Tag Archives: Herman Bavinck

Some Recommended Resources on the Doctrine of the Covenant of Grace

As mentioned here previously, I’ve been preaching a series of catechetical sermons on the doctrine of the covenant of grace.  Someone asked me to provide a list of recommended resources.  First, some caveats.  The list is not comprehensive, not by far.  These resources are in no particular order.  My mentioning them does not mean that I agree with every single detail, term, or formulation in them — indeed, some of them do contradict each other at certain points.  In sharing them, all I mean to say is that I have learned something valuable from them and perhaps you can too.

The Covenant of Grace, John Murray (Philippsburg: P&R, 1953, 1988).

This was the very first thing I ever read about covenant theology.  It’s a dense little booklet of 32 pages.  It’s not included in Murray’s 4 volume Collected Writings.

The Main Points of the Covenant of Grace — Klaas Schilder.

This was a speech delivered by Schilder in 1944.  It’s a fairly good summary of his covenant theology.  He emphasizes the dynamic and relational nature of the covenant of grace.

Covenant and Election, J. Van Genderen (Neerlandia: Inheritance Publications, 1995). 

A good overview of the history of this topic.  The author also proposes helpful ways of outlining the similarities and differences between covenant and election.  This was one of our textbooks in seminary.

Teaching and Preaching the Word: Studies in Dogmatics and Homiletics, Nicolaas H. Gootjes (Winnipeg: Premier, 2010).

Here I’m thinking especially of chapters 4 (Christ’s Obedience and Covenant Obedience), chapter 8 (Sign and Seal), chapter 9 (The Promises of Baptism) and chapter 17 (Can Parents Be Sure?  Background and Meaning of Canons of Dort, I, 17).  Dr. Gootjes was my dogmatics professor in seminary and probably the biggest single influence on the way I think about the covenant of grace.  I hope that his material on covenant theology in the Reformed confessions will someday yet be published.

Reformed Dogmatics, Herman Bavinck (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2006).

Bavinck tackles the covenant of grace in volume 3 and he’s worthy of careful study.  In volume 2, he also has a notable discussion of the covenant of works.

An Everlasting Covenant, J. Kamphuis (Launceston: Publication Organisation of the Free Reformed Churches of Australia, 1985).

This is a more technical work which traces some of the finer details in the debates over covenant theology leading up to the Liberation of 1944.

Covenant, Justification, and Pastoral Ministry, ed. R. Scott Clark (Phillipsburg: P & R, 2007).

This is a collection of essays by the faculty of Westminster Seminary California.  There are some important cautionary notes sounded in this volume directed against the false teachings of Federal Vision theology.  In a series of articles in The Outlook, I addressed the question of whether some of the authors mentioned above should be condemned with the Federal Visionists.  You can find part 1 here, part 2 here, and part 3 here.  It’s also available in Korean here.


Herman Bavinck on Education

One of the hats I wear is that of a sessional lecturer in church history at Covenant Canadian Reformed Teachers College.  Tomorrow I’ll be lecturing on Herman Bavinck and I’ll also be discussing his contributions to educational philosophy.  Here’s an excerpt from my lecture notes:

Also, I want to spend a few moments on Bavinck’s views of education.  As mentioned earlier, he did a lot of work in this area.  He was an educator at the seminary level, but he was also interested in the philosophy behind education at every level.  He wrote at least three books on the topic, plus numerous essays and articles.  He was among the pioneers of careful Reformed thinking about the philosophy of education.  Unfortunately, nearly everything Bavinck has written on this subject is still in Dutch.  We do have a couple of books in English about Bavinck’s educational philosophy.  One of them is Cornelius Jaarsma’s 1935 book, The Educational Philosophy of Herman Bavinck: A Textbook in Education.[1]  Following Jaarsma, let me just summarize three of Bavinck’s contributions to this area.

