Herman Bavinck’s doctrine of God is like no other
The new issue of Credo Magazine has arrived: The Impassibility of God. The following is an excerpt from Gayle Doornbos’ column, Herman Bavinck’s doctrine of God is like no other. Gayle Doornbos is a Th.D candidate in systematic theology at the University of Toronto/Wycliffe College. She also teaches part time for Calvin Theological Seminary’s online M.Div program.
In John 17:3, Jesus proclaims: “And this is eternal life, that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent” (ESV). As a part of his High Priestly Prayer, it is easy for contemporary evangelicals to read Jesus’s words through a primarily soteriological lens, as a text that teaches us how we are saved. But to read the text as solely pointing to how we are saved misses its profound teaching concerning what eternal life is: knowing God in the face of Christ.
The knowledge of God is inexorably bound up with the doctrine of salvation. This is why John Calvin, in his 1542 Geneva Catechism answers his first question, “What is the chief end of human life?” by stating, “to know God by whom men were created.” And, it is why the 17th century Dutch Reformed theologian Wilhelmus á Brakel wrote: “it is the duty of all who practice religion [Christianity] to reflect continually upon God as He is, to live in contemplation of Him, and to walk before His countenance…” (Brakel, The Christian’s Reasonable Service, I:133).
And yet, within the landscape of modern evangelicalism, the doctrine of God, in which we come to know the nature and character of God, has often been considered impractical and irrelevant for life. The trend has been either to neglect the doctrine of God or try to augment it in order to make God more relatable and relevant. However, far from making God relevant and relatable, these impoverished doctrines of God have weakened and eroded the joy, blessedness, rest, and assurance that the knowledge of God in the face of Christ brings to believers.
Thankfully, there has been some renewed interest in the doctrine of God among various evangelicals, resulting in some excellent books that draw on the riches of the Christian tradition’s reflection on God in order to revitalize the doctrine of God within evangelicalism. While I commend these books to pastors and churchgoers, in this article, I also want to recommend pastors and churchgoers to follow these books in reaching into the treasures of the past. Specifically, I want to recommend the Dutch Reformed theologian Herman Bavinck’s doctrine of God.
There are innumerable reasons why Bavinck (1854-1921), who lived and wrote at the turn of the 20th century, is worth reading on pretty much any theological topic. However, I want to highlight just three aspects of his doctrine of God that show why it is particularly worth the time and effort.
1. Intellectually Edifying, Spiritually Enriching
The first reason to read Bavinck’s doctrine of God is that it is intellectually edifying and spiritually enriching. While many today might place rigorous intellectual engagement and spiritual edification at odds with one another, Bavinck sees them as inseparably related. As he writes at the beginning of his doctrine of God in his four-volume magnum opus, The Reformed Dogmatics:
The knowledge of him [God] alone that dogmatics must put on display. By pursuing this aim, dogmatics does not become a dry and academic exercise, without practical usefulness for life. The more it reflects on God, the knowledge of whom is its only content, the more it will be moved to adoration and worship…The knowledge of God-in-Christ, after all, is life itself (Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, II.29).
In this affirmation, Bavinck not only situates his own theological reflection on God within the long Christian tradition of relating the doctrines of God and salvation but also highlights the relationship between faith and knowledge. For Bavinck, knowledge is not at odds with faith. Far from an arid and detached exercise, theology is faith at work seeking to understand God as he has revealed himself in scripture and creation. Serious intellectual engagement—particularly in the doctrine of God—is not an enemy of faith but a part of its calling.
Knowing God leads to the worship of God. In fact, for Bavinck, theology itself is a form of doxology that, in its service to the church, is meant to draw believers into a deeper and more profound sense that “God does not exist for us but that we exist for him” (Bavinck, Our Reasonable Faith, 130). The ability of Bavinck to weave together rigorous academics with tender-hearted reverence is the first reason his doctrine of God is worth reading.