|(Image in public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)|
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.
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.