Man cannot live by P G Wodehouse alone. I needed a serious lockdown challenge. This most serious of books was first published in 1937. I bought my copy in January 1976 and there it has sat on my bookshelves, unread, for more than 40 years, until the coronavirus pandemic. I have known Louis Berkhof (1873–1957) for decades – his famous and hefty (all 784 pages) Systematic Theology has been a convivial companion since August 1975, when I bought it for a mere £3.00.
I recognised that The History would be a tough undertaking. Any hardback that starts with a Prolegomena is never going to be an easy holiday read. And so it proved. There have been few books that have forced me to make so many second, even third, readings of sentences and paragraphs before the proverbial penny dropped. History is hard, theology is tough, historical theology can be gruelling.
Dogma and doctrine
It all starts quite sensibly by asking, what is the meaning of ‘dogma’? A good question that had never entered my brain before. Berkhof replies (p. 15), ‘The word “dogma” is derived from the Greek dokein, which in the expression dokein moi meant not only ‘it seems to me’, or ‘it pleases me’, but also ‘I have definitely determined something so that it is for me an established fact.’ It is a word taken from philosophy, authority, science and religion. The Bible uses it too, for example, of government decrees (Daniel 2:13, Luke 2:1, etc.), ordinances (Ephesians 2:15) and decisions (Acts 16:4).
So what is the difference between ‘dogma’ and ‘doctrine’? Berkhof replies again (p. 16), ‘A doctrine is the direct, often naïve, expression of a religious truth. A religious dogma, on the other hand, is a religious truth based on authority and officially formulated by some ecclesiastical assembly.’ And, ‘Religious doctrines are found in Scripture … but dogmas are not found there. They are the fruit of human reflection, the reflection of the Church, often occasioned or intensified by theological controversies.’ Berkhof then explains that Roman Catholics and Protestants differ here. The former minimise or even exclude the reflection of the Church as the body of believers, and substitute the study of the teaching Church, the hierarchy, the clerus, the Magisterium, its infallible Pope and tradition as authoritative. By contrast, Protestants insist that (p. 17), ‘… all truly religious dogmas derive their material contents from Scripture and from Scripture only.’
The practical Protestant upshot is that dogmas are changeable. If they were unchangeable they could not develop, nor would they have a history. However, the Catholic view is that dogma is unchangeable (p. 29). The Reformation ditched that view.
Still in the Prolegomena, Berkhof plods on with sections entitled The Task of the History of Dogma and even the History of the History of Dogma. Needless to say, I was unfamiliar with the division of the history of dogma into general and special history. The proposition makes sense, but I am not sure I will ever need to recall it. And so it goes on – division after division, unfamiliar theologian after unfamiliar theologian, dispute after dispute. As dry as a cream cracker.
The Apostolic Fathers
But wait. Interest blossoms with the opening chapter on the Apostolic Fathers, who lived before the last of the apostles died. Berkhof draws attention to six – Barnabas, Hermas, Clement, Polycarp, Papias and Ignatius. And he answers why their writings, such as the Didache, lack the depth and clearness of the New Testament writings. It is because (p. 38) of, ‘… the transition from truth given by infallible inspiration to truth reproduced by fallible pioneers.’ There had been little time for reflection, the canon of Scripture had not been set, its intellectual development was limited, yet these men and their writings are important corroborators of, and subscribers to, major doctrinal statements of early Christianity. Meagre and indefinite they may be, but they testify to God as Creator and Ruler even though, for example, their understanding of the implications of the work of Christ as Redeemer was weak, as was the salvation-sanctification duo. Other notes were also missing, including a general ethical quality. Berkhof provides a generous vindication (p. 39), ‘Then, too, for them Christianity was not in the first place a knowledge to be acquired, but the principle of a new obedience to God.’
During the second century, the Christian religion challenged Roman government and as it organised itself from perceived sect into universal Church, it also had to guard against dangers from within and without. In other words, perversions of the Gospel abounded. There were the Jewish perversions, such as the Nazarenes, the Ebionites and the Elkesaites (no, me neither). Then the Gentile perversions centred on the Gnostics. They believed that the relationship between the OT and the NT was one of opposition. It was primarily a Jewish movement with heretical teachers, speculations, asceticism and libertinism. These were driven by a thirst for deeper knowledge and a mystic communion with God. The outcome was some of its adherents claimed (p. 46), ‘… a deeper knowledge of divine things than could be obtained by common believers.’ Berkhof explains it as a speculative, popular and syncretistic movement. Were they Christian or pagan? Whichever, the dangers of a neo-Gnosticism remain today, especially among Church leaders. Ancient Gnosticism was short-lived – it was largely overcome by the direct refutations and teachings of the coming Church Fathers. Yet it is still recognisable in the Roman Catholic Church with its peculiar concepts of sacraments, the need for intermediaries to approach God and so on. But, perhaps perversely, Gnosticism, and other Gospel perversions, helpfully drove the Church to doctrinal development – just what should a Christian believe?
Berkhof then picks out two wayward leaders who sought reform in the Church, but who instead brought heresy. First, there is Marcion, a native of Pontus, who strove to separate the Gospel from the law. Whereas, he regarded the OT as the genuine revelation of God to the Jews, he could not say the same of the NT. Moreover, he believed that only Paul truly understood Jesus Christ so he limited the NT to Luke and the ten Pauline epistles. Second, Montanus, who appeared in Phrygia around AD 150 and who was enamoured in particular by John and his epistles. He and two women announced themselves as charismatic prophets – the end of the world was nigh and theirs were the last revelations. Again, Gnosticism plus Marcionism and Montanism forced the Church to think doctrinally and to formulate the biblical canon.
