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.
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.
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 did not write a systematic theology. While this might seem like an odd point to most 21st century evangelicals, it is nonetheless an important technical distinction (and not one I understood when I first started reading him). Bavinck wrote dogmatic theology. While he did reflect at length on how doctrines should be held together in a system, his work reflects an older way of thinking about theological writing (rooted in medieval Thomism) where ‘systematics’ and ‘dogmatics’ are not just synonyms. In that approach, systematics deals with how you (the individual theologian) construct and understand doctrines. Dogmatics is a different kind of theologising: it acts on behalf of a larger Christian tradition and asserts an account of those doctrines as true. Dogmatics cannot be done only in the name of the individual theologian, as it is the dogmatic theologian’s effort to mediate truths that must be believed according to the Christian tradition in question. Bavinck understood himself as a Reformed dogmatician—someone who attains a view of the Reformed church’s tradition that was both capacious and detailed, and whose role was to use that vista to articulate the dogmata of the Reformed faith. In his theological work, he did not view his task in individualistic, non-ecclesial terms. To his mind, his work was not ‘Bavinck’s Dogmatics’. The name Reformed Dogmatics matters: it is intended to have a degree of magisterial authority that far exceeds the author’s own gravitas. It is not intended as one man’s individualised ‘thinking out loud’ about theology.
That distinction makes a comparison between Bavinck and those who do label their work ‘systematic theology’ somewhat awkward—especially when their respective ecclesiologies are strikingly different. (Bavinck’s theological writing always assumed the existence of ‘the church,’ without which dogmatics becomes hard to sustain. His own theological instinct seems to have been that in individualistic American Christianity, where ‘the church does not exist,’ dogmatics would give way to individual systematising.) The Twitter discussion above developed as a result of criticisms of Wayne Grudem’s systematics as biblicist, etc. I would suggest that asking ‘which is better, Bavinck or Grudem?’ is actually the wrong question—the kinds of theologising they aim at are different enough to make the comparison an odd one. The kind of ecclesiological/ecclesiastical assumptions that inform Bavinck’s theologising are themselves the reason nobody accuses his writing of biblicism, for example.
The notion of ‘accessibility’ is relative, and should not be the key factor in deciding how to appraise the merits of theological writings. Whether a book is accessible to you depends entirely on a complex web of prior personal opportunities to become literate, and the extent of your own personal investment in pursuing those opportunities. The church is socially diverse, and contains people who are (or should be) highly literate in theology: they are the kind of Christians who have invested much time in learning how to read complex theological texts. (I hope this group includes pastors). Of course, not all Christians have the same kind of opportunities or desires to develop that kind of literacy. For that reason, the church needs theological literature that is pitched at a range of levels and abilities.
Bavinck himself understood this point well. He did not write Reformed Dogmatics as popular or devotional literature. Rather, it was written explicitly as a scholarly magnum opus that set out the dogmata of the Reformed faith in a way that met the highest standards of scholarship in his day. It was an academic book for university educated theologians and pastors. Although the original Dutch is (for the most part) quite beautifully written—an elegance that comes across pretty well in the English version—the four volumes certainly were not written with the expectation that the reader will sit down with Volume One, and read through to the end of Volume Four without stopping. Rather, it was crafted with the ambition of being that era’s very best multi-volume reference work in Reformed dogmatic theology. Bavinck believed that pastors, theologians, and theologically literate Reformed Christians should have a copy of his Dogmatics. However, once he finished the revised second edition of the Dogmatics, he spent years writing two versions of it that were adapted to different levels: (i) Magnalia Dei (recently republished in a beautiful edition as The Wonderful Works of God), which was much shorter, and aimed to reach busy young professionals (who were educated, but didn’t have the time or inclination to read the level of technical detail found in the Dogmatics). After this, he produced (ii) the Guidebook for Instruction in the Christian Religion, a much shorter work that communicated the Dogmatics’ key content for those without higher education. Stephen Kneale’s blogpost invites ‘anybody who believes Bavinck is truly accessible to come to Oldham and offer his 4-volumes to a new(ish) believer in my church, leave them with the set for 6-months or more, and come back and see how well that went.’ Respectfully, I think Bavinck himself would suggest that anyone who gave his four volume Dogmatics to said ‘new(ish) believer in Oldham’ had given that person the wrong book. Bavinck himself would give them his Guidebook (which, thankfully, is currently being translated into English by Cam Clausing and Greg Parker), but not the Dogmatics. Until that book comes out, the best English Bavinck literature for that new(ish) believer is his The Sacrifice of Praise (recently reissued by Clausing and Parker): that new believer probably needs clear teaching on what it means to identify publicly with Christ, more so than she needs to be hit with a tome of anyone’s systematics.
