Highlighting the practical nature of his theology and lessons from his approach to the Christian life, this book about influential theologian Herman Bavinck will help modern believers obey Christ and find joy in the gospel.
About the Author
John Bolt (PhD, University of St. Michael’s College) is professor of systematic theology at Calvin Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan. He is the author and editor of several books. John and his wife, Ruth, have three children and nine grandchildren.
Stephen J. Nichols (PhD, Westminster Theological Seminary) serves as the president of Reformation Bible College and chief academic officer of Ligonier Ministries. He is an editor of the Theologians on the Christian Life series and also hosts the weekly podcast 5 Minutes in Church History.
Justin Taylor (PhD, The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary) is the executive vice president of book publishing and book publisher at Crossway. He has edited and contributed to several books, including A God-Entranced Vision of All Things and Reclaiming the Center, and he blogs at Between Two Worldshosted by the Gospel Coalition.
Read an Excerpt
INTRODUCING BAVINCK: "A WORTHY FOLLOWER OF JESUS"
Photographs of Herman Bavinck — whether the best-known formal headshot or the less familiar pose of the scholar sitting at a desk in his study — portray a serious, perhaps even stern, man. Making allowances for the conventions of Victorian-era portraiture, the impression given by these photographs is clearly still that of a dedicated, determined, focused, no-nonsense man, one not likely given to frivolity or even leisure.
"Serious" is the right word. One might even be forgiven for perpetuating a stereotypical image by describing him as a somber-looking "Puritan." Familiarity with the secessionist Christian Reformed community his father, Jan, served as a minister and in which young Herman was nurtured would seem to confirm this judgment; it was a community that had separated itself from the National Dutch Reformed Church out of a double concern for doctrinal orthodoxy and proper worship. Like the Puritans, these devoted Jesus followers were passionate about purity of doctrine and holiness of life. Consequently, they were members of a marginalized community characterized by a certain level of flight from the world. One biographer of Bavinck used the term Kulturfeindlichkeit (a posture of hostility toward culture) to describe the character of the Bavinck home. Bavinck's childhood and lifelong friend Henry Dosker, who immigrated to the United States and eventually became a professor at the Presbyterian Seminary of Kentucky in Louisville, shares this assessment in the following description of Herman's parents:
I knew both the parents of Dr. Bavinck intimately. They were typical of their environment and cherished all the puritanical and often provincial ideas and ideals of the early Church of the Separation. Simple, almost austere in their mode of life, exhibiting something of what the Germans call Kulturfeindlichkeit, pious to the core, teaching their children more by example than by precept, the mother uncommonly clear-visioned in her ideas and never afraid to express them, the father diffident, aroused only with difficulty, but then evincing rare power. Such were the parents of Dr. Herman Bavinck.
The Bavinck Home
In recent years, other biographers have disputed the claim that the Bavinck home was largely characterized by a separatist hostility to culture. These biographers appeal to the description of the family home given by one of Bavinck's own students, J. H. Landwehr, shortly after Bavinck's death in 1921. Landwehr took special note to defend the family from all accusations of legalism and moralism.
A truly Christian spirit dominated in the house of the old pastor. One did not find there command upon command and rule upon rule; but, being bound to the Word of the Lord, there was a Christian freedom that was pleasing to behold. This was the rule in the Bavinck home: simplicity is the hallmark of that which is true.
Another biographer surmises that Valentijn Hepp may have confused this simplicity for cultural hostility and "failed to see it as the way [those who are] genuinely civilized from within express themselves."
The questions that face us here — What was the Bavinck home really like? Did its simplicity indicate hostility to all culture or only to certain aspects of Dutch nineteenth-century culture? Did the absence of all legalism suggest a degree of openness to the good aspects of culture? — all these questions and more need not, and likely cannot, be answered with a simple yes or no. Bavinck's close friend Dosker finds him to be something of a riddle: "I will admit at once that in some respects, viewed from the standpoint of his parentage, Dr. Bavinck is a conundrum. He was so like and yet so absolutely unlike his parents." As Dosker proceeds with a brief description of the elder Bavinck, however, it appears that the father also exhibited characteristics that give evidence of his own ambivalence on the matters of piety and culture.
