Revelation and Philosophy 1

In previous articles, we mentioned that the door for metaphysics and revelation has been re-opened in the latter part of the 19th century. In the present article, we will continue our study of Herman Bavinck’s book, Philosophy of Revelation. This time, our focus is on the relationship between revelation and philosophy. The second chapter of the book has the following contents:

  • Denial and recognition of metaphysics,
  • Cry for reforms from all sectors of society,
  • Three worldviews,
  • Disappearance of materialism’s credibility,
  • Various kinds of monism,
  • Evolution, and
  • Pragmatism

Denial and Recognition of Metaphysics

In sharing the topic about The Idea of a Philosophy of Revelation, we have learned that the 19th century was convinced that the natural sciences have found the answer to the problems of life. The triumph of natural sciences and the influence of Hegel caused people to disregard metaphysics and focused on physics. As a result, people turned their backs from all concepts claiming to explain life beyond nature. In such an age, supranatural worldview, metaphysics and any idea of revelation had no place.

The above point of view belongs to the past. Disappointment with natural sciences became widespread by the turn of the century. The anticipated answer to human predicaments failed. Consequently, people returned to religion, mysticism and metaphysics looking for answer beyond nature to the problems of life. Philosophy, from being descredited now became a welcomed guest.

Such return entered even the natural sciences. Herman Bavinck identifies natural scientists who embraced this return. We find it in Oswald through his Lectures on Natural Philosophy and Annals of Natural Philosophy. We also find it in Reinke through his Philosophy of Botany. W. K. Clifford, Poincare, Kleinpeter and Verworn “have eagerly discussed philosophical and especially epistemological problems” (p.30). Even Haeckel says Bavinck, though “professes to base his conclusions wholly on facts, but even he, none the less, recognizes that, in order to reach a monistic worldview, thought must be called to the aid of perception, philosophy of science, faith of knowledge” (ibid.).

This return to philosophy and religion was pervasive. It touches all countries, all social classes, and all academic fields. Bavinck reports:

It is not confined to one people or one stratum of society, but appears in many countries and among men of all ranks. It is not peculiar to this or that particular branch of learning, but manifests itself in the spheres of history, jurisprudence, and medicine, as well as in that of natural science; its influence is no less strong in literature and art than in religion and theology themselves. Verlaine and Maeterlinck, Sudermann and Hauptmann, Ibsen and Tolstoi and Nietzsche are all equally dissatisfied with present day culture, and all seek something different and higher (ibid.).

Cry for Reforms from all Sectors of Society

As a result of renewed interest in metaphysics, all kinds of reform became the order of the day. All sectors of society are hungry for something “new” from whatever source. Listen how Bavinck describes such a trend:

“From every quarter comes the demand for a new dogma, a new religion, a new faith, a new art, a new science, a new school, a new education, a new social order, a new world, and a new God…Buddhism and Mohammedanism and the religion of Wodan are commended to us, theosophy, occultism, magic and astrology, daemonism and satan-worship, race and hero-worship, ethical culture and the pursuit of ideals, the cult of humanity and of Jesus. Reform movements are the order of the day. Modernism is in the air everywhere.” (pp. 30-31).

These diverse reform movements have two primary characteristics:

  • They maintain the principle of autonomy rooted in Deism, which expresses itself in mental lawlessness (“anarchism of thought”) and emphasis on human will as the way to salvation (“autosoterism of the will”).
  • They seek “after religion, after the supreme good, abiding happiness, true being, absolute worth” (p.31).

As to their first characteristic, “each individual regards himself as independent and self-governing, and shapes his own course and pursues his own way” (p.31). “Religion is treated as a matter of purely personal invention and individual construction, as a mere product and element of culture. Everybody has his own religion, – not merely every nation and every church, but every person” (ibid.).

The mental lawlessness described above persists even up to this time. Bavinck’s words after more than a century remain true to this day. To my simple mind, it is as if in our time, we are living in a new kind of “Dark Age.” This Dark Age is hard to detect for the external manifestations of it are hailed almost everywhere. Progress is most evident in our time. Though we cannot ignore this evidence of development, this Dark Age first and foremost exists within the human mind.

