On Speaking With An Authoritative Tone Of Voice

Evangelicals in recent years have been grappling with the question of humility and it’s relation to the claims that Christianity makes about the world. This has been pressed partly because of the increased awareness of the existence of other religions, and because of the doctrine of hell, and has been made into a central issue with the rise of the emergent/ing church. Around a century ago, Bavinck addressed some of these issues head on, in a way that I think is profoundly helpful and correct:

Naturally, in this reproduction of the content of revelation, a danger exists on many levels of making mistakes and falling into error. This fact should predispose the dogmatician, like every practitioner of science, to modesty. The confession of the church and in even greater measure the dogmatics of an individual person, is fallible, subject to Scripture, and never to be put on a level with it. It does not coincide with the truth laid down in Scripture. Faith, or better, the faithful intellect, occupies an intermediate position between Scripture and dogmatics. Still, by comparison with the other practitioners of science, the dogmatician is favorably situated. He may and can, as Kaftan puts it, to some extent speak in an absolute tone of voice. A dogma is a faith-proposition that claims to be true and demands universal recognition, and dogmatics is a normative science that prescribes what we must believe. But dogma and dogmatics cannot on their own authority and in their own name strike that absolute tone of voice but only because and insofar as they rest on the authority of God and can appeal to a “God has said it.” The weakness of dogmatics consists precisely in the fact that the discipline itself has so little faith in this “God has spoken.” According to Kaftan, this is completely correct: The contempt in which dogmatics is held today is rooted in the fact that it has forgotten its own task and given up its own unique character. And therefore he also, correctly, believes that precisely as science and in order to regain its honor as a science, dogmatics cannot do better than again become what it ought to be. It must again become a normative science, bravely and boldly avow the authority principle, and speak in an absolute tone of voice. Provided this tone of voice is solely derived from the content of the revelation that it is the dogmatician’s aim to interpret and is struck only insofar as he explicates this content, it is not in conflict with the demands of modesty. For both the absolute tone of voice and the modesty find their unity in the faith that must guide and animate the dogmatician from beginning to end in all his labor. By that faith he subjects himself to the revelation of God and is organically connected with the church of all believers. Whereas today, with the help of a little psychology and some philosophy of religion, everyone establishes his own dogma, it is a privilege and an honor for the Christian dogmatician to position himself in the faith and by doing this to articulate his submission to the Word of God and his participation in the fellowship of the church of all ages. [Reformed Dogmatics, vol 1., 45-46]