Ten Truths about God’s Incommunicable and Communicable Attributes

joshua-fuller-9QF90iLO0q0-unsplashIn his theological summary of Christian doctrine, Our Reasonable Faith, Herman Bavinck provides a number of illuminating points about the attributes of God—namely, their incommunicable and communicable attributes. Here are some of Bavinck’s observations listed under ten points.

1. The Language of incommunicable and communicable is most effective in holding together God’s transcendence and immanence.

The effort to take account of all the data of Holy Scripture in its doctrine of God, and to maintain both His transcendence of and His relationship to the creature, led the Christian church to make a distinction very early between two groups of the attributes of the Divine being. these two groups were variously designated from the early church on. The Roman church still prefers to speak of negative and positive attributes, the Lutheran of quiescent and operative attributes, and the Reformed churches of incommunicable and communicable attributes.

At bottom, however, this division amounts to the same thing in all of these churches. The purpose for each of them is to insist on God’s transcendence (His distinction from and His elevation above the world) and on God’s immanence (His community with and His indwelling in the world). The Reformed names of incommunicable and communicable attributes do better justice to this purpose than the names which the Catholics and the Lutherans employ. The insistence on the first group of attributes saves us from polytheism and pantheism; and the insistence on the second group protects us against deism and atheism. (134–35) Continue reading

Seeing Christ in All of Scripture: A Few Words from Herman Bavinck

enoc-valenzuela-WJolaNbXt90-unsplashThus the whole revelation of the Old Testament converges upon Christ,
not upon a new law, or doctrine, or institution, but upon the person of Christ.

— Herman Bavinck —

As Herman Bavinck closes out a section on special revelation in Our Reasonable Faith, he reminds us that the goal of Scripture is not a law, nor a religious belief or practice, nor even a gospel, as in an impersonal message of good news. Rather, the unified goal of Scripture is a single person—Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

In recent years (and for all of church history), there has been debate about how much Christ we can find in the Old Testament. This sort of thinking, one that sets limits on how much of Jesus we can see in the Old Testament, seems fundamentally at odds with the tenor of Scripture. Yes, we cannot turn every word, object, or event into a mystical revelation of Christ. But as Christ and his church is the mystery once hidden now revealed, the canon of Scripture leads us to see how every parcel of the Old Testament belongs to Christ and brings us to Christ.

For Bavinck, this is exactly how he sums up the Bible, as he states, “in the Old Testament everything led up to Christ,” and “in the New Testament everything is derived from Him.” Truly this is what is at stake when we, a priori, set limits on seeing Christ in all the Scriptures. Here’s the full text of Bavinck’s conclusion, Continue reading

Herman Bavinck on the Importance and Difference between Dogmatics and Ethics

bavinck.jpegWhat is theology? And what is it good for? These are questions Christians ask and theologians attempt to answer. In his various works on theology, Kevin Vanhoozer has attempted to explain doctrine in terms of drama (e.g., The Drama of Doctrine). More recently, he has argued for the place of doctrine and drama in the making of disciples (e.g., Hearers and Doers: A Pastor’s Guide to Making Disciples Through Scripture and Doctrine). In Pilgrim TheologyMichael Horton makes the same point—doctrine summarizes the drama, directs doxology, and instructs disciples.

In short, some of the best theologians today know that theology is for living, doctrine is for discipleship, and everything is for worship. Still, theology (truth about God) is not to be confused with discipleship (walking in truth). To say it differently, there is a place for theology and ethics. And recently, I was reminded (or instructed more fully) how these two disciplines are related to one another, but also different.

In the editorial introduction to the first volume of Herman Bavinck’s recently published Reformed Ethicswe find how this great theologian for the Netherlands distinguished theology and ethics. First, in Reformed Dogmatics, he states,

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 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. Dogmatics sets forth what God is and does for human beings and causes them to know God as their Creator, Redeemer, and Sanctifier; ethics sets forth what human beings are and do for God now; how, with everything they are and have, with intellect and will and all their strength, they devote themselves to God out of gratitude and love. Dogmatics is the system of the knowledge of God; ethics is that of the service of God. (xxv–xxvi, Reformed Dogmatics 1:58) Continue reading

The Lord’s Reign: Herman Bavinck on the Scriptural Sense of God’s Transcendence

paige-weber-974172-unsplash.jpgThe Lord has established his throne in the heavens, and his kingdom rules over all.
— Psalm 103:19 —

For thus says the One who is high and lifted up, who inhabits eternity, whose name is Holy: “I dwell in the high and holy place, and also with him who is of a contrite and lowly spirit, to revive the spirit of the lowly, and to revive the heart of the contrite.
— Isaiah 57:15 —

Where is God?

