Engaging the What? (XI)
The Autonomy of Man
We ended our last issue with a provocative statement from Herman Bavinck’s Stone Lectures at Princeton in the 1908/1909 academic year. The lectures were delivered in the following order: “The Idea of a Philosophy of Revelation,” “Revelation and Philosophy,” “Revelation and Philosophy (II),” “Revelation and Nature,” “Revelation and History,” “Revelation and Religion,” “Revelation and Christianity,” and “Revelation and Religious Experience.” There were two other lectures that were not delivered: “Revelation and Culture” and “Revelation and the Future” that are included in the book.
We have been examining Bavinck’s views on culture and comparing them to many of the contemporary admonitions to “engage (the) culture” issued by a number of pastors or church staff members. While we believe that Christians should be aware of the various aspects and facets of modern culture, we have also been forewarning that when we engage culture it will engage us back. There is, if you will, a kind of spiritual graveyard that is filled with ill-equipped Christians who got “hammered” by the culture or, worse yet, bought into many of the secular progressive PC aspects of culture and were either badly tainted by it or capitulated to it.
I have also been requesting my Presbyterian Church in America colleagues, who are so vociferous about the need to engage the culture to give a more detailed exposition of precisely what it is that they have in mind. Are we to head down to the local pub and shoot pool as a manifestation that we are genuine, authentic? Of course, Southern California pastors like me only frequent the trendy microbrew establishment, but that is beside the point. Does engaging the culture involve evangelism? How much or how little? Does it avoid head-to-head confrontation, thereby eliminating the clear antithetic components of Christianity to culture? Does it avoid being countercultural? If not, what kinds of confrontations are allowed and which aren’t? Do pastors have to view every movie that comes down the pike and comment on them—particularly in the sermon to show that he’s hip? Does the pastor, like President Obama, have to have a final four bracket interest, or does he need to be a former wrestler like me, who believes it’s better to have wrestled and lost than to have played basketball?
Do you need to be an aficionado of fine wines and Renaissance art or is it okay to get stuck in the Baroque—I’m speaking specifically about Country Western Baroque, of course—and with only select artists? As Bavinck has implied, ought Christians to branch out more into areas of culture that seem less trendy like, say, economics. In fact, a very good case could be made for pastors and youth leaders spending more time on the study of economics in order to be able to combat the ridiculous notions on poverty by “leaders” like Brian McLaren and Jim Wallis. Ridding the world of poverty—or the U.S. for that matter—is not a warm fuzzy feeling, but actually involves some industrial strength thinking, a good view of total depravity, and a thorough grasp of the contents of the sayings about sloth, laziness, a diligent work ethic, and poverty found in the book of Proverbs—not to mention Paul’s exhortation in 2 Thessalonians 3:10: “If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat.” Utopic notions of ridding the world of poverty give us tingly sensations, but they do not comport with reality or Scripture (cf. Matt. 26:11; Mark 14:7; John 12:8).
We ended last time with a statement by Bavinck that is worthy of our time and attention. He wrote, “The heteronomy of law and the autonomy of man are reconciled only by…theonomy.” Bavinck made that statement as an ethical truth firmly ensconced in theological reflection. In other words, he spoke unashamedly as a Christian, who was willing to bring the truth of Scripture into the public arena. Why did he do that? Well, he understood then what far too many of Christians are willing to concede today as they engage culture, namely that “All culture, whatever significance it may have, just as all education, civilization, development, is absolutely powerless to renew the inner man.” To put it bluntly: Bavinck was not a theological moderate.
There is a debate raging within the Republican Party as we speak that whereby some, such as Colin Powell and John McCain are urging a more conciliatory tone. Other power brokers within the Republican Party are urging other leaders to distance themselves from the divisive issue of abortion. The reasoning is that if the right-wing religious fanatics leave the Party, then Republicans will have a better shot at winning in the next election. That’s really funny, because except for abortion, few Republicans are more moderate than John McCain. If he didn’t win in the last election, what makes the Republicans think that someone similar to him, holding similar views will get elected next time?
Now carry those thoughts over into the “let’s engage the culture” realm. Do I need to be a moderate Christian when I speak with Christianity’s cultured (or highly uncultured and uncouth despisers)? It is necessary for me to use foul language and speak filth to prove that I’m authentic? To do so would make me genuine—genuinely wrong. Do I need to concede truth in order to present the gospel? If Paul was concerned that there was only one gospel, what is it? Is it the Pelagian or Semi-Pelagian gospel? Or, is it the gospel of God’s sovereign grace in the Reformation sense of the words “sovereign grace”?
Bavinck answers these questions when he explains, “Thus the true, and the good, and the beautiful, which ethical culture means and seeks, can only come to perfection when the absolute good is at the same time the almighty, divine will, which not only prescribes the good in the moral law, but also works it effectually in man himself.” Bavinck was a presuppositionalist and so was Abraham Kuyper. Together these two men forged a vibrant and robust reawakening of what came to be called Neo-Calvinism in the Netherlands. They were effective in politics because they continued a political party known as the Anti-Revolutionary Party, which was begun by Groen van Prinsterer. Note the title. It was a political party that opposed the tenets of the French Revolution and the Enlightenment and embraced the truths of the Reformation. Bavinck and Kuyper hammered out a biblical life and worldview that they then strove to implement politically and socially in the fabric of Dutch life. It would be one thing if pastors urged their respective congregations to engage culture once each member had been properly catechized and instructed in the biblical foundations of God, man, society, truth, knowledge, and ethics, but it’s quite another thing to send them out ill-prepared.
Moreover, far too few are instructed in the biblical fact that man is totally, radically corrupt and seeks constant autonomy apart from God. We are constantly reminded by statistics that a large percentage of those who call themselves Christians believe that man is basically good. One can only wonder how someone could have even a rudimentary acquaintance with the Bible and entertain such thoughts. In addition, by cutting himself off from God, man can have no consistent basis for ethical life. Without it why was it wrong for Hitler to murder so many people? Bavinck states the matter this way: “Ethical culture…can neither in the source nor in the essence of morals be independent of the metaphysical foundation; and finally much less can it dispense with it in the definition of the goal of morality. As long as it remains diesseitig, it cannot give to the question, What may be the goal of the moral action? any other answer than that this is to be found either in the individual man or in humanity.”
Obviously, individual man or humanity cannot provide the standard of true culture because “Neither humanity nor the individual can have origin or the goal in itself. There was a time when they did not exist; they are transitory, and near their end. In the universe they occupy a temporary, transitory place; they are a means, and not an end, and certainly no final end, because they are not their own origin.” If I may paraphrase what Bavinck is saying, he is alluding to Nietzsche’s endeavor to reverse all the values of Christian ethics. Now Bavinck throws down the gauntlet and challenges culture either to live as Nietzsche’s Übermensch or to recognize and acknowledge that Nietzsche’s nihilism was tragic and to live according to God’s laws (theonomy).In our next issue, we’ll continue this line of thought.
 Herman Bavinck, The Philosophy of Revelation, (Henry Dosker; Nicholas Steffens; & Geerhardus Vos [trans.]), (
 Ibid., 263.
 This German word means specifically those matters that are dealt with in the “here and now” on this side of eternity. As Bavinck employs it, it refers to efforts made “from below” without any reference to the eternal, which the Germans call jenseits. No extra charge for such wonderful enlightenment or, better, Aufklärung.
 Ibid., 263-264.
 Ibid., 264.
 See, Ibid., 249.
Labels: Bavinck and the Culture