These principles should aid and encourage readers to pick up the premiere neo-Calvinist theologian for themselves. While reading Bavinck is indeed still often challenging and difficult, readers should find that the profit is well worth the toil. Tolle Lege!
With the recent publication of Herman Bavinck’s Reformed Ethics and the forthcoming first English translation of his Christian Worldview 1, more and more readers are discovering the genius of the Dutch neo-Calvinist afresh. Picking up Bavinck’s Ethics or Dogmatics, however, can be daunting. While Bavinck’s prose is often accessible, he does interact with a significant array of 19th-20th century (European) scholarship that might be a bit removed from the present day, and the many pages that confront us itself might dissuade us from picking up his works. Moreover, how does one actually read him well? Bavinck has the habit of citing one figure, for example, critiquing his theology relentlessly in one passage, only to use him constructively in another. Wolter Huttinga’s befuddlement over Bavinck’s text represents many readers well:
The way [Bavinck] represents the opinions of others, even those with whom he obviously disagrees, always belies a deep sympathy which may cause the reader to wonder to what extent Bavinck actually agreed with the author under discussion. When reading Bavinck, one often wonders: ‘Whose voice is this?’ In Bavinck’s idiom, even the most obvious heresies sound tempting. He himself makes no secret of this, as he often confesses that ‘there lies a great and deep truth’ in this or that view – even if in the end it is not his own. The synthesizing character of Bavinck’s mind makes it hard to ascertain what does and does not belong to the thread of his theology. 2
How then, should we read Bavinck? Here are four principles to keep in mind that might aid readers and to avoid common pitfalls.
I. Reformed Catholicity: Particular Deployment is not Systematic Endorsement
One of the most important principles to keep in mind when reading Bavinck’s text, as hinted at by Huttinga above, is that Bavinck would often use a particular thinker positively in one passage only to critique him the next or vice versa. This is Bavinck’s way of embodying a self-consciously Reformed catholic approach to constructive theological writing. Readers will often find Bavinck arguing that there is always something good and true even in the most deviant of writers (by virtue of God’s common grace). One colleague during my time at Edinburgh expressed his frustration at reading Bavinck by calling him a “greedy vacuum” – Bavinck seemingly wants to use everybody, and he can’t do that! But far from making Bavinck an inconsistent reader, his patient use of diverse thinkers comes out of the conviction that Reformed Christianity truly is universal.
Reformed theology’s all-encompassing character means that the philosophies and values of every age would inevitably, though often unwittingly, produce tenets that are organically found in the same. Turning to the “philosophic systems” of his century, for example, Bavinck argued that the central lines of “Calvinism” are resident in the “moral principles of Kant,” the “pessimistic philosophy” of Schopenhauer and, indeed, in “almost every system” of the 19th century that deny the “indeterminism of the will.” 3 In other words, Calvinism is uniquely suited to encounter 19th century philosophy precisely because Calvinism can accommodate and appropriate the philosophies of any age. Despite the tendency for early Christianity to utilize Plato and Aristotle as philosophical handmaidens, “theology is not in need of a specific philosophy. It is not per se hostile to any philosophical system and does not, a priori and without criticism give priority to the philosophy of Plato or Kant or vice versa. But it brings along its own criteria, tests all philosophy by them, and takes over what it deems true and useful.” 4 There is no perennial or natural philosophy to which Christianity must be attached, and it is for that reason that she can make use of any philosophy she encounters. 5
Don’t be surprised or alarmed, then, when Bavinck deviates from one source and uses another seemingly contradictory source: his use of one particular thinker is not an indication that he systematically endorses the same. We can resist the temptation to charge Bavinck with inconsistency by keeping in mind that particular deployment is not systematic endorsement.