The Tulip Driven Life Podcast

Sunday, June 8, 2014

Part 4 of Let's Read Herman Bavinck's Reformed Dogmatics

The Search for a Scientific, Objective Theology

According to Troeltsch, the unity that used to exist between religion (Christianity) and science has been definitely broken up since the rise of eighteenth-century rationalism. This breakup was caused by the change that occurred both in the view of science and in that of religion. Science laid aside all apriorism, became positive, and banished metaphysics. Today it exists solely as mathematical-mechanical, natural science and as the critical-comparative study of history. In both respects it is opposed to the old view of religion and theology. And so the latter gradually changed in the sense that theologians no longer want anything to do with an external authority, as much as possible reduce or abandon the supernatural elements—like prophecy, miracle, and inspiration—that occur in authority-based religion, fully accept the historical criticism of Scripture, and regard dogmas purely as expressions of personal faith. Accordingly, there no longer exists a method by which Christianity could still be upheld as absolute religion. The historical-apologetic and speculative method, as well as the method of religious experience, attempted this in vain. Theology, therefore, has no alternative but to radically break with every dogmatic method and apply with honesty and consistency the history-of-religions method. Christianity must be freed, objectively as well as subjectively, from its isolation and incorporated into the context of history as a whole as a part of the general history of religions. It must be studied in terms of the history-of-religions method, which will not prove Christianity to be the absolute religion, because history makes all things relative.

Obviously Bavinck rejects this method of dogmatics. He continues:

It is fascinating, not to mention fruitful, to look at religious phenomena like conversion, faith, prayer, devotion, ecstasy, contemplation, and so forth from a psychological angle. But for all that, the history-of-religions and psychological method cannot be the method of dogmatics. The reasons are as follows.

The experimental method is applicable only to a very limited degree even in psychology and therefore less so in the case of psychic-religious phenomena. In addition, one cannot, in a historic and psychological sense, understand the religious life, thought, and feelings of others if one is not personally religious, has no idea of religion, and cannot evaluate religious phenomena by a specific criterion. Total “presuppositionlessness” (Voraussetzungslosigkeit) renders study and research impossible. But if nevertheless presuppositionlessness is one’s aim and one takes a positivistic position with respect to religion, the inevitable result is a “theology of ‘mood’ in place of concepts, a system of paradoxes in place of sober truth, the ‘art’ of being enthused about everything in place of the conviction which looks for a fixed standard of things.” In this area the purely empirical method results in surrender to the relativism of the historical process or event and the loss of one’s ability to judge the truth-content of a religion. It also results in the tendency to judge religious phenomena purely esthetically in terms of their “beauty.” Then, as Nietzsche did with Nero and Cesar Borgia, one goes into raptures over ecstatics and fanatics as the religious showpieces of humanity.
Using a psychological and history-of-religions method, Bavinck says one will not be able to conclude that religion is based on truth or that an invisible reality lies under it.

Bavinck then hits on his belief that nobody studies religion without any presuppositions, nor does any come without any biases, including the Christian:

The notion that God works only and exclusively in the human heart and has everywhere else retreated from his creation is simply untenable. We have to make a choice here. We can consider the world in its entirety and in all its parts as the work of God’s hands and in that case also as a revelation of his attributes. The other possibility is that it originated and exists apart from God, but then there is no reason why we should believe in a revelation of God in the human heart either.
In fact, no one actually relates to the religions of the world as objectively as he might pretend in theory. Those who assume this position are the indifferent ones who have broken with all religion but are for that reason, precisely because of their profound partiality, unfit for the study of religion. Those, however, who value religion and acknowledge it as truth, always, in their studies, bring a certain kind of religion along with them and cannot rid themselves of it in the pursuit of those studies. A human being cannot keep silent about that which is most precious to him or her in life and death. A Christian cannot keep his faith, his most profound religious convictions, outside the door of his study nor view his own religion as objectively as he would that of a practitioner of some primitive religion. No one, therefore, in the pursuit of his studies, consistently applies the idea of the equivalence of all religions.

