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.

Review: Philosophy of Revelation

Philosophy of Revelation

Philosophy of Revelation, Herman Bavinck (edited by Cory Brock and Nathaniel Gray Sutanto, foreword by James P. Eglinton). Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 2018 (Originally given and expanded from Stone Lectures in 1908).

Summary: A new annotated edition of Dutch Reformed theologian Herman Bavinck’s 1908 Stone Lectures at Princeton, arguing that revelation is a warranted basic belief.

Herman Bavinck (1854-1921) was a Dutch Reformed theologian, writing mostly in Dutch, from the late nineteenth, early twentieth century. With the translation of his Reformed Dogmatics in 2003, studies of Bavinck’s work has flourished. This work represents an expanded version of Bavinck’s Stone Lectures at Princeton, first translated in 1908 by Geerhardus Vos. Two contemporary Bavinck scholars recognized the importance of this work to discussions of Reformed epistemology, and have given us this new annotated edition of the work. The annotations to the work are found in the footnotes and address everything from alternate translations of the text to explanations and context for Bavinck’s arguments, a tremendous asset to any modern scholar-theologian studying Bavinck. This is particularly important because Bavinck is engaging philosophers, scientists, and historians of his day, who are often not a part of contemporary academic and theological discourse.

Bavinck’s basic argument, anticipating the work of Alvin Plantinga, is that revelation is a warranted basic belief. The lectures argue this inductively from the disciplines of philosophy, natural science, history, religion and religious experience, culture, the Christian faith, and our teleology, our understanding of the future. Revelation in its general form (the things we can’t not know), and particularly around religious experience and Christian faith, special revelation, are shown to be basic to human experience and actually foundational to science, history, and philosophy.

Bavinck writes in a period where modernism had theology on its heels. Scientific research exalted the materialistic, rational explanation of all. What I was most intrigued with in the work was how Bavinck anticipated much of the developments of the last one hundred years in the movement from materialism to various forms of pantheistic monism in shaping our view of reality. Bavinck is one of the first I have observed to address the questions of the one and the many and how revelation, and the Christian faith offers the only satisfying explanation about connections between material and spiritual reality, and the sources both of oneness and true diversity. He is also prescient, in his discussion of revelation and the future, in anticipating the eugenics movement, and more recent efforts in genetic modification or even trans-humanism, human efforts to control our future.

The strength of this work is the basic argument Bavinck is making, and its connection to later thinkers from Van Til to Plantinga and Wolterstorff. An important aspect of this philosophy of revelation is the argument for how revelation serves as the basis of the coherence of all intellectual inquiry. This is desperately needed good news for our modern, fragment university world, as well as our fragmented modern lives, and even sense of self.

Sometimes, Bavinck’s engagement with scholars of his day makes it harder for those of us unfamiliar with them to keep track of his argument. The annotations are quite helpful in this regard. While it may have felt like meddling in the text, some form of subheadings or marginal summaries would have been helpful to this reader in keeping track of the thread of his argument. In some cases, such as critiquing Darwin, it felt that he might have been relying on apologetic arguments of his day that are less helpful with the advances of biological science. I realize that such a criticism simply reflects the problem of engaging any scholarly work from one hundred years ago.

None of this takes away from the compelling case he makes for a warranted basic belief in revelation, addressing both the philosophy of revelation, and the philosophy of revelation. We continue to live and move and work in an incoherent culture that divorces reason and revelation. Bavinck offers a significant extended argument for reconciling these, summarized well in one of his concluding statements:

“Revelation in nature and revelation in Scripture form, in alliance (verband) with each other, a harmonious unity which satisfies the requirements of the intellect and the needs of the heart alike.” (p. 242)

[By the way, don’t overlook the editors explanation, in their introductory essay (pp. xxxii-xxxiii), of the use of Piet Mondrian’s work on the cover of this work!]

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.