Providence and Confession of Faith (Bavinck)

 The truth of God’s providence is a source of great comfort in the Christian life.  We believe from Scripture that God is sovereign over all things, from the stars in the skies to the cattle on a thousand hills to the birds in the trees to the hairs on our heads.  Nothing happens by chance, but according to his divine providence (cf. Ps 93:1, 104:19-20, 148:8, 1 Cor. 15:24, Rev. 12:10, etc. etc.).  Herman Bavinck explained this comfort well in the closing statements of his discussion on God’s providence.  Note at the end how Bavinck alludes to the Heidelberg Catechism’s great summary of providence in Lord’s Day 10:

In this consoling fashion Scripture deals with the providence of God. Plenty of riddles remain, both in the life of individuals and in the history of the world and humankind…. But God lets the light of his Word shine over all these enigmas and mysteries, not to solve them, but that “by steadfastness and by the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope” (Rom. 15:4).

The doctrine of providence is not a philosophical system but a confession of faith, the confession that, notwithstanding appearances, neither Satan nor a human being nor any other creature, but God and he alone—by his almighty and everywhere present power—preserves and governs all things. Such a confession can save us both from a superficial optimism that denies the riddles of life, and from a presumptuous pessimism that despairs of this world and human destiny.

For the providence of God encompasses all things, not only the good but also sin and suffering, sorrow and death. For if these realities were removed from God’s guidance, then what in the world would there be left for him to rule? God’s providence is manifest not only, nor primarily, in the extraordinary events of life and in miracles but equally as much in the stable order of nature and the ordinary occurrences of daily life. What an impoverished faith it would be if it saw God’s hand and counsel from afar in a few momentous events but did not discern it in a person’s own life and lot? It leads all these things toward their final goal, not against but agreeably to their nature, not apart from but through the regular means; for what power would there be in a faith that recommended stoical indifference or fatalistic acquiescence as true godliness?

But so, as the almighty and everywhere present power of God, it makes us grateful when things go well and patient when things go against us, prompts us to rest with childlike submission in the guidance of the Lord and at the same time arouses us from our inertia to the highest levels of activity. In all circumstances of life, it gives us good confidence in our faithful God and Father that he will provide whatever we need for body and soul and that he will turn to our good whatever adversity he sends us in this sad world, since he is able to do this as almighty God and desires to do this as a faithful Father.

 Herman Bavinck, John Bolt, and John Vriend, Reformed Dogmatics: God and Creation, vol. 2 (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2004), 618–619.

Shane Lems
Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC)
Hammond, WI, 54015

Prayer to Mary?

Product Details In the Roman Catholic Catechism prayer to Mary is explained in part 4, chapter 2, article 2.  The Catechism talks about the “twofold movement of prayer to Mary” which 1) consists of magnifying the Lord for what he did through her and 2) “entrusts the supplications and praises of the children of God to the Mother of Jesus.”    This twofold movement is found in the Ave Maria (Hail Mary), the traditional Catholic prayer which addresses Mary, who is “full of grace.”  The Catechism also calls her “the dwelling of God…with men,” and ascribes to her these names: “the Mother of Mercy, the All-Holy One.”

Because Mary is at the top of the human ladder of blessedness, the Catechism also says we can “entrust all our cares and petitions to her: she prays for us as she prayed for herself…we give ourselves over to her now…to surrender ‘the hour of our death’ wholly to her care.”  In fact, Rome says, “We can pray with and to her.  The prayer of the Church is sustained by the prayer of Mary and united with it in hope.”

This is one of the major reasons why the Reformation happened: because Rome was steeped in corrupt, idolatrous worship.  And this is why the Reformation matters today, because Rome has not repented of her idolatry; the above quotes are from the Roman Catholic Church’s modern Catechism.

Herman Bavinck was right: “In Rome, Mariolatry increasingly crowds out the true Christian worship of God. … It is against this idolization of the human that the Reformation rose up in protest” (RD III p. 282).

The [Lutheran] Smalcald Articles (Part 2, article 2) also say it well: “The invocation of saints is…one of Antichrist’s abuses that conflicts with the chief article [the gospel] and destroys the knowledge of Christ [Phil. 3:8].  It is neither commanded nor counseled, nor has it any warrant in Scripture.  Even if it were a precious thing – which it is not – we have everything a thousand times better in Christ.”

The Westminster Confession of Faith 21.1 puts it this way: “Religious worship is to be given to God, the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost; and to him alone: not to angels, saints, or any other creature: and, since the fall, not without a mediator, nor in the mediation of any other but of Christ alone.”

The Lutheran and Presbyterian confessions are right.  Since Christ alone is sufficient for everything we need in salvation (body and soul, life and death), we don’t have to look elsewhere for anything.  When we do so, we are turning from Christ, committing idolatry, and acting as if his work is not enough.  This is one great reason to thank God for the Reformation –  he used it to bring the focus on back upon Christ and him alone.  Post tenebras lux!

shane lems

Anthropomorphites, Audius, and Mormons

 In the broader context of the early church there was a group of people called the anthropomorphites who took the Bible “literally” which led them to believe and teach that God has a body.  Since the Bible talks about God’s right hand, his footsteps, his eyes, (etc.) they thought that God was some sort of majestic and divine giant.  Audius was a prominent leader of this group, therefore sometimes the anthropomorphites are called Audians. 

