The Idea of a Philosophy of Revelation

Today, I decided to start posting my summaries and reflections on chapters of Herman Bavinck’s book, The Philosophy of Revelation. This book was published in 1953. It contains 9 topics:

  • The Idea of a Philosophy of Revelation
  • Revelation and Philosophy
  • Revelation and Nature
  • Revelation and History
  • Revelation and Religion
  • Revelation and Christianity
  • Revelation and Religious Experience
  • Revelation and Culture and
  • Revelation and the Future

The book was originally organized as a series of “Stone Lectures” at Princeton Theological Seminary for the academic year of 1908 and 1909. As you see, it took 45 years before these lectures were published as a book. The occasion that prompted me to share the content of this book in the net is my experience in higher education and in social networks. There I find numerous ideas are claimed to be recent but as I read Bavinck, they are considered “things of the past.” And I am also surprised that in my initial reading of Herman Bavinck, most of his ideas are either unheard or for unknown reason are ignored.

The message of Herman Bavinck has been with us for almost a century. I find most of the postmodern questions that I have been hearing have already been answered but the answers I think, like the publication of his lectures, have taken a very long journey to reach our time. This shows that there are situations that an idea needs long period of time before it reaches the public arena coming from an isolated beginning.

The book has 349 pages. The first chapter has 28 pages. I decided to write a summary of it and my personal reflection of this chapter. I divided it into 4 parts for readability. It has 7 sub topics:

  • Recent or primitive
  • Two types of Protestantism
  • Deism, Revolution and Evolution
  • Darwin and Marx
  • Return to Hegelian Idealism
  • Monism and the Persistence of Supranaturalism
  • The Biblical Idea of Revelation

Recent or Primitive?

The chapter opens by mentioning the name of an Assyrian scholar, Hugo Winckler who argues that in the entire history of humanity, there are only two general worldviews. Bavinck calls these two worldviews as “supranatural” and “empirico-scientific.”

I understand supranatural as a set of beliefs and perspective in life beyond the realm of nature. Empirico-scientific on the other hand is a set of beliefs and perspective in life, which confines itself within the realm of nature. The first worldview is considered “unscientific” and “baseless”. The second worldview is widely accepted as superior than the first. However, if my understanding of Bavinck is accurate, I think the belief about the superiority of the second worldview was considered a thing of the past in the academic arena and we are now seeing again a resurgence of the supranatural worldview.

It upsets me every time I encounter people in the social network ridiculing Christianity as a set of fables and that people who believe in it are considered “primitives.” They do this in the name of “reason” and “science” and claim to uphold the most recent ideas. However, reading Bavinck shows me that the claim of this people is not accurate. Though Bavinck gave this lecture almost a century ago and was published as a book more than 50 years ago, it only shows that the kind of ideas claimed to be recent are in fact outdated. And this also tells us that the ideas claimed to be “primitive” are actually the ideas that we have right now most especially in the so-called post-modern age.

 Two Types of Protestantism

Humanity from the beginning of its history is claimed to be supranatural in its worldview. It is only in the last 200 years that the foundation of this old worldview has been replaced by the empirico-scientific worldview.

Christianity did not change this old worldview not even the Reformation. Both Romanism and liberalism, says Bavinck charged Reformation as responsible for this transition due to its emphasis on freedom. Bavinck clearly distinguishes here between two kinds of freedom – the freedom of Christianity and the freedom of Revolution. They are not one and the same.

Those who charged Reformation as the cause of the transition in worldview also failed to differentiate between two types of Protestantism and the influence of Reformation from Rationalism. The old Protestantism inspired by Erasmus is different from the new Protestantism led by Luther. The old Protestantism as part of 16th century Renascence had finally come into maturity in the 18th century during the so-called Age of Reason or the Enlightenment. It is this version of Protestantism, which is responsible for the transition from the supranaturalistic worldview into the empirico-scientific worldview.

Bavinck cites Ernst Troeltsch who acknowledged that the new Protestantism in the name of Reformation modified the old worldview. But this is done in a way that the Reformation enriched the old worldview. It did not build a new foundation but still maintained the supranatural structure. Bavinck explains that Luther, Zwingli, and Calvin did not change this structure for these reformers were faithful children of the Middle Ages.

