Reformed Dogmatics (Volume 1-3)

Ron Gleason

The theological world has been blessed by being the recipients of the translation of the first three volumes of Herman Bavinck's magnum opus the Gereformeerde Dogmatiek in English. As one who has read the entire 4-volume Dutch work from cover to cover 5-6 times, I can attest to the fine job of editing and translating John Bolt and John Vriend have done, respectively.

By way of general comments I would point out that John Bolt has performed a great service by his editorial introductions and notes in the English translation. Far from hindering the reader's grasp of the material, Dr. Bolt provides us with highly helpful and pertinent comments in each of the chapters of material. By the same token, the translation team has done an admirable job in what is often a thankless task of a kind of theological midwifery. What is of greater import, however, is that the translation team was able to put older Dutch into a highly readable English format. As one who lived, preached, and taught in Holland for almost ten years I can attest to the fact that the language has definitely evolved and the older writings and idioms are far from easy translate into modern equivalents.

These volumes have been anticipated by the theological world for a long time and now that they are available, it would behoove every professor, theological student, Elder, and serious Christian to purchase them. Granted, there are some aspects of the RD that are, by necessity, dated. In addition, given Bavinck's death in 1921, we can say that in a certain sense his interaction with modern theology and theologians ended there. But there is more to this than meets the eye. Allow me to explain what I mean.

For example, much of what is contained in the RD equips the reader to respond to many of the modern trends that are viable in modern theology--there truly is nothing new under the theological sun. Precisely because Bavinck almost always includes sections dealing with the history of the dogma being discussed, the reader comes away well-equipped to interact with the modern variations on those dogmata. In terms of the modern controversy that is rearing its head in the Emergent Church Movement about the nature of the atonement (otherwise known as the Cosmic Child Abuse Syndrome), a reading of Bavinck's chapter on the atoning sacrifice of Christ (Vol. 3, Part III, Chapter 7) provides a more than adequate description of the orthodox and unorthodox formulations of that particular doctrine. It would not be saying too much to state that reading any chapter in the RD will have the effect of thoroughly grounding the Christian in the most important aspects of the subject under discussion. The reader is more fully equipped to understand the motivations as well as the theological constructions behind each of the respective movements.

What this translates into is a theological orientation from a decidedly well-balanced Reformed persuasion that enables the reader to critique more modern 20th and 21st century theologies and theologians. Armed with Bavinck's solid biblical approach to theology and his theological method, one is capable of offering criticism of someone of the stature of Karl Barth, Emil Brunner, Jürgen Moltmann, Wolfhart Pannenberg, Hans Frei, N.T. Wright, and many others.

Moreover, many of the older theologians whose major tenets bolster modern theology are fully discussed in the RD. Bavinck was a voracious reader who stayed fully abreast of the theological movements of his day. His theological education was at Leiden University, which was, at the time, the bastion of liberal theology. Bavinck's professors (Scholten, Keunen, and Rauwenhoff) taught him modern theology and its methodology. Having a keen, insightful, and independent mind, Bavinck gleaned what was good from this liberal teachers and disregarded the rest. His theological training (he also earned his equivalent to our Ph.D. at Leiden as well) at Leiden left him thoroughly conversant with both the theologians and philosophers of the past and his present.

Before I move on to point out some salient aspects of the RD I want to make a few general comments. First, Dr. A.A. van Ruler, giving a guest lecture in Kampen, Holland on November 24, 1966 said, "Personally, in the midst of all the cacophony, I prefer to listen to the restful voice of Herman Bavinck." Van Ruler was correct. Bavinck is one theologian that any serious Christian does not want to neglect. Dr. J.I. Packer comments, "Like Augustine, Calvin, and Edwards, Bavinck was a man of giant mind, vast learning, ageless wisdom, and great expository skill, and to have these volumes now in full English is a wonderful enrichment. Solid but lucid, demanding but satisfying, broad and deep and sharp and stabilizing. Bavinck's magisterial Reformed Dogmatics remains after a century the supreme achievement of its kind. Dr. Dick Gaffin adds, "Arguably the most important systematic theology ever produced in the Reformed tradition." Gaffin's assessment is highly accurate and could not be said better. As I mentioned above, Gaffin concurs that these volumes will serve "to deepen understanding and enrich reflection in both historical and systematic theology."

