Bavinck the Dogmatician: The Doctrine of the Image of God

To complete our exposition of Bavinck’s treatment of the doctrine of creation, we need to consider his understanding of the doctrine of the image of God. In our earlier consideration of his doctrine of the covenant, we observed that Bavinck views the relationship between the triune God and human beings, whether before the fall or subsequent to the fall, to be a thoroughly covenantal relationship.

The “destiny” of human life according to God’s purpose and design is the blessedness of life communion with the living God in a state of glory. However, before Bavinck describes the nature of the covenant relationship between God and Adam, the covenant representative and organic head of the entire human race, he addresses in two chapters the topic of human origins (chapter 11) and human nature in the image of God (chapter 12).

It is evident from the way Bavinck orders his treatment of the doctrine of the creation of man as an image-bearer of God that he wishes to underscore the uniqueness of human beings among all God’s creatures, and that he views the creation of man in God’s image as indispensable to the realization of his destiny in covenant with God.

Human Origins

Though we have had occasion already to summarize Bavinck’s interpretation of the biblical account of creation in Genesis 1, in his chapter on human origins Bavinck revisits the subject of evolution, especially in respect to the biblical understanding of the origin and unity of the human race. In his treatment of the subject of human origins, Bavinck offers an extensive critique of Darwinian evolutionism, which he maintains is incompatible with the biblical view in a number of important respects.

In the biblical account of creation, the creative work of God culminates on the sixth day of the work-week of creation with the creation of man in God’s image (RD 2:511). While the description of God’s creation of all living creatures in Genesis 1 suggests an appropriate “kinship” between the animal and human kingdoms (both owe their existence and life to God and exhibit his handiwork), the creation of humanity occurs as a final act that completes the creation, and is portrayed as the result of a special deliberation and intention on God’s part (Gen. 1:26, “let us make man . . .”). The culminating and climactic character of God’s creation of man in his own image is underscored not only by the sequence that represents the creation of humanity as the ultimate of God’s creative acts, but also by the further account of man’s creation in Genesis 2. For Bavinck, the account of the creation of man in God’s image in Genesis 2 is not a second, alternative account of the creation of man, but a further elaboration of the distinctiveness of human beings among all God’s creatures as image-bearers of God, both as male and female. Whereas in Genesis 1 man is represented as the “end of nature,” in Genesis 2 man is represented as the “beginning of history” (RD 2:512). What we find in the account in Genesis 2 is a more elaborate description of the distinctiveness of man as the image of God, and of the divine purpose to create man as male and female.

Creation or Evolution

After his brief summary of the special creation of man in the image of God, and as male and female, Bavinck observes that the divine origin of humankind has “never been questioned in the Christian church and in Christian theology” (RD 2:512). However, outside of the realm of special revelation, many “conjectures” concerning human origins have been proposed in pagan religions and philosophies. In recent history, the emergence of Darwinian evolutionism has wrested the biblical understanding of human origins from its foundations in Christian theism. The approach to human origins within Darwinian evolutionism has grown out of the soil of a “pantheistic or materialistic system” (RD 2:513). Rather than viewing human origins within the framework of a theistic worldview, which acknowledges God’s special creation of man within his sovereign purposes, evolutionary naturalism views man as the product of a purposeless and mechanistic process wherein higher life forms emerge from lower life forms over the course of vast periods of time.

Now then, by Darwinism we must understand the theory that the various species into which organic entities used to be divided possess no constant properties, but are mutable; that the higher organic beings have evolved from the lower, and that man in particular has gradually evolved, in the course of centuries, from an extinct genus of apes; that the organic, in turn, emerged from the inorganic; and that evolution is therefore the way in which under the sway of purely mechanical and chemical laws, the present world has come into being. That’s the thesis, or rather, the hypothesis. (RD 2:514).

Although Bavinck acknowledges that there are a variety of expressions of Darwinian evolutionism, some of which are more seriously in error than others, he offers a sustained critique of the “hypothesis” of the evolutionary origins of the human race. This hypothesis is not only in conflict with crucial features of the biblical understanding of human origins, but it is also unsustainable in the face of several arguments that can be registered against it.

First, the emergence of life at some point in the course of evolutionary history remains completely unexplained and unexplainable. How an inanimate and material world could spontaneously give birth to an animate creature continues to bewilder those scientists who hazard to explain it. Some scientists simply posit the co-existence of organic life forms from the beginning. Others, who subscribe to some form of “vitalist” philosophy, assert the eternal existence of life forms that presumably become more complex over vast periods of time. But the emergence of life within the framework of an evolutionary and materialistic worldview remains a riddle without solution (RD 2:517).

