Archive E.J. Hutchinson Nota Bene

Bavinck on Religion and Morality (Part 1)

Herman Bavinck was no friend of the religion-as-morality school (e.g., Kant, Fichte, Schelling). But, irenic and judicious as he was, he was able to draw out something beneficial from their thought, while at the same time offering sober and level-headed criticism of where they go astray. His cautions and criticisms will follow in a later post.

This whole ethical trend in religion and theology deserves our appreciation to the degree that, over against all intellectualistic and mystical underestimation of the moral life, it again pointed out the intimate connection that exists between religion and morality. That connection is immediately evident from the fact that religion itself is a moral relationship. Religion is indeed based on a mystical union between God and humanity; however, it is not itself a substantial but an ethical union between human beings and their God. In the case of God, one cannot speak of religion. It is his indwelling in human beings that from that side fosters the relation to God we call religion. Thus this relation, too, is of an ethical nature, it is regulated by the same moral law that governs the other relations human beings sustain to their fellow creatures. All religious actions performed by human beings are moral duties, and all of religion is a moral mandate. Conversely, the moral life is in turn a service to God. Visiting widows and orphans (James 1:27) is not, strictly speaking, a religious act but can be called religion because religion has to manifest and prove itself in the act. Scholasticism, accordingly, dinstinguished between acts “called forth” (actus eliciti) and acts “demanded” (actus imperati) by religion. Faith without works, without love, is dead. Also for us love for God proves itself in love for one’s neighbor (Jer. 22:16; Isa. 1:11ff.; 1 John 2:3ff.; James 2:17; etc.). Our entire life is meant to be a service to God. The inscription: “I am the Lord your God” is also written above the commandments of the second table. Love is the one grand principle that fulfills the entire law (Rom. 13:10). The moral law is one great organic whole so that those who break one commandment violate the whole law (James 2:10). One’s neighbor must be love for God’s sake, and a sin against a neighbor is indirectly also a sing against God. (Reformed Dogmatics vol. 1, p. 262)


By E.J. Hutchinson

E.J. Hutchinson is Assistant Professor of Classics at Hillsdale College.

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