The Certainty of Theological Knowledge

Bavinck returns to his view that Christianity can arrive at a certainty in a way that is different from scientific certainty. 

As is evident from what has been said so far, the method of dogmatics is totally dominated by the question of whether in religion, and specifically in Christianity, there is a way to arrive at certainty other than that which is usually taken in science. If that is not the case, religion in general and Christianity in particular, including Christian dogmatics, lose all independence. Christian dogmatics would then constitute an area that should—the sooner, the better—be surrendered to other sciences whose object is either nature or history. But if there exists a unique religious certainty, it should be made plain both in its distinction from and its connection with other kinds of certainty. Later when we deal with the external and internal principles of theology (revelation and faith), we will do this at length. Among other things we will then argue specifically that the historical-apologetic, the speculative, and the ethical-practical methods cannot lead us to absolute certainty in the realm of religion. But here we will confine ourselves to the following remarks.
He then talks about nontheological sciences and their certainty, such as personal observation, the witness of credible persons, and human reasoning or proofs. Bavinck excludes all of these however and says instead that religion must be grounded in revelation since it is about the service of God and loving God with all one's heart, soul, mind, and strength. Bavinck says general revelation as well as special revelation are included in this revelation which grounds Christianity. And yet he goes on to say that one must be born again and possessing the Spirit of God in order to understand God's revelation, submit to it, and confess that Jesus' teaching is from God. 

This goes back to what is meant by understanding God's revelation. An unbeliever, I believe, can have some knowledge and understanding of God's Word. For the Jew it will be a stumbling block, for the Greek foolishness. They will understand what is being claimed by Scripture, but they will misappropriate it because of the hardness of their hearts. They do not see the good in it, I would say, because of their sinfulness and man-centeredness. God's Word is theocentric, and says that good is that which God decrees, and He decrees everything for His glory, even at the expense of human lives. By saying that I mean that God has predestined the Fall, and all human suffering, to give Himself glory. He does it through righteous means of course, but He nonetheless does it, and demands we praise Him for it. The cross is the climax of God's redemptive plan, His plan to glorify Himself and His Son. How that can be good and glorious is hidden from the hearts and minds of unbelievers, not because we are dealing with some sort of higher logic or something beyond logic, but simply because men refuse to give God the place and the glory due Him. We in our sinful state want man to be sovereign and worthy of all adoration and praise, and because of that we do not see the good in what God is doing, namely to make everything give Him glory, no matter the "cost" from our perspective. 

So in some ways I agree that we must make revelation the foundation for our Christian dogmatics. What else could we root it in? I do also think, however, that we have to have a way to test that revelation. We do not accept it or reject it blindly. 

Bavinck then says that there are three choices for where revelation can be found: in Scripture, the church, and the Christian consciousness. Bavinck affirms that Scripture alone is where revelation can be found, without denigrating the supporting role which the church and the Christian consciousness play. 

He also says that Deism makes human beings independent of God, makes reason all-sufficient, and leads to rationalism. He then says that reason criticizes all revelation to death, but I disagree. When we accept God's revelation, we do so precisely because we find it to be the most reasonable thing to do. It is reason which must receive revelation. There is no other option. We cannot without reason receive revelation as true. You cannot pit faith against reason. An unbeliever will twist his reason and conclude that God's Word is unreasonable to be trusted in for salvation and for living, but that is different than saying that reason always and everywhere rejects God's revelation, something which Bavinck seems to be saying to me. When the Holy Spirit illuminates us and converts us, we now see Scripture to be the true revelation that it is, and in so doing we find it to be reasonable indeed. It was reasonable all along, true reason, for contra Bavinck I do not think that man's reason is something other than God's. Our logic is God's logic. We may understand as humans, and God as God, but I do not think in glory logic will be thrown out the window, that reason will evaporate and give way to some sort of higher, "God-logic." How we think now is how we will think in glory, except for the key distinction that we will no longer be tainted with sin in our heart, soul, and mind. 

