Herman Bavinck on the object of law: in relation to law of thoughts, civil law and natural law


04 08 2021

The Object of the Law (Reformed Ethics; Herman Bavinck; edited by John Bolt; pgs 224-226)

I made these coasters last year by hand


As a generalized starting point, we begin by looking at our disposition in light of the law.  This is his general introduction to this section. The law then can only measure the outward disposition of the mind.  It cannot pass judgement on the inward disposition of the mind (Schleiermacher pg 224).  To a certain extent Bavinck agrees with this but not completely:

“However, the law also regulates the essence, the nature of a human person.   Notwithstanding, there is some truth in Schleiermacher’s statement.” 

The law for Bavinck is directed towards the human ‘will’ which is the ‘seat of morality’.   To a certain extent then it regulates ‘our essence and nature’ which comes from the actions we do.  For these reasons then the law does not care about what we look like or how tall we are.

I don’t think much has changed over the last 150 years when Bavinck penned this.  It is still the case that the forensic evidence and tools are brought into the court room.  The evidence is put before a jury and the defendant is either accused or found innocent.  Sometimes the evidence is thrown out of court because it has been tampered with.  In that case perhaps the defendant was guilty but is acquitted of the crime.  It is not a perfect system, but it is all that we have.  Sad to say sometimes in certain places in the USA innocent people have been executed for a crime they did not do.   So yes, I agree that the law can only really pass judgements on the evidence and can perhaps touch on the motives from the external evidence but at the end of the day only God can peer into the soul of the person. 

Would you agree with what has been said so far?

Bavinck continues to say that because of our fallen state (Adam), ‘Our being; inclinations, the condition and actions of our soul and mind, are subject to the moral law along with the will and our deeds along with the will and our deeds. (From pg 224)

This is where the human courts fail. The moral law goes beyond the human court because to a certain extent the law can only see the evidence.  In the moral law then we move into God’s jurisdiction, and He can see everything about us.   Herman Bavinck does not stop here but he then differentiates the moral law from:

·         The law of thought

·         Civil law

·         Natural law

The law of thought (Answer to Hegel)

For Bavinck the law of thought is subject to the moral law. As he says:

“The law of thought is only for our thinking, for the mind, and definitely not for the will and the heart, which have a completely different law.”

With this he critiques Hegel (with his pure thought idealism) and says that the law of thought ought ‘never to be for everyone and everything’.  The law of thought only encompasses the thinking rational mind and limited to this.  If we make a mistake in logic for example (my example) ; 2+2= 5 this does not give us a ‘guilty conscience’.   The moral law speaks to the centre of the person in the human will.   So then when we do something wrong the morality and the logic can add up to guilt. 

‘Concurrence’ with the moral law in the sense that two things (included is the law of thoughts) happening at the same time is a possibility.  It is however not possible in the opposite direction and Bavinck says:

“However, the opposite is not the case: one can think correctly and still sin against the moral law, because the moral law does not order reasoning itself (which can be correct) but only the quality of moral reasoning, the “how” of the reasoning.” (From page 225)

An error in logic does not mean always a mistake in morality.  He goes on with ‘infallibility in understanding does not correspond with moral infallibility. ‘  The moral law then is at the centre of ‘ entire human person: mind, will, feeling, and all powers.’ (From page 225)

Civil Law

Bavinck reminds us here that the moral law and the civil law are not the same thing.  Justice needs to be based on the moral law but not fight against it.   Morality and civil law (justice) are not the same thing because justice is in the public realm including the use of legalised violence and coercion. Justice is moral in the sense of:

“Justice, therefore, is the moral in that the moral is situated in the public sphere—in the state.”


Natural law

The moral law in the present needs to be differentiated from the natural law.  Over time law has changed its meaning of use. Originally it was the law of the state or the ‘law of the nature of God’. (From page 225).  It used to mean:

“The ‘law of nature’ meant an ethical rule that was known by nature.”

This situation changed in the 16thand 17th centuries.   

Bavinck goes on before looking at Schleiermacher:

“This term was transferred in a very metaphorical sense to nature, for no one enacted those laws of nature and no one has the power to obey or transgress them. That is the reason why even today there is much disagreement about the concept and meaning of the ‘laws of nature.”

The footnotes on pages 225 -226 are even more interesting:

We are taking Bavinck’s own lead here by inserting key elaborations of his point from his Reformed Dogmatics; a marginal note in his manuscript calls for inserting an “excerpt” from Gereformeerde Dogmatz’ek. The quoted passages that follow in this paragraph are from this same page. Bavinck follows the passage we have just cited with a lengthy quotation from Wilhelm Wundt (1832-1920), the German physician who was a key figure in the founding of modern psychology: “In the seventeenth century God legislated the laws of nature; in the eighteenth, nature itself decreed them; and in the nineteenth century the individual natural scientists furnish them.”

These footnotes point to an evolutionary movement of thought about ‘Law’.

·         17th Century God decreed.

·         18th Century nature decreed

·         19th century the individual natural scientists furnished the laws!


Bavinck then goes into Schleiermacher’s view on the natural law and he show that it is a form of pantheism so let us read:

“According to Schleiermacher, “the moral law is not to be set over against natural law, but it develops by means of an ascent from the lower to that highest individual natural law.”68 The moral law, therefore, is merely potentialized natural law, the law for human intellectual life. Similarly, “vegetation is a new law for the elementary life of the earth; the animal world is a new law for the vegetation; the intellectual life of humanity is a new law for the animal world, vegetation, and elementary life.”69 Humanity gradually detects and fulfils this moral law as the law of its intellectual life. This is nothing other than pantheism.” (From page 226)

Bavinck critiques the above by saying there is no ‘ought’ in natural law but the moral law has obligations for The moral law has obligations that must happen, it punishes offenses, it employs no physical coercion, and, unlike natural law, it focuses on the personal, not on the impersonal: it addresses the will. (from page 226).


There are scholars who have rejected the theological view of reality for some flimsy ideals.  It is good to remind us here of what was said earlier:

Bavinck continues to say that because of our fallen state (Adam), ‘Our being; inclinations, the condition and actions of our soul and mind, are subject to the moral law along with the will and our deeds along with the will and our deeds. (From pg 224)

Bavinck goes through various types of law such as the law of thought, the natural law and civic law.  They are all dependent on God’s moral law but not the other way around.  We have not yet finished with the definitions, and we still need to look at ‘the purpose and function of the law’. (pages 226-228)

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