11 June 2014

Our Reasonable Faith

If I were ever to teach a systematic theology class, I would use Our Reasonable Faith by Herman Bavinck to do it. A condensation of his massive, four-part Reformed Dogmatics, Our Reasonable Faith is a fantastic introduction to theology.

Summary

Opening the book with the simple statement, “God, and God alone, is man’s highest good,” Bavinck devotes the first eight chapters of his book to the knowledge of God. How does man come to know God? In what does that knowledge consist? He begins by talking about the nature and value of general revelation. I particularly appreciated his emphasis here, as many Reformed Christians today push the idea of antithesis so far that there is no value in general revelation whatever. As someone who teaches things like Homer, Euripides, Plato and Aristotle at a Christian school, I sometimes like to ask my students why we want to read all these pagan writers. The duly trained and dutiful Van Tillians among them respond with, “So we can show what’s wrong with them.” However, I believe, and Bavinck would agree, that there are beauties and truths to be found in the writings of the pagans that cannot be found elsewhere and are due to the common grace of general revelation, an idea which I think is needed as a corrective for a misapplied or excessive view of antithesis.

After discussing general revelation, Bavinck spends several chapters detailing the nature and value of special revelation culminating in Holy Scripture. He does a good job balancing the two forms of God’s revelation of Himself, and in fact if I had to pick one thing about this book that I liked so much it would be its balance in all things. Concerning the two forms of revelation, he writes, “When we have our attention fixed upon the richness of the grace which God has given in His special revelation, we sometimes become so enamored of it that the general revelation loses its whole significance and worth for us. And when, at another time, we reflect on the good, and true, and beautiful that is to be found by virtue of God’s general revelation in nature and in the human world, then it can happen that the special grace, manifested to us in the person and work of Christ, loses its glory and appeal for the eye of our soul.”

From this point, he moves on to what we might call “theology proper,” the being of God and the divine Trinity. He continues quite naturally to the doctrine of creation and God's divine providence over His creation. This leads in to a chapter on the creation of man, and man’s essence and purpose. He then deals with sin and death, and what they mean for mankind. He then discusses the covenant of grace that God made with mankind for the redemption of the world.

The latter half of the book proceeds from this point to detail how the salvation of the world is implemented and applied. He spends a few chapters on the person of Christ and his work. He moves on to the doctrine of the Holy Spirit and how the Holy Spirit brings us to share in the person of Christ. Finally, he talks about the people who share in the salvation which Christ has achieved, the new humanity, the Church. The book ends with a chapter on eternal life and the future of the world.

Evaluation

There were several things about this particular book that made it stand out as a good introduction to Christian theology. First of all, a book like this could easily be dry and academic. In Bavinck’s hands, it is anything but. In many places he demonstrates a poetic deftness in his prose that makes the book a joy to read. This is especially welcome as academic theologians are not necessarily known as brilliant stylists; try picking up a theological journal or modern academic commentary sometime. But above and beyond this is the fact that this book is devotional. Very early in the book Bavinck writes that, for ancient Israelites, “God was for them not at all a cold concept, which they then proceeded rationally to analyze, but He was a living, personal force, a reality infinitely more real than the world around them.” He goes on to emphasize this again and again throughout his book. “To profess theology is holy work,” he says. “And a theologian, a true theologian is one who speaks out of God, through God, about God, and does this always to the glorification of His name.” This fact, that the whole point of the theological endeavor is worship rather than to gain “an abstract concept of God, such as the philosopher gives us.”

Next this book is erudite but accessible. As Bavinck wrote his Reformed Dogmatics first, he had a huge amount of scholarship behind this shorter book. However, he manages to hit on science, philosophy, various strains of theology in the Christian world, and history in ways that, without dumbing down the content, are accessible to readers with no background in these areas of study. That is a pretty impressive feat. It struck me again and again reading this book that Bavinck was a very well-informed man. He wasn’t the sort of theology wonk who only reads theology books. He also wrote books on psychology, politics, science, women’s rights, family life, and a number of other subjects. Finally, throughout the book he is interacting with viewpoints other than his own. As a Reformed theologian that means that he is regularly speaking to Lutheranism, Roman Catholicism, and Eastern Orthodoxy, explaining the sometimes fine nuances in their theological differences while defending his own view. This is particularly a joy for me because, unlike many Reformed writers, he is not polemical in his tone and charitably tries to state every position fairly. I found it fascinating, for instance, to see the traditional differences between Reformed, Catholic, and Lutheran theologians about the image of God and how it affects other parts of theology.

Finally, the book is supremely Biblical. Everything Bavinck teaches is copiously footnoted with Scripture for further reading and support. I understand that in writing Our Reasonable Faith, he did this on purpose. He cut down on the academic footnotes in Reformed Dogmatics and supplemented with Scripture proofs, once again to make it accessible for the average reader. Consequently this is not a book that will be used for frequent reference purposes. For that you may want to get something more traditionally and rigidly organized with a huge index like Millard Erickson’s Christian Theology. However, as an introduction to theology and a Christian worldview, I have never read a book as perfectly suited to the task as Our Reasonable Faith. It was fully worth all the time I took to read it, highlight it, mark in it, and copy out passages from it.


5 out of 5 stars

No comments: