Herman Bavinck and the Pan-Babylonians: How Bavinck’s Engagement in a Creation Controversy Can Shape An Evangelical Doctrine of Creation Today

By Chet Harvey    |    March 14, 2022

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Herman Bavinck has experienced tremendous growth in popularity in evangelical circles over the last several years, thanks in part to Baker Academic’s publication of the four-volume Reformed Dogmatics earlier in the century, Westminster Seminary’s publication of The Wonderful Works of God in 2019, and James P. Eglinton’s publication of Bavinck: A Critical Biography in 2020. One of the reasons for his recent popularity is his relevance for contemporary theological and cultural issues. Although Bavinck lived in the Netherlands and died one hundred years ago, his work has shown resilience and applicability for twenty-first-century Christians. From the wellspring of Patristic and Reformed theology, Bavinck addressed culturally relevant topics such as evolution, source criticism, and philosophical agnosticism. In the words of one recent monograph on Bavinck’s theological engagement, he was both “orthodox and modern.”1 One area of particular importance for modern evangelical Christianity is his doctrine of creation, which yields wisdom for addressing some of the most pressing issues of our age. Through his orthodox and modern engagement with the doctrine of creation, he provided a framework for Christians engaging with the text of Scripture, Christian doctrine, and culturally relevant streams of thought.

A lively debate of Bavinck’s day can shed light on how he interacted with relevant streams of thought while maintaining key tenets of orthodoxy in developing a doctrine of creation. The debate at issue concerned the level of influence of the Babylonian creation account on the Hebrew creation account in Genesis 1–2. The Babylonian creation account, known as the Enuma Elish, had captured scholarly attention since the 1876 publication of George Smith’s translation, The Chaldean Account of Genesis, based on fragments discovered at the Library at Nineveh in the previous thirty years.2 This led a number of biblical scholars and Assyriologists to assert that the Genesis creation account was highly indebted to the Babylonian account, a position included in the school known more broadly as Pan-Babylonianism.3 In his book One Hundred Years of Old Testament Interpretation, Ronald Clements has chronicled the height of this debate as lasting from 1902–1914.4 An important voice in this debate was German Assyriologist Friedrich Delitzsch, who in 1902–1904 delivered a series of lectures known as “Babel und Bibel.” These lectures caused a wide stir when he rejected Old Testament revelation and the spiritual uniqueness of Israel, and posited instead that the Israelite creation account was a debasement of the Babylonian creation account.5 John Walton has compared these lectures to the Scopes Monkey Trial in terms of cultural impact.6 For the next ten years, the impact of Babylonian religion on the Old Testament, and on the Genesis creation stories, in particular, would capture much scholarly attention across archaeological, biblical, and theological disciplines.

In the midst of this debate, Herman Bavinck delivered the Stone Lectures at Princeton Seminary on the “Philosophy of Revelation” in 1908, later published under the same name. The following year he published Magnalia Dei: Onderwijzing in de Christelijke Religie naar Gereformeerde Belijdenis, now published under the English title The Wonderful Works of God. Within Philosophy of Revelation and The Wonderful Works of God, Bavinck took up the current debate over Pan-Babylonianism and provided a template for evangelical Christians engaging in cross-disciplinary doctrines of creation today through his positive and critical assessments of the school of thought. In particular, Bavinck demonstrated for Christians how to examine ideas critically yet charitably, seeking aspects of truth while maintaining orthodox theological boundaries. This demonstration is particularly important for developing doctrines of creation, since various fields of knowledge offer competing truth claims about creation that Christians must examine with both a critical eye and openness to new information.

