Bavinck the Dogmatician (I)

Though Herman Bavinck’s contributions to Christian scholarship were wide-ranging, he is properly known first of all for his work as a theologian. The most important work that Bavinck’s productive pen ever produced was his monumental, four-volume Reformed Dogmatics (hereafter RD).

The translation and publication of Bavinck’s dogmatics in English is a project of signal value for Reformed theology, since it will now introduce a far larger audience to Bavinck’s fertile treatment of the great topics of historic Christian theology. Due to its value and importance for an appreciation of Bavinck’s contributions to Reformed theology, our consideration of Bavinck in this and subsequent articles will primarily focus upon this work, and offer something of a digest or summary of its contents. After we have reviewed the main emphases and topics of Bavinck’s dogmatics, we will also consider three themes that recur throughout Bavinck’s scholarship: the “catholicity” of the Christian faith, the relation between God’s work as Creator and as Redeemer (“common grace”), and the “certainty of faith” upon the basis of divine revelation.

Part of my purpose in presenting this series of articles on Bavinck’s life and thought is to commemorate his contributions on the occasion of the 100th anniversary of the Stone Lectures he delivered at Princeton Theological Seminary in 1908, and to call attention to the completion of the project to translate his dogmatics into English. However, my purpose also includes whetting the appetite of some readers to procure Bavinck’s RD and read it for themselves.

Admittedly, this may prove for many to be a challenge, since we do not live in period in which Christians are accustomed to reading robust theological literature. There is a great deal of popular literature available today, but hardly anything that compares to Bavinck’s dogmatics. Indeed, it is unlikely that Bavinck’s dogmatics will make it on to the shelf of many Christian book stores, or the coffee tables of many Christian homes! (Nor will it likely compete for sales with the latest popular book by Joel Osteen or Rick Warren!)

Though I can remember my father recalling how Bavinck’s dogmatics were owned and read by lay members of Reformed churches in a previous generation, the likelihood that many will purchase and read with eagerness the English translation of his RD is doubtful. Nevertheless, in the event that some readers of these articles choose not to read Bavinck’s RD for themselves, my digest of his work will perhaps serve another purpose. Short of benefiting directly from reading Bavinck’s work, at least readers will have a relatively brief and, I hope, accessible summary of his dogmatics by means of these articles.



Introduction to Dogmatics

We begin our digest of Bavinck’s dogmatics where Bavinck begins. In the first, and easily the most difficult, volume of his RD, Bavinck treats the subject of what is known technically as “theological prolegomena.” Though this language may throw some readers off initially, it refers, literally, to “the first things that must be said” in Christian theology. In more common language, Bavinck’s first volume of the RD offers an extended treatment of the “introductory matters” that are basic to Christian, and particularly Reformed, theology.

The purpose of this volume is to offer readers an account of the discipline of theology in general, and the branch of theological study known as “dogmatics” in particular. A particular focus of this introductory volume is the exposition of the doctrine of divine revelation, which constitutes the foundation or basis for any true knowledge of the living God. Since modern thought is often hostile to the idea of an authoritative revelation from God, and has sought to undermine the foundations of traditional Christian theology, Bavinck is especially anxious in this volume to address head-on the challenges raised to Reformed theology by the philosophy and world view of the modern age, particularly since the time of the Enlightenment of the eighteenth century.

The Terminology of “Dogma” and “Dogmatics”

The very first thing that Bavinck considers in his RD is the terminology that is often used to describe the systematic or orderly presentation of the truth of divine revelation in Christian theology. Whereas it has become common in English-speaking circles to designate this area of theology by such terms as “systematic theology” or “the study of the Christian faith,” Bavinck wishes to defend the traditional language of “dogmatics.” Only this language captures the distinctive focus and aim of theology, when it seeks to set forth in a disciplined and orderly fashion the principal teachings of the Word of God.

According to Bavinck, the language of “dogma” or “dogmatics” calls attention to four features of the knowledge of God that this branch of theology expounds. First, the terminology itself emphasizes a kind of knowledge that is “established and not subject to doubt” (RD 1:29). Unlike human opinions or prejudices that have little or no standing, dogma is, in the nature of the case, something that is regarded as certain or sure. Not only in theology, but also in other branches of human knowledge or areas of human life, the term “dogma” always connotes a conviction that has the quality of certitude. Just as a political dogma derives its authority from the civil government, so theological dogma derives its authority finally from what the theologian regards as divine testimony. Dogma, for the believing Christian, is the undoubted truth that corresponds to God’s self-testimony in his revelation.

