The problem of apologetics: three lectures

I gave these three lectures at this year’s Catalyst Conference, Areopagus Now: Apologetics in Scripture, History, and Theology, organised by the International Presbyterian Church, and held in London. My lectures were on sin as ‘The Problem of Apologetics,’ and explored the sense in which Christian apologetics is both necessitated and profoundly informed by the reality of sin. My lectures presented that claim in three parts, each borrowing the insights of a different Dutch Reformed theologian:

Can we classify sin? Gisbertus Voetius

In this lecture, I argue that apologetics—the task of vindicating the Christian philosophy of life in response to non-Christian philosophies of life—must reckon with the reality of sin in the reception of the apologia, whose hearers are not neutral or presuppositionless towards claims about God. Rather, using Voetius’ Catechism as an example, I present a pathology and taxonomy of sin that explains the nature of original sin as a disordered affection that conditions all subsequent capacity for action. Apologetics is presented to people in whom original sin gives rise to the shape of life outside of Christ—for which reason, it must be something more than attempts to convince on the basis of evidentialist claims, or merely an aspect of the church’s educational outreach to those who lack information on Christian truth claims. Instead, apologetics can be seen as an attempt to explain (or to unmask) the shape of life outside of Christ.

Can we predict sin? Herman Bavinck

In this lecture, I use Herman Bavinck to explore the manner in which original sin progresses into the specifics of actual sins. The lecture’s central question concerns whether sin progresses in predictable, or unpredictable, ways. It uses Herman Bavinck’s example to show an early phase in his life in which he thought that sin worked itself out methodically, like a ball flying through the air in a straight line, before changing in later life to view sin as a more chaotic force, like a butterfly moving erratically through the air. In the early ‘predictive’ phase, Bavinck was more or less ambivalent towards apologetics, thinking that there were better ways to combat a foe whose impending demise could be easily foreseen. In the latter phase, his views on apologetics changed somewhat.

Can we psychologise sin? Johan Herman Bavinck

In this lecture, I explore Johan Herman Bavinck’s views on sin as a psychological reality. J.H. Bavinck emerged as an outstanding apologist in the ‘age of Freud,’ to which he responded by returning to the psychological insights of Augustine of Hippo. This lecture introduces his distinction between ‘worldvision’ and ‘worldview’ in explaining the task of unmasking sin’s role in the uniquely disordered psychology and personality found in every human life. This distinction is key to his Augustinian view that every human life is spent simultaneously seeking and hiding from God—the insight around which all apologetics must orient itself.

Can we classify sin? Voetius
Can we predict sin? Herman Bavinck
Can we psychologise sin? J.H. Bavinck

Interview with Tjerk de Reus in the Friesch Dagblad

Last month I had the pleasure of being interviewed on Bavinck: A Critical Biography by the Dutch literary critic and journalist Tjerk de Reus for a feature article in the Friesch Dagblad. The Friesch Dagblad has its own fascinating history with Bavinck and neo-Calvinism, for which reason this interview (conducted in Dutch) was a real pleasure.

Van harte bedankt, Tjerk!

Bavinck: Portrait of a Christian Polymath

Bavinck: Portrait of a Christian Polymath (English with Korean subtitles)

This month, as part of the global Bavinck centenary year, I gave a lecture at Kosin University’s Korean Institute for Reformed Studies, in Busan, South Korea. Due to the current difficulties around international travel, the lecture was pre-recorded and delivered online, in English with Korean subtitles. The lecture is on how the category of polymath helps us understand the richly textured and diverse nature of his life and thought in a way that previous ‘two Bavincks’ interpretations missed. I am grateful to Samuel Lee at Kosin University for the invitation to take part, and to the translation team for making the lecture available to a Korean audience.

“Falling asleep in Jesus” – the death of Abraham Kuyper

The Dutch Calvinist theologian and statesman Abraham Kuyper (1837-1920) died one hundred years ago today. That death was the end of a unique and remarkable life. His experience of dying was retold in beautiful (and deeply moving) written form by two of his daughters, Henriëtte and Johanna, in their book The Last Days of Abraham Kuyper.

Particularly in his devotional writings, Kuyper showed a keen awareness of the Christian life as a preparation for death en route to one’s own eventual resurrection: one of his most memorable devotional pieces is on the practice of falling asleep as a nightly rehearsal of dying in full faith that resurrection awaits. (In Dutch, getting up and being resurrected are both described in the same word, opstaan, which gives his analogy an easy resonance.) When closing your eyes in sleep, you entrust yourself to God, give up the struggles of the day that has passed, enter your promised rest, and do so in hope that by God’s grace the darkness of night will give way to a new morning in which you rise again.

This week, I have been re-reading Henriëtte’s and Johanna’s account of their father’s last days (which in its own time functioned as something akin to J. Todd Billings’ outstanding new book The End of the Christian Life in our own day). As my own small tribute to their efforts, and to mark the century that has passed since the end of Abraham’s own life—never dull, overwhelming, complex, and certainly not without controversies—I have translated the section on their father’s passing.

Falling Asleep in Jesus

In the afternoon at three o’clock, before we had noticed, I think, that my father felt the end was nearing, — the end of his earthly life, also the end of the valley of the shadow of death, in which (we know) the Lord was with him, to lead him to the rooms of eternal light. At three o’clock my father took a conscious departure from me, the only one from whom he had not taken leave on Sunday evening, when he certainly knew that I would remain with him on that night, while the others went to sleep.

He turned his head to the door and blinked. I asked him, “Should someone come?” Father nodded to say, ‘yes’.

