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A Theological Analysis of G. C. Berkouwer's General Revelation

Rev. Angus Stewart



G. C. Berkouwer was one of the most prominent theologians of the twentieth century. In his eighteen volume series "Studies in Dogmatics," he devotes a whole book to the subject of "General Revelation."1 This subject might seem to be relatively unimportant but Berkouwer, seeing its implications especially for the knowledge of God (15), insists it "demands our full attention" since "there is no more significant question in the whole of theology and in the whole of human life than that of the nature and reality of revelation" (17). As well as this, or rather because of this, the subject is beset with many dangers and there are a host of false views (329).

In his highly discursive treatment of his subject, Berkouwer nowhere defines general revelation but we could deduce the following as a fair statement of his position: General revelation is that revelation of God in creation (including man) and providence, with which every individual is in contact continually and inescapably. For Berkouwer, the two most important threats to this position are the Christomonism of Karl Barth and the natural theology of Roman Catholicism.


General Revelation and Barth's Christomonism

For Barth, general revelation is opposed to the revelation of God in Jesus Christ. All revelation comes through Christ and His reconciliation, and without Him there is no revelation. Man is sinful and God can only be known by grace. Thus any revelation outside of Jesus Christ undermines the uniqueness of God's revelation of Himself in His Incarnate Son. For Barth, a Christian theologian must concern himself with nothing less than, and nothing else but, "Christ only" (25), since he sees his work as a refinement of the foundation of the Protestant Reformation—solus Christus, sola gratia, sola fide and sola Scriptura. Because general revelation is without Christ and without grace, it is under God's curse. Light and salvation are in Christ, and any theology that directs attention away from Him, and His revelation in the Word, is anti-Christian. Considering this perceived antithesis (13), we can understand Barth's fierce onslaught on general revelation (21).

For Barth, those passages which suggest a revelation of God outside the Word are a "subsidiary line," in distinction to the "main line," which points us to Jesus Christ as the revelation of God. Barth, here, pleads the Reformed hermeneutic, "Scripture interprets Scripture," and argues that the part must be read in the light of the whole. He denies that this "subsidiary line" has an independent status and is a "secondary source" of the knowledge of God. That revelation from creation, which the Scripture speaks of, is not an objective revelation of God in the work of His hands. Instead, through the cross of Christ, the light of the revelation of Christ shines into the cosmos (28-29). When Paul states in Romans 1:20 that, through their suppression of the revelation of God in creation, the heathen are "without excuse," Barth immediately adds that they are "inexcusable in the light of Golgotha" (154). Berkouwer is correct when he speaks of Barth's exegesis of the "subsidiary" passages as based on his a priori idea of revelation and as not validly deduced from the text. This is evidenced also by Barth's radical isolation in the history of the exegesis of Romans 1 (154).

However, Barth's doctrine of revelation is far more seriously flawed than just intimated. For him, the Old Testament is not revelation, but only precedes and points to revelation. From this, one might think that the New Testament must at least be revelation but it too is just a witness to revelation, for it is merely a recollection of revelation. But if the Old Testament and the New Testament (i.e., the Bible) are not revelation, what is? To this Barth and neo-orthodoxy reply, "Jesus Christ." Only in the incarnation of Jesus Christ do we have the revelation of the Triune God (24-25). Although the neo-orthodox can rightly declare that the apostles and prophets may only be said to have the Word, whereas Christ only is the Word, their only purpose is to evacuate the Scriptures of their authority (101-103).

Berkouwer, while sympathizing with Barth's concern to present Jesus Christ as the supreme revelation of God, radically disagrees with his view of revelation. Barth simply has not done justice to the Scripture's teaching on this subject but has instead imposed his own scheme on the biblical material. Berkouwer, like Barth, goes to great lengths to show that Jesus Christ, as the eternal Son of God made flesh, is the revelation of God but he also shows that the Bible is God's revelation.

His treatment of the theme of "light" in Scripture is a good case in point. God Himself is light and in His light we see light (Ps. 36:9), but the Bible is the means God uses to convey this light to us (Ps. 119:105). Even with the Bible, we can only truly see the "light of the knowledge of the glory of God" in "the face of Jesus Christ" (II Cor. 4:6) (233-236). Interestingly, God's written Word does not seem to refer to general revelation as "light" and so might seem to confirm Barth's view, on this point at least. However, in John's prologue (John 1:4, 5, 9) we are faced with a universal light not mediated through the Scriptures (236-237).

