Interpreting Scripture as Culminating in Christ, or Christ as the Center?: Bavinck against Barth and Torrance

This should be of some value for some as you continue to think through what distinguishes Evangelical Calvinism from its classical cousin, classical Calvinism (of the Westminster and even New-Calvinist variety). This distinguishing mark is fundamental to understanding how an Evangelical Calvinist hermeneutic (i.e. theory of biblical and theological interpretation) is shaped versus how a classical Reformed hermeneutic takes shape. I am going to use Herman Bavinck as the classical representative, and Thomas Torrance on Karl Barth as the perspective that Evangelical Calvinism resonates with vis-à-vis a hermeneutic.

Herman Bavinck (1854-1921) years before either Karl Barth or Thomas Torrance came on the scene effectively offered a critique of Barth’s and Torrance’s principled (principial) christocentric hermeneutic. Bavinck believed that Scripture as pure revelation itself ought to serve as the source of dogmatic reflection, and not Christ as the key, so to speak. For Bavinck, God’s revelation starts in the narrative of biblical history and progressively moves forward to its culmination in Christ; something that David Gibson[1] along with Richard Muller in discussion on John Calvin’s hermeneutic has labeled as an soteriological christocentric approach. Here is how Bavinck critiques a principled Christ-centered approach of reading Scripture from his ‘soteriological’ Christ-cultimated/centered method:

… However, the christological organizing principle is subject to even more objections [he just objected to using the Trinity as an organizing hermeneutical principle]. However attractive it may seem at first sight, it is still unusable. It often rests on the false assumption that rather than Scripture the person of Christ specifically is the foundation and epistemic source of dogmatics. However, we know of Christ only from and through Scripture. In addition, though Christ is quite certainly the central focus and main content of Holy Scripture, precisely because he is the midpoint of Scripture, he cannot be its starting point. Christ presupposes the existence of God and humanity. He did not make his historical appearance immediately at the time of the promise [in Eden] but many centuries later. It is, moreover, undoubtedly true that Christ revealed the Father to us, but this revelation of God through the Son does not nullify the many and varied ways he spoke through the prophets. Not the New Testament alone, nor only the words of Jesus, but Scripture as a whole is a Word of God that comes to us through Christ. It is clear, finally, that the christological division only permits the development of the loci on God, creation, world, and humanity by way of assumptions and postulates and therefore not in the fullness of their rich significance….[2]

This serves as the ground of Bavinck’s objection to a christological hermeneutic in the form we have detailed above, an objection that is applicable to and actually against Barth’s and Torrance’s approach to developing their respective theories of theological and biblical interpretation. For Barth and Torrance a christological approach is the only safe and genuinely Christian way to go. Here is a pertinent passage from Torrance commenting on Barth’s method:

Because Jesus Christ is the Way, as well as the Truth and the Life, theological thought is limited and bounded and directed by this historical reality in whom we meet the Truth of God. That prohibits theological thought from wandering at will across open country, from straying over history in general or from occupying itself with some other history, rather than this concrete history in the centre of all history. Thus theological thought is distinguished from every empty conceptual thought, from every science of pure possibility, and from every kind of merely formal thinking, by being mastered and determined by the special history of Jesus Christ.[3]

Torrance makes this comment about Barth in an approving manner, and identifies this as something that he is highly resonant with himself.

It could be objected that Bavinck does not have an adequate regulative principle, other than presuming upon the givenness of Scripture itself that allows him read to Scripture and make creative dogmatic theological declarations. What Barth and Torrance are doing in contrast to Bavinck, is that they are presuming upon the givenness of God revealed in Jesus Christ; their order of theology, instead of Bavinck’s (Creation, Covenant, Fall, Redemption, etc.), is: Covenant (or God’s life), Creation (where Scripture is given), etc. So for Barth and Torrance, they might counter to Bavinck, and argue that Scripture itself is unintelligible without the Self-givenness of God, and thus only God in Christ (as God’s Self-exegesis cf. Jn. 1.18), from the get go, can make the ink of Scripture make sense; they might counter that Scripture cannot make Jesus make sense first (although this would not preclude the biblical history of Scripture, in Israel, it would just presuppose that the history of Israel is actually the pre-history and pre-figuration of God in Christ and his history).

The above is an example of how Evangelical Calvinism along with Karl Barth and Thomas Torrance develops its thinking dialectically. And I realize, that once again, this post is not for the faint of heart, but I am learning still too.



[1] David Gibson, Reading The Decree, 6.

[2] [First set of brackets mine] Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics: Prolegomena, Volume One (Grand Rapids, Michigan: 2003), 110.

[3]Thomas F. Torrance, Karl Barth: An Introduction to His Early Theology 1910-1931, 196.

This entry was posted in Evangelical Calvinism, Herman Bavinck, Hermeneutics, Karl Barth, T. F. Torrance. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Interpreting Scripture as Culminating in Christ, or Christ as the Center?: Bavinck against Barth and Torrance

  1. Good stuff, Bobby. This question comes to mind: I think of Luther as foreshadowing Barth on this issue of Christ as the hermeneutical key to scripture as a whole. In your reading so far, does Bavinck address that kind of christocentric move in Luther or perhaps other Lutheran theologians?


  2. Nathanael Johnston says:

    I believe Bavinck is responding to post-Schleiermacher mediating theology but I don’t have my Bavinck with me at present so I can’t confirm that.


  3. Bobby Grow says:

    Hi Scott,

    Not so far, he is primarily engaging with Reformed theology, and not Luther yet (I’m not sure he ever does, but we’ll see).


  4. Bobby Grow says:

    Absolutely, Nathanel, and that’s why it is so applicable to a discussion of Barth. There are many many who believe that Barth simply works in the wake of Schleiermacher, even if they believe that Barth is attempting to up-end or invert Schleiermacher. Nevertheless, they would still see Barth’s theology in line with the existentialism of Schleir. Just see Steve Holmes’ book on the Trinity and his discussion on Barth and Dorner.


Comments are closed.