Louis Berkhof: Pillar of Faith in an Innovative Age
Not all theologians are innovative, groundbreaking, or revolutionary. Some just faithfully serve God. Some just love the church. And some just teach theology to eager students. Louis Berkhof—not innovative, groundbreaking, or revolutionary—did all three. Yet, as Henry Zwaanstra writes, “No theologian or churchman has made a greater impact on the Christian Reformed Church than Professor Berkhof.” Because of this, the life and work of Louis Berkhof deserves attention.
Louis Berkhof was born in Emmen, in the Netherlands, in 1873. His parents, Jan and Gessje, were members of the Christian Reformed Church, a denomination that came into existence out of a split from the Netherlands Reformed Church in 1834. In 1882, the Berkhof family emigrated to Grand Rapids, Michigan, when Louis was 8 years old.
While a teenager, Louis was the secretary of the Reformed Young Men’s Society in Grand Rapids, an organization whose purpose was “to study Reformed doctrine and the principles of Calvinism for all areas of human life.” Through Berkhof’s influence in this local society, it was organized on a denominational scale and became known as the American Federation of Reformed Young Men’s Societies.
Berkhof professed faith in Christ in 1893. This same year, at age 19, he enrolled in the Theological School of the Christian Reformed Church, which included a four-year literary course of study and a three-year theological course. The literary program was expanded into Calvin College, and the theological department became Calvin Theological Seminary. There Berkhof studied dogmatics with Hendericus Beuker, an admirer of the work of Abraham Kuyper and Herman Bavinck.
In 1900, Berkhof was ordained in the Christian Reformed Church in Allendale, Michigan, and he served there until 1902. After the Christian Reformed Church Synod chose to appoint a student with a PhD instead of Berkhof to the chair in exegetical theology, he decided to pursue more formal education. So he went to Princeton and studied under Benjamin Warfield and Geerhardus Vos from 1902 to 1904.
In 1904, Berkhof became the pastor of Oakdale Park Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan. While pastoring this church he took correspondence courses in philosophy from the University of Chicago.
In 1906, Berkhof was appointed to the chair of exegetical theology at Calvin Seminary. From 1906 to 1914, Berkhof taught all of the Old and New Testament courses at Calvin. However, in 1914 the OT and NT departments were divided, which allowed Berkhof more time to research and write. In 1924, he was given the opportunity to take a position as a professor of dogmatics, which paved the way for the writing of his Systematic Theology.
First offered the presidency of Calvin College in 1919, Berkhof declined and later became the president of Calvin Theological Seminary in 1931.
After 38 years of being a professor, Berkhof retired in 1944. He continued to write articles for church periodicals until his death on May 18, 1957.
Berkhof’s Contributions to Theology
While Berkhof was a gifted public speaker, professor, and pastor, his greatest influence and most enduring contribution was in his writings. While his theological works are the most widely known, he also wrote books addressing social issues, modern trends of thought, and Christian education, evangelism, missions, and life. Throughout the course of his career he wrote twenty-two books on a variety of subjects.
Berkhof was convinced that the church had a role to play in social reform and ought not to be separatistic toward culture. As Zwaanstra puts it, for Berkhof, “The church was God’s chosen instrument not only to save individuals and to prepare them for eternal life, but also to implement as much as possible the Kingdom of God on earth.”
Most of Berkhof’s theological writings were written for his lectures as a professor. In 1911 he wrote a basic hermeneutics textbook in Dutch, published in English in 1937 as Principles of Biblical Interpretation. During the course of his career, he wrote works on the New Testament, Joshua, biblical archaeology, work and faith, assurance, systematic theology, the history of doctrine, the atonement, liberalism, the kingdom of God, and the second coming of Christ.
Berkhof’s magnum opus was his Systematic Theology, compiled and published as one volume in 1941.
Berkhof’s Theological Distinctives
Little of what Berkhof wrote was an innovation of his own thinking. However, he was a master at organizing and explaining Reformed theology, especially in the tradition of Herman Bavinck. As Zwaanstra writes, “Berkhof’s theology was essentially the theology of Herman Bavinck.”
This steadfast adherence to the Reformed tradition flowed out of Berkhof’s belief that it best captured the meaning of Scripture. During his career, Berkhof was thrown into a variety of denominational struggles and issues, such as the authority and inerrancy of Scripture. On each of these issues he stood his ground against the popular theological liberalism of the day. Against those in the liberal tradition who questioned the reliability of certain elements of Scripture, Berkhof asserted time and time again the authority and trustworthiness of the Bible.
While Berkhof’s theological work is not particularly groundbreaking or original, he faithfully held firm to the teachings of Scripture throughout his entire life and sought to pass on those teachings to those entrusted to him. He wrote much, trained many, and was a faithful servant of God’s kingdom.
Berkhof’s Major Writings:
- Aspects of Liberalism
- Assurance of Faith
- Biblical Archaeology
- Foundations of Christian Education: Addresses to Christian Teachers
- History of Christian Doctrines
- Introduction to Systematic Theology
- Manual of Christian Doctrine
- New Testament Introduction
- Paul the Missionary
- Principles of Biblical Interpretation
- The Second Coming of Christ
- Summary of Christian Doctrine
- Systematic Theology
- Textual Aid to Systematic Theology
- Vicarious Atonement though Christ