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EdenBerkhof's Reformed Systematic Theology

Lorin Friesen, June 2016

Louis Berkhof was an American-Dutch Reformed theologian who taught at Calvin theological seminary for almost 4 decades and was president of the seminary from 1931 – 1944. His primary work entitled Systematic Theology is still considered one of the standard references for Christian systematic theology, especially in Reformed circles. This essay will examine Berkhof’s volume from a cognitive perspective.

This essay does not claim to be a definitive analysis of Calvinism or a complete analysis of Berkhof, and because Berkhof wrote Systematic Theology in the 1930s, it is possible that some of the statements in this essay no longer apply to current reformed theology. However, this essay does attempt to do a reasonably thorough analysis of reformed theology as defined by Berkhof in his magnum opus, and will quote extensively from Systematic Theology. The page numbers will be taken from the PDF downloaded from I have previously posted some essays on Calvinism, but this is the first time that I have looked at reformed systematic theology in a detailed manner.

My general hypothesis is that most of what Berkhof says is not the result of biblical content but rather emerges naturally when one uses technical thought to analyze a combination of mysticism and fundamentalism. This is a rather striking statement, so I will repeat it in more detail. The human mind will naturally approach God and religion in certain predictable ways. One natural attitude is mysticism, and another natural attitude is fundamentalism. Most of Berkhof’s theology can be explained as a natural result of using a combination of mysticism and fundamentalism to think about God and the Bible, and then using rigorous logic to place these conclusions within a coherent intellectual package. What emerges at the other end is a few biblical doctrines shaped by the assumptions of mysticism and fundamentalism.

I am not suggesting that all reformed Christianity is merely a juxtaposition of mysticism and fundamentalism. However, I do suggest that this description applies to most of the 833 page book on systematic theology written by one of the most esteemed theologians of the reformed church.

I should emphasize that I am not trying to use cognitive analysis to explain theology away. One might think that this is the case because the methodology that I use is similar to that applied by the cognitive science of religion (CSR), and most researchers in this field are trying to explain theology away. CSR has come up with many interesting findings about religion, which I have attempted to incorporate into my cognitive model, and I have analyzed three books written by researchers in this field. However, CSR focuses primarily upon the experiential realm of religion while either denigrating, ignoring, or minimizing the abstract realm of theology. In contrast, I have found that it is possible to build an evangelical Christian theology upon a cognitive model, and this is pursued further in the book entitled Natural Cognitive Theology. The cognitive model that I use began with the list of seven ‘spiritual gifts’ mentioned in Romans 12, and has grown over the years into a meta-theory of cognition that is consistent in detail with the latest findings of neurology as well as being capable of explaining all of the major findings of CSR, as well as numerous other topics and Biblical passages.

There is an interesting personal twist to this story. Calvin College, where Berkhof taught for most of his life, put on a two part seminar on the cognitive science of religion in 2011 and 2012. Berkhof would probably turn over in his grave if he knew about this seminar because 1) most of the researchers are strongly pro-evolution, while Berkhof in Systematic Theology is very clearly against evolution, and 2) these researchers generally regard theology as a subject that is not worthy of study, while Berkhof was a professor of systematic theology and a strong proponent of theology. I applied to attend this seminar and was rejected because I only have a Master’s degree (in Engineering) and not a PhD. Thus, it is ironic that I have used a cognitive model to come up with a systematic Christian theology and that this essay will be using this cognitive model to analyze the systematic theology of Berkhof. Therefore, if anyone of the reformed persuasion feels motivated by this essay to take potshots at me, I request that they direct their first volley at Calvin College.

We will start by looking at the cognitive basis for mysticism and fundamentalism.


For those who want to look at mysticism in more detail, I recently posted a video on YouTube explaining the mindset behind mysticism. This essay will focus upon the highlights. Teacher thought is the mental strategy that comes up with general theories. Teacher thought functions emotionally, and generates positive feelings when a simple universal statement can be used to explain many specific situations, while generating negative feelings when there is an exception to the rule or when no simple explanation can be found. The relationship between a simple theory and positive emotion can be seen in the study of mathematics.

This does not mean that all mathematics is emotional. Mathematics, logic, analytic philosophy—and Berkhof’s book on systematic theology—use primarily what I refer to as technical thought. However, abstract technical thought (technical thought can work with either abstract theories or concrete experiences) is motivated by Teacher emotion, and technical thought functions within the framework of an emotional Teacher theory (or paradigm). Thomas Kuhn described the interaction between technical thought and paradigms in his groundbreaking book.

Perceiver thought is the mental strategy that comes up with facts by looking for connections that are repeated. Teacher thought can come up with a general theory either by cooperating with Perceiver thought or by suppressing Perceiver thought. The first option could be compared to the construction of a brick building. Perceiver facts provide the bricks. The mind does not associate factual bricks with emotion, but instead looks for facts that are solid. Teacher thought arranges these Perceiver bricks into the general form of a building. A building does generate Teacher emotions of order-within-complexity, and this is apparent even when looking at physical buildings. We will refer to the cooperation between Teacher thought and Perceiver thought as generalization.

It is also possible for Teacher thought to come up with a general theory by suppressing Perceiver facts, resulting in a form of thinking that is known as overgeneralization, a term popularized by linguists in the 1950s. For instance, a young child learning English will naturally say things like ‘He gived me a drink’ instead of ‘He gave me a drink’. That is because ‘gave’ is an exception to the general rule of adding ‘ed’ to form the past tense, and the child will learn to apply the general rule before learning the exceptions to the rule. In cognitive terms, Teacher thought is emotionally driven to come up with the simplest and most general theory: Form the past tense by adding ‘-ed’. Perceiver thought then comes up with exceptions that limit the generality of this rule, such as ‘gave’ and not ‘gived’, ‘ate’ and not ‘eated’.

Overgeneralization has several characteristics that are relevant to our discussion of Berkhof. First, Perceiver facts are the enemy of overgeneralization. Teacher thought feels good when a simple theory applies to many situations. Perceiver facts reduce Teacher emotions by providing counterexamples that limit the generality of a Teacher theory. Second, overgeneralization is not just limited to grammar. Instead, it shows up whenever one is using words to come up with a general theory. For instance, it feels good to make a sweeping statement such as ‘You never wash the dishes!’ and it is annoying when the response is ‘But I washed them yesterday’. Third, the emotional drive to overgeneralize is strongest when attempting to come up with a universal theory that explains all specific situations. Fourth, overgeneralization occurs naturally when Perceiver facts are limited. This explains why children overgeneralize rules of grammar, while adults do not. Adults know more facts about words than children. But when an adult is learning a new language, then there will again be a natural tendency to overgeneralize rules of grammar.

Putting this all together, overgeneralization will naturally play a dominant role in theology, because theology is using words to come up with universal statements about subjects that lack factual certainty. This can be seen in the statement that ‘All is one’, which lies at the heart of Eastern religion as well as ancient philosophy. This type of statement is the ultimate overgeneralization because it encapsulates literally everything within three simple words. Saying this another way, Teacher emotion comes from order-within-complexity. ‘All is one’ creates order-within-complexity by verbally asserting that complexity is order. ‘Om’ takes this one step further by reducing the three words to a single sound.

But all is not one. I am not a butterfly, and a mountain is not a frog. Therefore, religious overgeneralization must always be accompanied by some method of getting Perceiver thought with its pesky facts out of the way. One option is to assert that the facts of reality are merely illusion. Another is to state that truth is a paradox or a mystery.

If facts cannot be eliminated, then the typical response is to assert that overgeneralization ‘goes beyond’ the facts of normal logic. Facts only get in the way of overgeneralization when facts limit the extent of overgeneralization. Therefore, overgeneralization is willing to acknowledge the existence of rational thought as long as overgeneralization is regarded as more general than rational truth.

If the emotion of overgeneralization is strong enough, then Perceiver thought can be turned against itself. That is because a sufficiently strong emotion will overwhelm Perceiver thought into believing what is true. This occurs in blind faith, in which a person knows that some fact is true because it has been spoken by an expert with sufficient emotional status. For instance, ‘It must be true because I read it in the Bible, and the Bible is the word of God’, or ‘Stephen Hawking says that there is no God, so this must be true’. Therefore, if the overgeneralization that ‘all is one’ generates a sufficiently strong Teacher emotion, then a person will not just feel that all is one, but will believe with confidence that all is one, and this confidence will be stronger than the confidence that comes from the facts of physical reality. In the words of William James, “Although so similar to states of feeling, mystical states seem to those who experience them to be also states of knowledge. They are states of insight into depths of truth unplumbed by the discursive intellect. They are illuminations, revelations, full of significance and importance, all inarticulate though they remain; and as a rule they carry with them a curious sense of authority for after-time.”

Summarizing, religious overgeneralization has the following features:

  • It makes sweeping statements using adjectives such as all, every, total, utter, or never.

  • It is limited to vague generalizations and cannot subdivide a theory into more specific aspects.

  • It contains a strong emotional component.

  • It leads to a sense of certainty more solid than certainty in physical facts and common sense.

  • It says that it uses a form of thought that goes beyond rational facts.

  • It can only connect with content at isolated points.

  • It opposes rational thought by using adjectives such as mystery and paradox.

Mysticism combines overgeneralization with identification. The Eastern mystic states that ‘All is one’ and then adds that ‘I am one with everything’. My general hypothesis is that a concept of God emerges when a sufficiently general theory applies to personal identity. (This is a generalization, because it is a simple statement that applies to Eastern religion, Christianity, and secular structures that are implicitly treated as gods.) Like overgeneralization, identification also ignores facts because when I identify with some person or experience, I am ignoring the facts that distinguish me from that person or situation. Thus, mysticism combines the characteristics of overgeneralization mentioned above with some form of personal identification.

We have looked at Teacher thought and the emotions associated with a general theory. When people think of emotions they normally think of Mercy thought, the part of the mind that remembers experiences and attaches emotional labels to experiences. Mercy thought is also the part of the mind that deals with personal identity, as illustrated by the term ‘subjectivity’, which describes thinking that is colored by the emotions of personal experience.

Overgeneralization is a mental shortcut to positive Teacher emotion. Identification is a mental shortcut to positive Mercy emotion. When overgeneralization is combined with identification, then the result can be a very strong transcendental experience of being ‘one with the cosmos’, and because a concept of God forms when a sufficiently general theory applies to personal identity, this transcendental experience will usually be interpreted as an encounter with God. In addition, because a sufficiently potent experience leads also to a strong sense of knowing, the person who has a transcendental experience will also believe—with great confidence—that he actually had a real encounter with a real God and that his personal emotional experience describes the nature of The Real God.


Eastern religion is characterized by mysticism. Berkhof makes it clear that reformed theology is not mysticism. While reformed theology contains a core element of mysticism (and we shall see later that Berkhof specifically uses the adjective ‘mystical union’ to describe this element), I suggest that reformed theology is primarily a combination of overgeneralization and fundamentalism. We will back up this assertion with numerous quotes from Berkhof, but first we need to look at the cognitive mechanisms behind fundamentalism.

Fundamentalism is a version of blind faith. Mysticism is based primarily in the Teacher emotion of overgeneralization. Fundamentalism, in contrast, is based in Mercy emotions of personal status. The mind represents people as collections—or mental networks—of emotional experiences within Mercy thought. For instance, when one thinks of Aunt Jemima, experiences of pancakes and syrup come to mind. Mental concepts of people usually come from personal interactions with real individuals, such as my mother or my Grade 3 teacher. However, it is also possible to form the concept of an imaginary person who does not exist in real life, as illustrated by Aunt Jemima, Betty Crocker, Uncle Sam, or Lady Justice.

Blind faith occurs when the emotional status of some real—or imaginary—person is sufficiently greater than the emotional status of personal identity to overwhelm Perceiver thought into believing what is true. For instance, I probably will not place blind faith in the words of my neighbor Fred, because I do not regard him with sufficient emotional status. However, I may place blind faith in the pronouncements of some professor or theologian, especially if this theologian has the exalted status of a church father. On the other hand, if I myself am a professor with social status, then I will no longer place blind faith in the words of fellow professors, because I no longer regard the source of truth as far more important than I.

Blind faith has three characteristics, which I refer to as the religious attitude. The first characteristic is self-denial, because I will feel that I am nothing compared to my source of truth. The second characteristic of fervor is the counterpart to self-denial, because I will feel that I need to focus fully upon the source of truth while ignoring personal identity. The third characteristic affects abstract thought, because I will feel that I am too insignificant to be able to think adequately about truth: ‘Who am I to think that I could even begin to think like Doctor Professor John Smith’. In the extreme, the religious attitude leads to what is popularly known as worm theology.

Fundamentalism can be defined as a specific version of blind faith. Blind faith believes that facts are true because they come from a source with great emotional status. Fundamentalism believes that the facts of some book are true because this book was written by a source with great emotional status, while religious fundamentalism believes that the facts of some holy book are true because this book was written by a source with great emotional status. I make this distinction because it is also possible for a student of science to approach science textbooks with an attitude of fundamentalism. In this essay, we will use the term fundamentalism to describe blind faith in the words of the Holy Bible. However, it is important to remember that fundamentalism is practiced by many different forms of religion and education and is not just a label to be slapped upon Christians.

I should also emphasize that we are not looking here at the content of a book but rather at the attitude that a person takes toward this book. When a fundamentalist places blind faith in a book, then this does not automatically mean that the book is true, and it also does not automatically prove that the book is false. It simply means that the person believing the book has no way of determining whether the content is true or false, because the facts are being swallowed blindly. If a science textbook accurately describes how the world works, then it is worthy of being believed. Similarly, evidence strongly suggests that the Bible is a supernaturally written book, because it is far too clever to have been written in Roman times.

However, if a person approaches a book with an attitude of blind faith, then this attitude will itself impose a set of beliefs—regardless of what the book actually says. This essay will attempt to show that most of Berkhof’s fundamental beliefs are not based in what the Bible actually says, but rather are an indirect result of the attitude with which he approaches the Bible and religion. This does not mean that Berkhof deliberately contradicts Scripture. Instead, I suggest that Berkhof’s attitude twists his view of Scripture in specific ways, and in most of these cases Berkhof explicitly admits that his understanding of Scripture is inadequate.

Reformed Theology

Now let us turn to reformed theology as described by Berkhof. If one looks up worm theology on Wikipedia, then the primary reference is to the theology of John Calvin: “Calvin saw mankind as being totally unable to do anything for ourselves to free us from the stranglehold of sin... The term ‘worm theology’ is generally used by those who do not accept this, and so is used as a way of expressing the belief that this theology is wrong.”

The editors of Wikipedia point out that ‘this article has multiple issues’. Therefore, let us turn to Systematic Theology to see what Burkhof says about the subject:

Religion is based in the concept that humanity is nothing compared to God: “True knowledge of God can be acquired only from the divine self-revelation, and only by the man who accepts this with childlike faith. Religion necessarily presupposes such a knowledge. It is the most sacred relation between man and his God, a relation in which man is conscious of the absolute greatness and majesty of God as the supreme Being, and of his own utter insignificance and subjection to the High and Holy One” (p. 31).

Man is utterly insignificant compared to God: “When God created man, He by that very fact established a natural relationship between Himself and man. It was a relationship like that between the potter and the clay, between an absolute sovereign and a subject devoid of any claim. In fact, the distance between the two was so great that these figures are not even an adequate expression of it” (p.234).

Nothing that humanity can do ultimately makes any difference to God: “By glorifying the Creator the creatures add nothing to the perfection of His being, but only acknowledge His greatness and ascribe to Him the glory which is due unto Him” (p.150).

Humanity is dependent upon God for everything: “The work of God always has the priority, for man is dependent on God in all that he does. The statement of Scripture, ‘Without me ye can do nothing,’ applies in every field of endeavor” (p.188).

Because of the fall, man also became totally morally depraved: “The immediate concomitant of the first sin, and therefore hardly a result of it in the strict sense of the word, was the total depravity of human nature. The contagion of his sin at once spread through the entire man, leaving no part of his nature untouched, but vitiating every power and faculty of body and soul. This utter corruption of man is clearly taught in Scripture” (p.246).

The transformation of man also depends totally upon God: “The Holy Spirit works directly on the heart of man and changes its spiritual condition. There is no co-operation of the sinner in this work whatsoever. It is the work of the Holy Spirit directly and exclusively... Regeneration, then, is to be conceived monergistically. God alone works, and the sinner has no part in it whatsoever” (p.524).

The salvation of mankind starts with the assumption of total human dependence upon God: “Soteriology deals with the communication of the blessings of salvation to the sinner and his restoration to divine favor and to a life in intimate communion with God. It presupposes knowledge of God as the all-sufficient source of the life, the strength, and the happiness of mankind, and of man’s utter dependence on Him for the present and the future... Moreover, since it treats of the salvation of the sinner wholly as a work of God, known to Him from all eternity, it naturally carries our thoughts back to the eternal counsel of peace and the covenant of grace, in which provision was made for the redemption of fallen men” (p.457).

Even when man appears to cooperate with God, God is always the ultimate source: “Though God only is the author of conversion, it is of great importance to stress the fact, over against a false passivity, that there is also a certain co-operation of man in conversion... It should be borne in mind, however, that this activity of man always results from a previous work of God in man” (p.543).

The Real Dichotomy

Berkhof contrasts the reformed concept of total depravity with the Pelagian view of sin, which he defines as “man has a free will in the absolute sense of the word, so that it is possible for him to decide for or against that which is good, and also to do the good as well as evil... Whether a man will do good or evil simply depends on his free and independent will... Sin is always a deliberate choice of evil by a will which is perfectly free” (p.256). Berkhof repeatedly emphasizes that reformed thought rejects the Pelagian view of absolute free will.

However, I suggest that the real dichotomy is not between the total depravity of reformed theology and the free will of Pelagianism but rather between overgeneralization and generalization. If one examines the previous quotes, one notices that Berkhof is using the mindset of overgeneralization to describe depravity. One can see this from all the universal adjectives: ‘devoid of any claim’, ‘distance so great’, ‘creatures had nothing’, ‘all that he does’, ‘every field of endeavor’, ‘God alone works’, ‘no part in it whatsoever’, ‘all-sufficient’, utter dependence’, ‘all eternity’, ‘always results’. Similarly, his description of Pelagianism is also characterized by universal adjectives: ‘sin is always a deliberate choice’, ‘perfectly free’. The problem with overgeneralization is that it cannot handle specific facts, but must remain at the level of vague generalities. Thus, while Berkhof describes human depravity in sweeping terms, he does not descend from the level of generality to look at specific details.

This is not a trivial problem, because a general theory is only general to the extent that it applies to specific situations. Sweeping statements give the feeling of universality, but if these sweeping statements are never applied to specific situations, then one is dealing merely with the illusion of a general theory.

One result is that while Berkhof says that salvation comes only from God, he does not act as if this is true. Instead, he goes to great lengths to try to prove that salvation comes only from God. For instance, “In his struggle with Semi-Pelagianism Augustine emphasized the entirely gratuitous and irresistible character of the grace of God. In the subsequent struggles the Augustinian doctrine of grace was only partly victorious. Seeberg expresses himself as follows: ‘Thus the doctrine of ‘grace alone’ came off victorious; but the Augustinian doctrine of predestination was abandoned... The Reformers went back to the Augustinian conception of grace, but avoided his sacramentarianism. They placed the emphasis once more on grace as the unmerited favour of God shown to sinners, and represented it in a manner which excluded all merit on the part of the sinner’” (p.474). This is like some physical weakling continually getting into fights with others in order to prove that his friend is the strongest man in the world. If his friend really is the strongest man, then surely this friend can fight for himself and does not need any help from his scrawny side-kick.

Saying this another way, if God’s grace is so irresistible, as Berkhof claims, then why is Berkhof continually trying to prove to Christians of other denominations that they should stop resisting the concept of irresistible grace? And this is not a trivial point, because Berkhof’s book on systematic theology is one of the most argumentative books that I have analyzed so far. In fact, Berkhof explicitly states that the primary mission of the church is to be argumentative: “The Church in the present dispensation is a militant Church, that is, she is called unto, and is actually engaged in, a holy warfare. This, of course, does not mean that she must spend her strength in self-destroying internecine struggles, but that she is duty bound to carry on an incessant warfare against the hostile world in every form in which it reveals itself, whether in the Church or outside of it, and against all the spiritual forces of darkness... She must be engaged with all her might in the battles of her Lord, fighting in a war that is both offensive and defensive” (p.625).

I suggest that there is a cognitive reason for this militant attitude. When the attitude that ‘God does everything and man does nothing’ is viewed as a general theory and one thinks about this theory, then this theory will turn into a TMN (Teacher mental network), which will impose its structure upon the mind. Thus, Berkhof is being emotionally driven to act like his concept of God. (This emotional drive to behave in a manner that is consistent with a concept of God is also the cognitive mechanism behind righteousness.)

Going further, when Berkhof does look at the details of human existence, then he ends up questioning the supposedly universal doctrine of utter depravity: “How can we explain the comparatively orderly life in the world, seeing that the whole world lies under the curse of sin? How is it that the earth yields precious fruit in rich abundance and does not simply bring forth thorns and thistles? How can we account for it that sinful man still ‘retains some knowledge of God, of natural things, and of the difference between good and evil, and shows some regard for virtue and for good outward behavior’? What explanation can be given of the special gifts and talents with which the natural man is endowed, and of the development of science and art by those who are entirely devoid of the new life that is in Christ Jesus? How can we explain the religious aspirations of men everywhere, even of those who did not come in touch with the Christian religion? How can the unregenerate still speak the truth, do good to others, and lead outwardly virtuous lives? These are some of the questions to which the doctrine of common grace seeks to supply the answer” (p. 477). Berkhof is not just expressing a minor concern but rather writing a whole paragraph of questioning, complaining at length that the facts do not support the doctrine of total human depravity.

Looking at this complaint from a cognitive perspective, we are looking here at a collision between overgeneralization and rational thought. Overgeneralization is saying that man is totally depraved, while rational thought is looking at the details and coming up with a different conclusion. What happens when the overgeneralization of mysticism collides with rational thought? This is a problem faced by all modern versions of mysticism, because modern society is guided by the rational thinking of science and technology. For instance, this video segment examines how Martin Buber, the Jewish philosopher, tried to combine mysticism with the rational thinking of science.

In brief, the following steps will be taken to resolve the conflict: 1) A mental wall will be constructed between rational thought and mysticism and it will be emphasized that this wall cannot be bridged. But the existence of such a wall threatens the mystical concept that ‘all is one’. Therefore, 2) It will be added that an ultimate unity lies behind the unbridgeable wall. 3) The universality of overgeneralization will be protected by asserting that mysticism is more general than rational thought and that rational thought ultimately means nothing when dealing with God and eternal issues. This type of approach is known as non-dualism.

The mental wall can be seen in the reformed distinction between common grace and special grace. Berkhof points out that the doctrine of common grace cannot be found in the writings of Calvin, but was added by later reformed theologians: “The name ‘common grace’ as a designation of the grace now under discussion cannot be said to owe its origin to Calvin. Dr. H. Kuiper in his work on Calvin on Common Grace says that he found only four passages in Calvin’s works in which the adjective ‘common’ is used with the noun ‘grace,’ and in two of these the Reformer is speaking of saving grace. In later Reformed theology, however, the name gratia communis came into general use to express the idea that this grace extends to all men, in contrast with the gratia particularis which is limited to a part of mankind” (p.479).

Special grace applies to the realm of personal salvation, while common grace is limited to rational natural thought and behavior: “Special grace works in a spiritual and re-creative way, renewing the whole nature of man, and thus making man able and willing to accept the offer of salvation in Jesus Christ, and to produce spiritual fruits. Common grace, to the contrary, operates only in a rational and moral way by making man in a general way receptive for the truth, by presenting motives to the will, and by appealing to the natural desires of man” (p.482).

Berkhof emphasizes that special grace and common grace should not be viewed in an integrated manner: “This conception of common grace should be carefully distinguished from that of the Arminians, who regard common grace as a link in the ordo salutis and ascribe to it saving significance. They hold that, in virtue of the common grace of God, the unregenerate man is perfectly able to perform a certain measure of spiritual good, to turn to God in faith and repentance, and thus to accept Jesus unto salvation. They go even farther than that, and maintain that common grace by the illumination of the mind and the persuasive influence of the truth incites the sinner to accept Jesus Christ and to turn to God in faith and repentance, and will certainly achieve this end, unless the sinner obstinately resists the operation of the Holy Spirit. The Canons of Dort have this in mind where they reject the error of those” (p.483). Notice that Berkhof ‘rejects the error of those’ who suggest that common grace might lead in some manner to special grace.

However, Berkhof recognizes that both biblical accounts and rational thought indicate that there is a spillover from special grace to common grace, and that one can see the salvation of Jesus in common grace: “In every covenant transaction recorded in Scripture it appears that the covenant of grace carries with it not only spiritual but also material blessings, and those material blessings are generally of such a kind that they are naturally shared also by unbelievers” (p. 484).

In response, reformed doctrine insists that while it may look like common grace leads to personal salvation, there is ultimately no connection between common grace and personal salvation: “Reformed theology, however, insists on the essential difference between common and special grace. Special grace is supernatural and spiritual: it removes the guilt and pollution of sin and lifts the sentence of condemnation. Common grace, on the other hand, is natural; and while some of its forms may be closely connected with saving grace, it does not remove sin nor set man free, but merely restrains the outward manifestations of sin and promotes outward morality and decency, good order in society and civic righteousness, the development of science and art, and so on. It works only in the natural, and not in the spiritual sphere... No amount of common grace can ever introduce the sinner into the new life that is in Christ Jesus. However, common grace does sometimes reveal itself in forms that can hardly be distinguished by man from the manifestations of special grace as, for instance, in the case of temporal faith” (p. 485).

But if there is an unbridgeable wall separating common grace from special grace, then this implies that God is divided. Therefore, Berkhof emphasizes that this unbridgeable wall does not exist within the unified character of God: “The distinction between common and special grace is not one that applies to grace as an attribute in God. There are no two kinds of grace in God, but only one. It is that perfection of God in virtue of which he shows unmerited and even forfeited favour to man. This one grace of God manifests itself, however, in different gifts and operations” (p.481).

And any good that results from common grace is ultimately evil because it comes from the wrong source: “Reformed theologians generally maintain that the unregenerate can perform natural good, civil good, and outwardly religious good. They call attention to the fact, however, that, while such works of the unregenerate are good from a material point of view, as works which God commanded, they cannot be called good from a formal point of view, since they do not spring from the right motive and do not aim at the right purpose” (p.490).

Summarizing, fundamentalism with its religious attitude leads naturally to the feeling that I am nothing compared to God. Reformed theology uses overgeneralization to turn this into a universal doctrine. But rational evidence does not support an overgeneralized doctrine of total depravity. Therefore, reformed theologians use non-dualism to protect this overgeneralization from rational thought: Common grace involves rational thought; common grace is separate from special grace and has nothing to do with personal salvation; God is unified even though though common grace is completely distinct from special grace; the personal salvation that appears to result from common grace is ultimately illusion.

