When Matter Becomes Form

This is a review of Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics: Holy Spirit, Church, and New Creation vol. 4.

And so ends the greatest theologian of all time. The following are highlights around the central theme of grace restoring nature. Indeed, with Bavinck we see the rejection of dualisms: “The dualisms between the internal and the external, the spiritual and the material, eternity and time, essence and form…are products of a false philosophy and contrary to Scripture” (458).

*The Church*

In his discussion of the church Bavinck always comes back to the truth that it is in the Reformed churches that preaching is exalted. Bavinck makes an important distinction that Lutherans see the Spirit working per verbum, while Reformed see him working cum verbum.

*Ethics*

Ethics

While Bavinck appreciated a Christianized society, he didn’t think all sins (e.g., fornication, drunkeness) should be punished by the State (437).

Bavinck’s discussions on the sacraments are par for the course with most Reformed dogmatics, so no need to explicate them here. He takes Calvin’s view as a middle path between Roman realism and Anabaptist gnosticism. He believes the Supper should be monthly.

*New Creation*

This is the most important section. When you want good eschatology, always go to the Neo-Calvinists, never American neo-Puritans. Recreation

“The resurrection is the principle of the renewal of all things” (428).

Judgment

Bavinck ably rebuts the hippy, humanitarian idea that hell is too mean for God, especially when evaluated on human sentiment. “For when the interest of society becomes the deciding factor, not only is every boundary between good and evil wiped out, but also justice runs the danger of being sacrificed to power…Human feeling is no foundation for anything important, therefore, and neither may nor can it be decisive in the determination of law and justice. All appearances notwithstanding, it is infinitely better to fall into the hands of the Lord than into human hands. The same applies with respect to eternal punishment in hell (708).

The New Earth

“The state of glory will be no mere restoration of the state of nature, but a re-formation that, thanks to the power of Christ, transforms all matter into form, all potency into actuality, and presents the entire creation before the face of God, brilliant in unfading splendor and blossoming into a springtime of eternal youth (720).

“The difference between day and night, between the Sabbath and the workdays, has been suspended. Time is charged with eternity of God. Space is full of his presence. Eternal becoming is wedded to immutable being. Even the contrast between heaven and earth is gone (730).

Conclusion:

Perhaps, as others have noted, this book isn’t as good as volumes 1-2. But it’s still the best thing on the market regarding this locus of systematic theology.

Bavinck and the Beginning of Knowledge

This is a modified review of his Prolegomena.

Bavinck’s project consists of drawing upon the strengths of the Magisterial Protestants while formulating theology in response to the modernist crisis of his day.  To do so, he realized he could not slavishly mimic older platitudes and simply “hope for the best.”   Bavinck represents a very exciting yet somewhat embarrassing hero for modern Calvinists.  Exciting, because his work is simply awesome and coming into English for the first time ever.  Embarrassing, because modern Calvinists generally dislike the movement “neo-Calvinism,” yet Bavinck is the unofficial godfather of it.

Bavinck takes the traditional terminology of principia, yet in the background is an ever-present urgency to respond to modernism.   Therefore, he takes the terminology and reframes it around the neo-Calvinist slogan, “Grace restores Nature.”  There is an antithesis and dualism, to be sure, but it is not between nature and grace, but sin and grace.

Principia

God himself is the principle of existence for theology (principium essendi).  Objective revelation of God in Christ is recorded in the Scriptures and this is the external source of knowledge (externum principium cognoscendi).   The Holy Spirit is the iternal source of knowledge.   This leads Bavinck to a line he repeats throughout the book:  there must be a corresponding internal organ to receive the external revelation.  This anticipates the later Reformed Epistemology school.

Circular Reasoning and First Principles

Bavinck does not try to hide the fact of circular reasoning.  He asserts, quite rightly, that first principles in any science are by definition circular.  If they were proven by other principles, they would not be first principles!

Towards the Future of Reformed Epistemology and Apologetics

It’s obvious that Van Til read Bavinck.  It is also obvious, if perhaps less so, that the Reformed Epistemologists follow in Bavinck’s train.   It’s interesting that while Van Til drew heavily from Bavinck, I don’t think they are always saying the same thing on apologetics.   Bavinck used the categories of presuppositionalism, but he knew when to stop the train.  I think he kept himself from many of what would later be some of Van Til’s errors, or at least weak points.

Criticisms

The book isn’t always easy to read.  If the reader does not have a background heavy in European Rationalism, many of Bavinck’s sparring partners will be over one’s head.  Conversely, if one does have such a background in those disciplines, then there is little point to read Bavinck on them, since he is merely given a cursory reading of them.

Calming down on Neo-Calvinism, to all

The evangelical/Calvinist resurgence in American life is properly termed “New Calvinism.”  The Dutch intellectual tradition from 1880 to sort of today is Neo-Calvinism.  Admittedly, new and “neo” are the same thing, but they are applied differently at different times in history.

So, some in the Reformed world are saying that Dutch Neo-Calvinism (or any of its American variants) is the bad kind and Westerminster Calvinism is the good kind. There is a WTJ article floating around somewhere to the same effect.

I think that’s a bit simplistic.  So here are some pros and cons to Dutch Neo-Calvinism.  I include the following in the survey:  Bavinck, Kuyper, Vollenhoven, Dooyeweerd, Stoker, Knudsen, sort of Van Til, and the legacy of Calvin College.

Plantinga and Wolterstorff are wild cards.

The Good

These guys are strong on creation.  Bavinck is simply sublime, Van Til more forcefully so.  Al Wolters’ little monograph begs to be reread.  Jamie Smith noted that God creates in “plurals.”  This is about as close and forceful a break with the Platonic ontology as one can get.  When you read the Prophets on New Creation and eschatology, you can hear a Dutch accent in the background.

The Bad

As is probably typical of Dutch American existence, these guys can get insular and clannish.  Orthodoxy isn’t the only church with a claim on phyletism (whatever that is).  But maybe Scottish Americans like myself are also clannish.  I’m not aware that I am, but it is possible.

Do some Neo_Calvinists denigrate philosophy?  Maybe.   But if you read Plantinga, Wolterstorff, and Bavinck, that’s just not so.  Bavinck’s theological and philosophical reasoning is as astute as any.  See below.

God himself is the principle of existence for theology (principium essendi). Objective revelation of God in Christ is recorded in the Scriptures and this is the external source of knowledge (externum principium cognoscendi). The Holy Spirit is the iternal source of knowledge. This leads Bavinck to a line he repeats throughout the book: there must be a corresponding internal organ to receive the external revelation. This anticipates the later Reformed Epistemology school.

Do some denigrate piety?  Probably, and this seems to be a recurring theme among culture-reclaimers (see modern day Reconstructionism).  But it doesn’t logically hold that because some denigrate piety, Neo-Calvinism as a whole must.  What the pietist Calvinist needs to show is that the Neo-Calvinist’s commitment to Christ’s Lordship in all spheres logically entails skipping my prayers tonight.  I don’t think it can be done.