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.

Law and Gospel

The purposes behind the OT Law are various and complex and often debated. But one of its main functions is articulated beautifully by my favorite theologian (Herman Bavinck) writing in an often overlooked, but outstanding, volume on theology (Our Reasonable Faith). These are his words on page 81:

So far from being opposed to the promise, the law serves precisely as the means in God’s hand to bring the promise constantly nearer to its fulfillment. The law put Israel under restrictions, as a prisoner is put under restraint and denied the freedom of movement. Like a ‘pedagogue’ the law took Israel by the hand, accompanied her always and everywhere, and never for a moment left her out of its sight. As a guardian and supporter, the law maintained a strict watch over Israel in order that Israel might learn to know and to love the promise in its necessity and its glory.

Without the law, so to speak, the promise and its fulfillment would have come to nothing. Then Israel would quickly have fallen back into paganism, and would have lost both her revelation of God with its promise and her own religion and her place among the nations.

But now the law has fenced Israel in, segregated her, maintained her in isolation, guarded her against dissolution, and has thus created an area and defined a sphere in which God could preserve His promise purely, give it wider scope, develop it, increase it, and bring it always closer to its fulfillment. The law was serviceable to the fulfillment of the promise. It placed everybody under the wrath of God and under the sentence of death, it comprehended everybody within the pale of sin in order that the promise, given to Abraham and fulfilled in Christ, should be given to all believers, and that these all should attain to the inheritance as children (Gal. 3:21 and 4:7).

Substitutionary Atonement and Classic Lit

Dutch theologian Herman Bavinck was well versed in classic literature, a point made clear in an excerpt from Reformed Dogmatics, 3:402–404 (abridged p. 444).

In this section he responds to those who claim that Christ’s substitutionary atonement is morally nonsensical (an objection that remains to this today). Yet,

…the idea of substitution is deeply grounded in human nature. Among all peoples it has been embodied in priesthood and sacrifices and expressed in various ways in poetry and mythology.

Origen already compared Christ in his death to those who, according to classical traditions, died for their mother country to liberate it from a plague or other disasters, for, conforming to hidden laws, it seems to lie in the nature of things that the voluntary death of a righteous person in the public interest breaks the power of evil spirits

Christian theology, accordingly, frequently cited the examples of Codrus, Curtius, Cratinus, Zaleucus, Damon, Phintias, and the hostages to illustrate the vicarious suffering of Christ. These examples have no other value, of course, than to show that the idea of substitution occupied an important place in the intellectual world of the Greeks and the Romans.

The same is true of tragedy, whose basic idea can certainly be conveyed not always by “guilt and atonement” but often only by “passion and suffering.” In many tragedies the death of the hero is not a true atonement for sins committed but yet is always a deliverance made necessary by some mistake or error, hence finally reconciling us and giving us satisfaction. But even viewed that way, tragedy proclaims a great truth: all human greatness walks past abysses of guilt, and satisfaction occurs only when what is noble and great, which for some reason has gone astray, perishes in death. The downfall of Orestes, Oedipus, Antigone, Romeo and Juliet, Max and Thekla, Iphigenia, and others reconciles us with them and their generation. “Pure humanity atones for all human weaknesses” (Goethe). …

All these examples and reasonings are undoubtedly somewhat suited as illustrations of the substitutionary suffering of Christ. Against the individualism and atomizing tendencies that tear humankind apart and know nothing of the mysticism of love, they are of great value.

Still, they cannot explain the suffering of Christ. …

Bavinck’s knowledge of Greek mythology and poetry is impressive. It is to this well of literature that he turns to find fitting illustrations of substitution in history, illustrations that have “great value” in cultures where people increasingly live self-sustained and isolated lives (hint, hint).

Yet the classic literature has significant theological limitations. In order to make sense of the unique sacrifice of Christ we must turn to Scripture (2 Cor. 5:21; Rom. 4:25, 8:3; Gal. 3:13). Classic literature cannot explain the sacrifice of Christ. Illustrate? Yes, to some degree. Substantiate? No.

Mini Bavinck

John Bolt’s new abridgement of 19th century Dutch theologian Herman Bavinck’s 4-volume magnum opus, Reformed Dogmatics, is now available for purchase. My copy arrived in the mail on Tuesday and since it arrived I have been browsing through the new abridgement and comparing a handful of sections with the original unabridged work. By all accounts it appears Bolt has done a fine job of shrinking Bavinck’s classic from 3,000 pages to 850 while preserving the essence of Bavinck’s theology. Props to the folks at Baker Academic who continue to serve the church by translating, and now abridging, one of the Church’s most precious theological works.

The Human Conscience

From Herman Bavinck in his Reformed Dogmatics, 3:173:

Before the fall, strictly speaking, there was no conscience in humans. There was no gap between what they were and what they knew they had to be. Being and self-consciousness were in harmony. But the fall produced separation. By the grace of God, humans still retain the consciousness that they ought to be different, that in all respects they must conform to God’s law. But reality witnesses otherwise; they are not who they ought to be. And this witness is the conscience. The conscience … is proof that communion with God has been broken, that there is a gap between God and us, between his law and our state. … The human conscience is the subjective proof of humanity’s fall, a witness to human guilt before the face of God.