Herman Bavinck: His Life and Theology

Cornelis P. Venema

Earlier this year, the fourth and final volume of Herman Bavinck's great Reformed Dogmatics was published in English.[1] At last, this model of Reformed theological scholarship is available in English to students of Reformed theology. This year also marks the one hundredth anniversary of Bavinck's Stone Lectures at Princeton Theological Seminary. The time is ripe, therefore, to get (re)acquainted with Bavinck.

Bavinck's Early Life and Education

Herman Bavinck was born in Hoogeveen, the Netherlands, on December 13, 1854. His father, Rev. Jan Bavinck, was a respected pastor in the Christian Reformed Church. This denomination was originally formed in 1834 as the result of a "Secession" (Dutch: Afscheiding) from the Hervormde Kerk, the state Reformed church of the Netherlands, which had become increasingly liberal and estranged from the Reformed confessions.

Already in the early years of his formal education, Bavinck consistently excelled as a student. At the age of sixteen, he was enrolled at the "gymnasium" in Zwolle, a boarding school that was in many respects comparable to a North American college, and completed the normal four-year program in three years. While at Zwolle, Bavinck expressed his desire to attend the University of Leyden for his seminary training. The University of Leyden was perhaps the most liberal, and certainly the most academically prestigious, of the Dutch universities at the time. The faculty at Leyden was known for its repudiation of confessional Reformed theology and its advocacy of an "ethical" and "critical" reinterpretation of the Christian faith. Bavinck's parents and others prevailed upon him to commence his studies at the seminary of the Christian Reformed Church in Kampen. However, Bavinck's desire for a full university training at an institution widely renowned for its outstanding scholarship compelled him to transfer to Leyden, much to the chagrin of his parents and many others who feared that he would be unable to retain his convictions under the pressure of a Leyden education.

Bavinck completed his studies at Leyden in 1880 with the degree of doctor of theology, having written a dissertation on The Ethics of Zwingli. He distinguished himself at Leyden as an exceptional student, and was granted the doctor's degree "with honors." During his study at Leyden, Bavinck learned much from his teachers, but also faced many challenges to his personal confession and convictions. To one of his close university friends, he confided that "I have learned much at Leyden, but also unlearned much."[2]

Professor of Dogmatics

After completing his studies at Leyden, Bavinck entered the ministry in the Christian Reformed Church of Franeker. While in Franeker, Bavinck twice declined an appointment to teach theology at the Free University in Amsterdam. However, in 1882, when the General Synod of the Christian Reformed Church invited him to fill the vacant chair in dogmatics at its seminary in Kampen, Bavinck accepted and began his labor on January 10, 1883, with an inaugural address on "The Science of Sacred Theology." This address was well received throughout the churches, and it caught the attention of Abraham Kuyper, who reviewed it in De Heraut (January 21, 1883), observing that "I have hardly ever read a treatise with such undivided attention, from start to finish, as this inaugural." With this inaugural address, Bavinck embarked upon a twenty-year period of productive labor at Kampen. Much loved by his students for his modesty, unusual eloquence, and extraordinary breadth of knowledge, Bavinck produced during his Kampen years his Reformed Dogmatics in a first edition of four volumes (1883-1901).

In 1892, Bavinck made the first of two trips to America. He gave an address to the Alliance of Reformed Churches holding the Presbyterian System in Toronto, Canada. He took the occasion to visit his close friend, Geerhardus Vos, who was then teaching at Calvin Theological Seminary. He also visited Princeton Theological Seminary, where he met and befriended professor B. B. Warfield.

During the struggle that took place in the 1880s to unite the churches of the Secession (1834) with the churches of the Doleantie (1886),[3] a dispute arose over the question of church control of the teaching of theology and the preparation of students for the ministry. Most of those who stood in the line of the Secession of 1834 wished to maintain the principle of church control, whereas those who stood in the line of the Doleantie under Kuyper favored the principle of "free study," or the location of the discipline of theology in a university setting. Bavinck, who participated significantly in the process that led to the union of these churches in 1892, was something of an anomaly in his own tradition, for he was sympathetic to the idea that theology should be pursued in a university context so as to encourage the most rigorous academic and "scientific" approach. This helps to explain Bavinck's decision, upon the fourth occasion of an appointment in dogmatics to the Free University, to accept the appointment in 1902.