I said the names of his children. But no, he did not seem to mean them.

Then I asked, “Should Mr Idenberg come?”

Yes, this was the one he longed to have alongside him.

I am certain that my father wanted Mr Idenberg to be with him at his death. For himself, and also for us, his children, who would lose so much in that moment.

Called by telephone, Mr Idenberg came immediately, but found my father in a slumberous state. He was kind enough to wait, but when the slumbering had passed and I said to father that Mr Idenberg had come, I received no response.

At half past four I saw the great change approaching, very slowly and softly, but certainly. I said to Mr Idenberg, “I believe that the end has now come, would you please call the children?”

That he did. Soon, we were all grouped around father’s deathbed.

Hanging above the head of the bed, as I have already written, was a painting representing the crucifixion of our Saviour, through whose shed blood and broken body death could be an entrance into eternal life for my father. At six o’clock, as though under the shadow of that cross, he breathed his last. It was like a tired child falling into sleep, so softly and so peacefully. Nobody had noticed when exactly his life had departed and the angels of God had carried his soul into the rooms of eternal light.

Falling into sleep. Falling asleep in Jesus. After that dark night, eternal morning. After much struggle, a glorious victory. Indeed, as my father once described it: ‘Every earthly triumph is but a poor image of the over-exceeding triumph of the one who enters the gates of the New Jerusalem.”

There was now fullness of joy for him before the face of God.

Then Mr Idenberg read the beginning of 2 Corinthians 5 to us:

‘For we know that if the tent that is our earthly home is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made by human hands, eternal in the heavens…’

And after that we knelt together to thank God, not only for what he had given us in such a father, but also that our father had now been freed from all sin and struggle, and had been taken up into God’s glory.

“Is a good life a perfect life?” Reformation Day Lecture by PM Mark Rutte of the Netherlands

On Saturday, to mark Reformation Day, Prime Minister Mark Rutte of the Netherlands gave the annual Protestant Lecture held in the Kloosterkerk in The Hague. For the original, see here. It is an intriguing lecture for a number of reasons: PM Rutte is not affiliated with any of the Netherlands’ three major Christian Parties (the Christen Unie, the Staatskundig Gereformeerde Partij, or the Christen-Democratisch Appèl). Rather, he serves as Leader of the Volkspartij voor Vrijheid en Democratie (the People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy), a more or less secular political party. That PM Rutte gave a Reformation Day lecture in which he discussed the Bible, Jesus, Luther, the Reformation, his own Christian upbringing, and spoke directly as a person of faith, is all quite significant and fascinating.

What follows below is my translation of his lecture. It is not an authorised translation, although I think it is accurate.

Is a good life a perfect life? Protestant Lecture by Prime Minister Mark Rutte

Online Protestant Lecture by Prime Minister Mark Rutte on Reformation Day, October 31st, 2020, recorded on October 29th, 2020, in the Kloosterkerk in The Hague.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

If I were to be given the impossible task of saying in one word what the church means to me personally, I would probably say: ‘Togetherness’, because it is in the church that people come together as a congregation. In person, with each other.

And how strange it is to address you by camera from the Hague’s beautiful, but almost empty, Kloosterkerk. We know why that is necessary. We know what we are doing this for, but we also feel just how much more we now need that togetherness.

That is immediately the most important reason that I gladly said ‘yes’ to the request to deliver the annual Protestant Lecture on this Reformation Day, with its form of delivery having been adapted, in a certain sense, because of the circumstances, but not, I hope, in its meaning and reception. Today, I very much want to underline that necessity of togetherness, and with that, also the important role that faith, the churches, and especially the people who together form the church, fulfil together therein.

We cannot get around it: the coronavirus has imposed an incredibly heavy burden on our society. On everyone who has to miss a loved one because of corona. On people who are now very ill with it, or who are struggling with the physical and mental after-effects of the virus. On young and old who have to have to deal with domestic tensions due to all sorts of social challenges, with loneliness and depressive feelings. Or on all those employers whose businesses are on the verge of going under, and on the people who fear losing their jobs.

Corona is, in summary, more than a virus, more than just a disease. It is also mourning, it is loss, it is disruption. 

But I am convinced that the tradition in which we stand helps us to come through this difficult period. Each of us individually, and our country as a whole. That tradition is, of course, not exclusively Christian, but it is so for an important part. And that takes effect very directly and personally, because the one who believes in God may have hope, and an enormous comfort comes from that. It works like that for me, in any case.

And it also takes effect collectively, because of the well-known Biblical saying: ‘love your neighbour as yourself.’ For me, this means: look out for each other, help each other, comfort each other. Precisely what we immediately saw during the first wave of corona. And more recently still, dozens of churches and Christian organisations from different denominations sent a letter to the cabinet with the offer of helping during the second wave of corona, for example, in the fight against loneliness. Thus, faith makes us stronger together, in the social sense.

And naturally, in this second wave we see tension growing amongst people, but beneath this, the Netherlands is and remains a land of volunteers and mutual help. A land of doing the shopping for each other and of [making] a pan of soup for the ill woman next door. Also during this second wave, there have been more people with patience and compassion than with a short fuse. We read little of that goodness and patience in society in the newspapers, and we don’t hear much about it on the various talk show panels, but it is not therefore any less of a reality.

In these times we are forced to look long and hard at the facts. All of a sudden, attainments that we always took for granted seem, this spring, to be immediately less obvious than we thought. Suddenly, by necessity, we are living with limitations that only a short time ago seemed barely imaginable.

