This review appeared in the Oct-Dec 2006 vol. 163 no. 4 issue of Biblotheca Sacra, DTS’s quarterly academic journal.Subscribe Today
Reformed Dogmatics: Prolegomena (Vol 1), God and Creation (Vol 2)Baker Academic, Grand Rapids October 1, 2003
These two volumes constitute half of the Dutch Reformed Herman Bavinck’s (1854–1921) classic four-volume work, Gereformeerde Dogmatiek. Although several sections of Bavinck’s magisterial work had been published in English previously, this project by the Dutch Reformed Translation Society will make all four volumes accessible to English readers.
According to the editor, John Bolt, Bavinck’s work “represents the high point of some four centuries of remarkably productive Dutch Reformed theological reflection” (1:11). Bavinck’s serious engagement with the biblical text, the history of Christian theology, non-Christian thought, and with other non-Reformed theological traditions, particularly Roman Catholicism and liberal Protestantism, makes for enjoyable theological reading. His critical interaction with Enlightenment thinkers is a helpful, contextualized model for theology in the post-Enlightenment world, making this a very timely work.
In the first volume Bavinck discusses issues of theological prolegomena, particularly the task and method of theology. Theology begins with revelation, particularly the verbal or special revelation of God in the Scriptures, which is received by people of faith. Faith, Bavinck says, brings sufficient confidence or certainty. As Bavinck puts it, “According to Scripture, this faith brings its own certainty with it. It is the assurance of things hoped for . . . because it is grounded in God’s testimony and promise” (1:573). Certainty is thus based not on arguments or evidence but on faith. Theology is then the pursuit of understanding by people of faith.
Bolt summarizes Bavinck’s theological method this way, “A proper theological method thus must take Scripture, Christian tradition, and Christian consciousness seriously as resources. Hence, the term ‘dogmatic theology’ is appropriate since it reflects the normative reality that theology arises from faith and seeks to serve the community of faith” (1:20). This emphasis on faith seeking understanding in service of the Christian community is a helpful corrective to the tendency toward individualistic approaches to theological method, in which theologians are disconnected from the church and her heritage, sometimes found in contemporary American evangelicalism.
The second volume discusses the doctrines of God and creation. Introductory chapters discuss how the incomprehensible God can be known. Again theology is grounded not in proofs of God’s existence but in faith; certainty of God’s existence “is solely determined by faith” (2:90). Chapters on the names of God, divine attributes, and the Trinity follow. The discussion of the Trinity includes (a) biblical data, (b) the development of the doctrine in the Fathers, (c) objections raised by Arius and other heretics, (d) later developments in the Eastern and Western traditions, and (e) a discussion of Trinitarian analogies and the importance of the doctrine. This section is almost worth the price of the book.
The remainder of this volume is devoted to the subject of creation. It would be difficult to overstate the importance of this doctrine for Bavinck. He writes, “Creation is the initial act and foundation of all divine revelation and therefore the foundation of all religious and ethical life as well. . . . From the very first moment, true religion distinguishes itself from all other religions by the fact that it construes the relation between God and the world, including man, as that between the Creator and his creature” (2:407). The creation of angelic beings, the material world, and of humans in the image of God are discussed in successive chapters. A final chapter in this volume describes God’s ongoing preservation and care of His creation, the doctrine of providence.
The translation of these volumes into English is a welcome addition to the resources for study of Reformed theology. Even those who are not Reformed in their theological heritage can gain much from Bavinck’s clear presentation of Christian theology. This is not easy reading, but the effort is worthwhile to mine the depths of Bavinck’s comprehensive and thoughtful summary of the Dutch Reformed tradition. Those who desire to understand the faith once for all delivered to the saints will be rewarded by a careful and systematic reading of these books and will look forward to the release of the two additional volumes.
—Glenn R. Kreider