Christ as the first-fruits and first-born from the death of death: Reflecting Further Upon Sin and Its ‘Sensuous Origin’

As I continue to get into researching ‘sin’ I am doing so through reading, in part, stuff from Dutch theologian, Herman Bavinck. I am reading a section he has from his Dogmatics, Vol.3, called The Origin of Sin; how fitting. I wanted to share a section from him which he entitles The Enigma of Sin’s Origin; in it he gets into how folks have attempted to understand what in fact sin is, and tellingly, where it is generated from, from within the human being (if it is). He focuses in, in this section, on the theory that sin is somehow generated by the sensuous; as such, if this is the case the remedy would be some form of self-deprecating, self-denying asceticism. Note:

The Enigma of Sin’s Origin

[312] The question of the origin of evil, second to that of existence itself, is the greatest enigma of life and the heaviest cross for the intellect to bear. The question, Whence is evil? has occupied the minds of humans in every century and still waits in vain for an answer that is more satisfactory than that of Scripture. Insofar as philosophy has taught us anything significant in this matter, it is, broadly speaking, a strong proof for the scriptural truth that this world is inexplicable without a fall. All the great thinkers, even if they were ignorant of Genesis 3 or rejected it as myth, have, despite themselves, given tacit or explicit support to this simple story. And insofar as philosophy looked for a solution to the problem in another direction, it has gotten off the track and sadly gone astray. This applies first of all to the Pelagian explanation of sin, the many objections to which have been touched on above and will come up at length in our discussion of the essence and propagation of sin. But it applies further to all the systems that trace evil not to a creaturely act of will but to the nature of humanity, the world, or God.

In the first place, sin cannot be inferred from the sensual nature of the human race. If that were the explanation, sin certainly would always have a sensual or carnal character. But this is far from being always the case. There are also spiritual sins, sins of a demonic nature, such as pride, envy, hatred, enmity against God, which, though less visible, are absolutely no less serious than the sins of carnality; and these cannot be explained by sensuality, any more than the existence of fallen angels can be explained on this basis. If sins originated from humanity’s sensual nature, one would certainly expect that they would be most vigorous and numerous in the early years of life, and that to the degree that the mind became more developed it would also exert firmer control over it and finally overcome it altogether. But experience tells a very different story. To the degree that people grow up, sin—also sensual sin—has a stronger grip on them. It is not the child but the young man and the adult male who are frequently enslaved by their lusts and passions; and mental development is often so little able to curb sin that it tends rather to make available the means of seeking the satisfaction of one’s desire on a larger scale and in more refined ways. And even when at a later stage in life the sensual sins have lost their dominance, they still secretly stay on in people’s hearts as desires or make way for others that, though more spiritual in nature, are no less appalling. Accordingly, if this explanation of sin in terms of sensuality is meant in earnest, it should result in seeking release by suppressing the flesh; but it is precisely the history of asceticism that is best calculated to cure us of the error that sin can be overcome in that fashion. People take their hearts with them when they enter a monastery, and from the heart arise all sorts of sins and iniquities.[1]

Clearly from a biblical and properly oriented theological perspective this explanation falls quite short; as Bavinck himself develops. But it is interesting to see how people attempt to philosophize about things, particularly sin.

What if sin has so incapacitated the human intellect, what if the so called noetic effects of sin have so savaged the human’s capacity to self-reflect properly that they are left aimless in their search for attempting to penetrate the mystery of the human situation and pollution? One thing that is clear, even for unregenerate minds and hearts, is that people can look around and know that things are eschew; radically so! But even this, according to Scripture is not a ‘natural’ perception; according to John 16 the Holy Spirit convicts the world of: sin, righteousness, and judgment. In other words, without the Self-revelation of God in Jesus Christ, and the attending work of the Holy Spirit, there is no access to the real human condition; there is no access to the actual problem which according to Jesus resides in the deceptive nature of our corrupted hearts (relative to their orientation to God).

What the Bavinck quote should illustrate for us is that sin, human depravity and pollution is an unknowable ‘quantity’; it is a surd of inaccessible magnitude. As Barth orients this discussion, we cannot even begin to know what sin is apart from Christ, and God’s holiness on display therein; and even at this entry point sin remains a surd, an enigma. God in Christ did not come to explain sin’s origin, or even its general whereabouts, he came to destroy it and put it to death (cf. Rom 8). In light of the holiness of God revealed in Christ, yes, sin is amplified, it is given a gravitas as we observe the depths and reach it took for it to be dispelled; i.e. God’s personal enfleshment. What the coming of God in Christ shows about sin is that human beings, autonomous as sin would have them to be, are in no place to deal with its corroding and parasitic power. It takes the very ‘being’ ousia of Godself in the person (hypostasis) of Jesus Christ, the eternal Logos, and ground of all reality to penetrate into the marrow of sin’s possessive non-being and nothingness to reverse its beguiling trajectory; to do nothing short of re-creating all things, with Christ as the first-fruits and first-born from the death of death (per John Owen also cf. Col. 1.15ff; I Cor. 15; II Cor. 5.17).[2]

 

[1] Herman Bavinck, The Origin of Sin, accessed 03-16-2017.

