[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.

Life as the Enjoyment of the Covenant Communion Bond: The Tree of Life

True life is the enjoyment of the covenant communion bond in face-to-face fellowship with God in his holy kingdom. This is no invention on man’s part, but the God-given reality from the very beginning (Gen. 1–3). In a previous post we drew this out by considering the garden of God. From this bird’s-eye view we now zoom in to the central feature in the midst of the garden: the tree of life (Gen. 2:9).

We’ll first consider the eschatological import of the tree (as it pointed to an escalated future reality) and then demonstrate how it reveals true life to consist in having God himself as your eschatological reward and kingdom inheritance (Rom. 8:17).

While man possessed life since the beginning when God breathed the breath of life into him and placed him in his garden-kingdom for life-giving fellowship, the tree of life was a symbol or token of a higher form of life that was offered to him.[1] As we noted in our previous post, life was not a fixed or static concept for Adam, but a redemptive-historical one that was to organically progress from its protological beginnings to an eschatological consummation of union and communion with God in perfect fullness and permanency. As Vos puts it, “The universe, as created, was only a beginning, the meaning of which was not perpetuation, but attainment.”[2]

In order to attain this eschatological blessing of escalated life and glory Adam was required to render unto the Lord perfect and personal obedience to his command, “You may surely eat of every tree of the garden, but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die” (Gen. 2:16–17; WCF 7.2). The protological life of original communion with God in the garden-kingdom was not incorruptible, but corruptible; it was not irrevocable, but susceptible to removal in death. Herman Bavinck captures well the character of this probationary stage that Adam found himself tested in:

Adam … stood at the beginning of his ‘career,’ not at the end. His condition was provisional and temporary and could not remain as it was. It either had to pass on to higher glory or to sin and death. The penalty of transgressing the command was death; the reward for keeping it, by contrast, was life, eternal life. Our common conscience already testifies that in keeping God’s commands there is great reward, and that the violation of these commands brings punishment, and Holy Scripture also expresses this truth over and over. It sums up all the blessedness associated with the doing of God’s commandments in the word “life,” eternal life. Both in the covenant of works and that of grace, Scripture knows but one ideal for a human being, and that is eternal life (Lev. 18:5; Ezek. 20:11; Ps. 9:13; Matt. 19:17; Luke 10:28; Gal. 3:12). Hence, Adam still stood at the beginning. As yet he did not have this reward of eternal life but still had to acquire it; he could still err, sin, fall, and die. His relation to God was such that he could gradually increase in fellowship with God but could also still fall from it.[3]

The possibility of eschatological life (the consummation of the covenant communion bond with God) and death (separation from God) was symbolized in the two trees: (1) the tree of life and (2) the tree of the knowledge of good and evil to which certain death was appended (Gen. 2:17). Here we are first introduced to the polar forces of life and death as the two possible destinies of humanity. This life-death antithesis from here onward will run throughout redemptive-history and the apostle Paul will pick it up with full eschatological might (see Rom. 4:1–25; Rom. 5:1–11).

Life, as the enjoyment of the covenant communion bond, was not to continue in perpetuation, but would either be corrupted in death on account of disobedience or advance to a higher state of life beyond probation on account of obedience.[4] Vos affirms the “disclosure of the principles of a process of probation by which man was to be raised to a state of religion and goodness, higher, by reason of its unchangeableness, than what he already possessed.”[5] The higher state of life consisted of an unchangeable rectitude, being confirmed in holiness forever, and rising beyond the possibility of death in eternal life—all of this was to serve the communion bond with God.

As we have been saying, the tree of life was a sacrament through which God would convey eschatological life that was permanent and forever (Gen. 3:22). It is absolutely crucial to recognize that this promised reward of eternal life is not to be understood at any point apart from God himself, who is the comprehensive source of all life. The tree symbolized his life-giving presence.[6] More pointedly, the reward offered in the tree of life was nothing less than God conferring himself in a consummated communion bond in face-to-face fellowship with a holy people in his holy kingdom. True life, therefore, does not only have its source in God, but also its goal. As Vos puts it, “As it is strongly bound to God in its production, so it has a telic character directing it to God as its solitary goal.”[7] God himself is the eschatological reward of his people (see Gen. 15:1; Ps. 16:5; 119:57; 142:5; Rom. 8:17).

