Berkhof on Theological 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.


Thus far, Dr. Berkhof has provided a very simple and straight forward outline of historic Protestant Bible interpretation – the grammatical-historical method. In the final chapter of his book, Dr. Berkhof tackles a most important topic that must be borne in mind when we attempt to interpret the Word of God. This is, that the Bible is a Spiritual Book. That is, we cannot create a scientific method of Bible interpretation that can mechanically chew through the pages of Scripture coverting text into meaning like a computer which is transforming a stream of data from one form into another. This book was given by God and it is about Him, ultimately, and it cannot be understood at all, except that we have our minds illuminated by His Spirit.

Not long ago, an internet blogger took issue with my pointing out the Jesuit origins of the Dispensationalism method of interpretation and stated, as part of his defense, that even an unregenerate Jesuit could rightly interpret and understand God’s Word if he applies the right system to it – this is simply NOT TRUE. Unaided by the Holy Spirit, the unregenerate man has no hope in the Scriptures of God. They are foolishness to him and he can but damn himself in delusion by studying them.

But God hath revealed them unto us by his Spirit: for the Spirit searcheth all things, yea, the deep things of God. For what man knoweth the things of a man, save the spirit of man which is in him? even so the things of God knoweth no man, but the Spirit of God. Now we have received, not the spirit of the world, but the spirit which is of God; that we might know the things that are freely given to us of God. Which things also we speak, not in the words which man’s wisdom teacheth, but which the Holy Ghost teacheth; comparing spiritual things with spiritual. But the natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God: for they are foolishness unto him: neither can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned.

I Cor 2:10-14



Dr. Berkhof defends the inclusion of this chapter of his book by noting that purely grammatical and historical analysis of texts does not account for the fact that the Bible is the Word of God and that as a whole, the major parts of it (Old and New Testaments) are related to each other in terms of prophecy and fulfillment, type and antitype, germ and development, etc.

In the rest of the chapter, Berkhof describes (1) the Bible as a unity, (2) The Mystery of Scripture, (3) Implications of Scripture, and (4) Helps for theological interpretation.

Unity of Scripture

In describing the unity of the Bible, Berkhof warns against two opposite errors – nominism and antinomiansim. The one attempts to impose too much Judaism onto Christianity and the other attempts to throw the Old Testament away as though it had no permanent validity. The unity and diversity of the whole Bible must be understood in items such as: (1) the same plan of Redemption flows through both, (2) the true believing children of Abraham are those of faith, (3) there are differences in privileges and duties under the different covenants, (4) differences in ordinances in the covenants, (5) OT offers the key to interpreting the NT, (6) the NT is a commentary on the OT (we must be cautious not to miss this on one hand, and not to read too much into the OT on the other hand).

Mystery in Scripture

The study of the mystical sense of Scripture has not always been characterized by the necessary caution. Some expositors have defended the untenable position that every part of the Bible has besides its literal, also a mystical sense. Others recoiled from that unwarranted position, and went to the extreme of denying outright the existence of any mystical sense.

Berkhof cautions the careful expositor of Scripture to understand that some parts of Scripture are mysterious and must be handled cautiously: for example NT quotation of OT in ways we would not expect, or the way Paul understands marriage as a mystery that describes the relationship between Christ and his Church (see also Gal 4:22-31).

Berkhof next gives sober advice regarding types, prophecies, and Psalms; all of which interpretation I will not summarize here.

Helpful References: Turpie’s The New Testament View of the Old, and, The Old Testament in the New, and Scott’s Principles of New Testament Quotations, and Johnson’s Quotations of the New Testament from the Old.

Implications from Scripture

Next, Berkhof handles the implied sense of Scripture – things that we can deduce or infer based on what Scripture tells us. Certainly brilliant men and imply much more by what they write beyond what is written, how much more the Word of God, which is sufficient for every area of our Spiritual life. Jesus used this technique with the Sadducees who denied a physical resurrection on the grounds that it was not explicitly stated in Scripture. Jesus responded by deducing the afterlife from the fact that God referred to Himself as the (present tense) God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and reproved them by saying that they did not know the Scripture or the power of God.

“It goes without saying that great care must be exercised in drawing such inferences from the written word. The deductions must be …truly contained in the inspired statements from which they are …derived;” and they must not force themselves on the minds of interpreters of Scripture.

In the final section of the chapter, Berkhof offers some helps to the Bible student for performing theological interpretation, which broadly include reading direct parallels (or reading parallel ideas) and the analogy of faith. I won’t summarize Berkhof’s teaching on these as I’ve summarized these ideas elsewhere on this blog.

I highly recommend Berkhof’s little book that, though dry, is a short (166 pages), clear, practical read full of useful examples, end of chapter questions for reflections, and lots of references. Berkhof’s references are all dated, but this is actually an advantage given that many of the references are now available for free download on Google books.



Berkhof, Louis, Principles of Biblical Interpretation, pp 133-166. Baker Book House, Grand Rapids, MI, 1952.


One thought on “Berkhof on Theological Interpretation

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

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