Religion, Reality & the Written Word

In eighth chapter of  his “Reformed Dogmatics” (Volume 1), Bavinck is discussing “religious foundations.” He notes “the three main views… about the place of religion in the life of the soul” (page 254). They are: 1. religion as knowledge 2. religion as morality and 3. religion as feeling (or religion corresponding to the mind, will and heart). Though he notes that there are strengths to each approach, he ultimately concludes that “religion is not limited to one single human faculty but embraces the human being as a whole” (page 268). Bavinck understands that each approach to religion, taken in isolation from the other two, is incomplete simply because it would not live up to the command of our Lord to love God with all our mind, all our soul, and all our strength. 

Rightly then Bavinck criticizes those religious approaches that only take one of the views as the sum of religion’s goal and intent. In his section on religion as feeling or religion based on the heart he notes the danger of confusing religion with “aesthetic feeling” or religion with art. Bavinck notes:

Religion is life, reality; art is ideal, appearance… Reality itself does not change on account of it. Though art gives us distant glimpses of the realm of glory, it does not induct us into that realm and make us citizens of it. Art does not atone for our guilt, or wipe away our tears, or comfort us in life and death. It never turns the beyond into the here and now. Only religion does. It is and conveys reality. It bestows life and peace. It poses the ideal as the true reality and makes us participants in it (Volume 1, page 267)

What Bavinck notes here is especially important for the modern church. When the preaching of the Word (which is at the heart of true religion) is supplanted by other media (especially the visual arts [1]) we face a situation where our faith is now based upon feeling or the heart. This is part of the reason why Christians will argue with those who quote Bible texts by saying “that is not how I feel” or “I know in my heart that is not true.” 

But Bavinck notes that art does not change reality or usher in the kingdom of God.  It cannot forgive or comfort us.  It only points us to what is to come without actually ensuring or acquiring eternal life. Most certainly it ought never to replace true faith in Jesus. The danger is that, for some, their worship or conception of God is changed by the visual and yet this experience is not based in scripture.

Indeed our Lord did not merely point His disciples to what they felt or experienced in their heart, but what they knew to be true based on what they read from the Word of God and had heard from His lips:

For we did not follow cunningly devised fables when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but were eyewitnesses of His majesty. For He received from God the Father honor and glory when such a voice came to Him from the Excellent Glory: ‘This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.’ And we heard this voice which came from heaven when we were with Him on the holy mountain.

And so we have the prophetic word confirmed, which you do well to heed as a light that shines in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts; knowing this first, that no prophecy never came by the will of man, but holy men of God spoke as they were moved by the Holy Spirit.
2 Peter 1:16-21


Consider Heidelberg Catechism, Q&A 98:

Q. But may not images be permitted in the churches as teaching aids for the unlearned?
A. No, we shouldn’t try to be wiser than God. He wants his people instructed by the living preaching of his Word-(1), not by idols that cannot even talk.(2)

(1) Rom. 10:14-15, 17; 2 Tim. 3:16-17; 2 Pet. 1:19 [2) Jer. 10:8; Hab. 2:18-20


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