Why Bavinck?

Would readers exist for Herman Bavinck’s writing, increasingly available thanks to the good work of translators, without the ground already fertilized by evangelicals trying to overcome “the scandal of the evangelical mind” through w-w? James Eglington’s biography prompted a think:

The much more common Dutch theological heavyweights were Abraham Kuyper (positive estimate), Klaus Schilder (negative), and G. K. Berkhower (mixed but mainly positive). Then came the names, much more widely known, of Dutch-American scholars at Westminster and Calvin seminaries, such as Cornelius Van Til and Louis Berkhof (respectively), and before them, the one blazing the trail between Dutch and American theological circles, Geerhardus Vos, the biblical theologian at Princeton Seminary from the 1890s to the 1930s.

Many of these names, however, will be unfamiliar to pastors and church members without some link to the Christian Reformed Church or the United Reformed Churches. This is only to say that the main thread of Anglo-American theology largely runs through New England and Presbyterian sources, beginning with the Puritans and Jonathan Edwards, through to Old Princeton (from Charles Hodge to J. Gresham Machen), and down to professors who taught at Westminster, Fuller, Gordon-Conwell, and Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. To that lineage, adding another Dutch theologian is a stretch.

But this does not mean Bavinck’s time in any way has passed. As Eglinton explains in answer to his own question, Bavinck, who was “brilliant theologian” and “household name” in the Netherlands, taught at Kampen Theological School and the Free University in Amsterdam, wrote a four-volume dogmatic theology in addition to books on child education, psychology, women’s rights, and a host of ethical topics.

Bavinck was also known in the United States. He gave the Stone Lectures at Princeton Seminary in 1908 ten years after Abraham Kuyper had given them, and on his visit to the States president Theodore Roosevelt, a Dutch-American of some remove from colonial migration, welcomed the Free University theologian to the White House.

That may sound like old news and readers may be wondering what Bavinck has done for American readers lately. The answer here is a lot of thanks to the efforts of the Bavinck Institute which over the past decade sponsored the translation of Bavinck’s corpus in English, such as God and Creation (2004); Holy Spirit, Church, and New Creation (2008); Reformed Dogmatics, 4 volumes (2004-2008); Essays on Religion, Science, and Society (2008); The Christian Family (2012).

Eglinton himself, a lecturer in theology at the University of Edinburgh, has overseen dissertations by several graduate students on aspects of Bavinck’s thought. In some ways, the answer to Eglinton’s question – why a Bavinck biography – owes as much to the recent output of Bavinck’s writings as to the circumstances that made Bavinck one of the Netherland’s greatest theologians of the first half of the twentieth century.

Another reason for appreciating Bavinck and Eglinton’s biography is the importance of neo-Calvinism among American evangelicals for at least the last fifty years. For doctrinal and devotional inspiration evangelicals have drawn heavily from usual suspects like the Banner of Truth, seminaries like Westminster, Gordon-Conwell, and TEDS, and popularizers like R. C. Sproul and John Piper.

At the same time, evangelicals have also undertaken what may be called worldview analysis. That inelegant phrase stands for trying to understand all of creation, not just redemption, from a perspective informed by biblical teaching and theological fundamentals. This way of thinking has inspired Protestants to venture into fields in the humanities and sciences in the name of Christ. Sometimes they even repeat Kuyper’s famous phrase, that Christ claims “every-square inch” as his own. Francis Schaeffer may have first made this outlook popular, with help later from Chuck Colson. But even more important were scholars at Calvin College and Calvin Seminary who set the bar high for professors at many evangelical colleges and attempted to pursue scholarship from a Christian outlook.

Bavinck fits in this line of endeavor since he himself wrote on political and cultural topics from a Reformed perspective. But what is often missing from the American Protestant appropriation of neo-Calvinism is the serious theological underpinning on which it rested. Bavinck is as good an example of serious theological investigation in the neo-Calvinist tradition as anyone can find. Eglinton’s biography in turn may be news to many readers that the neo-Calvinists were no slouches when it came to doctrine, worship, and the church.

Family Trumps School (so says Bavinck)

(Thanks to our Grand Rapids correspondent) James K. A. Smith offers that latest case (in a popular form) for Christian schools and bangs all the percussion instruments that neo-Calvinists have assembled up front in their churches for worship (see what I did there?):

Christian Reformed communities have long understood a commitment to Christian schools as an expression of the promises we make at baptism—to be the “village” that supports the formation and education of our children. In a tangible expression of “kingdom economics” (see Acts 4:32-36), the entire community shares the burden of Christian schooling. Older generations support younger generations through giving to the Christian education fund, grateful for the generations before them that did the same. Only such a gift-giving economy can make it possible for Christian education to be a blessing for all in the community.

