Bavinck on Sola Scriptura

The following paragraphs from Herman Bavinck’s Reformed Dogmatics: Volume I come after a discussion of how the theologian must function within his local church and use his confession. Here is a sentence explaining Bavinck’s point. “Dogmatics [theology] is possible only for one who lives in the fellowship of the faith with one Christian church or another.” He goes on to say that theologians/dogmaticians must stand on the shoulders of previous generations and not just those in their particular line of theology, but other lines as well. Lutherans begin within their own confession, but then move on to study and learn from other branches of the church, such as Presbyterian and Baptist. He also argues that none of us begin without presuppositions. We all have been taught something and from that deposit we then do theology. But there is a logical question that follows: Doesn’t this build our theology on the foundation of our confessions and our church instead of God’s Word? If we cannot do theology outside of a church and must have human teachers does that make our church and those teachers the source of our theology? If theology must be done in the church does that make the authority of our theology the church and her teaching? Here is Bavinck’s answer to that question. Whenever you see dogmatics, etc. just substitute theology or theologian. I have removed a few Latin phrases.

This is not to elevate the history of dogma and the confession of the church to a position of infallible authority. There is a difference between the way in which a dogmatician is shaped and the primary principle from which dogmatics receives its material. In every branch of learning, the practitioner begins by living from the tradition. He always gains his first acquaintance with the field from an authority. He must first absorb the history of his discipline and attain a knowledge of the present state of the field; then he can go to work independently and acquire his own insights into the object of his research. But no one in his right mind will, for that reason, view the tradition, which was pedagogically [it taught him] so important to him, as the source of his discipline. It is no different for the dogmatician. Pedagogically the church is prior to Scripture. But in the logical order Scripture is the sole foundation of church and theology. In case of conflict between them, the possibility of which can never be denied on a Reformational view, church and confession must yield to Scripture.

Not the church but the Scripture is self-authenticating, the judge of controversies, and its own interpreter. Nothing may be put on a level with Scripture. Church, confession, tradition-all must be ordered and adjusted by it and submit themselves to it…The Reformed, though deeming a confession a necessity in this dispensation of the church in order to explain the Word of God, to turn aside heresies, and to maintain the unity of the faith, denied with the utmost emphasis that the confession had any authority apart from Scripture. Scripture alone is the norm and rule of faith and life. 

Bavinck on Scripture’s Clarity

“The doctrine of the perspicuity [clarity] of Holy Scripture has frequently been misunderstood and misrepresented, both by Protestants and Catholics. It does not mean that matters and subjects with which Scripture deals are not mysteries that far exceed the reach of the human intellect. Nor does it assert that Scripture is clear in all its parts, so that no scientific exegesis is needed, or that, also in its doctrine of salvation, Scripture is plain and clear to every person without distinction. It means only that the truth, the knowledge of which is necessary to everyone for salvation, though not spelled out with equal clarity on every page of Scripture, is nevertheless presented throughout all of Scripture in such a simple and intelligible form that a person concerned about the salvation  of his or her own soul can easily, by personal reading and study, learn to know the truth of Scripture without the assistance and guidance of the church and the priest.” 

(Reformed Dogmatics, Volume 1, p. 477)

Carving a Middle Road: Two Types of Preaching

One of the best things about Herman Bavinck’s book Saved by Grace is how he unfolds the impact various theologies have on preaching.  In the latter section of the book he notes that there are two main types of preaching, evangelistic and ethical preaching. We could rephrase this as preaching which assumes the listener is not a Christian and preaching which assumes they are. He then goes on to give the dangers when one type of preaching dominates congregational preaching.

Evangelistic preaching-Preaching Only to the Unsaved

When this method under the blessing of the Lord has brought someone to conversion, it separates that person from the environment wherein God has place him, and it has no eye for the apostolic exhortation that each one after his conversion should remain in the calling entrusted to him. This approach appreciates the first part of Jesus’ word: preach the gospel to every creature; but it neglects the second part: teach the nations that are made my disciples to keep all that I have commanded. This method does lay the foundation but does not continue to build on that foundation, and therefore runs the danger that the entire foundation, constructed with little effort out of unstable materials, will later be washed away by the storms of unbelief and superstition. 

Preaching that always assumes unbelief never builds on the basics. A church like this eventually atrophies. I have seen Baptist and Presbyterian churches where the sum of every sermon is, “Believe in Jesus.” The most pressing matters of the day are rarely dealt with from the pulpit. The Biblical text is often twisted to fit an agenda.  Many texts are avoided all together. The saints do not become strong. Assurance of salvation is hard to find as all members walk around with a “?” on their foreheads.

Ethical Preaching-Preaching Only to the Saved

This approach to preaching leads people gradually to confuse believing the confession with confessing belief, yielding a situation of dead orthodoxy that is satisfied with intellectual assent to doctrine and that bothers itself very little with disposition of the heart and purity of life. Such an approach teaches church members to think and talk this way: Are we not members of the church? Did we not receive baptism when we were young? Did we not make a profession of faith, and have we not participated in the covenant meal? Just as Israel exalted itself because of its descent from Abraham and because of the temple of the Lord in its midst, so too many New Testament church members often build their hope for eternity on outward ecclesiastical privileges in which they share, and they surrender themselves to a false security. But the Word of the Lord testifies against all of this; it is not the one who says, “Lord, Lord,” but the one who does the will of the Father who will enter the kingdom of heaven. 

As the revivalistic, seeker sensitive model described above weakened, so the ethical model of preaching began to ascend. People are assumed to be regenerate. Instead of a “?” they all have a big “E” on their heads for elect. This leads to presumption and often a stagnate Christian life.

