Berkouwer on Providence and Election

In this discussion of Dr. Berkouwer’s view of Providence and Election, Dr. Carl Bogue points out Berkouwer’s unwillingness to accept reprobation as the flip side of God’s election. The “hard sayings” of the Canons of Dort, the idea of reprobation, the rejection of some, is a problem to Berkouwer.

But at the same time, Berkouwer considers election the very “heart of the church.” To solve. the tension between a predetermined election and reprobation, Berkouwer proposes an understandirlg of election “in faith” which emphasizes a “doxological approach” versus a decree fixed in eternity.

In this “doxological approach” we find Scripture’s teaching on election to be only pastoral in nature, that is, it is only encouragemett for the persecuted and embattled church. “Chosen in Christ” cannot mean that Christ is the means or medium through whom an eternal decree would be effected. Even in a case where a person “hardens” his/her heart or “rejects” the gospel, the situation could still be described as “open.”

This example of Berkouwer’s view of election/reprobation again illustrates not only the fluidity of his approach, but how far afield he has wandered from the clear testimony of Scripture and the confessions.

The Editors


Prior to the latter volumes on Scripture, the area where Berkouwer’s correlation principle of viewing all theology “in faith” (as defined in the June issue) was most visible is in the areas of providence and election. These are crucial areas which deserve some special attention at this point.

In a chapter entitled “A Third Aspect,” Berkouwer treats the concept of “concurrence” as a way to express God’s exercise of providence in the world.61 This is an important chapter. The problem arises of “whether total human dependence upon God leaves room for significant creaturely activity.”62 Berkouwer’s concern is to avoid “speculation.” Given the biblical a priori that “God is not the author of sin,” how do you “conceive of divine cooperation in sin?” “Is sin wholly a product of the first as well as the second cause?”63 According to Berkouwer, “the dilemma is usually construed as: determinism or indeterminism.”

Berkouwer, not wanting indeterminism, is reacting against what he feels is a logical consequence of all determinism, namely, a kind of causality that excludes human responsibility and makes God the author of sin. In this reaction he makes several crucial assertions. “The essential error of identifying the Providence doctrine with determinism is the de-personalization of the God-concept.”64 “The Reformed confession of Providence does not reason from the idea of causation. It simply recognizes the invincibility of God’s sovereign activity.”65 “…The use of the terms first and second causes implies that God is only the most important cause among equal causes….This brings God even…less disguisedly down into the world-process.”66 For Berkouwer there is apparently a contradiction between Creator and cause. Concerning the biblical reference to Jehovah as the “first and the last,” he says, “The word first points to the absolute Creator, not the first cause of all things.”67 At best one can agree agree-I with these statements if qualified. At worst one sees caricatures and false dilemmas.

Berkouwer apparently is convinced of the inescapable dilemma, however, since he seeks a way out, a third or middle way. The problem, he says, is not properly formulated as determinism-indeterminism.68

The alternatives, determinism or indeterminism, are true alternatives only on a horizontal, anthropological level. They pose a dilemma which is resolved in the relationship that man sustains to God. This vertical relationship between God and man alone gives possibility to a correct understanding of the problem of freedom. Both determinism…and indeterminism neglect the religious aspect of the problem.69 “Faith knows its boundaries,” says Berkouwer. “Rational conclusions…give way to living faith in Him.”70



The problem is resolved, though not rationally, in confession of guilt and in faith. There is a solution, but it is the solution of faith, which knows its own responsibility—as it knows the unapproachable holiness of God. He who does not listen in faith to God’s voice is left with an insoluble dilemma?71

We are again struck with the conclusion that Berkouwer’s solution, the “religious” approach “in faith” contra “rational conclusions,” has ended in the subjective, noumenal sphere.

When we turn to the doctrines surrounding election, we would expect to see a similar pattern, and this is the case. Lewis Smedes’s summary may serve as a helpful starter.

