You probably haven’t read much, if anything, by Herman Bavinck. I hadn’t either, but after hearing what impact he had on some ministers that I deeply respected, I decided to take the plunge and purchase his seminal masterpiece, Reformed Dogmatics, a four-volume, 3000-page collection that was translated into English only seven years ago. As I finish reading through the last of the four volumes, I now treasure Bavinck’s Reformed Dogmatics as an essential piece of my library. I have gleaned a wealth of learning from Bavinck and I know I’ll return to these again and again throughout my ministry. Even if you are familiar with Bavinck’s work, many are tempted to view him as only a systematician, doctrinal explanation without application. My aim is to not merely draw your attention to a man worthy of it, but also to show that we can learn much from Bavinck in terms of how we apply these critical teachings in our lives as we pursue a historically rooted discipleship.
THE PREFACE OF DISCIPLESHIP: GOD’S REVELATION
Our quest for discovering the depths of discipleship through Herman Bavinck’s eyes starts with a focus on God’s revelation. Oftentimes, especially in systematic treatments of theology, revelation is placed at the forefront, serving as a sort of apologetic. After all, if God can or does not reveal himself generally and specially, what argument is there for him? This point certainly should be emphasized, especially for the unbeliever. Yet, in our approach to thinking about God’s general and special revelation, we face the temptation of limiting its importance to only the unbeliever. We feel like revelation must be talked about only for the sake of those who need to be convinced of its reality, and it is often treated in such a way that Bible-believing Christians are exempted from the discussion. But “general revelation,” Bavinck observes, “has meaning not only for the pagan world but also in and for the Christian religion.”1
The primary Greek word for disciple is mathetes, which means “a learner.” If we can reduce the concept of God’s revelation to knowing, we can reduce the concept of Christian discipleship to learning. Bavinck connects the task of discipleship with the function of revelation here:
“Now special revelation has recognized and valued general revelation, has even taken it over and, as it were, assimilated it. And this is also what the Christian does, as do the theologians. They position themselves in the Christian faith, in special revelation, and from there look out upon nature and history. And now they discover there as well the traces of the God whom they learned to know in Christ as their father.“2
Discipleship starts with revelation, because it is in that moment that we are “equipped with the spectacles of Scripture” and thus “see God in everything and everything in God.” Revelation does not only help the Christian “feel at home in the world,” but also gives Christians “a firm foundation on which they can meet all non-Christians.”3Revelation is critical to our foundation as disciples of Christ.
One last word from Bavinck on how discipleship finds its origins in revelation:
“The purpose of revelation is not Christ; Christ is the center and the means; the purpose is that God will again dwell in his creatures and reveal his glory in the cosmos…In a sense this, too, is an incarnation of God.”4
While Christ is the ultimate instrument of revelation, the highest purpose of revelation itself is that God may be glorified by dwelling with his people. As we will see, once the revelation of God captivates the heart of the believer, not only can the journey of discipleship begin, but also the horizon of its purpose will come more plainly into view.