Berkhof’s Introduction to the New Testament

Posted: October 2, 2012 by Ty in Spirituality
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            The Christian Testament, colloquially known as The New Testament can become an enigma for some. There are many contemporary historians, academics, and theologians wrestle with the origins of the collection of 26 writings within this testament. There is a varied understanding of Gospel (from memoir to literal history to political statement to liberation movement to name but a few); epistle (letter, teaching, prophecy) and apocalyptic language. There is debate over whom and why wrote these texts, and why they ended up within the context of the canon when one reflects on the vast amount of texts the early church fathers had to choose from.

Whether one read’s Ehrman, Spong, Borg, Graham, Brueggerman, The Popes, McKnight, Stott, Brown, Crossan, Packer, or Bruce (or a litany of other academics) what becomes evident is needing a foundation to start from. It is this foundation that one finds within the rather proto-orthodox and/or basic fundamental underpinnings of the origins of the 26 writings within the Christian Testament. For the new student/believer, the New Testament of the Holy Bible (coupled with the Old Testament or more correctly the Hebrew Bible).

While one prepares for ministry, it is important to not only gain an understanding of these foundational texts, but also to stay current with the historical development of introduction as science. This short paper will touch on a summary of Louis Berkhof’s Introduction to the New Testament (1915); an interpretation of important pieces of the driving thesis’ of Berkhof’s work and speculation as to why it is framed as it is, finally there will be a conclusion where the writer will bring together the summary and interpretation into the Twenty-First century for how it holds up.


            Historically the early Twentieth Century in North America was when the Fundamentals movement commenced. It was not as one would view fundamentalists today rather it was many denominations coming together and deciding what the core foundation of faith needed to be to work together on building God’s kingdom here on earth (otherwise noted as the Social Gospel movement). It is out of these early days that one can see Berkhof’s Introduction to the New Testament emerging in 1915.

The writing bears the grandiosity within the faith of the time, it carries the assumption that even a first year student would have a passing understanding of Greek as these words are peppered throughout. There is also the idea of fundamental to it, because Berkhof stipulates that it is not a critical text (which could be divisive at the time), rather it was a chronology of the transmission of the works (p.2).

The text itself is expertly written, even with its higher academic underpinnings the work is readable and clearly puts forward the thesis by relying on what some may say is a lost science today in the world of expertise. Berkhof is taking a generalist viewpoint of the historicity and composition of the 26 texts of the Testament. This historical development is borrowed from the discipline of the early church fathers forward (Berkhof, p. 4) that is a discipline of introduction in which some say the goal is the validity of what truly is the word of God does a disservice to the whole Bible as the inspired Word of God (Ibid p. 4). Berkhof is clear in stating up front that this is not a quest for the historical Jesus or the understanding of debate over validity of the texts, both of these arguments are non-sequitor for Berkhof who is laying out the simplicity of the answers to questions of authorship, composition, history, purpose and how they came into the canon (Ibid, p.4).

While the text is definitely a product of its times, it still holds water when one cracks the proverbial spine and begins the journey of discovery through to fully understand why we still have, rely upon, study and question these 26 texts to build our faith (both individually and communally).


            It is difficult to separate the summary from the interpretation, as noted with it being a text almost 100 years old fresh eyes do need to read it through the lens of the time. As a writer of the time Berkhof relies on reading the Hebrew Bible into the Christian Testament (and one can speculate the reverse as well). But with an understanding of church history one knows the time period and the ideal of fundamentals bridging the divide between liberal and conservative Christianities however by bridging the gap Berkhof did take the less academic path in critical thought with his work.

What is appreciated for a student of theology and critical thought within the Christian Testament is that Berkhof clearly does not intend the reader to approach the Gospels as literal history or direct dictations from God (as a Muslim would approach the Qu’ran) rather he is clear that the Gospels are memoirs (p.20).  The writers are four memoirists of one story (p.14) and taken together one can get a fuller picture of whom the living Christ is and how he was then as well.

As Berkhof continues his text by text introductory journey through the Christian Testament he shows a partiality to the emerging Charismatic movement with his reliance upon the inspiration by and through the Holy Spirit working within the diversity of the writers and their experiences (p.25). Reflective on his usage of reading the Christian Testament into the Hebrew Bible by making the claim that the Holy Spirit was active outside of the church before Christ and within the church after Christ’s (p.26) ascension and the descent of the Spirit at Pentecost upon the believers. The challenge is does one think this is true? Or is it a clearer statement to illuminate that the Holy Spirit was the life breathed into humanity on the Sixth Day so it was more that the Spirit was named and let known at the point of Christ’s ascension? Again however the debate over the Spirit would have been a divisive issue that would not have been wise in the time period he was bringing this together.

Once the bedrock of inspiration was laid the work continues through the text by text review. Berkhof relies heavily on the early church fathers to verify his orthodoxy. Is this a reputable way to build a modern view of God? Partly yes, but it also lends oneself to not understand that God’s revelation is not static and that understanding changes over time. A reader just needs to look at Berkhof’s understanding of the Acts of the Apostles that is pointed out the text lays out the establishment of the early church and their primary organization (p.62). This organization as was revealed throughout the epistles was an organic change over time and not static. The Holy Spirit was at work shaping the believers and their understanding with their contexts. It was these earliest writings of the Christian Testament by Paul that shaped the use of the epistle as a form of conferring divine truth upon the early church (Berkhof, p. 68). Yet even with this statement Berkhof leans towards a static understanding of church life.

