The History of Christian Doctrines
by Louis Berkhof (1975), Banner of Truth, Edinburgh.
285 pages, £2.50, ISBN: 085151 005 1

The History of Christian Doctrines

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.


The Apologists

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.

The Council ended nothing, not least because the emperor Constantine insisted on having the final word and controversially handed victory to the party of Athanasius.  Semi-Arianism prevailed in the Eastern Church, Athanasianism in the West – Constantinople and Rome rivalry arose, the great breach emerged.  Synods and Councils failed to heal the split.  Enter a young trio of Cappadocians namely, Basil the Great, Gregory of Nyssa and Gregory of Nazianzus.  With a starting point of the three hypostases (person) instead of one divine essence (as Athanasius) they made doctrinal progress by vigorously maintaining the homoousios of the Holy Spirit.

The Holy Spirit was, according to Arius, the first created being produced by the Son.  Athanasius asserted the Holy Spirit was of the same essence with the Father.  The Nicene Creed feebly stated, ’And (I believe) in the Holy Spirit.’  The AD 381 Council of Constantinople approved, ‘And we believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the Life-giving, who proceeds from the Father, who is to be glorified with the Father and the Son, and who speaks through the prophets.’  It too was unsatisfactory on several points, for instance, the Spirit also proceeds from the Son.  The AD 589 Synod of Toledo propounded the ‘filioque’ (‘and from the Son’) so the Father is characterised by ‘non-generation’, the Son by ‘generation’ and the Holy Spirit by ‘procession’.  It too was unsatisfactory.  The East-West split was established.  The West’s doctrine of the Trinity was polished by Augustine of Hippo in his masterful work, De Trinitate.  Each person of the Godhead possesses the entire, identical essence in unity and interdependence.

Yet others have gallantly tried to find resolution and tighter definition, and we should be thankful for their imperfect insights.  For example, in the twelfth century, Roscelinus, Gilbert of Poitiers and Abelard made attempts and were charged with heresy.  Only Thomas Aquinas seemed to get it almost right.  Then came the Reformation.  Calvin preferred not to go beyond the simple statements of Scripture and was shy of using the terms ‘person’ and ‘trinity’, though he defends the concepts in his Institutes I. 13.  He held to the absolute equality of the Persons in the Godhead.  Along came the Socinians of the sixteenth century, who considered the possession of a common essence to be contrary to reason, and denied the Son’s pre-existence and taught that He was simply a man with special qualities.  The Holy Spirit, they said, was, ‘a virtue or energy flowing from God to men.’  Twentieth-century theologians continued to dispute the Trinity, and so it will go on – some helpful, most not so.  Yet, here is biblical theology at its most challenging and exciting.  How can mere man understand and describe the majestic God?  This is where transcendence and mystery and human limitations collide.  However, such frail attempts bring not only doctrinal clarity but also weaponry to ward off errors and heresies.

The Christological Controversies
Berkhof moves on.  Once the Trinitarian controversies have been aired it is natural to move onto Christological controversies.  More specifically, because Christ as the Son of God is consubstantial with the Father and therefore very God, what is the relationship between deity and human in Christ?

Some rejected His deity and some rejected His humanity.  There was the Nestorian party, the Cyrillian Party, the Eutychian party, and so on.  Each was partly right but largely wrong.  They asked big questions.  Is there a dual personality in Christ?  In what way was Mary the Mother of God?  If two natures, are there not two persons?  But their answers were underdeveloped.  The AD 451 Council of Chalcedon helped formulate in effect the corpus of western Christology.  But all was not settled, mad monks and others split into sects and unseemly struggles while gatherings, such as the AD 553 Council of Constantinople cleared the thinking of many.  Questions, questions.  By what means, that is, how did the two natures come about?  Does the will of Christ exist in the divine or human nature or both?  Does the answer rob Christ of His deity or humanity?  Are you a Monothelite or a Duothelite?  Are we in danger of thinking His humanity had a docetic – an unreal, phantom – character?  The Eastern–Greek Church raged on and was greatly influenced by John of Damascus.  The Western Church remained relatively quiet.

During the Middle Ages, the issue continued half-heartedly while other doctrines took centre stage.  Even Thomas Aquinas fell in with received theology.  Then came the Reformation.  Luther held to the two natures but ambiguously insisted on the real presence at the Lord’s Supper, meaning that the human nature of Christ must be omnipresent.  Moreover, did Christ lay aside the divine attributes at the incarnation or conceal them?  The most complete statement of the Reformed position is found in the Second Helvetic Confession of 1566 with its unequivocal condemnation of various heresies and ‘other vain janglers’.

The Person of Christ again became a hot topic during the eighteenth century.  Its promoters focussed on studying the historical Jesus and many considered it to be like a rediscovery of Jesus.  But the tussle was between the supernatural Jesus of the Gospel accounts and those with fertile minds creating a Jesus as a mere teacher of morality.  Schleiermacher was a promoter of the latter view.  Then there was the Jesus of Kant, an abstract ideal, and the Jesus of Hegel, stammering utterances of ontological ideas.  Then there was the ‘kenosis theory’, in which Christ emptied Himself of all divinity at His incarnation.  And there were the views of Thomasius, Gess, Ebrard, Maretensen, Dorner, Ritschl and others.  Theirs were ideas like the ante-mundane principle of revelation and the self-bestowal of God.  That’s enough!  Berkhof declares that the Christology of modernism is enamoured with a thoroughly naturalistic view of Christ – there is an essential unity of God and man, and all men are divine because God is immanent in all, and Jesus is different only because of His superior God-consciousness.  Thank you, that really is enough!

The Doctrine of Sin and Grace
What is man?  After the Trinitarian Christological controversies it was logical that the Church sorted out the doctrines of grace and sin – that is, true, personal and practical Christianity.  The outstanding problem – the Pelagian controversy.  Sure, said Pelagius, Adam could and did sin, but original sin did not taint the human nature and humans have the free will to achieve human perfection without divine grace.  And though sin was propagated in the human race, it did not involve mankind in guilt.  Sin is the result of weakness and ignorance and infants cannot be regarded as guilty.  Origen, Gregory of Nyssa, Athanasius and Chrysostom avoided the concept of original sin.  Thus their concept of grace was weak.  They emphasised the free will of man rather than divine grace in regeneration.  Special grace and common grace were often not clearly separated.

