It took me more than three years to resume writing a summary of chapter 3 of Herman Bavinck’s book, “Philosophy of Revelation”. I summarized the second chapter last July 4, 2011. The occasion that motivated me to return to this book is due to a confusion in the use of the term “revelation” in one theological forum in Facebook. The term is not clearly defined and understood, and yet participants are very confident in posting their comments.
Living in information age, everyone is aware that numerous potential sources are available for any given topic. To stop wasting my time, I decided to consult the considered authority in history about revelation.
Chapter 3 is the most difficult section ofi the book. It is a continuation of chapter 2. The topic is about “Revelation and Philosophy”. In presenting this summary, I divided it into 9 sub-topics:
- Appreciation and Critical Assessment of Pragmatism
- Intuitive Certainty
- Consistent and Moderate Idealists
- Unity of Thought and the Absolute
- Dependence and Freedom, and
- The Importance of Revelation in Philosophy
Appreciation and Critical Assessment of Pragmatism
Pragmatism deserves praise for delivering us from monistic abstraction, and in bringing practical matters into our attention. However, as a worldview, pragmatism lacks when it comes to satisfying the human mind and the needs of the heart. In this sense, it is “not pragmatic enough” (p. 53).
Moreover, it is also not true that pragmatism is free from preconception. When it criticizes other schools of thought, it actually “aligns itself with the humanism of Socrates, links its thinking to that of Locke, Berkeley, Hume, and Kant, and simply replaces the philosophy of rationalism by that of empiricism” (ibid.). It is incorrect therefore to say that pragmatism merely a method, and not a philosophical system; in fact, it is both. As a philosophical system, its “real core” is in the abandonment of all absolute categories including God and “all ideas and names”, and seeks refuge in “facts” (p. 54).
Pragmatism’s exaltation of facts is the reason why it is mistakenly assumed that it represents empiricism. However, “Almost every school in science and philosophy professes in the last analysis to set out from facts” (ibid.). Pragmatism’s peculiar concept of facts is just one among many. The problem with pragmatism’s concept of facts is that it excludes the most important facts of reality for reality has “more ‘facts’ than pragmatism takes into account. This will be made clear if we are to ask how a certain philosophy arrives to its concept of reality. In answering this question, Bavinck compares pragmatism with idealism. However, at this point, he already announces his position that in this search for reality, theistic revelation is capable to satisfy the needs of the heart and of the mind: “From this it will appear that neither materialism nor humanism, but only theism, that neither emanation nor evolution, but revelation alone, is capable of solving the problem” (p. 55).
Idealism is a philosophical system that teaches that “the world is the embodiment of thought, rests in mind and is governed by reason” (ibid.). “In presenting this view”, idealism starts from its concept of reality. Hegel, the champion of idealism could not be irresponsibly dismissed by saying that he set aside facts derived from reality in his rationalization for he “had far more knowledge of the facts of nature and history than his opponents have given him credit for” (p. 55). Compare this to pragmatism, it is not more empirical than idealism due to its exclusion of “most important and principal facts” (ibid.). In pragmatism, “apriori ideas or principles that govern the world” do not exist (ibid.). “The world in itself is a chaos, . . . . which only through the knowledge and activity of man has been gradually transformed into a cosmos” (ibid.). In the case of idealism, it starts with “self-consciousness” in order to attain reality (p. 56).
By starting with self-consciousness, idealism claims that the knowledge of objective reality can be reached. Bavinck agrees with it though he mentions some qualifications. However, for Bavinck, idealism commits a mistake when “it draws the conclusion that perception is a purely immanent act, and that therefore the object perceived must itself be immanent in the mind” (ibid.). Bavinck explains: “The mistake of idealism lies in confounding the act with its content, the function with the object, the psychological with the logical nature of perception” (pp. 56-57). He adds: “It is one thing to consider the representations as they lie in consciousness and another thing in and through them to apprehend the reality. To ignore this difference means to remain entangled in a sort of psychologism, imprisoned in one’s self and doomed never to reach reality” (p. 57).
