Dr. J. Faber[1] MODERN TRENDS IN CHRISTOLOGY: THE PERSON OF JESUS IN H. BERKHOF'S CHRISTOLOGY - Dr. J. Faber

Index

"Modern Trends in Theology" is the topic of a series of addresses by members of the Faculty at the anniversary meetings of our Theological College. This year the professor of dogmatology has to make some remarks about a development that is taking place in the field of his studies in the twentieth century. You will understand that I have to restrict myself. To my teaching charge in the College belong courses in philosophy, encyclopaedia, symbolics, dogmatics, ethics, and contemporary theology. Of these disciplines, tonight we make a choice for dogmatics, the study of the doctrine of the church in its contents; and within dogmatics we confine ourselves to one locus or chapter, namely, Christology, the doctrine about Christ. We do so for two reasons. In the first place, Christology was the topic of the lectures in dogmatics during the last semester of the past academic year, and the graduates of tonight may regard my address as the farewell lecture of their professor of dogmatics. In the second place, I saw in Eerdmans' catalogue that in the Fall of this year of our Lord 1979 a book will be published entitled Incarnation and Myth: The Debate Continued.[2]In 1977 a symposium of British scholars had challenged the traditional doctrine of the incarnation under the provocative title, The Myth of God Incarnate.'[3] The incarnation is the wonderful fact of redemption in which the Son of God assumed true human nature. The catholic church confesses in the so-called Nicene Creed that the Lord Jesus Christ is the unique Son of God, begotten of the Father before all worlds; God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God; begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father, by Whom all things were made. This Son of God came down from heaven for us men and for our salvation, and was incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the virgin Mary, and was made man.

This doctrine of the incarnation, of the Word become flesh, is opposed by the authors of The Myth of God Incarnate. The editor, John Hick, alleges in his preface that

    the pressure upon Christianity is as strong as ever to go on adapting itself into something which can be believed-believed by honest and thoughtful people who are deeply attracted by the figure of Jesus and by the light which his teaching throws upon the meaning of human life. . . . The need arises from . . . a recognition that Jesus was . . . 'a man approved by God' for a special role within the divine purpose, and that the later conception of him as God Incarnate, the Second Person of the Holy Trinity living a human life, is a mythological or poetic way of expressing his significance for us.[4]

It will be clear what this quotation means. It propagates a modern Christianity without a real incarnation. Jesus was, surely, a man "intensely and overwhelmingly conscious of the reality of God,"[5] "the man of universal destiny,"[6] but, nevertheless, He was nothing but man. Says Hick:

The Nicene definition of God-the-Son incarnate is only one way of conceptualizing the lordship of Jesus, the way taken by the Graeco-Roman world. . . . In the new age of world ecumenism which we are entering it is proper for Christians to become conscious of the reality of . . . the mythological character of this traditional language. [7]

Also in 1977, a collection of essays appeared in response, entitled The Truth of God Incarnate, under the editorship of Michael Green[8] In the summer of 1978 a colloquy was held between the authors of The Myth of God Incarnate and a group of their leading critics, and the new book Incarnation and Myth is the result of that discussion.

But rather than enter into an analysis of these essays of Anglican theologians, we direct our attention to the standard work of a Dutch Reformed dogmatician. Eerdmans' Fall catalogue also announces that in November a book will be published, entitled Christian Faith: An Intro

duction to the Study of the Faith, by Hendrikus Berkhof, translated by Sierd Woudstra. [9] Berkhof is a well-known Leiden professor, active in the World Council of Churches and the World Alliance of Reformed Churches; he has lectured and published in America as well as in Europe; he is one of the important theological spokesmen of our day-and an able one.

Because I foresee that this dogmatic work will have an impact in America, I would like to make some remarks about the Christology (the doctrine about Christ) in the dogmatics of Hendrikus Berkhof and, even more restricted, about the person of Jesus in Berkhof's Christology. Who is Jesus?


