The Reformed Catholicity of Herman Bavinck

Truly dominant-looking theological man. It's a win for Reformed beardliness everywhere.

Truly dominant-looking theological man. It’s a win for Reformed beardliness everywhere.

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

3 thoughts on “The Reformed Catholicity of Herman Bavinck

  1. I don’t know all of that concerning the gentleman in question or his teaching, though he appears to acknowledge that the Bible is the real and only authority in reference to doctrine. He speaks of a future time in the Ephesians sense where we come to the pure theology in our future, when actually that happened quite early on in the REAL end, and that was of testimony. The Bible is an archive of testimony, namely and basically, eyewitness, though it could be the eyewitness of prophesy as well. Paul promised an end to this testimony or archivable testimony in a near future, and practically that was at the last eyewitness of John the Apostle in his Gospel, and the last prophetic testimony in the apostle’s Revelation. Such knowledge that is basic to eyewitness came from the Holy Spirit and Paul talks of it as GNOSIS. However, when the complete testimony came in the activity of the final apostle alive who was the eyewitness to what Jesus said and did, then as we can see in three dimensions by the testimony of each of two eyes blended in the mind to conjure up that stereoscopic perspective, the archive we call the Bible provides several witnesses blended according to the schema of interpretation found in the Torah of two or three witnesses establishing a matter found in two corollaries to provide EPIGNOSIS or knowledge upon knowledge where apparent discrepancies of detail even to the point of contradiction gives us, for instance, temporal prophetic perspective in a form that is teachable or DOCTRINE. We have NOW at our disposal the mind of God of what He desires us to know. The grief that the writer of the article above speaks of is how we must render out of our varying bodies of doctrines of our own agendas and own anticipations of how things must come about.

    It is good that there are those who have wrestled with the establishment of doctrines, if it were according to that Torah law in reference to scriptures with the warning by Peter of Corollary one, being that in the mouth of one witness shall no man be put to death, or as Jesus puts it, “If I bear witness of myself my witness is not true, or as Peter actually states it in this corrected translation of 2 Peter 1:20 which goes like this, “this first knowing that every prophecy of scripture is NOT OF ITS OWN INTERPRETATION,” but according to Corollary two which is that one Moses and Jesus and even Paul speaks of as “in the mouth of WITNESSES, two or three, shall a matter be established, and that is why verse 21 of Peter’s warning speaks of Holy MEN (plural as opposed to MAN in the first phrase of this verse) were carried along by the Holy Spirit.

    We have in the Bible sans the traditions of men the mind of God of that which He desires us to know and the very assembly of Christ that was based on this Schema of interpretation as to its form, where in the gathering of two or three Christians in His name, Jesus is in the midst, has the requisite number, TWO OR MORE, to BEAR that testimony we are to have to the world, we established the DOCTRINE even DOGMA that is valuable to the world. While all the credibility giving gifts led by tongues, involving special miracles and special healing demanded by an apostle or select disciples stopped in 70 AD and the two revelatory gifts of eyewitness testimony of what Jesus said and did with enhanced memory by the Holy Spirit, and prophecy were done away with in the person of the last apostle and eyewitness and prophet, John the Apostle, other gifts of preaching and teaching and discerning of spirits remained for the gathering of doctrine from the archive we have in hand. Agape or unconditional love as given by God to the Christians at salvation are the only credibility giving gift left us, and from this we get the credibility that bolsters our broadcasting the doctrine we learn from the scriptures in that Jesus said, “in this shall ALL know that YE ARE MY DISCIPLES in that YE HAVE LOVE (agape) ONE TO ANOTHER. Ephesians 4 seems to tie all this together and I will leave it to you readers to gather the thrust of my statement that NOW we can have that unity even as it was THEN in the grasp of the first century Christians because we have NOW the mind of God and Paul anticipated it in a NEAR future.

  2. Pingback: On Theological Novelty and Cultivating Catholicity (Or, A Bit On Leithart) | Reformedish
  3. Pingback: Biblical Authority After Babel by Kevin Vanhoozer (Or, An Antidote To Shame-Faced Protestantism) | Reformedish

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