To escape the charge of logical illusionism and to maintain the objectivity of knowledge, idealism employs two methods. The first method is on the basis of “principle of causality” (ibid.) where an individual uses his mind from “the representation as an effect to an objective reality as its cause” (ibid.). The second method is by way of human will. It reasons that man is not “primarily consciousness and representation, but force, impulse, and will; he is himself a substance, a reality. . .” (ibid.). For Bavinck, both these methods failed to achieve their goal. He argues that prior to all reasoning about causality and will, there is a kind of knowledge of reality that is shared by all regardless of intellectual ability. He describes this kind of knowledge as “faith in reality” that all are convinced of its existence. Bavinck agrees with Eduard von Hartmann’s description of this kind of knowledge of reality as “‘naively-realistic faith, coalescing with the perception itself, by way of intuition, into an indivisible act, forms an indispensable, practically inalienable ingredient of our mental equipment'” (p. 58). The facts derived from this reality do not need to pass “through a process of reasoning from representation or will” in order to qualify as facts. Practically, we ascribe reality to many things without the use of either the principle of causality or the human will.
As mentioned, Bavinck agrees with idealism concerning its view of self-conciousness as the remaining road to reality. We also indicated that distinctions exist between these two concepts of self-consciousness. We will return to this in the latter part of the article. For now, let us pay attention to an “obstruction” from psychology in this road to reality. Bavinck explains this obstruction:
“It bids us remark that we do not observe in ourselves any ego, any soul, any substance, but only a continuous succession of phenomenal states of consciousness, and that we lack warrant to infer from these the existence of a bearer or substrate” (p. 60).
Bavinck responds to this obstruction that psychology commits similar mistake mentioned earlier. He explains the nature of this mistake by mentioning a spontaneous and immediate knowledge of self, which is similar to that “naively-realistic faith” identified earlier:
“As our perception does not have for its object the representations, but in and through through these the things themselves, so in the phenomena of consciousness our own ego always presents itself to us. In neither case is there involved any process of reasoning or inference. As the external perception, of itself and immediately, convinces of the reality of the perceived object, so the perception of self in the phenomena of consciousness assures us spontaneously and immediately of the existence of ourselves” (ibid.).
After refuting the obstruction from psychology, Bavinck returns to a necessary distinction in the concept of self-consciousness. I think at this point, we see the difference between Bavinck’s and idealism’s concept of self-consciousness. He describes this distinction with the following statement:
“Of course a distinction must be made here between the psychological investigation to which the man of science subjects the phenomena of consciousness, and by means of which he may abstract these from the self-consciousness, and the state of self-consciousness experienced in daily life by every man, the scientist not excluded. But in the latter case the self is always and immediately given in self-consciousness” (ibid.).
You see that in this explanation he differentiates between the understanding of “the man of science” and “every man” (ibid.). To support his idea of spontaneous and common self-consciousness, Bavinck used Kantian categories and states, “In self-consciousness, therefore, we have to deal not with a mere phenomenon, but with a noumenon, with a reality that is immediately given us, antecedently to all reasoning and inference” (p. 61). In this kind of self-consciousness, our own being is revealed to us, directly, immediately, before all thinking and independently of all willing” (pp. 61-62). Again, comparing the two concepts of self-consciousness, he adds:
“We do not approach it through any reasoning or exertion of our own; we do not demonstrate its existence, we do not understand its essence. But it is given to us in self-consciousness, given gratis, and is received on our part spontaneously, in unshaken confidence, with immediate assurance” (p. 62).
For Bavinck this self-consciousness is the “primary fact”, the “foundation of all knowledge and activity” and is free from our rational affirmation. “To undermine” this knowledge “by doubt, is to commit against ourselves and against others” both “a logical” and “ethical sin”; “to shake not only the foundation of science, but also the indispensable basis of all human conduct, and; to weaken all confidence, spontaneity, volitional energy, and courage” (ibid.). Bavinck asserts, “every demonstration of the intellect must rest on the intuitive certainty of self-consciousness” (ibid.).
Furthermore, besides being intuitive, this “self-consciousness is no cold, bald unity, no dead mathematical point, no quiescent, unvarying substance but is rich in content, full of life and power and activity. . . . It is, but at the same time it becomes and grows; it is a fulness of life, a totality of gifts and powers, which do not play their roles behind the curtain, but reveal themselves and find development in the multiform activities of psychical life, in the whole man with all his works” (pp. 62-63).