Let’s be honest: Christian schooling is a high-investment, labor-intensive venture. It requires sacrifices and hard choices. And it’s increasingly countercultural to pursue such a vision.

But when it’s carried out in the best spirit of the Reformed tradition—when Christian education is an intentional, intensive, formative curriculum bent on shaping young people as agents and ambassadors of God’s coming kingdom—the investment proves to be wise stewardship.

So it turns out that Christian education is not just a 19th-century hangover. It bubbles up from the very nature of the church as a covenant community. It’s an expression of the core convictions of the Reformed tradition. And we might need it now more than ever.

For the Bible thumpers among us, this case still falls short of explaining why throughout most of redemptive history narrated in Scripture schools — a modern invention — were not part of the prophets’ and apostles’ instructions. Yes, I understand the implications of covenant theology and yes I admire the solidarity that Dutch Calvinists have exhibited in both the Old and New Worlds — really. But Smith, along with those who preceded, do not address the priority (even audacity?) of the family in the nurture of children.

And so I wonder what Smith would do with Herman Bavinck, a not-so-shabby neo-Calvinist, and what he says about how basic the family is to God’s providential care for his people:

The family is and remains the nurturing institution par excellence. Beyond every other institution it has this advantage, namely, that it was not constructed and artificially assembled by man. A man chooses a woman to be his wife, and a woman chooses a man to be here husband, but if things go well, they don’t so much choose one another as they are chosen by each other; by means of a secret bond, in a manner ineffable, they are brought to each other. Children are then born from their intimate fellowship, but those children are granted to them, having a different sexuality, a different nature, a different disposition — perhaps different than what the parents would have wished and, had it been up to them, would have given their children. The family is no fabrication of human hands; it is a gift of God, bestowed according to his good pleasure. Even though the family has existed for centuries, we cannot create a likeness; it was, it is, and it will continue to be a gift, an institution that God alone sustains. (The Christian Family, 105-106)

Behind the family and its very existence is the providential control of God. And Bavinck is clear that such divine sovereignty is responsible for the diversity of families — perhaps even to the point of allowing some families to opt for and others to opt out of Christian schools:

The community of the family brings with it a treasury of relationships and qualities. The relation of husband and wife, or parents and children, brothers and sisters, hardly exhausts this treasury, for the relationship that a husband enjoys with his wife is altogether different than the relations a wife enjoys with her husband, and the relations of parents with children differs from those between father and mother and the children together, and between each parent with each child, and in this way the same family life proceeds in even greater specialization, as the number of members expands.

This is the case not only with the relationship but also with the qualities belonging to each family member. Masculine and feminine qualities, physical and spiritual strengths, intellectual, volitional, and emotional gifts, age and youth, strength and weakness, authority and obedience, affection and love, unity and diversity of interests, all of these come together in one family, unified and distinguished and blended together. (92)

So would Smith and other proponents of Christians schools have us ignore such diversity and force it all into conformity to the teachers (members of their own families with each of the diverse strengths and weaknesses of those backgrounds) at the local Christian school?

At least one side of Bavinck said, “no”!

Therefore the nurture that takes place within the family possesses a very special character. Even as the family itself cannot be imitated, so too one cannot make a copy of family nurture. No school, no boarding school, no day-care center, no government institution can replace or improve upon the family. The children come from the family, grow up in the family, without themselves knowing how. They are formed and raised without themselves being able to account for that. The nurture provided by the family is entirely different than that provided by the school; it is not bound to a schedule of tasks and does not apportion its benefits in terms of minutes and hours. It consists not only in instruction, but also in advice and warning, leading and admonition, encouragement and comfort, solicitude and sharing. Everything in the home contributes to nurture—the hand of the father, the voice of the mother, the older brother, the younger sister, the infant in the bassinet, the sickly sibling, grandmother and grandchildren, uncles and aunts, guests and friends, prosperity and adversity, celebrations and mourning, Sundays and workdays, prayers and thanksgiving at mealtime and the reading of God’s Word, morning devotions and evening devotions. (106-107)

So why can’t we leave the decision of education up to the institution divinely appointed for nurturing children?

Speak diversity to conformity!

What Does Reformed Modify?

Hint: the body of Christ we call church.

