Reformed Dogmatics by Herman Bavinck A Review by Jack Kettler

Reformed Dogmatics Four Volumes 

Herman Bavinck

Grand Rapids, MI, Baker Academic

Author’s Bio:

Herman Bavinck (1854-1921) was a Dutch Reformed theologian. He succeeded Abraham Kuyper as Professor of Theology at the Free University of Amsterdam. He was a scholar in the Calvinist tradition. He enjoyed the same theological stature as his predecessor and American scholar B. B. Warfield, the last principal of the Princeton Theological Seminary.

Endorsements:

“Bavinck’s Reformed Dogmatics has been the fountainhead of Reformed theology for the last hundred years. It is by far the most profound and comprehensive Reformed systematic theology of the twentieth century. The reader will be amazed by Bavinck’s erudition, creativity, and balance. Bavinck is confessionally orthodox, but he recognizes the need to rethink the traditional formulations from Scripture in the context of contemporary discussion. I cannot express how delighted I was to read volume one for the first time in my own language! I hope it will have a large readership and will bring forth much theological and spiritual fruit.” – John M. Frame, professor of systematic theology and philosophy, Reformed Theological Seminary.

“Arguably the most important systematic theology ever produced in the Reformed tradition. I have found it to be the most valuable. English-speaking theology throughout the 20th century until now has been singularly impoverished by not having at its disposal a translation of Bavinck’s Dogmatiek in its entirety. The appearance of this volume, with the remaining three planned to follow in the near future, will be an incomparable boon for generations of students, pastors, teachers, and others, serving to deepen understanding and enrich reflection in both historical and systematic theology.” – Richard B. Gaffin, Jr., professor of biblical and systematic theology, Westminster Theological Seminary, Philadelphia.

Other works by Bavinck:

·         The Doctrine of God

·         Saved by Grace: The Holy Spirit’s Work in Calling and Regeneration

·         Essays on Religion, Science, and Society

·         The Philosophy of Revelation

·         Our Reasonable Faith

·         The Sacrifice of Praise: Meditations Before and After Receiving Access to the Table of the Lord

A Review:

The Volume and section breakdown are important to understand the scope of this work:

Prolegomena Volume One:

Part I: Introduction to Dogmatics

Part II: The History and Literature of Dogmatic Theology

Part III: Foundations of Dogmatic Theology (Principia)

Part IV: Revelation (Principium Externum)

Part V: Faith (Principium Internum)

God and Creation Volume Two:

Part I: The Incomprehensibility of God

Part II: The Living, Acting God

Part III: God’s Will on Earth as it is in Heaven

Part IV: Maker of Heaven and Earth

Part V: The Image of God

Part VI: God’s Fatherly Care

Sin and Salvation in Christ Volume Three:

Part I: The Fallen World

Part II: Christ the Redeemer

Part III: The Work of Christ

Part IV: Salvation in Christ

Holy Spirit, Church, and New Creation Volume Four:

Part I: The Spirit Gives New Life to Believers

Part II: The Spirit Creates New Community

Part III: The Spirit Makes All Things New

Without fear of contradiction, Bavinck’s Four Volume Reformed Dogmatics is one of the most important theological works ever produced in the twentieth century. Bavinck’s doctrine of antithesis:

“There is not a single Christian who has not in his or her own way learned to know the antithesis between “the wisdom of the world” and “the foolishness of God.” (1)

The reader will see this theme of antithesis or contrast with Christian and non-Christian thought appearing at many points throughout the dogmatics.

As first articulated and advanced by Kuyper, Bavinck continues the development of the doctrine of the antithesis between Christian and non-Christian thought and culture, thus, paving the way for Cornelius Van Til’s presuppositional apologetics in which the antithesis between Christian and non-Christian thought is fully developed into a powerful defense of the Gospel along with laying in waste all non-Christian epistemology.

The implications of the doctrine of antithesis fully developed apologetically:    
“Metaphysically, both parties have all things in common, while epistemologically they have nothing in common.” (2)

 Bavinck is certainly worthy in every sense with providing the impetus for Van Til’s presuppositional apologetics. In other words, Cornelius Van Til is dependent on Herman Bavinck and Kuyper before him. Without a doubt, theologians in the Dutch Reformed tradition and beyond are standing on the shoulders of Bavinck.  
One of the many strengths of Bavinck’s work is his interaction with different religious traditions. The value of this is that the student of theology will state accurately the theological position that one disagrees. Without being able to state the opponent’s position accurately, one should not come to the debate.

