The Tulip Driven Life Podcast

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Let's Read Herman Bavinck's Reformed Dogmatics (Part 1)

By: Thomas F. Booher

UPDATE: I have now completed the series of posts on Bavinck's Prolegomena. Here are links to each  succeeding part: Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6, Part 7, Part 8, Part 9, Part 10, Part 11, Part 12

A few months ago I received an email from a man who works with Logos Bible Software. He talked to me about doing some reviews on the blog of some of their products. I decided this would be a fun venture, plus it allows me to read some great and expensive stuff for free. 

The first piece I am going to be reviewing is Herman Bavinck's Reformed Dogmatics. I will be starting with volume one, Prolegomena. However, I will be doing this in a rather unusual way. 

If you noticed the title of this post, and if you know anything about "Let's Plays" in video gaming, you may have wondered if I was borrowing the terminology. I am. While in video gaming a "let's play" involves watching someone (usually on YouTube) play through a whole video game while giving running commentary and fun facts, I will be highlighting Herman Bavinck's work by reproducing chunks of quotes and then discussing them. This, as you might expect, will take multiple posts to do. Also, I am going to be discussing the book while still reading it. In other words, I will not have completed much more than what you are reading in any given post. This will allow you to see the shifting sands of my understanding of Bavinck as I slog through his writings. 

This first volume is over 600 pages long, and between all four volumes we have something around 2,500 to 3,000 pages. As I mentioned, I am reading Reformed Dogmatics electronically at the courtesy of Logos Bible Software, so I will also discuss how their software helped me study, take notes, look up Bible verses, references, etc. 

So, with that said, let us begin. 

Introductory Matters

According to my Logos/E-Book version of Reformed Dogmatics, I have read to page 113. The page numbering seems to vary, however, because the text will shift from time to time for some reason. One nice thing about Logos Bible Software is that they have the entire Table of Contents hyperlinked so that any section or subsection you can click on and jump to. Whatever page you are on, you can hit an icon (which looks like lines representing text) at the top left of the screen (I'm using an iPad) which will bring up the Table of Contents, allowing me to jump around in the book in an orderly way. 

Prolegomena is broken into 5 parts. Part 1 is titled "Introduction to Dogmatics". Under this is two more parts, "The Science of Dogmatic Theology" and "The Method of Organization of Dogmatic Theology." I am going to attempt to cover all of this in one post ( not this current post but the next one), which will likely be the longest post ever on the Tulip Driven Life blog. 

From what I have gathered from Part 1, Bavinck is really laying the groundwork for a definition of Dogmatics itself. In fact, Part 2 will go through a history of Dogmatic theology. Defining dogmatics will be the big discussion point throughout this post and the next one.

But before we dig into definitions, I want to very briefly share with you a bit of the importance and history of Bavinck's Reformed Dogmatics as well as discuss the Editor's introduction. This will help us understand Bavinck the man and uncover the influences that played on him and helped shape his writing.

Herman Bavinck (1854-1921) was a Dutch professor and theologian. In 1902 he succeeded Abraham Kuyper as Professor of Theology at the Free University of Amsterdam. He was influenced by Kuyper, and has also been said to be a great influence on Cornelius Van Til (some say the greatest). As many of you know, Van Til developed his own apologetic method which many in the Reformed camp now champion. Apologetics will come into discussion early in Bavinck's writing, and I do see some influence on Van Til.

Bavinck's Reformed Dogmatics was completely translated into English by 2008. Its newness means many English speaking people have not been exposed to Bavinck's work, another great reason to read and review his material. 

The Editor's Introduction and a Sketch of Bavinck's Thought

With Logos Bible Software, I can cycle through my highlights that I make in the text. I can also take notes anywhere in the book, and can sort through them as well. This is very convenient and makes finding something I am looking for much quicker than if I was reading a physical copy. 

I see in my notes that the editor's introduction mentions that Bavinck was influenced by an evangelical revival movement known as the Reveil, which was similar to English Puritanism. Another influence on Bavinck came from his time at the University of Leiden, where he began to study at the Kampen Theological School. The faculty took a modernist, "scientific" approach to theology. This produced a lifelong tension in Bavinck between his desire to remain committed to orthodox theology and spirituality and to understand the modern world and its culture. 

