Few modern Protestants dealt as carefully, fully, or sympathetically with twentieth-century Catholicism as did Berkouwer,” writes Peter Leithart of the man Timothy George has called “the most important Reformed theologian of the twentieth century next to Karl Barth.” Gerrit Cornelius Berkouwer understood well that the occurrence of authentic ecumenical dialogue is a “gift at the service of truth,” in John Paul II’s words, and his careful and nuanced examination of the Catholic tradition can help advance ecumenism and mutual understanding today.

Berkouwer, who held the Chair in Dogmatics at the Free University in Amsterdam from 1945 to 1974, wrote both an eighteen-volume Dogmatische Studiën and five major books on Catholicism. He wrote three before Vatican II: The Struggle over Roman Catholic Dogma, Conflict with Rome, and New Perspectives in the Rome–Reformation Controversy. Having been personally invited by Cardinal Augustin Bea of the Secretariat for Promoting Christian Unity to participate at the council as an observer, in 1964 during the council he wrote The Second Vatican Council and the New Catholicism, on the influence of the nouveaux théologiens (Henri de Lubac, Yves Congar, Jean Daniélou, M.D. Chenu, and others) on that council, and after the council in 1968 he wrote Retrospective of the Council to give an intensive examination of its major documents.

The ecumenical conversations between the World Alliance of Reformed Churches and the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity distinguished three contemporary Reformed attitudes toward the Roman Catholic Church: of those who remain unconvinced that the Catholic Church has actually dealt with the fundamental issues that divided Rome and the Reformation, those who “have not been challenged or encouraged to reconsider their traditional stance” and remain “largely untouched by the ecumenical exchanges of recent times,” and those who have engaged “in a fresh constructive and critical evaluation both of the contemporary teaching and practice of the Roman Catholic Church and of the classical controverted issues.”

Berkouwer began with the first attitude and evolved to the third. He moved from being primarily apologetical and antithetical—but never merely negative and antagonistic—to recognizing Catholics as fellow believers, in the common cause of the Gospel, especially striving to realize the visible unity of the Church.

In 1958 he wrote: “Every kind of Protestantism that stands merely in a protest-relationship [with Catholicism] is stricken with unfruitfulness. That is why the name Reformation signifies far more than Protestantism.” A protest that merely refutes Catholicism is unfruitful because divisions within the Church of Christ are no longer experienced as distressing, scandalous, let alone sinful. In a divided Church, “the different ‘forms’ of the Church are anything but harmonious; they are not directed to the well-being of all, to the equipment of the saints, to the work of ministry, or to the building up of the body of Christ (Eph. 4:12).” Berkouwer is critical here of what the Reformed theologian Herman Bavinck had called the “church-dissolving dynamism” of Protestantism. Berkouwer declares that “the disunity of the Church stands under God’s criticism!”

Reformation signifies a commitment to the present visible unity of Christ’s divided Church. Of course, he explains, we cannot separate this unity from the primacy of the truth of the Gospel. “This relation between unity and truth is one of the most urgent problems the Church has to face in our times.” He warns of the real danger of dialogue leading to the dilution of confessional standards, leveling out all genuine differences, doctrinal minimalism, or what he calls common denominator ecumenicity, all of which have resulted in darkening the light of truth such that “believers do not even know at what points they are really one, to say nothing of the points on which they are divided.” Indeed, he adds, “common denominator ecumenicity is a fruitless way to seek unity.”

Using the categories coined by Catholic theologian Reinhard Hütter, I suggest that Berkouwer is an “accidental Protestant” rather than an “essential Protestant.” The latter “requires for its identity Catholicism as the ‘other,’” Hütter writes. It assumes that the Reformation rediscovered “the true Gospel” lost after Paul and that “virtually everything in-between, the few exceptions only affirming the rule, pertains to the aberration of Roman Catholicism. Essential Protestantism, therefore, in a large measure needs Roman Catholicism and especially the papacy to know itself, to have a hold of its identity as Protestantism.”

