Wilhelmus à Brakel…You’re no Herman Bavinck

In 2011 I read through Herman Bavinck’s Reformed Dogmatics. For this year I had fleeting thoughts of trying to venture through Barth’s Church Dogmatics. Or perhaps I should just go through several single-volume works. In the end I decided to tackle another 4-volume Dutch work: Wilhelmus à Brakel’s The Christian’s Reasonable Service. I had picked it up a few years ago at a conference in Greenville, SC and it is sat largely undisturbed on my shelf since then. It was highly recommended at the conference I was attending, and in the past few weeks I have again seen it recommended by several others. I’m about 70 pages in and not quite sure what to think.

 I know you cannot accurately judge a 2,500 page work after only 70 pages…but I am not too thrilled. The works of Bavinck and à Brakel are certainly very different. I recognize that there is a place for less rigorous expositions of theology, but à Brakel seems quite sloppy in his assertions.

 For instance:

 “One can therefore state this in reverse: every human being is conscious of a deity, and a being which is conscious of a deity is necessarily a human being.” (p. 18)

 Really? Are angels human beings? Is the Father a human being? Is the Holy Spirit a human being?

 “One book or several together—for example, the books of Moses or the Gospels—perfectly contain the complete rule for faith and practice.” (p. 34)

 Really? I could know everything I need to know from a few or even just one book of Scripture? They why are there 66? But since à Brakel thinks we could get by with just a few books of the Bible I guess it is not too surprising that he thinks we have lost some of the inspired writings:

 “Furthermore, we believe that the apostles have written many letters to the congregations, also by inspiration of the Holy Spirit. Such particular congregations were obliged to receive these letters as being of divine origin. These were not in the possession of other congregations, however, and after the apostolic period were not preserved for the church of God.” (p. 37)

 Earlier on the same page à Brakel asserts: “Never does Christ or an apostle direct us to unwritten traditions, but always to the Word.” I am not sure this squares up with 2 Thess. 2:2, 15.

 And I will not comment on à Brakel’s strong assertions that the sun and moon rotate around a stationary earth (pgs. 64-65). Except to wonder if he might have been the last theologian to ever assert such.

 It is said that you can tell how long a missionary has served by what they do when a bug lands in their soup. A new missionary stops eating and asks for something else. A more experienced missionary takes out the bug and keeps on eating. A seasoned missionary just eats the bug. I realize that there are going to “bugs” in any work composed by man. A critical reader has to get past this. I just hope the bugs do not start overwhelming the soup.

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Do I really have to believe in hell?

Herman Bavinck begins and ends his discussion of the eternal punishment of sinners with the caveat that no one is really enthused about the doctrine:

If human sentiment had the final say about the doctrine of eternal punishment, it would certainly be hard to maintain and even today find few defenders.

For in eternal punishment God’s justice always manifests itself in such a way that his goodness and love remain inviolate and can never be justly faulted. The saying that he does not willingly afflict or grieve anyone applies also in hell. The pain he inflicts is not an object of pleasure, either for him or for the blessed in heaven, but a means of glorifying his virtues, and hence [the punishment is] determined in severity and measure by this ultimate goal. (Reformed Dogmatics, IV, 708, 714)

Christians do not believe in hell because they find the idea enjoyable. Christians believe in hell because the Bible teaches the reality of it. Along those lines, here some important things to remember when considering the doctrine of eternal punishment:

