Results tagged “Bavinck” from Reformation21 Blog

The general contours of the doctrine of Scripture are familiar. Orthodox Protestants confess that Scripture has God as its primary author and is self-authenticating, supremely authoritative, necessary for this age, clear enough to be understood by the masses, and sufficient as a rule of faith and life. The word of God is also the primary means of grace. As such, the visible church is born of the word, now written in Scripture, not the other way around.

Protestants on the Efficacy of Scripture

Lutheran and Reformed theologians differ somewhat, however, on the efficacy of Scripture. Lutherans argue that the word has an inherent power to save; Reformed critics suggest this view is a little too close to Rome's more magical notions of sacramental efficacy. Some of those same critics can also claim, however, that "Lutherans are completely correct" in at least one respect: "always and everywhere the word of God is a power of God, a sword of the Spirit." God's word, Bavinck continues, "is spoken in the power of the Holy Spirit and therefore always effective,...continually sustained, preserved, and made powerful by that Spirit" (RD, 4.459).

So, Protestants agree on the efficacy of Scripture but disagree on how to construe its saving efficacy. By insisting God's word always operates to save, Lutherans appear to reduce the Spirit's activity to something like an impersonal power. They must then explain the apparent failure of the word to save some people by arguing that "God, working through means, can be resisted" in a way that "God, working in uncovered majesty, cannot" (Pieper, CD, 2.465). Reformed theologians, on the other hand, deny the Spirit always exerts the power of God's word to save all people indiscriminately. They instead restrict the saving power of Scripture to the elect and argue it is efficacious to this end only through the personal, particular, and irresistible work of the Spirit.

The Universal Scope of Biblical Efficacy in Reformed Theology

In their discussions of the point, Reformed theologians are primarily concerned with the efficacy of God's word as the primary means of saving grace. This does not prevent them, however, from recognizing a wider, variegated, and universal scope to the efficacy of Scripture. Consider two examples from the Dutch tradition.

First, Petrus van Mastricht, who defines the efficacy of Scripture, its "eighth property," as the "moral and instrumental...power" it has "from the Holy Spirit" to "work effectually" in the world. Scripture is therefore said to be both "able" and "active," penetrating the soul, exposing its secrets, working on the spirit, illuminating the mind, regenerating and converting the heart, kindling faith, and sanctifying, strengthening, consoling, and preserving the saints. "Indeed, people the world over sense the efficacy of the Word when they are converted by the mere preaching of the gospel." But he describes a common and non-saving efficacy of Scripture too, since "even reprobates themselves experience it when they lose their speech (Matt. 22:46), when they yield (Mark 6:20), when they fear (Mark 6:20; Acts 24:25),...and when they are hardened and blinded (Isa. 6:9-10)" bit God's word (Theoretical-Practical Theology, 1.131).

Second, Herman Bavinck, who argues that "the word of God, both as law and gospel, . . . concerns all human beings and all creatures and so has universal significance." Unlike the sacraments, therefore, which are only for the visible church, "the word of God also has a place and life outside of it and also exerts many and varied influences" (4.448-49). So, "this power of the word of God and specifically of the gospel must, with the Lutherans, be maintained in all its fullness and richness" (449). Again, the word "is always efficacious; it is never powerless" (459).

The efficacy of Scripture is not, therefore, one-dimensional. "Both Scripture and experience teach that the word does not always have the same effect." On the contrary, it has many diverse effects that can be organized into two general kinds: "If it does not raise people up, it strikes them down" (459). And so, "the word that proceeds from the mouth of God is indeed always a power accomplishing that for which God sent it forth."

This is not only true of "the gospel but also of the law." When Paul says "the letter kills" (2 Cor. 3:6), Bavinck claims, "he is saying as powerfully as he can" that the law "is not a dead letter. Instead, it is so powerful that it produces sin, wrath, a curse, and death" (458). So also, "the gospel exerts its effect" not just on the elect and unto salvation, but "even in those who are lost; to them it is a reason for their falling, an offense and foolishness, a stone over which they stumble, a fragrances from death to death (Luke 2:34; Rom. 9:32; 1 Cor. 1:23; 2 Cor. 2:16; 1 Pet. 2:8)" (458).


