Bavinck the Dogmatician: The Doctrine of the Trinity (4)

Now that we have considered Bavinck’s treatment of the doctrines of election and covenant, not only in his Reformed Dogmatics but also in his 1903 treatise on “calling and regeneration,” we are in a position to draw some conclusions regarding his position. These conclusions are based upon the exposition of Bavinck’s theology that we have provided in previous articles, and will accordingly be stated in a relatively concise manner. Each of them aims to capture the principal themes and characteristic formulations of Bavinck’s theological position.

Bavinck as a Consensus Theologian

First, throughout his exposition of the doctrines of election and covenant, Bavinck exhibits a consistent pattern of theological reflection. Upon the basis of a deep and rich acquaintance with the Scriptural data, the Reformed confessions, and the history of Reformed theology, Bavinck articulates in a fresh and creative way the broad consensus of historic Reformed theology on these topics. The characteristic features of Bavinck’s theological work are clearly evident in his treatment of these principal themes of Reformed theology. Though it would be unfair to say that Bavinck offers only a restatement of the traditional consensus or received opinion of Reformed theology on these topics, it is certainly true that, at every point, Bavinck remains within the broad center of what might be termed “catholic” Reformed theology. In Bavinck’s treatment of election and covenant, there are points where he offers a correction or modification of some feature of Reformed theology. For example, he rejects the alternatives of “supra-” and “infra-lapsarianism” in his doctrine of predestination, and he shares Kuyper’s critical observation that, in the traditional understanding of God’s decrees, insufficient emphasis was given to God’s positive purpose for the creation in its original state and in its consummate glory. However, throughout his exposition of these doctrines, especially within the context of debates among his contemporaries, Bavinck proves again and again to be a kind of “mediating” figure who resisted the one-sidedness and lack of synthetic unity in theological formulation that often marked their divergent positions. Scriptural fidelity, confessional sympathy, historical consciousness, antipathy to simplistic solutions—these qualities mark Bavinck’s theological labor and constitute, as much as the distinct positions he espouses, an important aspect of his legacy as a Reformed theologian.

The Unity of Covenant and Election

Second, whereas some interpreters of the Reformed tradition have maintained that the doctrines of election and covenant represent two divergent themes of Reformed theology, Bavinck’s handling of these doctrines exhibits a keen awareness of their comprehensive unity and inter-relation. Though election and covenant are distinguished, they both express, broadly, one of the principal motifs of Reformed theology, namely, that the redemption or recreation of a new humanity through the work of Christ, the Mediator, is a work of sheer and sovereign grace. The triune God’s work of redemption or recreation is rooted in eternity, and finds its source in the living, eternal and active will of God to redeem a new humanity in Christ, the last Adam. The eternal counsel of God embraces all things, not only the redemption of fallen sinners through the work of Christ, but also the recreation and glorification of the entire creation.

Predestination is the dimension of the triune God’s eternal counsel that pertains especially to the redemption of the elect. Though distinct from election, the doctrine of the covenant pertains to the divinely-appointed manner whereby this elective and redemptive purpose will be achieved. In Bavinck’s conception of the interrelation between election and covenant, it is important to observe that the covenant of grace in its historical execution in time is itself rooted in the intra-trinitarian “covenant of redemption.” Each of the three Persons of the Godhead—the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit—compacted together (or mutually concur in will, purpose, and appointment) from all eternity to secure the redemption of the elect through the mutual “operations” of each. The covenant of grace in its historical administration is no “accident” of history. Nor is it an “afterthought” in the eternal counsel of the triune God. From the beginning of the history of the covenant, even before the fall into sin, until its consummation, the Father purposed to commune with his people through the Son of his good pleasure; the Son purposed to humble himself in his incarnation and the fulfillment of his office as Mediator; and the Holy Spirit purposed to communicate the manifold benefits of Christ’s mediation to his people. The covenant of grace in its historical expression is tethered to its basis and foundation in God’s eternal counsel of peace (pactum salutis). Thus, in Bavinck’s theology, it is unthinkable that election and covenant could be played off against each other, or that the doctrine of the covenant could provide an alternative, more historical mode of expressing the emphasis upon God’s sovereign grace in the Reformed view of salvation.

The Unity of the Covenant in God’s Sovereign Purposes

Third, in his formulation of the doctrine of the covenant, Bavinck embraces and defends the historic Reformed doctrine of a pre-lapsarian “covenant of works” and a post-lapsarian “covenant of grace.” He also affirms a distinction between the covenant of grace in its historical realization, and the foundation of this covenant in the intra-Trinitarian “covenant of redemption” or pactum salutis. In his reflection upon these distinct features of a biblical and Reformed theology of the covenant, Bavinck exhibits a sophisticated grasp of the Reformed tradition and resists tendencies among some Reformed theologians to overemphasize the differences between these distinct phases of the covenant on the one hand, or to overstate the uniformity between them on the other.

