Bavinck’s project consists of drawing upon the strengths of the Magisterial Protestants while formulating theology in response to the modernist crisis of his day. To do so, he realized he could not slavishly mimic older platitudes and simply “hope for the best.” Bavinck represents a very exciting yet somewhat embarrassing hero for modern Calvinists. Exciting, because his work is simply awesome and coming into English for the first time ever. Embarrassing, because modern Calvinists generally dislike the movement “neo-Calvinism,” yet Bavinck is the unofficial godfather of it.
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.