Organic knowing: the theological epistemology of Herman Bavinck
Sutanto, Nathaniel Gray
Recent scholarship has increasingly recognized the unity of Herman Bavinck’s (1854-1921) thought, shedding the once-predominant reading that Bavinck was a conflicted thinker caught between modernity and orthodoxy. There were ‘two Bavincks’, the secondary literature claimed. The catalyst of unity for Bavinck’s thinking is located in his deployment of organic language to characterize particular theological loci. The organic motif stems from Bavinck’s Trinitarian doctrine of God, according to which God exists as the archetypal and self-existent Three-in-One. Creation, then, is an ectypal reflection of the triune Godhead, and as such can be described as an organism comprising of many unities-in-diversities. This new reading, propelled by James Eglinton, argued that for Bavinck the Trinity ad intra leads to an organic cosmology ad extra. Though this reading has showcased the unity of Bavinck’s thought in general, current scholarship on Bavinck’s theological epistemology remains fractured along the lines of the ‘two Bavinck’ thesis, with two sides that emphasize, respectively, the modern strand of Bavinck’s thinking or his classical, orthodox, side. This thesis reinvestigates the primary texts in which Bavinck discusses epistemology and argues that the organic motif is also the lens through which his epistemology is to be read. In doing so, this thesis argues that the organic motif allowed Bavinck to utilize both classical (Thomistic) and post-Kantian sources in a way that produces coherence rather than inconsistency. Thus, it is unnecessary to pit Bavinck’s use of classical sources against his use of modern sources: particular deployment is not systematic endorsement. The thesis, then, is that a Trinitarian doctrine of God ad intra produces not merely an organic cosmology ad extra, but also an organic epistemology. It then proceeds to demonstrate this in two ways. First, the thesis observes that Bavinck characterizes the sciences (wetenschappen) as a single organism made up of a unity-in-diversity. The specialization and divisions of the sciences mean that each field has its own sphere of existence with unique grounds and methodologies, but there is an underlying theological unity between them that relativizes that diversity precisely because all of the sciences are theological. Second, for Bavinck subjective knowledge can organically correspond with objects because both participate in a larger, organic universe. Mental representations connect with the world because all of creation is primordially interconnected by way of God’s organic design. In each of these steps Bavinck’s eclectic use of sources and overall creativity and unity are displayed. This thesis also relates his discussion both to his interlocutors and contemporary philosophical and analytic epistemology. Hence, this thesis not only demonstrates the overall coherence of Bavinck’s thought, thereby further eradicating ill-conceived notions of there being ‘two-Bavincks’, but also showcases potentially generative insights concerning the place of theology within the university and the resources theology might provide for philosophical epistemology.