Herman Bavinck's life and theology
Earlier this year, the fourth and final volume of Herman Bavinck's great Reformed Dogmatics was published in English. This year (2008) also marks the one hundredth anniversary of Bavinck's Stone Lectures at Princeton Theological Seminary. The time is ripe, therefore, to become acquainted or reacquainted with Bavinck.
Life and education
Herman Bavinck was born in Hoogeveen, the Netherlands, on December 13, 1854. His father was a respected pastor in the Christian Reformed Church, originally formed as the result of a “Secession” from the state Reformed church of the Netherlands, which had become increasingly liberal and estranged from the Reformed confessions.
Bavinck consistently excelled as a student and completed the normal four-year program of his boarding school education in three years. When he expressed his desire to obtain seminary training at the University of Leyden (academically prestigious, but with a faculty known for its repudiation of confessional Reformed theology), his parents and others prevailed upon him to study at the seminary of the Christian Reformed Church in Kampen. Bavinck's desire for comprehensive training at an institution renowned for its outstanding scholarship, however, compelled him to transfer to Leyden.
Bavinck distinguished himself at Leyden and was granted the doctor of theology degree with honors in 1880, having written a dissertation on The Ethics of Zwingli. Bavinck learned much from his teachers at Leyden, but also faced many challenges to his personal confession and convictions.
Pastor, professor, peacemaker and philosopher
Bavinck entered the ministry in the Christian Reformed Church of Franker. He twice declined an appointment to teach theology at the Free University in Amsterdam. In 1882, however, when the General Synod of the Christian Reformed Church invited him to fill the vacant chair in dogmatics at its seminary in Kampen, Bavinck accepted. He began his labor on January 10, 1883, with an inaugural address on “The Science of Sacred Theology,” which was well received throughout the churches and caught the attention of Abraham Kuyper. He reviewed it in De Heraut (January 21, 1883), observing that “I have hardly ever read a treatise with such undivided attention, from start to finish, as this inaugural.” Bavinck embarked upon a twenty-year period of productive labor at Kampen, where he was much loved by his students for his modesty, unusual eloquence, and extraordinary breadth of knowledge. During his Kampen years, Bavinck produced his Reformed Dogmatics in a first edition of four volumes (1883-1901).
In 1892, Bavinck made the first of two trips to America. He gave an address to the Alliance of Reformed Churches holding the Presbyterian System in Toronto, Canada. He took the occasion to visit his close friend, Geerhardus Vos, who was then teaching at Calvin Theological Seminary. He also visited Princeton Theological Seminary, where he met and befriended professor B. B. Warfield.
During the struggle that took place in the 1880s to unite the churches of the Secession (1834) with the churches of the Doleantie (1886), a dispute arose over the question of church control of the teaching of theology and the preparation of students for the ministry. Most of those who stood in the line of the Secession of 1834 wished to maintain the principle of church control, whereas those who stood in the line of the Doleantie under Kuyper favored the principle of “free study,” or the location of the discipline of theology in a university setting. Bavinck, who participated significantly in the process that led to the union of these churches in 1892, was something of an anomaly in his own tradition, for he was sympathetic to the idea that theology should be pursued in a university context so as to encourage the most rigorous academic and “scientific” approach. This helps to explain Bavinck's decision, upon the fourth occasion of an appointment in dogmatics to the Free University, to accept the appointment in 1902.
In 1908, Bavinck visited America for a second time, principally to deliver the Stone Lectures at Princeton Theological Seminary. On this visit, Bavinck was also privileged to visit President Theodore Roosevelt. There is evidence of some shift in Bavinck's scholarly interests during this later period of his teaching. In many of his later writings, Bavinck attempted to offer a broad philosophical and pedagogical basis for the pursuit of excellence in Christian schools at every level, including the university.
In the providence of God, Bavinck's life ended unexpectedly, at a time when he was still engaged in a variety of academic, political, cultural, and church activities. After offering an eloquent address on the floor of the synodical meeting of the Reformed churches in Leeuwarden, Bavinck suffered a heart attack, from which he first rallied but never fully recovered. After a prolonged period of illness, Bavinck “fell asleep” in the Lord on July 29, 1921. Among the poignant memories recorded of visits with Bavinck at the time was his reply to the question of whether he was afraid to die: “My dogmatics avail me nothing, nor my knowledge, but I have my faith, and in this I have all” (Henry Elias Dosker, “Herman Bavinck,” Princeton Theological Review 20 (1922): p. 459).
Although it is difficult to capture the person of a figure like Bavinck, the profile that emerges from his writings and biographies is that of an exceptionally gifted, yet modest and unassuming, scholar. When he engaged the views of others, even those with whom he strongly disagreed, Bavinck was uncommonly courteous and respectful. Wherever possible, he would acknowledge the partial truth expressed by other theologians, even though he could not finally concur with their viewpoint.
