The Tulip Driven Life Podcast

Saturday, June 21, 2014

Part 12 of Herman Bavinck's Reformed Dogmatics

Here it is. The final part. Now is the beginning of the end. 

Before I begin this section proper, I would just like to quote Bavinck in a bit of context regarding his view of the Holy Spirit being the organ by which we receive external revelation (Scripture): 

The Holy Spirit is the great and powerful witness to Christ, objectively in Scripture, subjectively in the very hearts of human beings. By that Spirit we receive a fitting organ for the reception of external revelation. God can be known only by God; the light can be seen only in his light. No one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him [Matt. 11:27], and no one can say “Jesus is Lord” except by the Holy Spirit [1 Cor. 12:3] 
Bavinck, H., Bolt, J., & Vriend, J. (2003). Reformed dogmatics: Prolegomena (Vol. 1, p. 506). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic.

I think for Bavinck the reason he ultimately appeals to a subjective source for the validity of Scripture despite decrying others who do so is that for him the Holy Spirit is a very special subjective source, and in a sense it is not subjective but rather the being of God acting from within us. But the problem is that the Holy Spirit doesn't become another organ, a "sixth sense" from within us. When I was converted, I didn't suddenly feel like I had another sense, or organ, or whatever you want to call it. I still don't know when or how the Holy Spirit works from within me, except to say that it seems clear to me that He works through the means of my own God given faculties. This is also why I believe Bavinck will go so far as to say this about the gospel an the Holy Spirit: 
The Christian worldview alone is one that fits the reality of the world and of life. And finally, if it seriously and scrupulously performs its task, it will very definitely succeed in impressing opponents with the truth of Christian revelation, refuting and silencing them. It cannot truly convert people to God. Not even the preaching of the gospel is able to do that; only God, by his Spirit, can accomplish that. But subject to this working of God and as a means in his hand, apologetics, like the ministry of the Word, can be a source of consummate blessing. For this fact the early centuries of Christianity offer abundant evidence.
I italicized that sentence so that you wouldn't miss it. I think this is the fundamental problem in Bavinck's thinking. He so isolates the Holy Spirit as the ground for faith in God and all His revelation that he will even say that the preaching of the gospel cannot save sinners. Only God, BY THE SPIRIT, saves sinners. The impression again is that the Holy Spirit doesn't work with and through the gospel, but apart from it. The gospel is just noise, the occasion I suppose, in which the Spirit decides to convince sinners that God's Word is true and that they need to be saved. But how can the Spirit do this without the preaching of the gospel. What about when Paul says in Rom. 1:16 that the gospel is the power of God unto salvation for those who believe? Perhaps by convert Bavinck merely means willing to believe, but again, does not the gospel and the Spirit together make one willing to believe? The Spirit takes the message and, working with the message of the gospel, persuades a sinner that they need to trust in Christ as Lord and Savior. It's not an either-or, it's a both-and. The gospel without the Spirit will not convert, but guess what? The Spirit without the gospel will not convert either.  
Apologetics as it has often been practiced was mistaken, however, in that (1) it detached itself from the Christian faith and thus put itself outside of, above, and before theology; (2) it so separated believing from knowing that religious truth came to rest in part (in natural theology, in exegetical and historical theology, etc.) or in toto, on purely intellectual proofs; and (3) that, as a result, it began to foster exaggerated expectations from its scientific labor as though by the intellect it could change the human heart and by reasoning engender piety.
This would be falling off the other side of the horse. We become pelagian if we think that through shouting loudly the gospel and pouring on the guilt  we can somehow emote people into the kingdom of God. The will is enslaved to sin. The Spirit sets the captives free. But the Spirit does so with the gospel, through the cross of Christ. To deny this is to become a hyper-Calvinist of sorts, to say that one does not need to preach the gospel because people can believe without the gospel. All that is needed is the Spirit, the gospel is not necessary. I don't imagine Bavinck actually believes this, I hope not at least, but I think this is an area of serious inconsistency in his thought. The intellectual proofs, and the gospel itself which is an intellectual proof of sorts (since it describes what Christ did in order to save sinners from sin and from God's goodness) produce saving faith in a heart that is not enslaved to sin. The Spirit loosens the heart's enslavement to sin, but again, by means of the gospel and indeed with intellectual proofs and evidences of all sorts. The gospel saves anyone who has spiritual life. Therefore it is the power of God unto salvation. 