[2] This paragraph is largely and loosely inspired by a Barthian and Torrancean perspective on a Christologically concentrated hamartiology and doctrine of creation/re-creation.

The Origin of Sin, Pelagius, and Roman Catholicism with Reference to Herman Bavinck

I am just starting to work towards putting together a proposal for PhD research at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam (The Free University of Amsterdam), where I hope to be accepted and work with a brilliant theologian there. At these early stages I have tentatively decided to research in the area of hamartiology, or in the area of the doctrine of sin. It will be from a decidedly Reformed perspective, including looking at this doctrine alongside of John Calvin, John Owen, Herman Bavinck, and Karl Barth; with a focus on Barth’s Christological angling of the whole doctrine. In light of that I thought I would put up a post on sin; this particular post will look at Bavinck’s description of Pelagius’s understanding of original sin, and how Bavinck sees that bleeding into Roman Catholic soteriology.

Bavinck writes of Pelagius and Roman Catholicism:

To this monk from Britain everything depended on the free will. He saw it as the characteristic feature of human nature, the image of God, the first principle and foundation of the dominion granted him. Human nature has been so created by God that, depending on its free choice, it is able to and able not to sin; and this equal possibility in either direction, as a natural good, as a constituent of human nature, cannot be lost. As a result Pelagius had to reject all notions of original sin. Adam only brought sin into the world as an example or form. There is indeed a power of evil custom, but this does not so completely control humans that, if they seriously wanted to avoid sin and lead a holy life, they would be prevented from doing so. In any case, sin is not innate; it is always—and cannot be anything but—a free act of the will. The fall, accordingly, did not just occur once, in Adam, and take the whole human race with it, but every human being is still born in the same state in which Adam was, granted that, as a result of the power of custom, conditions are less favorable now. And all humans therefore stand or fall by themselves. Sin originates anew in every person; in every human life there occurs a fall when the power of free will is neglected or applied in a wrong direction.36

These ideas of Pelagius were so obviously at odds with the teaching of Scripture and the faith of the church that they could not possibly be accepted by the church. They were, accordingly, modified and toned down in various ways. Specifically, to Adam’s transgression was ascribed a stronger influence on the state of human nature, and, correspondingly, grace was credited with more vigorous cooperation at the beginning and in the development of the new Christian life. But, fundamentally, the final decision at all these points was again reserved for the free will. In Roman Catholicism, Adam’s transgression did result for him and his descendants in the loss of the superadded gift; and insofar as God had granted this gift to Adam and he therefore should have enjoyed it, the loss of it can be called culpable. But original sin is no more than this privation; it does not consist in the concupiscence that by itself is not sin, nor in an innate evil of the will, for though the will may have been weakened, it is neither lost nor corrupted. Thus fallen nature is actually totally identical with uncorrupted nature; true, the supernatural gifts have been lost, but the natural gifts continue intact. In the abstract, therefore, a person could possibly abstain from all actual sins and, like unbaptized children dying in infancy, acquire a natural state of bliss.37 In this connection Rome could still maintain the absolute necessity of Christianity, however, inasmuch as humans, although in the most favorable scenario they could also acquire a natural state of bliss, could never by their free will receive supernatural righteousness and salvation. To that end the church with its sacraments is the only proper road. But when this Roman Catholic dualism was cast aside by the Reformation, the modalities that, within the circle of Protestantism, took over the Roman Catholic assumptions about original sin and free will 38 virtually automatically had to relapse into the ancient errors of Pelagius and Coelestis or in any case into those of Hilary of Arles and John Cassian.39 For if Adam’s fall did not, or did only in part, deprive the will of the freedom and power to do good, and original sin did not consist either in a culpable loss of an original supernatural gift, then in that same measure grace became dispensable and Christianity was robbed of its absolute character.40[1]

If you’re unaware, Pelagius was a 5th century British monk, and a counterpart of Augustine; they famously dueled-off, theologically, resulting in some interesting reflection by Augustine on his own doctrine of sin (but we won’t get into that presently). As Bavinck reveals, Pelagius placed a heavy emphasis upon the neutrality of the human will towards sin or towards not sinning. Pelagius had influence upon the church, but as Bavinck notes, the church attempted to soften the hard teaching of Pelagius’s concept of an absolutely free-will (i.e. with no need of God’s grace). This softening by the church happened early on, and somewhat compromised allowing for an idea of free-will, but the need for a prevenient  grace to provide enablement for a person to essentially cooperate with God in their salvation, and progressively find favor with God finally resulting in the reward of eternal life. The II Council of Orange (529 ad.) wrestled with this issue, rejecting what could be called ‘semi-pelagianism’ (similar to what I just described) in favor of what they called a ‘semi-Augustinianism’ which focused more on the need for Divine intervention and God’s grace than on ‘free-will’ in the framework of salvation.

As Bavinck highlights, later in Mediaeval Roman Catholicism this idea remained present; i.e. the need for an gratia infusia, an ‘infusion of grace’ remained in order for the potential Christian to have the capacity to move beyond the ‘natural’ (i.e. Pelagianism) state, and move into a super-natural mode wherein the person could cooperate with God in the appropriation of eternal life. It is, for Roman Catholics even today, the church’s role to dispense this grace through the sacraments and re-presentation of Christ’s body in the Holy Mass. All of this to cure the ailment that sin is for the human person.

