Herman Bavinck’s Reformed Dogmatics: No Accounting for Taste

Our last post looked at some of Bavinck’s opening words on regeneration. Self-awareness and self-improvement are to the spiritual life the first mile of a thousand. And, as far as east is from west, everyone has a little different idea of what the new birth is.

One of the most uncomfortable thoughts for believer and non-believer alike is the possibility that regeneration could take place without one’s knowing it. Or perhaps one’s approval. Those absolutely terrified at the thought described regeneration was obtained mainly though knowledge and mysteries. These mysteries, according to Gnosticism, are a threefold baptism of the elements that protected from evil spirits and even made one a partaker in the divine nature. Neoplatonism also “cut all earthly ties” in striving to achieve contemplation: the soul becomes one with God through illumination. Bavinck wrote at a time when psychology attempted to solve these problems with the riddles of the unconscious. That realm was full of deep impressions, experiences, powers, hidden forces and so on. Once this power was tapped a superhuman potential was unleashed transforming the consciousness.

The problem, says Bavinck, is that these views cannot get into the inner nature of regeneration from an unbiased scientific view. It is always religious and cannot help to have presuppositions of one kind or another which guides its investigation. Dogmatics, similarly, uses confessional language to describe the concepts found in divine revelation. The change in the conscience is often called ‘regeneration’ after a profession of faith. Sometimes regeneration is automatically connected to justification and in the progress of sanctification is understood as repentance and renewal. Essentially, says Bavinck, regeneration is an ethical change brought about by the indwelling of the Holy Spirit; it does not change the physical makeup of the human (theosis) but occurs between the heart and the intellect (Calvin).

One cannot begin soteriology with regeneration. The doctrine of the Holy Spirit, the covenant of grace, the church, means of grace, and external rule of Christ must be treated first. “For if regeneration were objectively detached from the Word,” writes Bavinck, “one would not only no longer be able to make any judgments about the presence and activity of the Holy Spirit, but might also draw the obvious conclusion that actually Christ’s person and work are not necessary to salvation, and that God may equally well regenerate the sinner aside from Christ by the Holy Spirit alone.”

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