Bavinck, H., Bolt, J., & Vriend, J. (2003). Reformed dogmatics: Prolegomena (Vol. 1, p. 515). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic.

At any rate, now we can begin this final section proper: 

Faith and its Ground

    In the previous chapter we considered the possibility that the human will or intellect of the “natural” person could be the means by which divine revelation is appropriated. Though we rejected this possibility, nonetheless it is true that Christian theology as an area of scientific inquiry must begin with the human subject. It is here that one finds the internal principle corresponding to divine revelation. Christian theology has always taken its position in the believing subject, in faith, in the believing community. The slogan that guides and controls Christian theology is per fidem ad intellectum (“through faith to understanding”).
So again now we see Bavinck admitting that we have to begin with subjectivism.  
    Scripture itself directs us to this, to the inner illumination of the Holy Spirit. The truth of God can be known only in faith. Though terms such as “rebirth,” “purity of heart,” “the Spirit of God,” among others, are used in Scripture for the internal principle, the means by which revelation is appropriated, the preferred term is “faith.” Since all knowledge is mediated through human consciousness, revelation too is known as an act of human consciousness, namely faith. Both objectively and subjectively revelation connects with nature, re-creation with creation. In all areas of life we start by believing. The universality of faith points to the importance of immediate, intuitive grasp of truth; our sure knowledge of reality is not limited to that which we obtain through our senses. It is immediate certainty rather than demonstrable certainty that makes life in community, in society, possible.
I doubt many today would say they have immediate certainty of much of anything. In the postmodern culture this will not make much sense. We can use it as an apologetic, saying that we trust our senses naturally, initially, but some may even question that we do that.  
    Nonetheless, general immediate certainty is not identical to religious faith. Saving faith has as its object, not simply God’s words and deeds as such, but the grace of God in Jesus Christ. Faith is also a matter of knowledge and truth, but above all it is trust and surrender to God. Knowledge of saving faith comes to us through the testimony of others (e.g., the apostles). The road to the human heart taken by the Spirit of God runs through the human head and human consciousness. This knowledge of saving faith is bound to Scripture, to the apostolic witness.
It is good to see that Bavinck recognizes that the Spirit of God works through the head and consciousness of man. That just makes what he said earlier about the gospel not converting and the spirit alone doing so all the more confusing. What is the Spirit putting into our head and consciousness? Is it simply a whispered voice that the gospel is actually truth, or is it the removal of a sinful, moral resistance to the truth of Scripture and the gospel so that we will now freely trust in Christ as Lord and Savior. I would say the latter. The gospel and God's Word is truth, and is very reasonable to believe that it is. Unbelievers will suppress this clear truth in unrighteousness and convince themselves it is not true, not because it isn't plain for us to see, but rather because they do not desire to believe it since it calls for them to submit themselves to God. The Spirit releases that antipathy to submission and with that bias out of the way, man can then see, and desire, the goodness of the gospel. The gospel is irresistible to the one who has spiritual life, who is not spiritually dead.   
    When faith is understood primarily as intellectual assent, as it is in Roman Catholicism, it becomes objectified as “historical faith.” Understandably, this faith was considered insufficient for salvation and had to be augmented. Still, in this way the Reformation’s sola fide was denied in favor of the meritoriousness of intellectual assent as preparation for the infused grace of justification. While this idea of faith as intellectual assent played only a preparatory role in Roman Catholic thinking, in Reformation thought faith was an act of the newly regenerated person who had been made new by the special grace of the Holy Spirit. Faith was religious through and through and had its own kind of certainty.
    Faith’s certainty rests on the testimony and promises of God himself and has the power victoriously “to overcome the world” (1 John 5:4). It is here, in the matter of certainty, that we see the real difference between Rome and the Reformation. The moral certainty that Kant argued for as the foundation of practical reason divorces practical and theoretical reason and thus cannot sustain the truth of Christian revelation. Whereas, on Kant’s terms, believing is a weaker form of knowing, in the Christian religion believing is certainty itself. The certainty of faith is as firm as that of knowledge, though it is more intense, unshakable, and ineradicable. Scientific theories do not produce martyrs; religion does.

