Herman Bavinck is one of the, if not the, finest, confessionally-Reformed dogmaticians of the last two hundred years. Anyone who has encountered his work and knows the depth of his learning, his sound orthodoxy, and creatively faithful articulation of the Reformed faith in the face of his modern context.
Those same readers, though, could also testify to Bavinck’s credentials as a theologian of the Church catholic, despite his location at the small confessional school at Kampen. Indeed, George Puchinger notes, “History has its ironies but it cannot be denied: the most ecumenical protestant dogmatic theology in fact appeared in Kampen, the place where theology was practiced in the most isolationist manner” (cited in James Eglinton, Trinity and Organism, pg. 93).
Bavinck’s method of developing doctrines historically and organically certainly played a role in this. In pretty much every locus in the Reformed Dogmatics, Bavinck takes the time to review each doctrine according to broader cultural material, as well as the Old and New Testament witness. A large bulk of his chapters, though, consist of an extensive historical survey that give an irenic account of each topic from the Fathers (East and West), to the Medievals, through the Reformation, Counter-Reformation, Post-Reformation, and modern period across Roman, Lutheran, Reformed, and Radical traditions.
But even Bavinck’s skill as a historian doesn’t cut to the heart of his Reformed Catholicity. References to Augustine, the Cappodocians, Hilary, and Pseudo-Dionysius, as well as Thomas, Scotus, and the medievals all play a role in his formation of doctrine now. That’s because Bavinck had a depth theology of the witness of the Holy Spirit in the tradition of the Church that speaks to his approach to dogmatics.
First, he notes that human knowledge, especially our theology and religion, is only and always grounded in our existence as humans in community. Long before Alasdair MacIntyre came on the scene, Bavinck knew that knowledge was traditioned:
Abstractions—universals—do not exist in reality. The tree, the human being, the science, the language, the religion, the theology are nowhere to be found. Only particular trees, human beings, sciences, languages, and religions exist. Just as a language is associated with a particular people, and science and philosophy are always pursued in a certain school and ideological context, so religion and theology can be found and nurtured only in a related community of faith.
Of course, that means that we come to knowledge of our faith on in the churches we inhabit–they are the “natural soil” of religion. There are limitations to this, of course. There isn’t one pure theology, or pure church, but many churches and many theologies. And it will be this way until the church reaches the maturity and the unity of the Son of God at the end of all things (Eph. 4). That said, the churches, for all their division, are not disqualified from the purposes of God with respect to our knowledge of the truth.
It is not apart from the existing churches but through them that Christ prepares for himself a holy, catholic church. Nor is it apart from the different ecclesiastical dogmas but through them that the unity of the knowledge of God is prepared and realized.
How can Bavinck affirm this in the face of all the division and doctrinal strife? Because he had a solid grasp of the now/not yet quality to the Church’s possession of doctrinal truth. What’s more, he knew that it is to the Church that God has promised the Holy Spirit:
This significance of the church for theology and dogmatics is grounded in the link that Christ himself forged between the two. He promised his church the Holy Spirit, who would guide it into all truth. This promise sheds a glorious light upon the history of dogma. It is the explication of Scripture, the exposition that the Holy Spirit has given, in the church, of the treasures of the Word.
It is this understanding that reveals the root of Bavinck’s own approach to the broader church tradition in which he stood as a confessional theologian of the Church catholic. Here’s how he conceived of the dogmatician’s job in this light:
Accordingly, the task of the dogmatician is not to draw the material for his dogmatics exclusively from the written confession of his own church but to view it in the total context of the unique faith and life of his church, and then again in the context of the history of the whole church of Christ. He therefore stands on the shoulders of previous generations. He knows he is surrounded by a cloud of witnesses and lets his witness merge with the voice of these many waters. Every dogmatics ought to be in full accord with and a part of the doxology sung to God by the church of all ages. – Reformed Dogmatics, Volume 1: Prolegomena, pg. 86
Bavinck sought to craft a dogmatics that blended its voices into the that of the broader choir of the church throughout the ages, even as he sung it in his own deep, Reformed baritone.
None of this, of course, threatens the Scripture principle. Though the dogmatician is a student of the tradition, learning from what has come before, grateful for that deep cloud of witnesses, Scripture not the Church, is still the self-authenticating norm of all theology. All the same, it is his commitment to Scripture, or rather, the Triune author of Scripture, that authorizes Bavinck’s aim to speak beyond the confines of his own Reformed tradition to speak to the broader Church over which Christ is Lord.
Soli Deo Gloria