Tuesday, June 22, 2021

Bavinck: A Critical Biography, James Eglinton

Baker Academic, 2020, 450pp

Even if you think Dogmatics is the name of the dog in Asterix the Gaul, you should probably read this book. That's Dogmatix to you, anyway. If you are a Christian who is struggling to hold fast to the faith in rapidly changing times, (and who isn't?) you will find a soul mate in good old Herman. If you are theologically aware enough to know that Dogmatics is not in fact the canine companion of Asterix, this biog is certainly just the thing for you. 

It took me seven years of on/off reading, to finish reading the English translation of Herman Bavinck's magisterial four volume Reformed Dogmatics. I appreciated the depth of Bavinck's scholarship, admired his orthodox yet original theological vision and valued his attempt at bringing Reformed theology into dialogue with the concerns of the modern world. Yes, Bavinck was a Presbyterian and I'm a Reformed Baptist, so there were points of disagreement, but I won't hold that against him. Catholic-spirited of me, I know. 

But what of the man himself? The English translation of Reformed Dogmatics carries a biographical sketch, which is a handy guide. In 2010 Ron Gleason published Herman Bavinck: Pastor,  Churchman, Statesman and Theologian. The Gleason effort was defective in a number of respects, leaving me hoping for a biography that would offer a more compelling portrait of its subject. See my review here.  Cue James Eglinton's Bavinck: A Critical Biography. 

It's a 'critical' biography not because the author keeps having a go at Bavinck, but because the work is based on a fresh reading of the original source materials, rather than being a rehash of earlier Dutch biographies. The picture that has emerged from previous accounts of Bavinck's life is of a somewhat conflicted figure. He was the product of the highly conservative Christian Reformed Church and yet he also desired to be a man of the modern world, moving ever closer to the centre of Dutch society. 

Eglinton challenges that take. The separatist Christian Reformed Churches had been coming in from the cold for some time. The beginning of the modern era in Dutch national life was signalled in 1848 when toleration was granted to other church groupings beyond the established Dutch Reformed Church. The life of Bavinck's father, Jan straddled the pre-modern and modern periods in Holland. He began his pastoral ministry in 1848. Members of the Christian Reformed Church no longer faced discrimination. Some Separatists welcomed the opportunities that their new-found freedom offered, Jan Bavinck was one. Others worried that their orthodox stance would come under pressure should they engage too closely with the modern world. 

Herman Bavinck began his theological training in the Christian Reformed Church's own Theological School in Kampen. It was not to his liking. He wanted to broaden his horizons and study under the modern theologians at the University of Leiden. Some more conservative, not to say reactionary members of his own denomination criticised him for the move. But with his father's support Bavinck enrolled at Leiden, while remaining a student at Kampen. Bavinck excelled in his studies, where he faced the challenge of maintaining his Reformed faith in an academic environment dominated by a critical attitude to the Bible and a revisionist approach to doctrinal orthodoxy. Friendships struck at Leiden were to endure throughout Bavinck's lifetime. 

The move to Leiden did not signal a move away from the Christian Reformed Church on Bavinck's part. On completing his studies both at Leiden and Kampen Herman accepted the call to pastor the denomination's congregation at Franeker, where he served from 1881-82. Following that short spell in pastoral ministry Bavinck was appointed to teach at the Theological School in Kampen, where he remained until 1902. It was during his time there that Bavinck wrote the original editions of his Reformed Dogmatics, which he continued to edit and revise over the years. His time at Leiden acquainted Bavinck with the modern philosophical and theological ideas with which he wrestled in his Dogmatics. That gives the theologian's writings a fresh feel, as he engaged with a wide range of thinkers, while maintaining an orthodox Reformed standpoint. His approach was that of 'theological theology', where the discipline justified itself on its own terms as faith seeking understanding of God's self-revelation in Holy Scripture.   

In the early phase of his teaching ministry Bavinck sought to advance Reformed distinctives over and against alternative versions of the Christian faith. He viewed Dutch society and culture as Reformed in nature, unlike America, where he did not see Reformed theology taking off in a big way. As Dutch society became increasingly secular under the influence of Friedrich Nietzsch and others, Bavinck shifted his emphasis. He urged the churches to engage in evangelism and devoted himself to defending the Christian faith understood more broadly, rather than simply championing the distinctive aspects of Reformed theology. 

Even before he became a Professor at Kampen Bavinck had come to the attention of Abraham Kuyper, who had established his Free University on Reformed principles in Amsterdam. Over the years Kuyper made several attempts at luring Bavinck to the University. It was only when Bavinck became weary of the tensions between fellow lecturers at Kampen that he eventually succumbed, taking up the position of Professor of Theology at Amsterdam. By that time the Christian Reformed Church had merged with the Doleantie churches associated with Kuyper to form the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands. Attempts at bringing together the Theological School and the Free University to form a single educational institution ended in failure, much to the frustration of all involved. Bavinck included.  

