Herman Bavinck’s Reformed Dogmatics: Learned Ignorance

Dogmatics takes for its starting point the certainty of God’s existence. Everything else is details. For Bavinck the outset of Christian theology has one thing in common with the long history of critical reflection on God’s existence: he is unknowable. But nonattainability of the knowledge of God is not the same as nothing. As long as scripture remains objectively center we worship whom we know.

The greatest dangers to theology are words and a devaluation of mystery. If theology becomes an exercise of rhetoric or replaces its objective vision (revelation) for the subjective impression (positivism) theology degenerates into anthropology (Fichte). The evolutionary theory in Bavinck’s day, for example, held that YHWH was a Hittite mountain God adopted by the Hebrews and localized on Mt. Sinai. But God is represented as the Creator (Gen. 2:4b) and “descends” from heaven at the scene of Babel (Gen. 11:5, 7) and “accompanies” Abraham and Jacob on their journeys. Point is, concludes Bavinck, that Old Testament revelation is preparatory, external in nature, “it does indeed furnish true and reliable knowledge of God, but not a knowledge that exhaustively corresponds to his being.” Signs of his presence are darkness (Ex. 20:21; Deut. 4:11; 5:22; 1 Kg. 8:12; 2 Chron. 6:1) possibly to show that natural light does not represent his brilliance.

Who is lost in the cloud of unknowing? From Plotinus to Erigena negative expressions of God’s being are more accurate though less satisfying. Scholasticism expressed God’s attributes in great detail but lost incomprehensibility in the shuffle. The Lutheran and Reformed, says Bavinck, lost sight of the significance of the doctrine yet the Remonstrant/Socinian wing did much worse, “Eternal life, they maintained [Rationalism/Socinianism] does not consist of knowing God but in doing his will.” Who God is becomes unimportant.

Next week we will look at Bavinck’s analysis of God’s incomprehensibility in the shift from theology to philosophy.

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