The Religious Foundations of Theology 1

This study is a selective summary and reflection on the ideas of Herman Bavinck concerning the religious foundations of theology. Such topic is found in Reformed Dogmatics: Prolegomena Volume 1. This topic covers three areas:

  • The essence of religion
  • The location of religion in man and
  • The origin of religion

The Essence of Religion

In ascertaining the essence of religion by way of tracing the etymology of the word, Bavinck claims that among the many possible derivations, the word used by Lactantius is the one that made an impact to the English world (236-237). This word is religare. This word denotes religion as “the bond that unites human beings to God” (ibid.). However, Bavinck asserts that even this word fails to consider the two foundational aspects of religion, which are the objective and the subjective sides. The objective side of religion is the revelation from God where in the Old Testament assumes various expressions such as commandments, precepts, statutes, decrees, and many others. All of these can be summarized as “the ordinances of God” (ibid, 237). It is therefore proper to say in the objective sense that religion is “a divine establishment” (ibid.). In the New Testament, the objective side of revelation is found in Christ, since he is the final revelation of God. The subjective aspect of revelation is expressed in the Old Testament as the fear of God and in the New Testament as faith and godliness (238).

Bavinck continues the discussion about the objective and the subjective aspects of religion. He mentions again that Lactantius adopts a description of religion as “the right manner of knowing and serving the true God” (Bavinck, 238). Bavinck raises a modern objection, which locates religion as something external rather than a matter of the heart. Bavinck admits that the definition emphasizes more the objective than the subjective aspect of religion and needs to clarify the meaning of the “right manner,” and the relationship between knowing and serving God, and yet he thinks that the objection is weak. He explains the basis of his conclusion as follows:

For in the earlier interpretation the law in which God laid down the manner in which he wanted to be served was to be understood not only literally but also spiritually. It controlled not only the words and the actions but also the attitudes, thoughts, and desires of human beings. It claimed the whole person, soul and body, the mind, the heart and all a person’s strengths. It therefore required that human beings serve God not only and not even in the first place with external actions and rituals but above all with a sincere faith, firm hope, and ardent love, with worship in spirit and in truth, with the sacrifices of a broken spirit and a contrite heart. Religion, accordingly, was not exhausted by external observance but consisted above all in internal devotion, a knowing and serving of God from the heart. But also this internal devotion could not, any more than the external observance, be self-willed. Essential in religion is first of all the manner in which God himself wills and determines that people shall know and serve him (239).

The foregoing observation indicates both the importance of both the objective and the subjective aspects of religion. However, in modern time, the subjective aspect of religion receives more emphasis. The seminal work that leads to this springs from the influence of Thomas Aquinas (ibid.). In his framework, discussing the first commandment of the Decalogue under the headings of “duties and virtues,” he classifies virtues under three kinds: intellectual, moral, and theological or supernatural (ibid.). The intellectual virtues are wisdom, knowledge, and understanding. The moral virtues are prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance. The theological virtues are faith, hope, and love (ibid.). In his classification, religion falls under moral virtues (ibid.). Many modern scholars followed Aquinas example with some modifications and expansions focusing more on the subjective aspect of religion (240).

The Reformation brought change to the conception of religion in two ways: the distinction between the principle and act of religion and the location of faith, hope and love. For the reformers, piety is the principle of religion and worship is the act of religion (ibid.). Faith, hope, and love are not categorized as theological virtues but located “as the primary acts of internal religion” (ibid.). Zwingli for example views religion as embracing “the total piety of Christians – faith, life, laws, rites, and sacraments” (240-241). He even asserts that religion “is the marriage between the soul and God” (241). Calvin on the other hand, adds three key concepts, which are the knowledge of God’s attributes, piety resulting from such knowledge, and worship born out of piety (ibid.).

