Reformed Ethics Could Save Your Life

Herman Bavinck’s Reformed Ethics Could Save Your Life

Reformed Ethics: Created, Fallen, and Converted Humanity (Vol. 1), John Bolt, ed. et al. Baker Academic, 2019. HC, 608 pp.

I was preparing a student paper on Bavinck for ETS when the economy collapsed in 2009.  Bavinck’s Reformed Dogmatics proved a tremendous source of encouragement during that time, amidst great uncertainty which touched the faith and vocation of myself and many friends. I'm now happy see the release of Reformed Ethics: Created, Fallen, and Converted Humanity, the first in a planned three volume set offering a comprehensive and systematic treatment of the Christian life.

Ron Gleason’s biography (Herman Bavinck, 2010 P&R) traces Bavinck’s career teaching theology and ethics between Kampen and Amsterdam, but no one knew that a manuscript on ethics was preserved in the Bavinck archive (cf. pp. 111-113). Bavinck had prepared the manuscript for publication, yet several formal issues may have held him back from publishing the work (RE, 2019; xxxv, xli-ii). Along with the manuscript’s discovery by Dirk van Keulen, two additional manuscripts from Bavinck’s students have been uncovered, providing invaluable insights into his classroom presentation and support for translation. The wealth of materials and the patience of the editors have resulted in a fine, user-friendly critical edition of Bavinck’s Reformed Ethics.

The information surrounding the manuscript’s translation and presentation may be technical, but it is not dry. Dr. Bolt has succeeded in presenting a critical edition of Reformed Ethics in a richly annotated, carefully supported format that aids the casual reader and researcher alike. While Craig S. Keener leads the league in footnotes overall, Dr. Bolt and his team are this season’s surprise contenders in annotations. The result follows the Dogmatics in organization, updated references and citations which ultimately aid contemporary readers with context and insight into Bavinck’s train of thought.  

The footnotes and annotations provide the reader with three useful things:

1) Translation choices and word variants between Bavinck’s personal manuscript and those produced by his students during his lectures 

2) Updated and expanded bibliographical information for cited works

3) Greek, Hebrew, and Latin quotations, terms and definitions updated or translated (Dutch and English)

The editors have provided a vast amount of relevant data on source material that Bavinck either cited from memory or jotted down shorthand from often hard-to-find references. One small problem we did find with the Greek references is that it’s initially unclear if they are in the original manuscript or editorial annotations (they’re Bavinck’s). This particular detail is not addressed in the introduction, but ample useful information is found in many annotations in later chapters. Bavinck’s reading of the Greek is nuanced (e.g. RE, 2019, 471-2 [fn. 52]) and highly insightful into Bavinck’s thought as a polemicist and theologue. The editors have a firm grasp of Bavinck’s voice and cadence, using an extensive array of biblical translations--from the KJV to the NIV--throughout the text where his (Dutch) translations closely correspond with English versions. The footnotes and annotations, not to mention the attention given to Biblical translations, are an invaluable framework supporting the work as a whole. 

Bavinck’s starting point for Christian ethics is the eschaton, or the eschatological expectation found throughout the New Testament epistles (RE, 2019, 3-4), anticipating the outset of contemporary scholarship e.g. Richard B. Hays, The Moral Vision of the New Testament (1996; 19-27). A notable difference is the latter’s interpretive model of NT ethics follows a descriptive path whereas the former takes a prescriptive course. Bavinck avoids any and all theories which separate or compartmentalize dogmatics and ethics, “In dogmatics, God descends to us; in ethics, we ascend to God … dogmatics proceeds from God; ethics returns to God (RE, 2019; 22).” For Bavinck the outset of ethics is a synthesis and unity of the content of scripture using the method identical to dogmatic theology (RE, 2019; 29).

Bavinck’s theological approach to ethics is divided into two books: Humanity before Conversion (Bk. 1) and Converted Humanity (Bk. 2). Chapter One introduces terms, definitions and Scripture overview for the essence of humanity (i.e. Imago Dei), The Good, freedom of the will, work, and vocation. Chapter Two addresses humanity under the power of sin and its corruption of the Imago, the will and the conscience, which Bavinck expounds in detail through the next four chapters ("The Self against Neighbor and God," "The Fallen Image of God," "Human Conscience," and "The Sinner and the Law"). Many of Bavinck’s familiar motifs are found throughout, such as grace restores nature; the body of sin and the sinless man (cf. the Word in Servant form). Key topics such as the Donum Superadditum and the syntērēsis (the Law or Word of God) within the human conscience are treated at length throughout book’s I and II and deserve close reading. 

