"When Your Mind's Made Up..."

“…there’s no point even talking.” – Glen Hansard

It was a moment of ironic serendipity. I happened to be reading through the journal put out by the Protestant Reformed Churches in America, the most recent issue of which purports to thoroughly examine the theology of my hero, the great Herman Bavinck (1854-1921). This explains why I was reading it. As I read with extreme frustration Dr. David Engelsma’s “critiques” of the great Dutchman, Irishman Glen Hansard was wailing on my iPad that there’s no point in even talking, no point in trying to change it, when “your mind’s made up.”

No more perfect anthem could have captured the moment.

You see, the Protestant Reformed Churches in America is a sect 7,800 strong, spread over 31 churches. A lack of conviction and confidence is not something of which you would accuse this group of people. They know their own minds and, well, they are thoroughly “made up.” I have little doubt that I will be sharing the new heavens and the new earth with many, if not all, my PRC brothers and sisters; but I also believe that my PRC brothers and sisters are going to be very surprised, indeed, at the sheer number of other people sharing it with them.

As a sect, the PRC has its origins in certain theological conflicts, the most major of which is the doctrine of common grace. Common grace, the notion that our Heavenly Father showers grace and blessings even on the reprobate, is to the PRC a grotesque perversion of the Reformed Faith. Their all-controlling doctrine is God’s eternal and absolute decree of election and reprobation. God cannot, in the nature of the case, involve himself in history in a way different than his eternal and final decrees. Grace to the reprobate? Impossible, they say. Wrath to the elect? Impossible, they say. (If this were true, I’ll just point out that the Apostle Paul could never say to the elect: “You were once children of wrath.” But, alas, he did, to the everlasting inconvenience of the PRC.) One of the offshoots of this conviction is that there is no such thing as the “well-meant offer” of the gospel. God never genuinely offers salvation in history to those for whom he has decreed reprobation in eternity.

In other words, I think we can safely say that the number of remaining Hyper-Calvinists in the world stands at right around 7,800.

Why do I call the PRC “sectarian”? Because they are anti-catholic to the core. They seem to have no interest in finding common ground with other believers. They decry all “ecumenism” as selling out the truth. As you read through, say, Engelsma’s work on Bavinck, you never find language like this: “This theological formulation seems problematic.” You never find the language of “error.” It is always “grievous error.” Anything and everything not precisely conforming to the Reformed confessions of faith is “heresy.” Not “sub-biblical.” Not “theologically suspect.” It is always heresy. Damnable heresy, in fact. Sects always operate this way. Always seeking to justify their estrangement from the rest of the Christian world, their theological hobby-horses become the dividing line between heaven and hell, truth and lies.

Not an accident, that. When the all-controlling principle in one’s theology is the absolute, black and white, antithetical distinction between election and reprobation, nuance and complexity are not friends to be embraced. And so it is utterly unsurprising—boring, in fact—that the PRC’s journal evaluating Herman Bavinck is completely without nuance or complexity. In fact, knowing as I do the theological distinctives of the PRC, I could have written Engelsma’s critique of Bavinck, practically word-for-word. It is, sadly, that predictable. The world is utterly simple, as simple and black and white as the eternal decree of election.

And so the way it works throughout the PRC’s journal is this: when Bavinck writes things we agree with, we love him. When Bavinck speaks differently than us, he is captive to “another spirit.” As Glen sings, “When your mind’s made up…” you cannot be challenged.

I do not know why people of this disposition even bother. Theological discussion is a proxy for admiring every inch of one’s glorious self in the mirror.

Listen to Engelsma’s opening paragraph. After praising the translation of the Reformed Dogmatics and the renaissance of Bavinck studies (he says renaissance “in North America,” apparently unaware that much of this rebirth is taking place in Europe), he writes:

This would be a good thing, if the Reformed churches and theologians would pay attention to the sound and solid Reformed doctrines in Bavinck’s dogmatics, allowing these doctrines to critique, correct, and inform the teaching of the churches and theologians.

Well, okay then. People aren’t paying attention to the things David Engelsma likes. And it is a bit amusing to see David Engelsma wishing people would just allow themselves to be critiqued, corrected, and informed. Heh. Indeed.

Instead, churches, theologians, and educational institutions have seized upon “erroneous doctrines” in Bavinck and have emphasized these “false teachings, especially the doctrine of a common grace of God.” How original. I never could have guessed common grace would be the root of all theological evil.