What is interesting to me about Bavinck’s description of things is how he highlights the kind of Thomistic conception of sin that funds not just the theology of Roman Catholicism, but also large parts of what later developed in what is called Post Reformed orthodox theology; insofar as the latter imbibed the same type of Thomist intellectualist anthropology that funded the Tridentine theology of the Romish trajectory.

Interesting even as I dabble into this how interrelated many themes are going to become simply by focusing on a doctrine of sin. Issues of anthropology, predestination, salvation, ecclesiology, ontology/epistemology, Christology and a host of other things are all implicated and interrelated to how we understand sin and its function within the broader theological framework. I will obviously have to work at how I want to delimit particular aspects, and elevate others for the purposes of research. Writing blog posts like this, along the way, I think, will help me to do that.

 

[1] Herman Bavinck, Origin of Sin, accessed 03-14-2017.

Being more Faithful to the Gospel rather than to the Tradition or Period: Herman Bavinck and Karl Barth, Two Stand-outs

The ultimate goal for the Christian theologian is not to be faithful to the categories and trajectories available to them in the period that they inhabit (i.e. pre-critical, critical/modern, post-modern, etc.), but instead to be faithful to the Gospel of Jesus Christ as He, by the Holy Spirit, for the accomplishment of the will of the Father, spans all epochs of time and eternity. Often times I get the barthyoungsense that budding scholars, and riper Christian scholars/theologians, being self-aware of the period they are in as they are, are more concerned with getting the categories and ideologies of the day right, and less concerned with getting the reality of the Gospel right; I only say this because this seems to get cashed out in so much of what goes on in theological and biblical studies writing today.

John Webster addresses this issue as he is discussing the doctrine of God’s providence in a chapter he contributed for the volume Mapping Modern Theology. In this essay he points out that some theologians have indeed been more concerned with getting their own self-identity correct within their confessional tradition, rather than being slavishly determined to write and communicate what they do by the dictates of the Gospel itself. He picks out two theologians who bucked this temptation and instead allowed their theologizing to be dictated by the concerns of the Gospel: Herman Bavinck and Karl Barth:

Others have sought to go further, retrieving, rethinking, and rearticulating the tradition rather than simply repeating it. Herman Bavinck, a great Dutch dogmatician at the turn of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, gave a remarkably sophisticated and penetrating account of the inner structure of biblical and classical Christian teaching about providence in his Reformed Dogmatics. His account is fully alert to the modern situation, devoting a good deal of space to detailed interaction with philosophical and scientific trends from the early modern period on, and yet retaining a sense that the church’s teaching can outthink its opponents. In the next generation of Reformed thinkers, Karl Barth possessed a similar sense of the inner coherence and depth of scriptural and traditional teaching about providence, and presented it with rare descriptive cogency. In Barth’s case, this went along with a conviction that theology is responsible to revise tradition, not in order to bring it into alignment with modern norms, but in order to attempt greater fidelity to the content of the gospel in its biblical attestation.[1]

I think “Barth’s case” is the best way forward, and is why I have been so attracted to him and his best English speaking student Thomas Torrance. Here at the evangelical Calvinist I seek to emulate this; being aware and grateful for the tradition, but also seeking to think and re-think within the tradition how we can even be more faithful to the proclamation of the Gospel of Jesus Christ in both speech and act. Driven not by the time-period we inhabit in the church in the 21st century, but by the transcendent apocalyptic reality of the in-breaking Gospel; which indeed, meets us in the 21st century, but as always revises and suffuses this century as all others with creation’s ultimate reality, King Jesus.

[1] John Webster, Providence, in eds. Kelly M. Kapic and Bruce L. McCormack, Mapping Modern Theology: A Thematic and Historical Introduction (Michigan: Baker Publishing Group, April 2012), 317 Scribd.

The Indomitable Human spirit. The Perversity of ‘Work’ and the ‘The American Dream’

I have been slowly reading through Herman Bavinck’s book The ubermenschPhilosophy of Revelation, and I am currently nearing its end. As I start to round the corner of the last that this wonderful book has to offer, Bavinck hits on something in regard to modern man and woman that resonates deeply with me; resonates in such a way that is not merely an academic abstraction, but a concrete and lived reality and experience that I observe everyday–it is something that we all experience on a daily basis as we live and work in this modern Western world of ours. The rest of this post will engage with Bavinck on this kind of common reality that you and I both experience, in particular, as we continue to live out the implications of the modern industrialized and informationized world.

