Faith in Pursuit of Knowledge
Because faith aims toward knowledge—or, we might state differently, because faith seeks understanding—the emergence of Christian science is not merely a novel response to modernist positivism. Rather, it is a historic Christian practice, and a necessity of life in a fallen world. Without sin, Christian science would be wholly unnecessary. There would be no breach in the consciousness between religion and knowledge apart from the rupture-induced act of denying the word of God in the egocentricity of becoming like God in knowing good and evil. Sin damaged the self to the extent that knowledge of a fact no longer coincides with knowledge of God. For this reason, Herman Bavinck offers both an argument for the necessity of faith in doing science and a narrative of the emergence of Christian science in Christian history.
With regard to the emergence of Christian science in Christian history, Bavinck makes the magisterial claim that the apostles of Christ “planted the banner of truth in that world of unbelief and superstition.” He suggests that in the first century, skepticism and mysticism displaced the former highly ordered orientation toward systematic investigation (here he likely has Aristotle in view). Against that backdrop, in its unparalleled sweep of the Roman Empire, Christianity offered the world a religion of truth. While Christianity proved distinctively attractive because of the grace it offered (alongside its claim of a resurrected Messiah), Bavinck’s account also makes the striking point that Christianity is a religion of grace precisely because it is first a commitment to truth. If the one God is truth, and his revelation in Jesus Christ is the unveiling of the truth, then all God does and says is truth. Christianity seeks not only to unveil truth but to make the first-order claim that God defines all truths, because God is truth and the author of essences. Thus, by the Spirit, “whoever believingly takes hold of this gospel is of the truth, is reborn through the truth, and is sanctified and freed [by it]. They are in the truth and the truth is in them.”
In this edited and translated edition of Christian Scholarship, Calvinist theologian Herman Bavinck explores how the Christian faith benefits higher learning, particularly religious studies, natural sciences, and the humanities.
Bavinck’s historical narrative then turns to focus on how this approach to truth broke through a culture of superstition in the “world of the Gentiles.” The patristic fathers proved, as quoted above, that “Christianity was the true philosophy, and Christians were the real philosophers. They knew [wisten] reality in truth, they knew who God was, and now, equipped with this knowledge, they also had a different and better insight into the essence of the world, of nature and history.” Eventually, a positive approach had to be found with respect to the knowledge produced by the schools of the time, one that eschewed both the extreme of Tertullian’s denial of the good of pagan philosophy and the Alexandrian exaltation of pagan philosophy. The temptation of Christians throughout history, Bavinck notes, has always been to one or the other: to separate faith from reason or to synthesize them in a syncretistic manner. It is the age-old tension between “world worship and world flight, culture idolatry and culture contempt, Enlightenment [Aufklärung] and pietism.” Despite this perennial struggle, Bavinck argues, a clear wisdom emerged, which he promotes in Christianity and Science and throughout his wider corpus: neither wholesale rejection nor acceptance of pagan insight.
Bavinck’s own effort to avoid either error is thoroughly Augustinian, reflecting Augustine’s general insight that truth is made known by the coherence of authority and reason within a framework of faith. For “science [wetenschap] can thus teach only a little, and that little only to a few. It does not know the way to the truth, for it does not know Christ, and thus it often leads to dead ends.” Although Bavinck certainly does regard Augustine’s pairing of authority and reason to be at times dualistic, this Augustinian insight—that faith is a “gift of God” necessary for all knowledge, for all science—is valuable to him. Indeed, it leads to a further point regarding the necessity of the emergence of Christian science; namely, the logic of the necessity of faith as it relates to the possibility of knowledge. He explains this in the following remark:
Faith strives toward knowledge [kennis] and is a means for knowing [weten]. That is already the case in the regular sciences, which, like the whole of human society, are built on and must proceed from faith. But this applies in particular with regard to that science which has the knowledge of God as its content. For this, the ground rule is given in the word of the prophet: “Unless you believe, you will not understand” [Isa. 7:9]. We believe the truth of God precisely because we do not understand it, but by faith we are enabled to understand. Faith and science [geloof en wetenschap] thus stand next to one another in relationship like conception and birth, like tree and fruit, like work and wage; knowledge [het weten] is the fruit and wages of faith.