Perhaps the most significant contribution that Berkouwer has made to the doctrine of election is his rescue of it from the doctrine of reprobation as its logical corollary. The notion of reprobation as a logical consequence of election is inescapable, as long as election is viewed as an arbitrary selection of individuals. To Berkouwer this is as objectionable as it is logical.

One must understand that Berkouwer moves back and forth on these issues in a way that is hard to pin down. He writes a chapter on “Election and Arbitrariness” and states as a priori evidence that “God is not arbitrary.”73 “Arbitrary” seems to be a word to be avoided, whatever the qualifications, even though it has been used, properly qualified, within the Reformed tradition. Berkouwer accepts Calvin’s expression that “God is a law unto Himself” as a rejection of “potentia absoluta as well as a law above God.”74 “The protest against the term potentia absoluta was not directed against the absoluteness of divine power, but against its unbiblical formalization.”75 Berkouwer seems thus to open the door for a qualified arbitrariness, but he insists that despite qualifications, the concept brings into question “the stability and trustworthiness of God’s revelation.”76 “…We shall not be able to discuss the election of God properly without continually reminding ourselves that there is no arbitrariness in God’s acts.”77

In the statement of Smedes quoted above one spots a problem. Apparently the “absoluteness of divine power” which Berkouwer affirms cannot be understood rationally without falling into the “error” of arbitrariness, potentia absoluta, and formalization. What is significant is that Berkouwer does not deny the logic of it. It is not sloppy thinking. In Smedes’s words, “this is as objectionable as it is logical.” Our problem is in not seeing that logic (Kant’s phenomenal world?) is a secondary reality. “There is a third way,” says Berkouwer, “between the potentia absoluta and the subjection of God to a law. The third way is the way of revelation.”78 Thus, logic is set over against revelation; the noumenal realm. of a third way, a “religious” and “in faith” way, is set over against rational conclusions.

Much of the election doctrine centers around “the boundaries of reflection.” When Berkouwer deals with the Synod of Dort, the issue of “good and necessary consequences” is at the forefront. The “hard sayings” of Dort as deduced from Scripture as consequence, culminating in the phrase “predestined to sin,” is an area that disturbs Berkouwer. The issue of reprobation, the rejection of some, is crucial.

In an important chapter on “Election and Rejection,” Berkouwer defines the issue as symmetry versus asymmetry. When the Canons of Dort speak of election and rejection, “we could get the impression that we are confronted with an obvious duality of two symmetrical ‘decrees’” predestinating to life and to death.79 Reformed theology rejects the idea that election and rejection occur “in the same manner,” and Berkouwer attributes this to its desire to reject deterministic interpretations. The Scriptures, says Berkouwer, are asymmetrical God is the “cause” of salvation; man is the cause of unbelief and hence rejection.80

Our criticism of Berkouwer must not be affirming symmetry or a determinism that makes God the author of sin. Berkouwer’s method is again at issue. We do not escape determinism by indeterminism. Reformed theology, he says, affirms asynunetry, and “in doing so, it reaches beyond the dilemma between determinism and indeterminism.”81 The use of causality can never bring us to a solution.82 The rising above the dilemma, however, is back in the subjective realm. We must, he insists, rediscover the “doxological connections.” “…We cannot discuss the election of God apart from faith.”83 No metaphysics, but confession. Referring to the words of adoration which Paul speaks in Romans 11:33, he states: “That is for us men—with all our problems—the profoundest exegetical secret of Romans 9 to 11.”84

But more than an acknowledgment of the mystery of election is being set forth. Smedes says of Berkouwer’s teaching: “God is the source of election. Man is the cause of his reprobation.”85 H. Berkhof says Berkouwer’s book on election “is built on asymmetrical confession, inspired by ‘the boundaries of Scripture,’ that God elects whom he wlll and rejects those who reject him.’”’86 That sounds orthodox enough if interpreted in an orthodox manner. However, couple what we have seen with this statement:

Scripture showed us that in the doctrine of God’s election the issue is not a decrelum absolutum, abstracted from Jesus Christ, neithera necessitas rerum which cannot be changed under any circumstances, nor a dark and irrational power of the potentia absolufa. Rather, Scripture points in its doxologies and songs in praise of the free election of God …87

One gets the impression that Berkouwer tends to be a Calvinist in election and an Arminian in rejection. But if God’s election is not something “which cannot be changed” (i.e., election can be changed?), even his doctrine of election as Calvinistic is suspect.

