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 Covenantal Cast of the Biblical Canon

otThe covenantal character of Scripture challenges the idea of the Bible as a textbook. ‘For the Christian conception of God the Bible is our only textbook. In its pages we have the self-revelation of God.’ Without doubt, the Bible teaches us about God. It has a key didactic function: if we are to respond to God in the area of truth, we need to be instructed in the truth. But we also need to do justice to its covenantal nature, its function of finding us and holding us for God through its promises. The promissory nature of Scripture means that it gives us information about the plans and purposes of God. The Bible is God’s many-sided provision for his covenant people.[1]
– Peter Jensen –

In his book The Structure of Biblical Authority, Meredith G. Kline makes the case a canon is not a product of the church, but the product of God’s people in an ancient Near Eastern context. In other words, the biblical canon (i.e., what books are included as authorized Scripture) did not come after the Apostles, or for that matter, after the Old Testament Prophets. Rather, from the beginning, the canon has been a “closed” covenant document between God and his people.

In the first chapter of The Structure of Biblical Authority, Kline shows how ANE covenants had “canons.”

To sum up thus far, canonical document [sic] was the customary instrument of international covenant administration in the world in which the Bible was produced. . . . While it has been acknowledged [by critical scholars] that the Israelites at a relatively early time recognized certain written laws as divine revelation, the meaning of this for the history of the canon concept in Israel has been obfuscated. (37, 39)

He argues that a better understanding of “covenant” will correct our doctrine of canon:

The origin of the Old Testament canon coincided with the founding of the kingdom of Israel by covenant at Sinai. The very treaty that formally established the Israelite theocracy was itself the beginning and the nucleus of the total covenantal cluster of writings which constitutes the Old Testament canon. (43)

From this covenantal origin, the canon grew as the covenants of God with his people developed over time.

“Our conclusion in a word, then, is that canon is inherent in covenant, covenant of the kind attested in ancient international relations and the Mosaic covenants of the Bible. Hence it is to this covenant structure that theology should turn for its perspective and model in order to articulate its doctrine of canon in terms historically concrete and authentic” (43–44).

According to Kline, God’s people have always had a canon to document their covenant with God. In truth, this canon was not codified until Sinai, when Moses wrote down God’s Words (after God himself etched his law in stone). But from the beginning, God’s people had a clear and sufficient word that established his covenant rule. From this beginning, we shouldn’t be surprised to see that the Bible is and has always been cast in the mold of covenant. Continue reading

The Priestly Aspect of the Imago Dei

priestIn The Christian FaithMichael Horton suggests four aspects of the Imago Dei, what it means to be made in God’s image. He enumerates them as

  1. Sonship/Royal Dominion
  2. Representation
  3. Glory
  4. Prophetic Witness

For each there is solid biblical evidence. Genesis 1:26–31; Psalm 8; and Hebrews 2:5–9 all testify to humanity’s royal sonship. Likewise, the whole creation narrative (Genesis 1–2) invites us to see man and woman as God’s creatures representing him on the earth. First Corinthians 11:7 speaks of mankind as the “glory of God.” Horton rightly distinguishes, “The Son and the Spirit are the uncreated Glory of God . . . human beings are the created reflectors of divine majesty” (401). They are, in other words, God’s “created glory,” which in time will be inhabited by the “uncreated glory” of God in the person of Jesus Christ. And last, as creatures made by the Word of God, in covenant relation with him, every human is a prophetic witness. In the fall, this prophetic witness is distorted. Humans are now ensnared to an innumerable cadre of idols (see Rom 1:18–32), but the formal purpose remains—to be made in the image of God is to be a prophetic witness.

Horton’s articulation is compelling, biblical, and beautiful. But it seems, in my estimation, to stress royal and prophetic tasks without giving equal attention to the priestly nature of humanity. To be fair, Horton refers to humanity’s priestly vocation under the headings of “representation” and “glory.” But because these are supporting the vocational idea of representation and the abstract idea of glory, we miss a key idea—the imago dei is by definition a priestly office. Or better, the imago dei is a royal priest who bears witness to the God of creation. Let’s consider. Continue reading

Postmodernism and Evangelical Thought (4): A Wise and Selective Appropriation

After surveying many of the key figures and concepts that make up postmodern thought, the question becomes: Is postmodernism salubrious or toxic for evangelical theology?

The answer, not surprisingly, differs depending on who is speaking.  In what follows, I will list three postures to take towards postmodernism.  In today’s evangelicalism, some like Stanley Grenz, John Franke, and Roger Olson have gladly appropriated postmodern thought, others like Douglas Geivett and Scott Smith have rejected it. Still others, most sensibly, have selectively and wisely incorporated some but not all aspects of postmodernism.  We will consider these in turn as they explain how postmodernism has impacted evangelical theology. Continue reading

Covenant and Eschatology: The Divine Drama

Michael Horton’s Covenant and Eschatology: The Divine Drama is a book about theological method.  Unashamed of his Reformed heritage, the Westminster professor, draws on the redemptive-historical insights of John Calvin, Hermann Bavinck, Geerhardus Vos, and others, to speak to issues of post-modern literary theory and the narrative theology of George Lindbeck, Hans Frei, and Nicholas Wolterstorff.  As Kevin Vanhoozer puts it, “Messieurs Lindbeck and Wolterstorff, meet Geerhardus Vos and Herman Ridderbos!”  The result is an erudite and creative proposal that instructs Christians to conceive of the Bible as a Divine Drama.

