The Wonderful Works of God: Chapter 3 General Revelation

I am reading through The Wonderful Works of God by Herman Bavinck and am using the free discussion guide by Charles Williams as a writing prompt in order to organize my thoughts and learn more as I study this classic Christian book.

If this interests you, please follow along and feel free comment with your thoughts either on this post or on Twitter.

I. Man’s Highest Good (p.1-7)
II. The Knowledge of God (p.8–15)
III. General Revelation (p.16-27)

“If it is true that man can have knowledge of God then this fact presupposes that God on His part voluntarily chose to make Himself known to man in some way or other.” -Herman Bavinck

By studying inanimate (non-living) objects and digging into various related phenomena we can create from what God has already provided by using raw materials and our creativity and discover facts along the way. However, the deeper we dig into a phenomena and the closer we come to its “essence”, the mysteries increase and we are confined by the unknowable. Even with a perfect science, we cannot hope to become all knowing. Some amount of unknowable-ness is inherent to the human condition.

And if this is true of the study of inanimate objects. How much more would it be true of the study of animate objects, of life?

The Limits of Deduction

Take your friend as an example. We can study the external via observation. But the internal, we can only study via what your friend chooses to reveal. You can use facial expressions, blood pressure, and other signs to infer what is going on, but in order to truly know your friend he or she must choose to disclose their thoughts and emotions to you.

In order to truly know your friend, you are utterly dependent on him or her. If you simply rely on your own Sherlock Holms-esq detective skills you have no friend, you have a subject to study and analyze but not a friend.

This is even more true with God. We can study morality and come to the conclusion that if there are morals that are objectively bad, say raping and murdering, then there must be a God/gods/higher power/s because without someone or something beyond humans, morals are doomed to relativity. We could analyze our world and universe and come to the conclusion that things are simply too fine tuned for it to be mere chance, therefore in all probability, there is a God/gods/higher power/s.

And yet, even if we do this. We don’t have any real clue about who or what created everything. Or why that being or beings or power or powers created anything and how that should affect us. We can study and learn and use that learning to point to God, but aside from his special revelation to us we are stuck at generalities and trends. To know God, we are utterly reliant on his revelation to us.

Revelation

There are two types of revelation, general and special. Both forms of revelation are revealed to us by God’s choice. General revelation refers to the world at large. It has been revealed to everyone. For general revelation you can think of science or generally shared morality among differing cultures, the usual phenomena and course of events. His general revelation shows us his power, wisdom, and goodness. Special revelation is more specific, and this knowledge is not available through study alone. God reveals his special revelation through appearances, prophecy, and miracles. This is done to show his holiness, righteousness, compassion, and grace. We only have access to special revelation through Jesus Christ. 

No man knows the Son except the Father; neither does any man know the Father except the Son, and he to whom the Son will reveal Him. (Matt 11:27).

So, in order to actually know God, we are limited by his special revelation. General revelation will not truly reveal God, it will only point towards him, if honestly assessed. However, when used together, our understanding of God will be more complete. Our knowledge of God will never be complete because of our human limitations, yet this doesn’t mean we cannot know God. It doesn’t mean that we cannot love God. We can know and love God truly within our own limitations the same way we can know and love a child or spouse truly without knowing them fully, perfectly.

And, while we cannot know God fully, according to Bavinck, we can know the highest way he has revealed himself to us. Jesus died on the cross for our sins, and rose from the dead proving his payment was good and reconciled us to God. This is the gap. God has crossed it for us. If we know this in our hearts, then we truly know God.

And this is the thread that binds it all together. If you look at what Jesus did, then the universe makes sense. God above and beyond humans and is all powerful and has morals, therefore our morals are not simply subjective, they are given to us by God. The universe isn’t random, but designed, and designed to show God’s glory. Jesus is the thread that binds it all together.

With Christ, we can see how God has generally revealed himself to man throughout the ages. We can see God’s judgement and mercy on both Christians and non-Christians.

