Critiquing Mysticism and Pietism: Six Points (Bavinck)

Reformed Ethics: Created, Fallen, and Converted Humanity In his first volume of Reformed Ethics, Herman Bavinck spent quite some time discussing mysticism and pietism.  At the end of the section on mysticism and pietism, Bavinck wrote the following critique.  (For the record, I wish he would’ve expanded a bit on these points since they are helpful.)

However justified mysticism and Pietism were in their objection to rationalism and dead orthodoxy, both of which locate the seat of faith in the intellect, they are themselves also one-sided. Here are six points of critique:

1. Mysticism and Pietism put the seat of faith in feeling and thus do not embrace the fullness of our humanity. That which most affects and arouses feelings gets the emphasis.

2. This results in a denial of the faith’s objectivity—that is, the Word, the letter, the sacraments, the church, and even doctrine (e.g., satisfaction).

3. Another consequence is the formation of a pernicious group (club) mentality. The converted separate themselves, live apart, and leave family and world to fend for themselves. They are salt not within but alongside the world.

4. The covenant idea is lost altogether. The converted and the unconverted each live their own lives totally detached from one another. Mutual contact takes place only mechanically and not organically. The unconverted are left to their own devices.

5. This also has adverse results for the converted. Religion is limited to being busy with the things of God (reading, praying). Daily work becomes a matter of necessity alone rather than a holy calling. Sunday stays disconnected from the rest of the week; faith is not tested in the world. Christians become passive, quietistic.

6. By constantly attending to self-contemplation, people make their experience the norm for everyone else, and unhealthy, unscriptural elements enter. Simplicity and the childlike character of faith give way to sentimentality. Experience guides the exegesis of Scripture and even becomes the source of knowledge, materially as well as formally.

Herman Bavinck, Reformed Ethics, vol. 1, page 309.

Shane Lems
Hammond, WI, 54015

Self-glorification and Sin (Bavinck)

Reformed Ethics: Created, Fallen, and Converted Humanity In the second chapter of the first volume of Reformed Ethics, Herman Bavinck discussed the organizing principle and classification of sins.  He mentioned, of course, that sin is disobeying God’s law and is the opposite of the good.  He also gave a good explanation of how sin is an attempt to dethrone God and enthrone the self:

“…Who now is humanity’s god?  They must have gods for whom they live and to whom they dedicate themselves.  Sin consists concretely in placing a substitute on the throne.  That substitute is not another creature in general, not even the neighbor, but the human self, the ‘ego’ or ‘I.’  The organizing principle of sin is self-glorification, self-divination; stated more broadly: self-love or egocentricity.  A person wants to be an ‘I,’ either without, next to, or in the place of God.  Turning away from God is simultaneously a turning to self.

Prior to this, God was the center of all human thought and action; now it is the person’s ‘I.” Humanity not only surrendered its true center but also replaced it with a false center.  On the one hand, sin is a decentralization of all things away from God, a loosening, an undoing of bonds with God – atomism, individualism.  On the other hand, it is at the same time also a concentration of everything around the human self, an attempt to subjugate everything to an individual ‘ego.’  Thus sin is not only a matter of turning away from the existing order – in effect, undermining order – but also an establishing of another order, which actually is a disorder.  Sin produces not only an alternative or counterorder but an anti-order; in a word: revolution.”

Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, vol. 1, p, 105.

Shane Lems
Hammond, WI, 54015

Reformed Dogmatics and Reformed Ethics (Bavinck)

Reformed Ethics: Created, Fallen, and Converted Humanity

So good!

“…The difference [between dogmatics and ethics] does not lie in the fact that the former deals with the understanding and knowledge, while the latter is concerned with the will and conduct. This would boil down to a division of human beings into two parts, of which one half is purely intellectual and the other purely ethical. No. In dogmatics we are concerned with what God does for us and in us. In dogmatics God is everything. Dogmatics is a word from God to us, coming from outside us and above us; we are passive, listening, and opening ourselves to being directed by God.

In ethics, we are interested in the question of what it is that God now expects of us when he does his work in us. What do we do for him? Here we are active, precisely because of and on the grounds of God’s deeds in us; we sing songs in thanks and praise to God. In dogmatics, God descends to us; and ethics, we ascend to God. In dogmatics, he is ours; in ethics, we are his. In dogmatics, we know we shall see his face; in ethics, his name will be written on our foreheads (Rev. 22:4). Dogmatics proceeds from God; ethics returns to God. In dogmatics, God loves us; in ethics, therefore, we love him.

