His name, until recently, would be unrecognized by most people even within the church. So it may be surprising that J. I. Packer would say about Herman Bavinck: “Like Augustine, Calvin, and Edwards, Bavinck was a man of giant mind, vast learning, ageless wisdom, and great expository skill.” Any name put on a short list with Augustine, Calvin, and Edwards certainly deserves attention. But theologian Richard Gaffin goes a step further than Packer, calling Bavinck’s Reformed Dogmatics, “Arguably the most important systematic theology ever produced in the Reformed tradition.”
These are high praises, and to understand why they are not simply hyperbolic statements made to sell books, we need to examine the life and thought of Herman Bavinck.
Bavinck was born on December 13, 1854, in Hoogeveen, in the Netherlands, and he died in July 1921. He was the son of Jan Bavinck, pastor of a church that had seceded from the theologically liberal state church of the Netherlands. As a young boy, Herman was fortunate to study at the Hasselman Institute—a highly esteemed private school—from age 7 to 16. He first studied theology in the city of Kampen at the theological school of the Christian Reformed Church (Christelijke Gereformeerde Kerk).
From there, Bavinck moved on to complete his doctoral work on the ethics of Ulrich Zwingli at the University of Leiden, under the supervision of several of the leading liberal scholars of the day at one of the most liberal universities of the time. He chose Leiden because “he wanted ‘a more academic theological education’ in which ‘he could engage the new modern theology directly'” (see John Bolt, “Grand Rapids Between Kampen and Amsterdam: Herman Bavinck’s Reception and Influence in North America,” 267). This liberal education solidified in him the desire to engage with the most theologically pressing ideas of the academy in a way that took seriously the authority of God’s revelation in Scripture.
After he completed his doctorate, Bavinck served briefly as a pastor for at a church in Franeker before, at the age of 28, he was appointed by the synod to be a professor in systematic theology and ethics at the Theological School in Kampen, where he worked from 1883 to 1902. But his short time as a pastor made him aware of the pressing needs and issues faced by the average parishioner. After Abraham Kuyper was named the prime minister of the Netherlands, Bavinck filled his place as the chair of systematic theology at the Free University of Amsterdam in 1902, and he remained a professor there until his death in 1921.
Contributions to Theology
In recent years, study of the Dutch Reformed theologian Herman Bavinck has exploded, due in large part to the complete translation of Reformed Dogmatics (Gereformeerde Dogmatiek) from Dutch into English. In 2011, for instance, a full issue of the Scottish Bulletin of Evangelical Theology was devoted to essays about different elements of Bavinck’s theology. Even though Reformed Dogmatics was written more than a hundred years ago, its theological discussions are timeless, because they quite frequently discuss the history and development of both orthodox and heretical theological positions.
Like other Dutch theologians, Bavinck was not only concerned with ivory-tower theological discussion but also dealt with cultural issues such as politics, education, evolution, psychology, war, the role of women in society, economics, and international relations. Bavinck delivered the Stone Lectures at Princeton Seminary in 1908, and these lectures later composed the book The Philosophy of Revelation. Perhaps his most popular and accessible work, Our Reasonable Faith, is a relatively “short” (576 pages!) one-volume summary of the Reformed Dogmatics.
Bavinck’s work was shared with the English-speaking world through the writings of Louis Berkhof, but he also had a significant effect on other Reformed theologians such as Herman Ridderbos, Anthony Hoekema, and Cornelius van Til.
Perhaps the greatest contribution of Bavinck’s theological work was his unflinching devotion to the authority and inspiration of Scripture, at a time when such views were unfashionable. Many theologians in Bavinck’s day sectioned off religious knowledge as a purely subjective matter not to be confused with the “hard facts” of science and other forms of genuine, objective human knowledge. Rather than let modern scholarship barrel over the truth of Scripture, Bavinck held that all theology and religious experience rests on the foundational truth of the Bible. He genuinely believed that the Bible could speak authoritatively to issues pressing on modern people.
At the same time, Bavinck did not entirely reject the subjective elements of Christianity. He produced a theology that took seriously the objectivity of the Scriptures and the church’s confessions, as well as the subjectivity of Christian consciousness and religious experience. Bavinck allowed room for the Holy Spirit to work subjectively in the lives of believers without undermining the objective revelation found in Scripture.
In addition, Bavinck expressed a broad Reformed theology that emphasized the unity and beauty of the one church in Christ and aimed to heal the divisions that he saw dividing the fractured Reformed church in the Netherlands.
Carl Trueman suggests that the work of Bavinck is relevant for evangelicals today for five reasons:
- it is done in the context of faith and under the assumption that the Bible is God’s revelation;
- it is grounded upon biblical exegesis;
- it articulately and charitably interacts with differing views;
- it delicately balances the history of theology and the contemporary social situation; and
- it is filled with personal devotion.
John Bolt sees a sort of duality that existed in Bavinck between the “academic theologian” on the one hand and the “churchly dogmatician” on the other. His academic tendencies led to him engage modern culture and science, and his churchly concerns drove him to strive for unity in the fragmented Reformed Church in the Netherlands. As Bolt puts it in the introduction to Bavinck’s The Last Things, “Bavinck’s life and thought reflect a serious effort to be pious, orthodox, and thoroughly contemporary.” While certainly not as prestigious as Augustine, Calvin, and Luther, the work of Herman Bavinck is worth the attention of those exploring the Reformed tradition.
Bavinck’s Major Writings
- Biblical and Religious Psychology.
- Essays on Religion, Science, and Society
- In the Beginning: Foundations of Creation Theology
- Our Reasonable Faith
- Reformed Dogmatics
- Saved By Grace: The Holy Spirit’s Work in Calling and Regeneration
- The Certainty of Faith
- The Last Things: Hope for this World and the Next
- The Philosophy of Revelation