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Reformed Dogmatics, Vol. 1: Prolegomena Hardcover – October 1, 2003
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From the Back Cover
"Finally Bavinck becomes available to the English-speaking world. The Dutch version has been a constant stimulus for students, pastors, and other interested Christians. It has shaped generations of theologians and helped them to preach, think, and act on a fresh, Reformed basis. Baker and the Dutch Reformed Translation Society deserve praise for this project, from which without doubt church and theology will profit for years to come."
--Herman Selderhuis, Theologische Universiteit Appeldoorn
"Bavinck's Reformed Dogmatics has been the fountainhead of Reformed theology for the last hundred years. It is by far the most profound and comprehensive Reformed systematic theology of the twentieth century. The reader will be amazed by Bavinck's erudition, creativity, and balance. Bavinck is confessionally orthodox, but he recognizes the need to rethink the traditional formulations from Scripture in the context of contemporary discussion. I hope it will have a large readership and will bring forth much theological and spiritual fruit."
--John M. Frame, Reformed Theological Seminary
"Pastors and theologians will welcome the historic first complete translation of Herman Bavinck's Reformed Dogmatics. . . . This masterful theological work is now available to passionate students of theology."
--R. Albert Mohler Jr., Preaching
"Bavinck's probings . . . are now accessible to theological communities where his name is revered, but where little has been known about the details of his thought. This is a cause for rejoicing. But it is to be hoped that the larger English-speaking theological world will also accept the challenge of seriously engaging his considerable contribution to Reformed thought. . . . Bavinck comes across as a remarkably gifted and creative guide to the contemporary landscape."
--Richard J. Mouw, IRT Bulletin
About the Author
Herman Bavinck (1854-1921) succeeded Abraham Kuyper as professor of systematic theology at the Free University in Amsterdam in 1902. John Bolt is professor of systematic theology at Calvin Theological Seminary. The late John Vriend translated many classic theological works.
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The other volumes in this series are Reformed Dogmatics, Vol. 2: God and Creation,Reformed Dogmatics, Vol. 3: Sin and Salvation in Christ, and Reformed Dogmatics, Vol. 4 - Holy Spirit, Church, and New Creation.
He explains, “usage teaches us that religious or theological dogma is always a combination of two elements: divine authority and churchly confession. In case a dogma is not based on divine authority, it is wrong to call it by that name, and it should not have a place in the faith of the church.” (Pg. 31)
He notes, “Theological ethics, which is … to be distinguished from philosophical ethics, is totally rooted in dogmatics… If dogmatics and ethics are to be treated as distinct disciplines… the distinction between the two can only consist in the fact that human beings, however always and utterly dependent on God, are nevertheless also free and independent agents… Dogmatics describes the deeds of God done for, to, and in human beings; ethics describes what renewed human beings now do on the basis of and in the strength of those divine deeds. In dogmatics human beings are passive; they receive and believe; in ethics they are themselves active agents… In the former, that which concerns faith is dealt with; in the latter, that which concerns love, obedience, and good works. Dogmatics sets forth what God is and does for human beings and causes them to know God as their Creator, Redeemer, and Sanctifier; ethics sets forth what human beings are and do for God now… Dogmatics is the system of the knowledge of God; ethics is that of the service of God. The two disciplines… together form a single system; they are related members of a single organism.” (Pg. 58)
He says of the “so-called biblical theologians… this school suffers from grave one-sidedness … it forgets that every believer and every dogmatician first of all receives his religious convictions from his or her church. Accordingly, theologians never come to Scripture from the outside, without any prior knowledge or preconceived opinion, but bring with them from their background a certain understanding of the content of revelation and so look at Scripture with the aid of the glasses that their churches have put on them…. We cannot simply divest ourselves of our environment; we are always children of our time, the products of our background. The result, therefore, is… all the dogmatic handbooks that have been published by members of the school of biblical theology faithfully reflect the personal and ecclesiastical viewpoint of their authors. They cannot, therefore, claim to be more objective than those of explicitly ecclesiastical dogmaticians.” (Pg. 82)
