Theology and History in the Methodology of Herman Bavinck: A Review

Theology and History in the Methodology of Herman Bavinck: Revelation, Confession, and Christian Consciousness by Cameron D. Clausing. Oxford University Press, 2023. Hardback. 256pp. £71.00.

One of the topics that has vexed Reformed Christians is the role of history in thinking about the church and about God. The recent Herman Bavinck revival in Anglophone scholarship, by now widely known and lauded, constitutes an opportunity to clarify this issue, and Cameron D. Clausing is leading the charge with his new book. The argument of Theology and History in the Methodology of Herman Bavinck can be stated like so: German historicism had a demonstrable and substantial influence on Herman Bavinck’s theology, especially in relation to his theological methodology.

There are two big concepts here that require unpacking to fully appreciate what Clausing is doing. The first is historicism. Historicism was a philosophical movement and method, flowing out of the German idealist movement, that bled over into theology during the nineteenth century. Historicism can be summarized as the realization that all events, ideas, and facts of history have a historical cause and that these causes provide us with explanations as to why the events, ideas, and facts are what they are.

Taken to its extreme, historicism attempts to explain everything in terms of the relative historical situation of the thing being analysed. Historicism has had good and bad fruit. For example, Marxism is a historicist ideology. Historicism leads to historical relativism, which can lead in turn to philosophical relativism, and then to moral relativism.

Having said that, as a historian myself, I am grateful for the way history has been done since the nineteenth century; in a conscientious, self-effacing way that places great emphasis on context, and tries to understand the historical subject on his or her own terms. Historical theology, as a sub-discipline, which is the method Clausing deploys himself, would not exist without historicism.

The second big word is methodology: this is much simpler to explain. Methodology is the way something is done. To speak of Bavinck’s theological methodology is to speak about the way Bavinck goes about examining theological questions. What tools does he use? What are his first principles?

The argument of the book is that Bavinck was influenced by historicism, and that he demonstrated a keen eye for the ways that the insights of historicist theologians like Friedrich Schleiermacher could be incorporated into an orthodox, conservative, and Reformed system of dogmatics. And he did so in three ways.

First, for Bavinck, the Scriptures were the principal source of authority and data in constructing a dogmatic system. This seems intuitive and unremarkable to the evangelical and conservative Reformed person. However, it is the way that Bavinck drew on other aspects of theological authority and data that make his contribution significant. Bavinck suggested that the danger of a purely scripturalist, biblicist methodology for dogmatics would result in liberalism and heterodoxy. In his own words, it would result in a system that was “subjective, individualistic, fashionable in the modern sense of the word.” Why? Because of a lack of connection to history and individual consciousness, which are the other two arms of Bavinck’s methodology.

The second way that Bavinck evidenced historicist leanings in his methodology is his reliance on historical Christian thought and on ecclesial confessions. Here, we see a tendency quite natural to the Reformed tradition. The confessions of the church are not immutable, or unchangeable, and Clausing draws out how Bavinck sets an example in his own ecclesial work on refining the Belgic Confession. At the same time, confessions act as an anchor for the theologian. Bavinck believed they provided a grounding for the theologian’s analysis in a specific ecclesial tradition, as well as the longer orthodox tradition of Christianity. This is brought out by Clausing in his exploration of Bavinck’s trinitarian theology, specifically through the influence of the Leiden Synopsis, which Bavinck was an editor of.

The third way that Bavinck evidences historicist tendencies, according to Clausing, is in his emphasis on the individual Christian consciousness. This aspect is less intuitive to us in the Reformed tradition, but the insight is valuable. Bavinck held that theology was a human endeavor, and that because doctrines and theological systems are human artifacts, theological methodology must account for the subjective element of the person doing theology. As we look at Bavinck’s approach to theology, we can see the importance of context in terms of understanding what the individual theologian is pursuing. Bavinck also demonstrates a sensitivity to his own scholarly and cultural context by acknowledging the anxieties of his age, and by interacting with scholars who would otherwise be considered on a different theological “team”.

Flowing out from these three emphases in Bavinck’s methodology was the conviction that theology is a “progressive science,” a science that looked back to the past and pressed forward into the future. Clausing shows that, for Bavinck, theology could be grounded in the past and developed into the future in ways that were faithful to scripture and the Reformed tradition, whilst adapting to the needs of the theologian’s context.

