Louis Berkhof 1873-1957: The 2007 Evangelical Library Lecture
‘Berkhof’ – it has a certain ring of defiance about it, an abbreviation for an almost 1,000 page volume of systematic theology which is considered a touchstone of orthodoxy, but . . . ‘surely a bit out of date’ . . . ‘Dutch’ . . . ‘not a note about revival’ . . . ‘rather cerebral’ . . . ‘scholastic’ . . . ‘somewhat derivative from Bavinck and perhaps Shedd.’ If men are going to criticize biblical Christianity then they feel safe in doing so targeting the name ‘Berkhof’.
Preachers will warn their congregation, ‘You can know “Berkhof” from cover to cover and still go to hell. The devils all know their Berkhof.’ They say such things as they fulminate against the perils of dead orthodoxy. Those are real perils whether it is an orthodox theology, an orthodox ethical system or an orthodox knowledge of revivals; they all can be known in that sterile way which leads to destruction, but is dead orthodoxy one of the top seven perils attacking the gospel church in Britain today? In my judgment it’s not even one of the heads of the beast that comes out of the sea. There are seven more dangerous foes before we encounter dead orthodoxy. Let’s not tilt at windmills. Let’s be as orthodox as we can; even if some of the work we study is as dry as dust it is still gold dust. Orthodoxy is simply the believing, understanding, declaration and confession of those truths that God has taken such pains to give to us. Let’s be warned about every attack on them from wherever they come, and such attacks come from all the heads of the beast. Then Berkhof can be our great companion, and coach, and teacher. He has saved many from the pit of heresy and warmed the hearts of a generation carrying them out of a mundane Christian life.
Listen to the testimony of one, the late Dan de Haan, who taught a large Bible Class of students for years in Atlanta:
I grew up in Michigan. It was there that I met the Lord one lonely evening in my home at the age of fourteen. I remember listening to great sermons in church when I was a boy and going away wondering what God wanted of my life. In the wintertime Lake Michigan would often freeze and I would spend Sunday afternoons out on that frozen ice. I would run out onto the lake, possibly half a mile, and sit all bundled up on a huge snowdrift that had been hardened from the wind. As I would sit there, I would contemplate what God was like.
I would ask questions out loud, often shouting them out. No-one could hear except God. Alone with Him, I would ask, ‘Lord, would you make me like the saints of old? Lord, I want to be like the apostle Paul. How are you going to do that in me?’ I would also ask Him about other things like, ‘Why is there such a large gap between Christians? Why are some committed, while others are not? Why do some love to talk of your dealings with them and others could care less?’ I would often cry out, ‘O God, don’t let me join the ranks of the spiritual dropouts. Don’t let me become careless and bored in my walk with You!’ As I would spend hours at a time talking to God, I was able to see my desire transformed into determination.
Soon after my sixteenth birthday, a man told me to do a study on the character of God. Not knowing where to begin, I went to a Bible bookstore to read chapter after chapter from books on theology. Most of the time I did not even understand what was being said. It was not long before I discovered a book called Systematic Theology, by Louis Berkhof. It caused me to wrestle with some issues, and, as a result, that carried me out of a mundane Christian life. I found myself hungering to know God. I would carry my newfound knowledge out to the ice and ‘pray it through.’ I had more questions than answers, but I was willing to wait. As God would reveal Himself to me, I found His will more of a delight and His Word the enjoyment of my life. Psalm 40:8 became my favorite verse for some time. ‘I delight to do thy will, O my God; Thy law is within my heart.’1
The Life of Louis Berkhof
Louis Berkhof died fifty years ago on May 18, 1957. He was born on October 13 1873 in a small town in the Netherlands. His father was a baker and his family were members of the Christelijke Gereformeerde Kerk, the heirs of the 1834 secession group from the Dutch Reformed Church. In the early 19th century the Dutch Reformed Church had come under state control. In the cabinet a ‘Minister for Religious Matters’ had been appointed and there were few queries in the Christian denomination about such a development; none from its hierarchy. Generations of its ministers had been drinking from the springs of the Enlightenment. It was said that a Muslim would have been welcomed into many pulpits. Yet there was the remnant keeping the faith who were aided by old writers like Brakel.
Then in the 1830s an awakening took place in several countries in Europe, especially in Switzerland, a return to orthodoxy under Monod and the Haldane brothers, César Malan and Merle d’Aubigné. During that period Chalmers was pressing for reform in Scotland and there was a work of God going on there. In Holland God raised up half a dozen young ministers who first worked independently and then were drawn together to challenge the prevailing orthodoxy of the church. They reprinted the Church Order of Dordrecht; they encouraged their congregations to sing metrical psalms. They baptized babies brought to them by parents from neighbouring parishes where the ministers were modernists. The reaction was swift: ministers were deposed and sessions were forbidden to hold worship services.