Second, those of us who were in seminary when G.C. Berkouwer's Dogmatische Studiën were being translated remember how Berkouwer was constantly in conversation with Bavinck in each volume. In a personal interview with me in 1976 Dr. Berkouwer stated that the two theologians that had the most impact on his life were Herman Bavinck and Karl Barth. The latter's influence is easily and clearly recognizable from 1954 on when Berkouwer's book The Triumph of Grace in the Theology of Karl Barth (De Triomf der Genade in de Theologie van Karl Barth) appeared in Dutch along with his volume on Election (De Verkiezing Gods). Yet as one reads and studies Berkouwer's works it is undeniable that he was deeply indebted to Bavinck in many ways. (As a sidebar, it should be noted that Berkouwer was an exceptionally important theologian for American students. He comes in second, behind Karl Barth, for the most American students promoting with him at the Free University.) Similar influence of Bavinck can be found in key Reformed theologians such as Herman Ridderbos, Louis Berkhof, Anthony Hoekema, Jochem Douma, Cornelius van Til, and a host of other conservative Reformed writers. Bavinck's lasting value as a theologian is reflected in the many editions the Gereformeerde Dogmatiek has undergone in Holland. In spite of being "dated" the Gereformeerde Dogmatiek continues to be reprinted on a regular basis.

Third, Dr. S. Meijers wrote a dissertation in 1979 with the translated title Objectivity and Existentiality. In the dissertation one of Meijers' theses was that in his approach to Reformed theology Bavinck maintained the precious balance between objectivity and subjectivity. His approach was not a cold, sterile analysis, but breathed the truth of Scripture and the illumination and enlightenment of the Holy Spirit in the believer's life. With this important balance in mind, I want to proceed further in my review.

Reviewing a three-volume work in such a short expanse of space is a task of Herculean proportions. Therefore, I have decided to approach this review with a general introduction to Bavinck's theological method (Vol. 1, Part I, Chapter 2). Before Bavinck reveals his method to us, however, he makes an indispensable statement that greatly impacts all of theology and theological method: Dogmatics and ethics belong together (1:58). The two fit as a hand and a glove. "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 and in the strength of those divine deeds. In dogmatics human beings are passive; they receive and believe; in ethics they are themselves active agents. In dogmatics, the articles of the faith are treated; in ethics the precepts of the Decalogue. In the former, that which concerns faith is dealt with; in the latter, that which concerns love, obedience, and good works.... 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" (Ibid.).

Having noted that, let's now move on to the second chapter "The Method and Organization of Dogmatic Theology." In the English translation, John Bolt provides approximately three pages of italicized introduction. In some cases, this type of approach can be unhelpful in the sense that the chapter will be read through the prism of the editor rather than the author. This is certainly not the case with Bolt's introduction. He gives both an accurate as well as concise account of what the reader will encounter in the chapter. Without citing the Bolt's entire summary, I would like to point to some of the most salient features with a view to the second chapter.

First, he rightly states that for Bavinck "The concern for revelation-based normativity in dogmatics must not be construed to serve as a reason to overlook or deny the importance of confessional and cultural factors in dogmatic treatises. No one is free from the biases of church upbringing and particular environmental contexts" (p. 60). As much as we would like to extricate ourselves from our inherent biases, it is next to impossible.

Second, "The sole aim of dogmatics is to set forth the thoughts of God that he has laid down in Scripture" (Ibid.). The dogmatician is not to check his Christianity at the door and is required to think God's thoughts after him. Many Reformed pastors and professors have taken this notion over from Bavinck.

Third, "The best method for doing theology in thus the synthetic-generic method, which replicates the manner in which Christian dogma has arisen organically from Scripture as a whole" (Ibid. Italics mine).

Finally, "Theology is about God and should reflect a doxological tone that glorifies him" (p. 61).

With this as background how should the theologian build his theological method? In answer to this question, Bavinck cites three factors: Holy Scripture, the church's confession, and Christian consciousness (Ibid.). Among these three, Scripture has primacy. Nevertheless, the other two factors are truly important, essential. The key to understanding Bavinck's stance on these factors lies in what we might call "balance." Throughout the history of Christianity there are evidences of what happens when Christians abandon these factors and their respectively places in the faith.