God’s general revelation isn’t salvific, but it can point us towards salvation. And when we understand general revelation through special revelation, we have the needed context to make the world make sense, even if we can’t understand it, ourselves, or God perfectly.

The Wonderful Works of God: Chapter 2 The Knowledge of God

I am reading through The Wonderful Works of God by Herman Bavinck and am using the free discussion guide by Charles Williams as a writing prompt in order to organize my thoughts and learn more as I study this classic Christian book.

If this interests you, please follow along and feel free comment with your thoughts either on this post or on Twitter.

I. Man’s Highest Good (p.1-7)
II. The Knowledge of God (p.8–15)

  • 1 (pp.8–10): How does man come to enjoy God as his highest good (John 17:1–3)? How do such realities shape the church’s confession of faith?

Man comes to see God as his highest good by responding to God. He is constantly saying “I shall be your God and you shall be my people.” He stays steadfast and consistent, repeating that phrase even after his people dove into sin, made golden a golden calf to worship,  and whored themselves out after other gods. Today, as we dive into our clean, modern sins and idolatry, God continues to repeat this phrase to us.

Until we come to see God as our highest good, we will force God to repeat his refrain. The path forward, like the gospel is simple and clear. We come to enjoy God as our highest good when we come to realize that what God says is true. That when he comes to us after we whore ourselves out to other Gods and repeats his refrain, “I shall be your God and you shall be my people.” He is not merely stating a legal position as a judge to a defendant. He is saying so much more. 

Being the people of God means being children of God. 

“But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons. And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba! Father!” So you are no longer a slave, but a son, and if a son, then an heir through God.” (Galatians 4:4-7)

It means being disciplined and loved by a perfect Father. 

“My son, do not despise the Lord’s discipline or be weary of his reproof, for the Lord reproves him whom he loves, as a father the son in whom he delights.” (Proverbs 3:12)

“You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (Matthew 5:48)

It means complete forgiveness and reconciliation.

“In love he predestined us for adoption to himself as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace, with which he has blessed us in the Beloved. In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace, which he lavished upon us, in all wisdom and insight making known to us the mystery of his will, according to his purpose, which he set forth in Christ as a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.” (Ephesians 1:5-10)

“All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation.” (2 Corinthians 5:18-19)

Yet, also like the gospel, living or enacting it is incredibly complex and beyond our human capacity. For us alone, seeing God as our highest good has been made impossible due to our sin. Yet with God, all things are possible (Matthew 19:26) for he has given us his Spirit. And with the Holy Spirit, we cry out “Abba! Father!” (Romans 8:15). And when we walk in step with his Spirit, we will not sin and we will produce the fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:16-26).

When we get this, when we walk in step with the Spirit, our gratitude ought to drive us to worship. 

I think that, when we as a church understand that God truly is man’s highest good there will be something fundamentally different in our actions. We will waver less because we are confident in the goodness of our God. This allows us to stand against cultural sins. Importantly, it also changes how we stand against cultural sins. On the one hand, we won’t simply wall ourselves off from the world to create a private Christian enclave that we seldom leave. On the other, we won’t demonize people who are antagonistic to our faith.

More positively, seeing God as our highest good will make us, and the church more joyful. We will be more joyful because we are remembering that good things on Earth are not ultimately important. We will be more joyful because we will be remembering that, no matter what comes in the here and now, God, our highest good is with us (1 Corinthians 3:16, Romans 8:38-39). This joy is powerful enough to transform suffering and makes hope possible in the deepest of pain (See Psalm 42 and the entire book of Job).

I think that coming to enjoy God as our highest good is a difficult process because we are sinful and the world is full of good distractions, in addition to the bad ones. The Holy Spirit enables us to live our lives as a living sacrifice (Romans 12:1-2) so we do not gratify the desires of the flesh (Galatians 5:16-26).

