Book Review: Bavinck, by James Eglinton
James Perman Eglinton, Bavinck: A Critical Biography, Baker Academic, 2020, 450 pgs.
Bavinck: A Critical Biography is an invitation out of the frothy surf of modern evangelicalism and into the deep, sometimes stupefying, waters of Bavinck’s brilliant Reformed scholasticism.
Dutch Reformed theologian Herman Bavinck (1854–1921) was a polymath—pastor, theologian, linguist, politician, philosopher, and all-around scholar. James Eglinton has written an important, elegant, and scholarly introduction in Bavinck: A Critical Biography. Though scholarly and critical, Eglinton writes with an appreciation and affection for Bavinck’s theology and projects.
THE BAVINCK CONUNDRUM
Herman Bavinck is a quandary for contemporary scholars—“a modern European, an orthodox Calvinist, and a man of science” (xxii). He was friendly with the intelligentsia of the Netherlands, wider Europe, and the United States; involved in developing the educational system in his country; and was the president of the Anti-Revolutionaire Partij and a member of the First Chamber. He was a seminary professor and pastor simultaneously. He wrote an important four-volume Reformed Dogmatics, made important written contributions to psychology, philosophy, and Eloquence, and trained generations of Dutch thinkers. He was also an unashamed believer in the authority of the Bible and historical Christianity.
Bavinck strived for two goals: to bring orthodox Calvinism into the center of individual and public life and give Reformed believers a place to stand in an ever-changing world. He pursued these goals by first attending a small orthodox college, Kampen Theological School, and completed his PhD at the state-sponsored University of Leiden. He then briefly pastored, became a professor at Kampen and adopted Abraham Kuyper’s social engagement theories, becoming a member of Kuyper’s Free Amsterdam University later in life.
In all that Bavinck did, he was never willing “to make doctrinal moves that risked compromising God’s ability to speak as God” (286). He always insisted on the authority and veracity of Scripture —even as he defended historic Christian teachings from skepticism (cf. 238–239).
A PAN-REFORMED PROJECT
In the background of Bavinck’s life were two great religious influences. The first was Seceder piety and the second neo-Calvinism popularized and expanded by Abraham Kuyper (1837–1920).
The Seceders were “a movement of spiritually reawakened Dutch Reformed Christians [who] seceded from the Dutch Reformed Church and were pushed to the periphery of their society” (4). As Bavinck came to maturity, the democratization of the Netherlands allowed warmhearted, devoted, pious Seceders to reenter society as public figures in all spheres of life. American readers may see some parallels between the orchestrated shame of the Scopes Monkey Trial and the post-WWII emergence of Evangelicalism under the likes of Carl F. H. Henry (1913–2003).
Another group of Christians remained within the state Dutch Reformed Church led by the often-unnoticed Groen van Prinsterer (1801–1876). He had written a religious/philosophical assessment and response to the French Revolution, defining the modern ethos as having “systematically excluded the lordship of Christ from every sphere of human existence” (231).
Groen van Prinsterer’s Unbelief and Revolution framed history as a dialectic fight between Christian worldview and philosophically coherent modernity. Kuyper—preacher, political provocateur, and scholar—then popularized these conclusions enough to be elected Prime Minister of the Netherlands.
Bavinck embodied these two orthodox movements. His father, Jan, was a Seceder pastor who helped establish the Kampen Theological School. At the same time, Jan encouraged Herman to engage deeply with all scholarship and prepared him to use his academic gifts in a wider setting than the Seceders. As Herman’s brilliance was recognized, he was wooed, cajoled, and then brought fully into Kuyper’s circle at the Free University of Amsterdam and the anti-revolutionary party.
Yet Bavinck remained an independent thinker. Perhaps, the greatest shift occurred as he recognized a misstep in Groen van Prinsterer: “he now  perceived that sin was systemic rather than systematic and was seen in madness more than a method. As a counterpoint to this, the particular workings of God’s grace were also harder to predict” (231).
Such conclusions led Bavinck towards a more widely pan-Reformed posture rather than a monolithic expression of Christianity. As he observed the horror of the first world war, he recognized the need for “a higher, universal community” than provided by nationalism and internationalism: “In the aftermath of a world war, he saw the Christian faith as more necessary than ever: ‘Christianity is universal; it teaches that the whole human race is of one blood and the gospel is intended for all people’” (281).
Thus, “he argued that while Calvinism is ‘a specific and the richest and most beautiful form of Christianity,’ it is ‘not coextensive with Christianity” (207). According to Eglinton, “Bavinck was comfortable with the ‘Reformed’ label, rather than ‘orthodox’ or ‘modern,’ because it expressed a particular view of how Christians should participate in the onward march of history. . . . The better model, he believed, was one that simultaneously looked backward and forward, enabling both development and a sense of rootedness in history. . . . Bavinck had argued passionately for reformation over revolution. His life’s project had been based on nothing less” (261).
MODEL FOR CHRISTIAN SCHOLARS, POLITICIANS, AND CHURCHMEN
Besides, the warning in the opening paragraph, I do have one major criticism. Eglinton offers little engagement with Bavinck’s personal devotional life and love for Christ. As a result, Bavinck may feel coldly academic to some readers. For further reading along those lines, you may want to check out John Bolt’s Bavinck on the Christian Life.
Eglinton summarizes Bavinck like this: “he was an orthodox Calvinist trying to find his feet in the modern world” (287). In so doing, Bavinck was also assisting followers of Christ to do the same by his writings. His Reformed Dogmatics was designed to give thoughtful readers a place to stand and speak in the modern world. Yet, he also has lesser works like Foundations in Psychology which are as incisive and helpful.
Bavinck provides a clear and edifying model for all Christians in public pursuits. He was a “brilliant theologian . . . a pioneer in psychology, a pedagogical reformer, a champion for girls’ education, and advocate of woman’s voting rights, a parliamentarian, and a journalist” (xvii). He has the reputation of being in Kuyper’s shadow, only because he was so godly and gracious in his public interactions with that great man.
Eglinton has done a yeoman’s service for Christian and secular scholarship in working with the primary source documents to create not only a critical biography, but a challenge to his readers: Be an orthodox Calvinist trying to find your feet in the modern world.