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Theology with Skin in the Game

Bavinck on Ethics

For the past several years, the world of Reformed theological scholarship has been in a state of elated anticipation for the publication of Herman Bavinck’s Reformed Ethics. This project was set in motion in 2008 when Dirk Van Keulen “stumbled across” Bavinck’s (mysteriously) heretofore unpublished manuscripts in the archives of the Free University of Amsterdam. Thanks to the labors of John Bolt and his team of editors and translators, the wait is over, and Baker Academic has released the first of a projected three-volume work.

This work is a partnership of sorts with Bavinck himself, for in publishing the manuscript, the scholars involved have accomplished what Bavinck never even attempted. The question looming over the entire project is “Why?” Why would Bavinck go through the multi-year trouble of writing a masterpiece without making it public? Although Bavinck surely had his own reasons at the time—and perhaps even had intentions of publishing the work at some point—were he to assess matters with hindsight, he would no doubt chalk up the (near two century-long) delay to divine providence. Indeed, the arrival of RE’s first volume seems to have been intended for such a time as this.

Bavinck begins RE with the subject of ethics: man. After his introduction—which provides a historical overview of Christian ethics, definitions of terminology, an outline of divisions within the subject of ethics, and a brief account of his foundations—Bavinck divides the rest of his volume into two books: “Humanity before Conversion” and “Converted Humanity.” By structuring the book in this way, Bavinck ensures that the reader conceives of ethics in theological terms: the antithesis is basic on the topic of ethics. Since ethics is preeminently concerned with the questions, “what is man in relation to God?” and “what ought man do in light of his relation to God?”, Bavinck naturally deals with these questions from the two distinct vantage points of unconverted man (i.e., man against God), and converted man (i.e., man for God).

This is an important point, for although fallen man and redeemed man are equally man—creatures made in the imago Dei—they are radically different. Fallen and converted man are irreducibly anthropos. Unconverted mankind is not sub-human, and converted mankind is not super-human. But ethically speaking, they are entirely different creatures. Their allegiances differ, and thus their ethical states differ. Bavinck naturally deals with these questions from the two distinct vantage points of unconverted man (i.e., man against God), and converted man (i.e., man for God). Click To Tweet

In his first chapter, “Essential Human Nature,” Bavinck argues that the “image of God” is not the essence of humanity, but is a natural part thereof. It functions, Bavinck argues, when humans operate as they should (namely, in obedience to God). This means that fallen man is fully human, having the imago Dei, but he is nevertheless unable to act in true accord with his humanity. For Bavinck, the imago Dei is there, but is not so apparent. This all means that God is the ethical archetype, man his ectype, living truly human when displaying God.

One of the key insights of this chapter is Bavinck’s description of the body/soul relationship. According to Bavinck, there is a distinct reciprocity in this relationship: “the body is an organism of the soul which inspirits, spiritualizes, eternalizes, and governs it” (pg. 46). The subject of this body/soul relationship’s unity is the I: “Everything else lies around it and is near to it and attaches to it: I have intellect, feelings, a will, a body, hand, foot, etc., but I amI… The I is a wonder, inexplicable, and simply to be accepted” (46). Bubbling up in this discussion are Bavinck’s dual motifs of organism and mystery. The body/soul relationship is inconceivable apart from these two underlying principles: first, the heart of theology is mystery, and second, all reality is organically interconnected.

For the next three chapters, Bavinck explores man’s relation to God, self, neighbor, and creation after the invasion of sin. In his chapter, “Humanity Under the Power of Sin,” Bavinck argues that the organizing principle of sin is self-love, as opposed to God-love. God is the good with which ethics is concerned, and as such, “ethical evil” is none other than godlessness. Being of the infectious nature that it is, the principle of sin, says Bavinck, has affected all of human nature: the intellect, the feelings, the will. In other words, sin has affected all that is entailed in body and soul. Chapter three is a deep dive into hamartiology, with a fascinating taxonomy of sin.

