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‘The Origin and Worth of Mythology,’ unpublished handwritten manuscript by Herman Bavinck (July 1876)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

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