The second character of this movement is its quest for supreme happiness in religion. However, the term “religion” is avoided and replaced with the term “worldview.” This is especially true in philosophy. Scholars understand this term in various ways but the primary intent says Bavinck, is that, philosophy is no longer satisfied “with a scientific explanation of reality, but seeks to vindicate the higher ideals of humanity, to satisfy its deepest needs” (p.32). “Philosophy wishes itself to serve as religion, and from an attitude of contempt for all theology has veered around to a professions of being itself at bottom a search after God” (ibid.).

Three Worldviews

Diversity is another feature of these reform movements. In fact, their external forms are too many and too confusing. Commenting on the nature of these various reform movements, Bavinck claims that these ideas have been in existence since ancient times. This proves that nothing really is new under sun. Their names may vary but the substance remains the same. He states:

“Some youthful enthusiast discovers an idea, which takes him by surprise, and he forthwith claims for it the importance of a new religion, or a new philosophy. But historical study and scientific reflection will, as a rule, convince him in short that the thing he regarded as new was, in point of fact, quite old, having in the past repeatedly emerged and passed away. That which has been is that which shall be, and there is no new thing under the sun. The new fashions in theology are as much like the old Arianism and Socinianism and Gnosticism and Sabellianism as one drop of water is like another. The new roads in philosophy have all been traveled by the thinkers of ancient Greece” (p.32).

However, for Bavinck, one must not look merely at the surface of things. By looking beyond the appearances into the essence of these movements, they can actually be reduced into three types of worldviews:

  • Theistic – concept of higher being as the center in its religious or theological forms
  • Naturalistic – world as the center either in its pantheistic or materialistic forms
  • Humanistic – man as the center

Cornelius Van Til distinguished between two types of theism – the Theism of Christianity and the theism of world religions. He also combined the naturalistic and humanistic into one. So for him, there are only two worldviews – Creator centered and creation centered.

These worldviews have appeared in history not in succession, but in a simultaneous fashion and have influenced each other. Bavinck describes their concurrent existence:

“Thus Greek philosophy was born out of the Orphic theology, passed over into the naturalism of the old nature-philosophy, and became humanistic in the Sophists and the wisdom-philosophy of Socrates. Plato in his doctrine of ideas went back to the old theology and to Pythagoras; but, after Aristotle, his philosophy gave way to the naturalistic systems of Epicurus and the Stoa; and these in turn, by way of reaction, gave birth to the teachings of the sceptical and mystical schools. Christianity gave theism the ascendancy for many centuries; but modern philosophy, which began with Descartes and Bacon, assumed in ever increasing measure a naturalistic character till Kant and Fichte in the ego once more took their starting-point from man. After a brief period of the supremacy of the theistic philosophy in the nineteenth century, naturalism in its materialistic or pantheistic form resumed its sway, only to induce during these recent years a new return to Kant and the principles of humanism” (pp. 33-34).

Disappearance of Materialism’s Credibility

The foregoing quotation identifies the two forms of naturalism, pantheism and materialism. The materialistic form of naturalism suffered loss of credibility in the eyes of thought leaders, and this happened due to three reasons:

  • Critique of Darwinism
  • Modification of basic concepts in the natural science
  • Epistemological critique of naturalistic hypothesis

Concerning the first reason, it was widely recognized that the idea of evolution long existed prior to the appearance of Darwin and has been employed in purely philosophical terms. However, Darwin was not satisfied with such abstraction and applied evolution into natural science and exalted it as a scientific theory. After laying down its scientific foundation, many intellectuals criticized the various components of the theory as indefensible. Bavinck explains:

“In rapid succession the principles of struggle for existence, of unlimited variability, of gradual accumulation of minute changes during vast periods of time, of the heredity of acquired qualities, of the purely mechanical explanation of all phenomena, of the exclusion of all teleology, were subjected to sharp criticism and in wide circles pronounced untenable” (p. 35).

The second reason for the unpopularity of materialism was caused by a shift in the basic concepts of natural science. Before the change, materialism elevated the concept of atoms as capable to explain the world and regarded them “as the ultimate and sole elements of the universe . . . .” (ibid.). However, as a result of the “study of the phenomena of light”, the “discovery of the Roentgen and Becquerel rays”, and the “insight into the endless divisibility of matter”, physicists and chemists came to the conclusion that the materialistic theory of atom is just an invention (p. 36).