Bavinck goes on to write that it is hard to carve a middle road between the two but it must be done.

The difficulty of including both of these components in preaching and keeping them in balance is recognized by every minister of the Word according to his capacity. 

In a healthy church there will be sermons or portions of sermons that exhort the members to examine themselves to see if they are in the faith and sermons or portions of sermons that build on the foundation of Jesus Christ. There will be the Gospel proper, “Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ” and what I call the broad Gospel, “Walk worthy of your calling.” Finally, he notes that understanding the covenant allows a pastor to do both:

Congregational preaching ought never to omit the serious summons to faith and repentance. Proceeding on the basis of the covenant does not exempt the preacher from that, but rather it is precisely this that obligates him to issue such a summons…for no matter how inestimably great the blessings already are that God bestows upon us when from our birth we are included in the covenant, born in a Christian church to Christian parents, baptized with holy baptism and nurtured in a Christian family-all these blessings are still not enough. Each person is confronted with the obligation of personal, saving faith; only one who believes in the Son has eternal life… The preacher’s sermons should connect God’s work that has preceded, to the gifts and blessings He has bestowed in His covenant, in His Word, and in His baptism. His sermons should continue building upon the foundation God Himself has laid, but then should also continue warning of the need for self-examination, so that people do not deceive themselves for eternity. Biblical sermons seriously summon church members to faith and conversion both initially and continually, for only those who believe will be saved. 

How one applies Bavinck’s insight will vary from church to church and even from phase to phase of church life. In a large church with dozens of visitors each Sunday exhortations to examination may be more frequent.  A smaller body of believers where each member is known by the minister will mainly need discipleship.  The type of preaching will also vary from text to text. Some texts are more evangelistic and others less so. I would argue that most regular Sunday morning preaching should be discipleship based, Bavinck’s second type of preaching. But even in those situations the call to faith and trust in Christ should be regularly given. And sometimes when it is, a baptized Christian believes for the first time.

Ten Quotes from Saved by Grace

Here are ten quotes from Herman Bavinck’s book Saved by Grace. Some of these are longer than my typical quotes.

Grace comes to man, who does not will, in such a way that he does will. It works apart from us, apart from our consent, apart from our will, so that we will. 

Commenting on semi-Pelagianism, “Between its working and genuine believing such grace inserts the free will of man who accepts it and cooperates with it, but can also refuse and reject it.”

Again commenting on semi-Pelagianism,”Not only do those whom God declared, according to His decree of absolute election, to be willing to save, receive grace sufficient unto faith and repentance, but also those who are not actually converted receive sufficient grace…according to the sentiment of the Remonstrants, all who live under the gospel receive or can receive grace sufficient unto faith and repentance. But whether they eventually believe and are converted depends upon human will.”

How does it happen that whereas many harden themselves, others come to faith in Christ and find their redemption in Him…the cause of that, according to the teaching of Scripture, cannot lie in the individual. For by nature all people are alike. They are all born in unrighteousness and in sin their mothers conceived them…the cause thereof does not lie within the person. People do not differentiate themselves. God is the only one who makes distinction according to His good pleasure. He does so in this manner, namely that those whom He has chosen in Christ from eternity He calls effectually within history, enlightens their understanding by the Holy Spirit, penetrates their heart of hearts with effectual work of the same regenerating Spirit, opens the closed heart, infuses new capacities in the will and changes it from dead to living and from evil to good, so that like a good tree it can produce the fruits of good works. 

With regard to the fellowship of the sacraments, many are with the church who are nevertheless in reality not in the church. (emphasis Bavinck’s)

Bavinck on the Roman Catholic connection between grace and the church: “God does not dispense His grace internally and secretly by the operation of the Holy Spirit. But He entrusts grace to the priest, who bestows it in the sacrament. For that reason there is no salvation outside the Church, that is to say, apart from the priest and apart from the sacrament.”

The preparatory protocols leading to regeneration are actually not preparations unto, and even less a cause of, regeneration. For regeneration is a direct, almighty, and irresistible work of God under which a person remains entirely passive… a preparatory grace that in one or another respect qualifies a person for regeneration does not exist.

Within Old Testament preaching, therefore, these two elements are always bound with one another: holding firmly to the unity of the entire people [Israel] as people of God, while at the same time distinguishing within that one people between those who serve the Lord and those who do not serve the Lord.

 The operation of the Holy Spirit in regeneration is thus absolutely independent from the consent of the intellect or an act of free will. 

The Word is the effectual cause that, in God’s hand and under the leading of the Holy Spirit, produces that for which it is designed and equipped.

And one:

And yet, this same Bible, which ascribes such great power to the Word, on the other hand teaches just as decisively and clearly that the Word alone is not sufficient, that it is but an instrument in the hand of the almighty God. Salvation, both in its acquisition and application is God’s work and His alone.  

The Means of Grace Par Excellence

Here is Herman Bavinck on the difference between the way Roman Catholics and the Reformed explained the relationship between the Word of God and the Church.

Protestants construe the relationship between Scripture and the church entirely differently than Rome. According to the latter, the church proceeds Scripture, the church was not built upon Scripture, but Scripture proceeded forth from the church. Therefore, the church in terms of its essence and existence does not need Scripture, but Scripture needs the church for its origin, collection, preservation, and interpretation. The Reformation reversed that relationship by placing the church upon the foundation of Scripture and by exalting Scripture above the church. Not the church, but Scripture as the Word of God became the means of grace par excellence. Even the sacrament was subordinated to the Word and apart from the Word it has no meaning or power. (Saved by Grace, p. 79)