“Autonomy becomes a principle that undermines every authority and all law.”
— Herman Bavinck —
Solomon teaches us that there is nothing new under the sun. The sins and struggles of one generation morph and change in the next, but because the root cause of sin and struggle remains the same, human misery is never novel. Indeed, as Ecclesiastes 7:29 tells us, “God made man upright, but he has sought many schemes.” Yet, such schemes are only variations on a handful of themes.
For this reason, God’s completed canon (the Bible) is more than sufficient to supply us with wisdom for today. And often, Christian sages from other centuries—those saturated by God’s Word—are better able to address modern maladies than contemporary writers. An example of this is Herman Bavinck, a Dutch pastor, theologian, and ethicist. In his recently translated book, Christian Worldview, Bavinck addresses some of the most difficult issues confronting us today.
In three chapters on epistemology, ontology, and ethics, Bavinck confronts the materialism of his day. In response, he provides a thorough-going Reformed view of the world. As anyone familiar with his Reformed Dogmatics knows, his argument style rarely devolves into mere proof-texting. Rather, he shows vast knowledge of philosophy and science and argues his points by dismantling the incoherence of their views. Indeed, by focusing on the philosophers of his day, Bavinck provides an enduring argument against all who deny the wisdom and authority of God. And we do well to learn from him.
Herman Bavinck on Autonomous Individualism
Today, much of the battle for the mind has moved from the natural sciences to the social sciences. Yet Bavinck’s insights endure, especially those which address the human condition of individual autonomy. With incredible precision he observes how denying God’s created order leads to autonomous individualism, which in turn creates (the desire for) new societies to be formed—human constructs which are antagonistic to God’s design.
Today, ideological voices and socio-political organizations that oppose, or redirect, Christ and his church are different, but they are just as plentiful. In particular, Critical Theory, a view of the world which sees everything through the lens of oppressed and oppressor, is a way of thinking that arises from the denial of God’s created order and asserts a new way of organizing and analyzing the world. This blogpost is not written to address that subject head on, but it is written to show us how Bavinck helps think carefully about what the church is facing today in Critical Race Theory. For in Bavinck’s day and ours, we find that an overemphasis on subjective experience and autonomous individualism is inimical to Christ and the Church.
On this point, the first thing we should observe is that when individuals cut themselves off from God, whatever society they create, will crumble with them. He writes,
Naturally, with this [hyper-autonomy], all moral institutions, all establishments of family and society and state, fall apart. Just as the last components of the knowledge of sensory perceptions and the last components of the natural world are atoms or energies, so the family, society, and state are dissolved into their original elements: individual people . . . There are, after all, no objective ideas, nor moral relationships, no longer any fixed orders that hold together and organize these elements. But nevertheless, just as we cannot go beyond our minds in order to form general concepts and to shape a nature beyond ourselves, so we are likewise forced by necessity to group individuals into a society. Moral obligation does not exist there, although physical compulsion does. (102–03)
As Bavinck observes, when we break society into its smallest parts and disconnect these parts from God, there is no hope of organizing these parts into a world that honors God or enjoys his blessing. Rather,
Individualism turns into socialism, autonomy into heteronomy, nominalism into monism, atomism into pantheism, anarchy into despotism, the sovereignty of the people into the power of the state, freedom into the tyranny of the majority, not because of ethical necessity but rather because of practical motives and economic factors. Karl Marx understood his time when he discovered a connection between science and society and for that reason wanted to create a link between the intellectual class and the suffering class. If no other factors are at work in nature and history than those taken into account by the atomistic or energetic worldview, a society as dreamed of by Marx is still the only ideal. Indeed, modern science has a genetic connection to socialism. (104)
For those familiar Marx, you know his negative views of Christ and the Church, as well as the way he framed the world through the lens of economic classes. Of a piece with Marx, those who explain the world through gender, race, or some other group identity are doing so in opposition to the way God thinks of individuals (image-bearers) who are to be born into families and called into covenant in marriage and the church. Indeed, those who eschew the institutions of marriage, family, and church, must turn directly to the state without the help of these meditating institutions. This statism, Bavinck observes, is a product of worldview that is divorced from God himself and leads image bearers to live lives alienated from God, and by extension alienation from one another too.
