“Without general revelation, special revelation loses its connectedness with the whole cosmic existence and life. …Christianity becomes a sectarian phenomenon and is robbed of its catholicity. In a word, grace is then opposed to nature.”
– Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, I:322
Having worked my way through the chapter on general revelation, it is now clear the extent to which Bavinck does indeed intimate la nouvelle théologie, as I noted earlier. Thus, Bavinck holds to a high view of general revelation as ontologically prior to special revelation, yet epistemologically posterior. Because of the latter — the epistemological priority of special revelation — Bavinck can sound rather Barthian at certain points, but he is really more in-line with Emil Brunner and Hans Urs von Balthasar, the two theologians who did the most to sympathetically engage, appropriate, and yet challenge Barth’s attack on natural theology. Of course, this is all tricky territory, and I am still in the process of fully understanding Barth’s positive doctrine of an analogia fidei, as a way to bring creation and nature under the determination of Christ, a determination from the foundation of the earth.
There is too much excellent material in this chapter, much more than a few excerpts can satisfy. So, I will just give some of his closing remarks. The distinction, by the way, between ontic and epistemic ordering is my own, as a way to express Bavinck’s claim that “objectively nature is antecedent to grace.” Of course, Barth reverses this relationship.
Against the two-tier (general–>special) epistemology:
Neither is it the intent of general revelation that Christians should draw from it their first knowledge of God, the world, and humanity in order later to augment this knowledge with the knowledge of Christ. …And dogmaticians do not first divest themselves of their Christian faith in order to construct a rational doctrine of God and humanity and in order later to supplement it with the revelation in Christ. [p. 320]
From special revelation to general revelation:
Now special revelation has recognized and valued general revelation, has even taken it over and, as it were, assimilated it. And this is also what the Christian does, as do the theologians. They position themselves in the Christian faith, in special revelation, and from there look out upon nature and history. And now they discover there as well the traces of the God whom they learned to know in Christ as their Father. Precisely as Christians, by faith, they see the revelation of God in nature much better and more clearly than before. The carnal person does not understand God’s speech in nature and history. He or she searches the entire universe without finding God. But Christians, equipped with the spectacles of Scripture, see God in everything and everything in God. [p. 321]
The point of contact:
In that general revelation, moreover, Christians have a firm foundation on which they can meet all non-Christians. They have a common basis with non-Christians. As a result of their Christian faith, they may find themselves in an isolated position; they may not be able to prove their religious convictions to others; still, in general revelation they have a point of contact with all those who bear the name “human.” Just as a classical preparatory education forms a common foundation for all people of learning, so general revelation unites all people despite their religious differences. Subjectively, in the life of believers, the knowledge of God from nature comes after the knowledge derived from Scripture. We are all born in a certain concrete religion. Only the eye of faith sees God in his creation. Here too it is true that only the pure of heart see God. Yet objectively nature is antecedent to grace; general revelation precedes special revelation. Grace presupposes nature. [footnote: “In keeping with this objective order, the dogmatician should consider general revelation before special revelation, and not the reverse, as Kaftan does.”] To deny that natural religion and natural theology are sufficient and have an autonomous existence of their own is not in any way to do an injustice to the fact that from the creation, from nature and history, from the human heart and conscience, there comes divine speech to every human. No one escapes the power of general revelation. [p. 321, emphasis mine]
Echoing St. Thomas:
Nature precedes grace; grace perfects nature. Reason is perfected by faith, faith presupposes nature. [p. 322]
Image: “Point of Contact” by Chicago photographer, Steve Koo.