Interview with Brian Mattson on Restored To Our Destiny

The past twelve months have been fruitful ones for Herman Bavinck scholarship. In addition to the recently published award-winning student essays from the 2008 and 2011 Bavinck conferences (see Five Studies and TBR 3), three Bavinck Society members have recently published significant essays on various aspects of Bavinck’s thought and life.

In order to introduce these authors and their works, the Bavinck Institute is starting a series of author interviews. The first is with Dr. Brian G. Mattson on his new book Restored to Our Destiny: Eschatology & the Image of God in Herman Bavinck’s Reformed Dogmatics, Studies in Reformed Theology 21 (Leiden: Brill, 2011).

LO: Brian, tell us a little about your background. Where did you grow up? Were you born into a Christian home? How did you become interested in theology?

BM: Sure. First, let me thank you for this opportunity to do this interview. For authors of academic works, there is always a lingering anxiety that the book will languish in obscurity, and I’m grateful that The Bavinck Society is taking notice!

I was born and raised in Billings, Montana, or “Big Sky Country,” where I still reside today with my wife and two daughters, enjoying every opportunity to fly-fish our blue-ribbon trout streams. I was the fourth of five children, and I was extremely blessed to have been born into a solidly Christian family. My theological background is in the conservative Reformed community, originally part of an Orthodox Presbyterian Church congregation that my parents helped plant, but which now is affiliated with the Presbyterian Church in America. I was the first child baptized in our congregation, and I’m humbled to say that I’ve been a continual, lifelong member for the following thirty-five years.

My first interest in theology came in my early teens when I read Francis Schaeffer’s little book He Is There and He Is Not Silent. A small book, but much of it flew right over my head. That is precisely what intrigued me! For the first time I realized that my faith had comprehensive worldview implications that I could barely grasp. It was my introduction to an intellectually robust Christian faith, and I was completely hooked. I flirted for a while with the idea of a career in the law (my father worked in the legal field as a court reporter), but God had other plans. Theology was, and continues to be, the passion of my heart.

LO: Where have your academic studies taken you? And whom do you consider to be significant influences upon your thought?

BM: I remained in Billings for my undergraduate degree, studying at our local branch of Montana State University. I majored in history and minored in philosophy. From there I attended Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia from 2001 to 2004, where I obtained a MAR in theological studies. I was encouraged by a number of faculty members at WTS to pursue advanced work in theology, and Carl Trueman was helpful in facilitating my transition to the University of Aberdeen in Northeast Scotland. I spent three years in Aberdeen studying under Donald Wood, a keen, gracious, and generous supervisor whose expertise is in the theology of Karl Barth. Don encouraged me early on to take a closer look at Bavinck—a suggestion for which I am eternally grateful! In Aberdeen I also had the opportunity to interact with John Webster, who also graciously agreed (while on sabbatical) to be the internal examiner for my PhD thesis. Professor Webster is a deeply impressive scholar, only overshadowed by his deeply impressive character as a godly Christian gentleman. The whole systematics faculty under his leadership, in fact, was simply exemplary in that regard.

Significant influences: Besides Herman Bavinck, who magisterially sits at the very top of the list, I have to include the late Greg Bahnsen, under whom I had the privilege of studying the history of philosophy in my impressionable late-teens before his untimely death in 1995. Regardless of his being caught up in the unfortunate “theonomy” controversies of that (thankfully over) era, his philosophical and apologetic work shaped me to a significant degree. That would include, of course, a rather stellar introduction to Cornelius Van Til, from whom I’ve benefitted to a significant degree.

There are, of course, a few of the greats: I always benefit from reading Augustine and Calvin, but find myself returning time and again (strangely enough) to Irenaeus of Lyon’s second-century Against Heresies. If one perseveres through his sometimes bewildering catalogue of Gnostic schools, one finds a truly outstanding work of biblical and systematic theology. I think Irenaeus has not only much in common with Bavinck in his tying together of anthropology and eschatology but also much to contribute to contemporary theology, despite the vast historical distance.

Bringing the historical gap closer, I cannot neglect to mention Richard B. Gaffin Jr. Besides being an unusually gracious professor and friend, his biblical-theological work seems to have found a rather direct route into my intellectual DNA.

