Tag Archives: Herman Bavinck

A Sometimes Forgotten Figure in Our Church History

Bavinck: A Critical Biography, James Eglinton.  Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2020.  Hardcover, 450 pages.

In my corner of the Reformed world, figures in church history are often categorized as heroes or villains.  If you’re either one, you stand a chance of being remembered.  For example, Abraham Kuyper is considered a villain because of the way his views were imposed on the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands, especially in the 1940s.  Klaas Schilder is a hero because of the way he resisted the imposition of Kuyper’s views.  But if you can’t be neatly categorized, even if you’ve made important contributions, more than likely your name and however God may have used you will be forgotten. 

I’m afraid that’s been the case with Herman Bavinck (1854-1921).  I had a look through my childhood church history textbook, Young People’s History of the Church by W. Meijer (published in Launceston!).  Figures like Schilder and Kuyper dominate.  But Bavinck isn’t mentioned at all, not even once.  P.K. Keizer’s Church History, a textbook for high schools and colleges, doesn’t fare much better.  Bavinck is mentioned once, just in passing.  I first discovered Herman Bavinck in university by reading Cornelius Van Til, the pioneer of Reformed apologetics.  Van Til claimed he wasn’t being all that innovative, just building on what others had done before, and especially Bavinck.

Who was Herman Bavinck?  Without spoiling the book, he was a highly-respected Dutch theologian.  After a short pastorate, he first taught at the seminary of the churches established out of the Secession of 1834.  Bavinck was instrumental in discussions leading up to the Union of 1892, when the churches of the Secession merged with the churches of the Doleantie of 1886.  In 1902 he accepted a position to teach theology at the Free University of Amsterdam.  He was also actively involved in politics, being elected as a senator to the Dutch parliament in 1911.  He wrote dozens of articles and books, the most notable being his four-volume Reformed Dogmatics (which has been translated into English).         

I’m hopeful that this new biography by James Eglinton will spark renewed interest in this influential figure from our Reformed church history.  While it’s scholarly and careful, it’s also exceptionally readable.  A few years ago, James Bratt published a biography of Abraham Kuyper (Abraham Kuyper: Modern Calvinist, Christian Democratreviewed here).  This too was a scholarly biography, but it suffered from assuming too much about the reader’s prior knowledge of Kuyper’s context.  Eglinton, on the other hand, explains everything well for the reader new to Bavinck.  Eglinton has helpful features, including a map, chronology, and a list of key figures, churches, educational institutions and newspapers.         

This isn’t the first Bavinck biography to appear in English.  In 2010 we saw Ron Gleason’s Herman Bavinck: Pastor, Churchman, Statesman and Theologian (my review is here).  Eglinton’s biography is different in that it claims to be a critical approach to Bavinck – “critical” in the sense of being analytical.  Eglinton presents Bavinck as a theologically orthodox believer trying to come to terms with the modern world, a world which began to change radically after 1848. The author doesn’t shy away from some of the weaknesses, inconsistences, or doubts of his subject.  Eglinton also corrects some of the inaccuracies of previous biographers, not only Gleason, but also Dutch biographers such as R.H. Bremmer.  Eglinton does this by going back to the original sources, especially Bavinck’s journals and letters.

As a result of this original research, some new details of Bavinck’s life have emerged.  For example, Eglinton reveals the tragic obsession the young Bavinck had with Amelia den Dekker.  His journals tell the story of his apparently unrequited love for Amelia and how she broke his heart.  These sorts of details fill in more of the human side of Herman Bavinck.

It also becomes clear how Bavinck isn’t easily boxed.  He was a “son of the Secession,” but chose to study at the University of Leiden, a hotbed of theological liberalism.  Bavinck was always confessionally Reformed, yet one of his closest friends was an atheist.  He was a friend and colleague of Abraham Kuyper, yet was publicly and privately critical of Kuyper.  Bavinck edited and republished a classic Reformed theological textbook known as the Leiden Synopsis, but when he wrote his own dogmatics he wasn’t just regurgitating past formulations.      