In 1908, Bavinck visited America for a second time, principally to deliver the Stone Lectures at Princeton Theological Seminary. On this visit, Bavinck was also privileged to visit President Theodore Roosevelt. There is evidence of some shift in Bavinck's scholarly interests during this later period of his teaching. As he confided to a close friend, "As I grow older my mind turns more and more away from dogmatic to philosophical studies and from these to their application to the practical needs of life about me."[4] In many of his later writings, Bavinck attempted to offer a broad philosophical and pedagogical basis for the pursuit of excellence in Christian schools at every level, including the university.

In the providence of God, Bavinck's life ended unexpectedly, at a time when he was still engaged in a variety of academic, political, cultural, and church activities. After offering an eloquent address on the floor of the synodical meeting of the Reformed churches in Leeuwarden, Bavinck suffered a heart attack, from which he first rallied but never fully recovered. After a prolonged period of illness, Bavinck "fell asleep" in the Lord on July 29, 1921. Among the poignant memories recorded of visits with Bavinck at the time was his reply to the question of whether he was afraid to die: "My dogmatics avail me nothing, nor my knowledge, but I have my faith, and in this I have all."[5]

Characteristic Features of Bavinck's Theology

Although it is difficult to capture the person of a figure like Bavinck, the profile that emerges from his writings and biographies is that of an exceptionally gifted, yet modest and unassuming, scholar. When he engaged the views of others, even those with whom he strongly disagreed, Bavinck was uncommonly courteous and respectful. Wherever possible, he would acknowledge the partial truth expressed by other theologians, even though he could not finally concur with their viewpoint. Consequently, although he was ultimately uncompromising in his convictions as a Reformed theologian, Bavinck was often respected by contemporaries who were not sympathetic to his confessional position.

There are several outstanding qualities that characterize Bavinck's work as a theologian. One of these qualities reflects what we have noted about his person, namely, his sympathetic treatment of the views of others. Throughout his writings, Bavinck exhibits a meticulous care in representing alternative positions. Before he critically engages a position with which he disagrees, he is at great pains to represent it in the best possible light. He also resists the temptation to arrive prematurely at a conclusion. In his Dogmatics, for example, Bavinck evidences an extraordinary familiarity with the discussion of theological topics throughout the history of the church. When he addresses a theological topic, he takes account of the spectrum of opinion throughout history and among the most diverse confessional communions (whether Protestant, Roman Catholic, or Eastern Orthodox). Only after a thorough canvassing of the biblical, historical, and confessional discussion of any particular topic does he arrive at a conclusion of his own. However, these qualities of meticulous and catholic scholarship, painstaking research, and consideration of the possible answers to a question, are among the reasons why Bavinck's Dogmatics continue to be a model for contemporary Reformed theologians.

Three Broad Themes

Three broad themes recur throughout Bavinck's writings as a Reformed theologian. The first of these, the subject of his Stone Lectures, is the philosophy of revelation. In the face of the withering philosophical and critical attacks upon the historic doctrine of divine revelation, Bavinck worked consistently throughout his life from the settled conviction of the reality of the triune God who reveals himself through all of his works in creation and redemption, and who has provided for an inscripturation of that revelation in the Old and New Testaments. Reformed theology must build, even as the church is built, upon the sure foundation of God's own testimony to himself and the manifestation of his grace in the Lord Jesus Christ.

The second of these themes is Bavinck's emphasis upon the "catholicity" of the church and the Christian faith. All truth, in whatever sphere or academic discipline, derives from a knowledge of God's works in creation and redemption. Reformed theology may never, therefore, fall prey to a parochial or narrow spirit that eschews the pursuit of scholarship or abandons the academy to unbelief.

