True Church, False Church (Bavinck)

 Herman Bavinck’s discussion of ecclesiology is, in my opinion, one of the best Reformed treatments of this doctrine available in English.  Since I am presbyterian in my ecclesiology, I appreciate Bavinck’s robust and biblical view of the church: its spiritual essence, spiritual government, spiritual power, and so forth.  I also like how he appealed to the post-reformation context to discuss the true/false church distinction that the Belgic Confession speaks of in article 29.  Bavinck (in IV.315-16) mentions how Calvin and other Reformers taught that there is no perfectly pure church.  Therefore, when we say “true church” we don’t mean “perfectly pure church.”  He explains how the post-reformation teachers wrestled through this.

“On the one hand, one had to admit that a true church in an absolute sense is impossible here on earth; there is not a single church that completely and in all its parts, in doctrine and in life, in the ministry of the Word and sacrament, meets the demand of God.  On the other hand, it also became clear that an absolutely false church cannot possibly exist, for in that case it would no longer be a church at all.”

Even though Rome was a false church insofar as it was papal, nevertheless there were many remnants of the true church left in it.  There was a difference, therefore, between a true church and a pure church.  ‘True church’ became the term, not for one church to the exclusion of all others, but for an array of churches that still upheld the fundamental articles of Christian faith but for the rest differed a great deal from each other in degrees of purity.  And ‘false church’ became the term for the hierarchical power of superstition or belief that set itself up in local churches and accorded itself and its ordinances more authority than the Word of God” (p. 315-316).

Well stated.  In the post-reformation context, there were true churches whose doctrine was more or less pure.  These churches were true because they upheld the fundamental articles of the faith as they displayed the three marks (word, sacrament, discipline).  False churches were those that denied fundamental articles of the faith by subverting the authority of the Word (this is where the Reformers discussed Rome and anabaptistic sects).

I think Bavinck is right here, and though others may disagree, I also believe that a proper reading of the Belgic Confession of Faith article 29 is the Westminster Confession of Faith’s application of this teaching.  WCF 25.4 explains how local churches that are part of the visible church catholic [universal] “are more or less pure.”  In other words, and in summary, “true church” doesn’t mean “most pure church.”  “True church” means churches that uphold – more or less purely – the biblical fundamentals of the faith displayed in the biblical three marks (preaching, discipline, and the sacraments).

(Note: This is a repost from March, 2011)

Shane Lems
Hammond, WI, 54015

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The Sum and Substance of the Gospel (Bavinck)

 One reason I always enjoy reading Herman Bavinck is because his discussions are so clearly based on Scripture.  I especially like those parts where he explains a doctrine by using his own sort of paraphrase of verses along with the Scripture references.  For example, this week I’m studying Christ’s ascension in sermon preparation.  So I turned to volume 3 of Bavinck’s Dogmatics where there is a good section summarizing the biblical and theological aspects of Christ’s resurrection and ascension; I’ve put it below.  I like it for further study but also because it’s quite devotional and edifying to read!

Bavinck wrote that the sum and substance of the Gospel isall about the Messiah, the Christ…

…who died and rose again. The cross was an immense offense—also for the disciples (Matt. 26:31). But for them that offense was removed by the resurrection. Then they perceived that Jesus had to die and did die in accordance with the counsel of the Father (Acts 2:23; 3:18; 4:28), and that by his resurrection God had made him a cornerstone (4:11; 1 Peter 2:6), Lord and Christ (Acts 2:36), a Leader and a Savior (5:31), the Lord of all (10:36), the Lord of glory (James 2:1), in order by him to give repentance, forgiveness of sins, the Holy Spirit, and eternal life (Acts 2:38; 3:19; 5:31; 10:43; 1 Peter 1:3ff., 21), outside of whom there is no salvation (Acts 4:12).

Now taken up into heaven, he remains there until he comes again for judgment (1:11; 3:21), for he is the one ordained by God to be judge of the living and the dead (10:42; 17:31), and then all things will be restored of which God spoke by the mouth of his holy prophets of old (3:21).

