Review: Trinity and Organism, by James Eglinton

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James Eglinton, Trinity and Organism: Towards a New Reading of Herman Bavinck’s Organic Motif (T&T Clark, 2012)

Evangelicals in America have an identity problem. The current political landscape demonstrates a divide within American evangelicalism on how to put our values into practice. At the heart of this fissure is a lack of coherent theological ethics – how to apply our theology to every day life. American evangelicals love the Bible, but do not agree on how the Bible directs the public life of believers. This emphasis on having the Scriptures as the only guide, coupled with suspicion of theological “tradition” as a reactionary posture against Roman Catholicism, leaves “theological ethics” as a category generally wanting. For American evangelicals, the way forward is to reclaim the past, and Herman Bavinck offers us an excellent starting place.

Previously, I have suggested that 19th-c. Dutch theologian Herman Bavinck is an excellent tutor for Protestant theological ethics, because of his commitment to Scripture and the Reformed tradition. However, there is a trend in Bavinck studies that undermines this claim. There are numerous scholars who read in Bavinck two divergent streams – biblical orthodoxy and theological modernism.[1] Thus, some of Bavinck’s signature “neo-Calvinist” themes become viewed as emerging from a dubious philosophical foundation, rather than an orthodox biblical one, and can be ignored. If this is the case, then how can Bavinck give coherence to American Protestant theological ethics, if he himself exhibits such dissonance?

Rising to reclaim a unified view of Bavinck is James Eglinton, in his book Trinity and Organism: Towards a New Reading of Herman Bavinck’s Organic Motif.[2] He offers a robust and thorough critique of the “two Bavincks” interpretation, rendering a unified view of Bavinck’s thought that resists any aspect being dismissed. Undergirding this assertion is Bavinck’s highly developed belief in God as Triune, a fundamental conviction that unifies all his thought and gives coherence to his worldview. This trinitarian hermeneutic thus accounts for an important theme in Bavinck’s thought: Organism. Bavinck’s view of the Trinity, divine “unity-in-diversity,” issues in the creation’s character as organism, its own “unity-in-diversity” mirroring the Creator. Thus rescuing Bavinck from those who seek to divide his thought, Eglinton’s work serves as a powerful introduction to the work of this scholar and benefits those who would utilize the Dutch neo-Calvinist tradition to form the Church for a post-Christian and postmodern America.

Toward a Unified Reading of Bavinck’s Theology

Eglinton begins with the conviction that the key to understanding Bavinck is to understand his context. He inscribes his book with a quote from Picasso: “It is not enough to simply know the works of an artist. One must also know when he did them, why, how, in which circumstances.” Thus, Eglinton begins his study by asking, not the expected “Who was Herman Bavinck?,” but “Where was Herman Bavinck?” This historical question demonstrates two of Bavinck’s chief interests: rescuing the Reformed tradition from the clutches of his previous mentors, who were more modernist than biblical, while also developing the tradition to speak into the modern Dutch situation.

Situated historically, the “two Bavincks” theory loses its coherence, as it fails to read Bavinck in light of his project: the application of the Reformed tradition to modern life. Though Bavinck uses philosophical language that was in vogue at the time (e.g., the language of “organic”), he draws their definition from the Reformed heritage first, not the modernist school. Because of this, Bavinck’s work serves as an apologetic against the theological modernism of the academy, rather than falling prey to it. Eglinton stands on firm hermeneutical ground with his belief that “the best person to define Bavinck’s [work] will invariably be Bavinck himself” (205). Rather than subconsciously holding to conflicting ideologies, Bavinck appropriates themes within modernism to draw out a deep and unified Reformed tradition, relevant to the turn-of-the-century Church.

The Organic Theme

Once Bavinck is allowed to speak as a unified theologian, one begins to see the trinitarian foundation to his thought. His various threads of thought become understood as nothing less than the application of trinitarian theology to all of life, and any tension present can be credited to the grand mysteries of the Trinity itself. This trinitarian foundation is clear from the structure of the Reformed Dogmatics (RD) itself; taking its form from the Apostle’s Creed, RD traces the work of the Father (Volumes 1-2), the Son (Volume 3), and the Spirit (Volume 4). Bavinck’s Doctrine of God flows out of his trinitarian understanding, which then establishes the theme of “the organic.”

