Berkouwer on Holy Scriptures

In remarkably short succession Dr. G. C. Berkouwer has completed his two volumes on Holy Scripture; the first came off the press in 1966 and during the course of the summer of 1967 the second appeared. Whereas the first volume totaled 234 pages, the second nearly doubled that number to 463 pages. We are indeed thankful to the author for his dedicated labor by which he displays his untiring zeal and devotion and through which he provides the Church comprehensive studies such as these. In this article, as the title indicates, we shall concern ourselves with volume two.1


In volume one, Berkouwer omitted a discussion on the subject of inspiration; he reserved an extensive treatment of this topic for the first chapter in volume two. In this chapter he speaks of the confession: Sacra Scriptura est Verbum Dei (Holy Scripture is the Word of God). He explains that the Word of God did not come to man supernaturally shunning every human connection and involvement (p. 14), but that the Holy Spirit has seen fit to use human beings for bringing the Word of God. The adjective holy does not make human words divine; they remain human though not in the sense of Sacra Scriptura est verbum humana (Holy Scripture is the word of man). Holy Scripture is the Holy Word of God expressed in human language (p. 23).

Post-reformation theologians began to pay attention to the descriptive distinctions between verbal and mechanical inspiration. With other theologians, Berkouwer senses a difficulty in the term “verbal inspiration,” because in theological discussion the term “verbal inspiration” is quite often synonymous with “mechanical inspiration.” When one rejects the doctrine of mechanical inspiration, he must answer the question; what is meant by the adjective “verbal” in the term “verbal inspiration”? How is it possible for Scripture to be the Word of God and at the same time the word of man? Berkouwer answers this question by referring to a word from H. Bavinck that Scripture is the Word of God because in it the Holy Spirit testifies of Christ. Hence the Word of God is not a holy and mysterious book; rather the Word comes by hearing the witness concerning Christ. Scripture is therefore a book in which Christ is central.

A discussion on the divine and human aspects of the doctrine of inspiration calls for an explanation of the origin of Scripture -precisely, the process of becoming through the instrumentality of man. In the second chapter, Berkouwer discusses this process and at the same time is confronted with many questions, such as those pertaining to the biblical concept of the world and universe. How is the human word bound by time, culture and circumstance a vehicle of divine truth? To be sure, the differences between the time and culture in which Holy Scripture was recorded and our time and culture in which Holy Scripture is read are significant. As children of their time, the writers of Scripture did not excel subsequent generations in scientific knowledge; they did not record information which in later centuries could be understood in anticipation of scientific discoveries; they recorded God’s Word relevant to the times in which they lived. And yet the Word of God has abiding value for all ages and all people because the Spirit of God is not bound by time and circumstance.

The third chapter closely follows, in thought, the discussion of the instrumentality of man in the writing of Scripture. The Bible takes on the form of a servant to serve as the vehicle of communication. In the debate whether we can assume a parallelism between the servant Jesus Christ and the servant image of Holy Scripture, Berkouwer concludes that the great Servant and Scripture as servant stand along side of each other: in both, the same style of revelation is displayed (p. 123). Yet this parallelism has not led to bibliolatry; Jesus is worshiped, not Holy Scripture. Holy Scripture appears not in supernatural form, but in human apparel of word and letter. With H. Bavinck, Berkouwer observes that incarnation and inscripturation are not merely parallels but are most intimately connected (p. 139). In short, Berkouwer stresses the centrality of Christ in Holy Scripture.

Chapter four, entitled “Translation and Historicity,” confronts the problem of translation; little is said about the problem of historicity which, to some extent, is discussed in the succeeding chapters. Berkouwer mentions the problems which beset the translator; and because the work of translating consists of bridging the chasm of speech between two cultures, he asks the question whether “every modern translation is an interpretation of the original work” (p. 148).

Significant are the chapters on trustworthiness (V), clarity (VI), and sufficiency (VII). In connection with the question concerning the writing of sacred history, Berkouwer quotes the encyclical of Leo XIII (1893) in which the decisions of Trent and the 1st Vatican Council pertaining to the doctrine of inspiration are recorded: that all books of Holy Scripture in their entirety with all their parts have been written through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, “and it is impossible that any error can be present through divine inspiration” (p. 192). For Berkouwer, such a formal doctrine of inspiration as recorded in these decisions can not indicate and explain the real dangers of errors which actually undermine the trustworthiness of Scripture.


