Sons of Light


St. Peter’s Basilica, Photo by Chad Greiter on Unsplash

The people answered him, ‘We have heard from the law that the Christ remains forever; and how can you say, “The Son of Man must be lifted up”? Who is this Son of Man?’

“Then Jesus answered them, ‘A little while longer the light is with you. Walk while you have the light, lest darkness overtake you; he who walks in darkness does not know where he is going. While you have the light, believe in the light, that you may become sons of light.'” — John 12:34-36

“For this you know, that no fornicator, unclean person, nor covetous man, who is an idolater, has any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and God. Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of these things the wrath of God comes upon the sons of disobedience. Therefore do not be partakers with them. For you were once darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Walk as children of light (for the fruit of the Spirit is in all goodness, righteousness, and truth), finding out what is acceptable to the Lord. And have no fellowship with the unfruitful works of darkness, but rather expose them. For it is shameful even to speak of those things which are done by them in secret. But all things that are exposed are made manifest by the light, for whatever makes manifest is light.” — Ephesians 5:5-13

Body and Soul, Word and Spirit

Maagd_in_de_tuin seal of the free university of amsterdam

Seal of the Free University of Amsterdam. Motto: Auxilium nostrum in nomine Domini (“Our help is in the name of the Lord”)

Herman Bavinck became the professor of theology at the Free University of Amsterdam in 1902. Bavinck’s four-volume Reformed Dogmatics is no stranger to this blog, but I’d never read any of his sermons or speeches before Bruce Pass recently posted a translation of the speech Bavinck gave at the commencement of his professorship in December of 1902. The title of the speech is Godsdienst en Godsgeleerdheid, or as Pass translates it, Religion and Theology. Immediately noteworthy on a first read-through was the following description of the experience of the Christian life:

The pure, the spotless, the reasonable service is this: to present body and soul as a living, holy, and acceptable sacrifice to God. Now, does this mean that it is self-evident that one is by nature so inclined and capable of this and that all of this obtains without serious struggle? To believe in God against the appearance of all things, to hold fast to Him as though seeing what is unseen, to depend on Him with upright faith, certain hope, and ardent love and moreover, to mortify our old nature, to forsake the world, and to walk in a new, godly life – shall that come about through a frame of mind akin to melancholy, through the kindling of the twilight of our souls? Whoever claims this has as little knowledge of God as they do of their own heart. No, because religion is not a relationship, voluntarily entered into and determined in every detail by us, but a service required of us by God. It is a demand placed before us by Him, an obligation laid on us by Him. Therefore, all true religion is a sacrifice, a sacrifice of our whole heart and of our entire soul and of all of our might unto the will of our heavenly Father and because it is a sacrifice, religion is and remains a struggle until the end of our lives. For the flesh desires what is contrary to the spirit; what I will, that I do not do.

But is that all? Should religion be nothing more than command on command, rule upon rule, here a little and there a little? How would we, Christians who stand in the freedom with which Christ has set us free, be able to claim that? Besides, religion was not only that in the days of the Old Testament, when it was confessed with joy that the fear of the Lord is the principle of all wisdom and the pious sang, ‘How I love your law! I meditate on it all day long.’ Above all it is no more that in the days of the New Covenant, in which the spirit of slavery to fear has made way for the Spirit of adoption. Religion is not only obligation; it is also a disposition and desire. It is a matter of the head and the heart, faith and love, idea and affection, theory and praxis, doctrine and life together — a service certainly, but a service of love which never fails.

God did not give us his Word alone, but also His Spirit. The Word is first. All of our thinking and living, all of our ways, must conform to that Word. What wisdom would we have, if we were to reject the Word of the Lord? If we do not turn our face to the law and testimony, our eyes shall never rise to the dawn of knowledge. All self-righteous religion is an abomination to the Lord, but God has conjoined to the Word His Spirit, by whom he enlightens and renews us and gives us a desire to walk according to His commands. Therefore, the Christian religion is not only rectitude of mind but also purity of heart, not only knowledge but also trust, not just an idea of the intellect but also an inclination of the will, not only illumination of the consciousness but also a conversion of one’s being, in a word — a matter of the whole person, of body and soul together. For whoever is in Christ, is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, everything has become new.

Fighting as He Went

Borghese Gladiator 2

Borghese Warrior outside of Schloss Charlottenburg in Berlin

One of the great mysteries of the Christian faith is how Jesus could be both fully God and fully man. How does an infinite God take on finite human nature? What does this condescension tell us about God? What does it tell us about man? And how do we understand this God-man, who was “born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons” (Galatians 4:4-5)?

