Review: Bavinck’s Theological Epistemology

Nathaniel Gray Sutanto. God and Knowledge: Herman Bavinck’s Theological Epistemology. T&T Clark, 2020. Hardback. 208 pp. $115.00

There’s nothing business as usual with studies in Herman Bavinck with more translated works available and as the secondary literature continues to grow. The latest monograph in the "T&T Clark Studies in Systematic Theology" by Nathaniel Gray Sutanto offers critical insight into Bavinck’s theological use of the organic motif. Sutanto’s analysis of the organic motif challenges, for starters, the ‘Two-Bavincks’ model found in Reformed perspectives and calls for a re-framing of secondary literature. This tall order is followed by concluding that Bavinck’s theological epistemology is much more complicated than the terms usually used to define his theological outlook such as ‘critical realist’ or ‘absolute idealist’.

Sutanto’s highly organized work is presented in seven chapters with one to four sections each. Chapter 1, Re-reading Bavinck’s theological epistemology opens with a call to re-frame the scholarly literature according to Bavinck’s organic motif. This motif is more than an “organizing devise,” says Sutanto, and demonstrates its “significant theological motivations” (Sutanto, p. 36) through his careful analysis of key texts in Chapter 2, Bavinck’s Organicism – God, Anthropology and Revelation. Chapter 3, Organicism and Wetenchapthe structure of Bavinck’s epistemology examines the connections, consistency, and tensions between the organic and mechanistic approaches to the sciences and theology as they relate to e.g. worldview and theology’s place within the university. Sutanto develops the context of his thesis even further in Chapter 4, Between Aquinas and Kuyper, locating Bavinck’s distinct neo-Calvinist outlook within the context of epistemological debates from “in-house” Roman Catholic studies in Aquinas to modernist philosophical schools such as Berlin Romanticism.

Having established the theological framework of Bavinck’s organic motif, Sutanto is ready to run the gauntlet of Reformed and post-Kantian epistemology in Chapter 5, Bavinck, Thomas Reid, the ‘gap’ and the question of subjects and objects. This critical chapter unpacks Bavinck’s philosophical and pedagogical concern to guard the Trinity and revelation against subjectivism in the object-subject relationship. Chapter 6, The Absolute and the organic – Bavinck and Eduard von Hartmann presents a highly nuanced reading of Bavinck from the Reformed Dogmatics, The Stone Lectures, original and unpublished manuscripts et. al. to untangle subjects, objects, and unconsciousness from pantheistic and monistic philosophies. The final chapter, Revelation, the unconsciousness, reason and feeling connects the organic motif across Bavinck’s major theological and philosophical works as a theological, epistemological, and ontological motif located within its neo-Calvinist context while engaging with a vast if not eclectic body of literature.

Sutanto is a strong writer evidenced by clear, comparative analysis of the sources that does not rely on large citations. The first draft of this review was critical of Sutanto’s analysis of Bavinck’s understanding and use of Aquinas introduced in Chapter 4, where Sutanto has the arduous task of sorting through modernist interpretations to find Bavinck’s own views that bring him to market. Sutanto’s analysis on an initial reading appeared all too brief and summary, however, Sutanto picks up where he leaves off in a highly engaging discussion of the concursus and influentia models in Bonaventure, Aquinas and Bavinck in the final chapter. Sutanto makes a strong case for Bavinck’s nuanced and eclectic use of Aquinas, classical, and modernist sources within the constraints afforded by a monograph.

Bavinck’s theological deployment of the organic motif, as Sutanto demonstrates, argues that revelation precedes cognitive thought, unconsciousness (i.e. Bavinck’s reading and critique of Edward von Hoffmann) creating the distinctions, space, or a ‘gap’ between subject-object allowing the sciences to perform their unique tasks. With humility at the outset, Sutanto notes, the organic motif does not afford theology any ‘privileged knowledge with respect to natural affairs’ but distinguishes general and special revelation, archetype and ectypal knowledge, “not by ontological fusion, but by displaying them to the human mind by the works of his hands” (Sutanto, p. 46, 49). The theologian has no more insight into the state of Schrödinger's cat than the quantum physicist; the difference here, Sutanto might suggest, is the theologian’s epistemological justification in the pursuit of science does not hang on her ability to prescribe theological truth to, or author the experiment (Cf. Sutanto, pp. 65-68ff.) The organic motif underlines Bavinck’s concern to address the dualism between faith and knowledge, theology and science, the mind, and the heart prevalent within the nineteenth and twentieth-century academy.

Closer to the heart of Sutanto’s thesis is demonstrating a Bavinckian epistemology that should be understood as “Reformed-organic realism” and not, say, the critical realist or absolute idealist terms which scholars have used to identify Bavinck’s thought in the secondary literature (Sutanto, p.145-146).  While some areas of Bavinck’s thought are elusive, says Sutanto, Bavinck’s treatment of the object first in the subject-object distinction maintains the creator-creature distinction, and so “our knowledge of God is never a knowledge that overcomes” that distinction a priori, nor does it create an immediacy of reference. Blurring distinctions, not minding the gap, Bavinck warned, is how many modernist schools of thought run headlong into rationalism and pantheism (Sutanto, p. 154, 156). Bavinck’s eclectic use of classical and modern sources are conscientious side steps to these and other issues within nineteenth and twentieth-century theological epistemology but does not necessarily, Sutanto concludes, launch Bavinck into the twenty-first century. Nevertheless, Sutanto’s first-rate reading of Bavinck’s theological epistemology through the organic motif demonstrates core issues in Bavinck’s thought that warrant careful reevaluation especially within the Reformed tradition.

This is an important resource for students and scholars of Bavinck looking for interpretive insights into Bavinck’s pedagogical method for conveying the content of primordial revelation through human understanding (and institutions) to the telos of science, aesthetics, and ethics. This method as Sutanto has clearly demonstrated is the organic connection of theology to the other sciences and humanities and the deeper relational issues associated with integrated academic programs. Sutanto has done far better than argue for a mere dusting off theological coinage deep within a specialized field; instead, he has revitalized a criterion through which Bavinck continues to connect and inform contemporary theological studies.

Joel Heflin (MA, Regent College) has written papers on Herman Bavinck for the Evangelical Theological Society and Puritan theology for Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary. He is currently an assistant editor for a forthcoming edition of John Flavel’s Works (2020-2021). Joel lives in Chattanooga, TN with his family.

Related Links

"Why Every Fourth Grader Should Read Bavinck" by Steve Tipton

"Mastricht, Bavinck, and the Efficacy of Scripture" by Bruce Baugus

The Bible in Church History, featuring "Herman Bavinck: The Bible and the Amsterdam School" by Carl Trueman [ Audio Disc  |  MP3 Disc  |  Download ]

RPTS Westminster Conference: Theology for Today [ Audio Disc  |  MP3 Disc  |  Download ]

Christian Dogmatics: Reformed Theology for the Church Catholic, ed. by Michael Allen and Scott Swain.