Kevin DeYoung defends a wide berth for Reformed Protestantism and quotes Herman Bavinck for support:

In particular, Bavinck claims, “From the outset Reformed theology in North America displayed a variety of diverse forms.” He then goes on to mention the arrivals of the Episcopal Church (1607), the Dutch Reformed (1609), the Congregationalists (1620), the Quakers (1680), the Baptists (1639), the Methodists (1735 with Wesley and 1738 with Whitefield), and finally the German churches. “Almost all of these churches and currents in these churches,” Bavinck observes, “were of Calvinistic origin. Of all religious movements in America, Calvinism has been the most vigorous. It is not limited to one church or other, but—in a variety of modifications—constitutes the animating element in Congregational, Baptist, Presbyterian, Dutch Reformed, and German Reformed churches, and so forth” (1.201). In other words, not only is Bavinck comfortable using Calvinism has a synonym for Reformed theology (in this instance at least), he also has no problem affirming that Calvinism was not limited to one tradition alone but constituted the “animating element” in a variety of churches. Calvinism, as opposed to Lutheranism, flourished in colonial America as the typical orthodox, Reformational, sola scriptura-sola fide alternative to the various forms of comprised Arminianism and heterodox Socinianism.

The problem with this historically speaking, for starters, is that Lutheranism did precede Calvinism and so you could conceivably attribute all the variety of Calvinism to Lutheranism as the original Protestantism. Granted, the lines of continuity between Reformed Protestantism and the North American colonial churches were stronger than with Lutheranism. But that is much more a function of British Protestantism and what happened to Calvinism (or what didn’t) within the Church of England, the Union of England and Scotland, and the Puritans. British Protestantism turned Calvinism into a proverbial hot house of Calvinisms. This was not the case among the Dutch Calvinists who planted Reformed churches in North America. The colony of New Netherlands actually excluded Quakers and Lutherans, and enjoyed much greater uniformity than the Old World Dutch were capable of enforcing. Remember, the Netherlands, despite Dort, welcomed Descartes, Spinoza, and Anabaptists.

But aside from the history, the question is one of arbitrariness. If John MacArthur can exclude charismatics from being Reformed even though he doesn’t belong to a Reformed church, or if The Gospel Coalition can set up a tent broad enough to include disciplined Southern Baptists and wobbly PCA ministers, Calvinism, like evangelicalism, becomes simply what pleases the excluder/includer. Add to that the reality that conservative Presbyterian and Reformed communions invested great energy and resources to distinguishing themselves from communions, like DeYoung’s, those that are Reformed primarily in name rather than substance, and you begin to see why some Reformed Protestants are eager to give coherence to their wing of Western Christianity. I don’t mean that as a cheap shot. But so far, folks like MacArthur and the Gospel Allies have yet to acknowledge the hard work done by Reformed Christians to defend and maintain the ministry of word and sacrament within disciplined (read Reformed) churches. We had thought the task of reforming the church was arduous and long, but now you hold a conference or set up a blog and — voila — it’s Calvinism.

Dictionaries revise definitions all the time. But users of words and grammarians don’t approve of the revisions. The question comes down to whose pay grade it is to establish Calvinism’s meaning. Celebrity pastors? Parachurch agencies? Or church councils? I’m pretty sure I know how Calvin, Bucer, Knox, and Ursinus would vote. Do they carry as much clout as John Piper? As Bud Dickman is wont to say, “well. . .”

Where’s Waldo (A Day After) Wednesday: Someone Needs to Call A Union Summit

Over at Justin Taylor’s blog comes word that Dane Ortlund has published an article on the relationship between justification and sanctification in the writings of Bavinck and Berkouwer. The summary point is as follows:

. . . these two Dutch Reformed thinkers are united in their understanding of justification as the self-conscious means of sanctification. The point is not that justification must be viewed (logically) as preceding sanctification rather than the other way round. Nor is the point that justification provides the ground for sanctification. Nor are they simply agreeing that sanctification must not be thought of as moralistic self-effort. On all this orthodox Protestant theology of various stripes is agreed.

Whether or not Ortlund is correct, his point about the priority of justification is one that union proponents may want to consider when arguing that the focus on justification is a form of Luther envy.

Ortlund goes on:

Bavinck and Berkouwer are making a more penetrating point. They understand that it is quite possible to decry self-resourced progress in holiness while retaining an unhealthy disconnect between justification and sanctification that sees justification as something beyond which one
‘graduates’ in Christian living. They argue that justification is to be seen as ‘settled’ in that the verdict is irreversibly delivered, yet justification is not to be seen as ‘settled’ in the sense that one must now therefore move on to sanctification. Justification is settled materially but retains critical ongoing epistemic import in Christian living. . . . We are justified by self-renouncing faith; we are sanctified by that same faith.

But this is not where Ortlund ends. For some reason he feels compelled to evaluate B&B Theological Enterprises according to standards established by Jonathan Edwards, where Ortlund finds the doctrine of union as the larger rubric for a holistic soteriology. He writes:

Justification is not only relevant for entrance into the people of God and for final acquittal, but, in between these two events, is the critical factor in the mind of the believer for healthy progressive sanctification.

