Bavinck is correct separating God from the Good in natural (moral) law is a bad thing


24 07 2021

So then before we dive back into Bavinck and law, I have a question:

On what basis or foundation does any law work as its final authority?  

In the UK for example in some courts one is supposed to take an oath on some authority that everything you say is the truth.  In a court of law if you are caught lying one can go to prison.  So even in a law court conscience and telling the truth ought to go hand in hand but ultimately there is a higher law than the Judge.  This gray area in law is an area that philosophers, theologians, lawyers search for its foundation.  For a religious mind this is not such a difficult question.  For secularists however, they have various theories and possibly rest it on ‘nature’ or something equivalent.  So, then Bavinck goes into depth here so let us now listen to his voice.

For a bookcase to work everything has to be in place,

in the same way don’t take God out of law as one has to find another foundation




Looking at the author of the law and the conscience bound to it, can only rest on the authority of God, so Bavinck starts this section on the ‘Author of the law’.  However, as we read on many philosophers and theologians have changed the base (as if they can).  For Bavinck the law presupposes a higher authority; “Thou shalt presupposes an “I am the Lord”:

“The law cannot be derived and explained from any of the following: (a) our own ego (“I”), which lays down the law for itself, because it cannot say why I must do this or that or why I do what I do; (b) the authority of parents, the state, or society (Darwin and his followers); since other human beings do not naturally have any authority over us, we feel bound to these authorities only insofar as God’s authority rings through them; (c) the world and nature (Stoics), over against which we feel free and are allowed to control as much as we can. The moral law ought to have the same cause as the conscience, which, like a divine judge, holds us accountable to the law and pronounces sentence on us.” (From; Reformed Ethics, Herman Bavinck, edited by John Bolt page 219)

Natural law for Christians according to Bavinck comes from God’s authority.   Many religious traditions would come to the same conclusion.  Bavinck did not come to this conclusion as if by magic, no he looked at the evidence and that even the pagan philosophies had something to say about it:

“Even the pagans experienced this. Cicero states that “Law is not a product of human thought, nor is it any enactment of peoples, but [is] something eternal which rules the whole universe by its wisdom in command and prohibition. . .. Wherefore that Law which the gods have given to the human race has been justly praised.” (Page 22) From this standpoint then the ancient philosophers (not only Greek; my point of view) wanted to attempt through reason to break through this not knowing and using reason to get at the facts of nature on the moral law.  The Christian Church called this law natural law but God was always the base.  Bavinck goes on to say that this situation was going to change, and it did.  Bavinck mentions “Hugo Grotius (1583—1645), and especially Christian Wolff (1679—1754).”  

So, Bavinck shows that through these thinkers the moral law was abstracted from God’s authority.  In practice then the atheist as well as the believer had to follow the same laws;” The atheist ought morally to act in the same way as the theist, since the actual ground for moral behaviour is situated in the physical nature, not in God. Such is the case with nature obligating us to marriage as well, connecting lust with cohabitation.” (Page 220) All this happened with separating ‘God’ and ‘the good’.   Kant jumped on this bandwagon and “Kant similarly loosens the tie between God and the good, situating its binding power in reason, in the inexplicable categorical imperative of the practical reason.” (Last paragraph page 220). The argument being that if God and the Good are identical then there isn’t a problem in dispatching God from the moral law that He created.  I think the conclusion of breaking this link of God and Good also means a breakage of conscience and moral law (my summing up). 

Herman Bavinck will not agree with any of this, and he shows us through Holy Scripture how we ought to perceive the moral natural law and indeed God has to be the foundation.  It is God who has spoken and as he says the Church is called to be different to the nations. Let us look at Bavincks Scripture contents.

“(Exod. 20:2). The moral law is acknowledged throughout the whole Bible as God’s law, even by Jesus himself, who explicitly speaks of biblical commandments as God’s commands and words (Matt. 15:4). Therefore, the law cannot be undone, only fulfilled (Matt. 5:17; cf. Rom. 7:23, 27; 8:2).41‘” (page 221):

2 “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. Exodus 20:2


17 “Do not think that I came to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I did not come to abolish but to fulfil. Matthew 5:17

23 but I see a different law in the members of my body, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin which is in my members. 24 Wretched man that I am! Who will set me free from the body of this death? 25 Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, on the one hand I myself with my mind am serving the law of God, but on the other, with my flesh the law of sin. Romans 7:23-25

2 For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death. Romans 8:2 (All these verses have been drawn from Olive Tree Bible software)

Bavinck puts this whole discussion in context:

“When modern thinkers posit an evolutionary origin for biblical law and deny its divine source, they need to be Challenged, as Harless has done: “The law of God in Israel is not the product of a development-process in the people of Israel in which they had gradually become conscious to themselves of what is right and good in the relation, whether of man to man, or man to God. On the contrary, God testifies His will in gradual revelation, in opposition to the spirit predominating amongst the people.” (Page 221)

For Christians the above statement from Bavinck is very important.  God is in control and man thinks he is in control.  Bavinck is not saying that reason is completely bad.  However, as Barth and Bavinck would say faith seeking understanding.  This is how we ought to live.  The man of faith puts his reasons at the feet of Jesus and then he is able to understand the greater picture and not someone looking for something in the pitch black of a storm. 

Bavinck finishes the ‘Author section’ by saying:

 “All the relationships between people and God and among his subjects are regulated.43 The source of knowledge of the moral law, therefore, cannot be only our conscience and reason—although they are very valuable—but Holy Scripture in its entirety. This means not only the Pentateuch but also the prophets and the New Testament. The Decalogue is only the summa of the law; the Old and New Testaments are the explanation and commentary.” (From page 222)


God created the law, conscience and the world.  Scripture explains to us the facts and as faithful believers we live by these truths.  Those who try to abstract God from the Good (ethics) have to find another base (foundation) and it is generally some form of evolutionary idea that sees things getting better.  We have seen pure reason run into all sorts of problems.  Theology must always use the appropriate tools to come to appropriate conclusions.  We are also dealing with the facts in a scientific way just as much as any scientist this is why Theology is known as the Queen of the sciences.  I don’t believe in using philosophy as a grammar of theology because then the grammar takes over.  It was a good thing that John Calvin dumped Aristotle out of his Institutes.  Let us put Christ first in our live and live by faith.  Ultimately this is the true seat of happiness in the presence of God by the Holy Spirit.

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