Correlation versus Systematics

Last month we presented an introduction to Dr. Bogue’s treatment of the thought of the late Dr. G.C. Berkouwer, long-time professor at the Free University of Amsterdam, The Netherlands. We drew parallels between Berkouwer’s thought and its impact on the Dutch-American scene here in the United States. It would be helpful to read or reread the introduction in conjunction with the reading of each new installment of the discussion.

In this month’s article we see Berkouwer reacting strongly against systematic theology which characterizes Reformed dogmatics. He frequently sets up a false dilemma between “logically coherent systems” and matters one confesses as “personal faith.” In shirtsleeve English we might say that Berkouwer attempts to lift theology (our system of beliefs) out of the world of logic and reason, into a realm of “faith” in which “I” and “my faith” serve as judge and jury over what tile Bible is actually saying. The a prior assumption is of course, that classical Reformed orthodoxy is all errant system, and the solution to this dilemma (which Berkouwer creates) can be found in my own “personal faith.” This approach Berkouwer calls “correlation” and it has far-reaching consequences.

In the Christian Reformed Church we have recently been subjected to a wide distribution (to every CRC council) of a booklet written by Calvin Seminary President James De Jong to justify women in church office. (It was critiqued in The Outlook in December, 1995 by Cornelis Venema.) The title of the booklet is: Freeing the Conscience: Approaching the Women’s Ordination Issue by Means of Theological Correlation. Though it may not correspond in every detail with Berkouwer’s “correlation” system (which by very definition is fluid and ambiguous), it nevertheless employs a similar method called “theological correlations” (which itself is full of implications, deductions and rationalizations) which does not deal with the hard realities of the Biblical text, but rather, circumvents them, creating principles out of subjective perceptions.

The use of “correlation” to interpret Scripture is certainly outside the bounds of historic confessions and more importantly, Scripture itself. It can, has, does and will lead to disastrous results for the Reformed community at home and abroad.

The Editors

Another aspect of Berkouwer’s methodology hasearly roots and shows significant development through the years. While not formalized as a methodological principle, the word and the concept “correlation” permeate his theology. Lewis B. Smedes, a former student of Berkouwer and frequent translator of his books, calls “correlation” the “guiding principle” and “perhaps the greatest single most influential principle in Berkouwer’s theology.”45

This principle emerges clearly in an early work, Faith and Justification, as a valid attempt to understand the scriptural and Reformation understanding of faith. Discussing Abraham in the context of Romans 4, Berkouwer writes,

…where Abraham is concerned, there is not a causal relationship between Christ’s righteousness and the righteousness of faith but a correlative association in which the subjectivity of faith has meaning and significance only as it lives off grace…We are prohibited from abstracting a “subjective righteousness of faith” from the imputed righteousness of Christ, since it is precisely His righteousness with which faith is concerned.46

Faith, says Berkouwer, …is not added as a second, independent ingredient which makes its own contribution to justification in Christ. On the contrary faith does nothing but accept, or come to rest in the sovereignty of His benefit.41

“The way of salvation is the way of faith just because it is only in faith that the exclusiveness of divine grace is recognized and honored.” 48

The correlation idea, however, is much broader than an attempt to articulate the instrumental, receptive aspect of faith or the sovereignty/human responsibility question. Even in this early stage, an anti-systematic attitude is being expressed typical in much of modern theology. Correlation was being set forth not so much as an explanation as a denial of the possibility of an explanation. Berkouwer sets a “real theology of the Word” over against a “beautiful system.”

As we reflect on faith and justification, we shall confront not merely theories, but realities—realities seen and understood only in faith, but, when thus perceived, definitive for our own lives and the life of the Church.49

Here and throughout Berkouwer’s writing, the suggestion is ever present that a theory cannot (a priori) correspond to reality. Reality is a different dimension from theories and logic and systematics.

One should not miss this close affinity with the neo-orthodox emphasis on supra history even in this early work. The recent publication of A Half Century of Theology throws some valuable light on even earlier roots of this unorthodox aspect of Berkouwer. He begins his reflections on his “half century” by noting that “ethical theology” was a prominent issue for conservative theology in 1920. “Ethical theology” was characterized by the anti-dogma slogan: “not dead doctrine, but the living Lord.”50 In the following chapter, “The Era of Apologetics,” Berkouwer begins by criticizing the way dogmatics came “as a rounded-off and finished system,” and then states: “But later we came in touch with all sorts of doubts and uncertainty about facets of the system; problems and questions unsettled US.”51 This anti-systematics bias has characterized Berkouwer throughout but has become increasingly noticed by a larger audience.