Bavinck confidently affirms that “Augustine was the first who . . . understood self-consciousness” and even “Socrates did not comprehend this. . . .” (p. 63). And then he goes on comparing Greek philosophy and Christianity in relation to this concept. Mankind due to Greek philosophy lost its certainty about God, the world, and itself. Christianity imparted to man “a new certainty, the certainty of faith; it restored to him his confidence in God, and therewith his confidence in himself” (ibid.). Bavinck explains further the nature of this certainty coming from Christianity:
“And by this light of revelation Augustine descended deep into his own inner life; forgetting nature, he desired to know naught else but God and himself. There he found thought, to be sure, but not thought alone; beneath thought he penetrated to the essence of the soul, for in himself always life preceded thought; faith, knowledge; self-consciousness, reflection; experience, science; he first lived through the things which later he thought and wrote. Thus Augustine went back behind thought to the essence of the soul, and found in it not a simple unity, but a marvellously rich totality; he found there the ideas, the norms, the laws of the true and the good, the solution of the problem of the certainty of knowledge, of the cause of all things, of the supreme good; he found there the seeds and germs of all knowledge and science and art; he found there even, in the triad of memoria, intellectus, and voluntas, a reflection of the triune being of God. Augustine was the philosopher of self-examination, and in self-consciousness he discovered the starting-point of a new metaphysics” (pp. 63-64).
After mentioning Augustine, Bavinck’s discussion about self-consciousness leads to another insight. This time it is the discovery of “sense of dependence” as we immerse ourselves into the “depths of self-consciousness” (pp. 65-66). He describes that this sense of dependence can be found at the very root of self-consciousness (ibid.).
This sense of dependence comes to us in two ways: “We feel ourselves dependent on everything around us” and “we feel ourselves, together with all creatures, wholly dependent on some absolute power which is the one infinite being” (p. 66). Bavinck explains further the nature of this dependence:
“This sense of dependence, with its twofold reference, is not a philosophical conception, not an abstract category, not ‘a verbal solution,’ but a fact which in point of certainty is equal to the best established fact of natural science. It is something genuinely empirical, universally human, immediate, the very core of self-consciousness, and involves the existence of both the world and God” (pp. 66-67).
Bavinck points out that idealism will certainly reject this kind of idea of dependence. That’s why he sees the need for two further distinctions. One, “That the belief in the existence of an objective world (and likewise of God) is a fact nobody can deny” (p. 67). At this point, he mentions that even Kant did not deny this. He perceives that clarifying Kant’s goal as to the kind of problem that the latter aimed to solve is related to this issue. Bavinck explains:
“The problem which Kant set himself to solve was not how the world of our perception, . . . . is produced, for it is self-evident that we obtain this from perception, and that from the first we conceive of it as existing in space and time. But, starting from this world of perception and presupposing it, Kant sought to answer . . . . how we can obtain scientific knowledge of this empirical world. And for this problem he offered the solution, that such knowledge cannot come through sense-perception, because the latter discovers nothing but an orderless mass of phenomena; that scientific knowledge is possible and attainable only when the human mind introduces order into this chaos of phenomena and subjects it to its own law” (ibid.).
Bavinck understands that for Kant the mind has its own law. He explains the nature of this law in terms of carrying “in itself all sorts of apriori forms, which are not called apriori because in point of time they precede perception, or because they lie ready-made in our minds, but because they are independent of perception and are produced and applied by the mind in the very act of working on the representations” (pp. 67-68).
Bavinck tells us that Kant maintains the distinction related to the questions between perception and the mind. Bavinck thinks that idealism confuses this distinction when it concluded that from the activity of the mind to acquire scientific knowledge, “the world of perception is either in part or in whole a product of the perceiving subject” (p. 68). Instead Bavinck argues that “the world of perception is given to us in our consciousness, not as dream or hallucination, but as phenomenon and representation, involving, according to universal belief, the existence of an objective world” (ibid.). He calls this “universal belief” as an “empirical and undeniable fact”, as a matter of “intuive certainty” (ibid.).