In one sense, God is everywhere (Ps. 139:7–12). In another, God is outside of space and time (1 Kings 8:27). Still, in a third way, Scripture speaks of God as dwelling in heaven, high above his creation (Isa 57:15; cf. Ps. 135:6). Yet, it is important to remember God’s place in heaven is not outside of creation. Rather, it is the created place for the glorious and uncreated God to dwell within creation.

From that divine throne, God rules all creation. And in creation, God reveals himself to us in his world and in his word. Bringing these big and beautiful realities together, Herman Bavinck describes what it means for God to be over and in creation. Doctrinally, these realities are expressed by the terms transcendence and immanence. And in the newly released volume Philosophy of RevelationBavinck has this to say about a scriptural sense of God’s transcendence: Continue reading

By Evidence or By Faith?

If you are looking to prove the validity and authority of the Bible based on extra-biblical evidence, consider this:

For those who make their doctrine of Scripture dependent on historical research into its origination and structure have already begun to reject Scripture’s self-testimony and therefore no longer believe that Scripture.  They think it is better to build up the doctrine of Scripture on the foundation of their own research than by believingly deriving it from Scripture itself.  In this way, they substitute their own thoughts for, or elevate them above, those of Scripture (Reformed Dogmatics: Prolegomena, vol. 1 [Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2003], 424).

Spirit of Christ, let those who seek the Truth, do so “believingly.”  Open eyes to see the wonders of your law (Ps 119:18).

Soli Deo Gloria, dss

Bavinck on the “Word of God”

During the month of December, I am preaching on the “Word of God Made Fresh,” looking at how God’s Word in the Old Testament prepares for the Word of God Made Flesh in the New Testament.  In preparation for tomorrow’s sermon, I ran across this captivating quote by Herman Bavinck:

Finally the designation ‘word of God’ is used for Christ himself.  He is the Logos in an utterly unique sense: Revealer and revelation at the same time.  All the revelations and words of God, in nature and history, in creation and re-creation, both in the Old and the New Testament, have their ground, unity, and center in him.  He is the sun; the individual words of God are his rays.  The word fo God in nature, in Israel, in the NT, in Scripture may never even for a moment be separated and abstracted from him.  God’s revelation exists only because he is the Logos.  he is the first principle of cognition, in a general sense of all knowledge, in a special sense, as the Logos incarnate [i.e. ‘the word made flesh’], of all knowledge of God, of religion, and theology (Matt. 11:27) (Reformed Dogmatics: Prolegomena, vol. 1 [Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2003], 402)

Amen!  Let us worship the Word of God made flesh in Spirit and Truth, and consider all things in the light of God’s perfect revelation (cf. John 1:1-18; Heb. 1:1-2:4).

Soli Deo Gloria, dss

The Insufficiency of Biblical Theology ?

Over the last thirty years, evangelicalism has seen a strong resurgence and appeal for biblical theology.  Evidences of this are the expanding series of books edited by D.A. Carson, New Studies in Biblical Theology; the New Dictionary for Biblical Theology; and the rising appeal of the subject among younger evangelicals.  Just come to Southern Seminary, and you will find students who, next to John Piper, have been most influenced by Graeme Goldsworthy.

Yet, is biblical theology enough?  Is it sufficient for the task of theology?  Some believe it is.  Fred Sanders, for instance, in his doctoral dissertation–now published as The Image of the Immanent Trinity–argues that the doctrine of the Trinity went awry as it entered the realms of philosophical discussion and systematic exploration.  The early church fathers (i.e. Irenaueus, Tertullian) spoke of God in biblical-theological terms, whereas later theologians (i.e. Athanasius, Gregory Nazianzen, and Augustine, to name a few) employed philosophical nomenclature and concepts to define the Trinity.  Sanders argument is that this systematizing and (mis)use of philosophical categories distorted the biblical doctrine of the Trinity, and that in order to recover a biblical concept of the doctrine we should appeal to biblical theology and a theological interpretation of Scripture.

I am not as sure.  Before beginning doctoral work in systematic theology, I would have believed it to be true that biblical theology was sufficient for doctrinal formulation, but after considering it further, I see the need for all the disciplines of theology (biblical, systematic, philosophical, and practical).  So, in this way, “biblical theology” alone is insufficient.

Now please hear me, I am not saying that the Bible is insufficient.  On the contrary, it is all-sufficient and gives us everything we need for life and godliness (2 Pet. 1:3-4; cf. Deut. 29:29).  What I am saying is that the discipline of biblical theology, reading the Bible along the lines of its progressive revelation and its redemptive-historical makeup, is a part of a greater whole.  I think that today, biblical theology can be so emphasized that the other disciplines can be overshadowed and (un)intentionally de-emphasized.  The simple point I am trying to make is that biblical theology needs dogmatics, just like dogmatics need biblical, and of course, theology is always benefitted by considering the way in which doctrines have developed and deviated throughout the course of church history.

