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Book Review: Bavinck: A Critical Biography by James Eglinton

October 28th, 2020 | 19 min read

By Jessica Joustra

It is no surprise that such a remarkable biography comes from the desk of James Eglinton, who has already established himself as a leading voice in Bavinck studies. In his first book, Trinity and Organism, Eglinton set a new course for understanding Bavinck, rejecting the “two Bavincks” thesis, which understood Bavinck as the “Jekyll and Hyde” of Reformed theology – a man alternating irreconcilably between modernity and orthodoxy. In that first book, Eglinton set out a new hermeneutic for reading Bavinck that affirms one, consistent Bavinck: orthodox and modern, who strove to articulate the “historic Christian faith within his modern milieu.”[1]

Bavinck: A Critical Biography, in a way, grows out of Eglinton’s original project. He begins this book with a question: “if we are no longer justified in speaking of two Bavincks, what bearing might that have on how we tell the story of his life? What distinctive shape might his biography take in view of the collapse of the “two Bavincks” hermeneutic?”[2]

This biography is a fresh, detailed, and intimate picture of Herman Bavinck, his life, and his time, considered anew, and no longer bound by the “two Bavincks” hermeneutic. It tells the story of, as Eglinton describes, “a man whose theologically laced personal narrative explored the possibility of an orthodox life in a changing world.”[3] Through detailed accounts of Bavinck’s family roots, his life and work, and his changing historical context, Eglinton provides us with an account of Bavinck who is a “modern European, an orthodox Calvinist, and a man of science.”[4] It is a tour de force that both expands and corrects our understanding of Bavinck and his life through previously untranslated historical sources and Eglinton’s own keen theological insight.

“A Loyal Henchman” No More

There’s a famous quote from James Hutton Mackey’s Hastie Lectures describing Herman Bavinck as Abraham Kuyper’s “loyal and learned theological henchman.”[5] Such an understanding of Bavinck has, at least in some English-speaking theological circles, continued to surface, picturing Bavinck as one always in Kuyper’s shadow, rather than a brilliant theological force in his own right.

This was certainly the case in my own upbringing, in a community strongly tied to Dutch, Reformed theology, with ancestral roots traced back to the Netherlands (our phonebooks were filled with the Van-, De-, -stra, and -sma surnames to prove it!). We were regularly instructed in the teachings of neo-Calvinism, and could easily quote Kuyper’s famous declaration that there was “not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is sovereign over all, does not cry: ‘Mine!’”[6] But, for all we heard of Kuyper and his merits, we heard little – if any at all – about Herman Bavinck. He stood perpetually in the shadow of his larger than life, older colleague, Abraham Kuyper.

These early encounters with neo-Calvinism are not all that unique in the English-speaking context where Bavinck, even if “henchman” is no longer invoked, has often been relegated to Kuyper’s shadows.

In this biography, Eglinton forcefully dispels the notion of Bavinck as one in Kuyper’s shadow. Invoking the same popular quote from Mackey, Eglinton remarks that:

In contrast to the image of Bavinck as “Dr. Kuyper’s loyal and learned henchman” . . . the reality was somewhat different: in their mature theological states, Bavinck’s own thought had come to function as a discreet (but important) corrective of Kuyper’s. Clearly, while Bavinck was willing to critique Kuyper’s theology, it was also invaluable to him.[7]

No longer a “loyal henchman,” a nuanced picture of Bavinck – and his relationship to Kuyper – emerges from Eglinton’s work. The lives of Bavinck and Kuyper were undeniably intertwined, intersecting in the academy, in politics, and in their ongoing personal correspondences. But Eglinton accurately and winsomely relays a picture of the Herman Bavinck who stands on his own as academic and statesman, deserving of recognition for his unique and important theological contributions.

