This article is a short overview on the life and legacy of Herman Bavinck, and the direction he showed of being reformed in an unchristian world.

Source: Clarion, 2005. 5 pages.

Being Reformed in an Unchristian World: The Legacy of Herman Bavinck for the Twenty-First Century

Introduction: 1854-2004🔗

December marked the 150th anniversary of the birth of Herman Bavinck, one of the finest reformed theologians of the modern era. Bavinck played an important role in the advancement of reformed life in the Netherlands, especially in the decades around 1900. As a child of the Secession and an agent in the creation of the Dutch Reformed Churches (Gereformeerde Kerken) that were established in 1892, Bavinck is a spiritual ancestor also of the Liberated churches (Vrijgemaakten) and their sister-churches in Australia, Canada, and the United States. He bequeathed to them a valuable legacy, which may be described broadly as an emphasis on the direct application of the reformed faith to contemporary issues in theology, philosophy, social life, politics, and education.

Unfortunately, however, Bavinck is not widely known in English-speaking countries, since only a few of his writings have been translated from the Dutch language. The goal of this article, which offers little more than a sketch of Bavinck’s life and career, is to convey to the reader the current value of Bavinck’s writings and ideas, especially as these concern the relation of the reformed faith to Christianity generally and to the world at large.

Faith and Science🔗

Bavinck’s parents were members of the Seceded churches, yet they did not yield to the isolationist spirit common to many of them. Affected by their continued contact with believers who did not depart from the State Church, Herman developed an open-mindedness that would mark his thinking, writing, and actions later in life. While a stalwart defender of the just cause of the Secession, Bavinck gave serious consideration to the ideas expressed by those of other, also non-reformed, traditions. In 1873, after attending gymnasium, Bavinck enrolled in the theological college at Kampen, which had been founded in 1854. Within a year, however, since he preferred to be in a more academic environment, Bavinck transferred to the University of Leiden, the leading intellectual centre in the Netherlands and the seat of modern theology.

Fortunately, Bavinck was not overly attracted to the teachings of the so-called “ethical” school of theology, or to the “modern” science prevalent at the time. Yet he did acquire a conviction not widely practised in our time: reformed scholarship must operate at the highest intellectual level, and not languish on the margins of contemporary thought.

It was in Leiden that Bavinck also acquired the conviction that one must fully understand the ideas and methods of one’s intellectual opponents in order to refute them completely. Later in life, although he differed openly with his peers, Bavinck commanded deep respect for his fair representation of their arguments and his desire to counter them on their terms. In our unchristian era, too, the spirits must be tested fully to see whether they are from God; the truth must be acknowledged wherever it is found, and falsehood must be exposed by means of reasoned arguments, not dismissive rhetoric.

Bavinck wrote his doctoral dissertation on the ethics of Huldrych Zwingli, noting that the Swiss reformer boldly applied the combination of humanism and Christianity to ethics, the field of moral behaviour. Bavinck’s interest in the relation between belief and human achievement would develop into a lifelong endeavour to perceive the complex links between all aspects of human enterprise. One of the most significant, though difficult, goals of Bavinck’s career was to define precisely the relation between faith and science. It is fair to state that the furtherance of knowledge in the context of the Christian faith was Bavinck’s main contribution to the revival of Calvinism in the Netherlands at the beginning of the twentieth century. Obviously, the advancement of knowledge from the Christian perspective should mark reformed science also in the twenty-first century. To quote Bavinck from one of his guest lectures at Princeton, the person who dedicates his life to the pursuit of science “cannot split himself into halves and separate his faith from his knowledge.”

Christian Faith and Modern Theology🔗

While Bavinck was completing his dissertation, he kept an eye upon the liberalising trend in reformed churches throughout the Netherlands, and he dedicated his scholarly efforts to serving the church of Christ directly. In the late 1870s Abraham Kuyper was executing the plan to establish the Free University in Amsterdam, and he offered Bavinck a professorship in oriental languages there. After some vacillation, Bavinck declined and determined to serve the Christelijke Gereformeerde Kerken (the name of the churches which arose from the Secession) as minister, accepting a call to the Frisian town of Franeker. In 1882 Bavinck received a renewed invitation from Amsterdam, this time to be professor in New Testament exegesis. He declined, since he felt called to serve the congregations of the Secession, however humble they and their institutions were. The decision reveals Bavinck’s keen sense of respect for the boundaries between denominations (in Dutch: kerkbesef), a sense not highly active in evangelical North America today.