In this intuitive certainty, “the gulf between the reality and the representation, between being and thinking, is bridged over. And with the selfsame certainty with which we assume the existence of our own ego, the existence of the world is recognized. For the representation is connected with reality by the same inner tie that binds self-consciousness to the self” (ibid.). To deny this kind of certainty, detrimental consequences follow. It undermines “self-confidence and of volitional energy, of the faith the mind has in itself, and hence of the superiority of the mind to nature, of religion and morality” (p. 69). It is at this point that Bavinck concludes that “Not evolution, but revelation, is the secret of the mind; in our self-consciousness, independently of our co-operation and apart from our will, the reality of our ego and of the world is revealed to us” (ibid.).
And then Bavinck proceeds on to explain this intuitive certainty in relation to “inner consciousness”. I am not sure at this point if there is distinction between these two or he is describing the same thing in different words. In previous consideration, it appears more likely that he is referring to the same thing. For Bavinck, the acceptance of the reality of this inner consciousness is important for science to achieve knowledge of the world of perception; science is dependent on it.
Science’s task is to understand this inner consciousness, but it must also acknowledge the limitation of our explanation. Its reality “should not be made dependent on our ability to explain it” (ibid.). Bavinck accepts, “We do not know how the world can exist, or how, in this world, consciousness is possible, yet no one doubts the reality of either” (ibid.). If science fails to accept this reality, “it undermines its own foundation” (ibid.). Idealism demonstrates this rejection for based on “this theory reality is itself . . . . a chaos, and order is first introduced into it by the knowledge and activity of the human mind” (ibid.). In other words, “The world in itself is neither true nor good; it is we who slowly make it true and good” (ibid.).
Bavinck admits that there is truth in the last statement above provided it is understood in its proper sense. At this point we see the influence of biblical creation in Bavinck’s mind. He agrees that the world is not yet “finished” in the sense that “It exists in order to be replenished, subjected, made the object of knowledge, and ruled over by man” (p. 70). In this sense, it is “proper to say that it was man’s task to make the world true and good” (ibid.) However, idealism has a different meaning about human role in this world. Man replaces God as the One who prepared the world. This makes man the creator of the world through his mental activity. “The earth in itself, apart from man, is a waste and empty chaos, unformed, without ordinances and laws, without light and color” (ibid.).
Consistent and Moderate Idealists
The camp of idealism is divided at this stage between the consistent and the moderate. A consistent idealist views “the entire world as a product of the human mind, and man not merely as the orderer, but also as the creator of the world” (ibid.). On the other hand, a moderate idealist refrains from such a conclusion, and instead distinguishes “between the primary and the secondary qualities of things” (ibid.). He retains “the objective reality of the former. . . independently of man”, and ascribes “to the latter a purely subjective origin” (ibid.).
If moderate idealism is correct in its distinction between the primary and secondary qualities of things, an unavoidable question must be answered as to the relationship of these two. For Bavinck, the secondary qualities of things cannot maintain their pure subjective origin, but dependent on the primary qualities of things. Our moderate idealist therefore was wrong in maintaining the subjectivity of the secondary quailities (p. 73). Bavinck is not alone in his conclusion about moderate idealism. He cites thinkers like “Berkeley and Hume, Paulsen and Wundt, Eucken and Stumpf” who arrived at similar conclusion that “the distinction between primary and secondary qualities (is) unfounded and arbitrary” (ibid.).
To insist in separating the secondary qualities of things from the primary qualities of things is only possible as an abstraction, but not feasible in real life. Bavinck puts it differently:
“The world is not a group of perceptions formed by us for economic reasons, for the sake of the practical necessities of life, but a complex of qualities which exist objectively and are mutually bound together, a totality which cannot be reduced to any representation of ours” (pp. 74-75).
In relation to revelation, Bavinck concludes the discussion about the two types of idealism with following remarks:
“As little as subjectively the ego, the personality, admits of being resolved into a series of sensations, can the world of our external perception be reduced to a group of representations. In both cases we are face to face with one and the same fact. In consciousness our own being, and the being of the world, are disclosed to us antecedently to our thought or volition; that is, they are revealed to us in the strictest sense of the word” (p. 75).
“In man’s self-consciousness, however, still more is implied. Unless there were more, the result obtained could not satisfy us. For without more we should not be warranted in speaking of revelation, and could not maintain our confidence in the testimony of our self-consciousness. A true unity would be unattainable for us; naturalism and humanism, materialism and idealism, monism and pluralism, would continue to stand in irreconcilable opposition to each other” (ibid.).
