The Certainty of Faith (Bavinck)

Bavinck, Herman. The Certainty of Faith. St Catherines, Ontario: Paideia Press, 1980.

This is one of those rare books that is able to make profound epistemological points while always remaining at the level of the layman. Reformed people might claim they are above the charismatic desire for “experience” and “emotion.” I suggest many are on the same level. If your faith is pointed towards the intensity of your emotions, if you don’t like celebrating the Lord’s Supper often (not necessarily weekly) because it wouldn’t be spay-shul, then I suggest you are much closer to the charismatic than you might want to admit.

Bavinck’s profound insight is that knowledge isn’t the same thing as certainty. He writes,

Truth is agreement between thought and reality and thus expresses a relation between the contents of our consciousness and the object of our knowledge. Certainty, however, is not a relationship but a capacity, a quality, a state of the knowing subject. One’s spirit may assume different states in reaction to different statements or propositions (Bavinck 19).

If you can’t grasp and appreciate this distinction, then you will be fair game for all sorts of philosophical con artists. In other words, how I feel about the truth is quite irrelevant to the truth or falsity of the proposition.

Pietism: The Harbinger of Humanism

The early Reformers certainly had their doubts like us. There was a crucial difference, though. Bavinck writes,

But the difference between the Reformers and their later disciples was that they did not foster or feed such a
condition. They saw no good in it and were not content to remain in doubt (39).

We can add one more point: you can look to the intensity of your emotions or you can look to Christ (corollary: The Lord’s Supper helps. Take it). Bavinck doesn’t mention it but this is the problem of the terrible Halfway Covenant. You didn’t look to Christ. You had to convince the sessions of the intensity of your emotional experience. The sick irony is that the membership requirements for Halfway members were the same as the membership requirements of full members in the better Calvinist churches on the continent.

A few pages later Bavinck notes that this pietism paved the way for secularism. He is correct but he doesn’t develop the point. I think it can be argued like this. This leads to common-ground, emotionally-based political orders. While it isn’t clear how that then leads to liberalism, it almost always does.

I truly hate pietism with all my heart.

Bavinck has a side line on the nature of revelation that is sometimes controversial but nevertheless correct: “Revelation is an organism with a life of its own” (61). He doesn’t mean it evolves evolutionistically or in a Hegelian fashion (fun fact: Hegel was actually skeptical of evolution, if only because he didn’t come up with it). Rather, it ties all facts together under a single idea. It is its own idea by which it must be grasped.

Another fatal problem with experience-based religion is that none of the essentials of the Christian faith can be deduced from experience. Nothing in my day-to-day life tells me of substitutionary atonement, the Trinity, or the Resurrection.

Faithful to covenant thinking, Bavinck contrasts experience-based religion with that of judicial, ethical choice. I either choose to believe in Christ or I don’t. Experience isn’t all that relevant (78ff). If faith includes understanding, either I believe in the promises or I don’t. I don’t have to answer “Do you know that you know that you really know” type questions.

That doesn’t mean emotions are wrong. Far from it. Bavinck is working with a creational view of man: man believes with his heart, his totality of existence (including both reason and emotion, the latter never controls the former).

The Mechanics of Faith

For more info, see Bavinck’s Prolegomena.

“Promise and faith are correlates. They address themselves to one another” (83). Moreover, “Faith is not the ground which carries the truth, nor is it the source from which knowledge flows to him. Rather, it is the soul’s organ.”

But can faith be certain? Answering this question might be tricky. We’ve already established that I can have varying degrees of certainty regarding something. Bavinck, however, suggests that faith can be absolutely certain. What is he getting at? This certainty is not something added on from the outside. Rather, it “is contained in faith from the outside and in time organically issues from it” (85). In other words, I do not trust salvation on the grounds of my faith but through it.

Bavinck has an admirable final section on the sacraments. It’s strange (well, not really) that many discussions on certainty and assurance often ignore the sacraments. The sacraments seal the promise of God to me (89). The final two pages end with the “cultural mandate,” though Bavinck doesn’t call it such. I share in Christ’s anointing and am a prophet, priest, and king.

Osborne: Revelation 2-3

2:5-6. When Jesus threatens to come in judgment on the churches, is this a natural or eschatological reading?  In the first three chapters erchomai refers to the final judgment (1.4; 7, 8).

2:-27. This makes sense within a millennial reign, for it mentions the existence of nations after Christ’s return.  This doesn’t prove a millennial reign, to be sure, but it fits well with passages like 17:14 and 19:15.

