Idolatry and Immediacy

“Idolatry, taken in its broadest sense,
is born of the human need for a God who is near.”
(Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, Volume 1, page 326
)

As we saw in our last post, Bavinck distinguishes between general and special revelation: whereas the former refers to God’s self-revelation in creation, the latter refers to God’s self-revelation in a supernatural way (i.e. something not found in the created order).  The Christian faith, he notes, believes that God has revealed something of Himself in creation but has especially made Himself known to fallen man in the special revelation of Holy Scripture.

However, he reminds us that Christianity is not alone in its reliance upon a divine book or claims of heavenly messages that guide the faithful. For “[h]istory teaches us that not a single religion can survive on general revelation alone” (Volume 1, Chapter 11, page 324). This belief in divine revelation manifests itself in historical religions in three ways: 1) the desire for a god who is near and not far away 2) that gods make know their thoughts and will to man & 3) that special intervention and divine assistance from the gods is available to man in times of distress (as summarized from page 326).

What then, according to Bavinck, distinguishes Christianity’s and other religion’s understanding of special revelation? Or what makes the Bible so special?

“In pagan religions it is human beings who seek God (Acts 17:27). In every way they attempt to bring God down to themselves and into the dust (Romans 1:23), and by all kinds of methods they try to achieve power over God. But in scripture it is always God who seeks human beings. He creates them in his image and calls them after the fall. He saves Noah, chooses Abraham, gives his laws to Israel. He calls and equips the prophets. He sends his Son and sets apart the apostles. He will one day judge the living and dead. The religions of the nations, on the other hand, teach us to know human beings in their restlessness, misery, and discontent but also in their but also in their noble aspirations and their everlasting needs – human beings both in their poverty and riches, their weakness and strength. The noblest fruit of these religions produces humanism. But Holy Scripture teaches us to know God in his coming to and search for human beings, in his compassion and grace, in his justice and his love.” (emphasis mine – Volume 1, Chapter 11, page 327)

As Bavinck notes, in the quote at the top of this post, the human need is for the divine to be near to him. But because man is sinful and thus twists God’s general revelation to suit his needs, he makes a god or a faith based on his need: this is what scripture calls idolatry. The only way out of this morass is to believe in God who, as Bavinck notes, came to us and promises to fulfill our greatest needs and desires: not by being whom we want Him to be but by meeting our needs even when we would not have sought Him out on our own (Romans 3:10-11 & 5:8-11). That is, those in the scripture record & church history who have truly found God, discover that it was not they who were seeking Him, but He who sought them. As John says: “We love Him because He first loved us” (1 John 4:19).

The special revelation of the scriptures, therefore, it is not merely an outward gift (a book to be read) but also the inward testimony of God’s implanted word that changes and remakes us (1 Peter 1:22-25). May we therefore praise our God, who is always near in that Word: to comfort, to bless and to help us.

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Reformation and Revelation

“Ideas have consequences.” When we make that statement we usually are speaking negatively about how our thinking impacts our lives. But  it is also true that ideas, if they are correct, change us for the better: and not merely only our thoughts but our lives as well.

Bavinck spends a lot of time in his Dogmatics contrasting the Reformed view of theology to other views in the Christian tradition. He does so, I believe, not because he thinks that Reformed Christians are better or superior to others (in fact there are many times in the “Reformed Dogmatics” where he freely critiques his own theological tradition). Rather he understands that the Reformation itself was a life changing event for the world in which it took place.  It did make us better Christians.

One of the things that the Reformation changed was, he notes, “the way supernatural revelation was viewed. Supernatural revelation did not, in the first place, mean that it belonged to another order and surpassed even the intellect of sinless human beings and angels. Rather, this revelation was supernatural primarily because it far exceeded the thoughts and wishes of sinful fallen human beings.”(Volume 1, Chapter 10, pages 304-305)

Thus the 16 century Reformation revealed a serious error in the medieval worldview that preceded it. Instead of the problem with creation being creation itself, the Reformation forced us to see that the problem was sin, “which as an alien element has insinuated itself into the world” (Volume 1, page 361). Christ’s coming into the world, as well as the grace that He offered to all men was not an attempt by God to elevate man over nature (of which he was a part) but, by grace, to redeem nature from its corruption.[1] Thus we did not need supernatural revelation because natural revelation was inherently bad but because man is inherently bad and resists God’s truth in creation (see Romans 1:18ff.).