Bavinck was conversant with contemporary educational philosophy in general.  For instance, he had read John Dewey and was quite familiar with his views.  Bavinck recognized the antithesis in educational philosophy.  He saw that Dewey and others represented a man-centered (anthropocentric) approach to education.  Instead of that, Bavinck insisted that we need to maintain a God-centered (theocentric) educational philosophy.[2]

Another interesting element of Bavinck’s educational philosophy was his view of the one to be educated.  This brings him to the subject of creation and evolution.  Jaarsma summarizes Bavinck’s position like this:  “Bavinck proceeds from the creative principle rather than that of biological evolution.  He fails to find adequate evidence in biology, archaeology, geology, etc. that man finds his progenitors in lower animal forms.”[3]  Man is a special creation of God.  Here too, he insists on the antithesis.  Jaarsma again:

 Man is either a creation of God or a descendant of lower animal forms.  One who rejects the former, must resort to the latter, not because of adequate evidence, but as one’s only alternative.  If man is a developed form of animal life, he remains an animal, and brute nature will always remain with him in some form.  Education then becomes a process of embellishment in eugenics and euthenics.  ‘Man’s animal origin is no more than an hypothesis, and really no more than an opinion of the present day.’[4]

Instead, Bavinck insisted that man was a special creation of God and that humanity not merely possesses or bears the image of God, but is the image of God.  Education then is the purposeful process of perfecting man in the image of God.[5]

Finally, Bavinck also reflected on the ethical element of educational philosophy.  He recognized that education also has a behavioural component.  Here again, he draws out the antithesis between a biblical approach to education and that of secularists in his time.  Bavinck wrote, “Modern education in various ways has undermined the authority of parents, has made the child the center of all education, has exchanged the moral relationship of teacher and pupil for that of contact.”[6]  Modern educators follow the thinking of Pelagius and assert the inherent goodness of human nature.  A Reformed and biblical view of education proceeds from a position that takes total depravity and original sin seriously.  Children need discipline.  However, mostly for practical reasons, Bavinck was not an advocate for corporal punishment in schools.  He was also aware of how corporal punishment has become abusive.  Other means should be found to keep children in line and they should be:  1) geared towards the individual, and 2) positively geared towards correction.[7]  But we need discipline as part of our education, because discipline teaches self-control, and self-control is the way to true freedom.

Now there is much more that could be said about Bavinck’s educational philosophy.  I’ve just hit on three of the more interesting points.  If you want to find out more, read Jaarsma’s book.


[1] There is also J. Brederveld, Christian Education:  A Summary and Critical Discussion of Bavinck’s Pedagogical Principles (1928).  The English book, Essays on Religion, Science and Society has a couple of shorter writings of Bavinck on education as well.

[2] Jaarsma, The Educational Philosophy of Herman Bavinck, 134.

[3] Jaarsma, The Educational Philosophy of Herman Bavinck, 149.

[4] Jaarsma, The Educational Philosophy of Herman Bavinck, 140-141.

[5] Jaarsma, The Educational Philosophy of Herman Bavinck, 215.

[6] Jaarsma, The Educational Philosophy of Herman Bavinck, 172-173.

[7] Jaarsma, The Educational Philosophy of Herman Bavinck, 173.


Book Review: Herman Bavinck

Herman Bavinck: Pastor, Churchman, Statesman, and Theologian, Ron Gleason, Phillipsburg: P&R, 2010.  Paperback, 511 pages, $29.99.

Over the last decade we’ve seen a surge of interest in the great Dutch theologian Herman Bavinck (1854-1921).  With the translation of his monumental four-volume Reformed Dogmatics, the English-speaking Reformed world is finally coming to recognize the valuable contributions of Bavinck to theology.  His influence upon men like Louis Berkhof and Cornelius Van Til was legendary, but now the evidence is readily available to everyone.  The only thing missing has been a book-length biography of this giant.  We’ve had some biographical essays in various books and journals, but nothing to compare with what has been available in Dutch.  Ron Gleason’s volume has therefore been much anticipated.

Gleason himself has a unique biography that qualifies him for writing this work.  He is an American, but his theological training includes time spent at the Free University in Amsterdam.  He served as a pastor in a Liberated (Vrijgemaakt) Reformed Church in the Netherlands.  His proficiency in Dutch allowed him access to both primary and secondary sources for the research of this biography.  Canadian Reformed readers may remember Dr. Gleason for his years spent pastoring the Bethel Canadian Reformed Church in Toronto, Ontario.  Currently he serves as the pastor of the Grace Presbyterian Church (PCA) in Yorba Linda, California.