That pressure within and without called for a defence of the truth – it was the birth of theology. The earliest Fathers in the vanguard were known as the Apologists and importantly included Justin, Tatian, Athenagoras and Theophilus of Antioch. They presented Christianity, especially to the educated classes, as a rational religion, the fulfilment of all the truths of Judaism and Hellenism. Their work was threefold – defensive (charges of bad conduct against Christians were false, they were morally pure), offensive (Judaism was legalistic and Jesus was the promised Messiah) and constructive (Christianity was a positive revelation of God and its increasingly-numerous converts were changed radically and beneficially). Was their approach too philosophical, were they unclear about general and special revelation, had they grasped the one person–two natures of Jesus (the Logos and the Redeemer) and the free choice–free grace dualism of the new life? Probably.
The Anti-Gnostic Fathers
The anti-Gnostic Fathers come next and Berkhof selects a trio – Irenaeus, Hippolytus and Tertullian. They refuted the Gnostic’s separation of true God and Creator. God is triune. Tertullian coined the inchoate idea of ‘Trinity’. And the first doctrinal traces of ‘original sin’ appear. Irenaeus formulated a three covenant view of redemption. First, the law written on the hearts of men. Second, the Decalogue was given. Third, Christ restored the original law, the law of love. (p. 64). Many of the differences among the anti-
Gnostic Fathers centre on the person and work of Christ – still the focus of most 21st-century doctrinal disputes.
It is easy to forget the doctrinal wrestling that accompanied the formation of the early Church. We can think they thought like us. But not so. For example, Irenaeus had a foggy view of salvation. Sure, he maintained that faith was a prerequisite for baptism, but by baptism he insisted that man is regenerated. He had not grasped the Pauline doctrine of justification by faith. Faith leads to obedience to Christ’s commandments and is therefore sufficient to make a man righteous before God. We should be more thankful for 20 centuries of thoughtful doctrinal theology.
The Alexandrian Fathers
In the second and third centuries, the Alexandrian Fathers combined Hellenistic learning and Gospel truths to produce an allegorical interpretation of the Bible. The two most illustrious advocates were Clement and Origen. Clement was somewhat unorthodox, wedding philosophy with Christian tradition plus a large dose of reason. His successor, Origen, was perhaps the profoundest thinker of the early Church. His De Principiis is the first example of a systematic theology. Yet both men were too speculative, too allegorical, confused by their naïve doctrines of the Holy Spirit, the God-man, creation and man, and although Trinitarian thinking was evident, they were far from today’s orthodoxy. Moreover, Origen taught that at death the good enter paradise and the wicked experience a temporary punishment. Clement said the heathen can repent in Hades and that purification and restoration are available. Let me add a little sympathy for their confusion – for example, because Christ has so many roles, as creator, propitiation, lawgiver, redeemer, saviour, teacher and so forth, it is really, really demanding to define these singular roles as well as to balance their admixture. Doctrinal theology is tough stuff!
If Gnosticism was the great heresy of the second century, then Monarchianism was the third’s. Its chief advocates were men such as, Theodotus, Artemon and Praxeas. It said, God is one person, the Father, and Jesus Christ is only a man. It meant that the doctrine of Christ as the Logos, as a separate person, endangered both the unity of the Trinity as well as the deity of Christ. First, there was dynamic Monarchianism (or Adoptionism), which concentrated on the unity of God, which persists today in Unitarianism. Jesus is deified, but not regarded as God. Second, there was the more influential modalistic Monarchianism (or Sabellianism), which maintained the true divinity of Christ, though confused the persons of the Trinitarian Godhead as so many transposable modes of the one God. It said, God is Father in creation and lawgiving, Son in the incarnation, and Spirit in regeneration and sanctification.
The Trinitarian Controversy
The early Church Fathers had no clear conception of the Trinity. Some thought the Logos was impersonal reason, yet personal at creation, or personal and co-eternal with the Father, yet subordinate to the Father. The Holy Spirit was largely overlooked. Tertullian asserted the tri-personality of God, but he was unclear as were Origen, Hippolytus and the rest.
Enter Arius and Athanasius and the Arian controversy, the anti-Trinitarian dispute. In essence, it is captured in seven words, ‘the Son was created by the Father’. Athanasius opposed this view – he was a champion of the unity within the Godhead yet also three distinct hypostases (essential nature as opposed to attributes) in God, thus a ‘oneness of essence’. Berkhof’s summary is that, ‘… only one who is Himself God can unite us with God’ (p. 86).
The Council of Nicaea was convened in AD 325 to settle the dispute. The Arians rejected the idea of a timeless or eternal generation, while Athanasius reasserted it. The creedal outcome was, ‘We believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of things visible and invisible. And in one Lord Jesus Christ, begotten not made, being of one substance (homoousios) with the Father …‘ The term homoousios unequivocally meant that the essence of the Son is identical with that of the Father – the Son was, like the Father, an uncreated Being and He too was autotheos.
This has been
much more than just a book review. It has been
a book review, plus copious notes, plus aide-mémoire,
plus brain-teaser, plus Christian tuition. Let me make
six general comments about the book.