  1. “Human feeling is no foundation for anything important, therefore, and neither may nor can it be decisive in the determination of law and justice. All appearance notwithstanding, it is infinitely better to fall into the hands of the Lord than into human hands (1 Chron. 21:13).” In short, your feelings and opinions are inconsequential to the formulation of doctrinally orthodox beliefs.
  2. “…no one in Scripture speaks of [eternal punishment] more often and at greater length than our Lord Jesus Christ, whose depth of human feeling and compassion no one can deny and who was the meekest and most humble of human beings.” In other words, if you have a problem with hell you have a problem with Jesus.
  3. “Granted, sin is finite in the sense that it is committed by a finite creature in a finite period of time, but as Augustine already noted, not the duration of time over which the sin was committed but its own intrinsic nature is the standard for its punishment.” The denial of eternal punishment minimizes the sinfulness of sin and the greatness of God.  Even in this life we recognize the varied magnitude of different decisions. There is a world of difference between choosing the wrong thing off the menu for supper and choosing the wrong person to marry. Sin is not just choosing the curly fries instead of the home-style fries at Arby’s. “…sin is infinite in the sense that it is committed against the Highest Majesty, who is absolutely entitled to our love and worship. God is absolutely and infinitely worthy of our obedience and dedication.”
  4. “…for the person who disputes [the reality of] eternal punishment, there is enormous danger of playing the hypocrite before God. Such a person presents himself as extremely loving, one who in goodness and compassion far outstrips our Lord Jesus Christ. This does not stop the same person, the moment one’s own honor is violated, from erupting in fury and calling down on the violator every evil in this life and the life to come.” Or, if you are going to deny the right of God to punish sin, you have no right to condemn it yourself.
  5. Finally, “Critics of eternal punishment not only fail to do justice to the doom-worthiness of sin, the rigorousness of divine justice; they also infringe on the greatness of God’s love and the salvation that is in Christ.” For all the talk of a loving God not sending people to hell, a denial of hell actually makes God into a hateful misogynist. If hell is not real, why would the eternal Word of God have to take on human flesh and die for man’s sin? If the eternal Son of God did not have to die for man’s sin to save him and God sent Him to die anyway… What kind of Father does that?

No one likes the idea of hell. But, “If the object had not been salvation from eternal destruction, the price of the blood of God’s own Son would have been much too high. The heaven that he won for us by his atoning death presupposes a hell from which he delivered us. The eternal life he imparted to us presupposes an eternal death from which he saved us.”

Herman Bavinck on the differences between Law and Gospel

 

Law

Gospel

Temporary Eternal
Designed for one people Carried to all people
Imperfect Perfect
Shadow and example Substance of the good things to come
Fostered fear and servitude Generates love and freedom
Could not fully justify Enables recipients to keep God’s commandments
Conferred no riches of grace Confers the power of grace
Gave no eternal salvation Gives eternal life
The incomplete gospel The complete law
Demand Gift
Command Promise
Sin Grace
Sickness Healing
Death Life
Proceeds from God’s holiness Proceeds from God’s grace
Known from nature Known from special revelation
Demands perfect righteousness Grants perfect righteousness
Leads people to eternal life by works Produces good works from the riches of eternal life granted by faith
Presently condemns people Acquits people
Addresses itself to all people Addresses itself to those who live within its hearing
Eternal Temporary
Power of sin to death Power of God to salvation

(Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, IV, 452, 453, 455, 458)

Careful readers will note something of a contradiction in this listing. The second pair and the third to last pair seem to be at odds with one another. This apparent disagreement is reconciled when one considers the pair: “Known from nature” and “Known from special revelation.” The Law as the five books of Moses and the entire Old Testament were indeed “designed for one people.” But the law as the knowledge that there is a God and that he will judge all men is known to all men everywhere. So now the Gospel is that special revelation that demands to be published abroad to all people. All people know they need a restored relation with God, whether by Law or law, but it is only the Gospel that reveals how the relationship may be restored.

What of the disagreement between the very first pair and the second to last pair? Bavinck writes, The gospel is temporary; the law is everlasting and precisely that which is restored by the gospel. Freedom from the law, therefore, does not mean that Christians no longer have anything to do with that law, but that the law can no longer demand anything from them as a condition for salvation and can no longer judge and condemn them.

While the New Covenant has been inaugurated how we long for its consummation when the proclamation of the gospel will no longer be necessary, “And no longer shall each one teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, ‘Know the LORD,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the LORD. For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.”

Amen.  Come, Lord Jesus.

 

 

A Historical Argument against Infant Baptism from Herman Bavinck

I am a committed credobaptist. I believe that baptism is to be offered only to those who are able to give profession of faith in Jesus Christ. A profession in Christ necessitates one is able to have an understanding of certain things: who Christ is; what Christ has done; and why Christ is needed. For reasons that should be obvious, this rules out the baptism of infants. They are physically and mentally unable to profess faith in Jesus Christ.

Nevertheless, this conviction of mine does not prevent me from reading from and talking to those brothers in the Lord who baptize infants. As I have read John Calvin and B.B. Warfield I have been flummoxed in seeing how they can be so right on what baptism does and does not signify, yet be so blind (in my eyes (no pun intended)) to whom baptism should be offered to. It seems they often make true statements, but do not realize the implications of those statements.

