Why Every Fourth Grader Should Read Bavinck
Why Every Fourth Grader Should Read Herman Bavinck
God in his providence has allowed bad theology to remain in the world since the sixth day of creation. From Adam onward, each generation of believers has had to deal with error. And, as the body of Christ grows and develops, so too do the schemes of the evil one. When we look at our children (and the one I am looking at now happens to be a fourth grader), we must wonder if they will be ready to handle the theological issues they will face in their own day. Will their foundation be solid, or will they like the men of Athens run after every new thing? Will their ears itch so that they gather for themselves teachers to suit their own passions? If we want our children to be ready, we need to ensure they are firmly grounded in the truth of the Scriptures. Surely, much of the doctrinal confusion in our time, be that within or without our Reformed circles, can be traced to a weak and declining foundation in biblical truths.
But as important as the foundation of Scripture is, they must build upon it. Isn't that, after all, what Calvin and our Reformed confessions have done: synthesize the teaching of the Bible into a concise and coherent system of doctrine? Surely we must not neglect the ongoing work of the Spirit as He continues to assist Christ's church in working out and understanding the Apostolic faith. Therefore, if we want our children to be fully prepared to handle the issues and controversies of their own time, we should not deprive them of the works put down for us by the great men of the past. If are we raising our children on a steady diet of Scripture, Calvin and the Westminster Standards, they will be ready. If we throw in Herman Bavinck and the recently completed translation of his four volume Reformed Dogmatics, like a "boost" at a smoothie shop, their readiness will be increased. This is so for two particular reasons.
First, Bavinck provides a solid orthodox Reformed view of the various loci of Systematic Theology. We live in an era where systematic thought and systematic categories are regularly dismissed as irrelevant and even dangerous to an understanding of Scripture. This leads to all sorts of problems where otherwise brilliant people make the simplest of mistakes because they have, for instance, an inaccurate doctrine of Scripture, or of the Atonement, or of Christ. Bavinck's coverage of the systematic loci is very broad and very deep. He not only addresses the traditional Reformed stance, he also routinely addresses those near or related to the Reformed position, be they Lutheran or Arminian, as well as those further off, be they Roman Catholic or German Higher Critics. In so doing, Bavinck regularly recounts much historical theology before laying out the Reformed position. The result is that Bavinck, who is not content to rest his conclusions on tradition alone, instead shows his commitment to the biblical text itself, in the original languages, by engaging in fresh exegesis. In the process of this exegesis and explication, Bavinck is always drawing the reader back to the ground plan, or meta-narrative, of what God has done in creation, and what God has promised his people through his Covenant of Grace.
The subject of Covenant Theology deserves special mention. In a time where much muddying of the theological waters has occurred with respect to this subject, we need to be reminded that not all movement is progress: sometimes what theologians press upon Christendom as progress is anything but. Rather, our concept of progress should be nothing less than a greater and greater conformity to Scripture alone, even if this requires us to retrace our steps. As Covenant Theology is under attack from so many directions, Bavinck's works are a wonderful place to regroup and refuel.
His is one of the most clear and most profound explanations of God's use of covenant to relate to His creation. Bavinck provides a sober discussion of man's total inability to merit anything before God outside of God's condescension in covenant. He is neither confused nor confusing about the existence or place of the covenant of works and how it explains and enables the federal headship of both Adam and Christ. He is clear and concise with respect to the perennial issues of the law and the gospel, such that he recognizes the Mosaic covenant as a dispensation of the Covenant of Grace. In short, at least with respect to Covenant Theology, we should all pick up Bavinck and begin anew from his vantage point.