Jan Bavinck (1826–1909) came from the little German village of Bentheim, near the Dutch border, and was a member of the German Alt-Reformierten Kirche (Old Reformed Church), a group known for its piety and strong adherence to the traditions of the Reformed faith as set forth at the Synod of Dort. Jan was only three years old when his father died, and he was brought up by a courageous and devout Christian widow who "raised her [six] children to love God, to exhibit a Christian character, and to possess biblical honor and integrity as she faithfully instructed her children at home and in the school." In his autobiography, Jan recounted that his upbringing had been rather formal and lacked "the internal life of Christian faith." This all changed for him at the age of sixteen when his uncle Harm took him to hear an open-air preacher, Jan Berend Sundag.
As a young man Sundag had become disillusioned by what he deemed the spiritual deterioration of church life in Germany and developed a relationship with Secession leader Hendrick de Cock, who mentored him in the study of theology. Returning to Germany after his studies with De Cock were completed, Sundag tried to rouse the leaders of the church for revival but was rebuffed. Sundag began preaching outdoors and gathered a small following, including Jan Bavinck, who was deeply impressed and eventually led to leave the National Dutch Reformed Church. His childhood longing to become a minister of the Word returned with that step; however, owing to a lack of finances, the path to that goal seemed remote.
The story of Jan Bavinck's path to ministry in the Secession Christian Reformed Church provides an important window into the man and his community. In this denomination, the regional authority is known as the classis, equivalent to the presbytery in Presbyterian church government. The classis was evenly divided concerning a request from Sundag for assistance in his heavy workload. Sundag had asked for "a candidate from the churches to receive instruction in theology with a view to preparation for service in pastoral ministry." To break the tie vote, the assembly "knelt in prayer and asked the Lord's guidance in casting a lot to decide the matter." Five candidates had expressed interest in pursuing the study for ministry, and after the lot in favor of proceeding was cast, the group was eventually pared down to two, with Jan Bavinck as one of the two men left standing. Once again, the vote between them was a tie, and a young woman who was working in the kitchen to help prepare the meals pulled out a slip of paper with the lot-determined answer. The answer had been "for" the first time; the name "Bavinck" was chosen the second time. This would not be the last time that Jan Bavinck's "fate" was determined by "lot," and the procedure reflects a profound sense of and submission to God's providential leading in the Seceder community. Humility, even undue modesty, was to characterize both father Jan and son Herman Bavinck throughout their lives and ministries.
By all accounts, Jan was "a dedicated and precocious student." According to Dosker, "he must have been a phenomenal student, and must also have enjoyed considerable earlier advantages, for in the small theological seminary at Hoogeveen, where he went, he took over the classes in Latin, Greek and Hebrew." Later, he assisted in the training of ministerial candidates for the Christian Reformed Church, and when the church decided to establish its own theological school at Kampen in 1854, "the elder Bavinck was the first to be nominated by the General Synod, as one of the professors." Uncertain what to do, Jan once again "made the lot settle the matter and declined the call." Why? Dosker also wonders: "Was it his innate modesty, his underestimate of his own powers, that pessimistic view of things, which ever sees lions in the way, of which his illustrious son also had a share?"
The portrait we have drawn thus far shows us a deeply pious man, concerned about the welfare of the National Reformed Church, attracted to revivalist preaching, and profoundly submissive to God's leading. We also see someone who is himself well educated and committed to teaching for an educated ministry. Furthermore, though he shared the pietistic sympathies of his Christian Reformed colleagues in ministry, and his preaching included the typical emphases on introspection and warnings about God's judgment, his son C. B. Bavinck (1866–1941) reported that his "father's clarity of mind preserved him from sickly excesses."
In short, Jan Bavinck was a man characterized by a healthy piety and openness to the best of human learning and culture. We find confirmation of this openness in the elder Bavinck's response to Herman's declared intention in 1874 to study theology at the modernist University of Leiden rather than at the Christian Reformed Church's theological school at Kampen, a move that scandalized the church: young Herman's father and mother both finally supported this move. In response to criticism, father Jan confessed, "I trust in God's grace which is powerful enough to protect my child," adding that "the best church teachers had often obtained their learning from pagan schools while they were upheld by the prayers of godly parents." Bavinck's biographer R. H. Bremmer characterizes the mother as "definitely not narrow."