Yes, this is something that I have noticed for quite some time, maybe you have too; I have mostly worked in bluecollar contexts in my working life, and as such the reality I am going to engage with, with Bavinck’s help, has to do with the absolutization of ‘work’ (and for me this gets exemplified in spades in the bluecollar context). In my experience and observation it has become readily apparent that people, whether it be bluecollar, whitecollar, or no-collar, find most of their identity from their work life; indeed, people will sacrifice almost everything to advance their careers, and their status within that kingdom, whatever expression that takes in the various types of career paths available. Work becomes a place, for many, where said person can pour all of their energy and strength into what they are doing, and be rewarded for it, materially. Indeed, having a strong work ethic is not a bad thing; it can be a virtuous thing, something through which God in Jesus Christ is glorified. But like with anything, when work and work ethic becomes the most virtuous thing, the greatest good, the ultimate expression of what it means to live well, then there is a problem (an idol-making problem). I would submit that we live in a society and culture[s] that have systemically taken shape by absolutizing work as an ultimate end for what it means to “live” life; that this view of ‘work’ assigns to humans what it means to be human (so an issue of anthropology, for one thing) on a completely horizontal level abstracted from any sense of the transcendent and vertical reality that life really finds its ultimate telos or purpose from. Herman Bavinck seems to agree with me:

In the measure in which self-confidence grew, confidence in God, belief in miracles, consciousness of misery, the urgency of prayer, and longing for redemption decreased, at least in many circles. Kant had boldly spoken the word–du sollst, also du kannst,–and the humanity which trod the stage of the nineteenth century adopted this motto. It is perceived in itself a necessity, a will, a power, and an obligation to reform the world; and with this pressure it felt its strength awaken, and an irresistible desire to set to work. The modern man no longer feels himself a miserable creature, who has fallen from his original destiny, and no longer regards the earth as a vale of tears, which has taken the place of the original paradise. He can conceive nothing more wonderful than this beautiful world, which has evolved itself from the, smallest beginnings and has reached its highest point of development in grand and mighty man. He is in his own estimation no mere creature, but a creator and redeemer of himself and society. More and more he becomes his own providence. And he is so, and becomes so through his work, for labor is creation. By labor men are divine, and become continually more godlike. Labor must therefore be the foundation of religion and morality, and also of the entirety of modern society….[1]

Further,

… But among such men as Ihering, Wundt, Höding, Paulsen, Spencer, and Sidgwick, we see ethics becoming more and more a section of sociology, which perceives in labor for himself and for others the calling and destiny of man. For labor reconciles the egoistic and social instincts and takes into captivity the whole human life. Labor is “the meaning of our existence.”[2]

We might start a conversation about Karl Marx right now, but let’s not. What Bavinck articulates quite presciently does not escape me and my experience; I can’t imagine that this seems very far away from your experience in day to day life either.

We live in a world that is saturated with living by sight; in a world that lives into its most immediate offering, into what is considered the societal good: into a world that takes what is fleeting and vanishing away (I Cor. 7) and makes it its ultimate purpose and end. We exert and glean our identities from our own personal kingdoms that we create for ourselves at work, and as a result through the fruits of our labor by earning money to further prop ourselves up in our personal kingdoms by way of home ownership (the “American dream”), financial independence, etc. We get caught up in this mode of immediacy even as Christians; our love grows cold.

[1] Herman Bavinck, The Philosophy of Revelation, kindle edition.

[2] Ibid.

“… it is not Scripture which is self-interpreting, but God who as Word interprets himself through the Spirit’s work.”

holy_bibleThe perspicuity of Holy Scripture is something quite central to the Protestant Reformation, in principle. In other words, for the
Protestant Reformers and reformed, the clarity of Scripture as to things having to do with who God is and what salvation entails is absolutely central to the capacity for all believers to fulfill the Reformed principle of the Priesthood of All Believers. Note what the Westminster Confession of Faith 1/VII & 1/IX communicates:

VII. All things in Scripture are not alike plain in themselves, nor alike clear unto all: yet those things which are necessary to be known, believed, and observed for salvation are so clearly propounded, and opened in some place of Scripture or other, that not only the learned, but the unlearned, in a due use of the ordinary means, may attain unto a sufficient understanding of them.

X. The infallible rule of interpretation of Scripture is the Scripture itself: and therefore, when there is a question about the true and full sense of any Scripture (which is not manifold, but one), it must be searched and known by other places that speak more clearly.

But as we look out on the horizon of present day Protestant exegesis of the Bible, it becomes quickly apparent that something has gone awry; that what sociologist Christian Smith calls Pervasive Interpretive Pluralism is surely pertinent to our current circumstances (i.e. the idea that there are as many interpretations of the text of Scripture as there are interpreters or communities of interpreters).

So is the WCF wrong in its view of the clarity of Scriputure? Were the Reformers wrong in pressing this idea of the perspicuity of Holy Writ? Not necessarily, but maybe we need to take some of those principles and hone them more sharply; maybe we need to identify a canon or standard by which we can identify what clarity actually looks like, and who controls that when we engage with Scripture. And maybe we need to consider the reality (as the WCF does) that sin still clouds things such that we must look even beyond Scripture, through Scripture, for the clarity that Scripture bears witness to. And maybe we should consider Scripture’s clarity as an eschatological and even apocalyptic reality that is not a static thing but a dynamic thing as we are all (as the church) growing more and more in the grace and knowledge of Jesus Christ. Todd Billings (with John Webster’s help) helps clarify my points further:

