woensdag 4 september 2013

Herman Bavinck (1854-1921): A Reformed Theologian in Tension with the Science and Culture of his Time 3

In the Free University of Amsterdam
The unification of the Christian Reformed Church (Christelijke Gereformeerde Kerk) and the Low Dutch Reformed Churches (Nederduits Gereformeerde Kerken) in 1892 was stimulated and applauded by Bavinck. Thus the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands (Gereformeerde Kerken in Nederland) were founded. Bavinck could not understand why Kuyper had remained in the national Dutch Reformed Church so long, and thus he welcomed the Doleantie of 1886. He was scarcely aware of the drawbacks of Kuyper’s theology, which caused a small part of the Christian Reformed people not to join the unification of 1892. After all, he was too much of a neo-Calvinist himself to agree with these reservations.
Bavinck was deeply disappointed that the Theological Seminary in Kampen did not fuse with the theological faculty of the Free University of Amsterdam. Had they done so, the Free University would have been put under the supervision of the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands. Specifically the members of the former Christian Reformed Church did not wish to give up the school in Kampen, to which they felt deeply attached.
After refusing earlier appointments, in 1902 Bavinck accepted a call as professor of systematic theology at the Free University of Amsterdam. He became the successor of Kuyper, who had become prime minister of the Netherlands. Bavinck’s reason for accepting this call was partly disappointment that, for church-political reasons, the two theological institutes could not join forces. The disappointments of these years deepened the melancholy features of his character.
More than in Kampen, Bavinck’s interest in Amsterdam expanded to a larger field than church life alone. He set out to promote Christian schools and Christian politics. During these years a second revised and extended edition of his Reformed Dogmatic was published. In addition, he published a number of works dealing with the relationship between the Christian faith and philosophy.
Around the year 1914 Bavinck’s thoughts upon the theological and philosophical field reached a point of rest. In Bavinck’s period at the Free University we notice how his interest moves from theology to pedagogy. Did Bavinck change in the last years of his life? Had he dropped his former theological views? Asserting that he really changed may be going too far; probably it was a matter of altered position, a position that, in my opinion, sometimes should have been more definite.
Bavinck was aware, that an experienced assurance of faith, both when it is related to the certainty of the truth of the Christian faith, and when it relates to a personal share in salvation, is a rare article, specifically among theologians.
In The Certainty of Faith he wrote: ‘There is much noise and movement, but little real enthusiasm, little true Inspiration and a small measure of honest, fiery and unfeigned faith. Nowhere can this phenomenon be found more strikingly than among professional theologians. There is no tribe more skeptic and unstable than they! Enough objections, doubts, criticisms and more than enough! But unity in principle, firmness of system, surety of faith, eagerness to answer to every man asking a reason of the hope that is in them, one would expect all this from them in the first place, but in most cases it is looked for in vain in their circle.’
Bavinck said that the powerlessness and poverty of modern theology has been specifically evident at sick- and death beds. It is powerless to give comfort and surety in the face of death. For him this was exactly the very power of reformed theology. In this context the remark of the Utrecht professor Ritter is appropriate: ‘Bavinck is a man you would wish to be at your deathbed’.
When Bavinck celebrated his twenty-fifth anniversary as a professor of theology in 1908, he remarked emotionally that he had kept the faith. To Bavinck, time and again it had been a miracle that he remained standing in the truth of the Christian faith and the Gospel of God’s grace. To him a Christian was somebody who could, with the psalmist, sing with mouth and heart: ‘How blessed, Lord, are they who know the joyful sound, Who, when they hear Thy voice, in happiness abound!’
In the autumn of 1920 Bavinck had to put aside his work. In the summer of 1921, to be exact on July 29, Bavinck’s life came to an end. During the last months of his life he became totally dependent on help. Rev. Landwehr, one of Bavinck’s students of the Theological Seminary in Kampen, wrote in his In memoriam Prof. Dr. H. Bavinck the following: ‘Then this active man became still and it was the greatest privilege to see the power of the faith that began to reveal itself. He lost everything, his knowledge, his science, literally everything, and he became again a poor sinner before God. At that time again he could bear witness, ‘I have kept the faith’. He began to be filled with a peace that passeth all understanding, that sweet rest of faith, that glorious knowledge that we are the Lord’s own.’
The funeral took place on the 2nd of August. At the grave the stanza of the metrical psalm that lingered in Bavinck’s mind to the last was sung.
O God Jehovah, good and kind,
On Zion’s mount in clouds enshrined
Thou art our sun and shield forever.
To upright souls that seek Thy face
Thou givest glory, truth, and grace;
E’en in death’s vale Thou failest never.
O Lord of hosts, how blest is he
Who puts his steadfast trust in Thee!
When the coffin had been lowered, somebody started to sing, and all joined in spontaneously:
And blessed be His glorious Name,
To all eternity;
The whole earth let His glory fill.
Amen: So let it be.