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Herman Bavinck and Theology Proper

Talk of God’s Absoluteness and Why it Matters

Herman Bavinck, throughout his career as a theologian, brought the confessional and creedal heritage of Christian theology to bear upon his modern Dutch world. He showed why Christianity mattered in all ages, in all contexts, and cultures. He continues to do so today as we Anglophone readers are enjoying his works in English more and more. For Bavinck, all of theology is the knowledge of God, a science that pursues God through his own revelation of himself to the world. For that reason, he was able also to suggest that the doctrine of God is all of theology because even when the theological subject matter is not directly God himself, Christians must comprehend all of existence in the light of God’s being and work. For Bavinck, all of theology is the knowledge of God, a science that pursues God through his own revelation of himself to the world. Click To Tweet

God’s Absoluteness

At the center of our creedal and confessional heritage on the doctrine of God itself, Bavinck urged his readers to confess God’s absoluteness and to do so for a number of reasons. Indeed, a core task for Church theologians both of the past and present is to take the truth about God’s nature directly to the Christians who are living their lives, to point out how knowing God more and more is valuable to both the head and the heart.

We can talk about the truths of the faith from a couple of perspectives. First, one can simply ask a Christian, “what has Jesus Christ done in your life?” This is the approach of the Heidelberg Catechism—the personal testimony of how God in Christ gives comfort in life and death through the experience of faith.

Second, in partnership with the first, theologians come to their fellow believers and help clarify the testimony of their faith and create a deeper and wider knowledge of the God who saves by working not from the human experience to God but from God’s revelation into human experiences. The latter fills out the former with heaps of truth revealed by God. The former fulfills the latter by helping actualize the knowledge of God in people’s hearts and minds.

Perhaps the most important truths that the church theologians of the past including Bavinck delivered to us by way of their examinations of God’s Word was through talk about the being of God. Who is the God who has saved you and what is God like? When people receive new life in their hearts, it is right that they want to know more of the God who has written their testimony. And it is all the more appropriate when a holy fear overtakes, and the question gets asked: how could I speak well of the God who dwells in inapproachable light and who no eye has seen? That is the right instinct. Creatures, and especially those who have experienced God’s grace in Jesus Christ, know from their depths that God must be something totally other than what we are. This deep consciousness draws us to lean into the truth of God’s absolute being with verbal reservation and modesty. Yet at the same time, we say that we can speak of God and speak truths about God precisely because God spoke truths about himself to us first. So, we proceed into the mysteries of God’s being from the creature’s perspective attempting to orient our perspective entirely from the facts of God’s perspective in the Bible. The good news is that in creation and redemption, God has revealed himself. He has come out of his hiddenness. And, while there is so much to say about God, we must be committed to speak of his absoluteness. While there is so much to say about God, we must be committed to speak of his absoluteness. Click To Tweet

When we open the first page of scripture, as Herman Bavinck points out in his Wonderful Works of God, the “absolute transcendence of God” jumps off the page. “Without strain or fatigue” God calls the world into existence with a word. He is thoroughly exalted. He is no creature and that is clear. His being is absolutely un-creaturely, and this is apparent in the act of creation. Simultaneously and shockingly, on the same first page of the Bible, God “stands in intimate relationship with all his creatures” (115). We learn quickly that God is absolute being and yet the Bible will not allow us to treat God in the abstract, as in philosophy’s considerations of God, but as the God who comes to be with us, drawing together the truths of his transcendence and intimate presence. These two realities do not exist in contradiction.

How has Christian orthodoxy spoken then of God’s absoluteness? How does the church use words to try to grasp at God’s uniqueness so we may know more of the God of our testimonies? We begin by following the language of Scripture, asking rhetorical questions like “of whom can God be compared” or “what can be said to be like God” (Is. 40:18)? The nations are nothing before him (Is. 40:17). No creature can name him (Gen. 32:29). Job is forced to say before God: “Behold, I am of small account. What shall I say” (Job 40:4)? We speak God’s name only because he names himself: Yahweh, I Am—a name that preaches God’s unchanging being and covenantal consistency.

To describe this nature of absoluteness, theologians have often grasped for the term “simple,” which is potentially confusing in the contemporary world but its conceptual content remains unflinchingly necessary. As Bavinck points out with regards to this concept: “We as human beings can make a distinction between the being and attributes of people. A human can lose his arm or leg … without ceasing to be human. But in God this is impossible” (118). What does this mean exactly, and what has the church of history meant, by the fact that God is simple? To put it in another phrase, (and one that propels us beyond the domain of human comprehension) God is everything he possesses, unlike us humans.

Speaking of God

All creatures are composed of a multiplicity of stuff and we persistently change—we are subject to space and time; we are dependent, not independent; we are made up of all manner of parts, and many of those parts we lose and yet remain ourselves. With God, none of this is possible. God is independent. God is not composed of parts that he can lose. God’s being does not change. God’s attributes coincide absolutely with his being. Every attribute is his being. His essence is his existence. In a word, he is absolute, and we are creature. God’s unchanging being is the absolute source of all the attributes of our contingent creaturely being. “He is everything he possesses and the source of everything that creatures possess” (118). God’s being is absolute and God’s being is the fountain that pours forth our creaturely lives. Of course, we cannot become masters of such a confession but must approach speaking of God’s nature with deep humility. Click To Tweet

Of course, we cannot become masters of such a confession but must approach speaking of God’s nature with deep humility. And yet, God draws us through Scripture to speak in such ways. As always, the truth is critically important to both the head and heart. If we do not hold God to be independent, absolute, and simple, then we pull God down to the level of the creature, and diminish his power.

If God is not simple, then in such a confession we even sacrifice God’s intimate presence in the world as the unchanging and unshakeable rock who is for us and with us. Instead, we flirt with a god who can be identified too closely with mere creaturehood. “Only if he is independent and unchangeable, eternal and omnipresent, can He be the God of our unconditional faith, of our absolute trust, and our perfect salvation” (120).

Cory C. Brock

Cory Brock (PhD, University of Edinburgh) is an assistant minister at First Presbyterian Church Jackson, MS, a lecturer in Christian Thought at Belhaven University, and a visiting lecturer at RTS Jackson. He is the author of Orthodox yet Modern: Herman Bavinck’s Use of Friedrich Schleiermacher (Lexham, 2020).

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