God’s Sovereignty Over World Religions

As a fan of the theology of Herman Bavinck, I fully expected to enjoy Daniel Strange’s new book, Their Rock Is Not Like Our Rock: A Theology of Religions (Zondervan, 2015). And I have. Strange returns to the works of Bavinck (and J.H. Bavinck) to fill an often overlooked gap in religious studies.strange

So what are we to make of the world’s religions? What we do with all the idols?

To put the matter in a blunt summary, Strange rightly contends that all non-Christian religions are idolatrous responses to God, each ‘subversively fulfilled’ in Christ. In other words, Christ simultaneously contradicts and then counter-intuitively fulfills religious hopes and impulses (see 1 Cor. 1:22–25). Years ago I found this point essential to my development as a Christian who reads and benefits from books written by non-Christians (see Lit!, 73–75).

But Strange presses deeper into the subversive side, asking how God’s sovereignty plays out over the world’s religions and idols. Here’s how he explains it in his new book, building off Piper:

We are within standard Reformed territory to say that all things were created by Christ and for Christ (Col. 1:16), including thrones, dominions, rulers and authorities, which (given Col. 2:15 and Eph. 6:12) includes evil supernatural powers such as demons.

Unpacking this a little further, John Piper notes ‘the apex of the glory of Christ is the glory of his grace . . . and the apex of this grace is the murder of the God-man outside Jerusalem around A.D. 33. The death of Jesus Christ was murder. It was the most spectacular sin ever committed.’ By his death, Christ defeated the ‘powers’ at the cross (Col. 2:15). Piper, linking Colossians 1:16 and 2:15, argues that Christ will be ‘more highly honored’ because he allowed Satan (and implicitly the demons) to do evil for millennia before defeating them at the cross, than had he eliminated Satan immediately.

Given the constraints of this study, such axiomatic truth can be but asserted here with little further justification.

Given this assertion, however, what does require further reflection and justification is precisely how the sovereignly ordained, ‘spectacularly sinful’ and essentially God-denying worship of the religious Other can glorify the living God. . . .

The Bible’s presentation of the nature of non-Christian religions indicates that they must be understood as the impulse of opposition in fallen humanity towards the Creator God, who has made himself known in Christ Jesus. Idols and false gods feature in the narrative of Scripture as God’s rivals. They are those things that, falsely credited with divine presence, vie for the affections of God’s people, those things that contend with God. By virtue of Scripture’s portrayal of this rivalry, idols are constantly set up in comparison with the one true God, a contest in which they always emerge as ultimately powerless and defeated.

By their very deficiency, therefore, idols are constantly pointing to God’s excellences, his holiness, his power, his faithfulness and his mercy. Inasmuch as the narrative of Scripture provides us with a portrait of God, a meditation on his attributes and actions, idols function as a foil, a device to throw that portrait of God into sharper relief. They fulfill, so to speak, a hermeneutic function. God allows the religious Other to flourish because then its final defeat will glorify him all the more. It is only when this impulse of opposition is recognized that its purpose in God’s economy may be understood properly. (309–310)

God’s Glory, Artistic Beauty, and Joyful Longings

Herman Bavinck

Herman Bavinck is one theologian who seems to have mastered the holistic Christian worldview as well as anyone, and it makes for glorious reading. I’m struck by how he weds the beauty of man-made art and the beauty of creation to show them both to be expressions of God’s glory, and then ties all that beauty to our joy, and then follows through to show how the piercing human longing for the re-creation of all things is there in the enjoyment of the created beauty.

One example comes from his excellent collection, Essays on Religion, Science, and Society (page 259):

We cannot express in words what a valuable gift the Creator of all things has granted to his children. He is the Lord of glory and spreads his beauty lavishly before our eyes in all his works. His name is precious in the whole earth, and while he did not leave us without a witness, he also fills our hearts with happiness when we observe that glory. . . .

Truly, awareness of beauty cannot be fully explained as “empathy”; when observing and enjoying true beauty, it is not man who bestows his affections and moods on the observed object, but it is God’s glory that meets and enlightens us in our perceptive spirits through the works of nature and art.

