This year I decided that I would try to read through one systematic theology each year until I get through all of the major ones I feel I need to read. My first choice was Herman Bavinck’s 4 Vol. Reformed Dogmatics. I purchased the set when it first came out as a completed work almost two years ago.

What I want to do as I finish each book is to simply provide some reflections on what I have read. I am not going to do a complete book review. The primary reason for this is that once I got into the thick of reading this first volume I realized that I was a little in over my head when it came to some things. Maybe it will change with the other three works – well see.

As a Dutch Reformed theologian, Bavinck is extremely meticulous and careful in thought. I first encountered this kind of thinking when I read Joachim Douma’s Ten Commandments. While Douma stretched me to think in new ways (for which I am grateful) the subject of the Ten Commandments was not too weighty. I had read John Frame’s The Doctrine of the Christian Life and Mark Rooker’s The Ten Commandments: Ethics for the Twenty First Century so I already had a pretty good grasp on the subject matter and was prepared for Douma. Bavinck is another matter all together.

Similar to Calvin’s The Institutes of the Christian Religion Bavinck interacts a lot with Roman Catholicism. What really made my head spin was Bavinck’s continual interaction with men like Kant, Kierkegaard, A. Ritschl, Julius Kaftan, Comte, Frank Franz, Harnack, Hegel A. Schweizer, Voetuis, Witsius and the list could go on and on of names I have never heard of. Being Dutch, many of the theologians and philosophers Bavinck interacts with are naturally Dutch. That is the world he lived in. When you read through an American systematic theology like Millard Erickson, Wayne Grudem, Louis Berkhof or Donald Bloesch you get interaction with theologians of other nationalities but by in large they deal with American theologians because that is where they are at.

While I have taken Church history and have had a brief introduction to some foreign theologians, I was in no way prepared to interact with as many as Bavinck does nor at the same level. Even though I did not know what was going on at times I could tell Bavinck did and that he has mastered the thought of these men. I admit that I skimmed, and sometimes skipped, over parts of the book that were heavy on the history and critiquing of secular and liberal thought (especially chapter 15) because I was getting nowhere with it. I am sure I am not the first person to tackle Bavinck who has struggled through it and I am willing to admit it.

For all that I did not get while reading the first volume, there are a number of things I appreciated that are worth mentioning.

First, I learned that Bavinck was a pastor. While he did teach at seminaries he did have a pastorate. This is not something you see often with gifted theologians like Bavinck. Most theologians and scholars teach in seminaries and universities. Bavinck felt called to serve as a pastor and he was a good pastor-theologian (check out his biography here).

Second, as I mentioned earlier, Bavinck is a careful thinker often chasing down many implications and side streets of thought in an effort to carefully distinguish between what he is and isn’t saying. Like myself, Bavinck is an analytical thinker (after all that is required to write a systematic theology!) but he operates at a much higher level. His thinking is like that of Alvin Plantinga who will stretch you as well. This kind of thinking is refreshing and much needed as we seek to strip away the unnecessary baggage within our clouded thinking about God. He is a model thinker to say the least.

Third, while Bavinck thinks and writes at a level I can only dream of attaining to, he is keenly aware of the practical implications/applications for theology. He repeatedly brings his theological conclusions to bear on the heart, mind and life of the believer. One wonders of he had his congregation in the back of his mind as he wrote.

Finally, I really appreciated part four on Revelation. Bavinck has a very high view of Scripture as it is special revelation. However, he rightly puts before the reader the value and purpose of natural revelation and general revelation and helps us put them in proper perspective. For Bavinck, all revelation from God is supernatural for “Scripture in the case of revelation makes no distinction between ‘natural’ and ‘supernatural’ revelation (p. 307).” God speaks truth through both nature and Scripture. As the two-book theory holds – you have the book of the Word and the book of the world. By definition they both reveal things – albeit different things. Psalm 19 and Romans 1 both tell us that God clearly reveals things about Himself to mankind through natural/general revelation. Psalm 19 is from the perspective of a believer reflecting on the work of God in nature. Romans 1 describes for us how general revelation reveals enough about God to mankind that they are without excuse when they persist in their unbelief – it has a condemnatory nature to it.

Bavinck observes that God first revealed Himself through creation (Gen. 1 & 2). Bavinck, in true Dutch Reformed fashion, makes one of his best careful distinctions as he states,

The distinction between natural and supernatural revelation is not identical with the distinction between general and special revelation (p. 311, Emphasis mine).

While God does reveal things to mankind through general revelation it has limits. Bavinck explains the purpose or use of general revelation as such:

General revelation preserves humankind in order that it can be found and healed by Christ and until it is….a divine preparation and education for Christianity. General revelation is the foundation on which special revelation build itself. ….the rich significance of general revelation comes out in the fact that it keeps nature and grace, creation and re-creation, the world of reality and the world of values, inseparable connected. Without general revelation, special revelation loses its connectedness with the whole cosmic existence and life (p. 322).

Bavinck concludes with the following,

It is one and the same God who in general revelation does not leave himself without a witness to anyone and who in special revelation makes himself known as a grace of God. Hence general and special revelation interact with each other. ‘God first sent forth nature as a teacher, intending also to send prophecy next, so that you, a disciple of nature, might more easily believe prophecy’ (Tertullian). Nature precedes grace; grace perfects nature. Reason is perfected by faith, faith presupposes nature (p. 322).

The difference between general revelation (Rom. 1) and special revelation comes into play when we bring salvation into the picture – salvation through Christ Jesus. The intent and ability of each form is divided on how they do and do not address God’s saving of His people. General revelation stops short of revealing God’s salvation plan as accomplished through Christ and applied to us in the Spirit. This is where special revelation steps in. This is the purpose of Scripture which general revelation cannot accomplish. I will close with Bavinck’s words himself:

General revelation is that conscious and free act of God by which, by means of nature and history, he makes himself known – specifically in his attributes of omnipotence and wisdom, wrath and goodness – to fallen human beings in order that they should turn to him and keep his law, or in absence of such repentance, be inexcusable. Special revelation, is that conscious and free act of God by which he, int eh way of historical complex of special means (theophany, prophecy, and miracle) that are concentrated on the person of Christ, makes himself known – specifically in the attributes of his justice and grace, in the proclamation of law and gospel – to those human beings who live in the light of this special revelation in order that they may accept the grace of God by faith in Christ or, in case of impenitence, receive a more severe judgment (p. 350 – Emphasis mine).