Bavinck: Pathologies of the Christian Life

Paraphrased for the Philosopher’s Clearinghouse

In thinking about the life and health of the believer the way one can think of a natural organism, we can see that the spiritual life can be disrupted by “disease” and “illness” that arrests, hinders or thwarts its growth.  They occur because the believer is a battleground for the old, remaining nature of sin, against the new nature of the kingdom of light, and it remains in believers until they die.  The instructions for successful Christian living in this light are for us to examine our conduct and behavior in comparison with the ideal that Christ presented, and to generally imitate him in attitude and conduct. He is the model for our spiritual life. Because of the diversity of the Christian body, there is a richness and depth to healthy Christian communities, they are not a mono-culture of identically acting robots, but rather display an organic variety. It should not be thought that because there are different personalities in a community that the differences indicate sinfulness or pathology.

There are three major forms of spiritual pathologies: 

Intellectualism – an unhealthy emphasis on doctrine and knowledge. It often leads to the legalism, rationalism, and various types of never-ending “I’m more Christian than you”. One example is the incessant tendency in reformed circles for laypeople to call out public ministries and ministers the way sports fans call out their team’s mistakes on sports talk shows. These critics upbraid ministers with decades of faithful service as if they were the same, and offer never ending charges of “you don’t agree with me on this doctrine, therefore you are not reformed, or not a true Christian”, etc.  These evil Titus 3:10 busybodies even have the gall to call such ministers “apostate”, “papist”, “false teacher” and the kind of words that the scriptures reserve for God’s enemies, all because of disagreement on a secondary doctrine!  Another example here is an unhealthy “confessionalism”, in which one group of believers attacks another group over secondary doctrinal differences to the point where they break fellowship and association. The attacks usually only allow the most uncharitable reading of their theological opponents, and make over-inflated claims that make secondary issues primary: “my opponents believe A, while I believe B; what they fail to see is that by believing A they put the primary doctrine of C at risk”. Think of the attack of the classical theists: “open mutabilists threaten to deny the holy trinity by holding their position instead of the classical theism”.

Being ruled by passions – this restricts religious life to what one’s feelings and passions drive one toward, regardless of doctrine, and leads to non-scriptural forms of mysticism, quietism or humanism. Think of the classic declension in the liberal protestant church under Schleiermacher and his intellectual descendants. The first pathology had an unhealthy focus on doctrine, but here the pathology leads one to prefer human centered passions as being more authentic and genuine in reflecting Christian truth over the scriptures. And so every sort of contemporary tendency toward accepting sin is accommodated, so as to not inconvenience the higher, more genuine Christianity of the feelings.

Over-emphasis on performance and actions – when being a believer means actively doing all the right things, an unhealthy zealous donatism where communities of believers are over organized into hierarchies, with the top people holding all the top spots, supposedly having special “anointing” that the regular believer doesn’t have, and centrally directing everyone else. These groups usually fall into forms of perfectionism for the people at the top, and form a clergy/laity hierarchy rather than the “priesthood of believers” that the New Testament scriptures declare.

We see that the spiritual causes for diseases and maladies are rooted in several types of sin: the warfare of the old remaining sin nature against the presence of Spirit in the believer, from the believer’s struggle against the ungodly world system, from temptations, and from spiritual desertion. The war between the kingdom of light and darkness remains ongoing even in the light of the finished work of the cross, and is an ongoing reality in the life of God’s people during the age of grace. This state is described in the scripture in Romans 7, and in the final analysis, a believer should always remember to live “according to the Spirit”, and not “according to the flesh”; as people our lives and bodies are a battleground where two powers, the powers of light and of dark, war against each other.  A difference between believer and non-believer is that generally the sins of believers are “sins of weakness”, indications of faults or defects in the life of the believer, rather than sins of malice, the open antagonism that seeks to direct things towards a final, evil end. While the believer can be assaulted and greatly weakened, even to death, the final spiritual life can never be extinguished.

Herman Bavinck

We can take comfort in the fact that the divine outcomes are always directed towards some final good, as Augustine said: “God judged it better to bring good out of evil, than to keep evil from existing in the first place”. This often leads to charges from non-believers such as “what good came from the death of an infant?”, or “what good came from a woman’s rape?”, or “what good came from the terrible suffering and death of a person?”.  These are questions that most people think disprove the existence of the Christian God, or prove him to be a moral monster. Believers should not ever suppose that they can answer such questions in a way that comprehensively connects the dots to fully explain how a universe with evil and suffering is better than one without it, but should remember the the Bible testifies that God has his reasons, and that we can rest in his promise that everything will eventually work out for good, even if we cannot possibly see or understand why.  Deeper things than what we can perceive or work out are happening.

However, thinking about evil can lead people to ask: what kind of God would “forsake” his children? The scriptures share that there can be times of spiritual desertion in the lives of his people; for a time, God may withdraw the feeling of his presence, and his preserving grace, and the remove the restraints that keep evil at bay, so as to allow a person to fall into sin. This may be for testing and proving, as Peter and Job were tested, or it may be a punishment for sin, such as David’s life after his affair with Bathsheba.  The believer can feel the desolation of spiritual numbness, and includes a level of vexed spirit, an active conscience ringing its warnings, and a form of spiritual despair.  Sometimes believers feel God’s departure from their lives, but it is not an act of wrath but of grace, and is a punishment or chastisement, typically following after the presence of repeated and long-neglected sin in the life of a believer. During this time we can be open to the attacks of the enemy, as Job was, but this state is not the same as being depressed, or of being possessed.

There is a sense in the scriptures of a believer being “put on trial” when divine tempting or testing occurs. God tests to refine and purify, as toward a clean and better end. This is different from the kinds of evil that comes to a person from malice or evil intent, which even God can face, such as when being faced with the unbelief of people. The scriptures teach that in Christ people can overcome the suffering and testing, and that believers should count the situations as occasions for joy (think of Paul’s thorn in the flesh, or Peter’s griefs, or Job’s final state after he was proved righteous). This is different from what God’s enemies do in their attacks upon believers and upon humankind: their goal is to pull them out of the kingdom of light and into darkness.  Some temptations are positive, and appeal to our desires, just in an ungodly way (riches, power, honor, illegitimate pleasures, etc.) while others are negative and pull us toward doubting God, and spiritual assault (like circumstances of poverty, receiving scorn or contempt, afflictions, disgrace, etc.).


Bavinck, Herman, and John Bolt. Reformed Ethics. Vol. 1. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2019.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: