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The Primacy of the Trinity in Theology and Apologetics: Herman Bavinck on Trinitarian Dogma

The Primacy of the Trinity in Theology

In the closing section of Herman Bavinck’s chapter on the Trinity, the Dutch theologian makes some very important and keen observations on the importance of the doctrine of the Trinity. After Bavinck the importance of the “Trinitarian Dogma” will resurface in a new form in the thought of Cornelius Van Til. Van Til, following Bavinck, held the doctrine of the Trinity as key to a proper understanding of the creator-creature distinction and how God relates to the created order. For both men threatening the orthodox doctrine of the Trinity are the equally heretical positions of Deism on the one hand and pantheism on the other. A denial of the biblical doctrine of the Trinity inevitable results in one error or the other (and in some instances both at the same time). Pantheism and Deism should not be seen as two extremes on the same spectrum with orthodox Trinitarianism in the middle performing a balancing act between them. Rather, pantheism and Deism are two wings of the same bird which fly over against and in the face of the Trinitarian dogma.

So, for Bavinck the doctrine of the Trinity “alone makes possible – against Deism on the one hand – the connection between God and the world, and – against pantheism on the other – the difference between God and the world.” (RD 2.332) Part and parcel of how the doctrine of the Trinity maintains a proper creator-creature distinction is due to the personal properties of the respective persons of the Triune God. Indispensable – and absolutely so – for Bavinck is the doctrine of the eternal generation the Son and the procession of the Spirit. The unity and diversity of the Trinity, understood in terms of the personal properties, ward of pantheism because its teaches us that God is not without “action and production” in himself. Rather, in himself he is “life, blessedness, glory.” (ibid). God is not a static being, and he does not need anything outside of himself to ward off that charge. He has no need to perform any acts ad extra in order to “become” and to be the living God. The God of orthodox Trinitarianism is not, and never was, a dead God conceived in terms of Greek abstractions.

Furthermore, since God is self-communicative he can communicate himself to the creation and not be aloof, as in Deism. So “if the divine being were not productive and could not communicate himself inwardly (ad intra), then neither could there be any revelation of God ad extra.” (ibid) In other words, a denial of the Trinity and the personal properties leave us with an abstract God about whom we can know nothing. This false god is dumb and mute:

The doctrine of God’s incommunicability, with its implicit denial of the Son’s generation and the Spirit’s procession, carries within itself the corollary of the existence of a world separate from, outside of, and opposed to God. (Ibid).

The glorious conclusion to the real doctrine of the Trinity is that it “tells us that God can reveal himself in an absolute sense to the Son and the Spirit, and hence, in a relative sense also to the world.” (RD 2.333). In other words, a true Christian epistemology is grounded in an orthodox ontology. To be more precise, a Christian epistemology must be grounded upon the orthodox doctrine of “the self-contained ontological Trinity” (to use a Van Tillism). The pursuit of a faithful systematic theology, in other words, begins and ends with the doctrine of the Trinity. Mess with this, and everything else gets messed with. The entirety of our system of theology rests on this point.

The Apologetic Import

This doctrine of the Trinity has practical implications for doing apologetics. Take for example the starting point of all modern thought. The starting point of all modern thought, after Kant, is what Bavinck called above “the doctrine of the God’s incommunicability.” This is the ontological dualism that flows from a rejection of the Trinitarian dogma.1 Once we are rid of the ad intra generation of the Son and the procession of the Spirit God becomes a static monad, or worse three divine beings. The god of Kant is the God of silence. He is incapable of communicating himself to us because he is opposed to us and we to him. There is an unbridgeable gap, a qualitative difference between the eternal God on the one hand and the temporal creature on the other.

This is the basic assumption of all modern thought and theology. There are different proposed solutions, however, to the problem of this dualism and its consequent epistemological conundrum (i.e., how can we know a god who is opposed to us and is incommunicative?). Kant’s solution was the categorical imperative. Man has a sense of morality, that sense must come from somewhere. Therefore, in the noumenal realm there must be a law-giver, a source of our sense of morality. For Schleiermacher it was the sense the absolute dependence. For Hegel it was a process of God’s own self actualization in the world. Kant and Schleiermacher ended with the god of Deism, Hegel with the god of pantheism.

