Bavinck's So-Called "Mistake"

This post is not really that important. It concerns a blog post that somebody Tweeted today and it appeared in my Twitter feed. Since it concerns the subject of my particular academic expertise and (even more importantly) is penned by a significant, highly respected theologian, I thought I might offer a brief corrective.

Adding to its insignificance is that I initially thought the post recent. Only after reading it did I realize that somebody had Tweeted a blog post written in November of 2008. An awful lot of mind changing, refining, and retracting can happen in four years! 

Adding as well to its insignificance is that I agree with the general thrust of the article, written by the eminent Dr. Paul Helm. I, too, am convinced that, if understood in certain qualified ways, both natural law and common grace are attempts at getting at the self-same theological issue (how and in what ways does sinful humanity retain the imago Dei?) in very similar ways, albeit with different vocabularies.

So why the fuss?

Because Helm, relying on a book by Arvin Vos, claims that Dutch Neo-Calvinism, and Bavinck in particular, made a "mistake" when evaluating the natural theology of Thomas Aquinas. I have a couple of things to say about that.

Helm writes:

[Bavinck] was working with a Counter-Reformation view of nature and grace, a view ultimately derived from Cajetan, and reading it back into Calvin's own situation: a classic case of anachronism. Whether or not this is the precise explanation, it is fairly clear that Bavinck's understanding of the Roman Catholic view of the distinction between nature and grace draws that distinction in much sharper lines than it is found historically in Augustine and Aquinas. Indeed, it is another account altogether.

First, whether later Roman Catholic thinkers, or even magisterial dogma itself in the form of councils and catechisms, express themselves in less nuanced ways than more careful, specialized readers of Thomas discern is not only possible, but quite probable. I understand that a specialist like Vos, armed with a nuanced and careful understanding of Thomas, will criticize anyone who understands Thomas in less nuanced ways. But why pick on Bavinck? I suppose he could be blamed if everybody under the sun understood that Thomas' version of the homo naturalis did not draw extremely "sharp lines" between nature and grace and that it was Bavinck himself distorting Thomas' teaching. But to act like there were no Roman Catholic thinkers around in the late 19th century (not to mention plenty of official Roman Catholic dogma stemming from Vatican I) who articulated a version of natural law precisely as Bavinck describes it is ignorant. I can do no better than refer Dr. Helm and any other interested party to Reformed Dogmatics, Volume 2, page 552, footnote 69. You will see quite clearly that Bavinck was interacting with living, breathing Roman Catholic theologians who taught Rome's view precisely as he describes it.

And this leads to my next point. If later Roman Catholicism, particularly the Counter-Reformation, co-opted Thomas and ran his natural theology in dualistic directions he did not intend, shouldn't the blame for that be laid at the feet of Roman Catholic theologians? Bavinck dealt with Roman Catholicism as it stood, in his time and his place. If they misunderstood their preeminent theologian (and if Vos is right, then many, many, many of them did), it is not Herman Bavinck's fault. And, by the way, I did not think this sort of divergence was possible in Rome's understanding of the teaching magisterium. But I digress.

But it is not really this rather innocent transfer of blame from Rome itself to Herman Bavinck that bothered me most. For that would be this paragraph:

Bavinck says that the way in which common grace works is in traces of the image of God continuing in those who are fallen and who are not enjoying saving grace. For example, understanding and reason remain, as do the possession of natural gifts in certain individuals. Calvin would not demur. But his explanation is not that reason and understanding are part of the image of God, but that reason and understanding remain, though these are not part of the image, though they are necessary conditions of possessing the image, and are nevertheless damaged as a result of the Fall.

This is a truly confusing paragraph. I will at the outset admit that it is totally unclear whether the section I've put in bold refers to Bavinck or Calvin. But if Bavinck is intended, as I suspect it is, the paragraph is utterly bizarre. Bavinck did not think that reason and understanding are part of the image of God? I have no idea where Paul Helm could possibly have got this notion. He most certainly did not get it from Herman Bavinck. So grand a whopper is this that I nearly spilled my morning coffee when I read it. I can only surmise the idea came from the same source whence he got the idea of "Bavinck's mistake" in the first place: Arvin Vos. Now, I haven't read Vos's book, but worse mistakes have been made in Bavinck interpretation than this one, and it wouldn't surprise me if it originates there.

Finally, I will simply note for the record that Helm never mentions the Roman Catholic dogma that most contributes to the confusion on this issue on the Roman Catholic side of the debate: the donum superadditum. Bavinck was not making up Roman Catholicism or creating a straw man of his own. He was dealing with Roman Catholic theologians dead set on drawing the distinction "in sharp lines." If those lines are "sharper" than are found historically in Augustine or Thomas, if they are (as Helm alleges) a "different account altogether," then again: this is not Herman Bavinck's "mistake."

Just add it to the list of all the other confusions Rome has self-created over the centuries.

Brian Mattson