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[Book Review] The Riddle of Life

J. H. Bavinck. The Riddle of Life.Translated by Bert Hielema. Grand Rapids, MI. William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company. 2016. Pp. 94. $20.00.

For fallen man, life is a riddle that was, and that is, and that will continue to be. A few brief notes on the history of Western thought demonstrate this point. The self-proclaimed autonomous man of the Enlightenment sought to employ either his reason (rationalism) or his sense experience (empiricism) to interpret a supposedly open, un-interpreted universe that included himself. However, unable to ground the law of cause-and-effect or even the most basic notion of a subject-object correspondence, David Hume buried the autonomous man. On his gravestone he wrote: a relativist, a skeptic, an unsolved riddle.

Eventually a shift occurred. After repeatedly arriving at the absurd and irrational as a conclusion, the absurd instead became a self-given, the assumed starting-point. This was particularly the case for consciousness and existentialist thinkers. For example, Albert Camus, in his work The Myth of Sisyphus, assumes from the outset that the life of man is akin to that of Sisyphus who was condemned to ceaselessly rolling a stone to the top of a mountain, which would only roll back down of its own weight. Yet, Sisyphus is not to be pitied, but imagined to be happy. “Sisyphus is the absurd hero,” writes Camus, “He is, as much through his passions as through his torture. His scorn of the gods, his hatred of death, and his passion for life won him that unspeakable penalty in which the whole being is exerted toward accomplishing nothing” (The Myth of Sisyphus, 120). From nothing man came, to nothing man is fated, and everything in between is absurd—if only he will embrace this, he will live.

Out of the absurdity that is life or existence, others called forth monstrous beings, like Nietzsche’s Übermensch who would reject the hopes of another world as pitiable escapism, declare the death of God, fully embrace his irrational existence, and forge for himself value and meaning. Thus, the testimony to the futility of fallen thought is manifold: man is no more able to create meaning and purpose than he is able to give life to the dead or call into existence the things that do not exist. Man and his world remain an unsolved riddle, an impenetrable mystery.

Yet, we are not to despair. There is, in fact, a clear way forward as J. H. Bavinck demonstrates in his book The Riddle of Life. In a simple, understandable, and persuasive manner, he presses in to answer the big questions that have riddled life: What do we know? Who are we? Why are we here? Where do we come from? What is our destiny? How should we live? His basic point is that if we begin with the self-attesting man of the Enlightenment, then we are doomed to irrationality and absurdity. But if we begin with the self-attesting Christ of Scripture then and only then can we move forward to find the answers to the mysteries of life.

Accordingly, Bavinck argues for the necessity of a revelatory epistemology, that is, a theory of knowledge that arises from the revelation of God in Scripture. The only silk thread that leads us out of the labyrinth of life is that which God has let down from heaven: his Word. Bavinck writes, “God has spoken. The eternal mystery of the ultimate basis of everything that exists has been revealed. In Jesus Christ the Light has come, the Light that bans all darkness from our hearts and instills in us the unspeakable joy of having found and having been found” (5). Bavinck further clarifies this point by affirming that the only way to arrive at any knowledge is “to believethat we are part of a rational universe,” which can only be maintained if “we confessthat an almighty and all-wise God has created the world and the human race in mutual dependence” (16).

From this revelatory foundation, Bavinck proceeds to answer the mysteries of life in the light of Scripture. For example, in order to answer the question, “Where do we come from?” we must know whether or not God exists. Bavinck lists the various classical proofs for the existence of God that have been given, but concludes that they are “in themselves … not totally convincing” (24). The reason for this is that we are always biased in our conclusions, which means our intellect and logic “cannot possibly be the final arbiter” (25). In contrast, “the Christian faith, realizing this truth, strongly stresses the confession: I believe in God, the Father, creator of heaven and earth. That is not a scientific conclusion, not a well-rounded statement, but it rests on faith in God’s Word. When I, in this world, amidst an untold number of mysteries, ponder the question of ‘Where do I originate?’ I only can trust that the whole of this rational and yet so mysterious universe has been wrought by a superior Reason, by an all-wise Maker who is also our Father” (25).

Another question that Bavinck takes up is: “What is the meaning of life?” His answer opens with a helpful illustration. Imagine you come across the words: the silver moonlight radiated businessmen across the water. The obvious point is that within that sentence “businessmen” has no real meaning. Why? Because it is out of place there and does not fit in. “So when does a word make sense? It makes sense when it can seamlessly melt away in the context, when it fits in the totality. When does the life of a human make sense? It only makes sense when it has harmoniously inserted itself into the greater meaningful totality, when it is part of an overall world concept” (33). Man is not capable of forming the totality for himself because he is finite and limited. Rather, this totality is only found in Jesus Christ who repeatedly has told us that “the ultimate meaning of human life is the kingdom of God. … Measured by that criterion everything makes sense, every human act contains something of value” (34).

In keeping with this revelatory base, Bavinck utilizes the threefold scheme of man found in Scripture. Man is rational, moral, and spiritual, which corresponds to knowledge, righteousness, and holiness as well as his office as prophet, priest, and king (see Heidelberg Catechism Lord’s Day 12). This scheme proves very useful for Bavinck in explaining the full-orbed nature of man’s original design and purpose, the effects of sin on him, the redemption he needs, and the person and work of Jesus Christ.