It is in this context that the notion of Scripture as “self-interpreting” is properly understood. Though this notion that Scripture is “self-interpreting” and “clear” is often criticized as naïve, it is better thought of as a way to understand the priority of God’s word by way of Scripture standing over the reader and all that the reader brings to the text. As John Webster says, “Scripture is self-interpreting and perspicuous by virtue of its relation to God; its clarity is inherent, not made, whether by magisterial authorities, the scholar-prince or the pious reader.” Webster, Holy Scripture, p. 93. This self-interpreting clarity is not a formal property of the biblical text; rather, “Scripture is clear because through the Spirit the text serves God’s self-presentation. Properly speaking, it is not Scripture which is self-interpreting, but God who as Word interprets himself through the Spirit’s work.” Webster, Holy Scripture, p. 94. In the triune economy of salvation, readers of Scripture enter into the Spirit’s work – which is God’s own “self-interpreting” of God’s incarnate Word. The Spirit does not need our advice or input to speak God’s Word.[1]

Is it wrong to believe in the Protestant idea of the clarity of Scripture? No. But it is better, I think, to constructively move beyond its original articulation by following Billings’ and Webster’s suggestions of grounding clarity in the nexus of our participation with the living, eternal Word of God by the Holy Spirit’s spiration as He illumines, from glory to glory, our relationship and knowledge of God and His Word in ever increasing ways as we are moving toward the reality and consummate form of the once and for all faith delivered to the saints. In other words, it is best to think of Scripture’s clarity as grounded in Jesus Christ, and understand that Scripture’s role is as an instrument or spectacles to allow us to look beyond it to its dynamic and ineffable reality who is, indeed, Jesus Christ. So clarity, by implication, then, should not suggest to us that we have come to possess something by understanding certain things about Scripture; instead the clarity of Scripture should make clear to us that we are now possessed by the One who ever anew and afresh gives Himself continuously to us by the Holy Spirit’s recreative work in our lives as we live from His, from Christ’s life for us.

[1] J. Todd Billings, The Word Of God For The People Of God: an entryway to the theological interpretation of scripture (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2010), 142-43, n. 43.

Turning to Ourselves Instead of God: The Evangelicals and Herman Bavinck

Victoria Osteen’s recent faux pas (well some think it was a faux pas, I do) about God being happy when we are happy is a helpful illustrator of what I want to address in this mini-albrechtritschlessay. For many North American evangelical Christians God has become our buddy in the sky, the God who snuggles up with us in our quiet times away from the hustle and bustle of everyday real life. For many evangelicals, God is more at our whim, he is meant to meet our psychological needs, and intended (by us) to make us feel normal in an otherwise abnormal world. For many an evangelical God is at our behest, and becomes who we make him to be rather than the other way around.

Theologian, J. Todd Billings, after sociologist, Christian Smith has labeled this type of movement, and evangelical making of God as Moralistic Therapeutic Deism (MTD, hereafter). Here is how Smith defines the lineaments of MTD:

  1. A God exists who created and orders the world and watches over human life on earth.
  2. God wants people to be good, nice, and fair to each other, as taught in the Bible and by most world religions.
  3. The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself.
  4. God does not need to be particularly involved in one’s life except when God is needed to resolve a problem.
  5. Good people go to heaven when they die.[1]

My guess is that this sounds very familiar to you, in fact it might hit closer to him than you would like to admit. Truth be told, this inclination has been around for centuries, but it is modern man and woman who have been plagued with this style of pedestrian religion, in the name of Christ, probably more than any other age. We are conditioned by an understanding of God that suits us, that is fits well with being an American, or living with the relative creature comforts the Western world has to offer us. But there is a history behind this.

Herman Bavinck, a Dutch Reformed theologian who lived and wrote during the latter half of the 19th century (in Amsterdam) gets into the theological history that has led to what Christian Smith and Todd Billings have labeled as moralistic therapeutic deism. Bavinck was working in the period just after much of the theology behind MTD was being developed by certain German theologians like Fredrich Schleiermacher, Wilhelm Hermann, et al. What he has written on the topic sounds eerily close to what we have now come to call MTD. Here Bavinck is commenting on how some of the theologians of his day were articulating this early form of what has now more popularly been labeled as moralistic therapeutic deism:

Revelation, he says [he is referring to one of these theologians, i.e. Ritschl], is not an external thing, but “man receives the revelation, which is the ground of his religion, because the depths of his own being are opened to him.” Religion is a new life, and rests upon an experience of the power of moral good, as Jesus has shown us. To trust in that power is to believe, to live, to be saved. And because religion is thus “the complete quickening of a man, there is no general religion, the same for every one, but there are only individuals in religion.” So we see that from the standpoint of religious psychology there is no longer a place for metaphysics, theology, or dogmatics, nor even for an “ethics of the religious personality.” For every standard fails here; there is no single law or rule; the individual  man is the measure of all things, also of religion; God does not say how he will be served, but man decides how he will serve him.[2]

I think Bavinck’s insight, from the late 19th century is penetrating and pertinent to our own 21st century context as North American evangelicals in particular. What becomes difficult for us, as evangelicals, to identify this type of self-serving religion in our midst, in our personal lives is that we have no real critical space to distinguish between this type of moralistic religion and the real Christian religion that we claim to inhabit; because we have conflated the two. As I have written elsewhere in regard to this very issue, and drawing off of Swiss theologian Karl Barth and his critique of the 20th century German Christianity that he was a part of during World War I and II: “It is this absolutized ‘Conservative Self’ that presumes that what it means to be moral, and Christian is to ask, simply, ‘What Would Jesus Do?’ This perfectly illustrates Barth’s critique of the German Liberal Protestant. For them, as for us, to be Christian, was to be nationalist, exceptional, and normal.” And so we end up worshipping a projection of God that looks more like ourselves, our better morally good self, than the God revealed in Jesus Christ.