Of course Scripture would produce none of these effects apart from the Spirit but it never is apart from the Spirit. It is "perfectly adapted to accomplish the end of man's sanctification and salvation" but by the Spirit it "always accomplishes what it is meant to accomplish." It may raise the hearer up to God or strike the reader down in the dust, but it always has its divinely intended effect and it "never returns empty" (458).

Defining Creation


What is creation? Quite often, when asked that question, everyday Christians would immediately direct attention to what has been made. One might say, "Look at the vast sky above, with its moon and stars, its sun and clouds which give rain from heaven." We might point to the ocean and all its deep mysteries or the Grand Canyon's majestic scenery. This is not a wrong answer to the question. Theologians of the Christian theological tradition, however, give a more theocentric answer to that question. But if we ponder the question a bit more, contemplating how the Bible presents to us the account of creation in Genesis 1, our answer would start with God and go out from there. 

When defining the doctrine of creation, Herman Bavinck says, "[Creation is] that act of God through which, by his sovereign will, he brought the entire world out of nonbeing into being that is distinct from his own being."1 Bavinck started his definition from the theocentric standpoint. Creation is an act of God. This definition is important for it clearly upholds a Creator/creature distinction. 

Creation is of another order of being than that of divine being. Divine being is; created being is brought into existence by God. There are two orders of being: created being and non-created, or divine, being. The former is finite (i.e., having bounds or limits according to its created capacities); the latter infinite (i.e., having no bounds or limits according to its uncreated essence and is thus incomprehensible to the creature). The former is temporal (i.e., it began-to-be with time and exists in relation to it); the latter eternal (i.e., ever existing, "without beginning or end and apart from all succession and change")2. The former is dependent; the latter independent. Creatures are contingent; God is not. As John of Damascus said long ago, "All things are distant from nature."3 Created nature and divine nature are both distinct and different in kind.

Bringing things into being distinct from himself makes God the efficient cause of creation. That is, God, and God alone, the triune God, brought creation into existence without any change in God the Trinity. Since he is pure act, or not becoming or able to become in any sense, God alone is able to bring about the existence of things without change in himself. In fact, change in God is impossible. Divine existence is not one of "incomplete realization," as Richard Muller puts it.4 God is "the fully actualized being, the only being not in potency..."5 Muller continues:

"...God in himself, considered essentially or personally, is not in potentia because the divine essence and persons are eternally perfect, and the inward life of the Godhead is eternally complete and fully realized."6

God does not possess some sort of potency, some latent potential, to become what he is not. Nothing can change God; not creation nor even God himself. The execution of divine power, then, does not make God what he is not; it reveals or manifests who he is.

Creation is a work of God, bringing being into being "distinct from his own being," as Bavinck says. The Creator is of a different order of being from the creation; God is not like us. This distinction is crucial to maintain. As Thomas Weinandy says, "As Creator, not one of the things created, and is thus completely other than all else that exists."7 John Webster's penetrating words are to the point:

The difference between creator and creature is infinite, not just 'very great'; 'creator' does not merely refer to the supreme causal power by which the world is explained, for God would then be simply a 'principle superior to the world,' or 'the biggest thing around.' Such conceptions falter by making God one term in a relation, and so only comparatively, not absolutely, different. . . . God the creator is not simply the most excellent of beings, because the distinction between uncreated and created being is not a distinction within created being but one between orders of being; God is not one item in a totality, even the most eminently powerful item in the set of all things.

The simple, infinite, eternal, immutable, and impassible triune God brings into existence a vast array of diverse creatures out of the fullness of his being. He brings creatures into being, sustains them, and mysteriously moves them in their ever-changing existence with no change in him.

