Herman Bavinck’s Reformed Dogmatics: Herman of Damascus

The inability to know God’s essence is not a puzzle to be solved. It is instead the motive of worship and adoration. Bavinck saw the best minds of his generation destroyed by madness attempting to find God without the aid of sense-mediated signs and signifiers. For them the result was agnosticism steeped in a rejection of all metaphysical inquiry. So how does a dogmatician outfox the philosopher? Remain objectively certain, or as Bavinck says: stick to your guns.

Karl Barth said that “back to,” is not a good slogan for dogmatics. All science must move forward. Problem is how to do it in a positive climate that rejects all metaphysical investigation. The rationalism in favor of innate ideas confuses the light of reason with revelation. We have potential to grow in knowledge (all of which is mediate) but the concepts themselves are not innate. Granted, argues Bavinck, things are grasped because they are apprehended only in God (Malebranche) and in the soul by recollection (Plato). Natural theology cannot equal ‘revealed’ religion (illumination/inspiration) because it’s a reflection of the work of God in creation: if it’s natural it cannot be the product of human reason. In that limited sense the world does not take us away from God but leads us to him.

Bavinck’s analysis is dense but his ability to navigate wildly competitive views of is profound. If God’s incomprehensibility without the Church leans towards pantheism; within the Church an overemphasis on contemplation assumes the highest value as authentic religious experience. For Bavinck the priority on the inner life leads to mysticism and withdrawal from the world. Yet when Christians perform theology they are rooted firmly in the understanding that God’s essence is unknowable and that all figures of speech borrowed from experience speaks to higher things (John of Damascus). Next week Bavinck begins his investigation into the names of God.

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