Herman Bavinck’s Reformed Dogmatics: Where There’s a Will

Last week Bavinck led us onto the negative path to knowing God. Even in the modern age, John Lloyd has humorously noted that we can’t see anything that matters. We know little about the world and we know even less about God. In Bavinck’s day the doctrine of God’s incomprehensibility tended to agnosticism (Hegel) or a theology equal to anthropology (Fichte). What is gained by the ‘recovery’ of God’s incomprehensibility? Peace that passes understanding? Inexpressible joy? Bavinck can’t wait to find out.

Theology since scholasticism lost the impact of God’s incomprehensibility. Philosophy took it up especially in the thinking of Kant and Hegel. For Kant, God’s being is lost in the critique of pure reason because, “the soul, the world, and God cannot be objectively demonstrated.” Attributing intellect and will to God is “practical knowledge” but adds nothing to the volume of human science. Hegel attempted to strip the concept of God from all sense-related forms but ran aground in the claim that, “a sense-related representation could never be overcome in the idea of God and therefore (Hegel) ended up in atheism.” Atheism usually retreats to agnosticism, says Bavinck, because Hegel reasoned that “our God-consciousness is nothing other than God’s self-consciousness. God exists to the extent that he is known by us.” Man, the measure of all things infinite. So what’s the solution?

Bavinck suggests that negative predicates (“God is unknowable, beyond comprehension, etc.) carry real weight but they “prove too much.” The world is, after all, knowable and positive predicates of God’s character and personality are grounded in revelation. Can Christians ascribe to God a personality and maintain that he is absolute? Bavinck says yes, “Our knowledge does not limit God because 1. It is grounded in him, 2. Can only exist through him,” and if absoluteness of God’s being (according to pantheism/rationalism) precludes all limitation, “it is equally wrong (for rationalism) to call him absolute, unity, good, and essential being.” God’s self-consciousness is as deep and rich as his being, meaning that his self-consciousness is not dependent on non-being or the competent grasp of finite beings to maintain existence. Mystery is not the same as ‘self-contradiction.’

The trick here is to illustrate what Bavinck is saying without using an unhelpful analogy. Suppose that agnosticism is saying, ‘Look. You theologians are giving God a personality which you can’t do anymore than you can give a personality to gravity or math.’ But [Reformed] theology is not ascribing personality to God in the same way personality is applied socially to other humans. We are not looking at God’s personality the same way we look at and admire a good actor who’s played the hero, the villain, and the comic relief. It’s like saying God has to be famous to exist. But this would mean God’s celebrity has to fit the mold of celebrity culture which drags God down to the level of finite being. The tension here between faith and rationalism is very important because it’s about redirecting the love of the creature to the love of God. Next week Bavinck tackles the problem of innate ideas and the faint notions of greater things.

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