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.

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

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

__________________

[1]
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

You Get What You See, But What You Get Is Not Enough to See

If the title of this post is confusing for you then I encourage you to read further. For as we see (!) in the following insight from Herman Bavinck, we need to be encouraged to understand before we see and then understand that there is more to life than what we see.

Having discussed the foundations or starting point of theology, Bavinck goes on to critique the various non-Christian alternatives to the theory of knowledge (epistemology). After dealing with rationalism (in which “the objective world lets itself be directed in whole or in part in accordance with the human mind” Volume 1, page 219) he summarizes the empirical approach to knowledge. He states:

empiricism totally subjects the human consciousness to the world outside of us. In the pursuit of knowledge, human beings bring with them nothing but the faculty of perception… Innate ideas do not exist… From the temple of truth which he aspires to construct in his mind, he must remove all idols… The human mind, therefore, is and must be a tabula rasa on which nothing has as yet been written, an entity completely devoid of presuppositions… No science of the supersensible (noumena) and the supernatural is therefore possible… our knowledge is limited to the that and the how; the what and the why remain hidden Volume 1, page 219). 

In this view of life or worldview, humans don’t or shouldn’t bring anything to the table of knowledge. There is nothing we already know that is either not, 1) taken from the world around us or 2) knowledge falsely called because we assume its truth, without being able to verify it. Defining something (“the what”) or truly understanding something (“the why”), therefore, is unachievable for humans. This theory of knowledge is associated with agnosticism (we cannot know if God exists) and materialism (the physical or material world is all there is and ever will be).

In the world today, we often hear and see this as the scientific paradigm or the ‘science is only what can be verified according to tested results’. We are told, then, that creation science and even intelligent design is not true science because it rests on ‘religious’ or unverifiable methods and presuppositions (such as the existence of a personal, divine creator).

There are a number of things that we could say about this approach (I have addressed them in another blog post) but I will ‘let’ Bavinck speak to this issue. He notes that “in its intellectual activity the human mind is never totally passive or even receptive  but also always more or less active” (page 220). So instead of being a tabula rasa (blank slate), Bavinck argues that the mind presupposes or assumes consciousness. We believe that we are alive; we believe that we are awake; we believe that we are properly able to discern, by our senses, what is real and what is not real; what is false and what is true. That is, we must readily admit, that our senses deceive us (e.g. mirages, UFO sightings, hallucinations etc.).

More fundamentally, as Bavinck notes, we also believe or assume in the laws of logic and mathematics. No one knows anywhere in the world (in the sky above or the earth beneath) where one can find the truth that ‘a’ cannot be ‘a’ and ‘not a’ at the same time (the law of non-contradiction) or that 2+2 = 4. It is true, experience or our senses teach us that if a cat looks like a cat and walks like a cat and smells (!) like a cat, it is a cat and not ‘not a cat. That is, words must mean something and not mean something else for our world to make sense. But that is still different than coming to that conclusion solely based on experience. For what is at stake here is not simply verifying that the ‘seen’ and ‘smelt’ being is a cat but that it is also ‘not a cat’ at the same because we have assumed that this law of non-contradiction is universally true even if not sensed and thus able to be verified by some scientific test.

And yes experience also teaches us that 2+2 = 4 makes sense when we already have two apples and add two more to the group. But that is still different than coming to that conclusion solely based on experience. For what if sometimes we come to a different conclusion? Say, 2+2 = 5, for example. We have to assume that some universal standard of mathematics is ‘in play’ (even when we do it time and time again) in order to verify the conclusion. When we do it right we are only verifying what we already know to be true without being able to actually sense that it is true. 

After all “[a] building cannot stand in the air, and a given argumentation can rest only on a foundation that is established by being self-evident and not by proof” (Volume 1, page 221). This is the dilemma for all men (empiricist or not): how do we know what we know is true? Only if we are standing on something else, even something we cannot see, can we begin to understand. The folly of the human mind is that it tries to stand on itself, or upon man in general. But this is destined for failure. The only alternative is to start with God (as we noted in our last post). 

Let us then say humbly with the Psalmist:

I was so foolish and ignorant; I was like a beast before You.
Nevertheless I am continually with You; You hold me by my right hand.
You will guide me with Your counsel, and afterward receive me to glory. Whom have I in heaven but You?
And there is none upon earth that I desire besides You.
(Psalm 73:22-25)

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).