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Learning from a Fair-Minded and Skillful Theologian

Christian apologists need to be people of reason and virtue. They must exhibit both qualities in order to persuade people of the truth of Christianity. Thus, one of my goals as a Christian scholar and teacher is to introduce believers and nonbelievers to Christian thinkers who are highly skilled in their academic disciplines and people of strong intellectual character.

On my Facebook and Twitter pages, I often provide quotes from important theological and philosophical thinkers past and present. A theologian I quote often is Anthony Hoekema (pronounced “who-kema”). His book Saved by Grace presents the biblical and theological case for salvation being an exclusive gift of God. This is a modern classic in the field of soteriology (the study of salvation) and is written from a distinctly Reformed theological perspective.

Hoekema showed charity and virtue in his intellectual life that I think we can learn from. What follows is a brief biography of him along with a personal story about his reputation for intellectual honesty. I then list four provocative quotes from him on theology that I’ve used in my social media posts followed by brief comments on these theological nuggets of wisdom.

Anthony A. Hoekema (1913–1988) was born in the Netherlands and immigrated to America as a young boy. He was educated at Calvin and Princeton Theological Seminaries and served as a Reformed pastor, theologian, and apologist. He was professor of systematic theology at Calvin Theological Seminary for 21 years.

Exemplifying the Golden Rule of Apologetics
Hoekema’s son, Dr. David Hoekema, shared the following impressive story with me about his father.

“A Seventh-day Adventist (SDA) pastor or instructor—very likely from Andrews University in Berrien Springs, Michigan, an hour south of Grand Rapids where my parents lived—said to my father: ‘Professor Hoekema, I thought you should know that my colleagues and I assign our students to read your exposition of Adventist theology in your book The Four Major Cults. It is clearer and more comprehensive than anything we can assign from our own SDA writers.'”1

Always communicating other people’s beliefs—especially when one disagrees with them—accurately and fairly is a critical feature of the golden rule of apologetics. Even an Adventist scholar recognized that Hoekema was committed to getting other people’s beliefs right. Such integrity makes a reader want to hear what Hoekema has to say. Here are four insightful quotes of his that I find compelling. 

1. On How the Image of God Anticipates the Incarnation

“It was only because man had been created in the image of God that the Second Person of the Trinity could assume human nature.”2

Hoekema was the first theologian I ever read who said that God created human beings in the divine image because God always planned to take a human nature. Thus the imago Dei (image of God) both anticipates and facilitates the incarnation. It would be difficult to conceive that God would appear as an animal, for example. But man as the divine image-bearer has all the qualities needed for God’s purposes.

2. On the Image of God

“To touch the image of God is to touch God himself; to kill the image of God is to do violence to God himself.”3

To be made in the image of God genuinely reflects the divine—so much so that to murder an image-bearer is to attack and do violence against God himself. This is why the Old Testament says that murderers are required to forfeit their lives (Genesis 9:6), because they have done violence against God. Thus, the most distinctive feature of the biblical understanding of human beings is the teaching that man has been created in the image of God.

3. On God’s Sovereignty and Human Responsibility

“The Scriptures teach that God saves us not as puppets but as persons, and that we must therefore be active in our salvation. The Bible, in a way which is deeply mysterious, combines God’s sovereignty with our responsibility in the process of our salvation. But we can only love him because he first loved us. To him therefore must be all the praise.”4

Hoekema sets forth the view of reconciling God’s sovereignty and human responsibility that is known in theology as compatibilism. Mysteriously, both are true, and they appear in Scripture sometimes in the very same verse (see Acts 2:23). Yet God’s gracious and sovereign love is always the ultimate causal factor and humans should appropriately respond with gratitude and praise.

4. On the Meaning of Agape

“The Greek word agape used here implies that self-giving love is meant: a love which does not ask, What is there in it for me? But which seeks to give itself unselfishly to others.”5

We see the contrast in lust and love by considering questions each asks. Lust asks: What can you do for me? Love asks: What can I do for you? Agape (God’s sacrificial, self-giving love) is perfectly evidenced in Jesus Christ’s atoning death on the cross. In salvation, the triune God of love truly loves his less-than-lovable fallen creatures.

Two things impress me about Hoekema’s theological writings: (1) his keen thinking as a biblical exegete and a systematic theologian, and (2) his care in getting other people’s views correct. His diligence has provided all of us with plenty of doctrinal reflection to consider. In a world where ideological exchanges often degenerate into personal attacks, I hope Hoekema’s example motivates all of us to pursue a gracious approach to apologetics.

Reflections: Your Turn

Are there Christian theologians that you’ve learned from? Who are they? Visit Reflections on WordPress to comment.

Resources

For my introduction to Anthony Hoekema’s book Saved by Grace, 6th ed. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994), see “Take Up and Read: Saved by Grace.”

Endnotes

1. Dr. David Hoekema shared this story with me via email.

2. Anthony A. Hoekema, Created in God’s Image (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1986), 22.

3. Hoekema, Created in God’s Image, 16.

4. Anthony Hoekema, Saved by Grace (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1989), xi.

5. Hoekema, Saved by Grace, 45.