For example, when the Christian consciousness is emphasized at the expense of the objective scriptures and the church's confession subjectivism is only a step away. What comes to the Christian consciousness must be verified by the objective truth of the Word of God. Pietism "assumed a decidedly hostile attitude to the confession of the church and opposed it in the name of Holy Scripture (Ibid.). In the 21st century, we are more than acutely aware of how the primacy of the Christian consciousness can trump what Scripture clearly teaches.

There is also a clear and present danger when people elevate the confessional statements to a position they do not ascribe to themselves. While our confessions must be held near and dear to our hearts (Bavinck subscribed to the Heidelberg Catechism, the Belgic Confession, and the Canons of Dort in his church tradition), they must always be viewed as human documents revisable by Scripture. A couple of quick examples will suffice. In the Belgic Confession (Art. 7) we read, in part: "We may not consider any writings of men, however holy these men may have been, of equal value with the divine Scriptures; nor ought we to consider custom, or the great multitude, or antiquity, or succession of times and persons, or councils, decree, or statues, as of equal value with the truth of God, since the truth is above all..."

The Westminster Confession of Faith (1.6) unequivocally states, "The whole counsel of God concerning all things necessary for his own glory, man's salvation, faith and life, is either expressly set down in Scripture, or by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from Scripture: unto which nothing at any time is to be added, whether by new revelations of the Spirit or traditions of men."

Because of men like Ritschl and Schleiermacher theology was in need of a more scientific, objective basis. Men such as Ernst Troeltsch of Heidelberg attempted to rescue theology from being little more than "consciousness theology," but failed in his attempt, which was "not to move from Christianity to the history of religions, but to ascend from the latter to the Christian faith as the highest religion" (p. 75). Because Kant had made a complete separation between religion and science, those who accepted Kant's premise no longer possessed "a method by which Christianity could still be upheld as absolute religion" (p. 71). The goal was to present an objective approach to doing theology, but in a way that was so sterile that the thesis was forgotten that "Total 'presuppositionlessness' (Voraussetzunglosigkeit) renders study and research impossible" (p. 73). In short, "A human being cannot keep silent about that which is most precious to him or her in life and death. A Christian cannot keep his faith, his most profound religious convictions, outside the door of his study nor view his own religion as objectively as he would that of a practitioner of some primitive religion. No one, therefore, in the pursuit of his studies, consistently applies the idea of the equivalence of all religions" (p. 75).

This leads Bavinck to conclude that the theologian who writes a Christian dogmatics must thankfully stand in the faith (cf. John 7:17). He writes, "A theologian can believe that there is no revelation, no greater and higher revelation, in Christianity (in the person of Christ, in the prophets and apostles, in Scripture) than can be observed elsewhere in nature of history. Anyone who so judges is then no longer a Christian and is not qualified or able to write a Christian dogmatics" (p. 78. Italics mine).

A balance, then, between the objective revelation of Scripture must be combined with the subjective illumination by the Holy Spirit--the church's supreme Teacher (Doctor ecclesiae). When this is the case, "the whole intent of believers is to take the thoughts of God laid down in Scripture into their consciousness and to understand them rationally" (p. 93). For the dogmatician, this means that he "will be most fully equipped to carry out this task if he lives in communion of fait with the church of Christ and confesses Scripture as the only and sufficient basis (principium) of the knowledge of God" (Ibid.).

I have intentionally painted with a broad brush in describing this chapter in the RD to you, and even this method has required me to leave a great deal that is contained in Bavinck's chapter on method--and all chapters in the RD for that matter--unsaid. It is my fervent hope, however, that you will spend the requisite money to add these currents volume as well as the fourth when it appears to your theological armamentarium. I am fully convinced that you will return repeatedly, as I have, to the restful voice of this giant among Reformed theologians.

You will find yourself taking these volumes from the shelf and pouring over the rich history of dogma, the profound and continued use of Scripture, and the thorough grasp of theology and theological positions that Herman Bavinck offers. My Dutch volumes have been taped and re-taped due to constant use. John Bolt and John Vriend have done us the great service of putting the works of this outstanding Dutch theologian into our hands in the English language. You will only be the richer for studying Bavinck's theology.

Herman Bavinck / Grand Rapids: Baker, 2003, 2004, and 2006   
Review by Ron Gleason, Senior Minister, Grace Presbyterian Church, Yorba Linda, CA