This leads us to a rather troubling conclusion. As I mention in the video on mysticism, mysticism is faced with a fundamental dilemma. On the one hand, mysticism can be explained in simple terms using basic cognitive mechanisms. This means that mysticism is actually one aspect of a rational general understanding of how the mind works. On the other hand, mysticism only works if a person believes that overgeneralization goes beyond rational thought, which means that rational thought must be regarded as an aspect of the ultimate theory of mysticism. Similarly, the reformed doctrines of human depravity, special grace, and common grace can be explained in simple terms using basic cognitive mechanisms, which means that these doctrines actually belong to the realm of common grace with its rational thinking and appearance of personal salvation. But reformed doctrine insists that common grace has nothing to do with personal salvation.

The end result is a concept of God that is rather unsettling. In simple terms, God blesses non-Christians during their physical lifetime and gives them the impression that he is their friend. But he is actually their sworn enemy, and when they die he will damn them to eternal hell. Using an analogy, this is like a serial killer offering candy to children in order to pretend to be their friends while murdering them in secret afterwards. This may sound like a gross overstatement, but Berkhof uses a similar analogy, saying that George Washington offered tasty food to a traitor before condemning him to death: “General Washington hated the traitor that was brought before him and condemned him to death, but at the same time showed him compassion by serving him with the dainties from his own table. Cannot God have compassion even on the condemned sinner, and bestow favors upon him? The answer need not be uncertain, since the Bible clearly teaches that He showers untold blessings upon all men and also clearly indicates that these are the expression of a favorable disposition in God, which falls short, however, of the positive volition to pardon their sin, to lift their sentence, and to grant them salvation” (p.492).

The Overgeneralization of Berkhof

We have looked at overgeneralization and the reformed doctrine of human depravity. We will now examine the other doctrines where Berkhof uses overgeneralization. This is easy to determine, because overgeneralization is characterized by universal adjectives, it ignores specific facts, and it appeals to mystery and paradox. Before we begin, I should emphasize that if Berkhof uses overgeneralization to describe some fundamental Christian doctrine, then this does not necessarily mean that this Christian doctrine is wrong. What we are examining here is not the accuracy of the doctrine but rather the mindset of Berkhof. I am also not suggesting that Berkhof uses only generalization. He also uses technical thought—extensively. But if one wishes to understand reformed doctrine, then it is important to know which aspects are being approached through overgeneralization and which aspects are being analyzed using technical thought.


God: “The Being of God is characterized by a depth, a fullness, a variety, and a glory far beyond our comprehension, and the Bible represents it as a glorious harmonious whole, without any inherent contradictions. And this fullness of life finds expression in no other way than in the perfections of God” (p.44). We see here the combination of oneness and mystery. Everything about God fits together perfectly, telling us that Teacher thought is coming up with a universal theory, but this ultimate unity is beyond human comprehension, which prevents Perceiver thought from coming up with any facts that would fragment this Teacher overgeneralization. But if the Being of God is ‘far beyond our comprehension’, then how can Berkhof state with certainty that this Being is ‘a glorious harmonious whole without any inherent contradictions’? If I cannot comprehend another person’s words, then how can I know what that person is saying? However, we have seen that this type of certainty emerges naturally from overgeneralization and mysticism.

One can tell that Berkhof is using overgeneralization to think about God, because he insists that one must remain at the level of vague generalities without adding specifics when talking about God: “From the simplicity of God it follows that God and His attributes are one. The attributes cannot be considered as so many parts that enter into the composition of God, for God is not, like men, composed of different parts. Neither can they be regarded as something added to the Being of God, though the name, derived from ad and tribuere, might seem to point in that direction, for no addition was ever made to the Being of God, who is eternally perfect” (p.47).

Berkhof explicitly says that one must avoid details when talking about God: “When we speak of the simplicity of God, we use the term to describe the state or quality of being simple, the condition of being free from division into parts, and therefore from compositeness. It means that God is not composite and is not susceptible of division in any sense of the word” (p.67).

One of the dilemmas faced by mysticism is that the meanings of words are based in Perceiver facts, which by their very nature fragment Teacher overgeneralization. This means that even talking about God is a paradox: “The names of God constitute a difficulty for human thought. God is the Incomprehensible One, infinitely exalted above all that is temporal; but in His names He descends to all that is finite and becomes like unto man. On the one hand we cannot name Him, and on the other hand He has many names. How can this be explained? On what grounds are these names applied to the infinite and incomprehensible God? It should be borne in mind that they are not of man’s invention, and do not testify to his insight into the very Being of God... In order to make Himself known to man, God had to condescend to the level of man, to accommodate Himself to the limited and finite human consciousness, and to speak in human language.” (p.51). Berkhof solves this dilemma by saying that the nature of God transcends words about God and that God descends from incomprehensibility to speak in human language. This describes the solution that is typically taken by mysticism. Overgeneralization can handle rational facts as long as overgeneralization is regarded as more general than rational facts.

A similar problem emerges with the concept of God guiding human history, because history also involves specific facts. As before, Berkhof solves this problem by saying that God’s plan actually resides in eternity and that this plan is ‘realized by a single eternal act of his will’: “The Bible teaches us that God enters into manifold relations with man and, as it were, lives their life with them. There is change round about Him, change in the relations of men to Him, but there is no change in His Being, His attributes, His purpose, His motives of action, or His promises. The purpose to create was eternal with Him, and there was no change in Him when this purpose was realized by a single eternal act of His will” (p.63). Notice that overgeneralization must also regard God as changeless, because change presumes facts and details, and overgeneralization cannot handle details. Therefore, Berkhof insists that the historical plan of God has absolutely no effect upon His eternal existence.

Berkhof says this explicitly: “He is the eternal ‘I am.’ His eternity may be defined as that perfection of God whereby He is elevated above all temporal limits and all succession of moments, and possesses the whole of His existence in one indivisible present. The relation of eternity to time constitutes one of the most difficult problems in philosophy and theology, perhaps incapable of solution in our present condition” (p.65). We see here that Berkhof is again appealing to mystery. Overgeneralization concludes that eternity is a single unchanging moment, but it is not possible to reconcile the concept of an eternal moment with the specific facts and sequences of space and time.

Berkhof adds that God’s knowledge is also based in a single overgeneralized eternal moment that transcends all facts of knowledge: “The knowledge of God may be defined as that perfection of God whereby He, in an entirely unique manner, knows Himself and all things possible and actual in one eternal and most simple act” (p.71).

One of the basic principles of mysticism is that mystical thought cannot survive analysis, because analysis introduces facts and precise definitions, which limits overgeneralization. Similarly, Berkhof warns that ‘it is not possible nor even permissible’ to think too deeply about the will of God, because this thinking robs the character of God of its eternal divinity: “Dr. Bavinck points out that we can seldom discern why God willed one thing rather than another, and that it is not possible nor even permissible for us to look for some deeper ground of things than the will of God, because all such attempts result in seeking a ground for the creature in the very Being of God, in robbing it of its contingent character, and in making it necessary, eternal, divine” (p.85).

Summarizing, it is possible to use the cognitive mechanism of overgeneralization to explain Berkhof’s fundamental statements regarding the nature of God. That leads us to a fundamental question: How does one know that Berkhof’s description of God actually corresponds to the real God? One of the features of mysticism is that combining overgeneralization with identification will lead to an emotional experience in which one feels that one is personally connected with the universal, and this strong emotion will overwhelm Perceiver thought into ‘knowing’ that this personal experience defines absolute truth. Therefore, the mystic will not just say that ‘I had an encounter with God’, but he will be convinced that his personal experience actually defines the nature of the real God. Stated bluntly, does the God that Berkhof describes really exist, or is this God merely a figment of Berkhof’s imagination that emerged naturally from the structure and assumptions of Berkhof’s mind?

Again, I need to emphasize that I am not trying to reject theology or disprove the existence of God. Instead, I am questioning the strategy of using overgeneralization to analyze God and religion. Questioning overgeneralization does not mean that one has to reject everything that Berkhof says. Instead, we will see later that Berkhof also provides some good definitions that can act as the starting point for using generalization (instead of overgeneralization) to construct a more adequate concept of God.


Let us continue now with our look at Berkhof and overgeneralization:

The Trinity: We saw that Berkhof uses overgeneralization to think about God. One finds the same appeal to mystery in his description of the Trinity: “It is especially when we reflect on the relation of the three persons to the divine essence that all analogies fail us and we become deeply conscious of the fact that the Trinity is a mystery far beyond our comprehension. It is the incomprehensible glory of the Godhead” (p.96). In contrast, if one uses the theory of mental symmetry to analyze the mind, one finds that a concept of the Christian Trinity naturally emerges when all of the parts of the mind work together in harmony. Using Christian language, it appears that man really is made in the image of God.

Saying this another way, I suggest that theology and mental wholeness are inseparably linked. For instance, overgeneralization satisfies Teacher thought while shutting down Perceiver thought, and results in a mind that regards the Trinitarian God as incomprehensible. In contrast, a mind that is mentally whole will naturally believe in the existence of a Christian Trinitarian God.

I should add that mental wholeness is not natural. Instead, the childish mind will naturally—and inevitably—develop in a fragmented manner that is hostile to the Christian concept of God. If one wishes to become mentally whole, then one must follow the path of personal transformation as described by Christianity.

The Bible talks about mystery, but the biblical focus is upon revealing mystery. Topics that used to be a mystery will eventually be revealed. It appears that the concept of the Trinity falls into this category. It was a mystery, but if one understands how the mind functions then one can begin to understand this mystery. Berkhof, in contrast, says that the Trinity is a mystery that will always remain a mystery: “The Church confesses the Trinity to be a mystery beyond the comprehension of man. The Trinity is a mystery, not merely in the Biblical sense that it is a truth, which was formerly hidden but is now revealed; but in the sense that man cannot comprehend it and make it intelligible. It is intelligible in some of its relations and modes of manifestation, but unintelligible in its essential nature” (p.97).

Instead, Berkhof says that the Trinity is characterized by the same sort of indivisible oneness that describes God the Father: “The whole undivided essence of God belongs equally to each of the three persons. This means that the divine essence is not divided among the three persons, but is wholly with all its perfection in each one of the persons, so that they have a numerical unity of essence” (p.95). Again this leads us to pose the question. If the Trinity is an incomprehensible mystery, then how does Berkhof know that it is characterized by ‘a numerical unity of essence’?

Incarnation: Berkhof also states that incarnation is an incomprehensible mystery and that it is impossible to come up with a psychological explanation for Jesus being both God and man: “The Church has really never gotten beyond the formula of Chalcedon. It has always recognized the incarnation as a mystery which defies explanation. And so it will remain, because it is the miracle of miracles. Several attempts have been made in course of time to give a psychological explanation of the person of Jesus Christ, but they were all bound to fail, because He is the Son of God, Himself very God, and a psychological explanation of God is out of the question” (p. 352).

Berkhof adds that incarnation transcends human reasoning, is not analogous to anything in real life, and can only be accepted through blind faith in the Bible: “The doctrine of the two natures in one person transcends human reason. It is the expression of a supersensible reality, and of an incomprehensible mystery, which has no analogy in the life of man as we know it, and finds no support in human reason, and therefore can only be accepted by faith on the authority of the Word of God” (p. 354). However, I have found that the process by which abstract technical thought combines with concrete technical thought within the mind corresponds in detail with the biblical description of Jesus being both God and man. A brief cognitive explanation of incarnation can be found in another essay, and Natural Cognitive Theology contains several chapters on the topic of incarnation. In addition, I have found that the relationship between mathematics and science provides an extensive analogy to the scriptural concept of Jesus being the ‘word made flesh’. In other words, it appears that the concept of incarnation is built into the very structure of the mind, and that the structure of the physical universe itself provides an analogy of incarnation.

It is understandable that Berkhof would not recognize the relationship between incarnation and the structure of the mind, because he was writing about 80 years ago, when much less was known about the mind. However, it also appears that Berkhof has a stronger belief in the incomprehensibility of incarnation than most Christian theologians. Most theologians regard Jesus as the combination of incomprehensible God and comprehensible man whose nature was revealed in the Gospels. In other words, Jesus-as-God may be a mystery, but Jesus-as-man is not a mystery. For instance, Dallas Willard talks extensively about the nature and behavior of Jesus in the Gospels, focusing especially on the Sermon on the Mount. But one does not find this sort of detailed description of Jesus-as-man in Berkhof. Evangelical Christians talk about ‘asking Jesus into your heart’ and ‘having a personal relationship with Jesus’. Such phrases cannot be found in Berkhof’s book.

Relationship with Jesus

The relationship with Jesus: Instead, Berkhof defines the relationship between Jesus and personal identity as one of ‘mystical union’: “Subjectively, the union between Christ and believers is effected by the Holy Spirit in a mysterious and supernatural way, and for that reason is generally designated as the unio mystica or mystical union” (p.495). This quote comes from the first paragraph of a chapter entitled ‘The Mystical Union’, and every time that Berkhof talks about the internal relationship between Jesus and the Christian, it is described as a ‘mystical union’.

Berkhof compares the Lutheran view with the reformed view: “Lutherans generally treat the doctrine of the mystical union anthropologically, and therefore conceive of it as established by faith. Hence they naturally take it up at a later point in their soteriology. But this method fails to do full justice to the idea of our union with Christ, since it loses sight of the eternal basis of the union and of its objective realization in Christ, and deals exclusively with the subjective realization of it in our lives, and even so only with our personal conscious entrance into this union. Reformed theology, on the other hand, deals with the union of believers with Christ theologically, and as such does far greater justice to this important subject. In doing so it employs the term ‘mystical union’ in a broad sense as a designation not only of the subjective union of Christ and believers, but also of the union that lies back of it, that is basic to it, and of which it is only the culminating expression, namely, the federal union of Christ and those who are His in the counsel of redemption, the mystical union ideally established in that eternal counsel, and the union as it is objectively effected in the incarnation and the redemptive work of Christ” (p.495).

Summarizing, Berkhof says that reformed theologians do not regard the internal relationship with Jesus from a personal anthropological viewpoint, because they want to go beyond viewing it as ‘asking Jesus into your heart’. Instead, reformed theology ‘deals with the union of believers with Christ theologically’, because a theological viewpoint ‘does far greater justice to this important subject’. I agree wholeheartedly with this statement, as long as one defines theology as theology and not as mysticism.

However, even though Berkhof uses the word theology, he is really describing mysticism. First, he uses the word mysticism. Second, he says that behind a person’s relationship with Jesus lies ‘the mystical union ideally established in that eternal counsel’. This is a characteristic of overgeneralization, which insists that all facts are transcended by an eternal moment.

Third, Berkhof says that it is a mystery that transcends rational thought: “It is a union that passes understanding. Says Dr. Hodge: ‘The technical designation of this union in theological language is ‘mystical,’ because it so far transcends all the analogies of earthly relationships, in the intimacy of its connection, in the transforming power of its influence, and in the excellence of its consequences’” (p.498).

Fourth, it is characterized by a vague oneness that lacks details: “In this organic union Christ ministers to the believers, and the believers minister to Christ. Every part of the body serves and is served by every other part, and together they are subservient to the whole in a union that is indissoluble” (p.498).

Putting this all together, “In the depths of eternity the Mediator of the new covenant freely undertook to be the representative of His people, that is, of those whom the Father gave unto Him. A federal relationship was established in virtue of which He became their Surety. This is the basic and the most fundamental union between Christ and His own, and on the basis of this a mystical union was formed, ideally in the counsel of peace, to be realized in the course of history in the organic union of Christ and His Church. Therefore Christ could act as the legal representative of His own, and being mystically one with them, can also convey to them the blessings of salvation” (p.418).

This is theologically troubling. That is because overgeneralization combined with identification describes the mysticism that is practiced by Buddhism, Hinduism, and other Eastern religions. (This is explained in a video segment.) Thus, what Berkhof calls a theological viewpoint is actually a Buddhist viewpoint. I am not suggesting that Berkhof practices only Buddhism. Rather, I am pointing out that Berkhof practices more Buddhism than the typical Christian theologian. While the average Christian theologian regards the divine side of Jesus as belonging to the incomprehensible realm of mysticism, he also regards the Jesus of the Gospels as belonging to the rational human world of content. Therefore, the life of Jesus-as-man adds content to the contentlessness of a transcendent God of mysticism. In contrast, Berkhof appears to relegate both Jesus-as-God and Jesus-as-man to the realm of divine mystery. (The relationship between Jesus-as-God and Jesus-as-man is discussed extensively in another essay.) Berkhof says that his theology is based in the Bible. But when it comes to the core issue of a personal relationship with Jesus, then Berkhof’s Buddhist-like view of Jesus causes him to ignore most of what the Bible says about the life of Jesus.

This is also morally troubling, because it means that Berkhof’s mental concept of Jesus lacks content, and a concept of Jesus that lacks content will not impose moral standards upon personal identity. When one reads authors such as Dallas Willard, one gains the impression that the author knows what it is like to be personally transformed by an internal relationship with a Jesus of moral content. (Though Willard is somewhat lacking when it comes to theology.) In contrast, the attitude that is conveyed in Systematic Theology is not one of Christlike humility but rather one of academic arrogance.


I come from an Anabaptist background, and Anabaptists have historically emphasized being guided by the words and example of Jesus. As the Mennonite Encyclopedia explains, “Mennonites find God’s kingdom most fully present wherever groups are committed to living out Jesus’ teachings about self-giving, servant-like love, and are doing so by means of God’s initiating grace, whether their actions seem in tune with their larger sociocultural context or not. Mennonites stress not only the role of spiritual and social obedience in general, but also that of the called-out community, or ‘little flock,’ through which these take concrete, social shape.”

I am not suggesting that everything Mennonites do and say is correct. The Mennonite Encyclopedia adds that “In extreme cases, Mennonites may have virtually identified the church with God’s kingdom and may have relegated the rest of society and culture to the devil’s rule.” In addition, as the previous quote shows, the Mennonite practice of following Jesus has often been colored by a religious attitude of self-denial. However, Mennonites have emphasized that the life and teachings of Jesus exemplify the kingdom of God and that this sets the pattern for Christians to follow.

But Berkhof regards Anabaptists with disdain: “Anabaptists... regard the natural creation with contempt, stress the fact that Adam was of the earth earthy, and see only impurity in the natural order as such. Christ established a new supernatural order of things, and to that order the regenerate man, who is not merely a renewed, but an entirely new man, also belongs. He has nothing in common with the world round about him and should therefore take no part in its life: never swear an oath, take no part in war, recognize no civil authority, avoid worldly clothing, and so on. On this position there is no other grace than saving grace” (p.493). Thus, Berkhof’s mystical view of the relationship with Jesus does not merely cause him to suppress morality in an abstract manner, but it causes him to attack Christian denominations that are attempting to be guided by the moral standards of Jesus.

And Berkhof accuses Anabaptists of holding to strange beliefs that I have never encountered in decades of attending Anabaptist churches, including: rejecting the words of the Bible (p.508), minimizing the work of the Holy Spirit (p.505), regarding the natural creation with contempt (p.493), preaching the possibility of sinless perfection (p.518), focusing upon a coming millennium (p.734), soul sleep (p.754), denying that man is in the image of God (p.226), and believing that Jesus did not acquire a human nature from his mother (p.368). Some of these beliefs were held by some Anabaptists in the past. For instance, Menno Simons taught that Jesus did not really have a human mother. However, I only learned about this doctrine recently and was rather shocked when I encountered it.

Berkhof is not the only theologian to attack Anabaptists. Instead, theologians have historically been the strongest supporters of persecuting the Anabaptists. In the words of the Mennonite Encyclopedia: “This fear of theology had its origin in part in the bitter experience of the Anabaptists (and later Mennonites) that it was the theologians who were their worst enemies, whether Lutheran, Reformed, or Catholic, and who were often responsible for prodding the rulers into harsher measures of persecution; Melanchthon and Bullinger are good examples of this. Anabaptists frequently referred to the theologians as ‘Schriftgelehrten,’ i.e., ‘scribes’ (with the New Testament overtone of condemnation as enemies of Christ). Later on in the 17th-19th centuries it was the theologically trained pastors who were the harshest critics of the Mennonites and who attempted, often without success, to prevail upon the princes to refuse to admit Mennonites to their territories, or to expel them after admission, or to forbid their public worship. The princes for their part often favored the Mennonites because of the economic advantage they brought, and were therefore on the whole more tolerant than the ‘theologians.’ Theological literature contained much bitter invective and harsh condemnation of the Mennonites.”

I am not trying to minimize the theological significance of a personal relationship with Jesus, or attempting to reduce this to a purely subjective experience. On the contrary, I suggest that ‘asking Jesus into your heart’ makes deep cognitive sense as well as having significant spiritual and theological overtones. (The Christian prayer of salvation is discussed on page 150 of Natural Cognitive Theology.) However, I suggest that the primary characteristic of Christianity is that God is reconciled with man through an incarnation who has content, internally represented as a concept of Jesus the incarnation who has content. Replacing this content with a mystical union transforms the core of Christianity into a version of Buddhism, and that is troubling, especially since the entire modern world appears to be heading in this same direction of spirituality without content.

Buddhist mysticism is based in the transcendental experience of ‘being one with the cosmos’. ‘All is one’ is overgeneralized into a universal theory and personal identity then identifies with this overgeneralization, leading to the mystical experience. Berkhof also combines identification with an overgeneralized concept of God, but his starting point is the total depravity of mankind, which is why we began our discussion by looking at the doctrine of human depravity.

One can see this in the following quote: “This state of affairs, namely, that the sinner has nothing in himself and receives everything freely from Christ, must be reflected in the consciousness of the sinner. And this takes place through the mediation of the mystical union. While the union is effected when the sinner is renewed by the operation of the Holy Spirit, he does not become cognizant of it and does not actively cultivate it until the conscious operation of faith begins. Then he becomes aware of the fact that he has no righteousness of his own, and that the righteousness by which he appears just in the sight of God is imputed to him. But even so something additional is required. The sinner must feel his dependence on Christ in the very depths of his being, — in the sub-conscious life. Hence he is incorporated in Christ, and as a result experiences that all the grace which he receives flows from Christ. The constant feeling of dependence thus engendered, is an antidote against all self-righteousness” (p.501). Notice that Berkhof is not just teaching human depravity as a doctrine. Instead, a person must ‘feel his dependence on Christ in the very depths of his being’, in order to have a ‘constant feeling of dependence’. This is similar to the Orthodox Christian teaching of the Jesus Prayer, in which a person repeatedly states “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, the sinner.” When the focus remains upon human inadequacy, then what is really being overgeneralized is not the holiness of God but rather the sinfulness of man.

I am not questioning the doctrine of total human depravity as a general description of mankind, and we will discuss this doctrine in a few paragraphs. Instead, I am questioning the approach of viewing human depravity as an overgeneralization. First, when one overgeneralizes about personal identity, then one is implicitly creating a concept of God, because a concept of God emerges whenever a sufficiently general theory applies to personal identity. But the resulting concept of God is not based in the holiness and perfection of God but rather in the sinfulness of man. One can see the implicit nature of this concept of God in Berkhof’s statement that “The sinner must feel his dependence on Christ in the very depths of his being, — in the sub-conscious life”. Second, overgeneralization, by its very nature, avoids specific facts. Thus, an overgeneralized doctrine of human depravity does not necessarily lead in practice to an attitude of Christian humility. One sees this in the writing style of Berkhof as well as in the historical tendency for Calvinist theologians to persecute Anabaptist believers who were attempting to practice an attitude of Christian humility in real life.


Regeneration: This mystical bias can be seen in Berkhof’s description of Christian regeneration. In brief, Berkhof says that the motivation for personal transformation comes from mysticism, while content is added to this mysticism by the words of the Bible, the sacraments, and the church. Berkhof distinguishes between regeneration, which is linked in a mystical manner to the Holy Spirit, and conversion, which is a conscious change in direction. I should emphasize that I am not questioning the need for regeneration. I agree with Berkhof—and the Bible—that regeneration is required, and I think that one can distinguish between regeneration and conversion.

Let us look at Berkhof’s description of regeneration and conversion.

Total human depravity lies at the heart of Berkhof’s concept of regeneration: “Regeneration is a creative work of God, and is therefore a work in which man is purely passive, and in which there is no place for human co-operation. This is a very important point, since it stresses the fact that salvation is wholly of God” (p.515). Notice how Berkhof stresses the importance of being guided by the doctrine of human depravity.

Regeneration is something mysterious that is done secretly by God that does not involve conscious thought: “It is in its most limited sense a change that occurs in the sub-conscious life. It is a secret and inscrutable work of God that is never directly perceived by man. The change may take place without man’s being conscious of it momentarily, though this is not the case when regeneration and conversion coincide; and even later on he can perceive it only in its effects” (p.519).

Truth, in contrast, addresses morality in a conscious manner: “Regeneration is a creative act, by which the spiritually dead sinner is restored to life. But the truth of the gospel can only work in a moral and persuasive way. Such an instrument has no effect on the dead. To assert its use would seem to imply a denial of the spiritual death of man; which, of course, is not intended by those who take this position. Regeneration takes place in the sphere of the sub-conscious, that is, outside of the sphere of conscious attention, while the truth addresses itself to the consciousness of man” (p.526).

Regeneration is then followed by conversion, which changes the overall direction of a person: “True conversion is born of godly sorrow, and issues in a life of devotion to God. It is a change that is rooted in the work of regeneration, and that is effected in the conscious life of the sinner by the Spirit of God; a change of thoughts and opinions, of desires and volitions, which involves the conviction that the former direction of life was unwise and wrong and alters the entire course of life” (p.536).

True conversion is always preceded by regeneration: “A conversion that is not rooted in regeneration is no true conversion. Conversion marks the conscious beginning, not only of the putting away of the old man, a fleeing from sin, but also of the putting on of the new man, a striving for holiness of life. In regeneration the sinful principle of the old life is already replaced by the holy principle of the new life. But it is only in conversion that this transition penetrates into the conscious life, turning it into a new and Godward direction.” (p.537).

Regeneration is subconscious. Conversion is conscious: “The principle of the new life implanted in regeneration comes into active expression in the conscious life of the sinner when he is converted. The change that is effected in the subconscious life in regeneration passes into the conscious life in conversion” (p.545).

Regeneration is instant because it involves the birth of new life. Sanctification, in contrast, occurs gradually: “Regeneration is completed at once, for a man cannot be more or less regenerated; he is either dead or alive spiritually. Sanctification is a process, bringing about gradual changes, so that different grades may be distinguished in the resulting holiness” (p.596).

What Berkhof says about regeneration is reasonably consistent with the theory of mental symmetry. I suggested earlier that the mind is driven by core mental networks and that MMNs of childish personal identity naturally fight the TMN of a concept of God. Regeneration occurs when the TMN of a concept of God causes a new core mental network to be ‘born’ within Mercy thought. Conversion occurs when this new core mental network that is ‘born from above’ is allowed to reshape the attitudes and desires of personal identity, while sanctification is the gradual process of tearing apart old childish MMNs and rebuilding them up on the new foundation.

Berkhof describes this replacing of old mental networks with new mental networks: “The old structure of sin is gradually torn down, and a new structure of God is reared in its stead. These two parts of sanctification are not successive but contemporaneous. Thank God, the gradual erection of the new building need not wait until the old one is completely demolished. True saving faith is a faith that has its seat in the heart and is rooted in the regenerate life” (p.558).