Similarly Paul teaches that Christ, though he was the Son of God even before his incarnation (Gal. 4:4; Phil. 2:6; Col. 1:15), was designated Son of God in power by his resurrection from the dead (Rom. 1:4). Then he received a spiritual, glorified body (1 Cor. 15:45; Phil. 3:21), became a life-giving Spirit (1 Cor. 15:45; 2 Cor. 3:17), the firstborn of the dead (Col. 1:18), who from then on lives to God forever (Rom. 6:10). Precisely because of his deep humiliation, God highly exalted him, giving him the name that is above every other name, that is, the name “Lord” (1 Cor. 12:3; Phil. 2:11), granting him dominion over the living and the dead (Rom. 14:9), and subjecting all things under his feet (1 Cor. 15:25, 27). As such he is the Lord of glory (1 Cor. 2:8), seated at God’s right hand (Rom. 8:34; 1 Cor. 2:8), in whom the fullness of the deity dwells bodily (Col. 1:19; 2:9), who is the head of the church, prays for it, and fills it with all the fullness of God (Rom. 8:34; Eph. 1:23; 3:19; 4:16).

The Letter to the Hebrews further adds to this profile the unique idea that Christ, the Son, who with the Father was the Creator of all things, was also appointed “the heir of all things” (Heb. 1:2; 2:8) by the Father and designated eternal high priest (5:6; 7:17). But for a short time, in order to attain this destiny, he had to become lower than the angels (2:7, 9), assume our flesh and blood (2:14), become like us in all respects except sin (2:17; 4:15), and learn obedience from the things he suffered (5:8). But thereby he also sanctified, that is, perfected himself (2:10; 5:9; 7:28), and was designated by God a high priest according to the order of Melchizedek (5:10). This, accordingly, is the sum of the things of which the Letter to the Hebrews says that we have such a high priest, one who is seated at the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in heaven (1:13; 8:1; 10:12). He who is the liturgist of the heavenly sanctuary (8:2), a high priest, therefore, who is at the same time the king whose throne is established forever (1:8), who is crowned with honor and glory (2:9), subjects all things under him (2:8), and is able for all time to save those who draw near to God through him since he always lives to make intercession for them (5:9; 7:25; 10:14).

The Apocalypse, finally, loves to picture Christ as the Lamb who purchased us and washed us by his blood (5:9; 7:14) but also as the firstborn of the dead, the ruler of the kings of the earth (1:5), the King of kings and the Lord of lords, who with the Father sits on the throne, has power and honor and glory, even the keys of Hades and death (1:18; 3:21; 5:12–13; 19:16). Clothed with such power, he rules and protects his church (2:1, 18; etc.) and will one day triumph over all his enemies (19:12f.).

 Herman Bavinck, John Bolt, and John Vriend, Reformed Dogmatics: Sin and Salvation in Christ, vol. 3 (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2006), 423–424.

Shane Lems
Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC)
Hammond, WI, 54015

The Center Point of Religious Life: Corporate Christian Worship (Bavinck)

 In Kampen on November 28, 1889, Herman Bavinck gave a lecture to seminary students at the theological school there.  The lecture was called “Eloquence” and it was all about Christian preaching.  Due to demand, Bavinck wrote this lecture out and it was later published.  Just recently it has been translated into English and made available in the book called Herman Bavinck on Preaching and Preachers (translated and edited by James Eglinton).  There are other selections in this book as well, such as an article by Bavinck called “The Sermon and the Service” and one of his few surviving written sermons called “The World-Conquering Power of Faith.”  Anyway, it’s an outstanding resource and I very much enjoyed it.  If you’re a preacher, I highly recommend it.  If you’re not, I’d say: get one for your pastor!  Below are a few paragraphs I underlined that I’d like to share.  It’s from the foreword to “Eloquence.”  (Note: the (brackets) are mine and are added for clarification.)

These new circumstances (e.g. secularization, a waning of the knowledge of the truth, ignorance of the Bible and catechism) place a costly obligation on the church and call its ministers to an ever more faithful care for the office entrusted to them, especially in the ministry of the word. In content and form, the church’s gatherings may not be inferior to the [secular] meetings that call to the people day and night.  The church’s gatherings are and, by virtue of the divine institution, must remain the center point of the religious life, the source of spiritual power, the inspiration for the work everyone is called to do, by the sweat of his brow, each weekday.

