Herman Bavinck’s Reformed Dogmatics: A Prepared Statement

Christology is not a dense jungle of theories. Think of it instead as a densely populated region of ideas and traditions. One quarter is made up of Gnostics; another quarter is modernist and so on. Navigating the data takes time and energy and after a day’s work one may wonder if they accomplished anything, or whether it matters. It does. This is the area of dogmatics, Bavinck would say, one needs to know where not to be after dark.

The doctrine of Christ is the center of dogmatics. Bavinck’s view of the Christological field is magisterial. The results are, that most all Christological issues stem from the problem articulating the divine/human nature of Christ.* But there is certainty backing the church’s creedal statements: God himself had come in and taken humanity into fellowship with himself. While the early church worked to formulate an understanding of Christ’s deity, it was always assumed that Christ is the content of Christianity, not a mere figurehead. Christ has been idealized and expressed in a variety of ways: the Christ of ascetics (De Wette); the symbolic Christ (Kant); the ideal Christ (Hegel); the moral (rationalism). However much his humanity or historicity is idealized in these varied expressions, says Bavinck, they presuppose Christ as a human personality only, not the object of faith. Old Thomas Goodwin (1600 – 1680) spoke to the point when he said, “This is as much to praise a dead benefactor for a trust fund.” There is no real (or potential) relationship with the living God in an expression that assumes Christ’s divinity in any other sense than his “characteristic essence.” In other words, the title of “God incarnate” can be formality used from an inverse perspective as e.g. Julius Caesar when he assumed the title of Jupiter, Bertrand Russell’s first impressions of Wittgenstein, all the way down to Nelson Pike’s cat. It gets worse.

The Christology of Protestantism (the infinite cannot occupy the finite) defends Christ’s eternal person from the pantheistic mixing of creator-creature in mysticism and the Romanist deification of the human being (veneration) as well. Why is it so ridiculous, asks Bavinck, for God to become incarnate, but humans can elevate themselves and others to the rank and dignity of the deity? Once this question is dropped, all eyes fall on the Virgin Mary, theotokos, the mother of God. She deserves the honor as God’s elect, chosen to bring the savior into the world. But the efficient cause is the Holy Spirit. This special union does not stop after forming Christ’s human nature; the process of sanctification continues to glorification. What’s at stake here? Bavinck thinks that any Christology that does not maintain the supernatural birth of Christ, or destroys the personality of either the human or divine (pantheism) eventually leads to a view of the indwelling of the Spirit as a temporary, superficial, occasional ecstasy rendering the true Image of God in human beings impossible. Again, a confusion of the divine and human lends itself to deification and a loss of personality; a reductionist split in the historical Christ, and a misunderstanding of Christ’s sinlessness. It’s all a recipe for legalism. What is born of flesh is flesh (Rom. 1:3; 9:5) and Christ received the Spirit without measure. If the person of Christ did not assume the flesh, then one may well conclude with Paul that we are spiritually dead to the life of God, and we can assume the divine and the earthly will never attain communion.

Well, says Bavinck, we need to do some accepting. Either dogmatics upholds Chalcedon and accepts the expressions of Christology, as they affirm and articulate those of the early church, established according to the New Testament, or we run wild in the streets.

* See our last post ‘Experience Necessary’ also Bavinck vol. 1: ch. 3 [42].

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