It’s not my intent to rehearse Bavinck’s biography here in this review.  It will suffice for me to say that Gleason covers the full breadth of Bavinck’s years.  He surveys his family background, his upbringing, his theological education, his marriage and family life, his first and only pastorate, his years teaching at the seminary in Kampen, his time at the Free University in Amsterdam, his role in various church disputes, and his political involvement.  There’s a lot of detail and the story is generally well-told.  A couple of highlights:  Bavinck visited Toronto in 1892.  Gleason reports on Bavinck’s impressions of what was then known as “Toronto the Good”:  “The Puritanical principle dominates there visibly and clearly” (148).  Later in life, Bavinck made another trip to North America and this included a brief visit with U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt (361).

We often read biographies not only to give us a sense of who a person was, but also to understand the issues of days gone by.  Sometimes the issues are similar to ones we face today.  In the discussions regarding a merger of the Canadian Reformed and United Reformed Churches, one of the big and (to this date) unresolved issues has been theological education.  Should a united church federation have its own seminary or should this be left to outside institutions?  Can we do both?  Before and after the union of the Secession (Afscheiding) and Doleantie churches in 1892, Herman Bavinck also dealt with this issue.  He taught at the federational seminary in Kampen for many years.  But yet he also had many friends and contacts within the Free University in Amsterdam.  Later, with matters still unresolved, he went to teach there.  These were thorny issues then and they remain so.  Bavinck’s biography provides a cautionary tale about what happens when church unions are forced without resolving real differences.

There is nothing like Gleason’s book in English.  For that reason alone, it needs to be in the hands of pastors, aspiring pastors, scholars, elders, and interested lay-people.  However, not only will people with a theological bent benefit, but also those with an interest in politics.  Towards the end of his life, Bavinck served as a politician.  He was elected to a position in the Dutch government and gave careful thought to the application of Christian principles to the political realm.

Unfortunately, the book does have some problems.  There are numerous typos and formatting errors.  The footnotes (especially the biographical ones) are sometimes repetitive, as is the text.  Sometimes the book suffers from a lack of clarity.  As an example in chapter 16, Gleason deals with the question of whether Bavinck changed theologically later in life.  Initially, he says that Bavinck didn’t change (399).  But then three pages later, the answer becomes “yes and no” (402).  A sharp editor would have caught this.  Basically the problems in this book boil down to poor editing.  My hope is that a second edition will someday resolve these infelicities and make a good book even better.

Despite those foibles, I enjoyed this biography.  Gleason’s writing is lively and there are often humorous moments.  Most importantly, he loves Bavinck and it shows.  The book concludes with several appendices including summaries of two sermons by Jan Bavinck (Herman’s father) and a summary of Herman Bavinck’s inaugural address when he began his career at Kampen.  I’m glad to see that English-speaking readers can finally get the full story of this imposing and multi-faceted figure in our Reformed church history.


The Rationalistic Attack on Scripture (Louis Praamsma) — 4

Today I’ve got the final installment of Dr. Louis Praamsma’s article from the December 1979 issue of The Outlook.  Praamsma was responding to a weakening of the doctrine of Scripture in the CRC especially with men like Allen Verhey and Harry Boer.  Within five years, the exodus out of the CRC began.  Some of those who were the first ones to leave ended up at Canadian Reformed churches.  Now these people are watching with deep concern as history seems to be repeating itself.  One correspondent reminded me of the old saying, “The price of freedom is eternal vigilance.”

Will the Canadian Reformed Churches succumb to the spirit of the age?  If the experience of the CRC is indicative, this question will be answered by what parents tolerate in our elementary and high schools, whom we allow to teach at our seminary, the questions that are asked of seminary students/graduates at classis exams (and how the answers are evaluated), and where we send our children for post-secondary education.