In Volume Two, “The Creator Is the Triune God,” one reads:
“Bavinck’s balanced doctrine of creation is self-consciously rooted in his trinitarian doctrine of God. He begins the chapter (8) on creation with the following direct linkage: “The realization of the counsel of God begins with creation. Creation is the initial act and foundation of all divine revelation and therefore the foundation of all religious and ethical life as well.” A biblical doctrine of God sees his counsel or decree as the link that connects God and the world. As the first of God’s external acts, creation is vitally important; subsequent acts of God must be seen in the light of creation. Thus, redemptive grace does not diminish or elevate or divinize creation but restores it. As the same time, as the expression of God’s decree, creation is not necessary but is contingent and dependent on God. God is self-sufficient; he does not need creation, and thus the error of pantheism is avoided as well as that of Deism.” (3)

 For those departing from the Protestant doctrine of original sin, the semi-Pelagian, i.e., Arminian, should spend some time in this Volume to decide whether they would prefer to be in line with Roman Catholic soteriology or identify as a Protestant. The importance of this will be seen in the following citation of Bavinck. 

 In Volume Three, “Explaining Original Sin: Human Solidarity,” Bavinck says:  “[323] The doctrine of original sin is one of the weightiest but also one of the most difficult subjects in the field of dogmatics. “Nothing is better known than original sin for preaching; for understanding, nothing is more mysterious.”85 “It is astonishing, however, that the mystery furthest from our understanding is the transmission of sin, the one thing without which we can have no understanding of ourselves! Because there can be no doubt that nothing shocks our reason more than to say that the sin of the first man made guilty those who, so far from that source, seem incapable of having taken part in it.… Nevertheless, without this most incomprehensible of all mysteries we are incomprehensible to ourselves. Within this gnarled chasm lie the twists and turns of our condition. So, humanity is more inconceivable without this mystery than this mystery is conceivable to humanity.”86 “Original sin explains everything and without it one cannot explain anything” (de Maistre), and yet the doctrine itself needs explanation more than anything.87 From ancient times it was described in theology as original sin (peccatum originale), not because it was peculiar to humans from their origin by virtue of creation, but because in all humans it is the origin and source of all other sins. Much misunderstanding could be avoided if in original sin we differentiated between an originating sin (peccatum originans; imputed, guilt) and the sin originated (peccatum originatum; inherent, punishment). Actually, by original or hereditary sin, one should only understand the moral depravity that people carry with them from the time of their conception and birth from their sinful parents.” (4)

Bavinck lands squarely in the Western Church’s doctrine of original sin in opposition to the Eastern Orthodoxy’s denial of this doctrine. Continuing and defending and explaining original sin and the implications for theology at many levels, especially in the area of common grace and individual liberty, and enslavement to sin.    

Bavinck’s section on “The Particular Call of Grace” in Volume Four gets to the heart of the matter:
“[435] Scripture and experience testify, however, that all these workings of external calling do not always and in every case lead people to a sincere faith and salvation. Hence the question arises: What is the ultimate cause of this diverse outcome? In the Christian church, in the main, a threefold answer was given to that question. Some said that this diverse outcome was due to the human will, whether that will had received the power to accept or reject the gospel from its natural self, or from the grace of the Logos, or from the grace of baptism, or from that of the calling. According to this view, there is no distinction between external and internal, or between efficient and efficacious calling. Inwardly and essentially the calling is always and, in every case, the same. It is only called efficacious in terms of the outcome when a person responds to the call. After everything we have said previously about Pelagianism,11 this answer does not call for a lengthy refutation. It clearly offers no solution. In practice one can indeed confine oneself to the proximate cause and attribute unbelief specifically to the human will. In that case, one is speaking truthfully (Deut. 30:19; Josh. 24:15; Isa. 65:12; Matt. 22:2–3; 23:37; John 7:17; Rom. 9:32; etc.): the sinful will of humans is responsible for their unbelief. But even in practice all believers at all times and in all schools of thought have attributed their faith and salvation to God’s grace alone.12 There is nothing that distinguishes them other than that gift of grace (1 Cor. 4:7). Ultimately, therefore, this difference cannot lie in the human will. If one nevertheless insists on considering will the final cause, one is instantly faced with all the psychological, ethical, historical, and theological objections that have at all times been raised against Pelagianism. It introduces incalculable caprice and weakens sin; the decision about the outcome of world history is put in the hands of humans, the governance over all things is taken away from God; his grace is canceled out. Even if one ascribes the power to choose for or against the gospel to the restoration of grace, this does not help matters. In that case one introduces a grace that consists solely in the restoration of volitional choice, one that is nowhere mentioned in Scripture, that actually presupposes regeneration and yet has to bring it about only after the right choice has been made.13 On this position one also gets stuck with all the millions of people who have never heard of the gospel or died as infants and for that reason were never in a position to accept or reject Christ. Accordingly, the free will of humans cannot be the ultimate cause of faith and unbelief.

