September 22, 2006

Herman Bavinck (1854–1921) on Equivalency, Sufficiency and Commercialism

Second, the substitutionary character of Christ’s obedience automatically also involves equivalency inasmuch as it corresponds completely to the demand of the law. This equivalency, however, was understood differently by the Reformation than by Rome. Duns Scotus believed that some holy human being or an angel could also have made satisfaction for our sins if God had approved of this substitution, for “every created offering has as much value as God agrees to and no more.” Similarly, the Remonstrants later taught that not the justice of God but only the fairness (aequitas) demanded any satisfaction and that “the merit that Christ paid was paid off in accordance with the estimation of God the Father.”

Squarely in opposition to this view, Aquinas called Christ’s passion not only a sufficient “but a superabundant satisfaction for the sins of the human race.” The question was even considered whether one drop of Christ’s blood would not have been sufficient for the purpose of atonement. This whole way of looking at the subject, both in Aquinas and in Duns Scotus, is based on an external quantitative estimate of the suffering of Christ.

In principle, the Reformation broke with this system of calculation. This is evident from the fact that it rejected both the “acceptation” of Scotus and the “superabundance” of Aquinas; that beside the passive obedience, it also included the active obedience in the work of Christ; that, while it did call Christ’s sacrifice equivalent to, it did not consider it identical with what we were obligated to suffer and to do; that it considered it completely sufficient, so that no augmentation by our faith and good works was needed, either along Catholic or Remonstrant lines. The Reformed said that Christ’s work by itself was completely sufficient for the atonement of the sins of the whole world so that, if he had wanted to save a smaller number, it could not have been less, and if he had wanted to save a higher number, it would not have had to be greater.

Sins indeed are not money debts, and satisfaction is not a problem of arithmetic. The transfer of our sins to Christ was not so mechanical a process that the sins of all the elect first had to be carefully counted, then laid on Christ, and separately expiated by Christ. Nor did Christ pass through all the phases of human life and make separate satisfaction for the sins of every phase or age, as Irenaeus and others pictured it. Neither did he suffer precisely the same (idem) things we do, nor in the same way, for consciousness of guilt and so on could not occur in him, nor did he know spiritual death as the inclination to do evil, and he did not suffer eternal death in form and duration, but only intensively and qualitatively as God-forsakenness.

There is even some truth in “acceptation,” for the strict justice of God required that every human should personally make satisfaction for himself or herself; and it was his grace that gave Christ as the mediator of a covenant and imputed his righteousness to the members of that covenant. A quantitative calculation, therefore, does not fit in the case of vicarious satisfaction. In the doctrine of satisfaction, we are dealing with factors other than those that can be measured and weighed. Sin is a principle that controls and corrupts the whole creation, a power and a realm that expands and organizes itself in numerous actual sins. The wrath of God is a fury directed against the sin of the whole human race. His righteousness is the perfection by which he cannot tolerate being denied or dishonored as God by his creatures. Vicarious satisfaction, accordingly, means that as the guarantor and head, Christ entered the relationship to God – his wrath, his righteousness, his law – in which the human race stood. For that humankind, which was given to him to reconcile, he was made to be sin, became a curse, and took its guilt and punishment on himself. When the Socinians say that in any case Christ could make satisfaction only for one person and not for many, inasmuch as he only bore the punishment of sin once, this reasoning is based on the same quantitative calculation as the “acceptation” of Duns Scotus and the “superabundance” of Aquinas. For though the sin that entered the world through Adam manifests itself in an incalculable series of sinful thoughts, words, and deeds, and though the wrath of God is felt individually by every guilty member of the human race, it is and remains the one indivisible law that has been violated, the one indivisible wrath of God that has been ignited against the sin of the whole human race, the one indivisible righteousness of God that has been offended by sin, the one unchangeable eternal God who has been affronted by sin. The punishment of Christ, therefore, is also one: one that balances in intensity and quality the sin and guilt of the whole human race, appeases the wrath of God against the whole human race, fulfills the whole law, fully satisfies the righteousness of God, and again makes God known and recognized in all his perfections of truth and righteousness, of love and grace, throughout the human race. That punishment, after all, was laid on him who was not an individual on a level with other individuals but the second Adam, head of the human race, both Son of Man and Son of God.
Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2006), 3:400–402.
In the case of financial debts, satisfaction indeed cancels out forgiveness, since here what matters is not the person who pays but only the sum of money that is paid. But in the case of moral debts, this is very different. They are personal and must be punished in the guilty person himself or herself. If a substitute is admitted in this situation, the admission of such a substitute and the crediting of his merits in exchange for those of the guilty person is certainly always an act of grace.
Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2006), 3:376.


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