He suggests, “A good dogmatic method, therefore, needs to take account of all three factors: Scripture, church, and Christian consciousness. Only then can a person be kept from one-sidedness. Still, the relationship between these three must be defined. As a rule, we receive our religious convictions from our environment… In critical times like our own, it nor infrequently happens that later a painful break occurs between the faith of one’s childhood and one’s personal conviction. If this break is such that though one has to leave his own church one can still join another historic church, the break is healed relatively soon… there is no loss of religion itself, of the name ‘Christian,’ of the fellowship and confession…. On this basis, then, a dogmatics that describes the truth of God as it is recognized in a particular church remains possible.” (Pg. 84)
He states, “Not the church but Scripture is self-authenticating… the judge of controversies… and its own interpreter… Nothing may be put on a level with Scripture. Church, confession, tradition---all must be ordered and adjusted by it and submit themselves to it.” (Pg. 86) Later, he adds, “Consequently, it is also the teaching of Scripture that objective revelation be completed in subjective illumination. The Reformed doctrine of Scripture is most intimately tied in with that of the testimony of the Holy Spirit… The Holy Spirit who gave us Scripture also bears witness to that Scripture in the heart of believers… But in all this they remain human beings with disposition, upbringing, and insights all their own. Faith itself does not originate in the same way in every person, nor does it have the same strength in all… As a result of all these influences, doctrinal theology continues to bear a personal character.;” (Pg. 92-93)
He laments, “Against the inroads of the new trends the universities offer no resistance, either because they have no departments of theology at all, or put upon them the secular stamp that characterizes American universities in general. And the theological seminaries are on the whole too weak to resist the influence of these modern ideas, to say nothing of countering their influence. An illustrious exception to this rule is the seminary of the Presbyterian church in Princeton. It exists independently alongside the university in that city, is bound to the church’s confession, has an excellent set of professors (Warfield, Vos, Robert Dick Wilson, Greene, etc.) and upholds the Reformed position with honor… Still, the influence of the modern mind is penetrating the Northern Presbyterian Church.” (Pg. 203-204)
He observes, “The starting point of the theory of knowledge ought to be ordinary daily experience, the universal and natural certainty of human beings concerning the objectivity and truth of their knowledge… Only a theory of knowledge such that on the one hand it never leaves the ground of experience and on the other penetrates the very depths of the problem has a chance to succeed… Every human, after all, accepts the reliability of the senses and the existence of the external world, not by a logical inference from the effect… not by reasoning from the resistance his will encounters to an objective reality that generates this resistance. Prior to all reflection and reasoning, everyone is in fact fully assured of the real existence of the world. This certainty is not born out of a syllogism, nor is it supported by proof; it is immediate, originating spontaneously within us along with perception itself.” (Pg. 223)
He states, “religion demands even more. It does not only assume that God exists but also that he in some fashion reveals himself and makes himself known… The essence of religion does not just exist subjectively in a religious disposition, which expresses itself as it sees fit, but also in an objective religion, in dogma, morality, and cult, which have authority for believers only because in the conviction of those believers they contain the will and proper service of God. The origin of religion can neither be historically demonstrated nor psychologically explained but points, from necessity, at revelation as it objective foundation.” (Pg. 276-277)
He continues, “Corresponding to the objective revelation of God, therefore, there is in human beings a certain faculty or natural aptitude for perceiving the divine. God does not do half a job… True and genuine religion can exist only in the complete correspondence of the internal to the external revelation… Religion exists because God is God and wants to be served as God by his rational creatures. To that end he reveals himself to human beings in word and deed… There is no religion apart from God making himself known to human beings both objectively and subjectively.” (Pg. 278-279)
He asserts, “No science, however ‘presuppositionless,’ is or will ever be able to … bring about, in the life of all nations and people, unity in the most basic convictions of the heart… only religious unity will be able to bring about the spiritual and intellectual unity of humankind. As long as disagreement prevails in religion, science too will be unable to achieve the ideal of unity. If science in our day frequently judges otherwise, it is mistaken in two ways: first, in thinking that religious faith, also belief in a revelation, is based on scientific grounds and could therefore at some future date be uprooted by scientific arguments; second, in cherishing the illusion that it could ever take a position outside of history and in that sense be unbiased and impartial.” (Pg. 298-299)
