Church - Contemporary Issues

What Was Bavinck's Core Theology?

By Dr. Paul M. Elliott
Herman Bavinck's essential misunderstanding of the nature of God and His Word leads to denial of the very foundation of truth.

From the TeachingtheWord Bible Knowledgebase

Part two of a series. Read part one.

Herman Bavinck's essential misunderstanding of the nature of God and His Word leads to denial of the very foundation of truth.

Review

In our last article, we noted the rising popularity of the theology of Herman Bavinck in the American church, and the fact that we receive increasing numbers of questions from readers and listeners about him. We also noted that there are two Biblical tests of any man, theology, or movement: What are the roots, and what are the fruits?

Yesterday we quoted Bavinck enthusiast Richard Mouw, the president of liberal Fuller Theological Seminary in California. Mouw wrote approvingly of Bavinck's speculations that Islamic theology may be "an illumination of the Logos, a working of God's Spirit," and his assertion that Roman Catholicism is simply another (and perhaps superior) "form" of true Christianity. We concluded by asking this: What kind of aberrant theology underlies Bavinck's views of Islam, Roman Catholicism, God, and the Gospel? Today we address that question. Much of the material that follows is from my book, Christianity and Neo-Liberalism (The Trinity Foundation, 2004), pages 42-46.

Common Ground With Old Liberalism

Bavinck's core theology - his doctrine of God - is no different from that of the old liberalism that came into prominence during his lifetime. In those days it was also known as "modernism." The old liberals championed a form of mysticism - a God who is unknowable and need not be known. Dr. J. Gresham Machen observed that liberalism "is opposed to Christianity, in the first place, in its conception of God.... It is unnecessary, we are told, to have a 'conception' of God; theology, or the knowledge of God, it is said, is the death of religion; we should not seek to know God, but should merely feel His presence."

The old liberals made God the mystical and universal father of all men. Thus they made all men brothers, and placed man in the same relationship to God as Jesus because He was man's "brother." The relationship of "father" and "son" was, in the old liberal view, merely an analogy of something mystical and incomprehensible.

But the old liberalism's "Father God" was not "the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ" revealed in Scripture. Machen countered that Jesus' relationship to His heavenly Father was not a relationship to something vague and impersonal, a mystical relationship that was merely put in human terms in Scripture by the analogy of Father and Son. This was the relationship between two real persons of the Trinity, God the Father and God the Son, whose existence and relationship is just as definite and knowable as "the existence of the lilies of the field that God has clothed." The very basis of Jesus' teaching "was a triumphant belief in the real existence of a personal God."

Bavinck's Roots: A Fatally Defective Conception of God and His Word

Like the old liberalism, Bavinck's theology, which is gaining increasing popularity in our day, is also founded on a mystical conception of God. Bavinck, who is a philosophical hero of neo-liberal theologians such as Norman Shepherd, Richard B. Gaffin, Jr., and John M. Frame, asserted the following in the second volume of his Gereformeerde Dogmatiek (Reformed Dogmatics):

Mystery is the vital element of Dogmatics. It is true that the term "mystery" in Scripture does not indicate abstract-supernatural truth in the Romish sense; nevertheless, the idea that the believer would be able to understand and comprehend intellectually the revealed mysteries is equally unscriptural. On the contrary, the truth which God has revealed concerning himself in nature and in Scripture far surpasses human conception and comprehension. In that sense Dogmatics is concerned with nothing but mystery.1

Bavinck thus begins an entire volume on the doctrine of God by telling believers that we "cannot understand and comprehend intellectually" the God of the Bible - not even after He has clearly revealed Himself in Scripture. Bavinck uses the term "mystery" in an un-Scriptural sense, and one that is far more "Romish" than he admits. Mysteries in the Word of God are not that which remains inscrutable, but rather divine secrets that have been revealed and explained in the Scriptures for human understanding through the enlightenment of the Holy Spirit.

