The Tulip Driven Life Podcast

Saturday, June 7, 2014

Part 3 of Let's Read Herman Bavinck's Reformed Dogmatics

Hello again everyone. At the rate I am going we will have 50 posts on volume 1, something which I simply cannot do at this time. So, I'm going to pick up the pace a bit since we now have some foundational points laid down. 

The Science of God 

Bavinck says that the Christian dogmatician is to think God's thoughts after Him and to trace their unity. A systematizing is in order to do this, yet that can be dangerous. We cannot take a preconceived form and try to make Scripture fit into it. It is the unity of Scripture itself, its form, that we are seeking. Of course, producing such a form is a challenge, and the dogmatician is prone to error. Bavinck also stresses that only believers within the community of the church should engage in dogmatics. We need to recognize our errors, be modest, and rely on the church to help guide our dogmatics. God's Word was, after all, given to the church, and the church throughout the ages, empowered by the Spirit and with faith, has been intently studying God's Word for centuries. We should draw on the light that God has shed on His Word from the church throughout the ages. 


From Revelation to Religion

Bavinck explains that for Schleiermacher and others Dogmatics was only about setting forth the elements of Christian piety; no concern was given to whether or not Christianity was the true religion. Bavinck says Schleiermacher failed to follow his own system, ending up merging apologetics and dogmatics under the umbrella of philosophy. Eventually, by the 1870's, theology was secularized into a science of religion. This produced a separation of theological and scientific institutions. They were expected to stay apart and yet get along with one another. The science of religion would be taught at universities while theology was taught at a seminary under church auspices. 

This produced a dual conception of truth, something which would rend the minds of students and pastors. They were expected to believe one thing in the university and another in the seminary. Bavinck says that Positivism was in full force, which claimed that it had the true understanding of science and was without presuppositions (yet the claim to have the right understanding is a presupposition in itself). Bavinck contends that no one can suppress their religious and/or moral impulses when they engage in scientific investigation. Bavinck claims both Christians and Positivists rest on faith. 

Bavinck says this arrangement is wholly undesirable for the Christian, because it places Christianity outside the realm of science and gives Postivism and Skepticism the place of science, and thus validity. This Kantian understanding viewed faith as nothing more than an act of the will and not the intellect. 

Thankfully, Bavinck disagrees and does in fact believe that faith involves the intellect:

But believing is not for that reason an act of caprice; we cannot believe whatever and whenever we please. A worldview is not a product of the will that can be said to function completely arbitrarily and to accept what it pleases. If one were to teach this, one would lapse into complete indifferentism and skepticism in the sphere of religion and theology and do violence to the nature of the faith as well. For all faith, as Kaftan correctly holds in opposition to Schleiermacher, includes a certain kind of knowing. And this knowledge is not produced but accepted by faith. Faith always comes from what is heard, and what is heard comes through the word of God (Rom. 10:17). If then the content of faith comes through revelation, faith itself, too, is in a sense generated by the “compelling evidence of the facts.” It is true by virtue of its nature that the word of God impacts the human subject differently than, say, a report of purely historical events; it also addresses the will and cannot generate faith apart from the will. But though believing does not occur apart from the will, it is not the product of the will. Therefore, the word of God has stood and still stands independently of our will and acceptance. The word of God has an objective content that was established before, and persists apart from, our faith, just as much as the world of colors and sounds exists independently of the blind and the deaf.
So Bavinck does recognize that faith in a sense comes by the compelling evidence of the facts, and that compelling evidence he would say is revelation. Faith trusts in the word of God. And I do find God's Word to be truth. Bavinck says God's Word impacts us differently hat a report of mere history. I think I can accept that as well, but perhaps only by degree, which may be what Bavinck means. My point is that the gospel itself is an account of history. But it is a unique history, the history of the God-Man living, dying, rising, and ascending for the salvation of His people. Faith in Christ will set your soul free, and you will be justified before the God of all. Indeed, no other bit of history can create such a demand, such a surge of delight for those who joyfully receive the gospel. It is, however, still history, and our trusting in it occurs only because of the Holy Spirit's working on our hardened hearts to see the truth and goodness of it, and to desire salvation. 

