Grace Restores Nature in the Theology of Herman Bavinck

Herman Bavinck towers head and shoulders above most theologians, though he is only beginning to be more widely read in English. His chief accomplishment was the four-volume masterpiece, Gereformeerde Dogmatiek, originally published in Dutch from 1895 to 1899. The English translation, Reformed Dogmatics, was completed in 2008 and is a treasure-trove of theological reflection.  

The melody running through all four movements of Bavinck’s theological symphony is the happy theme that “grace restores nature.” In Bavinck’s own words, “Grace serves, not to take up humans into a supernatural order, but to free them from sin. Grace is opposed not to nature, only to sin . . . Grace restores nature and takes it to its highest pinnacle.”[1]

Bavinck understood that God’s ultimate purpose is not to rescue human beings from the created world by releasing us from our bodies and relocating us to heaven, but rather to renew the fallen creation and reestablish God’s kingdom on earth, with human beings as his restored image-bearers. The goal, then, is not escape, but recreation, renewal, and redemption.

The greatest proof for this claim is Christ’s resurrection. Bavinck said, “The bodily resurrection of Christ from the dead is conclusive proof that Christianity does not adopt a hostile attitude towards anything human or natural, but intends only to deliver creation from all that is sinful, and to sanctify it completely.”[2] Following Bavinck, the story of salvation might be plotted with several “form” words: “The form (forma) given in creation, was deformed by sin in order to be entirely reformed again in the sphere of grace.”[3]

Such a perspective will protect us from both worldliness on one hand and otherworldliness on the other. “We continually err on the side of the right or on the side of the left,” said Bavinck. “On the one side looms the danger of worldliness, on the other side that of otherworldliness. Often the Christian life lurches on an unsteady path between the two. And yet we hold fast to the conviction that the Christian and the human are not in conflict with one another . . . The Christian is the true man, on every front and in every domain. Christianity is not opposed to nature, but to sin. Christ came, not to destroy the works of the Father, but only those of the devil.”[4]

When it comes to eschatology, Bavinck looked for the “renewal of the world . . . [not] a second, brand-new creation but a re-creation of the existing world. God’s honor consists precisely in the fact that he redeems and renews the same humanity, the same world, the same heaven, and the same earth that have been corrupted and polluted by sin. Just as anyone in Christ is a new creation in whom the old has passed away and everything has become new (2 Cor. 5:17), so also this world passes away in its present form as well, in order out of its womb, at God’s word of power, to give birth and being to a new world.”[5] In fact, the final chapter of Bavinck’s four-volume project is entitled “The Renewal of Creation.”

Bavinck would have agreed with the hymn-writer Isaac Watts:

No more let sins and sorrows grow,
Nor thorns infest the ground;
He comes to make his blessings flow
Far as the curse is found.[6]

End Notes

[1] Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, Vol. 3: Sin and Salvation in Christ, ed. John Bolt, trans. John Vriend (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2006) 577.
[2] Herman Bavinck, De offerande des lofs: overdenkingen voor en na de toelating tot het heilige avondmaal (Gravenhage: J.C. De Mildt, 1907), 52. Quoted by Jan Veenhof, trans., Albert M. Wolters, Nature and Grace in Herman Bavinck (Sioux Center, IA: Dordt College Press, 2006) 21. See also Dane C. Ortlund, ““Created Over a Second Time” or “Grace Restoring Nature”? Edwards and Bavinck on the Heart of Christian
Salvation” in The Bavinck Review 3 (2012): 9–29. Available online at: Accessed March 18, 2016.
[3] Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, Vol. 2: God and Creation, ed. John Bolt, trans. John Vriend (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2006) 574. 
[4] Quoted in Veenhof, “Nature and Grace in Bavinck.”
[5] Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, Vol. 4: Holy Spirit, Church, and New Creation, 717.
[6] Isaac Watts, “Joy to the World,” 1719.

1 comment:

mwh said...

Good stuff. Christ came not to rescue us from our humanity, but rather to show us how to be perfectly human.

I didn't know this about Bavinck. I'll have to dig into him deeper.