An Ever-Increasing Attribute

For too long I’ve not posted on the theology of my favorite thinker, Herman Bavinck.  His bibliology is  among the most impressive features of the Reformed Dogmatics and it remains instructive for any of us  today who hold that theology is ultimately a matter of reflecting on and elaborating the divine teaching of  Holy Scripture.  Here I’ll sketch briefly his understanding of the necessity of Scripture in hopes of  generating some discussion.

In line with classic Protestant thinking about the Bible, Bavinck contends for its necessity over against  Roman Catholicism, mysticism, and rationalism.  Rome, says Bavinck, has abandoned the notion that  Scripture funds the being of the church and has propped up the church with its teaching office as autopistos (trustworthy in and of itself) and sufficient for norming doctrine and praxis.  Mysticism also disregards the necessity of Scripture but by undervaluing the external word and overemphasizing the importance of the internal word delivered to the heart of the individual believer in communion with God and by the Holy Spirit.  Rationalism too undermines the necessity of Scripture by identifying that internal teaching of the Spirit with the natural light of reason and suggesting that the latter provides all the furnishings for the content of faith.

However, on supposition of God’s decision to address his people in the canonical writ, we’re obliged to affirm the necessity of Scripture.  For Bavinck, the Bible itself is an instance of God’s self-revelation and, therefore, the church cannot be its author.  The church “may be older than the written word, but it is definitely younger than the spoken word” (Reformed Dogmatics, 1:470).  In other words, absolutely, the word creates and governs the church, even if subsequently God organically (not mechanically) employs human agents to inscripturate the word for future generations.  With the passing of the first century, “the time-distance from the apostles grew greater, their writings became more important, and the necessity of these writings gradually intensified.  The necessity of Scripture, in fact, is not a stable but an ever-increasing attribute” (ibid.).  The Bible, then, is a divine gift for the transmission, preservation, and propagation of the word of God: “The sound of a voice passes away, but the written letter remains” (ibid., 1:471).

Intriguingly, the historical amplification of this attribute concerns not just the death of the apostles but also the phenomena of modern life:

To the degree that humankind becomes larger, life becomes shorter, the memory weaker, science more extensive, error more serious, and deception more brazen, the necessity of Holy Scripture increases.  Print and the press are gaining in significance in every area of life.  The invention of printing was a giant step to heaven and to hell….It is true that religious literature remains for many people the primary nourishment for their spiritual life.  Still, this proves nothing against the necessity of Holy Scripture.  Since directly or indirectly, all Christian truth is drawn from it.  The diverted stream also gets its water from the source (ibid., 1:472).

More could be said, but any thoughts on Bavinck’s theological moves or the implications for the proliferation of both skeptical and religious literature that we currently see?


6 thoughts on “An Ever-Increasing Attribute

  1. Steve,

    How does Bavinck avoid collapsing God into the text? I.e. it sounds like, on first blush, that he sees Scripture as the ‘fourth person’ of the Trinity. Or maybe it’s the way you’ve phrased it, “. . . For Bavinck, the Bible itself is an instance of God’s self-revelation and, therefore, the church cannot be its author. . . .” When I think of self revelation of God, I think of Christ (Jn 1.18); when I think of Scripture, I think of witness (Jn. 5.39).

    Anyway, I’m sure I’m probably over-reading here; but would you mind clarifying. I’m sure you’re just saying that along with the rest of the “Reformed tradition,” Bavinck sees scripture as the principum cognoscendi; and thus source for all true knowledge of God.

    • Bobby,

      I think that’s a really important question, especially given the influence of Barth in contemporary theology. Bavinck certainly doesn’t want to make Scripture, as you said, “the fourth person of the Trinity.” Yet he also doesn’t hold back from calling it a species of God’s self-revelation. He calls even revelation in creation an instance of God’s self-revelation. This is because, for him, every form of divine revelation has God as its author and content. Bavinck’s schema can’t be squeezed into Barth’s schema wherein the only instance of God’s self-revelation is ultimately God the Son. That’s what allows him to call Scripture a form of God’s self-revelation without rendering it a divine person. Bavinck argues that the inscripturated word is meant to serve and to witness to the Christ as the Word of God, but he still believes that Scripture is an instance of divine speech and, therefore, a mode of divine revelation. I suppose, then, that a short answer to your question of how Bavinck avoids locating Scripture within the Godhead is that he simply isn’t Barthian.