Consequently, although he was ultimately uncompromising in his convictions as a Reformed theologian, Bavinck was often respected by contemporaries who were not sympathetic to his confessional position.
There are several outstanding qualities that characterize Bavinck's work as a theologian. One of
these qualities reflects what we have noted about his person, namely, his sympathetic treatment of the views of others. Throughout his writings, Bavinck exhibits a meticulous care in representing
alternative positions. Before he critically engages a position with which he disagrees, he is at great
pains to represent it in the best possible light. He also resists the temptation to arrive prematurely
at a conclusion. In his Dogmatics, for example, Bavinck evidences an extraordinary familiarity with the discussion of theological topics throughout the history of the church. When he addresses a theological topic, he takes account of the spectrum of opinion throughout history and among the most diverse confessional communions (whether Protestant, Roman Catholic, or Eastern Orthodox). Only after a thorough canvassing of the biblical, historical, and confessional discussion of any particular topic does he arrive at a conclusion of his own. These qualities of meticulous and catholic scholarship, painstaking research, and consideration of the possible answers to a question; however, are among the reasons why Bavinck's Dogmatics continues to be a model for contemporary Reformed theologians.
Three broad themes recur throughout Bavinck's writings as a Reformed theologian.
- The first of these, the subject of his Stone Lectures, is the philosophy of revelation. In the face of the withering philosophical and critical attacks upon the historic doctrine of divine revelation, Bavinck worked consistently throughout his life from the settled conviction of the reality of the triune God who reveals himself through all of his works in creation and redemption, and who has provided for an inscripturation of that revelation in the Old and New Testaments. Reformed theology must build, even as the church is built, upon the sure foundation of God's own testimony to himself and the manifestation of his grace in the Lord Jesus Christ.
- The second of these themes is Bavinck's emphasis upon the “catholicity” of the church and the Christian faith. All truth, in whatever sphere or academic discipline, derives from a knowledge of God's works in creation and redemption. Reformed theology may never, therefore, fall prey to a parochial or narrow spirit that eschews the pursuit of scholarship or abandons the academy to unbelief.
- A third and final theme that pervades Bavinck's theological writings is one that he shared fully with his contemporary, Abraham Kuyper, namely, that “grace perfects nature” – or, better, that redemption involves the renewal and consummation of all creation. The purposes of the triune God in redemption culminate not only in the recreation of a new humanity through the work of Jesus Christ, but also in the realization of God's purposes for the whole of creation itself. Like Kuyper, Bavinck could not be satisfied with scholarship that does not seek to bring every thought captive to the obedience of Christ. Nor could he be content with the idea that any dimension of truth is separable from the truth that is in Christ, to whom all things in heaven and on earth are subject.
These themes, and the general outline of his Dogmatics, were to exercise a profound influence on such well-known North American theologians as Cornelius Van Til and Louis Berkhof.
It has been suggested, not implausibly, that Bavinck's theology reflects a kind of “duality” that corresponds to his personal biography. Bavinck was both the faithful son of the Secession of 1834 and the scholar who deliberately chose to study at the most liberal university in the Netherlands. On the one hand, Bavinck endeavored to adhere faithfully to the authority of the Scriptures and the subordinate standards, or confessions, of the Reformed churches. On the other hand, he read widely and engaged sympathetically the best of modern theological scholarship and culture. This duality in Bavinck's life should not be overstated, however, since it expresses in the arena of theological scholarship an inescapable feature of the life of every Christian who is “in but not of the world.”
It can only be hoped that, with the publication of Bavinck's Dogmatics in English, more readers will have access to the contributions of this remarkable theologian. Although readers will not always agree with Bavinck's conclusions, they will find him to be an outstanding model of Reformed theological scholarship – deeply rooted in the riches of scriptural revelation, sympathetically informed by the great confessions of the Reformed churches, instructed by the history of the church's reflection upon the Word of God, and carefully engaged with the broad range of contemporary challenges to the Christian faith. If readers learn anything from Bavinck, they should learn much about how the work of theology is to be conducted. In a beautiful passage from his Dogmatics (1:112), Bavinck offers a glimpse of his understanding of his calling as a Christian theologian:
Dogmatics shows us how God, who is all-sufficient in himself, nevertheless glorifies himself in his creation, which, even when it is torn apart by sin, is gathered up again in Christ (Ephesians 1:10). It describes for us God, always God, from beginning to end – God in his being, God in his creation, God against sin, God in Christ, God breaking down all resistance through the Holy Spirit and guiding the whole of creation back to the objective he decreed for it: the glory of his name. Dogmatics, therefore, is not a dull and arid science. It is a theodicy, a doxology to all God's virtues and perfections, a hymn of adoration and thanksgiving, a “glory to God in the highest.” Luke 2:14