That raises the question: what really matters in a person’s life? Or to formulate it with the question that I was asked to reflect on today: is a good life a perfect life?

The short answer is obviously: no, thankfully not. Because perfection is a norm that very few people can satisfy.

Alongside that, what is perfect? That varies from person to person, it seems to me. For one person, it is a glittering career with lots of visibility and riches. For another person it is an attractive appearance or sporting accomplishments. And for another still it is a harmonious family life or the satisfaction of voluntary work.

A definitive answer cannot be given. For me personally, the word ‘perfect’ is another word for boring. Imagine: a perfect life and nothing more to wish for? Honestly, I must not think about it!

But the question remains: what, then, is a good life? To this, there is obviously no right or wrong answer. But what the corona crisis teaches us is that life, as it goes on, does not revolve around ‘more, more, more,’ and absolutely not, ‘I, I, I,’ but rather, it is about ‘together,’ about responsibility and attention for the people around you. We all know the saying that nobody lies on his deathbed and says that he wishes he had spent more time at work, or that he had gathered even more possessions. In 2020 we also have to add to this, [that he had] maybe added a number of followers on Instagram or Facebook. But life does not revolve around cash or consumption. It revolves around contact. Around real human contact. That is ultimately the only thing that counts, not riches or outward appearances, but what you have done with and for others.

I myself am the product of a not very strict Reformed [Hervormde] upbringing, and so I need to be careful when referring to the Bible or interpretations of it. But is what I just said not also a line that runs through that beautiful book? For example, in the parable of the rich man for whom it is harder to enter the Kingdom of God than it is for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle? To me, this is a clear message: possessions are ballast that you must ultimately leave behind.

Or, for example, where Jesus says: ‘Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.’ That is a beautiful, positive restatement  of, ‘What you don’t want to happen…’ And in this there also lies a message that is crystal clear: in everything that you want and do, think about others.

In the Bible, the answer to the question of ‘what is a good life?’ is perhaps nowhere formulated more clearly than in Romans 12, in one of the epistles of Paul. He writes there straightforwardly that a good life is in service of the will of God. In the New Bible Translation [Nieuwe Bijbelvertaling], it is stated literally: ‘You should not conform yourself to this world, but your disposition must be changed, in order to discover what wants from you, and what good, complete, and pleasing to him.’

In this, I hear an echo of one of the core values that I learned from my parents: always be thoughtful, take responsibility for your own actions, and don’t follow the crowd blindly. Just as Luther did on the first Reformation Day in Wittenberg, 503 years ago, when he set himself in the direction of Rome—just as Paul did—with his theses. Thinking, choosing, and accepting the consequences.

And as such, a great deal of the faith of my youth, and of the church in which I grew up—the Nieuwe Badkapel in Scheveningen—is found in this text from Romans 12. A church that drew people from every level of society, from government ministers and top officials to fishermen from Scheveningen. As a child, I felt at home there.

In his letter to the Romans, Paul lays a strong accent on the fact that people have different gifts, in which there is no hierarchy. ‘We have different gifts, according to the grace that is given to us,’ it says. And he then compares that to a body, in which each member has its own function.

That speaks to me powerfully. It means that everyone can do good in his or her life, and thus, can lead a good and meaningful life, and that the total of everyone’s contribution is more than the sum of the parts.

In following Frits Bolkestein, I gladly call this the ‘rousing connection’ [het bezielend verband] in society, the power and energy that lies within people, that keeps us together and makes us stronger as a whole. Everyone’s contribution matters. No-one is more important than any other. Or, as I learned from my parents: you should not look up to the professor and look down at the bin man. Each makes his contribution according to his capacity.

As an extension of that, I learned early on that you do well to relativise your own role, that you should not always take yourself very seriously. ‘Keeping yourself in the background,’ [gewoon op de kleine steentjes lopen], it was called in my house. And Paul calls us to this in Romans 12. He writes, ‘…you should not think of yourself more highly than you ought to think, but with sober judgment.’ And, one more citation, ‘…consider others more highly than yourself.’ And for whoever has not yet understood, there is a very literal call: ‘…do not be haughty, but fix yourself on humility.’ 

Briefly, Paul’s answer to the question of what makes a good life, contains a sort of Droste effect.[1] A good life is a life that has meaning in the lives of others. We do not exist without others. And what I find most attractive about this conclusion is that with this, Paul also gives an implicit answer to the question of what a failed life is. Or better said: to the question of whether such a thing as a ‘failed life’ exists. I say to you honestly: everything within me rises against [such a thing], as a person of faith and as a liberal, because it would mean that we write people off, and that does not fit in our society.

Naturally there are people who have struggles in this life, who, for example, are afflicted with illness, an accident or some other calamity. People who don’t succeed at getting along in a digital information society that asks more and more of us. People who for whatever reason also need help, and who, thankfully, can get help in our country. But that says nothing at all about what they mean in the lives of their parents, children, friends, neighbours, and colleagues. Exceptions aside, everyone means something to someone. Everyone’s life makes a difference. I am deeply convinced of this.

And what I want to have said today, in conclusion, is this. As the coronavirus now confronts us with our smallness and vulnerability, the important role of the churches is clearer than ever. 

