“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 fideias 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.

Friedrich Schleiermacher

After treating the intellectualism of Hegel and his followers, Bavinck turns to the Romanticism of the period which oriented religious thought along the affective and aesthetic domain of the human person. This domain of feeling was thought to be the proper domain for religion, not the rational domain strictly speaking, though the concerns of modern reason and skepticism were never far away. Romanticism was found in Wordsworth and Coleridge in England, Rousseau in France, and, most importantly for dogmatics, Schleiermacher in Germany. Here is a brief excerpt from Bavinck’s incisive appraisal of this approach:

One then, naturally, slips into the error of confusing and equating religious feeling with sensual and aesthetic feeling. Known to us all from history is the kinship between religious and sensual [erotic] love and the passage from one to the other. But equally dangerous is the confusion of religious and aesthetic feeling, of religion and art. The two are essentially distinct. Religion is life, reality; art is ideal, appearance. Art cannot close the gap between the ideal and reality. Indeed, for a moment it lifts us above reality and induces us to live in the realm of ideals. But this happens only in the imagination. 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.

[Reformed Dogmatics, volume 1, p. 267]

To be clear, Bavinck does note the positive connection between religion and art: “From the beginning religion and art went hand in hand. The decline of the one brought with it the decay of the other. The ultimate driving force of art was religion. …In religion, specifically in worship, the imagination has its rightful place and value.” (Ibid., emphasis mine)

I’m excited to see how Bavinck treats special and general revelation later in this first volume. So far, his preliminary remarks will warm the heart of anyone sympathetic to Barth or, on the Catholic side, to Henri de Lubac. In fact, the following comments can be found nearly verbatim in books treating the revolt against natural theology in the likes of Barth and in la nouvelle théologie of Henri de Lubac. Bavinck, of course, does not go as far as Barth, nor does Bavinck reorient his theology around Christology and election like Barth. So, my guess is that Bavinck would be more aligned with the Catholic nouvelle théologie and their undermining of the modern (Cartesian) method in constructing a natural theology upon rational certainty. Likewise, he follows la nouvelle théologie in rejecting the scholastic two-tier approach of first building a natural knowledge of God, upon which special knowledge through revelation is placed.

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. [p. 87]

The method that arose already with scholasticism and later found acceptance also among Protestants, viz., of first treating the natural knowledge of God (the preamble of faith) and then all the historical and rational proofs (motiva credibilitatis) supporting revelation, must be rejected. At the very outset and in principle it abandons the viewpoint of faith, denies the positive character of dogmatics, moves onto the opponent’s ground, and is therefore in fact rationalistic, and makes dogmatics dependent on philosophy.

…Over against such a rationalization of religion and theology, one has to maintain (along with Schleiermacher, Rothe, Frank, Ritschl, etc.) the positive character of dogmatics. The foundations of faith (principia fidei) are themselves articles of faith (articuli fidei), based not on human arguments and proofs but on divine authority.

[p. 108-109]

I am currently reading through Herman Bavinck‘s Reformed Dogmatics, volume 1 (Prolegomena). It is an impressive piece of scholarship. Like any good systematic theology, it is at once a work of historical theology and constructive dogmatics. For those who may be discerning whether to drop a hundred dollars on the set (a great value), here are some excerpts that I noted while reading. Unfortunately, it would take too long to excerpt the historical surveys, which are perhaps the most instructive portions.

Theology as a science:

If then the content of faith comes through revelation, faith itself, too, is in a sense generated by the “compelling evidence of the facts.” It is true by virtue of its nature that the word of God impacts the human subject differently than, say, a report of purely historical events; it also addresses the will and cannot generate faith apart from the will. But though believing does not occur apart from the will, it is not the product of the will. Therefore, the word of God has stood and still stands independently of our will and acceptance. The word of God has an objective content that was established before, and persists apart from, our faith, just as much as the world of colors and sounds exists independently of the blind and the deaf. In that case, however, knowledge of the objective content of revelation has significance of and for itself. This is true of all science. All science has inherent value and purpose, apart from whether it has practical utility or yields benefits for life. [p. 52]

Dogmatics and ethics as “a single organism”:

The lines of separation described above [between dogmatics and ethics] create a dualism between God and man, individual and community, salvation and life, rest and movement, intellect and will, and pave the way for ethics to go, by way of a speculative philosophy, in search of a principle of its own.

…Dogmatics describes the deeds of God done for, to, and in human beings; ethics describes what renewed human beings now do on the basis of an in the strength of those divine deeds.

…Dogmatics is the system of the knowledge of God; ethics is that of the service of God. The two disciplines far from facing each other as two independent entities, together form a single system; they are related members of a single organism. [p. 58]

Dogmatics as genetic:

The theologian must pursue no other method than the genetic, i.e., the method that sets forth the truth in terms of its own course of development in a manner in which all its parts stand in their organic relation to each other.

…It is not the case that isolated dogmas should be demonstrated with the aid of isolated texts, but the whole system of truth must be proven with the whole of Scripture. Accordingly, Scripture in its entirety, word combined with deed and history with doctrine, is the foundation of dogmatics, and the dogmatic system must have the same material content as Holy Scripture. …it is the scientific unfolding of that which makes the Christian a Christian, the self-knowledge and self-declaration of the believer.

[pp. 64-65. Bavinck is describing the heilsgeschichte approach of biblical theology pioneer, J. C. K. von Hofmann. Bavinck later criticizes aspects of this approach (too subjective, too reductionistic), but he is in agreement with its genetic method.]

Against Schleiermacher:

Consciousness theology, which rejects Scripture and confession as sources of knowledge and seeks to derive all religious truth from the subject, is first of all in conflict with a sound theory of knowledge. We are products of our environment also in the area of religion. We receive our religious ideas and impressions from those who raise and nurture us, and we remain at all times bound to the circle in which we live. In no domain of life are the intellect and the heart, reason and conscience, feeling and imagination, the epistemic source of truth but only organs by which we perceive truth and make it our own. …Feeling is especially unfit to serve as the epistemic source of religious truth, for feeling is never a prius (a prior thing) but always a posterius (something which follows later). Feeling only reacts to what strikes it and then yields a sensation of that which is pleasant or unpleasant, agreeable or disagreeable.

[p. 80. It is not clear to what extent Bavinck is attacking Schleiermacher or those who came after him, following his epistemic starting point: our consciousness of God. In fact, Schleiermacher would agree with Bavinck that a sound theory of knowledge begins with the community.]

Next, I’ll post some excerpts related to natural theology.

HermanBavinck.org has posted audio files of a recent conference on Bavinck, including:

“The God of Philosophy and of the Holy Scripture: Herman Bavinck and John Paul II” by Eduardo J. Echeverria of Sacred Heart Major Seminary. A helpful lecture wherein I learned, among other things, how to pronounce “Matthias Scheeban” properly. Regardless of the title, the lecture is not limited to Bavinck and JPII but, instead, covers the convergence in Reformed and Catholic thought on the natural knowledge of God. Echeverria argues that there is a greater convergence among recent Dutch Reformed theology (Kuyper-Bavinck-Berkouwer) and recent Catholic theology (Maritain, Gilson, von B, JPII) than many realize. He also argues that the Vatican Council (1870) did not teach that knowledge of God could be “philosophically demonstrated,” though He can be known apart from special revelation.