Herman Bavinck cautions against the same thing and articulates a fuller sense of doing theology.  Consider his argument,

Scripture is not a legal document, the articles of which only need be looked up for a person to find out what its view is in a given case.  It is composed on many books written by various authors, dating back to different times and divergent in content.  It is a living whole, not abstract but organic–[this is a favorite expression of HB].  It nowhere contains a sketch of the doctrine of faith; this is something that has to be drawn from the entire organism of Scripture.  Scripture is not designed so that we should parrot it but that as free children of God we should think his thoughts after him.  But them all so-called presuppositionaless and objectivity are impossible.  So much study and reflection on the subject is bound up with it that no person can possibly do it alone.  That takes centuries.  To that end the church has been appointed and given the promise of the Spirit’s guidance into all truth.   Whoever isolates himself from the church, i.e., from Christianity as a whole, from the history of dogma in its entirety, loses the truth of Christian faith.  That person becomes a branch that is torn from the tree and shrivels, an organ that is separated from the body and therefore doomed to die.  Only within the communion of saints can the length and the breadth, the depth and the height, of the love of Christ be comprehended (Eph. 3:18)…. Accordingly, the contrast [or independence] often made between biblical theology and dogmatics, as though one reproduced the content of Scripture while the other restates dogmas of the church, is false (Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics: Prolegomena [Grand Rapids: Baker Academics, 2003], 83).

In this brief paragraph Bavinck shows why his Reformed Dogmatics are so illuminating as he consistently expounds Scripture, scours the annals of church history, and uses rigorous logic to formulate doctrine.  Accordingly, what emerges in his dogmatics is a biblical, systematic, and historical theology where each discipline enriches the other.  I think this model is optimal, and of course should also include the appropriate use of philosophy and analytical theology.

As people of extremes, Bavinck’s counsel reminds us to engage all forms of theology to perceive and proclaim the glorious truths of God’s word, and only as we do that can we explore the depths of God’s all sufficient word.

Sola Deo Gloria, dss

Receiving and Believing the Word of God

When was the last time you started your car and consciously thought about the internal combustion engine involved?  Or how often do you eat and enjoy a meal without knowing the way it was prepared or the origin of all its ingredients?  Or more technically, do you ever think about the processes involved to make Wifi work?  Probably not until the router goes down.  While each of these examples could be studied in great detail and are, it is not necessary to fully understand their intricate operations, to enjoy the experience of driving, eating, or surfing the web.  While ASE certified technicians, sous chefs, and computer hackers benefit from the advanced studies in these areas, knowledge is secondary to the faithful enjoyment of these things.

Similarly, Herman Bavinck remarks concerning the relationship between biblical studies and Christian belief, that faith precedes understanding (cf. 2 Pet. 1:6-8).  In a lengthy section defending the historic belief that the Triune God inspired the very words of the Bible, the faithful Dutch Reformer writes with wry wisdom,

Those who do not want to embark on scientific investigation until they see the road by which we arrive at knowledge fully cleared will never start.  Those who do not want to eat before they understand the entire process by which food arrives at the table will starve to death.  And those who do not want to believe the Word of God before they see all problems will die of spiritual starvation (Reformed Dogmatics: Prolegomena, vol. 1 [Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2003], 442).

Bavinck’s words, written in an age when science, historical-criticism, and the Enlightenment Spirit were fueling modernism and eroding faith (ca. 1900), remind us that to profit from the Scriptures we must believe they are God’s words (2 Tim. 3:16-17), given from God through his prophet and apostles (2 Pet. 1:19-21), to his church for the purpose of salvific wisdom, life, godliness, and grace that leads to repentance in Jesus Christ.  Arrogantly waiting for all the “cruxes” and inconsitencies to be resolved in the Scriptures will only lead to an impoverished understanding of the Bible and a wrath-inviting position before God.

Bavinck’s words and his whole treatment of the subject of the Scripture’s inspiration insist that to fully understand the Bible we must begin with faith (cf. Rom. 10:17).  Only then can can we labor over the texts as a spiritual service of worship that enables us to test and approve the good, perfect, and pleasing will of God (Rom. 12:2).  In coming to study the Bible we must do so as needy sinners standing under the judgment of God, and not intellectual zealots bringing finite and foolish judgments against the infinitely wise and eternal God.  For in truth, biblical understanding is a gift from God (cf. Prov. 2:1-7) and an ability not naturally possessed (1 Cor. 1-2). 

