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Reformed Dogmatics, Vol. 2 > Chapter 1: The Incomprehensibility of God (weeks 1-2)

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message 1: by Alex, Moderator (last edited Nov 27, 2013 04:28PM) (new)

Alex | 356 comments Mod
As we start Chapter 1, we'll be tackling the subject of God's incomprehensibility. For those who are unfamiliar with Bavinck's work, I would like to point out that he interacts heavily with historical and modern philosophers and theologians. In the first section, Bavinck lays out the mystery of God as presented in the Scriptures. Then, he compares and contrasts the true God with other gods. Next, he addresses the implications of God's grandeur. Finally, he shows how misunderstanding God's incomprehensibility can lead to the errors of agnosticism, even atheism; whereas a correct understanding of God's incomprehensibility ultimately brings us to reverent worship of the true God.

(Note, I'll be raising a few topics for discussion that cover the entire scope of Chapter 1, even though week one's readings are only for pages 27-41. So, we can carry on this discussion into week two as well, where we'll be finishing pages 41-52).

1. My Big Impressions: I think it's easy to get lost in the details when reading a large book like Bavinck's Reformed Dogmatics--somewhat like losing sight of the forest for the trees. As such, I think it's a good idea to take a step back and see what the big picture is. I think the message of Chapter 1 is aptly summarized by a quotation from Stephen Charnock, "It is visible that God is, it is invisible what He is." In other words, it is plainly seen that God exists; but it is simply impossible to say with accuracy or precision what He is!

2. Proper Theology Leads To Doxology: I'm reminded that we're studying this book so that we can love God more. We should not be satisfied in accumulating mere knowledge, but rather we should be delighting in knowing God more (Jer. 9:23-24). Bavinck likewise reminds us, "… dogmatics does not become a dry and academic exercise, without practical usefulness for life. The more it reflects on God… the more [we] will be moved to adoration and worship… the knowledge of God-in-Christ, after all, is life itself (Ps. 89:16; Isa. 11:9; Jer. 31:34; John 17:3)" (p. 29).

3. Knowing the Incomprehensible? There seems to be a paradox, perhaps even a contradiction, in the idea that we can know anything about the incomprehensible. "The distance between God and us is the gulf between the Infinite and finite… between the All and the nothing" (p. 30). But, the Scripture makes it abundantly clear that human beings are able to know God. This knowledge, obviously, is not exhaustive and infinite, but small and meagre.

Dr. J.I. Packer describes how "an appearance of contradiction" sometimes arises when "a pair of principles stand side by side, seemingly irreconcilable, yet both undeniable" (pp. 18-23 in Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God ). This is called an antinomy and this tension is frequently encountered in the Christian faith (e.g., the absolute sovereignty of God and the moral responsibility of man; the inspiration of the Holy Scriptures as the infallible Word of God, yet physically penned by imperfect men; etc.) Likewise, I think that the ability of a finite creature to know something (really anything) about the infinite Almighty Being can also be thought of as an antinomy (which Bavinck seems to agree with on p. 47)--a seeming contradiction at first--but resolvable when we consider that God intentionally reveals Himself in His creation (albeit in dim shadows, types, figures, and other analogical ways that can be understood by finite men), a fact that the Bible readily affirms.

4. God vs. gods: Bavinck spends some time (pp. 32ff) discussing how God is unique and unlike other gods. It should be noted that over the last century, in particular, a controversial idea has been raised where some critics of the Bible have suggested that the true Judeo-Christian God (Yahweh) is actually based on pagan gods with ideas borrowed from neighbouring Ancient Near Eastern religions. Bavinck writes against this position. (As a side note, for anyone that's interested in reading up on this issue further, a recent book was published on this very topic, defending the trustworthiness of the Bible, entitled Against the Gods ).

5. God is Nameless: "Although he reveals himself in his names, no name is adequate to the purpose. He is nameless; his name is a name of wonder (Gen. 32:29; Judg. 13:18; Prov. 30:4)" (p. 34). No name or title can adequately describe God. He is beyond description. His ineffable name (Yahweh) simply means "to exist" or "being", attesting to His self-sufficiency, eternality, and aseity. I am looking forward to when we get to read Chapter 3: The Names of God because I think it'll be really interesting to find out more about this topic!