K H. Roessingh, professor at Leiden who died in 1925 at the age of 39, represented “a new form of modernism” and made a strong impression on Berkouwer. At Roessingh’s death, Berkouwer wrote in the student paper: “The effect of his work was not to make everything clear and certain.”52 What impresses one in his evaluation of Roessingh a hall century later is the reference to his stand against orthodox Christology. Of Roessingh he writes: “While he saw no reason to deny the historicality of Jesus, he wanted his christology to be independent of this question.”53 Berkouwer goes on to write:

He was intrigued by the historical-critical question of how much Jesus’ real self was actually reflected in the New Testament profile. But he preferred the language of trust and commitment. “Christ-I can venture with him.” There was always a tension at the point where theological problematics met personal piety…But his piety did not turn him away from the problems.54

As I read these words describing Roessingh, I was struck by how accurately they describe what I understand Berkouwer himself to be saying. Taking Scripture as an example, Berkouwer wants the authority of Scripture and even its historicity without being tied to the historical critical battleground. He is intrigued by the historica1critical question of how much of Scripture is historically accurate, but he prefers the language of trust and commitment. One could continue this parallel in many areas.

This direction suggested by Roessingh, coupled with Berkouwer’s anti-systematics bias, is manifested in Berkouwer’s Studies in Dogmatics under the name “correlation,” and it has consequences more far-reaching than many have realized. The code word is “in faith.” We must understand “in faith.” What that means is difficult to ascertain, but it is set in contrast to logic, system, and the like. It is clearly affirmed as a “knowing,” but a knowing that is distinctly another nature from the speculative knowledge of a non-believer. And the intent is not the traditional distinction in Reformed theology of the believer “acquiescing” or “relishing” in the truth as contrasted to the resistance of the person outside faith. It is a “deeper” knowing that sees “more clearly” and avoids the contradictions (real) within the speculative realm.

One can with justification use the word “subjective” in speaking of Berkouwer. It is true he attacks subjectivism, but what he is attacking is subjectivism a la Schleiermacher, which “gave the human subject a determinative, creative function and made revelation dependent upon the subjective creation.”55 “Creative” subjectivism is opposed, but a subjectivism in receiving truth, even to tile extent of ignoring logic or “good and necessary consequences,” is acceptable. What elevation of the Word of God means for Berkouwer is an a priori distinction between speculation (even true speculation) and theological study. “Theology can only bow before mystery.”56 Berkouwer went down this road a long way to come under attack by Van Til for opting in favor of the Kantian noumenal realm and the neo-orthodox Historie/Geschichte distinction. Van Til would be far less critical of Berkouwer in this 1949 book on Faith and Justification, and we have, to be sure, drawn out some implications, but it is worth noting that the seeds of his later position are already implicitly present.

When Smedes sets forth Berkouwer’s correlation principle, his summary confirms what we have just said regarding the faith/knowledge conflict. Paraphrasing Berkouwer, Smedes writes:

Theology is a work of faith, and all of its statements must be such as the believer can recognize as objects of faith…It means that the object of theology is never the construction of a logically coherent system…Only those matters that the believer can and ought to confess as his personal faith and which the Church can proclaim as the faith of the Gospel are the proper conclusions of theology.57

Berkouwer, says Smedes, “declines the temptation to let deduction and inference determine theological conclusions: the demand for faith, not the dictates of logic, must characterize the kerygma.”56 Such an evaluation by Smedes is basically a correct statement of Berkouwer’s position.

We again find an updated confirmation of Berkouwer’s views in this regard in A Half Century of Theology, especially in a chapter entitled “Faith and Reasonableness.” Berkouwer is unhappy with past solutions and again finds sympathy with the same struggle in recent Roman Catholicism. In rejecting the classical Reformed approach. as well as a subjective, existential “leap,” he sometimes confuses faith with knowledge of God and at other times seems to divorce them. In representing the issue as it emerged in the Half Century, it sounds very much like a description of Berkouwer’s view.