One of the challenges in producing a biography is choosing the cover image. When you have spent years using words to craft a representation of someone’s life, in all its texture and depth, it is not easy to find a single image that corresponds to, and invites readers into, that portrayal.
As a biographer to a late 19th and early 20th century Dutch polymath and public figure—Herman Bavinck (1854-1921), the subject of my Bavinck: A Critical Biography—it was fairly easy to find photographs of my subject. Bavinck’s lifetime was one in which cartes de visite (carefully posed albumen prints of the great and the good to be given to visitors, friends, and fans) were all the rage. Thanks to the kindness of Wim Bavinck, a great-great nephew of Herman, I have one such original carte de visite of Herman himself.
While writing the book I came across cartes de viste of Bavinck from various stages of his life: student, young professor, public intellectual and politician. (The book itself includes 16 pages of photos, amongst them the first and last known pictures of Bavinck.) Although these pictures have their own fascinating historical significance, I did not think any of them was ideal for the biography’s cover: photography in that age was almost always stilted and formal, highly posed, and inexpressive. It rarely gave away much about the person’s inner life.
Given all that my biography explores about his life in public and private, an inexpressive formal portrait did not seem appropriate as the reader’s first interaction with Bavinck: this is an account of his journaling, relationship to his family legacy, poetry, explorations in piety, prayers, heartbreak in romance, loneliness, sometimes complex friendships, intellectual formation, marriage and fatherhood, experience of war, reflections on the experience of dying, and the tragedy that befell his family at the hands of the Nazis after his death. Indeed, for a figure like Bavinck, an inscrutable portrait as cover would give the reader a distinct first impression of the figure they are about to approach: namely, the reader should expect the real Herman Bavinck to remain hidden. I wanted to avoid giving that impression.
For a book like this, the cover image needs to invite the reader into the story of a life. However, unposed, spontaneous photos of Herman Bavinck are not easy to come by. After much archival digging, I came across a wholly unposed picture of him visiting Abraham Kuyper’s house. Historically, the circumstances around the picture are noteworthy: Kuyper was Prime Minister, and Bavinck’s life was intertwined with his. It is certainly a spontaneous picture (and an interesting example of some early 20th century Dutch paparazzi). Unfortunately, though, it only shows Bavinck from behind, and would not work as a cover image. I found one other photo of him (included in the book) from 1916—besuited, pocket watch in hand, and wearing a bowler hat and monocle—that looks like it might have been spontaneous, but the picture is too small and low resolution to use on a cover.
As a reader, I try not to judge books by their covers. Indeed, a well chosen cover dissuades the reader from making that kind of judgment by compelling the reader to move from the image into the words. It forms a mental image that leads the reader into the book, and that opens the reader’s imagination to what they are about to be shown. Although I don’t judge books by their covers, I think it is quite appropriate to judge a cover by its book: in the case of a biography, when you have read the life story and return to the cover image, does the picture work vis-à-vis the story you have just been told? A good book cover makes sense retrospectively. It rewards the reader for having finished the book.
Thanks to my friend Oliver Crisp, Professor of Analytic Theology at the University of St Andrews, the book has one such cover. As well as being an outstanding and prolific theologian, Oliver is also an accomplished artist (see this article on his art at the Christian Century) and has painted a number of striking portraits of theologians for book covers. When Oliver first offered to paint a cover for this book, I sent him the manuscript alongside a number of photos of Bavinck. The work that Oliver then produced is exceptional. Based on a carte de visitemade at some point in the 1880s-90s (shown below), it captures exactly what I have tried to convey in words: a man at his most pensive, approaching the prime of life, at the peak of his powers; perhaps writing, pen in hand; perhaps reading or deep in thought; perhaps with hands clasped in prayer. It beckons the viewer into the subject’s inner life, and makes perfect sense when judged by the book.
Three cheers for Professor Crisp, a modern day Bezalel in theological academia!
Since taking up a role as associate editor for an academic theology journal (the Journal of Reformed Theology, published by Brill) a few years ago, I have noticed a slowly increasing trend for a particular kind of article that fails at the peer-review stage: the article that ignores sources (primary and/or secondary) that were published in languages other than English. For example, in recent times I have seen a submission on a prominent Dutch theologian that only consulted English-language scholarship on that figure (despite a number of major scholarly works addressing the article’s very topic, but that were published in Dutch). Because it had not consulted or engaged with (or indeed, shown itself to be aware of) the arguments in those sources, the article’s own claims were not compelling, and the peer reviewers rightly – and quickly – saw that the piece was not publishable. A few months ago, I saw the same thing happen to a submission on a major German-speaking Swiss theologian: if the only scholarship on that figure was the English-language selection consulted by the writer, the article would have been pretty strong. Unfortunately, the peer reviewers pointed out that this was not the case.
