Category Archives: Herman Bavinck
Herman Bavinck, “The Future of Calvinism,” The Presbyterian and Reformed Review (Jan. 1894), 20:
Calvinism gladly honors the good features of the Christian labor of our age. It by no means favors the idea of fleeing from the world; it does not encourage idleness and somnolence. It is active, points out to each man his moral calling, and urges him to labor in this with all his might. On the other hand, it is no less averse to that worldly type of Christianity which would transplant the turmoil and clamor, the agitation and strain of our times, within the pale of Christianity.
Calvinism maintains the independent value of religion, and does not suffer it to be swallowed up by morality. It has a vein of deep mysticism and it cultivates a devout godliness. It considers God alone as the highest good, and communion with Him as supreme happiness. Calvinism sets the rest of being over against the restlessness of becoming, and makes us feel the pulsation of eternity in every moment of time. Behind the vicissitudes and transitoriness of this life it points to the unchangeableness of God’s eternal counsel. Thus it offers a place of rest to the weary heart, in which God has set eternity, and protects man from all overexcitement. Those that believe shall not make haste.
Calvinism is deeply convinced that the husband as father of the family, the wife as mother of her children, the servant girl in the kitchen, and the laborer behind the plough, are as truly servants of God as the missionary.
This is very likely the best explanation for why a Christian who truly understands the centrality of Christ is a generous reader. At once we prize Scripture above all books, and in prizing Scripture above all books we are properly postured to read all other other books with discernment and appreciation.
The following quote is taken from Herman Bavinck’s outstanding book Our Reasonable Faith (Eerdmans, 1956), pages 36–38, 44. If you don’t have it, it’s worth owning, and I think page-for-page it’s Bavinck’s most valuable work (though it’s not cheap).
The quote is worth quoting at length and is worth reading slowly.
It is not the sparkling firmament, nor mighty nature, nor any prince or genius of the earth, nor any philosopher or artist, but the Son of man that is the highest revelation of God. Christ is the Word become flesh, which in the beginning was with God and which was God, the Only-Begotten of the Father, the Image of God, the brightness of His glory and the express image of His person; who has seen Him has seen the Father (John 14:9). In that faith the Christian stands. He has learned to know God in the person of Jesus Christ whom God has sent. God Himself, who said that the light should shine out of the darkness, is the One who has shined in His heart in order to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ (2 Cor. 4:6).
But from this high vantage point the Christian looks around him, forwards, backwards, and to all sides. And if, in doing so, in the light of the knowledge of God, which he owes to Christ, he lets his eyes linger on nature and on history, on heaven and on earth, then he discovers traces everywhere of that same God whom he has learned to know and to worship in Christ as his Father. The Sun of righteousness opens up a wonderful vista to him which stretches out to the ends of the earth. By its light he sees backwards into the night of past times, and by it he penetrates through to the future of all things. Ahead of him and behind the horizon is clear, even though the sky is often obscured by clouds.
The Christian, who sees everything in the light of the Word of God, is anything but narrow in his view. He is generous in heart and mind. He looks over the whole earth and reckons it all his own, because he is Christ’s and Christ is God’s (1 Cor. 3:21–23). He cannot let go his belief that the revelation of God in Christ, to which he owes his life and salvation, has a special character. This belief does not exclude him from the world, but rather puts him in position to trace out the revelation of God in nature and history, and puts the means at his disposal by which he can recognize the true and the good and the beautiful and separate them from the false and sinful alloys of men.
So it is that he makes a distinction between a general and a special revelation of God. In the general revelation God makes use of the usual run of phenomena and the usual course of events; in the special revelation He often employs unusual means, appearances, prophecy, and miracles to make Himself known to man. The contents of the first kind are especially the attributes of power, wisdom, and goodness; those of the second kind are especially God’s holiness and righteousness, compassion and grace. The first is directed to all men and, by means of common grace, serves to restrain the eruption of sin; the second comes to all those who live under the Gospel and has as its glory, by special grace, the forgiveness of sins and the renewal of life.