Berkouwer gets to the heart of the matter in his treatment of the biblical terms for revelation. After a thorough word study of apokaluptein (reveal) and phaneroun (make manifest), he concludes that neither refers exclusively to God's revealing activity (98), and that both are used of creation (Rom. 1:18-20) and redemption. The true distinction between them is that apokaluptein refers to a removal of a covering, whereas phaneroun emphasizes the positive aspect. Either way, their effect or result is the same: there is a revelation (94-98). Berkouwer then proceeds to demonstrate that in both the Old Testament and the New Testament a great diversity of words and ideas are used to convey God's revealing Himself to us (e.g., speaking, showing, making known, causing His light to shine upon us, etc.; 98-101).

He goes on to demonstrate that Barth's "once-and-for-all" revelation is unsupported by the "once" in the book of Hebrews, for "this 'once' refers to Christ's sacrifice being final, conclusive and all-embracing, in contrast with the Old Testament sacrifices." He continues, "Exactly this epistle, in which 'once' has such a prominent place, stresses the great significance of the Old Testament revelation [cf., e.g., Heb. 1:1-2]" (104; italics Berkouwer's). The New Testament continually states that God's revelation in prophecy was fulfilled in Christ (I Pet. 1:12); it does not commence with Him. The incarnation is not an exclusive means to filter God's revelation but is rather the means to procure the salvation of the elect. Revelation 1:1 even presents Jesus Christ as receiving revelation (103-109)! Thus Barth's concept of God's revelation as only in the incarnation falls to the ground as an unscriptural "a prioristic schematization" (101), akin to that of Bultmann (90-92).

The other main error that Berkouwer sees in Barth is his "identifying" general revelation and natural theology.2 In Roman Catholic theology, it is true, the two are essentially united and many, like Wilhelm Lütgert (54-56), in arguing for the former, approach the latter (or even end up embracing it). Berkouwer here, for the most part, uses Brunner to critique Barth.3 For Brunner, the Bible, and especially Romans 1 and 2, teaches that the glory of the Creator is manifested in His works. Without denying the essential unity of God's revelation, he speaks of the manifold ways in which God reveals Himself. Brunner rightly observes that, without a general revelation, there is no basis for man's responsibility and that it is the very suppression of this revelation which proves its objective existence. Brunner completely separates general revelation and natural theology, and sees them as totally different subjects. He denies the latter, even stating, "Biblical and natural theology can never be harmonized" (43). Here he appeals to Calvin and Luther who rightly held that paganism, not natural theology, was the result of the heathen's knowledge of God (42-43).


General Revelation and Rome's Natural Theology

Through his lengthy and engaging analysis of Barth's Christomonic rejection of general revelation, Berkouwer more fully alerts his readers to the important issues and difficulties involved with our subject. In his affirmation of general revelation over against Barth, he draws into clear focus the truth as opposed to the error. Having guided us thus far, now the question arises, "Does general revelation actually entail natural theology?" Berkouwer answers negatively. In avoiding Scylla, we must not go too far the other way and fall snare of Charybdis.

The natural theology of Rome is clearly defined. After Aquinas, Rome speaks of two spheres: nature and grace. To the realm of grace belong the Scriptures and sacred tradition, which are received by faith. Natural theology belongs to the other sphere. It is the product of man's rational reflection on nature. While faith deals with the mysteries of God (for example, the Holy Trinity or redemption), reason is concerned with basic facts about God. Both give true knowledge but that through supernatural revelation is richer. From both sources, a system of ethics may be validly constructed, with natural reason producing natural law.4

Berkouwer refers to two conflicts within Roman Catholic theology, which serve to further sharpen our view of natural theology. First, over against traditionalism's claim that primary revelation (Scripture and tradition) is the sole source of the knowledge of God, Rome affirms that we can know God's existence and properties by reason. Second, over against the ontologists, Rome avers that man's knowledge of God is mediate and not by a direct intuition.

On this basis, Rome affirms Aquinas' "Five Ways" and the standard theistic proofs. God can be inferred by way of causation (as the first cause of all things), and negation and eminence (as possessing all those blessed attributes which may either be seen as the opposite of the limitations of this world or as the perfection of that which is imperfectly good in this world). Rome condemns those who deny that the rational proofs are certain proofs and sees in them the only adequate rebuttal to agnosticism, irrationalism and anti-intellectualism. It is clear from this that for Rome natural theology is not merely a possibility but that all men, because of the ontological structure of reason, possess the ability to come to this knowledge of God. It is only restraining factors outside of man, man's circumstances, which prevent most men from ascending to this knowledge (61-69).