Berkouwer would reject such conclusions and say we are not looking in the way of faith. Faith sees things differently, not in causality but in doxologies that point to a way that is true but not transparent to rational considerations. We have yet to apprehend adequately what that means, but apparently one must risk the loss of objective certainty and take the existential leap of faith into the realm of theological (noumenal?) understanding.

It is worth noting that in Van Til’s book on Berkouwer and Dort he gives an account of Woelderink’s 1951 work on Election which shows his move from the historic Reformed faith to Barthianism. The causal question is called unbiblical and equated with determinism which is limited to the non-human realm of the dimension. Election transcends causal thinking. “We are referring to the noumenal not the phenomenal realm.”88 Though our criticism of Berkouwer has been based largely on his book on Divine Election and is admittedly drawing implications, the validity of our fear is illustrated by Van Til’s comparison of an earlier and later Berkouwer with the position of Woelderink.

It is of interest to note that in 1955 Berkouwer defended the Synod of Oort as having the concrete biblical view of election against the charge of determinism launched by Woelderink while in 1965 his criticism of Dort was practically the same as that of Woelderink.89

Van Til equates Berkouwer’s terminology with that of neo-orthodoxy and places him within the Kantian framework of modern theology.

Still, the “hole in the dike” was there in the “earlier” Berkouwer, and subsequent writings differ by degree rather than reflecting an essentially new position. Nor was Berkouwer unaware that he was traveling “other routes.” He states in A Half Century of Theology that the publication of Divine Election in 1955 was “not without hesitation and persistent questions.”90 At the risk ofsome repetition we should not overlook what he says about this doctrine in his survey of the last fifty years. Here we have the advantage of an autobiographical reflection of his mature thought, the vantage point of the “later Berkouwer,” as he views the “half century.”

It is Berkouwers conviction that election is the very “heart of the church,” and it should therefore be a doctrine of comfort rather than something to dread. There is, therefore, a strong pastoral emphasis in relation to questions that are seen as problems, “questions about the certainty of ones own salvation, about the ‘book of life’ in which names of only certain persons had been written, and questions about the secrecy and mystery of election.”91 Dogmatics and the life of the church merge in the question “whether election can be proclaimed without arousing all sorts of new problems in the mind of the listening congregation.”92 Berkouwer cites an experience of his first congregation of the man who argued, “nothing could help him ‘if he were not elect’ and his own break from the church could not hurt him ‘if he were elect.’”93

Berkouwer seems to view such “problems” as inappropriate for a doctrine that is the “heart of the church.” He says he probably counseled the man against caricaturing and pointed to the “relation between election and responsibility,” but then concludes that “pastoral warning is really powerless over against this sort of logic.”94 Such concerns have led Berkouwer to see the problem not so much in his parishioner’s caricatures as in the traditional statement of the doctrine. One “solves” the problem aspect by denying the orthodox doctrine of election.

The orthodox statement of the doctrine, the “form” if not the “content” (intent) of the Canons of Dort, is dominated by arbitrariness.

