Although normally I would offer a brief review of a book, because of the depth and, I would argue, significance of G. C. Berkouwer’s volume entitled Sin (Studies in Dogmatics; trans. Philip C. Holtrop; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1971), an article length interaction is warranted.
To begin with, this volume is broken into two parts, which reflect the two volumes of the original Dutch. These parts are entitled: (1) the origin and knowledge of sin; and (2) the essence and spread of sin.
In the first section of the first part, Berkouwer goes to great lengths to address the, as he calls it, biblical a priori, which he describes as the church’s confession that “God is not the Source, or the Cause, or the Author of man’s sin. Deus non este causa, auctor peccati” (p. 27). Here, he navigates the difficulties that come with the existence of evil, and most especially sin, in relation to a God who is all-powerful.
The first option, namely, monism, he effectively dismantles, while recognizing that this presents the greatest theological temptation regarding the relation between God and the existence of sin in creation. This monism, as he terms it, is the desire to find the cause of all things, including sin, in God (p. 28). His reason for rejecting this theologically maneuver is that, once we cease to relegate sin to the abstract, bringing it, in turn, to its rightful place as a concrete reality, we cannot comfortably “speak of God’s willing of man’s sin” (p. 61) (italics original). Thus, the biblical picture is that God “condemns man’s sin and thus atones for man’s sin in the cross of Jesus Christ” (p. 65). That is to say, the concrete reality of sin directly conflicts with the biblical a priori.
This then brings him to another solution: dualism. It naturally follows that, if monism is indefensible, then dualism would appear to be proper solution to the difficult under view. “Dualism,” he writes, “proposes a primordial antithesis between two original principles (viz., light and darkness) in terms of which every form of good and evil is ultimately deduced” (p. 67). If monism is a synthesis of God and sin, dualism presents an antithesis between the two, hence its apparent validity at first glance. Upon engaging in a thorough discussion with various thinkers, such as Karl Barth, Heidegger, and the Old Testament scholar Gerhard von Rad, Berkouwer comes to the conclusion that, if God created ex nihilo (out of nothing) and this creation is good, reflecting the good character of God, “the door is forever shut to all dualisms” (p. 91). When we “seek to say something about God’s creative activity, we do so with an eye to God’s goodness,” which, in turn, sets the “‘boundaries’ for his own creation” (p. 91).
Recognizing the tension that still remains after dealing with and rejecting both a monistic and dualistic answer to the problem under question, he writes:
… in no sense can we get beyond monism by means of a dualism or a dualism by means of a monism. Very deep shadows surround the monism which the Church has condemned as heresy as well as the dualism we have looked at … The one as all well as the other tries to explain away our sin and thus to eliminate our guilt (p. 98) (italics original).
Berkouwer then proceeds with a thorough discussion and refutation of the idea that the cause or origin of our sin is found in the demonic realm (cf. pp. 99-129), arriving at a true answer, as it were, to the problem.
In the final chapter of this section, entitled, “The Riddle of Sin,” Berkouwer demonstrates a keen awareness of and pastoral sensitivity to the problems attending the question under view. It would be most helpful to quote him at length:
… the spread of sin and the power of sin participate entirely in the senseless and reasonlessness of sin. Therefore, if the biblical a priori must guard the Church against the chasms of monism and dualism (or any other “explanations”), it must also guard the Church against backsliding at this very crucial juncture of her faith. Faith must know that we are cautioned against integrating sin in a crystal-clear or rational mold. We cannot give sense to the senseless. Therefore, we confess (in an anti-dualistic way) that sin is contra voluntatem [against his (God’s) will] but never praeter voluntatem Dei [contrary to the will of God] . At the same time, we understand that this non praeter does not give sense to sin. It does not rationalize the irrational or legitimize the illegitimate. It may never detract from the reality of the contra which underscores the senselessness and riddle of man’s sin (148).
In sum, Berkouwer rightly diagnoses that our attempts to understand the existence of sin in relation to God are often born out of a desire to find a rational cause or explanation for sin outside of ourselves which would thus, as he puts it, “explain away our sin and thus to eliminate our guilt” (p. 98). Therefore, the very travesty, the very heinousness of sin, is found in this: it is completely irrational and illegitimate as it is rebellion against the good and perfect creator in whose image we have been made.
Moving on to the second section of the first part of this volume, Berkouwer thoroughly engages with how we know are sin, discussing how the law reveals our sin first and then how the gospel reveals our sin. Space and time does not an allow a detailed analysis or even summary of his discussion at this point, but, suffice it to say, these chapters are rich with biblical and theological exposition and should be consulted by any preacher or teacher of the word, and, if one can stomach it, any disciple of Christ. One quote should help to illustrate this claim:
Precisely this knowledge [of sin], as enlivened by the Spirit, obliges us to speak of the “enigma,” or the “strangeness,” or the “groundlessness” of sin. The “more and more” of our knowledge, as aroused by the “strict preaching” of the law, can only deepen our appreciation for the enigma and the riddle of our sin. This enigma is really the reserve side of a true confession of our guilt. In the light of God’s grace communion is restored, and those motives which we once saw as our own “definitive excuse” are now recognized as empty and vain (p. 230).
The second part of the book deals with areas more commonly associated with hamartiology such as the essence of sin, the gravity and gradation of sin, the unpardonable sin (blasphemy against the Holy Spirit), and original sin. Just as with the first part of the book, this part, comprised of two sections (the essence and spread of sin), is filled with rich biblical and theological exposition. Even if one were to disagree with some of Berkouwer’s conclusions, one couldn’t help but be impressed with his breadth and depth of knowledge of the biblical teaching on sin as well as the theological discussions surrounding the topic.
Although virtually all of this book is helpful and of significant value for the interested reader, the chapter dealing with the gradation of sin, especially in light of recent discussions regarding homosexuality, will prove most insightful. Also, although not as prominent of an issue in our day, Berkouwer’s discussion of the so-called unpardonable sin is insightful, if at times unclear and inconclusive.
Regarding his treatment of original sin (under the section, “the spread of sin”), the reader may find a desire for clarity unmet. Berkouwer interacts with the realism of, most notably, W.G.T. Shedd and the federalism of Jonathan Edwards, John Murray and others. He rejects both of these understandings of the doctrine of original sin, though at times he seems to prefer realism to federalism as he reiterates at multiple points the strength of the former’s objections over against the latter’s.
The closest Berkouwer comes to a solution to the complexity that is original sin in which he is satisfied is in his brief discussion of ‘corporate personality,’ i.e., the inclusion of a group in an individual, or, all humanity in Adam (p. 514). Now, one can’t help but feel that this is quite close to the federalism which Berkouwer appears to reject. But, it must be remembered that Berkouwer is vigilant to avoid any cause of sin which would mitigate one’s apprehension of their guilt and therefore their need to confess their sin. So, while the reader may find his lack of resolution with regard to original sin anticlimactic, one must remember that the motive underlying this is a noble one, which is expressed again and in even clearer terms in the concluding chapters of this volume.
To conclude this review article, Berkouwer’s volume on the topic of sin is a robust and rich volume indeed. He leaves virtually no stone unturned, as one contemporary reviewer of the volume noted. He is conversant in the biblical data surrounding the topic as well as the historic debates and the contemporary quagmires, even if he does not neatly resolve every issue or offer something convincing for every reader. It is unfortunate that, for whatever reason, Berkouwer has been neglected in recent times as he was truly a man of significant theological learning. It would be my hope that this review would spark someone’s curiosity to seriously engage this forgotten giant again; and, if they did so, this would be a fantastic place to start.