Herman Bavinck (1854-1921) on the guilty conscience as a subjective witness to man’s fallen nature


In vol. 3 of his Reformed Dogmatics (Gereformeerde Dogmatiek), Herman Bavinck (1854-1921) discusses man’s guilty conscience as a subjective witness of man’s fallen nature, in addition to God’s objective witness and verdict in the divine law:

“There really is a divine curse resting on humanity and the world. It is impossible to interpret life and history in light of the love of God alone. At work throughout the creation is a principle of divine wrath that only a superficial person can deny. Not communion but separation prevails between God and humankind; the covenant has been broken; God has a quarrel with his creatures. All stand guilty and punishable before his face (Matt. 5:21-22; Mark 3:29; James 2:10). The whole world is accountable to God (Rom. 3:19); it is subject to divine judgment and has no defense.

Subjectively this is confirmed by the divine witness in the conscience of every human being. Guilt and the consciousness of guilt are not the same. Those who try to deduce guilt from the consciousness of it block themselves from understanding guilt in its true significance and gravity. Ignorance can to some extent excuse sin (Luke 23:34; Acts 17:30), just as conscious and intentional violation aggravates sin (Luke 12:47; John 15:22; 9:41). But there also exist sins that are hidden from ourselves and others (Ps. 19:12), and also sins of ignorance are culpable (Acts 17:27-30; Rom. 1:19-21, 28; 1 Tim. 1:13-15). Yet objective guilt is more or less firmly reflected in the human consciousness. Immediately after the fall, the eyes of Adam and Eve were opened, and they discovered that they were naked. Implied here is that they knew and recognized that they had done wrong. Shame is the fear of disgrace, an unpleasant and painful sense of being involved in something wrong and improper. Added to shame was fear before God and the consequent desire to hide from him – that is to say, the human conscience was aroused.  Before the fall, strictly speaking, there was no conscience in humans. There was no gap between what they were and what they knew they had to be. Being and self-consciousness were in harmony. But the fall produced separation. By the grace of God, humans still retain the consciousness that they ought to be different, that in all respects they must conform to God’s law. But reality witnesses otherwise; they are not who they ought to be. And this witness is the conscience. […] [The conscience] is proof that communion with God has been broken, that there is a gap between God and us, between his law and our state. This is clearly evident when our conscience accuses us. But also when in a given case it excuses us, that is, keeps silent, that separation from God underlies it (Rom. 2:14-15). The human conscience is the subjective proof of humanity’s fall, a witness to human guilt before the face of God. God is not the only accuser of humankind; in their conscience humans condemn themselves and take God’s side against themselves. The more precisely and meticulously the human conscience functions, the more it validates God’s idea of humans in Scripture.”

– Herman Bavinck (1854-1921), Reformed Dogmatics, vol. 3, p. 172-173

Herman Bavinck (1854-1921) on the perspicuity of Scripture



“The doctrine of the perspicuity of Holy Scripture has frequently been misunderstood and misrepresented, both by Protestants and Catholics. It does not mean that the matters and subjects with which Scripture deals are not mysteries that far exceed the reach of the human intellect. Nor does it assert that Scripture is clear in all its parts, so that no scientific exegesis is needed, or that, also in its doctrine of salvation, Scripture is plain and clear to every person without distinction. It means only that the truth, the knowledge of which is necessary to everyone for salvation, though not spelled out with equal clarity on every page of Scripture, is nevertheless presented throughout all of Scripture in such simple and intelligible form that a person concerned about the salvation of his or her soul can easily, by personal reading and study, learn to know that truth from Scripture without the assistance and guidance of the church and the priest. The way of salvation, not as it concerns the matter itself but as it concerns the mode of transmission, has been clearly set down there for the reader desirous of salvation. While that reader may not understand the “how” (πῶς) of it, the “that” (ὅτι) is clear.”

– Herman Bavinck (1854-1921), Reformed Dogmatics (Gereformeerde Dogmatiek), I:477

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


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

Herman Bavinck (1854-1921) on distinguishing carefully between general and special revelation


“It is not the sparkling firmament, nor mighty nature, nor any prince or genius of the earth, nor any philosopher or artist, but the Son of man that is the highest revelation of God. Christ is the Word become flesh, which in the beginning was with God and which was God, the Only-Begotten of the Father, the Image of God, the brightness of His glory and the express image of His person; who has seen Him has seen the Father (John 14:9). In that faith the Christian stands. He has learned to know God in the person of Jesus Christ whom God has sent. God Himself, who said that the light should shine out of the darkness, is the One who has shined in His heart in order to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ (2 Cor. 4:6).

But from this high vantage point the Christian looks around him, forwards, backwards, and to all sides. And if, in doing so, in the light of the knowledge of God, which he owes to Christ, he lets his eyes linger on nature and on history, on heaven and on earth, then he discovers traces everywhere of that same God whom he has learned to know and to worship in Christ as his Father. The Sun of righteousness opens up a wonderful vista to him which stretches out to the ends of the earth. By its light he sees backwards into the night of past times, and by it he penetrates through to the future of all things. Ahead of him and behind the horizon is clear, even though the sky is often obscured by clouds.