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Bavinck and Machen

Must I mention more names?  Must I speak of Herman Bavinck who absorbed all the wisdom of liberal Leyden of his days and kept his faith, faith in an infallible Bible?  Must I mention Gresham Machen who absorbed all the wisdom of liberal Germany in the beginning of our century and wrestled with it until he had conquered it and then became that outstanding champion of truth?  Machen wrote, “I hold that the biblical writers, after having been prepared for their task by the providential ordering of their entire lives, received, in addition to all that, a blessed and supernatural guidance and impulsion by the Spirit of God, so that they were preserved from the errors that appear in other books and thus the resulting book, the Bible, is in all its parts the very Word  of God, completely true in what it says regarding matters of fact and completely authoritative in its commands” (The Christian Faith in the Modern World, 36-37).

The point is again that not the valiant Machen wrote those words, but that Machen, who wrestled with all the intellectual problems which then and now are brought in against inerrancy and had conquered them, wrote those words.

Must we draw the conclusion now that Augustine and Calvin, that Kuyper, Bavinck and Machen, not to mention many more, belonged to a certain kind of Reformed tradition which should be described in Dr. Boer’s words as “an unprincipled ruthless exercise that bends any desired Scripture in its foreordained meaning”?

Mind well what Dr. Boer means: he wants to tell us that those men made use of their own logical foreordination, not of that of God.

Escape from Unbelieving Rationalism

We should not draw that conclusion.  We should say that those theologians had escaped from that rationalism which wants to mould and model Scripture after a pattern of time-bound human logic.  Their eyes had been opened to the limits, the defects, often the arrogance of that human logic.  They knew that even the best-informed human scholar does not know everything.

Those “best-informed scholarly theologians” are now referred to as form-critics.  They always speak about documents which they can never produce.  They always refer to a tradition-behind-a-tradition which they construct with all the ingenuity of first-class detectives.  They are the professionals who know – know what?  Next year they will tell you which hypotheses are more probable than those of last year.


You Can Pray to Christ!

One of the strangest teachings floating around some Reformed churches is the idea that we are not allowed to pray to the Lord Jesus, but only to the Father.  By that same token, hymns of praise to Christ are also out of the question.  The problem with this view is that we find examples in Scripture of the early church and the apostles praying to Christ.  I mentioned this in my sermon yesterday morning:

While he was being stoned to death, we hear Stephen praying, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit” and “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.”  Stephen prayed to the Lord Jesus and in the centuries to follow, thousands of martyrs would repeat his prayer. In 1 Corinthians 12, we read of how Paul prayed to the Lord Jesus and pleaded with him to remove the thorn in his flesh.  In 1 Corinthians 16:22, we read the brief prayer of Paul for the coming of the Lord Jesus, “Maranatha!  Come, O Lord!”  The apostle John echoes that prayer in Revelation 22:20, “Amen. Come, Lord Jesus.”  If the apostles and early Christians prayed to the Lord Jesus and their example is in the Bible, certainly we also have that freedom.

This morning as I was preparing my notes on Volume 2 of Bavinck’s Reformed Dogmatics, I noticed that he commented on this as well:  “…the Holy Spirit dwells in and among us, with the result that our prayers are directed more to the Father and to the Mediator than to him” (311).  Notice that Bavinck speaks of directing our prayers to the Mediator — and this is fine.  It’s also okay to pray (and sing) to the Holy Spirit, though it would not be our regular practice.  Wherever this thinking came from, it didn’t come from Bavinck.

For those who do think that it is sinful to pray to the Lord Jesus, I would want to ask:  which commandment is being broken?  Further, if it is sinful to pray to the Lord Jesus, then it is also sinful to sing to him — in which case the Canadian Reformed Churches (and other Reformed churches) are living in sin and should be called to repentance.

Finally, I am convinced that this line of thinking contributes to the depersonalization of the Saviour.  It robs our faith of vitality.  By saying that it is a sin to speak with him, we are in danger of making him into an abstract concept rather than recognizing him as a person and treating him as such.  Think about it:  what sense does it make to have a Mediator with whom you’re not even allowed to speak?