Herman Bavinck and Theology for Today - Blog

Herman Bavinck and Theology for Today

If there was ever a need for a new theological voice in the theological wilderness, it is now. Let me explain what I mean about that. What we’re seeing right now in the evangelical and even Calvinist world is something of a theological free-for-all. It seems like everything is up for grabs, all theological lines are up for debate once again (e.g. federalism, doctrine of God, eschatology, Christ and culture). In the Reformed world, many of those lines are being drawn along the doctrine of eschatology today. One of the reasons for this of course is because of the intersection of Christ and culture or the church and politics whatever expression you would like to use as it relates to how the biblical worldview informs us regarding such things as politics, government, civil law, culture and faith etc. 

There is the impression by some, that Calvinist premillennialists are calling for abandoning the culture altogether (especially historic Dispensational thought), others (almost exclusively a North American phenomenon) are calling for Christian reconstructionism, theonomy and postmillennialism, calling for us to take “dominion” of the culture, as if that is even a possibility to begin with – and then there are the rest of us who identify with a pilgrim ethic that neither believes in abandoning the culture to its devices nor fantasizes about dominion theology in retrograde theological fashion – we need a new theologian and in a sense, a new and clear theological identity. I believe Herman Bavinck is one of those if not the theologian we should listen to today on these issues and more (others in a similar vein of thought would be Geerhardus Vos, Cornelius Van Til, and Meredith Kline and today, Lane G. Tipton to mention a few). 

The Importance of Herman Bavinck 

Herman Bavinck (1854-1921) is a classic Dutch Theologian who taught theology at the Free University in Amsterdam and he was also a contemporary of Abraham Kuyper and took over for Kuyper who left the University to serve as the prime minister of Holland. Some thought that Bavinck would have a daunting task to fill the chair of his predecessor and to some degree he did of course. Many believe that Kuyper would always be a theological giant that always loomed over the work of Bavinck so that he would always live in Kuyper’s shadow, but they were wrong. It didn’t take very long for people to recognize Bavinck’s own theological genius. Carlton Wynne who wrote the introduction to The Wonderful Works1 of God writes: 

Bavinck’s Breathtaking thesis that God’s Historical self-regulation, in nature and in scripture, leads people, through Christ, to the triune God, and therein displays his eminent glory through the organic interconnectedness of all things, addresses the most vexing questions of life, underpins the integrity of every field of human inquiry, and fulfills the deepest longings of the human heart.”2  

The Nature of Bavinck’s Work 

Among Bavinck’s many literary works, those that stand out the most are his Reformed Dogmatics. These are four volumes of systematic theology, but they are not very typical in terms of what systematic theological textbooks look like. For Bavinck, his systematic theology is distinct for many reasons. Chief among those would be his historical grasp, his Scriptural saturation, his sensitivity and incorporation of biblical theology, the primacy of the Spirit in his theology, and his visionary mode as a writer who speaks to the times instead of leaving us in the controversies of the past. 

One of the most important aspects is his emphasis on biblical theology. Unlike many systematic theology textbooks, Bavinck, is sensitive to the historical development of the Scripture proofs he uses to substantiate the Systematic discipline. Too often, systematic theology is done in a-historical fashion. Taking a passage out of its historical context and failing to see its place in redemptive history- which is critical for a proper theological interpretation of Scripture. Repeatedly, Bavinck shows that he is self-conscious of the flow of redemptive history and it’s organic unity. The same spirit is exhibited and brought to its ultimate expression in the writings of Vos, especially the Biblical Theology

The Wonderful Works of God and Theology for Today 

As for the aforementioned visionary mode as a writer who speaks to the times, Bavinck is a breath of fresh air. On this point I want to interact with the way that Bavinck himself speaks to this very issue. We could say Bavinck was a “prophetic reformer” who saw the need for an up-to-date theology, he wanted theology for today, he wanted to see theologians interacting in such a way that we did not lose the youth of our time. Possibly a point of controversy, but Bavinck saw that we had to do more than just return people to old theologians (he uses Wilhelmus Brakel for an example) who wrote for their time. As much as he appreciated history (and again nobody could really question his grasp of historical theology, the evolution and development of Christian thought or his emphasis on the importance of church history), he was “wide awake” to the contemporary situation of our time. 

