maandag 2 september 2013

Herman Bavinck (1854-1921): A Reformed Theologian in Tension with the Science and Culture of his Time 2

Pastor and Theologian
When in his parsonage, Bavinck continued his studies. Nevertheless, he also gave himself wholeheartedly as a pastor and teacher to the congregation. He liked to visit simple members to converse with them about salvation in Jesus Christ their Lord. It was in Franeker that he overcame the inner conflict between his period of study in Leiden and his upbringing.
Profoundly impressed with the limits to human knowledge, and with the fact that reason should never be a judge of revealed truth, his love and affinity with the church’s confession of all ages deepened. Furthermore, Bavinck was convinced that reformed theology is the most catholic form of theology. It became his sure conviction that in reformed theology the message of the Scriptures is set forth most clearly.
On the 24th of August 1882, the young minister of Franeker was assigned to the post of professor at the Theological Seminary in Kampen by the synod of the Christian Reformed Church. In Kampen he moved into a room in his parents’ parsonage. It is possibly due to his hesitating nature that he was somewhat older when he married.
On the 2nd of July, 1891, he married Johanna Adriana Schippers, who was thirteen years his junior, and to whom he had first been introduced in 1888. They had a very happy marriage. In their home she brought the warmth and cheer-fulness of love for which Bavinck had been looking. On November 25 of 1894 a daughter was born, who was named Johanna Geziena. She was the only child of their marriage.
In 1895 the first part of Bavinck’s Reformed Dogmatics was published. The fourth and last part came out in 1901. With great knowledge of the history of theology, Bavinck explained the doctrine of faith. The source of knowledge is God’s revelation, written in the Holy Scriptures, being the Word of God inspired by the Holy Spirit. The testimony that Holy Writ gives of itself takes a central place in Bavinck’s theology.
Like Kuyper, Bavinck speaks about ‘organic inspiration’. With this he wants to underline that we should realize that God made use of human organs to produce the Bible, without taking away anything from the revelation’s absolute divine character. To Bavinck, the ultimate incentive for a Christian to bow to the authority of the Bible is the Holy Ghost’s inner testimony. Bavinck, in his theology, relates the principium externum (the external principle, namely the witness of the Scriptures) and the principium internum (the internal principle, namely the inner witness of the Holy Spirit).
Continuing Struggle
Being a very synergistic and an irenic man, Bavinck had great openness (in my opinion, a too great openness) towards the so-called ethical movement in the national Dutch Reformed Church. The theologians belonging to this movement were not a homogeneous group. What united them all was that they tried to find a middle road between liberal theology and reformed orthodoxy. Theologically they can be compared with such men as R.W. Dale in England and A.B. Davidson and James Denney in Scotland.
Bavinck parted ways with the ethical theologians in their view on the authority of the Scriptures, and subsequently in their view on the relation between revelation and experience. He emphasized that the faith of the church can only last when it is built upon the rock of the Scriptures.Time and again Bavinck made a stand for the self-testimony of Scripture, to which he wished to surrender unconditionally. The ethical theologians did regard the Scripture as a source of faith, but their standard of doctrine was the living faith of the members of Christ’s church.
Among these ethical theologians one stood closer to Reformed orthodoxy as the other. Or to say in their own terms: one ethical theologian considered a larger part of the classical confession as pertaining to the living faith of the members of Christ’s church as another belonging to this same movement. Just as the ethical theologians, Bavinck  wished to value the experience of faith. However, his principle was to give priority to the objective revelation in the Bible over experience. He wished to have Scripture interpret experience and not the other way around.
Bavinck had much in common not only with Kuyper, but also with the American theologians Charles Hodge and Benjamin B. Warfield. It was his desire to find biblical answers when science questioned the Christian faith. Kuyper and Bavinck started from the premise of two kinds of science, while the Princeton-theologians assumed that Christians and non-Christians have the same scientific approach, but that only the Christian solution gives a realistic answer.
Bavinck wished, as a contemporary confessor of the Christian faith, to show to society’s intellectual upper class that the Christian faith endures even in our time. That is, Christianity is relevant and authoritative in defining the true character of reality. In this context he stressed, moreover, that only the classic Christian faith offers genuine comfort in the face of death.
The desire to be relevant for culture shows the neocalvinistic bias of Bavinck’s theology. Neocalvinism wished to make reformed theology relevant to its own time and culture. It rejected the relationship which was made by classic Calvinism between church and state. It was voluntaristic in its view on that relationship.
Neocalvinism also had a much greater openness to culture than classical Calvinism, especially the Calvinism coloured by the Dutch Puritans. This openness was, in the long term, damaging to notions that have a central position in the Christian faith, notably personal reconciliation with God, and being a stranger on earth. In Bavinck’s case, the term ‘Calvinist’ should be stressed as much as the prefix ‘neo’.
Bavinck’s personal life was marked by the godliness and simplicity of an older generation of ministers and members of the Christian Reformed Church. Bavinck could be indignant and distressed about the secularism and materialism in his own circle. At the same time his perception of culture shows a great, and sometimes doubtful, openness. Just like Kuyper, he held the opinion that God’s image after the fall of men becomes not only visible within the church, where sinners are cleansed by Christ’s blood and renewed by His Spirit, but also in the development of culture.
Bavinck argued that the development of culture should be related to the image of God. In his Reformed Dogmatics he wrote in this context that God’s image, in its depth and richness, can only become visible, to some extent, in mankind’s millions of species. The words ‘to some extent’ show that he was more cautious than Kuyper. It was not, in the last place, this view that instigated the spiritual decline of the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands. The concept of pilgrimage gave way in all areas of life to an activistic and triumphalistic fighting for Christ.