To describe this nature of absoluteness, theologians have often grasped for the term “simple,” which is potentially confusing in the contemporary world but its conceptual content remains unflinchingly necessary. As Bavinck points out with regards to this concept: “We as human beings can make a distinction between the being and attributes of people. A human can lose his arm or leg … without ceasing to be human. But in God this is impossible” (118). What does this mean exactly, and what has the church of history meant, by the fact that God is simple? To put it in another phrase, (and one that propels us beyond the domain of human comprehension) God is everything he possesses, unlike us humans.
Herman Bavinck, throughout his career as a theologian, brought the confessional and creedal heritage of Christian theology to bear upon his modern Dutch world. He showed why Christianity mattered in all ages, in all contexts, and cultures. He continues to do so today as we Anglophone readers are enjoying his works in English more and more. For Bavinck, all of theology is the knowledge of God, a science that pursues God through his own revelation of himself to the world. For that reason, he was able also to suggest that the doctrine of God is all of theology because even when the theological subject matter is not directly God himself, Christians must comprehend all of existence in the light of God’s being and work.
At the center of our creedal and confessional heritage on the doctrine of God itself, Bavinck urged his readers to confess God’s absoluteness and to do so for a number of reasons. Indeed, a core task for Church theologians both of the past and present is to take the truth about God’s nature directly to the Christians who are living their lives, to point out how knowing God more and more is valuable to both the head and the heart.
We can talk about the truths of the faith from a couple of perspectives. First, one can simply ask a Christian, “what has Jesus Christ done in your life?” This is the approach of the Heidelberg Catechism—the personal testimony of how God in Christ gives comfort in life and death through the experience of faith.
Second, in partnership with the first, theologians come to their fellow believers and help clarify the testimony of their faith and create a deeper and wider knowledge of the God who saves by working not from the human experience to God but from God’s revelation into human experiences. The latter fills out the former with heaps of truth revealed by God. The former fulfills the latter by helping actualize the knowledge of God in people’s hearts and minds.
Perhaps the most important truths that the church theologians of the past including Bavinck delivered to us by way of their examinations of God’s Word was through talk about the being of God. Who is the God who has saved you and what is God like? When people receive new life in their hearts, it is right that they want to know more of the God who has written their testimony. And it is all the more appropriate when a holy fear overtakes, and the question gets asked: how could I speak well of the God who dwells in inapproachable light and who no eye has seen? That is the right instinct. Creatures, and especially those who have experienced God’s grace in Jesus Christ, know from their depths that God must be something totally other than what we are. This deep consciousness draws us to lean into the truth of God’s absolute being with verbal reservation and modesty. Yet at the same time, we say that we can speak of God and speak truths about God precisely because God spoke truths about himself to us first. So, we proceed into the mysteries of God’s being from the creature’s perspective attempting to orient our perspective entirely from the facts of God’s perspective in the Bible. The good news is that in creation and redemption, God has revealed himself. He has come out of his hiddenness. And, while there is so much to say about God, we must be committed to speak of his absoluteness.