Who was Herman Bavinck?
Rediscovering a Dutch Reformed theologian and his theology of creation and culture.
What follows is taken from an interview I had with James Eglinton, a senior lecturer at the University of Edinburgh and author of a new biography about Herman Bavinck.
Derek: Who was Bavinck and why the renewed interest in him?
James: Herman Bavinck (1854-1921) was a Dutch Reformed theologian. In the century since his death, he has primarily been known for his work in dogmatics. His magnum opus, the four volume Reformed Dogmatics, is now widely recognized as a modern classic, available in a range of languages.
In his own lifetime, though, he was something of a polymath. Alongside what we might conventionally imagine as “theology,” he produced high level works in psychology, pedagogy, literary criticism, travel writing, ethics and biography. Alongside his writings, he also turned his hand to a broad range of activities: he led a political party for two years and served as a Member of Parliament for a decade, edited a national newspaper and filled many column inches, and campaigned for women’s voting rights and better education for girls.
Interest in his life and work has grown exponentially since the completion of the English translation of his Reformed Dogmatics in 2008. Since then, he has become the standard “go to” theologian in (particularly Reformed) seminaries and theological faculties across the world. While it is true that he has only gained wide name recognition recently, those in the know have been championing his cause for a long time.
Derek: What resources can be found in Bavinck’s works that might be helpful for people outside the discipline of theology?
James: Part of Bavinck’s significance lies in his commitment to Christianity as a catholic faith. While one aspect of that catholicity deals with its global character – as a faith that takes root in whichever cultural soil it is planted – another significant aspect concerns its nature as a faith for all of life. It is catholic, or universal, in scope and addresses human life in its entirety. Just as sin has corrupted every part of human life, Bavinck insisted, the gospel is good news for all of life: it reforms everything.
Derek: What insights from Bavinck might be helpful to inform our work with modern technology?
James: Readers are often drawn to Bavinck because of the richness of his theology of culture, which is an extension of his doctrine of creation. Because he viewed culture as a basic given within the created realm – or stated differently, culture is something that humans produce by being human together – Bavinck had no reason to show the kind of uneasy ambivalence or ambiguity towards culture that we see in much of the history of evangelicalism. Rather, he approached it in a lively, doctrinally illuminated way: culture is to be understood in the light of creation, common grace, sin and redemption. It was not something to be worshipped or to be cast off as demonic. His views on modern technology fit within this broader handling of culture, because technology is part of culture.
Bavinck inherited a love for modern technology from his father, who marveled at the invention of the steam engine, and its power in making him reimagine both space and time (and how quickly he could move around his world). Herman’s own writings with modern technology are typically holistic: in his later years, for example, we find him thinking through the consequences of a new invention, the washing machine, on his theology of the family in society. If technological advance meant that the everyday tasks involved in running a home—like keeping a family clothed and fed—suddenly became much less labour intensive, family life, and by consequence, society, would very quickly change. He was attuned to those issues. At that point, he seems to shift from a ‘tool making’ view of technology, to seeing technological advance as perhaps becoming something that reshapes human social structures.
Derek: Thank you for taking time to share these insights! I am grateful for scholars like yourself who can help us re-discover some of the treasures in Bavinck.