15 December 2023

Book review: Personality & Worldview

By Dr Steve Bishop

An independent researcher based in Wales, UK. He is a trustee of ThinkingFaith Network, maintains the website allofliferedeemed.co.uk and is an Associate Fellow of the Kirby Laing Centre for Public Theology. He is co-editor of On Kuyper (Sioux Center, IO: Dordt Press, 2013).

J. H. Bavinck, Translated by James Eglinton, Crossway, 2023, 208pp, h/b, £18.69 (hive.co.uk)

J.H. Bavinck (1895–1964) was the nephew of Reformed theologian Herman Bavinck (1854–1921). He was a professor of missiology at Kampen Theological School and later at the Free University of Amsterdam. He had also been a pastor and missionary in Indonesia, so, he was no armchair missiologist. This book, a translation of Bavinck’s 1928 volume Persoonlijkheid en wereldbeschouwing, was originally a set of lectures for engineering students. It is thus not overly technical, it is clear, accessible, and straightforward in its approach.

While the concept of worldview has been an important part of various fields, including philosophy, anthropology, and religious studies, there has been a growing trend in recent years to move away from the term and towards alternative frameworks. Worldview is a concept that is seemingly starting to go out of fashion. Keller, in his preface, notes some key reasons for this – particularly in North America: it is individualistic, rationalistic, simplistic, and triumphalistic. To this, we could add that it has recently lost favour due to concerns about its ambiguity, and connection to Western-centric and imperialist methods of analysing culture and society. Bavinck’s approach provides an important correction to all these misconceptions regarding worldviews, not least because Bavinck was fully acquainted with East Asian culture.

One of Bavinck’s main theses is the intriguing distinction he makes between a worldview and a worldvision. He maintains that we all have a worldvision but only a few move to a worldview:

A person without a worldview is a person without a firm foundation, without a compass, without a vista. He may have a worldvision; he might live, for example, as though there are no norms. But such a worldvision proceeds from himself and is rooted in his nature. He cannot pull himself upward on it, and with it he always remains on the same plane. A person with a worldview, in all cases, has light, sees more widely, more broadly, more deeply. And however much deeper and more objective that worldview is, the more it gives him stability to leave this maze of subjective inclinations and climb up to the height of the life that is grounded in the truth.

Unfortunately, this insight is left largely undeveloped – it would be interesting to trace what mileage this distinction had in Bavinck’s further writings.

In exploring the relationship between personality and worldview, he notes two positions that must be guarded against: that they are one and that they are utterly different. By “personality”, Bavinck means “an organized soul that has come to consciousness of itself”.

In Chapter 3 especially, we can see in Bavinck two important neo-Calvinist themes: the distinction between creator and creation, and a disdain for dualism. He makes some important points regarding dualism: it disjoints personality, it means that salvation is only possible through world flight, and it leads to mysticism and asceticism.

Chapter 4 provides some fascinating insights into the distinction between Eastern and Western thinking and an overview of the impact of the Renaissance on British empiricism in particular. Here he provides a devastating critique of the poverty of empiricism in that it devours itself.

Chapter 5 exposes the problems with rationalism, Descartes, and Spinoza. He makes the interesting point that pantheism is a presupposition of rationalism: “Pantheism is not the conclusion of rationalism, but it is its presupposition. Reason only has such power when it is itself god.”

Chapters 4 and 5 show that neither empiricism nor rationalism have explored the depths of personality. Kant attempted to reconcile empiricism and rationalism, but as Chapter 6 shows, this project was unsuccessful.

Mysticism, a topic Bavinck studied for his doctorate and while he was in Java, comes under scrutiny in Chapter 7. As he observes, mysticism is difficult to define as it is not a single worldview. It is an emphasis on the being of God, and yet he is a formless and utterly other divinity. There is no comfort or salvation in such a god. It results in self-withdrawal from life and groping after eternity. He notes that Christian mysticism is differently focused and maintains the boundary between God and creation.

The final Chapter provides an overview of the main themes. Most people live as if there is no worldview, although it is there in seed form, worldview is the revelation of the personality, although there is often tension between the two. We all need a worldview, as it provides norms, direction, and unity in living. He contrasts two common Western worldviews, atheistic materialism and positive Christianity. Atheistic materialism is never accepted unreservedly, and Christianity, a relationship with the living God, depends not on us but on revelation.

Bavinck’s work is always well worth reading. He was a careful and thoughtful scholar who engaged deeply with the biblical, theological, and cultural dimensions of mission. His writings reflect a nuanced understanding of the complexities of cross-cultural communication and evangelism, as well as a deep appreciation for the diversity of global Christianity. In this book, he shows that worldview/vision, while it may be going out of fashion, is still an important concept. Bavinck’s writing is always fresh and insightful, and this volume is no exception.