The problem with Berkhof’s description of regeneration is that it involves a fundamental split between mysticism and rational thought: Regeneration comes from the ‘secret and inscrutable work of God’. Regeneration occurs within a subconscious realm that is distinct from the conscious moral realm of truth. Regeneration then provides the motivation for the conscious change that occurs within conversion.

Mental symmetry, in contrast, suggests that regeneration occurs in an integrated manner. The process can be described and analyzed cognitively through the use of mental networks. However, regeneration is more than just the formation of a new core mental network within Mercy thought. That is because there is also a spiritual realm that interacts with the human mind by inhabiting and empowering mental networks. Berkhof describes this spiritual empowering of human ability: “Extraordinary exhibitions of power, feats of strength and daring, are also referred to the Spirit of God. The judges whom God raised up for the deliverance of Israel were evidently men of considerable ability and of unusual daring and strength, but the real secret of their accomplishments lay not in themselves, but in a supernatural power that came upon them. It is said repeatedly that ‘the spirit of Jehovah came (mightily) upon them’” (p.469).

As Berkhof states, God is spirit: “Another passage is repeatedly quoted as containing an indication of the essence of God, and as the closest approach to a definition that is found in the Bible, namely, John 4:24, ‘God is Spirit: and they that worship Him must worship in spirit and truth’” (p.44). Therefore, I suggest that regeneration is both a cognitive rebirth and a spiritual rebirth and that it is difficult to say which is the chicken and which is the egg, because these two go hand-in-hand with one another. As Berkhof points out, human personality is made in the image of God, and while God is the ultimate source, it is possible to learn about the nature of God by studying human personality: “Since man is created in the image of God, we learn to understand something of the personal life of God from the contemplation of personality as we know it in man. We should be careful, however, not to set up man’s personality as a standard by which the personality of God must be measured. The original form of personality is not in man but in God; His is archetypal, while man’s is ectypal” (p.91).

However, Berkhof rejects an integrated view of regeneration as Arminian. (Berkhof makes it clear in his book that Arminianism is always wrong, and any chain of reasoning that leads to Arminianism is automatically rejected.): “According to the Arminians regeneration is not exclusively a work of God, nor exclusively a work of man. It is the fruit of man’s choice to co-operate with the divine influences exerted by means of the truth. Strictly speaking, the work of man is prior to that of God. They do not assume that there is a preceding work of God by which the will is inclined to the good” (p.529).

Berkhof is combining two concepts in this quote which I suggest do not belong together. First, there is the idea that regeneration involves an interaction between natural cognitive mechanisms and divine grace, which is consistent with what mental symmetry suggests. Second, there is the assertion that the will of man precedes the work of God, which I am not suggesting. In contrast, both Scripture and experience lead me to the conclusion that the first step is always taken by God.

Means of Grace

It sounds spiritual to maintain a strict separation between supernatural regeneration and natural conversion, but I suggest that the end result is actually to place an undue emphasis upon the physical while downplaying the spiritual. This can be seen in Berkhof’s view of the sacraments.

Sacraments: Berkhof refers to the Bible and the sacraments as ‘means of grace’, and says that these are the divinely ordained means by which Christ gives grace to individuals: “Strictly speaking, only the Word and the sacraments can be regarded as means of grace, that is, as objective channels which Christ has instituted in the Church, and to which He ordinarily binds Himself in the communication of His grace” (p.671). There are two sacraments: baptism and communion: “The Church of the New Testament also has two sacraments, namely, baptism and the Lord’s Supper” (p.687).

Berkhof recognizes that the phrase ‘means of grace’ is not found in the Bible, and he also realizes that one could view ‘means of grace’ in a broader way as the process by which God guides people to maturity through the church: “The term ‘means of grace’ is not found in the Bible, but is nevertheless a proper designation of the means that are indicated in the Bible. At the same time the term is not very definite and may have a far more comprehensive meaning than it ordinarily has in theology. The Church may be represented as the great means of grace which Christ, working through the Holy Spirit, uses for the gathering of the elect, the edification of the saints, and the building up of His spiritual body. He qualifies her for this great task by endowing her with all kinds of spiritual gifts, and by the institution of the offices for the administration of the Word and the sacraments, which are all means to lead the elect to their eternal destiny” (p.669).

However, Berkhof thinks that the term ‘means of grace’ should be restricted to the Bible, baptism, and communion, and that the church is only special because of its role in administering the ‘Word and the sacraments’: “It is even possible to include in the means of grace all that is required of men for the reception and the continued enjoyment of the blessings of the covenant, such as faith, conversion, spiritual warfare, and prayer. It is neither customary nor desirable, however, to include all this under the term ‘means of grace.’ The Church is not a means of grace alongside of the Word and the sacraments, because her power in promoting the work of the grace of God consists only in the administration of these. She is not instrumental in communicating grace, except by means of the Word and of the sacraments” (p.670).

But the visible church and its leadership are the official means by which the means of grace is administered: “Naturally, the Word of God can also be considered as a means of grace in a more general sense. It may be a real blessing as it is brought to man in many additional ways: as it is read in the home, is taught in the school, or is circulated in tracts. As the official means of grace, placed at the disposal of the Church, both the Word and the sacraments can only be administered by the lawful and properly qualified officers of the Church” (p.677). Notice the final phrase: ‘Both the Word and the sacraments can only be administered by the lawful and properly qualified officers of the Church.’

We saw earlier that Berkhof distinguishes between special grace and common grace. Special grace is for Christians while common grace is for the world at large. The ‘means of grace’ are always connected with the special grace of God: “They are instruments, not of common but of, special grace, the grace that removes sin and renews the sinner in conformity with the image of God. It is true that the Word of God may and in some respects actually does enrich those who live under the gospel with some of the choicest blessings of common grace in the restricted sense of the word; but it, as well as the sacraments, comes into consideration here only as a means of grace in the technical sense of the word. And the means of grace in this sense are always connected with the beginning and the progressive operation of the special grace of God, that is redemptive grace, in the hearts of sinners” (p.671).

The Bible, baptism, and communion are in themselves means of ‘communicating the saving grace of God’ and have ‘perpetual value’: “The Word and the sacraments are in themselves means of grace; their spiritual efficacy is dependent only on the operation of the Holy Spirit. They are continuous instruments of God’s grace, and not in any sense of the word exceptional. This means that they are not associated with the operation of God’s grace merely occasionally or in a more or less accidental way, but are the regularly ordained means for the communication of the saving grace of God and are as such of perpetual value” (p.671).

God’s saving grace operates only within the context of the means of grace. That is because God is a God of order: “The special grace of God operates only in the sphere in which the means of grace function. This truth must be maintained over against the Mystics, who deny the necessity of the means of grace. God is a God of order, who in the operation of His grace ordinarily employs the means which He Himself has ordained” (p.675).

Strictly speaking, only the Bible, baptism, and communion are means of grace: “Strictly speaking, only the Word and the sacraments can be regarded as means of grace, that is, as objective channels which Christ has instituted in the Church, and to which He ordinarily binds Himself in the communication of His grace. Of course these may never be dissociated from Christ, nor from the powerful operation of the Holy Spirit, nor from the Church which is the appointed organ for the distribution of the blessings of divine grace. They are in themselves quite ineffective and are productive of spiritual results only through the efficacious operation of the Holy Spirit” (p.671).

The Bible, baptism, and communion are ‘absolutely required’ for ‘nourishing the new life’ of a Christian, and they do not function through rational thought or moral suasion: “On a single point, namely, in the implanting of the new life, the grace of God works immediately, that is, without the use of these means as instruments. But even so it works only in the sphere of the means of grace, since these are absolutely required in drawing out and nourishing the new life. This is a direct negation of the position of Rationalism, which represents regeneration as the result of moral suasion” (p.675).

Summarizing, Berkhof says that the Bible, baptism, communion are divinely ordained. These three deliver grace from God because they have inherent worth and not just because they are symbols of something else. All Christian growth is associated with these three, and the church and its leadership is the official means by which these three are administered.

Berkhof explains that Catholicism equates the visible sacraments with invisible grace (I agree with Berkhof’s assessment): “In the sacraments the visible signs and the invisible grace are inseparably connected. In fact, the grace of God is contained in the means as a sort of substance, is conveyed through the channel of the means, and is therefore absolutely bound to the means” (p.673).

Berkhof, in contrast, recognizes that the experiential sacraments of baptism and communion are an expression of the verbal content of the Bible: “The Word of God may never be separated from the sacraments, but must always accompany them, since they are virtually only a visible representation of the truth that is conveyed to us by the Word” (p.675).

And Berkhof does not believe that the Bible, baptism, and communion have ‘magical power’. Nevertheless, he believes that ‘God has appointed them as the ordinary means through which he works his grace and the hearts of sinners’: “Reformed churches... deny that the means of grace can of themselves confer grace, as if they were endued with a magical power to produce holiness. God and God only is the efficient cause of salvation. And in the distribution and communication of His grace He is not absolutely bound to the divinely appointed means through which He ordinarily works, but uses them to serve His gracious purposes according to His own free will. But while they do not regard the means of grace as absolutely necessary and indispensable, they strongly oppose the idea that these means may be treated as purely accidental and indifferent and can be neglected with impunity. God has appointed them as the ordinary means through which He works His grace in the hearts of sinners, and their wilful neglect can only result in spiritual loss” (p.674).

Looking at this from a cognitive perspective, I have suggested that Berkhof combines overgeneralization with fundamentalism. Overgeneralization lacks content because overgeneralization cannot handle specific facts. Therefore, content can only be added to overgeneralization through some external means. Berkhof’s solution is to use physical objects and physical experiences to add content to overgeneralization. But how can one know which physical objects and physical experiences should be attached to overgeneralization? Berkhof’s solution is to regard certain physical objects and physical experiences as inherently special and inherently connected with the contentlessness of overgeneralization. Saying this more simply, Berkhof adds content to the emptiness of mysticism by regarding the Bible, baptism, and communion as inherently special. The content of these three is protected by insisting that they must be delivered within official churches by official church leaders.

Luther versus the Anabaptists

This suggestion that Berkhof is using physical objects to add content to mysticism is backed up by his response to the Anabaptists, who insisted rather stridently that the sacraments are merely symbols that represent internal content.

Berkhof describes the conflict that Luther had with the Anabaptists over the sacraments: “It was especially his opposition to the subjectivity of the Anabaptists that caused Luther to stress the objective character of the sacraments and to make their effectiveness dependent on their divine institution rather than on the faith of the recipients. The Lutherans did not always steer clear of the idea that the sacraments function ex opere operato... Luther had to contend a great deal with the mystical Anabaptists, and it was especially his reaction to their views that determined his final view of the means of grace. The Anabaptists, and other mystical sects of the age of the Reformation and of later times, virtually deny that God avails Himself of means in the distribution of His grace. They stress the fact that God is absolutely free in communicating His grace, and therefore can hardly be conceived of as bound to such external means. Such means after all belong to the natural world, and have nothing in common with the spiritual world. God, or Christ, or the Holy Spirit, or the inner light, work directly in the heart, and both the Word and the sacraments can only serve to indicate or to symbolize this internal grace. This whole conception is determined by a dualistic view of nature and grace” (p.674).

Summarizing, Anabaptists focused upon the internal and personal side of the sacraments. Luther overreacted to this by emphasizing that the physical sacraments in themselves are sources of grace from God, and Berkhof thinks that Luther went too far. Anabaptists believe that the grace of God is not limited to the ‘external means’ of the physical Bible, baptism, and communion. Instead, God works ‘directly in the heart’ and the sacraments ‘symbolize this internal grace’. Berkhof rejects the Anabaptist view and says that it reflects a ‘dualistic view of nature and grace’.

And Berkhof says that Anabaptists follow ‘the inner light’ and ignore the words of the Bible: “The Anabaptists virtually set aside the Word of God as a means of grace, and stressed what they called the internal word, the ‘inner light,’ and the illumination of the Holy Spirit. To them the external word was but the letter that killeth, while the internal word was spirit and life. External calling meant little or nothing in their scheme” (p.508).

The Mennonite Encyclopedia specifically addresses this idea, and points out that it is an inaccurate accusation started by Luther: “Luther thereby began the chorus of voices who to our very day have charged that the Anabaptists disavowed the written Word of God, expecting everything of the ‘inner Word,’ or that they ‘want to be sharp judges between the Spirit and the letter,’ or ‘they valued the inner Word at the expense of the written Word.’ ... But these charges made against the Anabaptists by no means correspond to the facts of history. The Biblical Anabaptists never despised the written Word or overemphasized the ‘inner Word’ at the expense of historical revelation. They did not at all desire to be ‘sharp judges between the spirit and the letter,’ as Luther charged. This is easy to show from the writings of the Anabaptists... In looking over the total Anabaptist literature, their confessions of faith, catechisms, Rechenschaften, letters, and the records of their cross-examinations, we find very little mention of the ‘inner light.’ Only a very few were influenced by the ancient mystics.”

Instead, the focus of Anabaptism has consistently been upon integrating the internal voice of the spirit with the external letter of the Bible. Quoting further from the same encyclopedia article: “From all these Anabaptist writings it is evident that the Anabaptists did not repudiate all historical, objective means of salvation, nor expect everything of ‘inner light’ and the working of the Holy Spirit. But they believed that the working of the Holy Spirit directed upon the human heart must be added to the objective and preached Word. They did not separate the inner Word from the outer Word. The Spirit and the inner Word belong together. Word without Spirit is a dead letter to them. The life-giving Spirit of God turned the written and proclaimed Word into God’s Word. The Word of God was the sword of the Holy Spirit; the two belonged inseparably together.”

I suggest that we can understand this controversy by taking a cognitive perspective. Berkhof is adding content to internal overgeneralization by regarding certain physical objects and experiences as divinely ordained ‘means of grace’. Anabaptists are responding to this by saying that one should not limit the grace of God to specific physical objects and experiences. But this would leave Berkhof mentally and spiritually adrift with no content to add to his overgeneralizations and his ‘mystical union with Christ’. Therefore, Berkhof (and Luther) accuses the Anabaptists of following an inner light that lacks Biblical content. And Berkhof says that the Anabaptists have a ‘dualistic view of nature and grace’ because they do not connect the grace of God with the ‘means of grace’; they do not maintain a special connection between a mystical concept of God and the physical objects of the Bible and the sacraments.

But the underlying problem is that Berkhof is making a fundamental split between a God of mysterious grace and a physical nature of rational content. He is using overgeneralization to describe God and using mysticism to interact with God while using rational thought to describe the natural physical world.

This is not Berkhof’s (or Luther’s) fault. That is because overgeneralization naturally emerges when factual knowledge is lacking. Very little was known about the internal realm of the mind in Luther’s time, and psychology was only beginning to understand how the mind works when Berkhof was writing in the 1930s. The Anabaptists also did not have (and are still lacking) an adequate solution, because they added content to God and religion by following the example and teachings of Jesus as described in the Gospels. Therefore, they tended to do the right things for inadequate reasons, because they also lacked a rational general understanding of the nature of God. This is described further in the essay on Anabaptism.

Thanks to psychology, neurology, computers, and cognitive science, we now know enough about the mind to put together a rational framework of what it means to be created in the image of God. For instance, when discussing conversion, the rational side of regeneration, Berkhof integrates his theology with the findings of psychology. This does not mean that man can now reach up and comprehend God without help from above. My research, for instance, began with the list of seven spiritual gifts described in Romans 12. And, looking back, I can see that my research has been providentially guided.

However, Berkhof still makes a sharp distinction between religion and fundamentalism on the one side and conscious rational experience on the other side: “The doctrine of conversion is, of course, like all other doctrines, based on Scripture and should be accepted on that ground. Since conversion is a conscious experience in the lives of many, the testimony of experience can be added to that of the Word of God, but this testimony, however valuable it may be, does not add to the certainty of the doctrine taught in the Word of God. We may be grateful that in recent years the Psychology of Religion paid considerable attention to the fact of conversion, but should always bear in mind that, while it has brought some interesting facts to our attention, it did little or nothing to explain conversion as a religious phenomenon” (p.535). In other words, psychology can observe and describe the stages of conversion, but it cannot ‘explain conversion as a religious phenomenon’. Instead, religious doctrine is ‘based on Scripture and should be accepted on that ground’.

Special Grace plus Common Grace

In contrast, I have found that it is possible to follow an integrated approach. This essay uses rational cognitive mechanisms not just to observe and describe the religion of Berkhof, but to explain what is happening within Berkhof’s mind. However, this cognitive explanation does not eliminate the spiritual. Instead, it appears that the cognitive and the spiritual operate in parallel and that the one cannot be divorced from the other.

Stated bluntly, I suggest that it is Berkhof who has a ‘dualistic view of nature and grace’, because he does not view all of existence in an integrated manner. Instead, he says that nature connects with grace at specific points in time when the word is being preached and the sacraments are being delivered, within specific places known as churches.

The distinction between Berkhof’s method of integrating nature and grace and the method that I am attempting to follow became clear to me when analyzing Loder’s theory of incarnation (Loder was a Princeton theologian who co-wrote the book with a professor of physics). Loder attempts to find evidence for incarnation in the singularities of physical science, points of space such as black holes where the laws of physics break down. In contrast, I realized from reading Loder’s description of physics that one can find evidence for incarnation in the structure that pervades all of physical reality, because the ‘the word’ of mathematics overlaps with the ‘flesh’ of natural process in a universal rational manner that extends far beyond occasional points of singularity.

Looking at this cognitively, one of the features of mysticism is that it can only interact with content at specific points, which one could refer to as immersive experiences. For instance, Buber says that one catches a glimpse of the ‘Eternal Thou’ when one interacts socially with another human being in a manner that is totally absorbed in the present and does not think about anything or anyone else. This specific human encounter then expands, in Buber’s words, to fill the whole universe. Saying this another way, it is possible to focus upon a specific situation in a way that loses track of time and space, and when one forgets about time and space then it becomes mentally possible for overgeneralization to be combined with identification, leading to a mystical encounter.

In contrast, I suggest that God meets humans in an integrated manner within the content of space and time. This means that special grace and common grace are integrated. Berkhof says that God leads Christians through special grace while leading the world at large through common grace, and that common grace may improve the world but never leads to personal salvation. I agree that a distinction can be made between special grace and common grace: God leads those who follow him personally in a way that he does not lead the average person or society at large. In addition, the average person may experience the benefits of a better world but does not experience personal salvation without a personal relationship with Jesus. However, it does not make sense to separate special grace from common grace by an unbridgeable gap the way Berkhof does. Going one way, special grace spills over into common grace. Berkhof agrees: “These general blessings of mankind, indirectly resulting from the atoning work of Christ, were not only foreseen by God, but designed by Him as blessings for all concerned” (p.484).

Going the other way, common grace creates the context for special grace. Theological thought and Christian growth does not occur in a vacuum but rather is guided by the knowledge and culture of society at large. We have seen this principle at work at the very core of Berkhof’s theology. At the heart of Western civilization lies a mental split between objective and subjective, in which rational thought is used to analyze the objective physical world, while identification, overgeneralization, and mysticism rule the subjective. This same mental split characterizes the theology of Berkhof, because, just like the modern secular world, Berkhof regards the core of the subjective as an incomprehensible mystery while using technical thought to analyze the periphery of subjective experience. And just like secular science, Berkhof acquires his content primarily from physical observation: The scientist demands empirical evidence, while Berkhof demands physical means of grace. In other words, Berkhof’s entire system of theology is ultimately based in the spirit of this age. This is not just a matter of a few minor doctrines but rather describes the entire foundation of Berkhof’s view of God and religion.

Looking back through history, Berkhof’s version of reformed theology is somewhat different than Calvin’s theology, because Calvin lived before the birth of science. In other words, Calvin experienced his special grace within a different context of common grace than Berkhof, just as I am experiencing special grace today within the context of the common grace of a technologically interconnected world, and the only reason that I can do my research is because my special grace is happening within today’s context of common grace.

However, Berkhof rejects this concept of integrated special grace and common grace as Arminian: “Arminians recognize alongside of sufficient (common) grace the grace of evangelical obedience, but aver that these two differ only in degree and not in essence. They are both soteriological in the sense that they form part of the saving work of God. The former makes it possible for man to repent and believe, while the latter, in co-operation with the will, causes man to repent and believe. Both can be resisted, so that even the latter is not necessarily effectual unto salvation. Reformed theology, however, insists on the essential difference between common and special grace. Special grace is supernatural and spiritual: it removes the guilt and pollution of sin and lifts the sentence of condemnation. Common grace, on the other hand, is natural; and while some of its forms may be closely connected with saving grace, it does not remove sin nor set man free, but merely restrains the outward manifestations of sin and promotes outward morality and decency, good order in society and civic righteousness, the development of science and art, and so on. It works only in the natural, and not in the spiritual sphere. It should be maintained therefore that, while the two are closely connected in the present life, they are yet essentially different, and do not differ merely in degree. No amount of common grace can ever introduce the sinner into the new life that is in Christ Jesus” (p.485).

Berkhof says that ‘no amount of common grace can ever introduce the sinner into the new life that is in Christ Jesus’. And yet, Berkhof’s entire understanding of ‘new life that is in Christ Jesus’ is stuck at the level of mystical subjective combined with rational objective, because his society was functioning at that level of common grace. Similarly, it is only possible to gain a more adequate understanding of ‘new life that is in Christ Jesus’ today because common grace has acquired at least a partial grasp of how minds function, largely by interacting continuously with the ‘artificial minds’ of computers.

Looking at this more generally, I keep finding that the various struggles that occur within the church do not happen in a vacuum. Instead, the church is merely one aspect of society, and the church is struggling with the same issues that society is facing as a whole. For instance, the emergent church emphasizes spirituality while downplaying doctrinal content. This is not just a church movement but rather part of a societal shift towards spirituality without content. In other words, the ‘special grace’ of the emergent church is occurring within the ‘common grace’ of a search for spirituality.

Looking back at history, Berkhof (and others) portray the Protestant Reformation as a key aspect of God’s special grace for his church, and I agree that the Protestant Reformation was a major step forward that corrected many errors. However, one notices that countries that had been part of the Roman Empire remained Catholic, countries that had been outside of the Roman Empire turned Protestant, and countries that had been on the fringe of the Roman Empire struggled between Protestant and Catholic. (I read this somewhere many years ago and cannot find the source.) Summarizing, it appears that the primary reason that a country remained Catholic or turned Protestant was not determined by the church or even by personal faith, but rather by whether that country had been a part of the Roman Empire one millennia earlier. Thus, when one examines the very origins of the reformed church, one finds special grace functioning within the context of common grace.


Let us look briefly at the controversy between Calvinism and Arminianism. I have avoided raising this issue before now because this controversy continues to rage even today and is often characterized by more acrimony than Christian love. The struggle between Calvinism and Arminianism began in the early 17th century, and the Reformed Church officially rejected the teachings of Armenius at the Synod of Dort in 1618. The Armenians proposed five Articles of Remonstrance in 1610, and this led to the Synod of Dort, which rejected these five articles as heretical.

The conclusions of this synod are commonly represented by the acronym TULIP. While this acronym was only popularized in a 1963 booklet, it was used as early as 1905 and it summarizes basic doctrines taught by Berkhof. T stands for total depravity, which means that sin affects every aspect of a person. U represents unconditional election, which states that God has chosen from eternity an elect group of people who will be saved. L stands for limited atonement, which means that the death of Jesus only paid for the sins of the elect and not for the sins of everyone. I stands for irresistible grace, which says that everyone whom God has elected to be saved will be saved. Finally, P stands for perseverance of the saints, which means that it is impossible for someone who is chosen by God to lose their personal salvation.

I mentioned earlier that Teacher thought likes to represent a number of concepts by a simple word or sentence. For instance, one sees this in physics with equations such as F=MA or E=MC2. Similarly, a number of theological concepts are being summarized here by the single word TULIP.

Going further, these five doctrines are not just a random collection, but form a coherent package, as shown in the following table, in which each of the five letters of TULIP has been placed in the appropriate box:




God does everything

U: God picked me

L: God’s plan

P: God perfects me

I can do nothing

T: I can’t choose God

No free will

I: I can’t resist God

The pivotal point is indicated by L, which says that the atonement of Jesus brings salvation to a specific group of people known as the elect. Two doctrines apply before atonement: T says that the sinner can do nothing to choose to become one of the elect, while U says that God chose the elect in eternity past. Two doctrines apply after atonement: I says that once a person is chosen by God, then he can do nothing to resist this choice, while P says that God will do everything to perfect a person who has been chosen by him.

Thus, TULIP is a general Teacher theory that ties together a number of related concepts. However, is the general theory of TULIP based upon generalization or upon overgeneralization? I suggest that TULIP has the characteristics of overgeneralization.

First, one can see this in the various adjectives: ‘total’, ‘unconditional’, ‘irrestible’, and ‘perseverance’. These are all adjectives of universality. Second, these five doctrines boil down to the fundamental statement ‘God does everything and mankind can do nothing’, which is the overgeneralized doctrine of total human depravity that was discussed at the beginning of this essay.

Third, one of the characteristics of overgeneralization is that universal and specific come together at specific points that transcend space and time. We saw this a few paragraphs earlier when looking at the immersive experience. Similarly, Berkhof says that atonement of Jesus for the elect is based in a decision made in eternity and that this ‘justification from eternity’ is ‘basic to the whole of soteriology’ (soteriology means the study of salvation): “In the counsel of peace Christ voluntarily took upon Himself to be the Head and Surety of the elect, destined to constitute the new humanity, and as such to establish their righteousness before God by paying the penalty for their sin and by rendering perfect obedience to the law and thus securing their title to everlasting life. In that eternal covenant the sin of His people was imputed to Christ, and His righteousness was imputed to them. This imputation of the righteousness of Christ to His people in the counsel of redemption is sometimes represented as a justification from eternity. It is certainly the eternal basis of our justification by faith, and is the ground on which we receive all spiritual blessings and the gift of life eternal. And this being so, it is basic to the whole of soteriology, and even to the first stages in the application of the work of redemption, such as regeneration and internal calling” (p.496).

The mystical union between Christ and the elect that occurs during regeneration is also based in an eternal moment: “In the depths of eternity the Mediator of the new covenant freely undertook to be the representative of His people, that is, of those whom the Father gave unto Him. A federal relationship was established in virtue of which He became their Surety. This is the basic and the most fundamental union between Christ and His own, and on the basis of this a mystical union was formed, ideally in the counsel of peace, to be realized in the course of history in the organic union of Christ and His Church. Therefore Christ could act as the legal representative of His own, and being mystically one with them, can also convey to them the blessings of salvation” (p.418).

Looking at this more generally, overgeneralization can only interact with content if overgeneralization is regarded as more general than content and if content is not permitted to impose any divisions upon overgeneralization. This provides a cognitive explanation for the doctrine of limited atonement. The deepest interaction between infinite God and finite humans occurs during the moment of regeneration. Overgeneralization cannot handle divisions, but simple observation tells us that the world is divided into those who have experienced regeneration and those have not. This means that when one examines the deepest connection between divine overgeneralization and human content, one notices that there are countless exceptions to the divine rule, because only some people are being saved. If these exceptions are the result of human free will, then this means that human content is imposing divisions upon overgeneralization, which means that the concept of God will become incurably fragmented. The only way to protect overgeneralization is by insisting that the content of human free will is transcended by the eternal decision of God and that the decision of God is based in his inscrutable ‘good pleasure’.

