Over at Ref21, Ligon Duncan supplies a drive-by quote from Herman Bavinck that the Mississippi pastor directs against John Williamson Nevin. Here is the the Bavinck quote:
In a comparatively sound church life, it is possible to assume that as a rule the children of the covenant will be born again in their youth and come to faith and conversion ‘in stages and gracefully.’ But when the world penetrates the church and many people grow up and live for years without showing any fruits worthy of faith and repentance, then the serious-minded feel called to warn against trusting one’s childhood regeneration and one’s historical faith in Christian doctrine and to insist on true conversion of the hearts, and experiential knowledge of the truths of salvation. Against a dead orthodoxy, Pietism and Methodism, with their conventicles and revivals, always have a right to exist. (Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, 3:583)
Then comes this pithy postscript:
And, yes, I know I’m being provocative with the title. But Nevin is not the answer to what ails us.
The post has no links, and as is Ref21’s wont, no place for comments (no peace, no justice!).
So I wonder what made Duncan think of Nevin in connection with Bavinck. Was the Dutch theologian writing against his American counterpart directly? The quotation doesn’t suggest so. Or did David Strain, from whom Duncan obtained the Bavinck quotation, have a recent reading session with the Mercersburg Theology? (I actually follow David’s blog and have not seen activity there in some time. Of course, the Internet is not the only way for David and Ligon to communicate since they both minister in the PCA in Mississippi.)
But even more mysterious is what Ligon means by Nevin not being the answer. The only folks in conservative Presbyterian circles who advocate Nevin regularly are the Federal Visionaries. I know I myself may be charged with such an accusation, but the record is pretty clear that my prescriptions for our communions run more toward Machen than Nevin (as much as I respect the latter’s critique of revivalism).
Still, the funny thing is that the Federal Visionaries’ efforts to blur the lines between faith and faithfulness are very similar to those of the Methodists and Pietists whom Bavinck commends against a dead orthodoxy. After all, the point of turning faith into faithfulness is to get people to take seriously not just the sacraments but all those endeavors to create Christendom and establish the rule of Christ and God’s law. Federal Vision may be wrong orthodoxy but it is hardly dead. In which case, their recommendation of Nevin is a way to obtain exactly what Bavinck wants — “fruits worthy of faith and repentance,” that is, lots of godliness of a experimental Calvinist kind but rooted in the church (where pastors wear clerical collars of odd pastel hues). Federal Vision is no faith for slouches.
At the same time, Bavinck may want to consider Nevin’s critique of revivalism because sometimes children of the covenant are already showing fruits that don’t measure up to the enthusiasts’ standards or their constant laments about dead orthodoxy. As I read Nevin, the point of Christian devotion is not to stick out like a sore thumb but to wear one’s faith organically, or quietly, peacefully (or in Presbyterian parlance, decently and in order). The reason is that calling attention to one’s devotion can readily destroy devotion with selfishness and pride. Even more pressing for Bavinck and recommenders like Duncan is to consider the oxymoronic assertion that a child of the covenant, not in open rebellion, but attending the means of grace and trying to trust the Lord in family devotions and private prayer, and still submitting to godly parents, needs to convert. Convert from what? Pious ways?
As I say, Huh?!?