I’ve recently begun reading a fascinating work on the theology of Herman Bavinck by James Eglinton entitled Trinity and Organism: Towards a New Reading of Herman Bavinck Organic Motif. In his theology, Bavinck frequently appeals to the motif or theme of “organism” in relation to a number of theological issues like creation, Scripture, the church, and so forth. Regularly you’ll see Bavinck put forward some modern, mechanical conception of an issue and then suggest that, instead, one ought to think of these things in a far more “organic” manner, or something like that. Up until recently, many Bavinck scholars have chalked it up to the prevalence of the idea of “organism” in the 19th-century post-Hegelian, German Idealist climate that Bavinck was working in.
This idea goes hand in hand with a very popular understanding of Bavinck forwarded by Jan Veenhof that suggested that instead of one, there were “two Bavincks” that you could trace in his works. One was the orthodox Reformed theologian with roots in the conservative secessionist churches of his youth, and the second is the modern, scientific thinker trained in the modernist academy. Apparently, if you’re really smart, you can split Bavinck’s work up into bits according to that thesis because they’re clearly incompatible, and, Bavinck just never managed to reconcile them. The fun starts when theologians then take the thesis and use it to play Bavinck against himself and pick and choose the bits you like depending on which half you find more appealing. Now, obviously, on this reading, the “organic” motif is part of the modernist Bavinck’s bag of tricks, that sits uneasily with his Reformed orthodoxy.
Eglinton sets himself to correct the historical record by drawing on recent work done by Brian Mattson, John Bolt, and others that scuttles the “two Bavincks” thesis. Instead of assuming Bavinck’s theology was a bundle of contrarieties that the great man sadly never managed to properly compose, Eglinton sets Bavinck back in his historical and intellectual context, compares and contrasts him with other movements and influences in Dutch theology at the time, rereads Bavinck carefully, and manages to present us with one Bavinck whose “organicism” has less to do with his dependence on the post-Hegelian theology, and far more to do with his thoroughgoing, Reformed, trinitarian theology. Bavinck’s “organicism” is drawn more from Calvin and Reformed Orthodoxy than German idealism.
According to Eglinton, Bavinck’s “organism” metaphor is a way of speaking of the unity-in-diversity in creation that flows from the reality that the Creator is not a mere monad, but Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. In other words, the diversity and unity within the divine being finds a correspondence in the unity-in-diversity of creation designed to body forth the glory of the Triune God. Organism is Bavinck’s way of picking up and retooling the patristic idea of vestigia trinitatis, or “traces of the Trinity” found in creation. The Fathers and the medievals loved finding triads in creation that pointed towards the Trinity that created it. Bavinck takes up the same idea, but instead of focusing on numerical triads, he sees traces of the Trinity in the more generalized unified pluriformity and diversity of creation.
Of course, this is just scratching the surface. Eglinton makes his case by testing his thesis across the wide range of Bavinck’s theology, examining the organic motif in Bavinck’s doctrine of God, revelation, Scripture, ecclesiology, and so forth. In each section, he continues to do careful historical work, setting Bavinck in his own context, as well as paying close attention to Bavinck’s own usage of key terms and concepts, and not simply assuming he’s cribbing his work from his Idealist neighbors. At the end of the work, if you hadn’t before, you begin to get a beautiful vision of the trinitarian shape and aim of all of Bavinck’s talk of organism.
Why Historical Theology?
Now aside from my inherent interest in everything Bavinck, why pay attention to this kind of specialized historical work? In fact, some of us might wonder, why get so heavily invested in historical theology in general? Why worry about the nuances in the theology such and such 3rd Century bishop, or which motif does what in the thought of a 19th Century Dutch dogmatician? How does that matter to theology today, or the church today? Why not just focus on the material issues of theology according to Scripture instead of worrying about the problems of historical theology?
Because there’s a danger there, right? I mean, as I’ve started to study theology more and more, you begin to see weird, internecine academic fights about the ins and outs of Barth’s doctrine of whatever, and when you stop and consider for a moment, you begin to question, “Why does this matter?” As Phillip Cary put it in one recent article, “In most places outside Princeton, judging who gets Barth right is vastly less interesting than judging what Barth gets right—a work of discernment which belongs to the ongoing life of the tradition of Christian orthodoxy.” When you put it like that, I can’t help but agree.
Why, then, should historical theology matter to (at least some of) us? I can think of at least four reasons that I’ll attempt run through briefly.
1. Truth Matters. The first is the basic reality that truth in all its forms matters because all truth is God’s. Indeed, we serve a God who is himself the Truth. The truth of nature tells us God’s creative work. The truth of history tells us the story of God’s providential work. This reality, not to mention various others, is sufficient enough reason for us to be concerned about the truth of any issue. I mean, this is the basic assumption that funds our conviction that the sciences and the humanities matter as subjects of study beyond their immediate, practical use.
2. Bearing false testimony. Historical theology matters as an issue of Christian truth-telling about the community of saints. The fact of the matter is that theology is taught within the Christian community, and certainly in the seminaries, as the story of teachers, preachers, saints, and professors, struggling to expound the truth of God to the men and women of their time. When we get that story wrong, when we get the theology of our forebears wrong, when we present them as less competent, fair, biblical, or orthodox (or more) than they actually were, we do them a disservice by bearing false witness against them. This is especially the case when we engage in the unfair caricature of whipping-boy theologians (Augustine and Anselm come to mind) as foils against which we can then forward our own pet theories. Christian love requires truth in speaking of our theological ancestors and often-times it means rehabilitating them.
3. Avoiding Error. It’s not just that theology happens to be taught as a story in seminaries, it’s that theology is an inherently historical enterprise. Christian theology exists only as the particular methods of reading Scripture, Creeds and Confessions drawn up around it, are passed on from generation to generation within the Church. Without historical theology, we keep ourselves from the wisdom accumulated over 2,000 years of trying, failing, and succeeding in preserving the truth of the Gospel from error and perversion. Those who ignore historical theology will almost inevitably be doomed to repeat errors the church has already discarded for some good, biblical reason or another.
4. Mining Riches. Beyond avoiding error, studies in historical theology prove that our Fathers and Mothers in the faith may still have something to new to say to us. Corrective studies like Eglinton’s have the possibility of opening up theological vistas or impasses in current theological and churchly debate because it comes from another time that’s not caught up in the assumptions we share. This is true whether it’s simply reminding ourselves of older sources we merely forgot or by gaining an understanding of their answers that weren’t properly heard the first time around. In this way, historical theology can become a timely word from another time. (Insert bit about ‘chronological snobbery’ here).
After all this, it’s wise to hear Cary’s warning stands as a valid one. Our priority as preachers, teachers, and lay (or professional) theologians is the truth about what Bavinck got right more than the truth about who got Bavinck right. Still, it would be foolish to think that our pursuit of the former won’t include an understanding of the latter.
Soli Deo Gloria