Bavinck saw that young men and women were losing their joy and enthusiasm in their confessional identity. As young people went about their lives at school and work, they were being confronted with new challenges that their old tradition was not addressing. Bavinck knew that Scripture had the answers, all of the answers, but the old guard of past theologians needed to be supplemented with modern thoughts on how Scripture addresses modern issues. As somebody who is likewise calling for a “new apologetics” (with an emphasis on transhumanism, globalism, and pagan spirituality and sexuality) and someone who already was a huge fan of Bavinck, this prophetic emphasis, if I can use that term, only endears Bavinck’s work to my own mind and heart even more so now than ever. 

In the forward to The Wonderful Works of God, Bavinck points out that there are several causes to what he saw as a “sorry state of affairs” for true religion in his day: these points are also one of the reasons why I call him a “prophetic reformer,” the things he was decrying in his day quite possibly apply to us still, and even more so with the acceleration of our all-encompassing technological ways of living. 

Too busy: 

Bavinck wanted to alert us that the world has a way of making us so preoccupied with our vocations, our employment and professions that we have a little time left over for anything else and therefore we have no desire for anything else including theology and knowing God. “All those preparing for or employed in any profession are under such heavy demand today that there is no desire or time left for other kinds of work.”3

And this is what I mean by the fact that writing over a century ago, Bavinck speaks directly to us one hundred years later because of course, who of us would not recognize the fast-paced nature of our society today. We are inundated with all sorts of social demands. Whether we’re talking about the family, all the kids and all the sports and activities that they are involved in, endless hours at work even if you work at home, our mobile devices have made it possible for us to be more connected of course, but they have also made it so that we take our work with us everywhere and in a sense we never stop working [of course there is a biblical case to be made for a proper work ethic, but the emphasis on the consumption of our time needs to be noted].  

Add to this the often unreasonable and addictive demands of social media. Some people are so enslaved to their social media identity that they look at their FaceBook and other social media presence dozens if not hundreds of times a day, and now that we are connected to everything and everyone, we are constantly checking in on people and places and situations that used to be too distant and too removed for us to concern ourselves with – technology has changed all of this and we need to recognize it. One can only wonder what Bavinck would think about the influence of technology upon the Church and the Christian life today for good or for ill.  

Too rich: 

Bavinck says, “Life has become too rich and broad on all sides.” By “rich” I think Bavinck meant that we have too much stuff, including information. Beginning with stuff, we can think of our own materialistic age in which we live. We are indeed inundated with stuff and we live in a world of course that is constantly advertising more “stuff” to us, pressuring us and shaping and molding us to conform to a materialistic worldview where going without becomes a negative social status. How does this all square with the biblical teaching on self-denial? Something we all need to be honest and introspective about in the interest of biblical piety (cf. Mt. 6.19-20). 

Speaking of status, maybe something even more unique to our age than Bavinck’s, we now live in the age of status because we live in the age of self, selfism as it has been called. Our status is now determined by our social media presence, our following on social media, our impact on social media, our fashionability, likeability, nothing new there for “all is vanity,” but now it’s not just about keeping up with fashion, but maintaining a profile where people can see that you are keeping up with fashion and culture, “street cred” or whatever [just think of horrors of Tik Tok]. And of course, young people, not exclusively, but probably particularly, are susceptible to the pressures that social media and our culture suggests. 

