March 22, 2018

R.C. Sproul and Berkouwer’s Dogmatische Studien

Stephen Nichols & R.C. Sproul
R.C. Sproul and Berkouwer’s Dogmatische Studien

On this episode of Open Book, Stephen Nichols and R.C. Sproul discuss the person of Christ, Dutch pronunciation, and a page that took 12 hours to translate.


STEPHEN NICHOLS: Dr. Sproul, you’ve brought a little pile of books. I want to look through this pile a little bit and see which one we’re going to talk about. Now, I’ve found one here. This is an interesting book for a couple of reasons. For one thing, this does not look like an English title to me.

R.C. SPROUL: No, it’s not an English title.

NICHOLS: This is Dutch, and the author is G.C. Berkouwer. This is from his Studies in Dogmatics, and from the looks of this Dutch title we’re talking about the person of Christ. But first, let’s talk about Berkouwer. How did you get to know him?

SPROUL: When I was in seminary, Dr. John Gerstner, my professor, insisted that I go on to do postgraduate studies, and I fought him tooth and nail on that. I had gotten all the education I wanted, we were starving to death, we had a child, and we had been in school forever and I just didn’t want to go anymore. But he insisted that I go, and I said, “If I’m going to go, then I’m going to go to the best place there is.” And he said, “Well, you have to go study with Berkouwer.” And I said, “No, he’s in Holland. I want someone who speaks English.”

NICHOLS: So, let’s get the record straight. You did not speak Dutch?

SPROUL: Not a word. Not a single word.

NICHOLS: But he was sending you to study.

SPROUL: Yeah, and he wrote to Berkouwer and introduced me by letter, and Berkouwer wrote back and accepted me as a student there. So, that’s how I got introduced to Berkouwer. My first meeting with Berkouwer was right after I got there, and I had to go and meet with him and get my first assignment. There were several modules that you had to follow in the coursework there. The first and most extensive was dogmatics: the history of systematic theology. In my first assignment, there were some thirty-five books that he assigned me, and twenty-five were in Dutch, and four were in Latin, another four in German, and about four in French. And when he gave me that assignment, he noticed the look on my face. I didn’t speak Dutch, I didn’t speak German, my Latin was very poor, and I had no experience in French whatsoever. And so he said, “What’s wrong?” And I said, “Well, I don’t read French.” I didn’t tell him that I didn’t read Dutch or German. And he said, “Well, that’s OK. You can substitute four more Dutch ones instead of the French ones.” So, I got relieved of that responsibility, but I thought that it would take me thirty years to finish it. This particular book was on the person of Christ, and he had another volume on the work of Christ. But this was one of the most significant books that I read under his tutelage on the person of Christ, and in another module we had to do a history of dogma. And in conjunction with the person of Christ, I also had to study in great detail the studies of the historical Christological controversies with Adolf von Harnack. Harnack was arguably the best church historian of the nineteenth century, and he was anti-rational and he was a liberal. He was a higher-critical scholar. Nevertheless, his detailed analysis of the history of the debates with the Arian controversy and the things that led up to the Council of Chalcedon and so on was so comprehensive that it was extremely helpful to read it.

NICHOLS: That’s probably a foundation that you’ve been drawing on for the decades of your ministry.

SPROUL: Yes, indeed. No question about it.

NICHOLS: You know, I was looking at it and early on you have some definitions of words and so I see you writing some English words in the margins next to some of the key Dutch words.

SPROUL: That’s the first book I read. And I started off not knowing any Dutch, and so I started on page one and I looked up each Dutch word in my Dutch-English dictionary. I wrote the Dutch on one side of a card and the English on the other, and I went to the second word, and the third word, and I spent twelve or fourteen hours the first day and was able to cover a page and a half. And I thought, at this rate, it’s going to take me 350 years to finish this book.

NICHOLS: You know, you mention twelve hours. I see it. At the bottom of the first page, you have written “twelve hours.” I was going to ask you what that meant. And the first paragraph—actually, it’s a long one—so we’re talking twelve hours. That’s perseverance to slog through this. And this is at the Free University in Amsterdam, and your wife, Vesta, is with you, and Sherrie, your daughter.


NICHOLS: You’re in an apartment in the Netherlands?


NICHOLS: With your Dutch dictionary.

SPROUL: I would sit at a little table—I could just hardly move. And I just sat there all day.

NICHOLS: With your dictionary.

SPROUL: That’s all I did. All I did was study the language and study theology from the time I woke up till 10 o’clock at night.


SPROUL: Just breaking for meals.

NICHOLS: Now, I heard a story before about your first time meeting Berkouwer. Why don’t you tell us about the first lecture that you sat in on with Berkouwer.

SPROUL: Oh, that wasn’t with Berkouwer. That was a different one. That was with Mühlemann. That was on the philosophy of Hegel. One of the modules I had was on the history of philosophy because I had been a philosophy major. This was the very first lecture that I heard in Dutch—because I had been there all summer before the fall semester started—and I listened in on this lecture on Hegel and I took about three and a half pages of notes. And Professor Mühlemann knew that I was an American student, so he came up to me after the class and asked, “How did it go?” He asked in Dutch. “How did I find it?” And I said, “I found it very difficult.” And his response to me was, “Yes, Hegel is difficult in any language.”

NICHOLS: And that’s true.

SPROUL: Yes it is.

NICHOLS: Well, maybe one of these days we’ll pull some Hegel off the shelf and we’ll see if you can help us navigate that challenging thinker.

SPROUL: All right.

NICHOLS: Thank you Dr. Sproul. It’s been a pleasure to be in your library and talk about that moment in your life with Berkouwer both in person and in print.