Second, Bavinck observes that the differences in form and physiology between different kinds of species are too great to suggest that transitions between them may occur in evolutionary history. These differences of kind between species are the fruit of God’s wise omnipotence, and reflect something of the diversity and complexity of God himself. They cannot be reduced to one original kind of living being. Nor has the evolutionary hypothesis been confirmed by any known or observed transition from one species of animal or plant to another. Furthermore, the kinds of changes within species that are alleged to have produced new species are so slight as to provide no real advantage in the survival of the species (the principle of “natural selection”) (RD 2:518). The mechanism usually offered as an explanation for the emergence of higher forms of life, namely, “natural selection” or the “survival of the fittest,” does not explain the diversity and complexity of life forms. It simply acknowledges that such diversity exists.

Third, no evidence actually exists to prove the origin of humanity from animal ancestry. The so-called evidence for the origin of human life from animal ancestry largely depends on the assumption that the mechanism of natural selection has over time produced the human species as a higher, more complex form of life. The theory of evolution is based on “piecing” the evidence of the fossil record together, on the assumption that human beings must have emerged from early, animal ancestry (RD 2.519).

And fourth, Bavinck maintains that evolutionary naturalism is incapable of explaining the emergence of humanness in “its psychic dimension” (RD 2.519). It strains credulity to insist that human intelligence (the “mind”) is the product of brute and unintelligent matter. “Like the essence of energy and matter, the origin of movement, the origination of life, and teleology, so also human consciousness, language, freedom of the will, religion, and morality still belong to the enigmas of the world that await resolution” (RD 2:519).
On the basis of these kinds of arguments, Bavinck concludes that the theory of animal ancestry for human life, which is an integral feature of evolutionary naturalism, is indemonstrable and untenable. The worldview that this theory expresses is hostile to the biblical worldview, which views human beings as image bearers of God. In the biblical worldview, human beings are exalted to a special place of importance in God’s work of creation and redemption. In the worldview of naturalism and materialism, human beings are debased and degraded. “The theory of the animal ancestry of humans violates the image of God in man and degrades the human into an image of the orangutan and chimpanzee” (RD 2:520).

In the remainder of his chapter on human origins, Bavinck also considers three features of the doctrine of evolution that are at odds with the scriptural doctrine of human origins: the age of humanity, the unity of the human race, and the original abode of humanity. In the estimation of scientists contemporary with Bavinck, some form of life has existed on the earth for at least 300 million years. Even though these scientists acknowledge that human life is much less remote in time, they generally suggest that human life emerged in some form many thousands of years before the coming of Christ. In his evaluation of these claims about the age of humanity, Bavinck argues that they are based on uncertain and conflicting scientific theories, and appear unlikely from the standpoint of biblical and other historical data.

The claim of some evolutionary scientists that the human race may have emerged in a diversity of times and places is also at odds with the testimony of Scripture. The Bible teaches that the whole race stems from one original pair of progenitors, Adam and Eve, and the organic unity of the human race is an integral feature of biblical revelation. As Bavinck remarks,

It [that is, the unity of the human race] is, finally, not a matter of indifference, as is sometimes claimed, but on the contrary of the utmost importance: it is the presupposition of religion and morality. The solidarity of the human race, original sin, the atonement in Christ, the universality of the kingdom of God, the catholicity of the church, and the love of neighbor—these all are grounded in the unity of humankind. (RD 2:526)

On the question of the precise location of the original abode of human beings, Bavinck offers a brief survey of the speculation on the matter among anthropologists of his day. On this question, as with the questions of the age of humanity and the unity of the human race, there is nothing that Christian theology teaches on the basis of Scripture that is at odds with the assured findings of science.
Though Bavinck’s treatment of the subject of human origins often reflects the state of the discussion and scientific theories of his own day, it remains a good model for contemporary discussion. In recent years, even within the circle of confessionally Reformed churches in North America, some theologians and scientists have argued that the human race must have originated from animal ancestry. Similarly, it is argued that the biblical progenitors of the human race, Adam and Eve, are merely “literary figures” in the biblical story of redemption. In the opinion of these theologians and scientists, it is no longer possible to maintain the Scriptural teachings of the special creation of man from the dust of the earth, the organic and biological unity of the human race, and the representative role of Adam as the appointed covenant head of the entire human race. These challenges to biblical teaching illustrate how, just as in Bavinck’s day, theologians in the Reformed churches continue to be obliged to defend the biblical view of human origins against serious and fundamental attacks on biblical doctrine.

Dr. Cornelis Venema is the President of Mid-America Reformed Seminary in Dyer, Indiana. He is also a contributing editor to The Outlook.