Herman Bavinck was a late 19th and early 20th century theologian whose work has been attracting renewed attention by Christian scholars. A 2020 book published by Baker Academic about his life titled Bavinck: A Critical Biography, was written by James Eglinton, the Meldrum Senior Lecturer in Reformed Theology at the University of Edinburgh. What follows is an interview I had with James Eglinton about Bavinck and why he is someone that may provide helpful resources to Christian scholars (including those in technology-related fields).
DCS: Who was Bavinck and why the renewed interest in him?
JE: Herman Bavinck (1854-1921) was a Dutch Reformed theologian. In the century since his death, he has primarily been known for his work in dogmatics. His magnum opus, the four volume Reformed Dogmatics is now widely recognized as a modern classic, and is available in a range of languages.
In his own lifetime, though, he was something of a polymath. Alongside what we might conventionally imagine as ‘theology,’ he produced high level works in psychology, pedagogy, literary criticism, travel writing, ethics, and biography. Alongside his writings, he also turned his hand to a broad range of activities: he led a political party for two years and served as a Member of Parliament for a decade, edited a national newspaper and filled many column inches, and campaigned for women’s voting rights and better education for girls.
Interest in his life and work has grown exponentially since the completion of the English translation of his Reformed Dogmatics in 2008. Since then, he has become the standard ‘go to’ theologian in (particularly Reformed) seminaries and theological faculties across the world. It is not the case, though, that he was unknown in the English-speaking world until then. Over the last 70 years, his name has cropped up regularly in Christianity Today—cited by a list of people ranging from influential mid-twentieth century figures like Carl F. Henry, Paul S. Rees, and Kenneth Kantzer, to more recent figures like Ed Stetzer, Gavin Ortlund, and Leah Boyd. While it is true that he has only gained wide name recognition recently, those in the know have been championing his cause for a long time.
DCS: What resources can be found in Bavinck’s works that might be helpful for contemporary Christian scholars working outside the discipline of theology?
JE: Part of Bavinck’s significance lies in his commitment to Christianity as a catholic faith. While one aspect of that catholicity deals with its global character—as a faith that takes root in whichever cultural soil it is planted—another significant aspect concerns its nature as a faith for all of life. It is catholic, or universal, in scope, and addresses human life in its entirety. Just as sin has corrupted every part of human life, Bavinck insisted, the gospel is good news for all of life: it reforms everything.
Because of that commitment, Bavinck strove to understand and practice the faith in holistic terms that are all the more striking today, given the secularized, compartmentalized view of faith and life accepted by many contemporary Christians. In contrast to the reduction of Christianity to private notions of piety that dominate today’s evangelicalism, Bavinck offered a vision of the Christian faith as both personal and public. This is what led to his aim to think Christianly about science, culture, and society, in the modern age. Christian scholars can gain a lot from interaction with him precisely because he wrestled with how and why Christianity was good news for their scholarship.
DCS: What insights from Bavinck might be helpful to inform our work with modern technology?
JE: Readers are often drawn to Bavinck because of the richness of his theology of culture, which is an extension of his (deeply Augustinian) doctrine of creation. Because he viewed culture as a basic given within the created realm—or stated differently, culture is something that humans produce by being human together—Bavinck had no reason to show the kind of uneasy ambivalence or ambiguity towards culture that we see in much of the history of evangelicalism. Rather, he approached it in a lively, doctrinally illuminated way: culture is to be understood in the light of creation, common grace, sin, and redemption. It was not something to be worshipped, or to be cast off as demonic. His views on modern technology fit within this broader handling of culture, because technology is part of culture.
Bavinck inherited a love for modern technology from his father, who marveled at the invention of the steam engine, and its power in making him reimagine both space and time (and how quickly he could move around his world). Herman’s own writings with modern technology are typically holistic: in his later years, for example, we find him thinking through the consequences of a new invention, the washing machine, on his theology of the family in society. If technological advance meant that the everyday tasks involved in running a home—like keeping a family clothed and fed—suddenly became much less labour intensive, family life, and by consequence, society, would very quickly change. He was attuned to those issues. At that point, he seems to shift from a ‘tool making’ view of technology, to see technological advance as perhaps becoming something that reshapes human social structures.
Over the years I have seen many Christians turn to the philosopher Martin Heidegger in search of a nuanced approach to technology. In Bavinck, though, we have a thinker who can offer a lot in approaching technology theologically.
DCS: For those interested in learning more about Bavinck, which resources would you recommend starting with?
JE: My Bavinck: A Critical Biography sets out his life and times and provides readers with a picture of his intellectual development in context. Thanks to the translation efforts of many, readers now have access to a number of his most important works: his Reformed Dogmatics are an outstanding reference work distilled in shorter, more popular form in Wonderful Works of God. His Philosophy of Revelation also presents his view of culture in creative ways. Most recently, the first volume of his unfinished early manuscript Reformed Ethics has been published. While it is very tentative, and not always reflective of his mature thought, it gives readers a good view of how doctrine flows into life in his early thought.
DCS: Thank you for taking time to share these insights—and for your book. I am grateful for scholars such as yourself who can help us retrieve some of the riches of the Christian past. I suspect there are Christian scholars engaged in a variety of disciplines who may be able to find some treasures in Bavinck. Thanks!