And then I return to the word ‘togetherness’, with which I began this address. This period makes me think of the plaque that John F. Kennedy had on his desk in the Oval Office. On it was this line from an old Breton fisherman’s prayer: ‘O God, thy sea is so great and my boat is so small.’ The original can still be seen in the Kennedy Presidential Library in Boston. This uncertain feeling in that vast sea shall certainly be recognisable to many people during the corona crisis. In the church we feel [this]: we are not sitting alone in that little boat, we are sitting in it together, and in the past we have stood in hotter fires still. And as such, we will come through this period. I think that in this time, we cannot hear that message often enough.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

I am afraid that I cannot give you the definitive answer to the question of what a good life is. But hopefully you did not expect that you would get that answer. From what I have said, it may well seem that for me, it is about equality and togetherness, about the ‘rousing connection’ in society that lies within us as people who all make a contribution through which the whole becomes more than the sum of its parts.

A good life is thus not per se a believing life. That would be enormously arrogant, and simplistically reasoned. But speaking for myself, I do indeed dare to say that faith makes my picture larger and deeper. Quite simply, it helps me to look a bit further and—hopefully—to do the good in my life, as much as is possible.

Thank you. 

[1] Droste effect: an artistic effect in which a picture contains a picture of itself, which contains a picture of itself, ad infinitum.

Resources for understanding Bavinck’s Christian Worldview

Last year, Cory Brock, Gray Sutanto, and I released the first English translation of Bavinck’s book Christian Worldview with Crossway. It is an important and particularly helpful book, and has tremendous practical import for those who want to think through a series of perennial and important existential questions:

What am I? Where did I come from? How does my own view on the world relate to the world outside me? Do I know anything? Can I know anything? How should I act? And why do I exist? What is the point of my life?

The sum total of one’s answers to those questions is what Bavinck calls a ‘world- and-life-view’. In Christian Worldview, he argues that the modern age has tried to answer those questions, and to provide an existentially satisfying world-and-life-view, in many ways. Bavinck’s claim, though, is that only the Christian faith can answer those questions to our existential satisfaction.

Christian Worldview was an enjoyable book to translate, although we were aware that it is not an easy read. It is short but dense—the kind of book that packs a remarkable punch given its brevity. As such, it is the kind of book that needs careful reading, followed perhaps by a second and third reading. It is also a product of its time: Bavinck interacts with many figures who were seminal in his own day, although their names are not instantly recognisable to us. Part of our editorial task, then, was to add footnotes providing the 21st century reader with information to clarify who these figures were, and what they had argued. This also means the reader needs to pay attention.

For those who are working through it, a number of very helpful resources have since appeared that will help with making sense of the book.

  1. Gray Sutanto’s lecture on the book given at RTS DC (above).
  2. Gray Sutanto’s article based on this lecture.
  3. Greg Parker’s article published in Modern Reformation.
  4. Cory Brock’s article published in Credo Magazine.
  5. Tim Keller’s article ‘Justice in the Bible‘. There, Keller writes,

Is there a Christian Worldview? Yes. Over the past century the concept of a Christian “worldview” has developed. The word was taken from Immanuel Kant but given new meaning by its early proponents, especially Abraham Kuyper and Herman Bavinck. They argued first, that human beings cannot live without assuming some answers to the abiding questions—Who am I? What is my purpose in life? What’s wrong with people and how do we put it right? How should I live and how do I determine right or wrong? And how do I know that what I know about these things is the truth?—Answers to these questions constitute a worldview, a mental map, through which we process daily life. Most of us simply adopt and assume the worldview of our family or community and culture, but others think it out. No one can live without one. Secondly, these early proponents argued that Christianity is not merely a set of individual doctrines to believe, but a coherent, comprehensive way of answering all these basic life questions and therefore it is a way for looking at every area of life from a Christian perspective. Because Christianity’s view of reality is grounded in the Triune God, a belief shared with no other religion or philosophy, its worldview is necessarily unique and radically distinct from all others.

Over the last several decades, the term “worldview” has been adopted by many speakers who use it in different ways. Perhaps the dominant way to present the concept has been to describe Christianity as a set of bullet point beliefs, and then to compare it with the parallel beliefs of other accounts of reality, often broken out into discrete categories such as secularism, scientific materialism, postmodernism, existentialism, nihilism, New Age spirituality, Marxism—and sometimes adding other religions such as Buddhism and Islam. The six editions of James Sire’s The Universe Next Door: A Basic Worldview Catalogue and Jeff Myers’ Understanding the Times: A Survey of Competing Worldviews are examples of this approach. Strong criticism has been levelled at these kinds of books. First, it is charged, the worldview categories overlap. For example, arguably, materialism, postmodernism, Marxism, existentialism and New Age Spirituality are all forms of secularism—they are all approaches taking place within what Charles Taylor calls the secular “immanent frame.” Secondly, individuals in our culture increasingly mix together elements from more than one of these categories. Many younger adults today often mix therapeutic, individualistic answers to the identity question with Marxist, collectivistic answers to the question of justice. And this is also true of so-called “schools of thought.” Is it fair, for example, to call Critical Race Theory a well-structured “worldview?” No. It, too, is something of a mishmash of ideas from older Marxism and newer postmodernism. All this has led many to propose that the term “worldview” be retired.

