The Formation of Dogma: East and West
I am going to combine the next two chapters into one post. The first chapter is the title above. The reason I am doing this is because, while the formation and history of dogma is interesting, Bavinck goes into many issues and people that aren't very familiar. I am mostly going to quote Bavinck below and add a few comments here and there. I have noticed at the beginning of each chapter there is a several paragraphs in a smaller, indented font. It is also italicized. I am not sure if this is a summary of what Bavinck said or an insertion by the editor. Regardless, I am going to reproduce that in its entirety for chapter 3, it is very helpful.
Dogmatics arises from reflection on the truth of Scripture. This is not the task of individuals but the whole church. Contra Harnack, dogma is not the product of Hellenization and thus one grand error. Harnack simply has a different view than the historic church does of the essence of Christianity: If Harnack is too negative about the history of dogma, Roman Catholicism makes the opposite error, giving tradition a status nearly equivalent to Scripture. The Reformation neither underestimated nor overestimated tradition but distinguished between true and corrupted tradition and insisted on the need for Holy Spirit-led discernment. The Reformation tradition does respect the development of dogma in the church’s history.
The early church articulated its dogmas in epistolary writings and simple creeds. During the time of the apologists in the second century, the opposition faced by Christians pressed the church into deeper reflection upon and a more sophisticated defense of the faith. Most of the perennial arguments against Christianity were already advanced in the second century. Learned Christians such as Justin Martyr and, later, Irenaeus used the tools of their intellectual training to defend the faith against such movements as Gnosticism and helped to create a Christian vocabulary and worldview. Some, such as Tertullian, were antithetically opposed to the Greek philosophic tradition, while the Alexandria school embraced its language. For Clement and Origen the Christian faith was a form of gnosis and Christ the great pedagogue. Here Christianity came to be understood primarily as a set of ideas. Primarily motivated by apologetic and polemic concerns, the foundations of Christian theology were in place by the end of the third century. However, the third and fourth centuries were times of great controversy about doctrines such as the unity of God and the deity of Christ.
With the Edict of Toleration (A.D. 313), external pressure was replaced by the internal pressure of heresy in the church. The major dogmatic developments, especially in Christology, took place in the East. Though christological debates dominate the fourth to the eighth centuries, the demands of catechesis led to numerous treatises on a broad range of topics—God, cosmology, anthropology, and moral issues such as virginity. The most important dogmatic works during this period were the writing of Pseudo-Dionysius and the orthodox summary works of John of Damascus. The Damascene was also a strong defender of the veneration of images, a key and controversial element of Eastern Orthodox Christianity.
Western theology focused on different themes. While for the East the dominant emphasis was on humanity’s liberation from the corruption of sin to be made partakers of the divine nature, the West emphasized legal themes such obedience, guilt, and forgiveness. Christ’s death, rather than his incarnation, was the point of gravity. This gave to the Western church as aggressive, world-conquery impulse. For all the differences, the Western church’s dogmas relied heavily on the pioneering work done earlier in the East.
It is in the magisterial work of Augustine that the dogmatic work of East and West finds its culmination. In particular, Augustine’s emphasis on grace and his view of the church left an indelible imprint. A sign of Augustine’s importance to the church is that every reformation returns to him and to Paul. The other great figure of this period is the great pastoral theologian Gregory I. As we move toward the end of the first millennium, mention must be made of the importance of monasteries and schools in maintaining orthodoxy. After the darkness of the tenth century, reformed monastic life helped create the conditions for the great scholastic theologians such as Albertus Magnus, Thomas Aquinas, and Bonaventure. Scholastic theology was the attempt, with the aid of philosophy, to gain scientific knowledge of revealed truth. Scholasticism also provoked dissent in theologians such as Duns Scotus and the rise of nominalism. The important role of Pseudo-Dionysius also led to a mystical form of scholastic theology.
Bavinck, H., Bolt, J., & Vriend, J. (2003). Reformed dogmatics: Prolegomena (Vol. 1, pp. 115–116). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic.
That is the big overview of the chapter. Now I will this in with a few other quotes from Bavinck:
In the case of the Apostolic Fathers there is as yet no such thing as dogma or dogmatics. They still completely operate on the basis of a naïve, childlike faith. Christianity was not the product of human research and reflection but of revelation and in the first place, therefore, demanded faith. They tried as well as they could to take in and to reproduce the oral and written teaching of the apostles. They took over the biblical concepts of God, of Christ as Lord, of his death and resurrection, of the Holy Spirit, of faith, repentance, church, baptism, communion, offices, prayer, watching, fasting, alms, resurrection life, immortality, etc. However, they did not think through, analyze, and relate them to each other. After all, Christianity found acceptance mostly, though not exclusively, among the simple and unlearned. Its entire focus was therefore all the more to convert Christian truth into life and, practically, to bring the worship, life, and organization of the church under its sway
Bavinck, H., Bolt, J., & Vriend, J. (2003). Reformed dogmatics: Prolegomena (Vol. 1, pp. 120–121). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic.