In contrast, accidental Protestantism “sees itself as the result of a particular, specific protestation,” and thus “to a large degree as a reform movement in the Church catholic.” These Protestants tend to have “one fundamental difference—and it can be the Petrine office itself—that prevents them from being Catholic. This difference cannot be just any but must be one without which the truth of the Gospel is decisively distorted or even abandoned. Being Protestant in this vein amounts to an emergency position necessary for the sake of the Gospel’s truth and the Church’s faithfulness; in short, accidental Protestantism does not understand itself as ecclesial normalcy.”

Berkouwer is an accidental Protestant. He is persuaded that the New Testament teaches that there is only one Church, here and now, rather than many churches, and this Church is the concrete, visible Church. Thus “the plural for ‘Church’ is an inner contradiction.” He points to the way the Church is spoken of in the New Testament: the one people of God, the temple of the Holy Spirit, the building of God, the flock of the Good Shepherd. Of course there is diversity, but it is “the pluriformity of the Church” and not a “plurality of churches.” Division among Christians is the fruit of human sin and placed “under the criticism of the gospel.”

Already in 1957, with the publication of his pre–Vatican II book New Perspectives in the Rome–Reformation Controversy, he had moved away from a primarily apologetical and antithetical stance because he was now prepared to ask how we can be open to the truth present in serious ecumenical theological dialogue. “When our mindset is neither dominated by an anxiety regarding the weakening of one’s own positions nor closed to possibly necessary corrections, then all sorts of questions, which early on were raised solely from an apologetical perspective, can now be raised on their own merits, with an honesty and open-mindedness, which is decisively necessary for all theoretical reflection.” In sum, as he makes clear in The Second Vatican Council and the New Catholicism, “Responsible [ecumenical] encounter is not a sign of weakness; it is rather recognition of the seriousness of the division of the Church.”

Another idea that contributed to Berkouwer’s shift in ecumenical stance was the principle that we should not make judgments about Catholic councils like Trent and Vatican I without understanding the integral totality of Catholicism, because these statements were polemical and antithetical and in that sense historically conditioned. In other words, all truth formulated for polemical reasons is partial—albeit true. He refers to Hans Urs von Balthasar, who explains in The Theology of Karl Barth that although the truth of those councils “will never be overtaken or even relativized, nonetheless there are still other views and aspects of revelation than those expressed there. This has always happened throughout church history, when new statements are brought forth to complete earlier insights in order to do justice to the inexhaustible riches of divine revelation even in the earthen vessel of human language.”

Trent and Vatican I remain normative for the Catholic faith, but a distinction should be drawn between criticizing their incomplete or unbalanced formulations of the truth and claiming that these councils formally committed the Church to doctrinal error. Rejecting the latter still leaves room for accepting the former: offering an interpretation of a truth’s formulation that might now receive a more comprehensive and balanced formulation expressive of the full truth asserted by the councils.

This crucial principle for reading ecclesial texts is, says Berkouwer, of ecumenical significance when ecumenical partners accept “that the Church’s formulation of the truth could have, for various reasons, actually occasioned misunderstandings of the truth itself.” In other words, the formulation could be one-sided because the Church “has not been elevated above historical relativity in its analysis of the rejected errors.”

Following the French Catholic ecumenical theologian Yves Congar, we may distinguish two types of one-sidedness helpful to grasping Berkouwer’s point. “First, there is the possibility that this formulation, made in reaction to an error characterized by unilateralism, should itself become unilateral in its expression. Next, there is the possibility that the condemnation might include in its condemnation of the erroneous reactive element the seeds of truth as well, whose original ambivalence unfortunately became deviant.”

