Herman Bavinck’s Reformed Dogmatics: Grace is absolutely Certain, Isn’t it?

Our last post touched on Bavinck’s theology of the covenant from his book Saved by Grace , (Reformation Heritage Books, 2008). From there we outlined the Reformed concept of salvation, rooted in God’s covenant, as the middle way when compared to the Romanist and Anabaptist concepts of receiving grace and salvation. We now pick the conversation back up in Bavinck’s RD (vol. 3, ch. 5), for some initial remarks on the covenant as both the nucleus and the dividing line of special revelation.

Socrates said that an opposite can never become the opposite of itself. Tall, for example, cannot be both short and tall simultaneously; it’s always one or the other. So, can human self-sufficiency be divine salvation? Can Slavery be freedom? Suffering happiness? More often suffering proves to be a norm in life rather than a circumstantial ‘wild card’. For Bavinck, and observers like him, suffering always evokes prayer for relief and deliverance. But “when that misery is solely construed as physical evil, (e.g. disaster, misfortune, sickness),” writes Bavinck, “The idea of salvation does not go beyond rescue from this distress.” Divine salvation indeed has an added moral dimension, which most people attempt to dismiss in the pact of salvation. When God’s holiness is dismissed, salvation is a momentary event. This reason, argues Bavinck, is principle as to why the world does not recognize God’s free offer of grace in the form of a covenant. Special revelation makes God known as a free, independent being, with his own will, ready to engage with his like-minded (or unlike-minded) creatures. But can God’s judgment of death (Gen. 2:17) also be the announcement of grace? Socrates would be skeptical, but should we?

No, says Bavinck, there is grace as well as judgment. We find in the Genesis narrative that God did not abandon the ‘transgressors’ immediately after the fall. The angels were lost immediately (2 Pet. 2:4), but not those expressly made in his image. Instead God annuls the covenant made between Eve and the serpent. He puts enmity between them and issues a promise of deliverance through her ‘seed’ which is ultimately fulfilled in the Person of the Messiah. Though banished from paradise, Bavinck concludes, humans are not consigned to hell but are sent into the world to subdue it. Considering the fallen angels, this is no small consolation. The concept of covenant salvation in those early chapters of Genesis is there only in germ form. Covenants (in a ‘federal’ sense) are made later, such as the book of Deuteronomy, and take a more prominent place in the OT canon even later, as in the book of Jeremiah.

Many have criticized the Reformed concept of ‘covenant salvation’ perhaps as something similar to an ‘opposite of itself’. How can God, they might argue, assign judgment and grace simultaneously? How can this grace be made only for a very select few? We have already considered a few distinctions, perhaps ‘false-dichotomies’ between sin, suffering, and salvation. For Bavinck the sum answer to these questions is “God has revealed himself in Scripture; he is holy, and good, and will save his people”. Is this absolutely certain? We shall see.

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