When I wrote my doctoral dissertation on Herman Bavinck’s idea of the centrality of the mystical union (unio mystica) of the believer with Christ, I realized that it is crucial to keep in mind that one cannot isolate one aspect of the totality of Bavinck’s theology at the expense of other large and grand components of the structure of his thoroughly theological mind. That truth most certainly holds true for his notion of man’s knowledge of God in general and with a view to his understanding of God’s aseity in particular.

Therefore, before I launch into an explanation of how the notion of God’s aseity is of importance for theology as well as for the men and women in the pew, I want to back up half a frame and lay some essential and indispensable groundwork.

The Incomprehensibility of God

The second volume of Bavinck’s Reformed Dogmatics (RD) devotes the opening two chapters to the general concept of knowing God. Chapters 1 and 2 are entitled “The Incomprehensibility of God” and “The Knowledge of God,” respectively. The opening words of § 161 read this way: “Mystery is the lifeblood of dogmatics.”[1] When Bavinck employs the term “mystery” he is using it in its normal, scriptural manner, which is that which is unknown and unknowable without God revealing it to man.

That being the case, it is also crucial that we understand that “the knowledge of God is the only dogma, the exclusive content, of the entire field of dogmatics. All the doctrines treated in dogmatics—whether they concern the universe, humanity, Christ, and so forth—are but the explication of the one central dogma of the knowledge of God. All things are considered in light of God, subsumed under him, traced back to him as the starting point.”[2] In other words, knowledge of God, knowledge of his nature, and knowledge of his character are indispensable for a truly Church dogmatics, and, by extension, for every Christian.

Citing Psalm 89:16, Isaiah 11:9, Jeremiah 31:34, and John 17:3, Bavinck can assert that “The knowledge of God-in-Christ, after all, is life itself.”[3] Each of the texts mentioned draws our attention to the knowledge of God. To substantiate his position regarding the knowledge of God, Bavinck quotes both Augustine and Calvin. Linking both authors to the biblical texts referred to, Bavinck proceeds and says this about the Church Father, Augustine. “Augustine desired to know nothing other and more than God and himself. ‘I desire to know God and the soul. Nothing more? No: nothing at all.’”[4]

He directs our attention to two sources from Calvin, the first from the opening words of his Institutes and the second from his Genevan Catechism. As far as Calvin’s Institutes are concerned, the opening sentence sets the stage for the remainder of that work. “Nearly all the wisdom we possess, that is to say true and sound wisdom, consists of two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves.”[5] In addition, the opening question and answer to the Genevan Catechism reads this way: “What is the chief end of human life? That human beings may know the God by whom they were created.”[6]

These quotations point us to the what but not to the how regarding the knowledge of God. Bavinck anticipates the dilemma and poses a question and then answers it in a manner that places Scripture at the center of the Christian theologian’s and the Christian’s life. He writes, “But the moment we dare to speak about God the question arises: How can we? We are human and he is the Lord our God. Between him and us there seems to be no such kinship or communion as would enable us to name him truthfully. The distance between the Infinite and the finite, between eternity and time, between being and becoming, between the All and the nothing. However little we know of God, even the faintest notion implies that he is a being who is infinitely exalted above every creature.”[7] I emphasize the words “being and becoming” for a particular reason, so allow me to explain.

Bavinck and the Christian Worldview

In his very helpful addition to his Dutch biography on Bavinck, the late R.H. Bremmer wrote a treatise on the structure and meaning of Bavinck’s theology.[8] In his section dealing with the attributes or perfections of God, he mentions the central role the concepts of “being” and “becoming” play in Bavinck’s theology.[9] That this notion played an integral part in the total fabric of Bavinck’s theology is evidenced by the fact that he wrote a separate book on it.[10]

The importance of The Christian Worldview can be clearly seen in its structure. The theses are contained in three main chapters: Thinking and Being, Being and Becoming, and Becoming and Actions. The first I take to be Bavinck’s explanation of metaphysics (metaphysica), the second the difference between the Creator and his creatures, sometimes referred to as the Creator/creature distinction and logic (logica), and the third having to do with Christian ethics (ethica). When we peruse Bavinck’s explanation of God’s “communicable” attributes, we discover that he returns to his basic outline found in The Christian Worldview.

