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).