Regeneration and The Flyswatter, Part Three: A.H. Strong and Berkhof

In this installment, we’ll be looking at a particular application of the criticism of the Calvinist Flyswatter to find out exactly how badly their misunderstanding of theological terms, which they claim to accurately represent within confessional Calvinism, extends.

Recently critics have tried to set up a competition between Louis Berkhof and A.H. Strong with respect to the axiom “regeneration precedes faith.” In this article, we will look at Drs. Strong and Berkhof. Are they really in vast disagreement?

Note at the outset that these critics have been consistently told that the order between regeneration and conversion (repentance and faith is logical and causal, not temporal).

Note this well.

When I say “regeneration precedes faith,” I am simply stating that their relationship causal and logical, if it is temporal it implies nothing of the interval, and I would affirm it in the limiting case of John the Baptist, but, by the same token I’m not completely convinced of the classic text for that. The ordinary means (that for adults and children of competency in understanding) always is via the accompaniment of the Word of God and the calling to mind of other circumstances. I agree with Boyce on this, except in his third and possibly his second limiting case. (

I have consistently told these individuals that this is a logical, causal, not a temporal relationship (Hence their need to run off to talk about infant regeneration, but, even then, they drop all of the caveats that our Presbyterian friends offer), and one of my critics has wanted to talk about infant regeneration, viz. Berkhof and stated, to paraphrase, not give him any double talk about it being logical and causal and not temporal, so, by Charles’ own admission, I have stated this.

These critics, further, explicitly say that Strong did not affirm that regeneration precedes faith. They write:

Here is what Strong taught — and whether one agrees with him or not, he clearly is against the “born again before faith” idea:

II. REGENERATION. Regeneration is that act of God by which the governing disposition of the soul is made holy, and by which, through the truth as a means, the first holy exercise of this disposition is secured.

Regeneration, or the new birth, is the divine side of that change of heart or which we call conversion if viewed from the human side. It is God’s turning the soul to himself, conversion being the soul’s turning itself to God; God’s turning it is both the accompaniment and cause. It will be observed from the above definition, that there are two aspects of regeneration, in the first of which the soul is passive, in the second of which the soul is active. God changes the governing disposition, in this change the soul is simply acted upon. God secures the initial exercise of this disposition in view of the truth, in this change the soul itself acts. Yet these two parts of God’s operation are SIMULTANEOUS. At the same moment that he makes the soul sensitive, he pours in the light of his truth and induces the exercise of the holy disposition he has imparted.

By this statement within itself Strong refutes the “born again before faith” idea. The power that regenerates is God’s power, and SIMULTANEOUSLY the sinner turns to God, accomplished “through truth as a means,” according to Strong. “Simultaneous” means “at the same moment,” so there is no “time” for “born again before faith.”

The problem here is that nobody denies this, and this statement is ripped from its context. What did A.H. Strong actually state about the order? Contrary to the claims of these critics, Strong certainly and explicitly affirmed that regeneration precedes faith. How do we know this? The solution is really quite simple.

Under this head of Union with Christ, Regeneration, Conversion (embracing Repentance and Faith), and Justification. Much confusion and error have arisen from conceiving of these in chronological order. The order is logical, not chronological. “As it is only ‘in Christ’ that man is a ‘new creature’ or is ‘justified,’ union with Christ logically precedes both regeneration and justification; and yet chronologically, the moment of our union with Christ is also the moment when we are regenerated and justified. So too, regeneration and conversion are but the divine and human sides or aspects of the same fact, although regeneration has logical precedence, and man turns only as God turns him. (Systematic Theology, hereafter ST, 793)

So, from the beginning, we can see that these critics, who claim that Strong did not believe that regeneration precedes faith have either purposefully ignored what he has written or simply don’t know how to read. I’d further add that they have called this “nonsense.” Here is what they have stated:

Don’t give me that nonsense about “The relationship is logical and causal, but not temporal.”

How ironic that they have stated that this is “nonsense” and that A.H. Strong did not affirm the axiom “regeneration” precedes faith, all the while invoking him as representative of their own views, and, as we can see, A.H. Strong not only affirmed that regeneration precedes faith, but he also said that the order is logical and not chronological…but this just “nonsense,” right?