Biblical Theology and the Church

Bavinck says we should follow a method which recognizes our own biases and that we received our understanding from the church. The doctrine of faith must be drawn from the entire organism of Scripture, for it is not one monolithic book but a collection of many books written by various authors. Bavinck asserts that "Only within the communion of the saints can the length and the breadth, the depth and the height, of the love of Christ be comprehended (Eph. 3:18)."

Then Bavinck makes a strange comment about God's thought's becoming flesh and blood in the human consciousness, but what follows from that is solid:

For just as the Son of God became truly human, so also God’s thoughts, incorporated in Scripture, become flesh and blood in the human consciousness. Dogmatics is and ought to be divine thought totally entered into and absorbed in our human consciousness, freely and independently expressed in our language, in its essence the fruit of centuries, in its form contemporary (Da Costa). Accordingly, the contrast often made between biblical theology and dogmatics, as though one reproduced the content of Scripture while the other restated the dogmas of the church, is false. The sole aim of dogmatics is to set forth the thoughts of God that he has laid down in Holy Scripture. But it does this as it ought to, in a scholarly fashion, in a scholarly form, and in accordance with a scholarly method. In that sense, Reformed scholars in earlier centuries defended the validity of so-called scholastic theology (theologia scholastica). They had no objections whatever to the idea of presenting revealed truth also in a simpler form under the name of positive theology, catechetics, and so forth. But they utterly opposed the notion that the two differed in content; what distinguished them was merely a difference in form and method. By taking this position they, on the one hand, as firmly as possible maintained the unity and bond between faith and theology, church and school. On the other hand, they also held high the scientific character of theology. However high and wonderful the thoughts of God might be, they were not aphorisms but constituted an organic unity, a systematic whole, that could also be thought through and cast in a scientific form. Scripture itself prompts this theological labor when everywhere it lays the strongest emphasis, not on abstract cognition, but on doctrine and truth, knowledge and wisdom.
Then Bavinck gives us a bit about Calvin on natural theology, saying that natural theology and revealed theology are not two separate things. In dogmatics, the believer begins with faith and then looks from Scripture back to nature and sees God clearly. The unregenerate have a natural theology, but it is confused and obscured. I would point out that there are many unregenerate who see enough in nature to recognize the divine. But again, the moral inability of man to trust in Christ as Lord and Savior also prevents the unregenerate from seeing as much as can be seen of God in creation, though it is there for us to see. Even as believers, we still have much to learn, from Scripture and our renewed minds working with it, from God's natural revelation. 

Bavinck concludes that we only have one external foundation, Holy Scripture, and one internal foundation, which he calls "believing reason." He then gives another definition for dogmatics as the truth of Scripture absorbed and reproduced by the thinking consciousness of the Christian theologian.

The Role of Faith

Bavincks argues God's revelation is designed to give us vital, personal knowledge, the knowledge of faith. He says that if a science has no object and epistemic source of its own, it has no right to exist. Further, he adds that dogmatics presupposes that there is a source of religious knowledge and that we derive this knowledge not from a neutral intellect but by personal faith. I think we have seen enough to know that Bavinck does not see this faith as totally "unthinking" or devoid of reason, and yet he still wants to put down the intellect. He must mean the unbelieving intellect. I wonder if Bavinck believes an unbeliever can try to wear the glasses, as it were, of the believer, and to believe just for the sake of trying to understand things from a Christian mindset. Undoubtedly we need believers to do dogmatics, but I do not want to say that an unbeliever could never give some insight that has truth, and may even be useful for us. 

Bavinck returns to his notion that objective revelation is completed in subjective illumination. He says that through faith the external word becomes the internal word. The Holy Spirit convicts believers that they are bound to Scripture. Then the Christians job is to take God's thoughts laid down in Scripture and comprehend them rationally. He then says faith can originate differently in different people, and it is not as strong in some as it is in others due to individual powers of reasoning differ and are still affected by sin. Again I am a bit confused, and I wonder if Bavinck thinks that the Holy Spirit convinces us that we are bound to Scripture in a vaccum, or does He see the Spirit showing us the reasonableness of Scripture as being the authoritative Word of God? Also, I am not sure what he means by faith originating in different ways for different people. Everybody has faith when the gospel becomes believable and desirable to them due to the Holy Spirit overcoming our hostility to the reality and goodness of the gospel.  

