Herman Bavinck on Regeneration
The year 2008 saw the completion of the translation into English of the four-volume set of Bavinck’s Dogmatiek,1a standard theological work used in Dutch Reformed seminaries and parsonages ever since its first appearance in 1895-1901, and its second and expanded edition issued in 1906-11.
While many in North America welcome the appearance of Bavinck’s Reformed Dogmatics, we in the Free Reformed Churches should be especially pleased to see this work made available in English. Bavinck’s theology reflects in several key areas doctrinal positions held dear by the fathers of the Secession of 1834 and their successors who continued that tradition by not joining the Union of the Secession churches and Doleantie churches in 1892. Although Bavinck did go along with this merger and adopted many of Abraham Kuyper’s neo-calvinist views, particularly in the area of social and cultural issues, when it came to soteriology or the doctrines of salvation, he remained essentially a son of the Secession.
Tensions within the New Federation
This becomes very clear when reading his lesser-known work, Roeping en Wedergeboorte, which has also been translated into English recently under the title Saved by Grace, the Holy Spirit’s Work in Calling and Regeneration.2
Bavinck wrote this treatise in an effort to bring together various factions within the newly organized United Reformed Churches, which held to different views regarding the method God uses in saving sinners. Already before the Union of 1892, the Secession churches accused the churches of the Doleantie of holding views they regarded as unbiblical and unreformed. The reference is to Dr. Kuyper’s teachings on covenant and election, justification from eternity, immediate regeneration, and presumptive regeneration as the ground for baptism.
In dealing with these and other objections, defenders of the proposed union replied that since this union was based on the Reformed confessions and the Church Order, any charges of erroneous teachings with regard to particular doctrines should be discussed later at the appropriate ecclesiastical meetings. And discuss they did, almost from the start – so much so that by 1903 the Union was in danger of being dissolved unless a doctrinal consensus could be built by which both parties could live.
This is where Herman Bavinck comes in. Recognizing the danger facing the Union, he decided to write this book on calling and regeneration, explaining the historical background to the different positions advanced by both parties and letting the light of God’s Word shine on the issues under discussion.
Immediate or Mediate Regeneration
At the centre of the debate was Kuyper’s teaching of immediate regeneration by which he meant regeneration effected apart from the preached Word of God. His opponents held to mediate regeneration, in other words, they believed that the new birth is brought about through or by means of the preaching of God’s Word
Kuyper based his argument for immediate regeneration on the biblical doctrine of man’s total inability. Since spiritually dead sinners can neither hear nor respond to the Gospel, the Holy Spirit, he maintained, regenerates without the medium of the Word. The Spirit implants the seed or kernel of the new life in the elect sinner, which seed is later brought to fruition by the Word preached. All God’s elect receive this seed at birth and they are baptized on the assumption that they are already regenerated so that by the time they can hear the Word they are able to understand and receive it by faith which, along with repentance, is the fruit of regeneration. Accordingly, in the order of salvation, regeneration comes before calling.
The implications of this teaching are far-reaching and for that reason caused a lot of tension in the newly organized federation. It was against this background of controversy that Bavinck wrote his book on Calling and Regeneration. Without mentioning Kuyper by name, it is clear that Bavinck disagrees with his colleague’s views, but he does so in a fair and irenic way. He grants that the Holy Spirit can and does at times work apart from the Word.
Immediate Regeneration According to the Theologians of Dort
Although Bavinck’s main thesis in this work is to defend the doctrine of mediate regeneration, he acknowledges that in regeneration the Spirit sometimes works cum verbo rather than per verbum (with the Word, not through the Word). He explains that many Dutch Reformed theologians at the time of the Synod of Dort and later, insisted on the immediate operation of the Holy Spirit because they were afraid of Arminianism which puts the emphasis more on man’s role in salvation (e.g., his supposed ability to believe the Word) than on the sovereignty of the Holy Spirit.
Bavinck quotes in this connection such great Second Reformation divines as Gisbertus Voetius, Franciscus Gomarus and Alexander Comrie. According to Bavinck, these men did indeed speak of regeneration as an immediate operation of the Holy Spirit, but they did so in an effort to refute the errors of Pelagians and Remonstrants who claimed that regeneration was dependent upon man’s decision (Saved by Grace, p.54). As strange as it may sound, but it was the Remonstrants at the Synod of Dort who insisted that the Word of God is the means God uses to regenerate sinners. But what they meant by this was that the preaching of the Gospel serves only as a means to persuade sinners to accept its offer of salvation. In other words, in their view, the efficacy of the Word depends ultimately on man’s ability and willingness to comply with its demands. As Bavinck explains,
With the Remonstrants, regeneration, faith, and conversion thus became dependent upon and tied to a condition that had to be fulfilled by man. They denied, therefore, that along with the Word, a special effectual operation of the Holy Spirit had to occur within the sinner’s heart; they denied any operation of the Holy Spirit alongside the Word; and they insisted that the moral operation of the Spirit in and by the Word was sufficient to convert and renew a person who wanted to be converted and renewed. Ibid., p.48
To combat this serious error, the Reformed occasionally made use of the term immediate regeneration, but as Bavinck emphasizes, they never employed this expression in an effort to exclude the Word as a means of grace from the Spirit’s work of regeneration. In their treatment of the order of salvation they, without exception, placed calling before regeneration.
