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. 


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.


Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Let's Read Herman Bavinck's Reformed Dogmatics (Part 1)

By: Thomas F. Booher

UPDATE: I have now completed the series of posts on Bavinck's Prolegomena. Here are links to each  succeeding part: Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6, Part 7, Part 8, Part 9, Part 10, Part 11, Part 12

A few months ago I received an email from a man who works with Logos Bible Software. He talked to me about doing some reviews on the blog of some of their products. I decided this would be a fun venture, plus it allows me to read some great and expensive stuff for free. 

The first piece I am going to be reviewing is Herman Bavinck's Reformed Dogmatics. I will be starting with volume one, Prolegomena. However, I will be doing this in a rather unusual way. 

If you noticed the title of this post, and if you know anything about "Let's Plays" in video gaming, you may have wondered if I was borrowing the terminology. I am. While in video gaming a "let's play" involves watching someone (usually on YouTube) play through a whole video game while giving running commentary and fun facts, I will be highlighting Herman Bavinck's work by reproducing chunks of quotes and then discussing them. This, as you might expect, will take multiple posts to do. Also, I am going to be discussing the book while still reading it. In other words, I will not have completed much more than what you are reading in any given post. This will allow you to see the shifting sands of my understanding of Bavinck as I slog through his writings. 

This first volume is over 600 pages long, and between all four volumes we have something around 2,500 to 3,000 pages. As I mentioned, I am reading Reformed Dogmatics electronically at the courtesy of Logos Bible Software, so I will also discuss how their software helped me study, take notes, look up Bible verses, references, etc. 

So, with that said, let us begin. 

Introductory Matters

According to my Logos/E-Book version of Reformed Dogmatics, I have read to page 113. The page numbering seems to vary, however, because the text will shift from time to time for some reason. One nice thing about Logos Bible Software is that they have the entire Table of Contents hyperlinked so that any section or subsection you can click on and jump to. Whatever page you are on, you can hit an icon (which looks like lines representing text) at the top left of the screen (I'm using an iPad) which will bring up the Table of Contents, allowing me to jump around in the book in an orderly way. 

Prolegomena is broken into 5 parts. Part 1 is titled "Introduction to Dogmatics". Under this is two more parts, "The Science of Dogmatic Theology" and "The Method of Organization of Dogmatic Theology." I am going to attempt to cover all of this in one post ( not this current post but the next one), which will likely be the longest post ever on the Tulip Driven Life blog. 

From what I have gathered from Part 1, Bavinck is really laying the groundwork for a definition of Dogmatics itself. In fact, Part 2 will go through a history of Dogmatic theology. Defining dogmatics will be the big discussion point throughout this post and the next one.

But before we dig into definitions, I want to very briefly share with you a bit of the importance and history of Bavinck's Reformed Dogmatics as well as discuss the Editor's introduction. This will help us understand Bavinck the man and uncover the influences that played on him and helped shape his writing.

Herman Bavinck (1854-1921) was a Dutch professor and theologian. In 1902 he succeeded Abraham Kuyper as Professor of Theology at the Free University of Amsterdam. He was influenced by Kuyper, and has also been said to be a great influence on Cornelius Van Til (some say the greatest). As many of you know, Van Til developed his own apologetic method which many in the Reformed camp now champion. Apologetics will come into discussion early in Bavinck's writing, and I do see some influence on Van Til.

Bavinck's Reformed Dogmatics was completely translated into English by 2008. Its newness means many English speaking people have not been exposed to Bavinck's work, another great reason to read and review his material. 

The Editor's Introduction and a Sketch of Bavinck's Thought

With Logos Bible Software, I can cycle through my highlights that I make in the text. I can also take notes anywhere in the book, and can sort through them as well. This is very convenient and makes finding something I am looking for much quicker than if I was reading a physical copy. 

I see in my notes that the editor's introduction mentions that Bavinck was influenced by an evangelical revival movement known as the Reveil, which was similar to English Puritanism. Another influence on Bavinck came from his time at the University of Leiden, where he began to study at the Kampen Theological School. The faculty took a modernist, "scientific" approach to theology. This produced a lifelong tension in Bavinck between his desire to remain committed to orthodox theology and spirituality and to understand the modern world and its culture. 

