Herman Bavinck (1854-1921) was the leading theologian of the nineteenth century Dutch Calvinist revival. Studies in English of Bavinck have been sparse, partly because Bavinck’s four-volume magnum opus Gereformeerde Dogmatiek, is only being translated now (volume 2 on “God and Creation” was published in early November), and partly because Bavinck has often been perceived more as Abraham Kuyper’s follower than as a ground-breaking theologian.
James Hutton Mackay refers to Bavinck as “Dr. Kuyper’s loyal and learned henchman.” Likewise, Bastian Kruithof writes, “In their maturity, the fundamental convictions of the two men were the same.” And R. H. Bremmer, whose two volumes on Bavinck the theologian and Bavinck’s relation to his contemporaries provide a wealth of information on Bavinck’s life and thought, concludes that Bavinck and Kuyper can be spoken of in the same breath. Bremmer does acknowledge a threefold development in their relationship, however. He says that initially Bavinck worked independently of Kuyper, then he worked so closely with him that they became devoted friends. After 1905, that friendship cooled as Bavinck became increasingly critical of Kuyper and his school.
Eugene P. Heideman was the first to sharply criticize the subordination of Bavinck to Kuyper and the virtual merging of their thought. Heideman viewed the doctrine of common grace as the key to understanding differences between Kuyper and Bavinck. John Bolt concurs with Heideman. In further development of Heideman’s ideas, Bolt shows how Bavinck relied more on the notion of imitating Christ in his cultural-ethical ideal than Kuyper did.
For thirty years after Bavinck’s death, scholars centered on his pedagogy and educational philosophy rather than on his theology. The first major study of Bavinck’s theology was Anthony A. Hoekema’s dissertation, “Herman Bavinck’s Doctrine of the Covenant” (1953). That same year S. P van der Walt completed a study of Bavinck’s philosophy. In 1961 Bremmer published his 450 page doctoral dissertation, “Herman Bavinck als Dogmaticus.” Anthony Hoekema describes that work as “the first full-dress evaluation of Bavinck’s theology.” That was followed in 1968 by Jan Veenhof’s massive dissertation on Bavinck’s views concerning revelation and inspiration.
Bavinck was a profound Christian and a superb Reformed theologian. His life and theology deserve to be better known than they are. Hopefully, the publication of his dogmatics in English will generate a number of studies, and Bavinck scholarship will markedly improve. The intent of the following article is to describe some of Bavinck’s life.
Herman Bavinck was born December 13, 1854, at Hoogeveen in the Netherlands, in the province of Drenthe, where his father, Jan Bavinck, was a pastor and leader in the ‘Christelijke Gereformeerde Kerk.’ That denomination seceded in 1834 from the Hervormde Kerk, the state church of the Netherlands, because of its theological liberalism. Herman’s father was of a modest disposition, his mother, more outspoken, but both were godly people.
When Herman Bavinck was age one, his father accepted a call to Bunschoten. From there the Bavincks went to Almskerk, in the province of Noord-Brabant. From age seven to sixteen Herman Bavinck studied at the Hasselman Institute, a private school of excellent reputation at Almskerk. He then left home to enroll at the gymnasium in Zwolle, where he completed a four-year degree in three years.
After that, he went to Kampen to study for one year at the Theological School of the Christelijke Gereformeerde Kerk. To thoroughly understand the theological-scientific method of study, Bavinck then went to the University of Leiden.
He studied under professors Johannes Henricus Scholten (1811-85), Abraham Kuenen (1828-91), and Jan Pieter Nicolaas Land (1 834-97), who were all leading exponents of modernism in 19th century Netherlands. Bavinck later wrote that God’s grace preserved him in the faith despite these liberal teachers.
At Leiden, Bavinck majored in Semitic languages and in systematic theology. Though his theology radically differed from his professors, he admired their scholarly aptitude and learned to adapt their theological method to his own beliefs. From Scholten, Bavinck learned to appreciate the history of Reformed dogmatics; from Kuenen (who with Wellhausen had reconstructed Old Testament history along Hegelian lines), to reproduce the thoughts of others with accuracy and completeness; and from Land, to appreciate philosophy. Bavinck completed his study at Leiden in 1880 with a doctoral thesis on the ethics of Ulrich Zwingli.
PROFESSOR AT KAMPEN
Bavinck’s first and only pastoral charge was in Franeker, in the province of Friesland. People here deeply appreciated his scholarly preaching and diligent pastoral work. After eighteen months in the pastorate, the Synod of Zwolle appointed him as professor in systematic theology and ethics at the Theological School in Kampen, where he labored with great distinction from 1883-1902. Bavinck helped to raise the seminary from the mediocre to the academic level. His lectures were instructive, inspiring, and erudite. His work at Kampen, which included the publication of the first edition of his dogmatics (1895 – 1901), established his reputation as a first-rate Reformed theologian.
While at Kampen, Bavinck made the first of two trips to America. He was invited to Toronto in 1892 to address the Alliance of Reformed Churches Holding the Presbyterian System. He went first to Grand Rapids, Michigan, where he stayed with Geerhardus Vos, then a professor at Calvin Seminary. In Holland, Michigan, Bavinck stayed with Henry Dosker, a professor at Hope College who accompanied him on trips to Chicago and to Orange City, Iowa. In Toronto, Bavinck spoke on “The Influence of the Protestant Reformation on the Moral and Religious Conditions of Communities and Peoples.” He concluded his trip in Princeton, New Jersey, where he was accompanied by Benjamin B. Warfield, and in New York, where he met Charles Briggs.
ROFESSOR AT AMSTERDAM
One year after Abraham Kuyper became prime minister of the Netherlands, Bavinck took Kuyper’s place in the chair of systematic theology at the Free University of Amsterdam. It was a position he held from 1902 until his death in 1921.
The Free University was an independent institution founded largely through the influence of Abraham Kuyper as a safeguard from the liberalism of Leiden and similar schools. Although the Free University was much larger than Kampen Seminary, where Bavinck had towered above the rest of the faculty, his work at Amsterdam was also deeply appreciated. In 1911, he published his second and final edition of Reformed dogmatics. The four volumes show close adherence to scriptural data, thorough historical orientation, and careful reasoning.
Through his writings and scholarly addresses, Bavinck’s influence spread far beyond the Netherlands. In 1908, the professor was invited to deliver the Stone Lectures at Princeton Seminary, which gave birth to his Philosophy of Revelation. He then visited Grand Rapids, Holland, and Chicago again. In Washington, D.C., he met with President Theodore Roosevelt, who said that he was proud of his own Dutch ancestry. Bavinck went on to New Brunswick, Paterson, Boston, and New York before returning to the Netherlands. On this second trip to America, Bavinck preached eighteen times and gave twenty lectures.
After delivering a report at the Dutch Synod of Leeuwarden in 1920, Bavinck suffered a heart attack. At first he seemed to rally, but he soon suffered a second attack. He was ill for several months before passing away on July 29, 1921. When he was dying, he was asked if he were afraid to die. “My dogmatics avails me nothing, nor my knowledge, but I have my faith, and in this I have all,” was his response.
This article is reprinted by permission from the Banner of Sovereign Grace Truth November 2004 www.heritagebooks.org
The Banner of Truth publishes “The Doctrines of God” by Herman Bavinck.
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