The people so bereft of their preachers appealed to the king of Holland to whom they had given unqualified allegiance, but no help came from him. In November of 1834 the first congregation seceded from the state church. Their official Act of Secession was entitled the ‘Act of Return’ that is, what they desired was a return to confessional Christianity. This reformation had the following characteristics:
1. It was a deeply spiritual movement. At stake was the truth of the gospel of sin and grace. It united in itself the principles of the Reformation as these were practically applied by the Second Reformation: there was the stress upon a living relationship with Jesus Christ, living out of God’s grace, confessing and experiencing the fulness of salvation. They declared the complete satisfaction and righteousness of the Lord Jesus Christ; they desired the ministry of the word of God and the leading of the Holy Spirit.
These became the subjects for debate in those new congregations. There was no unanimity of thought in how these ideals were to be attained, but there was a brotherhood of concern for and experience in these truths.
2. It was also a spontaneous movement. There was no master plan in moving to secession – there was no widespread strategy to form a new denomination.
The ministers didn’t think of themselves as generals standing around a floodlit map, moving battalions in the form of discs with long sticks from one place to another on a tabletop map. The ministers were foot soldiers. They had no knowledge of God’s strategy and plan for them. They displayed a faithfulness to God in the situations where they had been called to minister.
3. It was a moving of little people more that a preacher-directed movement.
Although the original Secession leaders were capable, dedicated men we don’t find among them any who would he called ‘theological giants’ – men of the stature of Kuyper and Bavinck. These made their appearance in the next generation.
4. The secession had wide political and social ramifications because it was an expression of the first democratic opposition to the heavy-handed rule of King William I. It was a new movement cutting across class lines, uniting rich and poor in one cause – though there were not many who were rich.
Within fifty years the seceding churches had become established, were recognized by the government and had grown to a membership of a little under 200,000 people. A fine seminary had been established, a ministry of mercy had been organised, missionary work had begun. In short, a fully-fledged denomination had developed from these small beginnings which took on the name Christelijke Gereformeerde Kerk [Christian Reformed Church].
Also their own example had encouraged many people who remained within the Dutch Reformed Church to organize themselves as the Reformed Bond or Alliance, an evangelical modality in the big ‘established’ church still existing today. Out of this movement came another separation in 1886, the so-called ‘Doleful Secession’, the Doleantie and its most well-known leader was Abraham Kuyper. There was an uneasy coming together of these two streams in 1892 with some suspicion centring on Kuyper’s views of baptismal regeneration. What Americans were to come out of that movement that are known to us in the United Kingdom, such as Stonehouse, Van Til, R. B. Kuiper, Berkhof, Hendriksen, Kistemaaker, De Witt, Woudstra, Venema and Plantinga!
In the middle of the 19th Century, many from this 1834 secessionist church began to immigrate to the United States, settling primarily in Western Michigan and in Iowa. They initially joined the Reformed Church in America, but when they found that some of the same things which they had struggled against in the Netherlands were evidently there in the R.C.A. they left that fellowship and in 1857 they formed their own denomination. Various name changes were worked through before they settled on the ‘Christian Reformed Church in North America.’
That is the ecclesiastical and theological background to the secessionist family of Louis Berkhof which emigrated in 1881 from the Netherlands to the USA. They settled on the west side of Grand Rapids, Mr. Berkhof continuing his job from the old country as a baker. They as a family joined their local Christian Reformed Church where the worship was in Dutch. In the USA these Dutch became hyphenated Americans, the Dutch-Americans. Berkhof was one of eight children, but four had died before they left for America. Soon after they arrived in Grand Rapids two more died including the only girl. Some years later two other brothers died of tuberculosis, one of whom was as academic and as devout as Louis. Just one brother survived to old age, but Berkhof outlived him. Berkhof had a strong physique; he was a man of big features, tall, dignified, a head of bushy black hair which later became silver.
The Christian Reformed Church was the denomination Louis Berkhof grew up in and served for the rest of his life. There were about forty congregations in America at this time but by 1900 through constant immigration, the Christian school movement, and the evangelization of fellow Dutchmen, the number had risen to 144 churches. As a teenager Berkhof became the secretary of the first Reformed Young Men’s Society to be organized in Grand Rapids. He was fascinated by the world and life view of Calvinism and read widely. These years in that Society gave him a taste for speaking.
When he was nineteen he made a public profession of faith and applied to the Theological School of the C.R.C.. Studies lasted for seven years – four years in a liberal arts department, and three years in a theological department. These departments later divided into Calvin College and Calvin Seminary. Later it was named Calvin Theological Seminary where Berkhof completed his studies in the year 1900. It was during his student years that the Dutch Calvinist patrician Abraham Kuyper came to Grand Rapids on an American tour, speaking at the churches and in the Seminary.