I. Bavinck’s Positive Assessment of Pan-Babylonianism

In order to understand Bavinck’s positive assessment of Pan-Babylonianism, it is important to understand three key components of his view on general revelation. First, Bavinck held a position on general revelation common to many other Reformed voices, particularly that “creation is itself an act of revelation, the beginning and first principle of all later revelation.”7 Further, Bavinck believed that because the principles and foundation of all true knowledge flowed from revelation, any particular truth discovered by biblical critics and archaeologists was ultimately on the basis of God’s revelation.8 Finally, Bavinck believed that the distinction between general and special revelation began with the call of Abram in Genesis 12, and the revelation given before that event is better understood in a single category of what he calls “original revelation.”9 On the basis of these three ideas, Bavinck evaluated the similarities and differences between the Babylonian and Genesis accounts of creation.

In his evaluation, Bavinck gave three positive implications of the Pan-Babylonian account of the parallels between the Enuma Elish and the Genesis creation account. First, Pan-Babylonians rightly discerned long intervals between the origin of ideas and their literary descriptions in writing.10 For Bavinck, this demonstrated that Babylonian and Hebrew religious writings were not simply theoretical documents, but lived realities for generations of people. As he wrote, “[A] religion is not invented by this or that thinker, and is not imposed on a people from without, but is always a doctrine, a worship, a sum total of conceptions, rules, ordinances, and institutions, which are linked to the past, live in the hearts of the people, and are transmitted from generation to generation.”11 Therefore, there should be no surprise that parallels run between ancient Near Eastern accounts of creation, since the oral stories went back generations behind the writing of those stories.

Closely tied with this first idea, another important idea that Bavinck found in the work of the Pan-Babylonians was that ancient Israel was not separated from the rest of the religious world of their time. This was an important idea for Bavinck because it demonstrated that the religion of Israel was not a religion solely for Israel. He wrote as follows:

The segregation and election of Israel served the sole purpose of maintaining, unmixed and unadulterated, continuing and perfecting the original revelation which more and more threatened to be lost, so that it might again in the fullness of time be made the property of the whole of mankind. The promise became temporarily particular, in order that thus it might later become universal. Israel belongs to the human race, remains in relation to all peoples, and is chosen not at the cost but for the benefit of the whole human race.12

In demonstrating the correspondence between Israel and Babylon on certain creation parallels, the Pan-Babylonian account actually served the larger idea within Bavinck’s theology that God is missional and his revelation is for all people. This idea shaped the way that Bavinck read Genesis 1–11 and, as summarized above, the way that he understood revelation.

A final area of positive assessment concerned the Pan-Babylonian view of high culture within the religious traditions of Babylon. Bavinck saw this view as contradictory to the evolutionary view of religious development, which posited that monotheism was an evolutionary development of earlier polytheistic accounts of religion in primitive societies.13 While Babylon was a polytheistic society, their cultural achievements belie the belief that societies have moved on a steady progression from primitive to advanced civilizations. This was important for Bavinck because it followed from the idea of original monotheism advanced in his doctrine of creation. If humanity originally had God’s revelation, then societies would not have moved from primitive states to advanced states, but rather would have shown more complicated histories of advance and decline as they followed or rejected aspects of God’s original revelation.14 As he wrote in The Wonderful Works of God, “Periods of flowering and decay, of revival and relapse, are constant in the history of all peoples and in all provinces of life.”15 Bavinck acknowledged that this argument was not strictly a historical argument, since it would be impossible to discover the origin of religion within societies. Rather, these varying levels of culture and religious life in different societies correspond with the thesis of original revelation and provide warrant for its viability.

In offering these three positive contributions of the Pan-Babylonian movement, Bavinck demonstrated a willingness to engage with modern scholarship and determine areas where it provided insight for understanding Scripture and developing Christian doctrine. However, Bavinck was not willing to leave modern scholarship unchallenged where it contradicted established Christian doctrine. Two of Bavinck’s difficulties with the Pan-Babylonian position were that it discarded revelation and removed the distinction between God and the world, two key tenets of his doctrine of creation.

