The Christian Faith

Greg Parker Jr.
Herman Bavinck
Thursday, September 1st 2022
Sep/Oct 2022
by Herman Bavinck; translated by Gregory Parker Jr.

This essay was originally published in Dutch as a three-part series in De Vrije Kerk in 1883.[1] That same year, Bavinck was installed as a professor at the Theologische School in Kampen. What follows is an excerpt from the English translation, which may be found in its entirety in What Is Christianity? (Hendrickson, 2022). In this portion of the essay, Bavinck explores the content of faith through a short exposition of the Apostles’ Creed. At the end of Bavinck’s life, his brother Coenraad included the essay in a curated volume of Bavinck’s most important theological writings.[2]

How this faith is worked in our hearts cannot be fully described. The working of the Spirit is so wonderful, so unfathomable, and nearly impossible to put into words. We are confronted here with a miracle and with a mystery. This I know: it is not attained by historical-critical research and theoretical studies. Nor by a favorable predisposition or a solid character. It is worked into us by a powerful, immediate impression, at the very moment when the reality of spiritual things powerfully and irresistibly thrusts itself upon our souls and proclaims itself as truth. Suddenly, a light then dawns on us that shows us the misery of “below” and the holiness and glory of “above.”

We have a weak analogy with this indescribable impression in the way in which the moral law powerfully announces itself as a real power in the conscience of every human being. There is also an analogy in the strange phenomenon that the most wonderful thoughts suddenly fall into our consciousness and are perceived as a gift. Thus with Athanasius, the firm conviction of the divinity of the Son and with Augustine, the certainty of election was awakened by an immediate impression (onmiddellijken indruk); and with Luther, justification by faith alone was unshakably established. No article of our confession rests on intellectual research or scientific investigation; these always came after. What gave a dogma subjective assurance and its confessors strength and courage of conviction was always that immediate (onmiddellijken), indescribable impression (onbeschrijflijke indruk) of its truth in the heart through the Spirit. Only then is our faith true when it becomes impossible for us to believe otherwise: that “I cannot do other than; I must not do other than,” that gives our faith the power to overcome the world, that makes every article of our faith the product of a deep spiritual experience, a spiritual gain, by reverently accepting, if we ourselves may find the truth of it so powerfully expressed in our hearts.

However, this impression (onmiddellijk) is not created in us so immediately that the Holy Spirit would exclude any possible means. As in the natural world, conviction in the spiritual realm is also “mediated” (vermittelt) by the Word. Only the Word can awaken this conviction in us. The Holy Spirit must be spoken into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, in such a tone and with such emphasis as he alone, who brought forth the Word, is able to do and then it leaves an indelible impression (onuitwischbaren indruk) in our souls. Then the truth of it is unquestionably sealed in our hearts. This faith, then, is something so tender and holy that it can rest only in God—in no one else, in no book or writing—only and exclusively in God. But then still in God, who speaks to me in his written word and confirms the truth of it to my heart by his Holy Spirit. God, his word, his promises, his deeds are the pillars on which my faith rests. It is facts, deeds, and history that form its foundation, and whose inseparable connection with the truth sealed in us guarantees its future. Therefore, if you will, we believe in authority, in the authority of God himself, who works in us by his Spirit a joyful faith in him and his word. And so little is that authority a compulsion or force, that faith itself knows no greater joy than to rest in that authority of God. Yes, it would die and wither if it rested in anything else but God. For it is firm and certain, not because it is faith but because its faith is in God; it is strong and the conqueror of the world, because its faith in Christ overcomes the world; it is holy and glorious, because its faith is in the Holy Spirit.

