Book Review: The Certainty of Faith – By Herman Bavinck

Bavinck Certainty of Faith.pngletter-aAs Bavinck says in his second chapter: “When our highest interests, our eternal weal or woe is at stake, we must be satisfied with nothing less than infallible, divine certainty. There must be no room for doubt.”

The title of this book, The Certainty of Faith, seemingly has two different connotations. At a glance, the title seems to refer to a discussion on how it is that the Christian comes about having certainty in their faith; in actuality, the book is an answer to that self-same question. The book is not primarily a discussion on how to obtain certainty in faith, but a discussion of the differing types of certainty, one of which is faith.

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There is no question that in the wake of the Enlightenment that the quests for certainty became a major theme in academia, a quest which ironically made doubt the key theme of thought from that point onward. Certainty for the author is that point at which “the spirit finds complete rest in its object of knowledge.”

As outlined by Bavinck there are various forms of certainty: there is the certainty that comes through science and observation; the certainty that comes through rational thought; and the certainty that comes through faith. The first two types of faith, Bavinck notes, while being more universal, lack the strength of the tie to the soul brought by the certainty of faith – it is admittedly more objective, but in this case it is the subjective note that is striven for, the note that touches the soul of the individual. As the author says: “Scientific certainty can’t stand up to the torch and stake.”

Even within religion this certainty has been sought in a variety of ways: through works, through rationalism, through pietism, through experience. Often individuals have look outward or inward, seldom upward. The certainty of faith is one built on revelation (“Revelation is the presupposition, the foundation, the flip-side, the necessary correlate of religion. A religion that no longer dares to come forward in God’s name and authority loses its very essence. It has become mythology or philosophy of religion.”) and “a knowledge gained from a reliable witness.” Thus, “Just as knowledge only occurs when the known object and the knowing subject agree, so true knowledge of God is possible only through faith, which He Himself quickens in our hearts.”

The certainty of faith as outlined by Bavinck comes through the inward work of the spirit, not through works, through arguments, or through experience. Being divinely given, this certainty has the infallibility sought by Bavinck and in being divine is thereby the only certainty worthy of the complete trust of the soul’s destiny.

In terms of significance I think the distinction being made here by Bavinck is an important one, and I’ll admit that I went into the book with the wrong mindset, thinking it was about something that it wasn’t. The book is not an apologetic arguing about how to have certainty in our faith, but rather a discussion on a type of certainty, the certainty of faith. I don’t think this is a distinction or even an idea that is very prevalent in the church today, and when the church is constantly searching for an apologetic by which to bring certainty to faith, it is of immeasurable importance to realize that faith, in itself, is a type of certainty.

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Memorable Quotes:

-“Just as faith cannot be undermined by scientific argument, it cannot be convincingly established by it. It always rests on revelation, authority, a divine word, whether true or presumed, and is therefore always only a fruit of faith, a faith that – for whatever reason – recognizes this authority and bows before it in obedience.”(p24)

-“Proofs come after the fact in every religion; they don’t lead the way but trail behind. They are conceived for those who don’t believe… Apologetics is the fruit, never the root, of faith.”(p22)

-“Truth always brings certainty, but certainty is no proof of truth.”(p33)

-“All proof presupposes a starting point common to those for and against, a foundation recognized by both. It is impossible to reason with someone who denies all principles. Both the proofs as well as the presuppositions on which they rest vary from science to science.”(p54)

-“In order to study the religions, compare them, judge them according to their true, distinct values, we require a standard, an idea of religion, no mater how vague and general, which precedes such study and evaluation, and which guides and rules it.”(p56)

-“Certainty became the goal rather than the starting point of all his striving. To be saved was the object of all his desires.”(p94)

Specific Criticisms

Perhaps my only criticism is that the system set forward by Bavinck seems to be circular at some point, at least when he speaks of the doubt that sometimes accompanies faith. At one point he states that “As long as we aren’t certain and firm in our faith and we still doubt, we will continue to experience anxiety and fear and will not have the boldness and trust of children of God… But if in faith we fasten immediately onto the promises of God and take our stand in His rich grace, then we are His children and receive the Spirit of adoption.”(p92)

As I read this, it seems to essentially be saying that if we aren’t firm in our faith, the remedy is to strengthen our faith. He essentially says “If we aren’t certain in our faith, we will continue to be uncertain in our faith… but if in faith we fasten onto the promises, then we will receive faith (since faith is the work of God in our hearts to those who he elects as his children).”

Yet if a lack of faith is the problem, then a call to strengthen your faith cannot be a solution, given that faith is the work of God. An uncertainty in faith, on this system, must be remedied by God. To suggest an attempt by man seems to come out saying “increase your faith by increasing your faith”, which is hardly useful.



Ordained PCA | MDiv

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