A third and final theme that pervades Bavinck's theological writings is one that he shared fully with his contemporary, Abraham Kuyper, namely, that "grace perfects nature"—or, better, that redemption involves the renewal and consummation of all creation. The purposes of the triune God in redemption culminate not only in the re-creation of a new humanity through the work of Jesus Christ, but also in the realization of God's purposes for the whole of creation itself. Like Kuyper, Bavinck could not be satisfied with scholarship that does not seek to bring every thought captive to the obedience of Christ. Nor could he be content with the idea that any dimension of truth is separable from the truth that is in Christ, to whom all things in heaven and on earth are subject.

These themes, and the general outline of his Dogmatics, were to exercise a profound influence on such well-known North American theologians as Cornelius Van Til and Louis Berkhof.

It has been suggested, not implausibly, that Bavinck's theology reflects a kind of "duality" that corresponds to his personal biography. Bavinck was both the faithful son of the Secession of 1834 and the scholar who deliberately chose to study at the most liberal university in the Netherlands. On the one hand, Bavinck endeavored to adhere faithfully to the authority of the Scriptures and the subordinate standards, or confessions, of the Reformed churches. On the other hand, he read widely and engaged sympathetically the best of modern theological scholarship and culture. One could characterize Bavinck as, in these respects, a "man between two worlds."[6] This duality in Bavinck's life should not be overstated, however, since it expresses in the arena of theological scholarship an inescapable feature of the life of every Christian who is "in but not of the world."

It can only be hoped that, with the publication of Bavinck's Dogmatics in English, more readers will have access to the contributions of this remarkable theologian. Although readers will not always agree with Bavinck's conclusions, they will find him to be an outstanding model of Reformed theological scholarship—deeply rooted in the riches of scriptural revelation, sympathetically informed by the great confessions of the Reformed churches, instructed by the history of the church's reflection upon the Word of God, and carefully engaged with the broad range of contemporary challenges to the Christian faith. If readers learn anything from Bavinck, they should learn much about how the work of theology is to be conducted. In a beautiful passage from his Dogmatics, Bavinck offers a glimpse of his understanding of his calling as a Christian theologian:

Dogmatics shows us how God, who is all-sufficient in himself, nevertheless glorifies himself in his creation, which, even when it is torn apart by sin, is gathered up again in Christ (Eph. 1:10). It describes for us God, always God, from beginning to end—God in his being, God in his creation, God against sin, God in Christ, God breaking down all resistance through the Holy Spirit and guiding the whole of creation back to the objective he decreed for it: the glory of his name. Dogmatics, therefore, is not a dull and arid science. It is a theodicy, a doxology to all God's virtues and perfections, a hymn of adoration and thanksgiving, a "glory to God in the highest" (Luke 2:14).[7]


[1] Translated from the Dutch by John Vriend, edited by John Bolt (Baker Academic, 2003-2008).

[2] Valentin Hepp, Dr. Herman Bavinck, p. 87.

[3] The churches of the "Doleantie" ("Grieving") were a second secession of churches from the Reformed Church in the Netherlands. These churches, under the leadership of Abraham Kuyper, would soon join with the churches of the Secession of 1834 to form the Reformed Churches of the Netherlands (Gereformeerde Kerken in Nederland, or GKN).

[4] Henry Elias Dosker, "Herman Bavinck," Princeton Theological Review 20 (1922): 457-58.

[5] Dosker, "Herman Bavinck," p. 459.

[6] John Bolt, "Editor's Introduction," in Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, 1:12.

[7] Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, 1:112.

The author is president and professor of doctrinal studies at Mid-America Reformed Seminary in Dyer, Ind. Reprinted from New Horizons, October 2008.

New Horizons: October 2008

Herman Bavinck

Also in this issue

The Legacy of Herman Bavinck

The Witness of Scripture to Itself

Getting Serious about Worship

Helps for Worship #33: What to Do after Worship

The Breadth of Grace and Infant Baptism

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