Herman Bavinck on Natural Morality and how we fit in.


Christians with the aid of the Scripture can differentiate between nature and grace.  As Bavinck says:

“When people awaken to consciousness of the self, they immediately become aware that they are not who they should be. There is a law in their heart, a law that stands above them and opposes the law within their members. This former law under girds their consciences, guiding them to choose between what is (relatively) good and evil. This gives rise to a struggle. The natural moral life is a life of conflict between good and evil. ”

(Reformed Ethics; By Herman Bavinck; edited by John Bolt; Natural Morality; page 227)

Thanks to  cottonbro from Pexels

Bavinck then explains to us that our ‘moral disposition’ takes shape with lots of external forces such as social class, our environment and our personal temperament. (page 229;para2) Our consciousness in relation to nature keeps on developing in us so that it can seen as moral character.  He goes on to say:

“This happens especially when children are brought up under the moral law, learn to obey it, and begin of their own accord to do habitually what they ought to do by virtue of the commandment. This is how moral consciousness awakens and grows strong within people, who then feel conscience-bound to the law or moral idea.” (page 229) The problem however is that this ‘moral struggle never goes away’. With repentance there can be changes but even then, there will always be a struggle.  Bavinck then goes into detail in how this natural morality plays itself out in the individual, family and society.  Before Christianity:

“Moral character, morality, virtue, family, household, nurture, friendship, occupation, science, art, and the state—are products of natural morality.” (Page 232) These virtues did not start from Christianity, but they already existed in the ‘Pagan world’.   These have grown from the natural human world all over the world.

Bavinck the Master Theologian then gives us a fine conclusion to the first book on Reformed Ethics.

On Pages 232-235 Bavinck goes through the following topics:

1.       Natural morality viewed from the perspective of God’s kingdom

2.       Natural morality Viewed from an earthly perspective within time

3.       Natural Morality for the church and individual believers

Natural morality viewed from the perspective of God’s kingdom

Natural morality (morality from nature) from God’s perspective does not lead to God’s presence.  As Bavinck says:

“A wide chasm lies between the most highly developed moral life and the smallest seed of spiritual life. To. obtain spiritual life, it is precisely the natural moral life that has to be entirely surrendered, put to death, and crucified with Christ. In that case, Virtues are nothing but splendid sins.” Page 232

There are many reasons for this conclusion, but Scripture shows this to us to be the case.  Even in this chapter earlier, Bavinck went through the Greek philosophers and indeed their moral conduct was of a very high standard.  As far as Christians are concerned the ethics were at times even higher but this natural morality cannot save us from eternal separation from God.  We can see this from the teachings of Jesus for example.  Jesus starts the Sermon on the mount with ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit’.   We could possibly with great difficulty keep all of Jesus’ commands, but have we kept the unwritten laws of the Law (as Bavinck mentioned somewhere).  Possibly not.  The biggest obstacle possibly is trying to get into God’s presence with a haughty spirit.  It just isn’t going to happen.  The pharisees and Sadducees probably kept the laws perfectly, but they missed an important ingredient; ‘humility, faith and grace’.  If the pharisees failed to enter the Kingdom of God by keeping the natural laws of God, then we don’t even stand a chance.  The Lord Jesus Christ kept the law perfectly and it is only through his work and grace that we can enter the kingdom of God.

Natural morality Viewed from an earthly perspective within time

When we talk about time, Bavinck means in our space and time continuum.   In our daily affairs of living this life.  For salvific use and the kingdom of God it fails to allow us to enter God’s kingdom.  However, in living our existence on earth natural morality has ‘great value’.  Bavinck gives us three reasons for this:

a.       Natural morality leaves humanity without excuse

b.       Natural morality restrains humanity to the excesses of evil

c.       Natural morality allows human society ‘to be bearable and at times also give joy’


Natural morality leaves humanity without excuse

One example Bavinck uses is a ‘community of robbers’, even they have rules in house so to speak.  Bavinck finishes off by saying “Even the greatest evil seeks to cloak itself in the garment of goodness and hide under it.   Every person’s own conscience testifies to natural morality. “(page 233)

Natural morality restrains humanity to the excesses of evil

Natural morality can hold back the wilder aspects of the human heart and ‘cordons around human lusts.’  On the other hand, natural morality can give satisfaction of doing the right thing and not the wrong evil thing.  Bavinck gives a whole list of names; “Plato, Seneca, and Plutarch and from the laws of Solon, Draco, and Lycurgus; many are examples to Christians and surpass the converted in outward Virtues.” (Page 233) These people managed to excel above Christians in moral virtues (but it cannot save us). Natural morality then ‘maintains itself within the conscience, in the state, in religion, in art, in history, in God’s government of the world’.