Kuyper and Bavinck were united in their quest to reshape Dutch society in line with a Christian worldview. Bavinck was active in the Antirevolutionary Party under which Kuyper became Prime Minister of Holland from 1901-05. Eglinton describes Kuyper as a Zeus-like figure, who viewed the world from a lofty Olympian perspective, confident of his ability to to reorder human affairs. Bavinck was ever the careful scholar, journeying like Odysseus from a starting point to the truth. He lacked Kuyper's political skills and did not make a success of his role as chairman of the Antirevolutionary Party. Bavinck was not always in theological agreement with Kuyper. He carefully distanced himself from the latter's stance on the presumptive regeneration of baptised infants and justification from eternity. Kuyper was very much a man of affairs. Even his death was a public event, while Bavinck was a deeply private character. 

That fact makes Eglingon's biography all the more impressive an achievement. His use of Bavinck's dagboeks (private journals) and correspondence enabled him to get under the theologian's skin. We feel for him as the young Bavinck falls in love with Amelia den Dekker. Any hopes of him marrying his beloved Amelia were dashed by her unyielding father. Bavinck later to marry Johanna Adriana Schippers, which whom he had a daughter. Bavinck had an enlightened view of the place of women in society and championed female suffrage in the face of opposition from Kuyper. He was capable of maintaining close friendship with people whose views were far different to his own, such as Christiaan Snouck Hurgronje. They became friends when they were students at Leiden. Snouck was a liberal skeptic who secretly converted to Islam. He questioned how Bavinck could hold to conservative views, given what he had learned under the liberal lecturers at university. Bavinck defended his position, but without alienating his freethinking friend. In polarised times like our own the two men provide a model of of critical, yet cordial engagement between people with wildly different views.

Herman Bavinck was born in 1854, just as the Secession Churches were adjusting the new-found freedoms offered by the modern world. He ended his life a scholar garlanded with academic honours and a statesman elevated to the Upper House of the Dutch Parliament. All the while Bavinck felt the ground moving under his feet as Dutch society became increasingly post-Christian in outlook. He sought to engage with the challenges of the modernity, rather than retreating into a ghetto mentality, a strategy favoured by some Separatists. Bavinck maintained his Kuyperian vision of a culture shaped in all its parts by the Christian faith, but he realised that Christianised society could not be achieved without Christians. Over the course of his lifetime theologian witnessed the Dutch element of Christendom becoming progressively estranged from the faith. With that in mind the older Bavinck rallied the churches to the cause of evangelism, which he defined as "the proclamation of the evangel (the good news of salvation in Christ) to Jews and gentiles." (p. 317). 

Eglington has produced a well-written and rounded account of Herman Bavinck's life set in the context of his rapidly changing times. By going back to the original sources the biographer corrects some of the inaccuracies present in previous biographies. Especially that the subject was painfully torn between his Seceder roots and the modern Dutch society in which he found himself. The author presents a compelling portrait of the man behind the voluminous writings. He was no conflicted soul, but a Reformed Catholic, faithful to the Calvinistic doctrinal heritage of his Church, yet concerned to address the challenges raised by modern thought. In fact as Bavinck claimed, "modern culture and Christianity are inseparable", a point ably demonstrated by Tom Holland in his Dominion: The Making of the Western Mind

Kuyper's all-embracing vision may be summed in his famous words, “There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry, Mine!” Bavinck agreed. The two men poured a huge amount of effort into reshaping Dutch society in line with a Christian worldview. Meanwhile, Dutch society was drifting away from the faith. Bavinck saw, perhaps too late, that the great need of the hour was for the church to engage in evangelism. If that was the case in the early years of 20th century Europe, how much more urgent is the call to herald the evangel in the early years of the 21st century. 

Beyond renewed evangelistic endeavour, if lost ground is to be recovered for the gospel in the 'post-Christian' West, what is needed is a mighty outpouring of the Spirit in revival power. Bavinck seemed to be a little circumspect about revivals and the strange phenomena sometimes associated with them (see this post on Herman Bavinck and Evan Roberts). But he knew well enough that the preaching of the word needs to be accompanied by the empowering presence of the Holy Spirit,  ‘[The Holy Spirit] always works through the word but not always in the same way…Hence the subjective activity of the Spirit has to be added to the objective word. In the nature of the case it cannot be enclosed in the word; it is another activity, an additional activity, a subjective activity, not through but along with the word’. (Reformed Dogmatics, Volume Four: Holy Spirit, Church, And New Creation, Herman Bavinck, Grand Rapids, Baker, 2008, 459-460). Yes, we need to apply the Word of God to the whole of life and herald the gospel of salvation. But if we would see whole societies transformed, the church needs to be revived and the preaching of the gospel of empowered by the Spirit so that multitudes sinners are converted to Christ. 

If Bavinck was too optimistic in his expectation that Dutch society would maintain its Reformed character, he was too pessimistic in thinking that America would have little time for  Reformed theology. The publication of his Reformed Dogmatics in English translation by an American publishing house has led to renewed interest in Bavinck's life and thought both in the USA and on this side of the Pond. James Eglingon has done a great service in producing this excellent account of the life and times of Herman Bavinck, whom he describes as 'an orthodox Calvinist, a modern European and a man of science'. 

* Most importantly, I get a footnote all to myself, n 13 on p. xx and a mention in the Bibliography, p. 428. 

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