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

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

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

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

Herman Bavinck is my Homeboy

200px-hermanbavinckbigOnly in the last couple weeks have I been able to read some of the works of Herman Bavinck, and I have to admit, I am hooked already.  The English translation of Bavinck’s 4-volume Reformed Dogmatics was completed last year, and so the English-speaking church is only now benefitting from Bavinck’s thoroughly-Reformed and massive work . 

His magnum opus treats a full range of systematic categories  and  consists of stellar theological formulations that attend to biblical theology, detail historical theology, contend with modern philosophy and other aberrant doctrinal systems, and argue for a biblically saturated and God-glorifying Calvinistic doctrines.  In its incredible length, each chapter begins with summary that can be used as a navigational compass in the vast expanses of his theological output.  

In perusing his work, I have already benefitted; I look forward with expectation to learning more from this great theologian.  For that reason, I say “Herman Bavinck is My Homeboy.” (For more online information on and resources from this Reformed Theologian see: hermanbavinck.org ).

Let me close with this sweeping quote:

God’s self-revelation to us does no come in bits and pieces: it is an organic whole, a grand narrative form creation to consummation.  All nature and history testify to God the Creator; all things return to him.  Fallen humanity sees this revelation only in part and with blinded eyes.  A special revelation is needed that is provided in grace.  In this revelation God makes himself known to us as the Triune God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  This revelation is historical and progresses over the course of many centuries, reaching it [sic] culmination in Jesus Christ, the Mediator of creation and redemption.  From this history we discover that revelation is not exhaustively addressed to human intellect.  In Christ, god himself comes to us in saving power.  At the same time we must not make the opposite error and deny that revelation communicates truth and doctrine.  Revelatory word and deed belong together in God’s plan and acts of salvation (Found on page 324 in Reformed Dogmatics: Prolegomena, vol. 1).

Sola Deo Gloria, dss

Busyness and Bavinck :: With a Meditation on the Economic Trinity

Over the last few weeks, things at school have picked up and consequently Via Emmaus has slowed down.  But in the busyness there have been many choice gleanings, even if they have not made it here. 

For instance, after sitting on the shelf for sometime untouched, I was finally able to pick up Herman Bavinck’s volume on God and Creation (volume 2 of 4)For those unaware of this Dutch theologian (1854 -1921), his four volume Reformed Dogmatics is a classic in Reformed theology and the translation was just completed last year. 

In his section of the Trinity, Bavinck writes with exegetical precision, intertextual sensitivity, and vast historical awareness.  And while not coming close to exhausting the endless majesty of the Godhead, Bavinck laid out a clear explanation of the doctrine that was greatly enriching.   I look forward to pondering his works more in the years to come.  Let me share an excerpt from Bavinck concerning the Economic Trinity, that is the Trinity as revealed in Redemptive History and Inspired Revelation:

The true development of the trinitarian ideas of the Old Testament is found in the New Testament.  In the incarnation of the Son and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, the one true God is revealed as Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  These three are identical withh those who revealed themselves to the Old Testament saints in word and deed, prophecy and miracle.  The threefold principle in operation in creation and salvation is, however, made more clear in the New Testament.  All salvation, every blessing, and blessedness have their threefold cause in God–the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.  The New Testament revelation is Trinitarian through and through (Herman Bavinck, God and Creation in Reformed Dogmatics, vol. 2, 256).

I am grateful, that in the midst of the busyness of life, God refreshes us and renews us with such soul-enlarging truths.  I am thankful for the gifted men God has given his church–thinkers, pastors, writers, and theologians– to help us see the glorious vistas of our God.  More than that, I am thankful for God, who dwells in unapproachable light– disclosing himself to sinners in history, through language, as he really is.

Hopefully, as I press ahead in this semester, I will be able to share more of my readings.  It is a blessing and a joy to study God’s word (Ps. 19:8a) and his works (Ps. 116:2), and that joy is doubled by sharing them here.

Sola Deo Gloria, dss