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

The pursuit of a faithful systematic theology begins and ends with the doctrine of the Trinity.

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.


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 off 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 intrageneration 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.

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