And then about the third reason, epistemological critique of naturalistic hypothesis, it was later exposed that the monistic claim of materialism was baseless. It remains dualistic for it could not find a way out to explain the relationship between matter and force. In its place, diverse versions of monism followed.

Various Kinds of Monism

From materialistic monism, attempts were made to replace it with other kinds of monism. They include “energetic monism” (ibid.), “psychical monism (p. 37), “transcendental psychical monism” (p. 38), “epistemological or logical monism”, and many more (p. 39). See how Bavinck enumerates these various kinds of monism:

“We hear of a materialistic, pantheistic, parallelistic, energetic, psychic, epistemological, logical, and still further of an empirical, a critical, an idealistic, a naturalistic, a metaphysical, a concrete, an immanent, a positive, and of several other kinds of monism” (p. 39).

Among these various kinds of monism, Bavinck gave us an overview of the first four. Energetic monism views energy as the only reality (p. 36). “All our knowledge of the outside world can be subsumed under the form of representation of existing energy” (ibid.). Psychical monism has a different idea. It sees “sensations and perceptions” as the “ultimate elements” and they come to us through human consciousness (pp. 37-38). Taking the human consciousness as the starting point, a system was constructed on the basis of “pure experience” (p. 38). Transcendental psychical monism recognizes the danger of pure psychical monism to fall into “solipsism and scepticism” (p. 37), and therefore its advocates labored to build “the objective reality of the phenomena of consciousness” (ibid.). Still many find fault with transcendental psychical monism and formulated an epistemological or logical monism.

All the mentioned kinds of monism, says Bavinck, is simply an attempt to save monism. For Bavinck, the term itself “is of comparatively recent origin” and was utilized “as an attractive designation of pantheism” and still for Schopenhauer as another name for atheism (p. 39). Haeckel followed Schopenhauer’s idea and “in the name of monism”, “condemns as unscientific all who recognize in nature, in the soul, in consciousness, in the freedom of the will, . . . any force different from and higher than that at work in the mechanism of natural science” (ibid.).

Kant, von Baer, Dubois-Reymond, Virchow, did not follow such mechanical monism due “to inconsistency in thought or some decay of mental powers” (p. 40). Bavinck describes that the monistic act of excommunication “betrays an arrogance” for in science, no pope has a claim to infallibility and all investigations are on equal footing. Any attempt therefore to arrive at monistic explanation of things “is a mere disguise under which are concealed the distinctions between God and world, mind and matter, thought and extension, being and becoming, physical and psychical energy, . . . .” (ibid.).

Two objections that monism finds it difficult to answer are those related to the meaning of stretching monism beyond its proper limit and the manner of attaining such unity. In view of the complexity of the world, to come up with a unified explanation of all things is not an easy task. Bavinck quotes a certain Reinke viewing monistic attempt to offer such a unified interpretation “as an abortive attempt to understand the world. . . .” (p. 41). Moreover, though both human thoughts and science are inclined to reduce diverse ideas into a unifying principle, still caution must be made as to the kind of monism thinkers are striving at. Bavinck warns:

“When the use of this name is intended to imply that all multiformity in the world must be merely the manifestation of one substance, we must reject the demand as unwarranted, as the offspring of an aprioristic philosophical system, and as directly opposed to the results of all unprejudiced investigation of the phenomena” (p. 41).

As to the manner of attaining such unity of thought, abstraction has been the common conclusion. We have seen this in Greek philosophy where “all the peculiarities which actuality presents to our view have been eliminated, and nothing is left except the notion of universal, abstract being, which is not capable of any further definition” (pp. 41-42). And this is most evident in discussing the relationship between the absolute and the world. The common descriptions are “either that of emanation or that of evolution” (p. 42). Emanation was popular in the past “when thought was more accustomed to the category of substantiality”, and “the absolute was represented as a fulness of being out of which the world flowed as water from a fountain” (pp. 42-43). But when this concept received much criticism, ideas returned from category of subtanstiality into “the category of actuality”, and “under the influence of Hegel, the trend shifted from “being into an absolute becoming, and thus the idea of evolution was made supreme” (p. 43).