  • 2 (pp.10–15): In what ways does the knowledge of God in Christ differ from knowledge of anything else? How does the origin, object, and essence of the knowledge of God inform the nature and content of faith in God? // What is theology, and how should the study of it be pursued?

When Jesus had spoken these words, he lifted up his eyes to heaven, and said, “Father, the hour has come; glorify your Son that the Son may glorify you, since you have given him authority over all flesh, to give eternal life to all whom you have given him. And this is eternal life, that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent. (John 17:1-3) 

“The knowledge of which Jesus speaks here obviously has its own peculiar character. It is different from all other knowledge that can be obtained, and the difference is not one of degree but of principal and essence. This becomes apparent at once when we begin to compare the two kinds of knowledge with each other. The knowledge of God of which Jesus spoke differs from the knowledge of created things in its origin and object and in its essence and effects.” (Bavinck, 10)

One key difference between the knowledge of God in Christ and knowledge of anything else is that we only receive knowledge of God as a gift (Ephesians 2:8-9). Of course we may and hopefully do use rational arguments on our journey to faith, but the Bible is clear faith is a gift from God, whereas we can obtain knowledge in any other realm through our senses as a type of common grace.

Knowledge of God also differs from knowledge of anything else in its object. Knowledge in math, science, literature, etc revolves around a creature’s perception and we can obtain it without a personal relationship. For example, someone can tell us all about China and we can learn a lot from that, but without going there, exploring the country and meeting the people, our knowledge is based only on someone else’s description. “In this sense, information is an affair of the head only. But real knowing includes an element of personal concern and involvement and an activity of the heart” (Bavinck, 13).

Truly knowing China involves knowing a lot about China and deeply understanding the language and culture. But truly knowing God involves being like Christ. 

“But He (Jesus) knew God by direct, personal sight and insight; He saw Him everywhere, in nature, in His word, in His service; He loved Him above all else and was obedient to Him in all things, even in the death on the cross. His knowing the truth was all of a piece with His doing it. The knowledge and the love came together.

Indeed, to know God does not consist of knowing a great deal about Him, but of this, rather, that we have seen Him on our life’s way, and that in the experience of our soul we have come to know His virtues, His righteousness and holiness, His compassion and His grace.” (Bavinck, 13)

This is what makes knowledge of God in Christ so distinct from other types of knowledge. We do not need an in depth knowledge of theology, church history, or even the Bible to have knowledge of God. We simply need to know Him and have faith in Him. 

“Because, if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved. For the Scripture says, “Everyone who believes in him will not be put to shame.” For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; for the same Lord is Lord of all, bestowing his riches on all who call on him. For “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” (Romans 10:9-13)

According to Bavinck, “Theology is the science which derives the knowledge of God from his revelation, which studies and thinks into it under the guidance of His Spirit, and then tries to describe it so that it ministers to His honor.” In practice, this encapsulates much more than just the Bible, though the Bible will play a key role in theology. In fact, the theologian must interpret the world “out of God, through God, about God, and does this always to the glorification of His name.” (Bavinck, 14).

In more modern language, this means we must interpret our theology and our entire lives through the lens of the Bible.

The Wonderful Works of God: Chapter 1 Man’s Highest Good

I am reading through The Wonderful Works of God by Herman Bavinck and am using the free discussion guide by Charles Williams as a writing prompt in order to organize my thoughts and learn more as I study this classic Christian book.

If this interests you, please follow along and feel free to give your thoughts on the questions and my answers.

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The Wonderful Works of God by Herman Bavinck

Chapter 1: Man’s Highest Good

  • 1 (pp.1–3): What is man’s highest good? What distinguishes man from the rest of creation with respect to God, and the enjoyment of him? Why is creation unable to satisfy man’s deepest longings?

Bavinck answers the question, “What is man’s highest good?” in the very first sentence of his book. God. This view isn’t going to be breaking any new ground for a Christian, however, this view is the Christian’s foundation. This can be seen by looking at just about any catechism (Westminister Catechism, Luther’s Catechism, New City Catechism, etc). 