Bavinck defines the Trinity as divine “unity-in-diversity;” God is both One and Three. This divine “unity-in-diversity” is then imprinted in the Creation; the thumbprint of the Trinity molds the Creation to embody its own “unity-in-diversity.” Creation is thus “organic”: possessing “unity-in-diversity” after the image of the Creator. The goal of this organic relationship is not merely for Creation to reflect the nature of God, but to enjoy fellowship with God. This teleological angle sets the stage for Bavinck to examine human history from the biblical storyline of Creation, Fall, Redemption, and Consummation. Ultimately, this organic unity between Creator and Creature, with the goal of fellowship and harmony, motivates Bavinck to seek a comprehensive worldview. If the goal of Creation is to worship the Creator, and the Bible establishes such a relationship through Gospel (Creation redeemed by God’s action) and Law (Creation conformed to God’s character), then “the Christian theist [is positioned] to gather the whole of life together under the doctrine of God” (130).

With this trinitarian foundation for reality established, Eglinton examines Bavinck’s exposition of General Revelation, Special Revelation, and Ecclesiology through the lens of the organic. In each area, Eglinton demonstrates how Bavinck attempts to be faithful to his goals – presenting a biblical and Reformed worldview for his context. Bavinck is no mere modernist; rather, he constantly speaks into modernism from his Reformed tradition. While each theological area is worth much consideration, one of the more pertinent areas of contemporary debate is ecclesiology. Here, we need to hear Bavinck speak clearly, unhindered by poor hermeneutics that pit him against himself.

The Church: Organism and Institution

Eglinton devotes his last chapter to the question of Bavinck’s ecclesiology, demonstrating how Bavinck brings his trinitarian focus to bear on the Church: “desired by the Father, paid for by the Son and gathered by the Holy Spirit, the church is a unique possession treasured by the entire Godhead” (184). If there exists an organic unity between Creation and Creator, Bavinck shows how this unity reaches its culmination between the Trinity and the Church.

As Bavinck’s aim is to reframe Reformed theology for the modern age, he naturally embraces the visible/invisible distinction found throughout the tradition. However, the consummate theologian, Bavinck adds another layer of nuance – as the Church is simultaneously invisible and visible, so it is, in its visible form, both an institution and an organism. This double character of the Church follows from Bavinck’s understanding of the Gospel. Here, Bavinck eschews theological terminology, preferring to use the Bible’s own metaphors – the Gospel is both a pearl and leaven. This pearl of great price is the redeeming message of the Gospel, the special grace of Christ’s atoning sacrifice, the word of peace from God to humanity. At the same time, the Gospel is also leaven, which goes through the whole world spreading the redeeming scent of the Gospel to effect the fruit of salvation in the common realm.

There exists an organic unity between the Gospel and the Church it constitutes; therefore the Gospel forms a church that corresponds to its two-fold function: “a visible church which, as an institution is separate from the State (indeed, as the pearl of great price, it is worth more than nationalism) and which, as an organism, is the leaven that uses special grace to enrich the nation’s pre-existing common grace” (198). And, lest believers begin to think that the work of being leaven rests solely on their human shoulders, Bavinck reminds us that the Church, from start to finish, is a work of the Holy Spirit.

“The ecclesia, he insists, is a new community fashioned by the Holy Spirit. As such, its essence is spiritual. Its government is also spiritual. The Spirit’s work means the church has an utterly unique composition as an ordered, living organism. Furthermore, the church’s power is inherently related to the Holy Spirit. Its mission is not world domination through violence, political clout or slick marketing. Rather, the church has, through the Holy Spirit, an unparalleled spiritual power in which to communicate Christ’s gospel. Through the church’s possession of the means of grace, the Spirit uses the church to redeem the world.” (184)

There are two timely implications for these insights. First, Bavinck’s ecclesiology provides a robust answer to the oft-asked question, “What is the mission of the Church?” In the North American Reformed Church, where this debate is currently being hashed out, Bavinck provides a way through a more stripped down Two Kingdoms/Spirituality of the Church view and an unbridled transformationalist view by offering a more nuanced question: “what is the mission of the Church with respect to the institution and the organism?” In short, when discussing the Church’s mission, we need to define which aspect we are talking about. Thus, we can avoid the perils of an unbounded transformationalism, which ends up equating cultural renewal with evangelism, without yielding the Church’s prophetic voice, nor denying the fruit of salvation to the culture.