Deism, Revolution and Evolution

Prior to 18th century, the old worldview and the reality of special revelation had never been seriously questioned. It was Deism springing up from England, which “emancipated the world from God, reason from revelation, and will from grace” (p. 7). Bavinck mentions deists such as Herbert, Locke, Toland, Collins, Kant, Fichte, and Lessing were the ones who subjected traditional revelation to the critical test of reason. The doctrine of creation is still accepted but with a twist. In their view, the world stands independently from God.

This principle of autonomy transferred to France and was exemplified through the French Revolution of 1789. This Revolution according to Bavinck was not due to the influence of Reformation but from deistic point of view attached to the so-called social contract theory. The aim was to establish the sovereignty of the people. This autonomic experiment was hailed everywhere but its triumph lasted for a brief period of time and ended in disillusionment among its followers.

Due to the failure of the idea of revolution, this principle of autonomy assumed another form. And this time it was in the name of evolution. The 18th century autonomy was not abandoned but changed a different method of application.

Bavinck argues that this idea of evolution is not something new but rooted in Greek philosophy. It was Aristotle who “raised it to the rank of the leading principle of his entire system” (p. 9). But the new kind of evolution is an evolution with a definite purpose. And so this idea of evolution was received favorably in Christian theology and philosophy. An attempt was even made to connect this idea of evolution to theism. Bavinck claims that it appears in modern philosophy, in thinkers like Lessing, Herder, Goethe, Schelling, Hegel and numerous historians of distinction.

Some of these thinkers disconnected the idea of evolution from Christian Theism and returned to the ancient pre-Christian naturalism. Bavincks picks Hegel as its representative and from then on the world is perceived as “one mighty process of thought…” (p.10). It is believed that “Whatever exists is therefore pure becoming, not being; it exists for no other purpose but to pass away…the old continually gives way to the new” (p.10). Therefore, violent revolution is no longer considered acceptable for “the eternal spirit itself is unceasingly occupied in breaking down while building up, and in building up while breaking down” (p.11). This Hegelian system is governed by “process, evolution, endless and restless becoming” to a much higher degree, and much more one-sidedly, than those of Aristotle and Leibnitz” (p.11).

Charles Darwin and Karl Marx

However, for the natural sciences, this idea of evolution was too ideal. It cannot accept an evolution with a definite purpose. And so Darwin entered into the scene and removed the idea of purpose from evolution. In the eyes of Darwin, purpose is absurd in a world filled with so much pain. He confirmed this in his scientific investigation. There was no providence, no predetermined plan, no omniscience, no omnipotence, and no goodness of God.

As Darwin saw the misery in nature, Karl Marx witnessed the misery in society. It is interesting to note that in the same year, 1859, two influential books were published that shaped the future of humanity – the Origin of Species by Charles Darwin and A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy by Karl Marx. Friedrich Engels at the grave of Marx in March 17, 1883 “declared that, as Darwin had found the law of the development of organic nature, so Marx had discovered that of the development of human society” (p.12).

Darwin believed that his ideas in the natural sciences have removed the clutches of purpose and supranaturalism once and for all. Karl Marx, on the other hand, was convinced that he had liberated “Socialism from all utopianism and established it on a firm scientific foundation” (ibid.). Both of these men believed “in the promise of a better world, a better race, and a better society” (ibid.) without resorting to supranaturalism or belief in divine purpose in creation and in human society. Marx believed that religion, which he termed as the “ ‘opiate of the people,’ was destined to die a natural death in the perfect society of the future” (ibid.).

This trend of thought signaled an end to the old worldview with its supranaturalistic foundation and its idea of revelation. “The belief that modern natural science with its idea of evolution had made an end to medieval dualism” (p.13) was widely accepted. At last, “the principle of naturalism had permanently triumphed” and the idea of revelation was considered dead. Haeckel declares “all revelations to which religions appeal are pure pigments of human phantasy; the one true revelation is nature itself” (ibid.). Strauss agrees, “The last enemy to be conquered is the conception of another world” (ibid.).

Bavinck appreciates the term evolution as something harmless in itself. However, “the trend of thought by which it has been monopolized, and the system built on it” has given these thinkers “a way to explain the entire world, including man, religion, and morality without the aid of any supranatural” (ibid.) force. The world is free at last from the chain of Medievalism and reason from the falsehood of revelation.

