By Andrew Esqueda
One of Herman Bavinck’s most profound contributions to theology can be found in his prolegomena to Reformed Dogmatics [RD, 4 vols] in which he seeks to bring forth a necessary and fundamental starting point for all further elucidations on the proper task of dogmatics. This starting point begins by affirming that “God has spoken,” Deus dixit (RD I, 30; 46). The significant impact of Bavinck and his exposition of the Deus dixit can be seen in his influence upon Karl Barth. Barth subsequently took Bavinck’s application of the Deus dixit and furthered its use by way of his commentary on the proper task of dogmatics and development of a three-fold Word of God. Barth, in preparation for his Göttingen lectures, read Bavinck’s Gereformeerde Dogmatiek closely, and incorporated Bavinck’s understanding of the Deus dixit into his lectures (McCormack, Karl Barth’s Critically Realistic Dialectical Theology [CRDT], 337). It is important to note that Barth did not stop with a simple affirmation of Bavinck’s declaration that “God has spoken,” but developed it further, working with and beyond Bavinck’s original scheme. Although Barth’s use of the Deus dixit has been examined in studies by Bruce L. McCormack, (CRDT, 337), and John Vissers, (“What Might Canadian Evangelical Theologians Learn From Karl Barth’s Appreciative Use of Herman Bavinck’s “Reformed Dogmatics”?”, Lecture, CETA, Montreal, May, 2010), it is my intention in this essay to go beyond an examination of Barth’s appreciative use of Bavinck and to examine the differences and similarities in Barth and Bavinck’s dogmatic use of the Deus dixit.
This essay is comprised of three sections. In the first section, I begin with an examination of Bavinck’s use of the Deus dixit (RD I), highlighting its position as the foundation of dogmatics. In the second section, I examine Barth’s use and development of the Deus dixit within the Göttingen Dogmatics [GD]. I will begin with an investigation into Barth’s appropriation of the Deus dixit as it relates to his elucidation of the proper task of dogmatics and his doctrine of the three-fold word of God. In the third and final section, I compare and contrast Barth and Bavinck’s use of the Deus dixit, paying significant attention to Barth’s understanding of its limits.
That God has revealed Himself in His Word means that the Deus dixit has occurred—God has spoken. This assertion is, for Bavinck, the fundamental presupposition of dogmatics. Dogmatics can then be defined as reflection upon the Deus dixit. Bavinck writes, “The task of the dogmatician is to think God’s thoughts after him and to trace their unity” (RD I, 25). It is in reflection upon the Deus dixit that the dogmatician is able to properly carry out this task. But, for Bavinck, dogmatics is comprised of more than ambivalent reflection; there must be a certainty in the speaking of God for dogmatics properly to be dogmatics. Thus, it is only through supreme confidence that the Deus dixit has occurred that dogmatic reflection may be undertaken. As Bavinck saw it, the certainty and confidence that “God has spoken” comes to light in the exposition of Scripture. Therefore, dogmatics is able to proceed with confidence only on account of divine revelation grounded in “sacred Scripture” (RD I, 30). For Bavinck, dogmatics cannot and must not be seen as that which grounds the contours of the Christian faith—it is exactly the opposite. Room is made for dogmatic reflection by divine revelation attested in Scripture and the coming of faith. Bavinck maintained that the proper task of dogmatics can be rooted in none other than the speaking of God. Thus, for Bavinck, “the principle into which all theological dogmas are distilled is: God has said it [Deus dixit]” (RD I, 30).
It is in the beginning of Karl Barth’s prolegomena to dogmatics, entitled “The Word of God as the Problem of Dogmatics” (GD, 3), that Barth adheres to what he calls an “older dogmatic tradition.” In following this tradition, Barth, defines dogmatics as “reflection on the Word of God” (GD, 8). It is important that dogmatics not be equated with the science of God (GD, 10), which reduces dogmatics to scholarly metaphysics. Barth, wants to make certain that these truths are always governed and “secured by an intervening Deus dixit” (GD, 10). Bavinck’s influence becomes evident at this point. Barth’s use of the Deus dixit, as he learned it from Bavinck (GD, 14; CRDT, 338n), began to shape the way in which he thought about dogmatics. For Barth, the actuality that “God has spoken” makes the dogmatician able to carry out that task properly. Barth, however, does not stop here. He takes the application of the Deus dixit a step further and argues that the actuality that God has spoken becomes not only the foundation for dogmatics, but also the proper foundation for knowledge of God in faith. What this means is that the Deus dixit, for Barth, becomes the bedrock of both dogmatic reflection and the doctrine of the Word of God.
