Bavinck the Dogmatician: The Origin of Sin (1)

The third volume of Herman Bavinck’s Reformed Dogmatics treats the broad topics of the introduction of sin into God’s good creation and the subsequent work of redemption that culminates in the person and work of Jesus Christ. After his consideration of the work of the triune God in creation, including the creation of human beings in the image of God, Bavinck takes up the subject of the fall into sin within God’s good creation and the provision that God makes for the salvation of his people, including the restoration and perfection of the fallen, sin-cursed creation through the work of Christ as Mediator of the covenant of grace. Since the Christian teaching regarding God’s work of redemption in Christ presupposes the fall into sin and the consequences of this fall in terms of God’s curse on human life and the created order, Bavinck deals comprehensively with the doctrine of sin before he addresses the topics of the covenant of grace and the redemptive work of Christ.

Bavinck opens the third volume of his dogmatics with a lengthy discussion of the doctrine of sin, which includes distinct treatments of the following topics: 1) the origin of sin; 2) the spread of sin; 3) the nature of sin; and 4) the punishment of sin. In this article, we will consider the topic of the origin of sin. In subsequent articles, we will consider the topics of the spread, nature, and punishment of sin.

The Genesis Story of the Fall

In the biblical story of creation, the triune God, upon completing his work of creation, declared the creation to be very good. Though the creation before the fall into sin was “at the beginning of its development and hence enjoyed a perfection, not in degree but in kind” (RD 3:38), it existed in a state of integrity and original goodness, without defect or blemish of any sort. However, it was not long before the original integrity and goodness of God’s creation was marred and ruined through sin. The great mystery of created existence was compounded by the introduction of a new mystery, namely, the “mystery of evil.” “Almost at the same moment creatures came, pure and splendid, from the hand of their Maker, they were deprived of all their luster, and stood, corrupted and impure, before his holy face. Sin ruined the entire creation, converting its righteousness into guilt, its holiness into impurity, its glory into shame, its blessedness into misery, its harmony into disorder, and its light into darkness” (RD 3:28–9).

The sad reality of human sin and disobedience, which has had far-reaching consequences for the ruin and brokenness of God’s good creation, is one that is generally acknowledged, even by those whose understanding is not informed by biblical revelation. The presence of sin and evil in God’s good creation raises an inescapable question: where does sin and evil come from? If God is the Author of a creation that was originally in a state of integrity, then how are we to account for the introduction of sin and evil into the creation? If God is the overflowing fountain of all good, who in his holiness and righteousness opposes and judges whatever is unholy and unrighteous, what explanation can account for the presence of so much sin and brokenness in God’s handiwork of creation?
With respect to this question, Bavinck observes that “when it comes to the origin of sin, Scripture always points us in the direction of the creature” (RD 3:29). Although the Scriptures do not divorce the introduction of sin and evil into God’s good creation from the providential government of God or his sovereign counsel, they never view God as the Source or Author of sin. Nevertheless, it is permissible to say that God “created the possibility of sin” by the manner in which he first created human beings in his image, and granted them “the perilous path of freedom” rather than “elevating [humanity] by a single act of power above the possibility of sin and death” (RD 3:29). The Genesis account of the fall into sin on the part of Adam and Eve indicates that the possibility of sin and disobedience was not excluded from the original state in which they were created.

According to the account of the fall into sin in the early chapters of Genesis, there were two trees in the garden of Eden that served a special purpose within God’s original dealings with human beings as his image bearers: the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, and the Tree of Life, which does not appear in the story until Genesis 3:22–24 after the fall into sin. Even though there is a considerable difference of opinion regarding the significance of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, Bavinck interprets it to represent the knowledge of good and evil that would be given experientially to Adam and Eve upon their disobedience against God and fall into sin. If Adam were to transgress the prohibition to eat of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, he would not thereby come into possession of moral knowledge of the difference between good and evil for the first time. The test of Adam’s obedience that is described in Genesis 2 and 3 focuses not on the content of his moral knowledge, but on the manner in which that knowledge would be obtained. Would Adam be willing to live in absolute dependence on God, willingly and lovingly submissive to the requirements of his holy will? Or would Adam rather assume a posture of independence and self-assertion, seeking to be “like God” in the sense of determining for himself what is good and what is evil?

