Monday, August 5, 2013

Herman Bavinck - Reformed Dogmatics

Herman Bavinck (1854-1921) was a Dutch Reformed Theologian. In 1902 he succeeded Abraham Kuyper as Professor of Theology at the Free University of Amsterdam. He is best known for his four volume work, Reformed Dogmatics (also available in a abridged version, edited by John Bolt).

I first became aware of Bavinck from my friend Gloria Furman. She kept putting these fantastic quotes up on Twitter, which made me wonder who this Dutch guy was.

We can benefit by reading all sorts of different things. Some things, like blog posts, are like salad or potato chips. Light and (sometimes) beneficial, but not always filling. A few contemporary classics, like J.I. Packer's Knowing God, are like a steak dinner, one of the heavier meals, but manageable. And then works like Reformed Dogmatics are akin to fudge or cheesecake--rich and filling. While a few exceptional people might be able to take works like Reformed Dogmatics (or foods like fudge) in large gulps, most of us have to take it slowly.

For the past few years, I've been drawn to readings on the attributes of God. People have been trying to come to God on their own terms since Genesis 3. When it comes to God's attributes, we tend to elevate the attributes we find less threatening. This leaves us with a God more akin to a kindly grandpa or Santa Claus and not the God revealed in Scripture.

I like what Bavinck has to say about the subject.
When a single attribute is chosen as foundational it affects the total portrait of God; a wrong choice here points us to a different God than the one revealed in Scripture. Choosing love, for example, exposes us to the danger of regarding other attributes of God, such as righteousness and holiness, as less real. (1)
And later:
Each attribute expresses something special about God. God himself reveals his many perfections to us; we name him with the names Scripture itself provides. No one perfection fully expresses God's being. This diversity does not clash with God's simplicity. God reveals himself to finite creatures by many names because the divine essence is so infinitely and profusely rich that we cannot grasp it all at once, and God relates to us in many ways, now in one relationship, then in another. God remains eternally and immutably the same, but our relation to him varies in the same way that the light that breaks up into many colors remains the same (Augustine), and fire does not change whether it warms us, illumines us, or consumes us (Moses Maimonides). (2)
God certainly is a God of love, but he's a holy God as well. He never changes, nor does he need anything from us. Our finite minds can never fully grasp him in his fullness, but when we reflect on his attributes as revealed in Scripture, we glimpse a holy God who could not ignore our sin, but because of his love made a way for us to come to him through the sacrifice of his Son on the cross (Ephesians 1:4-5). It reminds us what a privilege it is to be able to go to him in prayer. It shows how futile our good works are in light of his perfection and holiness. When I focus on these things, grace becomes more than just an empty word, but a beautiful, undeserved gift.

As A.W. Tozer said, "What comes into our minds when we think about God is the most important thing about us." Knowing God better helps us love him more and worship him more sincerely. Meditating on God's attributes helps us think about him rightly.

(1) Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics: Abridged in One Volume, ed. John Bolt (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2011), 176.

(2) Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, 177.


  1. I've never read Bavinck, but I like what you've quoted. I love thinking about God's attributes.

  2. Oh I'm so glad you posted this Staci - I love this guy. His entire set of 4 volumes wasn't finished being translated into English and published till 2008. I bought it for my hubby for Christmas one year. It is weighty! I love the history between him and BB Warfield because they were both battling for supernaturalism and the inerrancy of Scripture across the pond from each other. For me Bavinck's works are definitely used as reference books - Not The Cat in the Hat, that's for sure. ha!