Now compare this with R.C. Sproul:

When speaking of the order of salvation (ordo salutis), Reformed theology always and everywhere insists that regeneration precedes faith. Regeneration precedes faith because it is a necessary condition for faith. Indeed it the sine qua non of faith. It is important to understand, however, that the order of salvation refers to a logical order, not necessarily a temporal order. For example, when we say that justification is by faith, we do not mean that faith occurs first, and then we are justified at some late time. We believe that at the very moment faith is present, justification occurs. There is no time lapse between faith and justification. They occur simultaneously. Why then do we say that faith precedes justification? Faith precedes justification in a logical sense, not a temporal sense. Justification is logically dependent on faith, not faith on justification. We do not have faith because we are justified; we are justified because we have faith.

Similarly when Reformed theology says regeneration precedes faith, it is speaking in terms of logical priority, not temporal priority. We cannot exercise saving faith until we have been regenerated, so we say faith is dependent on regeneration, not regeneration on faith. (R.C. Sproul, Grace Unknown: The Heart of Reformed Theology,, 2000 edition, 195).

How could anybody ever affirm that Strong denied that regeneration precedes faith? The only way, as we shall see, is to do as these critics have done and define the statement “regeneration precedes faith” as automatically disaffirming the use of means/instrumentality and the immediacy of conversion concomitant with regeneration. In so doing, they overlook the obvious, not to mention the very words on the printed page!

Would these critics care to explain how Sproul is teaching something not held by Dr. Strong on this point? Yes, we know all about infant regeneration in Sproul’s theology, but that is not the same as regeneration in non-infants. In fact, Dr. Strong actually discusses regeneration in infants who die in infancy, which I would add is almost exactly my own position on infant regeneration!

He states that they are all in a state of sin, need to be regenerated, and can be saved only through Christ (ST, 661). They receive Christ if they die in infancy as certainly as they inherit sin from Adam (Ibid., 662) and then he states:

Since there is no evidence that children dying in infancy are regenerated prior to death, either with or without the use of external means, it seems most probable that the work of regeneration may be performed by the Spirit in connection with the infant soul’s first view of Christ in the other world. As the remains of natural depravity in the Christian are eradicated, not by death, through the sight of Christ and union with him, so the first moment of consciousness for the infant may be coincident with a view of Christ the Savior which accomplishes the entire sanctification of its nature.

On top of this, he even states, in a footnote that “Some persons are regenerated in infancy or childhood, cannot remember a time when they did not love Christ, and yet take long to learn they are regenerate. Others are convicted and converted suddenly in mature years.” (827). One supposes that our critics are either illiterate or are, yet again, misrepresenting facts. Note that I have already stated that these theologians, like Boyce for example, say the same thing, because of the same reason. Mrs. Ruth Graham is one such individual. I also cited this in the past. So, far from disagreeing with Strong myself, it appears that Strong and I agree wholeheartedly! So far, then, I have affirmed nothing about regeneration that Strong did not also affirm on the matters thus far discussed. I have already affirmed the use of instrumentality in another article, and I have affirmed that the relationship between regeneration and conversion is logical and causal, not temporal, and I have affirmed the immediacy of repentance and faith, so it seems that the critics have not found an advocate against my beliefs.

As I’ve already discussed Strong does not deny means, and neither does Berkhof, but I will revisit it here in brief. There are a few points where our interlocutors seem confused about Strong and Berkhof. Namely, both speak of regeneration in two senses. Berkhof states that at one level is “a hyperphyscial act directly upon the mind and the will itself, wrought only by the Holy Spirit.” This, he calls the most narrow usage of the term. On another it is a conscious event that includes the instrumentality of the Word of God. In fact, in his order, he places external call prior to regeneration and effectual call after regeneration. Moreover, he makes conversion the immediate result of the conjunction of those three, except in infants. He states the effectual call is “a calling by the Word, savingly applies by the operation of the Holy Spirit…effectual unto salvation, and is never withdrawn.(400)

On speaking about the actual efficient cause of regeneration, both Berkhof and Strong use exactly the same headers. Berkhof (473) the human will, the truth, the Holy Spirit. He discusses the first two as erroneous and the third as the biblical and confessional one. Strong discusses the same two erroneous views on pages 817 – 818 of ST! The first regards motives as “mechanically constraining the will..indistinguishable from necessitarianism.” and then only the truth as loved (citing Finney here, just like Berkhof!), and then he ascribes regeneration to the immediate agency of the Holy Spirit!

