What Is Certainty? (II)
We are investigating Herman Bavinck’s work The Certainty of Faith (De zekerheid des geloofs). In the first foray into Bavinck’s explanation we noted that he concentrated on the rights of faith and the ground of biblical certainty that was prevalent in his time (1854-1921). Postmodernism and the Emergent church movement have thrust the question of certainty back into the foreground. Emergent church writers and leaders teach what I’ll call “selective certainty.” One example will suffice. In 2005, Zondervan released a book by Rob Bell entitled Velvet Elvis. For 176 pages, Bell regales us with how certainty is overrated and that the Christian Church needs to stop being so dogmatic (contrary to conventional wisdom, dogmatics is not an automatic transmission on a dog) and admit that we don’t have all the various loci of theology nailed down or in a hermetic container on a shelf somewhere. That is very helpful.
Anyway, at the end of this “journey” (There are actually pages in the very back of the book for notes. That’s phunny. What kinds of uncertain notes would you want to write?) we are told something quite incongruous. Bell has been telling us to avoid arrogant and impious certainty and then, at the very end of his book, he destroys everything he’s said. He tells us that his way is “better.” (p. 177.) This begs the question: How does Bell know? Is he completely certain that it’s better? But there is more. The last sentence undoes Bell’s entire thesis in the book. His editors must have been asleep at the switch or were merely thankful that they had arrived at the end. With certainty, Bell ends his book with these words: “It’s what Jesus had in mind.” (Ibid.) Really? How does Bell know? Is he sure; certain? Just as Bell and his wife still have the Bible as the center of their lives—it is, according to them, just a different kind of center now. Get it?—they apparently have a different kind of certainty as well. Okay.
It’s truly refreshing to read someone who doesn’t play silly games with you. In the PCA we are dealing with playing games on an increasing basis these days. You hear things like, “Oh, I hold to the Westminster Standards, I just don’t believe…” Fill in the rest. Or, “I believe that the Standards are true, but…” Same drill. Because Bavinck is so straightforwardly and unashamedly Reformed, it makes him a delight and joy to read. He’s refreshing in a very honest way. So when he asks in his second chapter on the certainty of faith: “What is Certainty?” He’s not going to spin it and he’s actually going to answer the question he raised. I look forward to what he’s going to say. In terms of his intellectual prowess, Bavinck is unsurpassed. His grasp of theology and the history of theology are masterful, to say the least. As he walks you through the various loci of theology, he invites you to a veritable feast. He plumbs the depths of a subject and then lays it out so that we can all understand it. Bavinck was a scholar, theologian, pastor, and churchman. This combination provides the reader with a Reformed theology that is unsurpassed and with a man who can be trusted not to play games with you.
He opens the second chapter of his little work in the following manner: “The question regarding certainty of faith is not only of scientific, theological but also of practical, religious importance.” In other words, the whole notion of the certainty of faith is not mental gymnastics for the technical theologian, but it is of primary importance to the man and woman in the pew as well. Bavinck believed that all dogmatics was to be done in service to the Church of Jesus Christ. He was not trying to draw crowds or impress people, although he ended up doing both. Bavinck’s aim, rather, was to be faithful to Scripture in all things. As brilliant as he was—and he was brilliant—he remained a servant of the Word of God. Scripture says it all and was sufficient for him. Unlike some of the mega-church and most of the Emergent church movement folks, Bavinck was not ashamed of what Bible said on any given topic. We might not like it, it might cut against the grain of what we believe, like, or want to believe, and it might upset our preconceived notions of who God is and what his nature and characteristics are, but for Bavinck Scripture was completely sufficient and the final court of appeal for things Christian; for things spiritual. Therefore, for him, certainty of faith “is not just a theoretical, academic issue but preeminently one of life and practice.”
So, for example, when McLaren, Osteen, Shuller, Hybels, Bell, Miller, Pagitt, McManus, Burke, and others play footloose and fancy free with the issues of hell, homosexuality, the atonement of Christ, the Second Coming, and universalism, just to mention a few, they may appear cute to some, but for the serious student of the Bible these folks are playing games with the Christian life and its practice. What is worse is that once a person has invested a decade of his or her life in something like the mega-church or Emergent church movements, it’s next to impossible to admit that he was wrong and to walk away from it. Not only has the damage been done, but it will continue to perpetuate itself. So while the non-leader leaders lead the adherents farther down the lane of pseudo-intellectualism and pseudo-church, the members become the proverbial lambs are being led to the slaughter.