Dutch historian George Harinck has remarked that “we take the names of Abraham Kuyper and Herman Bavinck not as the name of two individuals but as a brand name. Kuyper and Bavinck belong together like Goldman and Sachs or Mercedes and Benz. Together they stand for neo-Calvinism.”[8] Eglinton continues to flesh out the relationship between Bavinck and Kuyper, showing the ongoing, and evolving relationship between the two: from the young Bavinck who purchased a poster of Kuyper to hang on his wall,[9] to Kuyper’s attempts to woo Bavinck to teach at the newly founded Free University,[10] to Bavinck’s growing sympathies for Kuyper’s theological project,[11] to their joint work in bringing together the Christian Reformed Church and the Dolerenden,[12] to finally sharing a platform at a conference on how Christians out to respond to the “social question,”[13] to sparring over the doctrine of eternal justification and the role of women,[14] to Kuyper’s praise of Bavinck’s theological magnum opus, Reformed Dogmatics,[15] to Bavinck finally accepting Kuyper’s offer of a post at the Free University,[16] to their service in the Antirevolutionary Party,[17] and finally, to Bavinck’s last journal entry: the passing of Kuyper.[18]

From Bavinck’s youth to his final years, the lives of these two men intersected; together they sought to champion Reformed principles, in all of life. But in all of the ways that the lives of Kupyer and Bavinck intertwined, Bavinck remained his own person, different in posture, and sometimes in conclusions from Kuyper.

Eglinton powerfully concludes his masterful biography with these words, describing Bavinck. His legacy is one of

. . . a dogmatician, an ethicist, an educational reformer, a pioneer in Christian psychology, a politician, a biographer, a journalist, a Bible translator, a campaigner for women’s education, and eventually, the father, father-in-law, and grandfather of heroes and martyrs in the anti-Nazi resistance movement.[19]

Such a tribute convincingly, and concretely, dispels any notion of one merely standing in the shadows of, or alongside, another great man.

“A Rough Diamond”?

Even for those generally unfamiliar with Bavinck, Eglinton’s retelling of his legacy – as a churchman, statesman, academic with contributions in numerous fields, father, and grandfather – begins to paint a picture of a remarkable man. In this biography, we read about a man who dedicated his career to mining the riches of the Reformed tradition for a new age; a “modern European, an orthodox Calvinist, and a man of science”[20] who helped shape generations to come.

It’s unquestionable that Bavinck was a great man, a polymath, and an important public figure in Dutch life at the turn of the century. But Eglinton’s work is a critical biography, which helps situate Eglinton’s work amongst the other biographies of Bavinck that have been written, notably Ron Gleason’s English biography, Herman Bavinck: Pastor, Churchman, Statesman, and Theologian (P&R Publishing, 2010) and a number of Dutch biographies: Valentijn Hepp’s Dr. Herman Bavinck (Amsterdam: Ten Have, 1921), A. B. W. M. Kok’s Dr Herman Bavinck (Amsterdam: S. J. P. Bakker, 1945), J. Geelhoed’s Dr Herman Bavinck (Goes: Oosterbaan & Le Cointre, 1958), and R. H. Bremmer’s Herman Bavinck en zijn tijdgenoten (Kampen: Kok, 1966).

Eglinton refers to each of these biographies from time to time, praising, in particular, the work of Bremmer.[21] However, the task and content of Eglinton’s new biography, even amidst these other resources on Bavinck and his life, is important for at least two reasons.

First, as is perhaps quite obvious, Eglinton’s biography is in English. The best biographies, to date, on Bavinck have – unsurprisingly, given Bavinck’s own context and work, as a Dutchman that did the large majority of his work in the Netherlands, speaking to the Dutch context, and writing in Dutch – been written in the Dutch language, and are largely inaccessible to the English-speaking world. For some time, because much of Bavinck’s own corpus remained untranslated, the absence of an English biography (Gleason’s biography was only published in 2010!), was of little consequence for English speaking Bavinck scholars; by necessity they needed to know Dutch to access the majority of Bavinck’s writings, so Dutch biographies presented no problem to them.