6. Archetypal vs. Ectypal Knowledge: These are terms that Bavinck used in Volume 1: Prolegomenna. I don't think he's used these terms yet in Volume 2--but he's definitely used the concept. Essentially, God's own perfect and infinite knowledge of Himself is archetypal knowledge. Everything that is derivative is called ectypal knowledge, and is never full or exhaustive. "Our knowledge of God is the imprint of the knowledge God has of himself but always on a creaturely level and in a creaturely way. The knowledge of God present in his creatures is only a weak likeness, a finite, limited sketch, of the absolute self-consciousness of God accommodated to the capacities of the human or creaturely consciousness. But however great the distance is, the source (principium essendi) of our knowledge of God is solely God himself, the God who reveals himself freely, self-consciously, and genuinely" (from vol. 1, p. 212).

Bavinck notes that even the Holy Scriptures are considered ectypal because in them, God reveals Himself to us in weak, human language. No finite form or instrument can ever fully reveal God and all His perfections. "The finite cannot contain the infinite" (p. 40). Nothing in the natural world can be used to illustrate who God is absolutely correctly. As such, we can only relate to God in analogical ways.

7. A Warning Against Complacency and Forgetting God's Incomprehensibility: Perhaps the most sobering part of this chapter was Bavinck's lament that even among the Reformed, there are many who have lost the sense of God's incomprehensibility (pp. 40-41). I think there are many people today who (like the Remonstrants) insist on simplicity, and don't value the worth of studying the nature of God. "It is as if people [have] lost all sense of the majesty and grandeur of God. Disregarding all so-called metaphysical questions, people [rush] on to the will of God in order to know and to do it. Eternal life, they [maintain], does not consist in knowing God but in doing his will" (p. 41). I really think this is the plight of many Christians today. Many want to by-pass the step of truly knowing God, and desire only to know His counsel.

8. We Are Left Dumbfounded: In the words of Augustine, "We are speaking of God. Is it any wonder if you do not comprehend? For if you comprehend, it is not God you comprehend. Let it be a pious confession of ignorance rather than a rash profession of knowledge. To attain some slight knowledge of God is a great blessing; to comprehend him, however, is totally impossible" (p. 48).

So, it seems that the proper way to resolve the antinomy (see point #3 above) is to acknowledge that while God is incomprehensible in His fullness, He is nevertheless knowable to His creation through analogical means; we are able to know something about God through His creation. For example, through the institution of the family, we are able to understand (in an imperfect and dim way) by analogy how God is a Father. We need to recognize that there are limits to all analogical knowledge as "a concept borrowed from the human realm… when applied to God, always to some extent falls short" (p. 50). But, despite its limitations, we are left with no option but to appeal to analogical knowledge because we cannot know God directly without mediation: "If as humans we may not speak of God in a human and analogical manner, we have no choice but to be silent" (p. 50).

9. We Are At His Mercy: All knowledge of God is voluntarily disclosed by God. "No knowledge of God is possible except that which proceeds from and by God (Matt. 11:27; 1 Cor. 2:10ff.)… The fact that the creature knows anything of God at all is solely due to God. He is knowable only because and insofar as he himself wants to be known" (from vol. 1, p. 212; Bavinck makes a similar statement in vol. 2, p. 51). We need to praise God because He has graciously revealed Himself to us. He could forever remain afar and hidden from us if He so desired. But, by His mercy, He has given us knowledge of Him. Recall from point #2 (above), "the knowledge of God-in-Christ, after all, is life itself (Ps. 89:16; Isa. 11:9; Jer. 31:34; John 17:3)" (p. 29). Without knowledge of God, we are left without hope and without life.

When we eventually move onto Chapter 2: The Knowledge of God, we'll be able to explore, in more detail, how exactly we arrive at true knowledge of God. It will be exciting! :)


message 2: by Steven, Moderator (new)

Steven Lee | 9 comments Mod
Thank you, Alex, for the nice concise summary of Chapter 1. I must admit that some portions of this chapter were beyond my comprehension, but your summary help clarify my understanding immensely. Thanks again, and I look forward to the next chapter also.


message 3: by Alex, Moderator (new)

Alex | 356 comments Mod
Thanks Steven! I also admit that some of what Bavinck writes is above my head. It takes me quite a while to digest his writing. I also think that I've started to adjust to his style a bit more after going through vol. 1 earlier this year.

