Professor Berkhof Takes Us to School

The heirs of the Protestant Reformation are wrangling amongst themselves (once again) as to where the Church ought to stand on issues of social justice. Is “social justice” (however defined) merely the specter of Marxism and the Social Gospel, which threatens to seduce us from our mission of proclaiming Christ and the Gospel of grace? Or is opposition to social justice a form of hyper-spiritual quietism that straight-jackets the Christian life into an hour on Sunday mornings, and to the private life of the mind?

It strikes me that there is sloppy thinking on both sides of this discussion. I hope that we might achieve greater clarity if we examine how Professor Berkhof approached this question. Yes, Louis Berkhof, the systematic theologian.

Louis Berkhof is best known for writing perhaps the most successful modern Reformed Systematic Theology. Professor Berkhof’s Systematic Theology gained wide usage because of its unparalleled brevity and clarity. His definitions are precise. His arguments are cogent. His proof-texts are relevant to the point at hand. There is nothing bold or innovative. His work accurately and clearly presents the Reformed consensus. In spite of his colorless and encyclopedic approach his work is a joy to read. Every sentence is to the point.

Berkhof’s clarity is exhibited in all his writings. Lesser known is his book, Historical Theology, which charts Christian doctrinal development across the span of church history. Berkhof manages to squeeze a lot of information into a thin volume.

Perhaps under the category of “the Forgotten Berkhof” we can include his address, “The Church and Social Problems.” This lecture was published in 1913 when many conservative Christians were reacting against the Social Gospel of Walter Rauschenbusch. Berkhof begins by stating that Christianity has always had a positive influence on the social structures of society, especially in the Protestant Reformation. Berkhof proceeds to interact with Rauschenbusch and others at length. Rauschenbusch outlines the social injustices of his day and brings his indictment against the Church for not doing more to address these inequities. Berkhof agreed that Rauschenbusch has identified many true problems of industrialized society, but he rejects the idea that Marxism provides the only or the best solution. There are non revolutionary ways we can correct the injustices in society. Common sense reforms that are consistent with our traditions and institutions will provide the most effective remedies.

The central question for Berkhof, however, is “what is the role of the church in ameliorating the social problems of the day?”

Reformed theology teaches that there is no dualism between nature and grace, body and soul. The natural as a gift of God is just as good as the supernatural, only it has become subject to sin; it is in bondage. “The grace of God is a redeeming, liberating force. It seeks the redemption of man, body and soul; the removal of sin and its dire consequences; the sanctification of life in all its relations; the restoration of the world to its pristine beauty. This grace is both general and particular. Common grace restrains the evil forces working in the world, makes a well ordered life possible, yea even makes for refinement and beauty and virtue. Particular grace, revealed in Jesus Christ, exercises a saving influence. It implants in man the principle of a new, of a higher, of eternal life. It does not supersede common grace, but adds something to it, so that believers become partakers of both.” It follows that Christians, as citizens of heaven, remain engaged citizens on earth. We are to be the salt and light in the world.

The church, however, is a holy institution, and a minister of God’s particular grace. The church does not establish common society and is therefore not directly responsible for its social problems, yet we cannot say that the church ought to maintain indifference toward such problems. We cannot “separate absolutely the natural and the spiritual” so as to “parcel out life in such a way that the Church as an institution would find her duty only in the spiritual sphere.”

We therefore affirm that the church, as an organization, “has a task in the movement for social reform.” Berkhof emphasizes the following points:

  1. “The Church should be the nursery of true, healthy, virile spiritual life.” We must not overlook that sin is at the root of our social misery and injustice. Sin is not restricted to sins of weakness (intemperance, vice), but includes sins of strength: the wealthy and powerful oppress, rob and do violence to the poor, in ways perfectly legal, of course. 
  2. “The Church should never forget the social message entrusted to her.” Our unique embassy is to prepare individuals for eternal life through the proclamation of God’s grace revealed in Jesus Christ. No other organization can do this. Pastors are not sociologists. They are not economists. They should not speak authoritatively about subjects on which they know less than what they think they know. Nor should they take a stand on every little issue. At the same time we recognize that the “Bible contains many directions for social life, reveals to us the principles that should control every movement for social reform…. and no sinister influence should ever induce the preacher to hide this light.” God obligates us to speak to the “broad underlying principles of social life” so that no one can lay to our charge that our teaching is exclusively “other-worldly.”
  3. “It is the duty of the Church to exemplify her teachings in this respect in her own social life.” A Christian church should be a microcosm of a just society. It is the family of God where social divisions of class and race disappear. To promote this unity God appointed the office of deacon whereby those blessed with material abundance may find their joy in ministering to the poor among them.   
  4. “The Church should not neglect to bring the gospel to the submerged masses in the downtown districts of our great cities.” If we send our missionaries to the farthest flung places on earth, surely we shouldn’t neglect our urban centers close to home.
  5. “The Church… ought to make a thorough study of all the problems that present themselves in social life and of the movements for social betterment, in order that she may know what stand to take.” Denominations should appoint study committees (ideally comprised of experts in the field) to study social conditions, problems and possible solutions in light of God’s word. Ministers and ministry students could study these reports and become more knowledgeable in social ethics. In turn, ministers will be better equipped to guide their congregations in thinking through these issues.
  6. “The Church should encourage the organization of her members on a distinctly and positively Christian basis for social and philanthropic purposes.” Individual Christians perusing their callings in the world with excellence, act as leaven permeating the dough, endeavoring to bring all of life under the Lordship of Christ. While praying “Thy Kingdom come” they should endeavor to do his will on earth, as it is done in heaven.

The Professor admits that the church has not always acquitted itself in an exemplary manner. At the same time many demand the church to act in a way that is not in harmony with her character and vocation. Church influence is naturally indirect. The Church “gives birth to new leaders, furnished them with their new ideas, developed for them their character, provided their inspiration, and was the recruiting ground for their battalions.” He cites many positive examples including the Social Creed produced by the Federal Council of Churches in 1908, which won broad support across Protestant denominations. The Social Creed defined a sixteen plank platform for social justice, and was subscribed by confessional Reformed and Presbyterian denominations. Berkhof praised the work of seminaries and denominations that were giving more thought to sociological issues and were proceeding along the lines he had indicated.

The professor concludes: “Let us not be caught napping. We need not become one whit less Calvinistic for it; perhaps just a little more so…. Calvinism faithfully preached and applied has been of momentous significance in the past. It has fostered in one nation after another political democracy. The liberty we enjoy in our country is in no small measure to the fruit of Calvin’s work. And Calvinism also contains the principles and forces that make for industrial democracy, for the establishment of God’s rule in every sphere of life, for the introduction of a better social day, and for an ever increasing fulfillment of the Church’s constant prayer: ‘Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.’”