Bavinck: We Learn Spiritual Realities Through The Material World

Fully adequate [exhaustive] knowledge is something of which we possess very little. Everywhere and in every area of life we finally run into mystery. The inner being of things, the thing as such, escapes our perception. We observe phenomena and from them infer the essence of things; we learn to know stable properties and from them we deduce the substance, but this substance itself lies behind the phenomenon and as such is unknown to us. Physics assumes the existence of atoms or electrons or energies as the final components of the material world, but does not have even a smidgen of empirical knowledge of them. Only the most simple things can be defined. As soon as things are of a somewhat higher order, they can no longer be completely captured in a concept. This is already true of the visible world, but it is even more applicable in the world of invisible things. Human beings are corporeal, sense-oriented beings. All their knowledge originates in, and arises from, sense perception. Our thinking is bound up with our senses, just as our soul is with our body. We never perceive spiritual realities directly but only by the medium of material things. We see all things ‘dimly.’ Not only God but also the soul and the entire spiritual world only become known to us through the medium of the world of the senses. This is why we refer to all spiritual matters with names that have their primary reference in the visible world… The same is true in religion and theology. There is no fully adequate knowledge of God. We cannot name him as he is within himself. All his names are derived from the world of creatures. But this does not make them untrue, a product of human imagination. Just as there is resemblance between various parts of the world, making comparison between them a possibility, so also there is kinship between God and his creatures, a kinship that warrants the use of creaturely language in speaking of him. Furthermore, though temporally the natural is prior to the spiritual, logically and ideally the spiritual precedes the natural. The natural could never guide us to the spiritual if it had not itself proceeded from the spiritual.

Herman Bavinck | Reformed Dogmatics, Volume 2: God and Creation, trans. John Vriend, ed. John Bolt (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2004), 144–45.


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