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Systematic Theology

Book Review

Louis Berkhof’s work provides a comprehensive presentation of important biblical concepts.

Nov 17, 2020

Systematic Theology, Complete Edition, by Louis Berkhof is a book composed of two volumes which were originally published as separate books and often used as textbooks in seminary education around the world. The Introductory Volume to Systematic Theology provides a foundation in the history and teaching of dogmatics, which “deals with the doctrinal truth of Scripture in a systematic way, and more particularly with that truth as it is confessed by the Church” (p. 35). In this volume, Berkhof explains the principles essential for the foundation of the study of systematic theology, where God is the essential foundation and Scripture is the cognitive foundation. 

The second volume in the book, Systematic Theology, is written with God as the premise, the place one begins, because theology begins with God. Everything, including systematic theological understanding, proceeds in relation from God. Systematic Theology is inductive in its approach and dogmatic in its teaching. Each doctrine begins as the premise for and the basis of the next. For example, Berkhof begins with the doctrine of God (Theology), then proceeds to the doctrine of Man (Anthropology), and then moves into the doctrine of Christ (Christology), and so on and so forth. For Berkhof, beginning with God as the premise is both critical and sensical because, “the existence of God is the great presupposition of theology. There is no sense in speaking of the knowledge of God, unless it may be assumed that God exists” (p. 20). 

Louis Berkhof’s Systematic Theology, Complete Edition provides a comprehensive presentation of important biblical concepts. Berkhof compares and contrasts the teachings of a variety of theologians (and philosophers) from that of the Reformed theologian’s view, while providing historical context and scriptural supports, and then articulates the insufficiency of these ideas from that of the Reformed perspective. He specifies what the Reformed theologian believes as well as what the Reformed theologian rejects and refuses and then explains the reasons for such because, as Berkhof states, “God certainly sees the truth as a whole, and it is the duty of the theologian to think the truths of God after Him” (p. 15).  

This book is a wonderful resource for biblical counselors because theology (the study of God) serves as the foundation for methodology (biblical counsel) and determines how both the counselor and counselee think about both God and man. Berkhof expounds on theological constructs that have practical application for biblical counsel such as regeneration, justification and sanctification. Berkhof differentiates general revelation from special revelation, which is critical for the biblical counselor to understand. For Berkhof, “the Christian consciousness not only appropriates the truth, but also feels an irrepressible urge to reproduce it and to see it in its grand unity” (p. 23). 

Louis Berkhof’s Systematic Theology, Complete Edition, is well suited for those with a thoughtful disposition who are willing to spend a little extra time in systematic contemplation and reflection in the study of God. It is not for the faint of heart but remains one of my personal favorites and serves as a fantastic resource for sound, Reformed theology. It is geared toward the serious, thoughtful intellect with a background in ministry, biblical studies, or any form of study that has a basis in theological terminology; but, any reader, including the novice student of theology, is likely to gain a broad and quick understanding of sound biblical doctrine from reading even the smallest excerpts.  

The biblical counselor might want to use this book to gain deeper insight and understanding into the doctrines of God or may want to use this book as a resource alongside other references to study specific aspects of theology. Don’t be intimidated by the complex terminology or the rich and vast theological text. Those who are unfamiliar with the terms might be inclined to close this book without a second glance, but for the biblical counselor willing to spend a little extra time in thoughtful reflection (accompanied by a dictionary), the rewards of insight and understanding are well worth the effort.  

Helpful Quotes 

Introductory Volume to Systematic Theology 

  1. “Dogmatic theology aims at a systematic exposition of the knowledge of God in the relations in which He stands to His creatures, and will never be able to accomplish its task without the organizing function of reason” (page 68).  
  2. “Every theologian in entering upon his task has certain convictions which he cannot set aside at will, because he cannot eliminate himself” (page 64). 
  3. “They, of course do not mean to deny that the theologian can also obtain some knowledge of God from His general revelation; but they maintain that, since the entrance of sin into the world, man can gather true knowledge of God from His general revelation only if he studies it in the light of Scripture, in which the elements of God’s original self-revelation, which were obscured and perverted by the blight of sin, are republished, corrected, and interpreted” (page 60). 

Systematic Theology 

  1. “God is the Incomprehensible One, infinitely exalted above all that is temporal; but in His names He descends to all that is finite and becomes like unto man” (page 47).  
  2. “Regeneration consists in the implanting of the principle of the new spiritual life in man, in a radical change of the governing disposition of the soul, which, under the influence of the Holy Spirit, gives birth to a life that moves in a Godward direction” (page 468). 
  3. “Justification is a judicial act of God, in which He declares, on the basis of the righteousness of Jesus Christ, that all the claims of the law are satisfied with respect to the sinner” (page 513).   
  4. “Sanctification may be defined as that gracious and continuous operation of the Holy Spirit, by which He delivers the justified sinner from the pollution of sin, renews his whole nature in the image of God, and enables him to perform good works” (page 532).