Secondly, Bavinck’s ecclesiology motivates a biblically-based pursuit of diversity. Bavinck reminds us that the Church has a built-in “unity-in-diversity” as a consequence of its organic unity with the Godhead. Thus we can pursue Gospel-centered ecumenism with believers of other Christian traditions and seek God-honoring racial, social, and ethnic diversity in our congregations. As Bavinck himself states,

“In unity God loves the diversity. Among all creatures there was diversity even when as yet there was no sin… Difference in sex and age, in character and disposition, in mind and heart, in gifts and goods, in time and place is to the advantage also of the truth that is in Christ. He takes all these differences into this service and adorns the church with them. Indeed, though the division of humanity into peoples and languages was occasioned by sin, it has something good in it, which is brought into the church and thus preserved for eternity. From many races and languages and peoples and nations Christ gathers his church on earth.” (202, quoting RD 4.318)

Therefore, such a pursuit of diversity belongs to the mission of the Church; it is not merely something to be accepted if it coincidentally occurs, but a positive good to be pursued in the name of Christ. “In redrawing its ecclesiology to the Trinity, the… belief of Bavinck…is that the Church works for the redemption of its Edenic, pre-fall ideal diversity. Indeed, they regard this as the means by which it strides towards its telos; the sinless, heavenly unity-in-diversity wherein Christ’s high priestly prayer for the church’s oneness (John 17:21) will be positively and eternally answered” (203).

Conclusion

James Eglinton has done the church a supreme service by drawing out the theme of organism from Bavinck’s work. His contribution is two-fold. First, readers of Bavinck are no longer forced to choose if they will follow “biblical Bavinck” or “modernist Bavinck,” but can appreciate Bavinck’s theology as a legitimate development of the biblical and Reformed tradition; therefore, Bavinck is restored to his proper place as a tutor for Christian theological ethics.[3] Second, readers have a reliable field-map to a major theme found throughout Bavinck’s magnum opus, the Reformed Dogmatics. Eglinton deftly guides readers through each volume, chasing down the theme of organism, and is thus a qualified tour guide for the monumental work. Through this, we can more easily embrace Bavinck’s cosmic vision of creation restored through Christ, equipping us to pursue mission and diversity all for the sake of realizing the ultimate goal of our identity: being united to the Triune God, shaped into His image, and presented as a gift to the world. As such, I heartily recommend Eglinton’s work as a key for unlocking the potential of Herman Bavinck for our own day.

———————

[1] A good example of this “two Bavincks” thesis comes from David van Drunen, who writes that “a good general argument can be made, I believe, that his defense of the natural law and the two kingdoms categories belongs to the orthodox Bavinck and his advocacy of themes such as grace restoring nature and the kingdom as leaven belongs to the modern Bavinck.” David van Drunen, “‘The Kingship of Christ is Twofold’: Natural Law and the Two Kingdoms in the Thought of Herman Bavinck,” Calvin Theological Journal 45, no. 1 (April 2010), 162.

[2] I’m grateful to T&T Clark for providing me with a review copy of this book.

[3] With the recent announcement that Bavinck’s Ethics will receive a similar translation project as RD, the North American church will have even more tutelage in the task of connecting theology and ethics, and Bavinck’s Trinitarian foundation sets the stage perfectly for the journey.

About Billy Boyce

Billy is a pastor in Arlington, Virginia. His work and life aim to see Christ's Gospel embodied in the community of the Church for the sake of the world and the glory of God.

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  1. Trinity and Organism reviewed by Allkirk Network, and Derek Rishmawy – James Eglinton - November 10, 2016

    […] T&T Clark/Bloomsbury, 2012), has been reviewed on a couple of blogs. It featured on the Allkirk Network, and has also been covered by Derek Rishmawy. In Rishmawy’s review, I particularly […]

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