Unity of Thought and the Absolute
Since idealism broke the connection between the primary and the secondary qualities of things, being from thought, object from subject, it is unavoidable that for man to avoid the illusion of knowledge, unity of thought or a belief in the absolute must be re-established. Several proposals have been attempted to fill the chasm that idealism has created: “personal God”, “eternal consciousness”, “transcendental consciousness”, “abstratc impersonal consciousness”, and “absolute substance” (pp. 75-76). Some idealists argue that a restoration of the objective world is not necessary. They are satisfied to have “no more than the objective norm of thinking or that as unconscious force it attain to consciousness in man” (p. 76). However as for Bavinck, though he appreciates attempts like this, he does not see them as the way to the real solution.
Dependence and Freedom
So Bavinck returns to self-consciousness. As already mentioned, basic to this self-consciousness is the sense of dependence. Bavinck notes that Schleiermacher has better knowledge of this than Kant when the former defines the essence of self-consciousness “as an absolute sense of dependence” (ibid.). Moreover, Bavinck adds something to dependence. This time, it’s freedom.
Bavinck calls dependence and freedom as “two testimonies of self-consciousness” (ibid.) and they are not contrary but consistent with each other. Bavinck explains the relationship between dependence and frredom in relation to human belief about his own existence, the reality of the world, and the reality of God as witnessed in his self-consciousness:
“For no matter whether learned or unlearned, all of us without distinction are conscious that we ourselves perceive, we ourselves think, we ourselves reason, we ourselves draw conclusions, and in the same manner that we ourselves deliberate, will, and act. Religion and morality, responsibility and accountability, science and art, all the labor and culture of humanity are built on this basic assumption. Hence the absolute cannot be conceived as an unconscious and involuntary force” (p. 77).
“Men have, it is true, often broken up, along with the unity of the world and the unity of the human race, the unity of God also; but the personality of God has remained firmly established, always and everywhere, among every nation and in every religion. Just as confidently as man is convinced in his self-consciousness of his own existence and of the reality of the world, does he believe also in the reality and personality of God” (ibid.).
“This belief is interwoven with his self-consciousness, more particularly with its double testimony to dependence and freedom. These are not antagonistic, but rather postulate each the other. The sense of dependence is the core of self-consciousness and the essence of religion, but it is not a mere de facto dependence, as the unconscious and the irrational creation is dependent on God; in man it is a sense of dependence; the dependence in him attains to a cognizance, to a testimony of his self-consciousness, and thus certainly does not cease to exist, but yet assumes a different form. It becomes a felt, conscious, voluntary dependence, a dependence of man as a rational and moral being, and for this very reason it becomes a sense of absolute . . . .dependence. If the sense of dependence did not include this element, if it did not know itself as a conscious and voluntary dependence, it would cease to be absolute, because the most important factors in man, consciousness and will, would fall outside of it, or stand opposed to it. Consequently, if man repudiates his dependence, withdraws from it, he does not thereby become independent, but his dependence changes in nature. It loses its rational and moral character and becomes the subservience of a mere means to an end. Man, in becoming a sinner, does not rise, but falls; does not become like God, but like the animals. Therefore the feeling, the sense of dependence, conscious and voluntary dependence, includes the freedom of man. . . .” (pp. 77-78).
After presenting the consistency of both dependence and freedom in self-consciousness, Bavinck asserts further that this testimony is actually the basis of religion and morality (p. 78). This “leads man everywhere and always, and that quite freely and spontaneously, to belief in and service of a personal God” (ibid.). He claims that this belief is not acquired, but receives as a gift. He even claims that by nature, every man believes in God. See how Bavinck elaborates this important point:
“It is the mind of man, with all of its peculiar nature and organization, its intellect and reason, heart and conscience, desire and will, and with the ineradicable consciousness of its dependence and freedom, that is innate, brought into the world in principle and germ at birth, not acquired later phylogenetically or ontogenetically” (pp. 78-79).