Humanity and the world are related because they are both related to God. The same reason, the same spirit, the same order lives in both. Beauty is the harmony that still shines through the chaos in the world; by God’s grace, beauty is observed, felt, translated by artists; it is prophecy and guarantee that this world is not destined for ruin but for glory — a glory for which there is a longing deep in every human heart.

Bavinck was beautifully wide-hearted, glory-thrilled, eschatologically-pointed.

(Note: You can find a complete list of Bavinck’s writings at hermanbavinck.org.)

Work Like A Calvinist

Herman Bavinck, “The Future of Calvinism,” The Presbyterian and Reformed Review (Jan. 1894), 20:

Calvinism gladly honors the good features of the Christian labor of our age. It by no means favors the idea of fleeing from the world; it does not encourage idleness and somnolence. It is active, points out to each man his moral calling, and urges him to labor in this with all his might. On the other hand, it is no less averse to that worldly type of Christianity which would transplant the turmoil and clamor, the agitation and strain of our times, within the pale of Christianity.

Calvinism maintains the independent value of religion, and does not suffer it to be swallowed up by morality. It has a vein of deep mysticism and it cultivates a devout godliness. It considers God alone as the highest good, and communion with Him as supreme happiness. Calvinism sets the rest of being over against the restlessness of becoming, and makes us feel the pulsation of eternity in every moment of time. Behind the vicissitudes and transitoriness of this life it points to the unchangeableness of God’s eternal counsel. Thus it offers a place of rest to the weary heart, in which God has set eternity, and protects man from all overexcitement. Those that believe shall not make haste.

Calvinism is deeply convinced that the husband as father of the family, the wife as mother of her children, the servant girl in the kitchen, and the laborer behind the plough, are as truly servants of God as the missionary.

A Christian Walks Into Barnes & Noble

This is very likely the best explanation for why a Christian who truly understands the centrality of Christ is a generous reader. At once we prize Scripture above all books, and in prizing Scripture above all books we are properly postured to read all other other books with discernment and appreciation.

The following quote is taken from Herman Bavinck’s outstanding book Our Reasonable Faith (Eerdmans, 1956), pages 36–38, 44. If you don’t have it, it’s worth owning, and I think page-for-page it’s Bavinck’s most valuable work (though it’s not cheap).

The quote is worth quoting at length and is worth reading slowly.

It is not the sparkling firmament, nor mighty nature, nor any prince or genius of the earth, nor any philosopher or artist, but the Son of man that is the highest revelation of God. Christ is the Word become flesh, which in the beginning was with God and which was God, the Only-Begotten of the Father, the Image of God, the brightness of His glory and the express image of His person; who has seen Him has seen the Father (John 14:9). In that faith the Christian stands. He has learned to know God in the person of Jesus Christ whom God has sent. God Himself, who said that the light should shine out of the darkness, is the One who has shined in His heart in order to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ (2 Cor. 4:6).

But from this high vantage point the Christian looks around him, forwards, backwards, and to all sides. And if, in doing so, in the light of the knowledge of God, which he owes to Christ, he lets his eyes linger on nature and on history, on heaven and on earth, then he discovers traces everywhere of that same God whom he has learned to know and to worship in Christ as his Father. The Sun of righteousness opens up a wonderful vista to him which stretches out to the ends of the earth. By its light he sees backwards into the night of past times, and by it he penetrates through to the future of all things. Ahead of him and behind the horizon is clear, even though the sky is often obscured by clouds.

The Christian, who sees everything in the light of the Word of God, is anything but narrow in his view. He is generous in heart and mind. He looks over the whole earth and reckons it all his own, because he is Christ’s and Christ is God’s (1 Cor. 3:21–23). He cannot let go his belief that the revelation of God in Christ, to which he owes his life and salvation, has a special character. This belief does not exclude him from the world, but rather puts him in position to trace out the revelation of God in nature and history, and puts the means at his disposal by which he can recognize the true and the good and the beautiful and separate them from the false and sinful alloys of men.

