In the Beginning: Foundations of Creation Theology

By Herman Bavinck
Grand Rapids : Baker (1999). 291 Pages.

Reviewed by Dr. William Barrick
12.2 (Fall 2001) : 253-255

Teaching theology for nearly forty years, Herman Bavinck (1854-1921) succeeded Abraham Kuyper at the Free University of Amsterdam. This volume is a translation of only the fifth chapter in the second volume (out of four volumes) of Bavinck’s Gereformeerde Dogmatiek (Reformed Dogmatics; original Dutch published, 1895-1901). The chapter’s original title was “Over de Wereld in haar Oorspronkelijke Staat” (“Concerning the World in Its Original State”). Translated from the second expanded edition of Gereformeerde Dogmatiek (1906-1911), In the Beginning is the Dutch Reformed Translation Society’s second volume in its project to translate the entire work. The first translated volume was The Last Things: Hope for this World and the Next (Baker, 1996).

Bolt’s “Introduction” (9-20) briefly sketches the historical, theological, and biographical setting for Bavinck’s writings. Observing that Bavinck was willing to confront modern thought and science as a theologian, Bolt reminds the reader that “many of the specific scientific issues he addresses in this volume are dated by his own late-nineteenth-century context” (13). As a trinitarian and Calvinist, Bavinck emphasizes grace’s restoration of nature (16). Bolt summarizes the significance of this volume by declaring, “Creation is . . . more than just a debate about the age of the earth and the evolutionary origins of humanity” (18). He views Bavinck’s dogmatics as “biblically and confessionally faithful, pastorally sensitive, challenging, and still relevant” (19).

The editor composed and inserted excellent chapter synopses. Readers will find them a helpful guide for understanding the major themes and theses of the volume. An appendix cross-references the sections of the Dutch with the pages of this volume (261-62). A bibliography (263-89) lists the sources cited by Bavinck himself. Some references remain incomplete due to unavailability of full information. Where multiple English editions are available (e.g., Calvin’s Institutes) the most recent or most frequently cited or most accessible edition is listed. Scripture passages discussed at length by Bavinck are listed in a “Select Scripture Index” (291). To list all Scripture references cited would lengthen the volume significantly since his discussions include many proof texts (there are 62 references in the first two pages alone).

An indication of Bavinck’s views regarding general revelation and common grace appears in the second sentence of the first of seven sections (“Creation,” 23- 60): “Creation is the initial act and foundation of all divine revelation and therefore the foundation of all religious and ethical life as well” (24). Employing the Hebrew of the OT and the Greek of the NT, citing church history and historical theology, and debating Aristotle and Plato, the author defends the doctrine of creation ex nihilo (“out of nothing”) (34-39).

“Heaven: The Spiritual World” (61-93) is a parade example of the breadth of Bavinck’s reading and knowledge. Interacting with scores of theologians and philosophers from ancient times up to his own day, he develops a Scripture-based angelology. He enters into the debates over extra-terrestrial life (67-68), the “sons of God” in Genesis 6 (75-76), and guardian angels (84-88).

Writing of the second sphere of creation (“Earth: The Material World,” 95- 133), the author rejects attempts to discover mythological elements in the Genesis record. “Everything rather argues for the assumption that in Genesis 1 we have a tradition that derives from the most ancient times, was gradually adulterated in the case of the other peoples, and preserved in its purity by Israel” (100). Bavinck examines various views regarding the days of Genesis 1, the gap theory, and the universal flood in Noah’s day. Although he appears to be ambivalent on the nature of the six days of creation and comes close to soft scientism, ultimately he does insist that Christians must take their stand on divine revelation rather than science. One oddity is his claim that “Genesis calculates the day from morning to morning” (124).

 Bavinck systematically critiques Darwinism in the section entitled “Human Origins” (137-57). He states, “From the Christian position there is not the least objection to the notion of evolution or development as conceived by Aristotle; on the contrary, it is creation alone which makes such evolution possible” (139). However, he confines such “evolution” to variations within species (144). Darwinian evolution is discredited by its ties to naturalism and materialism (145-47). Interestingly, although Bavinck had established that the earth’s present form was the result of immense changes brought about by the universal flood (131), he does not mention that as a factor affecting attempts to identify the location of Eden (155-57).

In “Human Nature” (159-95) Bavinck provides the reader with a detailed examination of the meaning of “the image of God” in historical theology. It is a superb presentation of the differences between Roman Catholic, Protestant, and Reformed theologies. He argues against trichotomy (187-88), includes dominion as an element of the image of God (193), and holds that any definition of God’s image must take into account the incarnation of Christ (192-93). Continuing the discussion of God’s image (“Human Destiny,” [197-225]), the author develops his views of the covenant of works (apparently limited to the pre-Fall relationship of Adam and Eve to God, 199-216) and creationism (as opposed to traducianism in regard to the origin of the soul, 216-25). Within those discussions he proclaims that federal headship (as opposed to seminal headship) is the only viable view of the relationship of humanity to Adam.

The final section deals with the matter of divine providence (229-60). Bavinck defines providence as “that act of God by which from moment to moment he preserves and governs all things” (234). Rebutting the errors of deism, he posits, “A Deist is a person who in his short life has not found the time to become an atheist” (243). Providence includes the continuing actions of God (“God is never idle,” 245) after creation and distinct from creation (246-48). Under the heading of “Concurrence: Secondary Causes” (248) Bavinck concludes that “a miracle is not a violation of natural law and no intervention in the natural order. From God’s side it is an act that does not more immediately and directly have God as its cause than any ordinary event” (250). Under “Providence as Government” (256) he discusses God’s relationship to the origin of sin (257-59).

In the Beginning is a brilliantly researched and developed contribution to the disciplines of systematic and historical theology. We all owe a debt of thanks to the Dutch Reformed Translation Society for making Bavinck’s work available in English.