I know this little essay has probably come off like something that makes you feel like you have been beaten around the head, but isn’t that what we need sometimes? I think the most dangerous thing about living the way we do, as moralistic therapeutic Deists who have absolutized ourselves, and adopted a morally good Gospel (as Bavinck described it) is that we really have no space to actually hear from God. We have no capacity to see that God is truly Lord who contradicts us at our every step, but who at the same time graciously nurtures us even as he rebukes us in our sinful mode of being. There is hope, just not in ourselves.

 

 

[1] Christian Smith, Soul Searching, 162-63 cited by J. Todd Billings in Union with Christ: Reframing Theology and Ministry for the Church, 22.

[2] Herman Bavinck, The Philosophy of Revelation, loc. 2853, 2862 kindle.

Christianity from the Culturally Infused

There are so many perceptions of what Christianity represents, and folks out there, in the “world” often attempt to understand what Christianity is, as a religion, from whatever their personal encounters with it has been. In newsweekfact today, I had an experience like this, an experience with a new co-worker who is realizing that I am different; different not because I am a weirdo, per se (although my wife thinks I am), but because I don’t run with the crowd, and I have a certain morality that is at odds with the one adopted by so many in the world (like hedonism). And so this represents one example of how a person “out there” might perceive Christianity; i.e. by reducing it to a certain moralistic position that he has built up based upon his own past experiences with Christianity.

Beyond these kinds of somewhat simplistic perceptions of Christianity as a religion, there have been more sophisticated constructions, or deconstructions of Christianity based upon certain types of criteria that Christianity’s critics have developed based upon their commitments to naturalism, or a certain kind of Kantian dualism, expressed, even still, through positivism. It is this kind of approach to understanding what Christianity is that I want to engage with throughout the remainder of this post; and yet as I engage with this (maybe somewhat outdated approach to Christianity, although I don’t really think it is), what should emerge is how in fact people’s perceptions of Christianity, even simplistic ones, have developed from a certain understanding of what ‘faith’ and ‘pietism’ entails.

Herman Bavinck, a Dutch Reformed (and I mean a genuine Dutchman) theologian from the late 19th century has this to say about some of the critics of his day, in regard to developing critiques of Christianity, as well as demonstrating just how Christianity has come to be understood (especially in North America) as a privatized-subjectivized thing. Here Bavinck writes how “experience” was understood among the critics that he himself is criticizing:

But in this way the word “experience” is made to play an ambiguous role. When used in religion and theology, it has a wholly different significance from that which it bears in empirical science. In the latter what is meant is, that, by consistent application of the empirical method, personal interest in the inquiry is to be excluded as much as possible, and that the phenomena are observed and explained in their purity and impartially; empiricism even calls to its help the experimental proof. But when men speak of experience in religion, they mean it to be understood, on the other hand, that religion is, or at any rate must become, a personal matter through and through. Religion is, according to this interpretation, no doctrine, no precept, no history, no worship, in a word, not a belief on authority, nor a consent to truth, but arises from within, when the heart is touched and a personal fellowship established between God and our soul….[1]

It is really easy to see how what Bavinck is describing above has played out in North American evangelical Christianity; how a piety and in-ward individualistic religion has developed that no longer has the capacity to contradict and shape it by the Word of God. Christianity for so many has become whatever the particular North American evangelical wants it to be for them; if that means a legalistic Christianity, then so be it!; if that means an antinomian loosely lived Christianity, so be it; etc.

I wonder, honestly, if North American evangelical Christianity has the theological resource to repent of such sordid inwardness and self-centeredness, and come back to her first love?! My friend at work has every right to read Christianity the way that he does; it has been modeled for him, in spades, all over our American society.

The critics of Bavinck’s day helped to develop the intellectual space for pietistic Christianity to develop; unfortunately, so many Christians (myself included, at points) have helped to concretize this space into a foundational cornerstone of what it means to be a Christian. And not just for the Christian who lives this way (i.e. a personalized Christianity), but for those who we live with, day in, day out; we have the extra burden at points, of educating folks about such things.
[1] Herman Bavinck, The Philosophy of Revelation, loc 2786 kindle.

Interpreting Scripture as Culminating in Christ, or Christ as the Center?: Bavinck against Barth and Torrance

This should be of some value for some as you continue to think through what distinguishes Evangelical Calvinism from its classical cousin, classical Calvinism (of the Westminster and even New-Calvinist variety). This distinguishing mark is fundamental to understanding how an Evangelical Calvinist hermeneutic (i.e. theory of biblical and theological interpretation) is shaped versus how a classical Reformed hermeneutic takes shape. I am going to use Herman Bavinck as the classical representative, and Thomas Torrance on Karl Barth as the perspective that Evangelical Calvinism resonates with vis-à-vis a hermeneutic.