The account of Adam’s transgression in Genesis 3 is a story of a fall from an original state of integrity, and may not be viewed in any way as a “step of progress” in the advancement of human life. In the Genesis account, the serpent is represented as the tempter, who first sought to sow “doubt in the heart of the woman about the commandment of God and to that end presented it as having been given by God out of harshness and selfishness” (RD 3:33). Sowing the seeds of unbelief and pride, the serpent sought to lure Adam and Eve from their state of blessed communion with and dependence on God and to cause them to assert themselves in proud unbelief and independence against him. While the account in Genesis must be read as a sober historical record of what transpired and led to the fall into sin, it is only in the context of subsequent history and the fuller light of New Testament revelation that the full implications and nature of the fall into sin become known. Even the fact that the serpent was merely an instrument who served the purposes of Satan, the great adversary and enemy of God and his people, only becomes known in the light of subsequent revelation.

When a first fall or turning away from God in defiance and disobedience occurred on the part of Satan and his fellow, fallen angels, is nowhere told us in the Scriptures. What is revealed is that Adam’s transgression and fall into sin became the occasion for the commencement of God’s purposes of redemption in Christ, the “last” Adam. Christ, though subject to the temptations and subtleties of Satan, triumphed over the powers and principalities of darkness and brought new life to his people as the head of a new humanity. In this way, “Old Testament revelation also bears a prophetic character and looked forward, not backward, and thus only the second Adam was able to illumine the full significance of the first Adam” (RD 3:35).

At the close of his treatment of the Genesis account of the origin of sin in the fall of Adam, Bavinck returns to a question he addressed previously in his treatment of the doctrine of creation: is the account of the fall into sin in Genesis an account that describes what occurred in history? In the modern period, the historicity of the account of the origin of sin through Adam’s transgression has been challenged not only by biblical criticism but also by evolutionary theory. Within the orbit of biblical criticism, questions have surfaced regarding the nature of the Genesis story. Is the story a kind of legendary or mythological account, which explains the universal sway of sin in the world and in human life but which is not to be taken as a description of what occurred at a particular time and place in the early history of the human race? And how can we square the story of an original human pair, Adam and Eve, who were the original progenitors of the entire human race and the ones through whom sin was introduced into the entire stream of human history, with the theory of evolution? For biblical critic and evolutionary theorist alike, it is no longer credible to affirm the basic historical nature of the events recounted in the Genesis story of the fall.

In his reply to these forms of modern skepticism regarding the historicity of the Genesis story of the fall into sin, Bavinck observes that the “fact” of the fall into sin and its consequences for the entire history of the human race can scarcely be denied. Even within the circle of those who are unacquainted with or hostile toward the biblical record, the reality of sin in human life is recognized. The real issue has to do with the “testimony” that Scripture provides of the historical occasion and circumstances for the introduction of sin into human life.

Even as the science of history relies on testimonies to events that occurred in the distant past, so the science of theology relies on the testimony of Scripture regarding the decisive event of sin’s origin in human history. Christian theology must base its convictions about this event, and indeed interpret all history in its light, by no other standard than the clear and compelling testimony of Scripture. The historical event of the fall into sin is, Bavinck insists, “of such great weight that the whole of Christian doctrine stands or falls with it” (RD 3:38). Among advocates of the theory of evolution, no room is left “for a state of integrity and for a fall of the first humans. According to this theory, there never even existed a first human, for the transitions were so minute and stretched out over so many centuries that no one can say where the animal stops and humanity begins” (RD 3:39). Christian theology must not abandon the Bible’s testimony, however, to a historical fall into sin on the part of the first human beings, Adam and Eve. Rather than make concessions to modern evolutionary theory, Reformed theology must continue to affirm the “organic unity” of the human race, the descent of all human beings from one ancestral couple, and the introduction of sin into human history through a historical fall from an original state of integrity.