Compare Berkhof and Strong here to see if there is any real difference:

In ascribing to the Holy Spirit, the authorship of regeneration, we do not affirm that the divine Spirit accomplishes his work without any accompanying instrumentality. We simply assert that the power which regenerates is the power of God, and that although conjoined with the use of means, there is a direct operation of this power upon the sinner’s heart which changes its moral character. Then in a footnote, which these critics have ignored, he goes further: In the primary change of disposition, which is the most essential feature of regeneration, the Spirit of God acts directly upon the spirit of man. In the securing of the initial exercise of this new disposition-which constitutes the secondary feature of the God’s work of regeneration-the truth is used as a means. On page 822, he says that regeneration, only so far as it secures an activity of man, is accomplished by the instrumentality of the truth.

Now, here is Berkhof: (a) 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 cooperation. (b) The creative work of God produces new life; (c) two elements can be distinguished, “namely generation or the begetting of the new life and bearing or bringing forth.” Berkof calls the first element the narrow sense of the term’s meaning and the broader sense (465). He calls the most limited sense the term as used to denotes only the implanting of the new life in the soul, apart from first manifestations of life.(467)

Definition of regeneration: Berkhof uses a twofold definition, just I have been stating all along!

In the strictest sense of the word we may say: Regeneration is that act of God by which the principle of the new life is implanted in man, and the governing disposition of the soul is made holy. But in order to include the idea of new birth as well as that of ‘begetting again’ it will be necessary to complement the definition with the following words, “and the very first holy exercise of this new disposition is secured.”

Strong says virtually the same thing here:

Quoting from Hovey, he agrees, stating,

Regeneration may be taken in a limited sense as including only the first impartation of spiritual life…or it may be taken in a wider sense as comprehending the whole of that process by which he is renewed or made over again in the whole man after the image of God, i.e. including the production of saving faith and union to Christ. Only in the first sense did the Reformers maintain that the man in the process was wholly passive and not active; for they did not dispute that, before the process in the second and more enlarged sense was completed, man was spiritually alive and active, and continued so ever after during the whole process of sanctification.(823)

Berkhof continues. Regeneration in the strictest sense of the word, as the begetting again, takes place in the subconscious life of man, and is independent of any attitude he may assume with reference to it. The effectual call is inseparable from the instrumentality of the Word (471). This is the completion of the work of regeneration in the broader sense of the word, and the point at which it turns into conversion. Moreover, as we have seen the external call, in Berkhof’s view is place prior to regeneration and regeneration is logically prior to the effectual call. It is, thus, difficult to see how he is denying instrumentality.

Is this temporal or merely logical? He writes,

“Now we should not make the mistake of regarding this logical order as a temporal order that will apply in all cases.”

The new life is implanted in children (which he defines as covenant children only) long before they are able to hear the gospel; yet there are endowed with this life only when the gospel is preached. When Berkhof speaks of these, he is not stating that they live into adulthood unconverted. He is, rather, stating that they are converted when they come to the years of discretion. He writes: In the case of those who live under the administration of the gospel, the possibility exists that they receive the seed of regeneration long before they come to years of discretion and therefore also long before the effectual calling penetrates into their consciousness. It is very unlikely, however, that, being regenerated, they will live in sin for years, even after they have come to maturity, and give no evidences at all of the new life that is in them. On the other hand, in the case of those who do not live under the administration of the covenant, there is no reason to assume an interval between the time of their regeneration and that of their effectual calling. In the effectual call, they at once become conscious of their renewal, and immediately find the seed of regeneration germinating into the new life. This means that regeneration, effective calling, and conversion all coincide.

Now, I’d point out that if there are no “covenant children” then everything that our interlocutors have stated about infant regeneration in Berkhof collapses. Berkhof only applies his doctrine of infant regeneration to those in the covenant. Yet, as a Baptist, I deny covenant children. Ergo, these interlocutors cannot accuse me or any of the Founders of this error. In fact, from the standpoint of practical theology, Berkhof’s only error is in his doctrine of covenant children. If he’s wrong on that, then the rest of what he says, being orthodox anyway, can be applied to children.

