Bavinck the Dogmatician: The Person of Christ and the Centrality of the Incarnation (3)

In my previous article, which introduced Bavinck’s treatment of the person of Christ, I offered a summary of the way Bavinck locates the doctrine of Christ’s person within the course of the history of redemption. In his coming in the fullness of time, the Son of God assumed our humanity into unity with his person in order to accomplish, as Mediator of the covenant of grace, all that was needed to obtain the redemption of his people. I also summarized some of the debates regarding Christ’s person that arose in the early period of church history after the closing of the New Testament canon.

In this article, I will consider Bavinck’s more systematic treatment of the doctrine of Christ’s person in the face of some important developments in modern theology, especially those that deviate from the historic consensus of the Christian church. In the modern period, the classic formulation of the doctrine of Christ’s person—that he is both true God and true man, the incarnate Son of God, the two natures of deity and humanity concurring in his one person—has often been compromised or abandoned in ways that imperil the gospel of Jesus Christ in the most fundamental way. Such departures from the historic Christian confession of Christ’s person represent a denial of the centrality of the incarnation in biblical revelation.

The doctrine of the person and work of Christ lies at the heart of the whole system of doctrine that may be derived from Scripture, which finds its classic formulation in the confessions of the church. Even though the usual order of treating topics in doctrinal studies does not begin with the reality of the incarnation, all of these topics find their center and focus in the person of Jesus Christ. As Bavinck observes, “The incarnation is the central fact of the entire history of the world; then, too, it must have been prepared from before the ages and have its effects throughout eternity” (RD 3:274). At no point in Christian doctrine may Christ’s person and work be regarded as an afterthought or postscript in God’s plan of redemption, for all of the triune God’s works in creation and redemption find their beginning and their ending in Jesus Christ. For this reason, Christian theology must always guard against any suggestion that the incarnation of the Son of God was not the central event in all of history under God’s sovereign administration. In order to demonstrate the centrality of the incarnation in biblical teaching, Bavinck considers four ways in which it is expressed.

Incarnation and Trinity

First, the incarnation in its biblical meaning has its “presupposition and foundation in the trinitarian being of God” (RD 3:274). In Deism and pantheism, there can be no place for the incarnation of the Son of God, the Second Person of the Holy Trinity. In Deism, God always remains removed and separated from the world and the human race. The “god” of Deism is not triune and does not exercise any direct influence upon the course of events in history. Deism is unable to speak of God’s coming to dwell with us through the incarnation of the eternal Word, or Son. On the other hand, pantheism, as its name suggests (“god is all” or “all is god”), simply identifies God’s being with the history of the world. In a pantheistic worldview, “god” has no distinct being or independence in relation to the creation that comes to be through his decision to call it into being out of nothing (creation ex nihilo). The Christian doctrine of the Trinity, however, is able to explain how God can remain who he is as the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit and yet determine to create the world and glorify himself in the works of his hands. Within the Godhead, the persons of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit enjoy the fullness of love in the  communion they enjoy in their mutual relations with one another. The triune God does not need the world in order to be perfected or to express his love and overflowing goodness. And yet, because God enjoys the fullness of being and the perfection of love within himself, he is able to communicate that love freely when he determines to create the world and to create human beings, with whom he wills to enjoy covenant communion, after his own image and likeness.

It is no accident, therefore, that the reality of the incarnation stimulated the Christian church to formulate more fully the doctrine of the Trinity. Over against the heresy of patripassianism (literally, “Father-suffering”), which taught that the person of the Son who suffered upon the cross was identical with the person of the Father, the church recognized that scriptural teaching could only be understood within the framework of a clear distinction between the three persons of the Trinity. The history of redemption recounted in Scripture requires that a distinction be drawn between the person of the Father who sends the Son in the fullness of time, the person of the Son who voluntarily condescends to assume our humanity, and the person of the Holy Spirit who equips the incarnate Son for his mediatorial work and communicates the benefits of it to believers. It is simply impossible to do justice to the data of biblical revelation without acknowledging the distinction of the three persons of the Holy Trinity, who remain one in being, purpose, and love in all of their respective works.