In essence this meant that God’s natural revelation (God speaking to us through creation) was not contrary to or even less important than God’s supernatural revelation (the Holy Scriptures and the Gospel). Though, as Bavinck notes, we rightly distinguish the two, we do not separate them. To separate them, or even to elevate one over the other is to charge God with error or confusion (speaking out of both sides of His mouth). Instead, the Reformation helped us to see how natural and supernatural revelation are compatible and mutually dependent on one another because they come from the same source: God

For example, to speak of God as Creator of all things is not only a natural reality insofar as God’s creation reveals truth about Him and the world He has made (Psalm 19:1ff.) but also a supernatural reality insofar as God’s Word reveals more truths about Him, say for example, the Trinity and the person and work of Jesus Christ). Far from contradicting or undermining what creation teaches us about God, the Trinity and the person and work of Jesus, as revealed in scripture, ‘conform’ to the pattern of creation since God the Father sent His Son into this world to restore it (not to destroy it). He took on our flesh because He wanted to redeem our flesh. Again, sin complicates this revelation, for we understand that Jesus will come again to judge the living and the dead, but this judgment is meant to purify the world of its sinful elements or remnants, but not to overcome something inherently evil or less holy in creation itself.

So Bavinck applies this principle of harmony between God’s natural and supernatural revelation by pointing out that advances in reason, science and the like are not to be rejected by Christians simply because they might come from worldly sources but rather should be encouraged and even welcomed by us. Of course, this does not also mean that we welcome every pursuit of knowledge and thus let our guard down as if the antithesis between darkness (sin) and light (holiness) no longer exists. Sin has corrupted and is still corrupting our fallen minds and hearts. Rather, human pursuit of the truth must be sought in both realms of God’s revelation. Therefore, most errors come about when we look at one source of truth to the exclusion of the other.

But let us also see that the Reformation’s understanding of revelation was not just for the academy or laboratory. As we noted, it has consequences for people’s lives. So, in terms of every day living, the Reformation taught that it was not sinful or wrong, or even less righteous  to be a priest or a servant of the Church when every man, woman and child was appointed to be a priest in their various callings (Exodus 19:6 & 1 Peter 2:5-9). It was not more spiritual or holy to be celibate because marriage is of God before the fall and after the fall (Genesis 2:21-25 & Ephesians 5:22ff.). It was not more spiritual or holy to not have children because having and raising children is designed of God (Genesis 1:26ff.) and can also be a holy calling (Ephesians 6:4 & 1 Timothy 2:15).

See? Ideas have consequences. So let us hold to the best ones and give God the glory. For whether from scripture or creation, they all come from Him.

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[1] So much so that Bavinck later states: “Nature precedes grace; grace perfects nature.” (Volume 1, Chapter 10.5, page 322).

Where Is the Starting Line?

Having introduced the subject of dogmatics, and having addressed some history of dogmatics, Bavinck moves on in his “Reformed Dogmatics” to contemplate the foundation of dogmatics, which is the subject matter of this post. In Part 3 of Volume 1, Bavinck has a chapter called “Scientific Foundations.” Science, here, does not refer to the modern understanding of science which limits our knowledge to the empirical or falsifiable. Rather Bavinck is speaking of the rational or ordered presentation of theology according to theological loci or subjects.[1] But where, or with what subject, does one start?

Bavinck says we must start with what he calls the “first principles” of dogmatic theology. In order to do so, we must understand what are the “‘fundamental principles’ in general.” Noting his agreement with the church fathers, he explains that:

God was the essential foundation of theology. There was a special reason for this. No knowledge of God is possible except that which proceeds from and by God (Matt. 11:27; 1 Cor. 2:10ff.). Earlier theology had an axiom for it: ‘What we need to understand about God must be taught by God himself, for this cannot be known except by the author himself.’ (Reformed Dogmatics, Volume 1, page 212).

