Herman Bavinck: Vast Learning, Ageless Wisdom

In recent years, study of the Dutch Reformed theologian Herman Bavinck has exploded, due in large part to the complete translation of his major systematic theology, 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.

For a name that, until recently, would be unrecognized by most people even within the church, it may be surprising that J. I. Packer would say the following 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, saying that Bavinck’s Reformed Dogmatics is “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’s Background                    

Bavinck was born on December 13, 1854, in Hoogeveen, in the Netherlands, and he died in July of 1921. He was the son of Jan Bavinck, the pastor of a church that had seceded from the state church of the Netherlands because of its theological liberalism. As a young boy, Herman was fortunate to study at the Hasselman Institute—a highly esteemed private school—from age seven to sixteen. 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 over Kampen because “he wanted ‘a more academic theological education’ in which ‘he could engage the new modern theology directly.’” 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 eighteen months 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 1883–1902. His short time as a pastor gave him a chance to speak theological truth in a scholarly manner while at the same time being made 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.


Bavinck’s Contributions to Theology                   

Bavinck is most famous for his magnum opus, a four-volume, 3,000-page work entitled Reformed Dogmatics. Even though it was written more than a hundred years ago, the theological discussions in the Reformed Dogmatics are timeless, because they quite frequently discuss the history and development of both orthodox and heretical theological positions. The four volumes that compose the Reformed Dogmatics are: Prolegomena; God and Creation; Sin and Salvation in Christ; and Holy Spirit, Church, and New Creation.

Like other Dutch theologians, Bavinck was not just concerned with ivory-tower theological discussion but also dealt with issues of culture and the church’s relation to it, 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 (a post on him will be coming later), but he also had a significant impact on other Reformed theologians such as Herman Ridderbos, Anthony Hoekema, and Cornelius van Til.


Bavinck’s Theological Distinctives                       

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 the Bible was foundational truth upon which all theology and religious experience rests. 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. Rather than allow his theology to be dominated by trite biblicism or blind adherence to church dogma, 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, because of his situation in the fractured Reformed church in the Netherlands, 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 church.


Bavinck’s Legacy     

Carl Trueman suggests that the work of Bavinck is relevant for evangelicals today for five reasons: 1) it is done in the context of faith and under the assumption that the Bible is God’s revelation; 2) it is grounded upon biblical exegesis; 3) it articulately and charitably interacts with differing views; 4) it delicately balances the history of theology and the contemporary social situation; and 5) 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, “Bavinck’s life and thought reflect a serious effort to be pious, orthodox, and thoroughly contemporary.” While certainly not as prestigious as figures like Augustine, Calvin, and Luther, the work of Herman Bavinck is worth the attention of those exploring the Reformed tradition.


Bavinck’s Major Writings