Bavinck also felt pulled between an understanding of salvation in Christ which was chiefly about separating man from sin and the world so that believers could prepare for heavenly bliss and fellowship with God, and the view of Ritschl, which said that salvation was mainly about enjoying the freedom of being a child of God and living for His Kingdom by engaging in his earthly vocation. Bavinck saw much he liked in both views but did not know how to reconcile the two, claiming the former could lead to a monastic life and the latter to Pelagianism or moralism.

The editor also indicates that Bavinck frequently engages with the modern scientific world of his time, seeking to affirm, correct, or repudiate its teaching in light of Scripture. He tangles with Kant, Schelling, Hegel, Darwin, and others. 

Bavinck sought a trinitarian synthesis between otherwordly pietism and this-worldly modernism. He said: 

"In this situation, the hope is not unfounded that a synthesis is possible between Christianity and culture, however antagonistic they may presently stand over against each other. If God has truly come to us in Christ, and is, in this age too, the Preserver and Ruler of all things, such a synthesis is not only possible but also necessary and shall surely be effected in its own time."   
This is interesting in itself, since today we see culture and Christianity so merged that many churches are trying to mimic culture in order to gain an audience to express the Christian faith. This commingling is a dangerous and ungodly thing, but Christians are in culture and are called to be citizens of the land in which they reside. Kuyper, along with Bavinck, make distinctions between the church as an organized group which administers the Word and sacraments, and the body of Christ which goes out into the world and culture. We must do both, but how sharp a divide there should be between the two is the debate. 

The editor says that the fundamental theme that shapes Bavinck's entire theology is the trinitarian idea that grace restores nature. "Grace does not remain outside or above or beside nature but rather permeates and wholly renews it. And thus nature, reborn by grace, will be brought to its highest revelation. That situation will again return in which we serve God freely and happily without compulsion or fear, simply out of love, and in harmony with our true nature." 

Regarding this first volume, Prolegomena, Bavinck says dogmatics is the "knowledge that God has revealed in his Word to his church concerning himself and all creatures as they stand in relation to him." Bavinck also points out that though modern thought devalues all dogma, it is in reality a rejection of certain dogmas and an affirmation of others. This is a key theme that we will hit on when we get to Bavinck's work proper. 

The editor says this prolegomena is distinct from others due to the extent with which Bavinck confronts the "profound epistemological crisis of post-Enlightenment modernity". In particular Bavinck deals with Kant and the idea that religion and knowledge (theology and science) should be divorced from one another. 

Bavnick also insists that all religious conviction is born in historical religions (from their narratives within the communities of faith). Christianity is the true narrative,  but like all other religions, it gets its story from the church and its proclamation. 

Touching more closely on apologetics, Bavinck also argues in chapter 2 and chapter 16 that believing is itself a form of certainty (something I take great exception to so far). This of course flies in the face of modernity, which believes that sense perception and deduction from reason are the only sources for certainty. 

Bavinck claims that Christian dogmatics depends on the truth of Scripture as the revelation of God himself, and that all religion is based on authority and thus on revelation. However, efforts to be purely biblical still reflect the ecclesiastical and social environment from which they arise. Therefore the proper theological method, according to Bavinck, consults Christian tradition and Christian consciousness along with Scripture. This is derived from his belief that "theology arises from faith and seeks to serve the community of faith". 

I think the notion that theology arises from faith is a dangerous one, but from what I have read so far I do not think Bavinck consistently believes that. If he did, I do not see how he could escape an almost neo-orthodox view of Scripture, and a subjective view of Scripture. While the Spirit does illuminate us, it is not faith that produces theology, but rather Spirit-illumined faith that discovers the theology of the Bible. At least, I think that is a much better way to say things if you are going to believe this way, and I think a more accurate way to describe Bavinck's own beliefs than what the editor says. Although, it does appear in certain places, which we will discuss at length later, that Bavinck may really believe that unless one has faith in God he or she cannot ascertain the theology of Scripture. 

Well, this is plenty for one post. I hope your appetite has been whetted to read Bavinck with me, or at least read the posts on the blog to learn the general flow of Bavinck's thought. I believe there is much good to chew on here, and some things that I disagree with in his writings still seem to haunt reformed churches today. 

This will be a relevant, in depth, and Lord willing, enlightening discussion of Bavinck. I do hope you will keep reading with me. 

If you have any comments for this post or the ones to follow, please leave them below. I'd love to discuss Bavinck with you guys.