Bavinck: A Critical Biography by James Eglinton
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Herman Bavinck’s fame as a theologian has been steadily growing in my circles—especially since the Dutch Translation Society began putting out his Reformed Dogmatics in English in 2003. All four volumes sit proudly on my own shelves along with the first volume of his Reformed Ethics.
I like to know the stories and circumstances of my theologians. I like to know what concerns drove them, what conversations they found themselves in. And this book delivers. It’s not a warm-hearted book (more on that in a moment), but it reads as eminently careful. The footnotes and the discussions very strongly suggest that Eglinton has made himself the master of Bavinck’s writings—in Dutch, no less. He is a servant to Bavinck, not a lord: he helps readers of today understand who Bavinck was in his own mind and in his own times.
This is about to be the squishiest criticism I’ve ever given of a book, the most subjective: I did feel that Bavinck failed to come alive for me in Eglinton’s work. He was treated as a third party about whom it was helpful for us all to have a discussion but who didn’t himself get to speak much. His relationships to key people in his life, namely his wife and Abraham Kuyper, felt as if they were taking place somewhere very distant from the reader. Bavinck’s friendship with Snouck Hugronje was well rounded, but I come away from this book feeling like I still haven’t met Bavinck. This is a “critical” biography, but I still feel a little sense of loss. David McCullough makes his subjects seem alive; somehow that makes a deeper impression on me.
Nonetheless, I received a truly excellent and rigorous summary of his life and views, a set of considered and (it sure seems to me) reliable judgments on some significant areas of dispute among Bavinck biographies, and a picture of the man and his times that will most certainly aid me greatly as I embark on reading through his works in the coming year or so. Bavinck’s early biographer Hepp comes in for regular and—again it seems to me, though I have only Eglinton’s word to go on—just critique. Experienced readers know when an author has done his or her homework; Eglinton surely has.
Certain things clicked into place for me. Bavinck, I’ve long known, was a key Neo-Calvinist thinker. He was a key popularizer of the concept of “biblical worldview.” I am his direct heir in two books. I see better now, however, the soil from which his views grew. And it’s so interesting to me that the soil was similar to my own. He was a “son of the secession”; I was nurtured in “separatism.” He was Reformed; so was I (without initially knowing it very well). He wanted to bring the Bible to bear on all of life; I’ve always wanted that, too. At the very simplest levels, I identify with Bavinck—and I hope I don’t flatter myself too much in doing so.
One of the things that most impressed me about Herman Bavinck from this biography was the combined dependence and independence of his mind. He was dependent on Scripture and Christian theology and not on his times. He was able to see his culture as only one among many. He applied his theology of grace restoring nature to his own tribe. This comes out most markedly—in Eglinton’s telling—in Bavinck’s views on women’s suffrage. Kuyper was distinctly unhappy with Bavinck at this point, but Bavinck was able to think both in ideal terms and in practical ones. He was able to hold onto his Bible while traversing the hidden barrier between the 19th and 20th centuries.
Bavinck was a truly great man, and this is a worthy biography. It wasn’t a page turner, exactly, but I never felt bored, either. The pace was stately. A good fit for its subject.
I received a review copy from the publisher, but I don’t review books I don’t choose: I chose this one, and I’m glad. My opinions were not affected in any way that I’m aware of.