In 1883, when he was twenty-nine, Bavinck was appointed lecturer in theology and literary studies at the theological college at Kampen. Bavinck was eager to raise the academic standards of the relatively young school, and expectations were high. In his inaugural lecture Bavinck revealed his plan of study: from the confessional reformed perspective he would examine the central problems of theology as formulated by modern scholars.

Bavinck’s Reformed Dogmatics🔗

Bavinck wasted little time, and the years following his appointment became the most productive period of his life. It was during these years that he composed and published the four-volume Reformed Dogmatics, a work regarded by many experts as the most important modern expression of the teaching of Scripture from a reformed perspective. This exhaustive work provides a balanced account of the development of theology as a discipline; it also seeks to make dogmatics a more systematic discipline than it has been. Though Bavinck interacts with both contemporary and earlier thought, he does so in a personal manner in order to show that theology is not a purely academic pursuit, but a deeply personal undertaking of the believing Christian. Thus Bavinck counteracts the methods of so-called higher criticism practised by agnostic, or unbelieving, scholars.

Bavinck advanced the teaching of the inspiration and authority of the Bible (topics of considerable interest today). He emphasized that theology arises out of God’s revealed Word, the Scriptures, and so must always be bound up closely with it; theology cannot be pursued apart from the inspired Bible. Accordingly, the basis, methods, and goals of theological study must be established by the exercise of faith, and not by criteria determined by modern scientists. This means that every believer, regardless of education, can and should seek to grasp and formulate the teachings of the Bible. Thus by articulating the current significance of the well-known profession, sola Scriptura, Bavinck provided for our generation a renewed statement of the basis upon which reformed theology must advance and respond to current philosophical and theological movements. Readers will be pleased to discover that Reformed Dogmatics is now being translated into English: the available Volumes One and Two are required reading for any student of reformed doctrine.1

It is needless to state that Bavinck’s Reformed Dogmatics is not flawless or timeless. Both within and outside reformed circles, the shortcomings of the work were noted. One common observation was that Bavinck is partial to the scholastic methods of argumentation common especially to the Middle Ages, and that his approach was somewhat rationalistic. Especially in the sections that treat the doctrine of man (or anthropology), Bavinck has given the impression of employing scholastic modes of argumentation and language. Criticism has also been directed at the heavily philosophical tenor of the work, which may create the sense that it seeks to impose a theory of philosophy upon theology. Bavinck certainly knew intimately the writings of the great philosophers, in particular the Greek thinkers Plato and Aristotle, and the later Aristotelian thinker, Thomas Aquinas.

In Bavinck’s defence it may be observed that in responding to both historic philosophies and their modern manifestations, Bavinck was walking in the footsteps of some of the greatest theologians, most notably Calvin and Augustine, and that Scripture itself exposes the heresies of humanistic ideas. As far as the time bound character of Reformed Dogmatics is concerned, it is regrettable that Bavinck could not include in his writing a full, corrective response to the ideas of the highly influential theologian, Karl Barth, who was younger than Bavinck.

Bavinck’s Methods and Principles🔗

Unlike Abraham Kuyper, who stressed the antithesis between reformed and unchristian ideas, Bavinck sought to understand fully the assumptions and principles of theological movements. His method is that of synthesis, which places different ideas side by side. Bavinck did not draw parallels between the ideas of modern thinkers and classic reformed teachings; rather, he wished to grasp completely the thoughts of his opponents, and he did so through a careful analysis of the similarities and differences between their ideas and his own. His own treatment of doctrine was arranged in such a way that the relationship between the various elements was clearly visible. Bavinck’s balanced approach to his subject and to the writings of his colleagues succeeded because of his principled stance: firmly rooted in the Secession and the confessional reformed tradition, Bavinck confidently identified the truth wherever it appeared, and exposed theories not grounded in the text of Scripture. This cautious yet moderate approach deserves imitation today, especially in the formulation of reformed assessments of theological trends.