Bavinck says more, and this bit I found quite excellent: 

To know God in the face of Christ—by faith here on earth, by sight in the hereafter—not only results in blessedness but is as such blessedness and eternal life. It is this knowledge dogmatics strives for in order that God may see his own image reflected and his own name recorded in the human consciousness. And for that reason theology and dogmatics do not belong, by the grace of a positivistic science, in a church seminary, but in the university of the sciences (universitas scientiarum). Furthermore, in the circle of the sciences, theology is entitled to the place of honor, not because of the persons who pursue this science, but in virtue of the object it pursues; it is and remains—provided this expression is correctly understood—the queen of sciences.

Dogmatics, Apologetics, Ethics

If dogmatics, then, finds its rightful place in the third division of theological science, the task still remaining is to distinguish it from a number of other disciplines that belong to this third division as well. All the disciplines of this group have to do with dogma, i.e., with the truth as God has revealed it in his Word, but each in its own way. It can be heard in the way the church clearly and forcefully confesses it in its written and unwritten creeds, and then symbolics, the science of symbolic theology, results. It can be conveyed in simple, comprehensible form (the “milk” of 1 Pet. 2:2) to the youthful members, the children of the church, and then we are dealing with catechetic theology, which is to be distinguished from catechetics, the art of doing this in church education. It can be defended and maintained in its truthfulness and legitimacy against its opponents, and that is the task of apologetics (or elenctic theology). It can also be set forth thetically and positively, and at the same scientifically, in a systematic form, and then we are speaking of the practice of dogmatics. All these disciplines have in common the fact that they put on display the treasures of the sacred Scriptures, but each in its own way.

Bavinck then says some interesting things about apologetics, saying its place should never be over-estimated nor under-estimated: 

Placing apologetics at the head of all the other theological disciplines, as this occurs in Schleiermacher and others, is explicable only from the fact that these theologians no longer recognized theology’s own principles and were forced to look elsewhere for a foundation on which the building of theology could rest. If, however, theology is deduced from its own source, i.e., from revelation, it has its own certainty and does not need the corroboration of philosophical reasoning. Accordingly, apologetics cannot and may not precede dogmatics but presupposes dogma and now gets the modest but still splendid task of maintaining and defending this dogma against all opposition. It now attempts to do this, not in response to some specific challenge, but fundamentally in terms of the opposition that dogmas as the truth of God encounter at all times, be it in ever changing forms, from the side of the “natural man.” Hence, it gradually advanced from the level of apologia to that of apologetics and assumed an increasingly more scientific character.
I would like to say that I agree largely with Bavinck here. If we could indeed be sure that we had heard a Word from God, then even if philosophy couldn't grasp what God had said, God's Word is still true. However, the pursuit of understanding God's Word philosophically, with our reasoning, is essential. As Bavinck will say below, there is no discrepancies between our thinking and God's revelation. Sin clouds our minds, but the Spirit helps us understand God's Word. Our thinking faculties are God given, and indeed we must love God with all of our minds if we are to be faithful to Him. So it is true that God's Word will never contradict true logic, true and right reasoning.  
Such a scientific defense of the dogma, i.e., of the entire content of revelation and of Christianity as a whole, is possible for the reason that nature and grace, creation and redemption, coming as they do from one and the same God, are not and cannot be in conflict. Only sin, which consists not only in a perverse disposition of the heart but also in the darkening of the mind, has brought opposition and conflict between the two. However, because redemption serves precisely to eradicate that sin, root and branch, and to restore creation to its original state, the patient investigator will always find his discoveries confirming a saying by J. Görres: “Only dig a little deeper, and everywhere you will stumble upon Catholic (or rather, Christian, theistic) ground.” “Perhaps small sips taken in philosophy lead a person to atheism, but fuller draughts will bring him back to religion.”
I think it is acceptable and important to show that Christianity is reasonable, in fact it is the only thing that is ultimately reasonable. I would call others to consider the soundness of God's Word, especially unbelievers. Paul Himself reasoned on the Sabbath regularly as Acts 17 points out. He reasoned from the Scriptures, giving evidence that Christ had to suffer and rise again on the third day. So we see a defense and explanation of the gospel, of the Christ, and then a call for Jews and Gentiles alike to receive Christ. My fear is that many today, and perhaps Bavinck himself, would refuse to do this. They would say that to give reasons and evidence, from the Scriptures or not, would be to put God on trial. I don't think it is a stretch to believe that Paul would have pointed out that God as God could resurrect His own Son, giving God is Creator and giver of life to begin with. This is what I would call true philosophy.

