D. G. Hart’s Review of BAVINCK: A CRITICAL BIOGRAPHY, by James Eglington

Published on January 31, 2022 by Eugene Ho

Baker Academic, 2020 | 480 pages

A Book Review from Books At a Glance

by D. G. Hart


Why does Herman Bavinck (1854-1921) deserve a biography? James Eglinton asks that question in the very first paragraph of his life of Bavinck, a name likely unknown to many American Protestants. For those in Reformed and Presbyterian communions, Bavinck’s name may be somewhat familiar though even in the Dutch-American Calvinist world (in which this writer once worshiped), he rarely came up.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Eglinton’s own reason for devoting a book to Bavinck is to correct those who read the Dutch theologian as a “Jekyll and Hyde” figure, that is, a thinker who possessed contradictory positions or commitments. In this case, Bavinck represents to many of his interpreters someone caught between orthodoxy and modernity. Eglinton puts it this way: other biographers argue that Bavinck was “pushed and pulled by opposing and contradictory forces and never able to settle on one direction.” [xviii]

What this biography attempts, and does so successfully, is a Bavinck who is fully at ease in the dogmatic tradition of Reformed orthodoxy (Jekyll) while also writing with contemporary thinkers as interlocutors (Hyde). In Eglinton’s own words, Bavinck’s was “an orthodox life in a changing world.” [xx] Whether this is a novel approach to Bavinck or simply the way that all conservative theologians worked after the rise of the modern state and the discoveries of modern natural and social sciences is not a question that Eglinton addresses head-on.

A basic feature of Christianity after 1789 in the West, Protestant or Roman Catholic, liberal or conservative, is how to present an ancient faith, shaped by historical circumstances no longer viable, to modern believers and audiences. Eglinton deserves credit for situating Bavinck in his times even as his biography should be a reminder that such contextualization is crucial for understanding any historical figure.

Another part of the story – less visible but equally intriguing in Eglinton’s intellectual biography – is the rags-to-riches aspect of Bavinck’s life. That phrase is obviously too American and not useful for capturing the Old World hierarchies that made social-climbing difficult. But Bavinck did come from a church and family background that put him at a disadvantage in rising to the levels of responsibility he did in education, politics, and the church. Part of what made up for his marginal status was growing up a son of a pastor.

Even if the father, Jan Bavinck, were a minister in the Seceder communion (Afscheiding) which separated in 1834 from the state church and faced considerable hardships on the outside of the religious establishment, Herman had opportunities for education that many ordinary Dutch citizens did not. That education took him from Kampen (the home of Seceder training), eventually to Leiden (one of the elite Dutch universities) for a doctorate, with an appointment eventually to the exclusive Society of Dutch Literature (one of many honors that Bavinck received).

Eglinton depicts this success story as well nigh remarkable since the Seceders rarely had the ambition or the opportunity to study and compete in the same institutions that produced pastors for the state church and government. At the same time, Bavinck’s accomplishment never became part of a career for his own name’s sake. He remained a minister in the Seceder church, though after the union of Kuyper’s Doliantie churches and the Seceders in 1886, Bavinck labored in the new communion and moved from teaching at Kampen to the Free University in Amsterdam.

Although Eglinton does not underscore the connection, the orthodox and modern sides of Bavinck were arguably as much a function of his ascent through the echelons of the Dutch system as any tension between conservative faith and contemporary thought.

As an intellectual biography, the book’s success is mixed. At times it reads like entries in an encyclopedia of Bavinck’s life. All the pieces are there, sometimes in surprising detail such as when the author goes deep into Bavinck’s diary, but the threads connecting the patches are not as long as they could be (even though the book is over three hundred pages). For instance, Eglinton covers the steps that led to the writing of Bavinck’s Dogmatics, and also well situates them in relation to other significant theological works from the era (including Kuyper’s Encyclopedia), but does not go into much detail about the features of this work that set it apart from others. Nor does Eglinton offer much of a summary of Bavinck’s many books, which is surprising for a critical biography.

For instance, Bavinck’s critique of Groen van Prinsterer, an abiding figure of inspiration to neo-Calvinists in Unbelief and Revolution (1904) receives two pages of comment. Similarly, Eglinton describes briefly short booklets such as The Problem of War, published shortly after the outbreak of World War I, or The Woman in Contemporary Society, a book that explained Bavinck’s opposition to women’s suffrage, a position that put him at odds with Kuyper.

Since Bavinck was for a time the leader of the political party formed by Kuyper, the Anti-Revolutionary Party, he had occasion to comment on any number of social and political topics. Eglinton leaves the reader somewhat in the dark about the contours of Bavinck’s analysis and proposal. This biography makes it easy to come away impressed with Bavinck’s apparent erudition but thirsty for more indications of his intellectual characteristics.

These complaints, however, should not discourage readers from spending time with Eglinton’s important book. For anyone curious about Dutch Reformed theology and the degree to which it influenced neo-Calvinism in the United States, Bavinck is essential for filling out the picture beyond Abraham Kuyper.

Also, worthwhile here is the comparison Eglinton draws between Kuyper and Bavinck on America, the former much more impressed and the latter sounding much more fearful. (The appendix in fact includes “My Journey to America.”) The author not only has this broader picture in mind – Dutch Calvinism and its resonances in the United States – but also provides careful attention to the variety of circumstances that shaped Bavinck’s life – from romantic interests to professional disappointments. Eglington’s book will be an essential companion to Bavinck’s works in English already published and soon to be.


D. G. Hart teaches history at Hillsdale College.

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Baker Academic, 2020 | 480 pages

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