This is an important point, so I will try to restate it as simply as possible. Overgeneralization can only survive interaction with content if overgeneralization is regarded as more general than content and if content is not allowed to impose itself upon overgeneralization. Therefore, the overgeneralization of ‘God’s good pleasure’ must be regarded as more general than the content of ‘a person deciding to become a Christian’, and human free will must not be allowed to impose itself upon God’s good pleasure. Thus, the doctrine of limited atonement is an inevitable byproduct of combining an overgeneralized view of God with biblical content and human existence.

Fourth, factual details are being suppressed. One can see this in Berkhof’s treatment of Arminianism. In every case, Berkhof is careful to prove that reformed doctrine is correct and Arminianism is wrong. Similarly, any doctrinal choice that leads in the direction of Arminianism is automatically rejected as wrong. One can see this attitude in the following phrases: “...was only one of the fundamental errors of Arminianism” (p.183); “The reductio ad absurdum of the Arminian view...” (p.238); “SOCINIAN AND ARMINIAN ERROR” (p.500); “The Arminians departed from the doctrine...” (p.475); “The Arminian goes contrary to Scripture...” (p.582); “In opposition to Arminianism, however, Reformed theology has always maintained...” (p.571); “...maintained in opposition to both the Roman Catholic and the Arminian position” (p.308); “Reformed theology does not, like Arminian theology...” (p.477); “...and thus expose themselves to the charge of Arminianism” (p.129); “This was largely due to a reaction against Arminianism...” (p.309); “...we are in danger of falling into the snare of Arminianism”; “...if he wants to avoid the Arminian camp” (p.132); “...and leads into the Arminian fold” (p.134); (p.318); “...though in some cases tinged more or less with Arminianism” (p.475); “To teach otherwise would be Lutheran and Arminian” (p.543); “It is denied by all Semi-Pelagians and Arminians....” (p.113); “...Arminian scholars deny...” (p.419); “The Arminians rejected this view...” (p.606); “As a result of the Arminian assault on the doctrine...” (p.119); “Naturally they who, like Piscator and the Arminians, deny...” (p.573).

So what is it about Arminianism that causes Berkhof and other reformed theologians to shrink back in horror? The Wikipedia article summarizes the original statements of Arminianism and how they differ from TULIP: “Article I disagrees that election into Christ is unconditional. Rather, in this article the Remonstrants assert that election is conditional upon faith in Christ, and that God elects to salvation those He knows beforehand will have faith in Him. Article II espouses unlimited atonement, the concept that Christ died for all. This stands in contrast to the limited atonement of Calvinism, which asserts that Christ only died for those God chooses to be saved. Article III affirms the total depravity of man, that man cannot save himself. Article IV repudiates the Calvinistic concept of irresistible grace, contending that mankind has the free will to resist God’s grace. Article V, rather than outright rejecting the notion of perseverance of the saints, argues that it may be conditional upon the believer remaining in Christ.”

Notice that the doctrine of total humanity depravity is not being questioned. It is still being accepted as a universal theory. Neither is the omniscience of God being questioned. Instead, the Remonstrants suggested that when God is dealing with people, then it is possible for human will to thwart divine purpose. But we just saw that this is precisely what an overgeneralized concept of God cannot handle. Therefore, overgeneralization demands the suppression of Armenianism.

Divine Sovereignty and Free Will

We have looked at the interaction between divine sovereignty and free will from the viewpoint of cognition. Let us turn now to what Berkhof says. We have seen that Berkhof describes the Trinitarian God from the viewpoint of overgeneralization. Berkhof also uses overgeneralization to describe the sovereignty of God:

There is a single divine plan that has its source in a moment of eternity: “Though we often speak of the decrees of God in the plural, yet in its own nature the divine decree is but a single act of God... His knowledge is all immediate and simultaneous rather than successive like ours, and His comprehension of it is always complete. And the decree that is founded on it is also a single, all-comprehensive, and simultaneous act. As an eternal and immutable decree it could not be otherwise. There is, therefore, no series of decrees in God, but simply one comprehensive plan, embracing all that comes to pass” (p.110).

God’s sovereign will is the ‘final cause of all things’ and it governs ‘even the smallest things of life’: “The importance of the divine will appears in many ways in Scripture. It is represented as the final cause of all things. Everything is derived from it; creation and preservation, government, election and reprobation, the sufferings of Christ, regeneration, sanctification, the sufferings of believers, man’s life and destiny, and even the smallest things of life” (p.83). Notice the universal adjectives: ‘all things’, ‘everything’, ‘even the smallest things’.

But the relationship between this single eternal plan and the specific facts of human history is a mystery: “The power of God put forth in upholding all things is just as positive as that exercised in creation. The precise nature of His work in sustaining all things in being and action is a mystery, though it may be said that, in His providential operations, He accommodates Himself to the nature of His creatures” (p.186).

And if one looks at the details of God’s sovereignty, then one notices that most people are sinners who do not submit to God’s sovereignty. However, God’s relation to sin is an insoluble mystery: “The problem of God’s relation to sin remains a mystery for us, which we are not able to solve. It may be said, however, that His decree to permit sin, while it renders the entrance of sin into the world certain, does not mean that He takes delight in it; but only that He deemed it wise, for the purpose of His self-revelation, to permit moral evil, however abhorrent it may be to His nature” (p.117).

Thus, we notice that Berkhof describes the interaction between divine sovereignty and human free will in precisely the manner that one must describe this interaction if one is to preserve overgeneralization. But this leads to other problems, which become apparent when one examines further the concept of ‘God’s good pleasure’.

Berkhof repeatedly uses the phrase ‘his good pleasure’ to describe God’s sovereignty, especially when discussing God’s relationship to sinful man: “ an expression of the sovereign will of God, His divine good pleasure” (p.124); “...decree of election originates in the divine good pleasure” (p.124); “...but simply rests in the sovereign and holy good pleasure of God” (p.135); “...while Scripture bases election entirely on the good pleasure of God” (p.296); “According to Scripture the moving cause of the atonement is found in the good pleasure of God to save sinners...” (p.404); “The ground of His determination to redeem a goodly number of the human race, and in them the race itself, can only be found in His good pleasure” (p.409).

And Berkhof emphasizes that the ‘good pleasure of God’ is not ‘an arbitrary will’, but rather ‘rooted in the very nature of God’: “The question may be raised, whether this good pleasure of God is to be regarded as an arbitrary will, or as a will that is rooted in the very nature of God and is in harmony with the divine perfections. It has been represented by Duns Scotus as if it were merely an arbitrary expression of the absolute sovereignty of God. But it is more in harmony with Scripture to say that the good pleasure of God to save sinners by a substitutionary atonement was founded in the love and justice of God... This representation guards against the idea of an arbitrary will” (p.405).

However, when it comes to the fundamental question of divine sovereignty versus human free will, then we just saw that Berkhof concludes that God ‘does not take delight’ in sin, but rather ‘permits moral evil, however abhorrent it may be to His nature’. Putting this together, Berkhof says that God does everything according to his good pleasure, and God’s good pleasure is not arbitrary but rather a reflection of his nature, but when it comes to sin, then God functions in a way that violates his good pleasure and is abhorrent to his nature. This is a rather striking contradiction, involving the very nature of God.

Summarizing the previous quotes, God is sovereign over every detail of existence, but this sovereignty exists as a single overarching plan, and Berkhof does not know how God’s sovereignty applies to the facts of history. When one examines the facts of history, one notices that people can rebel from God’s sovereignty, and Berkhof has no explanation for this. God’s sovereign will is guided by his good pleasure and is consistent with the nature of God, but for some reason God sovereignly made it certain that sin would enter into the world, even though sin violates God’s good pleasure and is inconsistent with the nature of God.

But Berkhof is convinced that Arminianism is always wrong—and is determined to prove that Arminianism is always wrong, even though the facts are pushing Berkhof in the direction of Arminianism.

This suggests that we are dealing with a cognitive mechanism, because a similar juxtaposition shows up in the philosophy of Buber, who attempted to combine mysticism with rational science, just as Berkhof is combining overgeneralization and mysticism with rational theology. Buber describes the nature of God’s revelation to man in the following quote from I and Thou: “You do not know how to exhibit and define the meaning of life, you have no formula or picture for it, and yet it has more certitude for you than the perceptions of your senses... that before which, in which, out of which, and into which we live, even the mystery, has remained what it was. It has become present to us and in its presentness proclaimed itself to us as salvation; we have ‘known’ it, but we acquire no knowledge from which might lessen or moderate its mysteriousness. We have come near to God, but not near to unveiling being or solving its riddle... it is not prescribed, it is not specified on any tablet, to be raised above all men’s heads... The eternal Thou can by its nature not become It; for by its nature it cannot be established in measure and bounds” (p.112). Summarizing, mysticism does not convey any specific facts, but it leads to a certainty that is stronger than the facts of common sense. It applies to all of existence but remains a mystery. It brings a person close to God but does not provide rational explanations. And it does not address specific issues of human sin because God exists within a realm that transcends the bounds of human history.

Looking at this cognitively, the combination of overgeneralization and identification, which in the case of Berkhof is the ‘mystical union with Christ’, creates a strong emotional experience that overwhelms Perceiver thought into knowing that this experience defines absolute truth, and this sense of knowing is stronger than the knowing that comes from facts of reality. However, both overgeneralization and identification ignore facts. Therefore, this sense of knowing is not accompanied by any specific knowledge or rational explanation. Thinking about this transcendental encounter with God turns the theory of overgeneralization into a TMN, which then uses emotional pressure to impose its structure upon thought, causing a person to instinctively reject any content that threatens the overgeneralization. This implies that Berkhof is being emotionally driven by the TMN of his overgeneralized concept of God to disprove Arminianism. It is not that Arminianism is wrong in some specific areas, but rather that the very existence of Arminianism is a threat, because what threatens overgeneralization is not specific facts but rather the very existence of facts. That is why Arminianism must be proven wrong no matter what it says.

Going further, reformed theologians turn apoplectic when faced with open theism. For instance, one of the books I have analyzed is a critique of open theism written by several reformed theologians. The opening paragraph of the book reads: “The stunning thing about open theism in American Christianity is how many leaders do not act as though it is a departure from historic Christianity and therefore a dishonor to Christ and pastorally damaging...‘The fantasy that God is ignorant of the future is a heresy that must be rejected on scriptural grounds.’ His warning to the church is sobering: ‘Keeping the boundaries of faith undefined is a demonic temptation that evangelicals within the mainline have learned all too well and have been burned by all too painfully.’ Oden’s indictment points toward the baleful heart of open theism and the broken heart of those who love the historic biblical vision of God.” This type of language is not an expression of careful rational thought but rather an emotional outburst triggered by a deep emotional revulsion, which implies that core mental networks are being threatened.

I am not suggesting that Berkhof is irrational. He recognizes the conflict between divine sovereignty and free will and attempts to deal with it rationally. However, his answers are still based upon the overgeneralization that ‘God does everything and mankind can do nothing’. Thus, he recognizes the existence of human free will but insists that free will is incapable of choosing to follow God in any meaningful manner. He uses common grace to explain the natural goodness of fallen man but insists that common grace has nothing to do with God’s special grace of salvation.

The True Character of God

This preserves overgeneralization at the cost of turning God into a monster. One can see this in the illustration discussed earlier of George Washington offering dainties to a traitor. Quoting again from this passage, “Evidently the elect can not be regarded as always and exclusively the objects of God’s love. And if they who are the objects of God’s redeeming love can also in some sense of the word be regarded as the objects of His wrath, why should it be impossible that they who are the objects of His wrath should also in some sense share His divine favor? A father who is also a judge may loathe the son that is brought before him as a criminal, and feel constrained to visit his judicial wrath upon him, but may yet pity him and show him acts of kindness while he is under condemnation. Why should this be impossible in God? General Washington hated the traitor that was brought before him and condemned him to death, but at the same time showed him compassion by serving him with the dainties from his own table. Cannot God have compassion even on the condemned sinner, and bestow favors upon him?” (p.492). In other words, God does not just bless the chosen elect. Instead, God also gives favors to those that he intends to judge. What kind of favors? Dainties before an execution. The average person reading this concludes that God is a monster, like a serial killer who offers candies to his victims before murdering them.

But Berkhof does not interpret it this way. Instead, he views this in the light of his overgeneralization of total human depravity. Quoting from the beginning of this paragraph: “Another objection to the doctrine of common grace is that it presupposes a certain favorable disposition in God even to reprobate sinners, while we have no right to assume such a disposition in God. This stricture takes its starting point in the eternal counsel of God, in His election and reprobation. Along the line of His election God reveals His love, grace, mercy, and longsuffering, leading to salvation; and in the historical realization of His reprobation He gives expression only to His aversion, disfavor, hatred, and wrath, leading to destruction” (p.492). In other words, God reveals love, grace, mercy and salvation to a special group of people that he has chosen beforehand, while God shows disfavor, hatred, wrath, and destruction to the rest of the people that he has rejected beforehand. Stated bluntly, God is the ultimate xenophobic tribal deity, who saves his group and literally damns everyone else.

But Berkhof suggests that God is more than this: “There is far more in God than we can reduce to our logical categories. Are the elect in this life the objects of God’s love only, and never in any sense the objects of His wrath?... Evidently the elect can not be regarded as always and exclusively the objects of God’s love. And if they who are the objects of God’s redeeming love can also in some sense of the word be regarded as the objects of His wrath, why should it be impossible that they who are the objects of His wrath should also in some sense share His divine favor?” In other words, God is more than a xenophobic tribal deity because he gives bags of candies to outsiders before condemning them to eternal perdition. But all this does is turn God into a deceptive xenophobic tribal deity, which is even more monstrous.

Looking at this more theologically, if God really is sovereign over every detail of existence, then this means that God is the ultimate source of human sin. In Berkhof’s words, “Pelagians, Semi-Pelagians, and Arminians raise a serious objection to this doctrine of providence. They maintain that a previous concurrence, which is not merely general but predetermines man to specific actions, makes God the responsible author of sin. Reformed theologians are well aware of the difficulty that presents itself here, but do not feel free to circumvent it by denying God’s absolute control over the free actions of his moral creatures, since this is clearly taught in Scripture” (p.190).

Berkhof addresses this objection that a doctrine of divine sovereignty “makes God the author of sin. This, if true, would naturally be an insuperable objection, for God cannot be the author of sin. This follows equally from Scripture,... from the law of God which prohibits all sin, and from the holiness of God. But the charge is not true; the decree merely makes God the author of free moral beings, who are themselves the authors of sin. God decrees to sustain their free agency, to regulate the circumstances of their life, and to permit that free agency to exert itself in a multitude of acts, of which some are sinful. For good and holy reasons He renders these sinful acts certain, but He does not decree to work evil desires or choices efficiently in man” (p.116).

In other words, God is not a sinner because God created man and man sins. Thus, man is responsible for sin. But ‘for good and holy reasons [God] renders the sinful acts certain’, which means that God really is the source of sin. As a result, Berkhof is forced to conclude that “The problem of God’s relation to sin remains a mystery for us, which we are not able to solve” (p.117).

Going further, if God in his ‘good pleasure’ has already decided who will be saved and who will go to eternal damnation, then this means that God’s offer of salvation to humans is fraudulent. This is like having a contest in which the winner has already been chosen beforehand. Berkhof addresses this concern: “Did the Father in sending Christ, and did Christ in coming into the world, to make atonement for sin, do this with the design or for the purpose of saving only the elect or all men? That is the question, and that only is the question. The Reformed position is that Christ died for the purpose of actually and certainly saving the elect, and the elect only” (p.435). In other words, God decided who would be the winners in the contest of eternal life before the game of human existence started and God’s plan of salvation only applies to the pre-chosen winners.

Despite this, Berkhof insists that “The external calling is a calling in good faith, a calling that is seriously meant. It is not an invitation coupled with the hope that it will not be accepted. When God calls the sinner to accept Christ by faith, He earnestly desires this; and when He promises those who repent and believe eternal life, His promise is dependable. This follows from the very nature, from the veracity, of God” (p.512).

However, Berkhof admits that he ultimately cannot explain why God’s offer of salvation is not fraudulent: “It is said that, according to this doctrine, He offers the forgiveness of sins and eternal life to those for whom He has not intended these gifts. It need not be denied that there is a real difficulty at this point, but this is the difficulty with which we are always confronted, when we seek to harmonize the decretive and the preceptive will of God, a difficulty which even the objectors cannot solve and often simply ignore” (p.512).

I conclude this section with a question. How is the ‘goodness’ of the reformed concept of God any different than the ‘goodness’ described in the following quote: “He wears a pleasant smile on his handsome face. His uniform his neatly pressed, his riding boots shiny in the bright lights of the rail platform. Kid gloves cover his hands, spotless and white. He is whistling ‘the blue Danube waltz’. To this day, I cannot bear to hear it. Later, I will learn his name. His name is Mengele, the chief doctor of Auschwitz. It is Mengele who decides who is capable of work and who will go immediately to the gas. Right and left, life and death... I watch my parents walk away to the left, following the others. Old people and small children, that is who goes to the left. Young and healthy are being sent to the right. I step forward to face the beautiful man in spotless uniform. He looks me up and down, seems pleased, and wordlessly points to the right... He seems so kind, so pleasant. I believe him. I go to the right. I look over my shoulder for my parents, but they have been swallowed by the mass of filthy, exhausted humanity trudging quietly toward the gas in neat rows of five.”

I know that the reformed theologian will say that it is just for God to send everyone to hell and that it is only God’s mercy that anyone is saved. But the fact still remains that the reformed God is deciding arbitrarily ‘in his good pleasure’ who will go left and who will go right.

Applying TULIP?

Turning now from theology to praxis, from the verbal realm of overgeneralized theory to the human realm of content and action, I have yet to meet any person who actually acts as if TULIP is true. In fact, Berkhof tells Christians that they should not act as if ‘God does everything and mankind can do nothing’.

First, Christians should not take as their starting point the doctrine of predestination but rather preach the gospel to everyone, because that is what the Bible teaches and that is what Jesus did: “It is said that such a general invitation and offer is inconsistent with the doctrine of predestination and of particular atonement, doctrines in which, it is thought, the preacher should take his starting point. But the Bible does not teach that the preacher of the gospel should take his starting point in these doctrines, however important they may be. His starting point and warrant lie in the commission of his King: ‘Go ye into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature. He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved: but he that believeth not shall be damned.’ Moreover, it is an utter impossibility that anyone, in preaching the gospel, should limit himself to the elect, as some would have us do, since he does not know who they are. Jesus did know them, but He did not so limit the offer of salvation” (p.512).

Thus, Christians should act as if the ‘L’ in TULIP is not true.

Second, even though theology says that sanctification is entirely from God, one is ‘duty-bound to strive for ever-increasing sanctification by using the means which God has placed at his disposal’, and ‘be diligent in the appointment of the means at his command for the moral and spiritual improvement of his life’, because ‘this is clearly taught in Scripture’: “When it is said that man takes part in the work of sanctification, this does not mean that man is an independent agent in the work, so as to make it partly the work of God and partly the work of man; but merely, that God effects the work in part through the instrumentality of man as a rational being, by requiring of him prayerful and intelligent co-operation with the Spirit. That man must co-operate with the Spirit of God follows: (a) from the repeated warnings against evils and temptations, which clearly imply that man must be active in avoiding the pitfalls of life; and (b) from the constant exhortations to holy living. These imply that the believer must be diligent in the employment of the means at his command for the moral and spiritual improvement... As appears from the immediately preceding, sanctification is a work of which God and not man is the author. Only the advocates of the so-called free will can claim that it is a work of man. Nevertheless, it differs from regeneration in that man can, and is in duty bound to, strive for ever-increasing sanctification by using the means which God has placed at his disposal. This is clearly taught in Scripture” (p.594).

Thus, Christians should act as if the ‘I’ in TULIP is not true.

Third, the church should discipline those who do not follow the standards of Christian behavior: “The purpose of discipline in the Church is twofold. In the first place it seeks to carry into effect the law of Christ concerning the admission and exclusion of members; and in the second place it aims at promoting the spiritual edification of the members of the Church by securing their obedience to the laws of Christ. Both of these aims are subservient to a higher end, namely, the maintenance of the holiness of the Church of Jesus Christ” (p.665). And, “On the whole the Reformed churches have excelled in the exercise of Church discipline. They strongly stressed the fact that the Church of Christ must have an independent government and discipline” (p.666).

Thus, Christians should act as if the ‘P’ in TULIP is not true.

Fourth, one should recognize that fallen man is capable of goodness ‘to a rather surprising degree’, and this recognition is consistent with what one finds in the Bible: “It is due to common grace that man still retains some sense of the true, the good, and the beautiful, often appreciates these to a rather surprising degree, and reveals a desire for truth, for external morality, and even for certain forms of religion. Paul speaks of Gentiles who ‘show the work of the law written in their hearts, their conscience bearing witness therewith, and their thoughts one with another accusing or else excusing them,’ Rom. 2:15, and even says of those who gave free vent to their wicked lives that they knew the truth of God, though they hindered the truth in unrighteousness and exchanged it for a lie, Rom. 1:18-25. To the Athenians, who were devoid of the fear of God, he said, ‘Ye men of Athens, in all things I perceive that ye are very religious,’ Acts 17:22. The Canons of Dort express themselves as follows on this point: ‘There remain, however, in man since the fall, the glimmerings of natural light, whereby he retains some knowledge of God, of natural things, and of the difference between good and evil, and shows some regard for virtue and for good outward behavior” (p.489).

Thus, Christians should act as if the ‘T’ in TULIP is not true.

Fifth, “though God only is the author of conversion, it is of great importance to stress the fact, over against a false passivity, that there is also a certain co-operation of man in conversion. Dr. Kuyper calls attention to the fact that in the Old Testament shubh is used 74 times of conversion as a deed of man, and only 15 times, of conversion as a gracious act of God; and that the New Testament represents conversion as a deed of man 26 times, and speaks of it only 2 or 3 times as an act of God. It should be borne in mind, however, that this activity of man always results from a previous work of God in man. That man is active in conversion is quite evident from such passages” (p.544). In other words, the Bible makes it clear that man cooperates with God when being called by God, and ‘it is of great importance to stress this fact over against a false passivity’.

Thus, Christians should act as if the ‘U’ in TULIP is not true.

Notice that in each of these five cases, Berkhof points out that TULIP is not consistent with the Bible, which implies that what is ultimately driving Berkhof is not the content of the Bible but rather the overgeneralization of total human depravity, as expressed by TULIP. The fact that this discrepancy does not bother Berkhof indicates that overgeneralization is separated from biblical and human content by an uncrossable mental barrier within the mind of Berkhof.

Going further, if Berkhof really believes that humans can do nothing and that human choice cannot overrule divine sovereignty when dealing with God and religion, then why did he write a huge book on reformed theology in which he uses rational arguments about God and religion to try to convince people to choose to believe that people cannot choose to believe about God and religion? The very existence of Berkhof’s book implies that the side of Berkhof’s mind that lives within the content of reality acts as if TULIP is not true. Thus, one gains the impression that ultimately Berkhof is not trying to convince others, but rather trying to convince himself.

As usual, I suggest that we can use a cognitive perspective to decipher what is happening. When reformed theology separates God’s decrees from human actions, it is actually constructing a mental barrier between Teacher thought, the part of the mind that forms an image of God, and Server thought, the part of the mind that performs human actions. And science has discovered that these two cannot be separated. Thomas Kuhn is famous for his book on paradigms and paradigm shifts, but Kuhn also introduced the concept of the exemplar. In brief, while science uses verbal theories and mathematical equations, it is ultimately based in an observation of how the natural world works, and the student of science learns to understand scientific theory by working through mathematical problems that describe how the natural world works. This is a general cognitive principle because, as every educator knows, one learns through doing. That is why teaching is followed by homework and why lectures are followed by labs. Teaching involves the Teacher realm of words while homework and labs involve the Server realm of actions.

But the doctrine of total human depravity declares that the actions of humanity (within Server thought) have no bearing upon the sovereignty of God (within Teacher thought). This mental wall makes it possible for people to state (in Teacher thought) that TULIP is true, while acting (in Server thought) as if TULIP is not true. But ‘actions speak louder than words’; as one gains confidence in performing Server actions, this implicitly imposes structure upon Teacher thought. Using the language of Maslow’s hammer, ‘if all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail’. Thus, any person who gains skills and expertise will find himself implicitly acting as if human will and human action have theoretical meaning and significance, which threatens the theory of total human depravity. This will drive a person to proclaim more loudly the verbal doctrine of human depravity, while attacking those, such as Anabaptists, who try to pattern their Server actions after the Teacher words of God and Jesus. The result is a vicious circle: The louder one verbally proclaims that TULIP is true, the greater the mental wall dividing words from actions, making possible a greater discrepancy between words and actions, making it necessary to proclaim the validity of TULIP even louder.

I know that reformed thinkers could come up with many logical reasons why my reasoning is flawed. But that illustrates the underlying point, which is that verbal technical thought has become the servant of overgeneralization, and I suggest that it is inappropriate to use rational thought to prove that one should not use rational thought. Besides, if the reformed thinker really believes in TULIP, then why does he think that his puny human reasoning will have any bearing whatsoever upon God’s choosing and purifying of his lect?

Notice that we are looking here at a different cognitive mechanism than the interaction between Teacher overgeneralization and Perceiver facts. Berkhof attacks Arminianism because it adds Perceiver facts to the Teacher overgeneralization of human depravity, while Berkhof belittles Anabaptists because they add Server actions to the Teacher words of God.

Escaping from this vicious circle is not trivial, because one is dealing with the TMN of a concept of God that has been reinforced through the extensive use of technical thought with its logical reasoning. And I do not just mean this as a theoretical statement. I know personally what it is like to go through the gut-wrenching process of transforming the TMN of a concept of God. As I mentioned earlier, I have come to the conclusion that Anabaptists do many right things for inadequate reasons. Replacing these inadequate reasons with more adequate reasons means transforming the TMN of the Anabaptist concept of God, and that is an emotional struggle that hurts, for a long time, in many ways.


Covenant is a key aspect of reformed theology, and we will look later at Berkhof’s definition of covenant. Here we will examine how Berkhof’s interpretation of covenant is colored by Berkhof’s fundamental assumptions. Interpretation is unavoidable. I interpret theology from a cognitive perspective. While interpretation is unavoidable, I suggest that one can examine one’s interpretation to see if it is consistent and appropriate.

Reviewing, we have seen that Berkhof does not follow pure mysticism but rather combines overgeneralization with belief in the Bible. Rational content (such as the words of the Bible) can be added to overgeneralization if overgeneralization is regarded as more general than rational thought. And overgeneralization must remain a single simple theory with no subdivisions.

Going further, overgeneralization cannot bring salvation to rational existence, for the simple reason that a theory that lacks content cannot affect a world that is composed of content. Instead, overgeneralization is always threatened by content and must respond to content by suppressing content.

While overgeneralization cannot bring salvation to the content of rational thought, overgeneralization can interact with rational thought at specific points and specific events. That is because focusing upon the immediate situation ignores Perceiver facts that connect this situation with other situations as well as ignoring Server sequences that connect this event with other times. Because facts and sequences are being ignored, overgeneralization will not feel threatened.