The Roman idea of the "analogy of being," which, contra Kant, enables reasoning from the creation to the Creator, Barth calls the discovery of Antichrist (70). For him, natural theology is "Baal service" (74) and a dangerous enemy of the faith of Christ (21-22). Berkouwer is less colourful but is, nevertheless, strongly opposed to natural theology.

One of the many criticisms he makes is, ironically, that Rome's natural theology is not actually based on general revelation. Rome appeals to nature, more or less, as a "brute fact" and not as a revelation of God in His creation. Thus Berkouwer can state that in "natural theology the attempt is not made to show how God is 'revealed' in reality" and that the "function of human reason is not to investigate revelation but to draw logical conclusions" (75).

Second, Berhkouwer puts out that the theistic proofs do not convince. They only have force with those who already believe and who presuppose a religious world view (76-77). This is a serious problem for Romanist theology. Rome holds that all men have the ability to know God from the creation, though most actually do not come to this knowledge. But Rome also holds that, though man's human nature is "wounded," his reason is not affected (67). Why then does "modern man" not accept the truth, when a Roman Catholic presents to him the theistic proofs (76)? This point is especially poignant, when one recalls that in Roman theology "man, as a 'reasonable soul' simply must strive for the good [and God is the highest good] and salvation" (192; italics Berkouwer's). Furthermore, even if an unbeliever were to be convinced by the theistic proofs, it is evident that finding God through Christ is something radically different from proving Him. And what do the theistic proofs prove anyway: a first cause, a cold abstract designer, an unmoved mover, the true, the good, the necessary being? Pascal was right: the god of the philosophers is not the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.

Berkouwer's third objection is based on Rome's denial of total depravity. As we have seen, man is merely "wounded," not dead in trespasses and sins, and his reason escaped the fall unscathed (67). This affects Rome's exegesis of Romans 1 for, although the knowledge of God is objectively revealed in creation, this does not prove that man is able to construct a natural theology. To put it another way, Rome has confused the ontic with the noetic. God has truly revealed Himself but, because of man's depravity, he always and necessarily suppresses the truth in unrighteousness (Rom. 1:18). "Man's knowledge is no better than his works" (43; italics Berkouwer's).


General Revelation and Nature Religion

So far in Berkouwer's presentation of general revelation, he has defended it against Barth's Christomonism on the one hand and Rome's natural theology on the other. Many issues have been brought up and only briefly treated, awaiting a fuller development later, but he has clearly and antithetically drawn the main lines of the Reformed doctrine—there is a general revelation but natural theology is an unwarrantable inference. Choosing a via media between these two poles, further distinctions are required and now Berkouwer proceeds to contrast general revelation with nature worship. Given that God does reveal Himself in creation, can man worship God through it? This question has been answered by many in the affirmative and, seeking justification for their position in Scripture, they have proceeded (just as Barth feared) to emphasize general revelation increasingly at the expense of special revelation, until, setting aside the grace of God in Jesus Christ, they finally identified God wholly or partially with nature, in pantheism or panentheism. The question must be raised here: "Does Scripture really authorize this?"

Although, with Barth, we agree that the creation is only a "subsidiary line," nevertheless it has a "subsidiary" part in the Scriptures. The Bible does have something to say about the creation, perhaps especially, in the so-called "nature psalms."5 Nature in its power and beauty bewitches many. It is personalized to a "she": mother nature. She is the originator of life. With her are life and death, famine and harvest, sun and moon. The high heavens and the deep sea, the myriad stars and the bubbling brooks have a mystical attraction. The worshipper feels himself at one with his world, in a relationship of dependence on her—that "cosmic feeling." There are, of course, many variations. In Goethe's aesthetic religion, the beauty of the universe is central, while for others there is more of a sense of manifestation and revelation.

At this point, Berkouwer could simply present the spirituality, transcendence and awesome holiness of the Triune God to refute this perversion. Instead, he analyzes the issue along the lines of general revelation, to which the appeal is made. He agrees that the tone which the nature Psalms manifest is doxological and adoring. These Psalms express a religious worship of the Creator, of whom the creation speaks. The creation (not abstract nature) points to God, not in any pantheistic sense but as He who created heaven and earth, and hence owns it. He is the Most High God, whose creation (and the revelation through that creation) is by a sovereign, free act. The nature Psalms, and indeed the rest of Scripture, testify of the creatureliness of the world. It can never be understood "in itself" but always in relation to the Lord of hosts. As the work of His hands, it reveals Him: His glory (Ps. 19); His power and majesty (Ps. 29); His majesty and strength (Ps. 93); His wisdom, glory and honour (Ps. 104).