I am not so sure about the notion that the Apostolic Fathers completely operated on a naive, childlike faith. I think naive today has a bad connotation, perhaps one that it did not have in the time of Bavinck. If by naive he simply means an understanding that had not yet been closely analyzed and scrutinized.... perhaps. But it seems to me that Paul speaks of a teaching or doctrine that is known by believers in many places (e.g. 2 Tim. 1:13, 4:2-4; 2 Thess. 2:15; Tit. 1:9, 2:1; 1 Cor. 11:1-2). If this is known in the time of Paul, as he is still writing Scripture, then surely Bavinck is mistaken when he says the Apostolic Fathers operated completely on the basis of a naive, childlike faith.
Frankly I have a fear that Bavinck has too much of a view that leans towards Christianity growing in its fundamentals long after the close of the canon. That is, Bavinck seems to suggest that the Apostolic Fathers still didn't get the Christian faith in an organic sense at all. But it seems that Scripture itself gives us plenty of connective tissue to help us see the meaning of the resurrection, the role of the Holy Spirit, faith, repentance, etc.
Perhaps Bavinck would agree with what I just said. Maybe he simply means that those following the apostles, the early church after the apostles, simply couldn't absorb the teaching of the apostles. Bavinck suggests this when he says:
Generally speaking, the real essence of Christianity, in distinction from Judaism and paganism, was not yet clearly recognized and in any case better understood ethically than dogmatically. Despite the epistolary form that the Apostolic Fathers, like the apostles, usually employed, and though in part they addressed the same churches, the difference and the distance between the two, both in content and form, is striking. “Indeed, the earliest Christian writings are something special, clearly distinct in language and spirit from the later literature. It is, above all, comparison that teaches us to appreciate the distance correctly.” The consciousness nurtured in a pagan milieu could not absorb Christian ideas so fast.
Bavinck, H., Bolt, J., & Vriend, J. (2003). Reformed dogmatics: Prolegomena (Vol. 1, p. 121). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic.
This is all that I wish to say for this chapter, other than that Bavinck emphasizes the importance of Augustine to dogmatics.
Roman Catholic Dogmatics
Again I will reproduce the opening overview in its entirety. This should give you a sense of how detailed this chapter is.
After the tenth century, thanks in good measure to the monastic reforms and crusades, new life stirred the Western church. The birth of the universities led to a scientific theology using the scholastic method. Though scholasticism brought significant gains to the study of theology, it also developed a character that brought it into disrepute. Negatively, scholasticism neglected the study of Scripture and other original sources; positively, it was too closely linked to Aristotle’s philosophic methodology. Losing its connection to the living faith of the church, dogmatics became a system of philosophy.
Scholastic theology passed through three phases, beginning with Anselm’s sincere desire to deepen the understanding given in faith. Anselm’s form was more in keeping with Plato’s dialogues than with the Aristotelian scholastic method. In the work of Peter Lombard and Alexander of Hales, theology moved beyond individual treatises to systematic handbooks on dogmatics and ethics. In spite of opposition from some Platonists, the Aristotelian method, in the hands of Albertus Magnus, Thomas Aquinas, and Bonaventure, became the accepted manner of defending church doctrine. Scholasticism did not maintain this high level, but in the work of Duns Scotus, and especially in nominalism, theology lost its certainty. As a result skepticism, as well as the mysticism of Eugena, Eckhart, and Böhme, flourished in spite of ecclesiastical condemnation.
Under the influence particularly of the officially approved neoplatonism of Pseudo-Dionysius, mysticism linked up with monastic efforts to reach God through contemplation, and theological knowledge was often disparaged.
The Middle Ages also gave birth to significant protest movements, including the Cathars, the Waldensians, and “Protestant” precursors such as John Wycliffe and John Huss. Even though the conciliar movement in the church itself appealed to many, little actual reform was achieved. The Roman Catholic Church resisted reform and did so at the time of the sixteenth-century Protestant Reformation as well. The post-Tridentine Roman Catholic Church was again shaped by Thomas, with the key difference being the diligent study of Scripture and tradition by neoscholastics such as Suarez. Engaged as the neoscholastics were in polemics with Reformation theologians, scholastic theology became simpler in form, method, language, and articulation.