II. Bavinck’s Critical Assessment of Pan-Babylonianism

Related to revelation, Bavinck asserted that the great mistake of Pan-Babylonianism was making Babylon the source of the religion and worship of Israel.16 If this was the case, then major marks of Israelite religion would be developments of Babylonian religion. However, Bavinck noted that much of the content of Israelite religion was in direct opposition to Babylonian religion, including the unity of the human race, the plan of salvation embracing all nations, the invisibility of God, the impossibility of representing God in creation, and the fall of humanity.17 On the reverse side, the religious ideas that Israel shared with Babylon were marks of every major world religion, including expectations for the future, ideas of Paradise, notions of immortality, and a judgment of humanity.18 Although there could be particular counterexamples for some of Bavinck’s list of universal religious ideas, the larger point remains that much of what Israel shared with Babylon was also shared by other major religious groups and was not dependent upon Babylonian origin. Perhaps most interestingly is Bavinck’s theory that the polytheistic cultures of the ancient Near East contained knowledge of a single Supreme Being.19 This theory has been used more recently by scholars such as John Walton, who argues that ancient Near Eastern cultures had “vestiges of a monotheistic core in the sense that the gods are traced back to one in the cosmogonies.”20 Bavinck used this theory in service to the concept of original revelation, whereby vestiges of God’s revelation would remain across different cultures and religious beliefs and practices, although distorted in various ways.

Equally important for Bavinck was the position that Genesis 1 taught creatio ex nihilo, a claim which many Pan-Babylonians rejected. An exemplar of the Pan-Babylonian view of this time period was Alfred Jeremias, who put forth his view in the 1904 volume The Old Testament in the Light of the Ancient East. In this work, Jeremias interrogated the Genesis creation account through a Babylonian lens and found parallels between the primeval beginnings of the world in both accounts. Rather than creation out of nothing, Jeremias asserted that the biblical account paralleled the Babylonian account in describing creation out of chaotic ocean.21 The major theological implications of this position were to deny the doctrine of creatio ex nihilo in the text and make matter an eternal principle.

Bavinck displayed openness to aspects of Pan-Babylonianism, but he refused to allow it to control the conversation at the expense of orthodox doctrine.”

—Chet Harvey

For Bavinck, the most important idea within a doctrine of creation was the ontological distinction between God and the created order, which arises from the doctrine of creatio ex nihilo.22 Brian Mattson has gone so far as to call this Creator-creation distinction the “central motif” of Bavinck’s theology.23 Although Bavinck believed that creation out of nothing was a distinctly theological idea (since it is inaccessible to scientific inquiry and philosophical explanation), he asserted against Pan-Babylonianism that it was the best reading of Genesis 1:1–3.24 In the second volume of Reformed Dogmatics, originally published in 1897, Bavinck took up the typical Pan-Babylonian interpretation of Genesis 1:1–3, which translated the first verse as a temporal clause rather than independent clause.25 This rendered the translation as, “When God began to create the sky and the earth, the earth was formless and void” (Gen. 1:1). The eternal, primeval waters are evident in this translation, and creatio ex nihilo is removed as an obvious reading of Genesis 1:1. As Bavinck noted, “According to this view, verse 2 presupposes the existence of a formless and vacuous earth in God’s act of creating.”26 Although Bavinck had several exegetical reasons for rejecting this interpretation, such as the implausibility of the writer using the word ‘earth’ to describe both the chaotic state of creation and the organized state of creation, his larger rebuttals were based on the overall description of God’s creative power in the biblical witness and the theological implication of making matter co-eternal alongside God.27 Pertaining to the biblical witness, he argued, “[A]ll things in Scripture are described over and over as having been made by God and as being absolutely dependent on him. He has created all things, heaven, earth, the sea, and all that is on them and in them (Exod. 20:11; Nehemiah 9:6, etc.) Everything has been created by him (Col. 1:16–17), exists only by his will (Rev. 4:17), and is of him, through him, and unto him (Rom. 11:36).”28 For Bavinck, the uniform witness of Scripture taught creation from nothing.29

The theological implications of creatio ex nihilo were also significant for Bavinck. Three of the major significances were that it taught God’s sovereignty, humanity’s dependence, and God’s essential distinction from the world.30 As Bavinck wrote, “If only a single particle were not created out of nothing, God would not be God.”31 In fact, Bavinck went so far in The Wonderful Works of God as to argue that loss of distinction between God and the world was one of the signs of the loss of God’s revelation.32 According to this argument, Babylonian polytheism was a sign of the loss of original revelation, but the “vestiges of a monotheistic core” (to use Walton’s words quoted above) in Babylon were a sign that the original revelation was not completely lost.

