The Wonderful Works of God: Instruction in the Christian Religion according to the Reformed Confession
By Herman Bavinck
Westminster Seminary Press, 2019
695 pages (hardcover), $49.99
Here’s a secret: I don’t much like one-volume systematics, and my sentiment is harshened when I turn and see how much they weigh down my bookshelves. I ask myself what volume I should recommend. Grudem has won the populist vote for being nearly the solitary competitor, and Berkhof remains ready in the wings. I can thumb the pages of a dozen others published over my life span—but enough of those books.
The volume I chose to write about here is yet another one-volume systematics: Herman Bavinck’s, reprinted and retitled (rightly “Englishing” the original), The Wonderful Works of God. I had not read it before. Thumbing through, I was primed to level my usual complaints. See the familial features. It is short (about 550 pages plus index). There are no footnotes. It is generalist on account of being short. It sags in spots and careens unevenly along its course. And so on.
But I must say, this volume is a good one-volume systematics. No, it is a great one. It is the one I will recommend to Protestant pastors, elders, and educated laypeople from now on. And the features above, negative in other cases, on the strength of Bavinck become so many pluses. The volume is tight and tidy, a summary without being trite, and consciously trimmed of things askew for the intended end.
Bavinck today is not a name foreign to the English world, thanks to the explosion of Bavinck sources—primary, in translation and secondary, in the form of focused study of some theological topic or now several grades of biography (Eglinton’s recent is the gold standard). And just so, the four-volume Bavinck of the Reformed Dogmatics served during my early seminary years as professor, hailing from other shores to mediate the scholastic lands; he has done that now for many men. Beyond required, Bavinck is worthy, nursed with the piety of the Seceder Tradition and nourished into manhood by his own close study of Reformed orthodox works (though not only those—take his Reformed Ethics in hand and note the footnotes: Bavinck was nearly as familiar with the Neo-Scholastic Jesuits and Dominicans as their contemporary Protestant counterparts and so models here a true Reformed spirit). One fact of his life alone furnishes evidence for what he was and what he became with consistent work: The young pastor, at Franeker, took as a first task the editing and printing of the famous digest of Reformed theology, the Leiden Synopsis Purioris (a work now, in our time, that is three volumes fully in translation).
Bavinck has proved himself a theologian with grit enough for four volumes of systematics. And as I see it, he has reached a higher field by giving us his own first-rate compendium, which is a testament to his gifts as well as his heart. The work is a fine example of a high mind speaking low, keeping together what he knows and using it to force everything down into an intense but living concentrate. I heard in this volume the voice of the Bavinck I had conversed with for years at a higher register—and felt disarmed by it, like hearing your old professor speak to pews, not peers: all you can do is sit agog.
A proof or two at random? I know of no more lapidary way to navigate the complexities of the immanent and economic Trinity, especially in the fallout of the Grundaxiom in the twentieth century, than simply to say, “The Trinity in the revelation of God points back to the Trinity in His existence” (129). Well now, yes, Herman Bavinck, yes, it does. And I suppose this is all anyone should ever seek to know.
Another? Bavinck is sensitive to the fact that translating the technical creatio ex nihilo into common parlance, “creation out of nothing,” is open to significant misunderstanding (circa 148). As remedy, Bavinck foregrounds the real distinction between God and creation, and he does so by underlining (without any significant mention of metaphysics) God’s giving of being; that being is accidental to the creature, and so nothing can be a means or instrument of making creatures. This is an act of God alone.
A third? Bavinck maintains the privative texture of sin, but he expresses it as “a manifestation which is moral in character, operating in the ethical sphere, and consists of departure from the ethical norm which God by His will established for rational man” (210; my italics). While it is the case that the metaphysical explanation of sin (as specifically parasitic to nature and not a positive something) is not opposed to the “moral” element, it is not unlikely that for laypeople the latter would quickly become occluded by the former. Bavinck deftly circumscribes both but brings to the fore what is most helpful for a layperson to know and what is nearest the biblical expression of the nature of sin: “Evil can therefore only come after the good, can only exist through the good and on the good, and can really consist of nothing but the corruption of the good” (211).
These are all highly rudimentary instances of a more important point: The signal value of a volume such as this is that it instills the reader with the instinct and reflex of systematics. For a one-volume systematics (stipulated as nontrivial), the details are intentionally blurred so as to leave intact the tectonic pillars. These shapes are still in view for the eye to trace and learn how to move. The reader soaks in the way of going about God. It is not a matter of being “right” on a point, first and priorly, as much as learning to be right on the way to lean. In this volume, Bavinck weights you to a certain side to change your gait, so you walk truer to form on whatever topic you might take up in hand. An ability to do this, in short shrift, is by my lights what separates the wise from the merely intelligent. Bavinck is among the wise.
The volume must be picked up and given away in multiple copies. It is a fine printing, and the volume includes a healthy introduction by Dr. Carlton Wynne and an astonishingly thorough index drawn up by Reverend Charles Williams (a labor of love that took a prodigious amount of time). All of these features together are why I shall not condemn another volume to burden my shelves, to purgatory as a collector of dust. Books like this merit being out in the world, so I have sent it off to an elder friend.
Ryan M. Hurd is a systematic theologian whose area of expertise is doctrine of God, specifically the Trinity. His primary training is in the high medievals and early modern scholastics as well as the twentieth-century ressourcement movement. His main project is writing a robust systematics of the Trinity; he also teaches systematics on God as a teaching fellow with The Davenant Institute.