Neoscholastic theology arose and flourished in Spain by such (primarily Dominican) practitioners as Francis de Vithona, Melchior Canus, and Peter de Soto. But it was especially the Jesuits, such as Bellarmine, Peter Canisius, and Fr. Suarez, who contributed to its revival and fluorescence. Thanks to their Pelagianism, the Jesuits diverged from Thomas in the doctrine of sin, free will, and grace. The work of Dominican Augustinians such as Baius of Louvain and, later, Cornelius Jansen, bishop of Ypres, finally was condemned, by the often-reaffirmed bull Unigenitus (1713). Pelagianism triumphed in dogmatics, probabilism in ethics, and papal curialism in the church.
Neoscholasticism came under severe attack by the modern rationalism of Bacon and Descartes. Historical and critical studies pushed theology to the side, and scholasticism withdrew into the schools. Deism and naturalism rose up and influenced or sidelined Roman Catholic theology. In 1773 the Jesuit order was suppressed by Pope Clement XIV himself. Conflicts with Protestant theologians were pushed into the background, and a struggle was joined against freethinkers and unbelievers. With philosophers such as Jacobi, Schelling, and Hegel revisioning Christian doctrine and theology in the terms of speculative philosophy, some were led to a conciliatory and mediating position, bringing the two together.
However, these efforts failed to satisfy, and the nineteenth century witnessed a rebirth of neoscholasticism. The Jesuit order was restored in 1814, and papal authority was enhanced by the 1854 proclamation of the dogma concerning the immaculate conception of Mary, the publication of the Syllabus of Errors in 1864, and finally by Vatican I’s approval of papal infallibility in 1870. In 1879 Pope Leo XIII in his encyclical Aeterni Patus acclaimed Thomas as the teaching doctor of the church, and Thomism regained momentum in Roman Catholic theology. Restricted as it is to scholarly life, Thomism does not have the capacity to nurture or renew Roman Catholic piety. It is more likely that Reform Catholicism or Roman Catholic Americanism, with its acceptance of much that is good in modern life, will lead the Roman church to serious self-evaluation.Bavinck, H., Bolt, J., & Vriend, J. (2003). Reformed dogmatics: Prolegomena (Vol. 1, pp. 143–144). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic.
Bavinck makes a comment that Anselm "still operated in the naive confidence that faith could be elevated to the level of knowledge." He mentions that Anselm tried to do this for the incarnation and atonement in Cur Deus Homo. I read that book in Bible college, and while it had its issues, it was read to help us know how to defend the faith and understand it more deeply. So i am not sure why Bavinck would speak firstly as if faith was less than knowledge, and secondly as if it is foolish to try and strengthen the faith with greater knowledge and understanding of that which we are trusting in. I am still not sure what exactly Bavinck thinks faith is.
Bavinck compares scholasticism to Aristotle's writings and mysticism from the works of Psedo-Dionysius:
Scholasticism is the attempt, with the help of philosophy, to gain scientific knowledge of revealed truth. The object of mystical theology, however, is the mystical communion with God granted by special grace to a small number of privileged persons. Mysticism describes how and by what way the soul could attain to such communion with God and what light could be shed on the truths of faith from that vantage point. In that sense mysticism has always had its representatives in the Christian church and occurs in greater or lesser measure in all the church fathers. It is most intimately bound up with the monastic ideal and proceeds from the assumption that there is a twofold knowledge of God, that of the mind and that of the heart’s experience and communion with God. In the Middle Ages mysticism linked up especially with Augustine, who, as the first to do so, examined the depths of the life of the soul and conveyed his findings in inimitable language.
Bavinck, H., Bolt, J., & Vriend, J. (2003). Reformed dogmatics: Prolegomena (Vol. 1, p. 148). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic.
I think that aspects of both scholasticism and mysticism have its place, rightly understood. I have no issue with the definition given for scholasticism. We should do this, and the Holy Spirit helps us do this. In communion with God, we have a fellowship that unbelievers do not. From that vantage point, there can certainly be benefits, experiences, even insights that others cannot have. I would want to emphasize, however, that one is not converted with only a scholastic knowledge of God, or only a mystical knowledge. I think the Christian is born again with some of each. Truth is known and felt at the same time. In fact, revealed truth may be heard and even understood, but only experienced at conversion. In that sense, I would say one could have a scholastic knowledge of revealed truth without a mystical knowledge, but you cannot have a mystical knowledge without some degree of scholastic knowledge. The Christian from the beginning has categorized the content of the gospel into certain "scientific" fields of his mind. It is not received with blind faith due to an internal, mystical feeling.
Next time we will begin in summary fashion on chapter 5, Lutheran Dogmatics.