Herman Bavinck on the Freedom of the Gospel

(Image in public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)
Modern Christian apologists often present conversion in terms of a sort of cognitive leap, an intellectual assent to a set of saving doctrines or even to "the Christian worldview" as a whole. For example, take C.S. Lewis' (justly) famous autobiographical work, Surprised by Joy, which charts a path of descent from his childhood Anglican faith into a defiant atheism, his progression through interest in myth and the occult and into philosophical idealism, and finally his reluctant embrace of theism. This conversion of the intellect, reminiscent of Augustine's embrace of Neoplatonism in the Confessions, serves as a propaedeutic for Lewis' eventual embrace of traditional Christian doctrine full stop -- the incarnation, the atonement, etc. Don't get me wrong: Surprised is a very good book, but I do sometimes worry that Lewis' life story, if such taken as paradigmatic of the journey from from disbelief to faith, can foster a certain reduction of the gratuity and existential power of the Word who saves.

When I approach the work of the Dutch Reformed theologian Herman Bavinck, by contrast, I find a more nuanced and, to my mind, more satisfying understanding of faith than that conveyed by Lewis' book. Moreover, the neo-Calvinist thinker articulates a perspective more in line with the early Protestant Reformers, and perhaps also with the Dutch pietism of Bavinck's formative years. I'm not a Bavinck scholar; still, as I dip, now and again, into his impressive oeuvre, I'm finding a broad-minded, synthetic thinker who seeks to balance the affective and cognitive dimensions of Christian faith in the way that Calvin does -- successfully, to my mind -- in Book III, chap. 2, of the Institutes.

In that vein, I recently was struck by this passage from Bavinck's essay, "Calvin and Common Grace" (Princeton Theological Review, 1909). In this piece Bavinck draws a distinction between the rather formal (as he sees it) Roman Catholicism of the late medieval period and the existential, soteriological orientation of the Protestant Reformers. The tone is not as polemical as one might expect from an essay written a century ago; still, with our current ecumenical and historical sensitivities, we might wish to nuance his position.

At issue is the Roman conception of faith as cognitive assent to supernatural mysteries passed down through an authoritative church tradition, a definition that Bavinck, unsurprisingly, rejects. My concern here is not the accuracy of Bavinck's analysis of Tridentine Catholic dogma. Rather, I'm more struck by how contemporary this passage seems in the way it "existentializes" faith and, concomitantly, relatives notions of saving faith as voluntaristic, cognitive assent to doctrines. This, of course, doesn't make Bavinck any less of a theological realist concerned with the truth value of Christian doctrines, as a perusal of his Philosophy of Revelation bears out. But his comments in this essay give one pause before one posits intellectual assent to supernatural truths as the primary metric of who is and who is not an "authentic" Christian believer.

Bavinck writes:

When a helpless man, out of distress of soul, looks to the Gospel for deliverance, the Gospel will appear to him in a totally new light. All at once it ceases to be a set of supernatural, inscrutable mysteries to be received on ecclesiastical authority, with renunciation of the claims of reason, by meritorious assent. It straightway becomes a new Gospel, good tidings of salvation, revelation of God’s gracious and efficacious will to save the sinner, something that itself imparts the forgiveness of sin and eternal life and therefore is embraced by lost man with joy, that lifts him above all sin and above the entire world to the high hope of a heavenly salvation (p. 445).

Below I highlight what, for me, is the crux of the passage:

Hence it is no longer possible to speak of the Gospel with Rome as consisting in supernatural mysteries to be responded to by man in voluntary assent. The Gospel is not law, neither as regards the intellect nor as regards the will; it is in essence a promise, not a demand but a gift, a free gift of the divine favor; nay, in it the divine will itself through the Gospel addresses itself to the will, the heart, the innermost essence of man, and there produces the faith which rests in the divine will and builds on it and puts its trust in it through all perils, even in the hour of death (ibid.)

Bavinck argues that the Gospel should not be seen as a veritas (truth) upon which gratia (grace) is superadded, but is, rather, both the revelation of God’s free grace and the instrument of the execution of the divine saving will. Would it be too much of a stretch to paraphrase Bavinck along the lines of a Luther or a Barth: The Gospel just is Jesus Christ himself, as we experience him in saving faith? Be that as it may, at the very least it seems that this essay -- and Bavinck's work more broadly -- deserves a closer look.



Matthew Frost said…
See, now, I'm inclined—as was Barth, as was Luther—to do something Bavinck at the very least doesn't do in these citations (and which I see few neo-Calvinists do generally): distinguish the "set of supernatural, inscrutable mysteries to be received on ecclesiastical authority, with renunciation of the claims of reason, by meritorious assent" as something that is neither gospel nor properly law, but only at best a canon of tradition. That and the gospel are not one and the same thing behaving differently when looked at out of different human dispositions of soul.

So I'm going to say it would be too much to paraphrase Bavinck as saying that "the gospel just is Jesus Christ himself"—even "as we experience him in saving faith"—because that presumes that Jesus Christ himself also just is the set of propositionally orthodox ecclesiastical dogmas. If we're going to distinguish gospel and law, it remains necessary to distinguish both from human developments thereupon.

And in that line, there's a problem Bavinck has inherited from Luther, by which in polemic against Roman Catholicism he links the concept of law to these human doctrinal codifications. That path always leads back to incorporating dogma back into some new, reformed maximalist definition of the Word of God, incorporating it as "law" back into some posited necessary relation to the gospel such that the gospel requires this and this and that human doctrinal product to really be gospel—and then we've looped all the way around to being the caricature we rail against as "Rome."
"When a helpless man, out of distress of soul, looks to the Gospel for deliverance" - I can appreciate the point, and even your point about C. S. Lewis and the intellectually orientated nature of the way some experience of conversion. One of the matters with which I wrestle is that I cannot point to a feeling of such helplessness and distress. I am sure that for some, what I have experienced is hardly conversion. When I first heard what I could hear at 10 years old, and in the context of a loving community of faith, I found myself saying, "Yes, I want that in my life (the gospel) and I want these people in my life." At least looking back, that is what it seems like to me.
@George - Perhaps there is more than one pathway of conversion.
@Matthew - To get at the issues you raise, I would need to sketch more fully Bavinck's interpretation of revelation and dogma, and how they are related. For that matter, we had better through the concept of tradition into the mix, which I'm suspecting is going to be a fairly complex issue in Bavinck's case.

I would think -- tell me if this sounds right to you -- that the issue of whether a doctrine, or propositional statement (or anything else) counts as "law" would depend upon how it is used. Thus -- and I don't want to overextend this narrow slice of an essay I've quoted -- at least as Bavinck presents the matter here, these doctrines are in the category of law (in an inappropriate way) because they are functioning soteriologically. Acceptance of dogma (if I'm reading him correctly) is being presented as a condition for receiving saving faith rather than being an expression or reflection of it in the life of the community. Certainly, he has no problem with dogmas per se, as long as their proper function is recognized.

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