3.10. Is Jesus promising to rapture his church before the trial that comes on the world? Osborne notes that the debate centers on ek. Gundry argues that ek has a local force.  Surprisingly, Osborne, a post-tribulationist, argues that the thrust is universal.  With that said, he believes that “keep from” rather than “exempt” is the correct reading (Osborne 193).

3:21-22.  Three stage development of “throne-theology.” Yahweh sits on the throne in majesty.  The Son of Man sits on David’s throne. The victorious saints sit on their thrones (214-215).

Osborne, Revelation: chapter 1


Chapter 1

When Jesus says he is coming en tachy, does that refer to imminence or the manner of how he comes? The most natural way to read it is imminence.  Does this not prove preterism, then? Unless you are a full (heretical) preterist, no one believes all the events happened en tachy. Rather, Osborne suggests “It is better to see this as apocalyptic language similar to that throughout the New Testament on the “soon” return of Christ…Such language never means that there are no events yet to occur, for both Christ (Matt. 13:24-30; 25:1-13) and the Apocalypse itself (6:11) realize there will be a period of time before its fulfillment (55).  Rather, the language is supposed to draw the reader into a sense of expectation and responsibility.

Osborne on Revelation: Introduction


Grant R. Osborne. Revelation. Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament. Grand Rapids: Baker, 2002

Lord willing, I am going to blog through Grant Osborne’s magnum opus on Revelation.

Date of Revelation: 3:17 alludes to an earthquake in Laodicea, which happened around 80 AD.  That’s all that Osborne writes.  I wish he had spent more time onit.

Interpretation of Symbols

There is a false dichotomy between literal and symbolic (Osborne 15). A symbolic book can still communicate literal events.  For example, 12 is a symbolic number. That doesn’t mean, however, that there weren’t 12 tribes or 12 apostles.

Methods of Interpretation

While Osborne himself is a premillennialist, he points out that earlier premillennialists (Walvord, Ironside, Gaebelin) who read church history into the seven letters were wrong.  Recent dispensationalists such as Blaising and Saucy simply read them as historical letters.

Historicist: This could be anything from reading church history into the seven letters, or with the Reformers in seeing the Pope as the Antichrist.  Osborne critiques: “Because of its inherent weaknesses (its identification only with Western church history, the inherent speculation involved in parallels with world history, the fact that it must be reworked with each new epoch in world history, the total absence of any relevance for John or his original readers….) few scholars today take this approach” (19).

Preterist: the main problem with the Gentry/Chilton school is that it limits the universal language of the book to the Jewish people.  How do events in Jerusalem signify the end of the world for fringe believers in Asia Minor?

Idealist: the main problem is that the text itself suggests future fulfillments to the prophecies, which makes a “timeless truth” approach difficult.

Osborne wants a combination of futurist, idealist, and limited preterist views (21).

Nota Bene: Bauckham suggests that the book as a whole reflects the first three petitions of the Lord’s Prayer: hallowing the name, the kingdom coming, and will done (Bauckham 1993b: 40).

Review: Keener on Revelation

Keener, Craig.  Revelation. NIVAC.  Zondervan, 2000.

I didn’t expect much out of a commentary series that had the letters “NIV” in it, but this was well-done. Keener demonstrated mastery of the current literature and made interesting, if sometimes stretched, applications.keener

Rev. 4-5 Throne Room

24 elders: Keener says they represent all believers (172). That reading is possible, but it is more likely the divine council. Further, the picture we have of believers in heaven (ch. 6) has them pleading before the altar.
Revelation 6:9-17

Keener raises the problem of the martyrs’ prayer for justice, but doesn’t give a satisfactory answer (221-22). He notes that it appears to conflict with Jesus’s love your enemies. He doesn’t bring up the imprecatory psalms. They aren’t psalm of vengeance, but psalms against God to arise in covenantal judgment. When we pray like this, we aren’t violating Jesus’s commands, but are asking God to be faithful to the covenant.

Revelation 7:1-8

Keener seems to suggest that the events following the 6th seal aren’t chronological. In fact, he breaks with premillennialism at this point: “those who can withstand the day of God’s wrath are those whom God has empowered to withstand the previous plagues” (230). That’s certainly a true proposition but there are easier answers. Pre-wrath, for one.

Revelation 12

The Mother: faithful remnant of Israel (314). The theological source most available would have been the OT, which the readers would have known.

Reasons it can’t be Mary: We don’t have evidence of Mary’s being persecuted by the Dragon.

