When Matter Becomes Form

This is a review of Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics: Holy Spirit, Church, and New Creation vol. 4.

And so ends the greatest theologian of all time. The following are highlights around the central theme of grace restoring nature. Indeed, with Bavinck we see the rejection of dualisms: “The dualisms between the internal and the external, the spiritual and the material, eternity and time, essence and form…are products of a false philosophy and contrary to Scripture” (458).

*The Church*

In his discussion of the church Bavinck always comes back to the truth that it is in the Reformed churches that preaching is exalted. Bavinck makes an important distinction that Lutherans see the Spirit working per verbum, while Reformed see him working cum verbum.



While Bavinck appreciated a Christianized society, he didn’t think all sins (e.g., fornication, drunkeness) should be punished by the State (437).

Bavinck’s discussions on the sacraments are par for the course with most Reformed dogmatics, so no need to explicate them here. He takes Calvin’s view as a middle path between Roman realism and Anabaptist gnosticism. He believes the Supper should be monthly.

*New Creation*

This is the most important section. When you want good eschatology, always go to the Neo-Calvinists, never American neo-Puritans. Recreation

“The resurrection is the principle of the renewal of all things” (428).


Bavinck ably rebuts the hippy, humanitarian idea that hell is too mean for God, especially when evaluated on human sentiment. “For when the interest of society becomes the deciding factor, not only is every boundary between good and evil wiped out, but also justice runs the danger of being sacrificed to power…Human feeling is no foundation for anything important, therefore, and neither may nor can it be decisive in the determination of law and justice. All appearances notwithstanding, it is infinitely better to fall into the hands of the Lord than into human hands. The same applies with respect to eternal punishment in hell (708).

The New Earth

“The state of glory will be no mere restoration of the state of nature, but a re-formation that, thanks to the power of Christ, transforms all matter into form, all potency into actuality, and presents the entire creation before the face of God, brilliant in unfading splendor and blossoming into a springtime of eternal youth (720).

“The difference between day and night, between the Sabbath and the workdays, has been suspended. Time is charged with eternity of God. Space is full of his presence. Eternal becoming is wedded to immutable being. Even the contrast between heaven and earth is gone (730).


Perhaps, as others have noted, this book isn’t as good as volumes 1-2. But it’s still the best thing on the market regarding this locus of systematic theology.


Liturgical Nestorianism (1)

I picked up Jordan’s treatise rebutting Greenville Seminary’s Worship in the Presence of God.  Disclaimer: I am certainly NOT advocating Jordan’s approach to worship nor really much else associated with the man.  But I do think Jordan neatly summarizes the situation and points out several flaws in some (not all) RPW approaches.  Jordan’s thesis is more or less correct: As (practical) Nestorianism is the separating the human and divine natures in Christ, leading to a diminution of the human nature, so liturgical Nestorianism means keeping the human so far away from worship that he is nothing more than a recipient who hears preaching sings (a little).

Initial key points:

  1. Strict RPW advocates charge any kind of maximalism in worship as going back to OT types and shadows, as best seen in Roman Catholic worship.  Jordan asks the obvious question: “Why do you assume (without proof) that Rome got Old Covenant worship correct?”
  2. The contrast in biblical is not a move from exterior to interior (this is Plato on crack) but from glory to glory.  The goal is eschatological maturation, not Platonic interiorizing.
  3. Strict RPW advocates claim that a) NT worship is based on the Synagogue and not the Temple; and b) NT worship is regulated by God by direct command.  Jordan points out that obvious: If this is true, then it is a meeting of silence.  Nowhere does God command what goes on in the Synagogue.  God simply commanded a holy convocation every Sabbath (Lev. 23).  He didn’t say anything else.
  4. If something is “Fulfilled” in the New Covenant why do we normally assume that “fulfilled” means “done away with?”  Isn’t this the textbook definition of dispensationalism?  Mind you, I don’t think that everything should be done in the New Covenant.
  5. When God commands singing in the Bible, it is always accompanied by instruments.  The 4th book of the Psalter (specifically Psalms 90-98) progresses from the arrival to the enthronement of Yahweh’s king).  Music is connected with ascension and enthronement (Jordan 37).
  6. Levitical priests weren’t really mediators.  There weren’t any mediators before Moses (not systematically).  Levitical priests were household servants.  Psalm 110 tells us who the true Mediator is in the old covenant.  Only priests in union with the Melchizedekian priest-king mediate. But this is exactly what new covenant believers are (44).
  7. Can Revelation be used as an order of worship?  Maybe.

