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Brief thoughts on Bavinck’s Reformed Dogmatics (vol 1)

Reformed Dogmatics

You may recall that my big reading project (aside from school) is to reengaging with time-tested works of theology. The first work I chose was Herman Bavinck’s Reformed Dogmatics, of which, after five weeks, I’ve made it through the first volume. (You can see my reading plan here.) Reformed Dogmatics is a fairly massive undertaking, and at my current (fairly aggressive) pace, I should be completing it around the end of May, 2015.

Today, I wanted to share a few of the things I most appreciated in the first volume—and truth be told, narrowing it down was no easy task. I rarely went more than a few paragraphs without highlighting something that was fascinating to me, or finding a quote I needed to interact with, or something that challenged my assumptions (even if simply in his approach to those whose ideas he was challenging). Here are three items in particular that stick out:

1. The background really does matter. Believe it or not, one of the most beneficial parts of the first volume was the editor’s introduction. There, readers are treated to not just an overview of the key points of the book, but a look into the climate that made Bavinck… well, Bavinck. The influence of Abraham Kuyper, the historical backdrop of the rise of 19th century liberalism… all of this is foundational for a fair reading of Reformed Dogmatics.

2. The philosophical discussions are fascinating. This, for me, was perhaps the most enjoyable part of volume one. As Bavinck delved into the history of dogmatics and how others have attempted to articulate the Christian faith—including his very generous assessments of Schleiermacher, Kant, and others—but also how he recognizes the place of philosophy in regard to the development of theology:

Still, theology is not in need of a specific philosophy. It is not per se hostile to any philosophical system and does not, a priori and without criticism, give priority to the philosophy of Plato or of Kant, or vice versa. But it brings along its own criteria, tests all philosophy by them, and takes over what it deems true and useful. (609)

This is so helpful to keep in mind, especially when reading frequent accusations of forcing Greek philosophy onto the Scriptures by post-evangelicals. Theology is not subject to philosophy—philosophy, when viewed rightly, is subject to theology. When we get this confused, the results are disastrous, for it is how we risk losing our grip on the gospel.

3. New problems aren’t that new. The final thing that’s helpful in reading the book is the reminder that, once again, the challenges we face in the church are not new. Heresy doesn’t change, it only gets a cooler haircut.

Thus, the temptations toward mere pietism, to outward morality without inward transformation, to the allegorizing and intellectualizing[1. That is, the refashioning of the faith in order to be palpable to modern thought, as opposed to recognizing the intellectual value of it] of the Christian faith, even accusations of circular reasoning have long been present. And just as these issues have long been present, so to have their responses.

Bavinck’s response to accusations of circular reasoning regarding the belief in Scripture as the Word of God is particularly helpful. The Spirit witnesses to the divine marks imprinted upon Scripture’s content. He also witnesses directly and indirectly through the Church’s ongoing existence and though the church’s united historical confession of Scripture. And finally through the internal witness within the heart of the believer. And yet, what Bavinck reminds us is that accusations against the testimony of the Holy Spirit are invalid because his testimony is not the ground, but the means of faith:

The ground of faith is, and can only be, Scripture, or rather, the authority of God, which comes upon the believer materially in the content as well as formally in the witness of Scripture. Hence the ground of faith is identical with its content and cannot, as Herrmann believes, be detached from it. Scripture as the word of God is simultaneously the material and the formal object of faith. But the testimony of the Holy Spirit is “the efficient cause,” “the principle by which,” of faith. We believe Scripture, not because of, but by means of the testimony of the Holy Spirit. Scripture and the testimony of the Holy Spirit relate to each other as objective truth and subjective assurance, as the first principles and their self-evidence, as the light and the human eye. Once it is has been recognized in its divinity, Scripture is incontrovertibly certain to the faith of the believing community, so that it is both the principle and the norm of faith and life. (597-598)

So far, while it’s been heady (and at times confusing), Reformed Dogmatics has been an absolute joy to read. There is no shortage of material to consider in its pages, whether we agree with everything entirely or not (and let’s be honest, if we agreed entirely with it, we probably aren’t reading carefully enough). If you haven’t started reading this book (or rather, series of books), I’d encourage you to join me on this journey reading time-tested theology. Grab the reading plan, get yourself a copy of Reformed Dogmatics, and get started today.

2 thoughts on “Brief thoughts on Bavinck’s Reformed Dogmatics (vol 1)”

  1. P. Andrew Sandlin

    Great points, Aaron. HB was one of the first theologians in history to truly grasp both the possibilities and threats early modernity posed to orthodox Christian theology.

  2. Wow! Thanks Aaron, this is most helpful. You’ve encouraged me to pull those volumes down off my shelf and read them myself.

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