The 19th century brought radical change in this conception between the objective and the subjective aspects of religion (245). Subjective aspect of religion is detached from the objective aspect of religion (ibid.). This happened as a result of the philosophical view of religion introduced by Hegel in 1821 (ibid.). Since that time the comparative study of religion becomes prominent. The major assumption in this approach is the possibility that religion can be analyzed without prior dogmatic assumption. Pure objective and impartial approach is achievable. It assumes that presuppositionless investigation is attainable. The goal in this approach is to arrive at the essence of religion through both inductive and deductive methods (ibid.).

However, Bavinck denies that the above stance is possible. He claims, “completely objective attitude in studying the different religions is theoretically unjustifiable and practically unsustainable” (246). Neutral stance is impossible. He even said, “Neutrality in the sense of detachment from and indifference toward one’s most deepest convictions is either an absurdity or, perhaps, a sin” (247). Therefore, in studying religions, dogmatic judgment is unavoidable.

As far as the essence of religion is concern, the result of the above approaches is either a “disappointment” (251) or a “dead end” (252).  Moreover, this does not mean that as a whole, nothing can be benefited from the mentioned approaches. In fact, these approaches provided three primary contributions in relation to our study of religion and theology. One, man realizes that the religious life is so rich that no scientific, historical or philosophical constructions could contain it in just a single formula. The outcomes of the modern approaches in the study of religion attest to this. Various proposals are advance competing for acceptance to explain the essence of religion. Tiele finds the essence of religion in “the adoration of the superhuman power on which we feel dependent” (251). Kant locates it in the “knowledge of our duties as divine imperatives” (ibid.). Schleiermacher argues for the essence of religion in an “absolute feeling of dependence” (ibid). Hegel contends the essence of religion is realized in “the sole knowledge of the absolute Spirit” (ibid.). Martineaux finds it in the “adoration of a supreme intellect and will” (ibid.). And many other views are presented as the essence of religion. These are the outcomes of the naturalistic approach in explaining the essence of religion. Bavinck is accurate in his analysis:

The number of views concerning the essence of religion almost equals the number of philosophers and historians who have occupied themselves with these questions. All of these views have clearly been influenced by the convictions these scholars brought with them in doing their research and are much less grounded in the history of religion and the philosophy of religion than in personal experience and feeling (252).

The second enrichment that we receive through these naturalistic approaches in the study of religion is the affirmation of formal resemblance among world religions and certainty of conviction about their distinctive. All religions have their historical origin, concept of Supreme Being, dogma, morality and spirituality, goals, and rituals. However, this formal similarity should not blind us about the distinctions that exist among them. Bavinck’s warning is appropriate at this point. He said, “If Christ is the one sent by the Father, then Mohammed is not. If the Catholic doctrine of the Lord’s Supper is correct, that of the reformation is in error. One who thinks and speaks otherwise and calls all religions equally true or equally false, in principle takes the position of the sophists who saw man as the measure of all things” (249). In other words, one should not fall into the temptation of too much appreciation of similarities among world religions at the expense of compromising our distinction. I think the discussion about inclusivist and exclusivist is related to this. Since in reality there is only one God and man is man as described in the Bible, that is, made in the image of God, this explains the reason for the formal similarity among world religions. This is where we can locate our common ground among other religions and Christianity in this sense is rightly perceived as an inclusivist religion. On the other hand, our distinction such as the biblical doctrines of the Trinity, original sin, the way to reconciliation to God only through Jesus, and many other teachings are the ground to view Christianity as an exclusivist religion. Before leaving this point, I judge that Bavinck’s discussion about the two prerequisites for a religion to be qualified as true and connected to its exclusive character is proper. These criteria are as follows: the objective religion that comes to us reveals God as he really is and the need for renewal of “the corrupted religious predispositions in human beings” (242). This necessitates the work of the Holy Spirit.

The third benefit, which results from the comparative study of history of religions is the new appreciation for a supernaturalistic approach in explaining the essence of religion. Since we have witnessed the plethora of ideas, which arose since Hegel and no convincing conclusion has been provided, the alternative supplied by theology is worthy of renewed consideration. And there we find that both the objective and the subjective aspects of religion are affirmed.


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