“Concern and Responsibility”

(A review article of the book, Verontrusting en Verantwoordelijkheid, by G. C. Berkouwer, J. H. Kok N.Y., Kampen, 1969, 189 pp., f 9.75).

Never before, it seems, have such changes as are taking place in our modern world affected the life of the Church as they are doing today. The advances of science, the explosive gain in knowledge, the almost completely secular outlook upon life by the masses, are some of the forces which are undermining the authority of Scripture as the Word of God and the place of the Church as a unique Divinely ordained institution with a Gospel of redemption for an otherwise lost world.

It might well be asked, can the Church indeed still function today with a revelation that is 2000 years old and more, with confessions that date back to the Reformation over 400 years ago and longer? Does the Church still have rapport with modern man and does she still speak to his needs?

In the book under review in this article, Dr. Berkouwer, Professor of Dogmatics at the Free University of Amsterdam, seeks to point out why elements of change must inevitably be present in the Church today as she faces the need for renewal and adjustment to the pressures of the modern scene. Berkouwer plainly sides with the progressive clement within the Church today and seeks to point out why the conservative element should both show more patience in understanding its aims and manifest a greater sense of responsibility in criticism of the movement.

While the book is obviously oriented to the ecclesiastical situation in Holland (e.g., de Gereformeerde Kerken), the book clearly deals with problems that are international in scope and which the Church everywhere must also face and deal with. A brief analysis and evaluation of Berkouwer’s thesis therefore follows.

Berkouwer begins by giving an objective presentation of the unrest reflected by the Conservatives in the Church today who, in the face of the progressive stream of activity, fear “that the Church will not be able to resist the threatening dangers, and that a new ecclesiastical and theological mentality is growing from which not much good can be expected for the future” (p. 5). It is felt by the Verontrusten (the Concerned Ones, hereafter referred to in this article by the Dutch word which is more descriptive than the English) that the Progressives are too concessive re: the attacks of higher criticism upon the authority of Scripture and that they make too much of the human element in the production of Holy Scripture while not doing justice to its unique element, namely, its inspiration by the Holy Spirit. Moreover, the Progressives seem to be busy adjusting the Scriptural data to the views of science, some of which (evolution, the age of man, etc.) remain theoretical rather than proven fact.

While Bcrkouwer recognizes the validity for this concern, he does not feel that it is a feature that belongs alone to our age. The true Church of all ages has ever had the responsibility to be concerned that she remain “the pillar and ground of the truth” (I Tim. 3:15). Nor is a concern for a maintenance of the status quo necessarily the proper thing either. “There is a ‘security’ possible that is a false security, that does not permit itself to be disturbed and which operates with religious ‘lying words’ ‘the temple of the Lord is this’ (Jer. 7:4)” (p. 22). In this situation one might term the prophets the Progressives, Divinely commissioned to disturb and overthrow the false security of the status quo (cf. the prophet Amos’ message to Israel, Amos 7:10–13). In this sense the progressive concern is “to make place for a new reception of what has been lost. So we see Christ in the New Testament concerned, making chaos of the status quo in His cleansing of the temple, because the house of His Father had been made into a house of merchandise” (p. 23). Hence, there is no place at any time for an attitude of triumphalism in the Church (i.e., we have arrived; we are right; there is no place for further change). Nevertheless it must also he remembered that “all concern in the Church is only legitimate as it reflects something of the prophetic-apostolic concern and as it submits itself to their normativity (i.e., a responsible concern for the cause of the Gospel)” (p. 27).

Berkouwer admits that there can be inherent dangers in the progressive movement of the modern Church. “It would seem that a tendency can be pointed out in the movement toward a displacement and renewal wherein the apostolic commission is endangered” (p. 52). But on the other hand, Berkouwer hastens to add, “It is becoming more than plain that one can walk upon very old paths without having an eye for what God is doing by new means which are appearing on the historical scene” (p. 66). “What has been entrusted (to the Church) is, namely, not an abstract truth, but that truth which encompasses the whole life, which stirs her to action and directs her to the future. The people of Cod are called upon to contend for the faith once for all delivered (Jude 3), unto sanctification, unto preserving of themselves in the love of God (Jude 21, James 1:27), and unto the awaiting of the mercy of Christ” (pp. 67–68). “Therefore, there is for the Church ever the reason for concern because of the recurring question whether she has truly preserved the Gospel or whether she has buried her entrusted ‘talent’ in the field and has thus kept it ‘intact’ (Matt. 25:25)” (p. 69). In other words, contending for the faith can never mean simply keeping it as one might keep a treasure by burying it in a field. Changing times demand differing applications of the changeless Gospel.