I don't really understand what Bavinck means when he says belief itself is certainty for the Christian. I believe with certainty that God is, and that God has saved me from my sins. But I believe that due to certain reasons. The fact that I believe it is not what makes me certain that it is so, and if that is what Bavinck is arguing I don't know anyone who would naturally think that way. Islam also produces martyrs, but they do not have true saving faith wrought by the Holy Spirit. Others have died for the good of humanity at the hands of evil oppressors.  
    For this reason intellectual and historical proof cannot provide the final ground of faith. While revelation may be made credible by proofs, it is and remains a truth of faith, a gift of grace. Only the Spirit of God can make a person inwardly certain of the truth of divine revelation. God’s revelation can be believed only in a religious sense, on God’s own authority. The ground for faith is the internal testimony of the Holy Spirit. This position, however, seems circular: We believe Scripture is God’s revelation because the Bible tells us so. Such circularity can be broken only by the inner conviction that God has spoken. This witness of God is the final ground of faith; our will to believe is, by God’s grace, the final cause of our faith.
Oh, such madness. To say that the circular reasoning is broken because we are convicted very strongly in our hearts that God has spoken is just silliness. How do you know, sir, that God has really spoken in your heart? "Well, because the Bible tells me he has." See, no circle has been broken whatsoever. In the end Bavinck leaves us with nothing but subjectivism, no means by which we can be sure of our faith, other than to appeal to some sort of mystical feeling of assurance that God has given us. It just "feels" right is not a very strong apologetic, but this is what Bavinck teaches, and he is supposedly the most influential figure on the apologetics of Cornelius Van Til. 

    While the church as the community of believers is the context within which the Spirit’s testimony is confirmed, Scripture’s authority is not granted by the church’s decision. The opposite is true: Scripture founded the church. Through the gracious work of the Holy Spirit, Scripture is self-authenticating. Under pressure from the rationalism of the Socinians, Remonstrants, and Roman Catholics, even some Reformed theologians such as Amyrald weakened this inner testimony by identifying it with the illumination of the intellect.
Couldn't the illumination of the intellect be true, at least in some sense? I believe Bavinck also says that Turretin along with Amyrald and others taught this. Scripture is authoritative because it is God's Word, but we have to come to know and see that it is God's Word before we can submit to it. God, by removing our enslaved love for sin, removes the resistance to receive the gospel and God's Word as from Him. But again, this is done through means, through natural revelation, through the credibility of those who wrote Scripture, through what Scripture itself teaches in all its majesty, scope, harmony, and style. The very profundity of Scripture is a means by which the Spirit works to bring us to a place of trusting in Scripture.  
    In modern theology of the nineteenth century, the rationalism of Kant and Lessing and the romanticism of Schleiermacher contributed to a return of the conviction that the truth of faith is different and cannot be validated finally by proofs of reason. Though modern theologians are still far from Calvin’s doctrine of the testimony of the Holy Spirit, the turn away from external proofs to the religious subject as the final ground of faith is a salutary development.
Again, why the either-or? Why the dichotomy between proofs of reason and the religious subject? Also, Bavinck earlier mentioned that Calvin himself offered up proofs for the trustworthiness of Scripture, so if Calvin did view things as Bavinck claims he did, Calvin was inconsistent with himself, as Bavinck himself has admitted.   
    At the same time the uniqueness of faith’s ground and thus of theology as a science must not lead us to overlook the fact that all truth, all science, has a subjective starting point. All that is objective can be approached only from the vantage point of the subject; the thing in itself is unknowable and does not exist for us. All knowledge is based on a kind of agreement between subject and object, an agreement that originates from the divine mind of the Creator. It is the one self-same Logos who made all things in and outside of human beings. And it is the Spirit of God who is the source and agent of all life in humanity and in the world. All cognition of truth is a witness of the Spirit of God to the Word, by whom all things are made.
I like this more, but it sounds somewhat contradictory to what he said above. However, I would like to ask, if Christ representing the Father in human flesh for us, then did we not come to know God in Himself? By way of analogy, yes, but is not what Christ modeled for us a true and accurate depiction of God Himself? If Bavinck simply means that we cannot know God from the vantage point of being God ourselves, then of course I agree with that.  
    Nonetheless, the external source of the Christian religion is not God’s general revelation in nature but his special revelation in Scripture and in Christ. And it is the internal testimony of the Spirit that must correspond to that external source. This inner testimony is not a new revelation but recognition of a truth that exists independent of our subjective awareness. The parallel is with the moral law whose authority as God’s will is also self-authenticating. Christians believe the truth of Scripture because “God said it.”
Yes we believe the truth of Scripture because God said it, but how do we know God said it is the question. I would argue that the inner testimony of the Spirit is a new revelation under Bavinck's scheme because it is revealing to us the truth that exists outside of us. Isn't all revelation a revealing to humans of truth, and wasn't that truth there before it was revealed to humans? Of course it was there, because the truth being revealed is the truth of God Himself. Now I recognize that when a tribal people here the gospel for the first time they are not getting fresh revelation. But if the Spirit "reveals" to them that this is from God, isn't that revelatory in some sense? Isn't it a speaking of truth from God Himself into the hearts of these tribal people? Even if it is repeated isn't it a revelation of sorts? But if the Spirit is actually working through means, as I believe, with our intellect, with the external proofs, with the message itself, and if the Spirit removes our stony hearts, no new revelation has been added. Rather, eyes have been opened. Ears have been given to hear. Jesus made it clear that for those who have ears to hear and eyes to see, the gospel is mighty to save (Mark 4:10-12; Matt. 13:15).   