Readers may also be surprised to discover that Bavinck was ahead of his time on some issues.  For example, Herman Bavinck argued that there was no Scriptural basis on which women should be prevented from voting, whether in society or in the church.  He wasn’t the first to make such arguments, but his voice did carry some heft in the Reformed Churches of the Netherlands.  Eglinton adds some context to these views with his fascinating description of Bavinck’s wife Johanna, a woman who certainly had an independent spirit and a sharp mind of her own.       

Scholars of Dutch Reformed church history are lauding this work and rightfully so.  But I’d also highly recommend it to all pastors and church leaders, as well as teachers of church history in Christian schools.  Not only is it informative, but it’s an enjoyable read.  Best of all, it’ll leave you with a more nuanced view of how Christ has been working through complex people to gather, defend and preserve his church.

Herman Bavinck on Women in the Church

Herman Bavinck (1854-1921) stands with John Calvin and Abraham Kuyper as one of the greatest Reformed theologians.  He’s renowned for being biblical, confessional, and incisive.  It’s been especially the publication of his Reformed Dogmatics in English that’s brought him to prominence in our day.  Biographies by Ron Gleason and, more recently James Eglinton, have certainly helped as well.  However, most of Bavinck’s corpus remains in Dutch.  Eric Bristley’s Guide to the Writings of Herman Bavinck illustrates the vastness of this corpus, listing hundreds of his articles and books. 

I want to introduce to you one of these untranslated works, one that was controversial in its day, and still bears some relevance for today.  In 1918, Bavinck published his book De vrouw in de hedendaagsche maatschaapij (Women in Contemporary Society).   It’s a comprehensive look at questions Dutch society was wrestling with in the early 20th century, particularly under the influence of first-wave feminism.  It deals with what Scripture teaches about women and how biblical teaching applies today, but also surveys church history – Bavinck’s typical approach.  In what follows, I’ll summarize what he says in his chapter about women in the church.  I’ll be simply reporting what he writes.  In other words, this is only descriptive and not analytical/critical.

“Women in the Church” is the title of chapter 10 of De vrouw in de hedendaagsche maatschaapij, the second-last chapter of the book.  It begins with the pre-Reformation church, noting the role of nuns in Christian philanthropy.  During the Reformation, some efforts were made to reorient this kind of diaconal service among women, but these efforts were hardly successful.  In some areas, efforts were made to have deaconesses, but the Synod of Middelburg in 1581 decided that it was not advisable to reintroduce the office of deaconess in the Reformed churches of the Netherlands.  In exceptional circumstances such as a time of plague, however, the work of deacons could be done by their wives or other women.  According to Bavinck, this happened in places like Middelburg, Utrecht, Amsterdam, and Emden.

Bavinck then turns his attention to a historical overview of women as pastors/preachers.  He notes that the Salvation Army was among the first to give a prominent role to women as church leaders.  This was owing especially to Catherine Booth, who co-founded the Salvation Army with her husband William.  Catherine Booth argued for the right for women to be preachers alongside men.  Others who pioneered women’s ordination were the Quakers, Congregationalists, Universalists, Unitarians, Methodists and, in the Netherlands the Mennonites and the Remonstrants.

Bavinck evaluates all these developments as being unbiblical.  He notes that Christ entrusted the ministry of the word to men, first to the apostles, and then to pastors and teachers.  The apostolic church never had any official ministry of the word and sacrament by women, nor any government of the church by women.  The apostle Paul said that women are to be silent in the congregation because to do otherwise would violate the natural order grounded in creation.             

Bavinck has a more positive evaluation of women serving in a general diaconal role.  In fact he says, the church “cannot do without women in this work.”  This includes things like Sunday school, care for the poor and the sick, care for the elderly, the support of pregnant women, and more.  He doesn’t think these activities need to be directly under the oversight of the church as an institution, but the church does have the calling to promote this kind of work where women use their gifts.

