Why Does Bavinck Need a New Biography?
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. 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, and much more. Click To Tweet
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.
Biographers – Specialists in Portraiture
Biographers are, in essence, specialists in portraiture. Unlike their more artistic cousins, though, biographers paint their subjects with words. When the portraits of Bavinck produced by Hepp and Bremmer are set side by side, the differences between them are fairly obvious. Hepp’s Bavinck was often on the verge of dramatic upheaval, which was usually averted by a timely word from his wise father. His Bavinck had a tense relationship with his apparently anti-modern pietistic parents, before coming into the Calvinistic orbit of the statesman-theologian Abraham Kuyper and writing the Reformed Dogmatics. After that, the Hepp Bavinck ended up as a gloomy figure who fell out of love with Kuyper, and perhaps even with his own theological works. Bremmer’s (public persona) Bavinck was a more stable character. The tense parent-child relationship has gone, as has the picture of the sad old Bavinck.
Alongside this, it is worth noting that the first full-length English Bavinck biography, Ron Gleason’s Herman Bavinck: Pastor, Churchman, Statesman, Theologian, was written as a largely derivative amalgam of the works of Hepp and Bremmer, which it relies on and weaves together—unfortunately, not always accurately. We might say that in Gleason’s portrait, Bavinck clearly has the nose and chin of Hepp’s Bavinck, the Bremmer Bavinck’s eyes and mouth, and so on: it is a composite picture, more so than an original piece of portraiture. Now, as we approach the centenary of Bavinck’s death, the setting for biographical writing is different. We have more space to approach him with critical distance, and look at his life—in both public and private domains—afresh. Click To Tweet
Books – The Importance of a New One
Almost one hundred years on from Bavinck’s death (and Hepp’s quickly written book), and six decades on from Bremmer’s substantial biography, is there anything new that can be said about Bavinck’s life? Is it possible to take an original look at Bavinck today? Would his 21st century readership stand to gain anything from an attempt to do so? I think a new portrait of Bavinck is both possible and necessary.
The beauty of Hepp’s biography is its attempt to capture Bavinck’s life in all its breadth and complexity. His problem as a biographer, however, was that he was simultaneously too close to the action, and awkwardly peripheral to it. Hepp had been one of Bavinck’s doctoral students—a fact that does not automatically qualify someone to write their doctoral supervisor’s biography, as all PhD students should readily admit! He openly admitted that in that period, Bavinck had never discussed his upbringing or younger years with him. (For which reason, Hepp filled in that part of that gap with historically problematic folklore.)
Hepp was writing while Bavinck’s health went into a sudden, then slow, decline—a period in which Bavinck became increasingly private and reserved, and unburdened himself only around his wife and oldest friends. Although Hepp visited Bavinck on his deathbed, he was poorly placed to observe Bavinck being himself in that setting. It is also true that when Hepp’s biography is viewed alongside eyewitness accounts of a number of key points in Bavinck’s life, it is clear that he tended to sensationalize events. For those reasons, Hepp’s book was not without critics when it was first released.
By contrast, Bremmer’s book is careful, measured, and scholarly. As an intellectual biography that focuses on Bavinck’s public life and work, it avoids the kind of personal awkwardness generated by Hepp’s work. Perhaps that avoidance was intentional on Bremmer’s part? Although Bavinck’s widow had died before he was writing, Bavinck’s daughter Hannie—a woman whose family suffered horrendously under Nazi occupation during World War Two—was still alive. Biographical writing gets complicated when close living descendants are close at hand.
Benefit – The Space of Critical Distance
Now, as we approach the centenary of Bavinck’s death, the setting for biographical writing is different. We have more space to approach him with critical distance, and look at his life—in both public and private domains—afresh. To highlight one prominent example: neither Hepp nor Bremmer mentions that from his teenage years until his early thirties, Bavinck was in love with a woman called Amelia den Dekker, but was repeatedly rejected as a suitor by her father. Bavinck’s diaries include regular notes about her (written in Latin, for secrecy), provide an account of him proposing to her, and detail his futile attempts to win over her father. One diary even includes an elaborate marriage proposal poem written for Amelia.
If Hepp or Bremmer 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 a strange way, his ability to produce the work that now sits on so many of our shelves depended on a drawn out and traumatic failure in romance. Click To Tweet
Nonetheless, it is true that Bavinck’s relationship to Amelia was profoundly important to his life story: it was a shadow that hung over him from his first teenage diary entries, until his definite rejection by her father at the age of thirty-one. It is the explanation for his ongoing struggle with his singleness as a young man (and particularly so as an unmarried young pastor). It is also one of the reasons that the young Bavinck was able to pour himself into preparing and writing the first edition of the Reformed Dogmatics: denied the family for which he had hoped, he channelled his isolation into study, and started to see his books as his “true company”. In a strange way, his ability to produce the work that now sits on so many of our shelves depended on a drawn out and traumatic failure in romance.
That story—amongst many others in his life—needs to be told, if our portrait of Herman Bavinck is to become sharper, more richly textured, more human. As Bavinck’s most recent biographer, though, I suspect it was less complicated for me to tell those stories than it might have been for Hepp or Bremmer.