Review: Bavinck: A Critical Biography

Bavinck: A Critical Biography, James Eglinton. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2020.

Summary: A biography tracing the origins, significant life events and theological scholarship of Dutch neo-Calvinist theologian Herman Bavinck.

Interest has grown in recent years in the life and work of Herman Bavinck. In 2008, the four volumes of his Reformed Dogmatics, published in Dutch in 1905 was finally published in English translation. It became more widely apparent that Bavinck was one of the most significant theological minds of the 20th century. The arrival of James Eglinton’s Bavinck: A Critical Biography only enhances our understanding of this key theological figure.

Eglinton begins with Bavinck’s family of origin, so significant in the shape of his career and thought. His father, Jan, was part of the group of those who seceded from the Dutch Reformed Church in 1834, pastoring a seceding churches, facing the opprobrium of the first generation, and preceding Herman in teaching at the Theological School at Kampen.

Yet in the education of Herman, his parents avoided the parochial bubble, a temptation with a group seceding to affirm doctrinal orthodoxy. It began in sending Herman to the gymnasium at Zwolle. Then after a year at Kampen, Herman got permission to study at the much more “modern” Leiden. It reflected an early sense on the part of Herman of wanting to preach and teach a neo-Calvinism at once orthodox and engaging the modern and scientific currents in the wider society. He completed in 1880 his thesis under two of Leiden’s leading lights, Scholten and Kuenen, although still formally recognized as a student at Kampen. Many cast aspersions on Bavinck’s bona fides yet he passed his ordination exams and received a call to a large congregation in Franeker that grew during his year as pastor.

A year later, in 1882 he joined the faculty at Kampen, along with his rival Lucas Lindeboom. Lindeboom challenged his efforts to do reformed theology in a modern context, and his increasing efforts with Abraham Kuyper to realize a Reformed vision in Dutch society. During this period, Bavinck refuses several attempts to recruit him to Kuyper’s Free University. Eglinton explores the tension between Bavinck’s loyalty to the Christian Reformed Church and his scholarly ambitions. Eventually, as Lindeboom’s forces pushed him and a colleague out, he was able to complete his migration to the Free University, succeeding Abraham Kuyper in the chair of theology at the Free University of Amsterdam in 1902.

Even before this, with diminished teaching loads, Bavinck was able to realize his scholarly work of a theological work that reflected his vision, the Reformed Dogmatics, as well as scholarly articles, and an unfinished Reformed Ethics (currently being translated into English). Eglinton also digs into his view of scripture. One one hand he affirmed a high commitment to the divine inspiration and authority of scripture. At the same time, his understanding of this fully divine and fully human document also raised doubts for him that two of his students took further to the detriment of their careers.

The Amsterdam period reflected a broadening out of his influence as he brought theological principles to bear in the spheres of education, psychology, and politics. He served briefly as party leader during Kuyper’s absence and was elected to the first chamber of the Dutch government. In 1908, he is honored in America with a meeting with Teddy Roosevelt and the invitation to give the Stone Lectures. His insights on America both during this and his earlier visits make interesting reading. The text of his account of his first visit is included as an appendix.

One of the interesting aspects of Bavinck’s life was his marriage to Johanna. She was a strong partner who probably both encouraged and extended Bavinck’s efforts to recognize the rights and roles of women in society. Most of her children engaged in resistance against Hitler, a number at the cost of their lives. She wasn’t his first choice. He kept a flame for a number of years for Amelia den Dekker but was refused by her father and rebuffed by her. My sense is that Johanna was the better partner.

This is an outstanding biography. Having read a bit of Bavinck, I wondered about the readability of this work. My wonderings were unfounded. One encounters at once both an extensively researched and flowing narrative of Bavinck’s life. If you are interested in exploring the work of this theologian, Eglinton’s Bavinck is a great place to begin.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

One thought on “Review: Bavinck: A Critical Biography

  1. Pingback: The Month in Reviews: January 2021 | Bob on Books

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