Graduation was followed by his first marriage to Reka which wedding took place in 1900, and soon after the honeymoon the 27 year-old Berkhof accepted a call to his first church in Allendale, Michigan. This pastorate was brief; his academic ability was recognized by the denomination and he was asked to study for two years in Princeton Seminary under Warfield and Geerhardus Vos (whose grandson Mel studied with me at Westminster Seminary in 1962). Vos was regarded by the C.R.C. as one of their own. He had actually taught theology in that Grand Rapids seminary for five years before going on to Princeton in 1893. Vos left behind his unpublished lectures in dogmatics which Berkhof undoubtedly used. Berkhof learned his biblical theology from Vos. He said that he owed more to Vos than anyone else for his insights into biblical theology. Bavinck was his other role model, and he had a unique attraction in Berkhof’s eyes of coming from the same part of the Netherlands as Berkhof.
In 1904 Berkhof returned from Princeton to Grand Rapids and he became the pastor of the Oakdale Park C.R.C.. He was a very good singer, and quite a dramatic preacher with beautiful command of language both in Dutch and English. A sermon of his on the New Jerusalem became rooted in the hearts of those who heard it. A book of his sermons was published.
During this time he took correspondence courses in philosophy from the University of Chicago, but that was the end of his external post-graduate studies. He never pursued university studies any further and did not gain a doctorate. Soon his name was put forward in the C.R.C. for its new chair of exegetical theology. He was not appointed as professor that first time in 1902, but in 1906 he was elected to that chair by a large majority and so began his thirty-eight-year-long career as a professor of theology. Berkhof was confronted with the pulpit needs of a denomination of 150 congregations, a third of whom did not have a pastor. This denomination insisted that the Heidelberg Catechism be preached all the year round, dividing it up into 52 sections for each Sunday of the year. So it was more important than in certain other denominations that C.R.C. preachers had an all-pervasive grasp of dogmatics. That teaching was initially provided by a colleague of Berkhof in the theology department, Foppe Ten Hoor, who had been lecturing exclusively in the Dutch language from 1900 until the end of his teaching career in 1924. Then Clarence Bouma taught the course in English for a couple of years, though his main interest was in apologetics.
Berkhof himself was perfectly bilingual, but at that time the C.R.C. was paying little attention to its American environment. Their eyes and ears were more attuned to what was happening back in the Netherlands. The challenge for Berkhof, wrote Dr. Fred Klooster (who was one of his notable successors in the chair of systematic theology at Calvin Seminary), was ‘to confront the demands of Americanization while he instructed his students in the precious Reformed heritage.’2 But he does not tell us whether Berkhof thought like that or attempted to so and whether he had any success. One surmises that the American background against which his theological teaching took place was the preponderance of Baptists in comparison to Holland, widespread Arminianism and the all-pervasive Scofield Bible with its dispensational, pre-millennial view of prophecy, a system of the Christian religion which covered the USA and was soon to challenge the C.R.C. itself.
So the 33 year-old Berkhof settled into his lifetime work. For his first eight years in the Seminary he headed the Biblical Studies department teaching Old and New Testament Introduction, History, Exegesis, Hebrew and Greek. The classes were small and so he was expected to serve the denomination in other ways. He was always preaching here and there; he was a contributor to the two denominational papers, in Dutch De Wachter and in English The Banner, and also other periodicals read by the Dutch Reformed in North America such as the Calvin Forum and the Reformed American (a Dutch publication). He published three pamphlets during this time and a book on hermeneutics written in Dutch and published by the notable Dutch publisher J. H. Kok. An English edition finally appeared in 1950 containing the grammatical-historical-theological method of biblical exegesis.
The Church and Social Problems
In 1913 his first publication in English appeared, The Church and Social Problems. Dr Fred Klooster considers it to be still an important statement on this subject and vigorously written. There were those in the C.R.C. who wanted nothing to do with politics, but Berkhof, under the influence of Kuyper, wanted to see the rule of God spreading over every sphere of life. but how could that be accomplished in the USA? The professing church in 1913 was at one of its many crossroads, with the First World War looming up ahead, liberalism dominant both in Europe and in the New England states, and the social gospel at its peak. Berkhof reminded his readers of four revolutions that forced the churches’ response to this issue of social reform:
■ The French Revolution with its stress on individual rights, social class and distinction.
■ Then the Industrial Revolution which had brought in machines to replace workers, while industry, being centralized in the cities, increased social problems.
■ Then the Marxist Revolution which reacted against the rank individualism of the age and sought to reorganize society, and create a panacea for all social evils under state control while also promoting a new morality for the working class.
■ Finally the Educational Revolution was making education available to all, but at the same time heightening the people’s awareness of widespread social injustice.