As we have noted elsewhere man’s knowledge is derived from God. Obviously, then, the knowledge of God too must originate in Him as well. So God is the beginning (and the end) of theology. If theology starts with God it will end with God. If theology starts with man, well, we know the end of that already: Genesis 3:5. Bavinck continues:   

The fact that the creature knows anything of God at all is solely due to God. He is knowable only because and insofar as he himself wants to be known (ibid.)

This is a profound statement. It assumes that we are entirely dependent upon our Creator to even know Him, that is, even if He wanted to remain hidden, we would never find Him. For when God created man, He did so by revealing to man his purpose with respect to Himself (Genesis 1:28). He told man what He required and what He wanted. That man could understand and appropriate this knowledge was because God had made him in His image. “What may be known of God is manifest in them, for God has shown it to them” (Romans 1:19 – emphasis mine). 

Bavinck demonstrates the validity of this argument by using an example:

The human analogy already proves the truth of this statement. A human is to a certain extent the origin (principium essendi) of our knowledge concerning his person (1 Cor. 2:11). A man must reveal himself, manifest himself by appearance, word and act, so that we may somewhat learn to know him. But in the case of human beings this is always relative. We often reveal ourselves in totally arbitrary ways and in spite of ourselves; we often manifest ourselves in character traits and peculiarities that are unknown to us. Sometimes our self-manifestation belies who we are – it is false, untrue, misleading. But none of this is true of God. He is, in the absolute sense of the term, the source, the primary efficient cause of our knowledge of him, for he is absolutely free, self-conscious, and true. His self-knowledge and self-consciousness is the source (principium essendi) of our knowledge of him. Without the divine self-consciousness, there is no knowledge of God in his creatures. (ibid.)

In short: if what we know of each other is dependent on what and how much we are willing to reveal, how much more is this true of God, upon whom man is dependent for everything? (Revelation 4:11) If we depend on fallible man for knowledge of one another, how much more should we depend on infallible God for the knowledge of Himself? (Psalm 102:11-12,25-26) Only God can know Himself perfectly and rightly. Only God can, then, faithfully reveal Himself to His creatures.

Bavinck goes on to contrast this understanding of God being the “foundation of [Christian] theology” with pantheism. For: 

Pantheism is the death of theology. The relation of God’s own self-knowledge to our knowledge of God used to be expressed by saying that the former was archetypal of the latter and the latter was ectypal of the former. Our knowledge of God is the imprint of the knowledge God has of himself but always on a creaturely level and in a creaturely way (Volume 1, page 212).


Teaching that God and His creation are essentially one, pantheism cannot give us any theology or knowledge of God since, in this view, God is the creature and the creature is God. In a sense God dies, for He is no longer distinct from His creature. There is no being called God in pantheism and thus God does not need to be known or confessed at all. God is everything and therefore He is nothing (not a being or person to be defined).[2]

Rather, upholding the Creator-creature distinction, Bavinck asserts that man knows God, but not fully. Man does not know God because he is immersed into God,  or because he participates in God’s  essential being (as pantheism teaches) but rather knows God because what knowledge a creature made in God’s image can possess has been bestowed upon him. God’s knowledge of Himself is complete or infinite (archetypal), whereas man’s knowledge is incomplete or finite (ectypal).[3] For:

The knowledge of God present in his creatures is only a weak likeness, a finite, limited sketch, of the absolute self-consciousness of God accommodated to the capacities of the human or creaturely consciousness (ibid.). 

So whatever knowledge we have of God is presented in the “lisps as nurses are wont to do with little children,” as Calvin said (Institutes, I.13.1). It is not all that God is, but only that what we are able to understand as creatures.