Clausing has made a genuinely valuable contribution to scholarship about Reformed theology and particularly about Herman Bavinck. His argument straddles two tendencies in Bavinck scholarship. One tendency tries to situate Bavinck in a more pristine, orthodox frame; that is, Bavinck used concepts of his own day and time, but he was not in substantial agreement with the philosophical and theological trends of his day. The lead scholar of this school is James Eglinton, who suggests that Bavinck’s “organicism” is rooted in the Reformed tradition rather than German idealism.

The other school of Bavinck interpretation argues that he substantially adopted and adapted aspects of modern philosophical thought into his theology, particularly German historicism and idealism. A recent argument along these lines comes from Bruce Pass, who suggests in his The Heart of Dogmatics and a recent article in the Scottish Journal of Theology, that Bavinck is substantially influenced by F. W. J. Schelling. The seminal expression of this is found in the work of Jan Veenhof.

Clausing has made a case in this book for both schools. The argument is that German historicism had a substantial impact on Bavinck’s thought. At the same time, Clausing has demonstrated that this did not lead Bavinck down the path to liberalism, nor to the abandonment of the ecclesial and confessional tradition that he stood in. With his careful exposition of Bavinck, Clausing has weaved an argument that will need to be reckoned with by both schools of interpretation.

I have only one significant objection to Clausing’s interpretation, which is his insistence that Bavinck’s philosophy of history is Augustinian. While I wouldn’t deny that he is influenced by Augustine (who in the Western tradition isn’t?), Clausing failed to produce substantial evidence from Bavinck’s works. My reading of Bavinck varies with Clausing’s on this point.

Bavinck’s philosophy of history is more directly influenced by his philosophical context, and therefore leans more heavily on the German idealism of G. W. F. Hegel, Schelling, and Wilhelm Dilthey. These are thinkers that Bavinck cites in his philosophical discussions of history, whereas the silence around Augustine in this respect is deafening. On the other hand, Clausing’s suggestion that Bavinck adopts a Joachimite typology of historical ages was intriguing and worth careful consideration.

Setting this relatively minor criticism aside, we can conclude that this is a fine monograph which will be necessary reading for any Bavinck scholars. However, Clausing’s work draws out some interesting implications for our thinking about the role of history in our theology and ecclesiology. There is more to appreciate here.

First, Clausing shows Bavinck as a model of theological engagement with contemporary theological and philosophical questions. Bavinck did theology in the face of the challenges that he and his church were confronted by in his own day. Unlike someone like Charles Hodge, who basically pretended that Immanuel Kant never existed, Bavinck really faced down his contemporaries.

Second, Clausing has opened up some interesting questions around the role of historical theology and the historical confessions in framing our dogma and praxis. Once again, Bavinck is a model for a way forward. Bavinck demonstrated a rich, historically-sensitive, warm, respectful engagement with historical sources, while having a self-conscious grounding in the Reformed tradition. Our confessional tradition and our confessional documents are useful as anchors. To use Clausing’s phrase, confessions have a “ministerial” authority in the doctrine and life of the church. We need them to help us move towards the future and also to help us remain moored to the faith passed down to us.

Third, Clausing’s book posits the individual as an important agent in theological reflection. This kind of methodology could have great appeal today, given the highly individualized culture we live in, where everyone feels they can tailor their experience of life to their own desires. Here, we can learn from thinkers like Schleiermacher, just as Bavinck did. The individual experience of the faith matters, and in terms of shaping theological reflection, it matters a great deal. There are obviously dangers to avoid, here, but there are potentially opportunities as well.

This is a fine book, one that deserves a wide reading. It demonstrates that Herman Bavinck is more than a dogmatician – he is a potential guide on the question of method. How should we carry out the task of Christian dogmatics into the future? The answer that Clausing suggests comes from Bavinck is that we allow for the influence of Scripture, confession, and individual Christian consciousness. Bavinck is a model for balancing these, and the key to this is a deliberate, conscious integration of historical thinking into our method.

Simon P. Kennedy is a Senior Research Fellow at the University of Queensland and a Non-Resident Fellow at the Danube Institute. He is also the Associate Editor of Quadrant Magazine. This is a revised version of a talk given at Christ College in Sydney, at the launch of Dr Clausing’s book.


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