      I hope that brings at least some clarity. Any other thoughts on this?


      • Steve,

        Thanks. I suppose my question was more of a constructive vs. descriptive one. You’re right to notice Barth, or more for me, TF Torrance lurking back behind my question. So it appears that Bavinck operates out of the analogia entis — of same shape — and does not delimit ‘revelation’ of God to God-self in Christ (or at least he’s not working with these kinds of grammatical strictures in place). Which to me seems at odds — constructively thinking — with the intent of Nicaea. Yet, what bothers me, is the idea of ‘revelation’; can you flesh out, further, what Bavinck meant by ‘scripture’ being a “mode” (as you say) of divine revelation? By saying mode of revelation I’m not sure if this is meant in a correlative or analogous way — how does he distinguish the Incarnation for example from the “mode” of Scripture as revelation?

  2. Bobby,

    I need to do a bit more study of the analogia entis in the tradition as well as in Barth, but it seems to me (correct me if I’m wrong) that Barth (I’m not sure about Torrance) takes the concept in a direction different from that of the tradition. While the importance of the Creator-creature distinction looms large in earlier and Protestant theology, the analogia entis posits that there is some scant resemblance between the perfections found in God and the reflections of those perfections, however limited and flawed they may be, in the world of creation. For Barth, however, the analogia entis is taken, along with the imago Dei, to indicate a human aptitude for revelation or for receiving revelation. Someone like Bavinck would affirm the tradition’s take on the analogia entis (if I’ve got it right here; perhaps I don’t) under the rubric of the communicable attributes of God. With Barth, he would also say that sinful humanity is resistant toward God’s revelation, but he might question the conceptual employment of the analogia entis to get the point across. I can speak for myself at least and confess that I’m not sure Barth’s take on the analogia entis is helpful.

    On the related question of the intention of Nicea, I’m guessing you have in mind primarily the fathers’ desire highlight the homoousion and, thus, the supremacy of Christ alongside the Father and in the economy of salvation. I honestly don’t see a reason why Christ’s divinity and importance to the economy are compromised if one asserts, with the mainstream of historic Christian theology, that God’s self-disclosure is not limited to the second person of the Godhead. Certainly, each locus of revelation is such only under the decision of God to use it as such. Each is specially tied to God’s presence. God is the author and content of revelation whatever the locus of it. However, to lay my cards on the table again, though I appreciate a lot of what Barth has to say, I think he makes some unfortunate moves in his doctrine of revelation. I appreciate his commitment to the authority of Scripture, but I think he’s missed pieces of Scripture’s own account of revelation.

    I’m not sure how much I can elaborate on the term “mode.” Perhaps it would help to complement “mode of revelation” by saying “a way in which God’s revelation take shape” or “an instance of God’s revelation, which can and does take on other forms.” On the question of how to distinguish between the incarnation and Scripture as modes of revelation, I think it’s important to specify that the incarnation is the supreme instance of divine revelation and that the written word as revelation simply ministers and unpacks the fullness of revelation in the incarnation. However, maybe it’s working too hard to puzzle over how to distinguish the two modes of revelation. One is the coming of God the Son to carry out his mission in the world and one is a written text in which God speaks ongoingly to his people. The two just are inseparable but distinct forms of revelation. This may sound simplistic, but it seems to me that only a peculiarly Barthian take on revelation generates the kinds of problems you’re wanting to address. I am of the view that the Barthian understanding of revelation, in light of the pertinent biblical teaching and its exposition in classic Protestant thought, is misshaped.

    I hope I’ve not come off as harsh or narrowly critical of Barth’s work. I do think he and others like Torrance have their contributions to make. In any event, Bobby, I’m grateful for your thoughts and questions. They’ve pushed me to flesh out my thoughts a bit more. If I haven’t quite touched on something you had in mind, feel free to say so. Or, if you’ve got another point of contention, feel to put it on the table.


  3. Steve,

    I’m sorry I haven’t gotten back to you on this. I still don’t have the time at the moment. I’ll come back later and try and provide some feedback to your comment.

    I’ll just say, that I look forward to hearing more from you on Bavinck.

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