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Reformed ethics for the twenty-first century: Why Herman Bavinck’s ethics matter for the church today

The Christian Life series has given the life and theology of significant theologians the opportunity to shine, with top scholars working on each book of the accessible series. Theologians like Luther and Calvin, whom have long been heard by the Christian world, are displayed in the series, but one of the most significant of late is Bavinck on the Christian Life: Following Jesus in Faithful Service, by John Bolt (Crossway, 2015). Bolt’s goal in the book is for the reader to hear the voice of Herman Bavinck, which he does best by allowing us to hear Bavinck’s ethics. Bolt has done us a great service, especially in heading up the translation of Bavinck’s Reformed Dogmatics into English, which will arguably make Bavinck the most important Reformed theologian for the twenty-first century, giving voice to his theology. However, Bavinck’s life and ethics have struggled to be given appropriate mic time apart from Ron Gleason’s exceptional biography on Bavinck. Bolt is privy to Bavinck’s ethics, as one involved in the translation of Bavinck’s Reformed Ethics, which is scheduled for publication in 2017. For these reasons, Bolt’s book is a most welcome addition to Crossway’s series.

Bolt’s book is broken into three parts. In many ways the book functions as a primer to Bavinck studies. Bolt introduces the reader to Bavinck’s theological and ethical foundation, his Neo-Calvinist worldview, as well as the application of that worldview to the culture. In this way, Bolt structures the book as one building a house, beginning with the foundation, and fine tuning from there. What makes the book a pleasure to read is not only the voice Bavinck is given, but Bolt’s ability to write as Bavinck would have today, with an eye on the church.

The first section, following a short biography of Bavinck, outlines for the reader Bavinck’s theological foundation for ethics, focusing specifically on the function the image of God, the Law, and union with Christ. My only quibble is that the “organic” motif, which is key to understanding Bavinck’s theological foundation, isn’t highlighted in this section. Bolt does give the organic motif of Bavinck a few pages to shine in part two. Yet this controlling motif may have been more appropriately situated within Bavinck’s theological foundation. However, this is just a preference, and does not take away from the quality of the work.

In the second section, Bolt introduces the reader to the Neo-Calvinist utilization of worldview. Bolt very helpfully carves out the difference between Kuyper’s and Bavinck’s application of the Neo-Calvinist worldview. Bolt demonstrates that Bavinck’s worldview was not reductionist, but grew out of his Trinitarian theology. For example, Bolt elucidates his organic motif: man in heart, life, and mind reflects the organic unity of God. Rather than sitting in Kuyper’s shadow, Bavinck actually surpasses Kuyper in this regard.

In the third section of the book, Bolt guides the reader through Bavinck’s more ethical writings. Bavinck’s voice as an ethicist is clearly reformed, with his theological foundation clearly shaping his application of ethics. The family, work, and society are each inspected through the lens of Bavinck’s writings. For Bavinck, the Christian has an obligation to the “cultural mandate” and the church is to function as that which continually draws people towards God’s principles. Bavinck’s theological ethics are a masterful reflection on culture, as seen in the closing sermon of the book where Bavinck the preacher fittingly ties together the ethical and theological.

Bolt set out to give us the voice of Bavinck, and that is exactly what he accomplishes, showing us how Bavinck’s theological ethics have much to offer the church today. This work is highly accessible and insightful. My only reservation, which is minor, revolves around the organic motif of Bavinck. Though it has only recently come to the fore in Bavinck studies, it is now crucial to understanding the genius of Bavinck’s thinking and theology, especially since Bavinck connects theology and ethics in his Reformed Dogmatics as a “single organism”. However, Bolt’s work is truly significant because he helps readers hear Bavinck’s voice for the church today. I heartily commend this book to you.

Greg Parker Jr., Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary

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Protestantism today faces a crisis in authority. Living in the twenty-first century means we are born into a world that has experienced the full effects of the Enlightenment, Protestant Liberalism, and Postmodernism. Yet at the same time, God’s Word continues to stand undefeated. No doubt, the Bible is under fire today as critics, both secular and evangelical (oddly enough), attack the Bible’s full authority. But if we’ve learned anything from the sixteenth-century Reformation, we know that God’s Word will prevail in the end.

As he stood there trembling at the Diet of Worms, certainly it must have seemed to Martin Luther that the whole world was against him. Yet Luther could boldly stand upon the authority of God’s Word because he knew that not even his greatest nemesis was a match for the voice of the living God.

While our circumstances may differ today, the need to recover biblical authority in the church and in the culture remains. The next generation of Christians need to be taught, perhaps for the first time, that this is no ordinary book we hold in our hands. It is the very Word of God. In other words, if Christians today are to give an answer for the faith within them against those who would criticize the scriptures, then they need to be taught the formal principle of the Reformation: sola Scriptura—only Scripture, because it is God’s inspired Word, is our inerrant, sufficient, and final authority for the church.

Contributors include Justin Holcomb, Gavin Ortlund, Robert Kolb, Chris Castaldo, Paul House, and many others.






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