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Book Review: Herman Bavinck's Reformed Dogmatics–Abridged in One Volume, John Bolt (ed.)

Herman Bavinck’s Reformed Dogmatics–Abridged in One Volume, John Bolt (ed.)

Article by Ron Gleason January 2012
reformeddogmaticsbavnick.gifJohn Bolt accepted the unenviable challenge of editing an abridged volume of Herman Bavinck’s magnum opus, the Reformed Dogmatics. While Bavinck’s magisterial work encompasses four volumes, Dr. Bolt was required to select the most germane sections of these four volumes, and then to distill those sections down to their irreducible minimum and to give the reader the essence of each section. That made his challenge even more difficult.
In the “Editor’s Preface,” Bolt provides us with some insights into exactly how the volume came into existence. When Bolt edited the English translation of Bavinck’s Reformed Dogmatics, he not only wrote an “Editor’s Introduction” in Volume 1 that gave an excellent, albeit brief, introduction the Herman Bavinck and some of the leading motifs in his theology, but also he wrote a précis of each chapter. Both of these are of inestimable value. Bolt explains that the late-Dr. Roger Nicole conveyed to him that taken together, each précis “would make a nice one-volume summary of Bavinck’s theology.” (ix.)
As editor, Bolt explains that one of his aims was to be as unobtrusive as possible. He writes, “In my abridgment I worked hard to preserve Bavinck’s own voice, even his own words, keeping my translations and paraphrases to minimum.” (Ibid.) In addition, he adds, “My own role here…is to have served as Bavinck’s editorial assistant, helping to select where his score could be shortened and reconfigured for the sake of this one performance.” (Ibid.)
In order to accomplish this, Bolt followed certain “guidelines” that he shares with the reader. He reduced fifty-eight chapters to twenty-five, on which I will have some comments later. He discloses that he significantly reduced the amount of detail in the abridged volume, particularly with regard to historical theology, which characterizes the RD. As he sought to reduce four volumes of content into one volume he also strove to reduce as much “redundancy” as possible as well. This is, for example, by his own admission, a “major structural change involved” in the chapter on Providence. (cf. xii.)
There is a definite and discernible flow to this abridged work. For those familiar with Bavinck’s Reformed Dogmatics, they will observe a very clear “line” that follows the contours of Bavinck’s magnum opus. There are a number of points worth mentioning regarding the overall structure of the work. In the first place, I want to mention the footnoting. In the English edition of the RD, Bolt prepared a précis to each major chapter that was extremely helpful. As often as not, it served as a compass for how to read the chapter. Simultaneously, Bolt was not demanding that everyone read Bavinck through the lens of his précis, but rather he was suggesting, as one who is very familiar with Bavinck’s theology, what were the most salient points to look for in the chapter. The abridged version has no précis to introduce each chapter. What Bolt has done as a substitute is to insert editor notes in the footnotes. Whether one wants to view these notes as a mini-précis is left up to the reader, but I found the editor’s notes very appropriate and not at all intrusive. Because his comments are placed in the footnotes, it is left to the reader to read them or not to read them. I advise reading them because they are quite helpful and contain a great deal of pertinent up-the-date information. One will also find references to upcoming works on Bavinck and theology in general in the editor’s notes. The notes also contain references to some of Bavinck’s works that have been translated into English that are relevant for the topic under discussion.
What is lacking in the compilation of data–as Bolt admits in the Editor’s Preface–are the history of dogma sections in the RD that typify Bavinck’s theological methodology. Of course, adding those sections would have required a one-volume work that would be well over one thousand pages. A choice had to be made and the decision was made not to include those sections of material. While I respect the decision, I also believe that it somewhat weakens the value of the work to have left it out. The reason being that the reader would not only have the benefit of the most important segments and chapters of Bavinck’s theology, but also that he would be the beneficiary of Bavinck’s keen insights into the history of dogma. I understand the reasoning behind leaving those particular portions out, but it is somewhat regrettable and detracts from the intrinsic value of a one-volume work.