Dogmatics is, for Barth, reflection upon the Word of God, which is revelation in so far as it is the speaking of God. What must be emphasized at this juncture is Barth’s assertion that all “truth” about God is secured by God’s speaking. In light of this assertion, our knowledge of God must be strictly attributed to the Deus dixit. As Barth understands it, knowledge of God cannot be ascribed to experience, the human psyche, or the dogmatician. Rather, it must be attributed to the “speaking of God which is identical with God; identical, because it is a speaking by God” (CRDT, 338). Barth’s emphasis upon the Deus dixit bears substantial implications for his understanding of revelation, which now brings us to his explication of the three-fold word of God.
The Word of God, as Barth explicates in the Göttingen Dogmatics and subsequently in Church Dogmatics I/1, is three-fold. In the first form, the Word of God is the “first address in which God himself and God alone is the speaker” (GD, 14). This first form of the Word of God is not ongoing since it took place at a specific time in history. It is thus important that a strict distinction be made between “The statement ‘God revealed himself’…[and] ‘revelation took place’”(GD, 15). The Deus dixit, as such, has an historical and original occurrence in the strict sense, yet it is still true that it eternally persists for “if the Word of God is to be known, it must be received by us in the present” (CRDT, 338). Holy Scripture as the second form of the Word of God is not ongoing—it is an event in time, which does not occur again. An extension of the idea of Scripture is certainly possible, e.g., if a truly inspired book was to be discovered, but it cannot be true that there is a continuation of the prophets and apostles. For Scripture, and even its possible extension, still belong in the historical past (GD, 15). Holy Scripture is thus, the attestation and witness of the original Deus dixit—it is not revelation, but from revelation. The third form of the Word of God is Christian preaching, which is ongoing in that it proceeds from the original Deus dixit and Holy Scripture. Preaching is ongoing because “It is present,” and “Naturally, in, with, and under Christian preaching, revelation and scripture are present too, but not otherwise” (GD, 16).
Barth’s reading of Herman Bavinck and his understanding of Bavinck’s use of the Deus dixit had a formative role in the way which Barth sets forth his prolegomena and doctrine of the Word of God. Much of Barth’s exposition of his prolegomena to dogmatics strongly echoes Bavinck. But it is also true that while Bavinck takes the Deus dixit in one direction, Barth takes it in another, especially as it relates to his understanding of revelation. It is here that I will show Barth’s development of the Deus dixit, corresponding with his understanding of revelation, as the catalyst for his divergence from Bavinck.
The influence of Bavinck on Barth’s prolegomena and doctrine of the Word of God is significant. But the question is not whether Bavinck’s exposition of the Deus dixit had an impact on Barth’s theology—this is quite evident. Rather, the question is this: To what extent does Barth’s developmental use of the Deus dixit set Barth’s theology off toward a distinctly different trajectory than that of Bavinck? Until his exposition of the three-fold Word of God, Barth works primarily within the confines of Bavinck’s understanding of the Deus dixit. But what separates Barth and Bavinck is not their starting point, but their understanding of the Deus dixit as it relates to God’s revelation. What Barth brings to the theological table (so to speak) in his doctrine of the Word of God is an understanding of revelation which brings out the restricted nature of the Deus dixit. This is quite distinct from Bavinck. In order to understand these diverging trajectories, it is necessary to examine the ways in which the Deus dixit impacts their doctrines of revelation.