Especially in his discussion of God’s trustworthiness (§ 203), Bavinck summarizes what he posited in The Christian Worldview. Referring to God he explains, “He is therefore frequently called ‘the Rock,’ who by his unshakable firmness offers support to his people…. As such a God of truth and faithfulness, he keeps covenant…and is a completely trustworthy refuge for all his people…. All he reveals is pure truth. He is true God, in contrast to all human beings. His word is the truth, his gospel is truth, Christ is the truth. Even now he is what he has always been…. His faithfulness comes out in that he is and remains the God of the covenant and completely grants salvation.”[11]

As Bavinck proceeds to tie these notions together, he explains God is trustworthy/truthful in the realms of metaphysical, ethical, and logical truth.[12] God is Being and his creatures are in the state of Becoming. Bremmer is convinced that when Bavinck discusses God’s aseity, the notions of Being and Becoming are in the forefront. For example, Bremmer believes “Bavinck viewed the difference between God and his creature as that between Being and Becoming.” Moreover, “When God ascribes aseitas to himself in Scripture, he reveals himself as absolute Being, as the Being One in an absolute sense.”[13]

Thus, as we study any of God’s attributes/perfections it is essential that we keep in mind that “The purpose of God’s revelation, according to Scripture, is precisely that human beings may know God and so receive eternal life (John 17:3; 20:31).”[14]

The Unity of the Testaments and the Unity of Faith and Life

For those who are not familiar with Bavinck’s theology, consider some simple guidelines that will be an aid to understanding the structure of Reformed Dogmatics. Let’s start with that seminal statement taken from Bavinck’s Introduction to Dogmatics in Volume 1 of the RD. At the end of the first chapter of Volume 1, he argues that dogmatics and ethics must be kept in the closest proximity for the dogmatician. By extension, the same truth holds for every Christian. He is so adamant that he insists that separate existence between dogmatics and ethics is simply nonexistent.[15] Theological ethics is “totally rooted in dogmatics.”[16]

If you are reading this and are not a technical theologian, allow me to put Bavinck’s thoughts in another way. Christians may not and must not separate biblical truth from practical Christian living, from our daily conduct, and from our behavior. We must always believe and act on those beliefs based on what Scripture says. If we are unwilling to live that way, our lives will be manifestations of a dualism. If our actions are loosed from the moorings of biblical truth, we will land with both feet squarely in speculation and subjectivism. With those qualifiers in place, let us now proceed to Bavinck’s thoughts regarding the relationship between Theology and Ethics, between doctrine and life. If our actions are loosed from the moorings of biblical truth, we will land with both feet squarely in speculation and subjectivism. Click To Tweet

Regenerated and renewed by the grace of the Holy Spirit, sinful human beings again receive the desire and strength to live in accordance with God’s commandments. Dogmatics describes the deeds of God done for, to, and in human beings; ethics describes what renewed human beings now do on the basis of and in the strength of those divine deeds. In dogmatics human beings are passive; they receive and believe; in ethics they are themselves active agents. In dogmatics, the articles of the faith are treated; in ethics the precepts of the Decalogue. In the former, that which concerns faith is dealt with; in the latter, that which concerns love, obedience, and good works. Dogmatics sets forth what God is and does for human beings and causes them to know God as their Creator, Redeemer, and Sanctifier; ethics sets forth what human beings are and do for God now; how, with everything they are and have, with intellect and will and all their strength, they devote themselves to God out of gratitude and love. Dogmatics is the system of the knowledge of God; ethics is that of the service of God. The two disciplines, far from facing each other as two independent entities, together form a single system; they are related members of a single organism.[17]

Bavinck was a covenant theologian and it was his settled conviction that the biblical doctrine of the covenant was the key to understanding and interpreting all of Scripture. He posited an overarching continuity between the Old and New Testaments. Among other things, this covenantal approach insists that what the Holy Spirit inspired in the Old Testament is not in any way in contradiction to what he inspired in the New Testament. This idea is what the Reformers in general and Heinrich Bullinger (1504-1575) called the “rule of the Spirit.” Once again, according to Bavinck, “the knowledge of God can have its origin only in revelation.”[18] This entails Christians being totally and wholly dependent on the Word of God for the purity of their doctrine and ethics.

Aseity and the Name Yahweh

The covenant name of God is Yahweh. This name is supreme and describes God as Lord in the absolute sense (Ex. 3:14-15).[19] In other words, “This name describes him as the One who is and will always be what he was, that is, who eternally remains the same in relation to his people. He is self-existent.”[20] In the time and space left, let us expand on what aseity entailed from God’s revelation in Scripture.