Perennial is the question whether Scripture should be understood literally; usually this question is accomplished by the Pauline assertion that the letter kills but the Spirit gives life (II Cor. 3:6). A careful reading of the Apocalypse is proof sufficient that the recorded text can not be understood literally unless one wishes to use the literal interpretation for apocalyptic predictions about the “last days.” But if the Apocalypse is not meant to be interpreted literally, how must the reader understand the first three chapters of Genesis? Berkouwer deals at length with the interpretation of Genesis 1–3 and concludes that an exegesis other than the traditional one is acceptable.

In the last two chapters, the author discusses the subjects “Holy Scripture and Proclamation” and “Faith and Critique”—chapters VIII and IX respectively. Scripture and proclamation are closely related, says the author, because the Word of God does not address man in abstract isolation but in a guiding and governing direction. That a discussion on faith and critique had to form the conclusion to this voluminous work is understandable, for faith, according to Berkouwer, does not rest upon the foundation of human trustworthiness but upon the testimony of God which comes to man in human language.


Though this summary of contents is not at all exhaustive, yet it is representative of the general tone and tenor of the book. In this summary, I have attempted to mirror something of the broad erudition of a scholar fully abreast with modern theological development in continental Europe, Great Britain, and America. Berkouwer compiles the teachings of Roman Catholic, Lutheran, Reformed, Liberal, and Neo-Orthodox theologians of the past (insofar as possible) and present, so that this book—like all his other works—is a thesaurus of theological thought and opinion.

Also in this volume Berkouwer displays his ability to penetrate theological discussions, analyze crucial points, expose the heart of a discussion in a few sentences, and view it in the Light of the development of his Own book. Criticism, if necessary, is given in carefully worded arguments; never offensive, always kind. Berkouwer looks at the theological stage upon which the actors play their role—a cliche which he uses rather frequently -speak their part and leave. With keen powers of observation Bcrkouwer, as a spectator, goes to the heart of a plot. Only seldom does he enter upon the stage as an actor, and if so, he briefly summarizes what others have said -at times he gives his own opinion.

Of great value and indeed worthy of appreciation is the author’s child-like love for the living Word of God. Throughout this book he reveals himself as a careful student of the Word who listens attentively to the testimony of Scripture, for thus he hears the voice of Jesus. Therefore he concludes the second volume on Holy Scripture by quoting the words once spoken by the disciples from Emmaus, “Was not our heart burning within us, while he spake to us in the way, while he opened to us the scriptures?” (Luke 24:32).

New Theology

A cursory reading already will teach the student of Scripture that Berkouwcr in this volume not only wrestles with the question of how to understand the Word of God, but also that he is a spokesman and defender of a new theology. It is evident that the author in interpreting Scripture wishes to avoid the practice of harmonizing difficult passages, for example, in the Gospels (p. 219). Instead of harmonizing, he rather points to the motives which have guided the human considerations of the writers of Scripture. Thus he quotes the New Testament scholar H. N. Ridderbos, who wrote in his commentary on Matthew, “Not the historical report of Jesus’ words and deeds characterizes this Gospel, but the portrayal of Jesus as the Christ.”1: Berkouwer adds that in many instances a precise report of what happened is lacking. Although he does not want to speak of a contrast between proclamation of the Gospel (kerygma) and history recorded in the Gospels, Berkouwer nevertheless claims that the variation in writing, for instance in the four Gospels, is structured for the purpose of proclamation. However, if one stresses proclamation to the neglect of historicity, the question of trustworthiness arises and demands an answer. Berkouwer is of the opinion that the writers of Scripture did not merely report objectively that which happened; they interpreted history subjectively, and for this reason the Gospels are not trustworthy in the sense of presenting an accurate description of what happened. He asks the rhetorical question: if we notice that the gospel accounts are interpreted, must we not assume a creativity in the work of the evangelists which can hardly be distinguished from “fantasy”? (p. 212). At this point the art of questioning strikes at the root of certainty, and certainty is turned into fear. For if there is no exact historiography in the Gospels, but rather subjective interpretation of the evangelists, what ought we to think of the resurrection of Christ? Was it history or interpretation?

That is the question which exposes the heart of this new theology. Berkouwer as a proponent of the new theology notes the question and recognizes the fear of uncertainty—he neither answers the question nor allays the fear.