Back to Bavinck:
    This does not mean, however, that believers have nothing but their subjectivity as a response to opponents of the faith. Unbelief too, it must be said, is also rooted in the human heart. In addition, the inner testimony of the Spirit is not private but universal. The church of all ages bears witness to Scripture as the Word of God. Nurtured in community, faith does not come into being by the insight of our intellect or a decision of our will but by the gracious and overpowering illumination of God’s Spirit. Because our wills are transformed and renewed, our believing is a free act of self-denial. True knowledge of God is compelling but never coerced.
Hard for me to follow his reasoning here. So the Spirit overpoweringly illuminates us, apparently apart from the insight of our intellect or a decision of our will, but yet our wills are transformed and renewed. So the Spirit overpowers us and yet then we believe by a free act of self-denial. The Spirit makes us willing to believe I think, but again, not apart from our minds grasping the gospel and seeing the reasonableness of it and understanding that it is possible, and reasonable, for the atonement to actually have occurred in history. 
    Opposition to faith also comes from within. Sins of the heart and errors of the mind gang up on faith as believers continue to experience the conflict within between “spirit” and “flesh.” God himself is the final ground of our faith and the testimony of the Holy Spirit is, in the first place, assurance that we are God’s children. The illumination of the Holy Spirit is not the cognitive source of Christian truth; it only seals in our hearts the truth of Scripture and salvation history. Faith is concentrated on the historic realities of redemption and results in trust that these historic acts are God’s saving acts for us. It is the same Spirit that inspired the apostolic witness that now seals the truth of that witness in believers’ hearts. Christians submit to Scripture because they believe it is a divine word, a word from God.
Agreed, we submit to Scripture and believe that it is a divine word of God because we believe it to be so, and the Spirit leads us to believe so, but not of Himself. Again, through means, but I am beginning to sound like a broken record.  
    This testimony of the Holy Spirit is not nullified by the variable responses to it among believers. Still, when it comes to convictions concerning Scripture itself, there is remarkable unity among different church groups. Scripture has been given to the whole church, and the Spirit’s testimony concerning Scripture is a cornerstone of the church’s very existence. The authority of Scripture, accepted in Spirit-inspired faith, is a powerful self-asserted authority. We believe it because God said it, and God’s speaking is the final ground of our faith. There is no power in the world comparable to that of Scripture.

Bavinck, H., Bolt, J., & Vriend, J. (2003). Reformed dogmatics: Prolegomena (Vol. 1, pp. 561–563). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic.

Agreed, once we come to the place where we see that the Bible is God's Word, whatever God says, we believe, because He has spoken. I don't think I need to note my differences once more. 

