Canon, creed, and consciousness

I will be writing a lot about Bavinck this year. I’m reading through his Reformed Dogmatics, and it is mind-bending stuff. For example, he identifies (p. 1.61) three sources from which Christian theology derives its material: they may be alliterated as canon (scripture), creed (confession and teaching of the church), and Christian consciousness (experience). What is helpful about this triad is that it identifies the three main “players” in Christian theology: God Himself (the source of authoritative revelation), the community of faith (both historical and contemporary), and the individual Christian (the uniqueness of each particular soul and life). Christian theology listens to its God both communally and individually. 

But already in this statement we can see the necessity of a certain order or priority in the triad – an order which has gotten badly out of whack in our times. I would like to think it goes without saying that when we Christians think about theological questions, our task is to interact with the divine answers to these questions, as recorded in the biblical canon; but the briefest survey of modern Christianity will reveal that an awful lot of us think we are competent to supply the answers to the questions. Now certainly many Christians would not want to put it that way; but in practice what drives discussions of what we are to think and how we are to behave? Is it really “What has God said in scripture about this or that?” (In our individualistic times, do we even think to ask, “How has the church reflected and spoken about this or that?” Our Roman Catholic friends would perhaps be more inclined to ask such a question.) Or is our reflexive impulse to ask, “What do I think (or worse still, how do I feel) about this or that?”

Christian consciousness is a site for receptive reflection in theology; Christian experience is the sphere of practical outworking in theology. But if Christian theology is to remain in any sense Christian, it cannot derive from (it cannot be grounded in) the thought and experience of the individual. My ideas and experiences simply have no normative role in Christian theology; they do not (they may not) determine what I am to believe or do.

We should also say, over against Roman Catholic teaching, that the collective thought and experience of the church is likewise without normative status, in the sense that it stands fully under the judgment of the canon – as much as the individual, the church as a whole is receptively to reflect on the Word of her God and obediently to apply it in her corporate experience. But to give high churchmanship its due, at least in the community of faith there is the safety of many counselors. Christendom may err; but if it is Joe Christian contra Christendom, I will go with Christendom every time. (Here I must commend Chapter 7 in Robert Letham’s recent work, The Westminster Assembly: Reading Its Theology in Historical Context, pp. 120–58.)

Again, I would like to believe this is obvious. At any rate, Bavinck’s treatment of the theological triad provides a great deal of help in organizing our thinking about where theology comes from, and how it is constructed.

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