Our analysis thus far confirms the above point. Creaturely life has its archetype, source, and goal in the absolutely personal life of God, so that life can never be conceived of apart from him.[8] It is further confirmed when through a wider canonical lens the location of the tree of life is considered. The Genesis account informs us that it took root “in the midst of the Garden” (Gen. 2:9). In Revelation 2:7, the original tree reemerges in the paradise of God, that is, the restored and consummated kingdom of glory.[9] Then in Revelation 22:1–2 the tree of life is brought into the closest proximity with the throne of God and of the Lamb. It is from the throne that eschatological life is decreed in its consummate fullness, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God” (21:3).

In the same way the tree of life stood in close relationship to God, so the river that flowed out of Eden and divided into four rivers to water the garden (Gen. 2:10–14) will come to be referred to as the streams or waters of life. The waters are said to flow from God’s mountain dwelling place and also from the throne of God in the New Jerusalem with the tree of life on both sides (Rev. 22:1–2). In light of this, Vos’s comment is apt:

It will be observed that here the two symbolisms of the tree of life and the waters of life are interwoven. … The truth is thus clearly set forth that life comes from God, that for man it consists in nearness to God, that is the central concern of God’s fellowship with man to impart this.[10]

Both the tree of life and the waters of life point to the One who is the source and goal of life. The eschatological reward of life promised to Adam was nothing less than God promising to confer himself in a consummate communion bond of face-to-face fellowship to his holy people in his glorious kingdom. This conception of life is inherent to the Genesis account itself and enhanced with the clarifying light of later biblical revelation. So Vos can rightly state about the apostle Paul,

The tree of life and the other tree and the primeval paradise and the fall and death and the expulsion from the garden on account of the sin committed, all these are present in the scriptural narrative, and a single glance at Rom. v is sufficient to convince of the fact, that in the most fundamental manner they support (qua history) the entire eschatology of Paul. And the Apostles’ eyes were centrally focused on life and death in their forever interacting force.[11]

[1] On the nature of symbols and tokens see Vos, Biblical Theology, 27: “It is largely symbolical, that is, not expressed in words so much as in tokens; and these tokens partake of the general character of Biblical symbolism in that, besides being means of instruction, they are also typical, that is, sacramental, prefigurations conveying assurance concerning the future realization of the things symbolized. The symbolism, however, does not lie in the account as a literary form, which would involve denial of the historical reality of the transactions. It is a real symbolism embodied in the actual things.” On the tree of life as a sacrament see Francis Turretin, Institutes of Elenctic Theology, trans. George Musgrave Giger, ed. James T. Dennison, Jr. (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 1992), 1:580–82; Wilhelmus à Brakel, The Christian’s Reasonable Service, vol. 1: God, Man, and Christ, trans. Bartel Elshout, ed. Joel R. Beeke (Grand Rapids, MI: Reformation Heritage Books, 2011), 1:259, 362–63.

[2] Geerhardus Vos, The Eschatology of the Old Testament, ed. James T. Dennison, Jr. (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2001), 73.

[3] Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, 2:564–65.

[4] Meredith Kline speaks of the tree of life as a symbolic “reproduction of the theophanic Glory-Spirit” and the “sacramental seal of man’s participation in the glory of immortality” (Kingdom Prologue, 93).

[5] Vos, Biblical Theology, 27. See Vos, Eschatology of the Old Testament, 73; Collins, Genesis 1–4, 115.

[6] This point is especially clear with the reemergence of the tree of life in Rev. 2:9 and 22:1–4. See G. K. Beale, The Book of Revelation, NIGTC (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1999), 235.

[7] Vos, Pauline Eschatology, 309. Vos notes an organic consistency in biblical revelation on the concept of life: “What lends confirmation to thus joining the earlier and later is the emphasis placed upon the divine favor as an indispensable concomitant of the eschatological life. The concept of life would never have obtained in the Old Testament its comprehensive and pregnant significance, had it not from the outset been wedded to the profoundly-religious thought of prospering in the favor of God” (307).

[8] Death also can never be conceived of apart from God as it is nothing less than separation from God.

[9] See Kline, Kingdom Prologue, 94.

[10] Vos, Biblical Theology, 28.

[11] Vos, Pauline Eschatology, 304.

Am I Free If God Is Sovereign?

God’s sovereignty and man’s freedom are often thought to be in competition with one another in a sort of zero-sum game: either God is sovereign or I am free. This has led to thinking that there are only two basic options on the table to chose from.

Option #1: God’s sovereignty is limited by man’s freedom. Man’s moral and rational capacities are withdrawn from the eternal decree of God and given an independent and autonomous significance and existence.

Option #2: Man’s freedom is eliminated by God’s sovereignty. Man’s moral and rational capacities are wholly determined by the eternal decree of God and cease to have any real significance or existence at all.