So much for the Greek Fathers’ anthropology of the second and third centuries.  The third and fourth centuries saw Tertullian, Cyprian, Hilary and Ambrose formulate a better doctrine.  The traducianism of Tertullian replaced the Greek creationism thus leading to the doctrine of innate sin – ‘the propagation of the soul involves the propagation of sin.’  Hilary and Ambrose clearly taught that all men have sinned in Adam and are therefore born in sin, but are not entirely corrupt and so regeneration is synergistic.

And so along comes the Augustinian view of sin and grace.  Converted in a garden in Milan, Augustine was a man of profound religious depths and heights as evident in his Confessions.  In AD 395 he became bishop of Hippo.  By contrast, Pelagius, an austere British monk, was a different sort of man entirely.  Pelagius believed Adam was neutral, neither holy nor sinful, and his free will allowed him to sin or choose not to sin, therefore there is no such thing as original sin.  There is no hereditary transmission of the sinful nature and, because of his free will, man need not sin.  Somewhat weirdly Pelagius said that children are excluded from heaven, but eligible to a lower state called eternal life.

On the other hand, Augustine’s view was contrary and derived largely from the epistle to the Romans.  Man is absolutely dependent upon God and he sins voluntarily, it is self-love rather than love of God.  Adam’s fallen state of guilt and corruption is transmitted to mankind and all are totally depraved, unable to do any spiritual good.  The will still has a certain freedom, from which civil good flows. The will of man needs renewal, exclusively the work of God.  This irresistible grace is not forced against the will, but it changes the will so that man voluntarily chooses.  Berkhof quotes William Shedd (p. 135), ‘Grace is imparted to sinful man, not because he believes, but in order that he may believe; for faith itself is the gift of God.’  There is ‘prevenient grace’ (the Spirit produces a sense of sin and guilt), ‘operative grace’ (the Gospel produces faith in Christ) and ‘co-operative grace’ (the renewed will of man cooperates in life-long sanctification).  All this led to Augustine’s doctrine of predestination.  Initially he made it conditional on the free action of man – God electing those He knew would believe.  Then he modified it so that man’s choice of the good and his faith in Christ are the effect of divine grace.  The elect must persevere.  The elect never die in an unregenerate state.

The Pelagian view collided with the above.  The Greek Fathers recognised that the human will was corrupt but they placed the grace of God and man’s free will side by side.  Pelagius was accused of heresy by various Synods, such as Jerusalem and Diospolis and the Council of Ephesus, but he manged to be acquitted.  Between the two views, a moderate Semi-Pelagian movement arose.  It tended to duck the issues and contrived to place divine grace and human will as factors in the renewal of man, with the latter as the initiator.  Human nature was diseased rather than corrupted.  Predestination was based on foreseen faith and obedience.  Augustine’s views were adopted as the anthropology of the Western Church, but never generally.  For example, the irresistible grace of predestination was supplanted by a sacramental grace of baptism.  The Roman Catholic Church drifted into a Semi-Pelagianism, as did the Eastern Church.

The anthropology of the Middle Ages brings up the great names of Gregory the Great, Gottschalk and Anselm.  Gregory reluctantly became pope in 590.  As a student of Augustine he interpreted him but not always consistently.  For example, he regarded sin as a weakness rather than as guilt, also man had not lost freedom but only the goodness of the will.  Again, the change in man is begun at baptism.  Gottschalk followed Augustine but taught a double predestination – for the lost and the saved.  His opponents accused him of making God the author of sin and he suffered life-long imprisonment for it.  Anselm of Canterbury emphasised original, or natural, sin that passes from father to child.  ‘The sin of Adam was unique; there never was a second like it, because it was the transgression of an individual who included within himself the whole of humanity’ (p. 143).  Berkhof calls this ‘a weak point in the system of Anselm.’  Anselm also offered some rather abstruse points about the freedom of the will.

As already noted, the Roman Catholic Church tended towards a Semi-Pelagian outlook.  It introduced the concept of ‘original righteousness’ as a supernatural rather than a natural gift, which we lost at the Fall and so man lapsed into a conflict between spirit and flesh in which he was neither sinful nor holy.  They adopted the theory of synergism in regeneration – God and man cooperating.

The Reformers followed Augustine and Anselm, but with modifications.  They, for instance, defined the relationship between Adam’s sin and his descendants by the covenant idea.  Calvin stressed that original sin was not mere privation but a total corruption of human nature.  Original sin is something more than a mere absence of original justice.  Though total depravity is the human condition, man, by common grace, can perform acts of civil righteousness.  With total depravity comes absolute dependence on the grace of God.  Luther, Calvin and Zwingli agreed, though Melanchthon was more inclined to a synergistic view.  However, they were strict predestinarians, with Luther and Calvin believing in a double predestination and Melanchthon avoiding the topic as much as possible.

Socinianism was a reaction to the Reformer’s position, it was a revival of the old Pelagian heresy.  Since Adam had no positive holiness, he could not lose it as a result of sin – God is kind, He forgives, therefore no Saviour is needed.  Moreover, this represented a denial of the divinity of Christ and consequently denial of the Trinity.

In the Netherlands during the early seventeen century, Calvinism was confronted by the great Arminian controversy.  Arminius was a student of Beza, at first a strict Calvinist but later adopting the doctrine of universal grace and free will.  It was similar to a Semi-Pelagian position.  Total depravity was rejected and instead the pollution of sin, rather than the guilt of sin, is passed through the generations.  Grace is defined in degrees as prevenient or common grace, the grace of evangelical obedience and the grace of perseverance.  The Arminians believed that since original sin is not a fault, God cannot demand faith.  But if God does bestow grace, known as ‘sufficient grace’, and man resists then man is responsible for being unregenerate.  Absolute election or reprobation were also rejected.

The Synod of Dort was summoned in 1618 and consisted of 84 members plus 18 political delegates who sat through 154 sessions and numerous conferences.  The Arminians appeared not as members, but only as defendants.  It rejected several formulations, including the five Articles of the Arminian’s Remonstrance and instead adopted five thoroughly Calvinistic Canons.  The decisions of the Synod shaped the future doctrines of the Reformed Churches.

The School of Saumur attempted to tone down the Calvinism of Dort.  For example, Amyraldus distinguished between a universal and conditional, and a limited and unconditional, decree.  In the former, God provided universal salvation through Christ, in the latter, because none would believe He gave then the necessary grace of faith and repentance.  And Placaeus denied the imputation of Adam’s sin to his posterity via mediate and consequent imputation.

