The Tulip Driven Life Podcast

Friday, June 6, 2014

Part 2 of Let's Read Herman Bavinck's Reformed Dogmatics

By: Thomas F. Booher

Hello again. If you haven't read the introduction to this series, I suggest you do so here.

Now we will dive into Bavinck's Prolegomena. As I mentioned previously, I will be explaining to you some of his basic thoughts, and then give you large chunks of what Bavinck has said so that we can decipher it together and draw some conclusions.

I am attempting to use Logos Bible Software, which I downloaded onto my computer. It takes a bit of time to boot up, but given the size of it it's understandable. Once its running though, and once you play around with things a bit, you can use it pretty well. There is also a help icon which will give you some direction if you are totally lost. I will also be using Logos on my iPad.

The Science of Dogmatic Theology

Bavinck engages in a long discussion on what dogmatic theology is, and what it is not. He goes back and forth throughout history to show us how it has been defined, how different dogmatic theologies have been written, and why they have been written that way. It's incredibly thorough, but let me allow Bavinck to speak for himself concerning his own views:

It must never be forgotten that the knowledge of God, which is the true object of dogmatic theology, is only obtained by faith. God cannot be known by us apart from revelation received in faith. Dogmatics seeks nothing other than to be true to the faith-knowledge given in this revelation. Dogmatics is thus not the science of faith or of religion but the science about God. The task of the dogmatician is to think God's thoughts after him and to trace their unity....
 Let me make some comments. Something I am going to be chiming in on repeatedly throughout the prolegomena is Bavinck's belief that faith must receive revelation in order for God to be known. Bavinck argues from the outset that since God can only be known by faith, dogmatics must not speak about the science of faith but only about God. Later he will make clear that if we do otherwise we may fall into becoming subjective. My fear is that his understanding of the knowledge of God is subjective. If God is only known through faith receiving revelation, what does that faith look like? Does it shape the revelation or merely hold on to it? If it holds on to it, why? My concern is that we make clear that revelation can only be receive by faith if it is first understood with our intellects. Nothing gets to the heart without first going through the mind, and the heart will not receive that which the mind finds unbelievable.

When Bavinck speaks of a faith-knowledge, I am not sure what he means. I do know however that he will speak about this again later. I believe at this point he is claiming that the person of faith gains a knowledge and understanding of God that the unbeliever does not and cannot, precisely due to the faith of the believer. Undoubtedly if God is to be known He must reveal Himself, for the Creator is not contained by His creation, though Paul makes clear in Romans 1 that creation itself does testify to God's eternal power and divine nature. In fact Paul says all men are without excuse because they knew God from the things that are made. So it would seem that even unbelievers have a knowledge of God. This makes me scratch my head from the outset and wonder what Bavinck means when he says that God can only be known through faith. Certainly unbelievers twist the knowledge of God they have, even to the point of becoming atheists, but to say that those without faith have no knowledge of God in any sense is unbiblical. I suspect this is not what Bavinck means. He must mean believers have an understanding of God, a faith-knowledge, which unbelievers, not having faith, do not have.
Neither the subjection of dogmatics to philosophical presuppositions nor the dualistic separation of confessional theology from the scientific study of religion is acceptable...all knowledge is rooted in faith and all faith includes an important element of knowing... Apologetic defense of this truth and ethical applications to Christian conduct both are based in and proceed from divine revelation and faith; they do not ground or shape faith...Dogmatics describes God's deeds for and in us; ethics describes what renewed human beings now do on the basis of and in the strength of these deeds. 

Bavinck does not believe that philosophy should reign over theology, but rather things should be the other way around. I agree with this, however, I do not think theology is unreasonable or hard to harmonize with philosophy. Right philosophy will lead to God, and God's revelation will lead to right theology. In a manner of speaking, I see theology as God's philosophy, and therefore it is the true philosophy, true reasoning, the one and only basis for knowledge and wisdom and all things. I don't see such a separation between philosophy and theology, at least not necessarily, because I believe it is reasonable philosophically to conclude that God is, and then I believe when God reveals Himself and tells us how the world actually is (His philosophy, so to speak), we can understand what He is saying and either accept or reject what He is saying. We should have faith in it, because it is true, but even those who do not can understand God's revelation in the sense that they can grasp what God is saying when He says that He is in control of all things. That concept doesn't escape them. Their belief that this is true, or that it is good, will be clouded by their sin.

