Who is Herman Bavinck, and why should contemporary Christians care about him? James Eglinton’s penetrating new study, Bavinck: A Critical Biography, goes a long way toward answering these questions.
Eglinton, who teaches Reformed theology at the University of Edinburgh, has produced a magisterial work that figures to become the leading biography of the great Dutch Reformed theologian (1854–1921). Along with Abraham Kuyper, Bavinck was an important figure in the neo-Calvinist movement in the Netherlands in the late-19th and early-20th centuries. A theological giant in his own right, Bavinck has received increased attention in the English-speaking world, especially following the translation of his four-volume Reformed Dogmatics, but is still too little known (especially outside the Dogmatics).
Eglinton’s biography provides a welcome correction, surpassing previous accounts of Bavinck’s work in several ways. It is impressively researched, drawing from a wide array of unpublished and frequently overlooked material. Related to this, it provides generally better-informed interpretations of Bavinck’s life and thought, identifying reasons to depart from previous scholarship on a variety of issues. It is also well written and clearly organized, guiding the reader through varied subjects without a sense of wasted space or meandering.
The book’s great theme is that Bavinck, as a theologian, was both orthodox and modern. In the introduction, Eglinton sets up the biography as an extension of his earlier book, Trinity and Organism, which had argued against the tendency to separate these two aspects of Bavinck’s thought. Rejecting what he terms the “two Bavincks” approach (or the “Jekyll and Hyde” Bavinck), Eglinton aims to portray his subject as a man of unified theological vision—a man who was thoroughly immersed in the concerns of the modern world without leaving off the orthodox commitments of his Dutch Reformed heritage.
Holiness and Activism
Eglinton effectively shows how Bavinck aspired to meet the challenges of modernity with neither retreat nor compromise. For me, the fact that Bavinck navigated this tension in an earlier and different phase of modernity (a century ago and in Europe) makes him an especially interesting thinker to engage. Bavinck had a pious upbringing, with his father serving as a pastor in the “Seceder” church (the Christian Reformed Church) that had separated from the state church (the Dutch Reformed Church). It is endearing to read the earnest prayers recorded throughout his youthful journals or to observe how Bavinck came to love his flock even while struggling during his year in pastoral ministry.
At the same time, throughout his theological career he found himself increasingly drawn into engagement with the concerns of the modern world, particularly around the turn of the 20th century. While he never rejected his Seceder background, his circles and interests kept expanding. In his final decades he devoted considerable energy to engaging Nietzsche, World War I, and female suffrage. This tension between unchanging theology and ever-changing culture, as well as between distinctness from the world and engagement with the world, is a challenge that has marked evangelicalism from its outset and continues to the present moment. Exploring how Bavinck balanced these concerns is instructive and inspiring.
Consider, for instance, how expansive Bavinck’s social and cultural vision was, together with that of Kuyper and the neo-Calvinists more generally. Bavinck was active in politics and served as a Dutch parliamentarian for several years. He had global interests and warned of the dangers of colonialism. He frequently spoke and wrote about education policy. After World War I, he spent a great deal of energy addressing the dangers of war. In his later years, Bavinck was an ardent advocate for female suffrage and for valuing the role of women in society. He spoke often to women’s societies around the Netherlands. Earlier he had called upon the Free University of Amsterdam to admit women as theological students.
During his visit to America, Bavinck became deeply concerned about racism, warning about its future consequences. He studied and wrote on all kinds of subjects, especially psychology. (He even wrote about topics like art, travel, and raising teenagers.) He believed the church had a responsibility to care for the poor, and like the English church leader John Stott, he insisted that the gospel included a social dimension, over and against others in the Seceder church who defined it mainly in terms of personal sin and salvation.
What is striking from these facts is how far Bavinck was from being a fundamentalist, despite standing squarely within a relatively conservative theological framework. Bavinck was eloquent in his criticisms of the modernist theology he had experienced as a student at Leiden and elsewhere. Opposing the assumption that Christianity had to be modernized to have a future, Bavinck countered (in Eglinton’s words) that “to have a future, modern culture had to be Christianized.” Thus, for Bavinck, holistic societal engagement was not a departure from his Reformed heritage but its proper expression. In particular, he was sympathetic to Kuyper’s vision of Calvinism as a social force, a dynamic power that must work itself into every layer of society.
All told, Bavinck described his theological outlook as a balancing act that sought to maintain both holiness and activism. When leaving the Seceder school in Kampen to teach at the Free University of Amsterdam in 1902, Bavinck described two different poles within the church of his upbringing: one that emphasized personal holiness and another that emphasized engagement in the world:
There was the idea that we need to leave the world to its own fate, but precisely because I come from the circles that I do, I felt obliged to seek out an education at a university, because that church was in great danger of losing its catholicity in order to hold on to holiness of life. And then the thought arose in me: Is it possible to reconcile these? … My goal is to hold tightly to both, and not to let go of either.
This reference to catholicity brings up another intriguing quality of Bavinck’s Calvinism: namely, its generous posture to non-Calvinists. He was as deeply committed to the Reformed heritage as nearly anyone; it was Bavinck who wrote the foreword to B. B. Warfield’s Calvin as a Theologian and Calvinism Today, a book that ended with the line, “Calvinism is nothing more, and nothing less, than the hope of the world.”
At the same time, Bavinck was not sectarian: He described the spirit of his Calvinism as “cosmopolitan,” and he was dismayed at the failure of various Seceder churches to unite. In response to the threat of Nietzsche, he spoke of a “theistic coalition,” seeking to make Christianity itself, not Calvinism, visible to the culture. Eglinton notes comparisons drawn between Bavinck’s 1906 essay “The Essence of Christianity” and C. S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity a century later, stating that “Bavinck was now balancing an increasingly specific neo-Calvinism in the revised Reformed Dogmatics and a generalized notion of Christianity in the public domain.” Later, he observes that from the time Bavinck delivered the Stone Lectures at Princeton in 1908, he held these two goals equally in view: “For every book on neo-Calvinism, it seems, a Mere Christianity would also be needed.”
A Multifaceted Legacy
Bavinck’s legacy for contemporary Christians is thus rich and multifaceted. To speak personally, before reading this book I had appreciated and used Bavinck mainly for his theological stature. He was an intellect of nearly unparalleled range, one of the theological titans of the modern era—comparable to Karl Barth, perhaps, but less theologically erratic (from my perspective). From Eglinton’s biography I now have a greater sense of Bavinck the man and his broader relevance to the perennial tensions of Christ and culture.
My simple remark to contemporary Christians navigating that tension is this: Bavinck is both more theologically profound and more socially aware than most of us. On both fronts, and especially on the challenge of holding them together, we would do well to learn from his efforts.
Gavin Ortlund is senior pastor of First Baptist Church of Ojai, California. He is the author of Finding the Right Hills to Die On: The Case for Theological Triage.