Immediate Regeneration According to Kuyper
While it cannot be denied that Kuyper could appeal to a number of orthodox divines for support of his teaching on immediate regeneration, we need to realize that he used this concept for different reasons than the fathers of Dort did. Kuyper needed this concept as a necessary ingredient in his over-all supra-lapsarian theological system. If, as he taught, the covenant of grace is made with the elect only and if they are justified from eternity, it follows that they are also regenerated from eternity and enter life as such. The danger here is that all covenant children are viewed as regenerated from birth without ever being confronted with their lost state and condition and the consequent need to be born again. Bavinck issues a strong warning against this danger when he writes,
This teaching (of presumed regeneration) can provide ready occasion for many to be lost who imagine they are headed for heaven. When the emphasis is shifted from faith to regeneration, one can quickly console oneself with the thought that one is regenerated in youth and that the new life will sooner or later manifest itself in faith and conversion. And even if it does not manifest itself, that is not decisive, for regeneration (one may think) is sufficient and leads infallibly unto eternal salvation. Ibid., pp.92-93
The Issue of Infant Salvation
Bavinck deals extensively with the question regarding the salvation of infants. Surely, his opponents argued, in their case regeneration precedes calling and thus must be viewed as immediate in the sense that it takes place without the instrumentality of the Word. For Bavinck this reasoning is false. “If without their knowledge little children are received by God in grace and are regenerated,” he argues,
then this always presupposes that the covenant of grace together with the gospel wherein it is proclaimed had already existed objectively and historically ... (hence) they could not partake of regeneration unless they were born as covenant children. Precisely as covenant children they are called by God ... To them as children of believers together with their parents comes the promise ... made known and offered only in the gospel. As the seed of Christian parents, not detached from the dispensing of the Word but in connection with it, they are internally called by the Holy Spirit and thus engrafted into the regeneration of Christ... Ibid., pp.81-82
In this way Bavinck makes a strong case for saying that certainly within the boundaries of the covenant of grace, regeneration always involves calling by, through or in the context of the Word of God. Moreover, since regeneration cannot be separated from the Word and its promises, covenant children are to be baptized, not on the basis of their real or presumed regeneration, but on the basis of those promises. In Bavinck’s words, “The sacraments mean nothing and are not sacraments if they are isolated from the Word. Sacraments are seals of the Word, follow upon the Word and are connected indissolubly to the Word” (Ibid).
Concerning the question regarding the salvation of infants dying in infancy, Bavinck holds unequivocally to the Synod of Dort’s comforting pronouncement in Canons I, 17, although he adds this caution that the Synod did not extend this comfort to parents in general but to godly parents; for after all, he explains, “parents who themselves have no interest in their own election and salvation cannot be genuinely concerned about the destiny of their children, and neither need nor can enjoy such comfort” (Ibid., p.83).
Much more could and should be said about this important book of Bavinck, but I have almost used up my allotted space. In closing, I wish to make a few critical remarks on Bavinck’s effort to mediate between the Secession and Doleantie views regarding the vital issues referred to above.
Some Critical Remarks
- Although Bavinck rejects Kuyper’s notion of “dormant” regeneration, according to which a person can have the seed of the new birth in him but continues living in sin for years before coming to repentance and faith, he does maintain the notion of regeneration as an implantation of a seed that waits to be activated by the Word rather than a divine act resulting directly from the Word applied by the Holy Spirit.
Dr. J. van Genderen, (whose Beknopte Dogmatiek co-authored by W.H. Velema, has also been translated and published recently under the title Concise Reformed Dogmatics,3which will be reviewed in due time in this magazine) writes that Bavinck agrees in principle with Kuyper’s view that regeneration is to be interpreted as “the granting of the ability to believe and that the Word is required to activate this ability” (Concise Reformed Dogmatics, p.587). While van Genderen agrees with the distinction between regeneration as the beginning of life (as taught in Canons of Dort, III and IV, 11-12) and the subsequent development of that life as defined in the Belgic Confession, article 24) he cautions against restricting regeneration to its very onset. Rather, he considers regeneration “to be a ministry of the Spirit under and through the proclamation of the Word,” and sees Bavinck’s “linking up with Kuyper’s view as a step backward rather than keeping pace with Calvin” (Ibid).
- Although Bavinck favours the classic Secession position on the Order of Salvation over the one taught by Kuyper, he is, in my opinion, too accommodating to the latter and tries to give both legitimate status within the new federation. This is very clear from the Conclusions of the Synod of Utrecht in 1905, which state in part that
according to the Confessions of our church the seed of the covenant by virtue of the promise of God is to be regarded as regenerated as sanctified in Christ, until the contrary is shown in their confession and conduct when they are reaching years of discretion; but that it is less correct to say that baptism is administered to the children of believers on the ground of supposed regeneration, since the ground for baptism is the command and the promise of God.
Clearly, this was a compromise and intended to be so. As the late professor J. Faber, Canadian Reformed, said in an address to a United Reformed audience in 1998:
The Synod of 1905 accepted a Pacification Formula of which Herman Bavinck was the spiritual father. It basically placed the two different approaches of former Secession theologians and former Doleantie theologians beside one another. It was a compromise, but 1905 brought peace. It saved and consolidated the Union of 1892. (Spindle Works, downloaded from Internet)
But did it? Hardly. Yes, it brought relative peace for a while. The two views managed to live side by side, but there continued to be considerable strife between the two factions until in 1942 the Gordian knot was cut and the Synod of Sneek-Utrecht of the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands met (in the midst of the Second World War!) to pronounce in effect that the Kuyperian views re covenant and baptism and related matters were henceforth the only official and legitimate position to which all office bearers and members had to subscribe.
As Dr. Faber admitted, the Synod of 1942 adopted only the Kuyperian part of 1905 and left out the doctrinal concerns and emphases of the Secession. That’s what always happens when denominations merge in too big a hurry before resolving their doctrinal and other major differences. The Free Reformed fathers of 1892 knew this and acted accordingly. They were convinced that the differences were major and therefore nonnegotiable.
Let children thus learn from history’s light!Psalter 213, stanza 3