Why Study Theology? A New Translation of a Timeless Word from Herman Bavinck
Why should I study theology if I'm just a ordinary church member?
In a newly-translated foreword to Herman Bavinck's Magnalia Dei (known in English as Our Reasonable Faith), Bavinck richly engages this question.
Over the course of this year, I've been leading a church book discussion on Our Reasonable Faith. One of our members, Barbara Blum, was actually able to read Bavinck's work in the original Dutch. As part of her study, she translated Bavinck's introduction to this magisterial work. Previous English translations of the work have not included Bavinck's foreword, so this previously-untranslated introduction has not been readily accessible to the English reader of Bavinck.
In this foreword, Bavinck casts a vision for theological learning for all believers. To a generation full of distractions and opposition to faith, Bavinck writes with great hope that all believers will grow to proclaim the great works of God. His words are as fitting today as they were in 1907.
And while this translation is a layperson's translation of the text, in many ways, that fits the vision cast by Bavinck: for the everyday church member to labor in theology to grow in the knowledge of God. May you be blessed to read this new translation of Bavinck's words.
Under the title of Magnalia Dei, the great works of God, I would like to give a simple explanation in a book of modest size, of the Christian faith, just as it is confessed in the Reformed Churches of all lands and times.
The name is borrowed from Acts 2:11. There it is recounted that the disciples of Jesus, as soon as the Holy Spirit was poured out upon them, proclaimed the great works of God in languages understood by all. With these great works of God we aren’t compelled to think of one distinct fact, such as the resurrection of Christ, as is the case elsewhere, but we think of the whole household of salvation, which God had established through Christ. And the Holy Spirit is poured out precisely so that the congregation would learn to recognize these works of God, glory in them and thank and praise God for them.
Therein lies the thought that the Christian religion exists not only in words, in a doctrine, but that it is in word and in fact a work of God which was brought into being in the past, worked out in the present, and will first be completed in the future. The content of the Christian faith is not a scientific theory, not a philosophical formula for explaining the world, but an acknowledgement and confession of the great works of God, which have been wrought throughout the ages, including the entire world, and first attain their completion in the new heavens and the new earth, in which righteousness dwells.
This is no longer generally nor completely understood. The knowledge of the truth, which leads to godliness, continually falls behind. The interest in the mysteries of the kingdom of God diminishes by the day, not only outside but also inside the Christian circles. And the number continually decreases of those who live by the truth with their whole heart and soul and feed themselves with it day by day. Those who still accept the truth seem to consist mainly of a group of scholars, who do earn credibility but who exist apart from real life and have little or nothing to do with the present.
There are various causes of this sad situation.
For all who prepare themselves for, or are working in one profession or another, there presently are such heavy demands placed on them that there is no time or desire remaining for any other work. Life has become on all sides so rich so broad, that an overview of it would be obtained only with great effort. Political, social and philosophical interests demand more of our time and energy every day. The reading of daily and weekly newspapers, magazines and brochures swallows up all of our free moments. For the research of the Holy Scriptures and the study of theological works the desire and the opportunity fail.
However, the old works are also no longer of this time. The difference in language and style, thought process and speech pattern make them strange to us now. The questions that were regarded as most important earlier have partially or even completely lost their significance for us now. Other issues unnamed by them press to the foreground now. Enemies which they fought against no longer exist, have been replaced by others, or in any case, come against us with a completely different artillery.
We are children of a new time and we live in a new age. It is vain effort to try to manage the old forms and to persist in the old ways just because it is old. But not only would it be useless, indeed it would be a contradiction of our own confession. Precisely because the Christian faith is the acknowledgement of a work of God which started in the beginning of time and is being continued in this age, its existence is a product of the times past, but it’s form is of this time.
How much good has been accomplished in earlier times by Franken’s Kern, Marck’s Merg and Brakel’s Redelijke Godsdienst, but they are beyond bringing back to life, they no longer speak to the younger generation, and involuntarily arouse the thought that Christianity no longer is relevant to this age. Therefore, there is a pressing need for a work that, in the place of these works of the fathers, can carry on the old truth in a form that responds to the demands of this age.
Now along these lines, there has already been much good work produced. Since the reformed religion and theology has been brought back to life in the previous century there has been no shortage of attempts to adjust the old confession to the modern awareness. Namely, what Dr. Kuyper has contributed through his many works, particularly through his rich catechism explanation, is almost beyond exaggeration. But what is still lacking is a work that explains the content of the Christian faith for the ordinary ranks of the broader circles of the people, and which remains within their reach with a modest size and price.
The instruction in the Christian religion which is offered to the community in this book seeks to bridge this gap. The attempt will certainly not reach the ideal that is confronting the writer of this handbook of reformed doctrine, but awareness of weakness must not lead to discouragement and inactivity, but must rather incite an effort of all strength and ignite a trust in the help of Him whose strength is made perfect in weakness.
As readers of this work, I do not have in mind students of theology who can inform themselves of the rich and deep thoughts of the Scripture which of been formulated by reformed theology. But in the compilation of this work, I have considered the ordinary members of the community, who prepare themselves for the admission to holy Communion by means of the catechism and still maintain an interest in the knowledge of the truth beyond that. And especially I have thought of those young men and women who at a young age have already received a secondary or gymnasial education prior to their employment in workshops, factories, stores or offices, and in this way have already come to know the many oppositions to which the Christian religion has been exposed in modern times.
There are many of them who would still like to believe, but for whom the environment in which they find themselves, and the concerns and objections which they hear has made it extremely difficult. In any case their confession is deprived of any joyfulness or enthusiasm. But it must and will come to that if the truth of God is rightly understood. If the works of God are regarded in their own light, they themselves drive one to adoration and worship. Then we see that the Christian faith can not only lead much to its favor, but can also adorn with an inner beauty, and that through its inner truth and glory it commends itself to the consciences of people. Then we thank God, not that we must, but that we may believe. Then we understand in some measure what our faith has to offer for our thinking and living. And each in his own language, we begin again to proclaim the great works of God.
Amsterdam, May 1907
 Westminster Seminary Press is also working on a republication of this entire book, which will also have a translation of this foreword.
[2 ] This is a reference to the theological works of 3 Dutch theologians of the late-17th and early-18th century: Johannes a Marck (1656-1731), Handboek Dogmatiek – Het merg van de christelijke Godgeleerdheid (Dogmatics Handbook – The Marrow of Christian Theology), Aegidius Francken (1676-1743), Kern der Christelijke Leer (Core of Christian Doctrine), and Wilhelmus à Brakel (1635-1711), Redelijke Godsdienst (The Christian’s Reasonable Service).