He goes on, “Science… has nothing to fear from the supernatural. But every science must remain within the bounds of its own area and not arrogate to itself the right to pose the law to another science. It is the right and duty of natural science to search within its area for the natural causes of phenomena. But it should not attempt to rule over philosophy when the latter investigates the origin and destiny of things. It should also recognize the right and independence of religion and theology and not attempt to undermine the foundations on which they rest. For at stake here are religious motives for belief in a revelation about which natural science as such cannot make any judgment… miracles irrevocably belong to history, and in history a different method has to be applied than in the natural sciences… in history we are dealing with the testimony of witnesses.. Let every science, therefore, remain in its own area and there investigate things according to their own nature.” (Pg. 371-372)
He proposed, “We must avoid both the one-sidedness of intellectualism and that of mysticism, for they are both a denial of the riches of revelation… revelation in this dispensation is continued jointly in Scripture and in the church… Scripture explains the church; the church understands Scripture… Scripture, accordingly, does not stand by itself. It may not be construed deistically. It is rooted in a centuries-long history and is the fruit of God’s revelation among the people of Israel and in Christ… It does not just serve to give us historical information; it does not even have the intent to furnish us with a historical story by the standard of reliability demanded in other realms of knowledge.” (Pg. 384)
He argues, “If Scripture obviously intends to present a story as historical, the exegete has no right, at the discretion of historical criticism, to turn it into a myth. Yet it is true that the historiography of Holy Scripture has a character of its own. Its purpose is not to tell us precisely all that has happened in times past with the human race and with Israel but to relate to us the history of God’s revelation… Considered from the viewpoint and by the standards of secular history, Scripture is often incomplete, full of gaps and certainly not written by the rules of contemporary historical criticism. From this it surely does not follow that the historiography of Scripture is untrue and unreliable… The reports about the main events, say, the time of Jesus’ birth… his resurrection, etc., are far from homogeneous and leave room for a variety of views.” (Pg. 446-447)
He points out, “Apologetics… was the first Christian science… it teaches that Christians, even though they cannot confer faith on anyone, need not hide from their opponents in embarrassed silence… [they] find support for it in nature and history, in science and art, in society and state, in the heart and conscience of every human being. The Christian worldview alone is the one that fits the reality of the world and of life…. It cannot truly convert people to God. Not even the preaching of the gospel is able to do that… [But] apologetics… can be a source of consummate blessing.” (Pg. 515)
He asserts, “Human beings need two things for the life of their soul; they need a powerful spiritual authority who is nearby and a final goal that is distant. These two needs are absolutely fulfilled by Christianity… It is because Christianity does this that it is the absolute religion, and this is established not by the authority of Scripture but only by the experience that it in fact meets our needs. The only fully satisfactory proof is the proof of discovery and experience, of spirit and power…. [I] get to know God only by the experience of his love.” (Pg. 532) Nevertheless, “however highly we may esteem the element of comfort in religion… as proof solely in and by itself it is insufficient. After all, some comfort and satisfaction can be found in all religions.” (Pg. 552)
He observes, “Scripture is recognized by its own truth. But Scripture acquires certainty as God’s own Word with us by the testimony of the Holy Spirit. Though proofs and reasonings are of great value, this testimony surpasses them by far… If we have that testimony within us, we do not rest in any human judgment but observe without any doubt as if we were gazing upon God himself in it… But that must not be understood as if we blindly submit to a thing that is unknown to us…” (Pg. 583)
He explains, “Faith pauses to consider the facts; theology, on the other hand, attempts to get down to the idea. Faith is content with the THAT; theology inquires into the WHY and the HOW. Faith is always personal; it always relates the object to persons themselves and is directly interested in the religious content of the dogma. Theology, on the other hand, in a sense ‘objectivizes’ the object; it attempts to see the truth as it objectively exists in itself. It explores its unity and inner coherence and seeks to arrive at a system.” (Pg. 615-616)
This entire series will be of great interest to those seriously studying Reformed theology.
