Herman Bavinck’s Reformed Dogmatics: Is Passive Aggressive?

Our last post concluded on a small slice of the infra- and supralapsarian views of grace by saying it was a real issue and not a myopic study of flavors. How one perceives the moment of regeneration directly contributes to views of adoption, faith, baptism, forgiveness, sanctification, scripture and sacrament. For Bavinck and the Reformed, these doctrines ultimately arrive at our fellowship with other believers and may impact personal faith in God.

Reformed theology sees grace as something eternally inherent in the Triune God. Positive descriptions of God’s essence are impossible but statements such as “God is Love”* or “God is Light” are possible due to the covenant nature of divine revelation. Grace is powerfully active in the fallen world, because revelation has cut a remarkable course through human history despite itself. But does love conquer all? God did not positively will sin and evil yet it seems to permeate the whole creation. Reformed and Puritan language for the origin of evil often uses ‘passive’ or ‘permissible’ to describe the divine will as, historically, questions of the origin of evil did not directly strike the question of God’s existence then as they do today (Helm). Sin does not make one free and independent from God as much as it does not lie outside of God’s providential government. Permission, says Bavinck, is not passive similar to watching a crime take place and not preventing it. Passivity is active in the sense that it positively brings about the good of God’s will although the reason for it is immeasurable (cf. Aquinas I.q.1.). Bavinck’s solution to the origin or problem of evil, written at a time when the last shimmering rays of the Enlightenment were beginning to fade, offers no other alternative but the covenant of grace.

The cross is the apex of God’s covenant with humanity, and eternally so. The polytheism of ancient cultures contained an element of appeasement and atonement (sacrifice) somewhere in their cultic rites. Yet there is a servile, legalistic fear within the theology of these various cults, with no idea of a covenant of grace revealed to them freely of God. The covenant of grace is eternal in that it was not conceived on the spot with Abraham, Moses, or David, etc. Israel was singled out, says Bavinck, but not as a drop of oil in the ocean or set on a remote mountain top but situated at the center of the world. The opening revelation of the Law (Exodus 20:2) is, “the essence of the covenant of grace.” The cross put away the ‘Sianitic dispensation’ connecting the older covenant of grace with the new in a golden line of historical continuity without a hint of artificiality (Rom. 1:2; Gal. 3:8; Heb. 4:2; 2 Tim. 3:15). The foundation of God’s work of redemption is clearly discerned in hindsight to whom it is made; Adam stood as the first covenant ‘head’ although failed to meet the requirements and Christ, who successfully ratified the new covenant of grace with his obedience, death and resurrection. The new covenant therefore depends on the old in a very real and vivid way despite the distinctions each has, not as polar opposites that never attract, but objectively separate; grace depends on nature as the natural proceeds the spiritual, as grace before glory.


* See Bavinck RD , 2; 129.

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