Second, the term “dogma” has a “social” dimension; it refers to what is held to be true within a particular circle or community. Though the truth of God’s self-testimony does not depend upon our recognition of it, it always calls forth a response, either the response of faith or of unbelief. The dogmas of Christian theology are the truths of Scripture, which are acknowledged within the community of faith, the Christian church.

Third, since dogma refers to what is certain, God’s testimony to the truth, and since dogma summons believers to recognize its truth, dogma involves an intimate interplay between two components; divine authority and churchly confession. Whenever the church sets forth what she believes upon the basis of the Word of God, we may speak of the church’s “dogmas,” which are of special importance to the Christian theologian. Though the dogmatician has the obligation to “test” the correspondence between what the church confesses and what God’s Word reveals, he always does so as a believer who stands within the community of faith and shares the common confession to which this community adheres.

Fourth, though the term “dogma” may be used loosely to refer to all the truths taught in the Word of God, the special task of the Reformed dogmatician is to interpret the Word of God in line with the “articles of faith” that comprise the church’s confession before the world.

Reflection on these features of dogma yields a fairly clear picture of the special responsibility of Reformed dogmatics. The purpose of this branch of theology is to set forth in a coherent, orderly way, the dogmas that are revealed in the Word of God and confessed by the church in her conformity to the Word of God. The dogmatician must take his stand within the community of faith, as a believer who has a heartfelt conviction regarding the authority and truthfulness of God’s testimony in his Word. And he must aim to demonstrate how the dogmas of the church are derived from and are in agreement with divine revelation.

The Material Content of Dogmatics

After his somewhat formal treatment of the terminology of “dogma” and “dogmatics,” Bavinck addresses the topic of what might be called the “material content” of dogmatics. In doing so, he offers a defense of the traditional conception of theology as a genuine human science, which expounds a true knowledge of God and not merely a description of the human experience of God. In his consideration of this important and complicated subject, Bavinck frontally challenges the claims of humanistic philosophy and the arrogance of modern science, both of which seek to oppose the claim that theology is a legitimate science and that it expresses a true knowledge of God himself upon the basis of divine revelation. Bavinck’s claim is that “dogmatics is, and can only exist as, the scientific system of the knowledge of God. More precisely and from a Christian viewpoint, dogmatics is the knowledge that God has revealed in his Word to the church concerning himself and all creatures as they stand in relation to him” (RD 1:38). This definition of dogmatics, Bavinck acknowledges, assumes the truth of a fundamental dogma of the Christian faith, namely, that God exists and has revealed himself to his image-bearers in such a way as to give them a true knowledge of himself.

Though it may seem transparently true to us that theology assumes God’s existence, his self-revelation and knowability, Bavinck is keenly aware of the challenges to this basic Christian conviction in the realm of modern philosophy and science. For example, in the philosophy of Immanuel Kant, an influential philosopher who expressed well the spirit of the 18th century Enlightenment, the conviction that it is possible to have a true knowledge or understanding of God upon the basis of his self-revelation was radically set aside. According to Kant’s analysis of the limits of human understanding, the sciences are only able to know objects that are accessible to the human knower’s experience of phenomena in space and time, and that are subject to the limitations of human understanding. Because God transcends the limitations of human experience and knowledge, he is ultimately unknowable by means of human reason. From the standpoint of Kant’s philosophy and conception of the limits of human knowledge, theology, at least in its traditional sense, is not a legitimate science. According to Kant, we simply cannot know God directly through divine self-revelation.

