While the life of Herman Bavinck was not marked by the sort of dramatic detail that one finds in the life of Martin Luther or even the sturm und drang of Bavinck’s more forceful and high-strung colleague, Abraham Kuyper, this new biography that James Eglinton has written is by no means a literary sedative. On the contrary, Bavinck’s equipoise both as a theologian and as a person who lived in a world in which “the ground was constantly moving under his feet” (to borrow a pervasive metaphor from the book) is one of the features that makes his life and Eglinton’s superb account of it such an engaging read. The author’s stated aim is “to tell the story of a man whose theologically laced personal narrative explored the possibility of an orthodox life in a changing world” (xx). And he has struck that target.
This book is a literary bravura. Eglinton has pulled off the daunting task of holding together interesting, accessible biography with meticulous scholarship in a single volume. The backbone of the narrative is supplied from Bavinck’s own journals (dagboeken). With that anchor to the narrative, the biography is then filled out with a robust utilization of Bavinck’s correspondences, 19th and 20th century newspapers, Bavinck’s extensive oeuvre, and Eglinton’s expert familiarity with other primary and secondary sources.
In his dissertation, Trinity and Organism, Eglinton took on the task of dismantling the “Two-Bavincks” hypothesis—once the dominant way of reading Bavinck as a theologian. That hypothesis framed Bavinck as a theologian divided against himself. Two irreconcilable compartments were said to inhabit his theology: the orthodox and the modern. Athwart this hermeneutic, Eglinton and others have helped to recover an understanding of Bavinck as a theologian who laid out “the workings of a theological system that might allow him to maintain difficult tensions (and even to find this desirable)” (xix). Having contended convincingly in his dissertation for Bavinck as an organic theologian capable of holding together essence and becoming, unity and diversity, orthodoxy and modernity, in this biography Eglinton has painted a convincing portrait of Bavinck as an organic man, excavating the biography of a personality who in his own life and career held together essence and becoming, unity and diversity, orthodoxy and modernity. It is a portrait of a theological giant who eschewed in principle both world-flight and world-conformity, and who strove with remarkable effort to live up to that principle.
The first of the five parts that make up Bavinck: A Critical Biography examines Bavinck’s roots, opening with a multifaceted depiction of the world into which Bavinck was born. Eglinton sets the stage with a history of the Reformed Secession churches in the Netherlands in the context of the vertiginous movement and upheaval of 19th century Europe and the consequent participation of those churches in the emerging modernity of the world which surrounded them. The superb historical reconstruction in this first chapter primes the reader to grasp that “The question of how to inhabit the modern world while maintaining a vital connection to pre-Enlightenment orthodox Christianity was not Herman Bavinck’s own creation” (11). Eglinton includes as well a brief, but well-researched biography of Herman Bavinck’s father, Jan Bavinck, covering his career as a pastor. It supplies a vivid backdrop for the role Jan played in key moments of his son’s life.
Eglinton’s biography builds from there to Bavinck’s years of education, introducing readers to a humanizing, love-smitten teenage Bavinck who pursued a romance that eventually ended only in heart-break later in his post-doctoral years. In Bavinck’s progress through the Theological School in Kampen and then the University of Leiden we begin to glimpse the way in which he was able to inhabit what, to many onlookers both in his day and in historical reassessment, seemed to be fundamentally incompatible worlds. Eglinton acquaints us with the student manifestation of the one, unified Bavinck who was at once both the devout son of the Dutch Reformed Secession as well the theologian and intellectual who was compelled to engage the swirling currents of the modernity of his day. This theme continues through Bavinck’s brief year in the pastorate. Here, as in many other places, Eglinton gives readers the texture of the living humanity of Bavinck who gave himself to the rigors of his ministerial calling, all the while struggling with the sort of loneliness that so many who have lived ministerial callings have experienced.
Eglinton’s treatment of Bavinck’s mature years focuses on his time as a professor of dogmatics, balancing a heavy teaching load with preparing for, as Eglinton puts it, his “writing of a modern Reformation.” These chapters also trace Bavinck’s newfound joy as a husband and father, his grief of loss in the death of family and friends, and his developing relationship with Abraham Kuyper. This period is followed by Bavinck’s move to assume a professorship at the Free University of Amsterdam, his contest against the new Zeitgeist unleased in Nietzsche’s Übermensch, his continuing struggle for Christian education, the death of his father, frustrations with intractable ecclesiastical problems, and his time as a member of Dutch parliament. It is here that Eglinton definitively puts to rest a theory, long favored among the peddlers of the “Two Bavincks” hypothesis, that Bavinck at the end of his career somehow repudiated his life-long work as a dogmatician.
This biography of course closes where all biography (save for one) must close, and we join Bavinck on his deathbed as a man devout, private, humble, and human to the last. But Eglinton has another treat in store for readers: A brief postscript which follows Bavinck’s wife, Johanna, into her work with the Christian women’s movement, as well as an account of Bavinck’s descendants who were members of the Dutch resistance during Nazi occupation.
The book has an array of other pleasant additions to the meaty narrative of the biography, including a well-chosen sampling of photographs, letters, and several impressive appendixes. An especially rewarding inclusion is a translation of Bavinck’s own account of his journey to America, in which he percipiently diagnoses the virtues and vices of the American culture of the early 20th century, many of which continue to live on in the fabric of early 21st century American culture.
Frequent readers of scholarly works are wont to fill the air with imprecations whenever they discover a book defaced with endnotes instead of graced with footnotes. And this reviewer is no exception. After all, who cherishes the experience of reading a book with several of one’s fingers jammed in its various pages? However, this sort of biography is one of the few places where endnotes find their rightful place. Its captivating flow as a narrative benefits from being unencumbered by an impenetrable forest of footnotes looming below the text. For loom they would. When one takes the time to track down the endnotes, one discovers 81 pages in small print appended; evidence beyond contest to the magisterial stature of Eglinton’s work as a Bavinck scholar.
Bavinck’s work as a theologian has at last come into the reception it richly deserves in the decade or so since the English translation of Reformed Dogmatics was completed. This new biography is required reading for anyone who wants to grasp how the whole of that theology was shaped by the intellectual and religious contours of Bavinck’s personality and life. What’s more, it’s a well told story of a captivating life.