Herman Bavinck’s Reformed Dogmatics: The Bear

When looking for the origin of emotion, William James asked, ‘do we run from the bear because we are afraid’ or is it the other way around? For James the bear was not the source of fear but the physical response to the situation was the cause of the emotion. While it’s not exactly ‘case closed’ for James one thing is sure: human beings respond and react to stuff. Not so with God. How so? If God were not immutable, he would not be God. But if Bavinck is going to stand with orthodoxy and defend God’s immutability he has to wrestle the bear.

The human experience of God’s wrath and love, guilt and forgiveness, presence and abandonment coupled with the texts that describe God as being, unchangeable in his own nature have lead to the doctrine of divine immutability. Following a careful exegesis of the divine name(s), Bavinck’s analysis of God’s incommunicable attributes of independence and immutability is harvested from Philo, Irenaeus and Augustine to Bernard, Anselm, and John of Damascus. The Open Theism controversy within the last decade – whose conceptual roots are aligned with ‘process’ theology rather than Arminianism (as is usually claimed within evangelical circles) would be no shock to Bavinck. For Bavinck the most serious challenge does not come within mainline orthodoxy but stems from “pantheistic criticism” from without.

For the orthodox Christian, Pantheism is like being stranded on an island facing a polar bear that over a few seasons vanishes from sight. Eventually the narrative of pantheism breaks down into a confusing labyrinth leading to vague conclusions and disappointment. We must, affirms Bavinck, rejoice in the light of scripture and hold fast the confessions.

2 Responses

  1. For clarity’s sake, doesn’t God’s immutability have more to do with his consistent personality than with his responses and reactions to his creation (defining those terms appropriately, of course)?

  2. Joel

    It does. God is “Being” absolutely considered in himself. Under the topic of immutability Bavinck quickly turns to polemics against Hegel and his pantheist school, having already established God’s absolute personality. It’s really interesting to see Bavinck go after pantheism so ardently: he considers its chief tenant of ‘becoming’ as the most threatening attack on God’s immutability/independence. Next time we’ll look at Bavinck’s antidote. Thanks so much.

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