Another answer to the above question was therefore devised by Bellarmine. He rejected both the doctrine of Pelagius and that of Augustine, sought a path somewhere between them, and said that the efficacy of the call depended on whether it came to a person at an opportune time when the will was inclined to follow it (congruitas).14 Agreeing with this congruism are the views of Pajon, Kleman, as well as Shedd, who considers salvation “in the highest degree probable” for everyone who makes serious and diligent use of the means of grace.15 But this answer, too, is unsatisfactory. In this congruity theory there is indeed an important truth that, while ignored by Methodism, comes into its own in the Reformed doctrine of preparatory grace. But it is completely unable to explain the efficacy of the call. The reason is that it is inherently nothing other than moral suasion, which in the nature of the case is powerless to create the spiritual life that, according to Scripture, is the result of regeneration. Further, it presupposes that a human being is fit one moment and unfit the next to accept grace, thus locating sin in circumstances and weakening it in humans. In addition, it makes the ultimate decision dependent on the human will and thereby again provokes all the objections mentioned above and lodged by Bellarmine himself against Pelagianism. Finally, it links calling and conversion by a thread of congruity, which, being moral in nature, can at all times be broken by the will and hence cannot guarantee the efficacy of the call. 

Augustinians, Thomists, and Reformed theologians, therefore, located the reason why in one person the calling bore fruit and in another it did not in the nature of the calling itself. The first group said that when the call was efficacious, a “triumphant delight” (delectatio victrix) was present, which granted not only the capacity to act (posse) but also the will to act (velle). The Thomists spoke of a “natural predetermination” or “natural action of God” that prompted the capacity to act (posse agere), conferred by “sufficient calling,” to pass into action.16 The Reformed, however, objecting to the use of these terms, took exception especially to the description of an act of God in conversion as “natural” and preferred to speak of an “external” and an “internal” call. This distinction already occurs in Augustine,17 was taken over from him by Calvin,18 and was further adopted in Reformed theology. Earlier this twofold calling was referred to by other terms as well, such as the “material and formal,” the “revealed” call and the call of “God’s good pleasure,” the common and the personal, the universal and the special call,19 but the terms “external” and “internal” call gained the upper hand and gradually pushed out the others. 

Now although this distinction does not occur in so many words in Scripture, it is based on Scripture.

1.     It is already implied in the fact that all humans are the same by nature, worthy of condemnation before God (Rom. 3:9–19; 5:12; 9:21; 11:32), dead in sins and trespasses (Eph. 2:2–3), darkened in their understanding (1 Cor. 2:14; Eph. 4:18; 5:8). They cannot see the kingdom of God (John 3:3), are the slaves of sin (8:34; Rom. 6:20), enemies of God (8:7; Col. 1:21), do not and cannot submit to God’s law (Rom. 8:7), are unable to think or do anything good from within themselves (John 15:5; 2 Cor. 3:5); though the gospel is for the benefit of humans, they are hostile toward it and despise it as an offense or folly (1 Cor. 1:23; 2:14). Hence the difference that occurs among people after the calling is inexplicable in terms of human capacities. God and his grace alone make the difference (1 Cor. 4:7). 

2.     Simply the preaching of the Word by itself is not sufficient (Isa. 6:9–10; 53:1; Matt. 13:13ff.; Mark 4:12; John 12:38–40; etc.). Hence in the Old Testament already we learn of the promised Spirit who would teach everyone and grant them all a new heart (Isa. 32:15; Jer. 31:33; 32:39; Ezek. 11:19; 36:26; Joel 2:28). To that end he was poured out on the day of Pentecost to witness to Christ along with and through the apostles (John 15:26–27), to convict the world of sin and righteousness and judgment (John 16:8–11), to regenerate people (John 3:5ff.; 6:63; 16:13), and to lead them to confess Jesus as Lord (1 Cor. 12:3). 