Berkhof didn’t approve of socialism but he appreciated the place of the labour movement and trade unions, recreation centres and efforts to promote social justice. The church must not neglect its calling to reach the poor. Though all agreed with that concern not much seemed to be done.
Why was the church failing? Seven reasons were suggested:
1. The church sanctioned the existing social order by favouring the rich, helping capitalism to subjugate the working class.
2. While the labouring world cried out for justice, the church preached a gospel of contentment.
3. Remaining aloof from the suffering masses, the church brought them neither hope nor comfort.
4. The church had abandoned the inner city and fled to the suburbs.
5. The church discouraged reform movements and criticized those who did the work she neglected.
6. Focusing exclusively on the salvation of the individual, the church showed little concern for the social renewal that ought to follow.
7. The church preached an other-worldly gospel which did not touch the realities of everyday life. In a word, ‘to the hungry she preaches that the righteous shall live by faith; to the homeless that God is the eternal dwelling-place for all his people. It seems like mockery.’
Berkhof then looked at how these problems were tackled by Rome, the Anabaptists and the proponents of the social gospel, and he was uneasy with all their counsels. What is the gospel church’s response to the society and the people amongst whom she lives where she functions as light and salt? We have to learn from Calvin, Knox and Kuyper, Berkhof said, and he urged a six-fold programme:
1. Since society cannot be renewed without individual renewal, the church must promote a healthy spiritual life for all her members. That is the indispensable first step. Fail here and there is nothing the church has to give to the world. The salt must not lose its savour.
2. The pulpit must proclaim the social message of Scripture and seek the realization of the kingdom of God on earth, thus avoiding both the danger of exclusive other-worldliness and the danger of simply becoming a platform for sociology. The cross and kingdom are not alternatives, for the kingdom is to be founded on the cross.
3. There is no place for social injustice, social sin, or social misery within the church itself; the church must exemplify the gospel in her deeds, since actions speak louder than words.
4. The church may not neglect the inner city or ghetto; missionaries have pointed out that many American cities are worse than cities in pagan lands.
5. The church must carefully study the issues and take an informed stand on social reform. To that end every denomination should have a standing committee of experts to study current social problems and propose biblical solutions; and theological seminaries should have a required course in social ethics so that future ministers may be alert to their kingdom responsibilities.
6. The church should encourage its members to promote independent Christian organizations that advance the kingdom of God in the various areas of life – social, economic, political. In such ways, Berkhof suggested, Christians will become ‘the leaven permeating the lump, God’s spiritual force for the regeneration of the world, his chosen agents to influence every sphere of life, to bring science and art, commerce and industry in subjection to God.’ So we have that Kuyperian separatist note calling for Christians to organize on a distinctively Christian basis.
For a booklet written almost a hundred years ago it is impressive, certainly the best statement on that theme produced in the USA in the first half of the 20th century and coming from an unknown seminary in the heart of Michigan attached to a church which was then still 90 per cent Dutch language in its services and schools. Berkhof had read widely; he knew contemporary American theological literature. He knew the situation that Christians faced in Chicago, one of the greatest cities in the world, which was not far from them on the shores of the same Lake Michigan. The First World War shattered the dreams of modernism and the social gospel and those were Berkhof’s counsels.
I suppose one’s misgivings with his book are not in his interesting counsels or suggestions but in his lack of emphasis, even confidence, on the means of grace in the structure of the local congregation to bring Jesus Christ and his saving gospel to the people who lived around. Consider the extraordinary influence of Wesley on the miners of Kingswood, the citizens of London and Newcastle in the 18th century, or the influence of Daniel Rowland, Howell Harris and Thomas Charles over the rural heartland of Wales, or the impact of M’Cheyne on the city of Dundee and Chalmers on Glasgow. That influence came primarily by the gospel of the whole counsel of God – Berkhof’s gospel – preached and lived out among them by the power of the Holy Spirit. Structures to minister grace and mercy naturally developed from the embrace of that gospel. It was suggested forty years ago that the binding of Berkhof’s work on social problems along with his Systematic Theology would have presented an all-round Christianity in one volume. But forty years later such a suggestion does not seem very attractive in the light of the explosion of books presenting various Christian responses to the economic and social malaise of our world.
One particular conviction of Louis Berkhof was that it was not legitimate for Christians in the C.R.C. to become members of religiously neutral trade unions. The synod debated that idea at length and did not entirely agree with its respected professor, addressing Christians thus, ‘If your job requires you be in membership of a trade union then witness powerfully by word and deed that you belong to Christ and seek his honour first of all.’ That is the only time the C.R.C. and Berkhof were not in agreement.
Three important theological controversies
During the First World War a new professor of Old Testament was appointed to Calvin Seminary so that Berkhof henceforth taught New Testament exclusively in the Biblical Studies department. During the next decade three theological issues were raised and Berkhof’s counsel was sought on each of them.