As a result of Kant’s criticism of the traditional approach to theology, the German liberal theologian, Schleiermacher, attempted to find a new basis for theology in what he termed the human experience or “consciousness” of absolute dependence upon God. In Schleiermacher’s view, there is no possible basis in divine revelation for a true knowledge of God. However, it is possible for theology to describe the way in which different religions express distinct forms of the basic religious awareness of dependence upon the Absolute. Schleiermacher’s solution to the problem posed by Kant’s repudiation of the possibility of a knowledge of God based upon divine revelation, has captivated many theologians in the modern period. For these liberal theologians, it is simply no longer possible to base theology or the knowledge of God upon anything other than human experience. Though various theologians offer different accounts of the character of such experience, few are willing to view theology as anything other than a descriptive discipline. As a result, theology is permitted a place in the modern university only in the form of a “department of religious studies” or a “department of religion.”

But it was not only the claims of thinkers like Kant and Schleiermacher that posed a challenge to the traditional understanding of Christian theology, according to Bavinck. The privileged sciences of the modern period are those empirical sciences that limit their inquiry to a description of what can be seen and investigated through the senses, and described by means of human reason’s reflection upon the material world. Mathematics and the natural sciences have become the universal standard of truth in the modern era. The older sciences of philosophy, and especially theology, are judged by the measure of modern science to be purely “subjective” in their orientation.

Though theology, for example, may claim to be a study of the truth concerning God and his revelation, modern science views things quite differently. Theology at best offers merely a description of the characteristic features of religious experience and practice. As such, theology offers no “objective” truth regarding God as he can be known through revelation. Even where God’s existence is grudgingly acknowledged to be possible (though unknown and undemonstrable), the claim that he has revealed himself through a self-testimony that is accessible to human beings and capable of being understood by them, is generally rejected.

Bavinck, who was well-taught in the history of philosophy and science, makes clear at the outset of his dogmatics that he is unwilling to concede these claims of post-Enlightenment thought. Rather than permit theology to be banished from the university as an illegitimate discipline, which lacks any standing as a science, Bavinck insists that theology is a legitimate science. It represents a true form of human knowledge that is based upon an acknowledged and reliable source, God’s testimony in his Word. The knowledge of the truth that theology derives from divine revelation is no less true than the knowledge of the special sciences, all of which base their claims upon an acknowledged and reliable foundation.

Bavinck also argues that the pretended objectivity and neutrality of science is itself a fiction. Faith, in the sense of a foundational commitment to the reliability of human reason’s apprehension of the natural order, is as critical to the enterprise of the non-theological sciences as it is to the science of theology. The insistence on the part of modern thinkers that theology is “unscientific,” unless it merely describes the phenomena of human religious experience and foregoes any claims to truthfulness, represents a failure to reckon with the fact that the scientist also begins with (or must presuppose) non-theoretical commitments that undergird and enable him to carry on his work. Furthermore, the claim of liberal theology that no true or objective knowledge of God is possible rests upon a pre-theoretical, heart commitment that simply denies outright the possibility of a genuine revelation or testimony on God’s part to himself.

In our earlier sketch of Bavinck’s life, we observed that Bavinck chose to attend Leyden University because of its reputation as a first rank academic institution. In his reflection upon and defense of the science of dogmatics, it is evident that Bavinck’s own biography played a significant role. In his consideration of the challenges of modern philosophy and science to the discipline of dogmatics, Bavinck demonstrates a rich and sophisticated grasp of challenges to the Christian faith and theology in the modern era. But he also exhibits a resolution not to allow the exclusion of theology from the modern university to go unopposed.

Both Bavinck’s scholarship and his deep religious commitment are evident in the way he endeavours to confront the contemporary crisis of theology in the world of scholarship. Bavinck’s own conviction regarding the place of theology within the academy played an important role in his decision to leave the seminary in Kampen and teach at the Free University in Amsterdam. It is not difficult to see something of his own decision in this respect showing through in his comment in his introduction to the RD on the place of theology as a science in the university.

We conclude, therefore, that when in the interest of church practice the modern science of religion concedes to domatics an ecclesiastical method and the practical disciplines an ecclesiastical seminary, it is thereby doing the church a ‘favor’ that Christian theology cannot accept. It if did, it would thereby be admitting that materialistic or pantheistic unbelief bears a scientific character and at the same time that Christian faith does not belong in the domain of science. As a special favor, space may be cleared for it in an annex of the temple, in an ecclesiastical seminary! (RD I:52)

Dr. Cornelis P. Venema is the President of Mid-America Reformed Seminary. He is also a contributing editor for The Outlook.