Herman Bavinck’s Reformed Dogmatics: Sin, the Menace to Certainty

Our last post hit the mid-point of Bavinck’s Prolegomena.* His dilemma was choosing between three schools of thought that best explained life; paving the way for scientific certainty. These schools are: rationalism, empiricism and realism. For Bavinck, realism goes hand in hand with the presupposition that God has revealed himself in the world, and the best place to find this revelation is scripture. There is, however, a slight complication.

Dogma has its object of study the revelation of God in scripture. It assures us that God has spoken and that the church is certain in its creedal and doctrinal expressions of faith. When it comes to the problem of evil and the origin of sin there is no easy answer, and Bavinck himself admits that here, realism helps little. There are many angles at which to look at the Genesis 3 narrative and most of which fall short of the biblical meaning. An empirical approach might say that attaining the knowledge of evil was a ‘step of progress’ and beneficial to advancing civilization. Rationalists (i.e. Remonstrants, Pelagians, Socinians, etc.) have said that sin is never really sin, it’s just a choice in the will that sooner of later we can evolve out of. These answers are hardly satisfying considering that God does not have the empirical knowledge of evil, so it would have been impossible to become like God in that regard. As for the freedom of the will: it is free, but it is not always good (Augustine) and it is impossible to overcome sin by reason alone.

If the origin of evil is not explained it is still described in historical terms with a moral to the story. The issue, says Bavinck, is not the content of the knowledge of good and evil, but the manner in which they (Adam & Eve) would obtain it. The story conveys the mere fact that human beings emancipated themselves from God’s guidance and care when they would go about learning what is good or evil. This separation from God can never lead to true happiness. Did God ‘permit’ sin to happen? Where did evil come from? Well, if God did permit it, it still doesn’t answer the ‘why’ and as for the origin of evil all that can be said (in this summary) is that sin is not an ‘ethical independent power’ that exists along side God, nor does it have its origin in God for he is holy. Sin originates in the creature, and the more one probes into the phenomena of sin, the less it seems accidental and arbitrary. Granted, but God created the world good, as well as the first humans so what then? Again, Bavinck would say that doesn’t get at the ‘why’ but at least it confirms the perspective unique to Genesis, viz. the perfection that God created the world and humankind in was perfect in kind but not in degree. God set them at the beginning of the road, not the end of it which has consistent inner logic. The biblical conclusion Bavinck finds most satisfying is that whatever sin is, its existence is dependent on the good, it dies its own death and, forever, God is holy, righteous, and just.


*our analysis shifts from RD v. 1:200-225ish to RD v. 3:36-120ish.

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