Bavinck understands the Deus dixit as an event in history. But the trajectory that Bavinck takes toward a doctrine of general revelation (RD I, 301) is interesting in this context. Bavinck sees the Deus dixit as ongoing. That is, the Deus dixit endures qua Holy Scripture and preaching, but it can also extend beyond the confines of the church. This is not to say that Bavinck digresses into a sort of Reformed doctrine of natural theology, but it is to say that he comes quite close. God is thus continually able to speak extra muros ecclesiae (outside the walls of the church). Bavinck understands the speaking of God in the particular sense—that is, the original Deus dixit—as ultimately related to the speaking of God in the general sense—that is, general revelation. Thus, the presupposition underlying Bavinck’s doctrine of revelation is that the Deus dixit extends beyond the original event in history, Holy Scripture, and the preaching of the church. God is, in fact, speaking to the whole of creation—God is not confined to the mediation of the church. Bavinck stresses quite strongly the general over the particular. But they are not to be separated from each other for the original Deus dixit is joined with the general speaking of God. Bavinck’s broad understanding of revelation does not deter from the significance of the original Deus dixit, but it rather affirms the significance of God’s activity in the created order. The Deus dixit is the revelation of God because it is the speaking of God, but Bavinck makes only a slight distinction, in contrast to Barth, between God revealing God-self and revelation occurring. That is to say, the original Deus dixit has obvious priority over all subsequent speaking of God, and the general nature of God’s subsequent speaking is wholly affirmed as revelation. Thus, the special revelation of God and the general revelation of God are truly and utterly the Deus dixit. Bavinck’s theology must not be construed to say that salvation occurs apart from faith—this is not true at all. But Bavinck does affirm that general revelation, although it might be blurry (RD I, 304), is a precursor to special revelation in which the two are ultimately united in faith (RD I, 302). It is quite fair to say that there is a sense in Bavinck’s theology that there is a special Deus dixit and a general Deus dixit. In order to keep Bavinck’s theology from falling under the category of “natural theology,” it might be beneficial to speak of an original Deus dixit and the general “speaking of God.”
Barth takes his understanding of the Deus dixit in a distinctly different trajectory than Bavinck. Barth emphasizes the particular, which constitutes the restriction of the Deus dixit. Like Bavinck, Barth understands the Deus dixit as an event in history. But unlike Bavinck, the Deus dixit happened once-and-for-all (Barth, Church Dogmatics I/1 [CD], 115) and can be actualized only qua scripture and Christian preaching. Barth is unwilling to affirm any knowledge of God apart from scripture and Christian preaching. So, the speaking of God is particular to the original Deus dixit yet, by the work of the Holy Spirit in and through scripture and Christian preaching, it eternally endures such that it is as if the Deus dixit occurs again. This is not to say that God is exclusively confined to the Church. In fact, Barth affirms that if God so pleased He could reveal Himself by way of a dead dog (CD I/1, 55), and Barth speaks of the possibility of the work of the God extra muros ecclesiae (CD IV/2, 724). But these instances are not normative, and must not be universally canonized as the way in which God acts. For Barth, the normative speaking of God is always located in and with the Word of God—so that, knowledge of God never occurs apart from the Deus dixit.
Barth puts a limitation on the Deus dixit. The trajectory Barth takes seems to hinder the ability of God but, in all reality, Barth simply preserves the particularity of God as the subject of the Deus dixit. Barth, over against Bavinck, starts with the particular nature of the Deus dixit, and subsequently stays there. There is nothing about revelation that can be characterized in the general sense. Thus, the only way in which the particularized Deus dixit can endure is by way of limitation through the three-fold Word of God. For although the original Deus dixit has occurred in the past, it is upheld and heard today through the reading of scripture and Christian preaching. What ultimately separates Barth and Bavinck, proceeding from their corresponding conceptions of the Deus dixit and related to the proper task of dogmatics, is their understandings of the particular and general nature of the Deus dixit. For Barth, the Deus dixit has occurred and endures only by way of Scripture and preaching. Any other claim of the knowledge of God is simply an abstraction.
If one were to read Barth and Bavinck casually, it would be quite easy to assume that their theologies would end up in a very similar place. Their theologies are quite similar at times, which is exactly it—similar, but only to an extent. Bavinck, in attempting to affirm the work of God in creation, creates an abstraction in the form of the universal mediation of the knowledge of God. This can in some sense be defended by the titles of “special” or “general” revelation but, regardless of that demarcation, the Deus dixit is relegated to the mediation of something other than the Word of God. Although Bavinck would affirm the work of the Holy Spirit as the acting subject of general revelation, there is no possible way for one to properly discern what is true revelation in that context. It begs the question of who or what is the subject of general revelation. Can one be confident that it is truly the Deus dixit? An understanding of a general Deus dixit, or a general revelation apart from the preceding enlightenment of Christ through faith, is an abstracted revelation whose subject is not God and is, therefore, indistinct from natural theology.