Time permitting, I'm planning on giving brief summaries like this one for each chapter/major section in the book. (In the process, it's also helpful to me!)


message 4: by Ray (new)

Ray Pennings | 1 comments Thanks Alex. I read the Editor's introduction and the section of the incomprehensibility of God this evening. Two thoughts stand out in my mind after reading this.

1. In the introduction, the editor points out Bavinck's tension between "a Christian life that considers the highest goal, now and hereafter, to be the contemplation of God and fellowship with him" but also "a Christian life that considers its highest goal to be the kingdom of God." (p 14). In describing the decline of the awareness of the incomprehensibility of God, even in Reformed history (p. 41), Bavinck points out how this comes when we focus on the will of God or the worship of God without reference to being awed by the Being of God. Not that tension is in itself any proof of orthodoxy, but to feel the tension is probaby a good thing.

2. Several times in the introduction, the importance of the trinitarian nature of theology is emphasized. It is striking when thinking about knowing God, how His very being -- One God in three persons -- totally is beyond human understanding and can only be believed and submitted to - a constant reminder of His incomprehensibility.

Thanks for this and for your eloquent summary of the chapter above. May we have a blessed Lord's Day tomorrow, even as an Incromprehensible God condescends to meet with His church, not only through the Word but also through the Sacrament.


message 5: by Alex, Moderator (new)

Alex | 356 comments Mod
Hi Ray, sorry for the delayed reply. I was out of the country for the last week with no internet access. I agree that trinitarian theology is the essential to the Christian faith. As Mr. C.H. Spurgeon put it, "To believe and love the Trinity is to possess the key of theology" (from sermon 1000, delivered on July 16, 1871). Of note, there was a short book that I came across last year--a real gem--that underscores the importance of how trinitarian theology is inextricably linked to everything we know about God: His incomprehensibility, His love, His holiness, His perfections, etc. (The name of the book, by the way, is Delighting in the Trinity by Michael Reeves).

In fact, the chapter that I'm most eagerly looking forward to reading in Bavinck's book is Chapter 6: The Holy Trinity! Thanks for pointing out the link between the Triune identity of God and His incomprehensibility!


message 6: by Alex, Moderator (last edited Dec 04, 2013 11:43PM) (new)

Alex | 356 comments Mod
As an aside, for anyone that's interested, Banner of Truth is having a sale until the end of the month on all their books from the US store. "The Works of Stephen Charnock" is also on sale for $77 (from $129). It contains one of the best treatments on the attributes of God to my knowledge. :)


message 7: by Hans, Pastor and Moderator (new)

Hans Overduin | 24 comments Mod
Just yesterday I read the following. Am I correct in thinking Bavinck did not touch on this aspect of the knowledge of God, or did I just miss it? How do we distinguish the marvelous point below from the incorrect teaching of progressive revelation? Or is this going down a rabbit trail that is unhelpful? In connection with the point below,especially the last phrase "also in the progression of history", shouldn't that help make us so thankful also for the Refd. confessions and for all the faithful writings of people from the past? How does this all relate with I Peter 1:10-13 too? pho


“There is an increase in the knowledge of God, not only in the personal lives of believers—who may continually encounter God, view life and everything increasingly in God’s light and anticipate future perfection—but also in the progression of history.” [See Rom. 16:25-26; Is. 11:9; Jer. 31:34; Heb. 8:11-12.] J. Van Genderen & W.H. Velema


message 8: by Alex, Moderator (last edited Dec 06, 2013 08:07AM) (new)

Alex | 356 comments Mod
Interesting points! Thanks for posting, Pastor Overduin!

1. You're correct. I don't think that Bavinck has addressed this topic explicitly in Vol. 2; however he does touch upon this general idea in Vol. 1 (particularly in chapters 9 to 11). For example:

"... special revelation bears a soteriological character and is salvific... the revelation of salvation ought not to consist only in a communication of life but also in the announcement of truth... emerging from all this, finally, is the purpose of special revelation. The final goal again is God himself... God reveals himself for his own sake: to delight in the glorification of his own attributes... God's aim in special revelation is... none other than to redeem human beings in their totality of body and soul... to redeem not only individual, isolated human beings but humanity as an organic whole" (Vol. 1, p. 345-346, emphasis mine).