Dogma, Dogmatics, and Theology

More from Bavinck:

The word dogma, from Gr. dokein (“to be of the opinion”), denotes that which is definite, that which has been decided, and is therefore fixed. In Scripture (LXX) it is employed to refer to government decrees (Esther 3:9; Dan. 2:13, 6:8; Luke 2:1; Acts 17:7); the statutes of the Old Covenant (Eph. 2:15; Col. 2:14); and the decisions of the Council at Jerusalem (Acts 15:28; 16:4). In the classic writers it has the meaning of a decision or decree, and in philosophy that of truths established by axiom or by proofs.
Nor, in the second place, does the authority of a dogma rest on a pronouncement and determination of the church, as Schleiermacher and many others after him have taught us. Rome can teach this because it attributes infallibility to the church. But the Reformation recognizes no truth other than that which is given on the authority of God in holy Scripture.
Accordingly, the church’s confession can be called the dogma quoad nos (for us), that is, the truth of God as it has been incorporated in the consciousness of the church and confessed by it in its own language. 
This means that the church of Christ therefore has a certain task to fulfill with respect to dogma. To preserve, explain, understand, and defend the truth of God entrusted to her, the church is called to appropriate it mentally, to assimilate it internally, and to profess it in the midst of the world as the truth of God. It is most definitely not the authority of the church that makes a dogma into dogma in a material sense, elevates it beyond all doubt, and enables it to function with authority. The dogmas of the church have, and may have, this status only if and to the degree they are the dogmas of God (δογματα του θεου). The power of the church to lay down dogmas is not sovereign and legislative but ministerial and declarative. Still, this authority has been granted by God to his church, and it is this power that enables and authorizes her to confess the truth of God and to formulate it in speech and writing.
The confession of the church supplies us with an excellent—though not infallible—means to find our way amid many and varied errors to the truth of God laid down in his Word.

All of this sounds very solid to me. It is also a good reminder of the importance, and great responsibility, of the church, and especially the weight of responsibility that ministers carry. Bavinck makes clear that we need the tradition of the church, the confession of the church. This does not mean that the dogma the church teaches and what is true about God are precisely the same. Bavinck recognizes that the church is not infallible, but it is the organism God uses to teach His people. Bavinck believes many different streams of Christian thought contribute to the knowledge we have of God, something with which I agree.This is a reminder that we should not be listening to reformed voices only.

A claim of infallibility by Rome does not make them infallible, but it may very well make them a temptation. After all, wouldn't it be convenient to have the assurance that whatever Rome says, God says? But God has already spoken in His Word, and has done so clearly. We do learn from teachers, but in reading the Word ourselves, illumined by the Holy Spirit, we too can understand what God has said, because He has spoken to all of His children, not just priests.

Bavinck then discusses what other philosophers have said about dogma. Many were claiming the Christian dogma was all wrong, one big error, but what nobody could deny is that dogma has an invariable, permanent element. He astutely points out that opposition to dogma isn't an opposition to dogma itself, but to specific dogmas with which people no longer agree. Bavinck concludes that "dogma came to denote the articles of faith that were based on the Word of God and therefore obligated everyone to faith. Dogmatics, then, is the system of the articles of faith."

The Content of Theology

Now a definition of the content of dogmatics is in order. Lombard followed Augustine saying there were two areas of theology: things and signs. Things are God, the world, and man. Signs are the sacraments. Bavinck says this is incomplete, and also mentions that a subjective understanding crept in, one which emphasized how we are to live for Christ and worship God. After Kant and Schleiermacher Dogmatics became simply an account of what religious people believe about their religion. 

Bavinck reminds us that Dogmatics must deal with reality, and states: 

Theology as a particular science assumes that God has unmistakably revealed himself; in other words, it assumes the existence, the self-revelation, and the knowability of God and therefore proceeds from a highly significant dogma. A dogmatically free theology, or dogmatics, is a self-contradiction. If religion is not just a psychological and historical fact, like belief in ghosts or witches, for example, but rests on truth and has an absolute value, then a thinker who views and studies religion in that sense will always end up with God. The truth and value of religion depend on the existence, the revelation, and the knowability of God.
If God is not knowable, did not reveal himself, or does not even exist, not only dogmatics or theology but religion itself collapses, for it is built on the knowledge of God. Thus dogmatics is, and can only exist as, the scientific system of the knowledge of God. More precisely and from a Christian viewpoint, dogmatics is the knowledge that God has revealed in his Word to the church concerning himself and all creatures as they stand in relation to him.
Very true. I think that last sentence is very important. We get dogmatics from God's Word, and that alone. There is no other source for the Christian. We learn about God, that He is, and what He is like, and accordingly we learn what we are like and how we need to be. Many, like Kant, had reduced religion and God as something that was needed if morals were to truly matter, even though the intellectuals were saying God was not knowable, even if He did exist. We see that men want meaning and significance, they want order, but they don't want God. Yet, men must admit that they need God to have what they want. It is a pitiable situation for the unbeliever indeed. They want to do what is right in their own eyes, and yet they want what they think is right to somehow objectively be right, yet without a God determining right and wrong for everyone.

