Why Pastors Should Engage Herman Bavinck
It is not unusual for me to be asked about my fascination with Herman Bavinck. Maybe it is the common occurrence of dropping his name into my theology lectures. Or maybe (more likely) it is because of my go-to coffee mug (one that I unashamedly designed for myself). Nevertheless, I don’t recall who first pointed me to Bavinck’s works. I was skeptical that I needed to add yet another Reformed theologian to my library. I was even less convinced that I would ever displace my trusted theological author-heroes. And so I waded in slowly, beginning with John Bolt’s remarkable one-volume abridged version of Bavinck’s four-volume magnum opus.
I was hooked. I still recall reading (and underlining!) Bavinck’s compelling invitation to study the Scriptures, “It is not given to us simply to parrot its exact words and phrases but so that we, drawing from the entire organism of Scripture, as free and thoughtful children, think God’s thoughts after him. This is a demanding task that no person can possibly do alone.” Those lines still captivate and motivate me to study theology well.
As I continued to read, it became clear that I had found a new theological hero. It is not that I was discovering brand new ideas. In fact, much of the content is solid, straight-down-the-middle Reformed theology. But there is a beautiful and compelling nuance to Bavinck’s works that continues to fascinate and teach me. His voice, then, is of importance to pastors less because of any novel theological content and more because of his unmatched ability to use theology to both inspire worship and show us how we should live as a result. I still consider myself a “newbie” to Bavinck. But here are some of the aspects of his work that I believe should attract pastor-theologians.
Theology Saturated with Reverence
There is a conspicuous awe and admiration for God conveyed on every page. He often reminds the reader that the study of theology is to be undertaken doxologically. “From the start of its labors dogmatic theology is shrouded in mystery; it stands before God the incomprehensible One. This knowledge leads to adoration and worship; to know God is to live.” Reading Bavinck certainty stirs the mind, but it also stirs the affections. Reading Bavinck certainty stirs the mind, but it also stirs the affections. Click To Tweet
As I began to journey through Bavinck’s theology proper, I was chagrined to realize that I had already read him here. The light bulb went off and I went to my library to pull down my well-worn navy blue volume, The Doctrine of God. How could I have forgotten that this magnificent volume was authored by Bavinck (an earlier translation of this portion of Dogmatics by William Hendrickson)? It was like rediscovering an old friend.
The underlines and notes highlighted all the same reverence and worship that I was discovering in the larger volumes. For instance, Bavinck writes that in the New Testament the name “Father” becomes the common name by which God is addressed. “This name is the highest revelation of God, God is not only the Creator, the Almighty One, the faithful One, the King and Lord; he is also the Father of his people.” There is appropriate warmth and spiritual vitality in the heart of this Dutch theologian.
Theology Inseparably Woven with Ethics
In his Prolegomena, Bavinck makes it clear that theology and ethics are inextricably bound. “The two disciplines, far from facing each other as two independent entities, together form a single system, they are related members of a single organism.” This is a bedrock framework that will surface continually through Bavinck’s work. What we believe impacts how we responsively live.
Bavinck means for the reader to be transformed as he contemplates theology. That spiritual transformation is to be evident to all and the new moral life that emerges is to influence and “refashion the natural and moral life in its full depth and scope according to the laws of God.” In his section on “The Church’s Spiritual Power” Bavinck states: “Because of [Christ] there radiates from everyone who believes in him a renewing and sanctifying influence upon the family, society, state, occupation, business, art, science, and so forth.”
It is perhaps here that the mutual influence of Bavinck and Abraham Kuyper is most manifest. As contemporaries, colleagues and friends, these two men display a deferring, dependent and collegial partnership in gospel ministry that is, sadly, often lacking in today’s Christian church. It is difficult to dissect which scholar influenced the other more. Together with one voice, these men called the Dutch church of the early twentieth century (and now the American church of the twenty-first century) to awaken from dusty, dead orthodoxy and to a verdant faith that sees the glorious Lordship of Jesus Christ permeating every sphere of life.
Theology for this Moment
Bavinck wrote to real people in real time and space (which for Bavinck was the late nineteenth and early twentieth century in the Netherlands). Nothing is abstract for Bavinck. He was aware of the state of the Dutch church, the European culture in which he lived, the philosophical headwinds swirling around him, the theological skirmishes the church was facing and, admirably, the noble shoulders on which he stood. Throughout Dogmatics Bavinck interacts astutely with ancient philosophers, Roman Catholic scholarship, historic non-Reformed scholars, et al, just as fluidly as he does the variant voices of his contemporaries.
The Netherlands of Bavinck’s day, though rich in the Reformed tradition, had become impotent and susceptible to contemporary views of revelation that eroded the historic Reformed understanding of the Bible. Bavinck soars in his lengthy section on Revelation (including his must-read section on the inspiration of Scripture). The reader senses that Bavinck is boldly drawing his sword from the scabbard when he states that “there is an immense confusion prevailing in the efforts to determine the essence and concepts of revelation. This confusion springs in large part from the fact that there are theologians who still continue to speak of revelation though by virtue of their principle and position have forfeited the right to do so.”
Bavinck stands out as a man for his time and pastor-theologians should emulate his example. Like Bavinck, we have been given a specific stewardship for this particular time and place. We must not speak “generally” but to the world in which we find ourselves. God has determined our appointed times and the boundaries in which we live (Acts 17:26). Reading the times, the culture, and the prevailing worldview of our neighbors will allow us to speak the spiritual and powerful word of God with precision and boldness.
There is no shortage of books that pastors “must read” these days. I am as woefully behind in my reading as most pastors are. Nor is there a shortage of Reformed theological voices to follow. But with his gloriously reverential treatment of theology, the necessary and compelling gravitational pull of ethics that permeates every page, and the continual awareness of the very real flesh-and-blood image bearers to whom he is writing, I commend to you, fellow pastors, my new theological hero, Herman Bavinck.