John Webster: Holy Scripture

Holy Scripture: to depict these texts in light of their divine self-communication (Webster 5). It is a “short-hand for the nature and function of these communicative acts.”

Scripture has its place as an act of the God who speaks to and sanctifies his people (8). Webster makes an unusual move: he speaks of the sanctification of Scripture. It is the holiness of Scripture which is an aspect of God’s using creaturely reality to attest to his revelation (this is what we normally call the self-attestation of Scripture). The sanctification of Scripture always refers back to God’s activity.


Webster notes a problem when revelation is collapsed into prolegomenal foundations: it isolates revelation “from material dogmatic discussions” (12). Webster proposes an alternative, identifying revelation as “the self-disclosure of the Triune God” (13) in which God establishes mercy and fellowship with human beings.

The content of revelation is God’s own proper reality (14). It is divine “self-presentation” and not merely facts about God. But not only is God not merely the content of revelation, he is the subject. Further, revelation is not merely God’s self-displaying, but it is the establishing of fellowship and overcoming human opposition. In fact, Webster concludes: “revelation is reconciliation” (17). I disagree, but more on that later.


Webster’s emphasis on the sanctification aspects of Holy Scripture is much appreciated. Whatever else the Bible may mean in relation to political theology or historical criticism, if it is not first anchored in the sanctifying acts of God towards his people, then we have divorced Scripture from life.


The Church does not create Scripture, but is called into being by God the Word. If it is called into being, it stands in the relation of hearing. Webster notes, “The church’s being is ectopic” (47); it’s place is in the being and creative act of God the Word.

Invisibility of the Church: it is in-visible in that it is not identified/seen in the world’s social institutions.

Apostolicity and Tradition: tradition is just as much an act of hearing than a fresh act of speaking (49). Further, the church’s “acknowledgment of Scripture’s authority is not so much an act of self-government, but an exposure to judgment” (57).

The canon is an extension of Christ’s communicative presence in his church (58). The Church’s speech is generated and controlled by Christ’s own self-utterance (60).

We do not deny the canon is the church’s act; we are simply clarifying what kind of act it is (62). It is an act of assent rather than self-derived judgment. It is an act of confession of that which precedes and imposes itself upon the church. It is an act of submission before it is an act of authority. The act of canonization has a backwards reference. The church and all of its acts are ostensive–pointing above and beyond itself.

Reading in the Economy of Grace

“Grace establishes fellowship” (71). Reading erodes spontenaity and subjects the reader to different modes of learning. Bonhoeffer: we must be wary of positing an archimedean point of judgment outside of Scripture. We should inculcate a habit of “listening” that draws us into the story extra nos (83).

self-interpreting: only so by virtue of its relation to God.

Helpful Points

Webster avoids predicating divine attributes to Scripture; it’s relation to God is instrumental (23). This might appear a sop to liberalism, but a moment’s reflection will prove its obvious point: No one believes the pages of the bible as such are divine, for they wear away (which an attribute like eternity cannot). Therefore, the bible I have is a copy of something. A copy of what, precisely? This isn’t Barthianism. It’s common-sense. Let’s go back to the Augustinian use of res/signs. What’s so bad about looking at my individual copy of the Bible as a sign to God’s res? I really don’t see how one can avoid this conclusion. We don’t have the autographa, but if we want to maintain a strong doctrine of inspiration (or better, ex-piration), then we have to use some form of Augsutinian signs.

Webster suggests we should prioritize the model of “Scripture as prophetic testimony.” It fits in with speech-act concepts. It is “language that depicts a reality other than itself” (23). However, Webster suggest we best see Scripture as “a means of grace” (24). What do we mean by means? He warns us not to view “means” as something that makes the divine reality present where it wasn’t present before, giving a quasi-divine and magical connotation to the “means.”


Webster says revelation is reconciliation (16). Does he mean all acts of revelation are reconciliatory? Surely he can’t mean that, because Paul says the ‘wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all unrighteousness of men” (Romans 1:18). This aspect of revelation is not saving. It is judgmental and even damning.

Practical conclusions:

We should insist on Scripture in usu et actione (7).