Herman Bavinck’s Reformed Dogmatics: Death is absolutely Certain, Isn’t It?

Our last post summarized Bavinck’s definition of sin as a non-physical ethical force that is not exactly ‘non-being’ but certainly strives in that direction. Death, the result of sin, was pronounced as judgment in Genesis 2 but there is more mystery and complication to this ‘death sentence’ than there is certainty.

Anyone who has ever studied Hitler will tell you this: No one, even at the highest levels of his government, had any idea as to the extent of damage and suffering he would inflict on the world and his own people. The suffering caused by sin has a similar analogy; Adam and Eve had no idea how sin would plunge the world into this melancholy subject. It’s a moot point to say that suffering is universal. If sin were taken out of the equation suffering would be reduced to a much smaller dimension in human life. Bavinck makes this case by pointing out the variety of sins, both spiritual and material in nature, and contrasts it with the calamity of natural disaster. With hurricanes, famine, thorns and such, all manner of superstition follows near all natural phenomena. Here Bavinck beautifully presents us with a dilemma; how do we differentiate and also reconcile scientific and biblical explanations of universal suffering that is otherwise entrenched in folklore and superstition? What to do. What to do.

On one side there is a scientific, rational, explanation for death and suffering. Darwinians, for example, are foremost among those who affirm death is natural it is built into the natural world. The idea that Satan is behind the bushes and in the thunderclouds is Christianized pagan superstition. But is death natural and suffering the norm of life? No, says Bavinck, “it violates the inner nature of a human being (Job 14:1-12).” Sin has devalued human life creating a tension between the natural and unnaturalness of death. Only a faith rooted in scripture, and not a rationalist outlook, overcomes superstitious outlooks that distort a true, godly, and yes, scientific perspective on sin and suffering. How so? Bavinck’s analysis here (chapter 4) unfortunately doesn’t reach a firm conclusion. On the one hand Bavinck complains that in his day the most precise scientific thinking on all levels, which had abandoned scripture faith, turned to hypnotism, astrology, and the occult. This initially sounds a little silly but there is something to it (the Nazis were obsessed with the occult). Yet on the other Bavinck buries the reader under a mass amount of ‘proof texts’ losing the clear voice of his central thesis.

So Bavinck reaches a great summit but stops for the sheer magnitude of the view. What are we to think? Is death final? Is it a natural part of the world? We will have to wait until the next chapter: the Covenant of Grace in Jesus Christ.

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