As demonstrated here, in spite of areas of agreement with the Pan-Babylonian movement, Bavinck was adamant that it was incorrect related to its understanding of the origin of the Genesis creation account and its Babylonian-based interpretation of Genesis 1:1–3. The great danger was that it ultimately rejected biblical revelation and the doctrine of creatio ex nihilo, two key tenets of Bavinck’s doctrine of creation and two of the fundamental building blocks for his entire theological program. Bavinck displayed openness to aspects of Pan-Babylonianism, but he refused to allow it to control the conversation at the expense of orthodox doctrine.

III. Gleaning From Bavinck’s Assessment of Pan-Babylonianism For An Evangelical Doctrine of Creation

In his “Philosophy of Revelation” lectures, Bavinck made an important prediction about the fate of Pan-Babylonianism. He predicted that continued research would result in increased recognition of the distinctions between the Babylonian and Genesis creation accounts.33 History has shown Bavinck’s prediction to be accurate, as scholarship turned against the Pan-Babylonian school in the ensuing years. Some of the most famous repudiations of Pan-Babylonianism came from Herman Gunkel’s Israel and Babylon: The Influence of Babylon on the Religion of Israel in 1904, Franz Kugler’s Im Bannkries Babels in 1910, and Hugo Gressmann and Erich Eveling’s Altorientalische Texte und Bilder zum Alten Testament in 1926.34 These scholars and others demonstrated areas of significant difference between the Genesis creation account and the Enuma Elish. Although there is still considerable debate today over the parallels between the Genesis creation account and the Enuma Elish, the tide of scholarship has turned toward examining both parallels and divergences between the two accounts.35 With Bavinck, we can go even further and see potential parallels based on original revelation, but significant differences because of God’s special revelation through Israel in Scripture.

Bavinck’s engagement with Pan-Babylonianism set a template for evangelical engagement in a doctrine of creation today. We can remain convinced in our doctrines such as creatio ex nihilo, but can also be open to new areas of understanding and concordance across various disciplines. Bavinck’s doctrine of revelation, in particular, opens up wide avenues for gleaning truth from various sources, all while recognizing that God has revealed himself accurately in Scripture. Bavinck relied on this doctrine in his exploration, and it enabled him to deepen and fortify his doctrine of creation. While there is no evidence in the works cited that he changed his understanding of particular passages of Scripture due to the debate, he did show areas of concordance between archaeological evidence and his understanding of Scripture. Evangelical Christians should take the same approach in our doctrine of creation today, looking for areas of potential concordance while holding fast to the truthfulness of Scripture and the orthodox doctrines of the church.

