With the recent publication of Herman Bavinck’s Reformed Ethics and the forthcoming first English translation of his Christian Worldview 1, more and more readers are discovering the genius of the Dutch neo-Calvinist afresh. Picking up Bavinck’s Ethics or Dogmatics, however, can be daunting. While Bavinck’s prose is often accessible, he does interact with a significant array of 19th-20th century (European) scholarship that might be a bit removed from the present day, and the many pages that confront us itself might dissuade us from picking up his works. Moreover, how does one actually read him well? Bavinck has the habit of citing one figure, for example, critiquing his theology relentlessly in one passage, only to use him constructively in another. Wolter Huttinga’s befuddlement over Bavinck’s text represents many readers well:
The way [Bavinck] represents the opinions of others, even those with whom he obviously disagrees, always belies a deep sympathy which may cause the reader to wonder to what extent Bavinck actually agreed with the author under discussion. When reading Bavinck, one often wonders: ‘Whose voice is this?’ In Bavinck’s idiom, even the most obvious heresies sound tempting. He himself makes no secret of this, as he often confesses that ‘there lies a great and deep truth’ in this or that view – even if in the end it is not his own. The synthesizing character of Bavinck’s mind makes it hard to ascertain what does and does not belong to the thread of his theology. 2
How then, should we read Bavinck? Here are four principles to keep in mind that might aid readers and to avoid common pitfalls.
One of the most important principles to keep in mind when reading Bavinck’s text, as hinted at by Huttinga above, is that Bavinck would often use a particular thinker positively in one passage only to critique him the next or vice versa. This is Bavinck’s way of embodying a self-consciously Reformed catholic approach to constructive theological writing. Readers will often find Bavinck arguing that there is always something good and true even in the most deviant of writers (by virtue of God’s common grace). One colleague during my time at Edinburgh expressed his frustration at reading Bavinck by calling him a “greedy vacuum” – Bavinck seemingly wants to use everybody, and he can’t do that! But far from making Bavinck an inconsistent reader, his patient use of diverse thinkers comes out of the conviction that Reformed Christianity truly is universal.
Reformed theology’s all-encompassing character means that the philosophies and values of every age would inevitably, though often unwittingly, produce tenets that are organically found in the same. Turning to the “philosophic systems” of his century, for example, Bavinck argued that the central lines of “Calvinism” are resident in the “moral principles of Kant,” the “pessimistic philosophy” of Schopenhauer and, indeed, in “almost every system” of the 19th century that deny the “indeterminism of the will.” 3 In other words, Calvinism is uniquely suited to encounter 19th century philosophy precisely because Calvinism can accommodate and appropriate the philosophies of any age. Despite the tendency for early Christianity to utilize Plato and Aristotle as philosophical handmaidens, “theology is not in need of a specific philosophy. It is not per se hostile to any philosophical system and does not, a priori and without criticism give priority to the philosophy of Plato or Kant or vice versa. But it brings along its own criteria, tests all philosophy by them, and takes over what it deems true and useful.” 4 There is no perennial or natural philosophy to which Christianity must be attached, and it is for that reason that she can make use of any philosophy she encounters. 5
Don’t be surprised or alarmed, then, when Bavinck deviates from one source and uses another seemingly contradictory source: his use of one particular thinker is not an indication that he systematically endorses the same. We can resist the temptation to charge Bavinck with inconsistency by keeping in mind that particular deployment is not systematic endorsement.
Bavinck’s method is structured around a three-layered approach: (1) biblical exegesis (2) tracing the historical-theological development of a doctrine (3) expressing that doctrine freshly and normatively for the present day. Consider Bavinck’s own self-conscious description of the organization of a Reformed ethic:
This structure is characteristic of his Dogmatics as well, and keeping it in mind helps readers not lose sight of the forest when they’re deeply looking at the trees. While his survey of the biblical material and evaluation of particular historical thinkers and movements are helpful, keep reading until the end of the section for his own contemporary and constructive statements of the doctrine under discussion. This, too, stems from Bavinck’s conviction that a responsible theologian ought not to merely repristinate the old but to communicate freshly to the new generation. In the 1895 foreword to the Dogmatics, he would argue that an aim to bring dogmatics forward by conversing with the present is implied in the very definition of Reformed catholicity: ‘to cherish the ancient simply because it is ancient’, he wrote, ‘is neither Reformed nor Christian. A work of dogmatic theology should not simply describe what was true and valid but what abides as true and valid. It is rooted in the past but labors for the future’. 7
This point flows naturally from the previous one. As recent scholarship has noted, Bavinck’s own voice comes most clearly by his use of the organic motif. Driven by a rigorous trinitarian outlook, Bavinck argues that creation reflects God’s triune self by exhibiting unities-in-diversities in its various spheres. Over and over again, readers will find Bavinck describing various aspects of the cosmos as “organisms” – the universe as a whole forms an organism of diverse parts; the law of God is a single organism; knowledge is an organism of science; and so on. 8 This organic motif is found very clearly when Bavinck describes human beings, who are uniquely image-bearers of God. Just as God is one-in-three, an absolute unity-in-diversity, so is humanity not a collection of atomistic individuals but a corporate entity united in a single federal head:
Only humanity in its entirety – as one complete organism, summed up under a single head, spread out over the whole earth, as prophet proclaiming the truth of God, as priest dedicating itself to God, as ruler controlling the earth and the whole of creation – only it is the fully finished image, the most telling and striking likeness of God. 9
Emphatically this preserves the natural and ethical bond that binds all of humanity, as conveyed in the covenant of works (with Adam) and the covenant of grace (in Christ):
The covenant of works and the covenant of grace stand and fall together. The same law applies to both. On the basis of a common physical descent an ethical unity has been built that causes humanity – in keeping with its nature – to manifest itself as one organism and to unite its members in the closest possible way, not only by ties of blood but also by common participation in blessing and curse, sin and righteousness, death and life. 10
Hence, look out for the organic motif: when it shows up, you are most likely finding Bavinck’s constructive voice.
Much like Abraham Kuyper, Bavinck sees uniformity and one-sidedness as twin errors that continually pervade the history of ideas. 11 Uniformity is the temptation to reduce all of the diverse phenomena of creation into a single idea or thing. For example, naturalism is tempted to reduce everything to the merely physical; pantheism reduces everything to the divine, but Christianity keeps both the physical and divine together while distinguishing properly between the two. One-sidedness is also a serious error: historicism privileges one era or people group as a golden age, not realizing that developed cultures and intellectual life exist in other times and places; liberalism prioritizes ethical life to the detriment of the properly religious; religious fanaticism exercises rigorous personal piety to the neglect of love of neighbour and society.
You’ll see, then, that Bavinck will often critique a particular position for its lack of holism, or for its “dualism” or the like. Bavinck pushes his readers not to reject a pattern of reasoning or observation immediately, but to see whether one can incorporate their insights into a holistic Christian worldview. Far from making oneself narrow-minded, a Christian worldview actually aids us to become more whole in our thinking and living – indeed, a proper Christian worldview cultivates and nourishes Christian wisdom. Once we see that Bavinck’s goal is often a more holistic approach, we can better anticipate and understand where his discussions are going.
These principles should aid and encourage readers to pick up the premiere neo-Calvinist theologian for themselves. While reading Bavinck is indeed still often challenging and difficult, readers should find that the profit is well worth the toil. Tolle Lege!