The seven parts into which the abridged volume is divided is based on the pattern found in the RD. This means that for all practical intents and purposes the reader will receive the core subjects covered in the larger four-volume work. There is not a clear indicator when the reader has passed from the contents of one volume of the RD to that of another volume. For instance, In Part V: The Holy Spirit and Salvation in Christ, the chapter on “The Order of Salvation” is contained in volume three, while the chapters 18 (“Calling and Regeneration”), 19 (“Faith and Conversion”), and 20 (“Justification, Sanctification, and Perseverance”) belong to the fourth volume of the Reformed Dogmatics. With the exception of chapter 17, which deals with the ordo salutis according to Bavinck, Parts V, VI, and VII are all taken from volume four of the RD, which is the largest volume.
Something very similar is found in Part III. Chapter 12 (“The Fallen World”) is the second chapter in Part III and is the beginning of volume three. In § 323, the editorial work is quite noticeable not merely in the footnotes, but in the very wording found in the chapter itself. Headings are placed in this section (“Realism and Federalism”) that are not found in the RD. This is not meant as a criticism, but rather as an observation. Where I do have a criticism in Part IV (“Christ the Redeemer”). In chapter fourteen, the covenant of grace is discussed. It is an acknowledged fact that the doctrine of the covenant of grace was an essential building block in Bavinck’s theology and theological method. Unfortunately, only four pages is given to this important biblical doctrine. In the RD, Bavinck devotes approximately forty pages in his explanation of God’s covenant with man after the fall. Furthermore, Bavinck’s discussion of Christ the Mediator in the RD covers approximately ninety pages, while in the abridged version a scant twelve is given to this topic. Finally, in chapter twenty (“Justification, Sanctification, and Perseverance”) the abridgement of justification by faith is severe. One might have reasonably expected that in light of the importance of the doctrine in the history of the Church and the more recent discussions involving this doctrine by N.T. Wright, James Dunn, E.P. Sanders, and the proponents of the Federal Vision, more of what Bavinck taught would have come into play. Justification receives short shrift. Regarding justification by faith and the relationship between justification and sanctification, more ink could have been expended, since Bavinck takes pains to describe the key differences and similarities between justification and sanctification.
On a happier note, Part VI (“The Spirit Creates a New Community”) is a very helpful section on the Church and the Holy Spirit’s means of grace. Fourteen pages encompass Bavinck’s discussion of the sacrament of Baptism and almost twenty are devoted to the conversation surrounding the Lord’s Supper.
This is perhaps the most difficult aspect of this review. All of us who have a keen interest in Herman Bavinck are greatly indebted to Dr. John Bolt for his untiring efforts in making Bavinck accessible to the English-speaking community. As I mentioned at the outset, his was no easy task in condensing so much valuable information into one volume. On balance, he did an admirable job. I am left, however, with the question of where the exact niche is for this abridged volume. I found myself thinking of this work as an animal: a bat. It is neither bird nor mouse; it is a bat. What do I mean by that?
First, I do not, in any way, find the abridged volume to be a surrogate for the four-volume RD. for pastors or students. A theologian needs to have the four-volume work on his shelf. Pastors and students will return to the four volumes often and they will find there a treasure trove of material for their calling. Thus, the abridged volume is not for either the pastor or the student.
Second, Bavinck’s “popular” dogmatics (Magnalia Dei) has been available for quite some time bearing the title Our Reasonable Faith. Therefore, it is possible that the abridged volume might serve as a “step up” from the more popular work. It does have Hebrew, Greek, and Latin in the body of the work, but I was not able to locate an instance where the respective language was not translated. Happily, Bavinck is being discovered by the English-speaking world, due, in large part, to the efforts of John Bolt. I see in the abridged volume yet another effort on his part to introduce Herman Bavinck to American Christians. I am convinced that for the church leader and the man and woman in the pew to have copies of Our Reasonable Faith as well as Bavinck’s abridged Reformed Dogmatics would be invaluable in terms of solid biblical material dealing with a wide range of biblical truth. Having both books for reference would be a very wise investment for the church leader and the man and woman in the pew. Dr. A.A. van Ruler once stated that in the midst of all the theological cacophony it was a very good thing to listen to the calm voice of Dr. Herman Bavinck. Dr. John Bolt has made that opportunity a reality for the serious Christian.
Dr. Ron Gleason is the pastor Grace Presbyterian Church (PCA) in Yorba Linda, CA. He is the author of Herman Bavinck: Pastor, Churchman, Statesman and Theologian (P&R 2010). Prior to his current work in California, Dr. Gleason pastored churches in the Netherlands and Canada.