But, however essentially the two are to be distinguished, they are also intimately connected with each other. Both have their origin in God, in His sovereign goodness and favor. The general revelation is owing to the Word which was with God in the beginning, which made all things, which shone as a light in the darkness and lighteth every man that cometh into the world (John 1:1–9). The special revelation is owing to that same Word, as it was made flesh in Christ, and is now full of grace and truth (John 1:14). Grace is the content of both revelations, common in the first, special in the second, but in such a way that the one is indispensable for the other. …
In determining the value of general revelation, one runs the great danger either of over-estimating or of under-estimating it. When we have our attention fixed upon the richness of the grace which God has given in His special revelation, we sometimes become so enamored of it that the general revelation loses its whole significance and worth for us. And when, at another time, we reflect on the good, and true, and beautiful that is to be found by virtue of God’s general revelation in nature and in the human world [e.g. on the shelves at Barnes & Noble], then it can happen that the special grace, manifested to us in the person and work of Christ, loses its glory and appeal for the eye of our soul.
This danger, to stray off either to the right or to the left, has always existed in the Christian church, and, each in turn, the general and the special revelation, have been ignored or denied. Each in turn has been denied in theory and no less strongly in practice. … We must be on guard against both of these one-sidednesses; and we shall be best advised if, in the light of Holy Scripture, we take a look at the history of mankind and let it teach us what people owe to general revelation.
For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.
Herman Bavinck, Our Reasonable Faith, 479–480:
Good works are not independently and newly brought into being by the believers themselves. They lie completely prepared for them all and for each one of them individually in the decision of God’s counsel; they were fulfilled and were earned for them by Christ who in their stead fulfilled all righteousness and the whole law; and they are worked out in them by the Holy Spirit who takes everything from Christ and distributes it to each and all according to Christ’s will.
So we can say of sanctification in its entirety and of all the good works of the church, that is, of all the believers together and of each one individually, that they do not come into existence first of all through the believers, but that they exist long before in the good pleasure of the Father, in the work of the Son, and in the application of the Holy Spirit. Hence all glorying on man’s part is also ruled out in this matter of sanctification. We must know that God in no way becomes indebted to us, and that He therefore never has to be grateful to us, when we do good works; on the contrary, we are beholden to God for them, and have to be grateful to Him for the good works that we do.
In his excellent essay “Classical Education” Herman Bavinck traces out the long and quite complex history of ancient literature in the life of Christian education. Near the end of his essay he addresses the contemporary value of writings by Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, Virgil, Horace, Homer, Sophocles, and others. The following quote is taken from the end of the essay as it appears in Bavinck’s Essays on Religion, Science, and Society (Baker Academic, 2008), page 242:
The study of antiquity is not only of formal and practical value: for the development of thinking, understanding Greek and Latin terms in our scholarship, understanding citations and allusions in our literature, and so fourth. Its lasting value also lies in the fact that the foundations of modern culture were laid in antiquity. The roots of all our arts and learning — and also, though in lesser degree, the sciences that study nature — are to be found in the soil of antiquity.
It is amazing how the Greeks created all those forms of beauty in which our aesthetic feeling still finds expression and satisfaction today; in their learning they realized and posited all the problems of the world and of life with which we still wrestle in our heads and hearts. They were able to achieve all that, on the one hand, because they rose above folk religion and struggled for the independence of art and learning; but on the other hand, they did not loosen art and learning from those religious and ethical factors that belong to man’s essence. In the midst of distressing reality, they kept the faith in a world of ideas and norms. And that idealism is also indispensable for us today; it cannot be replaced or compensated for by the history of civilization or new literature.
The purposes behind the OT Law are various and complex and often debated. But one of its main functions is articulated beautifully by my favorite theologian (Herman Bavinck) writing in an often overlooked, but outstanding, volume on theology (Our Reasonable Faith). These are his words on page 81:
So far from being opposed to the promise, the law serves precisely as the means in God’s hand to bring the promise constantly nearer to its fulfillment. The law put Israel under restrictions, as a prisoner is put under restraint and denied the freedom of movement. Like a ‘pedagogue’ the law took Israel by the hand, accompanied her always and everywhere, and never for a moment left her out of its sight. As a guardian and supporter, the law maintained a strict watch over Israel in order that Israel might learn to know and to love the promise in its necessity and its glory.
Without the law, so to speak, the promise and its fulfillment would have come to nothing. Then Israel would quickly have fallen back into paganism, and would have lost both her revelation of God with its promise and her own religion and her place among the nations.