In Bavinck’s estimation, the doctrine of the covenant expresses a central theme of biblical religion, namely, that the triune God created human beings in his image and for the purpose of being placed in a life-relationship of communion with him. Only the doctrine of the covenant does justice to the nature of man as a rational and moral creature, capable of enjoying union and communion with the living God in service to him and in the exercise of dominion over the creation. The doctrine of the covenant also underscores the goodness and grace of God, who initiates the covenant, stipulates its requirement of perfect obedience, maintains it in justice and truth, and grants the creature covenantal “rights” before him. In his articulation of the pre-lapsarian covenant, Bavinck simultaneously affirms that it was graciously initiated and bestowed by the triune God, and required perfect obedience in order for humanity in Adam to attain to the fullness of life in consummate and unbreakable communion with God.

An especially significant feature of Bavinck’s formulation of the doctrine of the covenant is the way he carefully articulates the relation between the pre-lapsarian “covenant of works” and the post-lapsarian “covenant of grace.” Whereas in the pre-fall covenant, Adam was the head and representative of the organism of humanity, in the post-fall covenant Christ is the head and representative of the organism of the new or re-created humanity. Within the unfathomable depths of God’s eternal purposes for creation and recreation, the first Adam was a “type” of the last Adam, and the original aim of God was to be realized only through Christ. There are significant features of unity and inter-relationship, therefore, between the pre- and the post-fall covenants. Both are rooted in God’s unmerited favor and goodness. Both promise the consummate blessing of eternal life in communion with the triune God. Both require human beings to find favor with God only in the way of perfect obedience and fidelity. But there are also significant and undeniable differences between them. The “last Adam,” Christ, is greater than the first and secures infallibly for his own the covenant blessing of eternal life. The grace shown before the fall to undeserving human beings is surpassed in the grace of Christ, which is shown after the fall to undeserving sinners who have willfully forfeited in Adam any and every claim upon God’s favor. Furthermore, the obligations of obedience that must be met in order for sinful human beings to find favor with God now include, not only Christ’s perfect obedience to the abiding stipulations of God’s moral law (“active obedience”), but also his perfect satisfaction of the penalty for disobedience (“passive obedience”). The glory of the covenant of grace in its historical unfolding is that it perfectly and infallibly achieves God’s covenant purposes for his people in union with Christ, the last Adam. Christ’s mediatorial work includes the meeting of these obligations on behalf of his people. In Bavinck’s conception of the covenant, we must distinguish between the pre- and post-fall covenants, but not in such a way as to separate them. Even the “covenant of works” is taken up into and made to subserve God’s gracious purpose for the redemption of humanity in Christ, which entails the realization of the eschatological goal of the covenant, the inheritance of eternal life.
In the same way that Bavinck distinguishes without separating between the pre- and post-fall covenant, he also insists upon the distinct, yet inseparable, relation between the “covenant of redemption” and the “covenant of grace.” On several occasions, Bavinck notes that these should not be construed as two covenants, but as the same covenant viewed from the perspectives of God’s eternal counsel and the realization of that counsel in time. The importance of recognizing the unity between the covenant of redemption and the covenant of grace lies, in Bavinck’s judgment, in the way the latter ultimately depends upon God’s grace and faithfulness for its effectiveness. Unless the triune God undertakes to accomplish all that is required in the covenant of grace for the redemption of the elect, the covenant of grace can easily be transfigured into a new kind of “covenant of works.” Since the covenant of grace in its historical administration takes an explicitly conditional form, obliging believers and their children to walk before God in the way of faith and obedience, it might be inferred that the salvation of those with whom God covenants finally depends upon their faithfulness in fulfilling these conditions. Contrary to this inference, Bavinck insists that the “conditions” of the covenant of grace are ultimately met upon the basis of God’s eternal counsel of redemption. In the covenant of grace, God gives to believers and their children in the line of the generations the blessings that have been obtained for them by Christ and that are conferred upon them through the ministry of the Holy Spirit. The covenant of grace is, therefore, unconditional, when viewed from the standpoint of God’s eternal purpose and gracious disposition in the “covenant of redemption.” However, the covenant of grace is also “conditional,” when viewed from the standpoint of the covenant people’s obligations to respond in faith and live out of the blessings of the covenant in Christ. Viewed from the standpoint of the certain realization of God’s purpose to grant his people eternal life in fellowship with Christ by the Spirit, the covenant of grace has a “testamentary” character. It is a divine gift or disposition whose fruition and blessing ultimately depend upon God’s gracious initiative and faithfulness to his promise. When viewed from the standpoint of its administration in the history of redemption, the covenant of grace has the character of a mutual fellowship or friendship between two parties, the triune Redeemer and his covenant people (believers and their children).