By arbitrariness we have in mind the “once-for-all” decision made in eternity that seats the lot of all people forever. The eternal decree of predestination (or predetermination) has its logical corollary in reprobation. The question is: Does not double predestination render pointless everything people decide to do?95

Berkouwer believes that is the result, and since the Bible teaches “tension and struggle” rather than “self-evident reason for indifference or complacence,” double predestination cannot therefore be Scriptural. The biblical call for response evaporates “by the thought of that decree, fixed from eternity…that determines everything and every person, a decree that must be realized in history.”96

In the notion of double predestination we have something else on our hands than a hymn of praise to God’s gracious election. The question is whether the notion of double destiny does not turn divine freedom into divine arbitrariness.97

It is apparent that Berkouwer’s desire to retain the doctrine of divine election as the heart of the church will necessitate a concept of decree quite different from what is normally understood. Berkouwer now decries a resorting “to obtuse explanations” and a striving “toward an elusive harmony and synthesis” in the doctrine of election.98 Kuyper’s language is charged as being essentially the same as “arbitrary determination of an ‘absolute might.’”99 Berkouwer claims to be questioning the form, not the content, of the sovereignty of God, and it is not a desire “to replace determinism with indeterminism.”100 To negate so much of the doctrine of election and yet boldly affirm it, one has to move “above” the rational-historical realm into the “Kantian noumenal realm”; that is, it must be seen “in faith.” Piety is set over against rational harmonization.

Once understanding “in faith” is seen as incompatible with understanding in rational knowledge, many new directions are open for biblical reflection. Commenting on Matthew 20:15, where Jesus says, “Am I not free to do what I choose with what belongs to me.” Berkouwer rejects the “logical” conclusion which is double predestination and declares instead that freedom means the goodness of God.101 Similarly, he denies that Paul could conclude Romans 9–11 “with a breathtaking doxology” if his intention was to teach “that the destiny of everything and everyone is sealed from eternity. Apparently we cannot truly praise God if He “ordained whatsoever comes to pass.”

Noordmans is said to have been “ahead of his time” in teaching that the “pre-” of predestination “is a ‘pre-’ of divine desire, not of logical determinism.”103 Predestination, therefore, is notchoosing some and rejecting others, butmerely “desiring” something in regardto sinners without being the cause of it. The “pre-” of predestination as set forth in the Canons of Dort “does not let the grace of election come to its own,” and “grace takes a back seat because of the double focus of the divine decree,”104 Reprobation is made incompatible with God’s grace.

In view of the a priori decree of election and reprobation, universal proclamation is not possible, so long as the seriousness and genuinely intended offer of grace is concerned. The offer of grace could not be directed to people who were excluded from salvation by God’s decree.105

Against this background, Berkouwer says he published Divine Election, “not without hesitation and persistent questions,” surely aware that he was changing not only the form but also the content of the Reformed doctrine of predestination.

Berkouwer believes he has growing support for choosing a doxological approach versus a decree fixed in eternity.

Thus the reconsideration of election has tended for several years, not in the direction of a double decree that merely waits to be executed, but in the direction of grace as the nature, the character of election….I cannot help noting that this shift…has gained an encouraging consensus, supporting my own efforts to understand the meaning of the confession of election.106

In private conversation, Berkouwer mentioned James Daane’s The Freedom of God as an English language work reflecting his view. But he especially mentioned Herman Ridderbos in this connection as one who arrived at a similar view of election on exegetical grounds. In A Half Century of Theology Berkouwer says their mutual understanding occurred before the publication of Divine Election in 1955. “Our discussion was supportive for me in my conviction that my reject!on of consistent views like Hoeksema’s and others need not lead me into a fruitless polarization; I did not have to posit indeterminism over against determinism.”107

Not surprisingly, we find Ridderbos writing in a similar vein:

In “election” there is not of itself the thought of a decree…

The purport of Paul’s argument is not to show that all that God does in history has been foreordained from eternity and therefore, so far as his mercy as well as his hardening is concerned, has an irresistible and inevitable issue….It is evident that one may not identify the omnipotence and sovereignty of God’s grace thus upheld on the one hand and of his reprobation and hardening on the other with irrevocable “eternal” decrees, in which God would once and forever have predestined the salvation or ruin of man…

There is…an inner contradiction, if one conceives of the divine purpose and the number of the elect in a deterministic sense as an immutably established decree of the counsel of God; or if, on the other hand, one supposes that without the individual’s power of decision human responsibility toward the gospel becomes a fiction.108

Neither determinism nor indeterminism! Ridderbos, like Berkouwer, has sought a third way. What that way is remains elusive and protected in the “storm-free harbor of suprahistory.”