Revelation 20

Defense of Historic Premillennialism

1. The binding of Satan during the thousand years hardly matches Satan’s deceptive and murderous activity during the present era (12:12-13; 13:11-15).
2. The saints have already been martyred, suggesting that the Tribulation period precedes the Millennium.
3. The resurrection of the righteous is parallel to and contrasted with the rest of the dead returning to life after the thousand years (20:4-6), suggesting a bodily rather than symbolic resurrection.
4. Revelation 20 presupposes all that transpired in chapters 12-19.

Extra notes on Revelation 20.

The angel’s binding of Satan (20:2; 9:14) is a common motif throughout Jewish literature (1 Enoch 10:4-6

Gog and Magog. In Ezekiel Gog is the ruler of Magog, but here they merely symbolize all the evil nations

Other notes: it’s doubtful John had Matt. 12 in mind when he spoke of the binding of Satan. It’s unlikely his earlier readers would have had access to the Synoptics.


Keener utilizes a lot of material from Tony Campolo and Ron Sider. Rev. (so-called) Jeremiah Wright of Chicago (of Obama fame) also makes an appearance (194).


Frame, Review: Doctrine of the Word of God

A fitting end to a fine series. This isn’t Frame’s best work ever (that would either be DG or DCL) but it is good and there are legitimate reasons for this volume’s limitations. Frame wanted to get his book on Scripture out, but he also suspected he might die beforehand. So he gave a shorter version of it. The first 330 pages deal with a perspectival doctrine of Scripture. The last three hundred are book reviews.

Scripture is an organic revelation, but Frame doesn’t mean by organic what 19th century pantheists supposedly meant. For Frame, “Revelations in Scripture, world, and self presuppose and supplement one another; one cannot understand one of them without reference to the others” (Frame 350).

Frame’s book isn’t just another book on Scripture and how it is inerrant or from God or something. Rather, it calls forth our obedience, and this ties with the above thesis: “Every obedient response to Scripture involves knowledge of creation and self” (364). For example, whenever I reason about or from Scripture, that presupposes I know what logic is and how to use it.

The Personal-Word Model

“The main contention of this volume is that God’s speech to man is real speech” (3). Authority: the capacity to create an obligation in the hearer (5).

Covenant and Canon

God’s relation to us is always covenantal, so we should expect a written, covenant document (108). A canon naturally arises because we need to record God’s spoken words to us, and our God is a God who speaks.

Frame builds upon Meredith Kline’s 4 or 5 Point Covenant Model to show the unity of Scripture (148ff):

(1) Revelation of the Name of God
(2) Revelation of God’s mighty acts in history
(3) Revelation of God’s Law
(4) Revelation of God’s continuing presence to bless and curse
(5) Revelation of God’s institutional provisions.

Covenantal revelation is both personal and propositional (153). God reveals his Name, but he does so in propositions (and sentences and declarations).

Our relationship with God is covenantal, and in covenants God speaks to his people (212).

Some of the chapters were quite short and I wish Frame extended his analysis. However, the book reviews show remarkable analysis and depth. See especially his reviews of Enns and Wright.

Can cessationist pray Eph. 1:17?

Paul writes,

“That God would give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation in the knowledge of him.”

What does “revelation” mean?  The bible lists several types:

  1. Natural revelation (creation, logic, science, etc).
  2. Special revelation (God’s speaking, theophanic appearances, etc).
    2a. The Bible.
    2b. Words of knowledge/prophetic utterances
  3. Jesus

So when Paul wants God to give them a spirit of revelation, which kind does he mean? I think all sides can rule out (1), since it wouldn’t make much sense in the context of Paul’s prayer.  Let’s leave aside all varieties of (2) for a moment.  (3) could work but I am not sure Paul means that.  Strictly speaking, if (3) obtains then we have the following:

(3*) God would give a spirit of wisdom and Jesus in the knowledge of him.

Technically, that’s true.  And that’s not a bad way to pray.  But from our perspective I’m not sure that adds too much to the discussion.  What does it mean to have a spirit of Jesus?  Well, basic Sunday School lessons could work here, and the Bible elsewhere commends the Spirit of Christ.  But if revelation = Jesus, then what content does that add to our knowledge?  It’s not immediately clear.  And I don’t think that’s what cessationists have in mind when they say “revelation.”  Sure, they will quote Hebrews 1, thinking revelation ceased with the coming of Christ, but that only proves that Jesus is the final word, not the Bible.

Therefore, I suggest that when a cessationist reads Ephesians 1:17, he sees it as saying,

(2a*) God will give you a spirit of the closed canon of Scripture.

