The Loss of Certainty
A Previous Paradigm Shift
It is in vogue these days to speak of paradigm shifts, getting traction, a theology’s trajectory, or throwing someone under the bus. We are a nation of buzz words. What old Bri and the Emergent church bar hoppers tell us is that we are in dire need of a mega-deep-power shift in the Christian Church. That remains to be seen, of course, but to the Emergent church devotees, old Bri is close to infallible. Not bad for someone who revels in the thought that he never studied theology. My take on non-leader Bri is that a quick read of his books makes it patently clear that he doesn’t have a clue theologically.
One of the hallmarks of the Emergent church movement—and the “pomos” (postmoderns) is the loss of certainty in faith. Recklessly flying in the face of Scripture, old Bri and the tribe of ardent enemies of certitude regale us with pointed diatribes of how certainty is yesterday’s news. They do this in spite of the fact that Scripture speaks repeatedly about Christians knowing this or that. They ignore Jesus’ words when he says, “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth and the truth will set you free.” (John 8:32.) The Greek word for “know” (ginw,skw; ginōskō) carries with it the connotations of “know,” “come to know,” “comprehend,” “to be quite sure of.” In 1 Thessalonians 1:4, Paul possesses knowledge of the fact that those he addressed were chosen by God. In short, the Bible is filled with reference upon reference of Christians knowing all kinds of things and having certainty about God’s truth.
The great Dutch theologian, Herman Bavinck, wrote a little book dealing with the certainty of faith (De zekerheid des geloofs) that is well worth the time it takes to read it anytime, but particularly during this time of the year it is a highly appropriate read. Moreover, without Bavinck ever hearing of the Emergent church movement and its emphasis on the lack of certainty and its de-emphasis on knowledge, he knew his Church History and that fads like the Emergent church movement came and went. Bavinck, as a good Reformed theologian, was concerned to point out that the Word of God points us to certainty and assurance. With his finger on the pulse of movements in the Netherlands that the Emergent church movement reflects today (there is nothing new under the sun), Bavinck shows us the path of Scripture as opposed to philosophy and ideology.
The work is divided into four chapters, with the first providing an introduction to the subject (The Loss of Certainty). In future installments, we’ll take some time and outline what Bavinck teaches in this valuable work. We will also draw comparisons to some of the modern movements such as the TBN brand of pietism as well as modern preachers. Of course, we’ll also compare Bavinck’s words with what passes for theology in the Emergent church movement. We’ll begin where Bavinck does: with the French Revolution (1789).
The Loss of Certainty
The French Revolution was an earth shattering event in many ways. It marked a “radical change of direction introduced into the life and thought of the nations” that disrupted the continuity of history. Prior to the French Revolution, there were ages of authority and objectivity. With the advent of the French Revolution, however, an era was ushered in where “the subject proclaims its freedom and asserts its rights in every area of human existence.” Sound familiar? Bavinck could just as well be speaking about our time.
Bavinck contends that the Reformation struck a blow to oppressive authority, by taking its starting point in faith. “In the Reformation the believing subject arose against the oppressive authority of the infallible church and boldly shook off the painful yoke of an old tradition.” In denouncing the oppressive nature of the Roman Catholic Church, Bavinck is reminding us that the Reformers returned to Scripture. The Reformers and the Reformation did not see the infallible scriptures as oppression. Quite the contrary was the case. The inerrancy and infallibility of God’s Word was true liberation providing absolute truth for God’s covenant people.
It should be pointed out that the Reformers taught and envisaged both a formal and practical view of God’s Word. Formally, it was the deposit of God’s truth containing the doctrine Christians needed to live practical spiritual lives. In earlier Protestantism, Bavinck opines, “the authority of that Word was initially so unshakable that people rarely doubted it—not even in their heart. There was faith and there was certainty.” This was neither, as some think today, a time of naïveté nor was it the vestige of Middle Ages superstition. To Bavinck’s mind, the fact that God’s people were convinced they possessed the truth was indicative of a “vital religious life.” In such times of spiritual growth and joy “you don’t doubtingly examine the foundations of your hope. You speak as one having authority and not like the Pharisees.” There is not arrogance, but humility; in that humility, however, the believer is assured that in his graciousness God has provided an infallible rule and norm for all of life.