1. The first was dispensational premillennialism. A C.R.C. minister named Harry Bultema wrote a book called Maranatha: A Study on Unfulfilled Prophecy in the year 1917 and Berkhof was invited to respond by giving a public lecture. He expressed his appreciation for the high view of Scripture and belief in the doctrine of the second coming of Christ which these men taught, but he pointed out what were some major objections to pre-millennialism – its view that the Old Testament was a dispensation of law while the New Testament was a dispensation of grace, its belief in a secret rapture followed by the thousand-year kingdom of Christ on earth during which time the elect were in heaven, their return with Christ after the 1000 years, a second resurrection, the total separation of Israel and the church, and the distinction between the kingdom and the church in the New Testament. Berkhof believed from Vos that the church is the form the Kingdom took after the death and resurrection of Christ.
Berkhof was asked to publish his address in Dutch and in June 1918 the C.R.C. Synod judged Bultema’s pre-millennial dispensational views to be in conflict both with Scripture and with the Reformed confessions especially on the issues of Israel and the church, and the church and the kingdom. Bultema was deposed and he went on to found the Berean church in his home town.
2. The second controversy arose through the teaching of the man who had been invited to teach Old Testament in the place of Berkhof, Dr. Janssen. It became evident that he was teaching higher-critical views of the Old Testament. He believed in the Graf-Wellhausen theory of multiple authorship of the Pentateuch. He had studied in Halle where Wellhausen had taught. Three of his colleagues as well as Berkhof reported him to the trustees of the Seminary and Berkhof wrote a pamphlet on his views. These professors had read the notes of his lectures and they charged Janssen with denying the Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch, the historicity of biblical miracles, and the messianic significance of Old Testament passages. The controversy lasted a year; it was bitter. Janssen was deposed in 1922 and a few ministers left with him, but there was no schism in the C.R.C.
3. Thirdly there was another major controversy two years later when the formidable Herman Hoeksema and Henry Danhof rejected the doctrine of common grace. Abraham Kuyper had promoted it excessively in Holland, writing a three-volume work on the subject, but for Hoeksema grace could not be grace unless it effectually redeemed those who were its recipients. In 1924 the synod of the C.R.C. declared its position on the existence of a general or common grace to all men, a restraint of sin by the general work of the Holy Spirit, and the ability of unregenerate persons to perform civic good although unable to perform any saving good. Berkhof was not involved in the dispute before the synod acted but afterwards he published a pamphlet in Dutch underlining the importance of the synod’s statements. The disciplining of Hoeksema and Danhof led to others leaving the C.R.C. and a new mini-denomination was established, the Protestant Reformed Church.
Berkhof’s section on common grace in his Systematic Theology (pp. 432ff) is very helpful as far as it goes, but it fails to deal with other aspects of Hoeksema’s position, his denial of the general love of God for all men, and his sincere offer of salvation to them all, so that there is a tension between the two wills of God, the secret determining the salvation of the elect and the revealed will in which God declares that it is not his will that any should perish but that all men should repent and believe in Christ, so that all men without exception are sincerely offered Jesus Christ and implored to receive his salvation. You will not find sympathy in Berkhof for the free offer expressed in such a way; you must go to John Murray for that. That absence from his section on the will of God (pp. 76-81) I could dub the one example of ‘scholasticism’ in Berkhof which I would recognize (if we are going to throw around that word at all), but his supporters would respond by calling John Murray’s position on two seemingly conflicting wills in God ‘scholasticism.’ Maybe we ought to drop that theological swear word and deal with particular issues exegetically. A public debate on the theme of common grace held in Grand Rapids today would draw a thousand people – as it did two years ago.
So those were the three controversies in which Berkhof was involved, but the public discussion and the biblical arguments put forth and the determination that neither dispensationalism, modernism nor hyper-Calvinism was going to pick off churches one by one brought about peace and unity in the denomination for many years. In other words, there were no individual congregations which were allowed to have their own distinctive pulpits teaching pre-millennialism or hyperism or higher criticism and that was a considerable achievement. After his days, the denomination became broader with the resulting and inevitable secessions of congregations, new denominations, seminaries and magazines founded. The approval of the ordination of women in the C.R.C. synod in 2007 was passed with scarcely a murmur of protest.