Secession, Doleantie, and Union🔗

While writing and publishing the Reformed Dogmatics, Bavinck was involved in church-political developments. In 1886 the tension between liberalism and orthodoxy in the State Church burst into conflict. Then Abraham Kuyper led the movement of dissidents (dolerenden) to form the Nederduitse Gereformeerde Kerken, and Bavinck was supportive. He did not follow Kuyper blindly, however, and he defended the actions that had led to the earlier formation of the Christelijke Gereformeerde Kerken. Shortly after the Doleantie (as the movement in 1886 is called), Bavinck helped to unite the disaffected congregations with the churches that had seceded a generation earlier. Bavinck believed that the two groups should join because they grew out of a response to false trends in the Reformed Church, albeit at different times and in different ways. Thus, together with Kuyper, Bavinck became one of the ‘founders’ of the Gereformeerde Kerken, that is, the federation which emerged from the union of the churches that seceded from the State Church in 1834 and the churches of the Doleantie. Bavinck’s writings about the biblical and confessional grounds for ecclesiastical unification are worthy of study today, especially since they were composed before the Ecumenical movement of the twentieth century.

Bavinck pleaded for the unification not only of the two federations of orthodox churches, but also of their theological colleges. In a requested report on theological training, Bavinck offered these arguments for a single seminary: to preserve the unity of doctrine; to strengthen the unification of the two federations; and, not least, to make the relevance of theology to other academic disciplines and to culture more explicit. He rightly foresaw that the segregation of theology as a distinct academic discipline would weaken the role of theology in intellectual pursuits and so in society generally. Consequently, he argued for the combination of two points that are often suppressed and separated today:

  1. Since theological training derives from Scripture, and Scripture has been entrusted to the church, theological training should fall under the jurisdiction of the church;

  2. Since theological training is academic training in which theology relates to all other sciences, it should be pursued with the same rigour that marks other disciplines.

In Bavinck’s idealist view, the best elements of the Secession and the Doleantie would be incorporated in a union of the schools in Kampen and Amsterdam. His proposal was not accepted, however, in part because Bavinck did not account for the politicking that commonly undermines relations between church federations. Bavinck also did not anticipate that the planned alteration to the faculty of theology in Amsterdam would cause concern in some quarters; moreover, he did not realize that his confidence in the leaders of the two federations was not shared by fellow church people.

In 1893 the Synod of the newly-united Gereformeerde Kerken determined that the theological school in Kampen would not be joined to the Free University of Amsterdam. Bavinck was deeply disappointed. According to R.H. Bremmer, one of the finest interpreters of Bavinck and his career, this decision had an even more serious consequence: it halted the progress of the neo-Calvinist movement, spearheaded by Kuyper and Bavinck, to combine religion and learning at the academic level.

It is to Bavinck’s credit that despite the rejection of his proposal regarding theological training, he continued to promote the union of the so-called “A” and “B” churches by mediating between them. Throughout the 1890s Bavinck also strove to make the theological college in Kampen academically accountable. He did so not by subjecting it to the increasingly secular standards of the universities, but by demonstrating how the basis for the right pursuit of knowledge is faith. However, since the union of the two federations was not cemented by the union of the theological schools, Bavinck grew less enthusiastic. Receiving yet another invitation from the Free University in 1902, Bavinck accepted a professorship in Amsterdam. In Kampen his departure created a strong sense of loss, even disillusion, for the brightest professor had left, and the complete union of the churches had failed.

Schools and Confessions🔗

It was noted at the outset that Bavinck’s interests and activities included social life, politics, and education. Due to the limitations of space, we shall treat only his advancement of Christian education. Bavinck was an active member of the School Council (Schoolraad) from 1890 onward; he served the board of the Reformed school society (Gereformeerd Schoolverband), and was president of the association for Reformed pedagogy. In this capacity, and in his educational writings, Bavinck stressed the importance of the confessions as basis for Christian education: only the schools that have the same confessional basis, and consequently the same standards, demands, and calling, can truly cooperate. This emphasis on the value of the confessions marked not only his writing on education, but on all subjects. Anyone familiar with the recent trend in Reformed churches in the Netherlands and elsewhere knows that the value of these confessions is being undermined. One of the challenges in the twenty-first century will be to maintain the authority, reputation, and application of the Three Forms of Unity in all areas of life.

