Herman Bavinck, from Reformed Dogmatics Vol. 1 – Prolegomena. The following passage is from Chapter 2 – The Method and Organization of Dogmatic Theology:

Herman Bavinck

Herman Bavinck

The assertion that the religious and moral human being is autonomous is always linked with either deism or pantheism. Deism makes human beings independent of God and the world, teaches the all-sufficiency of reason, and leads to rationalism. Pantheism, on the other hand, teaches that God discloses himself and comes to self-consciousness in human beings and fosters mysticism. both destroy objective truth, leave reason and feeling, the intellect and the heart, to themselves, and end up in unbelief or superstition. Reason criticizes all revelation to death, and feeling gives the Roman Catholic as much right to picture Mary as the sinless Queen of Heaven as the Protestant to oppose that belief. It is therefore noteworthy that Holy Scripture never refers human beings to themselves and the epistemic source and standard of religious truth. How, indeed, could it, since it describes the “natural” man as totally darkened and corrupted by sin in his intellect (Ps. 14:3; Rom.1:21-23; 1 Cor. 1:23; 2:14; 2 Cor. 3:5; Eph. 4:23; Gal. 1:6, 7; 1 Tim. 6:5; 2 Tim. 3:8), in his heart (Gen. 6:5; 8:21; Jer. 17:9; Ezek. 36:26; Mark 7:21), in his will (John 8:34; Rom. 7:14; 8:7; Eph. 2:3), as well as in his conscience (Jer. 17:9; 1 Cor. 8:7, 10, 12; 10:28; 1 Tim. 4:2; Titus 1:15)? For the knowledge of truth Scripture always refers us to objective revelation, to the word and instruction that proceeded from God (Deut. 4:1; Isa. 8:20; John 5:39; 2 Tim. 3:15; 2 Pet. 1:19; etc.). And where the objective truth is personally appropriated by us by faith, that faith still is never like a fountain that from itself brings forth the living water but like a channel that conducts the water to us from another source.

Pope Leo XIII (Papacy 1878-1903)

Pope Leo XIII (Papacy 1878-1903)

Rome, understanding perfectly well this impossibility of religious and moral autonomy, bound human beings to the infallible church on pain of losing the salvation of their souls. For Roman Catholic Christians the infallible church, and so in the final analysis the infallible pope, is the foundation of their faith. The words Papa dixit (the Pope has spoken) is the end of all back talk. History teaches, however, that this theoretical and practical infallibility of the church has at all times encountered contradiction and opposition, not only in the churches of the Reformation but inside the Roman Catholic Church as well. It is not unbelievers primarily but the devout who have always experienced this power of the hierarchy as a galling bond to their conscience. Throughout the centuries there has not only been scientific, social and political resistance but also deeply religious and moral opposition to the hierarchical power of the church. It simply will not do to explain this opposition in terms of unbelief and disobedience and intentionally to misconstrue the religious motives underlying the opposition of various sects and movements. No one has been bold enough to damn all these sects because they were moved to resist the church and its tradition. Even Rome shrinks from this conclusion. The extra ecclesiam nulla salus (no salvation outside the church) is a confession that is too harsh for even the most robust believer. Accordingly, the “law” we see at work in every area of life is operative also in religion and morality. On the one hand, there is a revolutionary spirit that seeks to level all that has taken shape historically in order to start rebuilding things from the ground up. There is, however, also a false conservatism that takes pleasure in leaving the existing situation untouched simply because it exists and – in accordance with Calvin’s familiar saying – not to attempt to change a well-positioned evil (malum bene positum non movere). At the proper time everywhere and in every sphere of life, a certain radicalism is needed to restore balance, to make further development possible, and not let the stream of ongoing life bog down. In art and science, state and society, similarly in religion and morality, there gradually develops and mindless routine that oppresses and does violence to the rights of personality, genius, invention, inspiration, freedom, and conscience. But in due time there always arises a man or woman who cannot bear that pressure, casts off the yoke of bondage and again takes up the cause of human freedom and that of Christian liberty. These are the turning points of history. Thus Christ himself rose up against the tradition of the elders and returned to the law and the prophets. Thus one day the Reformation had the courage, not in the interest of some scientific, social, or political goal, but in the name of Christian humanity, to protest against Rome’s hierarchy. Frequently, even in the case of the sects and movements that later arose in the Protestant churches, that religious and ethical motive is undeniably present. So-called biblical theology also defends an important part of religious truth. When a church and theology prefer peace and quiet over struggle, they they themselves trigger the opposition that reminds them of their Christian calling and task. Rome, in the name of the case, can never approve of such opposition and has to condemn it in advance. The Reformation is itself the product of such opposition and cannot withhold from others what it assumed for itself. And Holy Scripture, thought far removed in spirit from all revolutionary resistance, nevertheless, in Peter’s regal statement “We must obey God rather than man” (Acts 5:29), legitimates the right to oppose every human decree that is contrary to the Word of God.

This passage especially caught my attention as I read today, most likely because on Saturday I attended my first Roman Catholic mass, which was part of a wedding ceremony for a family friend.  I have been struck for some time by the thought that Roman Catholicism is significantly different from the Reformed Protestant tradition in which I have been raised, so much so that I believe more and more that it is legitimate to refer to two entirely different religions – Christianity, which has Christ at the center and relies strictly on God’s word as the source of revelation, and Catholicism, which is much more oriented toward having the church itself as the object of religious devotion, or – in the best case scenario – some combination of Christ and the church, the Word and tradition.  From the Protestant perspective – at least of this protestant - the two systems are distinctly different, and not just over minor issues, but over the central issue of the Faith: and as such, it doesn’t make much sense to pretend that Roman Catholicism and Protestant Christianity are simply different flavors of the same faith.  I’m glad to see that my thinking is at least in the same ballpark as such an eminent scholar as Herman Bavinck.

Related posts:

  1. The Essential Foundation
  2. “The most important proof for the dogma was the proof from Scripture.”
  3. Rob Bell, Call Your Office
  4. The Beginnings of Reformed Theology
  5. Christianity and Liberalism

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