Thursday, June 27, 2013

Herman Bavinck on Evan Roberts

For some years my big reading project has been Herman Bavinck's Reformed Dogmatics. I'm now on Volume Four, which is the biggest of the lot, weighing in at 944 closely printed pages. The theme of this fourth and final tome in the series is Holy Spirit, Church, and New Creation. I'm nearing the end of chapter two on Faith and Conversion. It's good stuff, typical of Bavinck's thoughtfully biblical approach to systematics. His paedobaptist predilections are beginning to intrude a little more than a Baptist would like, but you can't have everything. 

The theologian has a section on 'feeling sin and loving God' in conversion. He wisely rejects the tendency of some Pietists to insist on the need for a long penitential struggle prior to conversion. Bavinck laments that under the influence of that kind of thinking, "a great many Christians...year after year complain about their sins but almost never enjoy the heartfelt joy in God through Christ nor ever arrive at a peaceful and quiet life of gratitude." (p. 158). That experience is all to common in Gospel Standard Baptist Churches, where great attention is given to conviction of sin, but poor sinners are offered little by way of encouragement to trust in Christ for themselves. 

Bavinck then reflects on the Methodist view of conversion, where a long penitential struggle is replaced by an acute crisis of misery over sin followed by the ecstasy of forgiveness. This crisis is often accompanied by loud exclamations, tears and dancing and leaping with joy. Wesley and Whitefield were relaxed about that kind of thing, notes Bavinck, but Jonathan Edwards was more circumspect. I think the theologian is being a little hard on Wesley and Whitefield here. They did not take emotional outbursts as a stand-alone indicators of  new life. Both men looked for lasting fruit following conversion. 

It is at this point that Evan Roberts gets a mention, together with the 1904 Welsh Revival. Bavinck  mentions certain ecstatic and visionary phenomena that occurred among the Camisards and during the Nijkerk disturbances under G. Kuypers. I don't know what he's referring to here, but evidently the theologian perceived a link between these strange 'disturbances' and the ministry of Evan Roberts. He says, "And when the revival in Wales under Evan Roberts produced the same psychological and physical abnormalities and sparked them in other countries...opinions again strongly diverged." (p. 159).

That's it, really. It seems that Bavinck was a little suspicious of the 1904 Welsh Revival, impacted at it was by some strange goings on under Evan Roberts' ministry. Whether there was any room in Bavinck's theology for a doctrine of revival, I'm not really sure. But his treatment of conversion is full of biblical understanding and sound pastoral wisdom. While all conversions involve hatred for sin and love for God, there is no such thing as a stereotypical conversion experience. We avoid subjecting people to penitential despair by not proclaiming the threatenings of the law apart from the consolations of the gospel. 
True conversion, grief over sin, and genuine restoration to God and his service, therefore are brought about not just by the law but even to a much higher extent by the gospel... Law and gospel, accordingly, work together in human conversion. The law points pedagogically to Christ; but the gospel also sheds its light on the law. (p. 163).
 So, there we are. Herman Bavinck on Evan Roberts. Who'd have thought it?

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