Standing in that faith, living through [that faith], the church also expresses what it believes. [The church] neither hides nor is ashamed of its confession. Assured and full of confidence, [the church] speaks it joyfully, even though the funeral pyres are smoking. Yes, in the glow of martyrdom, its confession was often the most powerful; what was experienced in the soul automatically forced itself upon its lips. [The church] confessed and could not confess otherwise. That is the impulse of its heart; [the church] cannot remain silent; it believes and therefore it speaks. [The church] must testify of God’s miracles, mention his majestic deeds. Is the Holy Scripture not enough for it? Oh, most certainly, this is its only source; from [the Scripture] everything flows to [the church], in its depths [the church] dives again and again. Scripture is the magnificent painting which, in a series of captivating scenes, brings before our eyes the works of God in salvation history. Well then, that powerful imprint which the Scriptures make on [the church], it must reproduce. What [the church] has seen through that wonderful book, what it has felt of the word of life, it must proclaim. [The church] must try to put it into words and account for it. [The church] has absorbed what the Scriptures tell it, lived it as it were, and now reproduces it in its confession. Emerging again from the penetration of the Holy Scriptures, it looks around itself, feels strange in this world, and expresses to opponents and those who are astray—with holy enthusiasm—what it has experienced and enjoyed. [The church] does not create; it does not discover a single truth; it only finds what is laid down in Scripture; it merely reflects after the Holy Spirit has thought it all out, but then [the church] expresses what it has found and thus reflects in its own language, in its own way, fully conscious, and understandable for everyone. The confession it expresses, therefore, does not stand above or beside or outside Scripture, but entirely in Scripture. From this [the confession] is wrought, through the channel of congregational experience.

Naturally, that did not happen all at once; what is contained in that Bible is so rich and so broad in scope that it cannot be taken in and reproduced by one person, not by a single generation of people. That requires centuries. The knowledge of the length and breadth and depth and height of Christ’s love can only be attained in fellowship with all the saints. First, therefore, the confession is small. Nothing else is needed except: I believe in Jesus, the Christ. Later on, it will be explained more broadly in the words: I believe in the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. That is the root, which later on grows into the trunk of the twelve articles of faith. And each time the church is introduced more deeply into God’s revelation in subsequent times, this root grows up and various branches grow on it, some of which bend sideways and grow in the wrong direction. But thus, in the course of the centuries, the love of Christ is interpreted more and more broadly, and that glorious image which the church conceives from the Holy Scriptures and causes to radiate outwardly is further and further completed.

It is hard to say what [the church] is already professing because it is so rich and so deep. [The church] believes in God. It thinks about him, it meditates upon him, it testifies about him. Of God always, of God alone. Of the deeds that he has wrought from ancient times, which he continues to work until the end of the centuries. [The church] lives from God, it rests in him, it speaks of him, of his being and attributes, of his works and wonders, of him in the entire riches of his self-revelation, in the unsearchable fullness of his beings, in the Trinity of his existence. In his works, it sees three circles, in his existence three ways, never separated, always distinguished, reflecting itself also in its own spiritual experience. The inexhaustible riches of the divine life and being manifest itself in his self-revelation, which is expressed and represented by the church in its confession of the trinitarian God. First of all, the church, beautifully distinguished from the world, feels absolutely dependent on an absolute power, which called [the church] and all things out and still maintains and rules over them. For [the church], however, this power is not an impersonal fate, not a subdued thought, but a divine independence who knows and wants, rules and directs it, which [the church] addresses as “Thou” and to whom it voluntarily and unconditionally bows. [The church] confesses him as the Creator of heaven and earth, who in the divine being exists as one in himself, from whom all things derive their origin, the sovereign, the lawgiver, the judge of all things. Nonetheless, it also confesses him as the Father, Father of the Son, and through [the Son], Father also of his children on earth, whom he cares for and guards as the apple of his eye. All these things that are part of Scriptures, and that they themselves experience in the soul, lift up the eye thankfully to heaven and confess I believe in God, the Father Almighty, Creator of Heaven and Earth.

But [the church] confesses even more. Yes, if it had no more to confess, it would be unable to confess even this little with reason alone. The world honors neither the Creator nor the Father except in name alone. But the church believes in the Father because it also believes in the Son. And here, the church is now at the heart of its confession. Jesus Christ is the center of all its knowledge and faith. [The church] wants nothing but to know of him, the crucified one. Think of him, consider him, describe him; of his eternal generation from the Father to his conception and birth from Mary; and from there, it follows him throughout his life into his death and burial; and when he rose and ascended to heaven, then [the church] looks after him, keeping an eye above where Christ is, believing that in time he will return upon the clouds of heaven.

