Bavinck on Simplicity

In Reformed Dogmatics, Bavinck discusses and defends God’s simplicity. I am apprehensive about this doctrine. It’s not clear to me that it is in Scripture. It also seems to have certain philosophical problems. Nonetheless, I want to mention one of his arguments in favor. He notes that God is not simply called truth, light, and so on, but that God is called the truth, the light, and so on. Why is that? Bavinck reads this as leading to (?), giving rise to (?), providing the seed for (?) the doctrine of divine simplicity.

It’s an interesting point. What is the difference from God being light and God being the light? Presumably it says something about how these perfections have their source in God (a point Bavinck loves). We can speak rightly of God because creatures participate in various degrees in God’s perfections. Does this then lead to simplicity? Not straightforwardly, I don’t think. But this is worth pondering.

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All the Bible Says

The other day I was discussing with someone about how our church should do outreach. What are good outreach ideas? What are bad ones? What does that look like in our time and place? I was reminded that the Bible often functions merely negatively in these contexts. We can do whatever outreach we want as long as it isn’t forbidden in some way by the Bible. We were both a bit uneasy about having people tape money and a church business card to a gas pump, but the limiting factors were quite few.

“What does the Bible say about how we should do outreach?” I asked. I thought that would be a good place to start for the people who are part of the outreach team. How does the Bible give a constructive vision? Presumably, there would be very few/no forthcoming answers. We simply aren’t sure.

I was reminded of a passage from Leithart’s The Priesthood of the Plebs, “Illuminating as Thomas’s comments are, his choice of analogies implicitly separates technical quaestiones from the typological lectio, a method that, by my argument, betrays “semi-Marcionite” assumptions (above, chapter 1). …I hope to show that biblical typologies are rich and elastic enough to address, sometimes in unexpectedly contemporary ways, even the most esoteric of scholastic quaestiones. There is no need to supplement a sacramental typology with a sacramental ontology, for under intense interrogation the typology will divulge an implicit ontology.”

I have wavered on this issue. At one point, I said that if the gospel has nothing to say to me about how I brush my teeth (and not in a banal “to the glory of God” way), then I wasn’t sure I wanted to be a Christian. At another point, I thought the Bible did not speak directly to many issues. In fact, this tension continues to play out in my own life. I am not sure the Bible really commits us to body/soul substance dualism, for instance.

Nonetheless, I want to say that the Bible does have a constructive vision for how we should do outreach. I think the way we do outreach should well up naturally from the biblical text. That it doesn’t for us shows a deficiency not in God’s word, but in us. I think there has to be something more.

In another place Leithart says that we must teach our children about Leviticus so that they will know how we should worship. Leviticus. To children. Leviticus is written down for our instruction, upon whom the ends of the ages have come. If we want to learn to worship rightly, we must learn what that looks like from the biblical text. Not what is merely forbidden, but what wells up irresistibly.

Maybe God’s Word extends that far.

O’Donovan on Redemption

The resurrection of Jesus Christ is central to O’Donovan’s moral project. He highlights Jesus’ accomplishment of redemption. Redemption is not simply a buying back, but a transformation. This helps us think through Christian ethics. Redemption speaks to us about the past and the future. It affirms that the created order is good and redeemable. It is an affirmation of the goodness of the created order. Ethics is thus creational. At the same time, redemption aims at a transformation of this created order. It stretches into the future. Redemption tells us that we are not simply going back, but moving forward. Ethics is therefore eschatological.

O’Donovan also spends a lot of time critiquing “historicist” views. Basically, these views try to read the end of the world off the historical process. Obviously he is writing within a certain context so my point is not that this is wasted space. Nonetheless, it does strike me as odd. Clearly for anyone who is attentive to Scripture, the end comes theologically. It is God’s doing, not ours. The Triune God will bring it to completion, not us or some larger process. There is both continuity and discontinuity. The kingdom is spreading through God’s work in His faithful people. At the same time, the end will be disjointed and is not in our hands. Even for a postmillennialist like me, the final rule and reign of God is not something that will be accomplished by God’s people. Thank God.

Obviously that is a bit simplified as I know some of these proponents know Scripture better than I do. I know they are working from a differing method and all that. I don’t want to deny any of that. Yet I am struck by the fact of how much of this is cleared up if we start with the Triune God. If the the Triune God Himself is the beginning and end of all theology, then so much of the vapor dissolves.

Sin and Revelation

Bavinck argues that revelation preceded the fall. After all, God spoke to Adam and Eve. So, what “sin made necessary was not revelation as such, but the specific content of revelation, i.e., special grace, the revelation of God in Christ, the incarnation of God.” (Reformed Dogmatics, v. 1, 359)

I am unsure. First, take the term “special grace.” If this simply refers to the revelation of God in Christ, the incarnation of God, then simply go to the second point. However, it is means special grace in a different manner, then did not Adam and Eve have this too? Bavinck himself mentions that God bestowed grace on Adam and Eve in the love relation God placed himself to them. On top of this, is not the eating of the tree of life an act of special grace? So if something different than the incarnation is meant, then I am interested in wondering how he would parse this more.

Second, is the incarnation simply due to the fall? If there was no fall, would there be no incarnation? I have no firm thoughts on this matter. Obviously union and communion with God is central to Scripture (and Bavinck), so is the incarnation necessary there? In Eastern thought, this seems to be a huge emphasis.

Bavinck talks about a view that would argue that if “God wanted to bestow a supernatural end upon human beings, the entire supernatural order that now exists in the incarnation, the church, and the sacraments, would have been necessary also without and aside from sin.” (ibid.) If that is the case, then “the soteriological character of revelation would be entirely lost, the fall would lose its meaning, and sin would scarcely have introduced any change at all.”

Setting aside the incarnation, should we think of eating of the tree of life as a sacrament? I suppose this depends on how we parse sacrament. If it involves revelation, grace, and union and communion with God, then presumably it is one. Depending on how strictly one wants to think of the use of “church” in the Bavinck quote, something similar presumably existed before the fall too. After all, Adam mediated God’s commands to Eve and Eve was his helper. This is a community that helps the individual grow in their God-given vocations.

Nor does this deny the soteriological character of revelation. After all, now we are under the dominion of sin. The revelation in Christ after the fall saves us from that dominion. Similarly, the fall does not lose its meaning because we are now slaves to sin. Finally, sin does not scarcely introduce any change at all. It still mars the world, enslaves us to sin, and it pervades creation comprehensively.

Bavinck’s point might depend on how strictly one parses the sacraments and church. For if one parses then very strictly, then clearly baptism did not precede the fall since we would not need to die to sin. If we make the point looser, though, it is not clear that his argument works.

The Incarnation as Paradigm of Revelation

Bavinck sees the incarnation as the lens for thinking of revelation. Since Jesus Christ is incarnate in time and space, so we must think of revelation in the same way. Revelation comes to us only in the way of tradition. He also sees an answer as to why special revelation is not given to every human. This assumes that revelation contains only doctrine. Christian revelation based on the revelation of Christ, however, “is and has to be history.” (Reformed Dogmatics, v. 1, 379) So, “Revelation, not as doctrine but as incarnation, can self-evidently be nothing other than history, i.e., occur at a certain time and be bound to a certain place.” (ibid., 380)

This comes to fruition in Scripture. The written word is the sarx, the flesh, of language. “Scripture is the servant form of revelation.” (ibid.) So the incarnation leads to Scripture. Bavinck then makes a jarring statement: “And the word of revelation similarly assumes the imperfect and inadequate form of Scripture.” (ibid.) This is not a downplaying of Scripture. After all, Scripture “is the product of God’s incarnation in Christ and in a sense its continuation, the way by which Christ makes his home in the church, the preparation of the way to the full indwelling of God.” (ibid., 380-381) Notice that it is a preparation. This means that “[l]ike the entire revelation, Scripture, too, is a passing act.” (ibid., 381)

I like the idea of thinking about revelation in terms of incarnation. I wonder how this will play out though. If Scripture is a passing act, what of Christ’s flesh? Is that too passing? If it remains, then what should we think of Scripture’s role?