Friday, August 19, 2011

Herman Bavinck and the Dilemma of the Reformed Churches

I have been reading up on my Neo-Calvinists this summer and most recently I’ve read a piece on the theology of Herman Bavinck. The article clarifies Bavinck’s position on the relationship between nature and grace. The ideas in this piece are important for the Reformed churches in America because in the end the promise of God to do something new for creation is affirmed. As the churches continue to lose membership and struggle to stay relevant we need to remember that we serve a God who is not restrained by our small ideas of what is good, better, and best for the Church, but a God who has a plan for creation’s restoration and renewal. It will take returning to this notion of God’s grace that will help us over come the anxiety of change and better perceive what God is calling us to do in God’s world.

The issue before us can be introduced with the oft-used neo-Calvinist formula: Creation, Fall, Redemption, Consummation. Particularly we are interested in the activity of grace as it mediates between the created nature (Creation) and the redeemed state (Redemption). What does grace, which comes to us in redeeming actions of Jesus Christ, do to our nature, which has been perverted by the fall? Does grace restore a perfect but previously lost creational state? Or does redemption transform the perverted and sinful soul into something radically new?

To some degree the way in which we answer this question determines what theological tradition in which we feel most at home with and what course of action we would engage in after coming to know God’s grace in Christ.

One brand of Roman Catholic theology suggests that grace makes human beings more like the divine. The created nature is that which we strive to leave behind as we grow closer and closer to God. This view of grace and redemption supports life in the monastery in that individuals must remove themselves from the world of sin and vice in order to achieve a fuller God-like perfection.

It was in reaction to this kind of view that the Reformers stressed and affirmed the inherent goodness of our created nature and the value of the world around us. Martin Luther famously argued that the simple and earthly tasks that present themselves to humanity, such as the changing and washing of diapers, can and should be understood as our work for God in the world. God loves every mote of dirt and every beautiful sunset as well as the widow and the orphan. Redemption in the new Reformed understanding did not pull humanity out of the world, rather it equipped humanity to see and engage in the world in a meaningful way for God.

This world affirming view avoids one misunderstanding of the relationship between grace and nature. Redemption is not simply transformation; it is not the deification of humanity. We are part of creation and God intends us to engage the world around us. There is however another danger, which the world-affirming theology moves us towards. The other danger is that we assume that the restoration, which is achieved in redemption, simply re-stores us to a perfect created nature, which existed before the fall. This might not strike us as a problem immediately, but we must remember that the New Testament writers recognized that what God was doing in Jesus Christ was something new. The God of creation was engaging in New Creational activity in Christ. Christ was the first fruits of this new creational activity and we, as Christ’s brothers and sisters, are called to participate along side of Christ in that new work.

In Christ God is not acting to simply restore us to a certain “creational order” which we can know from studying the in the scriptures. Redemption is not about equipping humans to be law-obeying robots who are able to persist in a never changing state that looks like Eden or perhaps the Promised Land. Redemption does not make history come full circle, establishing or returning to the garden; rather redemption is a step along the way, a step towards God’s plan to make all things new (Rev 21:5) and we as Christ’s brothers and sisters are welcomed into that plan for creation.

Here then is the challenge before Bavinck. While describing the relationship between grace and nature in the act of redemption he must affirm the goodness of our created nature (like Luther with the diapers) while at the same time he must do justice to the newness with which God acts in Christ. This quandary results in his affirmation that redemption is both restoration and renewal. Redemption does not negate our creational nature; it affirms and fulfills it while on the way to making us new in Christ.

How then does this view of grace and nature related to the situation of the Reformed Churches in the United States I mentioned at the beginning of this post?

The religious landscape in the United States is changing. Churches seem to be struggling to “retain” youth, (more specifically the children of members). Membership is down and the Church keeps trying new techniques to make church life seem worthwhile to youth. From my point of view youth, like me seven years ago (at age 18), stopped going to my parents’ church because the church was not doing anything of value in the world. A secular life seemed just as meaningful as a life in the Church because the Church has become something like a Christian country club where middle class Christian people could gather with like-minded folk in the safety of the status quo. The Reformed churches have stagnated; in view of Bavinck’s theology above the Reformed churches have misunderstood redemption to mean simply restoration. The church has seen itself as place where the redeemed can persist in a perpetual Garden of Eden – a safe and secure place where no one drinks too much, no one curses, and everyone follows a certain understanding of God’s law. The Church has ignored the other side of redemption: redemption as renewal.

While there was a lot of Dutch immigration coming into places like Grand Rapids, Hoboken, and Sioux Center the Reformed churches had legitimate roles to play as places of stability for like-minded people. Immigrants needed a foundational organization to help them get started in a new and strange country. The Reformed churches were places where immigrants could learn from others about their new city and the opportunities and dangers therein. However times have changed. Dutch-Americans are now firmly established in America and there are no longer Dutch immigrants coming in who have the need for a cultural stepping stone between the old world and the new world.

Bavinck’s writings on redemption teach us that we are active participants in God’s plan for making all things new. This means that we as a church and as individuals must actively survey the world around us for the places to which God is calling us in service to God’s new creational plans for all things. Our situation in the world changes and so too must our activity and engagement with the world. We must always evaluate the work we are doing as a church and as individuals. Change is not bad; God’s grace is bigger than our anxiety about the change we see in the Reformed churches. We must trust in God’s grace and seek to be participants in what God is doing to make all things new in the world around us. We must ask ourselves if our resources of talents and monies are working towards active engagement with the world or if we are struggling to maintain a status quo that only serves our desire for stability rather than God’s glorious plan to make all things new.

We need to take the positive lessons learned from our past that the Church can be a social aid organization for immigrants and apply that lesson in new ways to the world, which is full of similar needs. We need to recognize that inner-city areas need social aid, tutors, day care for single mothers, better schools, and so on. We also could find a place helping immigrants and refugees from African, Asia, and the Middle East who are finding their way to our corners of God’s world. These are the places I see God calling the Reformed churches I have attended, but it is each congregation’s task to gather together and prayerfully discuss where God is calling them to be partners in the task of renewing all things.

Source material from:

John Stanley, Restoration and Renewal: The Nature of Grace in the Theology of Herman Bavinck, in The Kuyper Center Review Volume Two: Revelation and Common Grace, Edited by John Bowlin, (2011), pages 81-104.

1 comment:

  1. Jeff, I really appreciate what you have written here, especially about the redemptive work of God in Christ being more than mere restoration. And I share you concerns about certain understandings of deification that are more about detaching from this world than transforming it. But I don't think deification is a term we should abandon. If anything I think it is a term we should reclaim. The concept - as far as it means a transformative communion and ever-deepening union with Christ - is biblical and Certainly Reformed (in Calvin andJohn Owen especially). Because of the incarnation and resurrection we know there is flesh in the triune God who is forming us and it belongs to the Son whose image we are being formed in. So I don't think deification has to be about escapist as you describe with some brands of Roman Catholicism. I think the deification of authentic humanity (not merely souls) is part and parcel to the restoration of all things.

    Hey are you back in GR these days? I would love to grab a beer or something sometime. Halla at me