The post-Reformation period saw no Synods or Councils that formulated new dogmas.  However, there are two divergent views that deserve mention.  First, the Arminian view of Wesleyan Arminianism characterised by a warm evangelical piety.  It stresses original sin and man’s guilt cancelled for all men in Christ according to free grace.  In New England, Jonathan Edwards and others argued the divine connection with the entrance of sin.  To create a moral universe entails the creation of free moral agents with the power of contrary choice and thus possible sin.  Edwards overemphasised the determinate character of the will and was charged with determinism, yet man possessed moral freedom and still does – when he exercised it he brought sin into the world.  Edwards adopted the realistic theory for the transmission of sin – we are connected to Adam as the branches of a tree.  His sin is our sin and is imputed to us as such.

On the nature and origin of sin, various philosophers of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, expressed themselves.  Leibnitz saw sin as metaphysical rather than ethical.  Kant postulated a ‘radical evil’ in man but did not consider it original sin.  Hegel considered sin as a necessary step in the evolution of man as a self-conscious spirit which occurred at the Fall – thus becoming selfish and evil.  Schleiermacher regarded sin as the necessary product of man’s sensuous nature, but denied the objective reality of sin for it occurs only in our consciousness.  Mueller agreed with Kant that sin is a free act of the will in disobedience but was quite unable to describe its origin.  Ritschl agreed with Hegel that sin is a species of ignorance and necessary in man’s moral development.  How can God be angry with the sinner?  And Tennant developed a doctrine of sin enmeshed with evolutionary theory.  Thus, impulses, desires and so on are the material of sin and do not become actual sin until indulged in ‘contrary to the individual’s conscience, to his notion of what is right and wrong, his knowledge of the moral law and the will of God.’  Tennant states that to become better is ‘a stupendously difficult task.’

The Doctrine of the Atonement
The work of Christ was most significantly stated by Apostolic Fathers in the Epistle of Mathetes to Diognetus, an early written example of Christian apologetics – man’s sin deserves punishment, God’s Son is the ransom, so sin is covered by Christ’s righteousness.  Irenaeus stands between the West and the East and agreed with the Apologists – the death of Christ satisfies the justice of God and therefore liberates man.  He also supported the rather weird ‘recapitulation theory’ by which Christ reverses all the stages in Adam’s history and so by His obedience compensates for Adam’s disobedience.  Clement of Alexandria represented Christ’s death as a payment of man’s debt and as a ransom.  Athanasius maintained that the Logos became incarnate to restore to man the true knowledge of God.  Others also posit the idea that Satan was deceived in the transaction of Christ’s redemption, some believing that a ransom was paid to Satan.  Chrysostom, Cyril and others stress the immense value of the death of Christ.

Latin patristic theology begins with Tertullian – the mission of Christ was His death on the cross.  Yet his significant contribution is marked by the introduction of legal terms like guilt, satisfaction and merit.  Thus he laid the foundation of Roman Catholic penance.  Hilary of Poitiers reinforces the Greek idea that the restoration of humanity is by the incarnation.  Ambrose repeats Origen’s idea that Christ paid a ransom to Satan and practised deceit on him.  Unexpectedly Augustine adds little to the doctrine of the work of Christ.  He again emphasises original sin, justification by grace and reconciliation by the sacrifice of Christ.  However, Anselm delivered a better articulated statement of atonement.  And finally, Gregory the Great produced a fine synthesis of ancient Latin theology.

Five centuries separate Gregory and Anselm – the latter, an Italian Benedictine monk and later the archbishop of Canterbury, initiated a systematic study of the doctrine of atonement, specifically in his book, Cur Deus Homo (Why God Became Man).  He rejects the recapitulation and the ransom-to-Satan theories.  Rather, there was an absolute necessity for an atoning sacrifice by Christ.  God had been robbed of His honour and restoration could be by either punishment or satisfaction.  God chose the latter.  But man was incapable of producing such satisfaction, so in the immutable God’s mercy only the gift of the sinless, obedient, voluntary God-man would make satisfactory reparation.  Berkhof’s assessment (pp. 172-3) is worth reading.  This is supererogation, beyond the call of duty.  Anselm provided a good start, but it needed improving.

Abelard’s theory was different.  All God requires is penance and He is ready to forgive the penitent.  Christ displays God’s love, which finds a response in the sinner’s heart (Luke 7:47).  This newly-awakened love redeems us from the power of sin so that we freely obey God.  If this leads to justification, why then is baptism necessary?, asked his detractors.  Yet Abelard made love the central issue in what is known as the ‘moral influence theory’ and he erroneously ignored the demands of God’s justice and holiness and Christ’s sufferings, making Christ a mere moral teacher.

Bernard of Clairvaux added little.  Peter the Lombard, Bonaventura and even Thomas Aquinas adopted elements from Anselm and Abelard but produced no improved doctrine of atonement.  Interestingly, Aquinas maintained that redemption was not absolutely necessary because God could have let mankind perish in its sin, however God chose to demand satisfaction so the incarnation was necessary because a mere man could not atone for sin committed against an infinite God.  But on the whole, Aquinas’s Dominican (the official theology of the Church of Rome) contribution was disappointing.

In contrast, Duns Scotus (1266
1308), the Scottish Catholic priest, is regarded as the founder of Franciscan theology.  For him, the atonement depends upon the arbitrary will of God.  Satisfaction is demanded only because God willed it.  One pious act by Adam might have atoned for his first sin.  Or an angel could have achieved it.  But from eternity, God ordained the passion of Christ would be the means for the salvation of the predestined – and God was willing to accept it as effectual.  This is the ‘acceptation theory’ of the atonement.

The Reformers tended to side with Anselm, whereas the Roman Catholic Church agreed mostly with Aquinas.  The former agree on the objective nature of the atonement and both regard it as a necessity.  Yet there are differences.  Anselm saw sin as primarily an infringement on the honour of God.  The Reformers saw it as transgression of the law of God and therefore as guilt rather than insult, so the atonement is a penal sacrifice to satisfy the justice of God.  It was satisfaction through punishment – the sufferings of Christ were both penal and vicarious.  They also distinguished between the active and passive obedience in the mediating work of Christ.  Lastly, the Reformers stressed the importance of the mystical union which transfers the blessings of salvation, and how a man appropriates the righteousness of Christ – the act of faith.

Along comes Socinus to attack the above.  He disliked the idea of the justice of God, ‘as requires absolutely and inexorably that sin be punished.’  Either God forgives freely or He forgives for the sake of Christ.  Socinus plumps for the former.  Moreover, he thought that satisfaction and imputation were self-contradictory.  Overall, according to Berkhof (p. 185), the Socinian concept is, ‘a concoction of several heresies condemned by the early Church’ including Pelagianism, the Adoptionist doctrine and so on.  And according to Berkhof (p. 186), it is, ‘a mere abstract play of human logic.’  Grotius devised a middle way between the Reformers and the Socinian view.  While God intended the law to be valid and binding, God reserved the right to ‘relax’ it.  The sinner deserves death, but the sentence is not strictly executed – a relaxation in the law takes place, which for the sinner is remission.

The Arminian view was constructed largely by Curcellaeus and Limborch.  The death of Christ is regarded mainly as a sacrificial offering, not as a payment for debt, nor satisfaction of justice, nor as a substituted penalty.  In other words, Christ did not endure the full penalty of sin since He did not suffer eternal death either in time or degree.  So God cannot demand faith and obedience, nor to punish the sinner if he fails to obey because that would exact double punishment for one and the same sin.  Furthermore, the atonement is general and universal – for all mankind’s sins and for every individual.  It is general in divine intention, but not universally effective because of the obstinacy of the sinner.  The Synod of Dort opposed this Arminianism.  The atonement was quite sufficient for all men, but it was intended only for those to whom it was effectively applied, for the elect, because of special grace.  Again, the School of Saumur attempted to tone down Dort.  Amyraldus taught a hypothetical universalism – all men should be saved on condition of repentance and faith, but none would repent and believe, so God subsequently elected some to be the objects of His saving grace.  It was an untenable position – some landed in the Arminian camp and others in the Calvinistic camp.

After the Reformation, Neonomianism appeared in England and then in Scotland.  Christ met all the conditions of the covenant of works so His work can be called our legal righteousness, a new law, the law of the Gospel, which requires faith and conversion, which are equal to the believer’s evangelical righteousness.  This latter is the ground for justification rather than the imputed righteousness of Christ – the covenant of grace was therefore turned into a covenant of works.  It was Arminianism under a new name.  Edward Fisher opposed the position in his 1645 book, The Marrow of Modern Divinity and his supporters, Thomas Boston and the two Erskines were known as Marrow-men.

Friedrich Schleiermacher rejected the doctrine of penal substitution.  And he stressed the incarnation as the central fact of redemption.  He adhered to the ‘mystical theory’ of the atonement, which is thoroughly subjective and therefore strictly no theory of the atonement at all.  Ritschl denied the need of a vicarious atonement – reconciliation consists of a change of attitude to God and primarily leads to a redeemed community, the Kingdom of God, rather than individual benefits.

The preceding theories appear again and again, sometimes as copies, sometimes as mixtures.  The ‘New England theory’ reveals a downward trend.  At first, penal substitution was accepted, but was soon lost to the Governmental Theory of Grotius.  Atonement was universal not limited, active obedience was dismissed and only the sufferings of Christ had redemptive significance.  A moral element was needed.  Horace Bushnell introduced the Moral Influence Theory.  Bushnell rejected the penal and ‘governmental theories’.  He saw Christ as the great exemplar who broke down man’s opposition and gained his love.  Though early on he rejected the idea that God had to be propitiated, he later adopted it.  His thinking was self-propitiation by self-sacrifice.  So God’s self-sacrifice overcame His resentment to forgiveness, and thus made objective atonement.  Frederick Denison Maurice said that Christ was not a substitute for, but the representative of, the human race – an eternal second Adam.  Thus all men are redeemed, irrespective of their faith.  McLeod Campbell championed vicarious repentance.  While admiring Owen and Edwards he thought their approach was too legal and lacking in love.  Yet his approach lacks a biblical basis and falls short of the seriousness of sin.  Finally, there is the ‘mystical theory’ of the atonement similar to that of Schleiermacher.  It is also known as the ‘theory of gradually extirpated depravity’ (!).  For example, Edward Irving maintained that Christ assumed human nature as it was in Adam after the Fall.  But through the power of the Holy Spirit, He was able to suppress the corrupt human nature, gradually purifying it through His sufferings and completely extirpating the original depravity by His death and thus reuniting it to God.  Man is thus saved not by any objective propitiation, but by becoming partakers of Christ’s new humanity of faith.

The Doctrine of Divine Grace
If the above explains the objective doctrine of the atonement, how are its benefits to be subjectively enjoyed?  The early Church Fathers were not helpful – their teachings were indefinite, imperfect and incomplete.  Yet they agreed that the blessings of salvation were obtained by ‘repentance toward God, and faith in our Lord Jesus Christ.’  Not that they had a full idea of faith and repentance.  Faith was regarded as the main instrument for the reception of the merits of Christ – it consisted of a true knowledge of God, confidence in Him and self-committal to Him.  Jesus and His atoning blood was its special object.  These ideas were also those of the Apostolic Fathers.  The later Fathers (Irenaeus and Origen) and the Latin Fathers (Tertullian, Cyprian and Ambrose) followed suit, though their expression of faith was rather vague – was it intellectual assent and self-surrender?  Was it more than moralism and a new law and dependent upon the will of man?  Similarly, repentance was unclear and often attached to an amendment of life and the necessity of good works, liberal almsgiving, abstinence from marriage, and so on – it was legal rather than evangelical.  And during these three centuries, there is a drift towards ceremonialism – baptism, penance, intercessions of confessors and martyrs.  Not all agreed.  Yet to understand this departure from the teachings of Scripture Berkhof (p. 205) quotes Rudolf Sohm, ‘the natural man is a born Catholic.
’   Others, like Pelagius dismissed the biblical foundation and adopted something akin to a heathen philosophy – man could obtain salvation by keeping the law.

Augustine was more helpful.  With his biblical orthodoxy of man’s depravity, God’s objective grace, forgiveness and so on, he realised that more was needed – an internal supernatural influence of the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 4:7) so that the will is inclined to holiness.  This grace is according to God’s goodness and not to the merits of man.  It is irresistible in the sense that it renews the heart.  Faith marks the beginning of the Christian life and the source of all good works.  Augustine distinguishes between faith in general and Christian faith as well as believing Christ and believing in Christ – the latter occurs only when one loves Him.  Christian faith is a faith that works by love.  In justification God does not merely declare the sinner but makes the sinner righteous.  Nevertheless, he failed to distinguish clearly between justification and sanctification.  Yet Augustine’s doctrinal system refers everything to the grace of God.

The Semi-Pelagians took an intermediate stance, denying man’s depravity but recognising man’s inability to save himself.  Irresistible grace does not exist.  It is the will of man that believes and perseveres.  Various Synods and Councils rejected such Semi-Pelagianism.

