Herman Bavinck on a Hermeneutic of New Testament Fulfillment (Contra. Chiliasm)

In the following quotations, taken from the final section of his chapter on “Visions of the End,” Bavinck offers an extended critique of what is sometimes referred to as chiliasm, i.e., the belief in a future millennial messianic reign prior to the very end of all things (eschaton). And although he does not use this particular label for what he’s describing, Bavinck’s critique would quite fittingly apply to what is often referred to as dispensationalism.

“Now it is true that that future is depicted in images derived from the historical circumstances that then prevailed, so that Zion and Jerusalem, temple and altar, sacrifice and priesthood, continue to occupy a large place in it. But we must remember that we ourselves do the same thing and can only speak of God and divine things in sensuous, earthly forms. One reason God instituted Old Testament worship as he did was that we would be able to speak of heavenly things, not in self-made images but in the correct images given us by God himself. The New Testament, accordingly, takes over this language and in speaking about the future kingdom of God refers to Zion and Jerusalem, to temple and altar, to prophets and priests. …

Nor must we forget that all prophecy is poetry that must be interpreted in terms of its own character. The error of the older exegesis was not spiritualization as such but the fact that it sought to assign a spiritual meaning to all the illustrative details, in the process … often losing sight of the main thought. … 

[E]veryone senses that in these lines one has to do with poetic descriptions that cannot and may not be taken literally. The realistic interpretation here becomes self-contradictory and misjudges the nature of prophecy.

It is also incorrect to say that the prophets themselves were totally unconscious of the distinction between the thing [they asserted] and the image [in which they clothed it]. …

[I]n Old Testament exegesis the question is not whether the prophets were totally or partially conscious of the symbolic nature of their predictions, for even in the words of classic authors there is more than they themselves thought or intended. It is a question, rather, what the Spirit of Christ who was in them wished to declare and reveal by them. And that is decided by the New Testament, which is the completion, fulfillment, and therefore interpretation of the Old. The nature of a tree is revealed by its fruit. … [N]ot Judaism but Christianity is the full realization of the religion of the prophets.

The New Testament views itself—and there can certainly be no doubt about this—as the spiritual and therefore complete and authentic fulfillment of the Old Testament. … 

The peculiar nature of the old dispensation consisted precisely in the fact that the covenant of grace was presented in graphic images and clothed in national and sensuous forms. Sin was symbolized by levitical impurity. Atonement was effected by the sacrifice of a slain animal. Purification was adumbrated by physical washings. Communion with God was connected with the journey to Jerusalem. The desire for God’s favor and closeness was expressed in the longing for his courts. Eternal life was conceived as a long life on earth, and so forth. In keeping with Israel’s level of understanding, placed as Israel was under the tutelage of the law, all that is spiritual, heavenly, and eternal was veiled in earthly shadows. … 

The shadow, while not itself the body, does point to the body but vanishes when the body itself appears. The New Testament is the truth, the essence, the core, and the actual content of the Old Testament. The Old Testament is revealed in the New, while the New Testament is concealed in the Old (Vetus Testamentum in Novo patet, Novum Testamentum in Vetere latet). … The benefits of salvation promised and foreshadowed under the Old Testament have become manifest in Christ as eternal and authentic reality. All the promises of God are “yes” and “amen” in him (2 Cor. 1:20). The Old Testament was not abolished but fulfilled in the new dispensation, is still consistently being fulfilled, and will be fulfilled, until the parousia of Christ. …

[T]he New Testament itself has given to the particularistic ideas of the Old Testament a universal and cosmic meaning.

Totally wrong, therefore, is the chiliastic view according to which the New Testament, along with the church composed of Gentiles, is an intermezzo, a detour taken by God because Israel rejected its Messiah, so that the actual continuation and fulfillment of the Old Testament can begin only with Christ’s second coming. The opposite, rather, is true. Not the New Testament but the Old is an intermezzo. The covenant with Israel is temporary; the law has been inserted in between the promise to Abraham and its fulfillment in Christ….

In the days of the Old Testament the people of Israel were chosen for a time that salvation might later, in the fullness of time, be a blessing for the whole world. Israel was chosen, not to the detriment of but for the benefit of the nations. From its earliest beginning the promise to Adam and Noah had a universal thrust….

Therefore the New Testament is not an intermezzo or interlude, neither a detour nor a departure from the line of the old covenant, but the long-aimed-for goal, the direct continuation and the genuine fulfillment of the Old Testament. Chiliasm, judging otherwise, comes in conflict with Christianity itself. In principle it is one with Judaism and must get to where it attributes a temporary, passing value to Christianity, the historical person of Christ, and his suffering and death, and it only first expects real salvation from Christ’s second coming, his appearance in glory. … 

Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, vol. 4, ch. 15 (pp. 659-662).

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CrossWay Community Church
January 2nd, 2022

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Bavinck’s Theological Description of Death

Death is not natural but arises from the violation of the divine commandment (Gen. 2:17); from the devil insofar as he by his seduction caused humanity to fall and die (John 8:44); from sin itself inasmuch as it has a disintegrating impact on the whole of human life and, as it were, produces death from within itself (James 1:15); and from the judgment of God since he pays the wages of sin in the currency of death (Rom. 6:23). And in Scripture this death is never identical with annihilation, with nonbeing, but always consists in the destruction of harmony, in being cut off from the various life settings in which a creature has been placed in keeping with one’s nature, in returning to the elementary chaotic existence…. 

Accordingly, in its essence and entire scope, death is disturbance, the breakup of all these relations in which humans stood originally and still ought to stand now. Death’s cause, therefore, is and can be none other than the sin that disturbs the right relation to God and breaks up life-embracing fellowship with God. In this sense sin not only results in death but also coincides with it; sin is death, death in a spiritual sense. Those who sin, by that token and at the same moment, put themselves in an adversarial relationship toward God, are dead to God and the things of God, have no pleasure in the knowledge of his ways, and in hostility and hatred turn away from him. And since this relation to God, this being created in his image and likeness, is not something extraneous and additional, a donum superadditum, but belongs to the essence of being human and bears a central character, the disturbance of this relationship will inevitably have a devastating impact on all the other relationships in which human beings stand—to themselves, to their fellow humans, to nature, to the angels, to the whole creation. Actually, in terms of its nature, at the very moment it was committed, sin should have resulted in a full, across-the-board death (Gen. 2:17), a return of the entire cosmos to its primeval chaotic condition.

But God intervened: he broke the power of sin and death. … He intervened first with his common grace to curb the power of sin and death, then with his special grace to break down and conquer that power. Not only is physical death postponed, and not only did God by various measures make human existence and development possible; but also Christ by his cross fundamentally achieved a victory over sin and death and brought life and immortality to light (Rom. 5:12ff.; 1 Cor. 15:45; 2 Tim. 1:10; Heb. 2:14; Rev. 1:18; 20:14), so that everyone who believes in him has eternal life and will never die (John 3:36; 5:24; 8:51–52; 11:25). Now it is this life and this immortality that in Holy Scripture stands in the foreground.

Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, vol. 4, pp. 614-15.

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CrossWay Community Church
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