This insight should, however, be placed into the larger soteriological framework of union with Christ. As has been argued by many in the tradition to which Bavinck and Berkouwer belong, union with Christ should be seen as the broadest soteriological rubric, within which both justification and sanctification are subsumed. . . . Had Berkouwer listened more closely to an American strand of his own Reformed tradition (especially Jonathan Edwards), he could have had the more balanced view of Bavinck while retaining his basic point as to the critical role justification plays in ongoing sanctification.

After reading this I’m left scratching my head once again when the subject of union comes up. First, I thought the Dutch Reformed were the most important for the recent recovery of the doctrine of union. Why they’d have to read Edwards to find the genuine article is not exactly the way I have heard the doctrine explained. Are union proponents reading from the same history of doctrine?

Second, a monergistic understanding of sanctification or union is of no great help in the Christian life the way it is commonly explained, as if a rebuttal to Rome’s charges of antinomianism. If union is the work of the Spirit, as is sanctification, how can Protestants claim that these doctrines or realities become motivations for good works? Rome’s logic was that once God does it all in salvation, a believer has no reason to be virtuous. Of course, Protestants rightly respond that the work of the Spirit is a reality that is conforming believers more to the image of Christ. Good works are inevitable such that those that are justified are also sanctified. But conformity to the image of Christ is not the work of a believer. It is the work of the Spirit.

In which case, Rome’s accusation stands. The Spirit-wrought nature of salvation in the Protestant scheme has an antinomian impulse and appearance because good works are not the substance or catalyst for any of the blessings of Christ’s work.

So I’m still wondering how great a breakthrough union is. It is a thought almost as befuddling where to find union in the history of Reformed doctrine.


Over at Ref21, Ligon Duncan supplies a drive-by quote from Herman Bavinck that the Mississippi pastor directs against John Williamson Nevin. Here is the the Bavinck quote:

In a comparatively sound church life, it is possible to assume that as a rule the children of the covenant will be born again in their youth and come to faith and conversion ‘in stages and gracefully.’ But when the world penetrates the church and many people grow up and live for years without showing any fruits worthy of faith and repentance, then the serious-minded feel called to warn against trusting one’s childhood regeneration and one’s historical faith in Christian doctrine and to insist on true conversion of the hearts, and experiential knowledge of the truths of salvation. Against a dead orthodoxy, Pietism and Methodism, with their conventicles and revivals, always have a right to exist. (Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, 3:583)

Then comes this pithy postscript:

And, yes, I know I’m being provocative with the title. But Nevin is not the answer to what ails us.

The post has no links, and as is Ref21’s wont, no place for comments (no peace, no justice!).

So I wonder what made Duncan think of Nevin in connection with Bavinck. Was the Dutch theologian writing against his American counterpart directly? The quotation doesn’t suggest so. Or did David Strain, from whom Duncan obtained the Bavinck quotation, have a recent reading session with the Mercersburg Theology? (I actually follow David’s blog and have not seen activity there in some time. Of course, the Internet is not the only way for David and Ligon to communicate since they both minister in the PCA in Mississippi.)

But even more mysterious is what Ligon means by Nevin not being the answer. The only folks in conservative Presbyterian circles who advocate Nevin regularly are the Federal Visionaries. I know I myself may be charged with such an accusation, but the record is pretty clear that my prescriptions for our communions run more toward Machen than Nevin (as much as I respect the latter’s critique of revivalism).

Still, the funny thing is that the Federal Visionaries’ efforts to blur the lines between faith and faithfulness are very similar to those of the Methodists and Pietists whom Bavinck commends against a dead orthodoxy. After all, the point of turning faith into faithfulness is to get people to take seriously not just the sacraments but all those endeavors to create Christendom and establish the rule of Christ and God’s law. Federal Vision may be wrong orthodoxy but it is hardly dead. In which case, their recommendation of Nevin is a way to obtain exactly what Bavinck wants — “fruits worthy of faith and repentance,” that is, lots of godliness of a experimental Calvinist kind but rooted in the church (where pastors wear clerical collars of odd pastel hues). Federal Vision is no faith for slouches.

At the same time, Bavinck may want to consider Nevin’s critique of revivalism because sometimes children of the covenant are already showing fruits that don’t measure up to the enthusiasts’ standards or their constant laments about dead orthodoxy. As I read Nevin, the point of Christian devotion is not to stick out like a sore thumb but to wear one’s faith organically, or quietly, peacefully (or in Presbyterian parlance, decently and in order). The reason is that calling attention to one’s devotion can readily destroy devotion with selfishness and pride. Even more pressing for Bavinck and recommenders like Duncan is to consider the oxymoronic assertion that a child of the covenant, not in open rebellion, but attending the means of grace and trying to trust the Lord in family devotions and private prayer, and still submitting to godly parents, needs to convert. Convert from what? Pious ways?

As I say, Huh?!?