Too consumed: 

For Bavinck, this all leads to a lifestyle that is utterly consumed by lesser things. Whether it is politics social and philanthropic interests according to him the world now “requires more of our time and energy by the day.” Bavinck concludes: 

“The reading of daily and weekly newspapers, of magazines and brochures, devours every blink. There’s a lack of desire and opportunity for the investigation of Scripture in the study of all theological works.”4

And if we think the people were being consumed by newspapers and magazines in the mid to late 1800’s, think of the inordinate amount of time we all spend surfing the Internet and reading the endless headlines today. Talk about devouring every blink of the eye, many today cannot take their eyes off their phone for a second. Almost 50% of Americans today confess that they are totally addicted to their phones, and the average person in America checks their phone some 350 times a day! 

We should also point out that there is a great assumption about the things that Bavinck talks about, “the investigation of Scripture.” We can no longer just assume that Christians who have free time, will spend that time investigating Scripture let alone “the study of all theological works” – that would be a miracle in and of itself. Ours is a biblically illiterate world and theologically even more so. In fact, biblical illiteracy is bad enough, but compared to past generations, we are living in what can only be called an anti-theological climate in today’s church experience. Fifty years of seeker-sensitive, Christian consumerism has us now reaping the whirlwind of minimalist Christians. This is why a big part of the pastoral challenge is to get people to devote themselves to the study of Scripture at all!

Too modern:

Bavinck also speaks of forgetting the works of the past. At this point he speaks both positively and negatively about the use of theologians of the past. He laments the fact that we no longer have the capacity to read the older works. We have become too modern. But he also expresses the need to address the needs of the Church in “this age”, “this era” as well. Before we get to that point, however, we need to point out that Bavinck is sensitive to the wisdom of the past. He recognizes that we no longer deem it important what in previous generations were the weightiest matters of all. I can certainly resonate with the sentiment. As you look at the theologians of the past even in the ancient past going back to the church fathers all the way up through the Scholastic period Reformed and pre-reformed on into the Reformation itself; you find that our Christian forefathers were consumed with theological precision surrounding the doctrine of God, the doctrine of the Trinity, and of course the doctrine of the hypostatic union of Christ and many other important matters. They did not look to write catchy books with attractive covers about these issues, they broke their bodies and poured out their souls in the study of these things – that disposition today is all but gone. Bavinck writes, “the issues that men of the past consider to be weightiest have wholly or mostly lost their significance for us.” These are just some of the reasons that Bavinck gives in order to make us aware of the fact that true religion is waning in the land.

Now, that last point was something of a concession on Bavinck’s part. His greater point is that he was concerned that we not stay on these old works but also acknowledge that we are in a “different era” now. Writing in 1907, Bavinck calls out: 

“We are children of a new time and live in a different era. And the desire to maintain these older forms, and to persist with the old simply because it is old, is troublesome and pointless… Thus, there is an urgent need for a work that takes the place of these works of the fathers and brings forth old truth in a form that corresponds with the demands of this era.”5

What attracted me to Bavinck and The Wonderful Works of God, and everything else he has ever written, is this forward-looking dimension of his thought. This is something we desperately need now more than ever. If Bavinck was courageous enough to say it, “to persist with the old simply because it is old, it’s troublesome and pointless”- we need to be courageous enough to echo his sentiment today as current dangers persist that none of our forefathers could have ever dreamed of. Gender confusion, globalist pathology, digital currency/ID, transhumanism, implantable technology, virtual reality conditioning, integral psychology, Eastern pagan spirituality and sexuality etc. One globalist transhumanist thinker pointed out that twentieth century was ten centuries in one, and asks, what will the twenty-first century be?   

Apologetical Theology 

The theology of Herman Bavinck often begins with apologetics in mind. He seeks to refute the errors of evolution, scientism, liberalism, Roman Catholicism, ancient and modern heresies and all pagan ideals of God. This is why Carlton Wynne also wisely points out that Bavinck writes in a timeless fashion so that he can still, a century later, serve as a relevant perhaps preeminent guide for formulating the Christian worldview and combatting the low ebb and flow of our culture- a culture that too often sees its way into the Church:

“Though we live a century after Herman Bavinck, the obstacles to doctrinal health that he confronted – information overload that saps spiritual vitality, a waning interest in knowledge of God, an increasing disregard for godliness – still face us today. Some of these obstacles have grown to mammoth proportions in our digital age, consumed as it is with both self-expression and self-pity.”6

