Graham Heslop
Graham Heslop Graham has an insatiable appetite for books, occasionally dips into theology, and moonlights as a lecturer in New Testament Greek at George Whitefield College, Cape Town. He also serves on the staff team at Union Chapel Presbyterian Church and as the written content editor for TGC Africa. Graham is married to Lynsay-Anne and they have one son, Teddy.

Doodle: Bavinck's Beautiful Vision for Theology

Doodle: Bavinck's Beautiful Vision for Theology

Years back Tim Challies posted a short article after receiving a copy of Michael Horton’s Christian Faith. In that article, Challies admitted to being ill-equipped to review Horton’s work, lacking the appropriate theological background required to comment meaningfully on it. This commendable humility and awareness of one’s own limitations would go a long way in much theological discourse today—but that isn’t the point of this doodle. Rather, I want to return to something that Challies did eventually offer in his short article: how he might begin his own magnum opus, the culmination of decades of work; followed by a short list of opening sentences from other systematic theologies.

I’ve never forgotten what Challies wrote at the end of his brief survey, which included the likes of Louis Berkhof, John Frame, and Charles Hodge: “Looking at that list, I don’t think there are too many conclusion we can draw, are there? Except, perhaps, that Calvin gets the prize.” And he’s not wrong. For Calvin’s Institutes opens with these magisterial words: “Nearly all the wisdom we possess, that is to say, true and sound wisdom, consists of two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves,” setting the tone for what is arguably a theological work without equal. Maybe.

It was 2011 when I read Challies’ article. And I was one year away from embarking on my own postgraduate theological studies. In addition to writing an Honours on John Owen, during that year I would also be exposed to theological luminaries such as John Webster, Colin Gunton, and Bruce McCormack—to name a few. But the most delightful and near pitch-perfect theology I read for the first time in 2012 was undoubtedly Herman Bavinck’s Reformed Dogmatics. Since then I’ve read less Bavinck than I would’ve liked, but enough to claim without hesitation that his theological work comes close to that of Calvin.

Why wasn’t he listed in Challies’ article? Probably because the opening sentences of the Reformed Dogmatics are far from riveting: “The term dogmatics is of relevantly recent date. In the past numerous other designations were in use.” Unsurprisingly, no one has ever shared that on Instagram or X; it isn’t fit for purpose in the modern world of bitesize, graphic quotes. That being said, the opening sentence of Bavinck’s Magnalia Dei (or The Wonderful Works of God) certainly is: “God, and God alone, is man’s highest good.”

What a glorious reminder for those about to embark on theological reading or studies in dogmatics: there is no greater pursuit than the knowledge of God. But note that Bavinck goes beyond mere understanding with his opening. God is, as he writes, our “highest good.” Reading in theology is not an exercise in knowing more about God, but the pursuit of God himself. So the truest measure of theology isn’t precision but how much of the person is wrapped up in God. To this end, let me conclude with a quote from the first volume of Bavinck’s Reformed Dogmatics, issuing believers with a beautiful vision for theology.

“Dogmatics is the system of the knowledge of God as he has revealed himself in Christ; it is the system of the Christian religion. And the essence of the Christian religion consists in the reality that the creation of the Father, ruined by sin, is restored in the death of the Son of God and re-created by the grace of the Holy Spirit into a kingdom of God. Dogmatics shows us how God, who is all-sufficient in himself, nevertheless glorifies himself in his creation, which, even when it is torn apart by sin, is gathered up again in Christ (Ephesians 1:10). It describes for us God, always God, from beginning to end—God in his being, God in his creation, God against sin, God in Christ, God breaking down all resistance through the Holy Spirit and guiding the whole of creation back to the objective he decreed for it: the glory of his name” (1.2.35).

Thus Bavinck concludes with an exhortation many of us would do well to hear: “Dogmatics is not a dull and arid science. It is a theodicy, a doxology to all God’s virtues and perfections, a hymn of adoration and thanksgiving, a ‘glory to God in the highest’ (Luke 2:14).”

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