Through him, [the church] rejoices; a complete reversal has been brought about. [Christ] has restored the relationship of all things to God, which had been disturbed by sin. He has reconciled all things to God, including mankind. Heaven and earth, God and man, Jew and Gentile, Greek and Barbarian—all are reconciled. He brought about that powerful reversal, not by force of arms but only by suffering. His entire life is summarized by the church in the word: he who suffered. Through the cross alone, he has triumphed over the principalities and powers. That was his only weapon. Alone and never in anything other than in the sign of the cross, he has achieved victory. That is the point: all things are reconciled and reunified. Just as everything turned away from God through the tree of knowledge, so everything returns to God through the cross. After having accomplished reconciliation, he now proceeds to gather all things under him as the head in the fullness of time—everything that is in heaven and on earth [Eph. 1:10]. As king he will reign until all his enemies are laid under his feet. Considering all this now, the church once again raises its eye with vivacity and declares, I believe in Jesus Christ, his only begotten Son, our Lord.

But even more is included in this confession of faith. The reconciliation is there. But then the questions arise: How am I going to stand in it, how do I participate in it, when the unholy powers of sin inside and outside of me carry me farther and farther from Christ? What is the divine power that disengages me from my unholy self and brings me into fellowship with Christ? What power drives us to Christ and to his cross? The church has the answer ready. There is another one: a guide in truth, a comforter who, proceeding from God, returns to Christ and thus returns to the Father, who is not of this world though [he] works in it, and who rebirths and renews us. And the church, looking up the third time, confesses: I believe in the Holy Spirit.

Threefold is he, the true living God whom the church worships. He is threefold in existence, one in essence. For if [the church] did not know that the Father was God, it could not rely on him. If it did not know that the Son was God, it could not rest on his satisfaction for time and eternity. If [the church] did not know that the Holy Spirit was God, it could not rely on his testimony and could not entrust herself to his guidance. [If we] take away just one of these three ways, [then] salvation will falter in our souls and the assurance of faith is impossible. But since God is above, before, and in us, and we are surrounded, cared for, preserved by God on all sides, we may even now have rest and peace, for salvation is certain. If God is for us, then who will be against us [Rom. 8:31]? From him and through him and unto him are all things; to him be the glory [Rom. 11:36].

But who will honor him? Once more the church raises its voice and declares, I believe in one holy catholic Christian church. [The church] is there and it will be completed despite the attacks and the gates of hell. Through the forgiveness of sins and the resurrection of the flesh, [the church] will certainly be restored to eternal life. There is no doubt about it. This is where all the works of the three divine persons are directed. One in essence, they are also one in purpose. [The church] is the temple they build together and desire for dwelling. And when the elements burn and the earth and its works perish, then this temple, on which God has labored for centuries, will arise gloriously upon the ruins of sin and abide forever.

Gregory Parker Jr is a PhD candidate in systematic theology at the University of Edinburgh. He is the co-editor and co-translator with Cameron Clausing of Herman Bavinck’s The Sacrifice of Praise (Hendrickson, 2019) and Guidebook for Instruction in the Christian Religion (Hendrickson, 2022). He is also the editor and translator of Bavinck’s What Is Christianity? (Hendrickson, 2022) and an assistant professor of theology at Cairn University.

1. Herman Bavinck, De Vrije Kerk 9:1, 2, 4 (January, February, April 1883): 44–47, 90–95, 184–93.
2. Herman Bavinck, “Het Christelijk Geloof,” Kennis en leven: opstellen en artikelen uit vroegere jaren, verzameld door Ds C. B. Bavinck (Kampen: J. H. Kok, 1922), 86–97.
Thursday, September 1st 2022

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

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