Herman Bavinck and the Problem of God’s Glory in Predestination

Update: I’ve swung more Reformed since the original writing of this post, but will leave as is for the sake of being lazy, and because the main point still stands.  

I named this blog Reformedish for various reasons. Probably the main one is that I am a newcomer to the Reformed tradition and so there are parts of it I still wrestle with and that’s not likely to change any time soon. Unsurprisingly one such area is the doctrine of God’s predestination. I’ll just be honest and say I’ve never been excited about double-predestination for all of its logical-consistency and the strength of the biblical arguments. Laying my currently-held cards out on the table, I’m something of a Calvinistically-inclined Molinist. If you don’t know that means, don’t worry about it–I don’t know if that actually works, but that’s where I am most days–except on Thursdays when I teach–I need to believe God’s efficaciously calling people or else it’s on me and that’s just too much pressure. My buddy Scott and I have joked since college that we’ll definitely be full-blown Calvinists by the time we’re 40.

In any case, I’ll say that there is one argument that some Calvinists make I’ve always found unconvincing and will probably continue to find unconvincing even if/when I cross that final rubicon. Taking their cue from Paul in Romans 9:22-23–“What if God, desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction, in order to make known the riches of his glory for vessels of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory…”–they argue along the lines that God’s decree of election to salvation and reprobation to damnation is to perfectly display his attributes for the sake of his glory. In a nutshell, on this view, God damns sinners according to their guilt in order to display his justice and saves some in order to display his mercy. Otherwise, how would we know about these perfections?

Truly dominant-looking theological man. It's a win for Reformed beardliness everywhere.

Truly dominant-looking theological man. It’s a win for Reformed beardliness everywhere.

Now, Jonathan Edwards convinced me a while back that God does all things (creation, redemption, etc) with an endview towards his glory. No need to argue that point–I’m fully on-board. But like I said, I’ve never bought this particular argument. And as I mentioned, not all Calvinists do. In fact, theologian Herman Bavinck, contemporary to Abraham Kuyper and author of the beastly 4-volume Reformed Dogmatics (which would make a great present if any generous readers are wondering–just message me), had some questions about it as well. In an article on the difference between Supralapsarianism (supra) and Infralapsarianism (infra)–two positions regarding the logical order of God’s decrees–he argues that this, typically supra, line of reasoning has some holes in it:

In the first place, to say that the manifestation of all God’s excellencies is the final goal of all of the ways of God is indeed correct; but when supra includes in that goal the manner in which the divine glory will be revealed in the eternal destiny of rational creatures, it errs. For, the eternal state of salvation or of perdition is not in itself the goal, but one of the means employed in order to reveal God’s excellencies in a manner suited to the creature. It would not do to say that God would have been unable to manifest his glory by saving all men, if this had been his pleasure. Neither is it correct to say that in the eternal state of the reprobate God reveals his justice exclusively, and that in the eternal state of the elect he manifests his mercy exclusively. Also in the church, purchased with the blood of the Son, God’s justice is revealed; and also in the place of perdition there are degrees of punishment and sparks of divine mercy. The final goal of all God’s work’s must needs be his glory, but the manner in which that glory will shine forth is not thereby given, but has been determined by God’s will; and although there were wise and holy reasons why God purposed the perdition of many and not the salvation of all, nevertheless these reasons, though known to him, are not known to us: we are not able to say why God willed to make use of this means and not of another.

Bavinck makes what’s always been my sticking point: God can and does perfectly display his mercy and justice in the Cross and Resurrection of Jesus Christ, in which case that argument could just as plausibly be deployed in favor of univeralism. In a sense, if it proves anything it proves too much.

Of course, this does not disprove Calvinism, election, reprobation, infra- or supralapsarianism, or that God’s ultimate goal isn’t that final state of glory. It’s really just dealing with this one argument. Still, Bavinck’s wisdom is to push for greater theological modesty at this point. Calvin himself warned that the one who tries to pry too deeply into God’s secret counsels “plunges headlong into an immense abyss, involves himself in numberless inextricable snares, and buries himself in the thickest darkness.” (Inst. III.xxiv.4) Instead, it’s best to look to Christ, rest in his grace, trust that “although there were wise and holy reasons” for God’s decrees about history and salvation, “nevertheless these reasons, though known to him, are not known to us.”

Soli Deo Gloria

17 thoughts on “Herman Bavinck and the Problem of God’s Glory in Predestination

  1. I have been a Calvinist by conviction since 1986 and anymore I don’t often come across posts/articles related to Calvinism that make me think (since most of them simply rehash the same old tired arguments and propositions). This post did make me think and I appreciate it.