I suggest that these principles explain Berkhof’s interpretation of covenant.

Berkhof says that there is a covenant of works and a covenant of grace, and he devotes 100 pages of his book to a discussion of these two covenants.

In brief, Berkhof says that Adam lived initially under the covenant of works, but he sinned and lost the benefits of this covenant, and as a result every descendent of Adam is subject to the penalty of Adam’s sin and is incapable of fulfilling the covenant of works. However, Jesus did fulfill the covenant of works and started a new covenant of grace, and the elect now live under Jesus’ covenant of grace.

These various aspects of the covenant of works are summarized reasonably well in the following quote: “The Bible does not always speak of the law in the same sense. Sometimes it contemplates this as the immutable expression of the nature and will of God, which applies at all times and under all conditions. But it also refers to it as it functions in the covenant of works, in which the gift of eternal life was conditioned on its fulfilment. Man failed to meet the condition, thereby also losing the ability to meet it, and is now by nature under a sentence of condemnation. When Paul draws a contrast between the law and the gospel, he is thinking of this aspect of the law, the broken law of the covenant of works, which can no more justify, but can only condemn the sinner. From the law in this particular sense, both as a means for obtaining eternal life and as a condemning power, believers are set free in Christ, since He became a curse for them and also met the demands of the covenant of works in their behalf” (p.680).

Berkhof says that humanity remains subject to the covenant of works, even though being incapable of fulfilling it: “The covenant of works is not abrogated: (1) in so far as the natural relation of man to God was incorporated in it, since man always owes God perfect obedience; (2) in so far as its curse and punishment for those who continue in sin are concerned; and (3) in so far as the conditional promise still holds. God might have withdrawn this promise, but did not. It is evident, however, that after the fall no one can comply with the condition” (p.238).

However, there has been a major change: “The covenant of works is abrogated: (1) in so far as it contained new positive elements, for those who are under the covenant of grace; this does not mean that it is simply set aside and disregarded, but that its obligations were met by the Mediator for His people; and (2) as an appointed means to obtain eternal life, for as such it is powerless after the fall of man” (p.238). Summarizing, the covenant of works is still in effect, and it is still impossible for anyone to keep this covenant. But the elect can now live under the covenant of grace that was started by Jesus who met the requirements of the covenant of works.

Stated bluntly, natural life under the covenant of works leads inescapably to damnation, which is precisely how overgeneralization treats the content of rational thought. I know that the doctrine of common grace says that the natural world is good and not evil. And at a pragmatic level, the doctrine of common grace encourages the reformed believer to enjoy, understand, and improve the physical world. However, reformed doctrine also makes it clear that common grace leads only to benefits within this physical world during one’s physical life and that common grace never leads to salvation after death. Thus, the doctrine of common grace states that natural life under the covenant of works leads inescapably to damnation—but not right away. I should emphasize that I am not questioning the concept of original sin. Rather, I am pointing out that Berkhof’s combination of overgeneralization and rational thought leads to a particularly depressing version of the doctrine of original sin that I do not think is warranted by either cognitive principles or by Scripture.

Let us turn now to the covenant of grace. Berkhof says that behind the human covenant of grace lies an eternal ‘council of redemption’ between God the Father and God the Son, which is the ‘firm and eternal foundation of the covenant of grace’: “The counsel of redemption is the eternal prototype of the historical covenant of grace. This accounts for the fact that many combine the two into a single covenant. The former is eternal, that is, from eternity, and the latter, temporal in the sense that it is realized in time. The former is a compact between the Father and the Son as the Surety and Head of the elect, while the latter is a compact between the triune God and the elect sinner in the Surety. The counsel of redemption is the firm and eternal foundation of the covenant of grace. If there had been no eternal counsel of peace between the Father and the Son, there could have been no agreement between the triune God and sinful men. The counsel of redemption makes the covenant of grace possible” (p.298). In other words, the covenant of grace between God and mankind is held together by an eternal covenant within God which Berkhof regards as the ultimate source of his confidence.

However, one must not regard these as two separate covenants but rather as a single covenant: “Though this distinction (between the covenant of redemption and the covenant of grace) is favored by Scripture statements, it does not follow that there are two separate and independent covenants antithetic to the covenant of works. The covenant of grace and redemption are two modes or phases of the one evangelical covenant of mercy” (p.292). In other words, one must regard everything from the attitude of overgeneralization, which requires a single theory without any subdivisions.

The subdivision between the covenant of works and the covenant of grace disturbed reformed theologians. They concluded that the covenant of grace is more certain than the covenant of works because the covenant of grace is based in the eternal covenant of redemption. They also insisted that the covenant of grace is not based in any manner upon the content of human existence. In other words, they concluded, as usual, that content is being transcended by overgeneralization, that content cannot fragment overgeneralization, and that overgeneralization leads to certainty: “Reformed theologians were deeply conscious of the contrast between the covenant of works and the covenant of grace. They felt that in the former the reward of the covenant was dependent on the uncertain obedience of man and as a result failed to materialize, while in the covenant of grace the full realization of the promises is absolutely sure in virtue of the perfect obedience of Jesus Christ. Its realization is sure through the operation of the grace of God, but, of course, sure only for those who are partakers of that grace. They felt constrained to stress this aspect of the covenant especially over against the Arminians and Neonomians, who virtually changed it into a new covenant of works, and made salvation once more dependent on the work of man, that is, on faith and evangelical obedience. For this reason they stressed the close connection between the covenant of redemption and the covenant of grace, and even hesitated to speak of faith as the condition of the covenant of grace” (p.303).

Notice that the real distinction here is not between salvation by faith and salvation by works, but rather between divine overgeneralization and human content, because faith is also being regarded as ‘the work of man’.

Notice also the reference to ‘the perfect obedience of Jesus Christ’. This implies that Jesus did not just act in a righteous manner without sinning, but rather that he showed perfect obedience, suggesting that he never behaved in an independent manner that threatened the unity of divine overgeneralization. Using a musical analogy, Jesus did not act in harmony with the divine melody, but rather sang a perfect unison.

Similarly, Berkhof says that the sin of Adam was not that he sang the wrong note but rather that he sang a different note: “The essence of that sin lay in the fact that Adam placed himself in opposition to God, that he refused to subject his will to the will of God, to have God determine the course of his life; and that he actively attempted to take the matter out of God’s hand, and to determine the future for himself” (p.243). This illustrates one of the major differences between generalization and overgeneralization. Continuing with the musical analogy, generalization leads to harmony, in which one can sing a different note while still being in harmony with the melody. Overgeneralization, in contrast, requires unison, because the very act of singing a different note threatens the unity of overgeneralization.

One can see that Berkhof views the perfection of Jesus as a unison with God rather than a harmony because Berkhof does not describe in his book what it means for Jesus to be sinless, even though the Gospels describe the behavior and thinking of Jesus in substantial detail. Instead, Berkhof’s assertion that Jesus was sinless is presented as a vague generality that is devoid of content.

The ‘faithful obedience’ of Jesus also makes the covenant of grace more general than the covenant of works, because Jesus followed the covenant of works in unison with God through ‘faithful obedience’: “Though the covenant of redemption is the eternal basis of the covenant of grace, and, as far as sinners are concerned, also its eternal prototype, it was for Christ a covenant of works rather than a covenant of grace. For Him the law of the original covenant applied, namely, that eternal life could only be obtained by meeting the demands of the law. As the last Adam Christ obtains eternal life for sinners in reward for faithful obedience, and not at all as an unmerited gift of grace” (p.295).

The relation between these various covenants can be confusing, so let us summarize. The key principle is that all content is transcended by an overgeneralization that lacks content, and that all overgeneralizations are themselves transcended by an over-overgeneralization that lacks content. At the bottom lies the covenant of works that applies to life within physical reality. It has no certainty and mankind is incapable of following this covenant. The covenant of works is transcended by the ‘perfect obedience’ of Jesus, who is the source of the covenant of grace. The covenant of grace appears to have different aspects but is itself transcended by the eternal unity of the council of redemption.

Before we continue, I should emphasize that there is nothing wrong with defining covenants or with placing covenants within a hierarchical structure. This type of systematizing defines the essence of science, math, and theology. The problem lies in using overgeneralization, because this forms general theories by suppressing specific content rather than building upon specific content.

An overgeneralized Covenant

This suppressing of specific content characterizes the covenantal thinking of Berkhof, because Berkhof consistently forms theories by minimizing content.

Berkhof says that a single covenant of grace has applied during all of human history: “The Bible teaches that there is but a single gospel by which men can be saved. And because the gospel is nothing but the revelation of the covenant of grace, it follows that there is also but one covenant. This gospel was already heard in the maternal promise, was preached unto Abraham, and may not be supplanted by any Judaistic gospel” (p.308).

One must not subdivide the covenant of grace into any distinct dispensations: “It is essentially the same in all dispensations, though its form of administration changes. This is contradicted by all those who claim that Old Testament saints were saved in another manner than New Testament believers, as for instance ... present-day dispensationalists, who distinguish several different covenants, and insist on the necessity of keeping them distinct” (p.307).

The same covenant of grace applies to both old and new Testaments: “The covenant of grace, as it is revealed in the New Testament, is essentially the same as that which governed the relation of Old Testament believers to God. It is entirely unwarranted to represent the two as forming an essential contrast, as is done by present day dispensationalism” (p.331).

Similarly, there is no essential difference between the New Testament sacraments of baptism and the Old Testament sacraments of circumcision and Passover: “There is no essential difference between the sacraments of the Old, and those of the New Testament. This is proved by the following considerations: (a) in I Cor. 10:1-4 Paul ascribes to the Old Testament Church that which is essential in the New Testament sacraments; (b) in Rom. 4:11 he speaks of the circumcision of Abraham as a seal of the righteousness of faith; and (c) in view of the fact that they represent the same spiritual realities, the names of the sacraments of both dispensations are used interchangeably; circumcision and passover are ascribed to the New Testament Church and baptism and the Lord’s Supper to the Church of the Old Testament” (p.686).

And the Church of the New Testament also existed within the Old Testament: “The church existed in the old dispensation as well as in the new, and was essentially the same in both, in spite of acknowledged institutional and administrative differences. This is in harmony with the teachings of our confessional standards” (p.632).

Notice that in each of these cases Berkhof is preserving the unity of the covenant of grace by minimizing any apparent distinctions within this covenant.

Moving further, I have suggested that when overgeneralization coexists with rational thought, then overgeneralization can only interact with rational thought at specific points. In the words of Buber, “Every real relation with a being or life in the world is exclusive. Its Thou is freed, steps forth, is single, and confronts you. It fills the heavens. This does not mean that nothing else exists; but all else lives in its light. As long as the presence of the relation continues, this its cosmic range is inviolable. But as soon as a Thou becomes an It, the cosmic range of the relation appears as an offence to the world, its exclusiveness as an exclusion of the universe” (I and Thou, p.78). In other words, one is usually aware of specific facts of space and time when one interacts with people and objects. But when one has a ‘real relation with a being’, then one does not think of anything apart from this personal interaction, and because one is not thinking of anything else—because one is regarding this interaction as ‘exclusive’, Teacher thought is free to overgeneralize to ‘fill the heavens’. This ‘filling the heavens’ does not ignore everything else, but rather views overgeneralization as something that transcends everything else. Saying this another way, one is viewing everything else in the light of the overgeneralization, or in Buber’s words, ‘all else lives in its light’.

When Berkhof talks about the interaction between God and man, he consistently refers to this occurring at specific points and not in a more general manner:

A person becomes a Christian through regeneration. Regeneration is based in ‘the mystical union with Christ’ in which a person living within content has an interaction with the God of overgeneralization. This interaction of regeneration occurs at a specific point and is not spread out over time. Repeating an earlier quote, “Regeneration is completed at once, for a man cannot be more or less regenerated; he is either dead or alive spiritually. Sanctification is a process, bringing about gradual changes, so that different grades may be distinguished in the resulting holiness” (p.596). I am not questioning the Christian idea of ‘new birth’ in which a person ‘asks Jesus into his heart’, leading to the birth of a new mental network of ‘life from above’. Rather, I am pointing out that Berkhof is emphasizing that interaction between God and humanity occurs at specific points.

Berkhof says that sanctification, or the process of becoming mature, is a process that takes time, and I agree. But Berkhof believes that the process of sanctification is driven by interaction with God that occurs at specific points in specific places. This can be seen in Berkhof’s doctrine of the ‘means of grace’, discussed earlier: “The fact that one can speak of means of grace in a rather general sense makes it imperative to point to the distinctive characteristics of the means of grace in the technical or restricted sense of the word. 1. They are instruments, not of common but of, special grace, the grace that removes sin and renews the sinner in conformity with the image of God. It is true that the Word of God may and in some respects actually does enrich those who live under the gospel with some of the choicest blessings of common grace in the restricted sense of the word; but it, as well as the sacraments, comes into consideration here only as a means of grace in the technical sense of the word. And the means of grace in this sense are always connected with the beginning and the progressive operation of the special grace of God, that is redemptive grace, in the hearts of sinners. 2. They are in themselves, and not in virtue of their connection with things not included in them, means of grace. Striking experiences may, and undoubtedly sometimes do, serve to strengthen the work of God in the hearts of believers, but this does not constitute them means of grace in the technical sense” (p.671).

In other words, the idea of God giving grace to humans within the content of life is not technically accurate. Instead, the special grace ‘that removes sin and renews the sinner’ is received through the Bible, baptism, and communion.

And technically speaking, reading the Bible only acts as a ‘means of grace’ when the Bible is read and preached by official pastors within official churches: “Strictly speaking, it is the Word as it is preached in the name of God and in virtue of a divine commission, that is considered as a means of grace in the technical sense of the word, alongside of the sacraments which are administered in the name of God. Naturally, the Word of God can also be considered as a means of grace in a more general sense. It may be a real blessing as it is brought to man in many additional ways: as it is read in the home, is taught in the school, or is circulated in tracts. As the official means of grace, placed at the disposal of the Church, both the Word and the sacraments can only be administered by the lawful and properly qualified officers of the Church” (p.677). Notice how the official saving grace of God is being restricted to specific means of grace, which themselves are restricted to specific locations, specific events, and specific people.

And Berkhof adds that the process of sanctification turns into an instant transformation that occurs in a moment of time when a person leaves the human realm of content and enters the divine realm of overgeneralization at death: “Sanctification is usually a lengthy process and never reaches perfection in this life. At the same time there may be cases in which it is completed in a very short time or even in a moment, as, for instance, in cases in which regeneration and conversion are immediately followed by temporal death. If we may proceed on the assumption that the believer’s sanctification is perfect immediately after death — and Scripture seems to teach this as far as the soul is concerned —, then in such cases the sanctification of the soul must be completed almost at once. The sanctification of the believer must, it would seem, be completed either at the very moment of death, or immediately after death” (p.594). Notice that Berkhof is ‘proceeding on the assumption that the believer’s sanctification is perfect immediately after death’.

Berkhof emphasizes that there is no transitional time of purgatory between human existence and heavenly perfection: “The usual position of the Reformed Churches is that the souls of believers immediately after death enter upon the glories of heaven” (p.752). I agree with Berkhof that the Catholic concept of purgatory is flawed. However, I am again pointing out that the thrust of Berkhof’s argument appears to be that the connection from Earth to heaven after death is one that occurs within an instant and is not spread out over time.

One sees this same kind of instant change from earth to heaven in Berkhof’s view of the church as a whole: “If the Church on earth is the militant Church, the Church in heaven is the triumphant Church. There the sword is exchanged for the palm of victory, the battle-cries are turned into songs of triumph, and the cross is replaced by the crown. The strife is over, the battle is won, and the saints reign with Christ forever and ever” (p.625).

Similarly, Berkhof says that the final judgment, in which God interacts decisively with humanity and transforms the physical universe, is also a single event in which ‘all the apparent discrepancies of the present’ will be instantly resolved. “The Bible teaches us to look forward to a final judgment as the decisive answer of God to all such questions, as the solution of all such problems, and as the removal of all the apparent discrepancies of the present. These passages do not refer to a process, but to a very definite event at the end of time. It is represented as accompanied by other historical events, such as the coming of Jesus Christ, the resurrection of the dead, and the renewal of heaven and earth” (p.810).

Berkhof reiterates that “The Bible always speaks of the future judgment as a single event. It teaches us to look forward, not to days, but to the day of judgment” (p.811).

The Millennium

One might think that I am reading this interpretation into Berkhof’s words, and that Berkhof is not really driven by a need to reduce interaction between God and humanity to specific points. However, Berkhof’s attitude becomes crystal clear when dealing with the millennium. Berkhof is adamantly amillennial, insisting that the transition from temporal human existence to eternal divine kingdom occurs instantly, and that there could not be any intermediate millennium in which Christ rules over the current physical Earth: “The Amillennial view is, as the name indicates, purely negative. It holds that there is no sufficient Scriptural ground for the expectation of a millennium, and is firmly convinced that the Bible favors the idea that the present dispensation of the Kingdom of God will be followed immediately by the Kingdom of God in its consummate and eternal form. It is mindful of the fact that the Kingdom of Jesus Christ is represented as an eternal and not as a temporal kingdom and that to enter the Kingdom of the future is to enter upon one’s eternal state... [This] is the only view that is either expressed or implied in the great historical Confessions of the Church, and has always been the prevalent view in Reformed circles” (p.785).

Berkhof uses strong emotional language to declare that this transition occurs at a specific point: “This theory is also in flagrant opposition to the Scriptural representation of the great events of the future, namely, the resurrection, the final judgment, and the end of the world. As was shown in the preceding, the Bible represents these great events as synchronizing. There is not the slightest indication that they are separated by a thousand years, except this be found in Rev. 20:4-6. They clearly coincide... They all occur at the coming of the Lord, which is also the day of the Lord” (p.792).

And Berkhof dismisses the Biblical description of a partial resurrection followed by a millennium followed by a second more complete resurrection as ‘an obscure passage in a book full of symbolism’: “The absence of the idea of a double resurrection may well make us hesitate to affirm its presence in this obscure passage of a book so full of symbolism as the Revelation of John” (p.807). In contrast, I have found that if one interprets the book of Revelation using symbolism that is cognitively natural, then the entire book makes sense as a single, rational, connected sequence, including the description of the millennium. Going further, it appears that God’s primary purpose in the book of Revelation is to integrate the mental split between mysticism and rational thought that characterizes the theology of Berkhof.

Berkhof feels strongly about this issue, because the concept of a millennium violates his mental wall splitting divine overgeneralization from human rational existence: “The Premillennial theory entangles itself in all kinds of insuperable difficulties with its doctrine of the millennium. It is impossible to understand how a part of the old earth and of sinful humanity can exist alongside of a part of the new earth and of a humanity that is glorified. How can perfect saints in glorified bodies have communion with sinners in the flesh. How can glorified saints live in this sin-laden atmosphere and amid scenes of death and decay? How can the Lord of glory, the glorified Christ, establish His throne on earth as long as it has not yet been renewed... What a mongrel state of things is this! What an abhorred mixture of things totally inconsistent with each other!” (p.793). Notice the strong adjectives: entangles, insuperable, impossible, sin-laden atmosphere, death and decay, mongrel state, abhorred mixture, totally inconsistent.

This strong language tells us that a core mental network is being threatened. I have suggested repeatedly that overgeneralization is threatened by content. This is not just a theoretical statement. Instead, when a theologian uses overgeneralization to form a concept of God and then thinks about this overgeneralization and how it coexists with the world of content, then this juxtaposition will turn into a TMN that will use emotional pressure to impose itself on the mind. The end result is that Berkhof finds it abhorrent to think of a divine kingdom of overgeneralization coexisting with the content of current physical reality. That is because overgeneralization must interact with rational content only at specific points. Therefore, any form of interaction that includes content threatens the existence of overgeneralization, as illustrated by Berkhof’s gut revulsion to the concept of a millennium.

I am not saying that it is wrong to have a gut reaction to theological concepts. When I read authors such as Buber or Berkhof I also have a gut reaction. However, I try very hard to evaluate my emotional response to see if it has an adequate basis and I also try to explain my position using a rational description of cognitive mechanisms. I have found that this combination of emotional response and rational analysis is very effective, both for building understanding and for transforming personal identity. Using cognitive language, instead of being subconsciously driven by core mental networks, I try to use an understanding of mental structure and mental networks to uncover, analyze, and hopefully transform core mental networks.

Berkhof also rejects the idea that the triumphant return of Jesus will be preceded by some sort of national return of Jews to Israel, because this does not view the return of Jesus as a single point but instead adds historical depth:

“Both the Old and the New Testament speak of a future conversion of Israel and seems to connect this with the end of time. Premillennialists have exploited this Scriptural teaching for their particular purpose. They maintain that there will be a national restoration and conversion of Israel, that the Jewish nation will be reestablished in the Holy Land, and that this will take place immediately preceding or during the millennial reign of Jesus Christ. It is very doubtful, however, whether Scripture warrants the expectation that Israel will finally be re-established as a nation, and will as a nation turn to the Lord. Some Old Testament prophecies seem to predict this, but these should be read in the light of the New Testament. Does the New Testament justify the expectation of a future restoration and conversion of Israel as a nation? It is not taught nor even necessarily implied” (p.774).

Berkhof admits that there is scriptural evidence for the re-establishment of Israel as a nation but he concludes that this ‘is not taught nor even necessarily implied’. However, history has proven Berkhof wrong. Berkhof wrote Systematic Theology in the 1930s, and Israel became a nation in 1948. Thus, while Israel has not ‘as a nation turned to the Lord’ (even if one defines ‘turning to the Lord’ as a sincere practice of Judaism), Israel has been ‘re-established as a nation’. The pdf of systematic theology that I downloaded contains a preface by Berkhof dated August 1, 1949, while Israel became a country on May 14, 1948. Thus, when Berkhof’s book was being reprinted, Berkhof knew that his statement about Israel being re-established as a nation was false. Nevertheless, Berkhof’s book contains no explanation, retraction, or footnote, which illustrates my earlier suggestion that the confidence that comes from overgeneralization is stronger than the confidence that comes from the facts of reality.

Berkhof adds that “The New Testament certainly does not favor the literalism of the Premillenarians. Moreover this literalism lands them in all kinds of absurdities, for it involves the future restoration of all the former historical conditions of Israel’s life: the great world powers of the Old Testament (Egyptians, Assyrians, and Babylonians), and the neighboring nations of Israel (Moabites, Ammonites, Edomites, and Philistines) must again appear on the scene... And in addition to all that, the altered situation would make it necessary for all the nations to visit Jerusalem from year to year, in order to celebrate the feast of tabernacles” (791). Again, history is not on Berkhof’s side, because we now find ourselves living in a world that contains precisely these ‘kinds of absurdities’. The ancient powers of Egypt, Assyria, and Babylon, which we now call Egypt, Syria, and Iraq, consistently ‘appear on the scene’ of daily news, and the Palestinian-Jewish conflict repeatedly takes center stage, as does the conflict between Israel and its neighbors. Finally, the nations do now visit Jerusalem every year in order to celebrate the feast of Tabernacles (I played violin in a string quartet with Merla Watson for many years, and the Watsons were largely responsible for starting the feast of Tabernacles.)

Moving further, because overgeneralization avoids content, a God of overgeneralization cannot affect the content of physical reality. This leads naturally to the doctrine that miracles do not occur within the current physical world: “There is no Scriptural ground for the idea that the charism of healing was intended to be continued in the Church of all ages. Evidently, the miracles and miraculous signs recorded in Scripture were intended as a mark or credential of divine revelation, themselves formed a part of this revelation, and served to attest and confirm the message of the early preachers of the gospel. As such they naturally ceased when the period of special revelation came to an end. It is true that the Church of Rome and several sects claim the power of miraculous healing, but the claim is not borne out by the evidence” (p.667). From a theological viewpoint, Berkhof’s statement is rather strange. On the one hand, Berkhof says that God is utterly sovereign and rules over every detail of existence, while on the other hand, Berkhof also says that God does not overrule the laws of nature. This illustrates the weakness of overgeneralization. It sounds pious to say that ‘God determines everything’, but if one states this as an overgeneralization without adding details, then the end result is that God determines nothing.

One can also see more fully why Berkhof rejects the Anabaptists, who have attempted to follow God in this current fallen world in a meaningful manner that includes content. Repeating an earlier quote: “Anabaptists object to the doctrine of common grace, because it involves the recognition of good elements in the natural order of things, and this is contrary to their fundamental position. They regard the natural creation with contempt, stress the fact that Adam was of the earth earthy, and see only impurity in the natural order as such. Christ established a new supernatural order of things, and to that order the regenerate man, who is not merely a renewed, but an entirely new man, also belongs. He has nothing in common with the world round about him and should therefore take no part in its life: never swear an oath, take no part in war, recognize no civil authority, avoid worldly clothing, and so on” (p.493). Thus, Berkhof states adamantly that God will rule everything at some point in the future while mocking those who act now as if God will eventually rule everything.

Free Will and Overgeneralization

Thomas Kuhn says that a scientist does not immediately reject a theory when faced with counterexamples. Instead, a theory will be modified by adding details that remove the apparent conflicts: “There is, in addition, a second reason for doubting that scientists reject paradigms because confronted with anomalies or counterinstances... They can at best help to create a crisis or, more accurately, to reinforce one that is already very much in existence. By themselves they cannot and will not falsify that philosophical theory, for its defenders will do what we have already seen scientists doing when confronted by anomaly. They will devise numerous articulations and ad hoc modifications of their theory in order to eliminate any apparent conflict” (The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, p.78).

We began this essay by suggesting that reformed theology regards the doctrine of total human depravity as a general theory about God and mankind, which means that everything is interpreted in the light of the statement ‘God does everything and man can do nothing’.

This doctrine has been modified over the years to ‘eliminate any apparent conflict’ with reality.

Reformed thinkers noticed that the average person is capable of doing things apart from God. Therefore, the theory of human depravity was modified by adding the concept of common grace: “The origin of the doctrine of common grace was occasioned by the fact that there is in the world, alongside of the course of the Christian life with all its blessings, a natural course of life, which is not redemptive and yet exhibits many traces of the true, the good, and the beautiful” (p.477).

As Berkhof says, “Augustine did not teach the doctrine of common grace” (p.477). Instead, “He emphasized the total inability of man and his absolute dependence on the grace of God as an inner renewing power, which not only illumines the mind but also acts directly on the will of man, either as operating or as co-operating grace... He denies that such deeds are the fruit of any natural goodness in man” (p.477).

Luther, in contrast, admitted that the doctrine of ‘utter human depravity’ did not apply to the earthly sphere, because: “he drew a sharp distinction between the lower earthly sphere and the higher spiritual sphere, and maintained that fallen man is by nature capable of doing much that is good and praiseworthy in the lower or earthly sphere, though he is utterly incapable of doing any spiritual good” (p.479).

The reformed doctrine of common grace does not come from Calvin. As was mentioned earlier: “The name ‘common grace’ as a designation of the grace now under discussion cannot be said to owe its origin to Calvin. Dr. H. Kuiper in his work on Calvin on Common Grace says that he found only four passages in Calvin’s works in which the adjective ‘common’ is used with the noun ‘grace,’ and in two of these the Reformer is speaking of saving grace. In later Reformed theology, however, the name gratia communis came into general use to express the idea that this grace extends to all men” (p.479).

Instead, the doctrine of common grace has been developed by more recent reformed theologians: “Since the days of Calvin the doctrine of common grace was generally recognized in Reformed theology, though it also met with occasional opposition. For a long time, however, little was done to develop the doctrine. This was in all probability due to the fact that the rise and prevalence of Rationalism made it necessary to place all emphasis on special grace. Up to the present Kuyper and Bavinck did more than any one else for the development of the doctrine of common grace” (p.479).

When Berkhof describes this doctrine, is no longer a simple elegant theory, but rather has acquired, in the words of Kuhn, numerous articulations: “With respect to its effect on man’s spiritual powers, it is called total inability. Here, again, it is necessary to distinguish. By ascribing total inability to the natural man we do not mean to say that it is impossible for him to do good in any sense of the word. Reformed theologians generally say that he is still able to perform: (1) natural good; (2) civil good or civil righteousness; and (3) externally religious good. It is admitted that even the unrenewed possess some virtue, revealing itself in the relations of social life, in many acts and sentiments that deserve the sincere approval and gratitude of their fellow-men, and that even meet with the approval of God to a certain extent. At the same time it is maintained that these same actions and feelings, when considered in relation to God, are radically defective” (p.271).

Chosen by God

R.C. Sproul is a well-known reformed theologian who has written a book on predestination that has sold 200,000 copies. Sproul recorded a set of videos to accompany this book, and this three hour, six part video series on predestination can be watched online for free. We will take a few pages to examine the video series.

In general, I suggest that Sproul’s reasoning makes sense—if one accepts the premise that theology should be analyzed using a combination of overgeneralization and technical thought. In brief, abstract technical thought (technical thought can either be abstract or concrete) is the type of logical reasoning that is used in analytic philosophy, and Sproul says several times that he is using the logical reasoning taught by philosophy. It is characterized by precise definitions, chains of if-then reasoning, and choices between one option and another.

Technical thought is a fine tool as long as one knows when it is appropriate to use. One can see this principle illustrated in the third video, in which Sproul looks at the interaction between divine sovereignty and free will. Sproul says that determinism is when someone else imposes decisions upon you, but if you impose decisions upon yourself, then that is self-determinism, which we all know is free will. This is an interesting way of using definitions and logic to reconcile determinism with free will. However, I suggest that it is also an inappropriate use of verbal logic because what really matters is not the words that I use to talk about free will and determinism but rather how I can exercise free will as a person within the presence of a sovereign God. In order to address that question, one has to look at how the mind works.

Sproul discusses how the mind works in the same video, quoting from Jonathan Edwards, who lived in the 18th century. Edwards said that a person’s choice is always determined by a person’s strongest desire: “That which appears most inviting, and has, by what appears concerning it to the understanding or apprehension, the greatest degree of previous tendency to excite and induce the choice, is what I call the strongest motive. And in this sense, I suppose the will is always determined by the strongest motive.” (I have posted an essay on McDermott’s interpretation of Edwards’ book on religious affections.) Edwards, Sproul, and other reformed theologians, make a significant point, which is that there is no such thing as libertarian free will. It is not possible for a person to choose anything that he wants. Instead, choice is always guided by desire. For instance, it is not possible for a drug addict to choose not to take drugs, because the drive of addiction will overwhelm free will.

Berkhof says something similar, defining free will as self-determination guided by deepest instincts and emotions: “The will of man is not something altogether indeterminate, something hanging in the air that can be swung arbitrarily in either direction. It is rather something rooted in our very nature, connected with our deepest instincts and emotions, and determined by our intellectual considerations and by our very character. And if we conceive of our human freedom as lubentia rationalis (reasonable self-determination), then we have no sufficient warrant for saying that it is inconsistent with divine foreknowledge. Says Dr. Orr: ‘A solution of this problem there is, though our minds fail to grasp it. In part it probably lies, not in denying freedom, but in a revised conception of freedom. For freedom, after all, is not arbitrariness. There is in all rational action a why for acting — a reason which decides action. The truly free man is not the uncertain, incalculable man, but the man who is reliable. In short, freedom has its laws — spiritual laws — and the omniscient Mind knows what these are’” (p.73).

I agree with Berkhof that freedom is guided by spiritual laws and that the omniscient Mind knows what these are. But I am not sure that Berkhof really believes these words, because he says elsewhere that “we can seldom discern why God willed one thing rather than another, and that it is not possible nor even permissible for us to look for some deeper ground of things than the will of God, because all such attempts result in seeking a ground for the creature in the very Being of God, in robbing it of its contingent character, and in making it necessary, eternal, divine” (p.85). In other words, one can state as a vague generality that God is guided by a knowledge of spiritual laws, but using rational thought to pursue this concept would question the underlying assumption of overgeneralization.

Desire and Choice

However, psychology and neurology have now learned that Edwards’ assertion is actually an oversimplification. Free will is not usually presented with a single desire. Instead, desire usually provides a set of alternatives, and free will then chooses between the alternatives presented by desire. Using the language of mental symmetry, mental networks within Mercy and Teacher thought lead to urges within Exhorter thought, which is then followed by Contributor choice. When the mind is ruled by a single set of core mental networks, then free will has very little to choose from. This is like a communist election, in which one can choose between comrade A or comrade B. American presidential elections have become similar, because voters are no longer presented with a real alternative, but rather with two variations on the same theme.

If the mind contains two sets of incompatible mental networks, then free will can make significant choices by choosing to follow one of these mental networks rather than another. One could compare free will to physical ability. I can choose to walk up a step, but I cannot choose to walk over a wall, because a wall is too high to step over. Similarly, free will can choose options that are somewhat less desirable than the strongest motive, but free will can only choose to delay sufficiently strong desires. Continuing with this analogy, suppose that I am standing on a boarding ramp just outside an airplane. I can choose to step onto the airplane or to stay on the boarding ramp, because it is only a simple step from one to the other. This small step, though, will have major ramifications because the airplane will fly to another country while the ramp will remain in its current location. This idea that small choices in the present can lead to major changes in the future is a characteristic of nature and is known as the butterfly effect. Similarly, when one is choosing between incompatible mental networks, then the current choice may be only appear to be a small step, but this small choice will become magnified over time. This means that one usually does not have free will within a traumatic situation. Instead, the free will usually occurs before the implications of the choice become apparent. When one does the actual choosing, then the incompatible mental networks may appear to be quite similar and the decision may seem inconsequential. However, as the parable of the ten virgins illustrates, the time to purchase oil is before the bridegroom shows up and not when it is time to walk through the door.

Summarizing, choice always occurs within the context of desire, and choice is always driven by desire. But desire is not a single point but rather a window, and free choice can choose within this window. If free choice continues to choose one side of the window, then over time the window will shift. The amount that a window can shift is limited by core mental networks. For instance, in Soviet Russia one could choose to be a more honest party member, but one could not choose to reject the Communist Party and live a normal life.

Going further, the window of free will becomes much larger when one is faced with conflicting desires. These times of opportunity are always limited, because the mental network that is chosen will gain in strength while the one that is not chosen will become weaker. Eventually, the emotional gap will become so wide that it will no longer be possible to choose to follow the weaker mental network and, as Edwards states, one will then become inevitably driven by the strongest motive.

Finally, the real window of opportunity usually occurs before the crisis in which one is forced to choose. For instance, before Communism fell, one could only choose to be a more honest party member, or choose not to be a party member. One could not choose to follow democracy or capitalism. But when communism fell, it was these individuals who had previously decided to follow a different path who were able to embrace democracy and capitalism.

Thus, free will always occurs within the context of desire, but desire is a sliding window and not just a point. And when two incompatible ‘scenes’ appear within the window of choice, then free will temporarily acquires the ability to make significant choices by choosing one of the ‘scenes’ rather than the other. However, the real choosing usually happens internally before the situation in which one externally appears to be making a choice, which is why it appears at first glance that choice is always an expression of the strongest desire.

This principle also applies to abstract thought and theory. One can see this in the introduction to Sproul’s book Chosen by God where he describes his struggle with predestination: “My struggle with predestination began early in my Christian life. I knew a professor of philosophy in college who was a convinced Calvinist. He set forth the so-called ‘reformed’ view of predestination. I did not like it. I did not like it at all. I fought against it tooth and nail all the way through college... I challenged Gerstner in the classroom time after time, making the total pest of myself. I resisted for well over a year. My final surrender came in stages. Painful stages. It started when I began work as a student pastor at a church. I wrote a note to myself that I kept on my desk in a place where I could always see it. You are required to believe, to preach, and to teach what the Bible says is true, not what you want the Bible to say is true... Gerstner, Edwards, the New Testament professor, and above all the apostle Paul, were to formidable a team for me to withstand. The ninth chapter of Romans was the clincher. I simply could find no way to avoid the apostle’s teaching in the chapter. Reluctantly, I sighed and surrendered, with my head, not my heart. Okay, I believe this stuff, but I do not have to like it! I soon discovered that God has created us so that the heart is supposed to follow the head. I could not, with impunity, love something with my head that I hated in my heart. Once I begin to see the cogency of the doctrine and its broader implications, my eyes were opened to the graciousness of grace and the grand comfort of God’s sovereignty. I began to like the doctrine little by little, until it burst upon my soul that the doctrine revealed the depth and the riches of the mercy of God.”

Notice the sliding window of choice. Initially, Sproul hated the doctrine of predestination, but the arguments made by his professors in favor of predestination gradually shifted the emotions of his understanding. As he says, ‘my final surrender came in stages’. Notice also the temporary window of opportunity. Sproul had a window of opportunity in seminary when he could choose either to follow predestination or reject predestination, and he chose with his head to believe in predestination. However, this choice caused the Teacher mental network associated with the theory of predestination to grow. As a result, his heart followed his head and he began to like the doctrine. By the time he wrote his book on predestination, he no longer had the free will to override his emotional commitment to the theory. Sproul describes this emotional commitment in his introduction: “When I teach the doctrine of predestination I am often frustrated by those who obstinately refused to submit to it. I want to scream, ‘Don’t you realize you are resisting the Word of God?’”

Concluding, if one looks at Sproul’s story of how he came to believe in predestination, I suggest that it illustrates the more subtle interaction that is actually occurring between desire and free will.

The Sin Nature

Moving on, Sproul also talks in the third video about the fallen nature of man. Using reformed language, sinful man is totally depraved. Fallen man has free will, but this free will can only be used to choose fallen desires, and cannot be used to choose the righteousness of God. In the words of Edwards, fallen man has a corrupt nature and his desires are in bondage to sin.

Using the language of mental symmetry, man is naturally driven by a set of core mental networks that are fundamentally incompatible with the TMN of a concept of God, and a person is not capable of thinking or behaving in a manner that is consistent with the TMN of a concept of God. In fact, natural man is not even able to construct an adequate concept of God, let alone submit to an adequate concept of God. (Notice the word ‘adequate’. It is not possible for finite creatures to construct a complete mental concept of a universal being. But it is possible to construct a reasonably adequate concept of God that captures the essence of God’s character, and this concept of God can become more adequate over time.)

Looking at this in more detail, mental symmetry suggests that the sin nature is the result of what psychology refers to as embodiment. This does not mean that the body is inherently evil, but rather that the physical body imposes emotional experiences upon the mind which form core mental networks within Mercy thought, and these MMNs motivate the childish mind to take shortcuts in order to seek short-term, temporary, physical, and personal gratification, resulting in behavior such as idolatry, hedonism, lawlessness, childish selfishness, worship of authority, racism, anger, and warfare. All of these forms of childish thought and behavior are inherently inconsistent with Teacher thought: Teacher thought wants rules to apply everywhere, while Mercy thought wants personal exceptions to the rule. Teacher thought desires order and structure, while Mercy thought seeks pleasurable experiences even if they lead to chaos and destroy structure. Teacher thought looks for long-term understanding, while Mercy thought focuses upon the immediate situation. Teacher thought wants understanding, while Mercy thought thinks in terms of people and personal authority. The end result is that the childish mind is fundamentally opposed to God, because the childish mind is emotionally driven by core MMNs that, by their very nature, attack the TMN of a concept of God. This is not a problem that can be solved through a ‘sliding window’ of making the right choices. Instead, what is required is the introduction of a totally new set of core mental networks that are based in a concept of God. Using the language of reformed theology, what is needed is regeneration.

Mental symmetry suggests that this principle also applies to abstract thought. The untransformed mind will naturally use overgeneralization and the religious attitude when thinking about God, and we have seen that most reformed theology can be explained as a technical system of thought based upon an overgeneralization of the religious attitude. This combination of rational objective thought combined with irrational subjective experience also lies at the heart of Western civilization. In fact, as far as I can tell, it defines the spirit of this age. Going further, I have found that the average person, including the average professor with a PhD, lacks the free will to be able to question the spirit of this age. Thus, one is dealing with an aspect of original sin. And I am not just saying this in a handwaving manner, because my hypothesis is that mysticism, with its overgeneralization and identification, is directly related to the serpent’s temptation of Eve in the garden. And the last half of the book of Revelation appears to describe the process by which God will intervene to eliminate this aspect of original sin. I am also not just making a theoretical statement, because I have tried for decades to challenge the spirit of this age, and have found that speaking against the spirit of the age is like blowing into a hurricane.

Therefore, when Sproul was choosing to accept or reject predestination, did he really have a free will, or was his thinking inevitably biased by the spirit of this age, which combines overgeneralization with technical thought? As we have seen in this essay, the doctrine of predestination emerges naturally from this combination; it is a natural expression of the spirit of this age. Sproul says that five top theologians in history believed in predestination: Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, Martin Luther, John Calvin, Jonathan Edwards. This could mean that the doctrine of predestination is correct, or it could mean that the spirit of this age will drive a person in a certain direction when he begins to think about this subject. Thus, we come to the strange conclusion that an aspect of original sin is predestining Sproul’s doctrine of original sin and predestination.

Looking briefly at my personal background, I have done most of my thinking outside of official academia. One of my primary moments of free will came in Grade 12 when I was assistant concertmaster of the Saskatoon Symphony and chose not to join the musician’s union as a matter of moral principle. However, that choice was partially driven by my entrepreneurial father’s aversion to unions. Thus, when I was faced in grad studies with the choice of submitting to the system or continuing my research into spiritual gifts, I naturally chose to continue my research outside of the system.

Maverick Molecules

Returning now to Sproul, one can see explicitly that his thinking is guided by technical thought, because he repeatedly refers to philosophy and the rules of logic. But Sproul’s opening statement in the first video is not guided by logic. Instead, he prefaces his chain of logical reasoning by emotionally belittling anyone who does not use overgeneralization to think about God.

Sproul says in the second chapter of Chosen by God (the book that accompanies the video series—which has sold 200,000 copies) “that God in some sense foreordains whatever comes to pass is a necessary result of his sovereignty. In itself it does not plead for Calvinism. It only declares that God is absolutely sovereign over his creation... To say that God foreordained all that comes to pass is simply to say that God is sovereign over his entire creation... If there is any part of creation outside of God’s sovereignty, then God is simply not sovereign. If God is not sovereign, then God is not God. If there is one single molecule in this universe running around loose, totally free of God’s sovereignty, then we have no guarantee that a single promise of God will ever be fulfilled... if we reject divine sovereignty then we must embrace atheism. This is the problem we all face. We must hold tightly to God’s sovereignty. Yet we must do it in such a way so as not to violate human freedom” (p.27). Summarizing, God is only sovereign if God determines the movement of every single molecule in the universe.

When one makes such a grandiose claim without backing it up by facts, then that is an example of overgeneralization. When one states as a bald fact that God controls every single molecule in the universe, then one is approaching God with an attitude of overgeneralization. And when one concludes that ‘one single molecule in this universe running around loose’ leads automatically to atheism, then one is being guided by overgeneralization, because one is asserting that independent facts are the enemy of overgeneralization. And Sproul does not just say that his opponents are wrong. He emotionally attacks them in one of the strongest ways that you can attack a Christian, by accusing them of being atheists. Such emotional belittling often accompanies technical thought, because a person will follow rational thought within a paradigm but be driven emotionally by the mental network behind this paradigm to belittle anyone who does not accept the paradigm.

However, science has discovered that Sproul is not just mistaken, but universally mistaken, because every single atom in the universe appears to be what Sproul calls in the video a ‘maverick molecule’. This does not mean that atoms function outside of God’s sovereignty, but rather that they function non-deterministically within God’s sovereignty. This needs to be repeated. On the one hand, the natural laws of the universe are sovereign, because every natural process that we have observed so far obeys the laws of nature. On the other hand, all movement at an atomic scale is random. Looking at this more carefully, physics has discovered that it is not possible to determine both the precise location and the precise path of anything when dealing at the scale of atoms. (I refer to atoms rather than molecules because this is an effect that is most apparent at the atomic scale. Most molecules are composed of only a few atoms, but some are much larger than single atoms.) This is known as Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle. Instead, one can only state the probability that a particle is in a certain place or moving in a certain direction. However, this probability can be stated with mathematical precision using a wave function. Thus, even though the details of the universe are random, these details work together in a manner that is totally predictable. Using the language of Sproul, God is sovereign over the universe even though ‘every single molecule in the entire universe runs around loose’. But the ‘sovereignty’ of mathematical equations has no problem coexisting with the ‘personal freedom’ of atomic particles, because the mathematical equations apply to groups of atomic particles. Saying this another way, mathematical equations describe general behavior but not specific behavior.

One is not dealing here with a matter of interpretation, in which a different theory is being used to explain the same set of facts. Instead, Sproul’s assertion about maverick molecules contradicts every known fact that has ever been gathered about the behavior of atomic particles. However, the concept that divine sovereignty coexists with human free will, which the Bible clearly teaches and Sproul asserts, is not being disproven. On the contrary, when one examines the nature of the universe, one sees that individual free will really does coexist with divine sovereignty. Instead, what is being questioned is the blanket overgeneralization that God is only sovereign if he controls every single molecule in the universe. Instead, as with Sproul’s statement about desire and free will, evidence indicates that the situation is actually more nuanced. And nuance is precisely what overgeneralization cannot achieve, because any effort to add details to an overgeneralized theory threatens the mindset of overgeneralization.

In addition, when it comes to the content of real life, then Sproul says something different. In the sixth video, Sproul makes the offhand remark that “The first step of quickening from the dead, from the flesh to the spirit, transferred from the kingdom of darkness to the kingdom of light, is accomplished by God and not by man. And of course, after God does quicken us, then we choose, then we believe, then we embrace Christ, then we repent, then we do all of these things because we are alive to the things of God now. But the first step, the initiative, being made alive from the dead, is the work of God and the work of God alone.” In other words, Sproul finds it obvious that one should take personal initiative in the process of becoming a mature Christian and act as if God does not control every molecule of the universe, which implies that one should become a mature Christian by acting like an atheist. I do not think that Sproul is trying to deceive his audience. Instead, I suggest that we are looking at a natural byproduct of combining overgeneralization with rational thought. As I mentioned before, overgeneralization will drive a person to state with great fervor that ‘God controls every molecule of the universe’. But it is not possible to add content to this overgeneralization, therefore when one is living within the content of life, then one will act as if one is a ‘maverick molecule’ functioning outside of the sovereignty of God.

I know that Sproul and other theologians could probably come up with many technical reasons why they are right and I am wrong, but I am not looking at technical thought here but attitude. Saying that God is sovereign sounds good, but it is meaningless if it does not translate into an attitude of regarding God as sovereign within the daily experiences of life. Saying explicitly that man cooperates with God sounds much less reverent, but it leads to the question of ‘How does man cooperate with God?’, which leads to a focus upon comprehending God’s methods, and when this understanding of God’s character turns into a TMN, then this TMN will emotionally drive a person to behave in a righteous manner.

Speaking of emotional drive, Sproul spends some time in the fourth video saying that when one looks at the original Greek, then one concludes that God does not ‘woo us’, as Arminians state, but rather ‘drags us’. Sproul’s statement makes sense, but behind his statement lies a more basic question. What kind of image of God is dragging a person? People drag our physical bodies, while God drags us internally, which means that one is dealing with a concept of God doing the dragging. I am not suggesting that what is happening is only cognitive, but rather that the cognitive realm plays a major role, and that a real God interacts with humans primarily through their concepts of God. And we have seen how this dragging occurred in the case of Sproul in the doctrine of predestination. There was an element of free will, but Sproul’s choice to believe in predestination created an image of God in his mind which then dragged him emotionally. Some of this dragging occurs as a result of choice, other aspects of dragging are the results of culture. For instance, the cultural split between objective and subjective leads naturally to a concept of God that will drag a person in a certain direction.

Moving further, I have mentioned that overgeneralization can only interact with content at isolated points, instead of connecting over a broad range of situations and times. One can see this in the opening to Sproul’s videos. Sproul says that he will be talking about predestination, but then adds that predestination only addresses the specific point of God deciding whether a person goes to heaven or hell. Everything else falls under the category of divine providence, which Sproul does not discuss. Similarly, Sproul interprets Romans 8-9 and Christian regeneration in terms of this specific point of God choosing who goes to heaven or hell. For instance, Sproul says in the fourth video that the description of flesh versus spirit at the beginning of Romans 8 describes the non-Christian versus the Christian. I know that this is a common interpretation, but I suggest that Romans 1-8 should be viewed as a sequence in which Paul is describing the process of personal transformation. Regeneration is a key point in this process, but I suggest that Romans 5-7 describes the process of constructing a new set of core mental networks, and the passage to which Sproul refers in Romans 8 describes the final internal battle in which the old set of mental networks of the flesh are finally being replaced by the new set of mental networks of the spirit. In contrast, Sproul relates the contrast between flesh and spirit to the point of becoming a Christian. Repeating part of an earlier quote, “The first step of quickening from the dead, from the flesh to the spirit, transferred from the kingdom of darkness to the kingdom of light, is accomplished by God and not by man.” One is ‘quickened from the dead’ when one becomes a Christian, because the seed of a new core mental network comes to birth within Mercy thought, and the Holy Spirit resides within this mental network. One is also ‘transferred from the kingdom of darkness to the kingdom of light’ through justification, a change in status guided by Teacher thought (which we have not yet discussed). But I suggest that one is not instantly transformed from flesh to spirit. Paul discusses justification in Romans 5, which occurs before Romans 8. Similarly, observation indicates that there are many Christians who are justified, but live in the flesh and not in the spirit.

However, when one uses overgeneralization to think about God, then dividing the process of being transformed by God into steps, stages, and processes will feel instinctively wrong, and one will instinctively interpret such content as ‘salvation by works’, because the underlying assumption is that content belongs to the human realm of mankind, and we all know that ‘God does everything and mankind can do nothing’. The passage on predestination in Romans 9 will then be viewed as a proof text that ‘God does everything and man can do nothing’. Instead, I will suggest in a few paragraphs a more nuanced interpretation of Romans 9.

Divine Intervention

Sproul says in the second video that there are four basic choices regarding predestination: 1) God could give no chance of salvation to fallen man. 2) God could give chances to some or all individuals without ensuring that anyone accepted this chance. 3) God could ensure the salvation of everyone. 4) God could ensure the salvation of some by intervening.

The fourth option describes the view of reformed theology, which is the choice that Sproul advocates. Sproul’s logic is as follows: God can do anything because God is sovereign. Man is incapable of saving himself. God could save everyone by intervening in everyone’s life, because God can do anything. But we see that only some people are being saved. This proves that God is only intervening in the lives of some people and not in the lives of others. Therefore, Calvinist doctrines of predestination and limited atonement are correct. Notice that Sproul’s conclusion follows naturally if one accepts Sproul’s overgeneralization that ‘God can do anything because God is sovereign’. However, we have just seen that Sproul’s overgeneralized concept of divine sovereignty is contradicted by the behavior of the entire universe, which Romans 1 says reflects the character of God.

Let us look briefly at the idea of God intervening. As every parent knows, intervening in the development of a child is a tricky business. If one does not intervene, then the child will not learn how to think and act like an adult. But if one intervenes too much, then the child will become mentally distorted, unable to think for himself and typically doing the right thing for inadequate reasons. Thus, the parent must allow the child to grow up as an individual while at the same time intervening in appropriate ways at appropriate times. Hebrews 12 specifically states that God disciplines humans similar to the manner in which a father disciplines his children.

The history and behavior of Jews illustrate what happens when God intervenes with a group of people and treats them as ‘his elect’. This type of divine intervention can be either a blessing or a curse, depending upon how one chooses as an individual to respond to the idea of being ‘chosen by God’. Looking at modern history, Jews have won far more Nobel prizes than other ethnic groups and are world leaders in technological development (For instance, there are 11 factories in the world that produce microprocessors. Seven are in the US, one is in Ireland, and three are in Israel.) But it is also difficult to think of any group that has played a greater role in destroying Western culture, morality, and personal freedom than Jews in Hollywood and Jews in banking.

Thus, we conclude that God must intervene in human history, but also must intervene as little as possible. Sproul says that if God wished, then God could save everyone because ‘God can do anything’. Sproul also concludes that God could do more to save mankind but has decided that he will only save some people. This leads to the concept of a God who decides ‘in His good pleasure’ who will be eternally damned and who will be eternally blessed. As a result, Sproul spends several minutes in the second video as God’s public relations man, explaining very carefully to his audience that God really is either just or merciful. This may be sufficient from an academic perspective, but from a personal perspective, imagine God saying “I could save everyone, but for personal reasons I decided to save others and not you. Enjoy suffering in hell forever.”

In contrast, I suggest that God is doing everything that he can do to save mankind, but because his ultimate goal is to produce mature adults and not mindless robots, he must intervene very carefully in limited ways. If God does not intervene, then this will leave humanity in sin, but if God intervenes too much, then this will twist humanity, which itself is a form of sin.

Romans 9

This puts a different spin on Romans 9. Paul begins the chapter by grieving over the fact that God’s chosen people have rejected God. This needs to be repeated. The P in TULIP asserts that no one who is chosen by God will fall away, but Paul is complaining that Israel, the group of elect that has been chosen by God, has fallen away from God. And Paul adds that God will violate the P in TULIP by choosing another group of people to be his elect. Paul then looks at key individuals in the process of God’s plan and points out that God’s plan does not depend upon man’s righteousness. When God chooses a person to be part of his plan, this does not guarantee that that person will be righteous or go to heaven.

Looking at this more specifically, God calls himself the ‘God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob’, and these three names are specifically mentioned in Romans 9. I suggest that this is describing three primary stages in the process of becoming personally transformed. Abraham was called out of Sumeria and told to follow God by faith. Similarly, the Christian journey begins with the call of salvation in which one metaphorically leaves the world to begin a journey of faith to some unseen destination. Isaac is the child of promise, and the name means ‘he will laugh’. The first stage leaves the Mercy mental networks of culture in order to follow God. The second stage discovers the pleasure of Teacher mental networks. The third stage of Jacob returns from the abstract realm of Teacher understanding back to the Mercy realm of personal transformation. Romans 9 says that God loved Jacob but hated his twin brother Esau. Esau despised his birthright, and the descendents of Esau lived among the rocks in Petra. Jacob, in contrast, wrestled with the angel in order to gain a blessing from God. Thus, God does not want people to remain at the abstract level of theology but rather wants theological understanding to be applied in real life. The Jews of Paul’s time had well-developed theology but when Jesus came and lived out this theology, then the Jews rejected Jesus and followed the path of Esau rather than the path of Jacob.

