The Relationship between the Person and the Law in Herman Bavinck


We have now come to the last chapter of the first book.  We have traveled very far.  We have learned that when God created humanity in Adam and Eve, they were perfect and the world we live in was also perfect. Sin came into the world and there was a fall.  Every aspect of humanity was then tainted by sin and corruption.  We have also learned that a lot of scholars reject this story and follow the path of an enlightenment in which ‘science’ somehow rules.  They follow a line of corruption to perfection.  Many so-called Christian theologians bought into this enlightenment and from my point of view sold out the Christian revelations that is found in Scripture (Holy Bible). 

Karl Barth for example spoke against his own teachers because of this.  He saw through to the conclusion of what was going on.  The extermination of many Jews at Auschwitz, the murder of whole populations in Russia by Stalin, even Churchill had serious attitude problems and blood on his hands towards other peoples under the former British Empire. 

Herman Bavinck in the English-speaking world has been overlooked for a long time I am so thankful and blessed that he has been translated into English.  Herman Bavinck is worthy of study in the English-speaking world just as much as Pannenberg, Barth and other theologians.  Alas I wish that my former tutor professor Colin Gunton was still alive, from my point of view he would have devoured the translations of Bavinck because as far as I am aware he had a Reformed background. 

It does not matter from whatever background we are from; we can learn a lot from him. As I have been reading Bavinck, I find that both Bavinck and Barth covered a lot of the same ground.  There is a lot of fertile ground to compare and contrast methodology; revelation as mediate or immediate; the interpretation of Schleiermacher and the Enlightenment process, and so on in Bavinck and Barth. I will however leave this for a rainy day.


Pekka JärveläinenOwn work

 The above picture was taken from  This is a photo of a monument in Finland identified by the ID ‘Q60674036’ (Q60674036)

‘The sinner and Law’; In Reformed Ethics by John Bolt, Pages 215 – 234 part 1

“As a sign of God ’s forbearance, an order of lawfulness remains even after the fall into sin. Human moral nature, including the conscience, continues to guide and bind people, albeit imperfectly. That we remain under the law is a sign of God’s favour to us; he has not left us entirely to our own devices and instincts. Human beings have not become beasts; they are still guided by natural law. This reality is taught by the apostle Paul in Romans 1—2 and testified to by philosophers and by the laws and practice of nations.” Page 215

We have already covered a lot of this ground in previous blogs, but the bottom line is that God has not given up on humanity. When God created the world and us, we had a natural law as it were built into our very fabric.  Paul explains this from Romans Chapter 1 and chapter 2.  We as a human species have been protected to a certain extent from wiping ourselves out because of common grace and sense.  Obviously, this inbuilt law was affected and influenced by the Fall: we can also mention the conscience work we did on this too.


For Bavinck Scripture takes primacy over the natural law.  Although all people have a sense of this natural law as we saw earlier in our blog the conscience can make mistakes for various reasons.  For Bavinck it is God who binds the conscience as he has full and complete authority over it because he created the natural moral law in the first place.   Various philosophies such as Kant’s categorical imperative; Taken from Wikipedia:

According to Kant, sentient beings occupy a special place in creation, and morality can be summed up in an imperative, or ultimate commandment of reason, from which all duties and obligations derive. He defines an imperative as any proposition declaring a certain action (or inaction) to be necessary.

Hypothetical imperatives apply to someone who wishes to attain certain ends. For example, “I must drink something to quench my thirst” or “I must study to pass this exam.” A categorical imperative, on the other hand, denotes an absolute, unconditional requirement that must be obeyed in all circumstances and is justified as an end in itself. It is best known in its first formulation:

Act only according to that maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law.” (From


Or even Hegel’s logic which Wolfart pannenberg used in his systematic theology of thesis, antithesis and synthesis.  The following quote was taken from Wikipedia:


Within Hegelianism, the word dialectic has the specialised meaning of a contradiction between ideas that serves as the determining factor in their relationship. Dialectical materialism, a theory or set of theories produced mainly by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, adapted the Hegelian dialectic into arguments regarding traditional materialism. The dialectics of Hegel and Marx were criticized in the twentieth century by the philosophers Karl Popper and Mario Bunge.


Dialectic tends to imply a process of evolution and so does not naturally fit within classical logics but was given some formalism in the twentieth century. The emphasis on process is particularly marked in Hegelian dialectic, and even more so in Marxist dialectical logic, which tried to account for the evolution of ideas over longer time periods in the real world.” (From


Then Bavinck talks about the various evolutionary processes that we already know about such as (my examples) Darwin’s theory of evolution which played a role in the uniformity theories in geology and so on and philosophies that painted an ideal picture.  For that matter Nietzsche’s theory of the death of God!