I have not yet entered into Herman Bavinck’s discussion of infant baptism, but while discussing regeneration he makes a couple statements that I think should influence his thinking on the matter. But knowing something about him, and looking at the table of contents in the book I am reading, I know he will not make the connection.

In briefly sketching the history of the church and her belief about regeneration Bavinck writes,

When, having gradually stopped being a missionary church, the church gained its members more from its own children than from among Jews and pagans and for that reason universally introduced infant baptism, people continued to maintain the close connection between baptism and regeneration but had to modify it in important ways. (Reformed Dogmatics, vol IV, p. 54)

This is really a stunning admission from someone who believes in infant baptism. Notice again Bavinck’s identification of the origin of the practice: “having gradually stopped being a missionary church, the church gained its members more from its own children than from among Jews and pagans and for that reason universally introduced infant baptism.”

The reason, according to Bavinck’s understanding, was NOT a careful study of Scriptures; an appeal to apostolic teaching or tradition; or the implications of some covenant of grace. The reason was strictly pragmatic, i.e. most of our members are being born into the church so we might as well baptize them.

Now I am sure that later on, Bavinck will do his best to build a Scriptural argument for infant baptism. But how will he deal with the fact that he has already undercut his position with this historical argument? When you admit that for the first 100-150 years of the existence of the church she did not practice infant baptism and then later state that infant baptism is biblical you are necessarily stating that the church was unbiblical for the first 100-150 years of her existence. The church built upon the foundation of Jesus and the apostles. The church not just built on the apostles, but built by the apostles.

So how could Peter, John, and Paul been so wrong about baptizing infants?

The Significance of the Resurrection of Jesus

The resurrection is:

  1. proof of Jesus’ messiahship, the coronation of the Servant of the Lord to be Christ and Lord, the Prince of life and Judge (Acts 2:36; 3:13-15; 5:31; 10:42; 17:31)
  2. as seal of his eternal divine Sonship (Acts 13:33; Rom. 1:3-4)
  3. a divine endorsement of his mediatorial work, a declaration of the power and value of his death, the “Amen!” of the Father upon the “It is finished” of the Son (Acts 2:23-24; 4:11; 5:31; Rom. 6:4, 10; 1 Peter 2:4)
  4. the inauguration of the exaltation he accomplished by his suffering (Luke 24:26; Acts 2:33; Rom. 6:4; Phil. 2:9)
  5. the guarantee of our forgiveness and justification (Acts 5:31; Rom. 4:25)
  6. the fountain of numerous spiritual blessings: the gift of the Spirit (Acts 2:33), repentance (Acts 5:31); spiritual eternal life (Rom. 6:4f.), salvation in its totality (Acts 4:12)
  7. the principle and pledge of our blessed and glorious resurrection (Acts 4:2; Rom. 8:11; 1 Cor. 6:14; 15:20-23)
  8. the foundation of apostolic Christianity (1 Cor. 15:12-14).

Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, III p. 442

How can you tell who is really elect?

What are we to make of election, falling away, and church membership? It is clear from the history of redemption that there have been unbelievers among the congregation of God’s people, and Scripture makes it clear there always will be (Mathew 13:24-30, 36-43). What are we to make of this? Is it our job to discern who in the church is really saved?

In commenting on 1 Peter 1:1-2—elect according to the foreknowledge of God the Father—John Calvin writes, “…we are not curiously to inquire about the election of our brethren, but ought on the contrary to regard their calling, so that all who are admitted by faith into the church, are to be counted as the elect; for God thus separates them for the world, which is a sign of election.”

A few hundred years later, Herman Bavinck penned similar sentiments, “Certainly, there are bad branches on the vine, and there is chaff among the wheat; and in a large house, there are vessels of gold as well as vessels of earthenware (Matt. 3:12; 13:29; John 15:2; 2 Tim. 2:20). But we do not have the right and the power to separate the two: in the day of the harvest, God himself will do this. As long as—in the judgment of love—they walk in the way of the covenant, they are to be regarded and treated as allies. Though not of the covenant, they are in the covenant and will one day be judged accordingly.” (Reformed Dogmatics III, p. 232)

No one is perfect. Even saints sin. Do not judge people according to where you are in your spiritual walk; or where you think they should be in theirs. Is a person faithful to attend the assembly of believers on the Lord’s Day? Does he evidence a desire, however small, for spiritual things and growth in the Lord? Count him as a brother. Christ knows all those that are his and will not lose one of them. You are not privileged with such knowledge or ability.

