The mark of a theological giant, some say, is its ability to capture the imagination of readers far removed from their own historical period, cultural background and, above all, their theological tradition.
In the history of Christianity, the list of characters who enjoy this kind of reach is small and does not grow rapidly. For ten years, however, a new star has risen in the firmament: the Dutch neo-Calvinist theologian Herman Bavinck (1854-1921).
In the Netherlands, in his day, Bavinck was a household name. The finest Dutch theological mind of his generation, Bavinck was also a notable public figure at a time of enormous social upheaval, leaving his mark in politics, education, women’s rights and journalism. Across the country, streets and schools bear his name. Beyond that, Bavinck was remarkable as a person of international repute. During a trip to the United States in 1908, for example, he was welcomed at the White House by Theodore Roosevelt. Such honors speak volumes.
Despite this, Bavinck’s legacy at home gradually fell into obscurity in the decades following his death. Abroad, his reputation as a stellar thinker lingered among those with ties to the Netherlands, but failed to develop beyond this during the 20th century. This all changed in the early years of the 21st century, thanks to the efforts of John Bolt and John Vriend, whose English translation by Bavinck Reformed Dogmatics was released in four parts between 2003 and 2008.
To date, these volumes have sold over 90,000 copies, a staggering production for a work of this nature. And that’s not to mention the Portuguese or Korean versions, or the Spanish, Russian and Chinese translations that are currently in progress.
But to move forward quickly from the release of Bavinck’s Dogmatic in English to its current high popularity and simply saying “The rest is history”, would be wrong. To do so would be to overlook the important issue of Why this character has become the indispensable theologian of so many people today, from Beijing to São Paulo, from New York to Seoul. How did Herman Bavinck acquire such a diverse global following?
Every day in my own field—teaching Reformed theology at the University of Edinburgh—I interact with and hear from people who struggle against Bavinck’s work. Very few of them are Dutch or have any previous sense of loyalty to (or longstanding knowledge of) the neo-Calvinist tradition. In fact, they come from all over the world church. Why has Bavinck’s work acquired a greater degree of cross-traction than so many of his reformed peers?
The reasons for this are undoubtedly as complex and diverse as the types of people who read it today: Korean Presbyterians will likely have different reasons than Southern Baptist readers, or the Pentecostal teenager who devours the book of Bavinck. wonderful works of God as devotional material. Others, like the great Swiss theologian Karl Barth, rely on Bavinck as a guide to the history of theology. In light of these various motivations, I would not attempt to offer any reductionist answer to the question “Why Bavinck in 2022?” »
That said, I have been reading his works for nearly 15 years, alongside people from different parts of the world, traditions and Christian backgrounds that vary from strictly academic to personal and church. During this period, I have observed certain traits in Bavinck’s writing and life that seem to draw a crowd time and time again – and which, crucially, keep those readers coming back. While these are not the only reasons for Bavinck’s apparent sudden popularity, they are important nonetheless.
First, Bavinck wrote in a balanced way that stands out to 21st century readers. We are accustomed to theology being done as a pitiful spectacle of polemics conditioned by social media norms – without nuance and without charity, bloated with a diet of low-hanging fruit, captive to its cartoonish portraits of historical greats , and crossed wrong assumptions of faith about those with whom we disagree today.
In this context, Bavinck’s writings are a breath of fresh air. Scholarly and expansive, it offers readers insight into the breadth and depth of the Christian tradition, often with spectacular clarity. Although his work was (quite intentionally) labeled as theology in the Reformed tradition, it was never narrowly sectarian in character. Rather, it was reformed as an expression of something greater: the Catholic Christian faith, which takes root across cultures and centuries. Bavinck supported the paradox of being staunchly Calvinist, while publicly asserting that “Calvinism is not the only truth.”
This kind of balance shows a conviction of faith that is both firm and flexible, inviting interlocutors even from outside one’s own camp in a way that surly and strongly polemical theologians simply do not. Its openness invites Christians from other traditions to explore Bavinck’s Reformed perspective.
Bavinck modeled the Christian worldview as an inductive and lifelong pursuit of divine wisdom – an open and curious quest, rather than closed and rigid. In this respect, his approach was different from his famous colleague Abraham Kuyper, for whom the Christian worldview was deductive and inflexible.
Bavinck’s reluctance to fight the straw men (and alongside that, his commitment to befriending his ideological opponents in person) is part of the same package. Admittedly, he was certainly not a perfect interpreter of all the theologians or traditions covered by his Dogmatic. Nonetheless, his strenuous effort to understand and faithfully represent those with whom he disagreed throughout his lifetime is striking.
Its inexperienced readers Dogmatic can sometimes be confused to see that Bavinck adopts apparently contradictory doctrinal positions at various points in the work. Yet, in reality, these surprised readers are likely encountering Bavinck’s criticism from a particular perspective—one that he presented at length in his strongest terms before giving his own verdict. Such a trait is subtly but powerfully appealing to readers outside its own theological camp because it takes opposing perspectives seriously.
It’s easy to dismiss criticism from someone who misrepresents or misunderstands your point of view, but it’s much harder when that person has made a serious effort to present your point accurately and charitably. In fact, for those who wish to grow as thinkers, this kind of criticism is attractive, not repulsive. He gains trust.
Bavinck’s life story also plays an important role in his growing recognition in our contemporary times. We live in the wake of a 20th century bifurcation between fundamentalism and the social gospel. Those brought up on either side of this debate have received a strange legacy: on the right, a gospel that speaks powerfully to the needs of the soul but offers little good news for the betterment of society in a world fallen; and on the left, a commitment to addressing social wrongs, but within the context of an awfully thin spiritual framework.
Bavinck, on the other hand, vividly reminds us that this bifurcation is both a historical novelty and an unnatural distortion of a holistic and historical Christianity.
What was that like in Bavinck’s own life? Along with his staunchly orthodox theology, he was a notorious critic of racism in America. His South African student Bennie Keet became a prominent anti-apartheid activist. In the Netherlands, Bavinck publicly campaigned against urban poverty (even calling for changes in housing standards and tax laws to this end), opposed the oppression of poor factory workers (due to their status as bearers of the divine image) and strove for equal education for girls and suffrage for women.
Nowadays, Bavinck is distinguished by his attachment to the Orthodox faith and the social consequences of this faith. In this sense, he goes against our late 20th century instincts, just like John Stott and Tim Keller. Such characters really feel out of place both left and right. As a theologian with a holistic view of historical Christianity, Bavinck reminds us that our generation is out of step with the faith of the ages.
Bavinck was not a perfect man or a flawless theologian (as I tried to describe him in Bavinck: A Critical Biography). But in his life and doctrine he was a deeply credible Christian – and as such is someone to whom so many are still drawn today.
Truth be told, I can think of many great theologians, past and present, whom I would probably rather meet in print than in person. This is not the case with Bavinck. I’ll be reading it for a while yet and I don’t think I’m the only one.
James Egliton (@Dr. James Eglinton) is Meldrum Lecturer in Reformed Theology at the University of Edinburgh. He is the author of Bavinck: A Critical Biography (Baker, 2020), which won The Gospel Coalition’s 2020 Book of the Year for History and Biography, and was a finalist for the ECPA Christian Book Award in 2021.