Natural morality allows human society ‘to be bearable and at times also give joy’

Natural morality can make a bad situation better (Bavinck uses the word ameliorate in the English translation).  With science and technology and medicine (love for truth) it can help us fight ‘against the elements of nature’.  He finishes off by saying, “And in the terrain of natural morality, there is still some reason for optimism, and pessimism is weakness of character and lack of courage.” (Page 233)

Natural Morality for the church and individual believers

Bavinck now covers:

a.       Natural morality is the presupposition of faith.

b.       Natural morality is even a kind of preparation for the spiritual life.

c.       The life of natural morality remains in the believer and in the church. (Pages 234-235)

As Bavinck shows natural morality is played out in the real world and Jesus says:

“38 and the field is the world; and as for the good seed, these are the sons of the kingdom; and the tares are the sons of the evil one; Matthew 13:38” NASB

Bavinck says about this verse “The world is the field in which the seed of the Word, prepared by the Holy Spirit, is sown, germinates, and bears fruit (Matt. 13:38). Regeneration presupposes natural birth, recreation presupposes creation, and Scripture presupposes nature.”

For Bavinck we are not completely ‘regenerated’ in this life.  It is a continued work of God’s goodness and grace being poured into out lives.  He quotes a couple of verses that show this to be the case from Scripture:

20 I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself up for me. Galatians 2:20 NASB

Christ is the driving force in our lives but that does not mean that we become ascetics or withdraw out of human society to live a false Christian life.  We are still natural human beings living in this world but by faith and grace we live in this world.  He finishes off Book one with saying,” The purpose and task of ethics (especially in our third book) is therefore to describe how regenerate people are to manifest their eternal heavenly life in the form of the temporal earthly life.” (Page 235, The third book hasn’t been published yet)


As he has said natural morality comes from our natural first birth selves.   Every human being has a natural morality and from this flows a lot of things such as the sciences, medicine, technology et al.  Natural morality cannot save us from our sins but in this world, it plays a vital part in maintaining order in the chaos.  We have covered some serious topics in unconverted humanity.

I like the way that Bavinck finished off his last chapter.  He does not cut off the believers from the unbelievers.  Whether we are unbelievers or believers, we were all created by God.  For us to stand even a chance of entering heaven a new creative work of God has to happen in us because of the Fall.  This has all been done from an ‘exclusivity position’ yet he retains the exclusivity elements.

As a religious Educator I have problems with the way Religious Studies is taught.  The comparative method can take one so far but then it fails.  The reason Religious Studies fails is that faith of any religion is personal.  The personal factors are stripped away, and one is left with only data. 

Children for example speak a lot of the time from their own personal experiences.  In an essay question for example they can be penalized for not giving an answer that looks at other points of view other than their own.  The thing is that in a safe classroom environment they have come to a point reflectively and ask the question; ‘What does all this mean to me?’

We can learn from Bavinck that we are not ‘lone individuals’ with no family, community or history.  This is where many modern states are going wrong.  In some developed states the individual is the main thing.  The late Rabbi Sacks was right to say in his book Morality for example that there has to be more emphasis on the community.  There isn’t enough of it.  Bavincks Ethics has a lot to teach the secular world as much as teaching the Church.

I am now looking forward to moving onto his second book covering ‘Converted Humanity’.  What happens after we become Christians?  This is a very important question.  I wished that there was someone who could have explained this to me as a young believer.   I think the second book is more upbeat to the first.  Sometimes the topics got a little dark.  I suppose sometimes we need to go through the valleys before we reach the mountain tops.

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