That leads into a discussion of the active role that women can play in missions.  He notes some figures for women serving on the mission field.  According to his figures, 160 women from America were serving as missionary doctors, and 2458 as “sisters in the mission” (zendingszusters).  Canada had 23 and 220, while Australia and New Zealand 2 and 94.  He also draws attention to the role that “missionary women’s associations” play on the home front, promoting and supporting the work of missions around the world.  Bavinck presents all of this in a positive light. 

Finally Bavinck comes to the controversial topic of women voting for office bearers in the church.  He begins this discussion with an overview of where things stand:  he notes that there are many churches in America, Australia, Denmark, Norway, Iceland, and Switzerland where women vote.  He points out that it was discussed and defended in the Netherlands as early as 1898 by Abraham Kuyper, as well as by pastors A.D.C Kok and C. Lindeboom.

Bavinck notes that the issue did not seem to be a pressing one in the Netherlands of his day.  Unlike in other countries, men were actively involved in Dutch church life and there didn’t seem to be any desire to have women voting for office bearers.  He writes that, with such indifference, it would be foolish to press the issue.

However, he notes that if we discuss it in principle, “there is little ground to condemn it.”  Bavinck argues that women are equal members of the church with men.  They have just as much an interest in having good office bearers as the men do.  Because of their nature as women, they tend to actually have quite a great deal of interest in religious matters.  Moreover, there are large numbers of widows, women married to “religiously indifferent men,” or women married to men who belong to another church.  Without being able to vote, such women are all stripped of the opportunity to have an influence on church life. 

Bavinck strengthens his argument by noting that while women under the authority of their husbands in the home, as church members they receive the same benefits and should receive the same rights.  He notes that young male communicant members who still live with their parents are subordinate to those parents, but yet they have the right to vote.  This is unfair.  Bavinck says the injustice becomes worse because women are allowed to raise objections to the election of an office bearer – yet they cannot vote.  Then he notes that the vote in the church is not an exercise of power.  The congregation only points out its preferences for office bearers; the consistory is responsible to call and appoint.

He maintains that there is only objection with any weight:  if women can vote in the church, it will not be long before the church will be forced to have women standing as candidates.  In other words, women’s voting will lead to women’s ordination. 

But Bavinck notes that this is an argument from fear.  It is an argument that often persuades fearful minds concerned about novelties in the church.  However, he points out, if the Scriptures are so strong that women may not serve as office bearers, then we have nothing to fear.  The clarity of the Bible should prevent any such development.

He then points out that it’s not unusual for people to be able to vote and not be able to stand as a candidate.  One does not follow from the other.  The requirements for eligibility to vote are often different from the eligibility requirements to stand as a candidate.  In the Dutch situation of his time, a public servant, clergyman or teacher was not allowed to be a candidate in a city council election.  Writes Bavinck, “Thus eligibility to any office in Scripture is bound by certain requirements, 1 Timothy 3; but no such limits are placed on the power to vote.”

Finally, Bavinck comes to a brief discussion of Scripture.  In Acts 1:15, in the meeting of the 120 people to replace Judas as apostle, women were certainly there (Acts 1:14).  True, Peter addresses the gathering as “Men and Brothers.”  That was common practice and it still was in the church of Bavinck’s day.  Even though they were present the sisters were never mentioned.  It’s therefore uncertain as to whether or not the women present participated in the process.  Other passages like Acts 13:3 and Acts 14:23 likewise do not shed any light.  Bavinck concludes that while Scripture limits the offices of the church to men, there is no definite and clear statement about who may vote.

Indeed, it seems to Bavinck, in the ancient church women were not excluded from choosing bishops or making contributions to other ecclesiastical matters.  He points out that, in his day, in Germany there were Roman Catholic congregations where independent women had long been allowed to vote on the choice of a pastor.  Similar situations occur in the Netherlands, he says, proving that women have not always been excluded from the voting process in the congregation just because they are women. 