However, the clear path of Scripture does not take a turn here for Rome, for these Psalms are not the songs of the heathen but the heartfelt expressions of the true Israel of God.6 This is why the glory of God in His creation is mingled with references to His redemption, to the temple, to the law, etc. As Berkouwer delightfully expresses it, "The words concerning nature and those concerning God's salvation, stumble, as it were, over each other and overtake each other in playful haste" (130; italics Berkouwer's). In saying that this is "faith knowledge," only given to those with eyes to see, we place the only lawful use of the creation in the worship of God amongst the redeemed and deny any validity to perverse exegesis of the nature Psalms or the idolatry of nature religion (117-134).

Related to nature worship is that view of natural science that sees it as the means of obtaining our knowledge of God in creation. It is said, for example, by J. H. Scholten, "the father of modern theology" (121), that God's special revelation in the Bible governs our religious views and general revelation our view of nature. This view opens the way for conflict between God's general revelation (which is here synonymous with "science") and His special revelation.7 Berkouwer rightly affirms man's calling to examine God's creation but denies that the natural sciences investigate general revelation. Science investigates the phenomena of God's world but it requires faith to understand general revelation (286-290).

Thus, while the idolatrous nature worshipper looks for the beauty and power of nature, and the Scholtens of this world look at science as God's general revelation, the Christian, with the spectacles of Scripture and the eye of faith, looks at the creation and sees the manifold wisdom and power of his God.8


General Revelation and Romans 1

Berkouwer has kept us on the biblical pathway, without taking a right turn with Barth to Christomonism or swerving left with Rome to natural theology or falling headlong over the precipice into nature worship. His doctrine has been presented with the broad brush strokes of negation; now he turns more particularly to exegetical matters.

He treats, first, that passage which has been more or less evident, surfacing here and there, throughout the preceding sections, the locus classicus of general revelation, Romans 1:18-32. Immediately the problem must be faced: How can Paul (by the Holy Spirit) say that the heathen know God (vv. 19-21), and yet throughout his epistles (and indeed throughout the whole Bible) it is continually and strenuously denied that they know God (e.g., I Thess. 4:5)? Berkouwer avers that Christ's apostle does not contradict himself or Scripture, nor is Romans 1 a compromise, a toning down of his antithetical preaching to the heathen. Rather, Romans 1 "approaches heathendom from another perspective" (147).

Here Demarest argues that Berkouwer does not do justice to Romans 1:21: "they knew God." He presents Berkouwer as interpreting this knowledge as denoting merely "man's inescapable contact and confrontation with God's revelation through his works."9 However, Berkouwer does affirm that the apostle "speaks of the heathen as knowing God" (148; italics mine) and that they "have known him" (151; italics mine). When Demarest quotes Berkouwer: "There is contact with revelation, but a contact which fails to lead to a true knowledge and acknowledgment" (150),10 he ought to have noticed that the words "true" and "acknowledgment," show that Berkouwer does not deny to the heathen knowledge of God (which they wickedly suppress) but a saving knowledge of God.11 Also Berkouwer does not say that the heathen's knowledge is merely an "inescapable confrontation with the revelation of God in his works" but that their knowledge "points to" this "inescapable confrontation" (147; italics mine).

However, Demarest does have a point, for Berkouwer appears somewhat uneasy in speaking of the "knowledge" of Romans 1:19-21, so strong is he in his (just) opposition to Rome's natural theology. For example, he speaks of Paul's emphasizing the "connection between revelation and guilt" (151). However, Paul says more, for not only does the heathen's guilt depend on general revelation but this guilt depends on a knowledge of God, which results from God's general revelation.12 Here we may permit Calvin to speak on this natural knowledge of God (and to give the general important of Romans 1):

God himself, to prevent any man from pleading ignorance, has endued all men with some idea of his Godhead, the memory of which he constantly renews and continually enlarges, that all to a man, being aware that there is a God, and that he is their maker, may be condemned by their own conscience when they neither worship him nor consecrate their lives to his service.13

This suppression of the truth, which Calvin clearly understood and Romans 1 continually drives home (vv. 18, 21, 23, 25, 28, 32), Berkouwer rightly urges against Romanism. God's general revelation is clear, irrefutable (148) and inescapable (150), but sinful man holds it down in unrighteousness. His whole life is, as Berkouwer puts it, "a flight from God" (164). It is not the case that some or most suppress this knowledge but rather all are guilty of this heinous crime. Thus, while no heathen has accepted, or ever will accept, God's revelation in creation, they all to a man not only refuse to glorify Him (v. 23) but worship and serve the creature (v. 25). Man's reaction to general revelation is not natural theology but idolatry.14 General revelation is the true explanation for the existence of other religions. The various non-Christian religions are a reaction, a perversion of "the truth of God" (v. 25). On this point, Barth is correct: the world's religions are unbelief. Idolatry is "an affair, yea rather, the affair of the godless man" (158; italics Barth's).


