Book Reviews

Book Review: Reformed Ethics: Volume One (Herman Bavinck)

Herman Bavinck was a systematic theologian who taught at Kampen and the Free University of Amsterdam in the later 1800s. Baker Academic has already produced his four-volume Reformed Dogmatics, and this Reformed Ethics is the first of three projected volumes from a recently discovered (in 2008) 1,100-page manuscript of Bavinck’s used between 1883-1902.

John Bolt, who edited this volume, Bavinck’s Reformed Dogmatics, and who also wrote the volume on Bavinck in Crossway’s Theologians on the Christian Life series, and his colleagues worked diligently on this lengthy (though unfinished) manuscript to understand how to most accurately translate it for us (xiii). 

More than an Encyclopedia

Is this an ethics book? This isn’t a book you’re going to pick up to read Bavinck’s opinion on divorce and remarriage, bioethics, environmentalism, etc. Rather, in his introduction, Bavinck writes that in Christian ethics, “the life of Christ is implanted in us [Christians] in a moral way and is developed,” and “the life of Christ manifests itself outwardly” (19-20).

Ethics is concerned with three different things:

  1. “How human beings as rational, responsible being appropriate and use the gifts and powers of the first creation and accept the gospel of grace;
  2. How humans are regenerated and how that life remains subject to sickness, temptation, and struggle; and
  3. How, in ethical lives, human acts (of understanding, will, etc.) are directed towards God’s law, which is to be manifested in all circumstances of their lives” (21).

That is, “ethics is concerned with the preparation, birth, development, and outward manifestation of the spiritual person” (21). It is “the developmental history of people redeemed by God” (21). This volume is more than just an encyclopedia on what to do vs. what not to do. Bavinck directs you to understand how God’s kingdom is at work in us. How does God, from beginning to end, bring his regenerated community into being (22).

In regards to dogmatics and ethics, Bavinck writes,

In dogmatics we are concerned with what God does for us and in us. In dogmatics God is everything. Dogmatics is a word from God to us, coming from outside us and above us; we are passive, listening, and opening ourselves to being directed by God…In ethics, we are interested in the question of what it is that God now expects of us when he does his work in us. What do we do for him? Here we are active, precisely because of and on the grounds of God’s deeds in us (22).

Further on he writes, “It is precisely because God is everything that humans are truly great. There is no division of labor here where God does his part and we do ours. Not at all! We establish our calling precisely because God works all in all” (22).

This volume is made up of two parts (or “books”).

  1. Humanity before Conversion
  2. Converted Humanity

Part One (humanity before conversion) revolves around how we are created in God’s image (1), what the human nature is, what our relationships are, and how sin messed all of that up (2). We now sin against God and neighbor (3). We do things for ourselves instead of for God, often using our neighbor for our own benefit. Though we are fallen images (4), we have a conscience (5), which, in a way, is a “reminder of what did exist”—that is, the perfect relationship we used to have with God through Adam and Eve. We have God’s law, the “natural law,” still within us now helping us determine good from evil (6). 

For converted humanity, they live in the Spirit (7), performed in different ways throughout church history (8), and so they are able to imitate Christ (9). Bavinck surveys how Christians persevere in the Christian life (10), even in the face of different pathologies/illnesses (11), and how spiritual disciplines can help alleviate our maladies (12). 

Bavinck regularly engages with Scripture, often quoting and referring to Scripture to establish his point (see page 99 where he talks about intellect as being practical and moral, or how he looks at Commandments 5-10 when talking about sins against a neighbor, pp. 129-139). When it comes to the conscience, he surveys Greek and Roman history, Scripture, the church fathers and scholastic theologians, Protestants and the Reformed tradition, and finally modern rationalism. He writes, “The conscience is an act, a deed, an activity, flowing forth, however, from a disposition or habit” (195).

Converted and unconverted humanity are not two different persons or species. Neither sub- nor super-human. But Christians owe their allegiance to the Lord who created them, saved them, and indwells them. As Psalm 115:4-8 shows us, those who worship idols turn inward on themselves. They become like what they worship. They see, but they become blind. They hear but become deaf. Unconverted humanity are slaves to sin (Rom 6:6) and “subject to death” (Rom 7:24). Bavinck writes, “Human beings now misuse the body for sin and as an instrument of unrighteousness (Rom. 6:12-13), as a tool for their desires” (91). Bavinck points out that it is “from the will” that “sin flows through the body to the outside and assumes form” (91). This comes to the fore through our organs. Bavinck lists ten parts of our body that the Bible speaks of as being used for sin (e.g., our hands, feet, and tongues) or representing a stubborn attitude (e.g., our hearts and even our foreheads—Isa 48:4!). 

The Christian, though not perfect in any way, are to live their lives in worship to the living God who sees, hears, speaks, creates, saves, indwells, and fills. “Our God… does all that he pleases” (Ps 115:3). And what gives him pleasure is to grow his people (see p. 346). God strengthens us with power through his Holy Spirit (Eph 3:16). He renews us inwardly day by day (2 Cor 4:16). He renews our minds (Rom 12:2; Col 3:10) by the Holy Spirit (Titus 3:5). Christians are not perfect, but they are “complete.” Bavinck notes, “New persons in Christ are at once complete; no single piece of the new person in Christ is missing; they are a new whole person (not a partially new person, Col. 3:10)” (346). 

Recommended?

I think Bavinck has written a superb work, and John Bolt & Co. have given us a great gift by translation this volume from Dutch into English. This is the first of Bavinck I’ve read (though I’ve wanted to read him before), and his depth impresses me (and maybe I can buy them from America post-corona). Though he wrote this in the later 1800s, much of what he says still applies today (though some of what he says is dated). This will help give you a sturdy foundation on thinking about ethics for the christian life, especially from a Reformed perspective. Rather than thinking Yes, do this, no, don’t do that, Bavinck helps to build you up both in how to think about ethics as a Christian and how to live ethically as worship to Christ. Read and do likewise.  

Lagniappe

  • Author: Herman Bavink
  • Editor: John Bolt
  • Hardcover: 608 pages
  • Publisher: Baker Academic (June 18, 2019)
  • Sample: Read the beginning of Chapter One!

Buy it from Amazon or Baker Academic!

Disclosure: I received this book free from Baker Academic. The opinions I have expressed are my own, and I was not required to write a positive review. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 http://www.access.gpo.gov/nara/cfr/waisidx_03/16cfr255_03.html.

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