In his biography, Ron Gleason describes the reception of this book (pp.415-416).  It was especially the matter of women voting in the church that led to some negative evaluations by men such as Dammes Fabius and Seakle Greijdanus.  Gleason relates that Abraham Kuyper wrote his last letter to Bavinck about this book and indicated that the two of them had significant differences on the subject.  However, a footnote surmises that these differences may have been about women’s suffrage in civil society.  Given how Bavinck asserts that Kuyper defended women’s voting in the church, Gleason may be correct.

(Note: I haven’t yet read James Eglinton’s biography and what he may have to offer on this – it’s on my list of must-reads for 2021.)            

Some Recommended Resources on the Doctrine of the Covenant of Grace

As mentioned here previously, I’ve been preaching a series of catechetical sermons on the doctrine of the covenant of grace.  Someone asked me to provide a list of recommended resources.  First, some caveats.  The list is not comprehensive, not by far.  These resources are in no particular order.  My mentioning them does not mean that I agree with every single detail, term, or formulation in them — indeed, some of them do contradict each other at certain points.  In sharing them, all I mean to say is that I have learned something valuable from them and perhaps you can too.

The Covenant of Grace, John Murray (Philippsburg: P&R, 1953, 1988).

This was the very first thing I ever read about covenant theology.  It’s a dense little booklet of 32 pages.  It’s not included in Murray’s 4 volume Collected Writings.

The Main Points of the Covenant of Grace — Klaas Schilder.

This was a speech delivered by Schilder in 1944.  It’s a fairly good summary of his covenant theology.  He emphasizes the dynamic and relational nature of the covenant of grace.

Covenant and Election, J. Van Genderen (Neerlandia: Inheritance Publications, 1995). 

A good overview of the history of this topic.  The author also proposes helpful ways of outlining the similarities and differences between covenant and election.  This was one of our textbooks in seminary.

Teaching and Preaching the Word: Studies in Dogmatics and Homiletics, Nicolaas H. Gootjes (Winnipeg: Premier, 2010).

Here I’m thinking especially of chapters 4 (Christ’s Obedience and Covenant Obedience), chapter 8 (Sign and Seal), chapter 9 (The Promises of Baptism) and chapter 17 (Can Parents Be Sure?  Background and Meaning of Canons of Dort, I, 17).  Dr. Gootjes was my dogmatics professor in seminary and probably the biggest single influence on the way I think about the covenant of grace.  I hope that his material on covenant theology in the Reformed confessions will someday yet be published.

Reformed Dogmatics, Herman Bavinck (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2006).

Bavinck tackles the covenant of grace in volume 3 and he’s worthy of careful study.  In volume 2, he also has a notable discussion of the covenant of works.

An Everlasting Covenant, J. Kamphuis (Launceston: Publication Organisation of the Free Reformed Churches of Australia, 1985).

This is a more technical work which traces some of the finer details in the debates over covenant theology leading up to the Liberation of 1944.

Covenant, Justification, and Pastoral Ministry, ed. R. Scott Clark (Phillipsburg: P & R, 2007).

This is a collection of essays by the faculty of Westminster Seminary California.  There are some important cautionary notes sounded in this volume directed against the false teachings of Federal Vision theology.  In a series of articles in The Outlook, I addressed the question of whether some of the authors mentioned above should be condemned with the Federal Visionists.  You can find part 1 here, part 2 here, and part 3 here.  It’s also available in Korean here.

Herman Bavinck on Education

One of the hats I wear is that of a sessional lecturer in church history at Covenant Canadian Reformed Teachers College.  Tomorrow I’ll be lecturing on Herman Bavinck and I’ll also be discussing his contributions to educational philosophy.  Here’s an excerpt from my lecture notes:

Also, I want to spend a few moments on Bavinck’s views of education.  As mentioned earlier, he did a lot of work in this area.  He was an educator at the seminary level, but he was also interested in the philosophy behind education at every level.  He wrote at least three books on the topic, plus numerous essays and articles.  He was among the pioneers of careful Reformed thinking about the philosophy of education.  Unfortunately, nearly everything Bavinck has written on this subject is still in Dutch.  We do have a couple of books in English about Bavinck’s educational philosophy.  One of them is Cornelius Jaarsma’s 1935 book, The Educational Philosophy of Herman Bavinck: A Textbook in Education.[1]  Following Jaarsma, let me just summarize three of Bavinck’s contributions to this area.