I’ll give just one example of what I mean. Jim Wallis wrote a book entitled God’s Politics and McLaren’s latest work Everything Must Change. Both claim to tackle the problem of poverty, yet neither offers either any practical or biblical solutions to the problem. The books are merely utopia-esque words that signify nothing. They offer no real solutions to any real problems. It’s the stuff that will enthrall college students, as I recently observed while in Grand Rapids, MI and men my age with ponytails, but the proposals in those books cannot and will not change anything, ever.
Both the mega-church as well as the Emergent church movements took root in a time of relative prosperity. Bigger is better was the motto for the mega-church crowd. Pastors threw off the robe and opted for tailor made suits, large, opulent, and ornate places to meet. The praise songs and praise bands dethroned “traditional” worship and slice-of-life drama supplanted serious preaching. In fact, the proclamation of the Word of God was relegated to a relatively insignificant part of the entertainment process. Meaty sermons became a relic from the past.
The advent of the Emergent church movement was merely a continuation of the consumerism of the mega-church. To parody Rob Bell, it was simply a different kind of consumerism. In place of the tailor made suits, Birkenstocks and earth tones sufficed. The large gathering gave way to the smaller, more intimate, everybody sit in a circle so there’s no apparent leader mentality. Certainty—what was left of it after the mega-church crowd ran it through the grinder—was passé and candles and prayer labyrinths were the accoutrements du jour. Grab a coffee, designer water, or a beer and let’s create a new way of “doing church” was the prevailing attitude.
Both of these movements suffered from a lack of true biblical spirituality. Bavinck cites a writer who opined, “Happiness leads to paganism, but suffering lead us to Christ.” We have certainly seen the phenomenon Bavinck describes in what is now broadly termed evangelicalism, haven’t we? The “happiness” of many evangelicals was simply being able to live and act like a pagan, while claiming to be a Christian. It meant not being a good steward with our money and living beyond our means. It meant tacitly supporting the abortion industry by voting for a presidential candidate who had a 100% approval rating from Planned Parenthood. It meant believing that global warming and global poverty were somehow more important that human life. Evangelicals were happy, but now the house of cards is tumbling down in terms of true, biblical spirituality and certainty in faith. But then again, if everyone is saved, who needs certainty anyway?
Bavinck expresses what I’m talking about this way: “When the drunken stupor in which we often live wears off, when the happy glow dulls and the conscience awakens, when we are overcome by the mystery of life or the pain of suffering, then we all become conscious of death and the grave, of judgment and eternity. Then no one can maintain indifference or hid behind the shield of neutrality.” We can talk a good game about not being certain about anything, but Bavinck is correct that when people face eternal destinies up close and personal, all the silly theorizing leaves the building.
Apart from the fact that the Bible is so crystal clear on the believer’s certainty, what would be the pastoral value of telling a member of your congregation who is dying from cancer that no one can be certain about where we’ll spend eternity or even if there is an eternity? Go back in time with me to the book of Job. Job lost everything. My wife and I know what it’s like to have to return a child to the Lord much earlier than expected. It’s tough, but Job lost 10 children! His cattle and livestock: all gone! Mrs. Job was no help; in fact, she acted like a pagan. And his friends were the poster boys for “with friends like this, you don’t need enemies.” Yet, what did this man of God say? In 19:25, he says, “For I know that my Redeemer lives, and at the last he will stand upon the earth.”
What today is worn as a badge regarding spiritual certainty is a sham. The leaders and adherents may claim that they neither want nor need certainty, but in the daily living of life, certainty is essential, indispensable. Even old Bri and Rob Bell avoid certain types of mushrooms. They are certain they don’t want to eat the poison ones. I’ll bet they even stop a red lights. When push comes to shove and in the face of death, we will all get pretty “religious” and be crying out for some certainty. Right now, it’s global warming, global poverty, and hugging Mother Earth. Leisure, cool, hip, relevant topics. We can debate whether we can really know anything over a designer coffee and argue certainty in the hallowed halls or academia, but when our shield of perceived indestructibility is down, we want to know that our Redeemer lives.
 Herman Bavinck, The Certainty of Faith, (Harry der Nederlanden [trans.]), (St. Catharines, Ontario, Canada: Paideia Press, 1980), p. 11.
 Ibid. Emphasis added.
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