Berkhof on Basic Bible Interpretation


Louis Berkhof was a Reformed theologian best known for his Systematic Theology (1932). He taught for almost four decades at Calvin Theological Seminary and served as its president from 1931-1944. In his work on systematic theology Berkhof followed in the line of John Calvin and embraced the development of Reformed theology by the Dutch theologians Abraham Kuyper and Herman Bavinck.

The distinction between the fundamental forms of God’s revelation (p. 56):

  1. Historical Narrative: Historical facts narrated in the Bible are history and should be interpreted as such.
  2. Didactic Writing: Direct teaching is found in the Old Testament primarily in the Law and in the New Testament in the discourses of Jesus and the Epistles.
  3. Prophecy: An insight into the mysteries of God. This teaches us the ways of God in the past, reveals his will for the present, and previews the future for our consolation.
  4. Poetry: The stirrings of God’s heart stir the souls of his believers.

Safeguards against misunderstanding the Unity of the Sense (Meaning) of Scripture (pp. 58-60)

  1. Distinction between the one sense of a passage and it’s many applications
  2. Distinction between a double fulfillment of prophecy and a double sense
    1. Some prophecies are fulfilled in several successive events
    2. Some portions of Scripture have a deeper sense than understood on the surface, but never a second sense

      NOTE: There is no truth in the assertion that the intent of the secondary author, determined by a grammatico-historical method, always exhausts the full single sense of Scripture, and represents in all its fullness the meaning of the Holy Spirit.

Oriental Style of Scripture (pp. 61-63)

  1. Represent abstract truths in concrete forms [anthropomorphism]
    1. “Thou has a mighty arm…” (Ps 89:13) – represents God’s strength
    2. “There went up a smoke out of his nostrils…” (Ps 18:8) – represents God’s Holy anger
  2. Personify nature [anthropomorphism]
    1. “Let the trees be joyful…then shall all the trees of the wood rejoice” (Ps 96:12)
    2. “Let the floods clap their hands: let the hills be joyful together” (Ps 98:8)
  3. Write historical events in a colorful picturesque way (and in present tense)
  4. Use parallelism and redundancy to make a point

Why Protestants maintain the prerogative of every Christian to study and interpret Scripture (pp. 65-66):

  1. The Scriptures were not written by the Church (as an institution), but by the Holy Spirit to (the people of) the Church (the whole universal church, not only office-bearers)
  2. God holds every man responsible for his faith and conduct
  3. Dt 13:1-3

    John 5:39
    Gal 1:8-9

Benjamin Keach’s Baptist Catechism, 1677, Question #6:
Q. 6. May all men make use of the Scriptures?

A. All men are not only permitted, but commanded and exhorted, to read, hear, and understand the Scriptures. (John 5:39; Luke 16:29; Acts 8:28-30; Acts 17:11)

Berkhof, Louis, Principles of Biblical Interpretation. Baker Book House, Grand Rapids, MI, 1952.

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One thought on “Berkhof on Basic Bible Interpretation

  1. Pingback: Hermeneutics of Baptist Covenant Theology « Abraham's Seed

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