I’m still reading Bavinck. One section I read yesterday made me chuckle to myself, as remembered when I first learned the concept.
Five years ago this fall I audited my first class at Westminster Theological Seminary. It was a seminar on Van Til’s apologetics, taught by dr. Scott Oliphint (pictured above, from realapologetics.org). I loved the class. The lectures and discussions stimulated me to think about God and how we know Him in new ways that allowed me to see He is even bigger and greater than I had previous thought. Though a few times I was a little lost. On one occasion dr. Oliphint was summing up the idea that the basis for our knowledge of God cannot be abstract philosophy, reason, or experience, but must be God, Himself—an essential concept to understand. He then concluded by saying, “It really all comes down to principia.” The whole class nodded in unison, the way people nod when they agree with something profound. I just looked confused. Then he elaborated: principum cognoscendi externum and principium cognoscendi internum. More nods; more confusion.
At break, I asked him to elaborate. Principia, in theology and philosophy, means the foundation, basic cause, and ground of reality of something. It also includes how we come to know that thing. If you talk to children–my oldest in particular—you are well aware of the idea: “Daddy, why is…” “because of…” “But why…” “Because…” This can go on for several minutes until you finally, you get to the point where you want to say, “Just because. It just is.” That’s Principia. It’s when you get to something that has no “because.”
God has no “because.” He is the principium essendi (the essential foundation). He reveals Himself through creation and his word: principium cogoscendi externum (the outside foundation of our cognitive knowledge). He also reveals internally by His Spirit so we can respond to the external revelation: principium cogosendi internum (internal foundation of cognitive knowledge). The three principia reflect the trinity. God the father is the foundation. He reveals Himself in the Word—Christ. And we know Christ because of the Spirit.
Why does this matter? I think this helps us reflect on the fact that God is the foundation of everything. Consider a few examples. We want to experience God deeply. But experience is not the foundation of our knowledge of God. God is the foundation of our experience. We read God’s word to understand Him. But this understanding is not merely the result of bite size Knowledge-of-God pieces that, when we get enough of them, fill out the picture of who He is. Rather, we know God only because He has made us as His image, His likeness. God is the foundation of our ability to understand Him. All this means that there is no way to go deeper than God. When you seek to explore the depth of our salvation, you explore God. When you contemplate the cause of the universe, you contemplate God. When life is hard, and there are some things that you don’t understand, you rest in God.
For from Him and through Him and to Him are all things. To Him be the glory forever. Amen—Romans 11:36.