Confessing divine simplicity, eternity, infinity, immutability, and impassibility means that God cannot change from within or from without because of what he is and what he is not. He is God, the simple and immutable Creator. He is not in any sense a mutable creature, nor does he become one, in the sense of changing divine being. He is, according to Muller, "free from all mutation of being, attributes, place, or will..."9 God can and does reveal who he is to creatures, but he does not refashion himself or add attributes, or perfections, to do so. By creating, God does not become something he was not in order to reveal who he is; he simply reveals who he is by creation, conservation, re-creation, and consummation indicating to creatures that he is, that he is present, and that he is worthy of our praise.

Let all the earth fear the LORD; Let all the inhabitants of the world stand in awe of Him. For He spoke, and it was done; He commanded, and it stood fast. (Psalm 33:8-9)

1. Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, gen. ed. John Bolt, trans. John Vriend (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2004), 2:416.

2. Richard A. Muller, Dictionary of Latin and Greek Theological Terms, Second Edition (Grand 3. As quoted in Ian A. McFarland, From Nothing: A Theology of Creation (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2014), 59.

4. Muller Dictionary, 11.

5. Muller Dictionary, 11.

6. Muller, Dictionary, 11. Muller goes on to state the following: "This view of God as fully actualized being lies at the heart of the scholastic exposition of the doctrine of divine immutability . . . Immutability does not indicate inactivity or unrelatedness, but the fulfillment of being."

7. Thomas Weinandy, "Human Suffering and the Impassibility of God," Testamentum Imperium Volume 2, 2009: 1. This can be found on-line at ( Accessed 9 February 2015.

8. John Webster, God without Measure: Working Papers in Christian Theology, Volume I, God and the Works of God (London, Oxford, New York, New Delhi, Sydney: Bloomsbury, 2016), 1:91.

9. Muller Dictionary, 162.

Richard C. Barcellos, is pastor of Grace Reformed Baptist Church, Palmdale, CA and Associate Professor of Biblical Studies at IRBS Theological Seminary. He is the author of Getting the Garden Right: Adam's Work and God's Rest in Light of Christ and The Covenant of Works: Its Confessional and Scriptural Basis.

Plagiarism? Berkhof Copying Vos

From Muller's preface: "In the preface to the two volumes of Reformed Dogmatics, dated October 31, 1931, Berkhof notes his use of Bavinck but registers especially the importance of the theology of Geerhardus Vos to his own development."
Louis Berkhof has never thrilled me as a systematician. Herman Bavinck described the theology of Francis Turretin as mere reproduction lacking productive power. I tend to think that could be said of Berkhof even more so than Turretin. 

In the case of Berkhof we have not only a lack of "productive power" but also some apparent "copying". 
Below, Berkhof directly depends upon Vos on a certain topic (i.e., the Mosaic covenant). The similarities are striking, but in a way that makes me a little uncomfortable given our standards today for what constitutes plagiarism. This is one of many examples I could give from Berkhof's ST. Berkhof does much the same, even on a greater scale, with Bavinck. 

Berkhof (p. 298, Banner ed.; bold used to highlight particular similarities):
a. At Sinai the covenant became a truly national covenant. The civil life of Israel was linked up with the covenant in such a way that the two could not be separated. In a large measure Church and State became one. To be in the Church was to be in the nation, and vice versa; and to leave the Church was to leave the nation. There was no spiritual excommunication; the ban meant cutting off by death.
Vos (vol. 2, p. 129): 

