This week we received our first copies of Herman Bavinck’s Reformed Dogmatics: Abridged in One Volume. I was really geeked out when I first saw this announced at sales conference (which was months ago). I’ve read bits and pieces of Bavinck but not enough to feel like I had a really good grasp of his thought. This one volume edition of his four volume Reformed Dogmatics was just what I had been waiting for. Last night I broke it open and started reading. I was hoping to find some good quotes to use for this post but the more I kept reading I found every paragraph to be so rich that I would end up simply reproducing the whole first chapter. Instead I’ve decided to give you a part from the Editor’s Preface. This will help you understand how the editor, John Bolt, saw his role in making this abridgement.
“In my abridgement I worked hard to preserve Bavinck’s own voice, even his own words, keeping my transitions and paraphrases to a minimum. Careful readers should be able to recognize whole sentences and sections taken straight from Reformed Dogmatics, and it is my hope that even the most attentive readers will hear only Bavinck’s voice throughout. At the same time, it is well to think of this volume via the metaphor of a large symphony orchestra; the composer and conductor is Bavinck. My own role here–I truly hope unnoticeable!–is to have served as Bavinck’s editorial assistant, helping to select where his score could be shortened and reconfigured for the sake of this one performance. The score is his and he will conduct the orchestra, not me. Where my own part is noticeable, it is a part that will be heard by a discriminating listener but always with the same tune.” (xi)
Okay, so I can’t resist. Here’s one part I especially enjoyed.
“With this in mind, we can speak with complete justice of a dogmatic theology as a science of God, and there is no objection whatever to gathering this knowledge of God in a system. We understand by ‘system’ nothing more than the ordinary scientific project of gathering a particular discipline’s body of knowledge into an intelligible, coherent, meaningful, ordered whole. Objections arise to the idea of ‘system’ from a number of quarters, notably from poets and literary critics who resist the abstraction needed to do systematic or dogmatic theology. A typical comment: ‘The Bible wasn’t written as systematic theology . . . [but as a narrative] . . . in images and stories.’
We must acknowledge that the complaint sometimes is valid; theology can be poorly presented and appear abstract, lifeless, intellectually arid. At the same time, misuse or abuse does not invalidate all use. Theer is no room in dogmatic theology for a system that attempts to deduce the truths of faith from an a priori principle, say, from the essence of religion, from the essence of Christianity, from the fact of regeneration, or from the experience of the devout. This is speculation and must be resisted. Dogmatic theology is a positive science that gathers its material from revelation and does not have the right to modify or expand that content by speculation apart from that revelation.” (9-10)
How about one more?
“Dogmas cannot be avoided in religion; one who clings to the truth of religion cannot do without dogma and will always recognize unchanging and permanent elements in it. A religion without dogma, however vague and general it may be, does not exist, and a non-dogmatic Christianity, in the strict sense of the word, is an illusion and devoid of meaning. Without faith in the existence, the revelation, and the knowability of God, no religion is possible.” (6)
My first taste of this natural spring of Bavinck’s theology is sweet and I look forward to more. I’m already finding that J. I Packer’s assessment of Bavinck is hardly exaggerated when he describes him as “a man of giant mind, vast learning, ageless wisdom, and great expository skill. Solid, but lucid, demanding yet satisfying, broad and deep and sharp and stabilizing.”
John Bolt (PhD, University of St. Michael’s College) is professor of systematic theology at Calvin Theological Seminary, where he has taught for more than twenty years.