Does the Church replace Israel? Look to Jesus

Jesus Christ is:

the truth (John 14:6)
the substance in whom all the promises and shadows have been realized (Col. 2:17)
the true prophet, priest, and king
the true servant of the Lord
the true expiation (Rom. 3:25)
the true sacrifice (Eph. 5:2)
the true circumcision (Col. 2:11)
the true Passover (1 Cor. 5:7)

Therefore his church is:

the true seed of Abraham (Gal. 3:29)
the true Israel (Heb. 8:8-10)
the true people of God (Matt. 1:21; Luke 1:17; Rom. 9:25-26; 2 Cor. 6:16-18; Titus 2:14; 1 Pet. 2:9; Rev. 21:3)
the true temple of God (1 Cor. 3:16; 2 Cor. 6:16; Eph. 2:21; 2 Thess. 2:4; Heb. 8:2,5)
the true Zion and Jerusalem (Gal. 4:26; Heb. 12:22)
the true religion (John 4:24; Rom. 12:1; Phil. 3:3; 4:18)

Nothing of the Old Testament is lost in the New, but everything is fulfilled, matured, has reached its full growth, and now, out of the temporary husk, produces the eternal core. It is not the case that in Israel there was a true temple and sacrifice and priesthood and so on and that all these things have now vanished. The converse, rather, is true: of all this Israel only possessed a shadow, but now the substance itself has emerged. The things we see are temporal, but the invisible things are eternal. (Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics III, p. 224)

Zombie Depravity

Sin, after all, is lawlessness. The state in which humans are born either corresponds to God’s law or deviates from it; it is good or evil, sinful or not sinful. There is no third category. (Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics III, p. 91.)

One of the “great debates” in Christian theology is over the nature of man’s sinfulness. I call it great because while not continual throughout history, it continually resurfaces. I call it great not because it is valuable, but because it is essential. As Calvin wrote at the beginning of his Institutes,

“We are accordingly urged by our own evil things to consider the good things of God; and, indeed, we cannot aspire to Him in earnest until we have begun to be displeased with ourselves. For what man is not disposed to rest in himself? Who, in fact, does not thus rest, so long as he is unknown to himself; that is, so long as he is contented with his own endowments, and unconscious or unmindful of his misery? Every person, therefore, on coming to the knowledge of himself, is not only urged to seek God, but is also led as by the hand to find him” (I.1).

We cannot begin to know God rightly if we have not begun to know ourselves rightly.

The core of the debate is an answer to the simple question, “Is the unconverted sinner spiritually dead.” At one end of the spectrum are those who simply answer “no.” Man is born into the world in the same condition as Adam, completely able to choose the good and forsake the evil. At the other end of the debate are those who answer, “yes.” Man is born in a state of deadness and is able to do nothing to lift himself up to God. Occupying the vast middle are those—a la Miracle Max in The Princess Bride—who assert that man is only mostly dead, or partially dead. Sin has afflicted man, warped him, inhibited him, but he still has the strength and ability to overcome it on his own power and come to God.

What does the Bible say?

The teaching of Jesus concerning the new birth seems to assume it. Jesus told Nicodemus that man must be “born again,” or born from above. Jesus strengthened this metaphor by saying it “must” happen. The statement that man must be born again seems to correspond with the teaching that man is spiritually dead. In line with this would be Peter’s 2 references to being born again (1 Peter 1:3, 23); and Paul’s statements regarding new life (2 Cor. 3:6) and new creation (2 Cor. 5:17; Gal. 6:15).

Even more clear is the teaching of Jesus in John 5:21-24:

For as the Father raises the dead and gives them life, so also the Son gives life to whom he will. The Father judges no one, but has given all judgment to the Son, that all may honor the Son, just as they honor the Father. Whoever does not honor the Son does not honor the Father who sent him. Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life. He does not come into judgment, but has passed from death to life.

The one who believes has new life, not just an improved life. He has not passed from good to better. He has not passed from sick to well. He has passed from death to life. So it comes as no surprise to hear Jesus teach at the conclusion of the parable of the Prodigal Son, “For this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found.’ And they began to celebrate. It was fitting to celebrate and be glad, for this your brother was dead, and is alive; he was lost, and is found” (Luke 15:24,32).