Moreover, the conferences that have been held about Bavinck, both in Grand Rapids and Princeton, “have largely ignored the Reformed doctrines of Bavinck, as set forth in the Reformed Dogmatics, and have devoted themselves instead to Bavinck’s views on ecumenicity, psychology, and culture.”

These accursed people just won’t talk about the things that tickle David Engelsma’s ears.

Missing in this ridiculous, self-serving tirade, of course, is that so far the only two serious academic monographs emerging out of the new translation of Bavinck deal specifically with the Reformed Dogmatics, and have nothing to do with ecumenicity, psychology, and culture. I know because I wrote one of them. My friend James Eglinton wrote the other. David Engelsma does not seem to be aware of either book.

And he really ought to familiarize himself with them, because he everywhere perpetuates a classic mistake in interpreting Bavinck that James and I (and others like Nelson Kloosterman, Cornelis Venema, and John Bolt) have spent years trying to correct: the impulse to view Herman Bavinck as some kind of theological schizophrenic, a.k.a., the “two Bavinck’s” hypothesis.

But that, too, is completely unsurprising. The entirety of the PRC journal wrestles with a highly uncomfortable question for their particular communion: Our forefathers learned at the feet of the great Herman Bavinck; we disagree vehemently with much of Herman Bavinck’s theology; how do we reconcile these two things?

Simple. Herman Bavinck was a schizophrenic; sometimes following the “true, Reformed” theological path, and other times turning aside for the lure of modern liberalism. The line of demarcation is supremely easy for Engelsma and the (very few) other contributors. When Herman says things we like and agree with, he is the good, Reformed, son of a secession minister. When Herman says things we don’t like, he got it all from Scholten and other professors in Leiden and gave in to damnable heresy and lies.

That is good and powerful stuff for self-justification and smug self-satisfaction. It is utterly irrelevant as genuine theological analysis, not merely because the “two Bavincks” hypothesis is terribly mistaken, but because such an approach only allows Engelsma, et. al., to see what they want to see. Everything that matches their “grid” is approved; everything that falls outside the “grid” is to be discarded.

What I am saying is this: it is literally impossible for the theologians, pastors, and teachers of the PRCA to ever learn from Herman Bavinck. Bavinck can only and ever be, in the nature of the case, a ventriloquist’s puppet in their hands. “There’s no point even talking…when your mind’s made up,” indeed.

Given this, it would not be helpful in the slightest to go through Engelsma’s piece and rebut it. But I will say just a couple of things.

Engelsma’s articles are thoroughly dated, full of conventional wisdom about Bavinck that might have held currency 40 or 50 years ago, but is highly debatable now. Obviously, this is true with respect to his embrace of the now-defunct “two Bavincks” approach, but in other details, as well. He flatly declares that “Bavinck deliberately adopted a ‘neo-Thomist philosophy’ as a philosophical guide for his theology.” Now, I realize he has R.H. Bremmer to thank for this observation. He quotes Bremmer: “all Bavinck-commentators are in agreement that the neo-Thomistic philosophy exercised a great influence on [Bavinck].” Well, maybe that was the conventional wisdom in the 1950s when Bremmer taught, but it isn’t true now.

Neo-Thomism simply did not have a great influence on Bavinck, and Bremmer was wrong.

I could go on forever correcting details, but suffice it to say that Engelsma’s readings and interpretations of Bavinck are frequently dubious. From a single, off-handed reference to Schleiermacher and Kant in Bavinck’s treatment of the covenant of works, he draws this far-reaching conclusion: “Evident in the declaration is that Schleiermacher and Kant have a certain authoritative, determining role in Bavinck’s theological thinking.”

That is pure, 100% poppycock.

And there is much more like that. Bavinck grounded his covenant of works on his reading of Hosea 6:7, we are told. Except that he didn’t. Engelsma finds Bavinck’s nuance on the word “merit” nonsensical, never once realizing the Bavinck made a distinction between merit ex condigno and ex pacto. Of course you’d be confused if you didn’t pick up on that qualification.

The PRCA’s journal on Herman Bavinck is not really an exercise in reading and understanding Herman Bavinck. It is an exercise in finding truths their made-up minds want to find.

And, sadly, it seems Glen is right: “There’s no point even talking.”

Brian Mattson