But now the law has fenced Israel in, segregated her, maintained her in isolation, guarded her against dissolution, and has thus created an area and defined a sphere in which God could preserve His promise purely, give it wider scope, develop it, increase it, and bring it always closer to its fulfillment. The law was serviceable to the fulfillment of the promise. It placed everybody under the wrath of God and under the sentence of death, it comprehended everybody within the pale of sin in order that the promise, given to Abraham and fulfilled in Christ, should be given to all believers, and that these all should attain to the inheritance as children (Gal. 3:21 and 4:7).
In this section he responds to those who claim that Christ’s substitutionary atonement is morally nonsensical (an objection that remains to this today). Yet,
…the idea of substitution is deeply grounded in human nature. Among all peoples it has been embodied in priesthood and sacrifices and expressed in various ways in poetry and mythology.
Origen already compared Christ in his death to those who, according to classical traditions, died for their mother country to liberate it from a plague or other disasters, for, conforming to hidden laws, it seems to lie in the nature of things that the voluntary death of a righteous person in the public interest breaks the power of evil spirits
Christian theology, accordingly, frequently cited the examples of Codrus, Curtius, Cratinus, Zaleucus, Damon, Phintias, and the hostages to illustrate the vicarious suffering of Christ. These examples have no other value, of course, than to show that the idea of substitution occupied an important place in the intellectual world of the Greeks and the Romans.
The same is true of tragedy, whose basic idea can certainly be conveyed not always by “guilt and atonement” but often only by “passion and suffering.” In many tragedies the death of the hero is not a true atonement for sins committed but yet is always a deliverance made necessary by some mistake or error, hence finally reconciling us and giving us satisfaction. But even viewed that way, tragedy proclaims a great truth: all human greatness walks past abysses of guilt, and satisfaction occurs only when what is noble and great, which for some reason has gone astray, perishes in death. The downfall of Orestes, Oedipus, Antigone, Romeo and Juliet, Max and Thekla, Iphigenia, and others reconciles us with them and their generation. “Pure humanity atones for all human weaknesses” (Goethe). …
All these examples and reasonings are undoubtedly somewhat suited as illustrations of the substitutionary suffering of Christ. Against the individualism and atomizing tendencies that tear humankind apart and know nothing of the mysticism of love, they are of great value.
Still, they cannot explain the suffering of Christ. …
Bavinck’s knowledge of Greek mythology and poetry is impressive. It is to this well of literature that he turns to find fitting illustrations of substitution in history, illustrations that have “great value” in cultures where people increasingly live self-sustained and isolated lives (hint, hint).
Yet the classic literature has significant theological limitations. In order to make sense of the unique sacrifice of Christ we must turn to Scripture (2 Cor. 5:21; Rom. 4:25, 8:3; Gal. 3:13). Classic literature cannot explain the sacrifice of Christ. Illustrate? Yes, to some degree. Substantiate? No.
John Bolt’s new abridgement of 19th century Dutch theologian Herman Bavinck’s 4-volume magnum opus, Reformed Dogmatics, is now available for purchase. My copy arrived in the mail on Tuesday and since it arrived I have been browsing through the new abridgement and comparing a handful of sections with the original unabridged work. By all accounts it appears Bolt has done a fine job of shrinking Bavinck’s classic from 3,000 pages to 850 while preserving the essence of Bavinck’s theology. Props to the folks at Baker Academic who continue to serve the church by translating, and now abridging, one of the Church’s most precious theological works.
Before the fall, strictly speaking, there was no conscience in humans. There was no gap between what they were and what they knew they had to be. Being and self-consciousness were in harmony. But the fall produced separation. By the grace of God, humans still retain the consciousness that they ought to be different, that in all respects they must conform to God’s law. But reality witnesses otherwise; they are not who they ought to be. And this witness is the conscience. The conscience … is proof that communion with God has been broken, that there is a gap between God and us, between his law and our state. … The human conscience is the subjective proof of humanity’s fall, a witness to human guilt before the face of God.
Writes Herman Bavinck in Our Reasonable Faith, page 44:
“In determining the value of general revelation, one runs the great danger either of over-estimating or of under-estimating it. When we have our attention fixed upon the richness of the grace which God has given in His special revelation, we sometimes become so enamored of it that the general revelation loses its whole significance and worth for us. And when, at another time, we reflect on the good, and true, and beautiful that is to be found by virtue of God’s general revelation in nature and in the human world, then it can happen that the special grace, manifested to us in the person and work of Christ, loses its glory and appeal for the eye of our soul. This danger, to stray off either to the right or to the left, has always existed in the Christian church.”