Dogmatics for Fourth Graders
Editor's Note: This article was originally published on reformation21 in December 2008.
From Adam onward, each generation of believers has faced the challenges of bad and erroreous theology. When we look at our children—and the one I'm looking at now happens to be a fourth grader—we must wonder if they will be ready to handle the theological issues they will face in their own day. Will their foundation be solid, or will they gather for themselves teachers to suit their own passions?
If we want our children to be ready, we need to ensure they are firmly grounded in the truth of the Scriptures. And yet, as important as the foundation of Scripture is, we must not neglect the ongoing work of the Church. Good theology (such as can we find in the Reformed confessions) synthesizes the teaching of the Bible into a concise and coherent system of doctrine. If we want our children to be fully prepared to handle the controversies of their own time, we should not deprive them of the works written down for us by believers from the past.
Enter Herman Bavinck and Reformed Dogmatics. Bavinck’s insights boost our awareness and ability to fend off bad doctrine. Even a fourth-grader stands to benefit from reading his work, and for two particular reasons.
First, Bavinck provides a solid orthodox Reformed view of the various loci of Systematic Theology. We live in an era where systematic thought and systematic categories are regularly dismissed as irrelevant and even dangerous to an understanding of Scripture. This leads to all sorts of problems where otherwise brilliant people make the simplest of mistakes because they have, for instance, an inaccurate doctrine of Scripture, or of the Atonement, or of Christ.
Bavinck's coverage is broad and very deep. He not only addresses the traditional Reformed stance, he also routinely addresses those near or related to the Reformed position, be they Lutheran or Arminian, as well as those further off, be they Roman Catholic or German Higher Critics. In so doing, Bavinck regularly recounts much historical theology before laying out the Reformed position. The result is that Bavinck, who is not content to rest his conclusions on tradition alone, instead shows his commitment to the biblical text itself, in the original languages, by engaging in fresh exegesis. In the process of this exegesis and explication, Bavinck is always drawing the reader back to the ground plan, or meta-narrative, of what God has done in creation, and what God has promised His people.
The subject of Covenant Theology deserves special mention. Bavinck’s is one of the clearest and most profound explanations of God's use of covenant to relate to His creation. Bavinck provides a sober discussion of man's total inability to merit anything before God outside of God's condescension in covenant. He is neither confused nor confusing about the existence or place of the covenant of works and how it explains and enables the federal headship of both Adam and Christ. He is clear and concise with respect to the perennial issues of the law and the gospel, such that he recognizes the Mosaic covenant as a dispensation of the Covenant of Grace. In short, at least with respect to Covenant Theology, we should all pick up Bavinck and begin anew from his vantage point.
In addition to being scriptural and covenantal, Reformed Dogmatics is also thoroughly Trinitarian. Bavinck discusses the Trinity with clarity, insight and biblical faithfulness (something systematic textbooks do not always achieve). The Trinity and Trinitarian concerns permeate the four volumes. "The Christian mind," says Bavinck, "remains unsatisfied until all of existence is referred back to the triune God, and until the confession of God's Trinity functions at the center of our thought and life" (II.330). If there is anything our fourth-graders need, it is a commitment to, and strong, systematic, understanding of the Scriptures, of the Covenants and of the Trinity.
This brings us to another reason that fourth-graders should be introduced to Bavinck: he dealt with issues which were threatening his generation from a position of respect, but never capitulation. He was not afraid of the philosophers and theologians of his day, in much the same way Paul was not afraid of them in his. He did not shy away from their arguments and their conclusions, and even comments when they happen to stumble upon truth. He interacts with Darwin, Kant, Schleiermacher, Ritschl, Harnack, Hegel, and Zahn.
For instance, rather than just ignoring evolution or dismissing it as unscriptural, Bavinck listens to the arguments of Darwin and his followers and shows why they are inadequate explanations for the origin of life, even from the perspective of ostensibly "neutral" science. Bavinck steps over onto the ground of his opponents and shows the vanity and futility of their positions based upon their own presuppositions (perhaps telegraphing the approach that Van Til would later make explicit in his apologetics). But since his aim is not to debunk evolution, Bavinck goes on to climb out of the hole Darwin has dug for himself and explain the biblical doctrine of creation.
The answer that Bavinck gives to all the issues to which he attends is thoroughly Scriptural. He is not ashamed to pit Scripture against the arguments and ideas of natural men. Whereas his opponents, be they liberal theologians or secular philosophers, tend to appeal to "what we, as enlightened people of the (insert your century here), now know," Bavinck is always returning to the faith once for all delivered. It is particularly this issue that our fourth graders need to recognize. They, much like their fathers, will be constantly inundated with people dismissing the basic truths of Bible and the Christian faith because of what they think they now know or what they think they have now discovered. In addition to a firm and solid foundation in Scripture, Covenant and Trinity, our fourth-graders need a realization that what contemporary scholars may think they "now know" is little more that a faint and fading breeze, with no power to cast down the solid bulwarks of Scripture.
As long as there are secular philosophers and liberal theologians, orthodox Christians will have numerous theological dragons to slay. Herman Bavinck will not slay all of those dragons for us, but he will show us how a theologian should interact with his present age, using the one book that is sufficient to battle the errors of any age: God's inerrant, inspired and infallible Holy Scriptures.
Steve Tipton (MDiv, RTS Jackson) is a native Texan and served four years in the United States Marine Corps as a rifleman. He is the Pastor of Hillcrest Presbyterian Church in Volant, PA, and continues to pursue his passion for history and theology. Steve is married to Catherine, the love of his life, and they have two daughters.