Foundations: No.79 Autumn 2020

Book Review

Christian Worldview

Herman Bavinck, Translators and Editors: Nathaniel Gray Sutanto, James Eglinton and Cory C. Brock, Crossway, 2019, 144pp, £17.90 h/b (Amazon)

The term “worldview” was first introduced to the Christian world by the neo-Calvinist Abraham Kuyper (1837-1920), who drew upon the insights of James Orr. Unfortunately, the term has since become abused, overused and misused. However, this book by another neo-Calvinist, Herman Bavinck (1854-1921), Kuyper’s successor as professor of theology at the Free University Amsterdam, is a welcome addition to the worldview literature, particularly as it was written well before the term had become a theoretical one. Incidentally, both Kuyper and Bavinck preferred the term “world-and-life-view” to the contracted form worldview.

This book, which originally appeared in Dutch in 1904, is not a summary of Christian thinking and theology as so much Christian worldview material seems to be today. For some people, then, the title may disguise the content: it is an apologetic for an organic Christian perspective rooted in a creator God, against the arid, one-dimensional worldviews around at the turn of the nineteenth century. Written only a few years after Bavinck joined the Free University, it marked a shift in his work. The editors’ introduction serves the volume well and helpfully places Bavinck’s work in its historical and philosophical milieu.

The death of Nietzsche in 1900 marked a change in attitude within Dutch culture – a new form of atheism was emerging that no longer accepted a Christian morality. Bavinck was responding in this volume to that cultural shift. He wanted to show that only Christianity offers a coherent and valid view of reality, and that the new, Nietzsche-inspired, atheism was flawed. He wrote at a time when science and technology were expected to make religion superfluous (25), yet there was an increase in interest in new religions, in a “this-worldly” world religion (26).

Bavinck identifies three key questions which he goes on to examine in the subsequent chapters. These are: what is the relation between thinking and being; between being and becoming; and between becoming and acting?

It is only Christianity, Bavinck argues, that preserves the harmony between them and “reveals a wisdom that reconciles the human being with  God and, through this, with itself, with the world and with life” (29).

1. Thinking and being

In the first chapter Bavinck examines epistemological concerns and the relation between subject and object. Even though Bavinck was a professor of theology he shows here his awareness of philosophy. Philosophers are discussed rather than theologians. He discusses nominalism, idealism and voluntarism, and shows how they fail to articulate a coherent view. He emphasises that it is only Christianity that can adequately describe things as they are. He goes further: “No matter how we look at it, the concept of truth and science – if we think consistently and without prejudice – brings us to Christianity” (45).

2. Being and becoming

In the second chapter, once again Bavinck places different philosophical and scientific perspectives alongside Christianity and shows them to be defective. In particular he focuses on the mechanical worldview and makes the interesting observation that “Those who have abandoned the mechanical worldview as untenable continue to honour it secretly as the scientific ideal” (69).

He sees Christianity as an organic worldview – something that Kuyper also maintained. For this Kuyper was occasionally criticised as being reliant on idealism. However, his critics seemed to miss that it is also a biblical metaphor (cf. John 15 and the vine). For Bavinck, “According to the organic worldview, the world is in no sense one-dimensional; rather it contains a fullness of being, a rich exchange of phenomena, a rich multiplicity of creations” (71-72).

The mechanistic worldview, unlike the organic worldview, fails to explain development. It fails ultimately because it has no answers to the origin and development of life: “It is only provided by the Christian confession that God is the Creator and that his glory is the goal of all things. Everything is subservient to this. Everything is directed to it” (83).

3. Becoming and acting

In the final chapter, the issue that Bavinck addresses is one of freedom and ethics. He points out that “This objective reality of logical, ethical, and aesthetic norms points back to a world order that can have its origins and existence only in God almighty” (106).

He goes on to maintain, “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 law was made – for their origins” (108).

Christianity thus provides the only coherent and consistent framework for life. The other perspectives, Bavinck ably shows, are incoherent and cannot account for the diversity of creation, among other things. This is hardly surprising given that they deny or ignore the Creator of all things.

This book is a very welcome addition to the rapidly expanding corpus of Bavinck in English.

Steve Bishop maintains the neo-Calvinist website


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