3.     The work of redemption, therefore, is ascribed completely, both subjectively and objectively, to God. This is not just meant in a general sense, the way we say that God works all things by his providence, but definitely in the restricted sense that by a special divine power he works regeneration and conversions. So it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God who shows mercy (Rom. 9:16). The calling is the implementation of divine election (8:28; 11:29). It is God who renews the human heart and inscribes his law on it (Ps. 51:12; Jer. 31:33; Ezek. 36:26), who enlightens the eyes of the heart (Ps. 119:18; Eph. 1:18; Col. 1:9–11), opens the heart (Acts 16:14), makes his own recognize his Son as the Christ (Matt. 11:25; 16:17; Gal. 1:16), and draws people to him with spiritual power (John 6:44; Col. 1:12–13). He causes the gospel to be preached, not only in words but also in demonstration of the spirit and power (1 Cor. 2:4; 1 Thess. 1:5–6), and himself gives wisdom (1 Cor. 2:6–9). He, in short, is at work in us, enabling us both to will and to work according to his good pleasure (Phil. 2:13) and to that end uses a power like the power by which he raised Christ from the dead and made him sit at his right hand (Eph. 1:18–20).

4.     The very act by which God accomplishes this change in humans is often called “rebirth” (John 1:13; 3:3ff.; Titus 3:5; etc.), and the fruit of it is called a new heart (Jer. 31:33), a new creation (2 Cor. 5:17), his workmanship created in Christ Jesus (Eph. 2:10), the work of God (Rom. 14:20), and his building (1 Cor. 3:9; Eph. 2:21; etc.). This is to say that what is brought about in humans by the grace of God is much too rich and great for it to be explained in terms of the “moral suasion” of the preaching of the Word. 

5.     Finally, Scripture itself speaks of calling in a dual sense. Repeatedly it refers to a calling and invitation to which there was no positive response (Isa. 65:12; Matt. 22:3, 14; 23:37; Mark 16:15–16; etc.). In that case it could say that while God did everything on his part (Isa. 5:4), people in their obstinacy refused to believe and resisted God’s counsel, the Holy Spirit, and calling (Matt. 11:20ff.; 23:37; Luke 7:30; Acts 7:51). But Scripture also knows a calling from God—a realization of election—that is always efficacious. This is especially true in Paul (Rom. 4:17; 8:30; 9:11, 24; 1 Cor. 1:9; 7:15ff.; Gal. 1:6, 15; 5:8; Eph. 4:1, 4; 1 Thess. 2:12; 2 Tim. 1:9; also cf. 1 Pet. 1:15; 2:9; 5:10; 2 Pet. 1:3). Believers are therefore repeatedly described simply as “those who are called” (Rom. 1:7; 1 Cor. 1:2, 24), and “those who are called in Christ” or “in the Lord” (1 Cor. 7:22); that is, those who are called by God belong to Christ and live in communion with him. In addition, Paul also knows of a preaching of the gospel to those who reject it. To them the gospel is foolishness (1 Cor. 1:18, 23), a fragrance from death to death (2 Cor. 2:15–16). They do not understand it (1 Cor. 2:14). As a power of God (1 Cor. 1:18, 24), it proves itself to those who are called by God according to his purpose (Rom. 8:28; 9:11; 11:28; Eph. 1:4–5)” (5)

In conclusion:

Volume Four of the Reformed Dogmatics is a theological feast. The following headings are some of the material covered in Volume Four, The Intermediate State, The Question of Immortality, Between Death and Resurrection, The Return of Christ, Israel, the Millennium, and Christ’s Return, The Consummation, The Day of the Lord, and The Renewal of Creation.