General Revelation and Romans 2

Berkouwer now turns from Romans 1 and God's revelation external to us, to Romans 2 and God's revelation in us. God's revelation in creation does not, and cannot, lead the heathen to worship Him, but what of the revelation of God in human nature and man's "sense of morality"? Is this sufficient ground for natural morality and natural righteousness on the basis of obedience to a natural law (175)?

Before the debate proper on Romans 2:14-15, Berkouwer adeptly disposes of the idea that these verses refer to Christian Gentiles and not the heathen. First, he points out that the text does not speak of "the law written in their hearts," which uniformly denotes the realization of God's covenant blessings (cf. Jer. 31:33; Heb. 8:10), but of "the work of the law written in their hearts." Second, he makes it clear that those of whom he speaks here do not physically possess the written law of God (177).

Berkouwer further clarifies his position by refuting Paul Althaus' equation of Paul's position with that of the Stoics. Berkouwer argues that, although Paul here does use the word phusis (nature; a key word in Stoic thought) and, according to sound hermeneutical laws, "no one will want to maintain that Paul chose all new and original words," we must consider how Paul uses this word (179). He points out the essential difference between Paul and the Stoics for, whereas Paul speaks of the law as of supreme authority, the Stoics held that "nature" was the highest authority in moral issues (177-180).

Similarly, advocates of human rights have appealed to a universal standard of human justice (though not, of course, with as clear a reference to Romans 2 and the Bible). For example, the United Nations is intensely interested in a common and unchangeable law of nature as the basis for humanistic world justice. Berkouwer rightly doubts that such a law is possible. Just look at the different conceptions of justice around the world! Can it really be that this law of nature is "transparent and general" (187-192)?

Berkouwer's most sustained assault is reserved for the Roman Catholic view. Rome holds that God has given to man His moral standards in two laws: "natural law, the source of which is reason, and Divine law the source of which is [special] revelation" (196; italics Berkouwer's). The Romanist holds that this natural law is "a general, not specifically Christian, law and law-consciousness" (187; italics Berkouwer's). Thus Berkouwer's main objection against Rome's natural law is that it is pagan! He, of course, does not state it as forcefully but nevertheless his discussion furnishes the following criticisms:

  • The heathen can know the natural law without God (193). (Contrast the apostle's inseparable connection between religion and ethics in Romans 1.)

  • The Roman Catholic Church can talk of natural law leaving "faith and revelation entirely alone" (194).

  • Aristotle and Aquinas "developed the idea of natural law apart from God" (195).

  • Rome "calls the good, good because it is good in itself" and not "with respect to God" (196; italics Berkouwer's).

  • Roman Catholic natural law is inconsistent with the biblical doctrine of total depravity (198), since Rome, for example, teaches that, "Man, as a 'reasonable soul' simply must strive for the good and for salvation" (192; italics Berkouwer's).

Berkouwer's positive presentation is, however, deficient. He interacts with so many scholars and views (often using one writer to criticize another) that one is never sure what exactly he holds. Berkouwer, as it were, hides behind a veil and there is no real apokalupsis (revelation)! He often refers to Romans 2 but his exegesis in insufficient. Furthermore, this chapter of his monograph is vitiated with common grace, and he even injects this into his discussion of Calvin's view.15

Thus it is safer to lay Berkouwer aside here and develop the doctrine on a sounder basis. We begin with a quotation and brief exegesis of Romans 2:14-15.

For when the Gentiles, which have not the law, do by nature the things contained in the law, these, having not the law, are a law unto themselves: which show the work of the law written in their hearts, their conscience also bearing witness, and their thoughts the mean while accusing or else excusing one another ...