Next, Bavinck then shows how humans are different from other creatures, we have a special awareness mere animals lack. We have our special awareness, an awareness beyond the physical due to being created in the image of our God. An identity that is indestructibly true, whether we are Christian or not. This is a grace that God has lavished upon all of humanity which constantly reminds us and calls us to Him, even if we ignore it.

A hint of this calling lies in how we can never be fully satisfied in our physical world. Bavinck goes on to explain how, even though we think with our physical brains, thinking is a spiritual activity that transcends yet connects us to physical reality. It is in this spiritual search for connection that we hope to find meaning. “This yearning for an eternal order, which God has planted in the heart of man, in the inmost recesses of his being, in the core of his personality, is the cause of the indisputable fact that everything which belongs to the temporal order cannot satisfy man. He is a sensuous, earthly, limited, and mortal being, and yet he is attracted to the eternal and is destined for it.”

We are always striving for meaning by calling things good, bad, or otherwise. Yet, if there is no God, no ultimate arbiter of good and evil, how is there any ultimate good? Any ultimate bad? Without some sort of God/s, the universe merely is.

We may attempt to find this meaning through science, the arts, philosophy, pleasure, but our hearts will always remain unsatisfied if our search stays in these things because they can only point to an order, point to a meaning, they cannot prove or provide one. Our hearts can only rest once they have found meaning in “Divine goodness.” 

  • 2 (pp.3–6): What great goods can pursuing science, the arts, and humanitarianism obtain? What limitations do each of these contain? // What distinguishes a knowledge of science, philosophy, and the humanities from the wisdom of God? Must the two be at odds with one another? In what ways do we find them at odds with one another in the heart of man? // What happens when we make these great goods (philosophy, art, humanitarianism) our ultimate good? // Where is man’s starting point for wisdom (Prov. 1:7)? How ought the knowledge and wisdom of God order our knowledge of science, art, and philanthropy?

While great good and beauty can come from science, the arts, and humanitarianism, these goods, even though they come from God, fade. Through science we have achieved great heights and can cure diseases, alleviate suffering, and expand prosperity (HumanProgress). Yet, we have also used science to find creative ways to destroy life and have often marred God’s creation with immense human caused suffering.

At their best, the arts helped us analyze the human condition and pointed us towards Christ. The arts have brought us, me included great joy. Yet, we have also turned art into a glorification of ourselves, and occasionally even into an outright celebration of sin.

Humanitarianism follows a similar path. We care for and help people, yet turn that into an ultimate good, turning humanitarianism (a good thing) into humanism (a bad thing).

The Bible provides a contrast to a human-centric, or atheistic approach to knowledge. The Bible lays the claim that knowledge has the fear of God as its beginning (Proverbs 1:7). This means that the Christian views the world, including science, the arts, and humanitarianism through the lens of the Bible. And it is this type of knowledge that is highly stable and valuable. 

When we apply the fear of God to knowledge, we can restore knowledge to its proper position. Instead of using incredible technology to kill smaller, unborn humans we can use it to provide life-saving surgery to smaller, unborn humans. In addition, we can use the biblical lens to view secular art properly. We do not need to simply throw it away and isolate ourselves. We can see the skills involved in the art’s creation, we can better understand both the sinful human condition and the creative glories contained within mankind through art from Christians and non-Christians alike. 

In short, the application of knowledge through a biblical lens does not mean we isolate ourselves and only consume “Christian” goods. In fact, doing so will often lead to us consuming goods of inferior quality. It means we view, enjoy, and critique both Christian and non-Christian works in the sciences, arts, and humanities in such a way as to further enrich ourselves and the world.

  • 3 (pp.6–7): What great paradox did Augustine conclude resides in the heart of man with respect to the pursuit of God as man’s highest enjoyment and good? Where does this enigma find its solution?

Augustine said that the heart of man was made for God and that it is destined to always seek but never find rest, until his heart rests in his heavenly Father’s heart.