Is Theology a Science? 

Bavinck now engages with a man named Kaftan, who said dogma was not the object but the expression of faith. Many were saying that theology was not a science, that only that which was observable and could be experienced could be regarded as truth. Kaftan asserted that revelation should be received by the will and not intellectually with the mind. The fruit of this willing would produce dogma. In this view,

"while faith is knowledge and definitely also knowledge of God, this knowledge is of a particular kind; it is not scientific and demonstrable but gained through personal experience by the activity of the moral will. There is therefore a world of difference between faith knowledge and the knowledge we acquire in the domain of science. Scientific knowledge arises from the compelling evidence of facts, but religious knowledge is gained through moral experience by an act of the will and hence is ethically conditioned."
Bavinck explains that this divides knowledge of God from scientific knowledge. God has become the object of faith, not the object of knowledge. Kaftan's view desired to keep Christian knowledge of God and scientific knowledge of the world separate, since studying God as we study the world would be to subject God to His own creation.

Theology and Faith

I don't think there should be a divide. A differentiation, yes, but not a divide. Initially it seems like Bavinck may agree, but then again, maybe not, for Bavinck says,

Kaftan’s vigorous defense of the unique character of religious knowledge, knowledge that becomes our mental and spiritual possession only in the way of faith, deserves our appreciation. It is indeed the case that religious knowledge comes into being in a particular way and thus bears its own unique character. Similarly praiseworthy is that he again, at least in part, conceives faith as a kind of cognition and ventures to speak of a knowledge of faith, the object of which is God as he has revealed himself. And finally he can count on our agreement when he bases faith on revelation and seeks to maintain its authority also for dogmatics. Formally all this is so right that at first blush it surprises us that orthodoxy did not accord this dogmatics a more favorable welcome than in fact it did.
Bavinck goes on and seems to argue that faith is a way of knowing, particularly the way of knowing God and His revelation. We come to know God as we trust God. Or, is that Kaftan's position? I am pretty certain it is Kaftan's position, and Bavinck seems to me to agree with him on this in the main. Bavinck says faith does not originate as a result of compelling evidence in the way that knowledge originates in the field of math or natural science. Bavinck also says that "Kaftan very correctly says that God cannot, like the phenomena of nature and the facts of history, be made the object of scientific investigation."

So if God cannot be scientifically investigated, what can He be? He must have been revealed not only in deeds but also in words. His revelation gives us knowledge of Him, and that revelation can be thought through scientifically and gathered into a system. The dogmatician can only reproduce the truth God has granted.

Bavinck then says some very curious things about the relationship between knowledge and faith (this was all one paragraph but I have broken it up for easier readability):

And because revelation is of such a nature that it can only be truly accepted and appropriated by a saving faith, it is absolutely imperative that the dogmatician be active as believer not only in the beginning but also in the continuation and at the end of his work. 
The theologian can never arrive at knowledge that is higher than the faith. Faith (religion, the knowledge of faith) and theology are not related as pistis and gnosis but differ only in degrees. In a later chapter we will deal intentionally with the relationship between faith and theology, but here it only needs to be pointed out that Kaftan, as a result of an incorrect view of science, places dogmatics outside the realm of faith. To maintain the scientific character of dogmatics, he assigns to it as its content not the knowledge of God but the knowledge of faith. When Kaftan judges that though there is no science of God a knowledge of faith does exist, he himself lapses into the error of which he accuses Schleiermacher. 
For Kaftan, too, dogmatics becomes an account of the knowledge of faith, i.e., of the religious experience of the subject. Admittedly, Kaftan distinguishes himself favorably from the subjectivists by viewing faith also as a kind of knowledge and even as knowledge of God. But instead of taking advantage of this position for the benefit of dogmatics, he stops halfway and says that though there is knowledge of God there is no science of God. That conclusion is a result, as he himself admits, of Kaftan’s neo-Kantianism and his empiricistic view of science.
.... if indeed there exists a true and trustworthy knowledge of God, even though it is acquired in a special way that corresponds to the nature of its object, then one can certainly speak properly of a science of God. Correctly assuming a faith-knowledge of God, therefore, Kaftan should have pushed consistently forward along that line, broken with Kant’s dualism, reviewed the modern concept of science, and made a simple and decisive assertion: Precisely because a true faith-knowledge of God exists, dogmatics has the knowledge of God as part of its content and can rightly claim to be a science.
Bavinck then says that the subjectivity and personality of the scientific investigator play a role in scientific study. One's religion, one's metaphysics and moral convictions influence one's scientific investigation. Bavinck concludes that we need to be normal human beings, whatever that means exactly. We should not have false presuppositions but rather be a man of God fully equipped for every good work.