Book Two begins with the essence and origins of the spiritual life of believers, followed with a chapter surveying Christian spiritual life from church history. Following critiques of mysticism and rationalism, Bavinck moves to discuss holiness and the imitation of God (Imitatio Dei) as they occur in ethics, and not on a metaphysical plane. For Bavinck, “the spiritual life is an organism,” meaning regeneration happens at once and not in stages, as mystics and ascetics claim, yet it does develop. In other words, “it has a creative drive” (RE, 2019; 346). Bavinck continues his critique and development of the spiritual life through Chapter 9 (The Shape and Maturation of the Christian Life) to Chapter 10 (Preserving the Christian Life), including a discussion of the certainty and assurance of faith which exceeds the cover price of the book.

This first volume of Reformed Ethics concludes with a chapter on problems that degrade the spiritual life within the intellect, heart and soul, the will, and spiritual desertion (Ch. 11, Pathologies of the Christian Life). Chapter 12 surveys the Restoration and Consummation of the Christian Life in activities such as prayer, reading the Word, meditation, fasting, vigils and so forth. The material covered in the last chapters at first glance reads like a compendium of Scripture with sparse comment, which may speak to the limitations of a lost manuscript. With that said, Bavinck is at the height of his powers when applying systematic and biblical theology to the pastorate and the Christian life. 

Reformed Ethics Could Save Your Life

What’s the heartbeat of Bavinck’s Reformed Ethics? Perhaps this review is not the best place to offer in-depth critique or elaboration on Bavinck’s thought. Yet ethicists and theologians will notice a few standouts, such as Bavinck’s discussion of the syntērēsis in Adam and Christ; his readings of Perkins and Ames on the human conscience; the central location of the Holy Spirit in the conviction of sin, regeneration, assurance of salvation; spiritual growth through suffering and hardship; the nuanced exposition of Scripture in striking dialogue with H.A.W. Meyer’s New Testament Commentary; and finally, the nemesis to Christian ethics in the Pelagian view of the human will, which Bavinck argues is main source of confusion and dualism between faith and works, suffering and spiritual growth, bondage to sin and freedom from sin. Bavinck’s rigor is no less here than in his other works, and this critical edition will be invaluable to students working with contemporary academic standards.

Reformed Ethics is an important resource for pastoral ministry and the Christian life. “Theology is a saving science,” Bavinck writes, and “the growth, condition, and measure of our spiritual life is determined not by all kinds of arbitrary human standards … but by the measure of our faith as it shows itself in knowledge, love (all sorts of virtues), and hope (patience)” (RE, 2009, 352, 357). Assurance of salvation may be nearly-identical with scientific certainty, and this is an attribute of faith even in the weakest believer (or perhaps any given believer slugging through a down economy). Here especially, Bavinck’s scholarly rigor between dogmatics and ethics pays dividends both in pastoral application and general decision-making.


Bavinck’s achievement in Reformed Ethics is the result of deep and prolonged theological reflection on the content of Dogmatics. Reformed Ethics runs exactly parallel to the Dogmatics by following the organizational pattern without falling into redundancy. The result is an impressive work of mature thought reflecting critically yet safeguarding Reformed distinctions, bringing them into contemporary life, both at home and the marketplace. There is much more synthesis that is distinctly Bavinck; often in the Dogmatics one tends to lose sight of his voice within the analysis, and the synthesis has to be carefully sorted out from the data. Thanks to Dr. Bolt and the editors, Bavinck’s Reformed Ethics is available for the first time in a highly accessible and useful format that should serve the needs of professional researchers, students, and those in ministry for years to come.

Joel Heflin (MA, Regent College) has written papers on Herman Bavinck for the Evangelical Theological Society and Puritan theology for Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary. He is currently an assistant editor for a forthcoming edition of John Flavel’s Works (2020-2021). Joel lives in Chattanooga, TN with his family.

Related Links

"Why Every Fourth Grader Should Read Bavinck" by Steve Tipton

"Mastricht, Bavinck, and the Efficacy of Scripture" by Bruce Baugus

The Bible in Church History, featuring "Herman Bavinck: The Bible and the Amsterdam School" by Carl Trueman [ Audio Disc  |  MP3 Disc  |  Download ]

RPTS Westminster Conference: Theology for Today [ Audio Disc  |  MP3 Disc  |  Download ]

Christian Dogmatics: Reformed Theology for the Church Catholic, ed. by Michael Allen and Scott Swain.