Bavinck on Anthropology

by Apr 4, 2014Theology1 comment

21R-wFBoU0LThis is pretty dense, but it’s rich. I wish I’d seen it during my dissertation work (with which it is quite consistent). It reflects Herman Bavinck’s incredibly wide view of the field of theology. I’ve really enjoyed absorbing his century-old material on the image of God. It honestly feels like it was written yesterday with all the names changed. Maybe theology hasn’t progressed as far as we inveterate chronological snobs tend to think. I added paragraphing for easier processing:

Rationalism and Pelagianism detach the intellect and the will from the heart and equate the total being of man with intellect and will.

Mysticism, despising the conscious, active life of the will, retreats into the depths of the mind.

The Greek Orthodox Church and Greek Orthodox theology place head and heart immediately side by side.

But thanks to the leadership of Augustine, Western theology has avoided all these errors. It discovered that the doctrine of God and the doctrine of man are most intimately related [this reflects Bavinck’s theme that the whole human person, body and all, is—and not just has {1 Cor. 11:7}—the image of God]. In the doctrine of the Trinity, therefore, it held onto the unity of the being, the distinctiveness of the three Persons, and the filioque; and in psychology, accordingly, it taught that the deep, hidden life of the soul comes to expression through the cognitive and the conative [volitional] capacities, and that between these two the latter was led and guided by the former. (Reformed Dogmatics, Vol. 2, God and Creation, p. 557)

I’m not perfectly certain what he means by the last phrase—about the cognitive leading the conative. And my reading leads me to suggest that Western theology is not so unified on that point. But everything else Bavinck said seems to me to be very helpful.

If you’ve made it this far, you may be wondering why it all matters. Basically, if the Trinitarian analogy is legitimate, then a man’s heart is like the Father in the godhead. The Father directs the other persons of the Trinity just as the heart directs the other faculties. But just as the persons of the Trinity are all equal and make up one God, so the human faculties are all equal and make up one man. Man is God’s self-portrait. Fallen though we certainly are, we still reflect our maker—even in His triunity.

And if you still don’t see why that matters, then think of the New Covenant: if my heart ultimately determines what I do, then the most precious promise of that New Covenant (Jer 31:31ff.; Ezek. 36:26ff.) must be that members of the New Covenant get new hearts from God.

And if you’re still scratching your head, think of this: what does this Trinitarian analogy do to the common evangelical (and liberal, and secular) talk that “love is a choice” or “love is an action”? If all of my words and actions come from the heart (“out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks”; “out of it flow the issues of life”), is it possible to execute any actions or make any choices which don’t include feeling of some kind? If not (and I think not), then what good can it do to tell people to ignore their feelings and simply do right? In my mind, Paul has clearly labeled such actions worthless (1 Cor. 13:3). It will always be a struggle to find my heart united in love for God and neighbor, but I must never, by God’s grace, give up. He has given me the one thing needful: a new heart.

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1 Comment
  1. Duncan Johnson

    Thanks, Mark. Helpful.

    I really need to read Bavinck sometime here.