Bavinck concludes this final magnificent Volume in the “Service in the Eternal Sabbath”:
“[580] The communion with God that is enjoyed in the communion of saints no more excludes all action and activity in the age to come than it does in the present dispensation. As a rule, Christian theology indeed paid little attention to this fact and primarily spoke of heavenly blessedness as a matter of knowing and enjoying God. And this, undoubtedly, is the core and center, the source and power, of eternal life. Also, Scripture offers but little information enabling us to form a clear picture of the activity of the blessed. It describes this blessedness more in terms of resting from our earthly labors than of engaging in new activities (Heb. 4:9; Rev. 14:13). Still, the rest enjoyed in the new Jerusalem is not to be conceived, either in the case of God (John 5:17) or in the case of his children, as blessed inaction. Scripture itself tells us that eternal life consists in knowing and serving God, in glorifying and praising him (John 17:3; Rev. 4:11; 5:8–10; etc.). His children remain his servants, who serve him night and day (Rev. 22:3). They are prophets, priests, and kings who reign on earth forever (1:6; 5:10; 22:5). Inasmuch as they have been faithful over little on earth, they will be put in charge of many things in the kingdom of God (Matt. 24:47; 25:21, 23). All will retain their own personalities, for the names of all who enter the new Jerusalem have been written in the Lamb’s book of life (Rev. 20:15; 21:27), and all will receive a new name of their own (Isa. 62:2; 65:15; Rev. 2:17; 3:12; cf. 21:12, 14). The dead who die in the Lord rest from their labors but each is followed by one’s own works (Rev. 14:13). Tribes, peoples, and nations all make their own particular contribution to the enrichment of life in the new Jerusalem (5:9; 7:9; 21:24, 26). What we have sown here is harvested in eternity (Matt. 25:24, 26; 1 Cor. 15:42ff.; 2 Cor. 9:6; Gal. 6:7–9). The great diversity that exists among people in all sorts of ways is not destroyed in eternity but is cleansed from all that is sinful and made serviceable to fellowship with God and each other. And just as the natural diversity present in the believing community on earth is augmented with spiritual diversity (1 Cor. 12:7ff.), so also this natural and spiritual diversity is in turn augmented in heaven by the diversity of degrees of glory present there…

His purpose in doing this, however, is that, on earth as in heaven, there would be profuse diversity in the believing community, and that in such diversity the glory of his attributes would be manifest. Indeed, as a result of this diversity, the life of fellowship with God and with the angels, and of the blessed among themselves, gains in depth and intimacy. In that fellowship everyone has a place and task of one’s own, based on personality and character, just as this is the case in the believing community on earth (Rom. 12:4–8; 1 Cor. 12). While we may not be able to form a clear picture of the activity of the blessed, Scripture does teach that the prophetic, priestly, and royal office, which was humanity’s original possession, is fully restored in them by Christ. The service of God, mutual communion, and inhabiting the new heaven and the new earth undoubtedly offer abundant opportunity for the exercise of these offices, even though the form and manner of this exercise are unknown to us. That activity, however, coincides with resting and enjoying. The difference between day and night, between the Sabbath and the workdays, has been suspended. Time is charged with the eternity of God. Space is full of his presence. Eternal becoming is wedded to immutable being. Even the contrast between heaven and earth is gone. For all the things that are in heaven and on earth have been gathered up in Christ as head (Eph. 1:10). All creatures will then live and move and have their being in God [Acts 17:28], who is all in all [1 Cor. 15:28], who reflects all his attributes in the mirror of his works and glorifies himself in them.32” (6)

While Bavinck did not call his Reformed Dogmatics a systematic theology, it most certainly is. Bavinck’s magnificent Four Volume Reformed Dogmatics should find a place in every serious student of theology’s library. Reformed Churches around the world will be forever indebted to Herman Bavinck.  

Notes:

1.      Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, Volume One: Prolegomena, ed. John Bolt, trans. John Vriend (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2003), p. 441.

2.      Cornelius Van Til, Common Grace and the Gospel, (Phillipsburg, New Jersey, Presbyterian & Reformed, 1972), p. 9.

3.      Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, Volume Two: God and Creation, ed. John Bolt, trans. John Vriend (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2005), p. 20.

4.      Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, Volume Three: Sin and Salvation in Christ, ed. John Bolt, trans. John Vriend (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2006), p. 100-101.

5.      Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, Volume Four: Holy Spirit, Church, and New Creation, ed. John Bolt, trans. John Vriend (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2008), p. 41-44.

6.      Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, Volume Four: Holy Spirit, Church, and New Creation, ed. John Bolt, trans. John Vriend (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2008), p. 727-730.

“Study to shew thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth.” (2 Timothy 2:15)

“To God, only wise, be glory through Jesus Christ forever. Amen.” (Romans 16:27) and “heirs according to the promise.” (Galatians 3:28-29)
Mr. Kettler has previously published articles in the Chalcedon Report and Contra Mundum. He and his wife Marea attend the Westminster, CO, RPCNA Church. Mr. Kettler is the author of the book defending the Reformed Faith against attacks, titled: The Religion That Started in a Hat. at: .com Christian apologetics in the marketplace of ideas at
https://www.amazon.com/dp/B09FS31QMG?ref_=pe_3052080_397514860

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