Reformed Ethics

Herman Bavinck, Reformed Ethics, volume one: Created, Fallen, and Converted Humanity (ed. John Bolt; Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2019). xliii + 564 pp.

The much anticipated release of volume one of Herman Bavinck’s Reformed Ethics serves as a significant moment in Bavinck studies. The four volume Reformed Dogmatics has been available in English translation for over a decade now (since the release of the fourth volume in 2008). In that short time, that publication has become perhaps the most highly regarded Reformed dogmatics of the modern era. Seminary and college professors have assigned it regularly (myself included). Doctoral students have begun writing dissertations on Bavinck in haste (some of which are remarkably insightful, e.g., by James Eglinton, Brian Mattson, and Gray Sutanto). Monographs and journal articles on his thought have multiplied quickly. Other translations have begun appearing, with several coming from a Bavinck studies group under Dr. Eglinton’s supervision in Edinburgh. In theological terms, we are living in the day of Bavinck (probably far more than was ever true in his own time and place). Neither fundamentalist nor modernist, Bavinck has been read and appreciated as a creedally and confessional committed theologian unafraid to engage with rigor across ecclesiastical eras and denominational divides, to be sure, but also with varying secular and scientific alternatives on offer.

Bavinck’s Reformed Ethics represents the next major investment of the Dutch Reformed Translation Society and researchers at Calvin Theological Seminary in translating Bavinck. In this case, Editor John Bolt and his team of translators – Jessica Joustra, Nelson D. Kloosterman, Antoine Theron, and Dirk van Keulen – have tackled a text which has never been published in any language. In 2008 Dirk van Keulen discovered an 1100 page manuscript in the archives of the Historical Documentation Center for Dutch Protestantism at the Vrije Universiteit in Amsterdam. The oversized manuscript gathers lectures given at the Theological School in Kampen from 1883/1884 through fall 1902 (more precise dates are discussed on xxiii).  It was found in a number of notebooks, and it ended incompletely (xxii). Two other manuscripts seem to correlate with this material, class notes prepared by Reinder Jan van der Veen and other class notes which remain anonymous and as yet unidentifiable (xxiii). The outline in those two sets of notes matches that of this manuscript with remarkable comprehensiveness, though seemingly off-the-cuff or ancillary comments also find their way (perhaps unsurprisingly) into the class notes (xxiv).

How does this manuscript, Reformed Ethics, relate to the four volume Reformed Dogmatics? Bavinck himself speaks to the connection of dogmatics and ethics:

In dogmatics we are concerned with what God does for us and in us. In dogmatics God is everything. Dogmatics is a word from God to us, coming from outside of us, from above us; we are passive, listening, and opening ourselves to being directed by God. In ethics, we are interested in the question of what it is that God now expects of us when he does his work in us. What do we do for him? Here we are active, precisely because of and on the grounds of God’s deeds in us; we sing psalms in thanks and praise to God. In dogmatics, God descends to us; in ethics, we ascend to God. In dogmatics, he is ours; in ethics, we are his his. In dogmatics, we know we shall see his face; in ethics, his name will be written on our foreheads [Rev. 22:4] Dogmatics proceeds from God; ethics returns to God. In dogmatics, God loves us; in ethics, therefore, we love him (22).

The rhetoric is dialed up here, and the contrasts are in no way pure dichotomies. Still, Bavinck does paint a picture of two intellectual enterprises that ask after different emphases. Even so, reading the manuscript here (and comparing with relevant portions of the Reformed Dogmatics) shows that this distinction neither suggests that God fails to function as an agent in the realm of ethics, nor that humans remain passive throughout the totality of a dogmatic account. In disciplinary terms, this is a distinctly theological ethics.

Reformed Ethics includes four parts or “books”:

  1. “Humanity before conversion, in the condition of sin, conscience, morality; this is the realm of natural ethics.
  2. “Converted humanity: the new life in its preparation, origin, aspects, circumstances, aids, blessing, marks, sickness and death, fulfillment; this is the realm of practical theology.
  3. “Regenerated humanity in the family, vocation, society, state, and church.
  4. “The Life-Spheres in Which the Moral Life Is to Be Manifest,” which remains unfinished (xxvii).