The hardening of Pharaoh is also a key transition, because the religious attitude will naturally drive the fundamentalist Christian to think that the purpose of living is to ‘suffer for Jesus’. This attitude is illustrated by Anabaptist history, in which suffering for Jesus was so foundational that the book Martyr’s Mirror was often given as a wedding gift to newly married couples. However, the goal of Christianity is to apply the message as a group by going again through the three stages of personal transformation, this time symbolized by Egypt, the wilderness, and the promised land. God will force this to happen by ‘hardening the pharaohs’ of secular society.

For instance, a number of Calvinist Pilgrim Fathers fled religious persecution in Europe in the 17th century to settle in America, and “The Pilgrims’ story of seeking religious freedom has become a central theme of the history and culture of the United States”. This partial application of Christian principles in the United States has been sufficiently successful to cause the modern world to seek after ‘the American dream’. Using the language of Romans 9, “For this very purpose I raised you [pharoah] up, to demonstrate My power in you, and that My name might be proclaimed throughout the whole earth” (Rom. 9:17).

Judaism and Incarnation

The Jews were experiencing a similar ‘hardening of pharaoh’ under the iron-nailed sandal of Rome, but instead of responding by leaving the ‘Egypt’ of tribal nationalism in order to become transformed as a group, they insisted upon clinging to their physical kingdom and rebelled twice against their Roman overlords. It was only after the expulsion of Jews from Jerusalem in the horrific aftermath of the second revolt that nationalistic Judaism was finally transformed into rabbinic Judaism.

The Jews should have applied their theology. Using symbolic language, they should have wrestled with the angel for a blessing from God, as Jacob did. But because they did not seek a spiritual inheritance from God, they tried to hold on to their physical inheritance of the land of Israel, and this physical inheritance had to be ripped twice from their hands before they were finally willing to embrace a more spiritual version of Judaism. And ‘ripped’ is not too strong a term, because the Roman suppression of the second Jewish revolt has been described as genocidal.

In other words, I suggest that people who go around claiming to be part of God’s elect should exercise caution about using that phrase, because being one of God’s elect is both a promise and a threat. The history of the Jews, God’s chosen people, indicates that God plays for keeps and will go to extreme measures to ensure the sovereignty of his plan. And Judaism officially recognizes that being chosen by God means being held to a higher moral standard. As Paul warns in Romans 11:20-22: “Do not be conceited, but fear; for if God did not spare the natural branches, He will not spare you, either. Behold then the kindness and severity of God; to those who fell, severity, but to you, God’s kindness, if you continue in His kindness; otherwise you also will be cut off.” History tells us of God’s severity to the Jews. But history also suggests what could have been God’s kindness to the Jews. History strongly indicates that science could have been born shortly before the time of Christ in the city of Alexandria. Alexandria was a melting pot of Jewish, Greek, Roman, and Egyptian culture. Science almost emerged in Alexandria—but did not.

One can use cognitive analysis to explore this possibility further. The key principle is that Jews and Christians approach God and religion in a totally different fashion. Jews think of religion in terms of Server thought, as a set of actions that one does. This is reflected in the Jewish word for law, which is halakha, which means going or doing. Similarly, Jews are very conscious of God interacting with the Jewish nation through the Server sequences of Jewish history. God’s covenant with the Jews is a tribal covenant based upon rituals, because people were incapable of thinking in any other manner during the time of Abraham when this covenant was made. Christianity, in contrast, follows faith instead of works, emphasizing ‘law in the heart’ and focusing upon the Perceiver beliefs of the individual person. This personal element was already present to some extent in Judaism, because the Old Testament praises individuals who placed personal faith in God. However, this personal faith still occurred within the context of a tribal mentality. In order to make the transition from tribal religion to personal faith, people have to be capable of existing as individuals, and incarnation has to bridge the gap between the individual person and God through atonement. God started treating people as individuals during the time of the Babylonian exile, and the atonement occurred when Jesus died on the cross.

Objective science is capable of functioning without atonement because it bridges the gap between Teacher words and Server actions within the group setting of academia while upholding the split between objective facts in Perceiver thought and subjective feelings in Mercy thought. Science teaches that the Teacher words of mathematical equations guide the Server actions of ‘how the world works’. Similarly, Judaism teaches that the divinely inspired Teacher words of Jewish Torah should guide the Server actions of Jews, and Jews believe that God in Teacher thought has guided the Server sequences of Jewish history. Thus, there is a natural resonance between Judaism and scientific thought, as illustrated by the number of Jews that get Nobel prizes. In addition, this bridging of God in Teacher thought with human action in Server thought leads naturally to the concept of incarnation being ‘the word made flesh’. One concludes that if Judaism (in combination with Greek philosophy) had discovered science, then Jesus would have come to Earth within a context of common grace that implicitly recognized the concept of incarnation.

Unfortunately, Judaism was modified to minimize the relationship between God in Teacher thought and human actions in Server thought. Instead of recognizing that Server actions should be an expression of the character of God’s name, the name of God was made unspeakable, leading to the mysticism of Kabbalah rather than to rational scientific understanding. Instead of recognizing that Server action should be guided by the Teacher words of God, many additional laws were added by rabbis to act as ‘fences’ around the Torah, changing divine command into a set of societal norms enforced by human approval. And instead of viewing holiness as being sanctified by God, the emphasis became upon avoiding ritual contamination, combined with a ‘holier than thou’ attitude—thou being defined as the godless gentiles and less religious Jews. The end result was to prevent Jewish thought from discovering science, which also caused the Jews to reject the very concept of incarnation as blasphemy against God.

The death of Jesus would still have been necessary in order to internalize and personalize the law of God, as Jesus did in the Sermon on the Mount. And this transition from external and societal to internal and personal still would have been sufficiently radical for Jesus to get killed for preaching it. But at least Jesus’ audience would not have choked upon the idea of Jesus being the word made flesh, Jesus’ listeners would have been capable of using abstract thought, and it is quite possible that the Jewish nation would have accepted the message of Jesus after his resurrection instead of rejecting it and having to be replaced by the Gentile church. Instead, one sees in John 6 an account of Jesus attempting to communicate with an audience that is fixated upon personal approval and literally incapable of abstract thought. Similarly, Jesus was unable to go beyond the physical to the spiritual in his discussion with Nicodemus, one of the intelligentsia of Judaism: “Are you the teacher of Israel and do not understand these things? Truly, truly, I say to you, we speak of what we know and testify of what we have seen, and you do not accept our testimony. If I told you earthly things and you do not believe, how will you believe if I tell you heavenly things?” (John 3:10-12).

Thus, when Jesus entered Jerusalem in the triumphal entry, he knew that the window of opportunity for God’s kindness was now closed, and all that remained was God’s severity: “When He approached Jerusalem, He saw the city and wept over it, saying, ‘If you had known in this day, even you, the things which make for peace! But now they have been hidden from your eyes. For the days will come upon you when your enemies will throw up a barricade against you, and surround you and hem you in on every side, and they will level you to the ground and your children within you, and they will not leave in you one stone upon another, because you did not recognize the time of your visitation’” (Luke 19:41-44).

Summarizing, I suggest that divine sovereignty and election are not abstract doctrines that have nothing to do with the real world, but rather descriptions of how God intervenes in human history and human lives. When one truly grasps the concept of divine sovereignty, then one will stop arguing about divine sovereignty and election, and instead walk humbly and circumspectly under the sovereign hand of God.

Similarly, I suggest that Romans 9 is not an overgeneralization that applies only to the point of salvation, but rather describes a general process that one sees illustrated throughout the course of history, and the examples that Paul chooses are particularly pertinent to the critical juncture of history during which Paul was writing.

Predestination plus Free Choice

Looking at this more generally, I suggest that God is actually pursuing a combination of 2) and 4) in Sproul’s four options. As 4) states, God is intervening in the lives of some individuals and some groups in order to ensure that his plan of personal and societal salvation will succeed. Because God is sovereign, this plan will succeed in saving the world. But because mankind has free will, every chosen individual within God’s sovereign plan will not necessarily be personally saved, and of God’s chosen people do not cooperate, then this plan may be painful. One sees this with the Jews. The Jews were—and remain—a nation chosen by God, because ‘the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable’ (Rom. 11:29). But this does not mean that every individual Jew is saved, or protected from physical harm. Instead, as Paul clearly states, personal salvation always comes from personal faith in God.

However, I suggest that God is also pursuing option 2), which states that God offers the gift of salvation to everyone, who then can use free will to either accept or reject this offer. I am not suggesting in a Pelagian fashion that man is capable of using free will to choose to follow God. It really does appear that man is totally depraved. However, it also appears that God intervenes in everyone’s lives enough to provide at least one window of opportunity in which they are given enough grace to choose to follow God or walk away from God. And I suggest that this same principle also applies to ‘the heathen’ who have not heard about Christianity. Similarly, I have repeatedly found in my personal life that God seems to give just enough grace to make it possible for me to make a choice, but not enough grace to force a decision upon me, which is what Paul says in 1 Corinthians 10:13: “No temptation has overtaken you but such as is common to man; and God is faithful, who will not allow you to be tempted beyond what you are able, but with the temptation will provide the way of escape also, so that you will be able to endure it.” In other words, one is not dealing with an overgeneralization that applies only to the point of salvation, but rather with a general principle that applies to all of life.

If everyone is given at least one window of opportunity to choose reject or God, then this does not mean that there is no need for evangelism. That is because the ultimate goal is not merely for people to become Christians by being regenerated by God at some specific point of time, but rather to become totally transformed by forming a mental concept of a God and then allowing this concept of God to guide the content of personal thought and behavior in an integrated manner, a long-term process in which becoming a Christian is only one step.

Using theological language, the goal is not to make converts but rather to “Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age” (Matt. 28:19-20). Notice that the interaction between God and people in this passage is not limited to specific points but rather occurs ‘always’ and extends ‘to the end of the age’. God may give everyone an opportunity to get in the door of his kingdom by responding positively to the light that they have, but the goal is not to get people in the door but rather to experience the personal benefits of living as transformed people within a transformed society within a transformed world, which is what one finds described in Revelation 21.


If the goal is more than just ‘making converts’, then what is the goal? How much human perfection can be achieved, and what is the definition of perfection?

Berkhof says that regeneration is not “a complete or perfect change of the whole nature of man, or of any part of it, so that it is no more capable of sin, as was taught by the extreme Anabaptists and by some other fanatical sects” (p.518).

When a person follows a God of overgeneralization, then it is impossible to change a person’s fundamental nature, because a concept of God that lacks content cannot change content. Thus, Berkhof’s conclusion is a natural outcome of using overgeneralization to think about God.

Going further, Berkhof insinuates that Anabaptists are fanatics who preach perfectionism. The Mennonite Encyclopedia addresses this point: “Often those Christians and groups of Christians who have honestly and earnestly sought to live a life of high dedication, obedience, and holiness have been not only misunderstood but also frivolously condemned as hypocrites or self-righteous. The attempt to strive toward perfection (‘Be ye therefore perfect, even as your heavenly Father is perfect’) has often been erroneously labeled perfectionism. The Anabaptists and Mennonites have suffered under this charge from the beginning. It is true that they endeavored to maintain a church ‘without spot or wrinkle,’ which is represented in Ephesians 5:27 as the goal which Christ has for the church; but this is far from the claim to have reached perfection, as the noting of the insistence upon church discipline by the group quickly shows. However, there is patently on this point a major difference in emphasis between state-church Protestantism with its toleration of almost all degrees of sin in the church, both of omission and commission, and Anabaptism with its insistence on a high level of personal and group performance in character, life, and service.”

Berkhof adds that “It is very significant that all the leading perfectionist theories... deem it necessary to lower the standard of perfection and do not hold man responsible for a great deal that is undoubtedly demanded by the original moral law. And it is equally significant that they feel the necessity of externalizing the idea of sin, when they claim that only conscious wrong-doing can be so considered” (p.599). This is a significant point, and I suggest that a person’s standard of perfection will depend upon his concept of God.

The average person’s concept of God is based in the mental networks of religious culture and approval. Because people are only aware of what others say and do but cannot read thoughts, this will lead to the conclusion that perfection only involves external conformity to societal norms. This is the type of ‘perfection’ that is being described in the reference to ‘state-church Protestantism’, and those who follow such a standard will regard others with higher moral standards as ‘fanatics’. Looking the other way, those who are guided by a higher moral standard will reject societally sanctioned religion with its ‘toleration of almost all degrees of sin in the church’.

The general tendency is to think of perfection in terms of technical thought. Thus, there is a set of rules that one must follow, and one is perfect if one always follows these rules without exception. When people talk about fallen man being incapable of perfection, what is usually being referred to is this perfection of never breaking the rules. And evidence strongly indicates that the childish mind with its fragmented MMNs is incapable of following any set of rules without exception, let alone a set of morally upright rules, such as the Ten Commandments.

Berkhof’s overgeneralized concept of God leads to a different kind of perfection, which is always living in unison with the divine will. Berkhof thinks that such a standard is automatically achieved when a Christian dies and goes to heaven, but I do not think that this is possible. That is because overgeneralization is threatened by any facts and not just the wrong facts. Therefore, the very existence of finite beings in heaven would threaten a God of overgeneralization.

This can be seen in Berkhof’s description of angels, whose “ordinary service consists first of all in their praising God day and night. Scripture gives the impression that they do this audibly, as at the birth of Christ, though we can form no conception of this speaking and singing of the angels” (p.160). In other words, normal angelic existence is composed of using words within Teacher thought to maintain the overgeneralization of God. But even if words are used to support overgeneralization, the very fact that one is using words is a threat to overgeneralization, causing Berkhof to add that ‘we can form no conception of the speaking and singing’. When angels do behave, Berkhof says that it is a direct expression of the divine will: “The angels are His messengers, always ready to convey His blessings to the saints, and to guard them against surrounding dangers” (p.387).

Saying this another way, the mind naturally uses overgeneralization when factual knowledge is limited. Because very little is known about heaven, it is possible to regard heaven as a realm of overgeneralization. And because knowledge of how the soul functions is also limited, it is possible to conclude that the human soul could function within a heaven of overgeneralization. However, if one ever were to learn about heaven or about disembodied souls, then the resulting knowledge would threaten the attitude of overgeneralization, leading to the sort of revulsion that Berkhof expresses when discussing the millennium: “What a mongrel state of things is this! What an abhorred mixture of things totally inconsistent with each other!” (p.793).

In contrast, I suggest that perfection is not ultimately defined by technical thought or by overgeneralization but rather by core mental networks. Matthew 5:48 says: “Therefore you are to be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” The word that is used for perfect here is ‘telos’, which means mature or complete. This means that perfection should be defined in terms of mental wholeness. Saying this more specifically, do all seven cognitive modules function together in a harmonious manner? This may sound like a simple goal to achieve. It is not. Instead, it requires following the Christian path of personal transformation, and results in a mind that is built around the core mental networks of a Trinitarian concept of God. This kind of perfection still makes mistakes, but all of the parts of the mind are working together in harmony, and there is an irresistible emotional drive to continue heading in the direction of greater wholeness and maturity. Using religious language, such a person is ‘a man after God’s own heart’. I suggest that it is possible to achieve at least the framework of this kind of perfection in this lifetime. Going further, this kind of perfection would allow finite individuals to live as independent beings with free will in heaven without offending God, because it is a perfection of living in harmony with the character of God rather than a perfection of continuously saying non-words in unison with the ‘good pleasure’ of God.

Divine Foreknowledge

If perfection means living in harmony with the nature of God, then this provides a starting point for addressing the question of divine foreknowledge. Here too, the tendency is to make the overgeneralization that ‘God knows everything’ without adding any details to this sweeping statement. However, if one looks at the natural universe, one notices that it has been designed in such a way that one can make definitive statements about groups of atoms while knowledge about specific atoms is inherently limited. For instance, the Wikipedia article on radioactivity says that “Radioactive decay is a stochastic (i.e. random) process at the level of single atoms, in that, according to quantum theory, it is impossible to predict when a particular atom will decay. The chance that a given atom will decay never changes, that is, it does not matter how long the atom has existed. The decay rate for a large collection of atoms, however, can be calculated from their measured decay constants or half-lives.”

I mentioned that the wave function equation can be used to mathematically describe the probability that an atomic particle is in a certain place or moving in a certain manner. When an atomic particle is observed, then this wave function collapses and the particle will be observed in a specific location or moving in a specific manner. This is illustrated by the classic analogy of Schrödinger’s cat. Before the box is opened, the cat could be either dead or alive. When the box is opened, then the cat is revealed to be either dead or alive. (I know that physicists argue over how to interpret quantum mechanics. But this arguing is itself an illustration of the general principle, which is that quantum mechanics is certain within the divine realm of Teacher words and general equations while being ambiguous within the human realm of Mercy interpretations and experiences.)

Similarly, I suggest that God chooses which individuals he will place within his sovereign plan by testing these individuals to reveal their state. Using cognitive language, God tests individuals by placing them within trying circumstances in order to reveal their core mental networks. Because this testing is based upon core mental networks and not upon conscious choice, God can often test individuals before birth, because God will know how a person will respond based upon mental networks of culture, parenting, and cognitive style.

The idea of divine testing has a profound implication for personal meaning. Sproul says in the final video that every person wants to be a part of a significant cause, and that it is a privilege to practice evangelism and be the means through which others become Christians. This is an important point, but I suggest that one needs to distinguish between actual meaning and a sense of meaning. Logically speaking, if God has already chosen in eternity exactly who will go to heaven and who will go to hell, then sharing the Christian message of salvation with someone is merely a charade, because one is only acting out a script that has already been written.

But it will not feel that way. Instead, it will feel deeply meaningful, because one is having a personal glimpse of the mystical encounter with God that occurs during regeneration. Buber describes the sense of meaning that comes from being personally involved in an encounter with God: “First, there is the whole fullness of real mutual action, of the being raised and bound up in relation: the man can give no account at all of how the binding in relation is brought about, nor does it in any way lighten his life – it makes life heavier, but heavy with meaning. Secondly, there is the inexpressible confirmation of meaning. Meaning is assured. Nothing can no longer be meaningless. The question about the meaning of life is no longer there. But were it there, it would not have to be answered. You do not know how to exhibit and define the meaning of life, you have no formula or picture for it and yet it has more certitude for you than the perception of your senses” (I and Thou, p.110). In other words, a mystical encounter provides a sense of mutual action as well as a sense of deep meaning. This sense of meaning is more certain than any facts from the real world, but it has no content and cannot be put into words.

In contrast, when one realizes that decisions determine direction and that God tests individuals before using them, then personal life truly acquires meaning, because it really makes a difference how I decide to respond to a situation. And it is not just the big decisions that count, because it is the little decisions that are made beforehand when no one is looking and when there is no crisis that will determine how a person is driven to respond when there is a crisis and when people are looking. And when I am being tested by God, this test has meaning, because this test is revealing the state of my core nature, and how I respond within this test may determine how God treats me in the future. In other words, God is not playing a computer game in which one does fake work to make fake money in a fake world, in which one can undo a bad decision or exit the game, and life is also not just a book in which all the details have already been written by the divine hand, and each day consists merely of turning the page and enacting the contents that were inscribed in eternity with indelible ink. Instead, God plays for keeps. This is scary, but it is also full of meaning—real meaning and not just the feeling of meaning.

Saying this another way, Jesus is a Savior who takes us through problems and not a reverser of time who undoes decisions, or a tyrant who makes all the decisions. Berkhof recognizes that this is how real life functions: “There are punishments which are the natural results of sin, and which men cannot escape, because they are the natural and necessary consequences of sin. Man is not saved from them by repentance and forgiveness. In some cases they may be mitigated and even checked by the means which God has placed at our disposal, but in other cases they remain and serve as a constant reminder of past transgressions. The slothful man comes to poverty, the drunkard brings ruin upon himself and his family, the fornicator contracts a loathsome and incurable disease, and the criminal is burdened with shame and even when leaving the prison walls finds it extremely hard to make a new start in life” (p.280).

Covenant and Testing

This testing process can be seen in the reformed concept of covenant. Berkhof says that covenant is both ‘a purely legal relationship’ and ‘a communion of life’. The following is a fairly lengthy quote because I also want to convey the flavor of what Berkhof is saying: “Dr. Vos uses terms that are more specific, when he distinguishes between the covenant as a purely legal relationship and the covenant as a communion of life. There is clearly a legal and a moral side to the covenant. The covenant may be regarded as an agreement between two parties, with mutual conditions and stipulations, and therefore as something in the legal sphere. The covenant in that sense may exist even when nothing is done to realize its purpose, namely the condition to which it points and for which it calls as the real ideal. The parties that live under this agreement are in the covenant, since they are subject to the mutual stipulations agreed upon. In the legal sphere everything is considered and regulated in a purely objective way... It would seem to be in the light of this distinction that the question should be answered, Who are in the covenant of grace? If the question is asked with the legal relationship, and that only, in mind, and really amounts to the query, Who are in duty bound to live in the covenant, and of whom may it be expected that they will do this? —the answer is, believers and their children. But if the question is asked with a view to the covenant as a communion of life, and assumes the quite different form, In whom does this legal relationship issue in a living communion with Christ? — the answer can only be, only in the regenerate, who are endowed with the principle of faith, that is, in the elect” (p.315).

Notice that Berkhof takes almost the entire paragraph to describe the legal side of covenant, and only the last sentence addresses the communion of life. One can explain cognitively why this is the case. Mysticism cannot handle content, to the extent that even speaking about mysticism adds content that threatens the existence of mysticism. And one can tell that Berkhof connects the ‘communion side’ of covenant with mysticism because he says that it applies to the ‘regenerate’ and we saw previously that Berkhof says that regeneration is based in a ‘mystical union with Christ’.

In addition, we have seen that Berkhof’s interpretation of covenant is heavily colored by overgeneralization, because he insists that there is only a single covenant and that this one covenant should not be subdivided into different dispensations. In contrast, if one views covenant as a general theory, then one will look for examples of covenant throughout history. Obviously, the covenant between God and man instituted by Jesus is the most general covenant. However, I suggest that covenant is also a general principle that one can see at work in various situations and at various times throughout history, such as God’s covenant with Abraham or even his covenant with the Rechabites.

With this in mind, let us examine Berkhof’s definition of covenant. Berkhof says that covenant contains the following elements, which he illustrates by looking at the situation of Adam: “(a) An element of representation. God ordained that in this covenant Adam should not stand for himself only, but as the representative of all his descendants. Consequently, he was the head of the race not only in a parental, but also in a federal sense. (b) An element of probation. While apart from this covenant Adam and his descendants would have been in a continual state of trial, with a constant danger of sinning, the covenant guaranteed that persistent perseverance for a fixed period of time would be rewarded with the establishment of man in a permanent state of holiness and bliss. (c) An element of reward or punishment. According to the terms of the covenant Adam would obtain a rightful claim to eternal life, if he fulfilled the conditions of the covenant. And not only he, but all his descendants as well would have shared in this blessing” (p.266).

This relates directly to the concept of divine testing, mentioned earlier in the context of Schrödinger’s cat and ‘collapsing the wave function’. Looking at the big picture, God is leading human society from childish innocence to full maturity by following a plan that can be analyzed using principles of cognitive development. At each stage of this plan God chooses to work through certain individuals, who will carry the plan forward in some minor—or occasionally major—way. In order to use a person, that person has to be predictable. God determines the predictability of a person by testing that individual, in order to determine the core mental networks of that person. In other words, God ‘collapses the wave function’ by ‘observing’ the individual. When a person (or group) is chosen, then that calling is irrevocable, and God will manipulate circumstances to make sure that this person’s (or group’s) core mental networks remain intact—even if this damages a person personally. Saying this another way, God is looking for people who are obsessed, and this can be either a good or a bad obsession. This need for an obsession can be seen in the mentality of the Jewish people, because the typical Jew interprets everything in the light of Jewish identity and chosenness.

When a person is chosen to fulfill some step in the divine plan, then the divine plan becomes extended on the basis of that person’s response. Thus, there is a representative aspect to covenant. One can see these various aspects in biblical stories of individuals such as Abraham, Job, Saul, or David. Abraham was tested, passed most of the tests, and was the founder of the nation of Israel. Job was tested, passed the test, and led to a new form of interaction between God and Satan. King Saul was also tested, but he failed most of his tests, and his kingdom was given to the house of David. David was tested and found to be a man after God’s own heart, but he also failed a critical test and paid dearly for this failure.

Summarizing, Berkhof says that covenant is both ‘a purely legal relationship’ and ‘a communion of life’, but this expresses itself as explicitly legal language that is implicitly warped by an overgeneralization which has turned into the ‘mental life’ of a TMN. In contrast, I am attempting to use rational thought to describe how covenant would be guided by ‘legal relationships’ based upon tested mental networks. Saying this another way, Berkhof thinks that he is using rational thought, but he is actually being manipulated by his core mental networks. In contrast, I suggest that God uses rational thought to manipulate core mental networks, and that we can only cooperate with God intelligently to the extent that we are also capable of using rational thought to work with mental networks.

Going further, it appears that the divine plan is not just a single railroad track that leads from start to finish. Instead, there usually appears to be a plan A, a plan B, and a plan C. Plan C occurs when individuals fail their tests, and God is forced to guide people by their implicit core mental networks. Plan B occurs when individuals pass their tests, which allows God to explicitly cooperate with these individuals instead of treating them merely as pawns within the plan of divine sovereignty. Plan A only happens when an individual goes beyond what God requires. All three plans are guaranteed to succeed, but plan A is the least painful for mankind, while plan C is the most painful, as illustrated by the trauma that the Jewish nation went through because they chose a Messiah whose kingdom was of this world rather than a Messiah whose kingdom was not of this world.

I know that the idea of God following a plan A or a plan B may sound strange to some readers. Therefore, we will look briefly at some scriptural examples. These examples share the following traits:

  • God’s plan is being thwarted by rebellious humans.

  • God responds with emotion but not with uncertainty or confusion.

  • God proposes an alternative plan.

  • God’s alternative plan involves cooperation with a new group of humans.

  • When God’s plan changes, then people suffer.

Genesis 6:5-10: “Then the Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great on the earth, and that every intent of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually. The Lord was sorry that He had made man on the earth, and He was grieved in His heart. The Lord said, ‘I will blot out man whom I have created from the face of the land, from man to animals to creeping things and to birds of the sky; for I am sorry that I have made them.’ But Noah found favor in the eyes of the Lord.” This story describes God’s decision to send the flood of Noah. Humanity is rebelling from God so completely that God is sorry that he made humanity. God responds by deciding to wipe out existing human life and to start again with the family of Noah.