Bavinck takes the traditional terminology of principia, yet in the background is an ever-present urgency to respond to modernism. Therefore, he takes the terminology and reframes it around the neo-Calvinist slogan, "Grace restores Nature." There is an antithesis and dualism, to be sure, but it is not between nature and grace, but sin and grace.
God himself is the principle of existence for theology (principium essendi). Objective revelation of God in Christ is recorded in the Scriptures and this is the external source of knowledge (externum principium cognoscendi). The Holy Spirit is the iternal source of knowledge. This leads Bavinck to a line he repeats throughout the book: there must be a corresponding internal organ to receive the external revelation. This anticipates the later Reformed Epistemology school.
Contrary to the convertskii, everyone's reception and evaluation of his or her ultimate authority will be subjective in some sense. One often hears the refrain, "You Protestants make yourself the Pope and judge of authority while we simply submit to the Church." Unfortunately, at one time this convertskii had to make a decision-using his own sinful Western-influenced reason-between Rome, EO, Assyrian Orthodoxy, Monophysitism and Nestorianism. Whatever the external source of knowledge-the Church, God's Revelation, etc.-the religious subject will have to respond to it. Since the subject is responding, the response and evaluation is, quite naturally, subjective. Bavinck hits a grand slam on this point.
Circular Reasoning and First Principles
Bavinck does not try to hide the fact of circular reasoning. He asserts, quite rightly, that first principles in any science are by definition circular. If they were proven by other principles, they would not be first principles! With this acknowledged, Romanism and Orthodoxy are in no better position than Protestantism. Positing either the Pope or the Church as the external principle of knowledge is highly laughable-and bears witness to my argument given that few even try to do that.
Towards the Future of Reformed Epistemology and Apologetics
It's obvious that Van Til read Bavinck. It is also obvious, if perhaps less so, that the Reformed Epistemologists follow in Bavinck's train. It's interesting that while Van Til drew heavily from Bavinck, I don't think they are always saying the same thing on apologetics. Bavinck used the categories of presuppositionalism, but he knew when to stop the train. I think he kept himself from many of what would later be some of Van Til's errors, or at least weak points.
The book isn't always easy to read. If the reader does not have a background heavy in European Rationalism, many of Bavinck's sparring partners will be over one's head. Conversely, if one does have such a background in those disciplines, then there is little point to read Bavinck on them, since he is merely given a cursory reading of them.
Bavinck breaks from many elements of Christendom on the point of nature-grace. How is the theologian to approach Creation, especially given the troubling fact that creation has been marred by sin? For Bavinck, the essence of the Christian religion is the re-creation of the cosmos into the Kingdom of God. This means, as I understand it, that Christ's work re-focused creation and the redeemed humanity into a kingdom , still embryonic in form, eagerly awaiting the Consummation.
This means, practically speaking, that the Christian may apply his theology into "secular" spheres. Creation (nature) has been restored. It means that sin no longer has dominion and that the redemption of Christ spreads as far "as the curse is found."
I do recommend this work. He is not as exegetical as modern theologians, but his work represents an important move in Reformed theology. I have some issues, though: most of the time Bavinck is simply giving conclusions of summaries of Christian thought. This presents an unusual problem. Unless you actually have the philosophical background, much of what he says will be unclear. But if you do have the background in philosophical history, much of what he says will be irrelevant.