a) Now, for the first time, the covenant with Israel rightly became a national covenant. The social life of Israel, its civil organization, its existence as a people, were brought directly into contact with the covenant of grace. These two were inextricably linked. One cannot say, "I want to leave the Jewish church but remain in the Jewish state." Whoever left the church left the state. And one could leave the state only by being exterminated from the people. Properly speaking, there is discipline through censure in a certain sense, but not, properly speaking, discipline only through excommunication or cutting off from the church. The sanction was the death penalty. All this first came about at Sinai. Earlier, God Himself had cut off Ishmael and Esau from the covenant administration. Judicially, this is later no longer permitted.
b. The Sinaitic covenant included a service that contained a positive reminder of the strict demands of the covenant of works. The law was placed very much in the foreground, giving prominence once more to the earlier legal element. But the covenant of Sinai was not a renewal of the covenant of works; in it the law was made subservient to the covenant of grace. This is indicated already in the introduction to the ten commandments, Ex. 20:2; Deut. 5:6, and further in Rom. 3:20; Gal. 3:24. It is true that at Sinai a conditional element was added to the covenant, but it was not the salvation of the Israelite but his theocratic standing in the nation, and the enjoyment of external blessings that was made dependent on the keeping of the law, Deut. 28:1-14. The law served a twofold purpose in connection with the covenant of grace: (1) to increase the consciousness of sin, Rom. 3:20; 4:15; Gal. 3:19; and (2) to be a tutor unto Christ, Gal. 3:24.

b) The covenant with Israel served in an emphatic manner to recall the strict demands of the covenant of works. To that end, the law of the Ten Commandments was presented so emphatically and engraved deeply in stone. This law was not, as Cocceius meant, simply a form for the covenant of grace. It truly contained the content of the covenant of works. But--and one should certainly note this--it contains this content as made serviceable for a particular period of the covenant of grace. It therefore says, for example, "I am the Lord your God." Therefore, it also contains expressions that had reference specifically to Israel, and thus are not totally applicable to us (e.g., "that it may be well with you in the land that the Lord your God gives you"). But also, beyond the Decalogue, there is reference to the law as a demand of the covenant of works (e.g., Lev 18:5; Deut 27:26; 2 Corinthians 3:7, 9). It is for this reason that in the last cited passage, Paul calls the ministry of Moses a ministry of condemnation. This simply shows how the demand of the law comes more to the fore in this dispensation of the covenant of grace. This ministry of the law had a twofold purpose: (1) It is a disciplinarian until Christ. (2) It serves to multiply sin--that is, both to lure sin out from its hidden inner recesses as well as to bring it to consciousness (cf. Gal 3:19; Rom 4:15; 5:13). Paul teaches expressly that the law did not appear here as an independent covenant of works in Galatians 3:19ff. That the law is also not a summary of the covenant of grace appears from the absence of the demand of faith and of the doctrine of the atonement.
c. The covenant with the nation of Israel included a detailed ceremonial and typical service. To some extent this was also present in the earlier period, but in the measure in which it was introduced at Sinai it was something new. A separate priesthood was instituted, and a continuous preaching of the gospel in symbols and types was introduced. These symbols and types appear under two different aspects: as the demands of God imposed on the people; and as a divine message of salvation to the people. The Jews lost sight of the latter aspect, and fixed their attention exclusively on the former. They regarded the covenant ever increasingly, but mistakenly, as a covenant of works, and saw in the symbols and types a mere appendage to this.

c) The covenant with Israel had a ceremonial and a typical ministry, fixed in its details. That was also already so in part for the earlier administration of the covenant of grace. But to the degree that it now came about, that ceremonial ministry was something new. A formal gospel preaching was offered continually by symbols and types. A priestly class came into existence. Earlier, every father of a family was a priest. Now, particular persons are separated and consecrated for this function. One must consider all these types and symbols from two points of view: (1) as demands of God on the people; (2) as a proclamation of God to the people. God had appointed them to serve in both respects. But the Jews overlooked the latter aspect more and more and made the types and symbols exclusively serve the former purpose. That is to say, they used them only as additions to a self-willed covenant of works, and misunderstood the ministering significance they had for the covenant of grace. So the opinion arose that righteousness had to be obtained by keeping that law in the broadest sense of the word, including the ceremonial law. And by this misuse, the covenant of grace of Sinai was in fact made into a Hagarite covenant, a covenant giving birth to servitude, as Paul describes it in Galatians 4:24. There he has in view not the covenant as it should be, but as it could easily become through misuse.

