Bavinck on the Unknowability of God’s Decrees

, posted by Godismyjudge

In Bavinck’s article on supralapsarian and infralapsarian predestination (link), he disagrees with supralapsarianism and infralapsarianism about 90% of the time, so we get very few glimpses of what he actually believes. I went through the article and pulled out all the positive statements by Bavinck about predestination. I came out with 10 statements. Upon examining the statements, I noted that the majority of them are either in tension with each other or leave a major term undefined.

Statements in tension with each other (i.e. that seem to move in opposite directions – although they don’t formally contradict each other, no reconciliation is provided):

  • (statement) On the one hand, both election and reprobation presuppose sin, and are deeds of mercy and of justice, Rom. 9:15; Eph. 1:4;
  • (counter) on the other hand both [election and reprobation] are also deeds of divine right and sovereignty, Rom. 9:11, 17, 21.
  • (statement) At times Scripture expresses itself so strongly that reprobation and election are coordinated, and God is represented as having purposed eternal perdition as well as eternal salvation, Luke 2:34; John 3:19-21; I Pet. 2:7, 8; Rom. 9:17, 18, 22, etc.;
  • (counter) but in other passages eternal death is entirely absent in the description of the future; the victorious consummation of the kingdom of God, the new heaven and earth, the new Jerusalem in which God will be all and in all is pictured to us as the end of all things, I Cor. 15; Rev. 21, 22; the universe is represented as existing for the church, and the church for Christ, I Cor. 3:21-23; and reprobation is completely subordinated to election.
  • (statements) The true element in supralapsarianism is: that it emphasizes the unity of the divine decree and the fact that God had one final aim in view, that sin’s entrance into the universe was not something unexpected and unlooked for by God but that he willed sin in a certain sense, and that the work of creation was immediately adapted to God’s redemptive activity so that even before the fall, i.e., in the creation of Adam, Christ’s coming was definitely fixed.
  • (counters) And the true element in infralapsarianism is: that the decrees manifest not only a unity but also a diversity (with a view to their several objects), that these decrees reveal not only a teleological but also a causal order, that creation and fall cannot merely be regarded as means to an end, and that sin should be regarded not as an element of progress but rather as an element of disturbance in the universe so that in and by itself it cannot have been willed by God.

These seem to be opposing pairs, and without additional explanation it’s hard to say what Bavinck thinks on these topics.

Statements with a major term that is undefined:

  • To be sure, sin should not be referred to “bare foreknowledge and permission”; in a certain sense, the fall, sin, and eternal punishment are included in God’s decree and willed by him. But this is true in a certain sense only, and not in the same sense as grace and salvation.
  • In the third place, there is still another ground for the assertion that those err who coordinate “predestination unto eternal death” with “predestination unto eternal life,” and view the former as a goal in the same sense as the latter; while it is true that certain individuals constitute the object of reprobation, the human race under a new Head, namely Christ, is the object of election; hence, by grace not only certain individuals are saved, but the human race itself together with the entire cosmos is saved.

The last statement sounds like universalism, but I doubt that’s what Bavinck had in mind. The first statement warns of potential equivocation, but doesn’t define the terms.

Statements I can understand:

  • And when he punishes the wicked, he does not take delight in their sufferings as such, but in this punishment he celebrates, the triumph of his virtues, Deut. 28:63; Ps. 2:4; Prov. 1:26; Lam. 3:33.
  • For by reason of its very nature, every goal is the very best something, the perfection of an object; damnation, however, is the extreme evil and the greatest imperfection; hence the expression `God has predestinated some men unto damnation’ is incorrect.”

I agree with what Bavinck is saying, but he isn’t saying much. Why isn’t Bavinck taking a stand on predestination? He ascribes it to the “limited character of our reasoning powers”. Bavinck states:

Because of the limited character of our reasoning powers we must needs proceed from the one or from the other viewpoint; hence, the advocates of a causal world
and life-view and the defenders of a teleological philosophy are engaged in continual warfare. But this disharmony does not exist in the mind of God. He sees the whole, and surveys all things in their relations. All things are eternally present in his consciousness.

Bavinck holds to epistemological limitations that prohibit people from understanding God’s revelation. It’s not just the mind of God that we cannot understand; the limitation also applies to what God is revealing to us.

His decree is a unity: it is a single conception. And in that decree all the different elements assume the same relation which a posteriori we even now observe between the facts of history, and which will become fully disclosed in the future. This relation is so involved and complicated that neither the adjective “supralapsarian” nor “infralapsarian” nor any other term is able to express it. It is both causal and teleological: that which precedes exerts its influence upon that which follows, and that which is still future already determines the past and the present.

Note that Bavinck applies the limitation not only to God’s one decree but also to the relationship of all the different elements. In other words, not only can we not understand the true nature of God’s one, infinite, eternal, decree, but we cannot understand the relationship of the various aspects of the outworking of the decree.

This stands in contrast to the typical way theologians (both Arminian and Calvinist) have explained the issue. It’s true God’s decree is one, eternal, and unknowable. We cannot know the mind of God. But God’s one decree arranges a multitude of events, and those events are interrelated. Thus the scripture speaks of multiple decrees and we can understand the relationship between the events and therefore the relationship of the multiple impacts of God’s decree.

Calvinist Charles Hodge explains:

As, however, this one purpose includes an indefinite number of events, and as those events are mutually related, we therefore speak of the decrees of God as many, and as having a certain order. The Scriptures consequently speak of the judgments, counsels or purposes of God, in the plural number, and also of his determining one event because of another. When we look at an extensive building, or a complicated machine, we perceive at once the multiplicity of their parts, and their mutual relations. Our conception of the building or of the machine is one, and yet it comprehends many distinct perceptions, and the apprehension of their relations. So also in the mind of the architect or mechanist, the whole is one idea, though he intends many things, and one in reference to another. We can, therefore, in a measure, understand how the vast scheme of creation, providence, and redemption, lies in the divine mind as one simple purpose, although including an infinite multiplicity of causes and effects.

Thus, Bavinck departs from Hodge, by denying we can understand the relationship between the scripturally revealed purposes of God.