Framework

Let us first place this chapter within the whole context of Berkhof's dogmatics, or, rather, his study of the Christian faith. Berkhof does not favor the term dogmatics, because, in his opinion, it smacks of authoritarianism. In line with Schleiermacher he speaks of geloofsleer, doctrine of faith, and he defines it as "a systematic consideration of the content of the relationship which God in Christ has entered into with us."[10] God has entered into a relationship with us; there is an encounter between God and man, in which God takes the initiative; but it unfolds itself into a real, two-sided covenant. Openbaring als gebeuren, revelation as event, revelation as history, or as historicity in the modern, existentialist sense, is a dominant theme in Berkhof's thought. Revelation is ontinoetingsgebeuren, an event of encounter between God and man.[11] Berkhof's personalist thinking is drenched with the idea of history as an evolutionist process, a history of salvation or renewal in which God and man are involved in mutual partnership.

This personalist way of thinking manifests itself in Berkhof's doctrine of God and of Christ. He abhors an abstract concept of God and wants to discern God's perfections from the encounter with God in history.[12] modern man does not think in categories of substance or essence, but in functions and relations. The early Church had a Greek way of thinking, that is, a static way of thinking. Today our way of thinking is primarily "functional." We do not ask, "What is this thing?" but, "How does it work?" or "What is its use?" The same approach as in Berkhof's doctrine of God we see in his Christology. In 1973 he published a series of radio-lectures, entitled Hedendaagse vragen in de Christologie (Contemporary Questions in Christology).[13] There Berkhof put over against each other verbondsmatig versus ontologisch spreken, a covenantal way of expressing the doctrine of Christ over against an ontological manner. The early church transformed the covenantal language of the Bible

(expressions like "Messiah," "servant of God," "Son of God," "son of man") into the ontological language of Hellenism ("two natures in one person").[14] When in church history the Biblical encounter thinking was transformed into an ontological way of thinking, two natures came to oppose one another in Jesus. Much was lost, and, in Berkhof's opinion, this ontological language of the councils of Nicea and Chalcedon is no instrument anymore for personal faith of modern, functionally thinking man. Biblical language is closer to modern thought, for in the center of Biblical and of modern thinking are relations rather than substances.


Berkhof's Christology

In his main work, Christian Faith, Berkhof places the chapter about Christ immediately after the chapter about Israel, the unfaithful covenant partner. He entitles it "Jesus the Son," and begins with a paragraph about the historical Jesus. This is the approach from below (not a vertical but a horizontal Christology); first of all, according to Berkhof, we have to apply the method of all historical research. But this historical research cannot empirically prove that God was present in Jesus. The main question is: what does faith see in this Jesus? What does faith say that He is? What about the title "Son of God"? Berkhof stresses that this name, "Son of God," was not exclusive. Sonship is a concept from the history of salvation. Jesus as the Son of God is not merely a vertical incident in the history of Israel and of mankind. The king of Israel was .'son of God." The term "son of God" is taken from the covenantal relationship of mutual love and-as far as man is concerned--of obedience. Also Jesus' sonship, according to Berkhof, is situated in this covenant tradition. Jesus is the obedient and therefore beloved covenant partner. Jesus as Son of God is the liberating answer to the previous history of the covenant. In the history of Israel God searched for the obedient son, but He did not find him.

We now come to that which is basic for Berkhof's concept of Jesus as the Son of God. He says, God Himself had to provide the true man, the faithful covenant partner. This new beginning from above is called "Jesus." He finally fulfils the sonship. He is the Son par excellence, not as the climax of human religious purity, but in virtue of a new creative act of God. Therefore, between Father and Son there is not only a covenantal relation, but also a relation of origin; there is a new covenantal relationship based on a unique relationship of origin. In this sense, Jesus is the son, the "only-begotten" Son.[15]

Berkhof once ended a lecture for the World Alliance of Reformed Churches with the following personal confession to Jesus:

You are the true Man, as God has intended you from the beginning; the true, obedient Son, the man of love who, accepting all consequences, was willing not to keep but to lose his life for others, and who, by this exceptional life of love and obedience, has started the counter-movement of resurrection in this world.

And as the true Man, you are also the Man of the Future. You are not just a strange exception, for then you would only be an accusation against us. God has given you as the Pioneer and Forerunner, as the Guarantee that through your sacrifice, your resurrection, and your spirit, the future is opened for us, obstinate and enslaved people.[16]

Does this confession not sound truly Christian? Does it not move the heart of any believer? But let us be careful! Does Berkhof confess, with the catholic church, Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, begotten of the Father before all worlds; God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God? No, we are compelled, he says, "to situate the unicity of Jesus within his humanness and not to reduce it to the possession of a dual nature." [17] Jesus' unicity is situated within His humanness; we may not derive it from a kind of dual nature, human and divine. There was no pre-existence of Jesus; He did not exist before His birth. But you will ask: what then about the prologue of the gospel according to John? When, it is simply the "word" from Genesis 1, which is again creatively going forth in the coming of Jesus.[18] Berkhof does not do justice to the majestic proclamation: "The Word was with God and the Word was God," and he does not even mention the prayer of our Lord Jesus Christ in which He spoke about the glory which He had with the Father before the world was made (Jn. 17:5).