Bavinck continues his discourse by acknowledging that God has revealed Himself. This seems encouraging until the reader sees the kind of God that Bavinck says has been revealed. He claims that "Christian theology made the idea of God's incomprehensibility and unknowability its point of departure.... God's revelation in creation and redemption fails to reveal him adequately."2 He seeks to support this viewpoint by approvingly quoting a number of early and medieval theologians:3

Accordingly, adequate knowledge of God does not exist. There is no name that makes known to us his being.... Father, God, Lord, are not real names but "appellations derived from his good deeds and functions."4

The fact that God exists is evident, but "what he is in his essence and nature is entirely incomprehensible and unknowable." When we say that God is unborn, immutable, without beginning, etc., we are only saying what he is not. To say what he is, is impossible. He is nothing of all that which exists....5

...[T]here is no concept, expression, or word, by which God's being can be indicated. Accordingly, whenever we wish to designate God, we use metaphorical language. He is "supersubstantial infinity, supermental unity," etc. We cannot form a conception of that unitary, unknown being, transcendent above all being, above goodness, above every name and word and thought. We can only name him in accordance with his works, because he is the cause and principle of everything. Hence, on the one hand he is "without name," on the other hand he "has many names." But those positive names which we ascribe to God because of his works do not disclose his essential being to us, for they pertain to him in an entirely different manner than to creatures. Hence, negative theology is better than positive, for the former teaches us God's transcendence above the creature. Nevertheless, even negative theology fails to give us any knowledge of God's being, for in reality God is exalted above both "negation and affirmation."6

Whatever is said concerning God is not God....7

Bavinck's Fruits: Rejection of Propositional Revelation

Bavinck wrongly claims that "Reformed theologians were in agreement with this view" from the time of the Reformation. "Gradually, however," he says, "the significance of the doctrine of God's incomprehensibility was lost sight of also in those circles where the principles of the Reformation once flourished." Bavinck considers this an error that must be reversed.8 And from this starting point, he builds an entire systematic theology. Commenting on these statements, Dr. John W. Robbins observed that

any informed Christian, actually any sane person, reading these pages in Bavinck, would stop and lay his book aside. The reader has just been told, repeatedly and emphatically, that no thought or language adequately and accurately describes God, that we have and can have no knowledge of God. If that is so, there is obviously no point in reading further, unless it is to attain a clinical understanding of how a mind can become so disordered as to write a book on a subject about which he can know and say nothing.

This is the Antichristian irrationalism that passes for Christian theology in both Protestant and Catholic, "conservative" and "liberal" seminaries. It explains a great deal about the "dialectical," that is, contradictory, pronouncements that issue forth from every modern school of theology. In such a turbid atmosphere, anything goes... No Christian doctrine, none whatsoever, can be maintained in such a mystical, skeptical, and irrational framework. It is a black hole that swallows and extinguishes all light and all rational thought. It is the medieval mother of all heresies, for the rejection of propositional revelation is the root of all error. Bavinck was a conduit carrying this rubbish into Reformed theology in the twentieth century.9

And, into the twenty-first. Bavinck's position leads to a completely defective view of the nature and authority of the Scriptures. If Christians apply such a no-rules method of interpretation to the Bible as a whole - and why shouldn't they when seminary professors and ministers are leading the way? - then no doctrine is safe from radical revision. And that is exactly the situation we find today, as postmodern Evangelicalism not only redefines the essential doctrines of the faith but in fact abandons the very idea of doctrine, because, its leaders say, "Doctrine divides." And indeed, sound doctrine does divide - it divides those who are true to the revealed Word of God from those who refuse to come to its light.

We could say much more about the roots and fruits of Bavinck's theology, but it would all stem from this one thing: A fatally defective view of God and His Word.

In the Evangelical postmodernists' world of analogy, paradox, and multiple perspectives on doctrine, polar opposites can be true. But not in authentic Biblical Christianity. The Apostle Paul told the Corinthian church that the Word of God is not "Yes and No." It is not filled with paradox and the possibility of conflicting but equally valid interpretations. The Word of God is "Yes" in Christ (2 Corinthians 1:18-20).

 

References:

1. Herman Bavinck, The Doctrine of God, translated and edited by William Hendriksen (Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1977), page 13. This translation of a portion of Bavinck's Reformed Dogmatics appeared prior to the full translation of recent years.

2. Bavinck, page 21.

3. The words in quotation marks are from early and medieval theologians; the rest are Bavinck's own words.

4. Bavinck, page 21

5. Bavinck, page 22. Emphasis in the original.

6. Bavinck, page 22-23.

7. Bavinck, page 25.

8. Bavinck, page 26.

9. John W. Robbins, A Companion to The Current Justification Controversy (Unicoi, Tennessee: The Trinity Foundation, 2003), page 41.

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