'A Christian dogmatic does not yet exist': the influence of the nineteenth century Historical Turn on the theological methodology of Herman Bavinck
Item statusRestricted Access
Embargo end date31/07/2022
Clausing, Cameron David
It has long been recognized that the nineteenth century’s turn to history signaled an inflection point not only in historical studies, establishing its place as a ‘science’ (Wissenschaft) in the university but in the field of theology. The rise of historicism impacted the work of thinkers from Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768-1834) to Albrecht Ritschl (1822-1889) to Ernst Troeltsch (1865-1932). The influence of this movement, which started in Germany, flowed over its borders and into the neighboring country of the Netherlands forming the thoughts of its theologians as well. The impact of historicism on the one of the leading lights in the Dutch neo-Calvinist movement, Herman Bavinck (1854-1921), has yet to be examined. James Eglinton’s work on Bavinck open new avenues for Bavinck studies in the Anglophone world, arguing for a Bavinck who was able to live a life which was both orthodox and modern, subsequent scholars have continued to push the question. Cory Brock has examined Bavinck’s engagement with Schleiermacher and his appropriation of concepts which find their root in Schleiermacher’s thought. Nathaniel Gray Sutanto has considered the place of the organic motif inside Bavinck’s epistemology, showing how Bavinck utilized the nineteenth century concept of the ‘organic’ which came out of German romanticism. Bruce Pass has considered Bavinck’s christocentricism in relation to the organic and shown once again Bavinck’s dependence on nineteenth century sources for the christocentric character of this theology. This thesis aims to add to the growing literature in Bavinck studies by considering the impact of the nineteenth century’s turn to history on Bavinck’s theological methodology. I argue that while not embracing all of the relativizing implications of the movement, the role of history as a force which both shapes the present and allows for development into the future has a demonstrable influence on the theological methodology of Herman Bavinck. Throughout the thesis I use Bavinck’s Trinitarian theology as a test case for my argument; applying Bavinck’s method to Bavinck in what could be called a ‘reverse engineering’ of Bavinck’s Trinitarian theology. What will be shown in this test case is that Bavinck believed that even a doctrine as historically stable as the Trinity needed to grow and develop to address the questions raised by one’s contemporary cultural and philosophical context. While it would be an overstatement to say that the rise of history as a science (or historicism) was determinative for all theological thinking in the nineteenth century, it is not too much to say that it was one of the most important movements in both theological and philosophical thought in the nineteenth century. No study has yet taken up the influence of historicism on Bavinck and Bavinck’s theological project. Thus, a careful examination of Bavinck’s theological method in light of the nineteenth century’s turn to history might provide a few seeds which when planted in the freshly tilled field of Bavinck studies could produce fruit; which in turn could nourish reflection on the topic of Bavinck as a constructive systematician and the relationship his late modern sources have to his pre-modern and confessional sources. The first chapter explores the nineteenth century’s turn to history. This chapter situates the historical turn in the broader discussion of the rise of history as an independent science. This will necessarily lead to some reflection on the mid-eighteenth century when history began to become a discipline in the German university and was working to find its place. The implications of this are that an intimate relationship developed between the disciplines of history, philosophy, and theology. Locating Bavinck in the midst of this turn to history which flourished in the nineteenth century allows us to evaluate the extent to which the historical turn influenced his theological methodology. Chapter two examines Bavinck’s theological method in light of this historical turn. This chapter begins to answer the question of the extent to which the historical turn influenced Bavinck’s theological methodology. Before breaking the method down into its various parts, this chapter will give a picture of the whole method. Bavinck argues that Revelation, Confession, and Christian Consciousness are all principia in his theological methodology. Before one can understand each of these on their own terms, one needs to understand how Bavinck saw them fitting together as a whole. The third chapter acts as a turning point for the entire thesis. Starting with chapter three, I begin the test case of Bavinck’s Trinitarian theology. In this chapter, I will move from the general to the specific. To what extent can one see the influence of the historical turn on Bavinck’s theological method when one looks at the Trinity? Chapter three considers Bavinck’s engagement with revelation. For Bavinck, the starting place of theological reasoning is Deus dixit. God has spoken and in that he has revealed himself. This conviction functions to ground all of Bavinck’s theological project. Because of this understanding of revelation, Bavinck sees all of revelation as bearing a Trinitarian shape. Thus, for Bavinck revelation is never less than words, but also more than words; the missions of the Son and the Spirit are the communicative actions of the Triune God which interpret all other communicative action of the Triune God. Therefore, chapter three ultimately establishes that the missions ad extra flow out of the processions ad intra. Chapter three demonstrates how Bavinck’s Trinitarian theology finds its principal grounding in the Scripture. The chapter illustrates how Bavinck understood Scripture in light of the historical turn. The fourth chapter turns from revelation to church confession. Bavinck believed it was impossible to develop a dogmatic system solely from Scripture. To some extent the application of this belief in Bavinck’s project betrays the influence which the turn to history had on Bavinck. For there to be a dogmatic system, development is necessary, the church’s participation in organizing the parts of Scripture and its extended reflection on the data allows for a dogmatic system to form. The chapter considers Bavinck’s own understanding of the role of creeds and confessions in his Trinitarian theology. Chapter five closes out the analysis of Bavinck’s theological method in light of the historical turn, by considering his last principium, Christian consciousness. For Bavinck, Christian consciousness was an acknowledgement of the subjective nature of theological reflection. Theology is done by people who live, move, and breath in a particular time and place with all of the cultural, philosophical, and theological questions and concerns associated with that temporality. Theology is paradoxical. It looks to eternity while being inherently temporal. Thus, this chapter shows that as Bavinck understood it, theological reasoning necessarily continues to develop and grow. Bavinck believed that the assertion that the church arrived at all truth at some point in the past was arrogant. Thus, this chapter considers how Bavinck connected both a faithfulness to confessional and creedal standards to the concept of theological development. In applying the idea of Christian consciousness to his Trinitarian theology, I show how Bavinck borrowed from and utilized nineteenth century concepts surrounding personhood to help develop his Trinitarian theology. Taking these five chapters together this project shows that the rise of historicism influenced Herman Bavinck’s theological methodology, allowing him to both see theological development and stay anchored in his Dutch Reformed tradition. He saw theology as a constantly evolving and developing discipline and his methodology did not close himself off from the ability to develop. It was this interest in development, which was dependent on a philosophical and theological turn to history, that contributed to Bavinck’s project which was ‘orthodox yet modern’. Because the nature of theology is looking at the eternal while being bound by time, Bavinck declared, ‘a Christian Dogmatics does not yet exist.'