And what about Philippians 2:5-7, those well-known words about Christ Jesus, Who, though He was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself, taking the form of a servant? Well, Berkhof does not believe that in Christ Jesus the second Person of the Trinity has assumed human nature. He simply sees here a parallel with rabbinic and Jewish Hellenist patterns that depict the means of revelation as pre-existent, in order to express their divine content and eternal significance. In Philippians 2, according to Berkhof, Paul uses mythological language to magnify the divine initiative manifest in Christ's work. We are bound to the thrust rather than to the mythical phraseology. In passing, we notice that Berkhof holds a view of Scripture that widely differs from the Reformed confession about Holy Writ.

Berkhof further acknowledges that in a few cases (Jn. 20:28; Tit. 2:13; 1 Jn. 5:20) Jesus is called "God" because of the strong union of God and man in Him, and in order to pinpoint His unicity and instrumentality with respect to us. But the Lord Jesus is, in essence, not God; He is not of one substance with the Father; only a covenantal functionality is expressed when the name "God" is used a few times for Jesus in the New Testament.

It is clear that Berkhof's Christology only acknowledges Jesus' humanness. Certainly, Jesus is the Son by virtue of a new creative act of God but He is not God's Son from all eternity. Jesus is man, the perfect man of the covenant, the New Man, the eschatological man, living in an unprecedented union with God. God does not supplant the human person of Jesus but permeates it with His Spirit by virtue of the perfect covenantal relationship.[19] Rather than to speak of an in- personal human nature of Christ, Berkhof would speak of an in-personal Logos: the Word finds its personal center in the man Jesus.

John A.T. Robinson, the famous Anglican bishop, not only wrote Honest to God, but also the book, The Human Face of God (1973), in which he discussed the sexuality of Jesus. If we do not regard Jesus as a deity in human garb, Berkhof says, we must dare to say: indeed, Jesus was a milord just as I am, and, nevertheless, wholly different, completely filled with love toward God and man, and therefore as milord at the same time "my Lord."[20] But Berkhof does not add what Thomas confessed: My Lord and my God (In. 20:28).


Four Remarks

Let me make four systematic remarks about Berkhof's doctrine of the person of Jesus and then end with an application.

1. If we consider modern trends in Christology, we can classify them according to the decree of Chalcedon. In Chalcedon (451) it was said:

    We confess ... one and the same Christ, Son, Lord, unique; acknowledged in two natures without confusion, without change, without division, without separation-the difference of the natures being by no means taken away because of the union, but rather the distinctive character of each nature being preserved, and [each] combining in one Person . . . -not divided or separated into two Persons, but one and the same Son and only-begotten God, Word, Lord Jesus Christ.[21]

     

Nicea had confessed: very God and very man. Chalcedon speaks of one Person and two natures: a divine and a human nature. One and the same Lord Jesus Christ is perfect in Godhead and perfect in manhood, truly God and truly man. We acknowledge Him in two natures without confusion, without change, without division, without separation.

In contemporary Christology we see two developments, two trends, that both deviate from the confession of Nicea and Chalcedon. We could almost say the one is the trend of modern German theologians, the other of contemporary Dutch and English thinkers. Germans like Pannenberg and Moltmann (with his book, The Crucified God, 1973) in a certain manner over-emphasize the Godhead of Christ. They come close to the old heresy of theopaschitism, the heresy that God suffered and died on the cross. On the other hand, there are Dutch theologians, like P. Schoonenberg, Ellen Flesseman, and E. Schillebeeckx (with his book, Jesus: An Experiment in Christology) and English theologians like the authors of The Myth of God Incarnate. They stress the manhood of Christ and basically deny that He is God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God. Into this context, alas, also fits the Christology of Hendrikus Berkhof. He comes close to the old heresies of Adoptionism and Arianism.

