons of Dort as well as his criticism of the traditional Reformed doctrine of Scripture. Revelation is in the “noumenal” realm where logic is not applicable, and therefore all theology must be done “in faith.” “The function of human reason is not to investigate revelation but to draw logical conclusions.”201 All revelation is thus lifted out of the rational, logical, causal investigation and placed in the “noumenal” realm.

Van Til has leveled strong criticism against Berkouwer. The fundamental charge is that Berkouwer is influenced by the “philosophy of the utter relativism of history” with the “modern view” of a “would-be autonomous man.”

This man lives and moves and has his being in Kant’s noumenal realm. The existentialist philosophers andtheir theological followers today often speak of this realm as being that of Geschichte. The realm of Kant’s phenomenal world is now often called Historie. In order to escape the charge of contradiction, of determinism, man now says that the distinctions between determinism and indeterminism do not concern him. He now lives in a free world, the world of person-to-person confrontation. He now has no theory of reality, no concept of God or of man, no metaphysics. He is now in the realm of ethical relations.202

Such strong criticism may seem severe as one surveys the bulk of Berkouwer’s writing and sees many seemingly sound expositions of biblical doctrines. It is justified, however, in that something is at stake which is more significant than what Berkouwer says on any given topic. It concerns the “continental divide” of modern theology. It is perhaps misleading to speak of “a hole in the dike.” The dike has already been breached, and the flood has come. Even statements that sound orthodox must be viewed in light of what Berkouwer means by “in faith,” and all theology must be evaluated anew as pointing to “truth” rather than be in “true.”

Berkouwer, then, has anchored his ship in the “storm-free harbor of supra-history” to be safe from the “critical historical flood tide.” But if Berkouwer’s “middle way” is utterly illusive by the very nature of its subjectivism, the storm-free nature of his harbor is no less so. For in that harbor the only standard by which we may test anything in our own experience with “every man doing whatever is right in his own eyes.” In that harbor there is no safety from being “tossed here and there by waves, and carried about by every wind of doctrine by the trickery of men, by craftiness in deceitful scheming.”203


169 Carl Bogue, A Hole in the Dike (Cherry Hill, N.J.: Mack Publishing Co., 1977), pp. 25–26.

170 Rogers, Confessions of a Conservative Evangelical, p. 134.

171 Ibid., pp. 9, 12.

172 Ibid., p. 26.

173 Ibid., p. 125.

174 Rogers, Scripture in the Westminster Confession, p. 448.

175 Ibid., p. 449. American Presbyterian orthodoxy “under-emphasized the witness of the Spirit and the saving purpose of Scripture”(pp. 449, 450). “While the Princeton theology felt obligated to defend Scripture’s statements on every subject, the Westminster Divines emphasized that Scripture did not deal with matters of art and science” (p.452).

176 Ibid., p. 453. “The proposed Book of Confessions, including the ‘Confession of 1967’ offers the United Presbyterian Church in the US A fresh opportunity to understand its heritage and confess its faith” (p.454). ln Rogers, Biblical Authority, pp. 18–45. “Post-Reformation Protestants” used “the same Aristotelian-Thomistic arguments which Roman Catholics used…Thus a significant shift in theological method occurred from the neo-Platonic Augustinianism of Luther and Calvin to the neo-Aristotelian Thomism of their immediate followers” (p. 29). “The old Princeton tradition…is a reactionary one…wedded to a prior commitment to Aristotelian philosophy” (p. 45). Norman L. Geisler, Summit Papers, pp. 11.2–11.4, gives some elementary philosophical teaching which destroys the credibility of much of what Rogers has to say. Concerning the alleged Aristotelian background of inerrancy,” Geisler lists several inconsistencies: “First, the ‘Aristotelian’ Turretin did not originate the doctrine of inerrancy. The platonic Augustine…clearly held to inerrancy… Secondly, Augustine…was not the fideist Rogers would make him to be …Thirdly Rogers speaks as if Aristotle invented the law of non-contradiction …Fourthly, even Rogers and other errantists usc the law of non-contradiction as a pillar of their position … Finally, it was not Aquinas nor Turretin who first applied logic to God’s revelation. The biblical writers themselves warned the believers to ‘avoid … contradictions’ and anything ‘contrary’ to sound doctrine.” Geisler then makes this telling critique of Rogers’ preference for Planlonic presuppositions: “A further irony in Rogers’ position is his assumption of a relative harmlessness of platonic presuppositions as they bear on the inerrancy of Scripture. While Rogers consciously rejects Turretin’s ‘Aristotelian rationalism’ he unconsciously adopts a kind of platonic ‘spiritualism’ …Now Rogers is apparently not aware of the fact that this dualistic separation of the material and spiritual worlds is a philosophical presupposition at the root of the errancy position.” The implication of this philosophical presence of Rogers is indeed manifest throughout much of what he writes.

178 Ibid., p. 44.

179 Rogers, Confessions of a Conservative Evangelical, p. 136.

180 Ibid., p. 135.

181 Ibid., p. 137.

182 Ibid., p. 147.

183 Norman L. Geisler, “A Critical Review,” I.CB.I. Update (Summer 1980), p. 1. That review, though brief, is a devastating critique of the philosophical presuppositions and inconsistencies of Rogers and McKim.

184 Rogers and McKim, Authority and Interpretation, pp. 3–71.

185 Ibid., p. 73.

186 Ibid., p.73–145.

187 Ibid., p. 116.

188 Ibid., pp. 147–198.

189 Ibid., pp. 187–188.

190 Ibid., pp. 200-260.

191 Ibid., pp. 265–379.

192 Ibid., p. xvii.

193 Ibid., p. 358.

194 Ibid., pp. 364–365.

195 Ibid., pp. 380–405. 196 Ibid., p. 425.

197 Ibid., pp. 426–437.

198 Ibid., pp. 437 and 439.

199 Ibid., p. 442.

200 G.C. Berkouwer, General Revelation (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1955), p. 68.

201 Ibid., p. 75.

202 Van Til, The Sovereignty of Grace, p. 86.

203 Ephesians 4:14.

Dr. Bogue, pastor of the 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.