But following the translation of Bavinck’s Reformed Dogmatics into English (volume one of four was published in 2003), Bavinck’s North American, anglophone reception has blossomed. As Eglinton himself has commented, “in the course of the last decade, Herman Bavinck’s Reformed Dogmatics has become a standard text in the theological diet of Reformed and evangelical preachers in the Anglophone world.”[22] The hunger to know more about the life and thought of Herman Bavinck for English speakers has resulted in a pressing demand for just this kind of biography, along with numerous other translation projects, including the Philosophy of Revelation,[23] Christian Worldview,[24] Essays in Religion, Science, and Society,[25] and Bavinck’s unfinished Reformed Ethics.[26]

Second, it is a critical biography, differing from some of the previous Bavinck biographies in significant ways. As Eglinton readily admits, paying particular attention to the other English biography, by Ron Gleason, “my biography, however, is quite different from Gleason’s.”[27] Eglinton endeavors to present a critical picture of Bavinck, one that does not succumb to hagiographical retellings of a great man’s life, but rather shows the complexities of Bavinck’s life and work. His work portrays a picture of Bavinck as one who is not only a polymath and an influential leader, but one who is indecisive, had his ambitions frustrated at times, and experienced heartbreak and loss, as seen through not only Bavinck’s impressive scholarship, but also his vulnerable friendships and personal writings.

As a result, at times in Eglinton’s biography, we see a different picture of Bavinck emerge than had been previously understood. Taking meticulous care to trace Bavinck’s story, including through many handwritten journal entries, Eglinton shows us a less hagiographical, more complex picture of the man and his life that dissents from the received tradition of Bavinck biographers, much of which can be traced back to Hepp’s biography, and was retold by later biographers. While there are multiple examples of Eglinton’s correctives to previous Bavinck biographies, one will suffice here: the “mythical” story of Bavinck as a “diamond in the rough.” As Eglinton details, some of the commonly accepted “myths” about Bavinck simply have no factual basis.

The story of Bavinck as a “diamond in the rough” tells the tale of a young man, who was deemed not very bright, only to be discovered by a teacher (Mr. de Boer) who saw him for what he truly was: a child genius who would go on to do marvelous things. While this is an inspiring, perhaps heart-warming tale, it is also untrue. The story begins, Eglinton details, in Hepp’s biography who wrote that:

Somewhere, I read the following: “There was a moment where this rough diamond (namely, the young Bavinck) would be cast to the side as though it were a normal stone. . . . In Bunschoten, one had not seen much academic strength in ‘our Herman’ although the opposite was true of the younger son. . . . ‘Now!’ said Mr. de Boer, ‘let me test him nonetheless.’ And that happened. When after a couple of weeks, Rev. Bavinck asked the teacher whether anything could be expected of his older son [Herman], he gave the answer: ‘Minister, he is a diamond, but he has not been cut well and needs to be smoothed.’”[28]

Again, a heart-warming tale of promise unrecognized, surprisingly discovered, and soon to be fully realized in the great life of an influential polymath. There’s only one problem: the storyline revolves around Bavinck having a younger brother who was understood to be brilliant. That younger brother, Eglinton reveals, simply did not exist at the time that Bavinck lived in Bunschoten (eventually he would have younger brothers, but not yet!). This story gets carried on from Hepp’s biography to Bremmer’s, to Gleason’s. Eglinton challenges this persistent narrative – one might even call it, as he does, a persistent myth! – to tell us the true story of young Bavinck’s schooling, a story of relative privilege in education, when many young children were not yet able to be enrolled in school and the attempts of his father, Jan Bavinck, to guide his children into the changing, modern world, with a “knowledge-based economy.”[29]

Throughout this biography, alongside the myth of Bavinck’s childhood genius discovered as a “diamond in the rough,” Eglinton tackles many persistent stories (and misunderstandings or hagiographical retellings) of Bavinck’s life, providing readers with a more accurate, complex, and nuanced picture of a great – yet fallible – man, in his weaknesses and his triumphs.

Why Bavinck? Why Now?

