Book Review: Bavinck’s Philosophy of Revelation
In the autumn of 1908, Bavinck delivered the Stone Lectures at Princeton Theological Seminary. In their initial English form, Philosophy of Revelation was like coal, though useful, it required much time, formation, and pressure and a little bit of fire to understand its theological distinctiveness and value. Thanks to Cory Brock and Nathaniel Sutanto Philosophy of Revelation: A New Annotated Edition (hereafter PoR) should be regarded now as more akin to coal’s carbon cousin, the diamond. Brock and Sutanto provide acute clarity and expertise in the new edition of Herman Bavinck’s PoR. The two prove themselves to be formidable guides. Readers will be rewarded by the experience of reading this new edition, especially those interested in questions of epistemology, presuppositional apologetics, theology and culture, the role of revelation for the Christian, or more broadly Reformed theology. In lieu of summarizing each section or chapter, three features of Brock and Sutanto’s contribution will suffice to highlight the importance of this work for the individual believer, the church, and the broader world.
For the individual Christian, the work displays the modern yet orthodox Bavinck, who is worth emulating. Recent Bavinck scholarship has highlighted and argued for a ‘single’ irenic Bavinck who is unified by his organic motif, a conceptual tool he uses to appropriate and deploy modern and ancient thinkers alike. One example of Bavinck’s engagement with a modern thinker is the appropriation of a modified version of Friedrich Schleiermacher’s “feeling of absolute dependence.” Reader’s who are accustomed to the previous version of Bavinck’s PoR will find that the initial translators muted or blunted a portion of Bavinck’s appropriation and engagement with Schleiermacher and will be rewarded by reading with that in mind. Like Schleiermacher, revelation, for Bavinck is also given through the self-consciousness. “In self-consciousness, our own being is revealed to us directly, immediately, before thinking, and independently of all willing” (53). Not just the self is revealed here, but at the root of self-consciousness is our twofold dependence on the world and on God. This self-consciousness does not however create its object, but in the true sense of the meaning of revelation, the subject only perceives and receives revelation. Unlike Schleiermacher then, Bavinck retains an objective revelation.
Interestingly, more is implied in this revelation. That is just as man’s self-consciousness, prior to all thinking, is convinced of his own existence he is also certain of the world and God. In other words, it postulates both an absolute feeling of dependence (God) and freedom (man’s relation to the world). Man feels his dependence on God, and this feeling becomes voluntary, rational, and moral, a conscious dependence and therefore freedom. This modified appropriation of Schleiermacher is just one example of the “modern yet orthodox Bavinck” polished to the surface through this revised version. If this engagement with Schleiermacher is of particular interest to readers, they would do well to seek out editor Cory Brock’s doctoral dissertation which explores Bavinck’s engagement and appropriation of Schleiermacher.
For the church, Bavinck’s PoR represents an expansion of one of the best articulations of revelation in Reformed Theology from the 19th century. Todd J. Billings in The Cambridge Companion to Reformed Theology (2016) suggests Bavinck’s doctrine of revelation from his Reformed Dogmatics (2003-2008) as a premier example of the doctrine of Scripture in the Reformed tradition, and one that effectively responds to and confronts the rationalistic Enlightenment thinkers with a fully orbed articulation of the doctrine. Like a friend who always has gum, this annotated edition brings fresh and needed attention to the features of Bavinck’s PoR that directly grapple with modern thinking. PoR does not directly address the doctrine of Scripture, that is, there is no discussion on the attributes of Scripture (inspiration, perspicuity, etc.). However, Bavinck argues for the revelatory nature of all of human experience, while correlating revelation to the various spheres of knowledge and life. All knowledge in principles and foundations is of divine origin, and thus all creaturely knowledge flows from revelation.
The world itself rests on revelation; revelation is the presupposition, the foundation (grondslag), the secret (geheim) of all that exists in all its forms. The deeper science pushes its investigations, the more clearly will it discover that revelation underlies all created being. In every moment of time beats the pulse of eternity; every point in space is filled with the omnipresence of God (24). Revelation is the ground for all the disparate sciences, various human cultures, and complexities of the human experience. Click To Tweet
Thus the church should have great confidence in Scripture, not solely at the propositional level, that “God has said it,” but additionally because it renders the experience of life as beautifully unified and coherent. Revelation for Bavinck is thus, organic, it is a unity-in-diversity. Revelation is the ground for all the disparate sciences, various human cultures, and complexities of the human experience.
To the world, this fresh version offers the believer and church an opportunity to re-grapple with a bastion of Reformed theology’s thoughts on a plethora of issues that confront the Christian in daily life such as ethics, politics, the arts, and culture. Specifically, Bavinck’s answer to the matter of the relation between Christianity and culture is worth the attention of readers. To start, Bavinck sees this as a perennial question that Christians have faced from the beginning, after all, Christianity was birthed in the midst of a culture. Secondly, Bavinck’s perceives withdrawal from culture as unhelpful or unrealistic. Thus if we must engage culture, what should this relation be like, or what forms should it take? The foundation of this positive relationship between Christianity and culture is that of revelation, for nature and grace, culture and religion are built upon this foundation (240). But culture is not completely spotless. Where one should see a negative relationship between Christianity and culture is when the foundation, direction, and aim of culture is estranged to the Christian worldview. That is to say, that “the whole of culture – may be of great value in itself, but whenever it is thrown into the balance against the kingdom of heaven, it loses all its significance” (204). In this manner, Bavinck beckons us to not attempt to escape culture, or over-realize our ambitions in the means and aims of culture, but rather he points the reader to transcend culture through the vision of the kingdom of light, which is reminiscent of his earlier work “The Kingdom of God, the Highest Good”(245).
These three features only begin to scratch the surface of the personal, ecclesial, and cultural benefits of this work. Perhaps what can be said best about the work is that Bavinck’s thinking rather than muffled is amplified, rather than stifled is freed, and rather than obstructed is promoted. To muddy a Rihanna song, Bavinck shines bright like a diamond.