If previous biographers knew about Amelia, they wrote nothing about her. That silence is perhaps understandable in their contexts as biographers, given that Bavinck’s eventual wife (and their daughter) lived on well into the 20th century. To tell the world that Herman had first hoped to marry someone else would have taken a particularly bold early biographer.
In the twelve years since the fourth and final volume of his Reformed Dogmatics (Baker, 2008) was released in English, Herman Bavinck (1854-1921) has become a firm fixture on the reading lists and bookshelves of evangelical (and in particular, Reformed) theology students and pastors across the English-speaking world. Thanks to the efforts of those who translated his magnum opus, a new and growing group of readers has come to enjoy his particular way of theologising, with its deep commitment to Scripture, capacious engagement with the history of Christian thought, and penetrating way of using those resources in addressing the needs of his own age.
Bavinck – A Household Name
In his own country and lifetime, however, Bavinck was a household name, rather than a theologian known only to other theologians. In the Netherlands during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, he was known not only for his outstanding theological work, but also for his contributions to many other areas of life: he was a pastor, a celebrated preacher, a Member of Parliament, a prolific journalist (and national newspaper editor), a Bible translator, an advocate for women’s voting rights, a biographer, an educational reformer, a travel writer, and much more.
A century on from his death, the details of those contributions have been largely forgotten in the Netherlands, although the scale of his remarkable life echoes on in surprising ways. A couple of years ago, for example, I was getting a haircut in the Netherlands, when the barber asked why I, a Scot, had learned Dutch. I told him a little bit about my work on Bavinck, not assuming he would know about this particular dead theologian. “Of course I’ve heard of Bavinck!” he replied. “My primary school was named after him, and there’s also a Bavinck Street near my house. I don’t know much about him, but he was an important person.”
That kind of rich and full life tends to attract biographers. Bavinck is no exception to that rule. His first biographer, Valentijn Hepp, had churned out a full-length page turner—albeit based on many sketchy and spurious oral histories—within months of Bavinck’s death. In the 1960s, another Dutch writer, R.H. Bremmer, wrote a new biography that focused primarily on Bavinck as a public intellectual, framing his account of Bavinck’s life through his interactions with fellow theologians and politicians. A carefully written intellectual biography, Bremmer’s account lacks the sensational (and sometimes dubious) twists and turns found in Hepp’s work, and takes a far more reserved approach towards Bavinck’s own life outside of the public domain.