How Unfettered Individualism Leads to Anarchy
Today, many voices also calling for something entirely new. Dissatisfied with institutions that are perceived to be inherently and unchangeably biased, many Christians are calling for the reformation of the Church. Just the same, many outside the Church are calling for radical changes in culture and politics.
Addressing this way of thinking, Bavinck writes, “In every direction there is a call to search for a new religion, a new dogma, a new morality, a new science, a new art, a new marriage, a new criminal law, a new society” (126). Such zeal for reformation, impelled by autonomous individualism, not the glory of God (as with Martin Luther), ultimately brings about an anti-authoritarian impulse. And this anti-authoritarianism leads, in turn, to anarchy. Because self-referential desires grate against transcendent moral truths, the result is individualism and anarchy.
Indeed, without a shared view of God, truth, and morality, the individual is left to arrive at his or her own truth. Society is then composed of groups who are bound together by their agreed up “truths,” which, it should be noted, stand in opposition to other groups, who hold differing “truths.” What is missing is any transcendent truth to which all parties must submit. Indeed, this way of autonomous thinking is what stands behind today’s identity politics, and it is, in Bavinck’s words, the source of anarchy which Christian’s must stand against.
It is the autonomy and anarchy that the Christian worldview resists with all its strength. According to it, the human being is not autonomous but is always and everywhere bound to laws that were not devised by him but that are prescribed to him by God as the rule of his life. In religion and morality, in science and art, in family, society, and state, ideas are everywhere, norms above him, which mutually form a unity and have their origin and existence in the Creator and Lawgiver of the universe. These norms are the ideal treasures, entrusted to humanity, the basis of all social institutions. (128)
To be sure, the world God has entrusted to humanity is “the basis of all social institutions.” But the only way human flourishing will proceed is to stop seeking bettere sociological answers and to discern from Scripture the objective and absolute truth of the world God has made. Human flourishing comes as human institutions order themselves according to God’s good design. By contrast, any ideology that begins with individual autonomy and the whims of his fancy will ultimately fail, because autonomous individualism does not have the resources to unite humanity. Only Christ does!
The Fruit of Individualism Is Separation, But The Fruit of the Spirit is Peace
To cut humanity off from God, or to squeeze God out of public square in the interest of having non-partisan discussion, will never work. Just the same, any analytic tool that derives from such an individualistic and materialistic ideology will also stumble—or cause others to stumble. It is naive to argue that tools are neutral and permeable to the designs of the user. Tools are shaped by those who invent them and they will shape whomever uses them.
To apply this to the tool that was ratified with qualifications, at the 2019 Southern Baptist Convention, namely Critical Race Theory, it is important to remember that the architects of CRT have a materialist vision of the world and ethical commitments that promote rights of one group at the expense of another. Such a use of this tool will necessarily lead to more division and if brought into the church, its inherent individualism will undermine the unity which Christ has created in his new covenant.
In truth, Christ has already given his church peace and reconciliation, as well as the Spirit who teaches his people how to make peace. There is no need to borrow tools from the world. Conceived by those who stand against God and outside of Christ, their human autonomy ensure that the fruit of individualism is separation. Only the Spirit can produce the fruit of peace.
All in all, Christians who are committed to a biblical view of the world must know where autonomous individualism comes from and where it leads. For our greatest hope will never be in deftly employing the tools (read: schemes) of men. Rather, the hope for the believer in this age and the next is in returning to the Wisdom of God found in his unchanging Word. God’s revelation is more than sufficient to produce mercy and bring justice in the world, and when we decide to know nothing but Christ and him crucified, we ensure that he gets all the glory in our community-building endeavors.
For his reason, we must reject all brands of autonomous individualism and the ideologies that employ it. Following the counsel of Herman Bavinck, we must remember that human autonomy “undermines every authority and all law” (102), and that even as the world seeks to build something better with its new ideologies, their wisdom is only the latest version of Babel. Our hope is not building a better society from the mud of Shinar, but in seeking God’s kingdom and learning from Christ how to God’s will on earth as it is in heaven.
Soli Deo Gloria, ds
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