Herman Bavinck (1854-1921) on the communion of saints

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Herman Bavinck (1854-1921) notes that the Reformed churches have rooted the communion of the saints in objective criteria – such as church office, Word, and sacrament. To make the essence of the communion of the saints the subjective fellowship “often leaves so much to be desired” (Reformed Dogmatics (Gereformeerde Dogmatiek) IV:289). Nevertheless, Bavinck doesn’t thereby embrace a sort of overly objective view of the church which might be read as cold and rationalistic. He notes on translating the term ekklesia:

“In the word ‘church’ the meaning of the New Testament word ekklesia has been obscured. In certain periods the sense that ‘church’ is the name for ‘the people of God’ has almost totally eroded… This is also the reason why ekklesia is often translated in the Dutch (and German) language by gemeente (Gemeinde) instead of kerk (Kirche). As with the English word ‘community,’ this communicates more effectively the church as a fellowship of believers, a communion of saints.”

– Herman Bavinck (1854-1921), Reformed Dogmatics (Gereformeerde Dogmatiek), IV:297

Thus we find in Bavinck a very warm and organic view that roots the church in the objective categories of Biblical church office (including Church discipline), the faithful preaching of the Gospel, and the proper administration of the means of grace, but also sees the church as a family of believers – brothers and sisters who are growing together in love as they grow up into Christ their head. In light of this, he writes the following regarding the use of gifts for the edification of one another:

“Some [gifts] clearly bear a supernatural character or are given only at the time of or after a person’s conversion; others tend to be more like natural gifts that have been heightened and sanctified by the Holy Spirit. The former were more prominent in the early days of the church; the latter are more characteristic of the church in its normal historical development. But whatever these gifts may be, they all serve the good of the church. Whatever benefits God bestows on the community of saints, they in turn should share with one another. The Holy Spirit does not distribute the charismata to the members of the church for their own benefit but for the benefit of others. They must not be buried or neglected but used ‘readily and cheerfully for the benefit and enrichment of the other members’; they serve for the upbuilding of the church (1 Cor. 14:12; Eph. 4:12) and are subordinate to love, which is the most excellent gift. This love, after all, surpasses the universal love of one’s neighbor; it is love for the brothers and sisters, the members of the household of faith. Jesus calls this love a new commandment (John 13:34-35; 15:12; 17:26). The reason is that love in Israel was not purely spiritual in character but intertwined with blood ties, and the love he now brings about among his disciples for the first time is completely pure, unmixed with other things, and free from earthly attachments. The members of Jesus’s church are mutually brothers and sisters (Matt. 12:48; 18:15; 23:8; 25:40; 28:10; John 15:14-15; 20:17; Rom. 8:29; Heb. 2:11; and so forth). They are children of one family. God is their Father (Eph. 4:6). Christ is their eldest brother (Rom. 8:29). The Jerusalem that is above is their mother (Gal. 4:26). And in that light they must serve each other with all their spiritual and natural gifts. The church is a fellowship or communion of saints.”

– Herman Bavinck (1854-1921), Reformed Dogmatics (Gereformeerde Dogmatiek), IV:299-300

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