As an example of the second type of one-sidedness, consider Pius XI’s negative attitude toward the ecumenical movement in his 1928 encyclical Mortalium Animos. He condemned the movement for denying the visible unity of the Church of Christ, treating the “visible Church as nothing else than a Federation” with different and even incompatible doctrines. The pope rejected ecumenism because it rested on an ecclesiological relativism, offering reunion among Christians without repentance for the sin of division, fostering a theological indifference to creedal and confessional integrity, appearing then only on the surface to be a unifying link. In light of Vatican II’s Decree on Ecumenism, Unitatis Redintegratio,and John Paul II’s encyclical Ut Unum Sint, however, we can say that Pius XI was right in rejecting these views as false but incorrect in his analysis that the rejected errors were inherent to ecumenism.

Berkouwer also understands the first type of one-sidedness. In the same book, he explains: “An unmistakable limitation and even, in a sense, an overshadowing of the fullness of truth is created by the defensive and polemical character of dogmatic pronouncements. Thus, Trent judged the Reformation sola fide as a vain confidence, but failed to ‘delineate what could rightfully have been intended by the phrase sola fide.’”

Maintaining Trent’s fundamental teaching on justification, the sacraments, and the relation between Scripture and tradition is consistent with affirming a more comprehensive and balanced formulation of that teaching as a fruit of serious theological dialogue. The ecumenical import of Berkouwer’s interpretations of ecclesial texts is evident: Theological dialogue open to a fuller grasp of the truth may show that apparently opposed positions may be compatible at a deeper level.

Furthermore, Berkouwer joined the chorus of voices, which includes luminaries like the Lutheran theologian Oscar Cullmann and the Catholic theologian Karl Rahner, regarding the notion of the “hierarchy of truths” and its significant ecumenical breakthrough—indeed, a bold new approach to ecumenism. The Decree on Ecumenism states: “In Catholic doctrine there exists a ‘hierarchy’ of truths, since they vary in their relation to the fundamental Christian faith. Thus the way will be opened by which through fraternal rivalry all will be stirred to a deeper understanding and a clearer presentation of the unfathomable riches of Christ.”

Attention to the hierarchy of truths helps us to have a better understanding of what divides Christians. The answer to this question is unclear. Berkouwer notes that this idea “occupies all the churches” but that some misunderstood it in a “quantitative” fashion as if it were intended to reduce Christianity to its essential content, thereby reducing some truths to ultimate importance and others to relative importance. This was then taken by some to mean that the truths lower in importance in that hierarchy are not crucial to the foundation of our faith.

This mistaken interpretation, as Berkouwer notes, breeds theological indifference. “Hierarchy is the very opposite of indifferentism.” The hierarchy of truths does not separate nonnegotiable teachings from optional teachings. It integrates the whole body of truths by considering the question of their interconnectedness with the central mystery of Christ and the Trinity. The fundamental issue of the hierarchy is the question regarding the relation of all revealed truths to the foundation of the Christian faith, the Christological concentration, as Berkouwer and others have called it. That concentration is an ­integrative principle of Christian dogma, not a selective principle.

We can get at that sense by following a distinction drawn by Thomas Guarino (the Catholic co­chairman of Evangelicals and Catholics Together): “The distinction is between centrality to the foundation of the faith as opposed to the certainty with which the Church teaches it.” Dogmas such as Mary’s Immaculate Conception and Assumption may be very high in certainty but “relatively low with regard to the central truths of the Christian faith.” What, then, are the practical implications of the idea of a “hierarchy of truths” in an approach to ecumenical dialogue? Berkouwer’s answer to this question is that theological dialogue remains open regarding the lesser ranked truths while moving toward greater agreement concerning the foundations of faith.

I leave for last what is surely the most important catalyst that impelled Berkouwer’s shift in stance toward Catholicism, the nouvelle théologie. He stressed its distinction between truth and its formulations in dogma, between form and content, content and context, a distinction that made possible internal renewal within the Catholic Church by virtue of rediscovering the riches of the sources of the Christian faith. He rejected the relativistic implications that some drew from this distinction. Rather, it highlights “the abundant richness of God’s Word.” Indeed, that point “actually strikes both sides of the divide between Rome and the Reformation.”