  1. Cory C. Brock, Orthodox Yet Modern: Herman Bavinck’s Use of Friedrich Schleiermacher (Bellingham, Wash.: Lexham Press, 2020).
  2. Alexander Heidel, The Babylonian Genesis: The Story of Creation, 2nd ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1963), 2–3.
  3. George S. Goodspeed, Ira M. Price, and Herbert L. Willett, “Review: Some Recent Old Testament Literature,” The American Journal of Theology 9 (1905): 161–178, offers a brief overview of some of the important works on the subject in 1905.
  4. Ronald Clements, One Hundred Years of Old Testament Interpretation (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1975), 13–14.
  5. Paul Carus, “Gunkel versus Delitzsch,” The Open Court 4 (1904): 226241. This 1904 analysis of the debate between Friedrich Delitzsch and Hermann Gunkel pertaining to the “Babel und Bibel” lectures is illuminating for understanding the major positions of the day.
  6. John Walton, Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2018), 3.
  7. Herman Bavinck, The Wonderful Works of God (Glenside, Pa.: Westminster Seminary Press, 2019), 22.
  8. Herman Bavinck, Philosophy of Revelation: A New Annotated Edition (Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson Publishers, 2018), 223–224.
  9. Ibid., 224.
  10. Ibid., 224–225.
  11. Ibid, 225.
  12. Ibid., 226.
  13. Ibid., 155.
  14. Ibid., 189–191.
  15. Bavinck, Wonderful Works of God, 42.
  16. Bavinck, Philosophy of Revelation, 226.
  17. Ibid., 227.
  18. Bavinck, Wonderful Works of God, 41.
  19. Bavinck, Philosophy of Religion, 221.
  20. Walton, Ancient Near Eastern Thought, 53. See also Winfried Corduan, In the Beginning God: A Fresh Look At the Case For Original Monotheism (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2013).
  21. Alfred Jeremias, The Old Testament in the Light of the Ancient East, ed. C. H. W. Johns, trans. C. L. Beaumont (New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1911), 176.
  22. Herman Bavinck, In the Beginning: Foundations of Creation Theology (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1999), 38.
  23. Brian Mattson, Restored to Our Destiny: Eschatology & the Image of God in Herman Bavinck’s Reformed Dogmatics, Studies in Reformed Theology 21 (Leiden: Brill, 2011), 20.
  24. Bavinck, The Wonderful Works of God, 148.
  25. Jeremias, Old Testament in Light of Ancient East, 176.
  26. Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, Vol. 2: God and Creation, ed. John Bolt, trans. John Vriend (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2004), 417.
  27. Ibid.
  28. Ibid.
  29. Thomas F. Torrance, The Trinitarian Faith: The Evangelical Theology of the Ancient Catholic Church (London: T&T Clark, 2016), 95–109, makes a similar observation on the witness of Scripture.
  30. Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, 419.
  31. Ibid.
  32. Bavinck, Wonderful Works of God, 40.
  33. Bavinck, Philosophy of Revelation, 226.
  34. Gary D. Thompson, “The Development, Heyday, and Demise of Pan-Babylonianism,” Ancient Zodiacs, Star Names, and Constellations: Essays and Critiques, November 23, 2020, Accessed August 23, 2021, http://members.westnet.com.au/gary–david–thompson/page9e.html. This webpage documents many of the most important works related to Pan-Babylonianism on both the positive and negative side.
  35. For example, Jon Levenson, Creation and the Persistence of Evil: The Jewish Drama of Divine Omnipotence (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1987), 121–123, holds to a temporal clause understanding of Gen 1:1–3, but reads the Genesis account as a demythologization of the Enuma Elish, rather than a pure copy. Old Testament scholar Gary A. Anderson, Christian Doctrine and the Old Testament: Theology in the Service of Biblical Exegesis (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic), 42–51, similarly translates the passage as temporal clause, but finds repudiation of the Babylonian creation account in Genesis 1. Finally, Richard J. Clifford, S. J., “Creatio Ex Nihilo in the Old Testament/Hebrew Bible,” in Gary A. Anderson and Marcus Bockmuehl, eds., Creation Ex Nihilo: Origins, Development, Contemporary Challenges (South Bend: University of Notre Dame Press, 2017), 55–76, finds parallels between the two accounts, but sees a unique stress on God’s sovereignty in the Genesis account. From another perspective, John Walton, Genesis 1 As Ancient Cosmology (Winona Lake, Ind.: Eisenbrauns, 2011), 124–127, rejects the temporal clause reading and the influence of Babylon on Genesis 1, favoring an independent clause understanding of Gen 1:1 and more correspondence with Egyptian creation accounts.
Chet Harvey

Dr. Chet Harvey is pastor of discipleship at Hebron Church in Dacula, Ga.

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