Gradually, however, after the middle of the eighteenth century things began to change. The deep paradigm shift that occurred then is precisely what ole Bri, Joel Osteen, Robert Schuller, and others advocate: it really is all about me. Bavinck describes the same phenomenon as the subject coming into its own. That is to say, if the Reformation and early Post-Reformation were about the authority of God’s Word, by mid-eighteenth century people turned their gaze inward. They weren’t immediately consummate navel gazers, but were definitely heading in that direction. Critical reason awakened and on the backs of horse drawn carriages and on the flanks of horse and oxen there were bumper stickers that read: Question everything. Of course, this was not an isolated event. This new, unlimited sense of freedom brought with it emancipation from almost everything the past held sacred.
And when you stop and ponder this for a moment, it becomes patently clear that this is one of contemporary society’s foundational pillars. We call it by different names, but it’s really the same old pile. While postmoderns speak of relativism, Bri and the boys descry everything sacred from the past, except—for whatever reason—the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds. Has anyone ever asked Bri why he settled on those two, especially since he finds Scripture so unclear on major issues, except, of course, global poverty and global warming.
Like today, Bavinck describes his time (1854-1921) as dominated by doubt, which he deems to be the sickness of his century, bringing with it “a string of moral problems and plagues.” Again I ask: sound familiar? Have relativism and the Emergent church movement solved the moral problems facing our country; the world? Has, for example, McLaren’s pseudo-ethics, Everything Must Change, pointed in a clear direction regarding what God says about Christians ethics in a secular world? The short answer is: No. Why you’re well past page 200 before you find the word “sin” on ole Bri’s lips. Once he used it describing what someone else said, but hip Bri is way cool and knows (sort of) that modern man doesn’t like to hear words like that; neither does Bri for that matter. Bavinck’s assessment of his era is spot on concerning modern man and the mega-church and Emergent church movements: “There is much noise and movement, but little genuine spirit, little genuine enthusiasm issuing from an upright, fervent, sincere faith.”
What are the roots of such a lack of true faith? In fact, what is true faith anyway? Let’s begin with the latter question and work backwards. It may constitute knocking down an open door, but in a day and age when the movement known as evangelicalism has embraced the most aberrant and heterodox movements we dare not assume that we all know what constitutes biblical faith. To my mind, the simplicity of the Heidelberg Catechism (Lord’s Day 7, Q/A 21) summarizes Scripture best when it says:
Q. What is true faith?
A. True faith is a sure knowledge whereby I accept as true all that God has revealed to us in his Word. At the same time, it is a firm confidence that not only to others, but also to me, God has granted forgiveness of sins, everlasting righteousness, and salvation, out of mere grace, only for the sake of Christ’s merits. This faith the Holy Spirit works in my heart by the gospel.
What, then are the roots of such a lack of true faith? Bavinck’s belief is that “Nowhere is this more true than among theologians.” Now hold on a minute! Don’t jump to conclusions. There are a lot of very, very good theologians out there today, but there are also some very, very bad ones. These theologians, for better or worse, teach the pastors, who, in turn, for better or worse, teach Christians. For the sake of illustration, let’s say that the theologians are unorthodox. They teach heterodoxy and pride themselves in either being way left of center or in having no theological training whatsoever. These men and women attack every doctrine in Scripture, cherry picking what they like and jettisoning what they don’t. These folks cannot decide whether YHWH was male or female and are pretty sure that Jesus was a pacifist who tolerated every sin on the planet and never judged anyone for anything. Obviously, there are all kinds of gradations to this scenario, but each one of them impacts the dominating question both in Bavinck’s time as well as in ours: the ground of spiritual certainty.
Bavinck was instrumental in teaching the Reformed Christians in the Netherlands the importance of a biblical life and worldview. He was very involved in his country as a cultural analyst, a Senator, and a teacher of Dogmatics and Ethics. Bavinck sought to view all of life as an organic whole. He insisted that both of these had to be operative in the Christian’s life and that both had to be dependent on Scripture for their content. His definition of the relationship between Dogmatics and Ethics is well worth learning.
Dogmatics describes the deeds of God done for, to, and in human beings; ethics describes what renewed human beings now do on the basis of and in the strength of those divine deeds. In dogmatics human beings are passive; they receive and believe; in ethics they are themselves active agents. In dogmatics, the articles of the faith are treated; in ethics, the precepts of the Decalogue. In the former, that which concerns faith is dealt with; in the latter, that which concerns love, obedience, and good works. Dogmatics sets forth what God is and does for human beings and causes them to know God as their Creator, Redeemer, and Sanctifier; ethics sets forth what human beings are and do for God now; how, with everything they are and have, with intellect and will and all their strength, they devote themselves to God out of gratitude and love. Dogmatics is the system of the knowledge of God; ethics is that of the service of God. The two disciplines, far from facing each other as two independent entities, together form a single system; they are related members of a single organism.