Bavinck then says that the apostles even saw the same truth from different perspectives, and that a unity of faith has no more been realized than a unity of knowledge. This reminds me a bit of John Frame's multi-perspectivalism, but I am not sure if Bavinck here means something like that. Does he think different perspectives are valid, or do we need a unified faith without different perspectives? If so, were some of the apostles wrong in what they wrote down? If not, then what do we make of these different perspectives? 

Bavinck then discusses the history of the ordering of the material of dogmatics, something I believe he touched on before. He says a lot, and I don't want to reproduce much of it because it isn't fitting to what we are doing at this time. What I will share is that he believes philosophy played an important role in the ordering process, and in the early 1700's caused a separation of reason from revelation and faith: 

The influence of philosophy was even greater on the formal part of dogmatics. Here the reformational position and its starting point in faith was abandoned and replaced by a return to that of Roman Catholic theology. The conviction took hold that human reason, even apart from faith, could of itself produce all the truths of natural theology. Thus, natural theology, as the preamble of faith, became antecedent to revealed theology, and reason was emancipated from faith and revelation. Revelation and reason became independent entities standing side by side. S. van Til treated them separately in his Compendium of Theology, Both Natural and Revealed (1706). Reason not only received its own domain alongside of revelation but eventually extended its powers over that of revelation itself. Reason was given the prerogative of investigating the truth of revelation. Natural theology was believed to provide a solid ground on which to stand, a purely scientific foundation, and revelation too was examined this way. Only when reason, by an assortment of rational and historical evidences, like so many grounds for belief (motiva credibilitatis), had demonstrated the truth of revelation, was it judged reasonable to believe this revelation and to submit to it.

In this manner the prolegomena to theology consistently grew in scope. Religion as distinct from theology was discussed first, followed by natural theology or the truths of nature and reason. The possibility, necessity, and reality of revelation were demonstrated at length before Scripture itself was considered, and Scripture’s truth was substantiated with an assortment of historical, critical, and rational proofs. Only after traveling this long road, did theologians get to the actual content of dogmatics, which they presented as plainly and simply as possible. The entire viewpoint has changed; not faith but reason is the starting point.
To this I would like to say that I think one not only may start with reason, but must start with reason. Reason is what God has given us to receive His revelation. We receive God's Word firstly through understanding it, and once understanding it, accompanied by the working of the Holy Spirit, we trust in it and submit to it. We find it reasonable to do so. Bavinck says this a Roman Catholic way of doing things. I find the pattern to be biblical. Signs were given by Jesus to indicate that He was in fact of God. The supernatural signs indicated the reasonableness of believing that the one performing the sign was in touch with the divine, and that that person's message was indeed from God. Further, the resurrection itself, according to Acts 17:31, is a proof that God will judge the world in righteousness! There were more than 500 eyewitnesses to the resurrection, many who were still living at the time. They could verify the resurrection. The living Christ appearing to 500 was evidence that all that He said was true -- and particularly that He was the God-Man who would judge the world. It would seem to me then that one can start a dogmatics with the reasons for the trustworthiness of sacred Scripture. 

