Bavinck’s Reformed Dogmatics

June 5, 2012

I am currently reading through Herman Bavinck‘s Reformed Dogmatics, volume 1 (Prolegomena). It is an impressive piece of scholarship. Like any good systematic theology, it is at once a work of historical theology and constructive dogmatics. For those who may be discerning whether to drop a hundred dollars on the set (a great value), here are some excerpts that I noted while reading. Unfortunately, it would take too long to excerpt the historical surveys, which are perhaps the most instructive portions.

Theology as a science:

If then the content of faith comes through revelation, faith itself, too, is in a sense generated by the “compelling evidence of the facts.” It is true by virtue of its nature that the word of God impacts the human subject differently than, say, a report of purely historical events; it also addresses the will and cannot generate faith apart from the will. But though believing does not occur apart from the will, it is not the product of the will. Therefore, the word of God has stood and still stands independently of our will and acceptance. The word of God has an objective content that was established before, and persists apart from, our faith, just as much as the world of colors and sounds exists independently of the blind and the deaf. In that case, however, knowledge of the objective content of revelation has significance of and for itself. This is true of all science. All science has inherent value and purpose, apart from whether it has practical utility or yields benefits for life. [p. 52]

Dogmatics and ethics as “a single organism”:

The lines of separation described above [between dogmatics and ethics] create a dualism between God and man, individual and community, salvation and life, rest and movement, intellect and will, and pave the way for ethics to go, by way of a speculative philosophy, in search of a principle of its own.

…Dogmatics describes the deeds of God done for, to, and in human beings; ethics describes what renewed human beings now do on the basis of an in the strength of those divine deeds.

…Dogmatics is the system of the knowledge of God; ethics is that of the service of God. The two disciplines far from facing each other as two independent entities, together form a single system; they are related members of a single organism. [p. 58]

Dogmatics as genetic:

The theologian must pursue no other method than the genetic, i.e., the method that sets forth the truth in terms of its own course of development in a manner in which all its parts stand in their organic relation to each other.

…It is not the case that isolated dogmas should be demonstrated with the aid of isolated texts, but the whole system of truth must be proven with the whole of Scripture. Accordingly, Scripture in its entirety, word combined with deed and history with doctrine, is the foundation of dogmatics, and the dogmatic system must have the same material content as Holy Scripture. …it is the scientific unfolding of that which makes the Christian a Christian, the self-knowledge and self-declaration of the believer.

[pp. 64-65. Bavinck is describing the heilsgeschichte approach of biblical theology pioneer, J. C. K. von Hofmann. Bavinck later criticizes aspects of this approach (too subjective, too reductionistic), but he is in agreement with its genetic method.]

Against Schleiermacher:

Consciousness theology, which rejects Scripture and confession as sources of knowledge and seeks to derive all religious truth from the subject, is first of all in conflict with a sound theory of knowledge. We are products of our environment also in the area of religion. We receive our religious ideas and impressions from those who raise and nurture us, and we remain at all times bound to the circle in which we live. In no domain of life are the intellect and the heart, reason and conscience, feeling and imagination, the epistemic source of truth but only organs by which we perceive truth and make it our own. …Feeling is especially unfit to serve as the epistemic source of religious truth, for feeling is never a prius (a prior thing) but always a posterius (something which follows later). Feeling only reacts to what strikes it and then yields a sensation of that which is pleasant or unpleasant, agreeable or disagreeable.

[p. 80. It is not clear to what extent Bavinck is attacking Schleiermacher or those who came after him, following his epistemic starting point: our consciousness of God. In fact, Schleiermacher would agree with Bavinck that a sound theory of knowledge begins with the community.]

Next, I’ll post some excerpts related to natural theology.


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4 Responses to “Bavinck’s Reformed Dogmatics

  1. Bobby Grow said

    Hi Kevin,

    I read some of Bavinck’s prolegomena, and I agree with your assessment! He is very erudite in the way he writes, and I find him interesting as he seems to be moving in a via media between historical (Reformed) theology, and modern systematic theology. I’ll need to keep reading him!

    • Kevin Davis said

      Yes, he is very much anticipating Barth, at least in his understanding of natural theology and criticisms of scholasticism.

      His grasp of modern philosophy has few parallels among Reformed theologians. I just finished his account of sense experience in both ancient and modern philosophy — brilliant stuff!

  2. Really great set, to be sure. In fact, if there has to be one, it ought to replace whatever systematic theologies are in use at Reformed seminaries (Turretin, Berkhoff, Reymond).

    • Kevin Davis said

      I agree. I think Berkhof is probably the favorite at most conservative Reformed seminaries. Plus, each seminary has their pet (in-house) theologians. So, in the RTS campuses, John Frame’s massive volumes are, unfortunately, widely used. Ditto for Van Til at Westminster Philly. Calvin College is the best bet for using Bavinck.

      Of course, John Calvin himself is too minimized. I’ve been rather shocked at the number of young Reformed guys who have never read Calvin, and many who do not even own a copy of the Institutes…yet, they have shelves of Crossway and P&R books!

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