The chapter, “Human Conscience,” is by far Bavinck’s most sophisticated stretch of philosophical development in the volume. In this chapter, Bavinck argues that by definition, the human conscience is bound to the law of God. This is its function. This, however, does not mean that it is incapable of erring, which it does by necessity when the “god” to whom it is bound is an idolatrous invention:

A good conscience exonerates while a bad conscience accuses. In a certain sense, relatively speaking, the natural person can also have a good conscience. This is not, however, an objectively good conscience because the standard or norm can be wrong, the consciousness might not correctly reflect the person’s being, and the conscience can draw a false conclusion. Only a regenerated person can have an objectively good conscience, at least in principle (207).

Bavinck concludes this first section of his book, with an exploration of the sinner’s relationship to the Law of God. Here, Bavinck defines and describes the Law, explores its uses, and then elaborates on how the Law is appropriated into the various spheres of human life.

Chapter seven marks the start of Book II: Converted Humanity. This chapter specifically concerns the Christian’s “life in the Spirit.” Bavinck distinguishes between the “spiritual life” and other aspects of humanity, and then characterizes the spiritual life as being over and against the life of the natural, sinful man. The contrast, says Bavinck, may be summarized as the difference between a life directed selfishly inward, and a life directed doxologically Godward.

Bavinck goes on to identify the substance of maturation in the Christian life: imitating Christ. The primary actions of this imitation consist of (a) self-denial, and (b) cross-bearing. This maturation process, according to Bavinck, is an organic principle of the believer growing up into Christ. Bavinck thus shows where moral behavior comes from.

For the rest of the book, Bavinck addresses questions concerning the completion of the Christian life: perseverance, security, assurance, pathologies (including spiritual sicknesses), restoration, and consummation. In these last three chapters of RE, Bavinck subverts expectations for a book on ethics and plunges headlong into pastorally tinctured insights on spiritual disciplines and solutions for deep insecurities. In this way, Bavinck comes full circle and concludes where he began. He begins and ends with the conviction that ethics is theology with skin in the game. Bavinck begins and ends with the conviction that ethics is theology with skin in the game. Click To Tweet

Christians will reflect on RE for many years to come, and one review can hardly do more than scratch the surface of Bavinck’s insights. In the spirit of scratching, then, this review will merely highlight four important contributions from RE.

First, Bavinck demonstrates the interconnection between theology and ethics. He recognizes that while theology is concerned with God’s revelation to man, ethics is concerned with man’s response to God. He summarizes: “Dogmatics proceeds from God; ethics returns to God. In dogmatics, God loves us; in ethics, therefore, we love him” (22). If ethics deals with the practices and behaviors and dispositions of “man,” then the question of his ontology is paramount. “What man is” determines “what man ought to do,” and one can make no sense of either consideration if man is abstracted from God. “The good does not exist in abstraction;” says Bavinck, “it is impossible to love the good in itself. It is only because the All-Good One exists that the good also exists” (pg. 104). Doxology and ethical living are therefore not distinct callings for man. They are, in fact, identical.

Second, Bavinck shows that no part of existence stands in absolute neutral indifference to any other part. All of reality organically relates. Bavinck’s contribution of this particular insight has been convincingly demonstrated by James Eglinton’s work (Trinity and Organism: Towards a New Reading of Herman Bavinck’s Organic Motif) apart from the publication of RE, but this volume only further evinces Eglinton’s point. With Bavinck’s organic motif of unity-in-diversity starting from the ontological top (i.e., Trinity), it seamlessly takes shape as an organizing principle all the way down.

This includes the organic relationship among people, the shape of the Christian’s growth that “takes place organically, not mechanically,” the relationship between body and soul, the manner in which the Spirit works Scripture into the believer, the way that spiritual diseases and spiritual vitality involve the whole person and more. In this way, Bavinck is a radically consistent thinker. He is not content with compartmentalizing his system—the conclusion in one area of thought necessarily has implications on many others, and Bavinck is disciplined in tracing them out.