The Dutch ethicist, Jochem Douma, put the matter a little more succinctly, but makes the same point: “Dogmatics without ethics is empty; ethics without dogmatics is blind.” Much of modern evangelicalism has distanced itself from both Bavinck and Douma and what it has left in its wake is the collateral damage of people who call themselves Christians not knowing the fundamental, rudimentary, indispensable elementary truths of Scripture, a group of people who are blatantly ignorant of the history of the Church, along with its traditions, and people who call themselves Christians, who are moral relativists. Let me give you a few examples of what I mean.
During the last presidential election I wondered how someone with even a basic understanding of Scripture could vote for a man who is so outspokenly pro-abortion. For any reasonable believer, who read what the Bible says about man being created in the image of God and of the sanctity of life, it was both inconceivable and unconscionable that they could cast a vote for a man who has a 100% rating with Planned Parenthood and every known pro-abortion group in America. How can anyone who calls him- or herself a Christian rationalize those deaths?
How can anyone, who calls him- or herself a Christian, believe that the Bible is unclear about homosexuality? How can pastors believe that? How can anyone who has studied the scriptures in the original languages come to that conclusion? The answer is actually rather simple. Once we strip away all the disclaimers about not wanting to sacrifice one’s intelligence and honest research and investigation, we come to the conclusion that a biblical worldview is lacking and these people would rather stand above the Bible than under its authority. It happened with the JEDP hypothesis, it happened with limited inspirationists, it happened with the Social Gospel crowd, and it still happens today with every theological hack and ideologue that comes down the pike.
Look at the churches that have abandoned orthodoxy. What is the result? It is similar to asking what it will be like to have Obama as President. You want to see what happens when Democrats take over? Look at Detroit, New Orleans, San Francisco, and the near-bankrupt state of California, where I live. What happens when the absolute authority of Scripture is abandoned? The mega-church movement where 90%-plus of those people cannot tell you where to find the Ten Commandments in the Bible, let alone tell you what they are, let alone tell you what they are in order. You see the same drill in the Emergent church movement. The leaders like McLaren, Wallis, Bell, Burke, Pagitt, Jones, Chalke, and others are confused and they confuse all those who hang around with them. They do it so tastefully though. Reading their works or listening to their lectures is tantamount to saying “Gamble responsibly” and “If you ever pose nude, make certain you do it tastefully.”
Listening to Bavinck, you get a very different sound. Here is an irenic, yet staunchly and unapologetically Reformed dogmatician, ethicist, and Christian man. He writes, “There is no more important question than the one concerning salvation, the rootedness of our hope in eternal life.” Here is a man, who was an intellectual giant and one of the foremost and premier dogmaticians the Netherlands ever produced, speaking like a child of God. He continues, “Thus, our area of inquiry is circumscribed as holy ground, for it must be entered with reverence and fear. Here we touch the most intimate depths of the human heart. Here more than anywhere else we need a childlike and humble spirit, but at the same time a frank, unbiased attitude, in order to understand the life of religion in its inner essence and to purge it of all untruth and error.” As we proceed, I’m convinced you’re going to observe that this is precisely what Bavinck does as a Reformed theologian.
 There is an English version entitled simply The Certainty of Faith, (St. Catherines, Ontario, Canada: Paideia Press, Inc., 1980). For convenience, I’ll use the pagination of the English version.
 Trinity Broadcast Network.
 Bavinck, Certainty, 7.
 Ibid. Bavinck writes, “Nevertheless, in the principles of the Reformation, Christians remained bound to God’s Word as it came to them in the Old and New Testaments.”
 Ibid., 7-8.
 Ibid., 8.
 Ibid., 9.
 Cf. John 17:3, 17; Heb. 11:1-3; James 2:19; Rom. 4:18-21; 5:1; 10:10; Heb. 4:16; Gal. 2:20; Rom. 1:17; Heb. 10:10; Rom. 3:20-26; Gal. 2:16; Eph. 2:8-10; Acts 16:14; Rom. 1:16; 10:17; 1 Cor. 1:21.
 Bavinck, Certainty, 9.
 For an excellent exposition of how this played out in the PCUSA, see John H. Leith, Crisis in the Church. The Plight of Theological Education, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1997).
 Bavinck, Certainty, 9.
 Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, Vol. 1, (John Bolt [ed.] & John Vriend [trans.]), (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2003), p. 58.
 Jochem Douma, Responsible Conduct. Principles of Christian Ethics, (Nelson Kloosterman [trans.]), (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co., 2003), p. 41.
 Bavinck, Certainty, 10.
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