In 1904 Bavinck published the Pedagogical Principles (Paedagogische Beginselen), which soon became the standard textbook for those training to be teachers. In it he explains the relationship between faith and culture, and the role of education in preparing the youth for their function in society. Bavinck also addressed the relationship between psychology and education, a very practical topic not only in Bavinck’s day but now. While interacting with the latest findings of experts in child psychology, Bavinck refuted the idea that education should be based in the new discipline of psychology. Instead, he argued, Christian education is founded in God’s revelation about humanity; what the Bible reveals about the creation of human beings in the image of God, about their fall into sin, and about their restoration through the atonement of the Lord Jesus Christ, is fundamental to educational theory. Reformed teachers familiar with modern theories of pedagogy will recognize the relevance of Bavinck’s correction of the assumptions of secular psychology and sociology.

Four Conclusions🔗

Four conclusions may be drawn from this appraisal of Bavinck’s legacy.

  • First, Calvinism is forward-looking. In the introduction to the Reformed Dogmatics, Bavinck states that Reformed doctrine is rooted in the past but labours for the future. Thus while many of his writings appear dated because they interact with philosophical and social issues of the late-nineteenth century, they convey principles for Reformed thinkers in the twenty-first century. Moreover, Bavinck hereby also rejects an orthodoxy that remains fixed in the past by merely restating well-rehearsed but obsolete ideas.

  • Second, Bavinck’s synthetic approach, based upon Scripture and the Reformed confessions, is a model for devising new ideas in answer to the questions of today. As society changes and as values and norms alter, so the Reformed faith must develop. By increasing the awareness and understanding (but not appreciation) of the paradigms of our culture, we can formulate the most complete Reformed response – better yet, offer to others the opportunity to see the Christian way in an unchristian world.

  • Third, one of Augustine’s famous statements is “I believe in order to understand.” Bavinck applied this scriptural notion to scholarly exercise. The study of God’s revelation in creation and the Bible is not an impersonal, strictly critical undertaking, but one that requires and displays true faith in the inspired Word of God. It requires the humility of Moses and a truly prophetic rather than purely academic disposition. These Christian characteristics, increasingly lacking to writings by Reformed authors, are concisely expressed by Bavinck as his earthly life draws to a close: “my scholarship is of no avail to me now, nor my dogmatics: it is only faith that can save me.”

  • Fourth, in a speech published as The Catholicity of Christianity and the Church, Bavinck warns the isolated Christelijke Gereformeerde Kerken to beware of sectarianism. The catholic character of the Christian faith is not restricted to theology and the life of the church, but extends to social life, politics, culture, and education. Bavinck’s warning applies also to our immigrant Reformed churches, which may be tempted to withdraw into a selfish pietism that ignores the world. The separation of Reformed religion from social life may appear attractive, but is disobedient to God’s will.

Herman Bavinck 1854-1921



Born in Hoogeveen


Student of theology in Leiden

Doctoral thesis: The Ethics of Huldrych Zwingli


Completes study for ministry at Theological College, Kampen


Serves as minister in the (former) Christelijke Gereformeerde Kerk


Becomes lecturer in dogmatics in Kampen


Publishes Catholicity of Christianity and the Church (De Katholiciteit van Christendom en Kerk)


Marries Johanna Schippers, with whom he receives one child


Publishes the 4-volume Reformed Dogmatics (Gereformeerde Dogmatiek)


Replaces Kuyper as professor of dogmatics at Free University of Amsterdam


Publishes Christian Worldview (Christlijke Wereldbeschouwing)


Publishes Pedagogical Principles (Paedagogische Beginselen)


Leads the Anti-Revolutionary Party as active politician


Passes away in Amsterdam



  1. ^ H. Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, Vol. 1; Vol. 2 (ed. J. Bolt, tr. J. Vriend, Baker, 2003-); some readers may be familiar with the abbreviated and popular compendium, entitled Magnalia Dei, which has been rendered into English as Our Reasonable Faith (tr. H. Zylstra, Baker, 1956).

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