In brief, Horton employs biblical theology and speech-act theory to show how this biblical drama–God’s acts of redemption and his interpretive revelation– should be the starting point for doing theology.  In this regard, Horton’s proposes an inductive method of doing theology.  Still, he relies on other theologians and philosophers to shape his thesis.  He depends heavily on Post-Reformational theologians and appropriates many of their redemptive-historical insights to combat and correct the modern philosophy and postmodern literary theory.  Yet, like Kevin Vanhoozer, Horton is adroit in gleaning from postmodern theories and philosophical instrumentation to better articulate what the Bible is doing.

The book is broken into two sections: “God Acts in History” (ch. 2-4) and “God Speech” (ch. 5-9); however, the contents of each chapter seem to move from one problem area to another.  In other words, instead of delineating a clear line of explanation, Horton responds to the problems and counter-proposals as he sets forth his case.  In this, he makes countless contributions to the subject of theological method; however, it is challenging to finish this book with a step-by-step program for ‘doing theology.’  Nevertheless, in the narrative of his book, there are four ideas that find repeated attention and that Horton sets out from the beginning.  They are a redemptive-historical method, an analogical mode (of discourse), a dramatic model, and a covenantal context.  We will consider these in turn.

First, Horton argues that we should read the Bible along redemptive-historical or biblical-theological lines.  Following the Dutch-American Reformed tradition, Horton conceives of biblical theology as an organically-connected development in biblical history–one that is laced with eschatological anticipation.  In this way, eschatology is not simply a systematic loci, but an interpretive lens.  Promise-fulfillment is the basic structure of the biblical narrative.  And the entire Bible itself takes on an escalating covenantal shape.

Horton contrasts the Platonic dualism that has lurked within the church from Augustine to Bultmann with the biblical, “two-age model”  which integrates history and eschatology.  Whereas the former sets up an unbiblical noumenal-phenomenal antithesis, the latter places eschatology within history and sees one age following another.  Jesus inaugurated the age to come with the ratification of the new covenant–the shedding of his blood on the cross– and his triumphant resurrection/ascension.  Today, we await the culmination when the King of Kings comes again.  Thus, according to Horton, we should read the Bible redemptive-historically.  I agree.

Second, Horton addresses the subject of biblical language.  Is it univocal, equivocal, or analogical?  He argues for the last of these three, and shows how and why proposals that turn away from analogical discourse result in aberrant doctrines.  For instance, in chapter two he shows the difficulty of fusing liberal, God-denying action in history with biblical & orthodox language (e.g. when Bultmann uses the language of resurrection, he is not speaking of physical, historical event).  Horton supplies four possible ways that the Bible and the world relate: (1) “mythological-symbolical-metaphorical” language where the God has spoken in his word but not in a way that comports with history, (2)  “communal interpretation of natural occurencce” where God acts providentially in history but does not provide sufficient interpretation of explanation, thus communities of faith are left to devise their own meaning, (3) “narrative interpretation” in which the Bible gives a plausible explanation of reality, but which may not in fact correspond to reality, and (4) “immanent interpretation” where belief is held that God lives, moves, and has his being in the world–this is a panentheist approach that blurs Creator and creation.

Horton lists all these to show the competing (and false) models in the church and academy today and to argue for a view of the Bible that recounts both God’s acts in history, as well as his covenantal speech found in Scripture.  God acts in his works and in his words, and Horton emphasizes that while the Bible only gives us analogical expressions of the God who acts and speaks, these analogical accomodations are true interpretations of God’s work of redemption.  He goes further though, asserting that Jesus Christ, the incarnate God, is in fact the univocal center of revelation, and that in him their is a univocal and irreducible core to the revelation of God in redemptive history.

Third, building on the redemptive-historical storyline and the way that God reveals himself through redemptive acts and inspiring nterpretive speech, Horton shows that this results in a divine drama where the world is a stage, the Bible a script, the people of God actors, and the covenantal structures (e.g. circumcision and the sacrificial system under the Mosaic administration; baptism and the Lord’s supper under the New Covenant) serve as visible props to reenact the drama.  This dramatic ideal is not held exclusively by Horton.  Hans von Balthasar developed it at length in his 5-volume Theo-Drama, and before that John Calvin even appealed to theatrical language.  More recently, Kevin Vanhoozer has appealed to this understanding in his The Drama of Doctrine