Berkhof himself was no fighter; he disliked controversy, and his positive attitude to the Christian ministry was recognized by the church. In 1919, when he was 46 years of age he was invited to become the president of Calvin Seminary and the editor of the Dutch church paper, but Berkhof refused them both. He did give the Stone Lectures at Princeton in 1921 on the Kingdom of God. It happened to be the year Warfield died, and three years before John Murray began his studies there. In 1926 Berkhof finally attained what he had long hoped for, and that was to be appointed the professor of dogmatics. For the next eighteen years he taught systematic theology to all the men entering the C.R.C. and for that singular achievement he will always be remembered. In 1931 he became the first president of Calvin Theological Seminary after twenty-five years of teaching in that school. It was, incidentally, the year after John Murray began teaching Systematic Theology alongside Machen at Westminster Theological Seminary. In his inauguration address Berkhof compared Calvin Seminary with other seminaries which had been influenced by the development of liberalism since Schleiermacher, and the rise of the social gospel under Rauschenbusch. ‘Academic freedom’ had been the cry of seminary and denominational leadership as men broke away from confessions, the trust deeds of the institutions concerned, from church control and the final authority of Scripture. That revolution was shown in those seminaries’ move from systematic theology to practical theology, and from the ordo salutis to social concern. Berkhof made this statement of intent in his lecture,
We accept the Reformed system of truth which was handed down to us by previous generations, attempt to exhibit it in all its comprehensiveness and in all its beauty and logical consistency, seek to defend it against all opposing systems, and endeavour to carry it forward to still greater perfection.’
The final thirteen years of his seminary career resulted in the publication of many of the lectures that he had given over the years. In 1927 William Hendriksen and a friend transcribed many of Berkhof’s lectures; Berkhof himself added an outline of the remainder of his course and this was produced in a three-volume mimeographed syllabus in 1932 entitled Dogmatics. The first of these three volumes was his ‘Introduction’ which until recently had been printed separately from the Systematic Theology, but now is printed with it in the USA as it was originally in that old mimeographed form of 80 years ago. Richard Muller considers it to be a better prolegomena than Bavinck’s as it incorporates more recent studies of the theological method. In 1941 Systematic Theology was enlarged into the 784 pages of what it is today3. In the past 65 years several hundred thousand copies have been sold. That Systematics of Berkhof together with The Valley of Vision, a book of Puritan prayers,4 have become the unlikely duo which are the best selling books of the Banner of Truth. The Systematic Theology has been translated into Spanish, Portuguese, Chinese, Japanese, and Korean.
One criticism by American Reformed preachers of the Systematic Theology fifty years ago was that it was already dated because it did not interact very much with neo-orthodoxy. It was considered an old-fashioned work then, and yet what has dated as much as the dialectic theology of Barth and Brunner? Consider the new works on Systematic Theology: Robert Reymond’s 1998 work is titled A New Systematic Theology and how many references to Karl Barth does Reymond make? Ten, and to Emil Brunner? Four. Or consider Wayne Grudem’s Systematic Theology. How many references to Karl Barth are there in his 1264 pages? Precisely three, and to Emil Brunner, just one footnote. How quickly neo-orthodoxy has fizzled out. Its failure to produce any preachers is an indictment against a system claiming to be the theology of the Word of God. How many references to Karl Barth are in Berkhof’s Systematic Theology? Thirty-one, and to Emil Brunner, fifteen. They are judicious references to the thoughts of those men on the central doctrines of the Christian faith. Neo-orthodoxy does not lend itself to simple summarization.
Other smaller theological texts of Berkhof aimed for Christian schools and colleges were duly written and have never been out of print; they are the Manual of Christian Doctrine and the Summary of Christian Doctrine. They have been translated into a number of languages. The Manual has recently (2003) been reprinted attractively in a large illustrated paperback edition by the Christian Liberty Press. The Banner of Truth has reset the typeface of the Summary in an equally attractive presentation.5 So Berkhof’s influence by his books has reached far more people than the teacher Berkhof personally edified through his lectures. He taught just 300 men in total; Charles Hodge on the other hand taught 3000 men during his fifty years at Princeton. Incidentally Berkhof refers to Hodge just twice in his Systematic Theology.
Henry Zwaanstra describes the final trials of theological students a hundred years ago:
For many years candidates for the ministry were examined by the synod before being declared eligible for the ministry. In these examinations each candidate was questioned for twenty minutes on the introduction (prolegomena) to Reformed theology and for another twenty minutes on each of the six loci of systematic theology. After sustaining the synodical examination, a candidate had to submit to a similar examination in systematic theology at the classical level before being ordained to the ministry. In these examinations Berkhof’s Systematic Theology provided both the basis for the questions and the content for the correct answers.6
There is no secret that Berkhof was very dependent on Herman Bavinck’s four volumes of Reformed Dogmatics. Bavinck was Berkhof’s role model as a theologian and identified with all his teaching. In 1932, in the preface which Berkhof wrote to the first edition of his Systematics he acknowledged, ‘the general plan of the work is based on that of the first volume of Dr. Bavinck’s Reformed Dogmatics.’ Berkhof was dependent on Bavinck for most of the theologians he refers to and on whose views he makes any comment. His scriptural references are taken from Bavinck but he does cite many more. He literally reproduces Bavinck’s words and phrases. All that is well known; but Dr. Ernest Kevan at the London Bible College detected an inordinate use of Shedd in Berkhof and grumbled to his students about this. I am unsure of such a dependence.