It’s not immediately wrong, but it’s clunky and almost certainly not what Paul had in mind.

Some notes on Apocrypha?

The question that often comes up in question’s on the Apocrypha as Scripture or related to it:

(1) Is the Apocrypha inspired/part of the Bible?

The church’s witness in history isn’t entirely clear.  Augustine and others use the Wisdom of Solomon and if ever a book deserved to be in Scripture, that would be one of them.  Yet, when we read early fathers’ accounts of the canon, the modern day Apocryphal books are either missing or not all are accounted for.  The problem is further exacerbated on how to identify the “Ezras” listed by the fathers (it could either mean Ezra and Nehemiah or Ezra, Nehemiah, 1 and 2 Esdras).

But that’s not my issue because that’s not how I view Scripture.  I can accept Scripture in some sense as an angled mirror to God’s revelation, but not as God’s revelation full stop.  In other words, God’s revelation isn’t univocal.

I prefer to say that Scripture is a witness to God’s revelation.  That means, if the above argument holds true:

(2) The Apocrypha is not God’s revelation.

But can the Apocrypha be a witness to God’s revelation?  Perhaps, but then it is on a case-by-case basis.  Let’s look at Sirach and Maccabees.


Towards the end of the book Sirach is echoing the Jewish hope and story of King and Temple.  They are both interconnected.  And the world’s peace depends on them.  But when the Temple is cleansed/disclosed to the world, it is not the Davidic Messiah but the High Priest.

And in any case, all of this was wiped away with the Roman invasions after 200 BC.  So while Sirach captures some part of the Jewish narrative, it is utterly anti-climactic in witnessing to the Messiah.


As history Maccabees, at least 1 and 2, are supremely important.  When Judas cleanses the temple and drives out the pagans, what happens with the temple?  Nothing.

Drawing upon sources like 1 Kings 8 and Ezekiel, the Temple, Monarch, and Shekinah glory are inter-connected.  Touch one and you touch all (there is some divine simplicity, for you!).  This doesn’t happen with Maccabees victory.

So what does all this mean?  The Apocrypha is very important for history, but in terms of witnessing to the divine revelation, especially in terms of eschatology, it is anti-climactic.

T. F. Torrance (Intellectual Biography)

This book is divided into two parts: a brief treatment of Torrance’s life and an examination of his thought. His parents were missionaries to China and fostered a deep piety and evangelistic zeal in the young Torrance. Torrance grew up reading the bible through each year. His dad could repeat the Psalms and Romans by heart.

T. F. Torrance: An Intellectual Biography

Of particular interest is Torrance’s lectureships in America, ironically at liberal institutions. They were not ready for his evangelistic style of lecturing. Auburn Theological Seminary (largely liberal) invited a 25 year old Thomas Torrance to guest lecture. He ended up evangelizing his students on the deity of Christ. He was invited to teach at Princeton University but they told him it was to be a neutral atmosphere and that he shouldn’t get involved with the students religious beliefs.
Torrance: I make no such promises. He was hired nonetheless.

McGrath skillfully makes use of unpublished mss and shows us a very interesting side of Torrance. Torrance’s life often borders on a heroism found in novels.

His Thought

Was Torrance a “Barthian?” No. As he made powerfully clear to Donald Macleod he was an “Athanasian” before he was a Barthian. Nevertheless, Torrance’s legacy is connected with Barth’s.

On the reception of Barth

No one is a pure Barthian. McGrath notes the numerous difficulties in Barth’s reception in the English-speaking world. This narrative takes place within Torrance’s “cold war” with John Baillie. McGrath quotes A. Cheyne in suggesting four different ways someone could “receive” Barth’s teachings:

1. Superficial influence, but largely unchanged and staying within the liberal tradition
2. Entire outlook affected but withheld ultimate approval.
3. real but cautious admirers.
4. Uncritical admirers (Alec Cheyne, “The Baillie Brothers,” in Fergusson, Church and Society, 3-37, 33, quoted in McGrath, 89).

McGrath notes that Barth wasn’t well-received in the Scandinavian Lutheran countries, given Barth’s firm commitment to Reformed Christology. Barth took longer to make headroads into Anglican because, as McGrath ruefully muses, Anglicanism didn’t have much of a dogmatic center (McGrath 122-123). This was not the case in Presbyterian Scotland, which in many ways was a dogmatic center!

McGrath lists four criteria that must be in place if a foreign thinker like Barth is to make headway:
1. Competent translations of the most important works into the new language.
2. A journal dedicated to sympathetic viewpoints.
3. A publishing house which is prepared to handle primary and secondary material.
4. A platform where a rising generation may be influenced.