2. My second remark concerns Berkhof's contrast between the so called Biblical thought of covenant and encounter, on the one hand, and Greek ontological thought, on the other hand. This sharp contrast is unacceptable. We should not forget that Greek is also a language, and that the New Testament is written in Greek. Moreover, apostles like John and Paul were Jews, drenched in the Old Testament, and they proclaim Jesus to be the pre-existent eternal Son of God, Who, though He was rich, yet for our sake became poor (2 Cor. 8:9).

It goes without saying that the early Greek-speaking church for its confession used concepts of the Greek world; but it is remarkable how hesitant the church was to use, for example, the term homo-ousios, "being of one substance with the Father." It only used this term when, in the struggle against Arius, it became unavoidable. The same holds true for the expression "one Person and two natures." The church could not be silent; it had to confess the mystery of our religion which is great indeed: God was manifested in the flesh (I Tim. 3:16). The four negative expressions of Chalcedon are four fences put up to show the area within which the mystery lies, but at the same time they indicate the inadequacy of human formulation. The church confessed its Savior Jesus Christ "the same perfect in Godhead, the same perfect in manhood, truly God and truly man."[22] In the words, "truly God" we confess that it is God Himself Who saved us. The world could only be redeemed by God Himself. We should consider this motif and thrust of the confessional language of the church.

When Berkhof speaks about covenantal language and the event of encounter between God and man, we should not be taken in by the seemingly- Scriptural term "covenant." Berkhof states about Jesus that He does not restore an imaginary perfect covenantal relationship from the beginning of history. This already shows that Berkhof's idea of covenant and covenant partner is not Reformed; moreover, he ascribes autonomy to the human partner in the covenant; man plays a decisive role. That is not Reformed either. And Berkhof's concept of the event of encounter is more influenced by philosophy-modern existentialist philosophy-than the confessional terms "one person" and "two natures" were stamped by Greek philosophical thinking.

3. My third remark is that Berkhof's Christology is related to his concept of revelation, in general, and of Holy Scripture, in particular. Basically, he accepts the modern criticism of Holy Writ, and-in the line of liberal theology since the Enlightenment-he plays off the Jesus of the synoptic gospels and the Christ of John and Paul. We already saw how Berkhof discards Paul's testimony in Philippians 2 as wrapped in mythological phraseology. It would now take us too long to elaborate on the classic Scriptural proofs for the Godhead of our Lord Jesus Christ, and over against Hendrikus Berkhof I may simply refer to Louis Berkhof's Systematic Theology.[23]

4. My fourth and last remark is that we should be aware of the implications and connotations of this Christology. I mention three of them:

    (a) Berkhof's view of the person of Jesus means the end of the doctrine of the Trinity. Since Jesus, Berkhof states, Trinity is the name for the covenant, the now-consummated covenant: God and man together for all eternity in Jesus by virtue of the bond of the Spirit. This trinity stands out before us as the pattern of life that is now open also to sinful man. Trinity is not a circumscription of the First Covenant Partner, it is a description of the covenantal event. There are no three Persons in one essence, but the three names Father, Son and Spirit are "the summarizing description of the covenantal event. . . ."I[24] So the trinity is covenantal event. The Father is the divine Partner, the Son the human representative, the Spirit the bond between both and therefore the bond between the Son and the sons whom He draws to the Father. For the believer each of the three names then has its own function in the covenantal relationship. Together, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit do not form one essence in eternity, but one history in time. It is clear that, although Berkhof retains the term "trinity" in the idea of the covenant as tri-unity, he rejects the catholic doctrine of the triune God.

    (b) Another connotation of Berkhof's view of the person of the Lord Jesus is his denial of the so-called virgin birth. It seems to Berkhof most probable that the virgin birth is a later embellishment of tradition. Berkhof deplores the fact that in the Apostles' Creed the virgin birth has received a central place and that it has become a criterion of orthodoxy.

