Herman Bavinck and Peter Enns on an Incarnational Analogy of Scripture

Peter Enns, in an online article about the authority of Scripture, summarizes his understanding of Scripture’s authority with a quote by Herman Bavinck.  Appealing to the systematician’s understanding that the two natures of Christ parallel the two natures of Scripture, Enns writes:

I can think of no better way of expressing this idea [the incarnational analogy] than by using (as I have used on numerous occasions in the recent past) the words of Herman Bavinck, the Dutch Reformed theologian. In volume one of his Reformed Dogmatics, Bavinck writes that a doctrine of Scripture,

….is the working out and application of the central fact of revelation: the incarnation of the Word. The Word (Logos) has become flesh (sarx), and the word has become Scripture; these two facts do not only run parallel but are most intimately connected. Christ became flesh, a servant, without form or comeliness, the most despised of human beings; he descended to the nethermost parts of the earth and became obedient even to death on the cross. So also the word, the revelation of God, entered the world of creatureliness, the life and history of humanity, in all the human forms of dream and vision, of investigation and reflection, right down into that which is humanly weak and despised and ignoble…. All this took place in order that the excellency of the power…of Scripture, may be God’s and not ours. (Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics: Volume 1: Prolegomena [trans. J. Vriend; Grand Rapids: Baker, 2003], 434–35; [Enns’] emphasis.)

This quote may give the impression that Bavinck and Enns are lockstep in their understanding of Scripture’s origin and nature.  For those familiar with Enns’ book, Inspiration and Incarnation, it may elicit the question, “What does Bavinck think about the human nature of Scripture?”  Does he, like Enns, press the incarnation model for all its cultural molding, or relegate the biblical texts to mythological stories copied from Israel’s neighbors?   What does Bavinck think about inerrancy? 

First, to put “inerrancy” into the mouth of the Dutch theologian would be anachronistic, though I think his theology harmonizes with and anticipates the idea (cf. Gaffin’s book ,God’s Word in Servant Form, treats Bavinck’s–and Abraham Kuyper’s–doctrine of Scripture in detail).  Likewise, in comparing these men, it must be recognized that their settings in time and location, as well as, their divergent scholastic aims, may not allow a straight-forward comparison.  Further, even Enns himself admits that Bavinck “says a lot more” on the subject of Scripture, thus Enns makes room for difference between the late theologian and himself.  Nevertheless, since the question was posed on another blogpost concerning Enns and Bavinck, I will try to show some of that distance.  

I think to answer the question of whether Bavinck and Enns would agree with one another, one simply needs to read the next paragraph in Bavinck’s dogmatic textbook.  As is usually the case, context clarifies, and in this case, it helps demonstrate that Herman Bavinck’s “incarnational analogy” is not quite the same as Peter Enns.   The former grounds his human authorship in the unerring veracity of God communicating by the Spirit of Truth, the other emphasizes the human factor so much that Divine inspiration takes on a new meaning.

Bavinck concludes the paragraph cited by Enns saying, “Everything is divine and everything is human” (435), and then he explicates this idea with an important caveat in the next paragraph (which begins a new section):

This organic view [of inspiration, which Bavinck eventually affirms with qualifications] has been repeatedly used, however to undermine the authorship of the Holy Spirit, the primary author.  The incarnation of Christ demands that we trace it down into the depths of of its humiliation, in all its weakness and contempt.  The recording of the word, of revelation, invites us to recognize that dimension of weakness and lowliness, the servant form, also in Scripture.  But just as Christ’s human nature, however weak and lowly, remained free from Sin, so also Scripture is ‘conceived without defect or stain’; totally human in all its parts but also divine in all its parts (emphasis mine, 435).

In the next section, Bavinck draws on trends in historical theology, showing sensitivity to more modern understandings of precision, and urging caution models of inspiration that slide from word, to idea, to ultimate denial.  He continues:

Yet, in many different ways, injustice has been done to that divine character of Scripture.  The history of inspiration shows us that first, till deep into the seventeenth century, it was progressively expanded even to the vowels and the punctuation (inspiratio punctualis) and in the following phase progressively shrunk, from punctuation to the words (verbal inspiration), from the individual words to the Word, the idea (Word in place of verbal inspiration).  Inspiration further shrunk from the word as idea to the subject matter of the word (inspiratio realis), then from the subject matter to the religous-ethical content, to that which has been revealed in the true sense, to the Word of God in the strict sense, to the special object of saving faith (inspiratio fundamentalis, religiosa), from these matters to the persons (inspiratio personalis), and finally from this to the denial of all inspiration as supernatural gift (435).

Think what you will of Bavinck’s historical analysis and slippery slope argument, but one thing is clear: Peter Enns and Herman Bavinck do not share the same understanding of Scripture.  In fact, in the pages that follow in Bavinck’s chapter on “The Inspiration of Scripture,” their doctrinal disparity grows.  I will conclude with just one more treatment of his illuminating work that highlights the difference.  Concluding his section on organic inspiration he again touches on the incarnational model, only here Bavinck develops it with a detail that exceeds Inspiration & Incarnation. (Admittedly, Enns has developed this approach with greater focus since I & I, see his 2007 CTJ article, but differences in their incarnational models remain).  Bavinck summarizes:

Inspiration has to be viewed organically, so that even the lowliest part has its place and meaning and at the same time is much farther removed from the center than other parts.  In the human organism nothing is accidental, neither its length, nor its breadth, not its color or its tint.  This is not, however, to say that everthing is equally closely connected with its life center.  The head and the heart occupy a much more important place in the body that the hand or the foot, and these again are greatly superior in value to the nails and the hair.  In Scripture, as well, not everything is equally close to the center.  There is a periphery, which moves in a wide path aroung the center, yet also that periphery belongs to the circle of divine thoughts.  Accordingly, there are no kinds and degrees in ‘graphic’ inspiration.  The hair of one’s head shares in the same life as the heart and the hand.  There is one and the same Spirit from whom, through consciousness of the authors, the whole Scripture has come.  But there is a difference in the manner in which the same life is present and active in the different parts of the body.  There is diversity of gifts, also in Scripture, but it is the same Spirit (438-39, emphasis mine).

In the end, appeals to men are like appeals to tradition.  They are helpful and historic, but they do not trump the Bible itself.  I think ultimately, Enns and Bavinck, would go back to the Bible to make their case.  Only, I think they would do so with divergent degrees of confidence in the Bible’s inspiration–Bavinck asserting inspiration from the unerring Spirit of Truth through men; Enns ascribing origination from men with assistance from the Spirit.  This a nuanced difference, but one that ultimately affirms or denies the authority of the Scriptures.  One makes Scripture God’s unique self-revelation, the other a error-proned attestation to the God who lisps. 

The point here is not ultimately to solve the inerrancy debate, but simply to observe the difference between Enns and Bavinck in their similar usage of the “incarnational analogy.”  For while Enns bolsters his case with citations from Bavinck, the superficial similarities do not go beyond the surface.  Both scholars employ an incarnational analogy for understanding Scripture, but they explain this analogy differently as the preceding quotations demonstrate.  In the end, Enns is not a reincarnation of Bavinck, but hopefully his scholastic dependence on the Reformed theologian will help others glean from Bavinck’s commitment to biblical inspiration and authority in ways that Enns does not.

[For more on Bavinck’s doctrine of scripture, see Richard Gaffin’s book on the subject, God’s Word in Servant Form].

Sola Deo Gloria, dss

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