Where Is the Starting Line?

Having introduced the subject of dogmatics, and having addressed some history of dogmatics, Bavinck moves on in his “Reformed Dogmatics” to contemplate the foundation of dogmatics, which is the subject matter of this post. In Part 3 of Volume 1, Bavinck has a chapter called “Scientific Foundations.” Science, here, does not refer to the modern understanding of science which limits our knowledge to the empirical or falsifiable. Rather Bavinck is speaking of the rational or ordered presentation of theology according to theological loci or subjects.[1] But where, or with what subject, does one start?

Bavinck says we must start with what he calls the “first principles” of dogmatic theology. In order to do so, we must understand what are the “‘fundamental principles’ in general.” Noting his agreement with the church fathers, he explains that:

God was the essential foundation of theology. There was a special reason for this. No knowledge of God is possible except that which proceeds from and by God (Matt. 11:27; 1 Cor. 2:10ff.). Earlier theology had an axiom for it: ‘What we need to understand about God must be taught by God himself, for this cannot be known except by the author himself.’ (Reformed Dogmatics, Volume 1, page 212).

As we have noted elsewhere man’s knowledge is derived from God. Obviously, then, the knowledge of God too must originate in Him as well. So God is the beginning (and the end) of theology. If theology starts with God it will end with God. If theology starts with man, well, we know the end of that already: Genesis 3:5. Bavinck continues:   

The fact that the creature knows anything of God at all is solely due to God. He is knowable only because and insofar as he himself wants to be known (ibid.)

This is a profound statement. It assumes that we are entirely dependent upon our Creator to even know Him, that is, even if He wanted to remain hidden, we would never find Him. For when God created man, He did so by revealing to man his purpose with respect to Himself (Genesis 1:28). He told man what He required and what He wanted. That man could understand and appropriate this knowledge was because God had made him in His image. “What may be known of God is manifest in them, for God has shown it to them” (Romans 1:19 – emphasis mine). 

Bavinck demonstrates the validity of this argument by using an example:

The human analogy already proves the truth of this statement. A human is to a certain extent the origin (principium essendi) of our knowledge concerning his person (1 Cor. 2:11). A man must reveal himself, manifest himself by appearance, word and act, so that we may somewhat learn to know him. But in the case of human beings this is always relative. We often reveal ourselves in totally arbitrary ways and in spite of ourselves; we often manifest ourselves in character traits and peculiarities that are unknown to us. Sometimes our self-manifestation belies who we are – it is false, untrue, misleading. But none of this is true of God. He is, in the absolute sense of the term, the source, the primary efficient cause of our knowledge of him, for he is absolutely free, self-conscious, and true. His self-knowledge and self-consciousness is the source (principium essendi) of our knowledge of him. Without the divine self-consciousness, there is no knowledge of God in his creatures. (ibid.)

In short: if what we know of each other is dependent on what and how much we are willing to reveal, how much more is this true of God, upon whom man is dependent for everything? (Revelation 4:11) If we depend on fallible man for knowledge of one another, how much more should we depend on infallible God for the knowledge of Himself? (Psalm 102:11-12,25-26) Only God can know Himself perfectly and rightly. Only God can, then, faithfully reveal Himself to His creatures.

Bavinck goes on to contrast this understanding of God being the “foundation of [Christian] theology” with pantheism. For: 

Pantheism is the death of theology. The relation of God’s own self-knowledge to our knowledge of God used to be expressed by saying that the former was archetypal of the latter and the latter was ectypal of the former. Our knowledge of God is the imprint of the knowledge God has of himself but always on a creaturely level and in a creaturely way (Volume 1, page 212).

Teaching that God and His creation are essentially one, pantheism cannot give us any theology or knowledge of God since, in this view, God is the creature and the creature is God. In a sense God dies, for He is no longer distinct from His creature. There is no being called God in pantheism and thus God does not need to be known or confessed at all. God is everything and therefore He is nothing (not a being or person to be defined).[2]

Rather, upholding the Creator-creature distinction, Bavinck asserts that man knows God, but not fully. Man does not know God because he is immersed into God,  or because he participates in God’s  essential being (as pantheism teaches) but rather knows God because what knowledge a creature made in God’s image can possess has been bestowed upon him. God’s knowledge of Himself is complete or infinite (archetypal), whereas man’s knowledge is incomplete or finite (ectypal).[3] For:

The knowledge of God present in his creatures is only a weak likeness, a finite, limited sketch, of the absolute self-consciousness of God accommodated to the capacities of the human or creaturely consciousness (ibid.). 

So whatever knowledge we have of God is presented in the “lisps as nurses are wont to do with little children,” as Calvin said (Institutes, I.13.1). It is not all that God is, but only that what we are able to understand as creatures.

So what conclusions, then, ought we to draw from this first principle of dogmatics? After all, good theology is good not only because it is true but also because it is eminently practical. For myself, I see at least three helpful points by which we can live and move and have our being. These three applicatory principles are (conveniently) summarized for us by Paul in 1 Corinthians 1:29-31:

“that no flesh should glory in His presence.
But of Him you are in Christ Jesus, who became for us wisdom from God – and righteousness and sanctification and redemption – that, as it is written, ‘He who glories, let him glory in the LORD.'”

If we think that we know God apart from Him or His revelation to us, or know everything there is to know of God, we have violated the first and greatest point, which is the praise that is due only to God. Don’t glory in yourself; glory in the Lord. For as Bavinck notes, “however great the distance is, the source of our knowledge of God is solely God himself, the God who reveals himself freely, self-consciously, and genuinely” (emphasis mine – Volume 1, page 212). This, in turn, teaches us humility, the second principle for application.  God did not make Himself known to us for anything we had done. This leads us to the third and final principle for application: the Christological. For Bavinck notes that the second principle of theology is the principium cognoscendi or “the principle by which we know.” That is, we know God by revelation or by His self-revelation. And this revelation is best seen in the one whom Paul says is “Christ Jesus, who became for us wisdom from God” and is, more so, sufficient for our “righteousness and sanctification and redemption.” For “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld His glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14). Amen. 

[1] For example, Christology (the study or presentation of the person and work of Christ) is a subject of theological discussion or loci.
[2] As Bavinck later argues,
“The rock on which all pantheism runs aground is multiplicity; there is no discoverable passage from the abstract to the concrete, from the general to the particular” (Volume 1, page 218). 
[3] He notes further that “the ectypal knowledge of God that is granted to creatures by revelation is not the absolute self-knowledge of God but the knowledge of God as it has been accommodated to and made fit for the finite consciousness – hence anthropomorphized… It differs, not in substance and rational order (re et ratione), but nevertheless in degree and manner (gradu et modo): in Christ (theologia unionis; theology of union), in the angels and the blessed  (theologia visionis; theology of vision), and in human beings on earth (theologia viatorum, viae, revelationis; theology of people in pilgrimage, on a journey, of revelation)…. It is the Father, who through the Son as Logos, imparts himself to His creatures in the Spirit” (Volume 1, page 214).


One thought on “Where Is the Starting Line?

  1. Pingback: Religion, Reality & the Written Word | Grace Reformed Church of Leduc

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