Archive for the ‘Herman Bavinck’ Category

“Mystery is the Lifeblood of Dogmatics”

October 22, 2010

So wrote Herman Bavinck.  In more detail:

Mystery is the lifeblood of dogmatics. To be sure, the term “mystery” in Scripture does not mean an abstract supernatural truth in the Roman Catholic sense. Yet Scripture is equally far removed from the idea that believers can grasp the revealed mysteries in a scientific sense. In truth, the knowledge that God has revealed of himself in nature and Scripture far surpasses human imagination and understanding. In that sense it is all mystery with which the science of dogmatics is concerned, for it does not deal with finite creatures, but from beginning to end looks past all creatures and focuses on the eternal and infinite One himself. From the very start of its labors, it faces the incomprehensible One. (Bavinck, RD, 2:29)

This is very helpful, and much-needed antidote to rationalism.  I was struck by a similar passage in the writings of the great Scottish systematic theologian, John Dick:

…it is objected against revelation, that it contains mysteries and doctrines contrary to reason.  (JD) What do you object to mysteries?  (Objector) It is that they surpass our comprehension.  (JD) Well, but you are not required to understand them.  Have you anything further to say?  (Objector) Yes; it is absurd to suppose that a divine revelation would propose, as objects of belief, articles of which we cannot form an adequate conception.  They must be useless, as they are unintelligible.  (JD) No; I answer, it is by no means follows that a fact is useless because I cannot explain it … the mysteries of religion may have, and are proved to have, a powerful influence upon the devotion, the consolation, and the obedience of those who believe them.  Nothing can be more unreasonable than to object to mysteries in religion … it is so far from being true that religion ends where mystery begins, that all religion begins with mystery, and is accompanied by it throughout its whole progress.  What is a more mysterious subject than God, a being without beginning, infinite but not extended, comprehending all things at a glance, upholding all things without labour or perplexity, and infallibly accomplishing his purposes, yet leaving his creatures in possession of liberty?  Is there, in fact any thing which man thoroughly knows? … does it follow, that because he [God] has been pleased to speak to us, all the secrets of his Essence shall be disclosed, and his transcendent Majesty must be brought down to our capacity? … The objection against revelation on account of its mysteries, is utterly contemptible… (Dick, ST, 1:175-6)

Reformed theology, of course, is not contrary to reason, but neither is it rationalistic.  And that is a happy balance.

Bavinck on Law & Gospel

June 6, 2008

My previous post on the Marrowmen on law and gospel received, it is fair to say, a mixed reaction.  Perhaps Herman Bavinck can clarify some of this for us as his recently translated Reformed Dogmatics (Vol 4): Holy Spirit, Church, and New Creation (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2008 ) contains a helpful discussion of “Maintaining the Unity of the Covenant of Grace” (p448-51). 

Bavinck notes there are two extremes to be avoided in the discussion of the law/gospel distinction, “on the one hand … antinomianism” and “nomism … Pelagianism, semi-Pelagianism, Romanism, Socinianism…” (p451).  He states that law and gospel were not viewed as antithetical by “Scholastic and Roman Catholic theologians, [as] law and gospel were equated with the Old and New Testaments” (p451).  Rome therefore held that “Law and gospel do not differ in the sense that the former only demands and the latter only promises, for both contain commandments … and promises …” (p451-2).  For Rome the New Testament (gospel/new law) surpassed the Old Testament (old law) in its clarity of revelation and permanence.  Bavinck sees much to agree with here but he does not see the Old/New Testament distinction as the Scriptural law/gospel antithesis.  The true antithesis is only perceived when we consider “the law as law, apart from the promises, to which in the Old Testament the law was made subservient” (p452).  It is speaking of the law in this way that “Paul asserts that it cannot justify, that it increases sin, that it is a ministry of condemnation … and precisely in that way prepares the fulfillment of the promise…” (p453).  It is “this antithesis between law and gospel [that] was again understood at the Reformation” (p453).

So “although in a broad sense ‘law’ and ‘gospel’ can indeed be used to denote the old and new dispensation of the covenant of grace, in their actual significance they definitely describe two essentially different revelations of divine will” (p453).  Thus in Scripture “law and gospel are contrasted as demand and gift, as command and promise, as sin and grace, as sickness and healing, as death and life … the law proceeds from God’s holiness, the gospel from God’s grace” (p453, emphasis added).  Now Bavinck sounds suspiciously like a Marrowman at this point – the law gospel antithesis can be expressed as the difference between a command and a promise.

So given we can speak of law as command and gospel as promise the question arises “whether the preaching of faith and repentance, which seemed after all to be a condition and a demand, really belonged to the gospel, and should not rather (with Flacius, Gerhard, Quenstedt, Voetius, Witsius, Cocceius, de Moor, and others) be counted as law” (p454).  Before we go on to see his answer, it is interesting to note that Bavinck’s list of theologians who held this position that faith and repentance are demands of law rather than gospel includes some of the same theologians as the Marrowmen’s (e.g. Witsius) – it would be hard to imagine theologians of the calibre of the Marrowmen and Bavinck independently misreading their sources.  [Are a couple of the theologians Bavinck lists Lutheran?]

How then does Bavinck answer – “And indeed, strictly speaking, there are no demands and conditions in the gospel but only promises and gifts.  Faith and repentance are as much benefits of the covenant of grace as justification (and so forth)” (p454).  This is exactly what the Marrowmen were trying to say.  There is a “strict” sense in which we can speak of the gospel as promise and not command.  So, in the proclamation of the gospel “it is always united with law and is therefore always interwoven with the law throughout Scripture.  The gospel always presupposes law  and also needs it in its administration …  The demanding and summoning form in which the gospel is cast is derived from the law” (p454).  So “Faith and repentance are … demanded of people in the name of God’s law… (p454).

So far, so Marrow.  But Bavinck adds some caveats to what he has said, “But faith and repentance themselves, nevertheless, are components of the gospel, not the workings or fruits of the law” (p454).  By this Bavinck seems to mean that the law demands faith in general but “it does not demand the special faith that directs itself towards Christ” (p454).  [As an aside, once the gospel reveals Christ I think the law does demand special faith in Christ.]   Thus “faith and repentance are components of the gospel … Law and gospel, viewed concretely, do not so much differ in that the law always speaks with a commanding voice and the gospel with a promising voice, for also the law makes promises and the gospel utters admonitions and imposes obligations.  But they differ especially in content: the law demands that humans work out their own righteousness, and the gospel invites them to renounce all self-righteousness and to accept the righteousness of Christ…” (p454).

If I have understood him correctly I am happy with what Bavinck proposes (although I would probably replace ‘viewed concretely’ with ‘viewed largely’).  He recognises the “strict” sense that the Marrowmen spoke of and also another broader sense in which we can speak of gospel as containing commands.