Herman Bavinck has a ninety-page section called ‘The Person of Christ’ in the third volume of his Reformed Dogmatics that focuses solely on questions like these. Here I just want to quote for later reference one paragraph of that larger section which deals with the “essential distinction between the holiness of God and the holiness of Christ as a human being:”

The goodness or holiness of Christ according to his human nature is not a divine and original goodness but one that has been given, infused, and for that reason it must also–in the way of struggle and temptation–reveal, maintain, and confirm itself. Infused goodness does not rule out acquired goodness. The latter presupposes the former; good fruit grows only on a good tree, but the soundness of the tree still has to be shown in the soundness of the fruit. Similarly, Christ had to manifest his innate holiness through temptation and struggle; this struggle is not made redundant or vain by virtue of the inability to sin (non posse peccare). For although real temptation could not come to Jesus from within but only from without, he nevertheless possessed a human nature, which dreaded suffering and death. Thus, throughout his life, he was tempted in all sorts of ways–by Satan, his enemies, and even by his disciples (Matt 4:1-11; Mark 1:13; Luke 4:1-13; Matt. 12:29; Luke 11:22; Matt. 16:23; Mark 8:33). And in those temptations he was bound, fighting as he went, to remain faithful; the inability to sin (non posse peccare) was not a matter of coercion but ethical in nature and therefore had to be manifested in an ethical manner. (314-315)

Unless God Shine into our Hearts

the-person-of-christA few short quotes and then one longer chunk of text from John Owen’s The Person of Christ:

Desire of union and enjoyment is the first vital act of this love. The soul, upon the discovery of the excellencies of God, earnestly desires to be united to them–to be brought near to that enjoyment of them whereof it is capable, and wherein alone it can find rest and satisfaction. This is essential to all love; it unites the mind to its object, and rests not but in enjoyment. (241)

All italics are mine, by the way.

Love is the principle that actually assimilates and conforms us to God, as faith is the principle which originally disposes thereunto. In our renovation into the image of God, the transforming power is radically seated in faith, but acts itself by love. Love proceeding from faith gradually changes the soul into the likeness of God; and the more it is in exercise, the more is that change effected. (243)

For the natural man receives not the things that are of God. Hence all their obedience is servile. They know neither the principal motives to it nor the ends of it. But they who are so servants as to be friends also, they know what their Lord does; the secret of the Lord is with them, and he shows them his covenant. They are admitted into an intimate acquaintance with the mind of Christ (‘we have the mind of Christ,’ 1 Cor. 2:16), and are thereon encouraged to perform the obedience of servants, with the love and delight of friends. (245)

And then here’s the longer quote. Owen has just asked what is required for the souls of men to be changed that “they would in all things be like to Jesus Christ” (270). This is the first part of his answer:

A spiritual light, to discern the beauty, glory, and amiableness of grace in Christ, is required hereunto. We can have no real design of conformity to him, unless we have their eyes who ‘beheld his glory, the glory of the only-begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth’ (John 1:14). Nor is it enough that we seem to discern the glory of his person, unless we see a beauty and excellency in every grace that is in him. ‘Learn of me,’ says he; ‘for I am meek and lowly in heart’ (Matt. 11:29). If we are not able to discern an excellency in meekness and lowliness of heart (as they are things generally despised), how shall we sincerely endeavor after conformity to Christ in them? The like may be said of all his other gracious qualifications. His zeal, his patience, his self-denial, his readiness for the cross, his love to his enemies, his benignity to all mankind, his faith and fervency in prayer, his love to God, his compassion towards the souls of men, his unweariedness in doing good, his purity, his universal holiness;–unless we have a spiritual light to discern the glory and amiableness of them all, as they were in him, we speak in vain of any design for conformity to him. And this we have not, unless God shine into our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of his glory in the face of Jesus Christ. It is, I say, a foolish thing to talk of the imitation of Christ, whilst really, through the darkness of our minds, we discern not that there is an excellency in the things wherein we ought to be like to him. (271)

“unified knowledge as the basis of our action”


Cornelius Van Til on why individual Christians, whatever role they play in the body, ought to give themselves to systematic theology:

The unity and organic character of our personality demands that we have unified knowledge as the basis of our action. If we do not pay attention to the whole of biblical truth as a system, we become doctrinally one-sided, and doctrinal one-sidedness is bound to issue in spiritual one-sidedness. As human beings we are naturally inclined to be one-sided. One tends to be intellectualistic, another tends to be emotional, and still another tends to be activistic. One tends to be only prophetic, another only priest, and a third only king. We should be all these at once and in harmony. A study of systematic theology will help us to keep and develop our spiritual balance. It enables us to avoid paying attention only to that which, by virtue of our temperament, appeals to us. (An Introduction to Systematic Theology, p 22)

Not only does systematic theology aim at harmony within the individual believer, but according to Van Til, “a thorough knowledge of the system of truth in Scripture is the best defense against heresy” and “also the best help for the propagation of the truth.” In other words, it’s the best foundation from which to love your neighbor–those who love the truth will be encouraged, and those who reject the truth will actually be rejecting an accurate, coherent presentation of the truth.