Return to Hegelian Idealism

The kind of freedom mentioned in the foregoing section did not last long for by the turn of the century from the 19th to the 20th, an important change took place. Bavinck narrates that foremost investigators in science have abandoned the “mechanico-chemical” explanation of all phenomena and events and an attempt has been made to incorporate the ideas of Darwin into an “idealistic worldview.” Darwin, adhering first to a deistic concept of the world and later became an agnostic, had actually left a space for different concepts of the Absolute. Thus, the idea of evolution has returned to Hegelian idealism.

As a result, says Bavinck, “The mechanical concept of nature has been once more replaced by the dynamical; materialism has reverted to pantheism; evolution has become again the unfolding, the revealing of absolute spirit. And the concept of revelation has held anew its triumphant entry into the realm of philosophy and even of natural science” (p.14).

Such intellectual movement did not spare theology. A “new theology” has emerged attempting to relate evolution to revelation, to reconcile science and religion, a shift from transcendence to immanence “and finds its highest expression in “ ‘the gospel of the humanity of God and the divinity of man’ ” (p.14).

In this new theology, it is viewed that “Everything is a manifestation of God” (p.15). Man is not “ ‘simply what he is, but all he yet may be’ ” (ibid.). It is claimed that Christianity illustrates this in the person of Christ. “In Christ, humanity and divinity are one” (ibid.). “All men are potential Christs” (ibid.).

Bavinck critiques this new trend in theology. He said that it is “nothing but a repetition of the pantheistic worldview, which has been embodied in the systems of Erigena, Spinoza, and especially Hegel” (p.16). Many are happy for this transition from the intellectualism of 19th century to a return to religion, mysticism, metaphysics, and philosophy and so a room for the conception of the idea of revelation has once again been re-opened. Bavinck warns that this trend possesses an “egoistic character” (p.16). It “seeks God not above but in the world and regard Him as identical with that of the creature” (ibid.).

Thus the empirico-scientific worldview assumes a different form and this time, it is a religious form. However, this is not easy to detect for it dislikes itself to be designated as religion. The idea of evolution is no longer satisfied to be perceived as “science” either by the side or against Christianity but to usurp the place of Christianity as the new “dogma” and “religion” (ibid.).

Monism and the Persistence of Supranaturalism

Bavinck then mentions an old term that describes this new intellectual movement. The term is monism. Bavinck identifies Haeckel as the one who designates monism to this intellectual movement claiming to be the true science and true religion.  As a form of religion, monism offers an immanent God. As such, Bavinck says, monism “can never satisfy man’s religious and ethical needs” (p.17). In monism, there is no power above the world. It offers no permanent peace and rest, which according to Bavinck, are the things that man seeks in religion. Man seeks strength, life, personal power, pardon from sin and joy to triumph over a world of sin and death. Monism as a religion cannot give what man seeks.

The kind of religion man needs, says Bavinck, is not a religion that shut us up in but lifts us up high above the world. A religion that in time imparts eternity; in death gives life; in change provides stability. Bavinck argues that “this is the reason why transcendence, supranaturalism, revelation are essential to all religions” (ibid.). They characterize the Mohammedan nations, Christendom, Greek Church, Roman Catholicism and Protestantism.

So regardless of this intellectual evolution both in philosophy and theology, Christianity maintains its supranatural character. The Bible still occupies its unique place in the church. Bavinck claims, “all our modern civilization, art, science, literature, ethics, jurisprudence, society, state, politics are leavened by religious, Christian, supranaturalistic elements and still rest on the foundation of the old worldview” (ibid.). Bavinck quotes Troeltsch saying, “ ‘The stamp of this education, Europe bears deep in its soul up to today’ ” (ibid.). Bavinck is confident that “much therefore will have to be done before the modern, pantheistic or materialistic, worldview shall have conquered the old theistic one” (ibid.) And in view of the past history of mankind, Bavinck believes that this will never happen. Marx therefore is wrong in his prediction.

The persistence of supranatural worldview and the idea of revelation says Bavinck, is neither simply due to “stubborn conservatism” nor “incorrigible lack of understanding” (p.18). There is actually essential difference between the supranatural worldview and the one offered by this new trend in theology and philosophy. Bavinck says that Friedrich Delitzsch affirms this fact. Delitzsch argues that the Old Testament idea of revelation was similar with that found in Babylonian religion. However, such connection was discredited by many due to an attempt to modify the idea of revelation “so as to make of it humanly mediated, gradual process of historical evolution” (ibid.). Delitzsch finds it acceptable personally but admits that it is “a weak dilution of the Biblical and theological conception of revelation” (ibid.).