Alternative Explanations

After his consideration of the biblical story of the fall into sin, which provides an answer to the question of the origin of sin in the world and human history, Bavinck addresses the subject of alternative explanations for the origin of sin. Even within non-Christians settings and religions, the witness of Scripture to the ruin and brokenness of human sin is indirectly confirmed and attested. In some non-Christian and pagan sagas that recount the history of the human race, there are even intimations of a kind of “golden age” that preceded a subsequent decline into sin and destruction.

However, in the religions of Confucianism, Buddhism, and Hinduism, as well as the ancient philosophies of Greco-Roman culture, there is little or no appreciation for the biblical doctrine of a historical fall into sin from an earlier state of integrity. In one common view, whatever evil may exist in the world is said to belong to the fabric of things as they presently are and always have been. In Confucianism “a shallow form of rationalism and moralism” predominates, which regards humans as naturally good and capable of obtaining salvation by living a virtuous life (RD 3:41). In the philosophies of Greece and Rome, though there is some acknowledgment of a decline or degeneration during the course of human history, human beings are still thought to possess the ability to live a good life and find blessedness through their moral achievements. Socrates, for example, taught that human beings only needed to acquire greater knowledge to mature in the practice of virtue; education is the means to provide human beings with the ability to live well. The great philosopher Plato offered another explanation for the origin of sin, positing the “pre-existence of the soul” and its fall prior to the imprisonment of the soul within the body as a precondition for life in the material world. Among the ancient Stoics, a somewhat different approach to the problem of sin and evil was adopted. According to Stoicism, sin does not originate in the human will but represents a necessary piece in the larger “order and beauty of the whole.” In this conception, sin and evil may be overcome through a patient submission to events as they occur within this world.

Commenting on these various approaches to the problem of sin and evil, Bavinck observes that “outside the area of special revelation, therefore, sin was always either interpreted deistically in terms of the human will and construed purely as an act of the will or derived pantheistically from the essence of things and incorporated as a necessary component in the order of the universe as a whole” (RD 3:42).

In the history of the Christian church, the superficial view of sin as no more than a distinct act of the will expressed itself in various forms. In the teaching of the British monk, Pelagius, who opposed Augustine on the doctrine of original sin, sin is limited to distinct acts or choices of the human will. In Pelagius’s view, sin never affects human nature, its dispositions and affections, in such a way that human beings become sinfully corrupted in heart, mind, and will. Sin consists merely in a distinct act of the human will, which always retains its full ability to choose to sin or not to sin. Even after the first sin and fall of Adam, neither he nor any of his progeny can be said to have become sinners in the sense of an inherited depravity or propensity to sin. Though Pelagius’s benign view of the introduction of sin into human life and history was universally condemned throughout the Christian church’s history, it continued to exercise considerable influence in the form of semi-Pelagian doctrines, all of which deny the pervasive and radical consequences of human sin and depravity. The Socinians of the Reformation period, the Arminians in the early history of the Reformed church in the Netherlands, and the “rationalists” of the post-Reformation period—all advanced some form of semi-Pelagianism, which insists on the natural ability of all human beings, even after the fall into sin, to “cooperate” with the grace of God in doing what is required for salvation. In all forms of Pelagianism, sin tends to be defined solely in terms of a discrete decision of the human will, which retains the power to do or not to do what is pleasing to God. In none of the historic forms of Pelagianism or semi-Pelagianism do we find a fully biblical view of the nature and consequences of the fall into sin for the inability of sinners to act in a way that pleases God or conforms to his will.

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