In a humanities discipline like theology, it can be quite difficult to make authoritative statements on a topic if scholarship in your field is produced in languages to which you have no access: you might believe your English-only research looks solid while an expert thinks it is actually a shot in the dark. The only way to avoid that, of course, is by putting in a lot of hard work in acquiring the particular language(s) needed by your discipline/figure/topic.
This year, my postgrad Dutch class has been putting in that effort to equip themselves to interact with Dutch-language sources. Having begun with an overview of Dutch grammar, we started off by translating the first few sections of the Heidelberg Catechism. Then we worked through a journal article in contemporary Dutch, before reading through the final chapters of Bavinck’s Gereformeerde Dogmatiek. After that, we moved back in history to work through the 17th century theologian Gisbertus Voetius‘ catechism:
Rewardingly for the class, Voetius’ catechism also includes a section on the theologian’s core skills and knowledge. Amongst these, he includes a question on the importance of learning to read sources in the original languages (not only Scripture in the ancient languages, but also more recent scholarship in living languages):
Q. Is the study of languages, notwithstanding that there are so many and such excellent translations, indeed necessary for solid theological learnedness?
A. Yes: because in serious and earnest debates one must often or sometimes seek refuge in the original source text.
Four hundred years on, that core skill remains the same. Neglect it at your peril!
Abraham Kuyper is often described in blunt terms as a racist – a view I have seen a number of times in online discussions following my post on his younger colleague Herman Bavinck’s criticisms of racism in America. While Kuyper certainly did reflect the casual racism of the Victorian era, his views on race are more complex than an unnuanced dismissal would indicate, not least because Kuyper – like Bavinck – regarded himself as a public critic of American culture as deeply racist. His book Varia Americana (1898) was, in part at least, an effort to highlight for his Dutch readership the dysfunctional and immoral nature of American society vis-à-vis racism. The unfortunate complexity in Kuyper’s story, though, is that in condemning racism, he himself nonetheless became guilty of it. His writings on racism have a strange and paradoxical character, where in the same moment he managed to fall on the right and wrong sides of history. A careful reader can detect two voices in ‘Kuyper on race’: one that calls racism a great and inhuman evil; and another that does few favours to those most brutally affected by it.
Is it possible to bring those jarring voices into a direct conversation, making them aware of their incompatibility, and if necessary, read Kuyper against Kuyper? Or should we view him as irredeemable on this point? Is it possible to make any use of a figure like Kuyper when thinking theologically about racism? In, ‘Varia Americana and Race: Kuyper as Antagonist and Protagonist,’ I try to answer that question – and I argue that the challenges involved in this exercise are not unique to Abraham Kuyper.
Herman Bavinck travelled to North America twice: first as a wide-eyed young theologian in 1892, and later, in a more mature phase of life, in 1908. The purpose of his 1892 trip was to serve as an emissary for the Calvinist movement that had been making great waves in the Netherlands from the late 1870s onwards – a movement that would later become known as neo-Calvinism. Although he found his American audiences were largely unreceptive to his Calvinism (“The American is too aware of himself, he is too much conscious of his power, his will is too strong to be a Calvinist”) he mostly withheld from passing negative judgment on them. Rather, he held tightly to an idealistic philosophy of travel. His notes on this journey begin with,
At this point in his life, he was committed to the idea that travel was wasted on those who disdained the foreign on account of its otherness. Far better, he thought, to train one’s eye to appreciate the delight of the foreign. For that reason, then, he largely held back from criticising American culture for whatever made it unyielding to his Calvinistic charms. Surprisingly to his Dutch audience, he would rather tell them that while Americans were not likely to embrace Calvinism, Christianity would nonetheless survive in the New World because their beloved Calvinism “was not the only truth”.
By the time he returned to America in 1908, to give the Stone Lectures at Princeton Theological Seminary (published as Philosophy of Revelation), Bavinck had largely given up on that view of the artfully appreciative globetrotter. He certainly remained diplomatic: on this trip, he and his wife, the gifted Johanna Bavinck-Schippers, were received at the White House by President Theodore Roosevelt (although in private it seems he found the President personally underwhelming). His own public statements to an American audience wrote warmly of their positive impressions of the land and its people.
However, Bavinck was now 54, and had become much less careful about speaking his mind on foreign affairs. Various aspects of American culture troubled him: teenagers openly showing disrespect for their elders, a public school system that he thought was a training ground for unbelief, the fact that many Americans retired without pensions, and so on. The most troubling aspect of American culture, though, by some way, was its deep-seated racism – a topic covered in his journal entries during the trip, and in public lectures across the Netherlands following his return. In a journal entry from that period, he wrote about how “a Southerner” had told him African Americans were “not humans” (rather, he was told, they were a mixture of human and ape). This shocked him. (By this point, in the Reformed Dogmatics he had already written an elaborate account of the imago Dei as the entire, organically united human race. And shortly after this trip, he took an anti-apartheid stand at the Vrije Universiteit.)