So what conclusions, then, ought we to draw from this first principle of dogmatics? After all, good theology is good not only because it is true but also because it is eminently practical. For myself, I see at least three helpful points by which we can live and move and have our being. These three applicatory principles are (conveniently) summarized for us by Paul in 1 Corinthians 1:29-31:

“that no flesh should glory in His presence.
But of Him you are in Christ Jesus, who became for us wisdom from God – and righteousness and sanctification and redemption – that, as it is written, ‘He who glories, let him glory in the LORD.'”

If we think that we know God apart from Him or His revelation to us, or know everything there is to know of God, we have violated the first and greatest point, which is the praise that is due only to God. Don’t glory in yourself; glory in the Lord. For as Bavinck notes, “however great the distance is, the source of our knowledge of God is solely God himself, the God who reveals himself freely, self-consciously, and genuinely” (emphasis mine – Volume 1, page 212). This, in turn, teaches us humility, the second principle for application.  God did not make Himself known to us for anything we had done. This leads us to the third and final principle for application: the Christological. For Bavinck notes that the second principle of theology is the principium cognoscendi or “the principle by which we know.” That is, we know God by revelation or by His self-revelation. And this revelation is best seen in the one whom Paul says is “Christ Jesus, who became for us wisdom from God” and is, more so, sufficient for our “righteousness and sanctification and redemption.” For “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld His glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14). Amen. 

[1] For example, Christology (the study or presentation of the person and work of Christ) is a subject of theological discussion or loci.
[2] As Bavinck later argues,
“The rock on which all pantheism runs aground is multiplicity; there is no discoverable passage from the abstract to the concrete, from the general to the particular” (Volume 1, page 218). 
[3] He notes further that “the ectypal knowledge of God that is granted to creatures by revelation is not the absolute self-knowledge of God but the knowledge of God as it has been accommodated to and made fit for the finite consciousness – hence anthropomorphized… It differs, not in substance and rational order (re et ratione), but nevertheless in degree and manner (gradu et modo): in Christ (theologia unionis; theology of union), in the angels and the blessed  (theologia visionis; theology of vision), and in human beings on earth (theologia viatorum, viae, revelationis; theology of people in pilgrimage, on a journey, of revelation)…. It is the Father, who through the Son as Logos, imparts himself to His creatures in the Spirit” (Volume 1, page 214).

Sometimes Generalizations Are Helpful

Generalizations can hurt people if they are presented carelessly but they can also help us if they are used wisely. In terms of the former, one may unwittingly or even maliciously seek to ‘pigeon hole’ an opponent or detractor to make them seem to be or believe something other than what they are or confess. In answer to this approach, I believe our Lord’s teaching is sufficient: “Do not judge according to appearance, but judge with righteous judgment” (John 7:24).   

Therefore, if generalizations are to serve us, they serve us best when we use them carefully and helpfully, aiming to speak to the heart of what is being stated, while, at the same time, doing so without also misrepresenting others. In the case of theology (or dogmatics) generalizations can often summarize what others believe without having to define all the nuances of that particular tradition. In fact, it is often necessary to be general so we can get a bird’s eye view of a particular position, especially when we are contrasting it with other positions. 

I believe this is the case with Herman Bavinck’s statement about the Lutheran tradition in Volume 1 of his “Reformed Dogmatics.” Having defined and explore the history of Lutheran dogmatics in chapter 5, Bavinck goes on in chapter 6 to define and explore the history of Reformed dogmatics. Though he states there is much “agreement between them -extending even the confession of predestination – there was from the beginning an important difference between [the Lutheran and Reformed]” (page 176). This difference can be attributed to “a difference of principle” (ibid.).[1] Bavinck then explains that:

the difference seems to be conveyed best by saying that the Reformed Christian thinks theologically, the Lutheran anthropologically. The Reformed person is not content with an exclusively historical stance but raises his sights to the idea, the eternal decree of God. By contrast the Lutheran raises his position in the midst of the history of redemption and feels no need to enter more deeply into the counsel of God. For the Reformed, therefore, election is the heart of the church; for Lutherans, justification is the article by which the church stands or falls. Among the former the primary question: How is the glory of God advanced? Among the latter it is: How does a human get saved? The struggle of the former is above all against paganism – idolatry; that of the latter against Judaism – works-righteousness. The Reformed person does not rest until he has traced all things retrospectively to the divine decree, tracking down ‘wherefore’ of things, and prospectively made all things subservient to the glory of God; the Lutheran is content with the ‘that’ and enjoys the salvation in which he is, by faith, a participant. From this difference in principle, the dogmatic controversies between them (with respect to the image of God, original sin, the person of Christ, the order of salvation, the sacraments, church government, ethics etc.) can be easily explained.

