In his 1902 essay titled “Contemporary Morality,” Herman Bavinck starts admitting that there is a lack of discussion regarding moral principles and issues in his society and his church. For him, the importance of paying attention to moral principles and moral issues is that by their own nature human beings have needs, which are different from visible things. In order to live well their lives, he says, people should know the rule by which they organize their life.
Bavinck claims that morality discussions can go from questions such as what is good and what is evil to practical matters such as marriage, the emancipation of women, and the rights of the nature and science. Inquiring about these moral principles is worth because despite all achievements natural sciences have reached, science is unable to bring satisfaction to the heart of the human being, he reasons.
Bavinck rightly claims that since the foundations of morality based on philosophy and religion have been strangled, it is needed to identify the main features of contemporary morality in order to know better understand the problem, possible solutions, and some reflections from the Christian perspective. Philosophical and religious ethics have offered morality some foundations, but they are not enough.
Another key point Bavinck makes is how human beings are bound by laws, authority, and a strict discipline. All these aspects restrict their freedom. Thus, human beings become free only when they know and obey the laws of nature — laws created by God, which transcend all phenomena. Bavinck also argues that these laws are not aleatory but follow divine order to control the visible world. In that sense, these laws deal with the process of thinking and learning. Even sin has darkened humanity, Bavinck states that human senses are still guided by these laws, so humanity is still able to follow the traces given by God. In this regard, human beings can achieve truth and freedom, even this is only achieved through obedience.
I have presented a brief summary of paragraphs 7-17 of Bavinck’s essay. There are more interesting aspects to highlight, but we can discuss them later. In the meantime, one quickly observes Bavinck’s broad understanding of ethics and his emphasis on duty ethics.
*Bavinck’s essay, “Hedendaagsche moraal,” (Kampen: J. H. Kok, 1902) hasn’t been translated into English yet. But the Dutch version can be accessed here, which is sponsored by The Neo-Calvinism Research Institute.