The difference, therefore, does not consist in our weakening the doctrine of election in our examination of ethics, or that we become semi-Pelagian by allowing the human person finally ‘to come into his own’ to achieve his rightful place. All Pelagianism must be rooted out; it is simply anti-ethical. It is precisely because God is everything that humans are truly great. There is no division of labor here where God does his part and we do ours. Not at all! We establish our calling precisely because God works all in all. This is a mystery: just because God is everything, we can be great. A mystery, yes, but far better this mystery than a Pelagian, Remonstrant slice of the Gordian knot that divides God and humanity so that God cannot be God and human beings cannot be genuinely human.

Herman Bavinck, Reformed Ethics, vol. 1, p. 22-23.

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

The New Jerusalem (Bavinck)

Reformed Dogmatics (4 vols.)

One great aspect of being a follower of Jesus is the fact that we have a great inheritance waiting for us in the new creation (1 Pet 1:4-5). The new creation itself will be an amazing place where God’s people will no longer have to worry about sin, sickness, evil, death, cancer, kidnapping, rape, divorce, pain, persecution, guilt, temptation, and so on and so forth. It’s a future so awesome that our imaginations cannot even grasp it (1 Cor. 2:9). In Revelation 21-22 John speaks figuratively about the new creation, the heavenly Jerusalem. Here’s how Herman Bavinck summarized it:

The description John gives of that Jerusalem (Rev. 21–22) should certainly not be taken literally any more than his preceding visions. This option is excluded by the mere fact that John depicts it as a cube whose length, width, and height are equal, that is, 12,000 stadia or 1,500 miles; still the height of the wall is only 144 cubits, just under 75 yards (21:15–17). By this depiction John does not intend to give a sketch of the city; rather, since he cannot bring the glory of the divine kingdom home to us in any other way, he offers his ideas, interpreting them in images. And he derives these images from paradise, with its river and tree of life (21:6; 22:1–2); from the earthly Jerusalem with its gates and streets (21:12ff.); from the temple with its holy of holies, in which God himself dwelt (21:3, 22); and from the entire realm of nature, with all its treasures of gold and precious stones (21:11, 18–21). But although these are ideas interpreted thus by images, they are not illusions or fabrications, but this-worldly depictions of otherworldly realities. All that is true, honorable, just, pure, pleasing, and commendable in the whole of creation, in heaven and on earth, is gathered up in the future city of God—renewed, re-created, boosted to its highest glory.

The substance [of the city of God] is present in this creation. Just as the caterpillar becomes a butterfly, as carbon is converted into diamond, as the grain of wheat upon dying in the ground produces other grains of wheat, as all of nature revives in the spring and dresses up in celebrative clothing, as the believing community is formed out of Adam’s fallen race, as the resurrection body is raised from the body that is dead and buried in the earth, so too, by the re-creating power of Christ, the new heaven and the new earth will one day emerge from the fire-purged elements of this world, radiant in enduring glory and forever set free from the “bondage to decay” (δουλειας της φθορας, douleias tēs phthoras [Rom. 8:21]). More glorious than this beautiful earth, more glorious than the earthly Jerusalem, more glorious even than paradise will be the glory of the new Jerusalem, whose architect and builder is God himself….

Herman Bavinck, John Bolt, and John Vriend, Reformed Dogmatics: Holy Spirit, Church, and New Creation, vol. 4 (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2008), 719–720

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

The Great Names of God (Bavinck)

Reformed Dogmatics, Vol. 2: God and Creation

I really like Herman Bavinck’s discussion of the names of God in the second volume of his Reformed Dogmatics.  Here’s a section of it which is full of Scripture references.  It’s theological and redemptive-historical, but it’s also practical:

