Guest Post By Tyler Helfers
One of my passions in serving as a campus minister is to introduce our students and faculty to dead, Dutch theologians. Perhaps it is an obligation because I serve in the Christian Reformed Church in North America (CRCNA), and study at Calvin Theological Seminary. However, I tend to think it is because of the tremendous gift these men are to the Church, and how, even today, their works remain relevant to faith and practice in our academic setting.
While I could talk of Vos, Kuyper, Schilder, Dooyeweerd, Van Til, Berkouwer, or Ridderbos, I find myself drawing most often on two others: Herman Bavinck and J.H. Bavinck. In a society that champions the sovereignty of self, and increasingly convinced that religion is irrelevant to the common way of lifea, the works of both Bavincks—a balance of cultural nous and confessional fidelity, missional zeal and Kingdom vision—serve as a blessing and bright hope for the future of both the church and wider culture.
Nature and Grace
At the heart of Herman Bavinck’s theology is the principle that “grace restores nature.” According to Bavinck, the religious antithesis should be between grace and sin, not between grace and nature, as posited by the dualistic approaches of both Roman Catholicism and the Anabaptists.b Bavinck writes:
Grace restores nature and takes it to its highest pinnacle…The re-creation is not a second, new creation. It does not add to existence any new creatures or introduce any new substance into it, but it is truly “re-formation.” In this process the working of grace extends as far as the power of sin.c
The implications of this are profound and all encompassing. Not only are fallen human beings reconciled to God and restored to fellowship with Him, but also enabled by the Holy Spirit to once again live out their created purpose (vocation). However, the re-forming effects of grace are also extended to the whole of nature, including the world of culture, society, and politics.d
As it relates to campus ministry, the blessing of this principle is twofold. First, it guards against the twin dangers of separatism and secularism. Much of what is encompassed under the banner of “campus ministry” is nothing more than an Anabaptist separatism that Bavinck describes as “[only] rescuing and snatching of individuals out of the world which lies in wickedness; never a methodical, organic reformation of the whole, of the cosmos, of the nation and country.e” Thus, ministries engage primarily in evangelism, Bible study, and providing a sub-culture for Christian students (as opposed to a holistic approach to discipleship and working for reformation of the broader campus culture). On the other hand, the principle thwarts the efforts of secularism to relegate faith in general, and the work of Christ in particular, to private life and the heart. As a result of the way in which God is at work, faith cannot help but find expression in the public square, and do so in ongoing, relevant ways that point to Christ and the Kingdom.
The second blessing of Bavinck’s emphasis upon grace restoring nature is that it provides the foundation for a robust theology of vocation; no sphere of life and no field of study lie outside the scope of grace (or the lordship of Christ, a point on which Bavinck agreed with Kuyper). Therefore, students may faithfully fulfill the work God has called them to, whether it is as an engineer or educator, physicist or farmer, politician or pastor. Additionally, as it pertains to vocation, faculty and staff can be encouraged and empowered as they engage in culture-making on campus through their teaching and research.
Christ, the Kingdom of God, and Our Bright Hope
All this talk of grace restoring nature, vocation, and culture-making can lead to a complacency when it comes to the urgent missiological task summarized in the Great Commission. Furthermore, what provides the resolve to continue in faithfulness to one’s calling in the midst of academic burnout, the slog of grading essays, or rampant cultural depravity on display in campustown? It is at this point that the works of J.H. Bavinck—on missiology and the Kingdom of God—prove a helpful companion to the elder Bavinck’s work.