Bavinck disagrees with me on this though, and here is why: 

In still another way, however, the foundational part of dogmatics has to be limited. The method that arose already with scholasticism and later found acceptance also among Protestants, viz., of first treating the natural knowledge of God (the preamble of faith) and then all the historical and rational proofs (motiva credibilitatis) supporting revelation, must be rejected. At the very outset and in principle it abandons the viewpoint of faith, denies the positive character of dogmatics, moves onto the opponent’s ground, and is therefore in fact rationalistic, and makes dogmatics dependent on philosophy.
Earlier Bavinck claims that before the 19th century Christians didn't really need to question the "why" of what they believed, they just took it for granted. Yet later he states that as early as Polanus (1561-1610) reasons for believing were being given before treating the actual dogmas. I would simply say that if the resurrection was evidence, a rational proof, of the reality of the coming judgment, then couldn't we say that God Himself was moving onto the opponent's ground and being rationalistic? Can we not say that these evidences and proofs were used by the Holy Spirit to persuade one of the veracity and authority of Scripture? If Scripture itself gives reason, which it does, then this hard distinction between revelation and reason which Bavinck at times seems to offer up must be wrong. God uses reason to persuade us of the reality of the coming judgment. He used eyewitnesses to establish the credibility of Christ's resurrection. We have in Scripture a recording of the testimony of these eyewitnesses. If people believed then due to the evidence such as that of eyewitnesses, why should we not do the same now? And if we do so, why should we not put that in our dogmatics under reasons for believing? Even better, wouldn't we agree that these are God-given reasons for believing? 

So then Bavinck says some more things that to me are quite confusing: 

Over against such a rationalization of religion and theology, one has to maintain (along with Schleiermacher, Rothe, Frank, Ritschl, etc.) the positive character of dogmatics. The foundations of faith (principia fidei) are themselves articles of faith (articuli fidei), based not on human arguments and proofs but on divine authority. The recognition of revelation, of Scripture as the Word of God, is an act of faith as well as its fruit. Dogmatics is from start to finish the work of a believer who is confessing and giving an account of the ground and content of his faith. This is no less true for the foundation issues as it is for the articles of faith (doctrine) themselves. 
In the introductory section of dogmatics, therefore, only the foundations of faith are set forth and developed. Just as the objective and subjective aspects of religion must be distinguished, so the foundations of faith are twofold: the external and internal, the objective and the formal, revelation and faith. The entire first part of dogmatics properly deals only with these two foundations.
I am not sure what Bavinck means when he says that the recognition of revelation, of Scripture as the Word of God, is an act of faith as well as its fruit. he then seems to say that the two foundations of faith are the external and internal, the objective and the formal, revelation and faith. So the foundation of faith is faith? Even a foundation of faith being revelation plus faith, I do not see how this escapes circular reasoning. 

This sounds a bit like this to me: The Holy Spirit causes me to feel internally that this external Word that I am reading is divine. This longing of faith produced within me is a ground for me to place faith into. In other words, the foundations of faith are the cry of our hearts when we are enlightened by the Spirit to taste the goodness of the Word of God. While I do not want to deny that the Spirit does cause us to love God's Word and believe it, again, it does not do so apart from reasons for doing so. 

Bavinck later says that believers do not arrive at revealed theology by way of natural theology. I agree that natural theology due to our sinfulness will not reveal the gospel to us. However, I do think that when one hears the gospel, the evidence that natural theology gives is used by the Spirit to help confirm to us that the revealed theology we have heard, particularly the gospel itself, is true and trustworthy. God Himself must give us revealed theology, but revealed theology needs natural theology as corroborating evidence. The Spirit uses both to convince us of the gospel. 

Bavinck concludes that the principle by which the dogmatician is to organize his material is not by the dogmatician's own experience, but from the Word of God itself. 

In closing I will let Bavinck speak for himself concerning the proper arrangement of material in a dogmatics: 

 Accordingly, the order that is theological and at the same time historical-genetic in character deserves preference. It, too, takes its point of departure in God and views all creatures only in relation to him. But proceeding from God, it descends to his works, in order through them again to ascend to and end in him. So in this method as well, God is beginning, middle, and end. From him, through him, and to him are all things (Rom. 11:36). But God is not drawn down into the process of history here, and history itself is treated more justly. God and his works are clearly distinguished. In his works God acts as Creator, Redeemer, and Perfecter. He is “the efficient and exemplary Cause of things through creation, their renewing Principle through redemption, and their perfective Principle in restoration” (Bonaventure)


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