Torrance’s thought is a Reformed reworking of Athanasius’s insight that the homoousion–the oneness of being between Father and Son–means a oneness of Being-in-Act in God’s saving and revealing himself to us. The doctrine of the Trinity is an outcome of an intellectual engagement with God kata physin. “The nature of God was disclosed to be such that Trinitarian thinking was the only appropriate response to the reality thus encountered” (161). Scientific realism allows direct correlations between self-revelation of God and God himself.

McGrath breaks new ground in shedding light on a key tension in Torrance’s so-called “Barthianism.” Can there be a positive relation between God’s self-revelation and a bare natural theology? Maybe. Problem: If all theology proceeds from God’s self-revelation in Christ, then where can natural theology fit (185)?

Early Torrance: “revelation is an act in which God confronts us with his person, in which he imparts himself” (Torrance, Christian Doctrine of Revelation, 32, Auburn lectures). If this is the case, how can man “reason upwards to God?” Again, and as always, the solution is found in Athanasius. Knowledge of God and knowledge of the world share the same foundations in the rationality of God the creator.
1. God is in possession of an intrinsic rationality–the divine logos.
2. That logos has become incarnate in Jesus Christ, so that Christology becomes the key to accessing the inner rationality of God.
3. the divine rationality is also seen in the created order, in which the divine logos can be discerned at work in the contingent yet ordered nature of the world.
4. Creation (1-3) makes natural theology possible.

The book is magnificent. Its rather foreboding price prevents it from being an otherwise perfect introduction to Torrance’s thought

About that Owen quote on private revelations

One of John Owen’s quotes is being memed on Facebook to the effect,

“If private revelations agree with Scripture, they are unnecessary and if they disagree they are false.”

What do continuationists such as myself make of this quote?  Has Owen powerfully refuted me?  Well, only if we are clear about what we mean by “agree” and “contradict.”  Let’s begin with the second half of Owen’s quote.

if they disagree they are false

First of all, what is a contradiction?  A contradiction is when one says A = ~A.  For example, the Bible says don’t murder but I got a private revelation from God saying it’s cool.  That is a contradiction and Owen’s quote holds good in this case.   However, in symbolic logic the proposition A  B is not a contradiction.  It is a conjunction.

The first part of Owen’s quote actually presents a challenge.  Well, it could present a challenge:

(1) If private revelations agree with Scripture, they are unnecessary.

The most obvious rejoinder is, “Is that true?  Says who?”  I think the intent behind Owen’s claim is like the following:

(1*) Scripture is a self-contained totality whose content is synonymous with the term “revelation.”

If (1*) is true, then Owen’s claim obtains and continuationists are in deep error.  That means Revelation {R₁ } does not allow for any difference.  Still, one has to ask if that is indeed the case.  As it stands it is false. See:

(2) God speaks in natural revelation (Ps. 19:1-2).

Whatever else (2) means, it certainly means that there exists a realm of objective knowledge in creation to which we have intellectual access.  (1) and (2) do not contradict.  (1*) and (2) do contradict, but since the latter is in the bible and the former is not, then (1*) is certainly wrong and we can reject it.

But perhaps the cessationist can continue modifying his premise:

(1′) Scripture is the final moment of God’s special revelation, the final moment of God’s speaking-revelation.

Now we are getting somewhere.  (1′) does present a challenge if it obtains. Is it correct?  Only if the term “Revelation” is being used univocally.  Continuationists have never claimed that Revelation is univocal.   Perhaps they are exegetically wrong for thinking that, but that’s a different subject altogether. Owen’s modified claim (1′) only obtains if everyone is using Revelation univocally.

But we can ask if the cessationist is consistent in his use of Revelation.  (1′) seemed to imply that the Bible was the final moment of God’s speaking-revelation.  But what does the Bible say?

“In many and various ways God spoke to the prophets but in these last days he spoke to us by his Son” (Heb. 1:1).

(3) Jesus is the final speaking-moment of God’s revelation.

(3) and (1′) contradict.  (1′) therefore fails.  It’s been probably ten years since I’ve read Warfield’s essays on Revelation, but if I recall, the idea of Jesus-as-Revelation appears (as it must, since it is in Scripture) but only as an odd duck.  It presents several problems for the cessationist argument:

(3a) If Jesus is the final moment of Revelation, which would seem to rule out modern-day prophets, then Jesus, revealing God before the writing of the New Testament, would also rule out the New Testament.