Even so Augustinianism underwent some modifications allied to ceremonialism and work-righteousness.  The grace of God is sometimes dependent on the Church and the sacraments, regeneration can be lost, the doctrine of free grace and faith are hard to reconcile.  Grace is not primarily involved in the forgiveness of sins but in regeneration that enables a man to do good works and to merit everlasting life.  Hence struggles existed in the Church between Semi-Pelagianism and Augustinianism.  Predestination was largely abandoned and a shift towards the sacramental grace of baptism occurred, a position close to popular Catholicism.  Other heterodox doctrines were held by some – an overemphasis on good works, belief as assent to an orthodox creed, works of mercy and self-discipline were commended, divine commands and evangelical counsels were confused and lead into monasticism, the practice of saint worship, especially of the virgin Mary.  Saints had a superabundance of good works which could be transferred to others, salvation was dependent upon baptism, outside of the Church there was no salvation.  Even Augustine taught that children who die unbaptised were lost.

On one point the Scholastics agreed with Augustinianism – man could not do without the aid of sufficient grace.  Peter the Lombard mainly aligned with Augustine.  He considered two operations of grace – enabling a man to turn to God and a cooperation with the will of man to bring about the desired effect.  The free will of man acts, but divine grace assists in a co-operating principle.

During this period there was a tendency to distinguish between faith as a form of knowledge and faith as a form of spiritual affection.  As already noted, Augustine and Peter the Lombard distinguished this as to believe God and to believe in God, so as to love Him, go to Him, cleave to Him.  This later led to faith as assent and faith as powered by love – fides informis and fides formata.  At the same time the Roman Catholic priesthood stressed the idea of faith as unquestioning submission to the authority of the Church.

Augustine’s confusion over justification and sanctification was intensified by the Schoolmen.  Justification is effected by the infusion of sanctifying grace and the forgiveness of sins by God and a turning of the free will of man to God through faith and contrition.  They never considered it was mere imputation of the righteousness of Christ to the sinner.  They could not, however, agree on the order of the various elements.  Aquinas stated first, the infusion of grace, then a turning of the free will to God, a turning of the free will against sin and finally, the remission of sin.  Others devised other orders.  And questions surfaced.  Is justification instantaneous or progressive?  Is assurance relative or absolute?  Can ordinary believers have an assured faith?  Then there was the idea of merit.  Aquinas spoke of ‘merit of condignity’ and ‘merit of congruity’ – the former belongs to Christ, the latter belongs to man.  The Thomists considered the former may sometimes be obtained after sanctification.

The Roman Catholic doctrine of application and appropriation of divine grace became clearer.  Children receive regeneration at baptism.  Others in later years may receive sufficient grace, to which they can resist or yield.  Yielding consists of seven elements of preparation – assent to the truth taught by the Church; insight into one’s sinful condition; hope in the mercy of God; the beginning of love to God; an abhorrence of sin; a resolution to obey the commandments of God; a desire for baptism.  Faith is not central here, it is mere intellectual assent to the Church’s teachings.  The gift of salvation may be lost though unbelief and by mortal sin.  It may be regained by the sacrament of penance consisting of contrition, confession together with absolution and works of satisfaction.  Guilt of sin and eternal punishment are removed by absolution, the temporal penalties of sin are cancelled by works of satisfaction.

As penances and indulgences developed in the Roman Catholic Church so Luther took up the work of reformation.  He saw in Romans 1:17 that man is justified by faith alone and the repentance of Matthew 4:17 had nothing to do with the Roman works of satisfaction.  He needed no confessional nor satisfaction rendered by man.  He needed a heartfelt sorrow, a desire to lead a new life and the forgiving grace of God in Christ.  Sin and grace became central again.  The distinctives of mediaeval theology were rejected.

At first, Luther saw repentance was a fruit of faith, but later he placed it before faith as wrought by the law.  Lutheran theologians of the seventeenth century used Acts 26:17-18 rather artificially to delineate the order, the ordo salutis, as calling, illumination, conversion, regeneration, justification, renovation and glorification.  Such a start does not necessarily lead to the end.  The grace of God is always resistible and may be lost – man can frustrate the divine operation, so it depends upon man.

Calvin had a different format.  He took the starting-point in eternal election – all the blessings come from a living union, both legal and mystical, with Christ.  He and Luther agreed on the doctrine of justification by faith – an act of free grace.  It is instantaneous and not progressive.  By contrast the Arminians taught that God bestowed a universal grace on man sufficient to enable him to believe and obey.  Then, if he assents to the truth, he receives a greater measure of divine grace.  This produced the ordo salutis known as Neonomianism – this leads eventually to regard Christ as a great prophet and teacher and so man has only to follow Him to obtain salvation.

Methodism is a more pietistic form of Arminianism.  It is averse to the idea of gradual conversion.  Berkhof explains it (p. 222) thus, ‘It concentrates all efforts in preaching of the Gospel on a single point: casting the sinner down by the preaching of the law, dragging him, as it were, to the very brink of the abyss, filling his heart with fear and trembling; and then placing him at once before the glorious Gospel of redemption, and pleading with him to accept Jesus Christ by faith and be saved from eternal damnation.’  The upshot for the believing sinner is a passing from ‘the greatest misery into the most rapturous ecstasy, and from the deepest gloom into the most transcendent joy.’

Other professed a different order of salvation.  The Antinomians see no room between Christ in procuring and the Holy Spirit in applying the blessings of saving grace – it is as if Christ did it all, so we are justified, regenerated and sanctified, that is, perfect in Him.  So man’s sins are not really sins, but merely works of the old man since he is free from the law and perfect in Christ.

Then some in Germany, England and the Netherlands claimed that the essential element was experience – true faith is experience, as seen in those who are reputed to be the ‘oaks of righteousness’.  They held that the law should be preached to all, but the Gospel only to certain ‘qualified’ sinners.  They had to be terrorised, agonisingly struggle, feel the pangs of accusing of conscience, and so forth.  Their refuge-seeking faith precedes justification and then, only after various ups and downs, is an assurance of salvation granted to a few, by a voice, a vision, a word from Scripture, or similar means.

The Church and the Sacraments
For the Apostolic Fathers and the Apologetes, the Church was generally regarded as the people of God, and poorly understood as the true Israel.  By the second century some external definition was needed, so the Church was regarded as an external institution, ruled by a bishop as a successor of the apostles and in possession of the true tradition.  The local churches were regarded as parts of the universal Church.  Other ‘sects’, such as Montanism, Novatianism and Donatism from the second to fourth centuries, made holiness the true mark because of the increasing secularisation, worldliness and corruption of the Church.