However, Herman Bavinck’s 1913 essay Christian Worldview (Crossway, 2019) has recently been translated from Dutch into English for the first time. This is a seminal document—some argue it is one of the first substantial articulations of the idea. Bavinck wants to compare Christianity to the alternate worldviews that were developing in the secularizing western culture. (1) First, he begins with a statement that “Christianity stands antithetically to all that is brought before the market today…If we understand Christianity’s warrant and maintain a desire to preserve her essence, then we can do nothing else but take a resolute position against the systems of the day and the worldviews of its own invention and fashioning….There can be no thought of reconciliation between Christianity and [other worldviews].” (27) (2) Second, Bavinck shows that each non-Christian worldview starts by assuming realities about the world and human nature that it cannot prove. So it begins with acts of faith, not with empirical experience or objective reason (34). (3) Third, Bavinck says that secular non-Christian worldviews are reductionistic or “mechanical.” They seek to explain everything by some single factor (80-81). So scientific materialism reduces everything to the physical (e.g. love is just a chemical brain event that helps you pass on your genes) while pantheism says the physical world is an illusion and reduces everything to the spiritual. This reductionism means every non-Christian worldview creates an idol. It looks to some created thing rather than God to be the key or the solution or the salvation (It also demonizes some created thing rather than human sin to be the main problem with the world). (4) Fourth, the inevitable simplistic one-sidedness of these worldviews leaves each of them, in different ways, unable to account for what we know both intellectually and intuitively about the complexity of the world and of humanity, which is both created and fallen, both physical and spiritual, both individual and social. “Christianity is the only religion whose view of the world and life fits the world and life” (28, italics are mine). Only the Christian worldview can keep “heart and head together.” (5) Fifth, every alternative worldview fails on its own terms to give what it promises—a knowledge of truth, a stable identity, and a basis for moral norms. Without the Trinity at their foundation, modern worldviews fall into opposite “ditches.” For example, they fall into empiricism or rationalism—both of which, in the end, must confess that there is no way for us to know truth, and yet we know intuitively that truth exists and we can’t live without it. This means non-Christian worldviews are unliveable. They fail to give us solid resources for finding our identity, experiencing freedom, knowing satisfaction, having a basis for doing justice, or discovering truth. (6) Finally, by showing how Christianity has a unique answer to all these perennial questions, he makes the case that Christianity is a complete worldview, giving us unique perspectives on every aspect of life, not just private life, but on business, law, politics, science, art, and government. Christianity is not only for helping us in our private life. It is a way of seeing, living, and working distinctively in all of life.

Most importantly, Bavinck avoids the pitfalls of more recent worldview writing. He does not artificially divide people into discrete worldview categories. Instead, Bavinck goes down to the basic, perennial philosophical debates and issues—the ‘deep structures of culture’—of epistemology (how do we know?), anthropology (what is human nature, what is wrong with it, and how can it be repaired?), ethics (what is justice? how do we determine right from wrong?), metaphysics (what is real?), teleology (what is our purpose?), and eschatology (where are we going?). He shows that any particular school of thought—such as evolutionary naturalism or Critical Race Theory today—while not a comprehensive worldview per se, is necessarily assuming certain answers to these worldview questions.

Bavinck is the most helpful resource on this subject I’ve ever read, but while brief, it is challenging.

6. This conversation between Gray Sutanto and Tim Keller. It is framed as a discussion of Bavinck’s relevance to ministry in global cities, although much of the discussion stems from their readings of Christian Worldview.

On the value of unlikely friendships: Bavinck and Snouck Hurgronje (a.k.a. Abd al-Ghaffar)

The death of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, following the passing of Antonin Scalia four years before, has highlighted that often, the most biographically remarkable people are the ones whose closest friendships utterly transcend the echo chamber. Sadly, in our polarised times, those friendships seem to be increasingly rare. As one of the most biographically interesting theologians of the 19th and early 20th centuries, it’s perhaps no surprise that Herman Bavinck’s life was also marked by one such unlikely friendship.

As a student at the University of Leiden in the 1870s, Bavinck was a social outsider for two primary reasons: as part of the new middle class at an historically aristocratic university, he was looked down on by the typically well heeled, upper class Leiden student; and as a member of the conservative Secession Church, he found himself amongst predominantly liberal theologians who belonged to the mainline Dutch Reformed Church. There, he became friends with Christiaan Snouck Hurgronje (1857-1936), a figure whose background and life could scarcely be more different to Bavinck’s own.

Snouck Hurgronje (note the double-barrelled surname) was of aristocratic stock, but was haunted by social scandal: his father was a mainline church minister who had been defrocked for abandoning his wife and fleeing to London with another woman (Christiaan’s mother). Herman and Christiaan formed an odd couple: Bavinck was committed to orthodox Calvinism in doctrine and life; Snouck Hugronje certainly was not. Rather, he was a theological liberal who later converted to Islam (in order to gain access to Mecca, where he took some of the first photos of the Hajj). Over the course of his life, Snouck Hurgronje flitted in and out of two identities: while in the Netherlands, he was the culturally Western Christiaan Snouck Hurgronje, the most celebrated Orientalist of his day (and who eventually married a Dutch woman); and while in the Dar al-Islam, he was Abd al-Ghaffar, a Muslim who married several Muslim women, and fathered a number of Muslim children.

Bavinck and Snouck Hurgronje. A less likely pairing is hard to imagine. And yet, they became friends as students, and remained so for the rest of their lives. Why? In Bavinck: A Critical Biography, I show that in early adulthood, Bavinck was probably quite naive in failing to grasp the reality of Snouck Hurgronje’s double life. At that stage, he didn’t know (or understand) his (unusual) friend as well as he thought. Alongside this, though, both men recognised early on the importance of having ‘critical friends.’ Both knew that their intellectual horizons would be limited considerably if their only friends (and conservation partners) were people who generally agreed with them on God, life, and the world. In writing Philosophy of Revelation (in essence, a text aimed by Bavinck at unbelievers in an effort to show the reasonableness of belief in divine revelation), for example, Bavinck’s main direct conversation partner was his unbelieving friend Christiaan Snouck Hurgronje.

