Foundations: No.79 Autumn 2020

Book Review

Bavinck: A Critical Biography

James Eglinton, Baker, 2020, 480pp, £25 h/b (hive.co.uk)

“Why does Herman Bavinck (1854-1921), a prolific theologian who worked within the Dutch neo-Calvinist movement, deserve a biography?” is the question posed by James Eglinton. Anyone who knows a little about Bavinck would know that he deserves one, and anyone who reads this biography would agree that Bavinck is well served by this book.

Eglinton, the Meldrum Senior Lecturer in Reformed Theology at the University of Edinburgh, has produced a superb biography of Bavinck. He was a “Pastor, Churchman, Statesman, and Theologian”, to quote Ronald Gleason’s subtitle to his earlier, flawed biography of Bavinck (2012).

This volume is described as a Critical Biography – critical in the sense that it is not hagiographic or that it accepts the consensus of previous biographers such as Hepp and Bremner, whom Gleason largely relied upon. Eglinton makes clear where he sees the shortcomings of these previous biographers.

Eglinton draws upon copious primary and secondary sources both in Dutch and English – there over 80 pages of notes and a bibliography of over 30 pages. In particular, he draws upon Bavinck’s dagboek – diaries/journals that he wrote throughout his life – and his correspondence with Christiaan Snouck Hurgronje (1857-1936). Hurgonie was a long-time friend of Bavinck and a Dutch expert on Islam.

What makes this biography so useful is that Eglinton rejects the “two-Bavincks” hypothesis that has dominated and marred studies of the man for decades. Baldly stated, this hypothesis posits a bi-polar, “Jekyll and Hyde” version of Bavinck; one orthodox and the other modern. Eglinton’s PhD thesis on Bavinck (Trinity and Organism, 2012) showed the flaws in this picture and presented a coherent picture of his work. Eglinton builds on that here. He informs us that “My biography has a particular aim: to tell the story of a man whose theologically-laced personal narrative explored the possibility of an orthodox life in a changing world.” (xx) It is thus “an attempt to retrace the narrative of his life and, in doing so, to chart the development of his (single, rather than divided) theological vision.” (xx)

Eglinton shows that Bavinck was, as an old Youth for Christ motto states, “Anchored to the rock but geared to the times”. He presents Bavinck as “a modern European, an orthodox Calvinist, and a man of science” (xxi) – science here is taken in terms of the Dutch wetenschap meaning all of human knowledge/scholarship.

The book traces Bavinck’s movements and developments as he travelled as a student from Kampen (1873-74) to Leiden (1874-1879), back to Kampen (1880) and then as a pastor to a Christian Reformed church in the rural town of Franeker in the northwestern province of Friesland (1881-82), before he returned as a professor at Kampen (1882-1902) and finally to Amsterdam (from 1902 until his death in July 1921). Bavinck lived during a time of great turmoil and change and these shifts and his responses to them are well documented here. As Eglinton puts it: “The ‘age of Renan’ had gone, and the ‘age of Nietzsche’ had arrived – with all that this now meant for Bavinck’s task as a modern Calvinist” (244).

The Dutch Translation Project has translated and published several volumes of Bavinck’s work – most notably the four-volume Reformed Dogmatics.[1] This biography gives us the man behind the dogmatics and, as such, is the perfect complement to the recent translations. It also shows that Bavinck was more than his dogmatics; he was also a pastor, a preacher, a professor, a parliamentarian and, in later life, developed an interest in psychology and pedagogy. He also became a supporter of the women’s movement and suffrage. He shared Kuyper’s vision of the need for all of life to be redeemed: “the gospel was good news for body and soul, for art, science, and society” (160, 272).

Richard Mouw’s thoughts on the recent Bavinck translations equally apply to this excellent volume:

Happily, this means that it is no longer possible for English speakers to dismiss Bavinck with faint praise, as did James Hutton Mackay in his 1910 Hastie Lectures in Glasgow when he referred to Bavinck as “Dr. Kuyper’s loyal and learned henchman.”

The book provides an exemplar of what a good biography should be. It is remarkable in that it is both academic and accessible.

Steve Bishop maintains the neo-Calvinist website www.allofliferedeemed.co.uk

 

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