Let us first note that when Bavinck assesses the Lutheran approach to dogmatics as being ‘anthropological’, he is not saying that Lutherans are man-centered in their theology, and the Reformed are God-centered in their theology. Besides being a straw man argument, this would run contrary to various statements in the Lutheran confessions themselves.

Rather Bavinck says that the Lutheran thinks anthropologically. That is, the way that they frame their theology is focused on man, or is presented in terms of man’s needs and wants. He is satisfied with knowing what God wants from him, and does not feel the “need to enter more deeply into the counsel of God.” This is a historical (man’s history or God’s dealing with man in history) viewpoint as opposed to a decretal (God’s sovereign plan for the world) viewpoint. Thus, as Bavinck points out, the theological disparity between us can be expressed in terms of the Reformed (theology) tending to focus on the glory of God as a final goal, and the Lutheran (theology) tending to focus on the question of how a human gets saved? And apparently this issue continues to be a kind of dividing line between us

For further clarification, I would also like to point out that Bavinck does affirm that justification “is rightly denominated the article on which the church either stands or falls.” (Volume 4, page 205). Thus his statement that “for Lutherans, justification is the article by which the church stands or falls” is not to be read or understood as a denial of justification by faith or somehow an argument that there is an essential difference between the Lutheran understanding of justification and the Reformed understanding of justification (as some would assert).[2]

At the same time, he is asserting that the Reformed wants to say more because his ultimate concern is to ask: “How is the glory of God advanced?” Thus we should conclude that the historical & decretal approaches are not necessarily at odds with each other. They complement each other but, according to Bavinck, the Reformed tends to wants both/and while the Lutheran settles for either/or. 

None of this proves, however, the superiority of one approach over the other and this is not, at least at this point, Bavinck’s argument.[3] But what we should take away from this statement is that open and honest dialogue between differing Christian traditions will benefit Christ’s Church, as each party is willing to ‘lay their cards on the table’ by assessing and contrasting each other’s views. In fact, to pretend that such differences don’t exist and don’t matter is to pretend that the history of theological development was all for not. But I would contend that this is more of a post-modern view and not a biblical view. It has more in common with cultural attempts to make everything ‘one’ when clearly some things are ‘two’ or more. 

This does not mean, however, that there are no commonalities amongst the Lutheran and Reformed: far from it. We are both heirs of the Reformation, and historically the Reformed are indebted to their Lutheran counterparts for their theological foundation. But we will never make any headway at all in ecumenical dialogue and rapprochement if we pretend that there is nothing significant in the way. And I believe that Bavinck helps us here to see what that is. 

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[1] It should, here, be made clear that Bavinck is contrasting historical and confessional Lutheranism with historical and confessional Reformed theology. That is, his analysis has little to do with (some of) the present day incarnations of these traditions that seek to supplant, rather than to continue their heritage(s).
[2] Note that elsewhere Bavinck notes that “there is no material difference between Lutheran and Reformed theology with respect to the doctrine of justification, [though] in the latter, nevertheless, it occupies a different place and acquires a different accent”
 (emphasis mine).  Volume 4, page 200.
[3] He does address it elsewhere, especially in terms of the application of these different principles “with respect to the image of God, original sin, the person of Christ, the order of salvation, the sacraments, church government, ethics etc.” -excerpted from the quote above. I will touch on many of these applications in future posts as they arise in our study of Bavinck’s  Reformed Dogmatics

Separated at Birth?

Our next Bavinck quote is an illustration of how two things (or in this case two worldviews) can appear to be mutually exclusive, and yet both actually serve to support the same belief (from two different angles).

