The Legacy of Herman Bavinck
Although the name of Herman Bavinck may be unfamiliar to some readers, his labours have probably affected all those reading these lines. Bavinck’s legacy to the Reformed world, like that of his contemporary, Abraham Kuyper, was disproportionate to the size of his native Netherlands.
I write these lines on the eighty-seventh anniversary of Bavinck’s death (he lived from December 13, 1854, to July 29, 1921). He is reputed to have said on his deathbed: ‘At this point all my knowledge avails me nothing; neither does my dogmatics; faith alone will save me.’
True enough, Bavinck was saved by faith alone. Yet his erudition continues to benefit us today, with its fruit of a massive dogmatics, together with penetrating insight into philosophy, educational psychology, natural science, and modern culture.
This year marks the centennial of Bavinck’s Stone Lectures at Princeton (published in book form as The Philosophy of Revelation). This year also features the completed publication of the English translation of his monumental Reformed Dogmatics (4 volumes, Baker Academic), along with a number of smaller accompanying volumes of Bavinck’s works in English translation. In addition, a number of theological journals and international conferences will be paying tribute to Bavinck’s lasting legacy this year.
Bavinck’s professional career spanned forty years, from 1881 to 1921. This period featured a number of significant intellectual and religious challenges to the Christian faith in general and the Reformed faith in particular. A eulogist writing in the Princeton Theological Review, comparing Bavinck with his contemporaries, opined that his scholarship was perhaps the broadest and technically the most perfect.
A Bridge between Two Worlds
A number of biographers have written of Herman Bavinck as a man between two worlds, the worlds of pietism and modernism. A pietistic spirituality characterized the so-called Dutch Second (or Further) Reformation of the seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Netherlands. It sought to maintain a healthy balance between heavenly-mindedness and this-worldliness, both of which are features of historic Calvinism. In the face of declining faith and morals in Dutch society, this emphasis on personal faith and godliness promoted renewal throughout society. As it developed, however, the Second Reformation showed spiritual affinity with more mystical, anticultural, and ascetic ideals. Of this piety Herman Bavinck was an heir.
Bavinck’s confrontation with modernism began with his studies at the state university in Leiden, which then was the seat of modernist theology in the Netherlands. Here he was exposed to a rigorously historical-empirical approach to philosophy and history that influenced his own fair-minded and balanced treatment of theological friend and foe alike.
In Bavinck’s day, these two worlds collided. The collision involved the relationships between faith and reason, revelation and science, and religion and philosophy. The ripened fruit of the Enlightenment was being peddled about – the fruit of antisupernaturalism, with its denial of the transcendent, of the miraculous, of faith as a source of knowledge. By his example and by his publications, Bavinck sought to encourage his fellow Dutch Reformed believers to live out their faith in the modern world.
The ‘Neo’ in Bavinck’s Neo-Calvinism
The term neo-Calvinism identifies the restoration of Calvinism in nineteenth- and twentieth-century Holland, led by Abraham Kuyper, F. L. Rutgers, and Herman Bavinck, and continued by their followers around the world. Naturally, restoration is more than repristination, which merely seeks to reproduce past forms and formulations. This central feature of neo-Calvinism has supplied its opponents with more than enough ammunition for criticizing it as a deformation of Calvinism rather than a continuation of it. Nevertheless, some of the more responsible neo-Calvinists since the days of Kuyper and Bavinck have acknowledged defects in it, especially in Kuyper’s views on regeneration and common grace.
When Bavinck came on the scene in the last twenty years of the nineteenth century, evolutionism and naturalism had begun to dominate the sciences. Already the socio-political thought and philosophy of Ernst Troeltsch, Charles Darwin, Karl Marx, Leo Tolstoy, Immanuel Kant, Friedrich Schleiermacher, and the like, had achieved international stature and acceptance. Thus, to the extent that the application of Reformed doctrine to these issues was new, the theological and philosophical reflections of Bavinck and his contemporaries constituted a new phase in the history of Calvinism.
