Posted by: mattcolvin | November 22, 2011

Bavinck and Balaam’s Donkey

A few months ago I had a little dust-up with Doug Wilson, whose readers dignified my blog with an incredible 3,500 hits in the month of August. (November looks on track to get about one fifth of that, which is about average for me.) The discussions revolved around the nature of faith, which I said was not a faculty or sixth sense, not an instrument with its own separate ontological status, but only an attribute of persons. Faith, I said, is adverbial: it is loyalty to God. But if we ask “Where does it exist, and what it is?” we find only minds, and tongues and hands and feet. Those are the faculties and instruments that the saints in Hebrews 11 actually use to do things in a faithful way. Wilson, on the other hand, says that faith is a faculty by which people eat the body of Christ at the same time that their mouths eat bread. He wants it to be something that children “exercise” in communion, and to refrain from giving bread and wine to any child who isn’t able to exercise it. I continue to believe that his view is confused and confusing, and that he has no basis for it in Scripture. I also think it is completely irreconcilable with real paedocommunion, which is a practice that makes covenant-membership, not possession of a faculty, determinative for efficacious participation in the Lord’s Supper.

I was delighted to see (via Andrew Fulford on FB) this quotation from Herman Bavinck, which seems to me to be saying very nearly what I am saying:

Apropos discussions about the nature of faith: “In this context we must first of all and fundamentally reject the notion that regards faith and reason as two independent powers engaging in a life-and-death struggle with each other. In that way one creates a dualism that does not belong in the Christian domain. In that case faith is always above (supra) or even opposed (contra) to reason. Threatening on the one hand is rationalism and on the other supernaturalism. Faith, the faith by which we believe, is not an organ or faculty next to or above reason but a disposition or habit of reason itself. Reason, or if people prefer, thinking, is certainly not a source of theology, not a principle by which or through which or from which or on account of which we believe. Reason is a source, not the source of any science; at most it is only for the formal sciences such as logic or mathematics. Still reason is the recipient subject of faith, capable of faith; faith is an act of human consciousness; an animal is not capable of believing.” – Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, 1:616.

Bavinck is 90% of the way there. I dissent only slightly. For faith, though indeed a disposition or habit of reason (an adverbial way of using our reason for God rather than against Him), is not a disposition of reason only, but of whole persons, including their unreasoned habits, desires, and loves. (Cf. James K. A. Smith, Desiring the Kingdom, first half.) And for that reason, it can be a disposition also of infants, in a Psalm 22:9-10 sense. Indeed, I am not sure whether it cannot be a disposition of animals:

So the donkey said to Balaam, “ Am I not your donkey on which you have ridden, ever since I became yours, to this day? Was I ever disposed to do this to you?”
And he said, “No.” (Numbers 22:30 NKJV)

This is precisely a protestation of the donkey’s πιστις, its faithfulness and loyalty to Balaam. And the same sort of loyalty is precisely what God wants us to give Him.


  1. […] precipitated a discussion of what faith is. I quoted Bavinck to the effect that “Faith, the faith by which we believe, is not an organ or faculty next to […]

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