Bavinck's Secession Roots
Our portrait of the Bavinck home thus far places it decidedly within the circle of the theologically conservative and culturally marginalized Christian Reformed Church community that had seceded from the National Dutch Reformed Church in 1834. Since Herman Bavinck's piety and commitments cannot be understood apart from his upbringing in this community, we need to take a longer look at it. The Afscheiding or Secession of 1834 was an ecclesiastical protest against King William I's reorganization of the National Dutch Reformed Church in 1815–1816 and the perceived indifference by the national church to the Reformed orthodoxy established at the Synod of Dort (1618–1619). As the locus of ecclesiastical authority moved away from the local congregation to ecclesiastical boards appointed by the king and overseen by a State Department of Religion, protesters and dissenters led by the Rev. Hendrik de Cock, Reformed minister at Ulrum, Groningen, came to the conclusion that "Separation and Return" — separation from the National Church and a return to the teaching and polity of Dort — were necessary. The opening sentence of their declaration reads as follows:
We, the undersigned Overseers and members of the Reformed Congregation of Jesus Christ at Ulrum, have for a considerable time noticed the corruption in the Netherlands Reformed Church, in the mutilation or denial of the doctrine of our fathers founded on God's Word, as well as in the degeneration of the administration of the Holy Sacraments according to the ordinance of Christ in his Word, and in the near complete absence of church discipline, all of which are marks of the true church according to our Reformed Confession, Article 29.
When the Ulrum church's pastor was suspended by the state church boards for what the declaration describes as "his public testimony against false doctrine and polluted public worship services," the church's consistory appealed to classical, provincial, and synodical boards of the church, but to no avail. Requests to have their case heard and adjudicated were routinely denied, and instead the church was called to repent and to submit without qualification to the National Church authorities.
What especially led the protesters to the conclusion that "the Netherlands Reformed Church is not the true but the false Church, according to God's Word and Article 29 of our confession" was the persecution of the dissenters by the civil authorities. Ministers were forbidden to preach and were arrested; the Seceders were forbidden to gather in public for worship, and they had their goods confiscated and soldiers billeted in their homes. Not until 1869 did the civil authorities grant the Christian Reformed Church full legal status.
Even this brief overview suggests the appropriateness of the characterization given in the opening paragraphs of this chapter, including the term "Puritan." The Christian Reformed Church community of the nineteenth century was a dissenting community that had separated itself from the National Church, was preoccupied with purity of doctrine and holiness of life, insisted upon church discipline and a biblically based polity, and occupied a marginalized position out of step with the mainstream of Dutch culture and society. Thanks to the prominent role played by father Jan Bavinck in this church, Professor Hepp's judgment that the Bavinck home shared the characteristic Christian Reformed hostile attitude to culture (Kulturfeindlichkeit) seems very plausible at first sight. Nonetheless, two important qualifications temper this impression — the first about the Bavinck home and the second about the character of the Secession itself. We have already considered the first one; now we shall examine the second.
The Secession was not a unique or brand-new phenomenon in the Dutch Reformed Church but shared important commitments with a long history of pious ecclesiastical dissent. Neither concern for theological and confessional orthodoxy nor opposition to the polity arising from a close alliance between the civil and ecclesiastical authorities was born in the nineteenth century. Dissatisfaction with the dominant Dutch Reformed Church can be traced back much farther.
The Reformed Church became the preferred religious body in the Netherlands in the seventeenth century, a major shift from the time of the very first Synod of the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands at Emden in 1571, when the persecuted Reformed Christians constituted themselves as "Reformed Churches under the cross" (kruiskerken). From the outset, the Protestant Reformation faced severe opposition in the Low Countries from the civil and ecclesiastical authorities under control of Roman Catholic Spain. As the religious struggle for freedom of worship and conscience merged with a civil struggle for political freedom from the autocratic rules of Charles V, and especially Phillip II (1566–1648), it was the Calvinists who provided the backbone of support for the revolt led by William of Orange. Calvinist preachers provided the ideological perspective that considered the Netherlands the New Israel led by God out of the bondage houses of Spain and Rome.