First, “In an absolute sense he (God—RG) is Lord, Lord of all the earth (Ex. 23:17; Deut. 10:17; Josh. 3:13). He is dependent on nothing, but everything depends on him (Rom. 11:36).” Further, this lordship is described in terms and categories that many in the twenty-first century Church might find particularly distasteful. For instance, when Bavinck states that in his aseity God is dependent on nothing and everything depends on him, it means that God “kills and makes alive; he forms the light and creates the darkness; he makes weal and woe (Deut. 32:39; Isa. 45:5-7; 54:16). He does according to his will with the host of heaven and the inhabitants of the earth (Dan. 4:35), so that people are in his hand as clay in the hands of a potter (Isa. 64:8; Jer. 18:1ff.; Rom. 9:21).”[21]

Second, God’s aseity extends further into his divine counsel. Another way of stating the case is that God in his being and aseity is absolutely sovereign over all. Bavinck formulates this notion as follows. “His counsel and good pleasure is the ultimate ground of all that is and happens (Ps. 33:11; Prov. 19:21; Isa. 46:10; Matt. 11:26; Acts 2:23; 4:28; Eph. 1:5, 9, 11).”[22] It is noteworthy that Bavinck supports his words from the Bible. To ask, “What does Scripture say?” is not mere theory for him as a theologian and as a Christian, but one of the aspects of the RD that makes it so relevant to us and to our time is that Bavinck thinks and acts in concert with Scripture in his works.

The third aspect of God’s aseity is that he does all things for his own sake and for his own glory, is all-sufficient, has life in himself, and is independent in all his attributes and perfections, including his will and his decrees. God is independent in his intellect (Rom. 11:34-35), in his will (Dan. 4:35; Rom. 9:19; Eph. 1:5; Rev. 4:11), in his counsel (Ps. 33:11; Isa. 46:10), in his love (Hos. 14:4), in his power (Ps. 115:3), and so forth.[23] In Christian theology, aseitas was “called his independence, all-sufficiency, greatness.”[24] Moreover, “All that God is, he is of himself. By virtue of himself he is goodness, holiness, wisdom, life, light, truth…” and more.[25] He does all things for his own sake and for his own glory. Click To Tweet

The Church Fathers, along with the proponents of the Reformation couched their understanding of Scripture in the name Yahweh, a name they were convinced “described God as the absolutely existent one…”[26] Therefore, not only is aseity a descriptor of God’s absolute independence. When Bavinck uses the translation “independence” with a view to aseity, he is expanding its definition. He explains, “While aseity only expresses God’s self-sufficiency in his existence, independence has a broader sense and implies that God is independent in everything: in his existence, in his perfection, in his decrees, and in his works.”[27] To Bavinck’s mind, this places aseity “as the first of the incommunicable attributes.”[28]

I will close this brief article with two final summarizing quotations. The first brings us back to the notions of Being and Becoming. Bavinck asserts, “But as it evident from the word ‘aseity,’ God is exclusively from himself, not in the sense of being self-caused but being from eternity to eternity who he is, being not becoming.”[29]

Finally, “In this aseity of God, conceived not only as having being from himself but also as the fullness of being, all the other perfections are included.”[30]

 


Endnotes

[1] Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, Vol. 2, (John Bolt [ed.] & John Vriend [trans]), (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2004), 29.

[2] Ibid., Emphasis added.

[3] Ibid., Emphasis added.

[4] Ibid.

[5] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, Vol. 1, (John T. McNeill [ed.] & Ford Lewis Battles [trans.]), (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, n.d.), 35.

[6] Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, 2:30.

[7] Ibid., Italics added.

[8] R.H. Bremmer, Herman Bavinck als Dogmaticus, (Kampen: Kok, 1961).

[9] Ibid., 188.

[10] Herman Bavinck, Christelijke Wereldbeschouwing, (Kampen: Kok, 19132).

[11] Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, 2:208.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Bremmer, Herman Bavinck als Dogmaticus, 190.

[14] Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, 2:30.

[15] Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, 1:58.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Ibid., Italics added.

[18] Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, 2:56. Emphasis added.

[19] Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, 2:150.

[20] Ibid., Emphasis added.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Ibid., Emphasis added.

[24] Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, 2:151.

[25] Ibid.

[26] Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, 2:152.

[27] Ibid.

[28] Ibid.

[29] Ibid.

[30] Ibid.