Let this critique of Bavinck not deter us from the merit of his theology and the significance of his influence on Barth. Although Barth and Bavinck diverge, it is Bavinck’s elucidation of the proper task of dogmatics and his application of the Deus dixit that became pivotal to Barth’s understanding of dogmatics and his development of the three-fold Word of God. Barth’s restriction of the Deus dixit does not lose sight of Bavinck’s initial application and its significance for dogmatics. It was my intention to go beyond an examination of Barth’s appreciative use of Bavinck, not for the sake of minimizing Barth’s gratitude toward Bavinck, but in order to show the importance of theological influence as well as dogmatic construction. What can be gleaned from this examination is not insignificant: although Barth’s use of Bavinck beyond the Göttingen Dogmatics was not overly extensive, it remains significant by providing both an historical and dogmatic framework for understanding the foundations and development of particular aspects of Barth’s theology. Apart from critique, there is certainly an affirmation of Bavinck that cannot be overlooked and should be taken more seriously by Barthians. Bavinck’s theology, although sometimes at odds with Barth’s, can provide a helpful theological resource as well as a beneficial interlocutor.
By Joel Esala
Andrew Esqueda does an admirable job elucidating the little acknowledged relationship between Herman Bavinck and Karl Barth’s theology. While recognizing their differences in methodology, Esqueda does not point out the systemic root of those differences: the identity of the Word of God. My comments are not critical but ancillary in light of Barth’s development in the Dogmatics.
Bavinck and Barth’s differences concerning the Deus dixit center on the identity of the Word of God. Esqueda identifies that for Barth the first form of the Word of God is the “first address in which God himself and God alone is the speaker” (GD, 14). This is true in so far as it goes, of course. If we can know God’s word, this is only because God has revealed it. Without God’s revealing, what we would call “the word of God” would simply be our own idolatrous words, or as Barth would later put it, “a hypostatized image of man” (CD II/2, 4). The key for Barth is that God has not spoken one nugget of revelation here and another there, but has spoken with one voice definitely in Jesus Christ: “For it is Jesus Christ who is God’s revelation” (CD II/1, 74). Jesus Christ is not simply one part of revelation in a series of parts that must be unified into a coherent theological narrative; rather he is the beginning and the end of all God’s revelation, the first and last of all God’s words: “He is the decree of God behind and above which there can be no earlier or higher decree and beside which there can be no other” (CD II/2, 94). To him the apostles and prophets give witness in the second form of the Word of God, and preaching gives witness to Jesus Christ through the apostles and prophets.
While Barth indentifies different forms of the Word of God, that Word is the same in substance. All three forms point to Jesus Christ in whom humanity hears God’s gracious word to all. God does not give mixed messages because in Jesus Christ God’s will is revealed in full and without equivocation. The difference then between Barth and Bavinck’s theologies of the Word is rooted in differing understandings of Jesus Christ, different doctrines of election and, ultimately, different understandings of the gospel. For Bavinck, the distinction between general and special revelation indicates that Jesus Christ is not the beginning and end of all God’s revelation. Instead Jesus becomes the means to some greater end, namely to save some and condemn others. Jesus is instrumentalized and merely plays a part in God’s greater whole, and that whole is ultimately “unknown to us and neither can nor may be the rule of our conduct” (RD III, 466). For Bavinck, we cannot know “the will of God’s good pleasure,” but only “the revealed will” of God (ibid). There is a variance between what God wills and what God reveals for Bavinck, which is why he must affirm two different forms of revelation that – despite his best efforts to hold them together – ultimately cast doubt on the veracity of all God’s revelation. If what God has revealed is somehow different than what God wills, there is no way to trust what God reveals. God may appear to be gracious toward humanity, while in fact God might be hostile. Bavinck cannot state with Barth concerning Jesus Christ, “Before Him and without Him God does not, then, elect or will anything” (CD II/2, 94). Therefore Bavinck’s different forms of revelation, unlike Barth’s, are not the same in substance. God is not of one mind with respect to his creation, and speaks different words for different purposes. Jesus serves to reveal part but not all of God’s will. For Barth this leads to despair, obscuring the true God behind an unknown decree. Such a God cannot be loved, only feared.
Barth’s insistence on limiting the Deus dixit to God’s word spoken in Jesus Christ is rooted in his firm conviction that Jesus Christ is the beginning and the end, not merely the means to the end. Bavinck cannot say the same. Even though their theologies begin with the same idea of rooting everything in God’s speech, they end up in different places because hidden behind Bavinck’s revelation is the unknown will of God. For Barth this was not good news. To limit the word of God spoken in Christ ensures the gospel remain good news for all.
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