So Bavinck has been criticized for a repristination of 17th century dogmatics. It is a common enough criticism; we have been dubbed ‘neo-puritans’ but the label has never stuck. Orthodox theology does not belong to any one period. Contemporary theology ought to agree basically with theology of earlier periods or it will soon become the unbought, dusty volumes of the second-hand bookshops. As the old saying goes, ‘If it is true it is not new; if it is new it is not true.’ Of course there are areas in which Berkhof chose not to get involved, or felt that he was incompetent to make a weighted contribution, such as the covenant, election and infant baptism, membership in the church and in the kingdom.
The charge of ‘scholastic’ may come from Berkhof’s approach to theology, beginning with the doctrine of God, and then it seems to follow an order that is not only logical but also deductive, deriving all further doctrines from the divine nature, specifically the divine decrees (cp. McCoy, Daane and Muller). The attributes of God are dealt with first, followed by God’s triune nature (though the advantages of such an approach are considerable, it seems to be the way that Scripture itself presents God to its readers, and it is hard to see a better way of expounding the doctrine of God). Berkhof insisted that theology cannot be based on any speculation and is never speculative in any deductive way.7
If there is some criticism of Berkhof’s Systematic Theology it is that the note of doxology needs to be searched for. He also assumes a familiarity with Latin and the frequent Latinisms slow down the reader. Also the type-face is small, but how valuable it is. Almost fifty years ago when it was first printed in England what an impact it made. Until then there was T. C. Hammond’s In Understanding Be Men, a much briefer summary of doctrine, and in my judgment tougher to read and not as lucid as Berkhof. Then this volume appeared, strong and assertive like the Bible itself. How many hundreds of ministers in the United Kingdom were gripped by it and learned their theology from it and taught it to their congregations!
Going through the considerable archives of Berkhof last year in the splendid library of Calvin Theological Seminary I was struck by the immense energy of the man. He retired at 70 years of age (as the rules of the denomination required) in the year 1944, and so there are very few former ministers alive today who can recount sitting in his classes and listening to him lecture. He was to live for another 13 productive years, and constantly writing. About a third of his work was produced during this period of his life. I went through the back issues of the weekly Banner magazine and read his reviews of such books as Berkouwer’s The Work of Christ, O. T. Allis’ Unity of Isaiah, the Westminster Seminary Symposium, The Infallible Word and some books written by Carl Henry. Then I read his reviews of the reprints of A. A. Hodge on the Atonement and his Outlines of Theology8, and the five volumes of the Works of Warfield (P&R), Gill’s Body of Divinity, Denney’s Death of Christ. They are measured, respectful and enthusiastic reviews.
There were hundreds of devotional and theological articles. A series of six on ‘The Preacher, his Training and Task,’ three on ‘Man as the Crown of God’s Creation,’ and seven articles on ‘Practical Christianity.’ He writes in 1932 at the appearance of a work of Dr. J. Gresham Machen, ‘I rejoice in the publication of this work. It is just one more sign that God still has a number of people in the Presbyterian Church who have not bowed the knee to Baal.’ He wrote constantly from 1898 until 1957. At 80 years of age he was still writing a weekly article in English and Dutch for the two church papers. His book on the second coming appeared in his 80th year.
Louis Berkhof’s first wife Reka died in 1928. They had two sons and four daughters and as the years went by Berkhof became the grandfather of nineteen grandchildren. He remarried about four years later Dena Heyns, the widow of a missionary to the Navajo Indians. She was a music teacher in the Christian schools of Grand Rapids, a composer of a pageant with hundreds of voices. Berkhof had met her in various Christian functions and so one day he wrote to her, a very formal letter requesting an appointment to see her.
Dena was shocked. How could she refuse meeting such a famous figure in their church? She had loved his preaching for years, but she thought of him as an elderly man, and she considered herself a young woman. She was early forties and he was about sixty. She told Berkhof he could come to her home.
They talked at length until he finally said, ‘I would like to become better acquainted with you. You are a person whose company I think I could thoroughly enjoy, one who has lived in a manse and therefore can converse with a minister of the gospel, one who loves music, art and culture as I do; and last but not least, you are a teacher and a mother who understands children. Through our companionship we could learn to enjoy each other and learn to know each other better – which in time could grow into loving one another. I think you would understand what would then follow?’
Thus he left her presence and Dena was sleepless that night, resorting to a few aspirins. It was a time when her mother was dying, and her sister and her children were in dire distress and moving into her home. Then, of all times, Louis Berkhof began his courtship. He came to pick her up for their first date. He had promised her that he would take her somewhere worthwhile. She had played it safe choosing to wear a long evening gown.