Bavinck also felt pulled between an understanding of salvation in Christ which was chiefly about separating man from sin and the world so that believers could prepare for heavenly bliss and fellowship with God, and the view of Ritschl, which said that salvation was mainly about enjoying the freedom of being a child of God and living for His Kingdom by engaging in his earthly vocation. Bavinck saw much he liked in both views but did not know how to reconcile the two, claiming the former could lead to a monastic life and the latter to Pelagianism or moralism.

The editor also indicates that Bavinck frequently engages with the modern scientific world of his time, seeking to affirm, correct, or repudiate its teaching in light of Scripture. He tangles with Kant, Schelling, Hegel, Darwin, and others. 

Bavinck sought a trinitarian synthesis between otherwordly pietism and this-worldly modernism. He said: 

"In this situation, the hope is not unfounded that a synthesis is possible between Christianity and culture, however antagonistic they may presently stand over against each other. If God has truly come to us in Christ, and is, in this age too, the Preserver and Ruler of all things, such a synthesis is not only possible but also necessary and shall surely be effected in its own time."   
This is interesting in itself, since today we see culture and Christianity so merged that many churches are trying to mimic culture in order to gain an audience to express the Christian faith. This commingling is a dangerous and ungodly thing, but Christians are in culture and are called to be citizens of the land in which they reside. Kuyper, along with Bavinck, make distinctions between the church as an organized group which administers the Word and sacraments, and the body of Christ which goes out into the world and culture. We must do both, but how sharp a divide there should be between the two is the debate. 

The editor says that the fundamental theme that shapes Bavinck's entire theology is the trinitarian idea that grace restores nature. "Grace does not remain outside or above or beside nature but rather permeates and wholly renews it. And thus nature, reborn by grace, will be brought to its highest revelation. That situation will again return in which we serve God freely and happily without compulsion or fear, simply out of love, and in harmony with our true nature." 

Regarding this first volume, Prolegomena, Bavinck says dogmatics is the "knowledge that God has revealed in his Word to his church concerning himself and all creatures as they stand in relation to him." Bavinck also points out that though modern thought devalues all dogma, it is in reality a rejection of certain dogmas and an affirmation of others. This is a key theme that we will hit on when we get to Bavinck's work proper. 

The editor says this prolegomena is distinct from others due to the extent with which Bavinck confronts the "profound epistemological crisis of post-Enlightenment modernity". In particular Bavinck deals with Kant and the idea that religion and knowledge (theology and science) should be divorced from one another. 

Bavnick also insists that all religious conviction is born in historical religions (from their narratives within the communities of faith). Christianity is the true narrative,  but like all other religions, it gets its story from the church and its proclamation. 

Touching more closely on apologetics, Bavinck also argues in chapter 2 and chapter 16 that believing is itself a form of certainty (something I take great exception to so far). This of course flies in the face of modernity, which believes that sense perception and deduction from reason are the only sources for certainty. 

Bavinck claims that Christian dogmatics depends on the truth of Scripture as the revelation of God himself, and that all religion is based on authority and thus on revelation. However, efforts to be purely biblical still reflect the ecclesiastical and social environment from which they arise. Therefore the proper theological method, according to Bavinck, consults Christian tradition and Christian consciousness along with Scripture. This is derived from his belief that "theology arises from faith and seeks to serve the community of faith". 

I think the notion that theology arises from faith is a dangerous one, but from what I have read so far I do not think Bavinck consistently believes that. If he did, I do not see how he could escape an almost neo-orthodox view of Scripture, and a subjective view of Scripture. While the Spirit does illuminate us, it is not faith that produces theology, but rather Spirit-illumined faith that discovers the theology of the Bible. At least, I think that is a much better way to say things if you are going to believe this way, and I think a more accurate way to describe Bavinck's own beliefs than what the editor says. Although, it does appear in certain places, which we will discuss at length later, that Bavinck may really believe that unless one has faith in God he or she cannot ascertain the theology of Scripture. 

Well, this is plenty for one post. I hope your appetite has been whetted to read Bavinck with me, or at least read the posts on the blog to learn the general flow of Bavinck's thought. I believe there is much good to chew on here, and some things that I disagree with in his writings still seem to haunt reformed churches today. 

This will be a relevant, in depth, and Lord willing, enlightening discussion of Bavinck. I do hope you will keep reading with me. 

If you have any comments for this post or the ones to follow, please leave them below. I'd love to discuss Bavinck with you guys.      



1 comment:

  1. I am excited about this. Great intro, and hope to get more of your thoughts/perspectives as well as a forthright outlaying of the theology.