The first option is correctly labeled “Arminianism.” The second option is often thought to be the teaching of “Calvinism,” but is actually in fundamental disagreement with Calvinism. It is a kind of fatalism or determinism, which Calvinism has properly rejected full force. Both options fail to maintain the basic Creator-creature distinction, which has led to the assumption that God’s freedom and man’s freedom are qualitatively the same. Hence, the zero-sum game. Accordingly, where one is free the other is not. So while options 1 and 2 seem to affirm totally opposite positions, they are actually both situated on the same rationalistic spectrum, just at opposite ends.

Calvinism rejects this rationalistic spectrum entirely and provides us with a third option that is most consistent and faithful to God’s revelation in Scripture.

Option #3: Man’s freedom is established by God’s sovereignty. Man’s moral and rational capacities are created and maintained within the eternal decree of God and therefore have real existence and significance.

Whereas options 1 and 2 begin with man’s reasoning, Calvinism begins with God’s Word. It does not claim to solve the mystery, but properly relates God’s sovereignty and human freedom as friends, not enemies. God’s sovereignty does not eliminate man’s freedom, nor does man’s freedom limit God’s sovereignty, instead God’s sovereignty establishes man’s freedom.

This is encapsulated in the Westminster Confession of Faith:

God, from all eternity, did, by the most wise and holy counsel of his own will, freely, and unchangeably ordain whatsoever comes to pass: yet so, as thereby neither is God the author of sin, nor is violence offered to the will of the creatures; nor is the liberty or contingency of second causes taken away, but rather established (3.1).

Herman Bavinck also avoids the rationalism that would set God’s freedom and man’s freedom in opposition to one another, rather than understanding the former to “create” and “maintain” the latter.

“If God and his human creatures can only be conceived as competitors, and if the one can only retain his freedom and independence at the expense of the other, then God has to be increasingly restricted both in knowedge and in will. Pelagianism, accordingly, banishes God from his world. It leads both to Deism and atheism and enthrones human arbitrariness and folly. Therefore, the solution of the problem must be sought in another direction. It must be sought in the fact that God—because he is God and the universe is his creation—by the infinitely majestic activity of his knowing and willing, does not destroy but instead creates and maintains the freedom and independence of his creatures” (Reformed Dogmatics, 2:376–77, emphasis mine).

Geerhardus Vos likewise understands God’s sovereign decree not to destroy or limit but to establish and ground man’s freedom.

“God’s decree grounds the certainty of His free knowledge and likewise the occurring of free actions. Not foreknowledge as such but the decree on which it rests makes free actions certain” (Reformed Dogmatics, 1:20).

“…God can realize His decrees with reference to His creatures without needing to limit their freedom in a deterministic manner. Their free acts are not uncertain and the certainty to which these acts are connected is not brought about by God in a materialistic, pantheistic, or rationalistic manner. As the omnipresent and omnipotent One, the personal One, He can so govern man that man can do nothing without His will and permission and still do everything of himself in full freedom. When God sanctifies someone, He is at work in the depths of his being where the issues of life are, and then the sanctified will acts of itself and unconstrained outwardly no less freely than if it never had been under the working of God. The work of God does not destroy the freedom of the creature but is precisely its foundation” (Reformed Dogmatics, 1:90–91, emphasis mine).

Cornelius Van Til employs the archetype-ectype distinction and the Reformed covenantal structure to uphold both God’s freedom and man’s freedom in their proper relation.

“Our view of man as the spiritual production of God points to God as the archetype of all human freedom. Human freedom must be like God’s freedom, since man resembles God, and it must be different from God’s freedom since man is a finite creature. In God, then, lies the archetype of human freedom. … We are fashioned after God and our freedom after God’s freedom. But never ought we to lose sight of the fact that our freedom is distinguished from God’s freedom by reason of our finitude” (“Freedom,” 4).

“We found … that the Reformed covenant theology remained nearest to this Biblical position. Other theories of the will go off on either of two byways, namely, that of seeking an unwarranted independence for man, or otherwise of subjecting man to philosophical necessitarianism. Reformed theology attempts to steer clear of both these dangers; avoiding all forms of Pelagianizing and of Pantheizing thought. It thinks to have found in the covenant relation of God with creation the true presentation of the Biblical concept of the relation of God to man. Man is totally dependent upon God and exists with all creation for God. Yet his freedom is not therewith abridged but realized” (“The Will in Its Theological Relations,” 77, emphasis mine).

For more on this listen to this episode of Christ the Center in which we dive deeper into this topic with a consideration of Van Til’s representational principle.


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