Herman Bavinck’s Reformed Dogmatics: Once in a Lifetime

Bavinck’s analysis of the covenant of grace is quite moving. He stops several times to marvel at the beauty, the continuity, and it’s hard not to get choked up with him. So far Bavinck has mapped out the groundwork needed to be done by a mediator to God on man’s behalf: guarantee an incalculable debt of moral righteousness to the sovereign, restore the old covenant promises (life, eternal life), and pay for it all with an impeccable life and death. Of all the applicants for the position of God’s gift to humanity, there is only one man right for the job.

The doctrine of Christ is central for dogmatics, writes Bavinck, and it has its foundation and presupposition in the Trinitarian being of God. The Trinity makes it possible for the existence of a mediator who participates in the divine and human nature. A divine mediator is nothing new to world religion or popular culture from Gilgamesh to Neo. When Bavinck was writing nearly a century ago, he argued that an exclusive ‘history of religions’ approach overlooks the election of Abraham – the distinction that marks off Israel’s covenant relationship with God that eventually saw the Messiah into the world. The oversight results in looking around at various cultural myths of messianic figures. Bavinck argues this is the modernist way of kicking around the original literary form of Christ’s body from one culture to the next like a football. He’s right. Postmoderns do the same thing when they read the Old Testament descriptively rather than prescriptively.* Where did the idea for a divine mediator originate? The Medes? Assyria? Ancient Babylonia? Israel? The goal of dogmatics is to maintain the universal need for a mediator as self-evident. The rest, so to speak, is up to God.

Universal expectation of a savior leads in two directions: a high and a low road. Messianic fulfillment is usually always tied to (or backloaded with) the political aspirations of the culture. Apocryphal and other parabiblical literature anticipates political redemption well into the Pharisaical age. The low road has more to do with a religious-ethical dominion which in contrast with the former is usually dismissed as unrealistic. Some of this is deserved. There are those who have maintained a certain extreme theological anticipation of the otherworldly Kingdom of God, only to cast the spirituality of the Kingdom in the most material terms possible. How would the twenty-four elders legislate sanitation to keep the streets golden? But Christ did indeed usher in a kingdom based on the covenant made with Israel in Abraham which the Law did not supersede. The kingdom is not spiritual only, nor material only: “The Kingdom of God is the sum of all spiritual and natural benefits. It simultaneously brings repentance and return.” Therefore, says Bavinck, it is present in a religious-ethical sense; it is coming in an eschatological sense.

It’s interesting to see where Bavinck places his discussion of the Kingdom of God. He places it between the waning of OT prophecy, and the incarnation. It’s encouraging to see it considered as antecedent to the incarnation and not shoved at the end after anthropology, soteriology, and ecclesiology have been exhausted. To be continued.


*See Bruce Watlke’s introduction to Genesis, A Commentary (Zondervan: 2005). Cf. also Walter Bruggerman’s Theology of the Old Testament (Fortress Press, 2004).

Leave a Reply