d. The law in the Sinaitic covenant also served Israel as a rule of life, so that the one law of God assumed three different aspects, designated as the moral, the civil, and the ceremonial or religious law. The civil law is simply the application of the principles of the moral law to the social and civic life of the people in all its ramifications. Even the social and civil relations in which the people stood to each other had to reflect the covenant relation in which they stood.

d) The law given by God also served as a rule of life for Israel. So, we obtain a threefold law: the moral, the ceremonial, the civil law. This civil law was a particular application of the principles of the moral law. For example, in the moral law God says in general, "You shall not steal." The civil law further elaborates what constitutes stealing, what penalties apply, etc., etc. At the same time, this law as a rule of life for civil concerns was elaborated in such a way that it provided a model for the spiritual relationship to God of the members of the covenant. Israel must bring its tithes, firstfruits, drink- and vow-offerings; and in doing that the dedication of the covenant member to God was also foreshadowed in the covenant of grace. No one from Israel may be a slave, for every Israelite is as such already totally God's possession. Even the land of the children of Israel is God's property; they are merely sojourners and aliens toward God, who live from what is His. So, too, in civil relationships in Israel, in the civil side of the covenant, the essence of the covenant of grace is mirrored.
Now, for some context:

First, these texts were both first used as syllabi for students at what came to be Calvin Theological Seminary. They used Vos as a textbook even after he left go to Princeton. Perhaps Berkhof took the existing syllabus and updated it in light of his own analysis and recent opinion. So there are sections where he "borrows" pretty thoroughly, even copies almost word-for-word, as the evidence above shows.

Almost verbatim quotations from his predecessors is unsurprising because the origin of the Systematic Theology arose from students taking down notes of his lectures. They then transcribed them, turned in mimeographs, and the lectures were printed up for classroom use. Eventually they were edited into the book we now have.

Second, there's also a linguistic factor here. Vos wrote his dogmatics in Dutch, whereas Berkhof was writing when the church was self-consciously trying to switch to English in preaching and theological writing. So in one way, Berkhof is giving a a kind of periphrastic translation of Vos (and Bavinck). 

Third, Berkhof regularly cites the parallel sections of Vos's dogmatics at the end of his chapters. This is true of the chapter on the Mosaic covenant. The citation wouldn't be acceptable today by our standards, though. And I certainly would like to see a little more credit given to his sources. Simply citing a "Literature" section at the end of the chapter is not sufficient today. In fact, one finds more extensive citations in many 16th and 17thC dogmatic texts. 

Fourth, Berkhof was a student of Vos. Who knows what kind of note-taking he did. We might need to ask how much of Vos comes out of Aegidius Francken's Stellige God-geleertheyd (3 vols) or Francken's Kern der Christelijke Leer. 

If Berkhof were doing this today, I think he'd be in real trouble. And if one of my students did this today, he'd end up having a very uncomfortable discussion with me. But, to be fair to Berkhof - whom I tend to think was not a very original thinker, but still a very good summarizer - he lived in a particular social and ecclesiastical context. 

So an initial glance at Berkhof and Vos might cause one to be very concerned. But, as is often the case, there's a lot of information that needs to be considered. Not having lived in that context, of course, there are likely even more details missing from my own analysis. 

When it comes to exposing plagiarism, we inevitably find that things are always a little more complicated when our analysis goes beyond mere pasting of different sources side-by-side.