Faith…is not against reason, though it is above reason…Faith becomes defenseless, in a sense. It has no defenses for itself, it has no apologia, maybe no way of giving answers—except private ones.59

Here we see a parallel to the reference above of subjectivism in Berkouwer. Words like “tension” and “paradox” are preferred to “argument,” “logic” and “good and necessary consequences.” There is sympathy in the notion that a faith founded upon truth that is rational would cause faith to lose its dynamic and destroy true freedom. Against this background, Berkouwer’s repudiation of faith as a subjective leap sounds somewhat hollow.

Given this increasing commitment to faith versus logic, correlation versus systematics, it is not hard to detect why Berkouwer has increasingly been at odds with classical Reformed orthodoxy, whether seventeenth-century or the Princeton theologians.60 He is frequently maintaining a false dilemma between “logically coherent systems” and matters one confesses as “personal faith,” between “the demand for faith” and “the dictates of logic.” The assumption of their incompatihility is gratuitous. For those who operate with that assumption, or for those who see a contradiction because they are aware only of an abused or errant system (which would not then be “logically coherent”), Berkouwer gives the appearance of a solution via the attempt to lift theology out of the world of logic and reason in to the noumenal realm of Kantian philosophy.

To one who has read Berkouwer, that may seem like a strong statement. He wrestles with all of the hard issues that come along. He does not avoid the conflicts of church history. Yet at the end of the discussion when each side has been brilliantly criticized, Berkouwer says in effect: “You’re both wrong ultimately; if you look at it ‘in faith,’ you can see the answer is deeper than you thought; come with me from the realm of the ‘phenomenal’ world of Historie to the ‘noumenal’ world Geschichte.” It is a pattern which, once seen, becomes increasingly apparent in all his work.

45. Lewis B. Smedes, “G.C. Berkouwer”, Creative Minds in Contemporary Theology, cd. Philip E. Hughes (Grand Rapids; Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1966), p. 65.

46. Berkouwer, Faith and Justification, p. 85.

47. Ibid., p. 43.

48. Ibid., pp. 188–189.

49. Ibid., p. 10.

50. Berkouwer, Hall Century, p. I 1. It is interesting to note that Berkouwer and his disciples are not averse to throwing this slogan at Old Princeton theology and their contemporary counterparts.

51. Ibid., p. 25.

52. Ibid., pp. 18–19. Berkouwer says Roessingh raised doubts about Kuyper’s description of modernism (d. pp. 18, 20).

53. Ibid., pp. 20-21.

54. Ibid., p. 21. “We who were students at the time followed Rocssingh’s venture with no little amazement. We could hardly guess that what we saw in Roessingh, both his hesitations and his assertions, would hold our attention and demand our response for years to come” (p. 23). In the following chapter, “The Era of Apologetics,” Berkouwer begins by criticizing the way dogmatics came “as a rounded-off and finished system.” He states: “But later we came in touch with all sorts of doubts and uncertainty about facets of the system; problems and questions unsettled us” (p. 25).

55. Berkouwer, Faith and Justification, p. 17.

56. Ibid., p. 21.

57. Smedes, Creative Minds, pp. 65–66.

58. Ibid, p. 69.

59. Berkouwer, Half Century, p. 147.

60. I am well aware that some have and will seek to avoid the impact of this by suggesting a clear disagreement between Calvin and “Calvinism,” with truth and Berkouwer on the side of Calvin. However, something is not true simply because Calvin said it, and furthermore, it is a highly debatable conclusion that Calvin, and possibly the Westminster Confession were substantially different from the Reformed orthodoxy of the seventeenth century or of the “Princeton theologians.” It is a highly questionable fad that sees Calvin as a post-Kantian existentialist or neo-orthodox depending on one’s perspective. On the contrary, as Krabbendam, Summit Papers, p. 15.2, points out; “There is every reason to believe that. according to Warfield. Berkouwer’s emphasis upon, and usage of, the concept of ‘correlation’ would betray a strand in his thinking that would place him in the climate of Schleiermacher’s theology and of neo-orthodoxy.”

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, is major professor, was Dr. G.C. Berkouwer whose thought is the subject of this discourse.