Reviewed by: Cliff L. Blair
Essays on Religion, Science, and Society, by Herman Bavinck. Published by Baker Academic, 2008. Hardback, 304 pages, list price $29.99. Reviewed by OP pastor Cliff L. Blair.
Eleven years ago, a pastor/mentor gave me a copy of Herman Bavinck's Our Reasonable Faith—the English translation of his one-volume synopsis of his four-volume Reformed Dogmatics. In it my friend wrote, "The best 'short course' in orthodoxy I know of." I have long since come to share his opinion. In more recent years, as the Dutch Reformed Translation Society has made the four volumes of Bavinck's magnum opus available in English, I, like many others, have happily acquired them (see New Horizons, October 2008). Thus far, when consulted on numerous points, they have only confirmed my appreciation of Bavinck.
Thus it was that I eagerly took up the Society's recent publication, Bavinck's Essays on Religion, Science, and Society. As I worked through the volume, my estimation of him as a scholar only deepened. However, the book is not for everyone. The academic will have little trouble with it—and the work is surely indispensable for those studying Bavinck—but the general reader, like me, may find much of the material slow going and a touch arid.
This book was first published in 1921 (the year Bavinck died) and contains fifteen essays written in the last two decades of his life (and one in 1892). Thus, they reflect his later thought. The range of topics is broad: religion, psychology, evolution, social relationships, the unconscious, pedagogy, aesthetics, ethics, and more. To read them is to be forcefully reminded that Bavinck was not merely a theologian in the narrow sense, but a broad Christian thinker active in the academy, the church, and the state (he was appointed to parliament in 1911). His erudition is often applied to practical questions.
Much of the content is now decidedly dated. Some essays arise from then-current issues, such as colonial educational policy, theological study in the university, or classical studies in the public schools. To be sure, these essays address timeless themes, but this is not their most accessible format. Others survey what was then the current literature of various disciplines: psychology, pedagogy, or evolutionary science. While somewhat interesting, these essays are now useful chiefly for studying their author, not their subject.
This is not to deny the real strengths of the book. The essay "Christian Principles and Social Relationships," for example, insightfully argues that the gospel does not bring social revolution, or simple reformation, but true reformation (i.e., transformation). The general strength of the book is simply Bavinck's example. Here is the record of a keen mind, an irenic spirit, and a methodical laborer, grounded in the Scriptures and applying it to a host of questions.
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