Eglinton’s biography is undoubtedly a gift to Bavinck scholarship. It is a meticulous work that shows care to thoroughly and accurately depict Bavinck’s life and times, paying attention to not only his own life, but his family, his ecclesial community, and the broader intellectual and spiritual trends in the modernizing world around him. There’s no doubt that this will be the go-to English biography of Bavinck for quite some time.

But a work that so carefully situates Bavinck within his own context as a “modern European, an orthodox Calvinist, and a man of science”[30] might still cause us to ask: why Bavinck? Why now? While these are not questions Eglinton tackles, given the genre of his work, the insights he masterfully uncovers about Bavinck throughout this biography give us multiple, compelling answers to these questions.

First, Eglinton’s biography highlights the way Bavinck models how Christians ought to engage their context, while not lessening their commitment to scripture’s truth and authority. Bavinck was committed to “orthodox participation in the modern world,” neither retreating from his cultural context nor wholly capitulating to its assumptions.[31]

As a student in Leiden, for example, Bavinck studied under the great, modern, scientific thinkers of his day, while remaining a theologically conservative student. He was, as Eglinton highlights, “profoundly influenced” by his professors there, like Abraham Keunen, learning from them a scientific study of theology that led to “careful historical-theological scholarship.” Bavinck’s work, “in both style and rigor” was modeled after Keunen’s, while the content of his work continued to be theologically orthodox. Orthodoxy, he continued to insist, is not synonymous with repristination, it is not simply a “restatement of the theology of a bygone era.” Rather, while remaining steadfastly and faithfully orthodox, Christians ought to engage their own time: “to praise the old simply because it is old is neither Reformed nor Christian. And dogmatics does not describe what [used to] be the case, but [rather] what must be the case [now]. It is rooted in the past, but works for the future.”[32]

While we might not inhabit the same geographic or cultural space as Bavinck did, his method of orthodox participation in his own cultural context is instructive (and, even so, many of his meditations on the themes of “modernism and its fruits, the difference between faith and unbelief, and the contrast of sin and grace” that we see during his time in Leiden and beyond sound strikingly relevant for our own day![33]).

Second, Eglinton’s biography highlights the way that Bavinck models how to engage thoughtfully, civilly, with conviction, and with an eye to see the best in – and even learn from – the other, across deep differences. Bavinck’s academic journey, his friendships (particularly his friendship with Snouck Hurgronje, a theologically liberal scholar of Islam), and his own scholarship demonstrate his conviction to deal “respectfully” with those who hold “differing convictions.”[34] In a exchange with his friend Snouck that revealed deep differences in worldview, Bavinck concluded with these words that show a remarkable ability to humbly, generously, and kindly engage with those who differ, while not abandoning his core beliefs: “We can still learn a great deal from each other and be useful to each other. And precisely because I live among kindred spirits, the correction of opponents who are still friends is all the more indispensable to me.”[35] Throughout his career, he also dialogued constructively with other theologians and philosophers with whom he had deep disagreements, including uJulius Kaftan, Eduard Zeller, and Friedrich Paulsen. In each case, Bavinck found laudable aspects of their work, even as he continued to disagree with much of their thought. Importantly, Eglinton points out, he “prized human contact with conversation partners – even those driven by radically different convictions – and took pains to understand them on their own strongest terms.”[36]

In this cultural moment, one of deep division and polarization, we have much to learn from Bavinck!

Finally, Eglinton’s biography highlights the way that Bavinck models a Christian faith that impacts all of life. Christianity, for him, was deeply pious. Eglinton often draws out arresting excerpts from Bavinck’s journals that demonstrate the depth and intensity of his piety:

. . . then I thought, how little God is recognized for what He gives us.[37]

. . . For a brief moment, I only felt the delight of [living in] service to Jesus.[38]

. . . Temptation comes clothed in many forms. May God expose them to me and deliver me from them![39]

But Christianity is not merely spiritual, perhaps even other-worldly, piety. Bavinck’s faith impacted every aspect of his life. As Eglinton describes, Bavinck had “long since articulated the desire for a rediscovery of all of life lived coram Deo.”[40]