And so before we turn to the last and final attack against monism, let us see for a while the importance placed on evolution in providing monistic explanation of the relationship between the absolute and the world.

Bavinck quotes L. Reinhardt:

“‘The idea of evolution was like the kindling of a torch which suddenly cast a brilliant light upon the mysterious processes of nature, the dark recesses of creation, and gave us the simple, nay, the only possible explanation of them; evolution is the magic formula through which we learn the secret of the apparently insoluble riddle of the origin and development of the infinite variety of terrestrial creatures'” (ibid.).

Bavinck explains:

“To all questions concerning the origin and the essence of things, of heaven and of earth, of minerals and of plants, of animals and of men, of marriage and of family, of the state and of society, of religion and of ethics, the same answer is invariably given: evolution is the key to the origin and existence of all things” (ibid.).

However, evolution is not an easy term. It has numerous meanings. “A widely different sense attaches to it in Heraclitus and Aristotle, in Spinoza and Leibnitz, in Goethe and Schelling, in Hegel and von Hartmann, in Darwin and Spencer, in Huxley and Tylor, in Haeckel and Wundt. And no single definition covers all the phenomena that are subsumed under the conception” (ibid.).

Bavinck does not reject unity. What he rejects is the kind of unity that does not do justice with the diversity of things. He claims, “There is no formula which will fit the universe with all its wealth of matter and force and life” (p. 44). Again Bavinck quoting Ruskin, ‘do not think it likely that you hold in your hand a treatise in which the ultimate and final verity of the universe is at length beautifully proclaimed and in which pure truth has been sifted from the error of the preceding ages. Do not think it, friend; it is not so'” (ibid.).


The strongest critique of monism came from “pragmatism (activism, humanism)” (ibid). For Bavinck, the appearance and popular acceptance of this philosophy is understandable if one sees it from the backdrop of a transition in naturalism “from pure materialism to pantheism” (ibid.). Such change is equivalent “to the return of philosophy to the ideas of life, mind, and soul” (ibid.). However, in this recovery, philosophers are unwilling to recognize God as its source. Consequently, pragmatism emerged since man is left as the only alternative source. This philosophical thought found numerous advocates. Among them are “James or Schiller, Pierce or Panini, Hoffding or Eucken” where we can see “a reaction of the ego from monism in its several forms, a self-assertion of the science of mind against the science of nature, . . . .” (ibid.).

For Bavinck, quoting James, pragmatism is “‘a new name for some old ways of thinking'” where we can find its expression in Socrates’ act of bringing “philosophy back from heaven to earth”, of the Renascence and the Reformation’s departure from the chain of scholasticism, of Konigsberg’s protest “against the dogmatism of the rationalists”, and of Carlyle’s emphasis on “the cause of faith, of personal conviction, of the experience of the soul” “against the intellectualism of the school of Bentham and Mill” (p. 45). Similar spirit caused “a Soren Kierkegaard to revolt against the Christianity and Church of his time; that induced a Ritschl to break as a church-historian with the Tubingen school; that made a Hoffding range ‘values’ above ‘facts’; that determined an Eucken, in the mental life of man, to choose his standpoint above the empirical reality; that in the Netherlands filled the poet de Genestet with horror at the web which Scholten’s monism threatened to spin around him; that impelled a Tolstoi, an Ibsen, a Nietzsche to hurl their anathemas against the corruption of society; that caused the men of art to draw back from naturalism to symbolism and mysticism, . . . .” (pp. 45-46).

As mentioned earlier, there are two types of creation-centered worldview, naturalistic and humanistic. Both versions of naturalistic worldview, the materialist and the pantheist provide no satisfactory answer to the riddle of life. In pragmatism, another shift has been made, and this time to find the solution in man himself. Compared to previous efforts, intellectuals have looked into “the past in order to discover the origin of man and how he became what he is” (p. 46), while this time, the strategy is to look into the future to inspire man to create his own destiny. Again, in previous period, “man has learned to know himself only as a product of the past” (ibid), while the new shift emphasizes man as ‘creator of the universe'” (ibid.).