Bavinck continues and says that Dogmatics is most closely related to ethics, pointing out that Aquinas, Melancthon, Calvin, and others incorporated dogmas of conduct into dogmas of faith. Kant and others have messed things up of course, leading men to now see themselves as morally autonomous. 

Bavinck says, "Dogmatics describes the deeds of God done for, to, and in human beings; ethics describes what renewed human beings now do on the basis of and in the strength of those divine deeds" and that "Dogmatics is the system of the knowledge of God; ethics is that of the service of God." 

The Method and Organization of Dogmatic Theology

Neither scientific objectivity nor complete subjectivity are possible. All knowledge is rooted in faith, and for faith to be real it must have an object that is knowable. This requires a divine revelation that is more than a fulfillment of subjective desire. Religion must be true and provide its own distinct path to knowledge and certainty. Christian theologians must place themselves within the circle of faith and, while using church tradition and experience, take their stand in the reality of revelation.

I am not sure how Bavinck can say that knowledge is rooted in faith and at the same time a real faith must have an object that is knowable. A knowable object would be one that is capable of being known, because that object has knowledge. The Bible has knowledge. So is the Bible then rooted in faith? Jesus is truth, is he rooted in faith? Religion's distinct path to knowledge and certainty seems to be faith for Bavinck. Bavinck also recognizes previously that faith contains a need to be persuaded of the evidence. This calls forth the intellect. My question is how do you gain the knowledge that the Bible is God's Word and true? Faith? But I thought earlier Bavinck said faith is being persuaded by the evidence. But how can you have the knowledge to discern the evidence before you have faith? This just doesn't seem to line up, but I may not be understanding Bavinck correctly. 

Bavinck continues and says that "The knowledge of God given in revelation is not abstract and impersonal but the vital and personal knowledge of faith. The objective revelation in Scripture must be completed in subjective illumination, which is the gift of the Holy Spirit." So the knowledge about God that revelation gives is the personal knowledge of faith. I dare not say that God's revelation is somehow completed in subjective revelation, but Bavinck does. I think that God's Word of itself is complete, and we do not, even empowered by the Spirit, complete it or add to it. This smacks a bit of Neo-Orthodoxy to me. Perhaps this is just a poor choice of words by Bavinck, but if this is actually what he means, I can now understand why he says that only the believer in the circle of faith can engage in dogmatics and gain knowledge of God from the Bible. 

Bavinck now speaks of the best way to lay out the material of a dogmatics, something which I only wish to quickly skim over. He says dogmatic material is acquired by the Holy Scripture, the church's confession, and Christian consciousness. In short throughout the ages men swung between a more object and intellectual verses a more subjective and emotional basis for dogmatics. Bavinck brushes against the notion of viewing Scripture as merely a historical source and document of revelation. He says this subordinates Scripture to the dogmatician, making the religious subject the final authority. I would argue that in examining Scripture as a historical document, the evidence will lead one to come to a point of submission to Scripture as the Word of God, and in itself authoritative. That is not done by me giving it authority, but empowered by the Holy Spirit, I begin to see the truthfulness of the Scripture, and the many evidences it gives of its divine origin. 

I think we have plenty to chew on here once again. I wanted to finish this section in this post, but will have to do so in the next one. Next time we will begin with Bavinck's search for a scientific, objective theology. 


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