Cyril (d. 444), Jerome (d. 420), and many other early orthodox Christian leaders were quick to condemn the group for this heresy, which opened the door to a host of other heresies.  For example, if God had a body he could not be omnipresent nor could he be simple (simplicitas Dei; without parts or composition) both of which the Bible clearly does teach.  If God had a body, he would be subject to time; he would be contingent and part of creation – all of which the Bible clearly does not teach.  The modern-day Audians include Latter Day Saints (Mormons) who say that “the Father has a body of flesh and bones as tangible as man’s” (Doctrine and Covenants 130:22).  There is nothing new under the sun.

So what do we do we make of the parts of the Bible that speak of God’s eyes, hands, feet, etc.?  Well, we view the Bible for what it is: God’s word to fallen, sinful humans – for us and our salvation.  God doesn’t speak to humans in “God-language,” but in “human-language.”  This means he accommodates himself to us by using our language – words and concepts we can understand.  I like how Herman Bavinck stated this.  He put it in the category of God’s grace towards sinners.

“If God were to speak to us in a divine language, not a creature would understand him.  But what spells out his grace is the fact that from the moment of creation God stoops down to his creatures, speaking and appearing to them in human fashion.  This is why all the names by which God calls himself and allows us to call him are derived from earthly and human relations.” (H. Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics II.100)

The church fathers realized this too.  Frances Young summarizes Ephrem the Syrian’s (b. 306) views on accommodation.

“It is only because of God’s condescension and accommodation to the human level that we can speak of God at all.  Ephrem offers as an analogy an amusing picture of someone trying to teach a parrot to talk and hiding behind a mirror so that the parrot imagines it is talking to one of its own kind; that is the kind of thing God did, bending down from on high and acquiring our own habits from us.  God clothed the divine self in metaphors: scripture speaks us of God’s ears to teach us that God listens to us, of God’s eyes to show us that God sees us.”  (F. Young, From Nicaea to Chalcedon, p. 182)

This is a basic teaching of Christianity: the eternal, infinite, omniscient, and omnipresent invisible God – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – graciously adapted his communication to the level of our understanding.  Though we cannot fully comprehend him, we can apprehend him through his word, which is able to give us sufficient knowledge and faith for salvation.

shane lems

A Pious Confession of Ignorance

 In the opening section of his discussion of theology proper, Herman Bavinck does a nice job utilizing Augustine and Hilary to explain the biblical teaching that a person can know God truly but not exhastively.   In other words, a person can apprehend God by faith in Jesus, but no one can comprehened him.  The first part of this longer quote is from Augustine’s lectures on the Gospel of John.

“‘We are speaking of God.  Is it any wonder if you do not comprehend?  For if you comprehend, it is not God you comprehend.  Let it be a pious confession of ignorance rather than a rash profession of knowledge.  To attain some slight knowledge of God is a great blessing; to comprehend him, however, is totally impossible.’  God is the sole object of all our love, precisely because he is the infinite and incomprehensible One.”

“Although Scripture and the church, thus as it were, accept the premises of agnosticism and are even more deeply convinced of human limitations and the incomparable grandeur of God than Kant and Spencer, they draw from these realities a very different conclusion.  Hilary put it as follows: ‘The perfection of learning is to know God in such a way that, though you realize he is not unknowable, you know him as indescribable.'”

“The knowledge we have of God is altogether unique.  This knowledge may be called positive insofar as by it we recognize a being infinite and distinct from all finite creatures.  On the other hand, it is negative because we cannot ascribe a single predicate to God as we conceive that predicate in relation to creatures.  It is therefore an analogical knowledge: a knowledge of a being who is unknowable in himself, yet able to make something of himself known in the being he created.”

Bavinck goes on to discuss this “adorable mystery,” that the infinite God can make himself known to finite creatures.  He says it well: “This mystery cannot be comprehended; it can only be gratefully acknowledged.”  Reminds me of Paul’s doxology at the end of Romans chapter 11.

The above quotes can be found in volume 2 of Bavinck’s Reformed Dogmatics, pages 48-50. 

shane lems

True Church, False Church

 Herman Bavinck’s discussion of ecclesiology is, in my opinion, one of the best Reformed treatments of this doctrine available in English.  Since I am presbyterian in my ecclesiology, I appreciate Bavinck’s robust and biblical view of the church: its spiritual essence, spiritual government, spiritual power, and so forth.  I also like how he appealed to the post-reformation context to discuss the true/false church distinction that the Belgic Confession speaks of in article 29.  Bavinck (in IV.315-16) mentions how Calvin and other reformers taught that there is no perfectly pure church.  Therefore, when we say “true church” we don’t mean “perfectly pure church.”  He explains how the post-reformation teachers wrestled through this.