Third, Bavinck speaks with penetrating insights on the egocentric nature of sin. In nearly all areas of Western culture today, radical self-absorption dominates. Through the noise of the typical contemporary self-obsession one finds in conventional worldly wisdom, Bavinck speaks with bone-chilling clarity:

Positively, who is now human’s god? They must have gods for whom they live and to whom they dedicate themselves. Sin consists concretely in placing a substitute on the throne. That substitute is not another creature in general, not even the neighbor, but the human self, the “ego” or “I.” The organizing principle of sin is self-glorification, self-divination; stated more broadly: self-love or egocentricity. (105 emphasis added).

This is a most needed insight on ethics for the Church today. With the help of historical distance, Bavinck is able to speak with prophetic clarity to we who are ignorant of this aspect of sin on account of our proximity to the spirit of this age. The solution to ethical disarray, argues Bavinck, is not more obsession and adoration and love of the self, but less. The solution to ethical disarray, argues Bavinck, is not more obsession and adoration and love of the self, but less. Click To Tweet

Fourth, Bavinck stands to alleviate our incessant craving for worldly approval with his comments on gender and sexuality. Against the radical egalitarianism that pervades Western thought (and even shapes the subconscious imaginations of many “complementarians”), Bavinck praises the differences between men and women as crucial for a full-orbed appreciation for anthropology. This point may be illustrated, ironically, by the way contemporary readers will surely flinch upon reading, “We naturally differ by sex: the woman is a being of feelings, the man of reason; the woman is a creature of emotions (heart), the man of deeds (will)” (419). If and when we are able to push through the short-sightedness that often accompanies proximity to controversy, we will see that Bavinck is by no means drawing exclusive distinctions; as if to say women are unable to reason or men to feel. Indeed, he goes on to show that the full spectrum represented among the sexes in general (i.e., from emotion to reason) are represented among the apostles in particular, and are perfectly realized in the person of Christ: “[Jesus] was not a man primarily of thought or of feeling or of will. He was a male, yet with womanly tenderness; he cannot be classified; in him there was complete harmony” (419).

The point Bavinck so helpfully makes—and which we so desperately need, in our confused era of distinction erasure—is this: distinctions need not imply rank in value. In Bavinck’s conception, the egalitarian vision of anthropology is drab in comparison to what he proposes:

These differences are precisely what makes for the richness of life, and abolishing them would make all people the same, whereas everywhere there is variety in unity (e.g., in leaves of the tree), and beauty is based on this variety. Variety as such does not imply sinfulness or pathology; the distinction between men and women existed also before the fall” (420)

In this way, Bavinck steps into our twenty-first century context and speaks to us with a bit of objectivity. If we refrain from the anachronism of faulting Bavinck for failing to answer today’s questions in a way that satisfies us from his context of yesteryear, we may indeed be pleasantly surprised. His flatfooted analysis from yesteryear may come to instruct us on how we ought to frame today’s questions. On questions of gender and sexuality, we cannot gain a wider perspective by listening to the future. Our only chronological resource for contextual mapping is the past. In this sense, the publication of this hidden work could not have been timelier.

Samuel G. Parkison

Samuel G. Parkison (PhD, Midwestern Seminary) is Associate Professor of Theological Studies and Director of the Abu Dhabi Extension Site at Gulf Theological Seminary in the United Arab Emirates. Before coming to GTS, Samuel was assistant professor of Christian studies at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, and pastor of teaching and liturgy at Emmaus Church in Kansas City. He is the author of Revelation and Response: The Why and How of Leading Corporate Worship Through Song (Rainer, 2019), Thinking Christianly: Bringing Sundry Thoughts Captive to Christ (H&E, 2022), and Irresistible Beauty: Beholding Triune Glory in the Face of Jesus Christ (Christian Focus, 2022).

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