Herman Bavinck (1854-1921) years before either Karl Barth or Thomas Torrance came on the scene effectively offered a critique of Barth’s and Torrance’s principled (principial) christocentric hermeneutic. Bavinck believed that Scripture as pure revelation itself ought to serve as the source of dogmatic reflection, and not Christ as the key, so to speak. For Bavinck, God’s revelation starts in the narrative of biblical history and progressively moves forward to its culmination in Christ; something that David Gibson[1] along with Richard Muller in discussion on John Calvin’s hermeneutic has labeled as an soteriological christocentric approach. Here is how Bavinck critiques a principled Christ-centered approach of reading Scripture from his ‘soteriological’ Christ-cultimated/centered method:

… However, the christological organizing principle is subject to even more objections [he just objected to using the Trinity as an organizing hermeneutical principle]. However attractive it may seem at first sight, it is still unusable. It often rests on the false assumption that rather than Scripture the person of Christ specifically is the foundation and epistemic source of dogmatics. However, we know of Christ only from and through Scripture. In addition, though Christ is quite certainly the central focus and main content of Holy Scripture, precisely because he is the midpoint of Scripture, he cannot be its starting point. Christ presupposes the existence of God and humanity. He did not make his historical appearance immediately at the time of the promise [in Eden] but many centuries later. It is, moreover, undoubtedly true that Christ revealed the Father to us, but this revelation of God through the Son does not nullify the many and varied ways he spoke through the prophets. Not the New Testament alone, nor only the words of Jesus, but Scripture as a whole is a Word of God that comes to us through Christ. It is clear, finally, that the christological division only permits the development of the loci on God, creation, world, and humanity by way of assumptions and postulates and therefore not in the fullness of their rich significance….[2]

This serves as the ground of Bavinck’s objection to a christological hermeneutic in the form we have detailed above, an objection that is applicable to and actually against Barth’s and Torrance’s approach to developing their respective theories of theological and biblical interpretation. For Barth and Torrance a christological approach is the only safe and genuinely Christian way to go. Here is a pertinent passage from Torrance commenting on Barth’s method:

Because Jesus Christ is the Way, as well as the Truth and the Life, theological thought is limited and bounded and directed by this historical reality in whom we meet the Truth of God. That prohibits theological thought from wandering at will across open country, from straying over history in general or from occupying itself with some other history, rather than this concrete history in the centre of all history. Thus theological thought is distinguished from every empty conceptual thought, from every science of pure possibility, and from every kind of merely formal thinking, by being mastered and determined by the special history of Jesus Christ.[3]

Torrance makes this comment about Barth in an approving manner, and identifies this as something that he is highly resonant with himself.

It could be objected that Bavinck does not have an adequate regulative principle, other than presuming upon the givenness of Scripture itself that allows him read to Scripture and make creative dogmatic theological declarations. What Barth and Torrance are doing in contrast to Bavinck, is that they are presuming upon the givenness of God revealed in Jesus Christ; their order of theology, instead of Bavinck’s (Creation, Covenant, Fall, Redemption, etc.), is: Covenant (or God’s life), Creation (where Scripture is given), etc. So for Barth and Torrance, they might counter to Bavinck, and argue that Scripture itself is unintelligible without the Self-givenness of God, and thus only God in Christ (as God’s Self-exegesis cf. Jn. 1.18), from the get go, can make the ink of Scripture make sense; they might counter that Scripture cannot make Jesus make sense first (although this would not preclude the biblical history of Scripture, in Israel, it would just presuppose that the history of Israel is actually the pre-history and pre-figuration of God in Christ and his history).

The above is an example of how Evangelical Calvinism along with Karl Barth and Thomas Torrance develops its thinking dialectically. And I realize, that once again, this post is not for the faint of heart, but I am learning still too.

 

 

[1] David Gibson, Reading The Decree, 6.

[2] [First set of brackets mine] Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics: Prolegomena, Volume One (Grand Rapids, Michigan: 2003), 110.

[3]Thomas F. Torrance, Karl Barth: An Introduction to His Early Theology 1910-1931, 196.

A Quick Comparison: Karl Barth and Herman Bavinck on Natural Theology or a Theology of Nature

Karl Barth is famous for his rejection of natural theology, as he should be! A naked natural theology might be the kind wherein a person attempts to think God from a rationalist reflection upon the pressures and attributes bavinck-sketchpresent within nature. And from this reflection, and its absolute form, the categories for how God must be are derived and imposed upon God as the grammar by which the natural theologian begins to speak about God. Most people, most Christian people, upon hearing about the natural theologian would or should immediately recognize the dangers associated with thinking God as a natural theologian.

But there is a different way to engage with nature as a Christian theologian, a way that eludes the pitfall of using nature to conceive of God. It is possible, as John Calvin thought, to know God through nature, but not without revelation first. It was upon this basis that Calvin articulated his idea of the sensus divinitatis and his two-fold knowledge of God (duplex cognitio Domini); that we can know God as Creator and Redeemer, but the latter must now be the lens for the former. And Scripture becomes the spectacles by which we know God as Creator, as Father, as it reveals to us knowledge of God as Redeemer in Christ alone.