Though the civil authorities welcomed the support and assistance of the Calvinists in this struggle and accepted the "establishment" of the Reformed faith, they also protected heterodoxy within the church and dissent outside of it by careful civil control of the church. The triumph of orthodox Calvinism over the Arminian Remonstrant party at the Synod of Dort proved to be a shallow and short-lived victory. The new church order adopted by the synod gave civil authorities key roles in approving or rejecting minister's calls to churches, provided for state funds to pay minister's salaries, controlled the theological education in the state universities, and required consultation with civil authorities before national synods could be called. Even at that, neither the National Estates General nor the majority of the provinces approved the Dort Church Order because they were not satisfied with their influence in ecclesiastical matters. The precious little autonomy the Dutch Reformed Church enjoyed was still too much for the authorities.
The Dutch Reformed Church of the seventeenth century, usually described as the Dutch "Golden Age," had acquired freedom from religious persecution and been granted legitimacy and power by the civil authorities, but this acceptance was not accompanied by great spiritual renewal and vigor. On the contrary! Complaints by preachers about worldliness and moral turpitude — drunkenness, licentiousness, blasphemy, profanation of the Sabbath, and so forth — abound in the literature of the seventeenth century. To make matters worse, there was a perception of a cold and dead orthodoxy in those churches that were still concerned about sound doctrine. Rationalism and intellectualism ran roughshod over piety and religious experience. Conditions were ripe for a pietistic reform movement that eventually came in the revival known as the Nadere Reformatie: "Further Reformation" or "Second Reformation."
This Dutch revival and reform movement was influenced by English Puritanism and German pietism. The Second Reformation's roots, however, ran earlier and deeper in the religious life of the Low Countries in such figures as Jan van Ruysbroeck (1293–1381) and Thomas à Kempis (1380–1471), author of The Imitation of Christ. The spirituality of the Second Reformation was strongly centered on the person of Christ, emphasized the need for a "new birth" or regeneration, and stressed the morality of following Christ. The term "Second Reformation" is closely linked with the famous Reformation slogan ecclesia reformata semper reformanda est (the Reformed Church must always be reforming). Behind this slogan was the desire — similar to that of the Anabaptists — that the Reformation be carried to its logical conclusion. A correct understanding of Scripture, the church, the sacraments, and so forth, was essential, but it was not enough. The Holy Spirit's power for a new and holy life — in the individual and the community — had to be included in a true reformation. The Second Reformation was about rebirth, but above all, about sanctification and holy living.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Bavinck on the Christian Life"
Copyright © 2015 John Bolt.
Excerpted by permission of Good News Publishers.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Series Preface 11
1 Introducing Bavinck: "A Worthy Follower of Jesus" 21
Part 1 Foundations For Christian Living
2 Created in God's Image 41
3 The Law and the Duty of Christian Obedience 55
4 Union with Christ 69
Part 2 The Shape of Christian Discipleship
5 Following Jesus 103
6 A Christian Worldview 121
Part 3 The Practice Of Christian Discipleship
7 Marriage and Family 147
8 Work and Voction 159
9 Culture and Education 181
10 Civil Society 205
Concluding Sermon: "The World-Conquering Power of Faith" 235
General Index 253
Scripture Index 263
What People are Saying About This
“To use the word timely for a book about a nineteenth-century Dutch theologian may seem inappropriate. But in this case the adjective is exactly right. Many of us have wanted to spread the word that Herman Bavinck’s theological perspective can contribute much to a renewal of the church’s life and mission today. Now in this book John Bolt has made the case in a concise and convincing manner!”
Richard J. Mouw, President, Professor of Christian Philosophy, Fuller Theological Seminary
“This obvious labor of love explores an important but insufficiently highlighted aspect of Bavinck’s thought. Leaving virtually no pertinent stone unturned throughout his life and published works, Bolt provides both a full presentation of Bavinck’s views and his own understanding of their continuing relevance for Christian discipleship today. Here is valuable instruction in Bavinck’s thought presented in a way that will also stimulate the reader’s own thinking on the issues raised.”
Richard B. Gaffin Jr., Emeritus Professor of Biblical and Systematic Theology, Westminster Theological Seminary
“Trinitarian, Christ-centered, and culturally engaged, Herman Bavinck immerses us into a vivid vision of the gospel of Jesus Christ. His rich theological imagination provides a compelling alternative to the many vapid, pragmatic approaches to faith today. John Bolt provides an accessible and illuminating guide to Bavinck’s theology of the Christian life in the most expansive sense: the Christian life of fellowship with God and others, in family, work, and politics. Bolt skillfully navigates these waters in order to open up the treasures of Bavinck for today’s church.”
