Reflections on Herman Bavinck’s “Reformed Dogmatics”, Vol. 1 – Prolegomena

This Summer I imposed on myself a reading plan to go through all four volumes of Herman Bavinck’s Reformed Dogmatics. For the past few weeks I have been reading through the first volume. I just finished this weekend. Though my mind is nowhere near the caliber of Bavinck’s and thus could never offer a thorough review—let alone a critique—I will do my best to give a few brief thoughts on my experience of reading this first volume.

Herman Bavinck was a Dutch Neo-Calvinist (Reformed) theologian from the late 19th and early 20th Centuries. He was a friend and colleague of Abraham Kuyper, the famous theologian and prime minister of the Netherlands. Bavinck and Kuyper both lived in a time of theological turmoil in Europe and, of course, the Netherlands. The Reformed Church was going through a massive split. They both were involved in the “Secession” of the orthodox Calvinists from the state church. They were surrounded by the surge of Liberal Protestantism in their own country and in Germany and well as in England. Because of this, Bavinck wrote his Reformed Dogmatics, a truly conservative (orthodox) work, right around the turn of the century. It has been called “by far the most profound and comprehensive Reformed systematic theology of the twentieth century”, Bavinck himself being described as “one of the premier Reformed theologians”. J.I. Packer puts him on the platform with Augustine, Calvin, and Edwards (no small theologians).1 In what is following I will try to reflect on what particularly impacted me about the first volume, hopefully encouraging others to pick up a copy and read it, as well. As a preface, I will not even attempt to try to reproduce any of the material from Bavinck here. That will be for another time where I can reflect on very small portions of his work. It is simply way to extensive to write about all of it here.

Reflecting on this book is difficult. As I said earlier, Bavinck’s intellect is far superior to what mine will ever be. “Prolegomena”, in the words of my systematic theology professor, is essentially “theological throat-clearing”. Before getting into theology proper (the doctrine of God), Bavinck spends around 500 pages discussing philosophy, epistemology (the study of knowledge and how it is acquired), and many other big, complicated words and topics. The first thing I have to say about this first volume is that it is pretty hard to understand and follow in many places, especially when he is discussing the various viewpoints of other theologians and philosophers such as Schleiermacher, Kant, Ritschl, etc. However, one thing I appreciate about Bavinck is that, although he was a brilliant theologian, he was also a pastor. So, most of the time, the topics discussed were graspable; I could follow them as long as he stayed away from Kant and Hegel. I will have to go back and read the first volume after I have learned a little about philosophy to maybe be able to make more sense out of it.

Perhaps what struck me most is how Bavinck exhibited true Christian charity in his work. Bavinck is thoroughly Reformed, unashamedly evangelical, and purely orthodox in his theology. Personally, and though I am getting better, I have trouble having patience with people of different stripes, especially with those outside of the evangelical camp. To my amazement, Bavinck was not like this. He was actually rather quick to first point out what other theologians and philosophers had right. Of course, this did not stop him from ultimately refusing endorsement of their systems (and subsequently ripping their arguments to shreds). However, not once did I even catch a glimpse of vengeance, malice, or spite coming from his pen. That alone was quite devotional (and convicting) for me. Reformed folks have a bad reputation—in many cases rightly so—for being uncharitable toward opposing views. Bavinck demonstrates how one can be thoroughly Reformed (and believe me, he is) yet still be quite charitable to opposing—even violently opposing—camps.

There is one last thing I would like to say. I know that the study of theology is not a popular thing nowadays. The modern church cares more about experience than dogma. And, in many ways, the modern church is on to something, because the Christian life is a lived-out thing (Bavinck, almost prophetically, addresses this very issue, by the way). I feel that this attitude is especially strong when “old dead guys” are mentioned. What can they possibly have to offer us? Their old-fashioned ways can’t possibly say anything to the hearts and minds of modern readers. I would like say that the “old dead guys” have a lot to teach us. These men have given their lives not just for the pursuit of knowledge, but for the defense of the Christian faith which they hold so dear and precious. These gentlemen, Bavinck included, devoted their lives not only to writing about the faith, but living it out. Not only that, but you would be hard pressed, especially when it comes to Bavinck, to find an issue in the Church today that these guys did not already address. In a day where doctrine and theology are evil, divisive words, thus allowing sorts of heresies and false teachings to not just creep, but flood into our churches, people like Bavinck can provide for people a thorough understanding of scriptural truth in order to help defend the Church from error in this dangerous day. That is not to say that being dead makes you a perfect theologian. These guys had their flaws, without exception. That does not prevent them from being of immense help to us this day.

Theology is not just for those who want to pursue it academically. Theology is for everyone. Bavinck would probably disagree with this (I think), but if you are a Christian, you are a theologian whether you want to be or not. I would like to challenge everyone who reads this, if you have not already, research a good book on theology and read it. Yes, the Bible is the most important book we have in this world, and it should be our primary reading. However, we also need to learn from others how to correctly interpret Scripture and how Scripture fits together as a whole. We as the Church do not just exist right now, at this specific point in time. The Church exists throughout and across time. We stand on the shoulders of all the faithful men and women who came before us. God has so graciously given us the gift of writing so that what these men learned can also be passed down to us. They have fought the fight; we owe to ourselves and to them to learn from them. Below is a short list of recommended books that can get you off to a good start in your study of theology.

More Contemporary (easier in terms of language and communication)

  • Any extensive statement/confession of faith
  • Louis Berkhof, A Summary of Christian Doctrine
  • Millard Erickson, Christian Theology
  • Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology (by far the most accessible and easy to understand; my highest recommendation)
  • Thomas Oden, Systematic Theology (for a good Arminian viewpoint)
  • J.I. Packer, Knowing God (awesome and relatively short)

More Archaic (more difficult in terms of language and communication)

  • Again, any extensive statement/confession of faith
  • John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion
  • Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology
  • Francis Turretin, Institutes of Elenctic Theology

Notes

  1. All of these endorsements come from various people and can be found at http://www.wtsbooks.com/reformed-dogmatics-volume-set-herman-bavinck-9780801035760.
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