6
May
2017

Herman Bavinck’s Trinitarian Worldview: A Brief Overview

The doctrine of the Trinity is the architectonic principle of the whole theological and apologetic enterprise of Herman Bavinck. While it may be debated as to how consistent he was in the application of this principle with his occasional nod to realism, it cannot be denied that he was self-consciously committed to the triune God of Scripture as the alpha and omega point of his thought. In his chapter on the Holy Trinity, he concludes with a useful section entitled, “The Importance of Trinitarian Dogma,” in which he provides a global comment that warrants this claim. He writes,

The thinking mind situates the doctrine of the Trinity squarely amid the full-orbed life of nature and humanity. A Christian’s confession is not an island in the ocean but a high mountaintop from which the whole creation can be surveyed. And it is the task of Christian theologians to present clearly the connectedness of God’s revelation with, and its significance for, all of life. The Christian mind remains unsatisfied until all of existence is referred back to the triune God, and until the confession of God’s Trinity functions at the center of our thought and life.[1]

This approach avoids the incept nature/grace dualism that has plagued scholasticism with an impassable chasm between the natural and supernatural and the monism of secular philosophy that seeks a common, unifying element at the expense of all diversity. Both will come directly into the crosshairs of Bavinck’s apologetic, which has its epistemological grounds in the self-revelation of the triune God in whom unity and diversity are equally absolute. Bavinck writes, “In God … there is unity in diversity, diversity in unity. Indeed, this order and this harmony is present in him absolutely. … [I]n God both are present: absolute unity as well as absolute diversity.”[2] The point, then, is that the ontology of the creation finds its archetype in its triune Creator-God, in whom absolute unity and absolute diversity are eternally harmonized. The creation, understood according to the basic Creator-creature distinction of Scripture, possesses a relative unity and relative diversity, with neither destroying or canceling out the other.

This agrees with what James Eglinton has labeled Bavinck’s “organic motif”: “Trinity ad intra leads to organism ad extra.”[3] He explains, “God as the archetypal (triune) unity-in-diversity is the basis for all subsequent (triniform) ectypal cosmic unity-in-diversity.”[4] The organic motif enables Bavinck to communicate a distinctly trinitarian worldview.[5] Nathaniel Gray Sutanto writes, “Creation displays an organic ontology of diversities in unity precisely because in God there is an archetypal unity and diversity.”[6] More concisely, Eglinton states, “Theological organicism is the creation’s triune shape.”[7]

For this reason, any investigation of the creation, whether scientific, historical, sociological, psychological, etc., must expect to encounter and be able to harmonize its ectypal unity and diversity in keeping with its very nature. Herein is the force of Bavinck’s apologetic: it is only by a revelatory epistemology that begins with the triune God, as he has revealed himself in Scripture, that any true knowledge, whether of nature or humanity, can be arrived at without sacrificing its unity for its diversity or its diversity for its unity. Special revelation is necessary for general revelation to be interpreted correctly.

Bavinck does not employ the term in the above quote, as he does elsewhere, but the doctrine of the Trinity—derived from special revelation alone—provides this organic link between nature and grace, general revelation and special revelation. This doctrine of special revelation becomes the mountaintop vantage point from which the general revelation of God in creation, which stands before us as a most elegant book, is properly read and interpreted.[8] They are neither isolated from, nor set in opposition to one another, but complement each other in an organic manner, the one requiring the other. “Special revelation should never be separated from its organic connection to history, the world, and humanity.”[9] It is “in the light of Scripture we know it is the Father who by his Word and Spirit also reveals himself in the works of nature and history.”[10] With the glasses of Scripture on, the believer is able to discern the “creation’s triune shape.”[11]

Herman Bavinck’s organic ontology, which holds that the archetypal unity-in-diversity of the triune God of Scripture requires an ectypal unity-in-diversity in the creation, provides the theological rationale for his philosophical apologetic.[12] Because the creation is not amorphous, conforming to the subjective and variegated philosophies of man, but has an objective unity-in-diversity ontology, both monism and dualism are unable to account for the full-orbed life of the world and humanity. The former destroys all diversity at the expense of unity and the latter posits a diversity that never arrives at a unity—neither can satisfy both the heart and the mind. Such satisfaction is reserved only for the revelational epistemology of Scripture that takes the doctrine of the Trinity as its alpha and omega point.

This is evident in the failure of both pantheism and materialism succumbing to a monism that dissolves all distinctions “in a bath of deadly uniformity.” Bavinck observes,

Pantheism attempts to explain the world dynamically; materialism attempts to do so mechanically. But both strive to see the whole as governed by a single principle. In pantheism the world may be a living organism, of which God is the soul; in materialism it is a mechanism that is brought about by the union and separation of atoms. But in both systems an unconscious blind fate is elevated to the throne of the universe. Both fail to appreciate the richness and diversity of the world; erase the boundaries between heaven and earth, matter and spirit, soul and body, man and animal, intellect and will, time and eternity, Creator and creature, being and nonbeing; and dissolve all distinctions in a bath of deadly uniformity. Both deny the existence of a conscious purpose and cannot point to a cause or a destiny for the existence of the world and its history.[13]

In contrast, only the Christian worldview maintains that in the creation there is “the most profuse diversity and yet, in that diversity, there is also a superlative kind of unity.”[14] Bavinck explicitly locates the foundation of this diversity and unity in God.[15] The world has its beginning in God’s act of creation, its continuation in his governing power and finds its consummation in him as its ultimate goal.

Here is a unity that does not destroy but rather maintains diversity, and a diversity that does not come at the expense of unity, but rather unfolds it in its riches. In virtue of this unity the world can, metaphorically, be called an organism, in which all the parts are connected with each other and influence each other reciprocally. Heaven and earth, man and animal, soul and body, truth and life, art and science, religion and morality, state and church, family and society, and so on, though they are all distinct, are not separated. There is a wide range of connections between them; an organic, or if you will, an ethical bond holds them all together.[16]

For further study check out the address Dr. Jim Cassidy gave at the 2016 Reformed Forum Theology Conference: The Trinity, Image of God, and Apologetics: Bavinck’s Consistently Reformed Defense of the Faith. We also have an interview with Dr. Carlton Wynne reviewing James Eglinton’s book Trinity and Organism and numerous podcast episodes with Nathaniel Gray Sutanto, a PhD Candidate at New College, University of Edinburgh.


[1] Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, 2:330.

[2] Bavinck, RD, 2:331, 332.

[3] James Eglinton, Trinity and Organism, 80.

[4] Ibid., 54.

[5] Nathaniel Gray Sutanto, “Herman Bavinck on the Image of God and Original Sin,” International Journal Of Systematic Theology 18, no. 2 (April 2016): 175.

[6] Ibid.

[7] James Eglinton, “Bavinck’s Organic Motif: Questions Seeking Answers,” Calvin Theological Journal 45, no. 1: 66.

[8] Belgic Confession art. 2 notes the two means by which God is made known to us, which are typically denoted as general and special revelation. With regard to the latter, it reads in part, “First, by the creation, preservation, and government of the universe; which is before our eyes as a most elegant book.”

[9] Bavinck, RD, 2:353, emphasis mine.

[10] Bavinck, RD, 2:340.

[11] Sutanto, “Herman Bavinck on the Image of God and Original Sin,” 174.

[12] The phrase “organic ontology” was taken from Sutanto, “Herman Bavinck on the Image of God and Original Sin,” 174.

[13] Bavinck, RD, 2:435

[14] Bavinck, RD, 2:435–36.

[15] Bavinck, RD, 2:436.

[16] Bavinck, RD, 2:436.

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