61 G.C. Berkouwer, The Providence of God, trans. Lewis B. Smedes (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1952), pp. 125–160.

62 Ibid., p. 126,

63 Ibid., p. 131.

64 Ibid., p, 152.

65 Ibid. 66 Ibid., p. 155.

67 Ibid., p. 158.

68 Ibid., p. 145.

69 Ibid. p. 146. The Kantian roots of this mentality are illustrated in a summary of Kant’s agnosticism in Nomian L. Geisler, “Philosophical Presuppositions of Biblical Errancy,” Summit Papers, p. 11.15. “Hence, I can know the ‘thing-to-me’ but not the ‘thing-in-itself.’ One can know what appears to him but not what really is. The former Kant called phenomena and the latter, noumena. Between the phenomenal and the noumenal realms there is an insurpassablc gulf fixed by the very nature of the knowing process. Another reason “we must remain forever ignorant of reality-in-itself” is this: “Whenever one attempts to apply the categories of his mind (such as unity or causafity) to the noumenal realm he ends in hopeless contradictions and antinomies” (p. 11.6).

70 Ibid., p. 159.

71 Ibid., p. 133.

72 Smedes, Creative Minds, p. 78.

73 Bcrkouwer, Divine Election, p. 53.

74 Ibid., p. 59.

75 Ibid., p. 62.

76 Ibid., pp. 62–63.

77 Ibid., p. 87.

78 Ibid., p. 86.

79 Ibid., p. 175.

80 Ibid., pro 181ff.

81 Ibid., p. 182.

82 Ibid., pp. 188, 190.

83 Ibid., p. 25.

84 Ibid. , p. 65. Cf. Faith and Justification, pp. 31–32.

85 Smedes, Creative Minds, p. 78.

86 Berkhof, Ex Auditu Verbi, p. 49.

87 Berkouwer, Divine Election, p. 172.

88 Van Til, The Sovereignty of Grace, pp. 29–31.

89 Ibid., p.40.

90 Berkouwer, Half Century, p.100. In an interesting distinction Berkouwer says he was “wary, not of logic, but of certain logical consequences. How one can be for logic and not logical consequences is puzzling.

91 Ibid., p. 78.

92 Ibid., p. 50.

93 Ibid., p. 81.

94 Ibid.

95 Ibid., pp. 82–83.

96 Ibid., p. 83.

97 Ibid., p. 87.

98 Ibid., p. 89.

99 Ibid., p. 90.

100 Ibid., p. 91

101 Ibid.

102 Ibid., p. 92.

103 Ibid., p. 93.

104 Ibid., p. 94.

105 Ibid, p. 98.

106 lbid., p. 102.

107 Ibid., pp. 100-101.

108 Herman Ridderbos, Paul: An Outline of His Theology, trans. John Richard DeWitt (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Co.,1975), pp. 344, 345, 353. “This concept of election denotes the omnipotence, not the deterministic character of God’s work of grace (p. 346). “Here again it is a matter…not simply of a decree of God that only later comes to realization…” (p. 347). Concerning Romans 8:29ff., Ridderbos says: “This is not an abstract pronouncement concerning the immutability of the number of those predestined for salvation, but a pastoral encouragement for the persecuted and embattled church….‘Chosen in Christ’ does not say that Christ is the means or the medium through whom or in whom an antecedent absolute decree would be effected.” (pp. 350–351). Even hardening…“‘need’ not bear a definitive character, but rather, as with the rejection and hardening of unbelieving Israel, presupposes a situation that is still ‘open’” (p.352).

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.