Within the reflective work of reading the testaments into each other, Berkhof postulates a mirroring of each area that is quite beneficial to understand the true Judaic roots of the early church and how the early church fathers shaped the Canon to mirror the familiar (Berkhof, p. 70):

Hebrew Bible Christian Testament
Pentateuch Gospels
History Acts
Wisdom Literature Epistles
Prophets (Major/Minor) Revelation


The first three are from Berkhof, but to complete the theory one needs to reflect on the purpose of the prophets from the Hebrew Bible. The purpose was to redirect the Children of God back onto God’s path, encourage, and warn of the storms to be weathered to come, but also what will happen out the other side. Which when one takes a read through Revelation through the socio-historic-cultural lens is the same reflection for the seven churches of Asia Minor.

Berkhof also illuminates early what Raymond Brown would confirm in the later 20th century, that the epistles of John show the organic transformation of the early church. First John and the Gospel of John are companion documents that one could actually see the epistle being a commentary. Yet to continue the illumination when one enters Second and Third John all of a sudden this community founded on egalitarianism, charity and equality now has a structure much like the rest of the apostolic church that Paul, James and Peter were functioning within.

The simplistic ideal for a new believer is that the early church was the homogenous utopia, yet as Berkhof expertly pointed out earlier into his work when discussing the writers, they were joined into community through the Holy Spirit yet they were diverse. It was this diversity that created a plethora of understandings and ways to live the faith out even within the earliest days of the movement.  The emergence of the unified church as one note the writings of the epistles becoming more uniform within their discussion of church organization lends itself to the idea of introduction to the development of the Testament.

It is unique though that Hebrews would be placed within the epistles, when it truly reflects itself more as a catechism. This may not have been the language that Berkhof used for it, but the work is an enigma that lays out a strong theological understanding for the faith. It is an enigmatic text because of not understanding who the author truly is. Some lend to Paul, others to perhaps one of the women of Jesus’ community, but all we know for sure is that the identity of this writer is lost to antiquity.

What this introduction has shown though is that one can easily get caught up in the non-essentials of the debate; authorship while knowing is nice it is not the thrust of the work. For it is within the text itself that the divine truth is communicated through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit to bring unity in God through the diversity of creation.

It is within this diversity and almost 2000 year history of those that walk with the living Christ that brings us into this reading of an introduction to the Christian Testament. Almost 2000 years on the church is as diverse if not more diverse than it was back in the early days. So why enter into this study?


            Why should one invest the time to read never mind understand or process a work that is almost 100 years old? That is an important question in a world that is go-go-go. Yet we also live in a world where the Holy Bible has never been more widely available, translated into various languages, as well as different versions of those translations with the idea being that each believer should be able to find a text that resonates with them.

That is the theory, yet with the rise of social and mass media the ability for one to process the information coming into one’s sphere of orbit has left generations being probably the most biblically illiterate since pre-Reformation. Which then brings us back to the question that opened this section, why bother? Simply put to give one a foundation of understanding.  Whether or not a reader agrees with the theories postulated, or the reliance upon the early church fathers to prove efficacy what is important is like in the historical time the book was written, a simple fundamental understanding of the transmission of the 26 texts that created the Christian Testament.

This simplicity of understanding could lend itself to becoming a point of healing, as almost 100 years ago there was a divide between the liberal and conservative Christianities that over the 97 years since its publication this divide that was being bridged by the fundamentals has exploded into a full on gulf with lava.

This is shown most clearly within the Anglican Communion that is straining at the seams based around Northern-Southern Hemisphere (or 1/3 to 2/3) world divisions around theological underpinnings of the 66 texts in the Protestant Holy Bible.  Yet it is also a division created because within the midst of debate to the point of schism what is lost is the historical understanding of transmission.

The debate has moved from collegial to scholastic within this divide internationally and within local congregations because it is about proving one side right and one side wrong. There is no willingness to understand the work of the Holy Spirit within the diversity of the church that lived out the calling of The Christ.

That is the key point as to why one should spend time with this historic introduction book. In the midst of chaos, argument, schism and destruction of the Body of Christ (as communicated through the epistles) one is reminded that it is not about the minor facts we debate that tears us about or where we claim baptism. What is it truly about? Christ.

Throughout Berkhof’s Introduction to the New Testament this is what resonates to the reader about not only the texts, but more importantly the living Body of Christ in the world today: the church. We are diverse, we are different, we claim different theories and ideas about who, what, where, when, why and how these texts came to us and the institution of the Christianities came to be. Yet that is not what matters at the heart, the true thesis of the matter is that the Holy Spirit dwells within the church (Berkhof, p. 26).

The Holy Spirit is still the one transmitting the texts to us in spite of our individuality for, like the early church it is our understanding of God, our life experience, and the Holy Spirit itself that comes together with us individually or corporately when we read the text and inspires the divine truth of the Holy Mystery.

This is how the texts were originally transmitted to us; this was the purpose that Berkhof laid out for his introduction. Yes, as an author he wrote splendidly about the authorship, composition, history, etc of each of the texts, but the driving underlying thesis that Berkhof focused on was simple: inspired and transmitted throughout the ages to the Body of Christ by the Holy Spirit.

Why read a textbook introduction about almost 2000 year old texts that is almost 100 years old? Simple, it reminds us of the basic truth of the Christianities. We are the Body of Christ thanks to the Holy Spirit descending upon us and into us.









Berkhof, Louis. Introduction to the New Testament. Christian Classics Library: Grand      Rapids, MI: 1915.



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