The Wonderful Works of GodOctober 31, 2019
by Carlton Wynne
This new publication of Herman Bavinck’s Magnalia Dei, helpfully retitled as The Wonderful Works of God, testifies to the relevance and value of great theology. Few theologians have plumbed the depths, probed the richness, and proclaimed the scope of Scripture, of history and redemption, of Christ and his reign, as has Herman Bavinck (1854–1921). Beyond his brilliance in theology—or better, as an extension of it—Bavinck addressed topics as diverse as ethics, philosophy, psychology, education, society, and politics. He wrote with exquisite erudition, positioning each field as an organic constituent of his expansive, trinitarian theological vision of God and the cosmos. For Bavinck, every endeavor, including the most mundane, is an occasion to praise God’s name, for all things are organically and intimately connected under the sovereign sway of his hand as he carries out his works of creation, redemption, and consummation. In this way, the world-encompassing character of Bavinck’s Reformed Christian outlook is a reminder never to despise the day of small things (cf. Zech 4:10).
For Bavinck, every endeavor, including the most mundane, is an occasion to praise God’s name.
Bavinck’s life as a theological titan began modestly. Born on December 13, 1854, in Hoogeveen, the Netherlands, he grew up (and remained) a loyal son of the marginalized Reformed community that stemmed from an ecclesiastical separation known as the Afscheiding. Bavinck’s father, the deeply pious Rev. Jan Bavinck, played a prominent role in the dissenting denomination, the Christelijke Gereformeerde Kerk (Christian Reformed Church). His mother, Gesina, strongly supported her husband in that regard, despite her family’s formal ties to the mother church, the Hervormde Kerk. Young Herman received his early theological training at the small seminary in Kampen that had been organized by the Secession churches. But after only one year—and with his parents’ blessing—he left Kampen to pursue more extensive training at the modernist University of Leiden. There, liberal professors broadened his mind but did not break his Reformed convictions. After a brief pastorate (one year in Franeker), Bavinck settled into life as a theology professor and church leader, first back in Kampen (1883–1901), and then later at The Free University of Amsterdam (1902–1921). From 1911 until his death a decade later, Bavinck also served as South Holland’s representative to the First Chamber of the Dutch Parliament, applying his academic training and theology to the public square.
In The Wonderful Works of God, Bavinck the scholar reveals his core identity as a Christian, a lover of Scripture, and a worshipper of God. According to his original Foreword, he intended the work to serve as “a handbook on Reformed theology” for ordinary Christians. The reader should know, however, that this handbook is no less profound than his magisterial four-volume Gereformeerde Dogmatiek, translated and republished for the English-speaking world as Reformed Dogmatics. In fact, The Wonderful Works of God is a compendium of that grander work, chiseled and polished for popular use.
It is safe to say that this book is one of the richest, clearest, and most persuasive single-volume accounts of Reformed theology ever produced for a wide audience. It captures the essence of that theology as it arises from Scripture and, along the way, both explains it and edifies the reader.
Bavinck wrote The Wonderful Works of God in 1909 during an especially prolific decade following his assuming the chair of theology at The Free University of Amsterdam (Vrije Universiteit) in 1902. The prior occupant of that chair, who had left a year earlier to become prime minister of Holland, was the founder of The Free University, Abraham Kuyper (1837–1920). Bavinck’s name is frequently spoken in the same breath with Kuyper’s—usually, though, with an emphasis on Kuyper as the famous pioneer of the neo-Calvinist movement in the Netherlands, with Bavinck cast as his irenic and gifted acolyte. During these years in Amsterdam, however, Bavinck’s more congenial disposition, brilliant scholarship, and distinct theological emphases were proving that he was not, as one obituary put it, “destined to live in Abraham Kuyper’s shadow.”
The year he published The Wonderful Works of God, Bavinck was busy revising and expanding his Reformed Dogmatics (1906–1911), originally penned while he was in Kampen. In addition to that significant undertaking, he had just delivered his highly regarded Stone Lectures at Princeton Theological Seminary during his second trip to the United States. In their own distinct ways, both Dogmatics and the Stone Lectures affirm Bavinck’s breathtaking thesis that God’s historical self-revelation, in nature and in Scripture, leads people, through Christ, to the triune God, and therein displays his immanent glory through the organic interconnectedness of all things, addresses the most vexing questions of life, underpins the integrity of every field of human inquiry, and fulfills the deepest longings of the human heart.
The obstacles to doctrinal health that he confronted still face us today.
It is notable that in this context—of perfecting his comprehensive Reformed Dogmatics and publishing his Princeton lectures on the universal significance of revelation—Bavinck chose to distill for a popular audience the theology so critical to the Dogmatics and the lectures. Generated alongside those works, The Wonderful Works of God shows that he believed the infallible truths of Scripture are meant to shape the mind and life of every Christian, whether in the proverbial ivory tower or in the pew. He understood that sound doctrine fuels and informs the godliness that God seeks throughout his church (cf. 1 Tim 6:3; Titus 1:1), not just among her teachers. The present work is Bavinck’s attempt to facilitate and promote the knowledge of God among his people through an orderly and accessible account of what Scripture teaches.
The Wonderful Works of God also reflects Bavinck’s historical and cultural consciousness. He appreciated how the theology of Scripture, perennial in its substance, must meet every generation in fresh ways, and that the church is to ‘guard the good deposit’ (2 Tim. 1:14) entrusted to her against attacks from new enemies. With this book, Bavinck assumed for himself the church’s ongoing task to confess in new language “the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 1:3). He did so as a Reformed theologian with keen insight into the challenges of modern life.
Though we live a century after Bavinck, the obstacles to doctrinal health that he confronted—information overload that saps spiritual vitality, a waning interest in knowledge of God, an increasing disregard for godliness—still face us today. Some of these obstacles have grown to mammoth proportions in our digital age, consumed as it is with both self-expression and self-pity. The Wonderful Works of God is medicine for those suffering from such spiritual malaise and from the frenetic pace of life. It redirects our gaze outward and upward to God in all of his revealed glory. In these ways and more, this twentieth-century work speaks powerfully to twenty-first century Christians.
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This post is an abbreviated form of the print edition. Any quotations should be cited from the complete text. Excerpted from The Wonderful Works of God: Instruction in the Christian Religion according to the Reformed Confession, (Philadelphia, PA: Westminster Seminary Press, 2019), xv–xxi. Used with permission of the publisher.
Could Jesus Have Sinned?September 02, 2019
by Carlton Wynne