A pastor, missionary, and professor, some of Johan Herman Bavinck’s most important contributions to Christianity revolve around missiology and the understanding and interpretation of non-Christian religious beliefs. According to Bavinck, a theory of missions necessarily involves a proper evaluation of non- Christian religion.f In his book, Religious Consciousness and Christian Faith, Bavinck writes on the rise of alternative spiritualities in the aftermath of World War II, and the common markers of human religious experience, citing five “magnetic points.”g
These points prove invaluable to the apologetic task in the postmodern, pluralistic setting of the university, moving students and faculty from general, shared (religious) experiences to the specifics of the Christian faith in both a credible and compelling way. In particular, I think of conversations I’ve had with Iranian grad students, moving from these points of shared religious consciousness to the uniqueness of the Christian faith and the beauty of the Gospel. Bavinck’s definition of missions continues to be a powerful reminder of the task before us, on the campus, in the community, and around the world:
Missions is that activity of the church—in essence it is nothing else than an activity of Christ, exercised through the church—through which the church, in this interim period, in which the end is postponed, calls the peoples of the earth to repentance and to faith in Christ, so that they may be made his disciples and through baptism be incorporated into the fellowship of those who await the coming of the kingdom.h
It is this kingdom, as explicated by Bavinck, which serves as that bright hope for the one who is tired, despondent, or doubting. In numerous places, Bavinck paints a picture of the kingdom steeped in Scripture, biblical theology, and the progressively unfolding redemptive plan of God. He writes of the scope of the kingdom in An Introduction to the Science of Missions: “He [God] would include in a tremendous symphony of his eternal kingdom all parts of the creation, he would that all the nations of the earth share in this peace.”i
And in the recently published, Between the Beginning and the End: A Radical Kingdom Vision, Bavinck lays out the nature of this kingdom, expertly exegeting the Scriptures to reveal its in-breaking in the person and work of Jesus Christ; the one in whom the kingdom is realized and all strands of history converge.j
With poetic flourish, Bavinck writes:
Wherever Jesus comes, the demons flee, the fever subsides, the sea becomes calm, and the storm obeys. The kingdom of God has come near, and leprosy retreats, the blind open their eyes in utter amazement, the lame start to leap in spontaneous enthusiasm, and the dead rise from their graves. Indeed, the kingdom of God is near. All those shattering, destructive, depressing, and disruptive forces now dominating the universe fly away in despair and anguish as soon as the king appears…they serve as proof that God will not surrender this terrible world to the powers of decay at work in it, but that the great day in which he himself will gather up his world into a harmonious symphony of adoration has begun.k
This is the vision of the kingdom of God I desire our students and faculty to see, as it makes three key points. First, the kingdom is already-not yet; though it may be hard to see, and though we may feel fruitless in our efforts, the kingdom is here and advancing. Second, the kingdom is a certainty; what God has undertaken to do in redeeming and renewing all things will be completed. And third, the kingdom is (and will be) one of incredible wonder, joy, and beauty; we cannot begin to fathom all that will be revealed to us when the kingdom is consummated, but we can enjoy a foretaste now in communion with God, creation, and one another.
Though this article merely scratches the surface of these two men’s work, my hope is that it shows the immense value the works of Herman and J.H. Bavinck are for all, but especially the students and faculty in the university. If we are to influence the world with the message of Christ and the kingdom, then it is necessary to influence the institution of higher education and to do so in thoughtful, relevant, compelling ways. The Bavincks are two rich resources for doing just this.
Tyler Helfers serves as a campus minister for the Christian Reformed Church (CRCNA) at Iowa State University in Ames, Iowa. He is married to Christina and a father to Karina. Tyler directs Areopagus Campus Ministry and chairs the ISU Religious Leaders Association. He previously studied Biblical Studies at Birmingham Theological Seminary, and is now an M.Div student at Calvin Theological Seminary. You can follow his work at the Areopagus blog, From Balaam’s Donkey.
- a) Christopher Dawson, Religion and World History: A Selection from the Works of Christopher (University of California: Image Books, 1975), 257. He goes on to explain that the “process of secularisation arises not from the loss of faith but from the loss of social interest in the world of faith. It begins the moment men feel that religion is irrelevant to the common way of life and that society as such has nothing to do with the truths of faith.” (back)
- b) Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, Abr. ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2011), 82. (back)
- c) Ibid, 498. (back)
- d)Ibid, 83. (back)
- e) Jan Veenhof, “Nature and Grace in Bavinck,” Pro Rege 34, no. 4, (June 2006), p. 17. (back)
- f) J.H. Bavinck, An Introduction to the Science of Missions (Philadelphia, PA: The Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, 1960), 222 (back)
- g) John Bolt, “The Missional Character of the (Herman and J.H.) Bavinck Tradition,” The Bavinck Review 5 (2014), p. 58. Bolt interprets these five points as follows: 1. We are part of a cosmos; 2. We know God exists; 3. We know God exists; 4. We are in trouble; 5. We are free and bound. (back)
- h) J.H. Bavinck, An Introduction to the Science of Missions, 62. (back)
- i) Ibid, 277-278. (back)
- j) J.H. Bavinck, Between the Beginning and the End (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2014), 35. (back)
- k) Ibid, 45-46. (back)