ANOTHER CALVINIST ON NATURAL THEOLOGY: THE CASE OF HERMAN BAVINCK
Herman Bavinck was a well-known, and highly respected, dutch reformed theologian who lived from 1854-1921. His works were influential for many of the Calvinists of the 20th century. Herman Bavinck’s theological work has been subject to some passionate critiques from authors such as Malcom Yarnell III. In order to understand Bavinck’s views on Natural Theology we will first explain what he means by Natural theology, as well as its contents. We will then note a number of important points that Bavinck notes concerning Natural Theology. For more posts on how different calvinists view Natural Theology, see here, here and here. I have never dedicated blog posts before, but this one goes out to my good friend Daniel Henderson, as he is following in the steps of Herman Bavinck.
Herman Bavinck explains that when he uses the term Natural Theology, he is referring primarily to “the affirmation that such a natural disposition [‘a natural disposition to proceed from the finite to the infinite, form the particular to the universal’] or capacity for knowing God exists in every created human person.” Indeed, he interprets Calvin’s sensus divinitatis as referring not to innate ideas (as both Hodge and Strong understood Calvin), but to this natural disposition (by natural he means to say that this disposition is simply a part of what it means to be human, or, in other words, that it is a part of human nature) which is in each human person in so much as they are human. Natural theology, for Bavinck, is, then, man’s reflections about creation (including himself, as a creation of God) which, through reasoning and demonstrations, succeed in elaborating some knowledge of God (incomplete, but no less true). “In the case of the acquired knowledge of God, human beings reflect on that revelation of God and seek by reasoning and proof to rise above impressions and intuitions to clearer ideas.”
Bavinck explains, quite explicitly, that this capacity to know God through creation is, quite simply, a part of human nature, “All humans possess in their minds a capacity to see God in his works and have the requirement of the law written in their heart…What we come into the world with is the capacity (aptitude, faculty) and the inclination (habitus, disposition) to arrive at some firm, certain, and unfailing knowledge of God. When we use words such as ‘implanted,’ ‘natural,’ and ‘innate’ we thereby reject the idea that human beings are blank pages of paper to be written on by external forces that introduce God to us for the first time. We wish to affirm, rather, that human awareness of God arises spontaneously, without coercion, without scientific argumentation and proof, simply because we are created with a native capacity for knowing him and live in a world that speaks of God. We are created in God’s image; we live in God’s world. God does not leave any person without a witness (cf. Acts 14 :17).”
Some of the truths that can be known about God through reflection on his creation include: (1) “the glory of God in creation”, (2) that God is the creator of all things, (3) “his eternal power and divinity…goodness and wrath”, (4) his providential control of history, (5) his “existence and perfections”, and (6) natural moral law. In affirming that these truths can be known by man through his reasoning about creation Bavinck puts himself squarely in line with the historical claims of the Christian church concerning what can be known about God through creation.
There are a number of interesting and important statements that Bavinck makes concerning the role and importance of Natural Theology both for those who are not Christians and for those who are.
He explains, first of all, that the Calvinist tradition has always held Natural Theology in high esteem, « all Reformed theologians uphold natural theology in its truth and value. » The editor, John Bolt, of the abridged version of Bavinck’s Reformed Dogmatics, notes that Karl Barth’s influence on reformed theology of the 20th century has caused natural theology to fall on hard times within Calvinist circles. It is interesting that, in light of this commentary by Bavinck, contemporary Calvinists, who would reject Natural Theology, are no longer in theological communion with Calvin and “orthodox Calvinism”.
Secondly, Bavinck clearly states that Calvin himself saw the importance of natural theology, “Calvin incorporated natural theology into the body of Christian theology, saying that Scripture was the spectacles by which believers see God more distinctly also in the works of nature.” He later elaborates on Calvin’s position, and presents a number of quotations to prove his claim. Hodge, Strong, and Warfield are all in fundamental agreement with Bavinck concerning his interpretation of Calvin. The above claim could cause confusion, especially in light of the way in which Presuppositionalism has tended to interpret the basic claims of Calvinism, as we might be led to think that Bavinck is stating that the only way in which we can arrive at knowledge of God through nature is by first accepting the truth of biblical Christianity. As will become evident, this is not what Bavinck is saying. On the contrary, the basic meaning of the above phrase is that scriptures clarify, and help us to better understand, that which we can know about God from his creation. Therefore, without sacred scriptures we can know something of God, but this knowledge will be, in general, full of errors, attained by few, and this only after many years of arduous consideration. Those who are familiar with the writings of Thomas Aquinas will most likely recognize that this is exactly what Thomas Aquinas claims near the beginning of the Summa Theologiae. We are not, here, imposing a thomistic understanding of natural theology onto Bavinck’s theology, rather, Bavinck says essentially the same thing as Thomas Aquinas, “There is no disagreement between Roman Catholic and Protestant theologians on the insufficiency of general revelation. Thomas asserts the necessity of revelation even for the mixed articles of faith also known to reason and the catechisms and councils of the Roman church follow suit. The reasons are clear: general revelation fails to point us to sin, divine wrath, and grace; what knowledge of God is given in general revelation is uncertain, inconsistent, mixed with error, and unattainable for most people.” Compare this with Aquinas’s statement in the Summa Theologiae, “the truth about God such as reason could discover, would only known by a few, and that after a long time, and with the admixture of many errors.”
