Review: Bavinck, 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.


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.

Contrary to the convertskii, everyone’s reception and evaluation of his or her ultimate authority will be subjective in some sense. One often hears the refrain, “You Protestants make yourself the Pope and judge of authority while we simply submit to the Church.” Unfortunately, at one time this convertskii had to make a decision–using his own sinful Western-influenced reason–between Rome, EO, Assyrian Orthodoxy, Monophysitism and Nestorianism. Whatever the external source of knowledge-the Church, God’s Revelation, etc.–the religious subject will have to respond to it. Since the subject is responding, the response and evaluation is, quite naturally, subjective. Bavinck hits a grand slam on this point.

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! With this acknowledged, Romanism and Orthodoxy are in no better position than Protestantism. Positing either the Pope or the Church as the external principle of knowledge is highly laughable–and bears witness to my argument given that few even try to do that.

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.


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

Muller, Prolegomena to Theology

Overview of argument:

Archetypal theology: eternal pattern for perfect truth of supernatural revelation (Muller 234).

Ectypal theology: category inclusive of all forms of finite theology. It is formed on the basis of the archetype by a communication of grace from Creator to creature (235).

Muller ties these two categories in with Christology, following the Reformed and anti-Lutheran finiti non capax infiniti: the human nature of Jesus cannot fully share with the divine nature, which, reasoning analogously, means that the theologia unionis must be ectypal, not archetypal (250).

At this point one must step back and appreciate what Muller has done. He’s tied in epistemology with Christology almost effortlessly. He has taken the hypostatic union and shown how it forms the epistemological principle of Reformed thought—the ectypal theology (251).


“double truth” does not mean one truth is opposed to another, but that one truth may transcend another (387).

“Reason” has an instrumental function for truth (399). For example, “In a syllogism the foundation for all argument is the middle term, the common ground shared by major and minor propositions. In theology the middle term is not taken from reason, but Scripture” (403).

The “principia” of theology is its first principle(s). It must be of a higher degree than that of the conclusions drawn from it (431).
Principle of being (principia essendi): it is the principle of foundation
Principle of knowing (principia cognescendi): it is the principle of knowing

The archetype and the arche must be identical. The connection between archetype and ectypal theology is the logos prophorikos, the Word sent forth (433).
Archetypal knowledge is the principium essendi
When the archetype reveals himself, it is the principium cognoscendi.
All true theology reflects the archetype, which can only be known through a self-revelation.

John Webster: Holy Scripture

Holy Scripture: to depict these texts in light of their divine self-communication (Webster 5). It is a “short-hand for the nature and function of these communicative acts.”

Scripture has its place as an act of the God who speaks to and sanctifies his people (8). Webster makes an unusual move: he speaks of the sanctification of Scripture. It is the holiness of Scripture which is an aspect of God’s using creaturely reality to attest to his revelation (this is what we normally call the self-attestation of Scripture). The sanctification of Scripture always refers back to God’s activity.


Webster notes a problem when revelation is collapsed into prolegomenal foundations: it isolates revelation “from material dogmatic discussions” (12). Webster proposes an alternative, identifying revelation as “the self-disclosure of the Triune God” (13) in which God establishes mercy and fellowship with human beings.

The content of revelation is God’s own proper reality (14). It is divine “self-presentation” and not merely facts about God. But not only is God not merely the content of revelation, he is the subject. Further, revelation is not merely God’s self-displaying, but it is the establishing of fellowship and overcoming human opposition. In fact, Webster concludes: “revelation is reconciliation” (17). I disagree, but more on that later.


Webster’s emphasis on the sanctification aspects of Holy Scripture is much appreciated. Whatever else the Bible may mean in relation to political theology or historical criticism, if it is not first anchored in the sanctifying acts of God towards his people, then we have divorced Scripture from life.


The Church does not create Scripture, but is called into being by God the Word. If it is called into being, it stands in the relation of hearing. Webster notes, “The church’s being is ectopic” (47); it’s place is in the being and creative act of God the Word.

Invisibility of the Church: it is in-visible in that it is not identified/seen in the world’s social institutions.

Apostolicity and Tradition: tradition is just as much an act of hearing than a fresh act of speaking (49). Further, the church’s “acknowledgment of Scripture’s authority is not so much an act of self-government, but an exposure to judgment” (57).

The canon is an extension of Christ’s communicative presence in his church (58). The Church’s speech is generated and controlled by Christ’s own self-utterance (60).

We do not deny the canon is the church’s act; we are simply clarifying what kind of act it is (62). It is an act of assent rather than self-derived judgment. It is an act of confession of that which precedes and imposes itself upon the church. It is an act of submission before it is an act of authority. The act of canonization has a backwards reference. The church and all of its acts are ostensive–pointing above and beyond itself.

Reading in the Economy of Grace

“Grace establishes fellowship” (71). Reading erodes spontenaity and subjects the reader to different modes of learning. Bonhoeffer: we must be wary of positing an archimedean point of judgment outside of Scripture. We should inculcate a habit of “listening” that draws us into the story extra nos (83).

self-interpreting: only so by virtue of its relation to God.

Helpful Points

Webster avoids predicating divine attributes to Scripture; it’s relation to God is instrumental (23). This might appear a sop to liberalism, but a moment’s reflection will prove its obvious point: No one believes the pages of the bible as such are divine, for they wear away (which an attribute like eternity cannot). Therefore, the bible I have is a copy of something. A copy of what, precisely? This isn’t Barthianism. It’s common-sense. Let’s go back to the Augustinian use of res/signs. What’s so bad about looking at my individual copy of the Bible as a sign to God’s res? I really don’t see how one can avoid this conclusion. We don’t have the autographa, but if we want to maintain a strong doctrine of inspiration (or better, ex-piration), then we have to use some form of Augsutinian signs.

Webster suggests we should prioritize the model of “Scripture as prophetic testimony.” It fits in with speech-act concepts. It is “language that depicts a reality other than itself” (23). However, Webster suggest we best see Scripture as “a means of grace” (24). What do we mean by means? He warns us not to view “means” as something that makes the divine reality present where it wasn’t present before, giving a quasi-divine and magical connotation to the “means.”


Webster says revelation is reconciliation (16). Does he mean all acts of revelation are reconciliatory? Surely he can’t mean that, because Paul says the ‘wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all unrighteousness of men” (Romans 1:18). This aspect of revelation is not saving. It is judgmental and even damning.

Practical conclusions:

We should insist on Scripture in usu et actione (7).