In applying Calvinism to these modern problems, Bavinck avoided simplistic, fundamentalist argumentation. He was thoroughly acquainted with both the history of Reformed doctrine and the history of its opponents. His astute familiarity with the philosophy and scientific theories of his own day led to an evaluation of them that was unusually balanced and nuanced. Rather than isolate theology from the burning philosophical questions of his day, Bavinck sought to integrate them in his fresh formulation of Reformed doctrine and life.
For example, Bavinck was fond of the notions of ‘organic’ relationships and of ‘organism’ in reference to bodies of reality. Perhaps the key to his understanding and application of these notions is the premise that divine grace does not eliminate nature, but restores it in service to God. ‘Grace restores nature’ became one of Bavinck’s widely applied principles in every area of doctrine and life, including the organic inspiration of Scripture, the organism of the divine Trinity, and the church as organism.
Another example of the ‘new’ in Bavinck’s Calvinism is his discussion of the biblical doctrine of creation, found in volume 2 of his Reformed Dogmatics. Confronted with the theory of evolution and various attempts to harmonize the results of modern science and the biblical account of creation, Bavinck argued for the legitimacy of the scientific method applied in its own field, while at the same time defending the historical reliability of the creation account in Genesis 1. Regarding the length and nature of the creation days, the various editions of Bavinck’s Reformed Dogmatics demonstrate an openness and flexibility with regard to biblical interpretation. In the first edition, he expressed sympathy for viewing the days as periods of time. In the second edition, he suggested that the first three days were extraordinary cosmic days, keeping open the possibility that the second set of three days were also extraordinary. He repeatedly insisted that the word ‘day’ in Genesis 1 denotes an extraordinary day, God’s own workday. Moreover, the fall into sin introduced cosmic alterations of such a kind that the situation after the Fall cannot simply be projected back to the time before the Fall. Bavinck later abandoned the view that the creation days referred to ‘time periods,’ but he nevertheless continued to speak of them as extraordinary days, as God’s workdays.
Finally, the ‘new’ of Bavinck’s neo-Calvinism is visible in the cultural awareness embedded in his work and writings. He departed from a more Anabaptist cultural stance that had prevailed among the Reformed in the Netherlands. As a son of the churches born in the Secession of 1834, Bavinck was reared among, and later pastored, church members who had little positive interest in education, politics, social policy, and culture. This son of the Secession, who had been trained among modernists in Leiden, would spend his professional life seeking to apply the principles of the Christian religion to public, scientific, and cultural life. Later in life, Bavinck became active in politics, and was elected to serve in the Dutch national government from 1911 until his death. In this capacity, Bavinck led his nation in education reform, and guided his countrymen in reflecting carefully on the problem of war. His interest in developing a Christian approach to society bore the fruit of essays on the Christian family, the role of women in modern society, and women’s suffrage.
Building on the Legacy
The enduring relevance of Herman Bavinck’s life and labours lies in his development, within the context of these modern discussions, of a positive, presuppositional Calvinist response in the fields of science, education, social politics, and psychology. Bavinck contributed to the formation of what has come to be called ‘a Reformed world-and-life view.’
Two features of that Reformed worldview deserve our commitment and imitation today. The first is Bavinck’s constant attention to the historical development of theology in general and of Reformed doctrine in particular, especially in terms of the biblical and confessional sources of dogmatics. The second is his openness and courage to interact with, and address the gospel to, the problems raised by modern science and culture.
May the Lord in his mercy grant the heirs of Herman Bavinck’s legacy the same biblical erudition and courage in our generation!
The Trust publishes The Doctrine of God1 by Bavinck.
Nelson Kloosterman is Professor of Ethics and New Testament at Mid-America Reformed Seminary, Dyer, Indiana. Reprinted from New Horizons, October 2008 with permission.
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