The apostle, seeking to indict the Jews for their wickedness, urges the example of the Gentiles, who do not have the law of Moses. They, unlike the Jews (Rom. 2:17ff.), often do what they know to be right. The Gentiles do "the things contained in the law." The Spirit thus signifies that the heathen outwardly keep part, but not the whole, of the moral law. Why do the Gentiles do this? They have a conscience which accuses or excuses them. Where does this conscience come from? "The work of the law is written on their hearts." What is the work of the law? The law's work is to show us what is good and what is evil. And this "work of the law," the apostle tells us, is "written in their hearts," in their very constitution or "nature." The heathen, then, because of what they are, as rational, moral creatures originally created in the image of God, even after the fall still retain a knowledge of God and righteousness.16

This is well expressed in Canons of Dordt III/IV:4:

There remain, however, in man since the fall the glimmerings of natural light, whereby he retains some knowledge of God, of natural things, and of the differences between good and evil, and discovers some regard for virtue, good order in society, and for maintaining an orderly external deportment. But so far is this light of nature from being sufficient to bring him to a saving knowledge of God and to true conversion, that he is incapable of using it aright even in things natural and civil. Nay further, this light, such as it is, man in various ways renders wholly polluted, and holds it in unrighteousness, by doing which he becomes inexcusable before God.

The last two sentences of the article require special emphasis. Contrary to the Roman Catholic notion of natural law, the apostle Paul wrote, just before Romans 2:14-15, "For as many as have sinned without law shall also perish without law" (v. 12). Thus the goal and purpose of God's revelation of Himself in the nature of man is the same as in His revelation in creation: "to render man inexcusable."17 Just as the revelation in creation does not lead the heathen to worship God but rather results in their wicked suppression of the truth and idolatry, so man's natural knowledge of God's moral law does not issue in obedience to Him, but is stifled and perverted into various pagan ethics. It is true, as the Canons indicate, that there is some overlap between Christian and heathen commandments, but "since they proceed not from an heart purified by faith; nor are done in a right manner, according to the word; nor to a right end, the glory of God; they are therefore sinful and cannot please God."18


General Revelation and Common Grace

This section heading is something of a misnomer, for there is no such thing as common grace. But, given that it plays a part in Berkouwer's doctrine of general revelation, we must start to discuss non-entities! For Berkouwer, "the fact that the natural man retains some knowledge of God and shows some practice of virtue and outward discipline" necessitates common grace (184). Just as the Arminian never fails to quote John 3:16 in debate, so the "common gracer" invariably manages to bring it in somewhere. Now having said that, Berkouwer is not as bad as some for he manages to keep common grace from intruding into general revelation that much, and his version of it—though he does not give a definition—is milder than most.19

Berkouwer is correct in criticizing Klaas Schilder for denying God's general revelation in the nature of man. He is right to argue that the heathen cannot be morally responsible unless they come into contact with God's revelation, and that it is impossible to leap from man's having "reason and will" to having a sense of responsibility (181-185). He is wrong, however, in carrying these criticisms over into Schilder's denial of common grace. As Berkouwer points out elsewhere in his book, there is a need to distinguish between things that differ (30-31). If we were to restate Schilder's three arguments against common grace as the explanation for the "law abiding" heathen, and bolster his second by a fourth, his position would withstand Berkouwer's attack. Thus the occurrence of outward conformity to some aspects of God's law amongst the heathen can be explained in the light of:

  1. their self-interest

  2. their possession of reason and will

  3. God's preservation of the world and mankind (181)

  4. God's revelation of His moral law in their natures

In his assault, Berkouwer asks, "Why does not man, who in the corruption of nature follows his own way, allow hatred to dominate his entire existence even though this would ultimately destroy himself?" Then he throws out the following challenge: "Why should he manifest the slightest interest in acts that somehow are in conformity to the law?" Berkouwer seems to think that these two questions are unanswerable and resorts to the language of propaganda: "There is only one answer to this question possible" (184). It is almost incredible that a theologian of such stature could frame such a terrible argument. He even answers his first question in the question! Surely part of man's following "his own way," out of his selfish love of himself, involves seeking to avoid destroying himself. And even if a man, so to speak, brought himself down to the gutter or committed suicide (which things are sins), when we ask, "Why did he do it?," the various possible reasons—sloth, despair, disgrace, to spite others, etc.—can all ultimately be boiled down to selfishness. As for Berkouwer's second question, it is more than adequately dealt with in the four explanations above.

It is as he attacks Schilder for his denial of general revelation in man (rightly) and his denial of common grace (wrongly) that Berkouwer refers to Herman Hoeksema (184). Hoeksema appears abruptly in the text, out of the blue, as it were. Berkouwer does not go on to interact with any of Hoeksema's arguments. He does not even refer to any of Hoeksema's writings. So why does he even mention him? Well, Berkouwer elsewhere refers to Hoeksema as his chosen "dialogue partner," as one with whose ideas he continually interacted.20 Berkouwer had, you could say, decided to pick him as his sparring partner. You can picture him shadow boxing with Hoeksema in his theological ruminations and now, as he writes on common grace, his protagonist flashes into his mind.

