Herman Bavinck once wrote, “There is so much narrow-mindedness, so much pettiness among us, and the worst thing is that this is regarded as piety.” Bavinck was referring to two Christian groups the separatist churches of the Grievers and Seceders. Both groups left the state church, but they could not get along.
Why? Not because of matters of orthodox doctrine. Both had it. But because of pettiness and narrow-mindedness. It is the old problem of Donatism, of a drive for purity that that cuts itself off from other people. We often feel holier than the body of Christ.
But Jesus accepts us just as we are by faith. And so the body of Christ should welcome one another just as Christ welcomed us (Rom 15:7). To do anything less is to miss the mark of Christ’s love and formation of his body, the church.
One reason why we often become petty and narrow-minded as Bavinck says is because we do not understand how God’s Spirit gifts the created world and people in it, even of unbelievers or believers whom we disagree with. We think we are at the centre of it all. We are not because any truth or goodness that we find in this world has its origin in God.
Wherever truth is found there God’s Providence and Spirit are
I do not know where the phrase “all truth is God’s truth came” from. I am sure it is often used badly. I think I agree with the notion. But I much prefer saying wherever truth is found there God’s Providence and Spirit are.
This is exactly what John Calvin argues in his Institutes of Christian Religion. Calvin argues that any truth that we see in creation comes from God. In Book II of his institutes, for example, Calvin says we can read ancients with admiration because all truth comes from God.
“If we regard the Spirit of God as the sole fountain of truth, we shall neither reject the truth itself, nor despise it wherever it shall appear, unless we wish to dishnonor the Spirit of God” (2.2.15).
He then speaks of philosophers, scholars, and mathematicians and concludes: “No, we cannot read the writings of the ancients on these subjects without great admiration.” Yet he is quick to affirm their gifts come from God.
The Spirit, argues Calvin, distributes excellent benefits “for the common good of mankind” (2.2.16). These benefits include “physics, dialectic, mathematics, and other like disciplines.”
Calvin then says, “For if we neglect God’s gift freely offered in these arts, we ought to suffer just punishment for our sloths.”
Calvin is not alone. Augustine of Hippo once wrote: “Any statements by those who are called philosophers, especially the Platonists, which happened to be true and consistent with our faith should not cause alarm, but be claimed for our own use, as it were from owners who have no right to them” (On Christian Teaching 2.44).
Speaking of God, the reformer Peter Martyr Vermigli wrote, “He endowed our minds with light and planted the seeds from which the principles of all knowledge arose” (Nicomachean Ethics, 7).
In Vermigli’s Loci Communes, he writes explains that when Paul says, “For God hath made manifest unto them,” this means that all truth comes from God (1:11). God, he affirms, ingrafts truth into human beings (1:11–12).
Vermigli notes that Plato, Aristotle, and Galen have truly discerned cause and effects and so that God exists (1:12). The scriptures too confirm that providence leads us to God (e.g., Matt 6.26, 28; Ps 19) (1:12). Vermigli makes the interesting point that Job portrays Gentiles and thus an example of natural theology (1:12).
While speaking of God’s revelation in creation, Herman Bavinck writes: “Philosophers, natural scientists, and historians have often spoken in striking words about this revelation of God. This general relation has at all times been unanimously accepted and defended in Christian theology. It was particularly upheld and highly valued by Reformed theologians” (Dogmatics 1:310-311)
Reformed theologians affirmed common grace, continues Bavinck, which allowed them to “recognize all the truth, beauty, and goodness that is present also in the pagan world. Science, art, moral, domestic, and societal life, etc., were derived from that common grace and acknowledged and commended with gratitude” (1:319).
Calvin, Augustine, Vermigli, and Bavinck are simply examples of a broad consensus of virtually all reformed, medieval, and patristic Christians. To deny truth simply because someone is an unbeliever or a different kind of believer than you, as Calvin says, is “to dishnonor the Spirit of God” (Insti. 2.2.15). And further, it means we will “suffer just punishment for our sloth” (2.2.16).
The Bible tells that God institutes authorities on earth (Rom 13), teaches the farmer how to farm (Isaiah 28), proclaims his glory through creation (Ps 19), and makes himself known through what he has made (Rom 1).
As Paul argues, God’s Providence in the world is meant for people to see, to note what God has made and his care over creation, so that “they should seek God, and perhaps feel their way toward him and find him” (Acts 17:27).
As everyone admits (and explicitly noted by Thomas Aquinas), nature alone cannot tell us about the Trinity, redemption, and what is necessary for salvation. Only revelation can. Natural theology or what we can know about God from nature has set limits.
The reformed theologian Franciscus Junius explains, “And so [natural] theology can lead nothing at all to perfection, nor does it ever do so. And it is not even able, in and of itself, to contain the perfection that is added by grace” (Thesis 17, True Theology). Perfection or compilation of our natural yearnings can only happen by grace, by revelation.
Calvin speaks of natural things as lesser matters which the philosophers might help us with. But God alone in Scripture reveals things beyond what we could ever know on our own. Besides, as Calvin notes too (and the reformed in general), our will and intellect have become depraved.
We can not will rightly or see clearly until God renews our natures. The Spirit then gifts even our natural excellence. God, argues Calvin, “often endows with a heroic nature those destined to command” (2.3.4). This heroic nature does not erase original sin. But it means there is a genuine virtue there, but of the Spirit.
Our pettiness and narrow-mindedness often follow from a narrow gaze. We ignore the gifts of the Spirit because we think God only works in us. We make private what God has made public—his fatherly care of creation. The Spirit brings excellence in it for the benefit of all.
Yet we deny it, at times, at least by our actions. And we narrow our approaches, our access to philosophy and science, and basically make Christianity affect only ourselves. We lose out on all the gifts and benefits of the Spirit for the common good.
The suspicion of sectarianism in effect ignores the work of the Spirit. The pettiness of Christians in their dismissal of other Christians reveals overconfidence. We need the sort of humility that “bears all things” out of love.
We need to have the humility that allows us to learn from others, interact with them, and engage with them. As Bavinck says, “The gospel is a joyful tiding not only for the individual person but also for humanity, for the family, for society, for the state, for art and science, for the entire cosmos, for the whole groaning creation.”
The Gospel is good news for all, and its proclamation tells us of a good Father whose Providence falls upon all, an empowering Holy Spirit, and as Christ our redeemer.
Update March 2022: Read this wonderful article explaining why Protestants read Aristotle.
Ben MacGown says
Excellent post! Thank you.
Your exhortation against pettiness is much needed in our age. It’s easy to fall into the trap of wanting to prove someone else wrong in order to prove our own superiority. It is something that I struggle with, and I need to constantly ask myself if a correction is necessary in a given situation or if I would just be risking conflict to fuel my own pride.
And if God speaks through nature and nonbelievers, how much more does he speak through fellow Christians who come from other traditions and express the truth in different ways?
Grace and peace,