In the vocabulary used in new theology circles, the term literalism is synonymous with simplistic exegesis; and often rightly so. The impossibility of such exegesis is demonstrated by interpreting the book of Revelation literally. Obviously the book of Revelation can not be explained literally, for in this book as well as in other parts of Scripture—to mention only the fable of the trees recorded in Judges 9 the reader perceives that truth is projected onto the screen of reality in poetic imagery. Yet other portions of Scripture do not lend themselves to such imagery and therefore must be interpreted literally. Although Berkouwer makes mention of the above examples, he uses them however not merely to show their unique way of presenting the truth but also as an introduction to a discussion on questions of origin in Genesis 1–3.

In the new theology the question whether the first three chapters of Genesis provide a detailed historical account of what happened at the dawn of history is no longer relevant. This question is answered in the negative. Discoveries in the area of natural science (biology and geology) necessitate a reinterpretation of Genesis 1-3. By contrast, Berkouwer relates what his predecessors A. Kuyper and G. Ch. Aalders taught on the subject of interpreting Scripture in the light of scientific discoveries (p. 3(0). Both Kuyper and Aalders in their day objected to interpreting the Bible under influence of evidence derived from natural science or history; says Kuyper, “the ex in exegesis may never be renounced.”2

Though fully aware of this remark, Berkouwer believes that Genesis 1-3 should be reinterpreted not because of science and history but in pursuance of these disciplines on the condition, however, that the basic meaning of the text be maintained. Thus scholars show that historical research provides evidence that Israel did not live in isolation but was closely connected with the oriental world in which it lived and from which it received information and knowledge, and that the ancient world to some extent influenced the writing and composition of the first eleven chapters of Genesis. With his colleague J. L. Koole of Kampen Theological Seminary, Berkouwer asserts that the link of tradition, the continuity of transmitting knowledge from father to son, is very weak and hardly verifiable in Scripture. He sees the origin of the first chapters of Genesis not merely in the sense of a special and unique revelation of divine “information” about the beginning of the world, that is, revelation which the writers received and transmitted without their own reflection and composition. Instead he sees the human aspect of composition and vision—in the service of inspiration—in the writing of chapters one through eleven of Genesis. In brief, the exponents of the new theology teach that in Genesis we find human reflection and composition of stories which originated in Israel. In this setting they can no longer speak of a literal, historical interpretation of the obvious intention laid down in these first chapters of Genesis. Berkouwer observes that exegesis is possible only because of the freedom of interpreting Scripture; he admits that this freedom can be abused, though the danger of abuse is unable to attack the right to this freedom because, says he, the right to this freedom is identical with the obedience one must have for Scripture (p. 309).

In the minds of many people questions multiply in view of the sharp departure from the traditional view of Scripture: the book of Genesis is historical and does not permit the classifying of different genres of literature: The emphasis in this new theology falls on the human element, and although the work of the Holy Spirit is not neglected yet it is man who reflects and composes the scriptural accounts of Genesis 1 through 11. One cannot avoid an uncomfortable feeling when he learns about the teaching of discontinuity of divine revelation: revelation which is identical with factual history begins with Genesis 12: the first eleven chapters have come to man by way of special revelation of which he could have no knowledge via factual history (p. 305).

Furthermore, the doctrine of infallibility as historically confessed in churches of Reformed persuasion is no longer maintained, and that because the advocates of the new theology do not hold to a formal authority of Scripture but to authority dependent upon its content. That is, whereas the churches of the Reformation have always confessed their faith in an absolutely trustworthy and infallible Bible, presently, according to the advocates of new theology, the Bible is to be accepted only as to content—the content of Scripture determines its authority.

Concerning the content of Scripture, Berkouwer often speaks of the scopus; with this term he means the guiding or governing principle of Scripture. He realizes that such a scopus idea may lead some people to think that it undermines the authority of the Word of God; but, says Berkouwer, such criticism is unfounded because Scripture itself testifies of this guiding purpose (pp. 87, 104). To mention a concrete example, he refers to I Cor. 11:10 where Paul speaks of the woman at worship having her head covered as a sign of authority, because of the angels. In these words of Paul we must find the meaning, the purpose, the scopus of Scripture, for Paul speaks in a given context of time and circumstance which is no longer ours; and therefore these words can no longer be considered normative for us. The question which calls for an answer, however, is whether man has the freedom to declare certain portions of Scripture irrelevant because they reflect a time and culture which belong to a bygone age. If he is certain that he has received this freedom, he consequently finds the authority of Scripture—in terms of the new theology—in its material content.