The Church Fathers emphasised the episcopal institution of the Church.  Cyprian was the first to develop such a doctrine – the bishops were chosen by Christ as the successors of the apostles (Matthew 16:18).  The bishop was the absolute ruler, deciding who was in or out, who might be restored, conducting worship as a priest of God offering sacrifices.  The bishops formed a college, the episcopate, and their parity and unity represented the unity of the Church – the bishop of Rome had no primacy.  True members will always obey and remain in the Church, outside of which there is no salvation.  Thus, the idea of a catholic Church was born.  Berkhof cites (p. 229) William Cunningham who called it ‘Cyprian’s grand contribution to the progress of error and corruption in the Church.’

Augustine struggled with the Donatists, but sadly his understanding of the Church did not harmonise with his views on sin and grace.  He was a somewhat dualist.  First, the Church was the company of the elect with an invisible unity.  Second, he is the church-man who upheld Cyprian’s ideas, plus God forgives sins in baptism and in the Lord’s Supper God gives spiritual refreshment.  Even so, the Church was a mixed body of good and evil members, but destined for perfect purity.  What about the elect who never join the Church – is salvation dependent on membership?

In the Middle Ages little advance was made in the doctrine of the Church, but the Church grew in its primacy of Rome and its identity as the Kingdom of God.  By the fourth and fifth centuries it became established that Christ had given Peter primacy over the other apostles and he became the first bishop of Rome, a position to pass onto his successors and recognised by Emperor Justinian in AD 533.  In AD 607, Boniface III accepted the title ‘Universal Bishop’.  It marked the beginning of Popery.  The Catholic Church thus became the Kingdom of God and all endeavours were accomplished within it.  Life assumed a one-sided Churchly character.  The life of hermits and monks became the grand ideal.  Moreover all the blessings of salvation came to man through the ordinances of the Church.  But worldliness took the place of other-worldliness – the Church was becoming secular and political.

It was not until after the Reformation that the Roman Catholic ideas of the Church were officially formulated.  Yet many were not ready to admit all ecclesiastical authority belonged primarily to the Pope – they were Episcopalian in their ideas. The Tridentine Catechism defines the Church as ‘the body of all the faithful … with one invisible head, Christ, and one visible head, the successor of Peter.’ So the Church can be considered as a continuation of the incarnation.  There is a difference between the teaching Church (ecclesia docens, the whole clerus) and the believing Church (ecclesia audiens, all the faithful).  She is the only one, catholic, apostolic, infallible and perpetual Church.  She is like a human, body and soul.  The latter consists of the called faithful, the former are those who profess true faith, the just and sinners.  The graces and blessings are distributed exclusively through the agency of the clergy – the ecclesia docens precedes the ecclesia audiens and is far superior to it.  The Church is an institute of salvation, a saving ark.  She has three functions, ministry of the Word; sanctify by means of the sacraments; govern by ecclesiastical law.  The order of salvation is not that God leads men to Church, but that the Church leads men to the Word and to Christ.

The Reformation had a different perspective.  Luther rejected the idea of an infallible Church, a special priesthood and magical sacraments.  The Church was a spiritual communion, established and sustained by its head, Christ.  The oneness of the Church was composed of two aspect, the invisible (spiritual, faith, communion, etc.) and visible (external, but with no visible head, known by preaching the Word and sacraments).

The Anabaptists reacted strongly against the Roman externalisation of the Church.  The Church is composed of believers only.  They demanded the separation of Church and State – can a Christian be a magistrate, swear an oath, go to war?

The Reformed view was similar to Luther’s.  The Church is a spiritual entity, as in the invisible Church.  The subjective communion is of great importance than for Lutherans.  For some, salvation extends beyond the borders of the visible Church – God may save ‘how, when and where He pleases’.  The marks of the Church are the Word, the sacraments and discipline.  But, of course, there were differences as to the government of the Church.

This altered view of the Church made way for multiformity, as in various Confessions.  There were also various views of the invisible and visible – one was sacrificed at the expense of the other.  The Socinians spoke of the invisible, but practically forgot it.  The Arminians also insisted it was primarily visible and they yielded the right of discipline to the State.  The opposite view, namely, the disregard of the visible, was also evident by such as Jean de Labadie in 1666 – only true believers might belong to the Church.  Pietism increased and the world was regarded as ‘the organism of sin’ and to be shunned, so that there was indifference towards the institutionalised Church.  This was similarly seen in Methodism and the Salvation Army.

After the Reformation, the Roman Catholic Church moved to an absolute hierarchy.  Some, like the Gallican Party said the Pope may err, but others, like the Jesuits and the Ultramontane Party opposed this view.  In 1791, fifteen hundred English Catholics signed a statement denying that papal infallibility was a dogma of the Church.  In 1870, the Vatican Council declared that the Roman Pontiff when speaking ex cathedra was infallible.  The Germans could not approve and formed the ‘Old Catholic Church’.  The Catholics gloried in their unity compared with the Protestants, though it was often more apparent than real, often more corporate uniformity than a unity of spirit and purpose.  Besides infallibility, growing numbers of monastic orders caused bitter disputes.

The Doctrine of the Sacraments
Sacraments is the term used in the NT to designate something not in the OT.  But it later connoted anything mysterious and incomprehensible.  This accounts for its wide use in the early Christian centuries.  Tertullian applied it to the works of creation and of the Son.  The sign of the cross, the salt for the catechumens, ordination of priest, marriage, exorcism, the celebration of the Sabbath – all were ‘sacraments’, though baptism and the Lord’s Supper predominantly were such.

The Scholastics generally followed the Augustinian concept of sacraments as visible signs of invisible grace.  There was no agreement about their number – from 5 to 30.  But Peter the Lombard was the first to name the well-known Roman Catholic Seven, which were adopted by the Council of Florence in 1439.  They are baptism, confirmation, eucharist, penance, priestly consecration, marriage and extreme unction.  The Council of Trent further recognised and defined these, though largely disconnected them from the Word.

By contrast, Luther, Calvin and Zwingli opposed the Roman view and anchored the sacraments in the Word – they are signs and seals.  They disagreed on some points.  The sacraments impart grace, forgiving grace, which bears on the guilt of man’s sin and their operation and fruit require faith.  They are memorials and badges of profession.  They are merely the instruments that communicate grace and nourish and strengthen faith.  Others disagreed.  For example, Zwingli, the Socinians and Arminians believed they communicate no grace.  They are signs of the covenant between God and man.  Moreover, in the nineteenth century, many Neo-Lutherans and the Puseyites advocated a thinking closer to that of the Roman Church.