Now, Barth is unique in all this. He begins with the qualitative difference between eternity and time (rather than the triune God of Scripture). He assumes the dualism. He takes his starting point in Kant. Barth is, after all, a modern man. For Barth, however, God must be able to communicate himself. After all, Barth affirms the absolute freedom of God. But how can God communicate himself without transgressing the qualitative difference between God and the creature? Jesus Christ is his answer. God communicates himself to man in Jesus Christ. His doctrine of the Trinity is recast in light of his Christology. Jesus Christ constitutes God’s being as triune. Ontology and epistemology are one in Jesus Christ. Barth can say not only that Jesus Christ is God, but also that God is Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ is himself the creature, the man made in the image of God. He is not something different from God, he is not a human nature assumed by the second person of the Trinity at some point in time. Rather, Jesus Christ is the eternal God himself. God takes up our humanity in Christ in an eternal act of grace. Jesus Christ then is not understood as a redemptive-historical manifestation of God in time. Rather, God becomes time from all eternity. God always has been, is, and always will be Jesus Christ.

Barth manages to do a remarkable thing in the history of theology. He simultaneously maintains the absolute qualitative difference between time and eternity on the one hand and the identification of God and creature in Jesus Christ on the other. In him there is a dialectical relationship between Deism and pantheism, holding both in tension without a need to reconcile them. God for Barth is incommunicable to us in the here and now, and only communicates himself to the creature in himself in Jesus Christ. In other words, for Barth, at the end of the day God needs the creature to be communicative. There is no way of getting around that given his actualistic Christology.

This leaves us with a God who is essentially incommunicative because he is not the one God who communicates himself through an eternal generation of the logos asarkos, nor through the eternal procession of the Holy Spirit who is himself spirated from the Father and the Son ad intra. This means, epistemologically, that there is no direct self-revelation of God to us here and now. There is no direct revelation of God to us in Scripture nor in the created order. God is silent toward us. To be sure, he has spoken in Christ. But how do we know Christ, and therefore know God? We can only receive the fallible witness of the Scriptures and the church by faith and in the faith-moment claim we know something about God. Faith becomes the subjective experience we exercise rather than a clear Word of direct revelation in the Scriptures. Barth, like Kant and Schleiermacher, falls back into a subjectivist epistemology, despite all his claims for the objective revelation of God in Christ. Dualisms abound! And they must given his essentially modern starting point and his overturning of orthodox ontology and Trinitarian dogma.

Rounding off this section on the apologetic import of Bavinck’s and Van Til’s insights, the God of the Bible is under attack from almost every quarter. Our God gets accused of being a static, cold, and lifeless being. Or, he gets humanized and then criticized. Only the “Trinitarian Dogma” gives answers to an increasingly hostile world. It is this God we worship, and he has in himself and revealed to us in his Word everything we need to answer the unbeliever. This is why the entire apologetic endeavor must, as with every theological endeavor, begin and end with the self-contained ontological Trinity.


In summary, I might leave us with a question of some historical significance. If my read of Bavinck and Van Til is correct, then it may just be that there are two new contenders for the most significant trinitarian theologian of the twentieth century. Often this honor is assumed to belong to Barth. To be sure, compared to his liberal forefathers, Barth does appropriate the doctrine of the Trinity in significant ways. But if orthodoxy at all matters in theology, and if the absolute prioritization of the Trinitarian dogma in the theological and apologetical endeavor at all matter, perhaps Bavinck and/or Van Til should be considered in the running and a reappraisal of who the most significant Trinitarian of the twentieth century may be in order.

Still, its not as if theology is a contest and it really matters what the theological world thinks about Bavinck and Van Til. For those with ears to hear, however marginalized and dismissed, the answer is clear. Nevertheless, it is a provocative question worthy of contemplation given Bavinck’s stimulating section on the Trinitarian dogma. It also should give us pause before we too easily dismiss the doctrine of the personal properties as speculative. The orthodox doctrine of the Trinity is a package deal for Bavinck, it must come as a whole or not be useful to us at all. It also connects for us dots from theology proper to the other loci of systematic theology, including the doctrines of revelation and creation. For these reasons, indeed, it is worth our considering Bavinck’s (and Van Til’s) doctrine of the Trinity as a resource for prioritizing, shaping, and structuring Reformed theology in the twenty-first century.

1This is also a problem today in so-called evangelical theology. With its biblicism evangelicalism has deemed the doctrine of the personal properties to be expendable. For a recent overview of this problem see the fine study by Kevin Giles, The Eternal Generation of the Son: Maintaining Orthodoxy in Trinitarian Theology (Downers Grove: IVP, 2012).


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