“He does not invent the idea of God nor produce it; it is given to him and he receives it. Atheism is not proper to man by nature, but develops at a later stage of life, on the ground of philosophic reflection; like scepticism, it is an intellectual and ethical abnormality, which only confirms the rule. By nature, in virtue of his nature, every man believes in God. And this is due in the last analysis to the fact that God, the creator of all nature, has not left himself without witness, but through all nature, both that of man himself and that of the outside world, speaks to him. Not evolution, but revelation alone accounts for this impressive and incontrovertible fact of the worship of God. In self-consciousness God makes known to us man, the world, and himself” (p. 79).
The Importance of Revelation in Philosophy
We take a long journey in this article about Revelation and Philosophy. It is proper to end this piece by summing everything in relation to revelation.
For Bavinck, “revelation is of the utmost importance, not only for religion, but also for philosophy, and particularly for epistemology” (ibid.). Revelation is important for philosophy in two ways: it accepts philosophical diversity or “multiformity”, and it provides room for the concept of truth as a process of becoming, which is vital to the progress of science (p. 80).
As already noted, the relationship between object and subject and their agreement is important for knowledge not to shatter into pieces. Bavinck claims that in revelation such agreement is found that provides the basis for a sound theory of knowledge.
Philosophy has recognized this need. However, due to erroneous beginning, it is not able to provide the needed unity. Philosophy has committed two mistakes either in the direction of Hegel where thought is identified “with being and raised logic to the rank of metaphysics” or in the direction of Kant and humanism where thought has been separated “from being, leaving to logic a purely formalistic character” (ibid.). For Bavinck, these directions failed to provide unity of thought. Instead, he agrees with von Hartmann that “there is no other way of doing justice to both subject and object except by recognizing that it is one and the same reason ‘which is active in consciousness as a principle introducing order into the sensations, and in the objective world as the principle of synthesis for the things in themselves'” (ibid.). Bavinck explains that only this kind of unity provides space for the multiformity of philosophy:
“The forms of being, the laws of thought, . . . . the forms of conduct, have their common source in the divine wisdom. The three departments of philosophy, physics, logic and ethics, form a harmonious whole. What monism seeks in the wrong direction, and cannot attain unto, has here been reached, viz., the unity which does not exclude but includes the multiformity . . . . of philosophy” (ibid.).
At the same time, revelation supplies the basis for reasoning where truth is perceived not only as given, but also undergoes the process of becoming. This is a very important point in the concept of the development of science. It is in this sense that Bavinck states that “man has to conquer the truth in the sweat of his brow, with the exertion of all his strength, foot by foot and piece by piece. The branches of knowledge have without exception ‘grown up in the practice of life itself’; they have all been born of necessity, and possess a practical, economic value” (pp. 80-81). Bavinck adds:
“Science aims at something higher: it seeks not the dead, but the living; not the transitory, but the eternal; not the reality, but the truth. Only it does not find the truth apart from the reality. . . .We do not create the truth, and we do not spin it out of our brain; but, in order to find it, we must go back to the facts, to reality, to the sources” (p. 81).
Before concluding the chapter, Bavinck mentions the basic assumption of science: “reality is not co-extensive with the phenomena, but contains a kernel of divine wisdom, being the realization of the decree of God” (ibid.). After mentioning this assumption, Bavinck explains the relationship between truth and reality.
“In so far the truth is bound to reality, and finds its criterion in correspondence with reality. . . . truth transcends the empirical reality. . . .For this purpose God has deposited the truth in nature and Scripture, that we might have it, and by knowing it might rule through it. . . . reality is an instrument to enable us to find the truth; reality is intended to become truth in our consciousness and in our experience” (pp. 81-82).
And then Bavinck ends the chapter by comparing true philosophy from pragmatism and empiricism:
“So the truth obtains an independent value of its own. Its standard does not lie in its usefulness for life, for, if usefulness were the criterion of truth, then perfect unanimity ought to prevail in regard to usefulness, and life itself ought to be a value not subject to fluctuation. But in regard to life, what counts is not merely existence, or pleasure, or intensity, but first of all content and quality. . . . The truth is of more value than empirical life: Christ sacrificed his life for it. . . . Truth is worth more than reality; it belongs to that higher order of things in which physis, and gnosis, and ethos are reconciled, and in which a true philosophy gives full satisfaction both to the demands of the intellect and to the needs of the heart” (p. 82).
Reference: Bavinck, Herman. The Philosophy of Revelation. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1953.