Such a position does not laud men and their schemas, but God and his grace.  Thus we must come receptive in order to believe, and this receptivity only occurs because God in his mercy sends his Spirit to prepare our hearts to receive his word.  From first to last, the revelation of God is supernatural and gracious, and must be considered as one of God’s greatest acts of kind condescension.  The human heart writhes under the pressure of this self-effacing position, but it preserves the pearls of God from being trampled by unbelieving swine.  

May those who have ears to hear, hear the Word of God and believe.

Soli Deo Gloria, dss

Herman Bavinck on Scripture’s Fuller Sense

In volume 1 of his Reformed Dogmatics, Herman Bavinck reflects on the multiple ways in which the New Testament authors use and apply the Old Testament.  In the discussions that swirl today on this subject, it is noteworthy that he writes in favor of sensus plenior.  He says,

In the case of Jesus and the apostles, this exegesis of the OT in the NT assumes the understanding that a word or sentence can have a much deeper meaning and a much father reaching thrust than the original author suspected or put into it.  This is often the case in classical authors as well.  No one will think that Goethe, in writing down his classical poetry, consciously had before his mind the things that are now found in it.  “Surely that person has not gotten far in poetry / In whose verses there is nothing more than what he had [consciously] written into them.”

In Scripture this is even much more strongly the case since, in the conviction of Jesus and the apostles, it has the Holy Spirit as its primary author and bears a teleological character.  Not only in the few verses cited above [verses from the NT that employ the OT is various fashions] but in its entire view and interpretation of the OT, the NT is undergirded by the thought that the Israelitish dispensation had its fulfillment in the Christian.  The whole economy of the old covenant, with all its statutes and ordinances and throughout its history, points forward to the dispensation of the new covenant.  Not Talmudism [i.e. Judaism] but Christianity is the rightful heir of the treasures of salvation promised to Abraham and his seed (Reformed Dogmatics: Prolegomena, vol. 1 [Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2003], 396-97; Bavinck also includes a broad bibliography on this subject from Dutch, German, and English-speaking scholars).

Two things should be noted from his statement.  (1) While Bavinck  supports a view allowing for the expansion of meaning in the text as that ‘word or sentence’ is read in the light of later revelation, namely in the coming of Christ; his own theological method does not overdo this proposition.  He is rigorous, even ‘scientific’ (a term he uses positively), in his attention to the original meaning of the text in his doctrinal formulation.   Thus, it seems that in comparison with his own method interpretation, his sensus plenior is controlled by further biblical revelation (i.e. the canonical horizon) and not by spurious philosophies or extra-biblical ideas.  In fact, large sections of volume 1 are devoted to ardently rejecting theological methods that depend on such eisegesis.

(2) Bavinck’s appeal to Goethe does appear, at least today, to support a postmodern hermeneutic, namely that the reader can and should bring their own meaning to the text.  However, in Bavinck’s defense, it must be remembered that he is writing decades before the influence of postmodern literary theory with its influnence on theology. And again, the proof is in the pudding: Does Bavinck himself believe, encourage, or legitimate a reader-centered hermeneutic?  I don’t think so. 

In short, Bavinck’s quotation is helpful to reveal his own method of interpretation and to remind us of the organic unity and eschatological nature of the OT which finds its telos in Jesus Christ.  Likewise, this statement shows why the Reformed Dogmatics are so good; Bavinck recognized the progressive nature of revelation and undergirds his dogmatics with a biblical-theological framework that collects the sparks of doctrine of in the Old Testament and sets them ablaze as he moves into the New. (A great example see his section on the Trinity).

Sola Deo Gloria, dss

The Theologian’s Task

What is the task of a Christian theologian?  Or more generally, what is the task of understanding Christian doctrine?

Herman Bavinck answers that question in the opening chapter of his four-volume Reformed DogmaticsHe writes,

The imperative task of the dogmatician [or theologian] is to think God’s thoughts after him and to trace their unity.  His work is not finished until he has mentally absorbed this unity and set if forth in a dogmatics.  Accordingly, he does not come to God’s revelation with a ready-made system in order, as best he can, to force its content into it.  On the contrary, even in his system a theologian’s sole responsibility is to think God’s thoughts after him and to reproduce the unity that is objectively present in thoughts of God and has been recorded for the eye of faith in Scripture… (Reformed Dogmatics: Prolegomena, vol. 1 [Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2003], 44).

He continues later to describe the synthesizing and organizing work that theology entails to help understand and assemble God’s word,

dogmatics is not a kind of biblical theology that stops at the words of Scripture.  Rather, according to Scripture itself, dogmatics has the right to rationally absorb its content and, guided by Scripture, to rationally process it and also to acknowledge as truth that which can be deduced from it by lawful inference (45).

Whether you are a theologian or not, may you seek to absorb God’s word and think God’s thoughts after Him.

Sola Deo Gloria, dss