Bavinck was conversant with contemporary educational philosophy in general.  For instance, he had read John Dewey and was quite familiar with his views.  Bavinck recognized the antithesis in educational philosophy.  He saw that Dewey and others represented a man-centered (anthropocentric) approach to education.  Instead of that, Bavinck insisted that we need to maintain a God-centered (theocentric) educational philosophy.[2]

Another interesting element of Bavinck’s educational philosophy was his view of the one to be educated.  This brings him to the subject of creation and evolution.  Jaarsma summarizes Bavinck’s position like this:  “Bavinck proceeds from the creative principle rather than that of biological evolution.  He fails to find adequate evidence in biology, archaeology, geology, etc. that man finds his progenitors in lower animal forms.”[3]  Man is a special creation of God.  Here too, he insists on the antithesis.  Jaarsma again:

 Man is either a creation of God or a descendant of lower animal forms.  One who rejects the former, must resort to the latter, not because of adequate evidence, but as one’s only alternative.  If man is a developed form of animal life, he remains an animal, and brute nature will always remain with him in some form.  Education then becomes a process of embellishment in eugenics and euthenics.  ‘Man’s animal origin is no more than an hypothesis, and really no more than an opinion of the present day.’[4]

Instead, Bavinck insisted that man was a special creation of God and that humanity not merely possesses or bears the image of God, but is the image of God.  Education then is the purposeful process of perfecting man in the image of God.[5]

Finally, Bavinck also reflected on the ethical element of educational philosophy.  He recognized that education also has a behavioural component.  Here again, he draws out the antithesis between a biblical approach to education and that of secularists in his time.  Bavinck wrote, “Modern education in various ways has undermined the authority of parents, has made the child the center of all education, has exchanged the moral relationship of teacher and pupil for that of contact.”[6]  Modern educators follow the thinking of Pelagius and assert the inherent goodness of human nature.  A Reformed and biblical view of education proceeds from a position that takes total depravity and original sin seriously.  Children need discipline.  However, mostly for practical reasons, Bavinck was not an advocate for corporal punishment in schools.  He was also aware of how corporal punishment has become abusive.  Other means should be found to keep children in line and they should be:  1) geared towards the individual, and 2) positively geared towards correction.[7]  But we need discipline as part of our education, because discipline teaches self-control, and self-control is the way to true freedom.

Now there is much more that could be said about Bavinck’s educational philosophy.  I’ve just hit on three of the more interesting points.  If you want to find out more, read Jaarsma’s book.

[1] There is also J. Brederveld, Christian Education:  A Summary and Critical Discussion of Bavinck’s Pedagogical Principles (1928).  The English book, Essays on Religion, Science and Society has a couple of shorter writings of Bavinck on education as well.

[2] Jaarsma, The Educational Philosophy of Herman Bavinck, 134.

[3] Jaarsma, The Educational Philosophy of Herman Bavinck, 149.

[4] Jaarsma, The Educational Philosophy of Herman Bavinck, 140-141.

[5] Jaarsma, The Educational Philosophy of Herman Bavinck, 215.

[6] Jaarsma, The Educational Philosophy of Herman Bavinck, 172-173.

[7] Jaarsma, The Educational Philosophy of Herman Bavinck, 173.

Book Review: Herman Bavinck

Herman Bavinck: Pastor, Churchman, Statesman, and Theologian, Ron Gleason, Phillipsburg: P&R, 2010.  Paperback, 511 pages, $29.99.