Now what Carlton Wynne has articulated here is so remarkably potent that we have to stop and think about it. When he zeros in on the issue of selfism consisting both of “self-expression and self-pity” – we can hardly think of a better way of finding ourselves over the target of our times. This is definitely at the heart of the new apologetic burden that we face. Selfism is the spirit of the age! We can identify the problem today as autonomy, we can call it technocracy, we can call it pluralism, secularism, paganism, and hedonism; but make no mistake, Selfism, particularly in the West, is the air that we breath! 

Speaking of the West, we can also say that Selfism is somewhat distinct in the West from other places in the world. In a communist situation, self-expression, self-identity and self-realization have a much harder time to be lived out in the real physical world, especially at the individual level. Communism really is all about people losing their identity for the greater good of the State. Their identity matters most when they see themselves assimilated into the national identity that government has predetermined for you, mostly in oppressive forms (e.g. China, North Korea).

But in the West, Selfism lives up to its name in every respect. From hedonism to self-loathing; there we have the total expression of what Carlton Wynne talks about when he speaks about either “self-expression or self-pity.” These two seemingly polar opposite ideals find their expression in a culture obsessed with hyper-sexualization or with oppressive identity politics. 

Finally, Carlton Wynne reminds us that Bavinck supplies the Church with a much needed teleology (a doctrine of purpose), eschatology (future, transcendence), Reformed Trinitarianism, and Reformed Federalism: 

“The wonderful works of God is medicine for those suffering from such spiritual malaise and from the phonetic pace of life. It redirects our ways outward and upward to God in all of his revealed glory. In these ways and more, this twentieth-century work speaks powerfully to twenty-first century Christians.”7

And directing our ways outward and upward to God is of course always the Christian answer. In this way, Bavinck solidifies the Reformed doctrine of the Creator/creature relation and the Creator/creature distinction- without which, we have nothing! Carlton speaks of God’s “revealed glory”- here, knowing Carlton Wynne and his knowledge of how Bavinck often forms the foundations for later theologian and apologist Cornelius Van Til, I cannot help but to think in terms of God’s immutability and the rejection of all forms of mutualism and correlativism as foundational to Reformed thought. 

It’s not just that Bavinck addresses issues relating to the doctrine of God relevant to Reformed conversations, but rather, essential to the Christian worldview. That which he develops throughout his entire theology is the immutability of God over against all other conceptions of God found in pagan religion and in secular thought as well as inconsistent Christian theology for example those proposing a hyper-relational theology weather through the condescension of Christ (that condescension taken essentially of the Being of God), or the elevation of man (that elevation leading to man’s direct appropriation of the essence of God as in Thomism and Rome’s supernaturalism). Both of those paths leading to the same mutualist error. Bavinck retains the proper doctrine of God in this respect and paves the way for other similar thoughts by Vos and Van Til and others. 

All of these issues in the doctrine of God as well as covenant theology, the image of God in man, and God’s self-revelation, and biblical theology and eschatology are to be found and formulated in Bavinck’s work- these aspects of Christian thought will prove essential for equipping those Bavinck saw as “Young men and women… who are being acquainted with the frequent challenges that the Christian religion is exposed to in the present time.”  

I think Herman Bavinck’s theology, which has only been translated for the English-speaking world in recent years, is a prophetic, refreshing voice in the wilderness of our times to equip the Church with a robust and Reformed Christian worldview so that we might rise to the occasion in today’s ever-changing world and give an answer to everyone who asks us concerning the heavenly hope within.

Soli Deo Gloria

1 Herman Bavinck, The Wonderful Works of God (Westminster Seminary Press, 2019). 

2 Ibid, p.xviii.

3 Ibid, p.xxxii.

4 Ibid.

5 Ibid.

6 Ibid, p.xix.

7 Ibid, p.xix.

Further reading