Van Til concludes:

[W]e should observe that just as a thorough knowledge of the system of truth in Scripture is the best defense against heresy, so it is also the best help for the propagation of the truth. This is but the other side of the former point. As an army well organized is not so likely to be overcome by a surprise attack and is not so likely to be shattered as an army poorly organized, so also an army well organized is better able to attack the enemy than an army poorly organized. Each unit will have the support and the protection of the whole army as it goes on to the attack. The morale will be better. When the enemy comes with cannon, we must be able to put atomic bombs over against them. When the enemy attacks the foundations, we must be able to protect these foundations.

The church will have to return to its erstwhile emphasis upon its teaching function if it is to fulfill its God-given task of bringing the gospel to all men. Its present recourse to jerky evangelism as almost the only method of propaganda is itself an admission of paupery. It is remarkable that what the church, generally speaking, still does in the way of teaching is shot through with modernism. (An Introduction to Systematic Theology, p 24)

To which, I would only add that the best place to start learning systematic theology is in the historic creeds and confessions of the church. They’re not perfect, but they are all kinds of helpful, especially when you read through all the cited scriptures as you go. The best confession I’m aware of is the Second London Baptist Confession of Faith from 1689, which can be found here:


“the whole world in its interconnectedness”

figura dos corpos celestes - velho

Bartolomeu Velho, ‘Figura dos corpos celestes’

After proclaiming Christ as “the Savior of the whole person and the whole world,” Bavinck discusses how special revelation is aimed at exactly this. Another chunk from his Reformed Dogmatics (1.346):

Clearly emerging from all this, finally, is the purpose of special revelation. The final goal again is God himself, for he can never come to an end in creation but can only rest in himself. God reveals himself for his own sake: to delight in the glorification of his own attributes. But on the journey toward this final end we do after all encounter the creature, particularly the human being, who serves as instrument to bring to manifestation the glory of God’s name before the eyes of God. Precisely in order to reach this final goal, the glorification of God’s name, special revelation must strive to the end of re-creating the whole person after God’s image and likeness and thus to transform that person into a mirror of God’s attributes and perfections. Hence the object of revelation cannot only be to teach human beings, to illuminate their intellects (rationalism), or to prompt them to practice virtue (moralism), or to arouse religious sensations in them (mysticism). God’s aim in special revelation is both much deeper and reaches much farther. It is none other than to redeem human beings in their totality of body and soul with all their capacities and powers; to redeem not only individual, isolated human beings but humanity as an organic whole. Finally, the goal is to redeem not just humanity apart from all the other creatures but along with humanity to wrest heaven and earth, in a word, the whole world in its organic interconnectedness, from the power of sin and again to cause the glory of God to shine forth from every creature. Sin has spoiled and destroyed everything: the intellect and the will, the ethical and the physical world. Accordingly, it is the whole person and the whole cosmos at whose salvation and restoration God is aiming in his revelation. God’s revelation, therefore, is certainly soteriological, but the object of that salvation (σωτηρία) is the cosmos, and not only the ethical or the will to the exclusion of the somatic and physical, but everything in conjunction. For God has consigned all human beings under sin that he might have mercy upon all (Rom. 5:15f; 11:32; Gal. 3:22).

He later circles back on this theme and puts it more succinctly:

Included in objective revelation, i.e., in the person of Christ and in Scripture as his word, is everything human beings need to know God and to serve him. The revelation of God was completed in Christ and recorded with complete adequacy in Scripture. But this revelation in Christ and in his Word is a means, not an end. The end is the creation of a new humanity, which will fully unfold the image of God. Therefore the whole revelation must be transmitted from Christ to the church, from Scripture to the [believer’s] consciousness. God seeks a dwelling place in humanity (1.588).