Dr. Brian Mattson
Dr. Brian Mattson

LO: One of the things I like most about your book is that you analyze both the forest and the trees, so to speak, of Bavinck’s anthropology. I hear you saying that it is one thing to parse what Bavinck says about eschatology or anthropology by themselves; it is another to view both loci in light of each other; yet it is still another to view both in relation to their underlying “vertical” (metaphysical) and “horizontal” (covenantal) grounds. Am I understanding you correctly here? And am I right to conclude that, in your view, previous scholarship has tended to take the first two roads, but the third is the only one that does full justice to Bavinck’s anthropology?

BM: I think that is a fair characterization. Bavinck himself indicates that unless the covenant of works (the basic import of which, as we’ll see below, is to maintain an Augustinian anthropology) is included, one will not have understood the doctrine of the imago Dei fully.

I’ll use Berkouwer as a brief example. In his book on the image of God, he spends the first sixty-plus pages basically probing and, to his mind, undermining the classic distinction between the “broader” and “narrower” senses of the image, which he believes to be “stubbornly dualistic.” He is quite honest that this reflects a discomfort with metaphysics. Additionally, completely missing from his book (aside from the very narrow question of the “immortality of the soul”) is the question of the eschatological telos of the image, or what I’m calling the “horizontal,” covenant component. How does the original imago Dei relate to the ultimate destiny of the imago Dei in Christ? Bavinck relates the two by way of covenant theology, and he believed that if one does not ask that question, not to mention have an answer that organically relates the two, one will have a theology in which nature and grace exist in an uneasy tension (Roman Catholicism, Lutheranism), at war with each other (Anabaptism), or a theology in which grace displaces nature altogether (anticipating, in some ways, Karl Barth; right where Berkouwer arguably ended up).

I’m suggesting that Berkouwer and nearly everybody else (Veenhof is an exception in some ways) simply did not notice (or ignored for reasons having to do with a predetermined axe to grind against scholasticism) the underlying “covenantal” architecture of Bavinck’s thought and therefore underappreciated its theological value vis-à-vis the nature/grace question. It is not at all clear to me that those who disregard the uniquely Reformed covenant theology undergirding Bavinck’s anthropology have replaced it with an anthropology that avoids the kind of nature/grace dualism he was concerned about. In fact, I’m fairly convinced they haven’t resolved the nature/grace question with anything approaching his success and sophistication.

LO: When covenant theology is discussed nowadays, one usually doesn’t hear people talking about metaphysics. Yet, you make a strong case that, in Bavinck’s thought, covenant theology is firmly grounded in the trinitarian Creator-creature relation. Do you think that it is fair to say that the metaphysical aspect of covenant theology is underappreciated in contemporary discussions? If so (or if not), why do you think this is the case?

BM: Well, I’ll leave aside that covenant theology of the “federal” variety generally isn’t a subject of contemporary discussions outside of the rather narrow confines of conservative Reformed circles! I remember well a systematics seminar in Scotland where a prominent Roman Catholic scholar, in rather irritable tones, complained to a Reformed postgraduate, saying: “You Reformed guys; it’s all about covenants!  Covenant this and covenant that!” That said, I wouldn’t say metaphysics is neglected in more narrow Reformed discussions. Obviously, for example, much of the Kline/Murray debate over covenant theology has much to do with the metaphysical character of “covenant.”

But metaphysics more broadly has clearly fallen on hard times, and we often think its demise is of more recent vintage than it really is. One of the benefits of reading Bavinck is that it becomes clear that the rejection of metaphysics is not, as conventional wisdom sometimes has it, a byproduct of postmodernism’s critique of foundationalism. Bavinck’s entire theology is presented in contrast to the anti-metaphysical climate of the late nineteenth century. What is so significant, to me, at any rate (and getting at your question), is how modernism’s rejection of metaphysics invariably resulted in a collapse of the Creator/creature distinction, seen, for example, in Bavinck’s relentless critiques of the pantheism of Hegel and Schelling. This is one thing that certainly hasn’t changed in the much-vaunted “postmodern turn.”  Rejecting “metaphysics” seems as much today the “gateway drug” for pantheism just as much as it was in Bavinck’s context.

I am not sure I am adequately answering your question, so I’ll stick with this: I do believe, as did Bavinck, that metaphysics cannot be wished away. With respect to his modernist interlocutors he recognized that they were not rejecting metaphysics; they were providing an alternative metaphysics. I believe the same is true with postmodernism. And if we want to replace the metaphysical worldview the Bible presents to us we will not be improving matters. Depart from the Trinitarian Creator/creature distinction at your own risk. Not only will you not have an adequate doctrine of covenant, in the end you won’t have a doctrine of God or creation left either.