Over the last decade we’ve seen a surge of interest in the great Dutch theologian Herman Bavinck (1854-1921).  With the translation of his monumental four-volume Reformed Dogmatics, the English-speaking Reformed world is finally coming to recognize the valuable contributions of Bavinck to theology.  His influence upon men like Louis Berkhof and Cornelius Van Til was legendary, but now the evidence is readily available to everyone.  The only thing missing has been a book-length biography of this giant.  We’ve had some biographical essays in various books and journals, but nothing to compare with what has been available in Dutch.  Ron Gleason’s volume has therefore been much anticipated.

Gleason himself has a unique biography that qualifies him for writing this work.  He is an American, but his theological training includes time spent at the Free University in Amsterdam.  He served as a pastor in a Liberated (Vrijgemaakt) Reformed Church in the Netherlands.  His proficiency in Dutch allowed him access to both primary and secondary sources for the research of this biography.  Canadian Reformed readers may remember Dr. Gleason for his years spent pastoring the Bethel Canadian Reformed Church in Toronto, Ontario.  Currently he serves as the pastor of the Grace Presbyterian Church (PCA) in Yorba Linda, California.

It’s not my intent to rehearse Bavinck’s biography here in this review.  It will suffice for me to say that Gleason covers the full breadth of Bavinck’s years.  He surveys his family background, his upbringing, his theological education, his marriage and family life, his first and only pastorate, his years teaching at the seminary in Kampen, his time at the Free University in Amsterdam, his role in various church disputes, and his political involvement.  There’s a lot of detail and the story is generally well-told.  A couple of highlights:  Bavinck visited Toronto in 1892.  Gleason reports on Bavinck’s impressions of what was then known as “Toronto the Good”:  “The Puritanical principle dominates there visibly and clearly” (148).  Later in life, Bavinck made another trip to North America and this included a brief visit with U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt (361).

We often read biographies not only to give us a sense of who a person was, but also to understand the issues of days gone by.  Sometimes the issues are similar to ones we face today.  In the discussions regarding a merger of the Canadian Reformed and United Reformed Churches, one of the big and (to this date) unresolved issues has been theological education.  Should a united church federation have its own seminary or should this be left to outside institutions?  Can we do both?  Before and after the union of the Secession (Afscheiding) and Doleantie churches in 1892, Herman Bavinck also dealt with this issue.  He taught at the federational seminary in Kampen for many years.  But yet he also had many friends and contacts within the Free University in Amsterdam.  Later, with matters still unresolved, he went to teach there.  These were thorny issues then and they remain so.  Bavinck’s biography provides a cautionary tale about what happens when church unions are forced without resolving real differences.

There is nothing like Gleason’s book in English.  For that reason alone, it needs to be in the hands of pastors, aspiring pastors, scholars, elders, and interested lay-people.  However, not only will people with a theological bent benefit, but also those with an interest in politics.  Towards the end of his life, Bavinck served as a politician.  He was elected to a position in the Dutch government and gave careful thought to the application of Christian principles to the political realm.

Unfortunately, the book does have some problems.  There are numerous typos and formatting errors.  The footnotes (especially the biographical ones) are sometimes repetitive, as is the text.  Sometimes the book suffers from a lack of clarity.  As an example in chapter 16, Gleason deals with the question of whether Bavinck changed theologically later in life.  Initially, he says that Bavinck didn’t change (399).  But then three pages later, the answer becomes “yes and no” (402).  A sharp editor would have caught this.  Basically the problems in this book boil down to poor editing.  My hope is that a second edition will someday resolve these infelicities and make a good book even better.

Despite those foibles, I enjoyed this biography.  Gleason’s writing is lively and there are often humorous moments.  Most importantly, he loves Bavinck and it shows.  The book concludes with several appendices including summaries of two sermons by Jan Bavinck (Herman’s father) and a summary of Herman Bavinck’s inaugural address when he began his career at Kampen.  I’m glad to see that English-speaking readers can finally get the full story of this imposing and multi-faceted figure in our Reformed church history.