In all Berkouwer’s works in the series Dogmatic Studies, the author stresses personal faith inspired by the proclamation of the Word. Also in his latest addition to this series he discusses this subject and devotes a chapter entitled “Holy Scripture and Proclamation” to a careful analysis of the indissoluble relationship between the proclamation of God’s special revelation and man’s personal faith.5 Certainly there is a correlation between these two: the proclamation of the living Word of God calls forth personal faith. Yet this does not imply that apart from the proclamation of the Word there is no faith.

In this chapter, Berkouwcer does not minimize the importance of the written Word even though the accent falls on the preaching of the Word; rather he combines the written and the spoken Word. Says he, “The depth and the content of preaching show us how great the correlation is between scriptural faith and proclamation.” (p. 403) Although no one disputes the relation between faith and proclamation, the statement itself and the underlying thinking are incomplete. One would certainly not like to maintain that faith responds only to the proclaimed Word—countless are the incidents in which people have come to the faith simply by reading the Word, in which children have come to know the Lord by listening to their mother or to a Sunday School teacher, and in which patients in the hospital are cheered by the singing of a hymn.6

In his theology Berkouwer stresses the proclamation of the Word at the risk of neglecting other aspects which should be brought into focus in a thorough study of Scripture, such as this work purports to be.


Whoever expects this thesaurus of theological thought and opinion on Holy Scripture to be definitive in its field and to serve as a standard work on the subject will be disappointed. Derkouwer is too modest and too unpretentious to write a book on a subject such as this and speak the last word for years to come. Earlier I mentioned that he seldom gives his own opinion; he avoids making statements that are terminative; for this reason he often fails to be direct in his approach with the result that leadership is lacking. Evidence of this is found in Berkouwer’s reference to

E. P. Clowney’s booklet Another Foundation in which Clowney refutes the proposed Confession of 1967 of the United Presbyterian Church, especially where it states that “The one sufficient revelation of God is Jesus Christ” and “The church has received the Old and New Testaments as the normative witness to this revelation.” Berkouwer claims that Clowney’s argumentation is fruitless because it is not directed to the mystery of God’s Word which draws the entire human witness into discussion (p. 53). The reader at this point is told that the criticism of the disputed sentences in the proposed Confession was of little help; he does not learn, however, what should have been said about these sentences unless he reads the two volumes on Holy Scripture and understands that Berkouwer accentuates the human characteristics of Scripture.7 All too often arguments are left unfinished because the author is listening to another theologian who has something relevant to say: at times Berkouwer’s works can be compared to round-table discussions in which everyone present has something to contribute. On the one hand, this makes for interesting reading because of the crosscurrents of theological thought; on the other, many of these incomplete discussions furnish the reader who wishes to analyze a thought frustrating experiences.

Finally, we are indebted to Berkouwer for having completed the two volumes on Holy Scripture, which, apart from the above remarks, are worthy and welcome additions to the volumes in the series Dogmatic Studies. May our heavenly Father give him the grace necessary to continue studying and writing so that in time he may complete this series.

1. C. C. Berkouwer, De Heilige Schrift II (Dogmatische Studien) , Kampen: J. H. Kok, 1957.

2. H. N. Ridderbos, Mattheus II (Korte Verklaring), 2nd edition, Kampen, J. H. Kok, 1952, p. 17.

3. A. Kuyper, EnC!lclopaedie de,. Heilige Godgeleerdheid III, Kampen, J. H. Kok, 1909, p. 115.

4. C. Ch. Aalders, De Goddeliike Openbaring in de Eerste Drie Hooldstukken oon Genesis, Kampen, J. H. Kok, 1932, pp. 147f. and 420f.

5. H. Berkhof, in Ex Auditn Verbi (Kampen: J. H. Kok, 1965), pp. 37-55, discusses Berkouwer s theological method. He sees a gradual development in Berkouwer’s method which can be classified in three stages: first, the stage in which Berkouwer appeals to the absolute authority of Holy Scripture; second, the stage which ushered in the series Dogmatic Studies in which he stresses the correlation of revelation and faith; and third, the stage in which the existential character of faith is expressed.

6. M. J. Amtzen, De Grisis in de Gereformeerde Kerken, Amsterdam: Buijten en Schipperheijn, 1965, p. 19.

7. In a footnote on pp. 52f., Bcrkollwcr cites the revised reading of the Confession of 1967.

Dr. Simon Kistemaker is Professor of Bible of Dordt College, Sioux Center, Iowa.