Baptism was always a key issue.  Some of the Early Church Fathers almost taught baptismal regeneration.  Tertullian taught that the rite itself produced the remission of sins.  Infant baptism was quite common, though many insisted on adults only.  Baptism was for once only.  Was it valid if administered by heretics?  The mode was not the essence.

From the second century on, baptism took on an almost magical property.  Augustine partly agreed though he considered that faith and repentance were also needed.  Yet he said infants who died unbaptized were lost.  He supported infant baptism because it enables a child to belong to Christ and His Church.  This led to the Roman view that baptism is the sacrament of regeneration and initiation into the Church – effective for all who do not put an obstacle in the way.  The Reformers opposition to this view was patchy – the German Reformers retained many of the Catholic ceremonies, such as the sign of the cross, exorcism, sponsorship, and so on.  Luther thought the water was not simply common water.  And the Anabaptists, anti-paedobaptists, rose to rebaptise those who were baptised as infants because the latter was invalid.  The Reformed insisted baptism was for believers.  So can, and how can, children be regarded as believers?  And can the baptismal spiritual benefit of strengthening faith be communicated where there is no active faith?  Parents are granted assurance that their child is under the covenant and it is a source of consolation for the child growing up.  Children of believers are covenant children and entitled to baptism.  They are assumed to be regenerated until to the contrary in doctrine or life.  What about the child who reveals no signs of spiritual life?  Was there no general rule regarding these matters?  Perhaps the effects of baptism were not necessarily linked to its time of administration.  Was it not a seal of divine grace but just a mere act of profession?

In pre-Reformation times, the Lord’s Supper used to be accompanied by a common meal with ingredients as gifts called oblations and sacrifices.  Then the legitimate thanksgiving for the gifts became a priestly consecration of the elements, which lead to the doctrine of the flesh and blood of Christ somehow combined with the bread and wine and thus the doctrine of transubstantiation.  Augustine distinguished between the sign and the thing signified – the bread and wine remain unchanged – and he stressed the commemorative aspect of the rite.

During the Middle Ages, the Roman view grew.  In AD 818, Paschasius Radbert said the elements literally changed into the very body that was born of Mary.  The outward appearance of the elements being a mere veil that deceives the senses.  Some opposed the view saying that it confounded the sign and the thing signified, and it replaced faith by gross materialism.  A furious controversy ensued.  Some said the body of Christ was present, not in essence, but in power and that faith on the part of recipient was essential.  Transubstantiation became an article of faith at the Lateran Council of 1215 and confirmed by the Council of Trent (1545–1563).  Christ is present, before, during and after the rite, hence the adoration of the host and the festival of Corpus Christi.

The Reformers en masse rejected the ‘sacrificial theory’ and transubstantiation.  After that there was little agreement.  Luther taught the elements were signs and seals, but later assumed a bodily presence of Christ, the doctrine of consubstantiation.  Zwingli opposed the idolatry of the mass and denied the bodily, though not the spiritual presence, taking ‘is’ to mean ‘signifies’.  He stressed symbols and commemoration.  Calvin took an intermediate position.  He disagreed with Zwingli, first, that he placed too much emphasis on the activity of the believer rather than the grace of God.  Second, it is nothing more than an expression of belief.  Yet he agreed with Luther that Christ is not bodily, but really and essentially present.  This Calvinistic view, that Christ is spiritually present and in the sacrament imparts Himself and His spiritual blessings to believers, dominated the Reformed sector.  The Zwinglian view paved the way for Rationalism so that the Socinians, Arminians and Mennonites saw the Lord’s Supper as a memorial, an act of profession and a means for moral improvement.  Confusion reigned so that by the nineteenth century in the UK the High Church and the Oxford Movement looked like Rome.

The Doctrine of the Last Things
This is one of the least developed Christian doctrines.  According to the Apostolic Fathers at death the believer immediately inherits the heavenly glory and the wicked suffer hell.  The Church Fathers reflected on the intermediate state, between death and resurrection.  Justin was among the first to suggest a place waiting for judgement.  The later Fathers, including Irenaeus, Tertullian, Hilary, Ambrose Cyril and even Augustine, maintained the dead descend into Hades, a place of various divisions to await judgement, or according to Augustine, until they are sufficiently purified.  As the Parousia became more distant, the Hades idea looked stranger.  Martyrs went at once to glory.  The descent of Christ into Hades delivered the OT saints.  And the meritoriousness of good works was also a key to heaven.  So Hades was bereft of righteous inhabitants, left only to the wicked and so a place of punishment, Gehenna.  Origen taught that Christ transported all the righteous from Hades to paradise.  Because many Christians are not sufficiently pure for life in heaven the notion of some form of purification was conceived, perhaps by purgatorial fire.

Gregory the Great, known as the inventor of purgatory, stressed the idea plus deliverance from fire by intercessory payers and oblations.  It was developed further by the mediaeval Scholastics and Mystics.  The Greek Church dismissed this Western concept.  Purgatory was reckoned to be a division of Hades, nearest to hell.  It was there that unbaptised children lived eternally without suffering pain.  Paradise, or Abraham’s bosom, was yet further away where the OT worthies were retained until the descent of Christ into Hades.  The doctrine of purgatory was affirmed by the Council of Trent 1546.  From then on, selling indulgencies became big business.  Towards the end of the Middle Ages the doctrine was opposed by pre-Reformation men like Wyclif and Hus.  The Reformers, especially Luther, rejected the whole doctrine as contrary to Scripture.

The early Christians were taught to look out for the return of Jesus and many thought it would be imminent.  Revelations 20:1-6 led some Church Fathers to distinguish between a first and second resurrection with an intervening millennial kingdom.  Some overjoyed at the splendours of that age, egged on by Papias and Irenaeus.  Others, like Barnabas, Hermas, Justin and Tertullian, avoided the extravagances.  But it was not generally accepted, as the Pre-millenarians said, in the first three centuries – there is no trace of it in most of the Church Fathers.

The Millenarianism of the early Church was gradually overcome.  When Christ’s return was not apparent and Christianity had overcome persecution, and was even the State religion, the Church turned to other tasks.  Augustine was especially influential in turning the Church from the future to the present as the Kingdom of God – look for the millennium in the current Christian dispensation.

