Sunday, February 15, 2015

General Revelation and Special Revelation, Nature and Grace, and how and why Roman Catholicism Minimizes the Effects of Sin

Sorry for the very snappy title there. But this is foundational material to understanding the differences between Rome and the Reformation, both as they existed at the time of the Reformation, and as they exist today (in a much more subtle form).

In recent weeks, I’ve put together several short blog posts from Bavinck on the role of “General Revelation” generally, and how that ties in with the concept of “nature and grace”. Gregg Allison touches on the topic, but before we get into his explanations, I’d like to provide a bit of context from Bavinck, whom I would consider to be an unimpeachable Reformed source.

The first three installments are:

Herman Bavinck on “General Revelation and Christian Discipleship. The payoff here is: “dogmaticians do not first divest themselves of their Christian faith in order to construct a rational doctrine of God and humanity … in order later to supplement it with the revelation in Christ. But they draw their knowledge solely and alone from special revelation, i.e., from Scripture. This is their unique principle.”

When Bavinck speaks of “the Christian faith”, he is considering it in the area of what he calls “religion”, which is roughly “the human practice of things”. That is, it falls on the “ectypal” side of things – and not on the “archetypal” side (God as God knows it). More ....

More Bavinck on General Revelation. The payoff here is: while Christians see themselves at home in the world, and in fact, while they see God in everything (through the “spectacles” of Scripture), for “the content of their faith”, Christians “position themselves in the Christian faith, in special revelation, and from there look out upon nature and history.”

This again is the “Sola Scriptura” principle: nothing from “general revelation” (as useful and as beautiful as it is) enters into the doctrine or practice of religion.

Bavinck on General Revelation, Nature, and Grace. The payoff here is: General revelation keeps alive the need in humans to reach out to God; and God in turn provides “special revelation” as a way of meeting this need. Further, “Corresponding to the objective revelation of God, therefore, there is in human beings a certain faculty or natural aptitude for perceiving the divine. God does not do half a job. He creates not only the light but also the eye to see it”.

So, “general revelation” is the foundation on which special revelation builds itself up”. Here, then, is where Bavinck introduced how “grace” begins to fit into God’s program:

Finally, the rich significance of general revelation comes out in the fact that it keeps nature and grace, creation and re-creation, the world of reality and the world of values, inseparably connected. Without general revelation, special revelation loses its connectedness with the whole cosmic existence and life. The link that unites the kingdom of nature and the kingdom of heaven then disappears.

Those who, along with critical philosophy, deny general revelation exert themselves in vain when via the way of practical reason or the imagination they try to recover what they have lost. They then have lost a support for their faith. In that case the religious life exists in detachment from and alongside of ordinary human existence. The image of God [Gen 1:26] then becomes a “superadded gift” (donum superadditum)…

In a word, grace is opposed to nature. In that case, it is consistent, along with the ethical moderns, to assume a radical break between the power of the good and the power of nature. Ethos and φυσις (“the natural form or constitution of a person or thing”, i.e., “nature”) are then totally separated. The world of reality and the world of values have nothing to do with each other …

Keep this in mind as certain other statements are made to the effect that “the Roman Catholic system” … “is constructed not on the religious antithesis between sin and grace, but on the graduated scale of the good, on the ranking of creatures and virtues, on hierarchy both in a physical and ethical sense.

What this means is that nature is paired with grace, on the same continuum, and what is “moral” or “ethical” is on a separate continuum.

This dichotomy between “being” or “nature” and “sin” or “ethics” is a Scholastic distinction that has harmed the notion that Christ came specifically to oppose sin. Nature and grace (for Rome) are on a continuum, and the concept of sin (less being vs more being -- beginning with Augustine) is superfluous to it. We will see more of how this cashes out as I continue to move through the Gregg Allison treatment of Roman Catholicism:

“The reformation, by contrast, had but one idea, one conception of human beings, that is, of human beings as the image bearers of God” (Bavinck, vol 1, 359) and “The [special] revelation that appeared in Christ as such is absolutely not opposed to nature but only to sin, which as an alien element has insinuated itself into the world. Revelation and creation are not opposed to each other, for creation itself is a [general] revelation. Revelation was present before the fall. Even now revelation is present still in all the works of God’s hand in nature and history; his external power and deity are perceived and understood from his revelation” (Bavinck vol 1, 361).

Finishing up with Bavinck’s chapter on how “general revelation” ties together “nature and grace”:

By contrast, general revelation maintains the unity of nature and grace, of the world and the kingdom of God, of the natural order and the moral order, of creation and re-creation, of φυσις and ethos, of virtue and happiness, of holiness and blessedness, and in all these things the unity of the divine being.

It is one and the same God who in general revelation does not leave himself without a witness to anyone and who in special revelation makes himself known as a God of grace. Hence general and special revelation interact with each other. “God first sent forth nature as a teacher, intending also to send prophecy next, so that you, a disciple of nature, might more easily believe prophecy” (Tertullian). Nature precedes grace; grace perfects nature [by dealing with the sin problem]. Reason is perfected by faith, faith presupposes nature (Bavinck, vol 1, pg 322).

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