He says on 468 that it is an instantaneous change of a man’s nature, affecting at once the who man, intellectually, emotionally, and morally. It is in its most limited sense that a change 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 or may not take place with 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. This explains the fact that a Christian may, on the one hand, struggle for a long time with doubts and uncertainties, and can yet, on the other hand, gradually overcome these and rise to the heights of assurance. Berkhof also states that, when discussing regeneration in the broader sense, the mind of man is active, because the effectual call is the external made effective. Strong too maintains these same distinctions.

Compare this with Strong:

It is an instantaneous change, in a region of the soul below consciousness, and is therefore known only in its results. Regeneration is not a gradual work. Although there may be a gradual work of God’s providence and Spirit, preparing the change…there must be an actual instant of time when, under the influence of God’s Spirit, the disposition of the soul, just before hostile to God, is changed to love. Any other view assumes an intermediate state of indecision which has no moral character at all, and confounds regeneration either with conviction or with sanctification.

I would add that in his footnote on this point, he quotes WGT Shedd (another target of the critics) in support!

Strong states that at the time of regeneration the soul is both passive and active. At this subconscious level, he is passive; man is wholly passive with respect to the change of his ruling disposition (822). With respect to its exercise (conversion) he is active. Thus, once again, we find that Berkhof and Strong agree.

Berkhof states that the only adequate view is that of the Church of all ages, that the Holy Spirit is the efficient cause of regeneration. This means that 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 monergisitically. God alone works, and the sinner has no part in it whatsoever. This, of course, does not mean, that man does not co-operate in the later stages of the work of redemption. It is quite evident from Scripture that he does. As we have already seen, Strong also says the same thing!

He then embarks on a discussion of means. He notes the real question is whether God implants or generates new life through the word of Scripture or preaching as an instrument of means. Strong simply says: The Scriptural view is that regeneration, so far as it secures an activity of man, is accomplished through the instrumentality of the truth. The two inferences about man being passive in one way and active in another thus flow from this (822).

Berkhof goes into more detail, because he is trying to navigate a particular controversy between those who would state that it is immediate only, without any instrumentality, and it is by instrumentality only, thereby failing to discriminate between the narrow and broad sense of the word itself and inferring sacramental regeneration thereby. He looks at considerations to the negative, citing the creative act itself and that regeneration is in the realm of the unconscious. Here, again, Strong agrees, “This change takes place in the region of the soul below consciousness. It is by no means true that God’s work in regeneration is always recognized by the subject of it.” (ST, 828).

Then Berkhof states, “The Bible distinguishes the influence of the Holy Spirit from that of the Word of God, and declares that such an influence is necessary for the proper reception of the truth. He cites John 6, Acts 16, James 1:18, the Parable of the Sower, and other Scriptures here.

Finally, he discusses the confessional standards, and notes that there are passages which seem to affirm regeneration in a broad sense others a narrow sense. In the Conclusions of Utrecht, we read:

As far as the third point, that of immediate regeneration, is concerned, Synod declares that this expression can be used in a good sense, insofar as our churches have always confessed, over and against the Lutheran and the Roman Catholic Church, that regeneration is not effected through the Word and sacraments as such, but by the almighty regenerating work of the Holy Spirit; that this regenerating work of the Holy Spirit, however may not in that sense of the word be divorced from the preaching of the Word, as if both operated separated from the other; for although our Confession teaches that we need not be in doubt respecting the salvation of our children which die in infancy, though they have not heard the preaching of the gospel (see Strong above too, as he mentions this!), and our confessional standards nowhere express themselves as to the manner in which regeneration is effected in the case of these and other children—yet it is, on the other hand, certain that the gospel is the power of God unto salvation for every one who believes, and that in the case of adults the regenerating work of the Holy Spirit accompanies the preaching of the gospel.

Further, compare this to R.C. Sproul:

God’s call is made effectual by the Word and the Spirit. It is important to see that the Word and the Spirit are here conjoined as two vital factors of regeneration. The Holy Spirit is not working apart from the Word or against the Word, but with the Word. Nor is the Word working alone without the presence and power of the Spirit.