Romanticism’s Great Fault: What Art Cannot Do


Herbert James Draper, ‘Lament for Icarus’

Dutch theologian Herman Bavinck, in a section of his dogmatics concerning the origin of religion, writes that romanticism’s great fault as a whole was to confuse art and religion:

One then, naturally, also slips into the error of confusing and equating religious feeling with sensual and aesthetic feeling. Known to us all from history is the kinship between religious and sensual love and the passage from one to the other. But equally dangerous is the confusion of religious and aesthetic feeling, of religion and art. The two are essentially distinct. Religion is life, reality; art is ideal, appearance. Art cannot close the gap between the ideal and reality. Indeed, for a moment it lifts us above reality and induces us to live in the realm of ideals. But this happens only in the imagination. Reality itself does not change on account of it. Though art gives us distant glimpses of the realm of glory, it does not induct us into that realm and make us citizens of it. Art does not atone for our guilt, or wipe away our tears, or comfort us in life and death….Aesthetic feeling, accordingly, can never take the place of religious feeling, anymore than art can replace religion. Granted, the two are connected. From the very beginning religion and art went hand in hand. The decline of the one brought with it the decay of the other. The ultimate driving force of art was religion. (Reformed Dogmatics, 1.267)

Bavinck further stresses the centrality of religion to the human life:

[R]eligion is distinguished from all the forces of culture and maintains its independence from them all. Religion is central; science, morality, and art are partial. While religion embraces the whole person, science, morality, and art are respectively rooted in the intellect, the will, and the emotions. Religion aims at nothing less than eternal blessedness in fellowship with God; science, morality, and art are limited to creatures and seek to enrich this life with the true, the good, and the beautiful. Religion, accordingly, cannot be equated with anything else. (Reformed Dogmatics, 1.269)

Arguing later that religion is a product of revelation, Bavinck returns to this contrast between religion, science, and art to explain how humans aim at something entirely unique when they are concerned with religion:

The distinction between religion on the one hand and art on the other supplies us with the same concept of revelation. Nature, the world all around us, is the source of our knowledge and the teacher of art. But in religion that same world comes under consideration from still another viewpoint, viz., as the revelation of God, as the disclosure of his eternal power and divinity. In religion humans are concerned with something very different from what their aim is in science and art. In religion they do not seek to increase their knowledge, nor to satisfy their imagination, but aim at eternal life in communion with God, true transformation of their being, liberation from sin and misery. In religion they are concerned about God because they realize that in God alone they can find peace and rest. For that reason religion requires another source than do science and art; it assumes a revelation that causes God himself to come to people and bring them into fellowship with him. (Reformed Dogmatics, 1.277)

A Note on the Incarnation

Athanasius and Cyril of Alexandria

Building on the work of Cyril of Alexandria, Thomas Weinandy relates a thought-experiment on the mystery of the Incarnation in his book Does God Suffer?:

It may be helpful to illustrate this understanding of the communication of idioms with an example. Allow me to use an example that I pose to my students, which has come to be known in some circles as ‘Dr. Weinandy’s carrot example.’

Jesus goes to Martha’s, Mary’s and Lazarus’ home for dinner. Martha serves as a starter (to use the English term) raw carrots with garlic dip (a yet to be discovered American culinary invention). Jesus ate the carrots. Who was it who ate the carrots? It was the Son of God who ate the carrots. Was he eating the carrots as God or as man? Obviously, he was eating the carrots as man. God as God cannot eat carrots for he does not have teeth, a mouth, a stomach, etc. Lazarus also ate the carrots, but unfortunately he ate a rotten carrot and died of food poisoning. Four days later Jesus returned and raised Lazarus from the dead. Who was it who raised Lazarus from the dead? It was the Son of God who raised Lazarus from the dead. But did he raise Lazarus from the dead as God or as man? At this juncture there is silence among the students. Inevitably the more pious students first break the silence by saying that Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead ‘as God.’ I remain silent. Then some brave soul, usually a girl, will hesitantly whisper, almost inaudibly, ‘as man.’ That is precisely the correct answer. Within the Incarnation the Son of God never does anything as God. If he did, he would be God acting in a man. This the Incarnation will never permit. All that Jesus did as the Son of God was done as a man – whether it was eating carrots or raising someone from the dead. He may have raised Lazarus from the dead by his divine power or, better, by the power of the Holy Spirit, but it was, nevertheless, as man that he did so. Similarly, the Son of God did not suffer as God in a man, for to do so would mean that he was not a man. The Son of God suffered as a man. (205)

That phrase in the first paragraph–“the communication of idioms”–is a technical phrase that demands, as Weinandy has it elsewhere, “that it be truly the full divine Son of God who is man, that it be truly a complete man that the Son of God is, and thus that the Son of God actually does exist as man” (190).

And all of this to get at and express what he calls the personal/existential conception of the Incarnation: “Jesus is the person of the Son existing as a man” (197).