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Bavinck and Charitable Reading

In the 1908 Stone Lectures delivered at Princeton Seminary, Bavinck develops a sustained reflection on the function and necessity of divine revelation. The lectures were compiled as the Philosophy of Revelation. In it, he argues that contrary to the “mechanical” way in which Roman Catholicism relates revelation and nature, Protestant theology declares that revelation is foundationally related to every sphere of the created universe. While theology explicates the doctrine of revelation, a philosophy of revelation “will trace the idea of revelation, both in its form and in its content, and correlate it with the rest of our knowledge and life.” (p. 24) Again and again, Bavinck argues in a transcendental direction: revelation must be the starting point of every field of enquiry (p. 26). Revelation is the “presupposition, the foundation, the secret of all that exists in all its forms.” (p. 27) For Bavinck, philosophy and epistemology without revelation leads to skepticism (p. 79), science depends on an organic worldview (p. 109), history is the uncovering and response to God’s eternal plan (136), and religion dissolves into speculation when detached from revelation (p. 165).

Throughout the work, one is struck by the seamless way in which Bavinck moves between fields and from thinker to thinker. He investigates the philosophy of Kant, the theology of Schleiermacher, the teleology of Hegel, the findings of anthropology, art and cultural history, ethnology, paleontology, biology, and even philology. Even though he ultimately critiques some of the work he engages, he doesn’t do this apart from expressing first his appreciation of their work, even incorporating aspects of them into his own thinking. There is a calm composure in Bavinck – one detects no hint of fear that his theological starting point would hinder him from a thorough research of the various areas of human life. In Bavinck, then, one finds someone who models well the act of charitable yet explicitly theological reading.

This, I think, is a rare virtue to be cultivated, especially in the Reformed contexts with which I identify. I find that many of us are prone to reading thinkers with which we disagree with uncharitable eyes. One may be tempted to think “ah, but his theology is heterodox” and go on reading that author’s work in such a way that one takes certain strands of thinking (even taking them to what we may think are their view’s logical ends, while the authors may never have intended those ends), critiquing them immediately. In other words, here one interprets others as purely prescriptive readers. What tends to happen here is that readers end up learning more about the author’s views about what X thinks rather than what X really thinks.

I was challenged when a particular professor in a seminar I attended opened up one of our sessions by saying this about a particular thinker: “I know that what X is saying is non-orthodox, that is obvious. But because this is so obvious it is also uninteresting. Let’s get over that he is non-orthodox, and that on some matters we must disagree with him. What I am after is understanding: why did he think the way he did?” Only in this mode of reading (a mode in which I am not yet, myself, adept!), can one truly learn, and, perhaps ironically, it is also only in this mode of thinking can one produce a profound critique of the thinker with whom one disagrees. It is not enough to thus read books with which one disagrees; it is also necessary to wrestle with these ideas (and, if possible, to engage directly with people who holds those views in the flesh). This, I think, is what Bavinck exemplified so well.

Bad reading abounds not only because we are sinful creatures that tend toward wanting to assert ourselves over others but also because it is so much easier. It is easy to merely dismiss some particular thinker without engaging with them, so much easier to conclude that what they are saying is obviously absurd, and so on. It takes harder work to get at what a particular thinker is really articulating, and to re-state that thinker’s positions in ways with which one can sympathize.

It also seems that uncharitable reading is easier because it gives us the excuse of staying within our own comfort groups – it may insulate one from what “they” are saying “out there” because they are “obviously” holding to some absurd or morally dubious views. One ends up shielding oneself from true criticism.

This may be excusable in some contexts, but I want to argue that it cannot be so for Christians. Or, if I can be more specific, it cannot be so especially for Christians who hold to the theology of neo-Calvinism, especially in the expression of that theology in thinkers like Herman Bavinck and Cornelius Van Til. Indeed, these two thinkers hold to a particular set of claims that should provide one with the uniquely potent resources for one to rigorously engage opposing worldviews.[1] These include (1) that the Trinitarian God is a necessary being on whom everything depends (2) that general revelation is clear and sufficient to make sure that every individual knows the true God (3) that every culture, worldview, and philosophy that isn’t Christian in their expression are all manifestations of responses to that revelation (4) that Christians possess a true understanding of special revelation that general revelation anticipates, and without which responses to general revelation become absurd (5) that God’s common grace sustains the present order for the sake of special grace and therefore (6) that Christians are supposed to engage in the world as a single organism to witness to this Triune God. This Bavinck-Van Til theology, in other words, obligates one to look outward. It seeks to engage the world while being within a wilderness outpost. It witnesses in transformative power because it exists as a transcendent organism: the church. It has the unique intellectual capacity to fulfill the yearnings of the heart and the demands of the mind.

It is urgent for us, then, to not merely nourish the church with the deep wells of wisdom that come from these thinkers. It is necessary also to take these conceptual tools to turn outward in engagement. The antithesis, after all, tells us that there are real intellectual confrontations to be faced – but let us be antithetical against not a mirage of our own misinterpretations, but the real substance.

[1] For a preliminary elaboration of these claims, see my “From Antithesis to Synthesis: a Neo-Calvinistic Theological Methodology in Herman Bavinck and Cornelius Van Til,” Journal of Reformed Theology (forthcoming).

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