Faith, Reason, and Theology

An excellent selection from Herman Bavinck’s 4-vol magnum opus on the role of faith, reason, and theology.


Reason Serving Faith

… we must first of all and fundamentally reject the notion that regards faith and reason as two independent powers engaging in a life-and-death struggle with each other. In that way one creates a dualism that does not belong in the Christian domain. In that case faith is always above (supra) or even opposed (contra) to reason. Threatening on the one hand is rationalism and on the other supernaturalism. Faith, the faith by which we believe, is not an organ or faculty next to or above reason but a disposition or habit of reason itself.

Reason, or if people prefer, thinking, is certainly not a source of theology, not a principle by which or through which or from which or on account of which we believe. Reason is a source, not the source of any science; at most it is only for the formal sciences such as logic or mathematics. Still reason is the recipient subject of faith, capable of faith; faith is an act of the human consciousness; an animal is not capable of believing.

Furthermore, faith is not an involuntary but a free act. Christians do not believe on command, out of fear, or in response to violence. Believing has become the natural habit of their mind, not in the sense that there is often not considerable resistance in their soul to that believing, but still in such a way that, though often doing what they do not want to do, they still take delight in God’s law in their inmost self [cf. Rom. 7:22]. Believing is the natural breath of the children of God. Their submission to the Word of God is not slavery but freedom. In that sense faith is not a sacrifice of the intellect but mental health (sanitas mentis). Faith, therefore, does not relieve Christians of the desire to study and reflect; rather it spurs them on to the end. Nature is not destroyed by regeneration but restored.

Believers who want to devote themselves to the study of theology, accordingly, must prepare their minds for the task awaiting them. There is no admission to the temple of theology except by way of the study of the arts. Indispensable to the practitioner of the science of theology is philosophical, historical, and linguistic preparatory training. Philosophy, said Clement of Alexandria, “prepares the way for the most royal teaching.” Emperor Julian knew what he was doing when he deprived Christians of pagan learning; he feared he would be defeated by his own weapons.

This thinking, thus prepared and trained, has, in the main, a threefold task in theology.

First, it offers its services in finding the material. Scripture is the principle of theology. But the Bible is not a book of laws; it is an organic whole. The material for theology, specifically for dogmatics, is distributed throughout Scripture. Like gold from a mine, so the truth of faith has to be extracted from Scripture by the exertion of all available mental powers. Nothing can be done with a handful of proof texts. Dogma has to be built, not on a few isolated texts, but on Scripture in its entirety. It must arise organically from the principles that are everywhere present for that purpose in Scripture. The doctrines of God, of humanity, of sin, of Christ, etc., after all, are not to be found in a few pronouncements but are spread throughout Scripture and are contained, not only in a few proof texts, but also in a wide range of images and parables, ceremonies and histories. No part of Scripture may be neglected. The whole of Scripture must prove the whole system. …

-Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics: Prolegomena (Baker Academic, 2003) 1:616-617.

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