Exodus 32:7-10: “Then the Lord spoke to Moses, ‘Go down at once, for your people, whom you brought up from the land of Egypt, have corrupted themselves. They have quickly turned aside from the way which I commanded them. They have made for themselves a molten calf, and have worshiped it and have sacrificed to it and said, “This is your god, O Israel, who brought you up from the land of Egypt!”’ The Lord said to Moses, ‘I have seen this people, and behold, they are an obstinate people. Now then let Me alone, that My anger may burn against them and that I may destroy them; and I will make of you a great nation.’” God has just delivered the Jewish people out of slavery in Egypt. While Moses is on Mount Sinai receiving the law from God, the Jewish people are worshiping an idol and saying that this idol delivered them from Egypt. God is so angry that he tells Moses that he will destroy the Jews and start again with Moses. However, Moses convinces God to keep the Jews alive. But God’s anger is still so strong that he tells Moses in the next chapter that he will help the Jews indirectly through an angel: “I will send an angel before you and I will drive out the Canaanite, the Amorite, the Hittite, the Perizzite, the Hivite and the Jebusite. Go up to a land flowing with milk and honey; for I will not go up in your midst, because you are an obstinate people, and I might destroy you on the way” (Ex. 33:2-3).

Deuteronomy 31:16-19: “The Lord said to Moses, ‘Behold, you are about to lie down with your fathers; and this people will arise and play the harlot with the strange gods of the land, into the midst of which they are going, and will forsake Me and break My covenant which I have made with them. Then My anger will be kindled against them in that day, and I will forsake them and hide My face from them, and they will be consumed, and many evils and troubles will come upon them; so that they will say in that day, “Is it not because our God is not among us that these evils have come upon us?” But I will surely hide My face in that day because of all the evil which they will do, for they will turn to other gods. Now therefore, write this song for yourselves, and teach it to the sons of Israel; put it on their lips, so that this song may be a witness for Me against the sons of Israel.’” Moses is about to die, and God warns him that the Jews are a rebellious people. God adds that he will feel anger when the Jews rebel and that he will respond by turning away from his chosen people. In response, God tells Moses to teach the Jews a song that they will remember when they rebel. In this case, God’s alternative plan is not a new group of physical people but rather the Mercy mental network of a cultural icon—a song.

Isaiah 65:1-5,11-12: “I permitted Myself to be sought by those who did not ask for Me; I permitted Myself to be found by those who did not seek Me. I said, ‘Here am I, here am I,’ To a nation which did not call on My name. I have spread out My hands all day long to a rebellious people, who walk in the way which is not good, following their own thoughts, a people who continually provoke Me to My face, offering sacrifices in gardens and burning incense on bricks; who sit among graves and spend the night in secret places; Who eat swine’s flesh, and the broth of unclean meat is in their pots. Who say, ‘Keep to yourself, do not come near me, for I am holier than you!’ These are smoke in My nostrils, a fire that burns all the day… But you who forsake the Lord, who forget My holy mountain, who set a table for Fortune, and who fill cups with mixed wine for Destiny, I will destine you for the sword, and all of you will bow down to the slaughter. Because I called, but you did not answer; I spoke, but you did not hear. And you did evil in My sight And chose that in which I did not delight.” God describes the Jews as a rebellious people who do not answer when God calls. This troubles God at the emotional level of mental networks (in humans, smell is connected directly to the orbitofrontal region, which is where the emotional core of mental networks reside). What bothers God is that the Jews are being guided by childish MMNs rather than by a mental concept of God: They worship idols, appeal to mystery, and regard themselves as more holy than others. In response, God is choosing to work through another group of people.

Luke 13:31-35: “Just at that time some Pharisees approached, saying to Him, ‘Go away, leave here, for Herod wants to kill You.’ And He said to them, ‘Go and tell that fox, “Behold, I cast out demons and perform cures today and tomorrow, and the third day I reach My goal.” Nevertheless I must journey on today and tomorrow and the next day; for it cannot be that a prophet would perish outside of Jerusalem. O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those sent to her! How often I wanted to gather your children together, just as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you would not have it! Behold, your house is left to you desolate; and I say to you, you will not see Me until the time comes when you say, ‘Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord!’” Jesus is being threatened by King Herod. Jesus does not respond with confusion but rather states that he has a plan to carry out. Jesus is sad because Jerusalem continually rejects the help that is offered by God. Therefore, God is about to start working through the Gentiles rather than through the Jews.

If all the details of God’s plan were worked out in ‘the eternal counsel of God’, then one is forced to conclude that God is a rotten planner or, even worse, that God enjoys drama at the expense of human suffering. Instead, what is being portrayed here is a God of feelings who is interacting in a meaningful, cooperative manner with humanity. None of these passages convey the impression that God’s sovereignty is being threatened. God always knows exactly what he will do. But one does see that human rebellion is forcing God to follow more painful alternatives, and we also see that God is willing to choose another group of ‘elect individuals’ when his existing group of chosen people rejects him.

I suggested earlier that God guides humanity by manipulating core mental networks. These passages tell us that God is not just manipulating human mental networks of culture and identity from a distance. Instead, God himself is being guided by core mental networks, which implies that mental networks reflect the nature of God at a fundamental level. This is consistent with the statements made earlier that 1) God is Spirit; 2) The spiritual realm interacts with the human realm by inhabiting and empowering mental networks.


This leads to a form of dispensationalism that is different both from the version that Berkhof proposes in Systematic Theology and the version that he attacks. Stated simply, I suggest that God does not change, and neither does God’s general plan of salvation. As Berkhof says, “The covenant of grace, as it is revealed in the New Testament, is essentially the same as that which governed the relation of Old Testament believers to God. It is entirely unwarranted to represent the two as forming an essential contrast, as is done by present day dispensationalism” (p. 331). However, human individuals and human society have gone through major transformations in their ability to comprehend and follow God’s plan of salvation. For instance, God had to start with Israel by interacting with them at a tribal level guided by religious rituals, because that is all that humans of that era were capable of comprehending and following. However, Ezekiel 18, written during the time of the Babylonian exile, devotes an entire chapter to saying that God will now stop dealing with people at the group level and deal instead with the individual. Jeremiah 31 repeats this statement and explicitly connects it with the institution of a new covenant between God and man.

Similarly, we currently live in a civilization that follows rational technical thought in the objective, while being guided primarily by overgeneralization in the subjective. Berkhof’s systematic theology epitomizes this mental split. God currently deals with us at this level because that is all we are capable of handling. Going further, it appears that Revelation 10 – 22 describes the process by which God takes society beyond this split towards an integrated, rational concept of God. I have posted both an essay and a video describing this hypothesis.

The version of dispensationalism that Berkhof attacks says that “‘Each of the dispensations may be regarded as a new test of the natural man, and each ends in judgment, — marking his failure.’ Every dispensation has a character of its own, and is so distinct that it cannot be commingled with any of the others” (p.320). On the one hand, I suggest that each dispensation does have a character of its own, not because God changes, but rather because each civilization has a character of its own. The thinking of Roman times, for instance, is utterly foreign to the thinking of modern Western society, because Roman society was driven by a completely different set of core mental networks than the core mental networks that drive Western society today. But on the other hand, the fundamental principles of personal salvation remain the same, which is why we can learn spiritual lessons from the tribal stories in the Old Testament as well as the Roman thinking of the New Testament.

A dispensation never fails. Each stage in God’s plan is guaranteed to succeed. But if God is forced to follow a plan C and deal implicitly with assumed core mental networks and implicit concepts of God, then it may look as if God’s plan has failed, and history indicates that God usually has to follow a plan C. However, if one compares the core mental networks of succeeding dispensations, then one observes that each civilization is a step up from the previous civilization, which means that God’s plan is working—God is sovereign. This is discussed in more detail in an earlier essay. Notice that this is not divine sovereignty as a verbal overgeneralization that cannot survive contact with facts, but rather divine sovereignty as a generalization of the facts of history.

The testing of Adam appears to be a special case, because God responded to Adam’s failure by making physical changes to the world as well as changing Adam in some manner. If one understand how the body interacts with the mind, and if one interprets Genesis 2 using the same cognitively natural symbolism that appears to be used in the book of Revelation (as well as throughout the Bible), then one comes up with a possible explanation for precisely what happened to Adam as a result of original sin.

As far as I can tell, there is nothing inherently corrupt with the structure of the human mind. Instead, if all seven parts of the mind work together in harmony, then the concept of God that emerges is that of a Christian Trinity, and if one examines the path by which one reaches mental wholeness, then one derives all major Christian doctrines. This is explained in the book Natural Cognitive Theology. The flaw of original sin appears to lie in the way that the body programs the mind. In essence, I suggest that one is dealing with another variation of the dilemma of divine intervention. If God designed the physical body so that it did not impose any content upon the mind, then humanity would remain passive children, never learning anything. Therefore, God has given us vulnerable bodies that impose emotional experiences upon Mercy thought, leading inevitably to minds that are governed by childish Mercy mental networks, as described earlier. Because the childish mind is governed by Mercy mental networks imposed by the body from the environment, the childish mind is driven to seek physical objects and experiences in an idolatrous manner. Saying this another way, God has designed the human body to guarantee that the human mind will function, but this also guarantees that the human mind will function in an inadequate manner. Therefore, personal salvation requires transformation, which can only be achieved by God intervening externally in history as well as guiding a person internally through a concept of God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit that is empowered by a real God, Jesus, and Holy Spirit.

This does not mean that the body itself is evil. Instead, evil lies in using the body in a manner that fragments the mind or destroys the body. For instance, this is why it is important for sex to remain within marriage. The body is physically capable of generating sexual pleasure outside of marriage. But sex with multiple partners will naturally fragment the mind, while sex with a single partner will help to integrate the mind.

Symbolism suggests that Adam and Eve were originally created in a manner that general theories from the environment imposed Teacher mental networks upon their minds. Saying this more simply, the present physical body imposes mental networks upon Mercy thought, while the postulated physical body of Adam and Eve imposed mental networks upon Teacher thought. Such a mind would naturally be able to interact directly with God, it would acquire the TMN of a concept of God directly from God, and it would be guided by this mental concept to think and behave in a godly manner. However, such a mind would also be vulnerable to the sin of grasping after Teacher mental networks in a childish manner, which is precisely how the serpent tempted Eve: “God knows that in the day you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil” (Gen. 3:5). The fall of Adam and Eve has affected all succeeding generations because every human now has a body that imposes childish Mercy mental networks upon the mind. This ensures that the mind develops, but it also ensures that the mind will inevitably develop in a manner that is hostile to the character of God.

Continuing with the symbology, Genesis 2 says that four rivers flowed from the garden of Eden. This implies that the garden of Eden could have led to one of four possible outcomes, or in other words, a plan A through plan D, each corresponding to one of the four rivers. The fourth river mentioned is the Euphrates, and this is the river that is prominent in the book of Revelation, together with the city of Nineveh, which was built astride the river Euphrates. In other words, thanks to the serpent, Adam and Eve left the garden following plan D, the worst of the four alternatives. I suggest that it was inevitable that Adam and Eve would eventually leave the garden, because one cannot remain within a childish state of innocence. However, I suggest that it was not inevitable that the exit from Eden took the symbolic path of the River Euphrates.

Infant Baptism

This concept of original sin also provides a possible answer to the question of dying infants. Do infants go to heaven when they die? As Berkhof states, the Catholic church says that one must be baptized in order to go to heaven. Therefore, the Catholic Church teaches that unbaptized infants end up in limbo, on the edge of hell. Looking at this question from the viewpoint of mental symmetry, if original sin comes from the influence that the body has upon the mind, then it is accurate to say that a person is ‘born in sin’. But if an infant dies shortly after birth, then the body has not yet had a chance to impose sinful mental networks upon the mind. Therefore, such an infant is morally neutral and would not automatically go to hell.

Berkhof devotes 13 pages to the topic of infant baptism, defending this reformed practice at length against the accusations of Baptists and others: “It is on the point of infant baptism that the most important difference is found between us and the Baptists. The latter hold, as Dr. Hovey, a Baptist author, expresses it, ‘that only believers in Christ are entitled to baptism, and that only those who give credible evidence of faith in Him should be baptized’” (p.701). Like Baptists, I also have problems with Berkhof’s statement that “Baptism is intended only for properly qualified rational beings, namely, for believers and their children” (p.700).

There is no biblical basis for infant baptism. Instead, Berkhof observes that “It may be said at the outset that there is no explicit command in the Bible to baptize children, and that there is not a single instance in which we are plainly told that children were baptized” (p.701). However, instead of arguing the point, I would like to suggest two reasons why Berkhof teaches infant baptism.

The first reason has to do with the concept of ‘means of grace’, discussed earlier. When God is viewed through overgeneralization, then content must be added to a concept of God through external means, leading to the concept of physical means of grace. Baptism is one of the means of grace. Thus, the physical act of infant baptism will be viewed as being connected in some mystical manner with grace from God. In Berkhof’s words, “It is possible to proceed on the assumption (not the certain knowledge) that the children offered for baptism are regenerated and are therefore in possession of the semen fidei (the seed of faith); and to hold that God through baptism in some mystical way, which we do not understand, strengthens this seed of faith in the child. (2) Attention may also be called to the fact that the operation of baptism as a means of grace is not necessarily limited to the moment of its administration any more than that of the Lord’s Supper is limited to the time of its celebration. It may in that very moment serve in some mysterious way to increase the grace of God in the heart, if present, but may also be instrumental in augmenting faith later on, when the significance of baptism is clearly understood. This is clearly taught in both the Belgic and the Westminster Confession” (p.711). Notice how the physical act of baptism is connected in some mystical and mysterious manner with the moment of regeneration. If this connection exists, then it makes sense to baptize humans in infancy, so that they can grow up in a state of grace from God.

The second reason comes from Berkhof’s overgeneralized view of covenant: “‘Since, then, baptism has come in the place of circumcision, the children should be baptized as heirs of the Kingdom of God and of His covenant.’ It will be observed that all these statements are based on the commandment of God to circumcize the children of the covenant, for in the last analysis that commandment is the ground of infant baptism. On the basis of our confessional standards it may be said that infants of believing parents are baptized on the ground that they are children of the covenant, and are as such heirs of the all-comprehensive covenant-promises of God” (p.707). In other words, baptism is the New Testament version of circumcision in the Old Testament. Circumcision was applied to Jewish babies. Therefore, baptism should be applied to the babies of Christians.

Berkhof says this explicitly: “In the new dispensation baptism is by divine authority substituted for circumcision as the initiatory sign and seal of the covenant of grace... But if children received the sign and seal of the covenant in the old dispensation, the presumption is that they surely have a right to receive it in the new, to which the pious of the Old Testament were taught to look forward as a much fuller and richer dispensation” (p.702).

But we have seen that overgeneralization drives Berkhof to interpret covenant as a single covenant with no subdivisions. Because baptism and communion are essential elements of covenant, Berkhof must equate baptism with circumcision and communion with Passover in order to maintain the oneness of this overgeneralization. As Berkhof says, “During the old dispensation there were two sacraments, namely, circumcision and passover... The Church of the New Testament also has two sacraments, namely, baptism and the Lord’s Supper. In harmony with the new dispensation as a whole, they are unbloody sacraments. However, they symbolize the same spiritual blessings that were symbolized by circumcision and passover in the old dispensation” (p.687).

There may be a relationship between these two pairs of sacraments, but they cannot be identical, because we saw previously that Jews and Christians approach God and religion in a totally different fashion. Jews think of religion in terms of Server thought, as a set of actions that one does, while Christianity emphasizes faith instead of works, focusing upon the Perceiver beliefs of the individual person.

Thus, when one equates circumcision with baptism, then one ends up confusing ethnic identity with personal transformation. Berkhof describes this confusion: “Calvin and Reformed theology proceeded on the assumption that baptism is instituted for believers, and does not work but strengthens the new life. They were naturally confronted with the question as to how infants could be regarded as believers, and how they could be strengthened spiritually, seeing that they could not yet exercise faith. Some simply pointed out that infants born of believing parents are children of the covenant... Others went beyond this position and maintained that the children of the covenant were to be regarded as presumptively regenerated” (p.695). Going further, if salvation is ultimately by divine election, then being saved really means being born into the group of ‘the elect’.

Reformed theology also has a tendency to confuse faith with works, because Berkhof regards human faith as another aspect of human effort, thus equating faith with works. In Berkhof’s words, reformed theologians “felt constrained to stress this aspect of the covenant especially over against the Arminians and Neonomians, who virtually changed it into a new covenant of works, and made salvation once more dependent on the work of man, that is, on faith and evangelical obedience. For this reason they stressed the close connection between the covenant of redemption and the covenant of grace, and even hesitated to speak of faith as the condition of the covenant of grace” (p.303).

This describes what reformed theology officially teaches. In practice, the typical reformed believer acts as if one becomes a Christian by believing the salvation message, but the underlying confusion is still present.


Berkhof discusses justification at length, and he defines it as a verbal declaration by God that a sinner is forgiven: “Justification is a judicial act of God, in which He declares, on the basis of the righteousness of Jesus Christ, that all the claims of the law are satisfied with respect to the sinner. It is unique in the application of the work of redemption in that it is a judicial act of God, a declaration respecting the sinner, and not an act or process of renewal, such as regeneration, conversion, and sanctification. While it has respect to the sinner, it does not change his inner life. It does not affect his condition, but his state, and in that respect differs from all the other principal parts of the order of salvation. It involves the forgiveness of sins, and restoration to divine favor” (p.570).

Justification is different than sanctification, and Berkhof compares these two in detail: “Justification removes the guilt of sin and restores the sinner to all the filial rights involved in his state as a child of God, including an eternal inheritance. Sanctification removes the pollution of sin and renews the sinner ever-increasingly in conformity with the image of God. 2. Justification takes place outside of the sinner in the tribunal of God, and does not change his inner life, though the sentence is brought home to him subjectively. Sanctification, on the other hand, takes place in the inner life of man and gradually affects his whole being. 3. Justification takes place once for all. It is not repeated, neither is it a process; it is complete at once and for all time. There is no more or less in justification; man is either fully justified, or he is not justified at all. In distinction from it sanctification is a continuous process, which is never completed in this life. 4. While the meritorious cause of both lies in the merits of Christ, there is a difference in the efficient cause. Speaking economically, God the Father declares the sinner righteous, and God the Holy Spirit sanctifies him” (p.571).

What Berkhof says is largely consistent with what theory of mental symmetry states, but I suggest that Berkhof’s formulation is based upon his combination of overgeneralization and technical thought. In other words, I suggest that he is saying the right thing for inadequate reasons.

Legal language is an example of technical thought, and Berkhof says that “Justification is a judicial act of God, in which He declares...” In contrast, Berkhof says that sanctification “is a supernatural work of God. Some have the mistaken notion that sanctification consists merely in the drawing out of the new life, implanted in the soul by regeneration, in a persuasive way by presenting motives to the will. But this is not true. It consists fundamentally and primarily in a divine operation in the soul, whereby the holy disposition born in regeneration is strengthened and its holy exercises are increased. It is essentially a work of God, though in so far as He employs means, man can and is expected to co-operate by the proper use of these means... It should never be represented as a merely natural process in the spiritual development of man” (p.592).

While sanctification is not equated with physical means of grace, it is still strongly related to the means of grace. Reformed theologians “did not regard the grace of sanctification as a supernatural essence infused in man through the sacraments, but as a supernatural and gracious work of the Holy Spirit, primarily through the Word and secondarily through the sacraments, by which He delivers us more and more from the power of sin and enables us to do good works” (p.589).

Thus, we see the familiar juxtaposition of a technical description that is limited to words, and a subjective regeneration that must not be described rationally—or even morally—which acquires content indirectly through external objects and experiences.

And, as usual, the rational component is transcended by something that happens in eternity: “In that eternal covenant the sin of His people was imputed to Christ, and His righteousness was imputed to them. This imputation of the righteousness of Christ to His people in the counsel of redemption is sometimes represented as a justification from eternity” (p.496).

We saw earlier that physics has discovered how divine sovereignty interacts with free will in the physical universe. Similarly, I suggest that the relationship between mathematics and physics can throw light on the interaction between justification and sanctification. One of the basic questions of physics involves what is known as the arrow of time paradox. Quoting from the linked article, “The laws of physics, which describe everything from electricity to moving objects to energy conservation, are time-invariant. That is, the laws still hold if time is reversed. However, this time reversal symmetry is in direct contrast with everyday phenomena, where it’s obvious that time moves forward and not backward. For example, when milk is spilt, it can’t flow back up into the glass, and when pots are broken, their pieces can’t shatter back together.” In other words, time is always present when dealing with events in the real world, while time is never present in the mathematical equations that are used to analyze events in the real world. Using cognitive language, personal experiences within Mercy thought all exist within time, while the abstract theory within Teacher thought that describes these personal experiences is independent of time. These two are mentally bridged by a concept of incarnation.

Restating this in religious language, sanctification is the process of becoming mentally whole, viewed from the human perspective of experiences and time, while justification is the same process of becoming mentally whole, viewed from the divine perspective of general theory, which is independent of time. These two views are held together by incarnation, who is the intermediary between God and man.

School provides an illustration of this interaction. When one becomes a Christian, one is enrolled in God’s school of character. From the experiential view of the student, school consists of a sequence of courses that one attends day after day, each with its series of assignments and tests. This portrays the human viewpoint of sanctification. For the administrator, school consists of a set of courses that are combined to form a program of education, and each course is viewed as a single entity outside of time. When a student enrolls in school, then the student becomes justified by instantly acquiring the legal status of student. However, the student still has to become sanctified by attending the classes and passing the exams. These two viewpoints are only possible because school is composed of a structured curriculum of courses, which acts as an ‘incarnation’ of abstract knowledge.

Of course, such an analogy violates the assumptions of reformed theology in several ways. First, one is illustrating how special grace works by learning from common grace. Second, one is connecting God and man in a rational manner that involves content, rather than connecting them mystically through points of contact. Third, one is stating that man cooperates with God.

But how is man cooperating with God? I suggest that school illustrates the difference between salvation by faith and salvation by works. Salvation by works is like ignoring school and getting a job without going to school. In contrast, salvation by faith abandons the Server actions of works and enters the Perceiver realm of facts and truth, guided by a Teacher understanding that is revealed ‘from above’ to the student. Thus, one finds basic elements of Protestant Christianity illustrated by the analogy of school, but one does not find the overgeneralization of reformed theology.

Going further, how does a reformed theologian become a reformed theologian? By enrolling in school for years in order to study theology. And a person will only be regarded as a legitimate reformed theologian if he has enrolled in school for many years. When I tried to attend a seminar on the cognitive science of religion at Calvin college, I was automatically rejected because I had not enrolled in school for enough years. Thus, the analogy of education may violate the words of reformed theology in numerous ways, but it literally describes the life story of almost every reformed theologian. Again we see people teaching that reformed theology is true while acting as if it is not true.

Notice that justification is more than just a judicial statement. Instead, it is the entrance into a new world. Using cognitive language, it is not just some logical conclusion reached by abstract technical thought. Instead, it is being transferred from the domain of one Teacher mental network to the domain of another—from the kingdom of darkness to the kingdom of light.


We have seen that most of Berkhof’s systematic theology can be explained as a combination of mysticism and fundamentalism.

Fundamentalism believes that the content of a holy book is true because this book was written by a person who is far more important than personal identity. Saying this more simply, it believes that a book is true because of who wrote the book. This is accompanied naturally by the three components of the religious attitude: Self-denial says that I am nothing compared to the source of truth; fervor says that the source of truth is everything; while transcendence asserts that I could never hope to comprehend the source of truth.

Mysticism combines overgeneralization with identification. Overgeneralization makes universal statements about God and/or the cosmos by ignoring facts. Overgeneralization occurs naturally when factual knowledge is limited, but it can also be achieved by suppressing facts through mystery or paradox. Mysticism turns this overgeneralization into a transcendental experience by identifying with the overgeneralization.

Mysticism and fundamentalism are not unique to reformed theology. Instead, fundamentalism naturally emerges whenever a religion is based in a holy book, while mysticism occurs naturally whenever humans to attempt to interact with the divine.

What is unique to reformed theology is the specific manner in which these two have been combined. The religious attitude is based in Mercy mental networks, because people and personal identity are represented as mental networks within Mercy thought, while overgeneralization is a characteristic of Teacher thought. Reformed theology takes the religious attitude and turns it into an overgeneralization: God does everything and I can do nothing. This overgeneralization becomes the paradigm into which the content of the Bible is placed. The end result is that the religious attitude becomes transformed into a Teacher theory that is backed up by a Teacher mental network; religious attitude is no longer a personal feeling that one experiences but rather a theological dogma that one teaches.

This has the positive outcome of emotionally driving reformed theologians to approach the content of the Bible from the Teacher perspective of general understanding, leading to the development of systematic theology. But the picture frame does not match the picture within the frame; the overgeneralized theory of TULIP does not fit the content of the Bible.

This leaves the reformed theologian with several choices. One option is to verbally proclaim the picture frame while following the content of the picture in practice. Thus, Berkhof, and most reformed Christians, teach that TULIP is true while acting—and telling people to act—as if it is false. Saying this another way, Teacher thought is used to analyze and enjoy the picture frame of TULIP, while Mercy thought is used to appreciate and follow the picture of biblical content. The problem arises when one uses Mercy thought to look at the picture frame, because what one then sees is not a beautiful TULIP but rather a grotesque God.

Another option is to throw away the picture of biblical content and replace it with a secular picture of common grace, which is the option followed by scholars such as Dooyeweerd. Dooyeweerd expands the reformed concept of common grace into the subdivisions of fifteen aspects, while replacing an overgeneralized view of the Christian God and a mystical interpretation of ‘asking Jesus in your heart’ with an explicitly Buddhist version of God approached through pure eastern mysticism.

Thomas Kuhn says that a scientist cannot exist without a paradigm and can only let go of an inadequate paradigm if given a better paradigm. Similarly, the typical reformed thinker defends the paradigm of TULIP with great emotional and intellectual vigor. The typical response is to make rational arguments and quote Bible verses, but I suggest that this misses the point. Like the scientist, the reformed thinker cannot let go of TULIP unless presented with a better theoretical explanation of Christianity. And a paradigm of Christianity is precisely what Protestant Christianity does not have.

However, my hypothesis is that it is possible to place evangelical Christianity within the integrated package of a general theory of cognition, as described in Natural Cognitive Theology. Thus, the goal of this essay is not to attack reformed theology but rather to present mental symmetry as an alternative to TULIP. I suggest that mental symmetry is a better option because 1) it is more consistent with biblical content than TULIP; 2) it lacks the internal and personal contradictions of TULIP; 3) it contains theories with content and not just a series of overgeneralizations that minimize content; 4) it is consistent with psychology as well as with the latest neurological findings; 5) it leads to the concept of a God who is truly good, and not just the concept of a God who is called good but is actually a monster.

I have suggested that free will gains its maximum potential when the mind is faced with incompatible core mental networks. Looking at this negatively, reformed theology is based upon a fundamental incompatibility, because the contentlessness of overgeneralization is being combined with the content of the Bible. This inherent contradiction has now become explicit, because no reformed believer actually acts as if TULIP is true, and even Berkhof says that Christians should ignore TULIP in practice and follow the content of the Bible. This deep contradiction could be viewed as hypocrisy, but it could also be interpreted as the enabling of free will, because the reformed believer is being given a window of opportunity during which free will can be used to let go of TULIP.

Looking at this positively, reformed theology emphasizes a number of key concepts that are largely ignored by the rest of Protestant Christianity, including covenant, sovereignty, justification, and integrated understanding. Placing these concepts within the framework of mental symmetry presents the reformed believer with an alternative to TULIP. This too enables free will, because the choice is no longer between a paradigm and no paradigm but rather between one paradigm and another paradigm.