Herman Bavinck on the Danger of Spiritual Pride

Thiago Silva, ThM

Introduction

Herman Bavinck (1854–1921) was a theologian and pastor who developed a robust reformed theology and worldview that was applied in the various spheres of life in their given context, whether in the pulpit, in academia, art, education, politics and society.

Due to the Trinitarian foundation of his reformed confessionalism, Bavinck taught a practical theology where Reformed dogmatics was taught in conjunction with Reformed ethics.

According to Bavinck:

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 us and above us; we are passive, listening, and opening ourselves to being directed by God.

“It is not possible to study, develop and apply the doctrines of grace if we do not reflect God’s grace in everything we do.”

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.[1]

These words teach us something very important: it is not possible to study, develop and apply the doctrines of grace if we do not reflect God’s grace in everything we do.“Pride has no place for those who study and teach a theology that reflects the amazing grace of God.”

Therefore, it is the thesis of this brief article that, according to Bavinck, there is no reformed theology apart from reformed ethics; that is why pride has no place for those who study and teach a theology that reflects the amazing grace of God.

So, what did Bavinck teach his students about this topic? In his class notes discovered in 2008 ­– later published in 2019 as Reformed Ethics – we can find Bavinck addressing the issue of pride, its consequences, and its solution in several places.

I will briefly develop some of these points in this short article.

On Pride and the Fall

After developing a profound section on the essence of the image of God in human beings, Bavinck describes humanity under the power of sin.

It all started under the first act of sin. This act was that, out of pride, Eve denied both the consequences of sin and sin itself.

This singular fact of Adam and Eve’s sin involved two movements. On the one hand, sin led them to turn away from God and to enmity and hatred against God.“In every sin committed, there is deification of oneself, glorification of oneself and adoration of oneself.”

On the other hand, sin led them to turn to self, resulting in “selfishness – a love of something other than God, namely, oneself; deification of self, glorification of self, adoration of self.[2]

In short, in the first sinful act committed by Adam and Eve, and in every sin committed, there is “deification of oneself, glorification of oneself and adoration of oneself.”

Isn’t that an expression of how horrible pride is? In fact, the descriptions of sin and pride bear a great resemblance. For Bavinck,

sin consists concretely in placing a substitute on the throne. That substitute is not another creature in general, not even the neighbor, but the human self, the “ego” or “I.”

The organizing principle of sin is self-glorification, self-divination; stated more broadly: self-love or egocentricity. A person wants to be an “I,” either without, next to, or in the place of God.

Turning away from God is simultaneously a turning to self. Prior to this, God was the center of all human thought and action; now it is the person’s “I.”

Humanity not only surrendered its true center but also replaced it with a false center.[3]

“We cannot continue to grow to the glory of God if our hearts do not recognize the deep need to mortify what destroys the relationship between theology and practice, doctrine and ethics; that is, pride.”

According to what has been said, one can see that self-worship is an essential aspect of sin.

According to Bavinck, “although this may not be conscious to the sinner, sin often proceeds from egocentricity, from the desire to exalt oneself.”[4] For Bavinck,

the sin of pride, which is the naked expression of the principle of egocentricity, boasts of knowledge and virtue and develops into spiritual pride; it then progresses beyond egocentricity into terrible hatred of God, into intentional blasphemy, cursing, conscious hatred of God, and into delighting in this.

All these spiritual sins as well are forms of egocentricity. Hatred against humanity and against God is provoked, wounded egocentricity.”[5]

I believe that one of the things that is most prejudiced against the development of Reformed theology in churches is spiritual pride.

Learning, preaching, and teaching about God’s sovereign grace with a proud heart only shows that we are the ones who want to be sovereign by standing up against God’s grace.

As a result, this sin will cause us to hate God and our neighbors. In the same way, spiritual pride will lead us to arrogance, haughtiness, lawlessness, licentiousness, boasting and longing for fame or honor, and ingratitude.[6]

This should lead us to reflect seriously on the intention and the way we are learning, applying, and teaching the precious doctrines of grace.

Conclusion

We cannot continue to grow to the glory of God if our hearts do not recognize the deep need to mortify what destroys the relationship between theology and practice, doctrine and ethics; that is, pride.

It is a terrible contradiction to teach a theology that should lead us to humility, but which we are using to elevate ourselves above others, including God. “Pride can never be the beginning or the basis of our learning and teaching, otherwise, all our spiritual pride will be the beginning and the basis of our spiritual ruin.”

It is spiritual pride that leads one to the misuse of reformed doctrines, promoting division among those who should be more united in truth.

This is what led Bavinck to reflect on how much is still lacking in practice in the Christian confession.

“Those who confess Jesus Christ, in particular to the members of our [Reformed] Church, a lesson must be kept in mind: do not be arrogant. . . be clothed with humility.”[7]

Dear brothers and sisters, the appeal is clear: let us not be arrogant.

Spiritual pride is so terrible because it reflects what happened in the fall.

Pride can never be the beginning or the basis of our learning and teaching, otherwise, all our spiritual pride will be the beginning and the basis of our spiritual ruin.

Perhaps more than one reader has already studied pride, humility and the imitation of Christ.

However, it is my hope that as Christians, and in this case as Reformed Christians, we can grow in humility in a real way and not as merely theoretical.

After all, Bavinck observes, “the purpose of ethics is that we grow in grace and not stay at the level of theory.”[8]

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Image Credit

View of The Hague from the Delftse Vaart in the Seventeenth Century, 1852, by Cornelis Springer and Kasparus Karsen. The Rijksmuseum. SK-A-4870.

Sources
[1] Herman Bavinck, Reformed Ethics: Created, Fallen, and Converted Humanity, ed. John Bolt et al., vol. 1 (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2019), 22.
[2] Bavinck, Reformed Ethics, vol.1, 81.
[3] Ibid, 105.
[4] Ibid, 110.
[5] Ibid, 112.
[6] Ibid, 137-138.
[7] Bavinck, Kennis en Leven (Kampen: J.H. Kok, 1922), 78.
[8] Bavinck, Reformed Ethics, vol. 1, 13-14.

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