In addition to being scriptural and covenantal, Bavinck's Reformed Dogmatics is also thoroughly Trinitarian. The doctrine of the Trinity is explained with clarity, insight and biblical faithfulness: something systematic textbooks do not always achieve. The Trinity and Trinitarian concerns permeate the four volumes: it appears in Prolegomena where the glory of the Triune God is the focus of special revelation; it is found throughout God and Creation where the doctrine is most fully explained, but also where the focus of redemption is restoring man to the purpose of his creation as the image of the Triune God; we see Trinity in the discussion of the Covenant of Grace, were each member acts both in concert and individually within that concert to bring about our salvation; in Sin and Salvation in Christ, in his explication of the order and application of salvation; and we see it again in Holy Spirit, Church and New Creation where all of the purposes and plans of God are summed up in the re-creation of all things by the divine act of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. "The Christian mind," says Bavinck, "remains unsatisfied until all of existence is referred back to the triune God, and until the confession of God's Trinity functions at the center of our thought and life" (II.330). If there is anything our fourth-graders need, it is a commitment to, and strong, systematic, understanding of the Scriptures, of the Covenants and of the Trinity.
This brings us to the second reason that fourth-graders should be introduced to Bavinck: he dealt with issues which were threatening his generation from a position of respect, but never capitulation. He was not afraid of the philosophers and theologians of his day, in much the same way Paul was not afraid of them in his. He did not shy away from their arguments and their conclusions, and even comments when they happen to stumble upon truth. He interacts with Darwin, Kant, Schleiermacher, Ritschl, Harnack, Hegel and Zahn. For instance, rather than just ignoring evolution or dismissing it as unscriptural, Bavinck listens to the arguments of Darwin and his followers and shows why they are inadequate explanations for the origin of life, even from the perspective of ostensibly "neutral" science.
In this sense, Bavinck seems to be telegraphing the approach that Cornelius Van Til would later make explicit in his apologetics. Bavinck steps over onto the ground of his opponents and shows the vanity and futility of their positions based upon their own presuppositions. But since his aim is not to debunk evolution, Bavinck goes on to climb out of the hole Darwin has dug for himself and explain the biblical doctrine of creation. To be sure, Bavinck's technique is not as self-conscience as it will later become through Van Til's presupposition apologetic. However Van Til is certainly indebted to, and builds upon, the work which Bavinck began.
The answer that Bavinck gives to all the issues to which he attends is thoroughly Scriptural. He is not ashamed to pit Scripture against the arguments and ideas of natural men. Whereas his opponents, be they liberal theologians or secular philosophers, tend to appeal to "what we, as enlightened people of the (insert your century here), now know," Bavinck is always returning to the faith once for all delivered. It is particularly this issue that our fourth graders need to recognize. They, much like their fathers, will be constantly inundated with people dismissing the basic truths of Bible and the Christian faith because of what they think they now know or what they think they have now discovered. In addition to a firm and solid foundation in Scripture, Covenant and Trinity, our fourth-graders need a realization that what contemporary scholars may think they "now know" is little more that a faint and fading breeze, with no power to cast down the solid bulwarks of Scripture.
Carl Trueman has argued to the effect that no academic makes his credentials by saying that those who came before him got everything correct. Instead, they must show their parents (pedagogical or otherwise) to be dragons in need of slaying, and show how no one has ever seen things quite like they have. Fortunately, as long as there are secular philosophers and liberal theologians, orthodox Reformed and Evangelical doctoral candidates will have numerous dragons to slay. Herein lies the modern fourth-grader's heavy debt to men like Bavinck. No, Bavinck will not single-handedly slay all future dragons and false theologies for us. Rather, he provides us (and I consider myself little more than a fourth-grader, theologically speaking) with a tremendous example of how a theologian is to interact with his present age and use the one book that is sufficient to battle the errors of any age: God's inerrant, inspired and infallible Holy Scriptures. Further, Bavinck provides us with a solid base upon which to stand as we survey the modern landscape of theological frivolity. With so many today, even those within our own camp, running hither and thither, we need that solid base, that heavily armed and armored encampment unabashedly positioned in enemy territory from which we may sortie out and slay dragons of our own.
Steve Tipton is a MDiv student at Reformed Theological Seminary in Jackson, MS.