While faith is critical to theology as science, faith is a requirement even in regular sciences like history, whose “facts” are dependent upon belief in human testimony, which is then a domain of knowledge that positivism logically excludes. All claims of knowledge depend upon philosophical determinations of the nature of knowledge. Epistemological self-consciousness is necessary for thoughtful science, but “it is not even possible to provide an epistemology [Erkenntnisstheorie] without metaphysics and philosophy.” While positivism stands on the presupposition that all knowledge is nothing but the determinations of sense perception, it fails to provide a rationale for the reliability of the senses and “the objectivity of the perceivable world.” These assumptions, Bavinck argues, are not provable. “Here we merely point out that all scientific research assumes in advance and without proof the reliability of the senses and the objectivity of the perceivable world.” He even argues that the “reality of the world outside us is fixed by and for faith.” Those who doubt such things cannot be refuted by any arguments. When one faces them honestly, they can be driven either toward some form of skepticism or toward a faith position that all knowledge is preceded by trust in that which science cannot prove: perception, objectivity, and the possibility of knowledge itself. There is a necessity, Bavinck believes, in faith that precedes science because the outside world is a given by way of consciousness, not in itself. One cannot ever take a God’s-eye view and perceive the phenomenal apart from personal consciousness.
Faith itself is an activity of the intellect, an act of thinking with consent, a deed of submission, of humility and lowliness . . .
Further, all manner of metaphysical assumptions are made in the act of scientific investigation: “Concepts, such as thing, property, cause, effect, law, condition, time, space, truth, falsehood, and more” are assumed as realities despite their invisibility. Thus, faith is required to maintain objectivity. At its best, he reasons, this faith takes form and shape in Christian reason—a claim that requires treatment elsewhere in texts such as Christian Worldview. Nevertheless, the assumption of objectivity includes faith in the deepest ground of truthfulness in God.
For this reason, in Bavinck’s view, it is appropriate to say that theology is both queen and servant of the sciences. As queen, theology offers the map of the terrain in which the sciences can move about freely. At the same time, though, boundaries are necessary to protect the freedom of the other sciences from the overintrusion of theology. Theology can become guilty of the misuse of power and has been at various points in its history. The same is true of the other sciences. History is not short of examples of both theology and its fellow sciences overestimating their own distinctive reach and attempting to give answers for which they are not qualified. Either implicitly or explicitly, this overreach sets distinctive sciences in competition—a historical backdrop that led to the dominance of empiricism in Bavinck’s own context. His historical sketch portrays rationalism’s own uneasy relationship to empiricism until the late nineteenth century surrendered thinking to radical empiricism, ignoring the basics of philosophical insight, not to mention theology. In his day, the elevation of empirical science into a de facto empiricism depended on a cultivated philosophical and theological naivete. It was possible, insofar as awareness of those sciences had been allowed to wither on the vine. In reply, Bavinck argued that every researcher brings all manner of “religious, moral, and philosophical convictions and is ruled by them to a greater or lesser degree.” This is even true of the radical positivists, whose conviction about the impossibility of metaphysical dogma is a dogmatic religious assertion in itself. Each party, in fact, proceeds on the implicit belief that the other party’s prior judgments are wrong. It is not that research simply carries on without such judgments.
Bavinck’s claim is that every person must honestly deal with the assumed faith necessary even in the sensory and knowledge processes themselves. Facing this reality leads directly to the necessary relationship between metaphysics and science. One needs faith as a habitus, Bavinck supposed, because it is the means of disciplining reason, lest it fall by way of the pride of life. “Faith itself is an activity of the intellect, an act of thinking with consent, a deed of submission, of humility and lowliness, and as such it stands directly over against the pride and haughtiness of reason.” For this reason, Bavinck wrote that “on earth . . . we never rise above the standpoint of faith.”
This article is adapted from Christianity and Science by Herman Bavinck and edited by N. Gray Sutanto, James Eglinton, and Cory C. Brock.
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