A Theological Analysis of G. C. Berkouwer's General Revelation
Rev. Angus Stewart
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
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).
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
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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
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
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.
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
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." 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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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."
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),
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. 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
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.
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
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
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.
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
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).
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
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
Aristotle and Aquinas
"developed the idea of natural law apart from God"
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 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
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
still retain a knowledge of God and righteousness.
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
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
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."
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.
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:
their possession of reason and will
God's preservation of the world and
God's revelation of His moral law 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.
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.
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
is not a flattering reference. Hoeksema (who does not deny
is lumped with Schilder, whose denial of God's revelation in
man Berkouwer has been successfully refuting for the last
four pages. 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
General Revelation and Belgic
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
In opposition, Berkouwer makes an admirable defense of the
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
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.
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).
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).
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
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.
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."
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.
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.
C. Berkouwer, General Revelation (Grand Rapids,
Eerdmans, 1955). The numbers in parentheses refer to
pages in this book.
"For Barth general revelation and natural
theology are unseparably united" (33; italics
The recurring phenomena of the "Berkouwer absconditus"
often makes it difficult to determine what Berkouwer
See the later section on "General Revelation and Romans 2."
Interestingly, the term "nature
Psalms" came into general used at the Enlightenment
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
It is gratifying here that Berkouwer
notes, apparently with displeasure, Scholten's
acceptance of the age of the earth advocated
by unbelieving science (288).
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).
Bruce A. Demarest, General
Revelation: Historical Views and Contemporary Issues
(Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1982), p. 143; italics
Ibid., p. 143.
Strangely, Demarest later notes
Berkouwer's use of "true" in qualifying "knowledge" (ibid.,
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.
John Calvin, Institutes of the
Christian Religion, trans. Henry Beveridge (London: James Clarke and Co., 1949),
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!
See the next section on "General Revelation and
Cf. Herman Hoeksema, The Epistle
to the Romans: Exegesis of Chapters 1-5 (Grand
Rapids, MI: PRC Seminary, no date), pp. 29-35.
Calvin, Institutes, 2.2.22.
16:7 (cf. Heidelberg Catechism, Q. & A. 91).
William Masselink even managed to
write a book on the relation between the two (General
Revelation and Common Grace [Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans,
Gerrit C. Berkouwer, A Half
Century of Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1973),
Cf., e.g., Herman Hoeksema,
Reformed Dogmatics (Grand Rapids, MI: RFPA, 1966), pp.
Demarest styles Berkouwer's approach
to general revelation as the "Confessional Method" (ibid.,
Cf., e.g., Westminster Confession 1:1.
Cf. N. H. Gootjes, "General
Revelation in its Relation to Special Revelation,"
Westminster Theological Journal,
51 (1989), pp. 362-364.
The Greek word theiotees, here
translated "Godhead," refers to all the perfections
which God has as God.
Cf. John Murray on Romans 1:32 (ibid.,
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.
Like the Reformed confessions, but unlike
Calvin (Institutes 1.5) and Arthur W. Pink (The
Doctrine of Revelation [Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1975],