Distinguishing the Covenant in its Administration and Substance

Fourth, Bavinck affirms with some qualification a longstanding distinction between the covenant in its historical administration and the covenant in its reality and substance as saving fellowship with the triune God. In the history of theological reflection on the doctrines of election and covenant, this distinction, though variously expressed, was employed to account for the fact that not all members of the covenant community enter into the blessings of the covenant that result from Christ’s work as Mediator and head of his people. The circle of election and the circle of the covenant, at least in terms of its manifestation in history, do not coincide, even though they significantly overlap. Some members of the covenant community in the broad sense of the “visible church” prove to be unbelieving and impenitent. Other members of the covenant community enter into the fullness of the blessings of the covenant in the way of faith, which is ordinarily produced in them by the Holy Spirit through the use of the Word and sacraments of the covenant.

At this juncture, Bavinck resists the temptation to go in one of two directions in understanding the relation between election and covenant. On the one hand, he does not identify election and covenant, and thereby exclude from the covenant those who are not “children of the promise” in the strict sense (Rom. 9:6). It is possible for those who are embraced by the covenant to fail to respond properly to its obligations of faith and obedience. In this way, some members of the covenant community “break” the covenant relationship and thereby come under the greater judgment of God for sinfully forfeiting the privileges that were theirs under the covenant. On the other hand, Bavinck also rejects any approach that would isolate the covenant in its administration from the doctrine of election. In Bavinck’s judgment, when the covenant is separated from election in this manner, it quickly devolves into a relationship whose effectiveness and blessings ultimately depend upon the human party’s faithfulness. Contrary to these apparent solutions to difficult theological and pastoral questions, Bavinck maintains the close interconnection between election and covenant. The doctrine of election preserves the doctrine of the covenant from falling into a form of salvation by grace plus human works. The doctrine of the covenant preserves the doctrine of the election from devolving into a form of “fatalism” that leaves no room for human responsibility. Though it is somewhat simplistic to formulate Bavinck’s position in these terms, it might be argued that Bavinck views the doctrine of election to underscore God’s sovereignty in salvation, and the doctrine of the covenant to underscore human responsibility in the conferral of salvation.

The Covenant, Election, and Baptism

And fifth, within the framework of his comprehensive understanding of the doctrines of election and covenant, Bavinck endeavors to chart a careful course between the opposing views of his contemporaries on the question of the significance of the baptism of the children of believing parents. Unlike some who suggested that the children of believers should be baptized on the assumption of their election and regeneration, Bavinck clearly insists that the only basis for the baptism of such children is the Scriptural teaching that they are proper recipients of the covenant promise. Since God is pleased to include the children of believers in the covenant relationship, thereby honoring the created order and the significance of the line of the generations, the church properly administers the sacrament of baptism to them as a sign and seal of the covenant promise. Such children are included within the covenant of grace and therefore ought to receive the sign and seal of its promise in the sacrament of baptism. Moreover, because Bavinck conceives of the covenant as the pathway whereby God’s eternal counsel of redemption is executed, he also affirms the longstanding view of Reformed theologians that there is a close link between the sacrament and the grace that the sacrament confirms. Though Bavinck opposes as “speculative” any attempt to determine whether regeneration occurs before, during, or subsequent to baptism, he does emphasize that the children of believers ought to be regarded as genuine beneficiaries of the covenant of grace unless they should prove obstinate in unbelief and disobedience. The confidence we may have in the election and salvation of such children is based upon the promise of the covenant and the faithfulness of God to that promise.

However, since we also know from Scripture and by experience that not all those who come under the administration of the covenant enter through faith into the enjoyment of its saving benefits in Christ, we are also obliged, in Bavinck’s view, to urge with all seriousness that covenant children (indeed, all members of the covenant community) respond to the gospel call in the way of genuine faith. Because the circle of election and the circle of the covenant do not wholly coincide, there is always room within the administration of the covenant for a serious summons to conversion and self-examination, lest the covenant relationship become the occasion for undue complacency or presumption. Upon the basis of his comprehensive understanding of election and covenant, Bavinck characteristically seeks to avoid the errors of those who identify election with covenant or those who exclude election from their formulation of the covenant. Thus, in his contribution to the debates among his contemporaries on the subject of election, covenant, and infant baptism, Bavinck makes careful use of his comprehensive theology of election and covenant.

Though there are many lines of intersection between Bavinck’s reflection on election and covenant and ongoing debates in the Reformed community in North America, often associated with what is known as the “federal [covenant] vision,” we will resist the temptation to tease them out here. Our purpose remains a modest one, namely, to offer an analysis of Bavinck’s handling of these doctrines in his principal theological writings and in the context of the debates of his time. This purpose is not incompatible, however, with the further task of addressing these important themes of Reformed theology in the contemporary context. Our observations regarding Bavinck’s contribution to a Reformed understanding of these themes in his day suggest that an acquaintance with his theology may be, among others, a good place to become acquainted with the rich tradition of Reformed reflection on them. Such acquaintance is a necessary prelude to further reflection on these topics in the context of contemporary debates.


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