    I’d be curious to see further elaboration on how this argument could “plausibly be deployed” in favor of universalism. (Not because I am a universalist but because I have written and debated on the topic.)

    • Well, actually Bavinck does so in the article cited. You’d probably enjoy it because he has a very interesting criticism of both infra- and supralapsarianism, which he finds helpful and inadequate in different ways.

      The gist of the argument is that if the main or sole purpose of election and reprobation is the display of God’s attributes, then God could do that just as well saving everybody through the Cross. If the Cross is love, wrath, mercy, grace, justice, kindness, goodness, holiness, etc. If it really is the saving truth for sinners and the hope for the world, then how much more of a display of God’s magnificent attributes would it be if ALL of God’s justice and ALL of God’s love were seen in the Cross as he saves ALL people. Wouldn’t it show him to be all the more powerful? All the more efficacious?

      Basically, as Bavinck writes, “It would not do to say that God would have been unable to manifest his glory by saving all men, if this had been his pleasure”, because that’s the inevitable corollary to the idea that saving some and damning some was necessary to the display of God’s glory.

      On a related subject, I don’t know if you’ve read Alvin Plantinga’s article on the problem of evil called, “Supralapsarianism, or ‘O Felix Culpa'”. It’s actually an interesting take on this whole issue redeployed for the sake of theodicy.

      • I knew I should have clicked through and read the article! And thanks for the Plantinga recommendation. I wrote on theodicy some years ago (I was more into apologetics in my early theological education) so it’ll be interesting to see how he frames it.

        I’m enjoying your blog and usually find something thought-provoking on it. Please keep up the good work.

  2. That’s why I have such affection for you Derek! A “Calvinistically-inclined Molinist”! That’s soooo good. I’m not sure if it makes sense but that’s soooo good! I was asked when I joined the church staff in Fullerton if I was Reformed in my theology. I responded, it depends on what day I wake up. Actually, a good friend of mine (someone who is well thought through) encouraged me to pray like a Calvinist (I am so grateful for His unmerited election) and to do evangelism and much of ministry like an Arminian. I haven’t forgotten that as much as it might make it hard for people to categorize me or fully understand my systematics.

    • Yah, it’s funny how temperamental theology can be. On Calvinistically-inclined Molinism, I feel like Plantinga falls in that category. Also, there’s a book on prayer that I haven’t read yet, but argues for a Calvinist-Molinism position with respect to providence. I think it’s by Terrence Thiessen.

      Anyways, I go back and forth. I’ll be honest, J.I. Packer’s little “Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God” was a great little book for me on the subject.

  3. As someone who wrote his doctoral dissertation on Bavinck as well as an English biography, I am convinced that all here need to read him more and read him more deeply and carefully. Bavinck, by the way, was not A. Kuyper’s “homie.” Please. Of the two, Bavinck was the more circumspect and biblical, while Kuyper was more speculative at crucial points. Bavinck taught that we should both pray and evangelize like Calvinists, and certainly not like Arminians. Since I live in Southern Cal myself, I would be more than willing to meet with you and discuss Bavinck and the totality of his theology.

    • Well, no disrespect intended to Bavinck or Kuyper. My only point in using the “homie” language was to establish the connection there and as part of his undoubted Reformed credentials. In the, admittedly little, that I’ve read of both, I have heard that Bavinck was the more biblical of the two and so I’ve been more interested in delving into his works. As for meeting up, I would definitely be interested. As I’ve mentioned before, I’m largely self-taught when it comes to the Reformed tradition and Bavinck’s larger work is definitely something I’d like to tackle in the near future.
      What part of Southern California are you in?

  4. Pingback: Some Notes on Bavinck and the Relationship Between Christianity and Culture « Reformedish
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  6. I appreciate the post Derek. It was Bavinck himself who distinguished Calvinism from such overwrought soteriological concerns found in the Supra/Infra debate. Bavinck states emphatically that “Calvinism had no peace until it had found the eternal in and behind the temporal.” He continues, “The Calvinist, therefore, is not satisfied when he is personally reconciled with God, and assured of his salvation. His work begins then in dead earnest, and he becomes a coworker with God. For the Word of God is not only the fountain of the truth of salvation but also the norm of the whole life; not only glad tidings of salvation for the soul but also for the body and for the entire world” (1892: 4). The endgame is always glory to God, Bavinck knows this and underlines it, while being perfectly content with the mystery of salvific determinations.

  7. Pingback: ‘Plain Readings’ of Scripture, Job, and Other Assorted Thoughts on the #CalvinismDebate | Reformedish
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  9. Pingback: Why Argue For a Position You Don’t Hold? Clarifying Crisp’s Deviant Calvinism | Reformedish

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