The relationship between nature and grace has been deemed the central thought of the theology of Herman Bavinck (1854–1921). Getting the relationship right is important for a proper understanding of the interaction between the natural and the supernatural, creation and re-creation, the church and the world.
Jan Veenhof, the successor of G.C. Berkouwer at the Free University of Amsterdam, penned a 700-page dissertation entitled Revelatie en Inspiratie that treated Bavinck’s doctrine of revelation. A small section of it has been translated and published in a booklet by Albert M. Wolters entitled Nature and Grace in Herman Bavinck.
Roman Catholicism: Nature/Grace Dualism
Veenhof begins his study by placing Bavinck’s nature/grace formulation within its polemical context against the Roman Catholic viewpoint. Bavinck was keenly aware that the Catholic formulation of the relationship between nature and grace was not a mere peripheral error, but a systemic one.
In the New Testament, the concept “world” has two denotations: (1) the world as fallen under the dominion of sin and (2) the same world as the object of God’s love (Jn. 3:16–17). Bavinck observes that this qualitative opposition was substituted by Catholicism for a quantitative one. He writes,
In Roman Catholicism, “the world” more and more loses the ethical significance that it has in the Scriptures. That which is natural is not sinful [a qualitative opposition], but it is that which constitutionally does not attain the supernatural [a quantitative opposition]. The supernatural is a donum superadditum. … Consequently Christianity and grace, which have entered the world to enable us to attain the supernatural, the visio Dei, do not reform and recreate the existing order, but only complement creation. Christianity transcendently supervenes upon the natural, but does not penetrate and sanctify it. Thereby Roman Catholicism, which calls itself catholic in a preeminent sense, has altered the nature of the catholicity of the New Testament. The catholicity of the Christian principle, which purifies and sanctifies everything, has been replaced by the dualism that puts the supernatural in a separate position alongside, or rather in a transcendent position above the natural. Creation and re-creation remain two independent quantities over against each other.
What you find then in Catholicism is not the annihilation of the natural, but its devaluation. The natural is incomplete in and of itself and needs to be complemented by Christianity and grace to raise it, or better yet consecrate it to a higher order. The opposition then is not between the holy and the unholy, but between the consecrated and the profane. In Bavinck’s words, “It reduces the ethical to the material, and looks upon the natural as something non-divine not because and insofar as it is impure, but because it is incapable of attaining the supernatural. Catholicism makes the cosmos profane.”
Bavinck saw the Reformation as replacing this dualistic world and life view of Catholicism. The Reformers, according to Bavinck,
rediscovered the natural, restored it to its rightful place, and freed it from the Roman Catholic stigma of being profane and unconsecrated. The natural is not something of lesser value and of a lower order, as though it were not susceptible to sanctification and renewal, but rather required only to be bridled and repressed. It is just as divine as the church, though it owes its origin not to recreation but creation, though it is not from the Son but from the Father.
Grace, then, is not a substance to be added to the natural that raises it to a higher supernatural order (a quantitative transformation). Instead, grace liberates man from sin (a qualitative transformation). It is not opposed to the natural, but only to sin. In this way, grace has only become necessary because of sin. It is not necessary absolutely, but only per accidens. In short, the physical opposition of the natural and supernatural in Roman Catholicism is replaced by the Reformers with an ethical opposition of sin and grace.
The recreating power of grace then does not result in a second creation, nor does it add substantially to the already existing natural order; rather, “it is essentially reformation.” Grace reaches as far as curse is found. “Grace is the power of God that liberates mankind from sin also inwardly, in the core of its being, and shall one day present it without spot or wrinkle before God’s face.”
Veenhof’s comment is apt: “Grace militates against sin in the natural, but it does not militate against the natural itself; on the contrary, it restores the natural and brings it to its normal development, i.e., the development intended by God.” In Bavinck’s own words, “Grace does not repress nature, including the reason and understanding of man, but rather raises it up and renews it, and stimulates it to concentrated effort.”
Bavinck was also aware of the lack of harmony amongst Protestants on this topic. He saw Calvin’s position as the most agreeable. He writes, “In the powerful mind of the French Reformer, re-creation is not a system that supplements creation, as in Catholicism, not a religious reformation that leaves creation intact, as in Luther, much less a new creation, as in Anabaptism, but a joyful tiding of the renewal of all creatures.”
For more on the nature/grace dualism in Roman Catholicism see a previous interview with Dr. Lane G. Tipton entitled Nature/Grace Dualism.
The Eschatological Outlook of Bavinck’s Nature/Grace Formulation
While Bavinck’s position could be summarized from the above discussion as “grace restores nature,” it is important to note that he is not advocating mere repristination, that is, the restoration of an original state or condition. In other words, grace does not simply bring us back to the Garden in Bavinck’s thought. While the original order is restored in the sense that sin’s qualitative and ethical influence is expelled, it is not “as though nothing had happened, as though sin had not existed, and the revelation of God’s grace in Christ had never occurred. Christ gives more than sin took away; grace did much more abound.”
“The redemption by grace of created reality, the reformation of nature, is not merely repristination, but raises the natural to a higher level than it originally occupied.” Bavinck understood there to be an eschatology in the Garden before the entrance of sin into the world:
The pre-Fall situation of man, and of the whole earth, was a temporary one, which could not remain as it was. It was of such a nature that it could be raised to a higher glory, but could also, in case of man’s transgression, be made subject to vanity and corruption.
Grace does not restore man to this original, sub-eschatological state of temporariness; rather, grace brings the world to this higher glory. “The fact must not be neglected, however, that this higher glory constitutes the goal to which the earth had been directed from the beginning. Therefore it is certainly not added to the creation as a foreign component.” Bavinck’s formulation that “grace restores nature” understands nature as having imbedded in it an eschatological goal, which grace achieves. For Bavinck understands that grace
does not grant anything beyond what Adam, if he had remained standing, would have acquired in the way of obedience. The covenant of grace differs from the covenant of works in the road, not in its final destination. The same benefits are promised in the covenant of works and freely given in the covenant of grace. Grace restores nature and raises it to its highest fulfillment, but it does not add a new, heterogeneous component to it.
It could be said, then, that in Bavinck’s thought grace restores nature unto its eschatological goal.
For Further Study
For more on the relationship between nature and grace see the 2016 Reformed Forum Regional Theology Conference, God’s Word in Our World: Nature, Grace, and the Foundation of Divine Revelation. The plenary address by Dr. Camden Bucey pertains especially to the above essay: Nature, Grace, and the Eschatology of Salvation.
 Herman Bavinck, De katholiciteit van christendom en kerk (Kampen, 1888), 19. Quoted by Veenhof, 10-11.
 Bavinck, Katholiciteit, 21. Quoted by Veenhof, 11-12.
 Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, 3:578.
 Veenhof, 18.
 Herman Bavinck, De Bazuin XLIX, 43 (October 25, 1901). Quoted by Veenhof, 18-19.
 Bavinck, Katholiciteit, 32. Quoted by Veenhof, 15.
 Veenhof, 24-25.
 Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, 3:182.
 Veenhof, 25.