Their letters (which I draw on throughout the biography) began as students, and carry on until Bavinck’s death bed. They are moving at points, fascinating at others, and strikingly open throughout. In our increasingly polarised age, these letters stand out as all the more noteworthy (as do the details of the real-world friendship that sustained them). As a follow-up to the biography, then, I am now working with George Harinck and Jan de Bruijn, who edited the original Dutch publication of the Bavinck-Snouck Hurgronje letters, to prepare an English translation of them.

Bavinck’s death, 99 years ago today

‘Prof. Bavinck fell asleep in the Lord on Friday July 29th. The end had long been expected.’

Today marks the 99th anniversary of Herman Bavinck’s death. Bavinck’s career encompassed many fields—theologian, ethicist, politician (as party leader, and parliamentarian), national newspaper editor, educational reformer, biographer, Bible translator, pastor, campaigner for women’s education and voting rights, pioneer in psychology. For that reason, much of his life was spent in the public eye. Despite this public prominence, his own personality was quite reserved. Bavinck was an introvert. He did not relish public attention, but saw it rather as a necessary duty that accompanied his vocation in life.

In that regard, he formed a striking contrast with his colleague Abraham Kuyper, the founder of the Free University of Amsterdam, of the Anti-Revolutionary Party, and the Prime Minister of the Netherlands from 1901-05. From childhood onwards, Kuyper’s life was lived for public consumption, and recognised no distinction between private and public. For Kuyper, everything was public—even the experience of dying.

Although Bavinck was almost two decades younger than Kuyper, they died within months of each other. Both suffered notable declines in health—an experience handled very differently by each man. In Kuyper’s case, dying (and even being dead) was a necessarily public act: he wanted friends to share his deathbed comments with newspapers, alongside which two of his daughters chronicled that experience, which was then published in the beautifully written De levensavond van Dr A. Kuyper [The Last Days of Dr A. Kuyper]. Following his death, a photobook of his home, Het Kuyperhuis [The Kuyper House] was released. Perhaps most remarkably, Kuyper even arranged for a plaster death mask to be made after his passing: the public needed to know, and not to forget, what Abraham Kuyper really looked liked.

Abraham Kuyper’s death mask

In Bavinck: A Critical Biography, I explore Bavinck’s considerably more private experience of death. There was no plaster death mask, photo book of the Bavinck home, or chronicle of dying written by Bavinck’s daughter. In fact, Bavinck explicitly prohibited his friends from sharing his deathbed comments with newspapers, claiming it did not befit his personality to share something so private with the general public. Even his eventual gravestone was simple, and carried only the most minimal of detail about the person whose remains lay under it. In a sense, I think, Bavinck was trying to die differently to Kuyper.

There are perhaps a number of reasons for this. Chiefly amongst these, Bavinck thought death itself was a troubling and unnerving thing: preparing to give himself over to it was a great test of his faith, rather than a kind of saintly theatre. The media reported regularly on his health, which my biography follows, and respected his wish not to describe his thoughts on dying. That media silence carried on until July 28th, 1921—ninety nine years ago yesterday. On that day, the press finally reported on his state of mind—that he had suffered enough, now felt ready to pass on, and had begun praying that the Lord would take him from this life. That prayer that was answered quickly. Early the next morning, he died quietly at home.

Bavinck’s coffin being carried from his house, Singel 62, Amsterdam.

Mythbusters: three things about Bavinck that are not true

‘The Origin and Worth of Mythology,’ unpublished handwritten manuscript by Herman Bavinck (July 1876)

One of the most interesting things about writing a critical biography of a much-chronicled figure is the opportunity to explore how stories about that figure’s life are created, embellished (and sometimes then redacted), and passed along. In my case, as Bavinck: A Critical Biography is the sixth Bavinck biography, my work had to consider not just the details of Bavinck’s own life, but also the ways people have understood and interpreted his story since his death (in 1921).

In that process, I became aware of a common kind of Bavinck mythology, much of it traceable to his first biographer, his former student Valentijn Hepp, whose entertaining (and quickly written, often inaccurate) biography was written and released soon after Bavinck’s death. Although Hepp’s biography (released in 1921) has never been translated into English, some of its emphases and claims have nonetheless filtered through into the world of anglophone Reformed theology. For decades, that world developed its own oral history of Bavinck’s life, much of it quite mythological and questionable, and that has carried on into the present. Gleason’s 2012 biography, a derivative (and too often inaccurate) English-language amalgam of the two longest Dutch biographies (by Hepp, and R.H. Bremmer) has given some of these oral myths written status in English-speaking Reformed circles. A number of other oft-repeated stories about Bavinck predate Gleason by some way, and are not dependent on his book.

Although my biography deliberately tries to demythologise Herman Bavinck, that process does not flatten the sense in which his life was fascinating or noteworthy. In fact, the opposite is true: freed from romantic haze and dubious fables, a much more human (and far more interesting) person comes to the fore. Here are glimpses of three of the most common myths about Bavinck, and of my biography’s handling of them.

1. Discovering a child genius: the ‘diamond in the rough’

When Herman was a child, the Bavinck family moved to a small town (Almkerk) with an innovative Christian school (the Hasselman Institute), which Herman then attended. In the Netherlands at that time (the 1860s), illiteracy was still common, almost no-one went to university, and most children worked on farms and in factories rather than being sent into full-time schooling. In that sense, Bavinck’s education put him in a position of considerable privilege, and set him on a path that would eventually lead to university education and a career in the academy, politics, and journalism.

