vrijdag 30 augustus 2013

Herman Bavinck (1854-1921): A Reformed Theologian in Tension with the Science and Culture of his Time 1

Herman Bavinck was one of the greatest Dutch theologians. The publication of his Gereformeerde Dogmatiek (Reformed Dogmatics) in four parts was received with admiration, not only by colleagues who agreed, but also by those who completely disagreed with his reformed convictions. It is still recognized as a book of monumental value, written by a man of extraordinary erudition. Bavinck is one of the most magnanimous sons of the churches of the Afscheiding. Afscheiding is the Dutch word for secession, referring to those who left the national Dutch Reformed Church (Nederlandse Hervormde Kerk) in 1834. In him we see the love of the reformed confession combined with a truly catholic attitude, two things which should never be opposed to each other.
Early Life
Herman Bavinck was born on December 13th, 1854 in Hooge-veen, where his father was minister of the Christian Reformed Church (Christelijke Gereformeerde Kerk). This was long before the time that the Christian Reformed Church united with the so- called Netherdutch Reformed Churches. The latter were formed in 1886, when, under the leadership of Abraham Kuyper in a movement called the Doleantie (meaning ‘movement of mourning’), a second group of ministers and members left the Dutch Reformed Church.
The climate in which Bavinck grew up was characterized by: knowledge that God confirms His covenant from child to child, belief in the necessity of personal faith and of conversion, and the concept that the Christian is a stranger in the earth. Shaped by the attitude to life of the Afscheiding, Bavinck was endued with a sense of detachment from culture. In my opinion, this is a catholic-reformed attitude, an attitude which, unhappily, gradually disappeared during the twentieth century in the churches coming from Afscheiding and Doleantie.
The emphasis on the fact that a Christian is a pilgrim on earth reminds us of the words of the apostle Paul that a Christian should walk in temperance, righteousness, and godliness. Nevertheless, Bavinck was not taught to be legalistic. He did not feel abstention from culture as a galling yoke. Commitment to God’s Word allowed ample Christian liberty.
When his father accepted a call to Kampen, Bavinck went to the Gymnasium (i.e. grammar school where, among other subjects, the classical languages were taught) in Zwolle. There he was noticed for his outstanding endowments. Bavinck and his parents agreed that he was to study theology. In the circles of his youth it was taken for granted that he would do this at the Theological Seminary of the Christian Reformed Church in Kampen.
His father, however, was convinced that, considering the extraordinary talents of his son, he should be academically formed in the State University of Leiden, in those days the bastion both of outstanding academic science and of modern theology. ‘Science’ at that time referred to all academic studies from a human starting point. It was not limited to subjects open to empirical observation and experimentation. Philosophy and religion were considered ‘scientific’ pursuits.
 In accord with Agustinus, the Rev. J. Bavinck saw no antithesis between the notion of pilgrimage and the pursuit of science, even if independent of the Word of God. Had not Egypt’s silver and gold been of use for the service in the tabernacle?!
One of the people who were very indignant at the decision was the old Rev. Brummelkamp, professor in Kampen and one of the founding fathers of the Christian Reformed Church. He snapped at Bavinck’s father: ‘You cast your son into a lion’s mouth.’ At this the former answered: ‘I trust in God who is able to protect my child.’ Thus, Bavinck went to Leiden, carried on the wings of his parents’ prayers, in which they pleaded on the basis of God’s promises sealed unto their son at his baptism. In addition to theology he also studied Semitic languages.
It is from this period that his lifelong friendship dates with the Arabist Snouck Hurgronje, a modern but altogether sympathetic man, who eventually was converted to Islam. With Snouck Hurgronje he had a lifelong correspondence. With him he shared his disappointments in ecclesiastical life. To him, more than to any who spiritually stood much closer to him, Bavinck opened his heart.
Bavinck once wrote to Snouck Hurgronje, ‘Leiden has been very useful to me; I hope to remember it thankfully. But it also often impoverished me, it freed me from so much dead weight (I am happy about that), but it also deprived me of much that later, especially when I had to preach, I learned to consider as indispensable for my own spiritual life. If I have any reason to be grateful to Leiden it is for this: trying to understand the adversary.’
Inner Conflict
In his inmost heart Bavinck experienced the power of attraction in modern theology. This brought about a certain melancholy and loneliness in his life, the more so because he highly appreciated the friendship of dissenters. This made him marvel even more that he had kept the faith in which his parents had raised him. He finished his study in Leiden by writing a dissertation on the ethics of Zwingli.
At the 10th of June, 1880, Bavinck was awarded a doctor’s degree in theology with the designation ‘cum laude’. He made no effort to hide his attachment to the reformed confession. One of his theses was: ‘The concept of God’s fatherly love in the parable of the prodigal son does not exclude the mediatorship of Christ.’
Shortly before his promotion, Abraham Kuyper offered to him a chair in Semitic languages at the Free University of Amsterdam, which was opened October 20th of the same year. Bavinck did not accept the offer, mainly because he felt obliged to apply the fruits of his academic education to the edification of the Christian Reformed Church. It was not the last time that a chair at the Free University would be offered to him.
His first devotional speech was delivered by Bavinck in the church at the Hooigracht in Leiden on Sunday January 26, 1878. It was the church that Bavinck frequented during his stay in Leiden. He had complied with an urgent request from the consistory, during the preceding week, to give an address, because the minister that had planned to preach was not able to do so.
Dr. Prins, his professor of practical theology, attended this address. His text was Galatians 2:20: ‘I am crucified with Christ; nevertheless I live, yet not I, but Christ liveth in me; and the life I now live in the flesh I live by the faith in the son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.’
This text was one of Bavinck’s favorites. Later on he often preached upon it. Bavinck usually preached about texts in which the main doctrines of the Gospel have priority. Upon obtaining the official consent to preach, he gave his first sermon as a student in Enschede on July 21, 1878. His text was: 1 John 5:4b: ‘This is the victory that overcometh the world, even our faith.’ The choice of text showed the manner in which he faced the confrontation with modernism in Leiden. The only sermon he ever published, was on this text.
Shortly after his promotion in Leiden, Bavinck took the candidate exams in Kampen. Part of the requirement was a trial sermon. The text for this sermon, dictated by the curator, the Rev. F.J. Bulens, was Matt. 15:14a: ‘Let them alone; they be blind leaders of the blind.’ This alluded obviously to his professors in Leiden, whose scientific and human qualities Bavinck held in such great esteem. He submitted with difficulty to this choice of text.
After being pronounced eligible, Bavinck accepted a call to Franeker. In this place he was ordained to the ministry by his father on March 13, 1881. He entered upon his ministry with the words from 1 Thess.2:4: ‘But as we were allowed of God to be in trust with the Gospel, even so we speak; not as pleasing men, but God, which trieth our hearts.’