The Tulip Driven Life Podcast

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Part 9 of Let's Read Herman Bavinck's Reformed Dogmatics

I covered two more chapters, which means two summaries for this post, which means a long post. There is much to be said, but Bavinck is very repetitive, so I am going to try to distill this as best I can without sacrificing too much substance. 

Part IV: Revelation (Principium Externum) 

The Idea of Revelation

    The concept of revelation is a necessary correlate of all religion. Since belief in revelation can be found in all religions, revelation and religion stand or fall together. Religion is the arena of redemption; saviors can be found everywhere. Disagreements exist concerning the what and how of religion but the question remains: “What must I do to be saved?” The answer to the three major concerns of religion—God, humanity, salvation—require revelation.
I agree with this, and I think this is one big reason Bavinck opposes rationalism, since it claims that all that can or is needed to be known of God for salvation can be done so through reason alone (perhaps with the aid of observation). Bavinck does hold to general revelation that reaches all people (including unbelievers), but nuances it in a way that is at best paradoxical in my estimation. And certainly reason and nature cannot of itself tell us how to be saved from God, unless one will say that reason and nature itself is God.   
    The relation between general or natural revelation and special revelation leads to questions about the relation between believing and knowing, theology and philosophy. A dependence on philosophy to provide categories for understanding revelation often leads to abstraction and intellectualism. Deism in particular subordinated revelation to reason, making scriptural revelation unnecessary. Since this rationalism was cold and spiritually, as well as intellectually, unsatisfying, others began to understand revelation as the spark of divinity evidenced in artistic genius and moral perfection. Since Jesus embodies this genius and moral perfection supremely, he becomes the great Revealer, who somehow communicates his divinity and holiness to those in communion with him. The Christian faith came to be understood as a historical process of moral amelioration, building the kingdom of God on earth.
Bavinck opposes Deism and the subordination of revelation to reason in the sense I mentioned above, that is, in the sense that reason is so powerful that it has no need of revelation. But it also seems that Bavinck opposes reason making pronouncements on revelation in general. Now I do agree that once something is clearly established as revelation from God, that we as human beings cannot question it. What God says is true because it is God who said it. However, we have to use our reasoning capacities to make a determination: is this prophecy or book the revelation that it claims to be? God Himself gave signs to His prophets to validate that their message was indeed from God, and as such, was revelation.  
    The nineteenth century also produced philosophical understandings of revelation in which God’s self-consciousness in humanity is identical to humanity gaining consciousness of God. This consciousness is expressed first symbolically in art, then visually in religion, and finally in its highest form conceptually in philosophy. The history of religions is the history of the absolute coming to himself in human consciousness and achieves its zenith in Christianity, which brings to light the essential unity of God and humanity. This evolutionary pantheism found favor among a number of nineteenth-century theologians. Revelation coincides with course of nature, the true revelation of rational knowledge. All notions of supernatural revelation have vanished here.
Another reason why Bavinck is probably averse to ever letting reason "judge" that which claims to be revelation.  
    The theological discussion of revelation today is very confused and inherently contradictory. On a naturalistic level there cannot be such a reality as revelation; there is no personal communication from God to humanity. However, the term “revelation” remains in use even among naturalist philosophers and theologians. The reality of religion depends on some form of revelation, and the very possibility of revelation as a communication from a personal God requires a theistic, supernaturalist worldview. A materialist worldview is diametrically opposed to all ideas of such revelation. The chief error here is a commitment to a religiously neutral scientific method, a goal that is impossible. On the other hand, a scientific investigation rooted in Christian faith yields results that are compatible with Scripture and science. Thus, a true concept of revelation can only be derived from revelation itself.

Bavinck, H., Bolt, J., & Vriend, J. (2003). Reformed dogmatics: Prolegomena (Vol. 1, pp. 283–284). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic.
What of course skeptics and unbelievers argue is that man has manufactured a god from their own imaginations, but we dealt with that in brief in the last post. I think Bavinck's point about the impossibility of not having presuppositions comes out more clearly here. His point seems to be that you cannot abstract your religious convictions from scientific investigation. That is because as you investigate anything, be it the universe itself, the psychology of man, whatever, your belief that the universe was the result of a cosmic accident or the creation of a divine, intelligent power impacts your scientific inquiry. 