Hepp’s biography includes a story about the first interaction between Herman’s father, Rev. Jan Bavinck, and Monsieur de Boer, a teacher at the Hasselman Institute. In Hepp’s account, Rev. Bavinck was keen to send his younger son (i.e. Herman’s younger brother) to the Institute, but did not think Herman was bright enough to merit schooling. In this story, Monsieur de Boer saw a spark of promise in Herman, and asked to test him in the school for a couple of weeks, after which he told Rev. Bavinck that his son was ‘a diamond’ who ‘has not been cut well’ and ‘needs to be smoothed.’ The hitherto unseen child genius was discovered, plucked from obscurity by a wise teacher who saw a brilliance that his own father had overlooked… and the rest is history.

In reality, the ‘rough diamond’ story is highly problematic. In those years, Herman had an older sister, but no younger brother. Hepp himself acknowledged this inconvenient truth, but nonetheless included the story in his biography (which he wrote in 1921, on the basis of a tale told ‘by someone in a position to know it’ in 1882—when Hepp was three years old—which was itself a recollection of an exchange between Jan Bavinck and Monsieur de Boer in 1862). In short, the story just doesn’t work: as well as the Bavincks not having a younger son at this point, nothing in Jan Bavinck’s own (lengthy and detailed) writings about his children’s education mentions this ‘discovery’ or shows any anxieties about Herman’s abilities as a child. In all likelihood, this myth grew up from the Romantic search for the first discovery of genius in the early life of a great man of history. The moment of discovery is a rite of passage that the Romantic imagination needed Bavinck to go through, regardless of actual history.

That this story is almost certainly untrue has not stopped it from becoming well established in subsequent stories of Bavinck’s life. Bremmer’s biography is an admirable piece of scholarship, but nonetheless includes an edited version of Hepp’s story where the younger brother is photoshopped out. The chapter on Bavinck’s childhood in Gleason’s biography—entitled, “Bavinck’s Youth: A Diamond in the Rough”—carries over and embellishes Hepp’s demonstrably problematic story. There, we are told, Jan was ‘plagued’ by worries about whether the seven year old Herman would ‘fold under the pressure’ of his schooling. This too is more likely myth than history.

(At the core of all of this, Hepp was not a good guide to Bavinck’s early years. Although Bavinck had supervised his doctoral dissertation, Hepp himself admitted that Bavinck had never spoken to him about his youth, which prompted Hepp to fill in the blanks with some shaky oral histories. Some of the earliest reviews of Hepp’s book were critical of him for this very point.)

My biography offers a different explanation of Bavinck’s intellectual formation in those formative years—one that grounds his own experience of education in his father’s attempt to navigate and guide his children into a new knowledge-based economy, alongside Jan Bavinck’s strong mix of piety and ambition for what his children would achieve in a changing Dutch society. Far more interesting than Hepp’s fable, I think, is that Herman lived out his father’s dreams.

2. A national controversy: teenager leaves conservative seminary for liberal university!

When he finished secondary schooling at the Zwolle Gymnasium, Bavinck spent a year at the Theological School in Kampen. This school was the seminary of his denomination, the strongly orthodox Christian Reformed Church. His father had also recently become the pastor of the Christian Reformed congregation in Kampen. After a year in Kampen, Bavinck decided to register as a theological student at the University of Leiden—home of famously liberal, heterodox rock star theologians like Johannes Scholten and Abraham Kuenen.

That the teenage Bavinck was keen to study theology in a setting like Leiden is fascinating: what made him first choose to study at a small, unaccredited, unglamorous institution like the Theological School? Why then did he choose to go to Leiden? What was it like to be a theologically conservative student in classes taught by liberal professors who were also national celebrities? Did his professors pressure him to accept their theology? What did his teachers in Kampen, and people in the Christian Reformed Church, think of his desire to study in Leiden?

In exploring those questions, my biography departs significantly from the common tendency to sensationalise Bavinck’s move to Leiden: shortly after Bavinck’s death, one biographer described him as having faced “bitter and universal opposition” from the Christian Reformed Church because of his move to Leiden. (That biographer, Henry Dosker, had been close to Bavinck as a teenager, but had moved to the United States in 1873. From then on, Dosker and Bavinck corresponded, but grew far apart intellectually. Dosker didn’t understand Bavinck theologically, and is not the most reliable guide to Bavinck’s life or thought). By the time we get to Gleason’s biography, Bavinck’s choice to enrol at Leiden had become “the shot heard throughout Holland” which “felt like a bomb” in his denomination—a deeply controversial decision by a teenager whose boldness had set tongues wagging across the Netherlands.

I agree that Bavinck’s choice to move to Leiden was controversial at the Theological School in Kampen: not all of its faculty members appreciated losing a promising student to the liberal University of Leiden. However, this was certainly not the case in any kind of universal sense. Some Kampen faculty members supported him, as did his parents, and the two Christian Reformed congregations in Leiden itself. Beyond this, there isn’t much evidence that the teenage Bavinck’s move to Leiden was noticed by many (or any?) in wider Dutch society. At that point, he was an all but unknown teenager.

My account gives a new explanation of his move to Leiden. It shows that he was particularly drawn to Leiden by the pastor Jan Hendrik Donner—a gifted exegete and culturally engaged preacher who ministered to an upwardly mobile Christian Reformed congregation in Leiden. Donner was a kind of late 19th century Dutch Tim Keller. He held a powerful hold on Bavinck’s young imagination, and his preaching and example were formative in Bavinck’s student years. Beyond this, my book shows how Bavinck interacted with the world of higher education in a pragmatic way, remaining registered as a student in Kampen whilst studying in Leiden, and generally not being sure of what to do with his young life.