There is an intimate link between God and his name. According to Scripture, this link too is not accidental or arbitrary but forged by God himself. We do not name God; he names himself. In the foreground here is the name as a revelation on the part of God, in an active and objective sense, as revealed name. In this case God’s name is identical with the attributes or perfections that he exhibits in and to the world: his glory (Ps. 8:1; 72:19), honor (Lev. 18:21; Ps. 86:10–11; 102:16), his redeeming power (Exod. 15:3; Isa. 47:4); his service (Isa. 56:6; Jer. 23:27); his holiness (1 Chron. 16:10; Ps. 105:3). The name is God himself as he reveals himself in one relationship or another (Lev. 24:11, 16; Deut. 28:58). That name, being a revelation of God, is great (Ezek. 36:23), holy (Ezek. 36:20), awesome (Ps. 111:9), a high refuge (Ps. 20:1), a strong tower (Prov. 18:10). By proper names, particularly by the name yhwh, God made himself known to Israel. He revealed himself to Israel by the angel in whom the Lord’s name was present (Exod. 23:20). And by him he put his name on the children of Israel (Num. 6:27), caused his name to be remembered (Exod. 20:24), put his name among them and made it to dwell there (Deut. 12:5; 14:23), especially in the temple that was built for his name (2 Sam. 7:13). Now his name lives in that temple (2 Chron. 20:9; 33:4). By that name he saves (Ps. 54:1), and on account of that name he cannot abandon Israel (1 Sam. 12:22; Isa. 48:9, 11; Ps. 23:3; 31:3; 143:11–12). Israel, accordingly, may not blaspheme and desecrate that name, or use it in vain (Exod. 20:7; Lev. 18:21; 19:12; 24:11). On the contrary: that name must be invoked, passed on in story, magnified, known, feared, exalted, expected, sought out, sanctified (Gen. 4:26; 12:8; Exod. 9:16; Deut. 28:58; 1 Kings 8:33; Ps. 5:12; 34:3; 52:9; 83:17; 122:4; Isa. 26:8; Matt. 6:9; John 12:28; etc.).

In the New Testament God’s name acquires an even richer and deeper meaning. For the Logos, who was in the beginning with God and is in the bosom of the Father, has made him known (John 1:18) and revealed his name (John 17:6, 26). Since no one knows the Father except the Son, only those to whom the Son reveals the Father gain knowledge of God (Matt. 11:27). Those who confess the Son have the Father also (1 John 2:23). Those who have seen him have seen the Father (John 14:9). The name of Jesus Christ, accordingly, guarantees the truth of our knowledge of God and all the associated benefits. He is called Jesus because he saves his people (Matt. 1:21) and is the only name given under heaven by which we must be saved (Acts 4:12). By his name miracles are performed (Acts 4:7); by it we receive forgiveness (Acts 2:38), the right to become God’s children (John 1:12), and eternal life (1 John 5:13). Where two or three people are gathered in his name, he is in their midst (Matt. 18:20). Those who pray in his name are heard (John 14:13), and those who call on the name of the Lord are saved (Acts 2:21). All salvation for humanity is comprehended within the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Being baptized in that name is a sign and seal of fellowship with God. And an even richer revelation awaits believers in the new Jerusalem (Rev. 3:12), when his name will be inscribed upon everyone’s forehead (Rev. 22:4).

Herman Bavinck, John Bolt, and John Vriend, Reformed Dogmatics: God and Creation, vol. 2 (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2004), 98.

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

Our (Ectypal/Analogical) Knowledge of God (Bavinck)

Reformed Dogmatics, Vol. 2: God and Creation
Bavinck, vol. 2

We can know the true and living God in a personal way. We can know the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as Lord, Father, Redeemer, and Rock. But we can’t know him in an exhaustive way. We can’t know him in his inner being or as he is in himself. We can know him because he’s revealed himself and because he gives us his Spirit in and through Christ, but we cannot know him apart from revelation, his Spirit, and Christ. I appreciate how Herman Bavinck discussed this topic (analogical & ectypal knowledge):

1. All our knowledge of God is from and through God, grounded in his revelation, that is, in objective reason.

2. In order to convey the knowledge of him to his creatures, God has to come down to the level of his creatures and accommodate himself to their powers of comprehension.

3. The possibility of this condescension cannot be denied since it is given with creation, that is, with the existence of finite being.

4. Our knowledge of God is always only analogical in character, that is, shaped by analogy to what can be discerned of God in his creatures, having as its object not God himself in his knowable essence, but God in his revelation, his relation to us, in the things that pertain to his nature, in his habitual disposition to his creatures.2 Accordingly, this knowledge is only a finite image, a faint likeness and creaturely impression of the perfect knowledge that God has of himself.

5. Finally, our knowledge of God is nevertheless true, pure, and trustworthy because it has for its foundation God’s self-consciousness, its archetype, and his self-revelation in the cosmos.

Herman Bavinck, John Bolt, and John Vriend, Reformed Dogmatics: God and Creation, vol. 2 (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2004), 110.

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

True Church, False Church (Bavinck)

 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 though others may disagree, 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 visible church catholic [universal] “are more or less pure.”  In other words, and in summary, “true church” doesn’t mean “most pure church.”  “True church” means churches that uphold – more or less purely – the biblical fundamentals of the faith displayed in the biblical three marks (preaching, discipline, and the sacraments).

(Note: This is a repost from March, 2011)

Shane Lems
Hammond, WI, 54015