Faith and Theology

We have now arrived at the final chapter, and likely the high point of my disagreement with Bavinck. Here goes: 

    The certainty of faith rests in the Word of God and does not require theological science. Some Christians even deny the validity and value of theology, favoring a simple, practical Christianity. Following Renaissance humanism’s repudiation of scholasticism, Reformation thinkers initially also concentrated on the practical benefits of faith. Over time antipathy to dogmatics became more general. Theology became regarded as the offspring of an ill-starred marriage between original Christian and Greek philosophy in which the pure, simple gospel of Jesus had been falsified. The life of Christian love was said to have been turned into cold and arid orthodoxy, a “knowledge” that conflicts with modern science.
    Some of these complaints against theology are valid. It has sometimes lacked appropriate humility and degenerated into hairsplitting. However, abuse does not cancel out use, and ignoring theology reduces the Christian religion to feeling. Not only is theology important for the sake of clarity; it is also important to avoid the one-sided interpretations of the gospel that arise from a split between faith and metaphysics. Efforts to locate a “pure” gospel behind the dogmas of the Christian church lead to a canon within the canon and break fellowship with the universal church of all ages. Invalidating the history of dogma also forfeits the opportunity to influence the culture and science of our own day. The Christian life slips into the pathologies of mysticism and separatism, and scientific thought is not freed from error by the truth of Christ.
For the life of me I do not understand why so many think of the gospel as something other than a bit of theology, and everything after the gospel as theology. Bavinck says we start with faith, and then that faith, when it actually wants to understand why it believes, begins to engage in theology. But why do we believe the gospel? Well, you know my reasons, but for Bavinck, he would say because the Spirit has told believers that the gospel is true. Only after having the warm fuzzy Holy Spirit feeling do we then begin to ask ourselves just why is this true, or something like that.  
    The validity of theology arises from the essence of the Christian faith itself as divine revelation addresses humanity in its totality and in all its life relationships. From the beginning Christian theology has used the insights of the philosophic tradition to understand and explain the faith. Christian theology did not simply adopt one philosophic system wholesale but borrowed from many, though always testing philosophies by revelation. Theology thus arises from the church as believers think through the precepts of the faith.
To be sure, when we first come to faith, we understand much less than we do as we grow in the faith and examine it more closely. But that is very different than saying we understand nothing or very little at the beginning of our faith in Christ as Lord and Savior. We have to have a basic understanding of the gospel, something I think Bavinck would agree with, though I am doubtful he would say we have to have an understanding of why we believe in the truthfulness and reality and goodness of the gospel, other than that something inside you, namely the Holy Spirit (and how we know it is the Holy Spirit and not just our own personal thoughts, who knows) has not made it probable that it is so, but absolutely certain.  
    Though theology moves “from faith to understanding” (Augustine), it is nevertheless distinct from faith and is a fruit of the church as organism rather than institute. The distinction between faith and theology is clear from efforts in the church to distinguish the basic truths that must be affirmed to be a Christian from the larger body of truths discussed by theologians. The Roman Catholic notion of “implicit faith,” as well as the Protestant distinction between “infused theology” (all believers) and “acquired theology” (scientific theologians only), or later between “fundamental” and “non-fundamental” articles of faith, all reflect the distinction between faith and theology both in content and scope. Sadly, these discussions led in some quarters to divisions among believers along the lines of head and heart, doctrine and life, and rationalism versus pietism.
I would say there is a distinction between basic theology and deeper, more advanced theology, but the gospel itself, and faith in it, is still at root theology.  
    Though the distinction between essential and non-essential articles of faith was important for ecumenical relations between different Protestant groups, it had the potential for reducing the faith to quantitative measurement. Such an arithmetic of belief obscured the qualitative gracious, personal, organic relation to Christ so important in the Reformation protest against Roman Catholic sacramentalism and its doctrine of implicit faith. For the Reformers all believers, in principle, share the same knowledge and trust in the grace of God. Theology deepens and broadens this faith-knowledge but remains inextricably connected to it. Theology is a source of faith; its “object” is accessible only through faith, it reflects on the content of faith, and it is to be done in faith. They both need each other. Faith preserves theology from secularization; theology preserves faith from separatism. Thus the church and theological schools ought to be in solidarity with each other.
On the whole I agree here.  
    Since theology is believing reflection on faith, we must also consider the role of reason in theology. Reason and faith must not be dualistically separated. Faith is, after all, not an organ or faculty next to or above reason but a disposition or habit of reason itself. Faith is a voluntary act of the human consciousness and as a habit becomes the natural breath of the children of God. Faith does not relieve Christians of the desire and need to study and reflect on faith, it spurs them on to that end. Theology requires disciplined preparation in the arts more broadly. This equips one for the task of building a theological system organically from the whole of Scripture in its literary diversity. Then follows the task of intellectually mining the material gathered from Scripture and recapitulating it into a meaningful system of thought in the language of the day.
Very odd to me that now Bavinck says that faith is not separate from reason but a part of reason itself. I say odd because I would agree that once reason finds something that is rational/reasonable, it would then be most reasonable to have faith in the reasonable thing. I guess Bavinck would say that if you are internally certain that the Holy Spirit has spoken to you that God's Word and the gospel is true, then the reasonable thing to do would be to have faith that this in fact is so, with absolute certainty.  
    The theological task also calls for humility. Full comprehension is impossible; wonder and mystery always remain. This must not be identified with the New Testament notion of mystery, which refers to that which was unknown but has now been revealed in the history of salvation culminating in Christ. Neither is it a secret gnosis available only to an elite, nor is it unknown because of the great divide between the natural and the supernatural. The divide is not so much metaphysical as it is spiritual—sin is the barrier. The wonder of God’s love may not be fully comprehended by believers in this age, but what is known in part and seen in part is known and seen. In faithful wonder the believer is not conscious of living in the face of mystery that surpasses reason and thus it is not an intellectual burden. Rather, in the joy of God’s grace there is intellectual liberation. Faith turns to wonder; knowledge terminates in adoration; and confession becomes a song of praise and thanksgiving. Faith is the knowledge which is life, “eternal life” (John 17:3).