Bavinck also utilizes this scheme to expose the inadequacy of the other world religions: Buddhism and Islam. Common to both is the belief that deliverance is solely a matter of knowledge, so all that is needed is a prophet. The prophet, whether Buddha or Mohammed, preaches the truth and so offers the possibility of salvation. It then becomes a matter of self-redemption: we must apply the truth to ourselves in order to be saved. The problem is that this does not penetrate to the deepest parts of man. Man’s misery is not singular, but threefold. “We lack the knowledge, the insight into the truth. We also lack the peace, the true justice, the harmonious attitude to God. Finally we also lack the holiness, the will to do good. To be truly free we must surrender the entire structure of our existence: our redemption must be threefold, just as our misery is threefold” (71). Herein is the peculiarity of Christianity. Jesus Christ, the Redeemer, answers to the threefold plight of man. He is the Prophet who reveals true knowledge of God and man, the Priest who offers peace by his sacrifice on the cross, and the King who offers holiness by eradicating the desire for sin and fills us with life eternal. These three benefits are represented in what Jesus calls the “kingdom of God,” which “is composed of all that life contains, the world and all that it is” (80). It is only those who repent and believe who find entrance into this kingdom (83).

The final question that Bavinck asks has to do with the completion of life: “What is behind that strange, mysterious curtain that we usually call death?” (90). The Gospel, according to Bavinck, teaches that all men either face death alone or with Jesus Christ (92). The person who enters death apart from Christ belongs to the kingdom of darkness doomed to eternal destruction. But the person who enters death “in Christ” will have it proved “the great revelation” (93). He explains, “As soon as we see the reflection of God’s presence in the distance, then an infinite joy will be born in us. … With inexpressible rapture I will flee to him and embrace him as my all, as my salvation. And observing him, the pure sight of him and his glory, I will go from joy to greater joy, from light to greater light. In the joyfulness I will then experience lies the hallmark of eternity, because God is eternal” (94).

While the book is to be recommended on the basis of the previous analysis, especially its commitment to a revelatory epistemology, there are still a few areas that warrant critique. First, Bavinck states that the essence of humanity is that they are “children of God” (27). This language, however, does not seem helpful because of the salvific connotations of it in Scripture (e.g., Rom. 8:16-17) and the more clear description found in Genesis of man being made in the “image of God.” It is true that Adam is entitled the “son of God” in Scripture, as well as Israel and David’s kingly sons, but this phrase has covenantal and eschatological implications that Bavinck seems to overlook. Furthermore, it does not allow for the adoption that takes place in Christ, so that those who were once “children of wrath” are made “children of God” (Rom. 8:14-17; Eph. 2:1-10; 2 Pet. 2:14).

Second, Bavinck speaks about the “law of service,” which he observes is evident in the various levels of creation from the inorganic to the organic to humanity, as the fundamental law of creation and the “overarching purpose for every being” (18). Bavinck seems to arrive at this law by way of natural observation and so deviates from the revelatory foundation he argued for earlier. Because of this his conclusion from nature can be labeled naïve since while the creation is seen to serve each other at some level, it is also seen to devour one another at an even higher level. The fact that creation is not in harmony with itself is not self-evident, but only properly understood on the basis of the biblical doctrine of sin. Likewise, the law of service must be drawn from God’s revelation to man. In addition, Bavinck construes this law with a predominately horizontal focus, while the chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy him forever.

Third, in a couple of places Bavinck seems to deny the historicity of Adam and the fall, though this may not have been his intention. Regarding the former, he writes, “We are Adam … God’s children” (30). This suggests that Adam was a mere symbol of every person, rather than the historical federal head of humanity, in whom all died when he sinned (Rom. 5:12ff.). Regarding the latter, Bavinck says, “The Good News shows us that the history of the world, from its very inception, is dominated by two factors” (88, emphasis mine). The two factors that he identifies are sin and grace. But in Scripture neither sin nor grace (understood redemptively) dominated until the historical fall of man in Genesis 3. Furthermore, Bavinck says that these two factors “will give us some insight into the meaning of the world, and why we are here” (88). On one level this is true, but it is also problematic because it makes the soteriological absolute, rather than the eschatological. Scripture is clear that there is an absolute end posited for humanity and the world beforeand apart fromsin. To this pre-redemptive eschatology is added a soteric force on account of the historical entrance of sin into the world, but this addition does not eclipse or eliminate man’s original destiny, a destiny that is fulfilled in Christ (Ps. 8; Heb. 2:5-9).

Overall, this book would benefit believers by helping them better understand the worldview implications of the doctrines of God, man, sin, and redemption and by equipping them to better share the gospel with their neighbor. It would also be useful to give directly to unbelievers who will find in it a concise and clear commendation of the Christian faith as the only sound and coherent way of viewing oneself and the world. It demonstrates that Christianity is not a conglomerate of abstract propositions designed for esoteric cloud-gazers and irrelevant spiritualists, but draws its life source from the concrete acts and words of God that have entered our world and our history, preeminently in Jesus Christ, who forms its organic center from which the whole world will one day be consummated a new creation.


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