    (c) The last connotation I should like to refer to concerns the work of Christ. In dogmatics we divide the chapter about Christ into two parts, the Person of Christ and the work of Christ. Berkhof's functionalism makes him stress the work of Christ at the cost of the Christian confession about His Person. We already heard that even the name "God" for the Lord Jesus only formulates His unicity and instrumentality. "What we have here is a covenantal functionality. . . ."[25]

In passing, I mention that Berkhof does not want to speak of the God- forsakenness of Jesus on the cross,[26] and he prefers to avoid the word "Punishment." Generally speaking, he says it is preferable in our age to interpret Jesus' death in the Johannine concepts of love, obedience, and glorification, rather than in the-to us foreign-Pauline juridical and cultic concepts.[27] But let us for Berkhof's idea of the work of Christ concentrate upon the renewal of man as the goal and the fruit of Christ's work. This renewal of man means the consummated covenantal relationship, the perfect union between God and man. Trinity is "a continuing and open event, directed to man."[28] God and man are eternally together in Jesus through the bond of the Spirit. Christ is the root and also the firstfruits of the divinely-intended humanity.[29] He is the Pioneer and Forerunner, the Son Who takes us as sons along. We are invited into the communion event between God, Son, and Spirit. We are going to participate in the relationship between Father and Son. Although Berkhof tries to check the consequences of his thought, we have to conclude that, beginning with a denial of the eternal Sonship of Jesus, and thus with Adoptionism, he ends up with monophysitism. If he says that through Jesus the Son we become sons, that is, that we partake of the relation between Father and Son, and enter into the life of God, he eradicates the infinite distinction between Creator and creature, and must come to the idea of deification. All ancient heresies return in this contemporary Christology.

A simple word of application. Our graduates of tonight are about to enter the ministry. "What we preach is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord" (2 Cor. 4:5). Jesus Christ does not only ask, "Who do men say that the Son of man is?" He asks us, "But who do you say that I am?" May our witness be the answer of Simon Peter, "You are the Christ, the Son of the living God." Arise, brothers, and preach the Christ of the Scriptures and the Scriptures of the Christ.



Footnotes

1]<RETURN> Address delivered at the Seventh Convocation and Tenth Anniversary Meeting of the Theological College of the Canadian Reformed Churches on August 30, 1979, in Abbotsford, B.C. The speech was first published in Clarion 28 (Oct. 6, 1979), 410-413.

2]<RETURN> Michael Goulder, ed., Incarnation and Myth: The Debate Continued (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1979).

3]<RETURN> John Hick, ed., The Myth of God Incarnate (London: SCM Press, 1977).

4]<RETURN> Ibid., ix.

5]<RETURN> Hick, "Jesus and the World Religions," in ibid., 172.

6]<RETURN> Michael Goulder, "Jesus, the Man of Universal Destiny," in ibid., 48-63.

7]<RETURN> Hick, "Jesus and the World Religions," in ibid., 168; emphasis added.

8]<RETURN> Michael Green, ed., The Truth of God Incarnate (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1977).

9]<RETURN> Hendrikus Berkhof, Christian Faith: An Introduction to the Study of Faith, trans. Sierd Woudstra (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1979).

10]<RETURN> Ibid., 33. Berkhof emphasizes the entire sentence.

11]<RETURN> Ibid., 56.

12]<RETURN> Ibid., 114.

13]<RETURN> Hendrikus Berkhof, Hedendaagse vragen in de Christologie, in Rondom het Woord 15 (Nov. 1973), 1- 17.

14]<RETURN> Ibid., 14.

15]<RETURN> Berkhof, Christian Faith, 283.

16]<RETURN> Hendrikus Berkhof, "What Do You Say That I Am?" Reformed World 32 (1973), 291-305.

17]<RETURN> Berkhof, "Hedendaagse vragen in de Christologie," 13.

18]<RETURN> Berkhof, Christian Faith, 289.

19]<RETURN> Ibid., 287.

20]<RETURN> Berkhof, Hedendaagse vragen in de Christologie, 15, The play on words is more clearly expressed in Dutch. Berkhof uses the words "mijnheer" ("sir," or, as we have translated somewhat freely, "milord") and "mijn Heer" ("my Lord"). 373.

21]<RETURN> Rochie Hardy, ed., Christology of the Later Fathers (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1954),

22]<RETURN> Ibid.

23]<RETURN> Louis Berkhof. Systematic Theology, 4th ed. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1939).

24]<RETURN>Berkhof, Christian Faith, 331.

25]<RETURN> Ibid., 290.

26]<RETURN> Ibid., 302.

27]<RETURN> Ibid., 305.

28]<RETURN> Ibid., 331.

29]<RETURN> Ibid., 535.