Apparently the apostle John was paying attention to this teaching for he repeated it in 1 John 3:14, “We know that we have passed out of death into life, because we love the brothers. Whoever does not love abides in death.” The state of spiritual deadness is not so much taught as it is assumed. John takes it for granted that his readers accept the fact that the state of those who do not believe is “death.” Those who do not love the brothers demonstrate their continued life of death.

Paul weighs in on the subject in Ephesians 2:1-5:

And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience– among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind. But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ–by grace you have been saved…

So, to paraphrase the quote at the beginning just a bit, man is either dead or he is not. God either gives “new” life or he does not.

There is no third category.

Herman Bavinck on Total Depravity…But God

For the next time you think you aren’t that bad:

It is the human heart that is corrupt (Gen. 6:5; 8:21; Ps. 14:1; Jer. 17:9; Ezek. 36:26; Matt. 15:19); from it flow the springs of life (Prov. 4:23). It is from the human heart that all iniquities and all sorts of incomprehension flow (Mark 7:21).

The mind of humans is darkened (Job. 21:14; Isa. 1:3; Jer. 4:22; John 1:5; Rom. 1:21-22; 1 Cor. 1:18-23; 2:14; Eph. 4:18; 5:8).

The human soul is guilty and impure and needs atonement and repentance (Lev. 17:11; Ps/ 19:7; 41:4; Prov. 19:3, 16; Matt. 16:26; 1 Pet. 1:22).

The human spirit is proud, errant, and polluted and therefore has to be broken, illumined, and cleansed (Ps. 51:19; Prov. 16:18, 32; Eccles. 7:9; Isa. 57:15; 66:2; 1 Cor. 7:34; 2 Cor. 7:1; 1 Thess. 5:23).

The human conscience is stained and needs cleansing (Titus 1:5; Heb. 9:9, 14; 10:22).

The human desire, inclination, and will reach out to what is forbidden and is powerless to do good (Jer. 13:23; John 8:34, 36; Rom. 6:17; 8:7; 2 Cor. 3:5).

And the body, with all its members—the eyes (Deut. 29:4; Ps. 18:27; Isa. 35:5; 42:7; 2 Pet. 2:14; 1 John 2:16), the ears (Deut. 29:4; Ps. 115:6; 135:17; Isa. 6:10; Jer. 5:21; Zech. 7:11), the feet (Ps. 38:16; Prov. 1:16; 4:27; 6:18; Isa. 59:7; Rom. 3:15), the mouth and the tongue (Job. 27:4; Ps. 12:3-4; 15:3; 17:10; Jer. 9:3, 5; Rom. 3:14; James 3:5-8)— is in the service of unrighteousness. In a word: sin is not located on and around humans but within them and extends to the whole person and the whole of humankind. (Reformed Dogmatics, III p. 80-81)

And for the next time you think you are without hope:

But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God. And because of him you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption, so that, as it is written, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.” (1Cor. 1:27-31)

For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. For one will scarcely die for a righteous person–though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die– but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. (Rom. 5:6-8)

But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ–by grace you have been saved– and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. (Eph. 2:4-7)

But God’s firm foundation stands, bearing this seal: “The Lord knows those who are his,” and, “Let everyone who names the name of the Lord depart from iniquity.” (2Tim. 2:19)

God does not offer band-aid salvation. The depths of God’s mercy are only plumbed when the depths of your depravity are realized.

Is the Structure of the government of America biblical?

In a word, “no.”

The government of the universe is not democratic, not aristocratic, not republican, not constitutional, but monarchial. To God belongs the undivided legislative, judicial, and executive power. His sovereignty is original, eternal, unlimited, abundant in blessing. He is the King of kings and the Lord of lords (1 Tim. 6:15; Rev. 19:6).
Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics II, p. 616.

Now that is not to say that the government of the U.S. is unbiblical. To the extent that the government punishes wickedness and fosters righteousness; to the extent that it protects its citizens; to the extent that it promotes justice, kindness, and humility; to the extent that it does not interfere with Scriptural obedience to God and his word; the government of America is biblical. But all of this applies to the government of China and England just as well.

God has only ever chartered one political nation- and it was a monarchy. God only has one people who will inherit the earth- and it will be a monarchy. God does not rule by popularity, consensus, or compromise. Psalm 2:6, “As for me, I have set my King on Zion, my holy hill.”