It is at this point, however, that we are nevertheless forced to ask, is this indeed all that the Progressives today are doing, namely, seeking ways and means by which to make the changeless Gospel relevant to our times? The Verontrusten obviously don’t think so, for they feel that the questioning by the Progressives of the historicity of the opening chapters of Genesis, the denial of Adam and Eve as actual persons, the fall of man through Adam’s sin, together with the form critical approach to Scripture’s investigation, a failure to do justice to the transcendent element in Divine revelation, doubt as to the historical reliability of Scripture; in short, the manifestation of the influence of a relativism and skepticism that has gradually become dominant, go much farther than legitimate investigation of the Gospel’s meaning for today allows. Rather, the Verontrusten feel that such things are a direct attack upon the integrity of the Gospel itself. Though Berkouwer makes a fair attempt, he does little in this book to actually remove the causes for disquietude on the part of the Verontrusten. He sets forth in a comprehensive way the reasons for the presence of the problems, but he does little to analyze in how far the suggested solutions of the Progressives are legitimate or illegitimate -using the canon of Scripture itself as the standard of measurement. In a word, the Verontrusten would feel that in necessarily objecting to the new attitudes of the Progressives, they are but following the tried and true principle, Principiis obsta ( resist the first principles of evil) for which they feel that the Progressives are providing more than adequate grounds, Prof. Berkouwer’s apology notwithstanding.

Several further examples may serve to underscore this evaluation. In a chapter on the authority of Scripture, Berkouwer says, “In spite of all dangers from a destructive maintenance of a form criticism scheme (of the Bible), no one can get away from this ‘bound to their own times’ aspect of the Scriptures, and in just this manner we learn ‘wherein such things as the real (eigenlijke), the nature, the content of the revelation lie, and therewith also the nature and scope of Scripture’s authority’” (pp. 119–120). And on page 122 he says in a somewhat involved sentence, “No one can disassociate himself—not even because of the fear of dualism—unless he is concerned that the Word of God will be lost to us whenever the Scriptures lie in the hands of men who do not want to neglect the new light but wish to make thankful use of it.”

However, it is just Berkouwer’s presuppositions that “the new light” of form criticism and a recognition that the Bible is a product of its times that the Verontrusten find disturbing. For are these things indeed a new light? Or, at any rate, should they not first be proved as such before Prof. Berkouwer asks the Verontrusten to be willing to accept them as he evidently wishes them to do?

In the chapter on the confessions, Berkouwer makes a good case out of the need for critically evaluating the work of men ( which is what the confessions are) from time to time in the light of the need for relevance in ever-changing times. Confessions, after all, are a product reflecting the need of the times in which they arose. It is possible that our age needs the truth confessed in such a way as to distinguish it from modern heresies which plague the Church. But what Berkouwer fails to make clear for the Verontrusten’s benefit is why some aspects of the truth that were confessed as such by the Church in time past no longer seem to apply today. Doesn’t history show that the Church’s progress in confessing the truth has been to do so with ever-greater precision and detail? Wouldn’t a return to “a seeking for shortness and succinctness (bondigheid) in the Church’s expression of what the centrality, the essence of the Gospel is” (p. 152) be a step backward rather than forward? Especially if it meant sacrificing some aspects of the truth in the interests of expressing the so-called essence? Obviously the Verontrusten fear this and Prof. Berkouwer does not properly allay their fears here.

In the chapter on science, Berkouwer correctly formulates the Verontrusten’s fears when he says, “Many times one hears the question whether it is still true that we unconditionally accept the authority of Holy Scripture or whether we have rather gradually come upon a way whereon we are busy capitulating to the ‘dictates’ of science” (p. 155). More and more, it seems, science’s “hypotheses, presuppositions with their uncertain character are placed over against the certainty of the revelation God has given to us” (p. 160). But then Berkouwer gives the Verontrusten no comfort (and even less rest) when he makes this obviously concessive statement, “Already by hesitating (aarzeling) with respect to the traditional view (of creation, etc.), there is reason…to submerge oneself intensively in all of the gripping questions that now cluster about the dilemma: horizontal-vertical, wherein many times all sorts of aspects—just as they pertain to the development -play such an important role, namely, of the question, what one—evolutionally can or may expect within the dimensions of this world” (pp. 171–172). But has evolution been proved so that it must now be accepted (which Berkouwer in some respects at least seems to think )? Or, is it still only an unproved theory which, moreover, still remains at variance with the data of Scripture? Small wonder that the Verontrusten will still be disquieted after reading this chapter (and this book).

Prof. Berkouwer has made a great attempt to allay the fears of the Verontrusten. And many things that he says are eminently worthwhile and demand further reflection and consideration. Nevertheless in one major respect at least he falls short. And this is the disappointing aspect of the book, namely, that he does not pay sufficient attention to the activities of the Progressives and evaluate whether their activities are within the bounds of legitimacy or not. Until he does—or someone else with an influence equivalent to his does -the fears of the Verontrusten will not be taken away. Rather, it would seem that the grounds for their concern are strengthened, if anything, by this book.

Rev. R.O. Zorn is pastor of the Reformed Church of Sydney, Australia.