Herman Bavinck: God and Creation

As Bavinck in many places is summarizing traditional Reformed teaching, this book is exactly what you would expect on Reformed dogmatics. However, no one ever does theology in a purely Platonic vacuum. Bavinck is within a certain milieu of Western intellectual thought. He knows that and wrestles with it. His result, at least in this volume, is a budding Neo-Calvinist take on the doctrine of God, and more particularly the doctrine of Creation.

God

Some highlights:

* “All doctrines treated in dogmatics….are but the explication of the one central dogma of the knowledge of God” (Bavinck 29).

* Main point: we have no exhaustive knowledge of God (36). He is apprehended but not comprehended (47).

Bavinck does move the discussion forward on the doctrine of simplicity. He holds to the Augustinian line, yet realizes that we can’t make “simplicity” some sort of metaphysical “ = “ sign.

God’s attributes and being: “one cannot make any real distinction between his being and his attributes” (118). So how does one distinguish the attributes? The names of God differ in thought (125). The attributes of God, though identical, are not interchangeable because his names aren’t interchangeable. This is an important move forward and in it Bavinck avoids the fall into nominalism that would have otherwise happened.

“Simplicity does not describe God as an abstract being….it speaks of him s the absolute fullness of life” (127). This, too, is good. Sometimes doctrines of simplicity, like in some Neo-Thomist accounts, appear to posit a god not unlike a solar disc. He’s there, to be sure, but there isn’t much special about him.

I particularly enjoyed the sections on heaven and creation. Angels: they are animate, personal beings (451). Bavinck breaks with Calvin and sees the Prince of Persia as the guardian spirit of Persia (467), and this makes sense as Michael wouldn’t have been detained with wrestling with a local human ruler in the heavenly places.

Recreation in Christ is founded on the original creation in God’s image (532). Sin does not take away the substance of things nor does grace restore that substance (574).

Bavinck sees Rome as teaching creation of man in a dual sense: pure nature + donum superadditum (541). Bavinck says this is an error of Neo-Platonism which needs an intermediate state between matter and spirit. For the Reformers “original righteousness [was] inseparable from the idea of man as such” (551).

Bavinck affirms but does not explicate the idea of covenant of works (571). That’s for the next volume. Its importance here is that it anchors the idea that Adam had not yet achieved final blessedness.

Conclusion: so the image of God is not a static entity but extends and unfolds itself in the forms of space and time. It is both a gift and a mandate….Only humanity in its entirety–as one complete organism, summed up under a single head, spread out over the whole earth, as prophet proclaiming the truth of God, as priest dedicating itself to God, as ruler controlling the earth and the whole of creation–only it is the fully finished image, the most telling and striking likeness of God” (577).

Definitely a milestone book, but there are a few hang ups. It’s particularly difficult on a first reading because Bavinck is summarizing much of the harder sections of Western idealism. Once you are past that it repays multiple readings.

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