It is not a flattering reference. Hoeksema (who does not deny general revelation) is lumped with Schilder, whose denial of God's revelation in man Berkouwer has been successfully refuting for the last four pages.21 Poor Hoeksema has "lost the right path" and like, for example, the unbelieving Bultmann (90-92), the neo-orthodox Barth (117) and the anti-supernaturalist Ernst Troeltsch (160), he comes to the Bible with an unscriptural a priori!


General Revelation and Belgic Confession 2

Here Berkouwer returns to the right path again with a discussion of the Belgic Confession's second article. This article, Berkouwer points out, has been maligned as teaching natural theology, especially by Barth, and has been the subject of much debate. It was alleged that the Confession here inculcates two sources of the knowledge of God (Scripture and nature) of equal import.

In opposition, Berkouwer makes an admirable defense of the Confession.22 He notes the harmony of the Reformed confessions and states that the Belgic Confession, including this article, was "commonly accepted by the churches of the Reformation" (268).23 It is as a confession of the church, that Article 2 must be understood. Thus the Confession begins, "We know Him ..." and speaks throughout in the first person plural (we, us, our). The only passage that speaks of those outside the "we," places those people under God's wrath: "All which things are sufficient to convince men, and leave them without excuse." Berkouwer even points out that "De Bres' original draft did not read: 'we know him by two means,' but: 'we confess to know him as such by two means'" (275; italics Berkouwer's). Furthermore, the article does not speak of "nature" and "history," but of "creation, preservation and government." He guards also against a mere "aesthetic conception of nature" (278) on the basis that God has created the world, and that His creation and providence, as the article says, lead us "to contemplate the invisible things of God," not mere abstract beauty.

Thus, in the light of the clear teaching of the second article and other statements in the Belgic Confession (like Article 7 on sola Scriptura and Article 14 on man's corruption), we see that our creed does not teach Roman Catholic natural theology. Rather we see the true, holy, catholic church looking with the eye of faith at the world, in the light of the Scriptures, and praising the Triune God, who is "eternal, incomprehensible, invisible, immutable, infinite, almighty, perfectly wise, just, good, and the overflowing fountain of all good" (Article 1).


General Revelation and Special Revelation

Although generally sound in this area, Berkouwer is not particularly clear on the relation between special revelation and the fall. For him, special revelation begins after the fall (311) but, since he defines general revelation as occurring in creation, man and providence, the pre-fall revelation, both verbally and in the theophany (Gen. 2:15-25), must also be special revelation.24 However, his presentation of the relation between general revelation and special revelation is better. For Berkouwer, there is an essential unity between the two, for their source is the living God (292), their ultimate goal is God's glory and they are both understood only by faith. For the elect, God's special revelation in Jesus Christ effects their salvation. In its light, they understand general revelation and thus, through both, render praise to God's great name. Conversely, for the reprobate, general revelation leaves them without excuse and proves the ground of their damnation, whether or not, in addition, they hear (and reject) the gospel.

The two differ in the extent of their audience (293) and their form—general revelation comes to all and is non-verbal (Ps. 19:1f.), while special revelation is not universal but is verbal. The other main difference concerns their content. According to Romans 1, through general revelation, God declares His wrath (v. 18), invisibility, eternity, power (v. 20), incorruptibility (v. 23), truth (v. 25) and justice (v. 32), yea, His Godhead (v. 20).25 Men are called to glorify Him as Creator (vv. 20, 25) and Judge (v. 32) by a life of worship and thankfulness (v. 21), but, through their ungodliness and unrighteousness (v. 18), they receive God's judicial punishment after death also, of which they always knew they were worthy (v. 32).26 Special revelation, as well as containing more information quantitatively, also shows us (unlike general revelation) the only way of salvation—faith in the crucified and risen Lord Jesus Christ.

Does general revelation then supplement the believer's knowledge of God? No, it does not, for all the information about God revealed in His creation and providence is contained in the Scriptures. Berkouwer nowhere puts it as clearly as this but he is opposed to ascribing to general revelation a role as an "independent source of knowledge" (314) and denies that it is "an independent object of study" for dogmatics (285).

Neither does general revelation prepare man for special revelation (for by means of it his guilt is increased); it is instead the presupposition of special revelation (43). Although man is already condemned by virtue of his original guilt, general revelation serves to increase man's iniquity by way of actual transgressions. Thus it is doubly clear that man needs the salvation of which the Scriptures alone speak.