This first volume includes books 1-2, with books 3-4 to be published later. Book 1 includes six chapters: Essential Human Nature (ch. 1); Humanity Under the Power of Sin (ch. 2); The Self Against the Neighbor and God (ch. 3); The Fallen Image of God (ch. 4); Human Conscience (ch. 5); The Sinner and the Law (ch. 6). Book two follows with six chapters: Life in the Spirit (ch. 7); Life in the Spirit in the Church’s History (ch. 8); The Shape and Maturation of the Christian Life (ch. 9); Persevering in the Christian Life (ch. 10); Pathologies of the Christian Life (ch. 11); Restoration and Consummation of the Christian Life (ch. 12).

The Bavinck we know and love appears here. The volume includes nuanced sketches not just of biblical material, but of sensitive awareness of the range and variety of biblical idioms. The Scriptural engagement occurs most frequently through parenthetical citations, though he will regularly linger over the interpretation of particular passages. The editorial team has done significant work in rendering original language quotations into readable English. Here too is historical survey, sometimes in chapter length form (ch. 8), sometimes in shorter excurses (the surprisingly long discussion of the stigmata on 330-333). One interesting parallel to the Reformed Dogmatics occurs at the beginning of chapters: just as the RD frequently begins with a discussion of  more general parallels (typically from other religions and philosophers) only to turn then toward its more specific Christian manifestation, so here chapters regularly begin by noting pluralistic or secular parallels or counter-points to the themes under examination (e.g. the discussion of spiritual disease begins with the more general struggle of bodily disease on 417-418). Even an occasional rhetorical difficulty – discerning when Bavinck is speaking on behalf of others or in his own voice – occurs as in the RD. This text is the Bavinck we love in terms of catholic interest in exegesis and dogmatics, liturgy and ethics, Reformed and ecumenical voices, and so forth. Tolle lege.

At the same time, not all is as we have known it. The editors seem to have cleaned and polished, yet the text is still a good bit choppier and emaciated than the RD. First, it is choppier and frequently moves forward argumentatively by lurching here and there, often implicitly, without smooth transitions rhetorically and logically (e.g. 159-161, 253-255). Second, its argument often lacks much by way of citation or nuance, especially when talking about historical trends (e.g. the discussion of mysticism on 277-288 is especially abstract and textually non-specific relative to parallel discussions in RD 3:353-356 and 4:443-446). Again, this is not a sign of poor editorial work but a manifestation of an unfinished manuscript. This text is not the Bavinck to which we have grown accustomed, wearing his learning lightly by means of countless, specific citations of primary sources and addressing various trajectories and movements with sensitivity to nuance. Here anyone who has spent significant time with RD will feel as though they entered into oddly unfamiliar territory: much greater reliance on stereotypes, frequently underdeveloped logical argument, rare and vague references, and so forth. Caveat emptor.

What shall we make of this volume? This is Bavinck, and there are frequent judgments that are remarkably perceptive and illuminating. His discussions of the development of self-examination as a focus within post-Reformation Reformed theology (294-403), psychological awareness and its pastoral necessity (410), and of spiritual desertion (458-460) stand out in that regard. The text is shaped by and limited in some respects due to its historical location; for instance, his engagement of “scholasticism” in rather lengthy section pre-dates the massive historiographic revisions found in late 20th century scholarship (e.g. 423-43). The text was not fully brought to maturity; discussions of asceticism (462-463) and of vows (492) appear remarkably incomplete, left dangling at points. Even so, the text provides a consistently theological and dogmatic approach to studying ethics, attempting to listen to Holy Scripture, to glean from the communion of saints, and endeavoring to engage critically with ancillary movements of thought in the wider modern world. In each respect, it still warrants reading, even if it will not serve as an opus parallel to the great Reformed Dogmatics. Two watchwords are important with regard to this much-anticipated publication of the first volume of Herman Bavinck’s Reformed Ethics: both caveat emptor and tolle lege.

Michael Allen
Reformed Theological Seminary, Orlando