Running along parallel lines with Pietism was rationalism. Both –each in its own way – undermined the authority of orthodoxy, by transferring the point of gravity to the human subject. (Reformed Dogmatics, Volume 1, page 162).

Perhaps it would be best to begin by defining these different worldviews. Jonathan N. Gerstner (son of his more well known father, John H. Gerstner) gives us a succinct definition of pietism as that which “implies an exclusive concern about one’s inner life at the expense of concern about the society around on” (The Thousand Generation Covenant). Please note that the criticism here is not about a desire for piety or striving for personal holiness as it is so much about it  being defined as the sine qua non of Christian life, while downplaying or even ignoring the need for Christian witness to the world around us (see Matthew 5:16). As a result, the Christian life begins to revolve around the self, instead of God and neighbour. 

Similarly, as Bavinck notes, rationalism is also about ‘the self’ for rationalism is when “the objective world [is] directed in whole or in part in accordance with the human mind” (Reformed Dogmatics, Volume 1, page 219). Thus rationalism arises as an attempt to judge all truth claims through oneself and to reject all truth claims that do not make sense to oneself. Similar to pietism, we (Bavinck and I!) do not reject rational thought or logic themselves, but we are rejecting the idea that man, unaided by anything other than his own mind, can achieve and maintain the highest form of knowledge and wisdom (see Proverbs 1:7).[1]

Thus the strange relationship and bond these two (seemingly) contradictory worldviews possess. That is, although pietism is founded on a Christian foundation and expressed in Christian ways, and rationalism is founded on deism or even atheism and often (if not always) expressed in ways that are antithetical to Christian foundations, they both serve the same goal or person: ‘me’ or the self.  The starting point, or that around which everything revolves (“gravity” as Bavinck says), of both worldviews is man, and not God. 

And as Bavinck notes, there is a grave result to these starting points: namely that orthodoxy or ‘right doctrine’ is undermined by this shift in our thinking. For as man becomes the centre or the ultimate measure of all things, orthodoxy cannot stand. For orthodoxy (and orthopraxy or right living) rest on God as the centre.

Jack London said it well: that the fashion of the human is to make “of himself a yardstick with which to measure the universe.” (The Apostate) which, of course, excludes God or at least relegates Him to the boundaries of the universe we have created in our and hearts. Thus both the pietist and the rationalist begin to chop and hack away at all that does not fit with their predetermined mindset. If it doesn’t help me (pietist) or it doesn’t make sense to me (rationalist) then be gone! If, for example, justification by faith impedes my sanctification because I am looking to Christ to save me (pietist), or if the resurrection doesn’t make sense (rationalist), then I no longer need these doctrines to live right in this world. And the historical Christian faith is soon lost in the shuffle as everything, sooner or later, is oriented around ‘me’. 

To conclude, I simply want to say that this is a lesson for us as Christians: that is, just because we are professing Christ does not make everything we say and do sanctified and holy. Furthermore, sometimes even noble (pious) pursuits end up pushing the essentials to the periphery. So what we believe and do should be under constant scrutiny by ourselves but not all by ourselves and not for ourselves. 

We must ask ourselves: have we adopted a worldview, even in the name of Christ, that tells others more about the Christian than their Lord and Saviour? Are we believing and acting out of a concern to glorify God in all that we do, or are we really just bringing attention to ourselves? 

Romans 11:33-36 “Oh, the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are His judgments and His ways past finding out! ‘For who has known the mind of the LORD? Or who has become His counselor?’ ‘Or who has first given to Him And it shall be repaid to him?’ For of Him and through Him and to Him are all things, to whom be glory forever. Amen.

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[1] I am not implying that man cannot know anything apart from faith in God. Many people in this world know and profess things that are true without professing faith in a personal Creator. I am, however, implying that man cannot know anything apart from the existence of God so that all knowledge we have is ultimately derived from God. One can claim that any truth they possess has been achieved apart from God (in their minds) but it is ultimately futile and self-refuting to do so (a subject for another time).