Bavinck: A Critical Biography
It has been one hundred years since Herman Bavinck died. Much has changed and shifted in our world in the last ten years, let alone a hundred. Why now, of all times, should we look at the life of a theologian a hundred years gone as we consider how to live faithfully in the present? In Bavinck: A Critical Biography, Dr. James Eglinton presents a compelling picture of man whose life and work deserves our deep consideration.
James Eglinton’s Bavinck: A Critical Biography seeks to live up to its name. Multiple biographies have been written about the Dutch theologian and statesman, Herman Bavinck, some recently and others shortly after his death in 1921. While occasionally referencing these biographies, Eglinton prefers to return to the sources of publications, letters, local newspapers, and dagboeken (personal journals) to get a better picture of the life and work of Herman Bavinck. As a critical biography, Bavinck is more interested in presenting an accurate picture than a flattering one.
The story of Herman Bavinck is complex because at every point in his life there seem to be multiple forces pulling him in different directions. Herman Bavinck (1854-1921) was the son of a pastor in the Succession movement. These churches had broken away from the official Dutch Reformed Church and faced persecution. After persecution ended and Dutch culture opened up, fractures began to emerge on whether and how to engage the wider culture.
While some favored isolation and withdrawal, Herman’s father encouraged him to engage the world while holding to his convictions. It was rarely an easy task. Herman was educated at excellent schools, often separating him from many of his Successionist peers, but he was also keenly aware he never quite fit in with those born to nobility and influence. Bavinck went to the Theological School in Kampen and entered into the process of examination for ordination. Yet after a year, he would leave Kampen for the modernist, scientific university of Leiden. The fact that he remained enrolled in his conservative denominational school while also attending the large, liberal university shows how Bavinck attempted to stand astride two worlds.
After graduating from Leiden and Kampen, Bavinck served as a pastor for a year before taking up a teaching post at his alma mater in Kampen. He taught and wrote extensively, including finishing his magnum opus, Reformed Dogmatics. Bavinck’s time in Kampen was filled with church responsibilities and church politics, including fighting for a merger between Bavinck’s denomination and that of Abraham Kuyper’s. He was frequently head-hunted by Kuyper to teach at the Free University in Amsterdam, turning him down again and again. When Bavinck finally left Kampen for Amsterdam, it was a bitter and awkward parting.
Bavinck’s writing and influence was broad and contentious. There was consistent resistance to his (and Kuyper’s) vision to bring the principles of Calvinism into every sphere of human life. Throughout his life and writings, Bavinck was a dogmatic theologian, psychologist, christian educator, supporter of women’s education, member of parliament, and international dignitary.
Eglinton portrays a profoundly human Bavinck. He lost multiple siblings to death at a young age and was very close with his parents. As a teenager he wrote poetry to an older girl he liked, but never showed her. He had a poster of Abraham Kuyper in his room. He was rejected in love before later getting married. He struggled with indecision on multiple occasions. He largely failed as a political party leader. His assessments of where Dutch culture was headed were sometimes wrong. He attempted to hold fast to orthodoxy while engaging the modern world and, even in his own day, there were real questions of whether he finally succeeded.
Bavinck: A Critical Biography is a fascinating story and worth reading for its own sake. Yet, Eglinton’s biographic portrayal of Bavinck raises three key questions for those of us seeking to live faithfully as Christians in the twenty-first century. First, Bavinck presents the challenge and possibility of holding orthodox convictions while fully engaging with the modern world. What challenges and possibilities lay before us in seeking to do the same today? Bavinck’s story intersects and shares similarities with many in Dutch Reformed traditions in North America. The simultaneous pull to withdraw for the sake of holiness and purity and the push to engage every sphere of life in the name of Christ is as real today as it was then. The tension that these competing forces create in churches and denominations is as real today as it was then. While we cannot simply copy Bavinck’s life or decisions, Bavinck’s work (and Eglinton’s biography) can become a resource as we seek to navigate how to hold orthodox convictions while engaging the world around us.
Second, Bavinck also raises the question of which cultural seasons are temporary and which are more long-lasting. For most of his life, Bavinck assumed that the liberal, post-Christian pluralism he saw in Dutch culture could not last. People would not be able to stand living with such competing and contradictory claims and this would lead to a revival of the Reformed faith in the Netherlands. This fueled his desire to articulate the Reformed faith for the people of his time. Later, he recognized that he underestimated people’s willingness to live with complete contradiction. This intellectual shift, compounded with a trip to the United States, led him to a greater emphasis on evangelism later in his career. In our contemporary cultural moment, it can be difficult to determine which movements will pass away quickly and which we will need to wrestle with for generations. Bavinck reminds us that even the best of us can miss the mark here and we need to be willing to shift emphasis to engage with what is really happening around us.
Third, for those in denominations that share history with Bavinck’s (like the RCA and CRC), Bavinck’s story raises questions about union and separation. Bavinck was born the son of those who broke away from the main Dutch Reformed church. He remained in this church his entire life – preaching, teaching, and training its pastors. Yet, Bavinck also sought and fought for union between two Reformed denominations. After years, he was successful, but the work had just begun. Old divisions still needed to be healed, questions about schooling and education needed to be worked out, and prominent personalities needed to be brought together. Bavinck’s story demonstrates the virtue and messiness of seeking union between denominations.
Bavinck: A Critical Biography is a must-read for all those who are interested in the work of Herman Bavinck. Yet, it is also a book for the church. It tells of a man pulled by the desires to maintain holiness and piety as well as to engage the world in the name of Christ. It tells of a man facing all the intellectual challenges of a shifting world with the best he had. In short, it tells of someone who had aspirations like many of us and who we have much to learn from.