Bavinck’s Cultural Moment
Herman Bavinck (1854-1921) was the chief theologian of the Dutch movement known as neo-Calvinism—a movement toward confessional orthodox Christianity in a rapidly changing, modern world. In the post-Enlightenment era of industrial, political, cultural, and even spiritual revolution, T.C.W. Blanning suggests that for Bavinck’s generation “the ground [was] moving beneath their feet.” Scientific materialism had especially dominated the intellectual imagination up to the turn of the twentieth century, and while failing to eradicate religion, historic Christianity was under suspicion. It was into such a context that Bavinck decided to lecture on and publish Christelijke wereldbeschouwing (Christian Worldview) in 1904.
As significant as Bavinck was in the Netherlands of the early twentieth century, he has of late become the Reformed theologian of the English-speaking world (as well as for Korean, Portuguese, and Mandarin speakers). He is biblically grounded, historically aware, philosophically trained, culturally prophetic, broadly catholic, polemical and yet balanced. He is worth revisiting over and over for the depths of insight, the exegetical prowess, and the devotional quality of each of his texts.
Regarding his cultural moment, Bavinck noticed in his era an “aversion to the common, Christian faith.” For this reason, he suggested that “before all else, what strikes us in the modern age is the internal discord that consumes the self.” Bavinck suggested that “before all else, what strikes us in the modern age is the internal discord that consumes the self.” Click To TweetDenying the fact of humanity’s subordination to God, of our standing as creatures before the Creator, leads, he argued, to a sickness in soul and body: “a disharmony between our thinking and feeling, willing and acting.” The modern human will, in other words, wrestles against the weight of the divinely revealed moral order. By acting in dissociation with the facts, humanity fights against its own deepest needs and desires. The modern human intellect baptized in the immanent frame of scientific materialism dissociates the head from the heart and physics from metaphysics.
It is into this context that Bavinck offers a reading of the importance of not merely a “worldview” but of a Christian world-and-life view. According to Bavinck, a world-and-life view means that, over time and in engagement with reality as it presents itself, one applies the first principles of Christianity to arrive at basic, primary answers to the fundamental religious and philosophical questions of existence while incorporating the wisdom of experiential life: What am I? Where did I come from? How does my mind relate to the world outside of me? Do I, and how can I, know? How should I act? And what is the point of life? To where am I going?
For Bavinck, the term “world” here refers to the objective, to all that stands outside of the human self, which includes the world, other creatures, and God. “Life” refers to the inner-life of every human being; the intellect, will, and emotions, and to the actions of that person. A Christian world-and-life view stands on divinely revealed first principles to help explain and justify the relationship between the inner life and the outer life. And Bavinck’s proposal is that only Christianity offers a coherent, satisfying justification for the relationship between our individual “self” and everything that exists on the outside.
More specifically, a Christian world-and-life view coherently justifies the presuppositions from which we approach the facts of the objective world as well as justifying our deepest needs. It makes sense of reality and speaks especially to three domains.
First, it helps us to understand how we know and why we know. How is it that the human experience of reality is an experience of truth, of what really is?
Second, the Christian worldview explains the possibility of identity through time, of harmony in the midst of multiplicity.
Third, the Christian world-and-life view explains the fact of the moral order, the origin of the conscience, our feelings of guilt, and how we ought to act in the world. It gives justification for the life of our will, our desires, and loves. If we reject Christianity, he argues, Christianity proves itself to be indispensable because it is the only view of the world and life that fits the reality of the world and life.
This work, Christian Worldview, now comes to an English-speaking audience in the twenty-first century with more than a century of “worldview” talk. Indeed, the concept has mutated significantly into what is often a reductionistic, highly marketed industry that most often uses “worldview” to mean something akin to an ideology. Today, eye glasses are one of the common metaphors used to describe the concept. Every person has a worldview wherein they, whether knowingly or not, wear colored-glasses, tinted by the ideology to which they ascribe. As the term passed through the mid-twentieth century and adapted itself to a post-modern philosophical milieu it came to mean something like the function of colored-lens spectacles—experiencing, reading, and interpreting the world as filtered through a subscribed religion while never approaching the world as it is. Herein, assuming an entirely relative knowledge, the concept ironically returned in spirit to its original source: Immanuel Kant. Kant sharply separated the individual from the world and suggested that none of us know the world as it really is.
For Bavinck, however, a world-and-life view is a map that makes sense of reality as it is—one composed of first principles that help us understand the depths of experience and leads on to more and more truth, especially truths that remain beyond the senses. The Christian worldview bows to divine revelation and then seeks after a comprehensive wisdom that finds the principle of the whole in the midst of all the parts. A Christian world-and-life view is a posture that brings the Christian religion to bear on the life of wisdom (philosophy) and the discoveries of science, understanding between these disciplines a unity and purpose in all of the expansive spheres of human life.
Bavinck offers us the opportunity for the contemporary reader to take a moment to return to the original meaning of the concept world-and-life view. For Bavinck, it is only the Christian worldview that provides true harmony of self: true harmony between God and the world, God and the self, and the self and the world.
 T. C. W. Blanning, introduction to The Oxford Illustrated History of Modern Europe, ed. Blanning (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996), 1.