Whatever influence there may be from the word in print or spoken that reaches us from elsewhere, it cannot be compared with the blessing there is for heart and life, family and society, in the word spoken to us in the gatherings of the congregation.  Here alone do we find the ministry of God’s Word and the sealing of his covenant. Here, Christ himself lives in our midst and works by his spirit, here we taste the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, and the principle of eternal life. The Sabbath is the best of days; no other day is like it. And the church is the meeting of God with his people; no other gathering can take its place to compensate for its loss.

I agree!  These are helpful words for us to remember today since such a high view of corporate worship is not the norm.  May God give his all people this kind of outlook on weekly corporate worship and preaching.

Herman Bavinck, “Eloquence”, in Herman Bavinck on Preaching and Preachers (edited and translated by J. Eglinton), p. 18-19.

Shane Lems
Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC)
Hammond, WI, 54015

He Submitted Himself to the Covenant of Works (Bavinck)

 Romans 5 is a great passage in Scripture that compares and contrasts Adam and Christ.  Paul uses legal and covenantal language to explain how Adam was a type of Christ.  For example, here’s verse 19: For just as through the disobedience of the one man the many were made sinners, so also through the obedience of the one man the many will be made righteous (NIV).  I appreciate how Herman Bavinck commented on these great truths:

…While it is certainly true that as a human and with reference to himself Christ was subject to the law, it must be emphasized that his incarnation and being human occurred not for himself but for us. Christ never was, and may never be regarded as, a private person, an individual alongside and on the same level as other individuals. He was from the very beginning a public person, the second Adam, the guarantor and head of the elect. As Adam sinned for himself and by this act imposed guilt and death on all those he represented, so Christ, by his righteousness and obedience, acquired forgiveness and life for all his own. Even more, as a human being Christ was certainly subject to the law of God as the rule of life; even believers are never exempted from the law in that sense. But Christ related himself to the law in still a very different way, namely, as the law of the covenant of works. Adam was not only obligated to keep the law but was confronted in the covenant of works with that law as the way to eternal life, a life he did not yet possess. But Christ, in virtue of his union with the divine nature, already had this eternal and blessed life. This life he voluntarily relinquished. He submitted himself to the law of the covenant of works as the way to eternal life for himself and his own.

The obedience that Christ accorded to the law, therefore, was totally voluntary. Not his death alone, as Anselm said, but his entire life was an act of self-denial, a self-offering presented by him as head in the place of his own.

 Herman Bavinck, John Bolt, and John Vriend, Reformed Dogmatics: Sin and Salvation in Christ, vol. 3 (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2006), 379.

Shane Lems
Hammond, WI, 54015

The Means and Ends Cooperate (Bavinck)

Here’s a deep theological thought for the day, a truth that magnifies the sovereignty of God: “With God, means and ends always cooperate.”  Herman Bavinck wrote those words, followed by these statements which highlight God’s sovereign decree:

“In his decree the causes and the consequences, the pathways and outcomes are established in indissoluble connection with each other.  His decree is no loose assembly of various incidental phenomena that exist on their own, but consist of a complex of decisions intimately related, forming an unbreakable whole and a system of divine ideas, one single arrangement of everything that will exist or occur within time.

God executes this decree within time.  Therefore everything that happens within time is mutually related in the same unbreakable way as the ideas and decisions within God’s eternal decree are related.  Therefore we human beings are bound to means; anyone pursuing a goal must travel the path leading toward that goal.  …The Lord holds himself to the means which he established in his counsel for attaining his ends.  Predestination embraces not only the eternal state of rational creatures, but also the determination of the means and paths leading to that eternal state.”

For the biblical background of these statements, see Isaiah 40-46 and Ephesians 1, among other texts.  And if you’re interested in the larger context of the quote, you can find it in Saved by Grace, page 133.

