The Wonderful Works of God: Chapter 1 Man’s Highest Good

I am reading through The Wonderful Works of God by Herman Bavinck and am using the free discussion guide by Charles Williams as a writing prompt in order to organize my thoughts and learn more as I study this classic Christian book.

If this interests you, please follow along and feel free to give your thoughts on the questions and my answers.

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The Wonderful Works of God by Herman Bavinck

Chapter 1: Man’s Highest Good

  • 1 (pp.1–3): What is man’s highest good? What distinguishes man from the rest of creation with respect to God, and the enjoyment of him? Why is creation unable to satisfy man’s deepest longings?

Bavinck answers the question, “What is man’s highest good?” in the very first sentence of his book. God. This view isn’t going to be breaking any new ground for a Christian, however, this view is the Christian’s foundation. This can be seen by looking at just about any catechism (Westminister Catechism, Luther’s Catechism, New City Catechism, etc). 

Next, Bavinck then shows how humans are different from other creatures, we have a special awareness mere animals lack. We have our special awareness, an awareness beyond the physical due to being created in the image of our God. An identity that is indestructibly true, whether we are Christian or not. This is a grace that God has lavished upon all of humanity which constantly reminds us and calls us to Him, even if we ignore it.

A hint of this calling lies in how we can never be fully satisfied in our physical world. Bavinck goes on to explain how, even though we think with our physical brains, thinking is a spiritual activity that transcends yet connects us to physical reality. It is in this spiritual search for connection that we hope to find meaning. “This yearning for an eternal order, which God has planted in the heart of man, in the inmost recesses of his being, in the core of his personality, is the cause of the indisputable fact that everything which belongs to the temporal order cannot satisfy man. He is a sensuous, earthly, limited, and mortal being, and yet he is attracted to the eternal and is destined for it.”

We are always striving for meaning by calling things good, bad, or otherwise. Yet, if there is no God, no ultimate arbiter of good and evil, how is there any ultimate good? Any ultimate bad? Without some sort of God/s, the universe merely is.

We may attempt to find this meaning through science, the arts, philosophy, pleasure, but our hearts will always remain unsatisfied if our search stays in these things because they can only point to an order, point to a meaning, they cannot prove or provide one. Our hearts can only rest once they have found meaning in “Divine goodness.” 

  • 2 (pp.3–6): What great goods can pursuing science, the arts, and humanitarianism obtain? What limitations do each of these contain? // What distinguishes a knowledge of science, philosophy, and the humanities from the wisdom of God? Must the two be at odds with one another? In what ways do we find them at odds with one another in the heart of man? // What happens when we make these great goods (philosophy, art, humanitarianism) our ultimate good? // Where is man’s starting point for wisdom (Prov. 1:7)? How ought the knowledge and wisdom of God order our knowledge of science, art, and philanthropy?

While great good and beauty can come from science, the arts, and humanitarianism, these goods, even though they come from God, fade. Through science we have achieved great heights and can cure diseases, alleviate suffering, and expand prosperity (HumanProgress). Yet, we have also used science to find creative ways to destroy life and have often marred God’s creation with immense human caused suffering.

At their best, the arts helped us analyze the human condition and pointed us towards Christ. The arts have brought us, me included great joy. Yet, we have also turned art into a glorification of ourselves, and occasionally even into an outright celebration of sin.

Humanitarianism follows a similar path. We care for and help people, yet turn that into an ultimate good, turning humanitarianism (a good thing) into humanism (a bad thing).

The Bible provides a contrast to a human-centric, or atheistic approach to knowledge. The Bible lays the claim that knowledge has the fear of God as its beginning (Proverbs 1:7). This means that the Christian views the world, including science, the arts, and humanitarianism through the lens of the Bible. And it is this type of knowledge that is highly stable and valuable. 

When we apply the fear of God to knowledge, we can restore knowledge to its proper position. Instead of using incredible technology to kill smaller, unborn humans we can use it to provide life-saving surgery to smaller, unborn humans. In addition, we can use the biblical lens to view secular art properly. We do not need to simply throw it away and isolate ourselves. We can see the skills involved in the art’s creation, we can better understand both the sinful human condition and the creative glories contained within mankind through art from Christians and non-Christians alike. 

In short, the application of knowledge through a biblical lens does not mean we isolate ourselves and only consume “Christian” goods. In fact, doing so will often lead to us consuming goods of inferior quality. It means we view, enjoy, and critique both Christian and non-Christian works in the sciences, arts, and humanities in such a way as to further enrich ourselves and the world.

  • 3 (pp.6–7): What great paradox did Augustine conclude resides in the heart of man with respect to the pursuit of God as man’s highest enjoyment and good? Where does this enigma find its solution?

Augustine said that the heart of man was made for God and that it is destined to always seek but never find rest, until his heart rests in his heavenly Father’s heart.