Furthermore, even though the church has always insisted that all of the works of the triune God are indivisibly the works of the holy Trinity, the church also taught that the economy of redemption distinguishes the three persons in their respective works. As Bavinck notes,

The Father could not be sent, for he is the first in order and is self-existent; the Spirit proceeds from the Son, succeeds him, and is sent by him. But the Son was the one suited for the incarnation. In the divine being he occupies the place between the Father and the Spirit, is by nature the son and image of God, was mediator already in the first creation, and as Son could restore us to our position as children of God. (RD 3:276)

This is also the basis for the Reformed doctrine of a covenant of redemption (pactum salutis). In the covenant of redemption, the three persons of the Trinity concur in their purpose to redeem an elect people, but also concur in their purpose to accomplish redemption through the appropriate works of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, respectively. “In the Son, the Father is from all eternity the Father of his children; the Son is eternally their guarantor and mediator; the Holy Spirit is eternally their Comforter. Not just after the fall, not even first at the creation, but in eternity the foundations of the covenant of grace were laid” (RD 3:276).

The centrality of the incarnation rests upon the biblical doctrine that God eternally exists in three persons, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. And it rests upon the biblical doctrine that the incarnation was specifically an act whereby God, in the person of the Word, or Son, assumed our human nature.

Incarnation and Creation

Second, the centrality of the incarnation is also presupposed and prepared for in the way the triune God created the world, and especially human beings as his image-bearers. Even though there is a great distance between the infinite, triune God and the finite creature whom he calls into being, the creation of the world provides a context within which God can relate to his creatures, or the works of his hands. This is especially true in respect to the one creature whom God created uniquely to bear his image and reflect something of his likeness. Precisely because God created man in his own image, there is the possibility of God entering into communion with the human race, not only in the original order of creation before the fall but also in the renewal of creation after the fall. Because God created human beings to be like him, to bear his image and enjoy fellowship with him, it is not impossible for God to enter into union with them through the incarnation of the eternal Son of God. The doctrine of the creation of man as the one creature who properly reflects God’s likeness provides a basis for the possibility of the incarnation. The uniqueness of man as God’s image-bearer also explains why “the question whether God can take on the nature of a stone, a plant, or an animal . . . is out of order” (RD 3:277).
The relation between the biblical doctrine of creation and the central reality of the incarnation includes a further consideration. From the beginning, the triune God ordered his work of creation in a way that would ultimately serve his purposes for the redemption and perfection of the world in Christ. Even the “first things” of creation must be viewed in relation to the “last things,” especially Christ’s work in realizing through redemption God’s purpose for human life in the state of glory. Bavinck explains:

Creation itself already must be conceived in infralapsarian fashion, and Adam was already a type of Christ. This view is unacceptable from the standpoint of those who think that God proceeded to the work of creation without a plan or decree and at the creation passively awaited to see what humans would do. But Scripture teaches us otherwise. In the act of creation, God already had Christ in mind. In that sense creation itself served as preparation for the incarnation. The world was so created that when it fell, it could again be restored: humanity was organized under a single head in such a way that, sinning, it could again be gathered together under another head. Adam was so appointed as head that Christ could immediately take his place; and the covenant of works was so set up that, broken, it could be restored in the covenant of grace. (RD 3:278)

In this wonderful summary, Bavinck does not mean to say that the incarnation would have taken place whether or not Adam (and the human race in him) sinned. Nor does he mean to say that the fall into sin should be viewed, somehow, as a blessed event, since it served within God’s all-encompassing purpose to be the occasion for the incarnation of the Redeemer. In the history of the church, such sentiments have doubtless been expressed. However, we do not need to speculate about such matters, but only remember that nothing takes place in creation, the fall, or redemption, apart from God’s eternal counsel and will. And within his counsel “there is no room for any reality other than the existing one. Accordingly, however much sin entered the world by the will of the creature, it was nevertheless included in God’s counsel from eternity and to him was not contingent or unforeseen” (RD 3:279).

Viewed from the perspective of what we know of God’s eternal counsel in Scripture, we may properly affirm that creation itself was “infralapsarian”: God designed the creation and placed Adam in his position as the covenant head of the human race in a manner that would serve his ultimate purposes in redemption. Christ is the fulfillment of what was typified in the person and office of Adam, namely, the blessedness of living in communion with God and obtaining eternal life in the way of perfect obedience. Only in Christ—and surely, that was God’s ultimate intention from the first—are human beings, the elect people of God, brought to their God-appointed destiny. Creation itself must be viewed through the lens of re-creation or, more specifically, through the truth as it is in Jesus Christ. Christ is, as the apostle Paul says in Colossians 1:15–17, “the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities­—all things were created through him and for him. And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together.”

Dr. Cornelis P. Venema