Theological Method 1

This post is about theological method as found in the works of Herman Bavinck. Herman Bavinck shares with us four types of theological method:

  • The historical – apologetic method
  • The speculative method
  • The religious – empirical method and
  • The ethical – psychological method

I will just give an overview of the above methods.

Bavinck started his discussion of theological method with a claim that to give proofs for the ground of belief is more difficult than to give proofs for the ground of knowledge (p. 503). He labels people who claimed to have grasped religious beliefs and certainty on the bases of intellect, reason, heart, and conscience as lacking in “psychological and epistemological sophistication” (p. 504).

For Bavinck, revelation is the basic presupposition to attain certainty of faith. And since not all accept revelation due to sin, its acceptance is dependent on the inner working of the Holy Spirit. Bavinck distinguishes between two types of revelation, which are:

  • The objective revelation and
  • The subjective revelation.

This objective revelation is the Scripture, which he calls the principium cognoscendi externum – external cognitive foundation (p.506). The subjective revelation is the Holy Spirit, which he designates as the principium cognoscendi internum – internal cognitive foundation (ibid.). The first is instrumental or the means whereas the second is the goal (ibid.).

After laying down the preliminary principle of theological method, Bavinck identifies the various theological methods, which have been developed throughout history. He started with the historical-apologetic method. To my mind, Bavinck affirms the validity of this method though he recognizes the abuses of the church in utilizing this method as exemplified in the Roman Catholic apologetics and Protestant rationalism. Bavinck referring to Christ said that the life of our Lord is a constant apologetic in the midst of a sinful world. I understand this and want to expand this idea as referring to the life and teaching of Jesus as an ongoing critic and apologetic of all human constructs and the world. Moreover, Bavinck under this historical – apologetic method quotes Harnack’s description of the spiritual superiority of early Christianity by asserting that it is a “divine revelation,” “pure reason,” and “the true philosophy” (p. 508). Furthermore, in expounding the validity of apologetic, Bavinck confidently asserts, “The Christian worldview alone is one that fits the reality of the world and of life” (p. 515). It is this Christian worldview as a whole that an apologist must depend against counterfeit worldviews. Bavinck even equates apologetics with the ministry of the word in terms of potentials to bring blessing to humanity under the influence of the Holy Spirit (p. 515).

The speculative method was associated with Hegel and the triumph of reason. Bavinck appreciates the important advantages of speculative method over the apologetic method (p. 520). However, he also warns us to be cautious in perceiving Hegel’s philosophy as harmless (p. 521). He identifies one crucial error in speculative method by giving priority to thinking over being or existence (ibid.). Bavinck asks: “Do we think a thing because it exists or does a thing exist because we necessarily and logically have to think it?” Bavinck identifies that speculative philosophy believes the latter. Applying this question to the existence of God, does God exist because we think of him or we think of him because he exists? If we follow the argument of the speculative method, God then is just a product of human mind instead of thinking that human mind’s contemplation of God as a result of his existence.

The religious-empirical method was associated with Schleiermacher and the triumph of feeling. Bavinck claims that for Schleiermacher, “religion was not a matter of knowing or doing but of a certain state of feeling and, in keeping with this. That dogmatics is a description of pious states of mind” (p. 524).

The ethical-psychological method was connected with Immanuel Kant and Albrecht Ritschl and the triumph of human need for God and morality. The emphasis is not on doctrine or a historical fact but the “religious-ethical power that addresses itself to the human heart and conscience” (p.536).

In surveying Bavinck’s theological method, I observe several things:

1. I think Bavinck is in favor of the apologetic method. An yet, he appreciates the contributions of other methods.

2. To complete Bavinck’s view of revelation, he identifies two external foundation of knowledge, which are the world and the Scripture (pp. 207-208)

3. Bavinck’s view of knowledge can be considered Trinitarian. They include the following:

  • God as the essential foundation of knowledge
  • The Scriptures and the world as the external foundation of knowledge and
  • The Holy Spirit as the internal foundation of knowledge

4. I acknowledge the limitation of this study in terms of presenting in detail the other three methods mentioned by Bavinck. They require detailed examination for them to be grasped adequately and be presented fairly. For this, Bavinck’s work is to be commended for those who are interested to understand the development of theological methods throughout history.


Reformed Dogmatics: Prolegomena by Herman Bavinck


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