Book Review: Christian Worldview, by Herman Bavinck
Herman Bavinck, Christian Worldview. Crossway, 2019. 144 pages.
For the past fifteen years, the world of broadly Reformed evangelicalism has been on a Herman Bavinck-binge, and I for one say, let the good times keep rolling.
The party began with the publication of an excellent English translation of the Dutch neo-Calvinist theologian’s magnificent four-volume Reformed Dogmatics and has continued with, among others, new English translations of his Reformed Ethics, Philosophy of Revelation, The Christian Family, and a new edition of his concise, pastoral, one-volume systematic, The Wonderful Works of God.
One might say that a new phase of this Bavinck-fest has been inaugurated through the scholarly work and mentoring carried out by James Eglinton of the University of Edinburgh. Eglinton, now the author of a seminal, sympathetic biography of Bavinck, seems to unite in himself the diverse excellencies of patient scholarly rigor and love for the church. And Eglinton, along with a number of his former doctoral students, continues to supply the hungry English-speaking Reformed world with fresh Bavinck primary sources to consume.
Among these is Christian Worldview, which Eglinton, Nathaniel Gray Sutanto, and Cory C. Brock have edited and translated, and Crossway has kindly published. The substance of this book first saw daylight as a rectorial address in Amsterdam in 1904. The address was published immediately and sold briskly; an expanded second edition, on which this translation is based, appeared in 1913.
The work has three chapters: (1) Thinking and Being; (2) Being and Becoming; (3) Becoming and Acting. Bavinck in this brief work addresses the challenges dominant modern Western worldviews pose to the Christian faith and shows the Bible offers more compelling answers to the West’s questions than the West itself is able to.
This work presents two main challenges to being read by an evangelical pastor or layperson. First, despite—or maybe because of—its roots in an oral academic lecture, the book’s argument proceeds at a fairly high level of abstraction. Second, many of Bavinck’s dialogue partners are no longer familiar names, and the regnant ideas he targets have shape-shifted considerably in the intervening century and change. So, readers will have to persevere through the occasional sentence that sounds like this: “Whenever one is not satisfied, however, with the empiriocriticism of such speculation and wants to remove the absolute and the transcendent from science entirely, it goes without saying that dynamides also bear far too metaphysical a character” (64).
However, persevere they should: the gains more than outweigh the pains. This work offers a fine philosophical and apologetic workout, and one might even call it cross-training for many of the issues and debates that compete for headline space today. Bavinck’s work is full of able synthesis, insightful diagnosis, and joyfully confident demonstrations of the compelling coherence of Christianity. For instance:
If the logical, ethical, and aesthetic norms deserve absolute validity; if truth, goodness, and beauty are goods worth more than all the treasures of this world, then they cannot thank the human—for whom the law was made—for their origins. There is only a choice to be made between the two: the norms of true and false, of good and evil, of beautiful and ugly emerged slowly in history by evolution, but they are not absolute, and while they are true and good today, tomorrow they may be untrue and evil; or, they have absolute and immutable being, but then they are not products of history—they merit a transcendent and metaphysical character, and because they cannot float in the sky, they have their reality in God’s wisdom and will. (108)
Those who are interested in the relationship of Reformed theology to its philosophical and theological antecedents will do well to note the prominent role divine ideas play in Bavinck’s account of the coherence of Christianity. For example, “All things are knowable because they were first thought. And because they are first thought, they can be distinct and still one. It is the idea that animates and protects the organism’s distinct parts” (74; see also 51, 108).
The translator-editors have done fine work and performed a helpful service in giving us this book. Such fine work that I hate to mention the mistyped Greek on pages 46 and 79, but I fear someone will revoke my New Testament scholar card if I fail to.
Why is Bavinck a big deal? Because, among much else, he was saturated in Scripture, a humble and competent interpreter of the whole Christian theological tradition, a warm-hearted pastor, and a critically engaged intellectual offering cogent responses to the challenges of post-Enlightenment rationality that were threatening to swamp the Christianity of his day. If you’re already in the Bavinck club, you’ll know what to do with this book. If you haven’t yet made it in, I’d suggest starting with his Wonderful Works of God or even Reformed Dogmatics, but you’d do well to work your way down to this new entry on the menu.