Five Questions for N. Gray Sutanto
Nathaniel Gray Sutanto (PhD, University of Edinburgh) is an ordained minister of the International Presbyterian Church, teaching elder at Covenant City Church, Jakarta, Indonesia, and Fellow in Modern Theology at the Greystone Theological Institute. He's the author of God and Knowledge, a translator of Herman Bavinck's Christian Worldview, and co-editor of the new annotated edition of Bavinck's Philosophy of Revelation.
1. Why is the renaissance of scholarly work in Herman Bavinck important to the advance of Reformed dogmatics?
Bavinck’s work and the current state of Bavinck scholarship emphasize the catholicity of the Reformed faith, and thus of the eclecticism that characterizes Bavinck’s use of sources. There is a confident tone in Bavinck’s approach concerning the all-encompassing character of Reformed theology—no matter which thinker one turns to, one would inevitably encounter marks of that faith. This allows us to eschew a kind of hero-worship ideal: no one thinker represents Reformed orthodoxy. Likewise, we should also reject the boogeyman-hunting approach that marks much of contemporary Reformed writing. Bavinck’s confidence is displayed when he finds traces of a Reformed ethic in Kant, the depravity of humanity in Schopenhauer, the inescapability of general revelation from Schleiermacher, or the absolute character of God from von Hartmann. Students in the post-Kantian tradition will be disappointed at Bavinck’s liberal use of the Reformed scholastics, Aquinas, Bonaventure, and the ancient fathers. But ardent medievalists will likewise be frustrated when Bavinck invokes the post-Kantian thinkers as those who’ve made genuine corrections and progress, and from whom the Reformed need to learn. Precisely because the Reformed faith represents truth in its most all-encompassing form, we can approach every text with a kind of humble reciprocity and anticipation: even the most ardent anti-theist will unwittingly confess truths concerning God and his world. And it’s our task to perform, and not merely to claim that Reformed theology presents us with the self-existent triune God behind all of reality, whose revelation is the ‘secret’ behind all of human knowing and acting. Bavinck shows us a model worth emulating in our own day.
2. What are two pressing issues for Reformed dogmatics in the next generation?
I suggest that the two pressing issues are these: (1) broadening our sense of catholicity in pursuing Reformed dogmatics, and (2) expressing the pre-conditions of that catholicity in more explicit form.
Recent work in Reformed theology has done well to uncover our forgotten heritage. The Reformed tradition is both deep and wide—work in translating post-Reformation dogmatics and in exploring the various branches of the Reformed faith in differing nations, times, and continents have given us a deep consciousness of the vastness of our tradition. But this work can’t end with exploring the 17th century’s post-Reformation Reformed dogmatics or the 19-20th century Dutch neo-Calvinists. Much of the retrieval work has merely assumed the superiority of one theological milieu or another, or merely described what a particular trajectory has confessed. It seems to me that the constructive work of arguing, analytically and exegetically, for the truth of some position has not yet been done very much. It is one thing, for example, to note that a majority of Reformed theologians thought so and so, and that that language was different from how many contemporary theologians have thought about so and so today. It is another to demonstrate that it is the case that X theology is correct, and not Y. There are exceptions to this, but I think, overall, the current state of Reformed scholarship has tilted quite heavily toward historical theology rather than dogmatics proper. This is necessary, of course, for proper constructive dogmatics cannot be done without being historically oriented. But it does show much more needs to be done. So, we need to note that if we truly confess Reformed catholicity, we need to recognize that the work of theology should always have a constructive edge—no one generation should get the final say, and no tradition of theology, because it is not revelation itself, should be immune and taken for granted. There is always the need for constructive dogmatics. As Bavinck himself stated in the preface of the Magnalia Dei, ‘to will to maintain the older forms and to persist with the old, simply because it is old, is pointless trouble’.
This emphasis on the need for constructive work and the diversity of the Reformed faith, however, should always be regulated by an enduring sense of the theological pre-conditions of catholicity and the pursuit of progressing in our understanding of truth. These pre-conditions are the a se God himself and the reality of his revelation to us. Without these realities and the epistemological aid they give us, our work can’t even begin. But, again, it is one thing to claim that this is the case, and another to argue the position. J. H. Bavinck argues that every antithetical non-Christian worldview survives on borrowed capital, and that the Christian missionary’s work is that of conducting posessio: of subversively fulfilling other worldviews by showcasing that Christian-theism is that on which the ideals of those worldviews could flourish in the first place. Christianity subverts their foundations, but fulfils their very longings. This same principle, I think, can be applied to the discipline of dogmatics: dogmatics can only flourish on Christian starting-points. A theology constructed apart from revelation leads nowhere. A theology that confesses something other than the simple, triune God of Scripture leads to idolatry. To pursue dogmatics constructively, ironically, is to be explicitly subjected by its object and subject matter.
3. What can Reformed churches in the west learn from the church in Indonesia?
The biggest strength in Indonesian churches, much like other churches in an Asian context, is its sense of collectivism and adherence to authority. I was reading David Brooks’s The Second Mountain recently, and he described that the West’s main problem now is this individualistic paradigm that eschews committed relationships and transcendent ideals that beckon us to live for something other than ourselves. These are not the issues in Asia. Indonesians and the members of our church have a strong sense that their purpose is found in being a contributor to a larger whole, a member in a community or a family. It’s common sense here to pursue the ideals of family and tradition in a way that no longer exists in the West. The instinct that our actions and beliefs impact a great number of communities, and that a meaningful life is found precisely by commitment, need to be retrieved.
4. What can the church in Indonesia learn from Reformed churches in the west?
Indonesia’s greatest strength is also its greatest weakness. It’s authority-heavy conscience has made it especially difficult for pastors and theologians here to communicate that it is not the Javanese or the Confucianist traditions that one ought to adhere to, but the catholic faith of the church that’s been passed down from generation to generation. As the work of retrieval and confessional orthodoxy continues to prevail in the West, churches in Indonesia need to realize that one cannot mix Christianity with the principles of Confucius or of their family’s household gods, and they need to connect its churches with the Reformed faith and continue their trajectory from those specific roots. The context in Asia, it seems to me, is not unlike the Christians in the second century. Many gods abound here, and explicit syncretism is a huge temptation. So, Indonesian churches have a two-pronged problem. Christianity will look like an anti-social, rebellious, and liberal way of life, but it’s now a way of life that is more than 2000 years old. We look both outdated and hyper-conservative to the globalized millennials and dangerously liberal to those in their fifties and sixties. To confront these challenges, we need the robust confessional rootedness of the Reformed churches of the West.
5. Why are you joining Greystone and how do you see Greystone serving the advancement of Reformed theology and practice?
Greystone represents an exciting momentum of constructive Reformed scholarship for the present age. It’s an educational and research institution unbounded by geographical limitations, animated by a catholic spirit, and committed to ecclesial nurturing and academic rigor. I’m delighted to join its community.