Herman Bavinck on Men And Women

"People and nations were very different from each other in various times and circumstances, but the man has always been a man and the woman has always been a woman."

“Open marriage and free love, the emancipation of the woman, and the socializing of society, fail to take into account reality whether it be sound or sick. They all suffer from the illusion that by means of external measures, by means of abolishing old laws or implementing new laws, they can change human nature or convert the wicked human heart. They all travel the route from outward to inward, thinking that a person, whom they view as a product of circumstances, will be gradually renewed in a different environment.”

 

Originally published in 1908, Herman Bavinck’s book The Christian Family was only just translated into English in 2012. Throughout the book, Bavinck lays out a Christian theology of the family, and he gives practical advice on how families can withstand modern challenges and temptations. At one point Bavinck interacts with “modern” attempts to reinvent the family. For Bavinck, “modern” applied to the late 19th and turn of the 20th century. He faults them for a number of things, but chiefly for failing to understand human nature.

Bavinck explains:

Most changes currently being proposed to solve the sexual problem not only contradict Christian principles but also come into conflict with the facts and demands of reality. Open marriage and free love, the emancipation of the woman, and the socializing of society, fail to take into account reality whether it be sound or sick. They all suffer from the illusion that by means of external measures, by means of abolishing old laws or implementing new laws, they can change human nature or convert the wicked human heart. They all travel the route from outward to inward, thinking that a person, whom they view as a product of circumstances, will be gradually renewed in a different environment.

In comparing these modern attempts at reform to that reformation recommended and implemented by Christianity, we are filled with an ever-deepening amazement about the latter. For in a manner that cannot be surpassed, Moses and the prophets, Christ and the apostles, have distinguished between reality that is safe and that which is sick. In other religious and philosophical systems, both of these spheres are always confused or blended. But the special revelation that comes to us in Christ sharply distinguishes them; though it acknowledges nature, comprehensively and fully, it nonetheless battles against sin across the entire spectrum of reality. Everywhere and always it seeks the reformation of natural life, but only in such a way and by such means that nature is liberated from unrighteousness. Christ came simply to destroy the works of the devil, indeed, but with the further goal of bringing the works of the Father once again to manifestation and honor along that route.

This explains why Scripture proceeds from the distinction between man and woman. This distinction was neither a human discovery or invention, nor a product of circumstances, nor the result of a slow and gradual evolution, but has existed from the very beginning, provided by nature itself and consequently called into existence by God, who placed it before our eyes as an undeniable fact. With John Stuart Mill we can indeed say that the woman’s nature is not an immutable phenomenon, but was formed gradually by the oppression committed against her, or we can fantasize with others that the original human being was a sexless or an androgynous being. But then we would be reasoning quite apart from reality. Culture can surely bring about some changes, but it can do so only within specific limits and on the foundation of nature itself. People and nations were very different from each other in various times and circumstances, but the man has always been a man and the woman has always been a woman. There is nothing mutable about this fact; we have only to accept it. It is not a work of the devil to be destroyed, but a work of the Father to be acknowledged.

(Bavinck, Herman. The Christian Family ((pp. 63-65)). Christian’s Library Press. Kindle Edition.)

As a correction to this, Bavinck gives his own explanation of human nature, and he explains the ways in which men and women are alike and different. One might be tempted to call Bavinck’s position the “traditional” one, but we should note that he is not blindly loyal to the tradition. He has no trouble stating where he thinks it erred. Bavinck is also not happy with applying the term “inferiority” to females, as he believes that this will invariably send the wrong message, that women are less human or less fitted for their calling. Still, Bavinck feels free to generalize about male and female traits and tendencies, and he stands in a basic continuity with the earlier Christian position. As is typical with Bavinck, he uses both biblical exegesis and a perennial Christian philosophy to make his argument.

Here is what Bavinck has to say about the proper way to understand men and women:

The Distinction between Man and Woman

Nevertheless, we can both underestimate and overestimate this distinction. The first defect often hobbled people in previous centuries. In practice people frequently viewed the woman as a being of lower order than the man, and theoretically people often denied her the status of being fully human. Over against that view, we must maintain, with the help of Scripture which alone supplies an explanation regarding the origin and essence of a human being, that both man and woman are created in God’s image, and that therefore both are human beings in the fullest sense of the term. The second chapter of Genesis presents the woman especially as a helper suitable for the man, but let us not forget that this chapter has been preceded by the first chapter of Genesis. Here we read that God created man and woman together in his image; the woman can be a helper suitable for the man only because she is his equal and reflects God’s image just as much as he does. The question that has been raised upon occasion in the past, namely, whether the woman may be called a human being, is not at all appropriate. The woman is a human being no less than the man, because she no less than he was created in God’s image. Scripture speaks in a very human way about the essence of God, but it never transfers the sexual differentiation to him; God is never portrayed or presented as being feminine. But if the woman is said to be created along with man in the image of God, then that includes the fact that the uniqueness and richness of feminine qualities no less than those of the masculine capacities find their origin and example in the divine Being. God is a Father who takes pity on his children, but he also comforts like a mother comforts her son.

Read More