The Christian, who sees everything in the light of the Word of God, is anything but narrow in his view. He is generous in heart and mind. He looks over the whole earth and reckons it all his own, because he is Christ’s and Christ is God’s (1 Cor. 3:21–23). He cannot let go his belief that the revelation of God in Christ, to which he owes his life and salvation, has a special character. This belief does not exclude him from the world, but rather puts him in position to trace out the revelation of God in nature and history, and puts the means at his disposal by which he can recognize the true and the good and the beautiful and separate them from the false and sinful alloys of men.

So it is that he makes a distinction between a general and a special revelation of God. In the general revelation God makes use of the usual run of phenomena and the usual course of events; in the special revelation He often employs unusual means, appearances, prophecy, and miracles to make Himself known to man. The contents of the first kind are especially the attributes of power, wisdom, and goodness; those of the second kind are especially God’s holiness and righteousness, compassion and grace. The first is directed to all men and, by means of common grace, serves to restrain the eruption of sin; the second comes to all those who live under the Gospel and has as its glory, by special grace, the forgiveness of sins and the renewal of life.

But, however essentially the two are to be distinguished, they are also intimately connected with each other. Both have their origin in God, in His sovereign goodness and favor. The general revelation is owing to the Word which was with God in the beginning, which made all things, which shone as a light in the darkness and lighteth every man that cometh into the world (John 1:1–9). The special revelation is owing to that same Word, as it was made flesh in Christ, and is now full of grace and truth (John 1:14). Grace is the content of both revelations, common in the first, special in the second, but in such a way that the one is indispensable for the other. …

In determining the value of general revelation, one runs the great danger either of over-estimating or of under-estimating it. When we have our attention fixed upon the richness of the grace which God has given in His special revelation, we sometimes become so enamored of it that the general revelation loses its whole significance and worth for us. And when, at another time, we reflect on the good, and true, and beautiful that is to be found by virtue of God’s general revelation in nature and in the human world, then it can happen that the special grace, manifested to us in the person and work of Christ, loses its glory and appeal for the eye of our soul.

This danger, to stray off either to the right or to the left, has always existed in the Christian church, and, each in turn, the general and the special revelation, have been ignored or denied. Each in turn has been denied in theory and no less strongly in practice. … We must be on guard against both of these one-sidednesses; and we shall be best advised if, in the light of Holy Scripture, we take a look at the history of mankind and let it teach us what people owe to general revelation.”

– Herman Bavinck (1854-1921), Our Reasonable Faith (Magnalia Dei), p. 36-38, 44

Herman Bavinck (1854-1921): To profess theology is to do holy work


Herman Bavinck (1854-1921), in his Inaugural Address as Professor of Systematic Theology at the Free University of Amsterdam in 1902, said something profound which still resonates with me to this day, and is something that should be kept in mind when theologians and pastors, but also Christians in general deal with the humble scholarly pursuit of the knowledge of God:

“Religion, the fear of God, must therefore be the element which inspires and animates all theological investigation. That must be the pulsebeat of the science. A theologian is a person who makes bold to speak about God because he speaks out of God and through God. To profess theology is to do holy work. It is a priestly ministration in the house of the Lord. It is itself a service of worship, a consecration of mind and heart to the honour of His name.”

Herman Bavinck (1854-1921) on Justification


“It is especially Paul, however, who puts justification in the foreground and works out its richest and deepest implications. This is undoubtedly connected with his own life experience. Having been a Pharisee, he had in all seriousness and with passionate zeal striven for a righteousness of his own based on observing the law. But when it pleased God to reveal his Son to him, he saw the vanity of this attempt and sought his righteousness in God through Christ Jesus alone. Yet also as a Christian Paul remains faithful to the forensic scheme. He does not fight the idea that God is just and that salvation can be obtained only through righteousness. After coming to the faith, however, he differs from his earlier contemporaries about the way righteousness and salvation can become ours. He combats Jewish nomism because, on account of sin, no flesh can be justified by the works of the law (Rom. 3:20; 8:3; Gal. 2:16); because then humans would always remain servants and be able to boast before God of their merits (Rom. 4:2, 5; Gal. 3:24-26; 4:1-7; cf. 1 Cor. 1:29; 4:7); in other words, humans would then live and labor for their own interest and make God subservient to it. Hence Paul rejects the nomistic ethical principle and squarely bases himself on the religious position. But that does not alter the fact that the law as such is holy and just and good (Rom 7:12, 14; 1 Tim. 1:8; cf. also Rom. 3:31; 8:4; 13:8, 10; Gal. 5:14). If there had not been sin, therefore, therefore it [the law] would also have been able to grant life through works (Rom. 10:5; Gal. 3:12). But what the law by its very nature cannot do is grant forgiveness, which is precisely what we need. Paul, accordingly, while he does fight Jewish nomism, maintains the righteousness of God and proceeds from it in his soteriology. He takes a theocentric position, in which God does not exist for humankind but humankind for God, and communion with God is not the result of our exertion but God’s free and unmerited gift.”

– Herman Bavinck (1854-1921), Reformed Dogmatics, Vol. IV, p. 183-84