The Light at the Top of the Mast

In their intriguing new novel, Gideon’s Torch, Charles Colson and Ellen Vaughn relate a conversation between a minister and a fictional attorney general of the United States. The minister is appealing to a fixed standard for Truth in Jesus Christ and His Word. The attorney general is convinced that there is no fixed standard of Truth, and that majority vote, majority opinion reflects truth. At that point the minister recalls a childhood experience to illustrate his conviction.

Maybe you’ve been sailing at night. We used to do that when I was a kid, my dad and Alex and me, and we would sleep on the boat…But there would be times on moonless nights when you couldn’t see ten yards ahead of the boat. There was a light positioned at the top of our mast, but if we tried to navigate from our own light, which was moving with us, that would have been no help. So, my dad would navigate by the stars. Fixed points, shining out in the darkness above a spinning world…Truth has to be fixed in order for us to know how to live. In order for it to be truth.



This homey analogy led to the conversion of the attorney general. And it illustrates poignantly a situation which has developed in the Reformed world of The Netherlands and its “Dutch connection” here in the United States.

The Christian Reformed Church has drunk deeply from the fountain called The Free University of Amsterdam. For years many talented young students, some of them funded by Diamond Jubilee Scholarships, went abroad to the “Free” to study (often theology), and later returned to serve their denomination’s educational institutions and other strategic posts.

There was a professor at the “Free” whose influence on his own peers in The Netherlands and on our Christian Reformed scene here in America has been considerable profound and widespread. His name was G.C. Berkouwer. Professor Berkouwer was greatly revered in the Reformed community at home and abroad. His own testimony demonstrated a strong commitment to the Scriptures and the Christ of the Scriptures.

On one of Berkouwer’s early trips (the early 1950s), Co-editor Tom Vanden Heuvel heard him preach at his father’s church, West Leonard CRC in Grand Rapids, MI. In that sermon Professor Berkouwer thundered from the pulpit, with a heavy roll on his “R’s,” “Doubt is T-E-R-R-I-B-L-E!” But years later, at a CR Minister’s Institute in the mid-sixties, Professor Berkouwer’s main thrust was that, concerning the Scripture, there were “many problems, many problems.”

And now, among critics and disciples alike, it has become commonplace to distinguish between an early and a later Berkouwer. Progressives see Berkouwer’s change as maturity; conservatives see it as a “capitulation.” And, this capitulation of Berkouwer has had not only a “ripple-effect” but an “avalanche effect” on the Christian Reformed Church for the past thirty to forty years. It is only the last ten or more years that the CRC pew has begun to sense a cloud, a shift, a change—not knowing where it has come from or where it is going.

Dr. Carl W. Bogue, now a minister in the PCA (Presbyterian Church of America), took his doctor’s degree under Dr. G.C Berkouwer, graduating in 1975. Dr. Bogue has graciously consented to prepare a series of articles for The Outlook. This series is not a biography of the late Dr. Berkouwer who died in January, 1996. It is not a tribute to a man; it is rather, a critique of Berkouwer’s thinking and a demonstration of the destructive effect it has had on his own denomination (Berkouwer chose Dr. Harry Kuitert to be his successor), the Christian Reformed Church and the Reformed church world at large. And, although Berkouwer has been only one of a number of influences creating our present dilemma, he is a considerable influence.

Some of our readers will feel this discussion is “over their heads,” perhaps even a waste of space. Granted, the topic and material is philosophical in nature and therefore somewhat complex. But we humbly ask for your indulgence and patience for the sake of those who wish to trace the roots of our current crises, draw the parallels between Berkouwer’s thought and the all too familiar arguments which have been advanced by the “progressives” in the CRC against the “conservatives” who have simply and knowingly refused to move away from both the historic, Biblical and Reformed method of interpreting Scripture, and from the confessions.

It is important for all to realize that long before changes in perceptions and practice are advocated (such as an animal ancestry for man, a feminization of God, an alteration of church office and who may occupy it, an altemative sexual lifestyle to the hetero husband-wife model), there has been a major philosophical (or theological in the case of spiritual matters) shift before the ramifications of that shift become obvious to the general public—in our case, the church.

It is with this philosophical-theological shift in the thinking of a powerful figure such as Dr. Berkouwer, that these articles deal. And if you read Dr. Bogue’s articles a number of times, and if you read them all, together with editorial prefaces which as editors we hope to provide, you will understand the underpinnings of the current unrest in the church much better than before.

For the past 20–30 years we have heard “buzz words” such as the “form/content,” “kernel/husk” debate on Scripture; we have heard that the Word of God is infallible but not inerrant; we have heard that the Bible is infallible as to what it intends to teach (Who decides that?), but we must not press the Bible for accuracy in all of the details; we have heard that the Bible does not contain “propositional truth”; we have heard of an animal ancestry for man; we have heard recently that problem passages of the Bible must be interpreted by means of “correlations”; we have heard conservatives, who simply hold what the historic Reformed faith has always taught accused of “fundamentalism” and “scholasticism.” In a thoroughly documented treatment of Berkouwer’s thought, Dr. Bogue demonstrates the roots of all of these charges.

Dr. Berkouwer, closely following Karl Barth, has constructed his own “light at the top of the mast” and he has followed it, and has helped to produce a generation of disciples who are following it. They are losing their way, their “fixed point” (the inerrant Word of God) and are leading the church into a deep, dark, confused night. Unless they get back to the fixed point, they will lead the church to a shipwreck of faith (I Timothy 1:19), as we see in the GKN in The Netherlands.

In this first installment, author Bogue presents the early and later Berkouwer, and then moves on to a preliminary sketch of Berkouwer’s view of Scripture and the confessions which he treats in greater detail in later installments (September and October/96).

Bogue points out that Berkouwer is critical of those who maintain Biblical inerrancy. He defines error as “intentionallying” and this the Biblical authors do not do. But only in this sense is the Bible inerrrant. (In this sense, most writing that people do is inerrant; only rarely do they intend to lie.) Berkouwer does not include the accuracy of details in the idea of inerrancy. The important thing, according to Berkouwer, is that the Scripture presents a “deep spiritual witness to Jesus Christ” and to press the Bible for accuracy (inerrancy) which extends to the details will “damage reverence for Scripture more than it will further it.” Through it all, Berkouwer insists that he has a high view of Scripture.

From this principle has come the mantra we have heard so often lately in the CRC, “It’s not a matter of salvation,” the implication being that if a disputed section(s) of Scripture is not directly related to salvation (the trustworthiness of all Scripture is related to salvation –T & L VdH) then it is not important what we believe concerning it (for important discussions of this phrase see articles written by Mark Vander Hart, The Outlook, April/ 96 and Cornelis Venema in this issue of The Outlook, May/96).

Regarding the confessions, Berkhouwer would have us realize that definitions and formulations of dogma can “fossilize,” thus making it necessary to reexamine what it was that the framers of the confessions included by what they said. Berkouwer would have us resist a view of dogma which looks at truth in terms of “fixed propositions” from which logical implications may be drawn.

It is clear already from the initial article in this series, that those of us who are conunitted to the historic, Biblical Reformed faith, and the disciples of Dr. Berkouwer (of whom there are many in the CRC) are on two different tracks (a Bible without error in its intent and its details versus a Bible whose authority rests only on what it intends to teach, not on the accuracy of the details in which those intentions come); and these two tracks will never and can/ever meet. It is important to understand this as we contemplate the futures of those who currently constitute the Christian Reformed Church.