4. Natural Good and Moral Good part 2


Bavinck then moves on to what the Reformers thought about natural good and moral good.  I am especially interested in John Calvin and his Institutes. I started to think about the lack of Aristotle in the Institutes of the Christian Religion.  Obviously if one reads Aquinas’ Summa Theologai he is found everywhere. The Unmoved Mover and so on.   In the philosophy of Kalam in Islam Aristotle is very important as the philosophy was used as an argument for the relationship of God and Creation although at places with corrections.  John Calvin dumps Aristotle like a brick!


Perhaps we will find out a little more about these things in these pages.

Let’s begin with a quote from Bavinck this puts the theatre in place for what Calvin and other Reformers will act out;

“Protestants, more in line with Augustine, thought differently. Luther wrote that Aristotle can give rules for only the natural, temporary, perishable life.”

Natural moral theory emphasizes works (from the outside to the inside, disposition acquired through deeds), whereas Christian moral theory emphasizes the person (first the tree is good, then the fruit). Natural theory does not relate good works to God. The ultimate ground and highest purpose is not God, but humanity, society, the state, the political end. Regarding Zwingli, see my The Ethics of Ulrich Zwingli.”  Bavinck Reformed Ethics page 157


There are some serious underlying basics here that Bavinck shows us. As Bavinck points out natural moral philosophy emphasizes works from outside in.   Disposition here I think means


“a person’s inherent qualities of mind and character.” (Oxford dictionary through Google search engine)

Thus, to interpret Bavinck here; through deeds a person’s inherent qualities, mind and character are created and formed.

Thus, Bavinck is correct in line with the other reformers in rejecting this natural philosophical interpretation.  He is also correct in saying that natural theory does not relate good works to God.  Bavinck is also correct in this because for example the various forms of Socialism see society and the political state as its goal.  He is correct in this as well if we use the recent politics in the USA. 


Now when I look back on Trump’s Presidency this was played out.  Those who would like to see God at the centre of politics and those who wants to see the state at the centre of politics.  Unfortunately to see God at the centre stage the leadership and the members needed to play this out with godly living with some theological virtues such as faith, hope and love and the cardinal virtues of  Prudence, Justice, Fortitude, Temperance and the Bible rightly interpreted.

We didn’t see any of this!


Calvin is certainly right with not mixing too much philosophical ethics and Christian theology.  Calvin moved in the right direction. In the notes we have various references to Calvin’s writings.

“It is a vain objection which they make, that on this principle the impious will become the brethren of Christ; because we know that the children of God are born, not of flesh and blood, but of the Spirit through faith; therefore a community of nature alone is not sufficient to constitute a fraternal union. “ Calvin’s Institutes book 2 chapter 13 Gutenberg free book edition.


I can see Bavincks thought here in Calvin.  Nature alone is not enough for union with Christ.  This is a good reason for Calvin and Bavinck to disagree with the Pagans such as Cynics, Stoics, Aristotle’s doctrine of the will, Plato and Cicero. 

In his Institutes Calvin distinguished between earthly, this-worldly things that concern the present life, and heavenly things that concern the knowledge of God, true righteousness, the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven.” Page 157

Bavinck is correct here too.  He understood how easy it was to mythologise rather than theologise.  God is infinite but the earthly creation is finite.  It is very easy to mix these categories up but if one does, one loses the vision of God. We become spiritually blind.

The bottom line is that we can know something of this world but to really see God in the natural philosophical way is an impossibility.  Some knowledge is open to us about God, but this is as Bavinck says only a ‘taste’.  Some pagans have also risen to really high virtues, but they did not know the law of God on either of the tablets! 

On page 158 Bavinck says that the Pagan philosophers had very high ideals, but they were external.  At the beginning of this section when setting up the theatre I said that through deeds a person’s disposition is formed and created.  This is anathema to the teachings of Christ.  My interpretations here is that God by the Holy Spirit has to do a special creative work from within and then the tree grows.


“But Reformed theologians did not go beyond this. The moral virtues of Plato and others resemble the true, spiritual virtues, in the same way that counterfeit pearls resemble genuine ones, or fake gold resembles real gold. They cannot pass the test when assayed by the only true standard. Some have therefore preferred the term “virtue” when describing pagan morality and reserved the term “good works” for Christian morality.”  Page 158 

As far as Christian theology goes there is a big gulf between God’s standards and the natural standards.   As Christians we love our natural brothers and sisters and we pray that they come to know the truth of Christ.  We were formerly the same in nature but God by his gracious gift of salvation brought us into the Church.


Why is what I have written important for all Christians?

Although we are called to respect leaders and the state, it shouldn’t be blind obedience.  Sometimes leaders go off the rails such as Hitler and they need to be held accountable to God the highest law. 

We are allowed to disagree with each other but still respect each other for we are all children of Adam and some of us are children of Christ.  We will continue with this next time.

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