Bavinck: A Critical Biography by James Eglinton (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2020),
480 pages, $44.99 (Hardcover)
NOTE: this review first appeared in the Winter 2020 edition of Ad Fontes. Subscribe to Ad Fontes in print and online here.
In my mid-twenties, I recall pacing through the stacks at The Catholic University of America’s library and lighting upon the recently published first volume of Herman Bavinck’s Reformed Dogmatics. It only took reading the table of contents to realize that I had discovered a great theologian. By the time I entered seminary in Washington D.C., the systematic theology courses all used Bavinck’s Dogmatics. Coming out the other side of Bavinck’s magnum opus (after two years), I was a different person. In Bavinck, I discovered a confessional orthodoxy animated by an imagination on fire. Bavinck’s defenses and explanations of traditional doctrines were more holistic and thorough (and, what is crucial in his rhetoric, more attractive) than those of his rivals. His penetrating mind refuted error, but always with a heart that recognized truth wherever it existed.
And Bavinck expected it to exist in surprising places. Moreover, he always aimed to re-integrate the truth of his opponents into a more compelling framework, seeking to win his enemies to orthodox Christianity by framing it as the fulfillment of their native emphases. This was not just true of European intellectual trends. Bavinck explains no doctrine without imagining its implication for late modern civilization, and what is more, for the whole of mankind outside of Christendom. While firmly planted in the church, Bavinck always had an eye on late Christendom and the newly emerging globalist world coming to fruition at the turn of the last century. Discovering Bavinck, it seemed to me, was discovering a wise guide through the complex re-negotiation of reality that just is globalized late modernity. Here was an orthodox theologian who saw and responded precisely to the relativization of the faith but without dismissing the advantages of (and the superintending will of God in) the development of modern culture. It was immediately clear to me that Bavinck was the man to build upon. It was also clear to me that Bavinck needed a new English-speaking biographer.
Unfortunately, despite its acclaim among a few popular theologians, the 2010 English-language biography of Bavinck wrapped him in the ethos of its author, Ron Gleason. Gleason’s Bavinck is a fairly vanilla confessional Reformed theologian who happens to be sophisticated in his presentation of the faith. But unexplained by Gleason is Bavinck’s drive to cultivate precisely the intellectual project that he did. The Bavinck of Gleason’s biography was not the Bavinck who wrote the Reformed Dogmatics (except incidentally). A decade on, my wish for a fitting biography of Bavinck in English has come to fruition. James Eglinton, the author of Bavinck: A Critical Biography, is rightly described by George Harink as “the biographer Herman Bavinck deserves.” Eglinton is already a (if not the) central figure in contemporary Bavinck studies. His 2012 book, Trinity and Organism, is a decisive critique of the Dutch hypothesis that Bavinck represents an unstable union of modernity and orthodoxy. Eglinton argues that Bavinck’s orthodoxy and his engagement with modernity constitute a coherent project, and that no hypothesis of his ideological or affective schizophrenia is needed. Such hypotheses, consequently, reveal more about us than about Bavinck. Eglinton’s project is now being expanded (in both Bavinck translations and monographs) by students like Nathaniel Gray Sutanto, Cory Brock, and Cam Clausing.
What role, then, does this biography play in the contemporary Bavinck revival? Crucially, it does not focus primarily upon Bavinck’s theology. Rather, the book captures the historical and social situation within which Bavinck did theology. Breaking the subject into five sections, Eglinton first discusses Bavinck’s roots in the Dutch Seceder tradition (conservative offshoots of the national church). Unlike many portrayals of this movement, however, Eglinton’s emphasizes its internal diversity, a diversity that allowed it to function as a sort of scholia in which Bavinck first developed many of his instincts. Among the Seceders were members of the newly emerging upwardly mobile class, who had the intellectual and cultural curiosity that such a context affords. His father, Jan, was this sort of man, and much of Eglinton’s account highlights how much Bavinck received from his father.
Bavinck’s vantage point was expanded through his education at the University of Leiden, wherein he engaged directly with contemporary thought and endured the trial of a faith put to the test against live (and brilliant!) interlocutors. After a brief but fruitful pastorate, Bavinck’s life is conveniently divided into his professorship at the conservative University of Kampen and his professorship at the more prestigious, cosmopolitan Free University of Amsterdam. The first position, with an eye toward the ecclesiastical sphere, was the context in which Bavinck first wrote his Dogmatics. There, Bavinck was especially keen to present the Reformed faith relative to various modern intellectual trends and alternative theologies. Nevertheless, as Bavinck began to really come to grips with all the shifting sands of modernity, he decided to revise his classic work with an eye toward modern civilization and global culture. This coincided with his move to the Free University of Amsterdam. The project of Reformed Orthodoxy was no longer an ecclesiastical project alone, but an intellectual project for modern persons. The unique quality of the Dogmatics, then, is precisely that they are a theology both for the church and for the world. In the course of his life, Bavinck would become especially interested in mission movements and the reign of Christ in all nations. And as his Dogmatics often make clear, the way of Christ will not turn each nation into a perfect representation of Western man; it will, rather, preserve their unique and indigenous genius, bringing their gifts to bear for the whole world.
Eglinton’s Bavinck is a man whose mind honestly grasps the challenges to the faith in the modern world—not just intellectual challenges, but the shifting dynamics of ordinary post-industrial life and all of the civilizational fallout that entails. Bavinck is the Reformed movement’s original interpreter of late modernity. What sets Bavinck apart from many others is that he is not reflexively dismissive of this shift. Interpreting it as within the intention of divine providence, Bavinck sees many fruits in modernity without ignoring the risks that attend sudden social change. He saw this in society and its practices (traditional family structures versus female suffrage, etc.) and also in the life of the church. Moreover, what guided him through the negotiation between orthodoxy and modernity was not a reactive spirit, but a love of God, a curious and sharp mind, and a wise caution about the hubris of many modern trends. His various cultural and social projects remained positive, rather than reactive (even if highly calibrated to a collection of very unique circumstances). One of the excellent features of Eglinton’s account is that one sees how this vision worked out in very concrete ways in Bavinck’s life. Despite concerns from the more rigid confessionalists in his contexts, Bavinck is shown to have been very careful in the maintenance and the deep internalization of orthodoxy. Bavinck’s explanations are deeper because he entered into the doctrines more profoundly. Especially remarkable are the many personal ways in which Bavinck negotiated the issues of his time. Of note is his life-long intellectual companionship with an enigmatic quasi-Muslim, Christiaan Snouck Hurgronje. Tracing this relationship through several stages of Bavinck’s intellectual development, one detects Bavinck’s life-long passion to persuade a non-believer of the compelling truth of the Christian faith. He frequently sent theological manuscripts to Snouck Hurgronje for comment, and Snouck Hurgronje was only too willing to critique his views.
Eglinton’s biography is not significant merely because it satisfies curiosity about the man who could have written Reformed Dogmatics, though it does this. The deeper significance, in my judgment, is that in Eglinton’s Bavinck we find that very rare guide through the morass of modernity. Eglinton paints the portrait of a courageous elder brother in whose footsteps we may walk. Bavinck’s will not be the last word for late modern man, but he might be the first confessional Reformed theologian to have seen and spoken precisely to us.
Joseph Minich (Ph.D, The University of Texas at Dallas) is a Teaching Fellow with The Davenant Institute. The founding editor of Ad Fontes, he is also the author of Enduring Divine Absence, and is the editor of several volumes with The Davenant Press. Currently, he is c0-host of the Pilgrim Faith podcast, and a regular contributor for Modern Reformation. He lives in Garland, Texas, with his wife and four children.