During the Middle Ages, Millenarianism became regarded as heretical.  In the tenth century there was a widespread expectation of the end of the world.  At the Reformation, the doctrine of millenarianism was rejected by the Protestant Church, apart from a few sects like some Anabaptists and the Fifth Monarchy Men.  The general condemnation was that before the day of judgement there shall be a golden age on the earth.  During the seventeenth century several Lutheran and Reformed theologians advocated a more spiritual concept of the millennium – before the end of the world and Christ’s return there will be a period of the spiritual presence of Christ in the Church and a universal religious awakening.  This was the early form of Post-millennialism.  During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries millennialism was favoured in some circles.  Great differences existed among Pre-millenarians regarding the order of events.  Some tried to fix the date of Christ’s return.  More popular was the idea that the return would be followed by a temporary visible reign of Christ on earth, but this was generally dismissed by most theologians.  In liberal circles a new form of Post-millennialism has appeared – the expected Kingdom will consist of a new social order of peace, justice and spiritual glory.  As yet the doctrine of the millennium has never been embodied in any Confession and therefore cannot be regarded as a dogma of the Church.

The resurrection of the body was believed by most of the early Church Fathers.  Would the future body be the same as present?  Clement of Alexandria was uncertain.  Origen rejected the idea of similarity – the future body would be refined and spiritualised.  However, most held to a position of similarity.  Augustine agreed with Origen, then changed to the prevalent view and even thought all the resurrected would be fully-grown in stature.  Jerome insisted on identicalness, even to the hairs and teeth!  The West favoured a more corporal viewpoint, the East favoured a spiritual view.  Chrysostom and Synesius agreed with Origen.  Some suggested the analogy of seed and plant, others spoke of double resurrection – the pious at the beginning, the wicked at the end of the millennium.  The Scholastics speculated.  Thomas Aquinas strangely spoke of those alive at the Parousia will first die and then be raised with the rest, and the resurrection will take place towards evening and all will be in the bloom of youth and not subject to growth!  The bodies of the wicked will be ugly and subject to much suffering.  Reformation theologians were agreed – the resurrection body would be identical with the present body and this is included in the confessional standards of many Churches.  On the other hand, liberalism means that Churches either deny the resurrection or explain it away figuratively.  They will be shocked!

The earliest Church Fathers had little so say about the last judgement, except to stress its certainty.  Most agree that the saints in heaven will enjoy different degrees of blessings commensurate with their earthly virtues.  The punishment of the wicked is eternal – Origen excepted, who considered chastisement is more fitting leading to a final restoration of all things.  The later Fathers held to a final judgement, but spoke in rhetorical fashion with little information.  Augustine held a figurative view – the living and the dead will be judged but he was unsure how long this judgement will last.  There was no unanimity about the blessedness of heaven.  What will communication be like, bodily fetters, true liberty and so forth?  Degrees of bliss and torment were commonly believed – both were eternal.  Belief in material fire was commonplace, though separation from God and a consciousness of their own wickedness was believed by some.

The Scholastics concentrated on heaven’s and hell’s location.  Heaven was in three parts – visible heavens (the firmament), spiritual heaven (saints and angels), and intellectual heaven (where the blessed enjoy the vision of God).  Similarly, the underworld was hell (devils and the damned) and intermediate (purgatory, unbaptised children, OT saints).

The Reformers simply affirmed that Christ will come again to judge the world.  There will be a general judgement at the end of the world and a particular judgement at the time of death.  The former sees divine justice making final awards. They also promoted the idea of eternal bliss and eternal torment.  Some Anabaptists taught restorationism and some Socinians taught the annihilation of the wicked.  The topic of fire was unresolved.  The doctrine of future rewards and punishments, as taught by the Reformation, was standard.  The doctrine of conditional immortality was raised in the mid-1850s.  A few Universalists believe in universal salvation and the restoration of all things.

In conclusion

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. 

First, what Berkhof wrote is undoubtedly a theologian’s history book.  I was often way out of my comfort zone and scholarly depth.  Who, for example, are Hegenbach, Neander, Sheldon, Harnack, Loofs and Seeberg?  Never heard of any of them.  Yet within a page or two I was back at home with chums such as, Tertullian, Origen, Augustine, Anselm, Thomas Aquinas, Luther and Calvin.

Second, this was one of the most difficult books that I have read cover to cover – at times, it made my brain ache.  Of course, technically, it consisted of full-on theology with a thick overlay of history.  Turning the tables I suspect Berkhof would struggle to comprehend my usual diet of bioethics issues.  Here is the payoff – it is relatively easy, but probably stultifying, to stay studying in one’s specialist domain, which is why I am glad to jump out and change lanes occasionally to rattle that brain.  Thank you lockdown!

Third, the structure of this book is at times somewhat leaden.  Chapter headings such as, The Doctrine of the Trinity and The Doctrine of the Sacraments are sufficiently uncomplicated, but Section titles such as, The Anti-Gnostic Fathers and Post-Reformation Anthropological Views proved to be formidable.  Thankfully, there are some helps along the way – mini summary statements in the margins are useful and indexes of names and subjects are included at the book’s end.  But like swimming in the sea at Aberystwyth, it is initially daunting, but once you’re in, it is bearable, then tolerable and finally almost comfortable.

Fourth, Berkhof’s writing style is heavy.  It comes from another, more formal age – the book was, after all, written in the 1930s.  There is nothing light about the topic and nothing jolly or anecdotal to alleviate that load.  But beyond that, Berkhof can muddle the reader, at least this one, by a lack of clarity.  At times it was difficult to identify his arguments – which side of the fence was he defending?  Was he for or against Cyprian’s or Augustine’s view of the Church?  Was he really opposing Arminianism, which sometimes looked so attractive and orthodox?  Or what about the order of salvation – is it faith before or after repentance, and was Luther or Calvin correct?  And there was a surprising lack of references to Scripture – I doubt if more than 10 verses were quoted.  At the end of each Section there are Questions for Further Study.  While I dutifully read all of them, I was frustrated that most could not be answered by merely reading Berkhof’s text.  I suppose the key is in the word ‘Further’.  These and the concluding list of books may well be helpful, though they are by now thoroughly outdated with nothing referenced for the last 80 years.

Fifth, there were some doctrinal surprises – that was partly what I was anticipating.  For example, while I understand the arguments concerning infant baptism, I had not appreciated that baptismal regeneration was a doctrinal stance so widespread and recent.  Or what about double predestination?  And while I knew of Thomas Aquinas and his Dominican theology, I had never heard of Duns Scotus and his Franciscan views.  What a sheltered life!

Sixth and finally, I was glad to have allocated considerable time to trudge through this book.  ‘As iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another’ (Proverbs 27:17).  I now have a better overview of the historical and doctrinal development of New Testament Christianity, an enhanced appreciation of the character and attributes of God, and a warmer understanding of the Church and its Head (Colossians 1:18).  Thank you, Louis B.

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