Herman Bavinck’s Reformed Dogmatics: Werk is Work

The past three weeks have been spent on the Incarnation. All posts prior to these were an exciting prologue. The Incarnation is the very center of dogmatics and one must first understand the person of Christ before ascertaining what it is he does. Christ came to fulfill the law, establish grace, reveal the Father, send the Spirit, and atone for sin. And that just for starters. Bavinck says that this is an area which has seen little (satisfactory) treatment in dogmatics and for that we need to get busy.


There is a deep human need for redemption from sin and misery. Writing at the time of the industrial revolution, Bavinck notes that one of the greatest riddles of life is that it becomes shallow for all the cultural benefits streaming from civilization. The same can be said in the wake of a global recession. This is why there has always been religion. The needs of the human heart are greater than what culture can provide. It’s what sent Alexander the Great across Persia and subprime lenders on a similar campaign. All to say there is a wide array of civil and natural evils in the world which science and technology simply cannot hope to solve. As a general starting point, its safe to say that all ancient cultures and primitive peoples addressed the ‘problem of evil’ and the ‘possibility of redemption’ from evil and its affects through keeping laws, ‘divine’ commandments, golden rules and ratios, and above all: sacrifice.


Sacrifice is a universal phenomenon in religions of the world. Sacrifice is a religious act, “in which a person offers a material gift to the deity and destroys it in the service of that deity in order to secure that deity’s favor.” There are plenty of theories as to the origin and meaning of sacrifices. One theory explains that gifts offered to the gods were expiation. A second theory explains sacrifices were tokens of reverence and submission. The mystical-sacrificial theory (sacramental) is closer to primitive beliefs: the meat (and blood) of the sacrifice is ingested filling the participant with the moral and physical properties of the victim, simultaneously bringing in divine favor. There are millions of rites and customs to this effect; the ancient Aztecs wore the skins of their human victims, the Hebrews sprinkled lamb’s blood on the doorposts to save from destruction. The point is, says Bavinck, the idea of sacrifice is the link between religion and the hope for successful cultural activity.


Turing to the Scriptural data raises more questions about the origin of sacrifice than it does solutions. Were there sacrifices prior to the fall? Some like Augustine believe there were and Bavinck agrees. Yet sin changed the nature of sacrifice to the degree that it added an expiatory dimension previously unknown. Further, before being entirely corrupted, sin also established an impression that gratitude and reverence cannot be achieved without atoning for guilt and fear. Somewhere in its long history there arose a special ‘priest-class’ of persons designated to mediate between the people and the deity. As we will see, this special development will ultimately rest in the person and work of Christ who alone fulfilled universal ritual atonement. Now that’s progress.

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