As with his emphasis on “two-world” model mentioned earlier, this historical progression of people and plot, which is sovereignly written and directed by God himself, overturns the static, platonic view of reality.  Instead of a purely vertical understanding of the platonic cosmology, with the earthly, material world somehow reflecting the timeless, immaterial noumenal worls, the Bible as Divine Drama puts the story on a horizontal axis that is moving from Creation to Consummation.  Simultaneously, the biblical drama casts God as the intervening hero who descends from heaven to earth to wisely, powerfully, and gloriously deliver his people–this is seen typologically in the OT and definitely in the NT with the birth, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Fourth, Horton develops this drama along the unifying theme of the biblical covenants.  He maintains that biblical canon itself is a covenantal document (a la Meredith Kline, The Structure of Biblical Authority), and that the revelation of redemption contained therein reflects the gracious initiative of God to save a people for himself, a people who journey in this age as pilgrims but in the age to come as partakers of the Kingdom of God.  As Horton works out this proposal, he on more than one occasion emphasizes the necessity of a theology of the cross, over against a theology of glory.  The Christocentric reality is that the covenantal pattern of the Bible is that those who will enter into glory must travel the road of redemption as sojourners and sufferers (cf. Phil. 2:5-11).  He critiques any reading of Scripture that purports an overrealized eschatology, and he cautions those of us in covenant with Jesus Christ to realize that the cross comes before glory.

So overall, Horton’s proposal is compelling, even if it is hard to follow at points.  His argumentation is strong and his knowledge of biblical theology and postmodern philosophy is vast.  Furthermore, it is obvious that his intention is not to advocate a system of theology.  This is seen in the way that he answers objections from liberal theologians on his left and the way he challenges hyper-conservative theologians on his right.  He aims to traverse a narrow path between “experiential-expressivists”  who subvert the Bible to contemporary prejudices and “cognitive-propositionalists” who in the name of orthodoxy reduce the Bible to a series of eternal truths and miss the narrative, historical, and eschatological framework of the Bible. 

Similarly, Horton’s use of speech-act theory and double author discourse does not distort the text or run into the rocks of Tillich’s method of correlation.  Instead, Horton deftly employs philosophical language to articulate what the Bible is in fact doing.  This selective use of literary theory and philosophy, along with his repeated appeals to biblical theology, serves as a needed corrective against extreme liberalism and reductionistic biblicism.  Against both of these polarities, Horton is emphatic on the covenantal structure of the Bible, the way in which God has time and again redeemed a people for himself, something that the Divine Drama is continuing to do today.  Which leads to a final point.

Horton concludes his work with a chapter on the “Community Theater” where he suggests ways in which the twenty-first century church is called to perform the drama found in Scripture.  Appealing to the likes of Calvin, he shows how preaching the Word, performing the sacraments–his word, not mine, and effecting church discipline display for a watching world the Divine Drama.  Thus the church is to appropriate the speech and acts found in the biblical narrative, the language of the covenant, and to continue walking by faith in the redemption once for all accomplished in Christ and once for all delivered (read: spoken) to the saints.  While the objective work of redemption and revelation is completed, its local reenactment by the redeemed people of God will continue until the end of age.

On the whole, Horton’s book is an enriching proposal on how to do biblical and systematic theology.  It is not for the faint of heart, though.  It is a technical work that requires background knowledge of contemporary theology and Post-Reformation Reformed theology.   Simultaneously, it is a book that while written clearly could be structured better.  The book is generally organized by the four emphases consider here, but the execution of explaining these ideas is lacking.  Nevertheless, his main point of reading the Bible redemptive-historically, analogically, and covenantly comes through, and his model of a Divine Drama is one that helps unify the gap between theory and practice.  I commend Horton’s book to you and hope that it helps you delight in the God who acts and speaks!

Sola Deo Gloria, dss

Hearing the Word of God

In his chapter on the way God speaks in the Bible, Michael Horton quotes Gabriel Fackre to argue that God’s speech comes to us through a unified series of prophetic utterances that God commands that we hear and believe.  Fackre posits,

The Bible is a book that tells an “overarching story.”  While imaginatively portrayed, it is no fictive account, having to do with turning points that have “taken place” and will take place, a news story traced by canonical hand.  Its “good news” is about events in meaningful sequence, unrepeatable occasions with a cumulative significance internal to their narration (in contrast to “myth” that dissolves uniqueness, expressing what is always and everywhere the case) (Covenant and Eschatology: A Divine Drama [Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2002], 145).

Horton goes on to commend us to hear God’s unified Word instead of attempting to see God,

A theology of vision corresponds to a theologia gloriae [a theology of glory], while a theology of promise [i.e. one that comes by hearing, cf. Rom. 10:17] corresponds to the theologia crucis [a theology of the cross].  The former craves an unmediated encounter with the sacred in a realized eschatology, while the latter patiently and joyfully receives the mediated encounter with a personal God in the ‘already’ and ‘not yet’ tension that belongs to faith rather than sight (145).

 May we come to the storyline of Scripture not to vainly see God in some sort of mystical/magical way, but rather to hear the words of our Christ, and walk by faith anticipating the day when we will see him face to face. 

Sola Deo Gloria, dss