General Revelation

I very much enjoyed this chapter from Bavinck, even if I don't fully understand what he means. 
    From the earliest days of the church, Christian theology made a distinction between “natural” and “supernatural” revelation. God makes himself known to all people through his creation—accounting for those elements Christianity and other religions have in common. What is unique and distinctive about Christianity is based on God’s special revelation in Scripture. The great theological debates in the church concerned the nature of the relationship between these two.
    While the Roman Catholic tradition gave natural theology greater weight than did the major reformers, the extreme wing of the Anabaptist tradition rejected the natural order and attempted in revolutionary fashion to establish a kingdom of heaven on earth. Socinianism also rejected natural theology and inferred all knowledge of God from special revelation. Even Luther was not free from a dualistic view that separated the spiritual and temporal realms.
    The result was that in Anabaptism and Socinianism excessive supernaturalism turned into rationalism. Among Lutherans and some Calvinists, reason came to have some authority alongside of faith. Eventually an expanding natural theology was judged by German naturalists and English deists to make revelation unnecessary. By contrast the influence of Immanuel Kant’s philosophy led theologians to search for nonrational means of affirming the reality of God.
I don't think reason and faith should be separated, and I still cannot determine if Bavinck thinks they should or should not. Distinguished, sure, but severed? No. Again, I think faith is reasonable, and if it were not, we wouldn't believe. Once we are believers we will take all of God's Word by faith, even if we do not fully understand or see the reason of it as of yet, because we know we are listening to the voice of truth. We will then of course search diligently for the reason in what God has commanded us to trust in.  
    The Scriptures do not distinguish between “natural” and “supernatural” revelation. Creation revelation is no less supernatural than Scripture; in both, God himself is at work and his providential creating, sustaining, and governing form a single mighty ongoing revelation. Revelation comes already before the fall into sin; the covenant of works is a fruit of supernatural revelation. As image bearers of God, human beings are intrinsically supernaturalists.
    Supernatural revelation is not the same as immediate revelation. All revelation is mediate. God makes himself known by theophanies, by word and deed. Sin does not alter matters. God’s general revelation still holds for all people at all times. There are, however, periods in which special revelation does not occur. Therefore the distinction between natural and supernatural revelation is not identical with the distinction between general and special revelation. The latter term is preferable to the former.
Bavinck affirms that God's general revelation holds for all peoples at all times. He says that general revelation is a preamble of faith, meant for those who are already believers though. He also says that general revelation provides a common ground between the believer and unbeliever, and seems to think that offering proofs for the existence of God is a good thing. If we are image-bearers of God, then we must be supernaturalists by nature. An application of that point, which Bavinck makes I think, is that all men seek something greater than themselves. Unbelievers do it selfishly and ultimately for themselves, but a natural religion has never satisfied anyone for long. In short order a deeper explanation is sought than what is merely seen. Even atheists want to fight for their particular causes and what they deem as moral, as if there can be something external and good and worth pursuing without their being a god.  
    It is the unanimous conviction of Christian theologians that general revelation is inadequate. Pelagians do assert the sufficiency of natural revelation, and they were followed in the eighteenth century by rationalists and deists. The defect of all general revelation is that it can supply us with no knowledge of Christ and divine grace and forgiveness. In addition, natural knowledge is not without error and its claims highly debated.
I agree with this to be sure. Natural revelation does not tell us of the God-man and the way of salvation and forgiveness. But working in conjunction with the gospel, it is a powerful witness to all of redemptive history. In that sense I can agree with Bavinck when he says that those who have the Holy Spirit and embrace special revelation can now look back more clearly on general revelation and see how it testifies to God and even Christ Himself in a way in which unbelievers cannot. But I also think that general revelation can be used to argue for the existence of God and that which is good, and our need for forgiveness from God, so long as it is being presented with the gospel. The Holy Spirit can use both to bring one to saving faith, and to withhold general revelation and view it as useless to the unbeliever is a serious mistake, I would argue nearly as serious as thinking that general revelation alone can lead one to salvation.  
    General revelation is of great significance for the world of paganism. It is difficult to provide an agreed-upon view of religion’s origins. Many have become enamored of an evolutionary view, though this ignores the fact of religion among so-called primitive people and denies the possibility of retrogression. Attempts to explain the origin and essence of religion without reference to God and his knowable revelation are bound to fail. Even paganism holds some truths.
    All revelation—general and special—finally finds its fulfillment and meaning in Christ. God’s revelation in Scripture and in Christ provides the spectacles of faith that enable us to understand general revelation better, as well as a basis for encounters with non-Christians. In no way should the Christian faith be represented as otherworldly or anti-creation. Rather, grace and nature are united in the Christian faith, and general revelation links the kingdom of heaven and the kingdom of earth—it joins creation and redemption together in one great eschatological cantata of praise. Grace restores nature, a religious life is woven into the very fabric of ordinary human experience. Finally, God is one and the same loving God in creation and redemption; grace restores nature.
Some of this is similar to what I have said above. Bavinck's concept of general revelation linking the kingom of heaven and the kingdom of earth is an interesting one, one which I like and would like to explore further. I certainly agree that the faith should not be presented as only otherworldly. In fact I do believe that the kingdom of heaven is coming down to earth, and is doing so even now. Creation and redemption are connected, as Bavinck's refrain "grace restores nature" indicates. This restoration is to a higher level than even before the Fall in the garden, for now it is with Christ the God-Man at the helm, and His redeemed bride are co-heirs with Him. But engaging with creation, cultivating it in a nearly infinite number of ways, for the glory of God, is the purpose of creation, and redemption. We both reflect God and worship God as we do all for His glory, especially including what we do with the creation He has called us to develop.