The question of course is how do we avoid false presuppositions, and how does Bavinck conclude that normality is being a man of God fully equipped for every good work? His argument is that because knowing God is a unique knowledge (God being unlike anything else), we therefore come to know Him in a unique way. That way is faith-knowledge. Bavinck says that Kaftan doesn't go far enough, not that he was wrong.

Apparently for Bavinck this faith must be a saving faith if revelation is to be understood and appropriated properly. On some levels I agree, on others I disagree. Certainly to benefit from God's Word one must trust in it, in Christ. But to mentally understand God's Word and to draw some conclusions, perhaps even to write some systematic theology, I do not think one must be a true believer. Surely without the illumination of the Spirit the unbeliever may miss the mark more often, but the unbeliever can still understand the things of God, but because he or she is hard-hearted, it will be rejected as good and desirable.

I think Bavinck is concluding that a knowledge of faith is a knowledge of God, and thus faith and theology are just differing degrees of something that is in fact connected, only differing in degrees as he says above in the second paragraph. This is why, for Bavinck, the knowledge can never surpass the faith. I would argue exactly the opposite, that the faith never surpasses the knowledge. In fact, to structure this as a continuum starting with faith and advancing to theology, or a knowledge of God, roots knowledge in faith. But isn't faith the fruit of what we know of God? Did we believe the gospel before we knew the gospel? Did we somehow trust in Christ before we knew what He had done for us, and what He was like? Of course not. This is the height of absurdity. It is true that we grow as believers, that as we trust God we do come to know Him more, but the faith increases only when we understand and know what God is like more clearly. We now see through a glass darkly, but what we do see, that we believe and trust in. How could it possibly be any other way? Bavinck tells us he will talk more about the relationship between faith and theology. Hopefully he can nuance some things and clear it up, because at this point his thought seems very wrongheaded to me.

In the third paragraph above I see that Bavinck says that the knowledge of faith (his "faith-knowledge) is the religious experience of the subject. I wonder then if saving faith begins with an experience of God, and not a knowledge. Wouldn't the experience of God have to produce a knowledge of Him? If we wanted to describe hearing the gospel as the sweetest, most delicious drink we have ever enjoyed, or the most delightful music we have ever heard, or the most beautiful sunset we have ever seen, doesn't that encounter, that experience, with the gospel (words, propositional truths) produce a knowledge of our Lord and Savior? And is it not the understanding of what the gospel means that sways our hearts, that overcomes our rebellious wills? The gospel is beautiful because of what it communicates. It doesn't produce a warm, fuzzy, unexplainable feeling that can only be described as a touch by the divine. No, it rather tells us the story of Jesus, and the beauty of that story, accompanied by the saving work of the Holy Spirit, becomes beautiful, desirable, to us. Faith flows from understanding the gospel.

So far Bavinck, religious experience is not subjective (I guess), but objective, because it is an encounter with God, and not some part of the creation. I guess his argument is something like, "whenever God is around, you know it." For Bavinck, faith is a kind of knowledge, indeed it is the knowledge of God. Quoting him from above again, "Precisely because a true faith-knowledge of God exists, dogmatics has the knowledge of God as part of its content and can rightly claim to be a science."

So Christian dogmatics, according to Bavinck, systematizes the knowledge of God which has been acquired through faith-knowledge (that is, the religious experience of the dogmatician), and since this knowledge of God is true and real, it therefore can be a science, and is scientific. God is known through faith, which is different from the empirical evidence by which the visible world is known. Since God is invisible, He must reveal Himself through revelation, and that revelation apparently produces a religious experience upon men. This "experience" of revelation is what Bavinck wants to call the knowledge of God, yet he doesn't like it when Kaftan calls it a knowledge of faith. But for Bavinck, is it not the case that the knowledge of faith (faith-knowledge) is the knowledge of God? If so, what is the difference?

This seems very wrong and confusing. Also, I know Bavinck also mentioned something about faith being the organ of knowledge, or reason being the organ of knowledge, something like that. His point seems to be that faith and reason receive true knowledge (which is revelation). But how faith can produce or be a certain kind of knowledge is still hard for me to understand. Hopefully Bavinck believes that reason and the intellect are part of faith.

Well, we will end here for now. Please do come back for more, and if you have a clearer understanding of Bavinck's thought, do share it with us.


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