So it is that he makes a distinction between a general and a special revelation of God. In the general revelation God makes use of the usual run of phenomena and the usual course of events; in the special revelation He often employs unusual means, appearances, prophecy, and miracles to make Himself known to man. The contents of the first kind are especially the attributes of power, wisdom, and goodness; those of the second kind are especially God’s holiness and righteousness, compassion and grace. The first is directed to all men and, by means of common grace, serves to restrain the eruption of sin; the second comes to all those who live under the Gospel and has as its glory, by special grace, the forgiveness of sins and the renewal of life.

But, however essentially the two are to be distinguished, they are also intimately connected with each other. Both have their origin in God, in His sovereign goodness and favor. The general revelation is owing to the Word which was with God in the beginning, which made all things, which shone as a light in the darkness and lighteth every man that cometh into the world (John 1:1–9). The special revelation is owing to that same Word, as it was made flesh in Christ, and is now full of grace and truth (John 1:14). Grace is the content of both revelations, common in the first, special in the second, but in such a way that the one is indispensable for the other. …

In determining the value of general revelation, one runs the great danger either of over-estimating or of under-estimating it. When we have our attention fixed upon the richness of the grace which God has given in His special revelation, we sometimes become so enamored of it that the general revelation loses its whole significance and worth for us. And when, at another time, we reflect on the good, and true, and beautiful that is to be found by virtue of God’s general revelation in nature and in the human world [e.g. on the shelves at Barnes & Noble], then it can happen that the special grace, manifested to us in the person and work of Christ, loses its glory and appeal for the eye of our soul.

This danger, to stray off either to the right or to the left, has always existed in the Christian church, and, each in turn, the general and the special revelation, have been ignored or denied. Each in turn has been denied in theory and no less strongly in practice. … We must be on guard against both of these one-sidednesses; and we shall be best advised if, in the light of Holy Scripture, we take a look at the history of mankind and let it teach us what people owe to general revelation.

Where Do Good Works Spring?


Ephesians 2:8–10:

For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.

Herman Bavinck, Our Reasonable Faith, 479–480:

Good works are not independently and newly brought into being by the believers themselves. They lie completely prepared for them all and for each one of them individually in the decision of God’s counsel; they were fulfilled and were earned for them by Christ who in their stead fulfilled all righteousness and the whole law; and they are worked out in them by the Holy Spirit who takes everything from Christ and distributes it to each and all according to Christ’s will.

So we can say of sanctification in its entirety and of all the good works of the church, that is, of all the believers together and of each one individually, that they do not come into existence first of all through the believers, but that they exist long before in the good pleasure of the Father, in the work of the Son, and in the application of the Holy Spirit. Hence all glorying on man’s part is also ruled out in this matter of sanctification. We must know that God in no way becomes indebted to us, and that He therefore never has to be grateful to us, when we do good works; on the contrary, we are beholden to God for them, and have to be grateful to Him for the good works that we do.

What has Herman to do with Homer?

In his excellent essay “Classical Education” Herman Bavinck traces out the long and quite complex history of ancient literature in the life of Christian education. Near the end of his essay he addresses the contemporary value of writings by Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, Virgil, Horace, Homer, Sophocles, and others. The following quote is taken from the end of the essay as it appears in Bavinck’s Essays on Religion, Science, and Society (Baker Academic, 2008), page 242:

The study of antiquity is not only of formal and practical value: for the development of thinking, understanding Greek and Latin terms in our scholarship, understanding citations and allusions in our literature, and so fourth. Its lasting value also lies in the fact that the foundations of modern culture were laid in antiquity. The roots of all our arts and learning — and also, though in lesser degree, the sciences that study nature — are to be found in the soil of antiquity.

It is amazing how the Greeks created all those forms of beauty in which our aesthetic feeling still finds expression and satisfaction today; in their learning they realized and posited all the problems of the world and of life with which we still wrestle in our heads and hearts. They were able to achieve all that, on the one hand, because they rose above folk religion and struggled for the independence of art and learning; but on the other hand, they did not loosen art and learning from those religious and ethical factors that belong to man’s essence. In the midst of distressing reality, they kept the faith in a world of ideas and norms. And that idealism is also indispensable for us today; it cannot be replaced or compensated for by the history of civilization or new literature.