The ecumenical import of the distinction between truth and its formulations is also recognized by Vatican II’s Unitatis Redintegratio and John Paul II in his 1995 encyclical Ut Unum Sint. Both documents speak to the issue of legitimate interconfessional diversity in theological expressions of doctrine that may be, in Unitatis Redintegratio’s words, “considered often as mutually complementary rather than conflicting.”

In sum, we must face here the question of commensurable pluralism. Variety in theological expression, as Guarino rightly notes, “must be commensurable with the fundamental creedal and dogmatic affirmations of faith” because different systems cannot hold positions that are fundamentally contradictory. He adds, “These affirmations are patient of reconceptualization, but always adhering to the ‘eodem sensu eademque sententia’ [the same meaning and the same judgment].”

Berkouwer rightly sees that the challenge of the nouvelle théologie was taken up by John XXIII in his opening address to the Second Vatican Council in a much-discussed statement: “The deposit or the truths of faith, contained in our sacred teaching, are one thing, while the mode in which they are enunciated, keeping the same meaning and the same judgment, is another.” Briefly, the pope’s statement raised the question of the continuity or material identity of Christian truth over the course of time.

The problem we now face, says Berkouwer, is that the presupposition of the hermeneutic of continuity—that the same judgment of truth can be expressed in a variety of conceptual or linguistic formulations—no longer seems self-evident, given that truth’s expressions are historically conditioned, and that these expressions are never absolute, wholly adequate, and irreplaceable. Now “attention is captivated primarily by the historical-factual process that does not transcend the times but is entangled with them in all sorts of ways.” In sum, he adds, “All the problems of more recent interpretation of dogma are connected very closely to this search for continuity . . . . Thus, the question of the nature of continuity ha[s] to be faced.”

What is Berkouwer’s answer to the question he raises regarding the nature of continuity, between that which is unalterable and that which is alterable? What is the criterion for distinguishing between form and content, context and content, linguistic formulation and propositional truth?

Berkouwer intuitively understood that propositions—contents of thought that are true or false—do not vary as the language in which they are expressed varies. He speaks of unalterable truths, suggesting that truths of faith are more than their linguistic expression. But does he develop the import of this distinction for dogma?

He underscores to such an extent the inadequacy of expressions or formulations of the truth that it remains unclear how he prevents himself from sliding into the position that inadequacy of expression entails inexpressibility of truth, or prevents interpretations endlessly deferring to other interpretations, such that we never have a statement that is simply true—even in Sacred Scripture, and hence that there could be no such thing as revealed (determinate) truth, expressing itself in and through sentences. We need such an account in order to prevent the breakdown of realism—doctrines are truth claims about objective realities—from leaving us unsure that the biblical narrative provides the datum of faith.

Berkouwer is correct that a linguistic formulation expressing a truth of faith cannot express or communicate that truth without an appropriate context. But does he properly distinguish the two senses in which a truth of faith can be expressed, namely, one, that the same truth can be expressed in different sentences but have the same meaning (for example, in Philippians 2:6 and at Nicaea); and two, that different contexts are required to assist in the interpretation of the same sentence(s) (in the sentences of Nicaea, Chalcedon, Trent, and Vatican I, for example)?

His limitations aside, Berkouwer’s thought provides a prime illustration of the kind of receptive ecumenical exchange that is needed today. His ecumenical attempt to reframe in a new and promising way the dogmatic historical dispute between Reformed Protestants and Catholics has arguably gone a long way toward bridging the differences between them on Scripture and tradition, sacramental theology, revelation, ecclesiology, the development of Christian doctrine, and other matters. Berkouwer’s writings on Catholicism are ecumenism at its best. Those who read his work will experience ecumenical dialogue, in John Paul II’s words, “not simply as an exchange of ideas,” but also as “an ‘exchange of gifts,’” indeed, as “a dialogue of love.”

Eduardo Echeverria is professor of philosophy and theology at the Sacred Heart Major Seminary and author of Berkouwer and Catholicism: Disputed Questions. He is a member of Evangelicals and Catholics Together.

Articles by Eduardo Echeverria