Besides John Calvin, Thomas Torrance also had a unique approach to viewing God in nature, but not by placing a primacy on nature, instead, like Calvin, a primacy on Christ is given over nature in a way that allows nature to have an ontology and thus a theological place of its own; a place wherein we as Christian thinkers can know God in all of his magnificent glory. Alongside Torrance, and Calvin, there is another Reformed theologian who also gives place, not to a ‘natural theology,’ but instead what we might term a theology of nature. This other Reformed thinker is Dutch theologian, and neo-Calvinist, Herman Bavinck. Bavinck writes:

Admittedly, article 2 of the Belgic Confession states that God is known by two means–nature and Scripture–and natural theology is upheld in its truth and value by all Reformed theologians. But in that first period, before rationalism infected Reformed theology, it was clearly seen that nature and Scripture are not detached and independent entities, any more than natural and revealed theology are. Calvin incorporated natural theology into the body of Christian dogmatics, saying that Scripture was the spectacles by which believers see God more distinctly also in the works of nature. Originally natural theology was by no means intended to pave the way, step by laborious step, for revealed theology. In adopting it, one was not assuming the provisional stance of reason in order next, by reasoning and proof, to mount to the higher level of faith. But from the very outset the dogmatician took a stand on the ground of faith and, as a Christian and believer, now also looked at nature. Then, with his Christian eyes, armed by Holy Scripture, he also discovered in nature the footprints of the God whom he had come to know–in Christ by Scripture–as Father. From a subjective point of view, in dogmatics it was not therefore natural reason that first took the floor, after which faith in the Word had its say. On the contrary, it was always the believing Christian, who, in catechism, confession, and in dogmatics, gave voice to his faith. And in the same way, speaking objectively, nature did not stand on its own as an independent principle alongside of Holy Scripture, each of them supplying a set of truths of their own. Rather, nature was viewed in the light of Scripture, and Scripture not only contained revealed truth (in the strict sense) but also the truths that a believer can discover in nature. Thus Alsted did indeed acknowledge the existence of a natural theology in the unregenerate, but a confused and obscure natural theology. By contrast, for the believer the principles and conclusions of natural theology are replicated clearly and distinctly in Scripture.[1]

I think it would be better for Bavinck to call what he is discussing a theology of nature instead of ‘natural theology,’ which can become confusing given the passing of time and the negative connotations that have accrued to the language of natural theology. Clearly Bavinck, by way of method, is not giving ground to a brute or pure nature, as if it has the capacious resource to supply the categories for knowledge of the true God. Instead Bavinck sees faith, the faith of Christ as evoked by the Spirit in the illumination of Holy Scripture, as the lenses by which we can know God, even in his creation. I think, again, that it would be better for Bavinck to use the language of a ‘theology of nature’ here.

Furthermore, to compare Bavinck and Barth at this point: I think is a false parallel. Remember, Karl Barth’s context, he was writing within a world on Nazi-fire; a world that had used a Christian pretext to reinforce its villainous march forward into the halls of barbaric genocide against the least of these, which of course included the Jewish people. Barth (like in his drafting of the Barmen Confession), was explicitly taking away any resource for the Nazi church to use the categories of a natural theology informed by a Darwinian ethic to justify their rapacious march forward against humanity. In other words, the context of Barth, and his adamant stance against natural theology, needs to be taken into consideration when attempting to use his stance against all ostensible natural theologies, such as Herman Bavinck’s.

Does this mean that Barth’s theology against natural theology has no de jure or principled force? Does this mean that Barth’s theology against natural theology is marginalized by its de facto place and origin within his own German/Swiss context? God forbid it! What it means though, is that we shouldn’t necessarily read Barth against people like Bavinck without careful nuance between their respective contexts. They might actually reinforce each other more than they ameliorate.

 

[1] Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics. Prolegomena, Vol. One (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic, 2003), 87-8.

Herman Bavinck’s 31 Flavors

Here is an interesting quote from Dutch Theologian Herman Bavinck on General & Special Revelation:

All revelation–general and special–finally finds its fulfillment and meaning in Christ. God’s revelation in Scripture and in Christ provides the spectacles of faith that enable us to understand general revelation better, as well as a basis for encounters with non-Christians. In no way should the Christian faith be represented as otherworldly or anti-creation. Rather, grace and nature are united in the Christian faith, and general revelation links the kingdom o heaven and the kingdom of earth–it joins creation and redemption together in one great eschatological cantata of praise. Grace restores nature, a religious life is woven into the very fabric of ordinary human experience. Finally, God is one and the same loving God in creation and redemption; grace restores nature. [Herman Bavinck, “Reformed Dogmatics: Prolegomena,” 302]

Some interesting stuff and referencing going on here. I see some of Calvin ‘spectacles’ and concepts that sound a lot like his two-fold knowledge of God, but then interestingly, I also pick up some strong notes of Thomas Aquinas’ dictum of ‘grace perfects nature’. So it seems Bavinck in this unit of thought reflects a scholastic mixture of post-Reformed orthodox flavors. Just making some observations.