His American notes list things he was told by white Americans about their African American neighbours (that they steal, that they were given to immorality, etc). In response, his notes show that he tried to understand the African American experience by reading authors like Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. Du Bois: the picture above this post is taken from a manuscript on race showing Du Bois in the centre of his reading list. Bavinck’s response, ultimately, was to condemn white Americans on account of their “prostitution, alcohol, and mammonism [i.e. love of money]”. On this point, the mature Bavinck did not hold back: because of its racism, America was “a disaster”.
In his public lectures on his impressions of America, he made dire forecasts on the future of a country founded on enslaved labour, and warned young Dutch people not to emigrate there. He predicted increasing violence and bloodshed on account of racial hatred, and even contemplated publicly that this would lead the American experiment to fail altogether. In a lecture in Rotterdam in 1909, for example, he warned that,
In the future, there truly lurks a danger, and in the future a struggle will doubtless be fought between black and white, a heated struggle, fanned into flame by the strong antipathy on both sides.
Strikingly, in one public lecture, he argued that only “the way of religion” could prevent this future violence: the gospel teaches people that “the whole human race is of one blood”. Even then, it seems, Bavinck was struck by the reality of American segregated church attendance. Hope for the future, he thought, “was still far off”. In contrast to the breezy travel writings produced through his 1892 voyage, his notes in 1908 are traumatic.
What might Bavinck have said, had he crossed the Atlantic in 2021, to the America known by George Floyd, or Ahmaud Arbery? I think he would not have held back. Once again, observation would have to give way to judgment.
I have written in more detail on Bavinck and race, as well as his journeys to (and views on) America in Bavinck: A Critical Biography (Baker Academic, 2020).
This blog has been quiet for quite a while – for the most part because my writing time has been focused on my new book, Bavinck: A CriticalBiography. This book has been many years in the making, and is now due for release this September with Baker Academic. (The cover art is an original portrait by the multitalented Oliver Crisp.)
In recent times, I have been asked by a few people, ‘What’s a critical biography?’ Here’s my attempt at an answer. A biography, of course, is the story of someone’s life. Why would you try to recount a life story? A biographer might do so for commemorative reasons: to tell the world about a great human spirit, to bolster a community or a tradition by telling them noble tales of their particular hero, and so on. That kind of biographical writing tends to present its human subject in the most flattering light: think of old school hagiography, or the more recent sort of glossy ‘authorised’ biography. Commemorative biography is essentially a written exercise in reputation management, and usually handles its subject with velveteen gloves.
Another biographer might tell a life story for a different set of reasons: to understand the relationship of someone’s context to their intellectual or personal development, to explore how someone’s public and private personae were related, or to produce a book that guides the reader through the complexities of the subject’s interwoven life and work. That kind of biographical writing is necessarily critical, rather than commemorative, in nature. It asks a different set of questions, and takes into account the subject’s failures and successes. As a writing task, it is more complicated than commemorative biography because the outcome has not been decided from the beginning: a critical biographer needs to pursue deep immersion in a lifetime of sources (diaries, letters, newspapers, manuscripts, published materials) without knowing from the outset what he or she will find or have to report on.
In describing the difference between commemorative and critical biography, Hans Renders has written that,
The nature of the research that is conducted beforehand marks the real difference between the commemorative and critical biography. The author of a commemorative biography cannot derive any benefit from sources that dispute the good reputation of his hero, and therefore will not work exhaustively to unearth those sources. These two research traditions result in two types of biographies, the ‘low’ and ‘high’ biography… in biographical research, ‘low’ refers to the kind of research that has been conducted… High biography is almost by definition critical biography, while low biography may include the old-fashioned commemorative biography.
– Hans Renders, ‘Roots of Biography: From Journalism to Pulp to Scholarly Based Non-Fiction,’ in Hans Renders and Binne de Haan, eds., Theoretical Discussions of Biography: Approaches from History, Microhistory, and Life Writing (Leiden: Brill, 2014), 29.
My biography of Bavinck is critical in that sense (or in Renders’ definition, it is a high biography). Its intention is not simply to reinforce for those who already like Bavinck just how great he was – although he certainly was a remarkable polymath and public figure in his day. Rather, the book was driven by research on his published and unpublished writings, historical period, significant friendships, ambitions frustrated as well as realised, and the lives and writings of his contemporaries. I have tried to offer an interpretation of his life and thought on micro and macro levels. As a critical biographer, my goal was to guide the reader through the complexities of Bavinck’s (fascinating) life and work, and hopefully to leave them with a clear understanding of it.