And again:

"Thus objective and subjective revelation... are carried forward by the witness of the Spirit throughout the centuries until in the final manifestation of Christ they will have attained their end. The objective special revelation was completed with the first coming of Christ [note: Bavinck is speaking about the completion of the Canon of Scripture]; at his second coming, its full effect in the history of humankind will be completed [note: I think Bavinck is speaking of the revelation of God to His people individually here]. The time of sowing will then be concluded in the time of harvest" (Vol. 1, p. 351, emphasis mine).


Likewise, he tries to emphasize that all of revelation (of the knowledge of God) escalates and climaxes with the revelation of Christ, revealed to mankind, and especially to believers. I think this relates to the Apostle's testimony in 1 Peter 1:10-13:

"Special revelation [by way of theophany, prophecy, and miracle is] concentrated in the person of Christ... Corresponding to this objective revelation... there is a subjective revelation, which in a broad sense can be called revelation but for the sake of clarity can be better described as illumination [applied to those] who live in light of the gospel, by the Spirit of God [so that] they can recognize and know the special revelation that comes to them in Christ..." (vol. 1, p. 350, emphasis mine).


2. Indeed, we should be immensely thankful for the Reformed Confessions! Addressing the revelation of the knowledge of God, the confessions affirm that He has revealed Himself in manifold ways, as summarized in the Holy Scriptures (WCF 1.1-1.2; 1.6; Belgic 2). The knowledge of God we have through His work of redemption reached their zenith with Christ, but was previously revealed through promises, types, and sacrifices (WCF 8.6; Belgic 10).

3. Just to clarify, though, I'm a little bit confused about progressive revelation. I've (up until now) thought that progressive revelation was a widely held teaching. Perhaps I'm misunderstanding the terminology? For example, Charles Hodge states:

"The progressive character of divine revelation is recognized in relation to all the great doctrines of the Bible... All that is in a fullgrown tree was potentially in the seed. All that we find unfolded in the fulness of the gospel lies in a rudimentary form in the earliest books of the Bible. What at first is only obscurely intimated is gradually unfolded in subsequent parts of the sacred volume, until the truth is revealed in its fulness. This is true of the doctrines of redemption; of the person and work of the Messiah, the promised seed of the woman; of the nature and office of the Holy Spirit; and of a future state beyond the grave. And this is specially true of the doctrine of the Trinity" (Hodge, Charles. Systematic Theology / Volume 1: Theology. [Peabody, Mass.]: Hendrickson, 1999. p. 446, emphasis mine).


When you're using the term progressive revelation, are you referring to the incorrect teaching that some people hold to that the Canon of Scripture is not yet closed, or that there is continuation of the revelatory gifts today (i.e. continued, ongoing revelation)?


message 9: by Alex, Moderator (last edited Dec 09, 2013 09:25AM) (new)

Alex | 356 comments Mod
Addendum: Pastor Overduin and I chatted a bit about the above topic of progressive revelation and here is a synopsis of our discussion:

Progressive revelation within the canon of Scripture is clearly present. This is when a topic is unveiled with more clarity throughout the development of the Bible. For example, the Gospel is given in a primordial form as early as Gen. 3:14-15 (in the so-called proto-euangelion), and again in Gen. 12:2-3 (cf. Gal. 3:8), but finally reaches a climax with the coming of Christ, His death, and resurrection. (For more, please refer to the Heidelberg Catechism, Q&A 19.)

Pastor Overduin reflects:

"Praise God! He has progressively unfolded the revelation of His covenant of grace and the revelation of the Trinity, and the revelation of the gospel of Jesus Christ. What a privilege for us to live today in the last days, in these centuries since Christ’s first coming and with the Canon of Scripture complete."


What we must reject, however, is the idea that there is new revelation (i.e. continued, ongoing revelation) from God in our times (see Rev. 22:18-19), as suggested by some in the charismatic movement and well as those promoting liberal theology like “process theology”. As John Owen astutely stated:

"If private 'revelations' agree with scripture, they are needless, and if they disagree, they are false."


Relating this back to the current chapter in Bavinck's book, we should understand that although God is incomprehensible, He nonetheless makes Himself known to His creation. The knowledge of God is ultimately disclosed by the Holy Scriptures. Within the Scriptures, He shows how He has made Himself progressively known throughout history; special revelation reached its supreme conclusion with Christ, as revealed to us in the completed Canon of Scripture. There is no longer any need for greater revelation as God has already perfectly disclosed Himself in His Son who is the very image of His Father, the invisible God (i.e. Heb. 1:3; Col. 1:15; etc).


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