LO: The heart of your argument is that Bavinck’s anthropology stands or falls with his covenant theology. In other words, one cannot abstract the one from the other—a common feature of previous interpretations of Bavinck’s anthropology—without damaging both; and, in particular, if one rejects Bavinck’s formulation of the covenant of works, one necessarily rejects his understanding of the imago Dei. This is a bold thesis. In your view, why have previous interpreters overlooked or ignored this important correlation?

BM: Really it is a feature of what you note in your next question: the “covenant of works” is a tough sell. A generation of Bavinck scholars, in my view, wrongly followed Barth in his caricature of federal theology as an allegedly rationalistic departure from the biblical fidelity of the early Reformers. Making that assumption licensed them to simply ignore all that “covenant of works” stuff as unfortunate scholastic baggage that Bavinck thoughtlessly failed to jettison (I document a good deal of this type of interpretation in the introduction to the book). The “overlooking” and “ignoring” was not necessarily intentional; it was far more presuppositional. It was built in to their framework from the outset. My purpose in the book is to demonstrate that Bavinck’s incorporation of federal theology was not thoughtless at all but rather integral to his efforts at overcoming nature/grace dualism. I’ll say more about that in the next answer.

At any rate, I am gratified that at least two contemporary (and respected) Bavinck scholars have indicated, after reading the book, “Why didn’t I see that before?”  When Bavinck says grace “restores” and “perfects” nature, the structural backdrop is his distinction between the covenants of works and grace.  “Restores,” for Bavinck, simply means recovering the status integritatis, what Adam lost, and “perfects” means obtaining what Adam stood to gain: the status gloriae, or eschatological beatitude. “Grace restores and perfects nature” is not, as has been universally assumed in Bavinck scholarship, a statement of trinitarian theology (though that is obviously involved); it is a statement of Reformed covenant theology. Simply put: Bavinck’s signature thesis, “Grace restores and perfects nature” isn’t operable without the covenant theology underlying it. I put it in (perhaps) my most provocative formulation: “[U]sing ‘grace restores and perfects nature’ without appreciating or even denying the covenant theology on which it rests is like enjoying the utility of a beautiful suspension bridge while thinking that architectural engineering is an unimportant, misguided, or even dangerous discipline” (p.107).

LO: The doctrine of the covenant of works is a tough sell in today’s theological market. As you point out, even Reformed theologians who do not follow Barth’s repudiation of classical Reformed federal theology still criticize and/or reformulate the doctrine. Related to this, it was not clear to me to what extent you intended your study of Bavinck’s thought to be a prod for contemporary dogmatic reflection. Do you think that Bavinck’s formulation of covenant theology has something valuable to offer to contemporary Reformed dogmatics, or should it be viewed more like a relic?

BM: I certainly do intend my study to contribute to contemporary dogmatic reflection. In the book I do not (with the exception of a footnote or three) do any such direct correlation, but I did self-consciously have an eye toward contemporary application. In Jonathan King’s review in Themelios he ended by pointing out some of the ways my thesis opens up areas for further reflection, and I am gratified that he did, for that was exactly my hope.

As for the covenant of works as an historical “relic,” the term itself is, I think, one of the worst historical travesties of dogmatic nomenclature. And much of the antipathy is caused, as I document in Chapter 2, by the term itself, not necessarily the doctrinal content. Bavinck, while well-aware that the doctrine had fallen on hard times, considered himself part of a cadre of scholars devoted to recovering the covenant of works for modern times (alongside Kuyper, Vos, and Warfield). That project obviously got left in the dust due to Barth’s sweeping influence in the twentieth century.

