Shane P. Lems
You can’t usually tell much about a book simply by reading its first and last sentences. Not so with this book on Christian doctrine by Herman Bavinck called The Wonderful Works of God. The first sentence of the book is, “God, and God alone, is man’s highest good.” The concluding sentence is from the Apostle Paul: “For of him and through him and to him are all things, to him be the glory forever! Amen.” These are notable lines, indeed, and they well reflect the content of the book.
I’m guessing many readers of New Horizons are somewhat familiar with Herman Bavinck and his many contributions to Reformed theology. From his four-volume Reformed Dogmatics to his shorter book called Preaching and Preachers to the recently translated Reformed Ethics to his many other writings, Bavinck’s work certainly takes its place next to other important theologians like Louis Berkhof, Charles Hodge, Francis Turretin, and even John Calvin.
This work was first published in Dutch as Magnalia Dei in 1909, then later translated into English by Henry Zylstra and published in 1956 with the title Our Reasonable Faith. This 2020 republication of Zylstra’s translation returns to the original title, The Wonderful Works of God, English for Magnalia Dei. A helpful Scripture index has been added to this new edition.
In some ways, this book might be considered a shortened version of Bavinck’s four-volume Dogmatics. It does cover the regular topics of doctrine in systematic order. But The Wonderful Works of God isn’t a volume of “cut and paste” sections from Bavinck’s Dogmatics. It’s a unique work that is in some ways more accessible and devotional than Dogmatics.
The book has several strengths. First, as is evident in the opening and closing sentences noted above, this book is God-centered. Bavinck constantly directs the reader’s attention to the triune God. This book is also helpfully polemic. By this I mean that Bavinck does at times briefly mention opposing viewpoints, for example, those of Roman Catholicism, and critiques them in light of Scripture.
I also appreciate Bavinck’s covenantal and redemptive-historical perspectives in The Wonderful Works of God. From his discussion on Adam and Christ to his explanation of the covenant of grace, Bavinck’s theology certainly takes into account the progressive and redemptive flow of God’s history from creation to consummation, melding redemptive history and systematic theology.
Second, it is scriptural. Bavinck constantly cites, alludes to, or paraphrases Scripture. He does use proof texts, but his theology is much more deeply and broadly biblical than proof-texting alone. For example, consider this sentence: “Redemption, quite as much as creation and providence, is solely the work of God” (251). In one sentence, Bavinck echoes the truth of Scripture that God alone is the Creator, Sustainer, and Redeemer.
Third, this book is deeply Reformed. And this makes sense: theology that is thoroughly biblical will be deeply Reformed. Bavinck is very much aware of the Reformed theologians who taught before him. In many ways, he stands on their shoulders. And he often mentions or alludes to the Reformed Confessions. For example, Bavinck echoes the Canons of Dort 3/4.11 when he explains regeneration as how God sovereignly and mysteriously “opens the heart that is closed, mellows what is hard, and circumcises what is uncircumcised” (460).
Finally, this book is very practical and devotional. It is true that sometimes books on doctrine end up being technical and dry. But The Wonderful Works of God is neither. This is one major reason why I so much enjoy reading Bavinck: his writing helps me learn more about the truths of Scripture in a way that encourages me in the historic Christian faith. Here are a few examples:
Man is an enigma whose solution can only be found in God. (7)
For the saint, heaven in all its blessedness and glory would be void and stale without God. (10)
The knowledge of faith is a practical knowledge, a knowledge of the heart rather than of the head, a knowledge with a personal, profound, soul-absorbing concern. (432)
The moment we have eyes to see the richness of the spiritual life, we do away with the practice of judging others according to our puny measure. (418)
The Wonderful Works of God is in my view one of the best readable summaries of Christian doctrine. Although this book is shorter and less technical than Bavinck’s Dogmatics, it is still 550 pages of robust theological writing, at a college reading level. I challenge you to work through it. If you read it well, you will learn more about the great biblical truths of the Christian faith that speak to the head and to the heart—for the glory of God!
The author is pastor of Covenant Presbyterian in Hammond, Wisconsin.
The Wonderful Works of God, by Herman Bavinck, with introduction by R. Carlton Wynne. Westminster Seminary Press, 2020. Hardcover, 695 pages, $24.99.
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