Whatever one's feelings on the above - and several scholars offered slightly different reactions to my findings - Berkhof would probably say a hearty "Amen" to Hodge's famous quip: "I am not afraid to say that a new idea never originated in this Seminary." 
It seems as though some version of speech act theory--the rather simple but significant observation that we use words to do things--pokes out from under every stone in evangelical discussions of Scripture these days. This has been the case at least since Nicholas Wolterstorff's 1993 Wilde Lectures at Oxford, later developed into Divine Discourse (Oxford, 1995), and perhaps especially since Kevin Vanhoozer's big splash, Is There a Meaning in This Text? (Zondervan, 1998). The application of speech act theory to topics in the doctrine of Scripture has generally made for stimulating but not always helpful reading. The impression occasionally cast is that scholars working in this field are plowing up fertile ground only discovered since the philosophical explorations of Austin and Searle in the 1960s.

Not so. Though there was no such thing as speech act theory, per se, prior to Austin's How to Do Things with Words (Clarendon, 1962; from the 1955 William James Lectures at Harvard), not even Austin claimed his ideas were new. Here is how he opens his first lecture:

What I shall have to say here is neither difficult nor contentious; the only merit I should like to claim for it is that of being true, at least in parts. The phenomenon to be discussed is very widespread and obvious, and it cannot fail to have been already noticed, at least here and there, by others. Yet I have not found attention paid to it specifically.

Austin is right, and one place this phenomenon has been noticed is in Christian reflection on language, Scripture, and the power of God's word to accomplish things beyond just telling and describing.

Take Bavinck's argument under his discussion of the Spirit's means of grace. In Austin's words, Bavinck argues from what he clearly believes to be an obvious phenomenon--the power of human words to do things--to the perfection of this power in the God's word:

The word is not an empty set of vibrations in the air, nor an empty sign, or a cold symbol, but every word, also every human word, is a power greater and more durable than the power of the sword. Encapsulated within it is thought, mind, soul, and life. If this applies to words in general, how much more is it true of the word that proceeds from the mouth of God and is spoken by him? That is a word that creates and maintains, judges and kills, re-creates and renews, and always accomplishes what it is meant to accomplish and never returns empty (RD, 4.458).

He draws out one line of support:

The power of the human word . . . depends [to some degree] on the extent to which a person puts one's heart and soul into it, on the distance existing between the person and one's speech. But in the case of God that is different. It is always his word; he is always present in it; he consistently sustains it by his almighty and omnipresent power. It is always God himself who, in whatever form and by whatever means, brings it to people and calls them by it. Therefore, even though the word of God that is freely proclaimed by ministers or conveyed to people by way of personal admonition, public address, a book or other writing, is indeed taken from Scripture but not identical with Scripture, it is still a word from God, a word that comes to human beings but is originally from God, is spoken in the power of the Holy Spirit and therefore always effective.

This is true of the word as both law and gospel, written and proclaimed, he argues:

The word of God is never separate from God, from Christ, from the Holy Spirit; . . . Just as Scripture was not just inspired at one time by the holy Spirit, but is continually sustained, preserved, and made powerful by the Spirit, so it is with the word of God that, taken from Scripture, is preached in some fashion to people. . . . In that respect, the Lutherans are completely correct: always and everywhere the word of God is a power of God, a sword of the Spirit. . . . It is always efficacious; it is never powerless. If it does not raise people up, it strikes them down (RD, 4.459).

It is no stretch to recast Bavinck's point in the jargon of speech act theory: even human discourse is not just the product of a locutionary act (uttering intelligible sounds); neither is it just an illocutionary act (an instance of asserting, commanding, promising, and so on); it is also a power to do things--to achieve the perlocutionary acts (the intended effects) in the speaker's sights. Now, if even human discourse has this power, we ought to believe that God's word is perfect in this power, able to accomplish all he intends.

Lutheran and Reformed theologians disagree over just what those divinely intended perlocutionary effects are. Lutherans argue God is always aiming to save but his saving power is resistible since he is exerting it through means; the Reformed argue God aims at a variety of particular effects and that he always achieves his perlocutionary intentions--"if it does not raise people up, it strikes them down," as Bavinck puts it. Both, however, have reflected at length on how God does things with words and agree that his word is more than just locution and illocution--it is "always and everywhere" living, active, and able.