The call referred to in effectual calling is not the outward call of the gospel that can be heard by anyone within range of the preaching. The call referred to here is the inward call, the call that penetrates to and pierces the heart, quickening it to spiritual life. Hearing the gospel enlightens the mind, yet it does not awaken the soul until the Holy Spirit illuminates it and regenerates it. This move from ear to soul is made by the Holy Spirit. This move is what accompanies God’s purpose of applying the benefits of Christ’ work to the elect. (Grace Unknown: The Heart of Reformed Theology, p.190 -91, 2000 edition).

When, then, does a man convert after regeneration according to Berkhof? We already know Strong states it follows immediately from regeneration, and is so close in time to be considered simultaneous. The only ones for whom he says that conversion is not immediate are infants, and in that respect, that only applies to the infants of covenant families, not all infants, and their regeneration will, on this view, manifest itself by the age of discretion, not adulthood, so, even on Berkhof’s Dutch Reformed view, he is closer to the Princetonians here than he is to Kuyper.

In discussing the order of regeneration and effectual calling, he says the order is:

(1)Logically, the external call in the preaching of the Word (except in the case of children—defined by him as covenant children and, here, he stands in the Dutch Reformed, not the Princetonian tradition, so we cannot hold Sproul, Frame,, nor James White and Founders to his view on that particular issue, since they derive their views from the Princtonians not the Kuyperians on this).

(2)Then by a creative word God generates the new life, changing the inner disposition of the soul, illuminating the mind, rousing the feelings, and renewing the will….This is regeneration in the most restricted sense of the word. In it, man is wholly passive.

(3)Having received the spiritual ear, the call of God in the gospel is now heard by the sinner, and is brought home effectively to the heart.

(4) This effectual calling finally secures, through the truth as a means, the first holy exercises of the new disposition born in the soul new life begins to manifest itself: the implanted life issues in the new birth.(471)

In discussing conversion, Berkhof sees it in two senses as well. If we take the word “conversion” in its most specific sense, it denotes a momentary change and not a process like sanctification. (485). Yet Berkhof sees it as a process at times, and he specifically says here that he talking about the psychological manifestation of the conversion event, which is always a moment, and not a process. He notes that older theology has always distinguished between conversion that is sudden and that which is gradual. The former occurs very commonly, particularly in times of great religious declension, and the latter occurs in times and environments where there is little such declension. Conversion encompasses both repentance and faith and is always a conscious act. When he speaks of it as a process, he is not stating people are unconsciously converted, nor is he stating that they are repeatedly converted. Rather, he is stating that they pass from death to life by regeneration through external and effectual calling and repent and believe but they simply do not experience a crisis moment, rather they naturally turn to the truth, as if it is a natural, organic, matter of factly appropriate response to what they have heard in the gospel call. They may not be able to point to a crisis event, but when asked, they will say that they know without a doubt that they are clinging to Christ, have forsaken their sin, and belong to him. I have a good friend who is an officer in his Baptist church who fits this description. This person naturally forsakes his sin and clings to Christ alone, but without the crisis so many in times of declension may experience. It does not mean he does not struggle with sin, for that will continue as long as we live. Conversion is the immediate effect of the effectual call.

These critics have called me a “novice,” yet it is now grossly apparent that they have mishandled their sources in order to make that accusations. I have patiently waited for them to correct themselves to no avail. They have misread Louis Berkhof and A.H. Strong. Their assertions regarding the differences between these two theologians stands refuted. As we have seen, they agree on nearly every point, sometimes repeating the same words. All one has to do is open up their theology texts and actually compare what they say to each other and then compare this to the inconsequential silliness being produced at the Calvinist Flyswatter.

Just one more note. A.H. Strong is believed by many to have laid the ground for universalism among Northern Baptists. It is truly amazing how certain critics invoking Strong, however, erroneously, will draw on Strong as if he is superior to Berkhof, because of allegedly erroneous views Berkhof held about infant regeneration and subsequent, but not regeneration and conversion in non-infants. If it is illicit to agree with Berkhof because of his alleged errors with respect to infants and by extension paedobaptism, then why it is licit for these critics to draw on Strong whose universalistic language constitutes heresy far more worthy of damnation?

Explore posts in the same categories: Doctrinal Issues, Other Anti-Calvinism, Soteriology

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