In Eglinton’s biography, we see Bavinck the pastor, the theology professor, the politician, the pedagogue, the ethicist, the journalist, and much more. His multifaceted career, filled with many gifts and interests, touched on many spheres of life. Importantly, Bavinck had distinctly Christian reasons for engaging each of these areas. As Eglinton recounts, Bavinck understood that the “gospel’s power extends to every area of life . . . The gospel was not simply good news for one’s soul, an experience that passed in a moment or a private decision that only aimed to affect quiet religious practices. . . . the gospel was good news for body and soul, for art, science, and society.”[41]

Bavinck sought to preach and live out this holistic vision of the gospel. Once again, we would do well to follow his example of understanding the gospel as not only a pearl of great price, but a leavening agent that will transform and restore the world.[42]

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  1. James Eglinton, Bavinck: A Critical Biography (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2020), xix.
  2. Eglinton, Bavinck, xx.
  3. Eglinton, Bavinck, xx.
  4. Eglinton, Bavinck, xxii.
  5. James Hutton Mackey, Religious Thought in Holland During the Nineteenth Century (London: Hodder and Stroughton, 1911), xi.
  6. Abraham Kuyper, “Sphere Sovereignty,” in Abraham Kuyper: A Centennial Reader, ed. James D. Bratt (Grand Rapids, Wm. B. Eerdmans Pub., 1998), 488.
  7. Eglinton, Bavinck, 236.
  8. George Harinck, “Herman Bavinck and Geerhardus Vos,” Calvin Theological Journal 45 (2010), 10.
  9. Eglinton, Bavinck, 80.
  10. Eglinton, Bavinck, 99, 102-103, 125.
  11. Eglinton, Bavinck, 150.
  12. Eglinton, Bavinck, 158.
  13. Eglinton, Bavinck, 180.
  14. Eglinton, Bavinck, 197, 238, 279.
  15. Eglinton, Bavinck, 204.
  16. Eglinton, Bavinck, 220.
  17. Eglinton, Bavinck, 232-233.
  18. Eglinton, Bavinck, 288.
  19. Eglinton, Bavinck, 291.
  20. Eglinton, Bavinck, xxii.
  21. Eglinton, Bavinck, xx.
  22. James P. Eglinton, “Introduction,” in Herman Bavinck on Preaching and Preachers (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 2017), 1.
  23. Herman Bavinck, Philosophy of Revelation, trans. Cory Brock and Nathaniel Grey Sutanto (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 2018).
  24. Herman Bavinck, Essays on Religion, Science, and Society, ed. John Bolt, trans. Harry Boonstra and Gerrit Sheeres (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2008).
  25. Herman Bavinck, Christian Worldview, trans. Cory Brock, Nathaniel Grey Sutanto, James Eglinton (Crossway, 2019).
  26. Herman Bavinck, Reformed Ethics: Created, Fallen, and Converted Humanity, ed. John Bolt, Jessica Joustra, Nelson Kloosterman, Antoine Theron, Dirk van Keulen (Baker Academic, 2019).
  27. Eglinton, Bavinck, xx.
  28. Eglinton, Bavinck, 44-45, quoting from Valentijn Hepp, Dr Herman Bavinck (Amsterdam: Ten Have, 1921), 17).
  29. Eglinton, Bavinck, 49.
  30. Eglinton, Bavinck, xxii.
  31. Eglinton, Bavinck, 16.
  32. Eglinton, Bavinck, 198.
  33. Eglinton, Bavinck, 76.
  34. Eglinton, Bavinck, 101.
  35. Eglinton, Bavinck, 147.
  36. Eglinton, Bavinck, 155-156.
  37. Eglinton, Bavinck, 76.
  38. Eglinton, Bavinck, 77.
  39. Eglinton, Bavinck, 78.
  40. Eglinton, Bavinck, 264.
  41. Eglinton, Bavinck, 272.
  42. Herman Bavinck, “Christian Principles and Social Relationships,” in Essays on Religion, Science, and Society, ed. John Bolt, trans. Harry Boonstra and Gerrit Sheeres (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2008), 141.