Bavinck seems to reject the notion that general revelation should be used as a basis for the Christian faith: 

  When Christians confess their faith in God the Father Almighty, Creator of heaven and earth—that is Christian faith in the full sense of the term. And dogmaticians do not first divest themselves of their Christian faith in order to construct a rational doctrine of God and humanity and in order later to supplement it with the revelation in Christ. But they draw their knowledge solely and alone from special revelation, i.e., from Scripture. This is their unique principle.

Bavinck, H., Bolt, J., & Vriend, J. (2003). Reformed dogmatics: Prolegomena (Vol. 1, p. 320). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic.

Bavinck says that Christians should not draw from general revelation "their first knowledge of God, the world, and humanity in order later to augment this knowledge with the knowledge of Christ." Depending on what exactly he means by this, I may or may not agree. I agree that a Christian shouldn't look to nature and formulate opinions about God with only their reason first, and then try to make that fit with the knowledge we have from Christ in Scripture. But I would think as Christians we would already know something of Christ, and therefore it would be impossible to draw our first knowledge of God, the world, and humanity from general revelation. I do think that general revelation can increase our faith and, armed with the knoweldge of God from Scripture, help us understand God better. This Bavinck agrees with I believe (based on what he says a bit later), but he also says that the carnal person does not understand God's speech in nature and history. I agree that the carnal person gets it confused, and may only get some dim glimpse of God's glory and goodness, but I do think the carnal person can get something. And again, evangelizing an unbeliever, I think we should present the gospel along with the revelation of God that is derived from nature. And depending on the beliefs of the unbeliever we are talking to, we may even start with general revelation, in order to prove the existence of God, or even to show the probability that the Bible is indeed the Word of God and as such is truth that binds the conscience of all men. Whether Bavinck would be comfortable with that ordering of things I do not know, but based on the following, I think it is at least possible (which pleasantly surprises me): 

 In that general revelation, moreover, Christians have a firm foundation on which they can meet all non-Christians. They have a common basis with non-Christians. As a result of their Christian faith, they may find themselves in an isolated position; they may not be able to prove their religious convictions to others; still, in general revelation they have a point of contact with all those who bear the name “human.” Just as a classic preparatory education forms a common foundation for all people of learning, so general revelation unites all people despite their religious differences. Subjectively, in the life of believers, the knowledge of God from nature comes after the knowledge derived from Scripture. We are all born in a certain concrete religion. Only the eye of faith sees God in his creation. Here too it is true that only the pure of heart see God. Yet objectively nature is antecedent to grace; general revelation precedes special revelation. Grace presupposes nature. To deny that natural religion and natural theology are sufficient and have an autonomous existence of their own is not in any way to do an injustice to the fact that from the creation, from nature and history, from the human heart and conscience, there comes divine speech to every human. No one escapes the power of general revelation. Religion belongs to the essence of a human. The idea and existence of God, the spiritual independence and eternal destiny of the world, the moral world order and its ultimate triumph—all these are problems that never cease to engage the human mind. Metaphysical need cannot be suppressed. Philosophy perennially seeks to satisfy that need. It is general revelation that keeps that need alive. It keeps human beings from degrading themselves into animals. It binds them to a supersensible world. It maintains in them the awareness that they have been created in God’s image and can only find rest in God. General revelation preserves humankind in order that it can be found and healed by Christ and until it is. To that extent natural theology used to be correctly denominated a “preamble of faith,” a divine preparation and education for Christianity. General revelation is the foundation on which special revelation builds itself up.

Bavinck, H., Bolt, J., & Vriend, J. (2003). Reformed dogmatics: Prolegomena (Vol. 1, pp. 321–322). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic.

I also think this quote of Bavinck, which is the crescendo which closes his chapter on general revelation, also bodes in my favor, though I don't know what he means by all of it: 

It is one and the same God who in general revelation does not leave himself without a witness to anyone and who in special revelation makes himself known as a God of grace. Hence general and special revelation interact with each other. “God first sent forth nature as a teacher, intending also to send prophecy next, so that you, a disciple of nature, might more easily believe prophecy” (Tertullian). Nature precedes grace; grace perfects nature. Reason is perfected by faith, faith presupposes nature.

Bavinck, H., Bolt, J., & Vriend, J. (2003). Reformed dogmatics: Prolegomena (Vol. 1, p. 322). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic.

I think he is quoting Tertullian favorably here, which means that Bavinck does see nature as a teacher (to unbelievers too I presume) to help them more easily believe prophecy. So then there are reasons for believing prophecy, believing revelation. And general revelation helps us ultimately trust in Christ as Lord and Savior. 

So nature precedes grace, and grace perfects nature, I suppose in fully revealing its purpose and also illuminating the believers mind to understand general revelation more clearly. The last part is the confusing part for me still: Reason is perfected by faith, faith presupposes nature. Faith presupposes nature makes since in that general revelation helps us have faith. But how does faith perfect reason? Is it because that which is reasonable demands to be embraced/perfected by faith? Does faith in the reasonable add insight? Does faith direct reason and particularly as fallen people, does faith in God and Christ as Savior give us the proper perspective to use our reason rightly? That of course, I believe to be true. 

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