Friday, February 19, 2021

Herman Bavinck, a prophet of the secular age

I'm enjoying reading Bavinck: A Critical Biography by James Eglinton. It is a very fine piece of work. A far superior account of the theologian's life than Ron Gleason's effort. A key theme in the biography is Bavinck's attempt to remain faithful to his Seceder roots, while accommodating himself to the challenges of the modern world. 

In the early phase of his career Bavinck had championed Calvinism over and against other forms of Christian expression. He assumed that Calvinism would prevail, for it was an essential aspect of the Dutch national character. Things had changed by the the early 1900s. Bavinck now shifted his attention to defending Christianity more broadly against the onslaughts of outright unbelief. The age of Nietzsche in which 'God is dead' called for a different kind of apologetic. 

During Bavinck's lifetime Dutch society had become less distinctively Calvinistic and then less Christian altogether. A new God-free era beckoned. In an address to the Free University, Amsterdam, where Bavinck taught theology entitled Learnedness and Science, he foresaw the dawning of the secular age in which we live. 
If God falls, everything  falls - truth, science, art, nature and history, the state, society, and the family. if there is no God. there is also no idea, no more thought in which things can rest and by which they are knowable.... Everything that we receive from the past is old and outmoded, not only in religion and Christianity, but also morality and art, all the wisdom and civilisation of antiquity. Everything must be reformulated on the basis of modern culture: school and science, marriage and the family, state and society, religion and morality. There is no shortage of reformers [in our day]. (Bavinck, Eglinton, p. 236) 

Is not that a prescient description of our own times? When Christians in the UK campaigned against the redefinition of marriage, arguments based on the Bible or 1000's of years of tradition were swept aside as 'old hat'. Modern society was moving in only one direction and opponents of same-sex marriage were on the 'wrong side of history'. In Bavinck's day, whether women should get the vote was a matter of discussion. Now the very idea of what constitutes a woman is at the centre of the controversy raging around 'trans rights'. Mothers and Fathers are being relabelled, 'gestational parent' and 'non-birthing parent'. Bavinck was right. If God falls, even the basic facts of human biology have no secure place to rest. There is no shortage of 'reformers' in our day too. 

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