3. “Don’t end up like him”: Bavinck gave up on dogmatics and/or lost his faith

I first became interested in Bavinck when I was an eager young seminarian. When mentioning my interest to an older Reformed pastor, I was told, “it’s ok to read him, but make sure you don’t end up like him.” When I asked what he meant, I was told that while Bavinck had written some important work, Bavinck’s life had then taken two sad turns: first, when he had finished writing the Reformed Dogmatics, Bavinck had then become despondent about his own work, and deemed it a failure. In the end, apparently, he even sold his own collection of works on dogmatics. (The import of this is: read his work, but don’t take it too seriously because he himself gave up on it.) And secondly, in his later years Bavinck became a generally gloomy, despondent figure who lost his faith and died as a shadow of his former self.

The pastor who told me this couldn’t read Dutch, so had never had access to Hepp, whose work is also responsible for these impressions. I have heard similar stories from some of my PhD students, who have received similar warnings from Reformed pastors who also cannot read Dutch and have not read Hepp (but have nonetheless been influenced by his work).

The note in Hepp’s biography that is probably responsible for creating this impression claims that a couple of years before Bavinck’s death, he ‘gave away [or possibly ‘sold’] the important dogmatic works, especially including old Reformed theology because, he told me, “I don’t do that anymore.”‘ This particular quote has been interpreted by some as indicating that Bavinck had abandoned Reformed theology (an impression also suggested by Hepp himself). However, this interpretation is far from watertight. The Dutch idiom used by Hepp (van de hand doen) could mean either ‘to sell’ or ‘to give away’. In this context, I think it is more likely to be ‘give away’: in later life, Bavinck probably didn’t need to make a quick buck by selling books. However, in those years, his health began to decline, at which point he realised he was not likely to finish a third revision of his Dogmatics. In that setting, Bavinck gave away a number of his books, presumably to a younger theologian who was working in dogmatics, as many of his students were. To my mind, that is a fairly unremarkable course of action: when I was a theology student, a couple of older pastors gave me boxes of books that they loved, but knew they were not likely to read again.

Bavinck did not give up on writing dogmatics, or deem his project to have been a failure. If anything, he held the opposite view of his accomplishment. He wrote the first edition of the Reformed Dogmatics in the 1880s-90s, and publicly stated that he had provided “the theology needed by our age.” Following this, prompted by a range of cultural and intellectual shifts that occurred around 1900, he spent another decade expanding and refining the Dogmatics—a project that finished in 1911. In the same period, he spent a few years writing shorter versions of the dogmatics for young professionals (released in 1909), and then for those without higher education (released in 1913). And after that, he kept on writing notes on a further revision of the Dogmatics.

In the biography, I describe both his own satisfaction with his project, as well as how his own copy of the Dogmatics contains notes and article clippings on further revisions and additions (on topics ranging from the Trinity to recent discoveries in geology) that date up to 1918, three years before his death. He certainly did not give up on dogmatics. However, his intended revisions were interrupted by unexpected developments in his political career, (much more dramatically) by the outbreak of the First World War, and ultimately by the failure of his own health.

The assertion that Bavinck died as a despondent man whose faith had collapsed is a puzzling one indeed. Once again, Hepp is responsible and, I think, wrong. In his early career as a churchman, Bavinck was heavily invested in some bruising ecclesiastical battles, and was left visibly jaded by that experience. However, this sense of fatigue concerned ecclesiastical politics, rather than the Christian faith in general (or the Reformed faith in particular). In the the last two decades of his life, for example, he threw himself into the promotion of evangelism (and the developing discipline of missiology) at home and abroad. In his writing, he became a public apologist of both Christianity and Reformed theology, and remained so until the sudden loss of his health in 1920.

At the same time, though, he was deeply troubled—often verging on despondency—by the emergence of a new kind of anti-Christian atheism inspired by Friedrich Nietzsche. He was profoundly troubled by what this development would mean for his children and grandchildren, who would live through a twentieth century in which Christ’s ethic of love, forgiveness, and servanthood would carry little weight. Bavinck believed the decades after his death were a ready stage for a new kind of world leader—dictatorial, bloodthirsty, without compassion for the weak, and hell-bent on the pursuit of absolute power. Looking back on that century, his fears were not unfounded. I agree that in his later years, Bavinck knew deep sadness. However, this was not because of a loss of faith on his own part. It was rather because of a ‘Christendom that had grown utterly estranged from Christ.’ Hepp misunderstood this, just as he overlooked the deep significance of Nietzsche to Bavinck’s efforts in the last two decades of his life.

My biography closes by charting Bavinck’s own experience of a slow and difficult death, particularly focusing on his desire to die privately: although he was a public figure, his reflections on dying were deliberately withheld from all but his closest and oldest friends. Although Hepp—at that time a young man trying to write a quick biography—visited Bavinck on his deathbed, that visit was not the most revealing, in terms of Bavinck’s experience of piety in facing death. For those, my work turns to letters and recollections on deathbed visits from his friends, and from his wife. These are moving indeed, and flatly contradict the claim that he faced death without personal faith.

There is a certain worth in mythology. Bavinck himself thought so, as the manuscript pictured above suggests: mythology is good in that it reflects the human being’s powerful capacity for imagination, which Bavinck understood above all to be a deep and subtle longing for Christ. In trying to understand the life of a culturally engaged polymath like Bavinck, though, it is probably best avoided.

Bavinck: A Critical Biography (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2020)