The Biblical Idea of Revelation

For Bavinck, there are two distinctions to bear in mind about his idea of revelation. Firsthe distinguishes between the revelation of God to all men through nature and man’s attempt to evade the true God through man made religions. Second, he distinguishes between God’s revelation to Israel and the idolatry of surrounding nations. For Bavinck, religion and revelation are not one and the same. The difference is similar to that of the difference between the Creator and his creatures. He thinks Gwatkin is right in saying that “not every thought of man, but only true thought, echoes God’s thought, and that religions can be viewed as divine revelations only so far as they are true” (p.19).

Bavinck reports that during his time, there would be a new appreciation about the mentioned distinctions between revelation and religion and the supranaturalistic worldview. He quotes Titius’ claim that theologians from Kahler to Troeltsch believe “that supranaturalism and Christianity stand or fall together” (p. 20). Based on Loofs’ opinion says Bavinck, the reason why the supranaturalism of 16th and 17thcentury was not taken seriously by the natural science and history was because it “was of too clumsy construction” (ibid.). So he agrees with Titius that a decisive battle between immanentistic religion and “robust theism has not yet been fought out” (ibid.).

Theism in the biblical sense as Bavinck understands, emphasizes both his transcendence and immanence. Bavinck upholds the biblical view of God that he is not far from any one of us, but that “in him we live, and move and have our being.” It is true that God dwells in heaven but heaven is part of the created universe. So for Bavinck, “When God is represented as dwelling in heaven, he is not thereby placed outside but in the world, and is not removed by a spacial transcendence from his creatures”(p.21). He also says, “Although God is immanent in every part and sphere of creation with all his perfections and all his being, nevertheless, even in that most intimate union he remains transcendent” (p.22).

Bavinck describes the idea of revelation of old theology as “external” and “mechanical” (p.22). It identified revelation simply with Scripture. In his case, he acknowledges both the historical and psychological components of revelation. It is in this way that he perceives that “special revelation” has taken numerous elements and is founded on “general revelation” (ibid.). He recognizes the connection of both the Old and the New Testaments with their surrounding settings. He understands revelation not as one time event but underwent progressive development, which appreciates both historical element and human individuality.

Bavinck welcomes such trend for it contributes to a better understanding of revelation. Unfortunately, the existing inclination is to focus only on the historical and psychological elements of revelation at the expense of the content of revelation. In the language of Bavinck, the current interest is on the how rather than the what, the process rather than the content, the similarities rather than the distinction. The aim should be for a better understanding of revelation not the removal of it.

For Herman Bavinck, belief in the uniqueness of revelation “is the starting point and the foundation-stone of Christian theology” (pp.23-24). The existence of God is the primary foundation of revelation. Bavinck says “If God does not exist, if He has not revealed Himself, He cannot be known, all religion is an illusion and all theology a phantasm” (p.23).

It is Rationalism, which discredited Christianity and its supranatural character and idea of revelation “as a mass of fables” (p.24). Bavinck understands the relationship between revelation and reason. He states “Christianity rests on revelation, it has a content, which, while not in conflict with reason, yet greatly transcends reason” (p.25). He argues, “If revelation did not furnish such a content, and comprised nothing but what reason itself could sooner or later have discovered, it would not be worthy of its name” (ibid.). He adds, “What neither nature nor history, neither mind nor heart, neither science nor art can teach us, it makes known to us” (ibid.).

Bavinck has a “holistic” concept of revelation. He recognizes both creation and redemption. He states:

In creation God manifests the power of his mind; in revelation, which has redemption for its center, he discloses to us the greatness of his heart (p.26). Revelation, while having its center in the person of Christ, in its periphery extends to the uttermost ends of creation. It does not stand isolated in nature and history, does not resemble an island in the ocean, nor a drop of oil upon water. With the whole of nature, with the whole of history, with the whole of humanity, with the family and society, with science and art it is intimately connected…In every moment of time beats the pulse of eternity; every point in space is filled with the omnipresence of God; the finite is supported by the infinite, all becoming is rooted in being…The foundations of creation and redemption are the same. The Logos who became flesh is the same by whom all things were made (p.27).

Reference: Bavinck, Herman. The Philosophy of Revelation. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1953.


2 thoughts on “The Idea of a Philosophy of Revelation

  1. Was this work published in English or Dutch?

  2. Ruel Zabala Chavez

    I think there is a Dutch version but I haven’t seen it. I am reading an English copy.

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