J. Todd Billings, Gordon H. Girod Research Professor of Reformed Theology, Western Theological Seminary, Holland, Michigan
“Perhaps every generation in the church age could claim a need for Bavinck’s perspective on the Christian life. We can’t let our salt lose its saltiness and our light lose its brilliancenot now. Bavinck encourages us in this regard even as we are in the world, not of the world, and sent into the world. In one seamless volume, Bolt shows how Bavinck’s contributions help correct our nearsightedness as we become tethered to his conviction that the Word of God is ever living and ever active in every day.”
Gloria Furman, author, Missional Motherhood and The Pastor’s Wife
“Not one square inch of nature, work, culture, or history escaped the reach of Herman Bavinck’s expansive Christ-centered worldview. Of the great Reformed theologians, Bavinck is the generous giant, with a heart as wide as his axiom ‘grace restores nature.’ Bavinck’s vision of a sovereign Savior at work in the world, carefully grounded in the gospel, suits him to speak authoritatively on the Christian’s place in this world. This book is a masterpiece from John Bolt, a man who knows Bavinck’s mind as well as anyone.”
Tony Reinke, journalist; author, 12 Ways Your Phone Is Changing You
“Never before have I read such a fine and stimulating overview of Herman Bavinck’s life and theology. John Bolt shows clearly why the study of Bavinck is growing worldwide and why this theology is a great help for today’s Christians. Bavinck and Bolt are a great team!”
Herman Selderhuis, President, Theological University Apeldoorn, the Netherlands; Director, Refo500; President, Reformation Research Consortium
“Bolt’s portrait of Bavinck and his theology captures the man himself: clear, elegant, biblically saturated, theologically rich, philosophically nuanced, irenic, and aimed at the Christian life. Drawing on a diversity of sources, Bolt not only brings the riches of Bavinck’s mature theology into conversation with current theological concerns, but also applies it to the most practical elements of faith, marriage, family, work, and culture. He ably introduces readers to Bavinck’s vision of the Christian life as part of God’s movement of grace restoring nature and a cosmic redemption aimed at restoring and elevating creation to its intended goal. Most of all, it is a vision of following Jesus out into the world as the Father conforms his children into the image of the Son in the power of the Spirit for the sake of his glorious name.”
Derek Rishmawy, blogger, Reformedish; cohost, Mere Fidelity podcast
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
For anyone who is a reformed or Van Tillian fan, Herman Bavinck would be one person you would highly respect. However the 4 volume Reformed Dogmatics may be a bit too intimidating for someone who wants to know what Bavinck has to teach to Christians. There is now one introduction to the works of Bavinck that aims to serve the laity. John Bolt, the translator of the 4 volume Reformed Dogmatics has written this book to let christian readers know what Bavinck has to say about christian living. Bolt starts by telling the readers Bavinck’s theological foundation for the christian life. In this section, Bolt elaborates on what it means to be created in God’s image and more importantly, what union with Christ means for the christian. Bolt highlights and shows why Bavinck thought this doctrine is foundational to the christian life. Next, Bolt moves to show what it means to be a disciple of Christ and what a christian worldview is. This section really is a bridge to the applicational section which comes next. Bolt shows how Bavinck used his theological might to think deeply about issues that are fundamental to the christian life. Bolt shows what Bavinck thought about the value and bible’s teaching on marriage and family and vacation. Bolt also highlights what Bavinck’s thought on the society from a macro-perspective. What is valuable in this book is how Bolt shows the historical context of the times Bavinck lives in. As we are often reminded, history does not occur in a vacuum, Bolt shows the significance of Bavinck in the way he critiques his society and the liberal christians in the Netherlands. Similarly, Bolt highlights areas where Bavinck differs from Abraham Kuyper. This gives the readers a wholesome picture that sometimes even the titans of the Dutch Reformed church had issues they didn’t agree with. Bolt also ends with the translation the only sermon we currently have from Bavinck. I have to say, I think it was a great idea by Bolt and the editors to have included this sermon in this book. I have gained much from reading this book, this has given me a much deeper appreciation of Bavinck not only as a theologian, but as a churchman, as a pastor and and a public theologian. This book is certainly recommended for any Reformed christians or for anyone who is interested in knowing more about Herman Bavinck. Rating: 4.25 / 5 Disclaimer: I was given this book free from the publisher in exchange for an honest review