“On the one hand, one had to admit that a true church in an absolute sense is impossible here on earth; there is not a single church that completely and in all its parts, in doctrine and in life, in the ministry of the Word and sacrament, meets the demand of God.  On the other hand, it also became clear that an absolutely false church cannot possibly exist, for in that case it would no longer be a church at all.” 

Even though Rome was a false church insofar as it was papal, nevertheless there were many remnants of the true church left in it.  There was a difference, therefore, between a true church and a pure church.  ‘True church’ became the term, not for one church to the exclusion of all others, but for an array of churches that still upheld the fundamental articles of Christian faith but for the rest differed a great deal from each other in degrees of purity.  And ‘false church’ became the term for the hierarchical power of superstition or belief that set itself up in local churches and accorded itself and its ordinances more authority than the Word of God” (p. 315-316).

Well stated.  In the post-reformation context, there were true churches whose doctrine was more or less pure.  These churches were true because they upheld the fundamental articles of the faith as they displayed the three marks (word, sacrament, discipline).  False churches were those that denied fundamental articles of the faith by subverting the authority of the Word (this is where the reformers discussed Rome and anabaptistic sects). 

I think Bavinck is right here, and I also believe that a proper reading of the Belgic Confession of Faith article 29 is the Westminster Confession of Faith’s application of this teaching.  WCF 25.4 explains how local churches that are part of the church catholic [universal] “are more or less pure.”  In other words, and in summary, “true church” doesn’t mean “most pure church;” it means churches that uphold – more or less purely – the fundamentals of the faith displayed in the three marks. 

(For more from Bavinck on this, see a previous post of mine.)

shane lems

The Unspeakable Consolation of Providence

One of the great things about the Christian faith is the deep comfort it brings to the weary heart – specifically I’m thinking of providence.  Here are a few comforting quotes on providence from some Reformation confessions and teachers.

 “This doctrine affords us unspeakable consolation, since we are taught thereby that nothing can befall us by chance, but by the direction of our most gracious and heavenly Father.” Belgic Confession of Faith XIII.

 “As the providence of God doth, in general, reach to all creatures; so after a special manner it taketh care of his church, and disposeth all things to the good thereof.”  Westminster Confession of Faith 5.7.

 “Knowledge of this doctrine…is the beginning of true happiness.”  Caspar Olevian in A Firm Foundation.

 “Our faith does not look to those means which God uses [in providence], nor does it depend on them, but rather to God who alone can relieve all our necessities, either with or without means as it appears good to him.”  William Ames in The Marrow of Theology.

 “God by his providence preserves his church in the midst of enemies; a spark kept alive in the ocean, or a flock of sheep among wolves.”  Thomas Watson in A Body of Divinity.

“It is above all by faith in Christ that believers are enabled – in spite of all the riddles that perplex them – to cling to the conviction that the God who rules the world is the same loving and compassionate Father who in Christ forgave them all their sins, accepted them as his children, and will bequeath to them eternal salvation. … Although the riddles are not resolved, faith in God’s fatherly hand always again arises from the depths and even enables us to boast in afflictions.”  Herman Bavinck in Reformed Dogmatics II.

 “Now to understand in a spiritual way the universality of providence in every particular happening from morning to night every day, that there is nothing that befalls you but there is a hand of God in it – this is from God, and is a great help to contentment.”  Jeremiah Burroughs, The Rare Jewel of Christian Contentment.

 “From this contemplation of God’s providence, there ought to arise in the hearts of believers an earnest desire of patience and humility in adversity by the example of Christ, of Joseph, of Job, that in all things which happen somewhat harshly to us we may acquiesce without a murmur in the will and providence of God.”  Francis Turretin, Institutes of Elenctic Theology, I.

shane lems

Humility Before the Word

“Over against all human beings, Scripture occupies a position so high that, instead of subjecting itself to their criticism, it judges them in all their thoughts and desires.  And this has been the Christian church’s position toward Scripture at all times.  According to Chrysostom, humility is the foundation of philosophy.  Augustine said: ‘When a certain rhetorician was asked what was the chief rule in eloquence, he replied, ‘Delivery’; what was the second rule, ‘Delivery’; what was the third rule, ‘Delivery’; so if you ask me concerning the precepts of the Christian religion, first, second, and third, and always I would answer ‘Humility.” Calvin cites this statement with approval.  And Pascal cries out to humanity: ‘Humble yourself, powerless reason!  Be silent, stupid nature! …Listen to God!’  … And the Christian dogmatician may take no other position.”

When I was starting to first feel the weight of the cross in my life, I met some horribly arrogant Christians.  This threw me off quite a bit; I was thinking about how Jesus humbled himself but his followers often didn’t.  I’ve also recently talked to some disillusioned Christians who stumbled because of arrogant Christians in their lives. Finally, I know unbelievers who say many Christians they know are arrogant jerks who are simply not kind to people outside their “bubble.”  Truth hurts, I guess.

Based on Herman Bavinck’s great quote above, Christian humility not only has to do with imitating Christ (1 Cor 11.1), but submitting to his word with “trembling” (Is 66.5).  There is no room for arrogance!

The above quote is from Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics I: Prolegomena, 441.

shane lems

sunnyside, wa