Shane Lems
Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC)
Hammond, WI, 54015

Adam, Christ, the Covenant of Works, & Us (Bavinck)

Reformed Dogmatics, Vol. 3: Sin and Salvation in Christ Paul very clearly taught that Adam was a type of Christ (Rom. 5, 1 Cor 15).  I appreciate in Reformed theology how this is explained using other biblical truths.  Here’s how Herman Bavinck discussed Adam, Christ, the covenant of works, and Christians:

While it is certainly true that as a human and with reference to himself Christ was subject to the law, it must be emphasized that his incarnation and being human occurred not for himself but for us. Christ never was, and may never be regarded as, a private person, an individual alongside and on the same level as other individuals. He was from the very beginning a public person, the second Adam, the guarantor and head of the elect. As Adam sinned for himself and by this act imposed guilt and death on all those he represented, so Christ, by his righteousness and obedience, acquired forgiveness and life for all his own. Even more, as a human being Christ was certainly subject to the law of God as the rule of life; even believers are never exempted from the law in that sense. But Christ related himself to the law in still a very different way, namely, as the law of the covenant of works. Adam was not only obligated to keep the law but was confronted in the covenant of works with that law as the way to eternal life, a life he did not yet possess. But Christ, in virtue of his union with the divine nature, already had this eternal and blessed life. This life he voluntarily relinquished. He submitted himself to the law of the covenant of works as the way to eternal life for himself and his own.

The obedience that Christ accorded to the law, therefore, was totally voluntary. Not his death alone, as Anselm said, but his entire life was an act of self-denial, a self-offering presented by him as head in the place of his own.

 Bavinck, H., Bolt, J., & Vriend, J. (2006). Reformed Dogmatics: Sin and Salvation in Christ (Vol. 3, p. 379). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic.

Shane Lems
Hammond, WI, 54015

Grace: Radically Excluding All Merit (Bavinck)

Reformed Dogmatics : Volume 2: God and Creation by [Bavinck, Herman] Here’s a helpful brief discussion of grace by Herman Bavinck:

…His (God’s) election and guidance, his rescue and redemption, and all the benefits that Israel received in distinction from other peoples, can only be attributed to God’s grace (Exod. 15:13, 16; 19:4; 33:19; 34:6–7; Deut. 4:37; 7:8; 8:14, 17–18; 9:5, 27; 10:14ff.; 33:3; Isa. 35:10; 42:21; 43:1, 15, 21; 54:5; 63:9; Jer. 3:4, 19; 31:9, 20; Ezek. 16; Hos. 8:14; 11:1; etc.). Whether in history or law, in psalmody or prophecy, the basic note is always: “Not to us, O Lord, but to your name give glory” (Ps. 115:1). He does all things for his name’s sake (Num. 14:13ff.; Isa. 43:21, 25ff.; 48:9, 11; Ezek. 36:22; etc.). That grace, accordingly, is continually being praised and glorified (Exod. 34:6; 2 Chron. 30:9; Neh. 9:17; Ps. 86:15; 103:8; 111:4; 116:5; Jon. 4:2; Joel 2:13; Zech. 12:10).

In the New Testament that grace proves to be even richer and deeper in content. Objectively, χαρις means beauty, charm, favor (Luke 4:22; Col. 4:6; Eph. 4:29); and, subjectively, it means favor, a positive disposition on the part of the giver, and gratitude and devotion on the part of the recipient. Ascribed to God, grace is the voluntary, unrestrained, and unmerited favor that he shows to sinners and that, instead of the verdict of death, brings them righteousness and life. As such it is a virtue and attribute of God (Rom. 5:15; 1 Pet. 5:10), demonstrated in the sending of his Son, who is full of grace (John 1:14ff.; 1 Pet. 1:13), and additionally in the bestowal of all sorts of spiritual and material benefits, all of which are the gifts of grace and are themselves called “grace” (Rom. 5:20; 6:1; Eph. 1:7; 2:5, 8; Phil. 1:2; Col. 1:2; Titus 3:7; etc.), thus radically excluding all merit on the part of humans (John 1:17; Rom. 4:4, 16; 6:14, 23; 11:5ff.; Eph. 2:8; Gal. 5:3–4).

 Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics: God and Creation, vol. 2 (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2004), 214.

Shane Lems
Hammond, WI