Herman Bavinck on the Importance and Difference between Dogmatics and Ethics

bavinck.jpegWhat is theology? And what is it good for? These are questions Christians ask and theologians attempt to answer. In his various works on theology, Kevin Vanhoozer has attempted to explain doctrine in terms of drama (e.g., The Drama of Doctrine). More recently, he has argued for the place of doctrine and drama in the making of disciples (e.g., Hearers and Doers: A Pastor’s Guide to Making Disciples Through Scripture and Doctrine). In Pilgrim TheologyMichael Horton makes the same point—doctrine summarizes the drama, directs doxology, and instructs disciples.

In short, some of the best theologians today know that theology is for living, doctrine is for discipleship, and everything is for worship. Still, theology (truth about God) is not to be confused with discipleship (walking in truth). To say it differently, there is a place for theology and ethics. And recently, I was reminded (or instructed more fully) how these two disciplines are related to one another, but also different.

In the editorial introduction to the first volume of Herman Bavinck’s recently published Reformed Ethicswe find how this great theologian for the Netherlands distinguished theology and ethics. First, in Reformed Dogmatics, he states,

Dogmatics describes the deeds of God done for, to, and in human beings; ethics describes what renewed human beings now do on the basis of and in the strength of those divine deeds. In dogmatics human beings are passive; they receive and believe; in ethics they are themselves active agents. In dogmatics, the articles of faith are treated; in ethics, the precepts of the decalogue. In the former, that which concerns faith is dealt with; in the latter, that which concerns love, obedience, and good works. Dogmatics sets forth what God is and does for human beings and causes them to know God as their Creator, Redeemer, and Sanctifier; ethics sets forth what human beings are and do for God now; how, with everything they are and have, with intellect and will and all their strength, they devote themselves to God out of gratitude and love. Dogmatics is the system of the knowledge of God; ethics is that of the service of God. (xxv–xxvi, Reformed Dogmatics 1:58)

Then complementing his earlier description, Bavinck goes further.

In dogmatics we are concerned with what God does for us and in us. In dogmatics God is everything. Dogmatics is a word from God to us, coming from outside of us, from above us; we are passive, listening, and opening ourselves to being directed by God. In ethics, we are interested in the question of what it is that God now expects of us when he does his work in us. What do we do for him? Here we are active, precisely because of and on the grounds of God’s deeds in us; we sing psalms in thanks and praise to God. In dogmatics, God descends to us; in ethics, we ascend to God. In dogmatics, he is ours; in ethics, we are his. In dogmatics, we know we shall see his face; in ethics, his name will be written on our foreheads [Rev. 22:4]. Dogmatics proceeds from God: ethics returns to God. In dogmatics, God loves us; in ethics, therefore, we love him. (Reformed Ethics, xxvi)

These two descriptions help us see the need for doing theology and ethics. Both disciplines equip the disciple of Christ for faithfulness in life, in church, and in the world. And thus we should study theology that informs our ethics, and we should do ethics which is rigorously grounded in Scripture, not controlled by modern philosophies.

For both disciplines, Herman Bavinck is a sure guide and one whose Reformed Ethics will surely bless readers now that it has been translated into English. (Read about its publication here). So pick up and read his works if you can. But even if you can’t, continue to give yourself to theology and ethics, doctrine and living—for both are needed for true worship and maturity in Christ.

Soli Deo Gloria, ds

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