I recently finished reading G. C. Berkouwer’s The Triumph of Grace in the Theology of Karl Barth, a critique of Barth’s theology published in 1956 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans). Berkouwer presents a thorough summary of the distinctives of Barth’s theology, arranged around the theme of “the triumph of grace.” He then critiques it at most of its main points, especially Barth’s views of the universal triumph of grace and his revision of what is meant by “eternal life.” I don’t have much of a basis on which to critique Berkouwer’s critique, having studied Barth for myself only in small doses. It does seem that Berkouwer is critical of Barth on all of the main points that would be expected of a confessional Reformed theologian, though I can’t comment on what Berkouwer may not be saying that he should be saying.
My point in writing this is not to comment on the substance of Berkouwer’s critique. Rather, I wish to make a few comments on his method. I was struck by the charity and carefulness of Berkouwer’s work, and was convinced that there are several lessons to be learned from his method, lessons that remain important for theological polemics today. With the rise of internet publishing and blogging, we need a renewed commitment to honoring the 9th commandment – “you shall not bear false witness against your neighbor” – in how we conduct doctrinal debate. In my estimation, Berkouwer evidences a serious concern for truth and charity in his critique, and he does so in several ways.
The following examples are given roughly in the order in which I encountered them in the second half of Berkouwer’s book. Some are more obvious than others, but all are important for theological debate today. Together, they represent a balanced picture of how we should summarize and critique those with whom we disagree.
- Berkouwer is careful not to attribute to Barth what he considers the implications of his views (233). It is very easy, when someone holds to A, and when you are convinced that A leads to B, to then attribute to that someone position B. While it is perfectly acceptable to raise the danger of B, it is important to carefully distinguish someone’s actual views from the implications of those views. You might think “how can he or she hold A without also holding B?” You might even have a very strong case for the necessity of A leading to B. But none of that is the same as your opponent actually affirming B, and that difference needs to be clearly affirmed. Berkouwer does this well and consistently.
- When Berkouwer responds to Barth, he does so with an eye toward the contribution of historical theology, but always on the basis of the exegesis of Scripture (228, 237, 238). Barth’s divergence from the historic confession of the church sets off the warning bells – and appropriately so. But it can be tempting, and all too easy, to let that be enough. Berkouwer is careful to go further, to demonstrate why the historic confession of the church is Scriptural, and why Barth’s view runs afoul of that Scriptural confession. He boldly makes much of “the Church’s confession” as having genuine authority, all the while directing our attention to the Scriptures as the final court of appeal (337).
- Berkouwer is careful to understand Barth’s language in terms of his own system of thought. Barth uses terms creatively, and a fair critique must take that into account. It is very easy to assume that an author is using terms in a certain way, and then to critique his arguments on that basis. But Berkouwer demonstrates a careful and charitable concern for understanding Barth’s language on his own terms before proceeding to critique.
- To that end, Berkouwer goes to great lengths (indeed, entire chapters) to summarize Barth’s views thoroughly and carefully. He is clearly concerned to do so in such a way that Barth would readily recognize his own views in Berkouwer’s summary. He explicitly warns of the danger of acting on the basis of a straw man argument: “one can summarily reject Barth, but there will be no real opposition in the argument for the simple reason that those who thereupon proceed to read Barth himself will not be able to recognize the relevancy of the criticism presented” (385).
- One of the most striking expressions of Berkouwer’s fairness is his willingness to defend Barth from what he perceives as unfair criticism. It is a common phenomenon in theological polemics for writers to assume that “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.” But if our concern is for the truth and for the good name of our neighbor, then this principle is deadly. We must not support someone simply because his arguments happen to be aimed at our own opponent. We must be concerned with fairness, and we must carefully distinguish between those criticisms that are fair, and those that are not. Berkouwer does this admirably (247, 250).
- When Berkouwer is aware of what Barth’s response to a line of critique would likely be, he is careful to represent that response in its most persuasive form and to engage it in terms of its strengths (268). He represents Barth’s arguments in their most balanced and nuanced form, while continually pressing the question: are they biblical? (328-9)
- Berkouwer repeatedly warns of an imbalanced over-reaction to Barth’s views. The opposite of an error is often itself an error, with the proper solution being a biblical balance (348-9). In the midst of polemical engagement, it is easy to assume that the solution is to get as far away from one’s opponent as possible. Berkouwer is more careful and nuanced.
All of this is expressed explicitly in the appendix, “The Problem of Interpretation,” in which Berkouwer interacts with what he considers to be unfair criticism of Barth. Quotes from the appendix are available here.
Again, I note all of this without intending to comment on the substance of Berkouwer’s critique. It is entirely possible that Berkouwer is being far too charitable, or that he is completely missing the point to Barth’s arguments. I simply don’t have a sufficiently well-informed opinion here. Instead, my point is to commend the form of Berkouwer’s critique as being worthy of imitation in today’s theological discussions.