Thirdly, Bavinck states, rightly, that “Natural theology was accepted by the Reformed but never as an independent source of saving truth apart from faith. » This declaration is a truth that has always been accepted by all true Christian theologians, and by the historic Christian church (it is held both by Catholics and Protestants). Natural Theology cannot save anybody, but, it can, so Bavinck thinks, inform us concerning the existence of one God, of his attributes, etc.
Fourthly, Bavinck states that the Bible clearly accepts and supports the notion of general revelation, “Instructed by Holy Scripture, early Christian theology was led to make a distinction between ‘natural’ revelation (religion, theology) and ‘supernatural’ revelation. Christianity accounted for those elements that she held in common with other religions by confessing that God makes himself known to all people through his creation.” The fact that he seems to identify “natural revelation” and “natural theology” with “natural religion is unfortunate as the term “natural religion” is often associated (rightly) with the Deistic thinkers of the 18th and 19th centuries. On the other hand, we see, in the above quote, that Bavinck clearly thinks that the Christian church has always recognized that she held in common, with other religions, a number of truths about God, and that the reason for this common knowledge of God is that this knowledge is revealed in God’s creation. Indeed, says Bavinck, “What is unique and distinctive about Christianity is based on God’s special revelation in Scripture.” Bavinck elsewhere notes that “Yet general revelation has meaning not only for the pagan world but also in and for the Christian religion. The Scriptures themselves value general revelation.” He supports this claim by directing us to the following scripture references: Pss. 8, 19, 29, Gen. 2 :7, Job 33 :4, Ps. 104 :29-30, Is. 32 :15, etc. Indeed, says Bavinck, “Biblical faith is positioned to look out upon nature and history and discover there the traces of the God who is known through Christ as Father.”
Fifthly, Bavinck notes, as we have already seen, that natural theology is inadequate for the salvation of man. Sixthly, Bavinck proposes that that which we can know of God from creation is the basis of all religions, even though all aside from Christianity (and, implicitly, pre-Christ Judaism) corrupted the truth. Bavinck notes, further, that it follows from the sixth point that there is a little bit of truth in all the religions and philosophies of man. This is not to say that they are all true, but that they all contain truths (this is an important distinction).
Finally, Bavinck states (and in so doing repudiates one of the fundamental doctrines of presuppositionalism) that natural theology is a common ground between Christians and non-Christians, “Here [in General Revelation - Natural Theology], too, Christians have a firm foundation on which they can meet all non-Christians. They have a common basis with non-Christians in their humanity as religious beings created in God's image. Religion belongs to the essence of a human. The idea and existence of God, the spiritual independence and eternal destiny of the world, the moral world order and its ultimate triumph--all these are problems that never cease to engage the human mind. Metaphysical need cannot be suppressed; general revelation keeps human desiring and questing alive...General revelation preserves humankind in order that it can be found and healed by Christ and until it is.”
It certainly seems, in light of the above observations, that, for Bavinck, Natural Theology is a necessary part of true Christian theology, it is useful for understanding God, and is one of the most useful resources in reaching unbelievers with the Gospel. As we have seen, for Bavinck, in order to be truly Calvinist one must accept the truth and worth of Natural Theology.
Malcom B. Yarnell III, The Formation of Christian Doctrine (Nashville, TN : B&H Academics, 2007), 49-59, 64. Cf. especially, Ibid., 50-51. I will not be commenting on the truth or error of Yarnell III’s critiques, though I suspect that he may be slightly exaggerating the importance of some of Bavinck’s claims.
Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, Abridged in one volume, ed. John Bolt (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2011), 159.
Ibid., 67, 73.
Ibid., 19. Cf. Ibid., 68, 69, 159, 160.
For a similar claim, cf. Ibid., 69.
Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae Ia, 1, 1, trans. Father of the English Dominican Province (1948; repr., Notre Dame, IN: Christian Classics, 1981), 1:1.
Bavinck, RD, 20.