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

I Want to Be God (And So Do You)

I want to be God.

I discovered this in college. Actually, what I found out is that I happen to want to be God in a particular way–specifically I wanted to know everything. In a sense, there was one attribute of God’s that I coveted, desired for myself most: omniscience. There are times that I’ve wanted to know things with a sort of desperation. I look at stacks of books and feel crushed with the weight of all that I have yet to read and discover. To those that know me, this might sound funny. “Oh Derek, you and your books.” Honestly though, the sense of incompleteness and inadequacy can be tormenting–especially in light of the fact I know I will never have the time, energy, or resources to even come close to the end of my studies.

I have this theory that we all do this to some degree–we have certain attributes of God we want more. Some of us want to be everywhere at once. We have this constant feeling that we’re missing out on something, so we try to be all places at all times as much as possible so we don’t miss a thing. Others of us want to be eternal–there never seems to be enough time to accomplish everything on our checklist. We dream of bending time to our will so that we’re not limited to the 18-20 hours of the day we’re up for. Then, there are those of us who want God’s power. We strain at the edges of our human possibilities and strive to attain those things that are just beyond our grasp. In fact, we hate the idea that there might exist anything “beyond our grasp.” Of course, there are the control freaks–people who want total sovereignty of their lives, securing themselves by making sure that all goes according to their perfect plan. The list could easily go on.

be as god 2

I have named the skull “George.”

As I’ve sat back and reflected on this a bit over the years, I’ve realized that all of these desires, in some way, are a rejection of our finitude–don’t like being limited beings. Now, of course the Bible has told us for thousands of years that ever since the Garden we’ve all been striving to be God. The Teacher has said that God has put “eternity in our hearts” (Eccles. 3:11). God made us in his Image (Gen 1:26), but apparently that wasn’t good enough. We didn’t just want to reflect God’s glory, we wanted to have it.  We didn’t want to depend on God for good and evil, we wanted to “know” it/determine it for ourselves. (Gen. 3:5) The lie that we believed is that we can be god-like apart from God.

In a way, the issue is about one attribute, very much ignored in popular preaching–that of God’s aseity, or self-sufficiency. God has “life in himself” and is dependent on no one and nothing outside of his glorious, infinite, Triune self. (John 5:26; Ac 17:24-25; Rom 11:35-36) He doesn’t need anything. He is blessedly complete in the infinite perfection of his own life. This is what we want when we strive for all of the other attributes–to be the source of our own blessedness.

The truth of the matter though, is that there are only two ways of possessing infinite good: either it is yours inherently (God) or you receive it from him. This is true down to the ontological level–you can’t even keep yourself in existence if he doesn’t will it. The upshot of this is that we can either strive to be infinite ourselves (and fail miserably), or gain it by being rightly related to the infinite one through Christ. See, the very “great promises” of the Gospel is that through faith in Christ we can “become partakers of the divine nature” (2 Pet 1:4), as God redeems us from sin and grows us further in holiness and righteousness through the Spirit. In other words, this doesn’t happen by our striving for self-achieved autonomy–it happens by grace, by depending on God’s favor, looking to him alone for all of our good in Christ.

A few words then for you God-strivers:

  • If you thirst for knowledge, let God teach you the depths of knowledge and wisdom in Christ. (Col. 2:3)
  • If you long for eternity, set your hope on God’s promised future in Christ. (Rom 6:23)
  • If you strive to be present everywhere, remember that God has appointed the time and place where you would be born and live that you might reach out and find Christ. (Acts 17:26-27)
  • If you scramble for sovereignty, don’t be afraid to lose control of your life, and receive it back as a gift through Christ. (Matt 16:24-27)

Finally, if that isn’t enough: “Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change.” (Jas 1:17) So let him be the source of your blessedness today.

Soli Deo Gloria