I am suggesting, along with Herman Bavinck, that the abandonment of federal theology (already evident in his day) is too hasty. The doctrine, rightly understood, does tremendous service in articulating and preserving the basic Augustinian distinction between posse non peccare and non posse peccare, creation and re-creation, Eden and Paradise, the state of integrity and state of glory, or, as I put it, the “Once Upon a Time” and the “Lived Happily Ever After.” In Bavinck’s theology, at least, it is this doctrine more than any other that organically ties together nature and grace and does not allow grace/re-creation to swallow up, replace, or compete with nature/creation. This is because the covenant of works uniquely provides an eschatology already in the Garden to which Christ’s work of redemption answers. Loose the “tie that binds” these two states together, and an uneasy nature/grace dualism inevitably emerges. And Bavinck is simply stellar in demonstrating this vis-a-vis Pelagianism, Anabaptism, Lutheranism, Roman Catholicism, and Eastern Orthodoxy, and it doesn’t take too much speculation to apply it to more recent Barthian “triumph of grace” views, certain forms of “Two Kingdoms” theology, more triumphalist versions of Neo-Calvinism, and Emergent theology.

That “rightly understood” is important, however. Many zealous defenders of the doctrine are defending a caricature, and the same misunderstanding holds for its detractors. I think, for example, in the North American context the Kline/Murray debate (and the very-much-related debate between Two Kingdoms Theology and Neo-Calvinism) there is significant confusion on both sides about what the covenant of works is designed to do theologically. To Berkouwer’s ears (and Murray’s) it sounded like a means of defending a strictly “graceless” Pelagian works/merit scheme in creation, and I confess it (sadly) sounds that way coming from the pens (keyboards!) of some of its champions even today. That certainly wasn’t Bavinck’s intention in appropriating the doctrine, and as long as the misunderstanding persists the true value of the doctrine will be obscure. Hopefully my book can help clear up at least some of the mess.

So, yes: Bavinck’s formulation of covenant theology is extremely relevant in the contemporary theological world. The fact that many of our debates still hinge on how to relate nature and grace (e.g., the relationship between Christianity and culture), there has never been a better time to become acquainted with a theologian who so skillfully negotiated these issues. Those who reject the covenant of works still have to find some theological way to preserve the basically anti-gnostic, Augustinian impulse to distinguish and yet organically relate nature and grace, creation and re-creation, and they do so in various (to my mind, less-than-successful) ways. I think going back to Bavinck’s covenant theology is far from a dead-end. It may just be a way forward from current theological confusion. But in the process a name-change from “covenant of works” to something better might be in order! I’m open to suggestions.

LO: I see that you currently serve as Senior Scholar of Public Theology for the Center for Cultural Leadership. What sort of work to you do for the Center? And in what ways has Bavinck’s theology influenced your thinking about public theology?

BM: My work with the Center For Cultural Leadership currently involves a number of writing projects (stay tuned) and speaking engagements from time to time, almost all of which deal with properly relating Christianity and culture, which is just a more specific instance of the nature/grace question. Thus, it is very much an outflow of my work in Bavinck’s theology.  Although neo-Calvinism as such has had its ups and downs, I remain committed to its basic idea that Christianity and culture cannot be divorced from each other. As Bavinck put it, the kingdom is both a “pearl” and a leaven. Theology must speak, and it must speak out loud and in public.

Bavinck thought secularism was on its last legs in his day—alas, it tenaciously clings to life a hundred years later. I am somewhat heartened that non-Christian intellectuals are more and more seeing it as untenable (though their solutions usually leave much to be desired, e.g., see philosopher Simon Critchley’s very recent Faith of the Faithless: Experiments in Political Theology), but there is much work remaining in convincing the Western world that emancipation from its parents (Christian theism) was not a particularly good idea. And that sort of convincing is what is entailed in being a public theologian.

LO: What’s this I hear about your moonlighting as a musician and singer/songwriter? Where can we find out more about your music?

BM: I have been a guitarist and songwriter for over twenty years. I’ve always said that if I wasn’t a theologian, I’d have to pursue “rock star.” Thankfully, I’ve still found extra-curricular ways of pursuing music. I have a solo album available on iTunes, although I’m noticing that it is now becoming very dated! I’ve got plenty of material for a follow-up album, and I hope to get it done sometime soon. I’ve got a “music” page on my website for those interests.

Additionally, I am an integral member of Captive Thought, a worship band with my dear friends, Trudy Poirier and Kerry Skiles, along with a revolving cast of other talented musicians. Trudy is an incredibly gifted pianist and songwriter, and her work includes some original lyrical composition, but mostly updating the music to classic hymns and Psalms. We usually travel and perform at least one conference a year, which is always a highlight for me. If you’re interested in new worship music, please check out Pear Tree Music or direct your church’s music director there! We have a brand-new album set for release just next month. So, as they say, “stay tuned”!

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