Where was she taken? He took her to Calvin Seminary and when they entered the building some of the students who knew her came up and talked to her.
Berkhof went to his office and the students began to question her, more and more frankly until one asked, ‘When will the wedding take place?’ She looked aghast mumbling, ‘This is only a date.’ Berkhof returned from his office and took her arm and led her to the chapel. That is how the story, as she tells it, abruptly ends, except that in the following July they were married in that chapel and then went to New York for their honeymoon.
Dena Berkhof was a marvellous hostess and counsellor of seminary students’ wives. She wrote a column ‘Woman’s World’ in the Banner and he checked what she had written though never telling her what to write. They attended symphony concerts – the annual performance of the Messiah by Calvin College; they both listened to baseball on the radio and later on the television and went to the occasional baseball game, playing drafts in the evenings (Americans call it ‘checkers’) and taking rides into the Michigan countryside. She was the driver since he had had some accidents and didn’t like to drive. He would come down from his study later in the evening with his book and pipe and would read and listen to music. Dena was the only one he trusted to dust his books because she didn’t mix them up. She was badly hurt in a car accident resulting in her spending some months in a cast in hospital and Louis was a constant support to his wife. They were married for twenty-three years. She says, ‘Socially, he had his difficulties, but in this instance I think my influence had a great effect making social life more enjoyable to him.’ She said, ‘All the praise that was written concerning him I have come to know was justified. True, he could be adamant and positive where a principle was involved but for him as a loving and tender husband I thank God fervently for the wonderful years we had together.’ She lived until she was 93, spending her last years with her daughter Joanne, the wife of pastor Peter Y. De Jong in Sioux Center, Iowa.
In the last years of his life, Berkhof began to fail, becoming thinner, his face losing its colour, but he never complained. He died quite unexpectedly in Blodlett Hospital on a Saturday morning, and the following week there was a packed church for the funeral service. The sermon was on the text from Hebrews 13:7 and 8, ‘Remember them which have the rule over you, who have spoken unto you the word of God: whose faith follow, considering the end of their conversation. Jesus Christ, the same yesterday, and today and for ever.’ William Eerdman had asked him to write an autobiography but he declined to do so saying he wouldn’t like to write ‘I did this, and I did that’, but the brief biographical essays written by Fred Klooster and Henry Zwaanstra9 provide everything an inquirer into his good life would need to know.
The Lessons of His Life
1. Let’s learn from Berkhof’s perseverance. Steady, faithful work that looked to the Lord for blessing, producing powerful, cumulative results in the end, many books that will never go out of print. Imagine, lecturing to just 300 men in total, but finally over 200,000 people have bought his Systematic Theology. Let us emulate his perseverance.
2. Let’s learn from Berkhof’s peace-making. Yes, there were times when he had to defend the truth, and lost friends in the process. But for the main, Berkhof was irenic through and through. This made him an effective leader, surrounded with many friends. Though he seemed awkward at times in social situations, his peace-making skills and the service he rendered to his church merit vast respect. Let us emulate him as a peace-maker!
3. Let’s learn from Berkhof’s prodigiousness. What a corpus of work he has left behind, carefully catalogued in those books (for example, in addition to titles already mentioned there is his The History of Christian Doctrines10), folders and bound volumes of church magazines. There was no duty too small for him to refuse. If he had had a word-processor what might he have achieved then!
4. Let’s learn from Berkhof’s purity of life. In his family, congregational life, relationship with his students, generosity to those who served God in other denominations and traditions, he was modest and self-deprecating, conscious that his work was not original, but that he had seized the best role models God in his providence had brought into his life. He sought to bring to the New World the best experiential teaching of the Old World that had been of such immense usefulness in his father’s family. He believed the English-speaking world could profit from it, and he would serve the truth to that end.
- Dan de Haan, The God You Can Know (Moody Press, 1982), pp. 37-38.
- Walter A. Elwell, Handbook of Evangelical Theologians, ‘Louis Berkhof’, p. 99.
A Collection of Puritan Prayers & Devotions
‘Berkhof’ – it has a certain ring of defiance about it, an abbreviation for an almost 1,000 page volume of systematic theology which is considered a touchstone of orthodoxy, but . . . ‘surely a bit out of date’ . . . ‘Dutch’ . . . ‘not a note about revival’ . . . ‘rather […]
- Henry Zwaanstra, Reformed Theology in America (1997), ‘Louis Berkhof,’ pp. 149-150.
- See Richard Muller’s ‘Preface’ to the new edition of Berkhof’s Systematic Theology which includes his ‘Introduction’, (pp.v-viii).
- Reformed Theology in America, ed. David Wells (1997), ‘Louis Berkhof’, pp. 133-153.
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