Zarathustra ties the Übermensch to the death of God. While the concept of God was the ultimate expression of other-worldly values and their underlying instincts, belief in God nevertheless did give meaning to life for a time. “God is dead” means that the idea of God can no longer provide values. Nietzsche refers to this crucial paradigm shift as a re-evaluation of values.[8] According to Nietzsche, the moral doctrine of Catholicism had become outdated. With the sole source of values exhausted, the danger of nihilism looms.” (Taken from



How can any religious tradition buy into these sorts of things?   The truth is they won’t, and it is disrespectful for academia to think that they have to leave their exclusivity behind.  The phenomenology and epistemological foundations of Religious Studies in universities and trying to find an experiential leveller of experience is flawed. It doesn’t work.  I once heard Badawi in the nineties say at the inauguration of the teaching of RE in Tower Hamlets that each child should be taught so they understand what their religion means to them.  A religious Studies teacher is supposed to not take sides but be objective.  The problem is that many children start from their own exclusivity and traditions including atheist children.  Religious Education should start from where the student is.  It is up to the student to decide whether or not they want to convert to another religion.  Many children decide to follow their own religious traditions; some decide to convert to another religion.  If a person cannot respect another person’s conscience in a classroom about various things, then there is a problem.  Confessionalism in academia is dead. That is from my point of view a good thing in a multi-ethnic society.  Forcing someone to believe in a point of view not their own is a type of violence and this should always be illegal in a civilized society.

We are still on page 215 – 216.  We have looked at the idea of the natural law and how it affects us and we have learned that there are many points of view of how this natural law ought to be interpreted (for certain groups of people)

Part 2

‘The sinner and Law’; In Reformed Ethics by John Bolt, Pages 215 – 234 part 2

We are now going to look at the ‘Divine Law’ or the law of God in the first place the Old Testament and its fulfillment in Christ:

The law of God in the Old Testament has three parts: ceremonial, judicial, and moral. All three are fulfilled in Christ. This law is spiritual and unchangeable, and its purpose is to govern the entire person, inwardly as well as outwardly. The moral law needs to be distinguished from the law of thought, from civil law, and also from natural law. God’s law has three functions: a civil use to restrain evil, a pedagogical use to convict us of sin and judgment, and a teaching use as a rule of life to guide believers.” ( Page 216 Reformed Ethics volume 1 edited by John Bolt.)

This is still the introduction to the chapter, but it lays the groundwork for what we are going to learn about.  Before we get started for the Christian person, the natural law is not enough, and we can never please God on the basis of it.   Ceremonially, judicially, or morally from the law of nature it is impossible in our strength to ever please God.  Having said that as Bavinck clearly shows all three areas have been fulfilled in Christ.  If you want to follow me on these ideas go to my other blog;

(At the moment I am going through the book of Hebrews, the writer of Hebrews (which I believe was Apollos one of Pauls companions) goes through the nitty gritty of the ceremonial, judicial and moral aspects of the Old Testament law.  I will be starting Hebrews chapter six sometime this Weekend.)


We have seen that the law of nature affects all of us.  Apart from Christianity this natural law is around us and if it wasn’t there the world would be a lot worse than it is.  What does God’s law do?

For Bavinck as he says:

Nonetheless, Christianity has influenced, modified, and improved natural morality. From the perspective of God and his kingdom, natural morality has absolutely no value; it does bring us a step closer to the kingdom of heaven. It does have great value from an earthly perspective: it leaves humanity without excuse; it restrains persons; it alleviates life’s burdens and makes human life bearable, even to give it some joy so that it is not yet a hell on earth.” From page 216

For the Christian this is true.  For me though as well as the morality we go into the salvific value that it is impossible to know Christ without faith and grace.  Bavinck here goes a stage further to claim that God’s law has had such an impact that it has changed society for the better.  In a lot of cases this is true, but it is sad to say that there are many people who don’t even listen to this natural law.  There are many strings pulling society to and thro.  Bavinck goes on to say that natural morality serves the Church as a ‘presupposition of faith.’ (page 216) Regenerate people are ‘double persons’ as Christ lives in them but they still live in the world as Paul describes this as ‘the flesh’.

Herman Bavinck finishes of his introduction with a real gem:

‘The purpose and task of ethics is therefore to describe how regenerate people are to manifest their eternal heavenly life in the form of the temporal earthly life.’ (page 216)

Reflection 2

The main emphasis of Book 1 of Bavinck’s Reformed Ethics has been about ‘humanity before conversion’.  This is an important chapter because it is a lynch pin to his second book which is about ‘converted Humanity’.  We have seen that the law of God is very important, and it modifies natural law.  Indeed, it is the case that throughout the centuries the 10 commandments have played a very important role.  I would go a stage further that the 10 commandments have somehow played an important role in three great religions: Islam, Judaism and Christianity.    Herman Bavinck didn’t actually say that up to this point or in other places (as far as I am aware), but this is a good reason for other religions to also read Herman Bavinck. 

Reformed Ethics up to this point has been a very balanced book.  We have had to walk through the valley of the shadow of death before we can start to climb the mountain top of faith with its lower peaks along the way.  I hope this has whetted your appetite to look at what he has to say about the law of God a precursor preparation for the Gospel and what it really means to be a Christian and a member of the Church.  Bavinck has also shows us movements of thought that go against God’s revelation of his Son Jesus Christ in the Scriptures.  Next time we will start to look at ‘the law’ a little more closely.

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