Berkouwer rightly perceives that there is no contradiction or competition between general and special revelation, but rather harmony, with all redounding to the glory of the God of creation and redemption. Furthermore, in the eternal state, "when God dwells 'with men' (Rev. 21:3), when night is banished (Rev. 22:5), [and] when God himself shall wipe all tears from our eyes," not only shall any seeming contradiction be resolved, but even "the distinction between general and special revelation shall be removed."27



As we have seen, Berkouwer's General Revelation has its faults, most notably the vitiating influence of common grace, and its failure to exegete Romans 1 and 2 properly. There are other issues one might have wished he had included, or developed more fully, such as the relationship between the Logos (and the Spirit) and general revelation. Also, though Berkouwer states that God is clearly seen in creation, he does not seek to show how.28

Nevertheless, it is a worthwhile book. In his typical discursive style, Berkouwer interacts well with a vast range of views, particularly with Barth's Christomonism and Rome's natural theology, and generally presents the Reformed doctrine of general revelation, constantly appealing to the Scriptures as the supreme authority, and to the confessions and to Calvin.


1 Gerrit C. Berkouwer, General Revelation (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1955). The numbers in parentheses refer to pages in this book.
2 "For Barth general revelation and natural theology are unseparably united" (33; italics Berkouwer's).
3 The recurring phenomena of the "Berkouwer absconditus" often makes it difficult to determine what Berkouwer himself holds.
4 See the later section on "General Revelation and Romans 2."
5 Interestingly, the term "nature Psalms" came into general used at the Enlightenment (132).
6 Cf. "The Creator of heaven and earth is adored even as the Redeemer of Israel is praised: for Israel the two are identical. Hence it is impossible to appeal to the 'nature psalms' on behalf of a natural theology" (137).
7 It is gratifying here that Berkouwer notes, apparently with displeasure, Scholten's acceptance of the age of the earth advocated by unbelieving science (288).
8 Similar to this unbelieving view of science is that notion of astrology which sees, in the motions of the heavenly bodies, God's revelation to man regarding the future. Calvin rightly protested against this view of general revelation and distinguished between astronomy (a true science) and astrology, decrying the latter as a fatalistic absurdity (322-324).
9 Bruce A. Demarest, General Revelation: Historical Views and Contemporary Issues (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1982), p. 143; italics Demarest's.
10 Ibid., p. 143.
11 Strangely, Demarest later notes Berkouwer's use of "true" in qualifying "knowledge" (ibid., p. 147).
12 Immediately after stating that the heathen are "without excuse" (Rom. 1:20), the Spirit adds 'because that, knowing God ...' (v. 21). For more on this causal relation, see John Murray, The Epistle to the Romans (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1968), vol. 1, p. 41.
13 John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, trans. Henry Beveridge (London: James Clarke and Co., 1949), 1.3.1.
14 The apostle in Romans 1 describes the heathen as proud, haters of God (v. 30) whom God has given over to sin (vv. 24f.). They are besotted with idols (vv. 21-23, 25) and do not want God in their knowledge (v. 28), yea, they seek to be rid of the very thought of Him (vv. 18, 20-23, 25). How could they possibly seek God!
15 See the next section on "General Revelation and Common Grace."
16 Cf. Herman Hoeksema, The Epistle to the Romans: Exegesis of Chapters 1-5 (Grand Rapids, MI: PRC Seminary, no date), pp. 29-35.
17 Calvin, Institutes, 2.2.22.
18 Westminster Confession 16:7 (cf. Heidelberg Catechism, Q. & A. 91).
19 William Masselink even managed to write a book on the relation between the two (General Revelation and Common Grace [Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1953])!
20 Gerrit C. Berkouwer, A Half Century of Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1973), p. 98.
21 Cf., e.g., Herman Hoeksema, Reformed Dogmatics (Grand Rapids, MI: RFPA, 1966), pp. 18-19.
22 Demarest styles Berkouwer's approach to general revelation as the "Confessional Method" (ibid., p. 41).
23 Cf., e.g., Westminster Confession 1:1.
24 Cf. N. H. Gootjes, "General Revelation in its Relation to Special Revelation," Westminster Theological Journal, 51 (1989), pp. 362-364.
25 The Greek word theiotees, here translated "Godhead," refers to all the perfections which God has as God.
26 Cf. John Murray on Romans 1:32 (ibid., pp. 50-53).
27 Gerrit C. Berkouwer, "General and Special Divine Revelation," in C. F. H. Henry (ed.), Revelation and the Bible: Contemporary Evangelical Thought (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1958), p. 22.
28 Like the Reformed confessions, but unlike Calvin (Institutes 1.5) and Arthur W. Pink (The Doctrine of Revelation [Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1975], pp. 15-60).