Bavinck, H., Bolt, J., & Vriend, J. (2003). Reformed dogmatics: Prolegomena (Vol. 1, pp. 601–602). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic.

In the end Bavinck wants to say that Christianity isn't gnostic. He also wants to say that intellectual gifting doesn't have much to do with how much of God's Word one can know. That I disagree with, in part. Someone smarter than me can likely know and understand more of God's Word more quickly, and because of that advance farther in knowledge than I can, if they put their minds to it. There may even be some things that are simply difficult for me to grasp. While I agree that most all people can understand Scripture and even deep things of Scripture, it will be harder for some. But that's okay. God has given each of us different capacities, and the essentials are known easily enough for all to live in accordance with God's will in all their lives. 

To close, I would like to give a short analysis of what I think of Bavinck and his view that the Holy Spirit is what causes us to believe with certainty that God's Word is indeed His Word. I think Bavinck asserts this because of the attack on God's Word, and because Bavinck had bought into some of the philosophy of Kant and others. He wanted to look for another kind of certainty, the certainty of faith, because the philosophers of the day and the culture he was in had convinced him that he could not be certain of Christianity through proofs or evidences or the content of Scripture itself. He had to go beyond that, and in so doing, I think he does root the faith into a mysticism of sorts. It is the secret whispering, or the internal gut feeling, that now grounds our faith. We believe the Word of God is God's Word because the Bible tells me so, and I know that what it tells me is true because the Holy Spirit assures me that it is so. If you don't have this internal gut feeling, tough luck. 

I think Scripture tells another story. I think all men are without excuse due to the creation and the conscience within that God has given every person. I think all men would turn to God for forgiveness based on the evidence of their conscience and the evidence of God's creation but for their sinful hearts, their deadness in trespasses and sins. I think in glory we will see so much more of God displayed in His creation, even in what was His fallen creation, and from what He had placed in our hearts. We will see just how wicked we were in suppressing the truth of God in unrighteousness, even in those who did not receive the gospel.  

1 comment:

  1. hi thomas,
    a few comments - to understand bavinck's distinction between faith and theology i think you need to remember that bavinck views theology as scientia (as per thomas) and not as sapientia (as per calvin), yet he is still an intellectualist, which means he will define faith as believing reason, i.e. faith is a disposition of reason, it is the ratio christiana.