It has been said that pragmatism has a unique claim to humility due to its freedom from preconception. Bavinck explains the nature of this boasted freedom:

“It disclaims every desire to advocate any dogma, and maintains no preconceived theories. Discouraged by the outcome of the philosophical systems, and sceptical as to the fruitfulness of philosophic thinking, it turns, we are told, its back upon all ‘verbal solutions, apriori reasons, fixed principles, and closed systems,’ and applies itself to ‘concreteness and adequacy, to facts, to action, and to power’ ” (p. 47).

In philosophy, this claim to freedom from preconception is not unique to pragmatism. It is an old claim shared by both empiricism and positivism. For Bavinck, this claim is “nothing but a well-meant delusion” (ibid.).

Pragmatism’s claim to freedom from preconception will not stand close examination of its basic tenets. As a philosophical thought, it is not satisfied to offer itself as a mere method, but also advances to stand as “a theory and a system” (p. 48). As such, it carries its own preconception in judging other schools of thought in terms of reality and truth.

As to reality, “pragmatism not only declares the philosophy of materialism and pantheism aprioristic and dogmatic, but passes the same judgment on all philosophy which would recognize the reality of ideas and would count ideas among the facts to which consciousness bears witness” (pp. 48-49). Furthermore, pragmatism “rejects all realism in the mediaeval sense of this term, to take its stand consciously and unequivocally on the side of nominalism” (p. 49). Bavinck elaborates the nature of this rejection:

“All generic conceptions, such as God, the absolute, the world, the soul, matter, force, time, space, truth, substance, causation, language, religion, morality, and the like are considered, therefore, not designations of objective realities, but terms by means of which we put together for the sake of convenience certain groups of phenomena, mere ‘helps to thought,’ which have to prove their serviceableness and value in the using. . . . ” (ibid.).

Bavinck adds, “To the pragmatist the world is in itself no unity, no organism, no kosmos, but an avowed multiplicity of phenomena, an infinite mass of facts, . . . a chaos” (ibid.). In this way, pragmatist stands in opposition to Plato’s ideas and embraces Aristotle’s nominalistic worldview. Plato as a rationalist, believes that “the world exists either from the outset complete in the idea, or, at any rate, finished and ready in its objective reality exterior to us, in which case it once more appears in the form of a more or less imperfect copy in our minds” (ibid.) Aristotle, a pragmatist believes otherwise that “the unity of the world is not a given fact, but a growing thing, ever in process of becoming and improvement” (ibid.). And so from this distinctive view of reality, pragmatism gains an upper hand over rationalism. Bavinck further explains this advantage:

“From this peculiar outlook upon reality pragmatism reaps the advantage of being able to accord unstinted and honest recognition to many facts which rationalism has to ignore or explain away. The world is a chaos, full of pathetic facts of sin and misery and sorrow, facts which the philosophy of the absolute seeks in vain to justify or to reconcile with the harmony of the universe. It also gives due consideration to a great number of the most diversified phenomena and experiences of religious and moral life, and, without in connection with these raising the question of truth and right, seeks to respect and appreciate them from a psychological and sociological point of view. Since it does not take its start from any idea of the absolute, not even of absolute goodness or justice or ominipotence, it does not feel called upon to furnish a theodicy. It does not sacrifice reality to any theological or philosophical theory nor force it into the procrustean bed of any apriori system. The world is a miserable world and in itself cannot be anything else” (p. 50).

Besides having a unique perspective of reality, pragmatism has also its own peculiar outlook of truth related to its view of the future and the criterion and nature of existence of truth.

As to its view of the future, Bavinck describes pragmatism as “melioristic”, “not wholly pessimistic nor wholly optimistic” (p. 51). Though it affirms that so much gloom and darkness reign at present, but due to the advancement brought about by human evolution, it anticipates a better future for the world. Man through a long process, has already evolved in his creative power to accomplish his duty of saving the world.

When it comes to truth, pragmatism measures its criterion through its usefulness. Its existence is also related to “the unity, the goodness, or the happiness of the world” (ibid.). Truth has no objective existence, cannot be completed, and cannot attain to an absolute character. Instead truth is changeable and relative “all truth remains subject to revision” and “may change any day” (p. 52).

With this kind of perception, scientific truth is considered superior for it provides practical truth, which value for life can be measured. In this way, pragmatism both as a method and as a theory is most true for it is most useful.

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


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