Herman Bavinck has greater influence than name recognition. At the turn of the twentieth century, he worked tirelessly with Dutch prime minister and theologian Abraham Kuyper to shape the movement of Neo-Calvinism. His writings have influenced more recognizable theologians such as G.C. Berkhouwer, Cornelius Van Til, Louis Berkhof and Karl Barth. Yet, until recently, English speakers have had little access to his work. The ‘Bavinck revival’ in the last ten years has ushered in a flurry of translations of Bavinck’s writings into English, from his magnum opus, The Reformed Dogmatics, to Bavinck on the Christian Life, both edited by John Bolt.
In Bavinck on the Christian Life, Bolt draws from a lifetime’s work studying Bavinck to provide an accessible introduction to the whole body of his theology, addressing his vision of the Christian life. Bolt’s work is part of a larger series, Theologians on the Christian Life, that seeks to introduce readers to great Christian thinkers of the past.
Bolt breaks Bavinck’s ideas down into three sections: the foundations, the shape, and the practice of Christian discipleship. The Christian life finds its foundation in creation. “We are human to be human”, not the other way around (41). While the center of the Christian life is union with Christ, its beginning and end is full human life in communion with God. This means creation and God’s law (written on our hearts and revealed at Sinai) play a significant role in Christian discipleship. The law, for Bavinck, is not simply a result of sin, but part of the way God leads us into full life in fellowship with him and others. Therefore, though a Christian’s relationship to the law changes in Christ, it cannot be dispensed with.
United to Christ by the power of the Spirit, Christians are called to follow Jesus. We are to be ‘imitators of Christ,’ as Paul says. However, Bolt wants to be clear that Bavinck does not believe imitation means simply copying the life of Jesus. On this point, Bavinck is critical of both monasticism and rationalism for taking a literalistic approach to following Jesus. Instead, Bavinck counsels that the Christian must obey Christ and be conformed to his image. Our lives are not ‘re-enacting’ the life of Jesus, but following him in the particular contexts in which we live. Our lives, united to Christ, are to look like Christ. In his reading of the Sermon on the Mount, Bavinck sees the commands of Jesus as fundamentally upholding the Law of Sinai and strengthening and clarifying its meaning. “Union with Christ is therefore the heart of imitation of Christ” (117). United to Christ, the Christian can pay attention to the whole Christ and be directed to all the virtues the law requires, especially love.
Only then, Bolt argues, does Bavinck believe we can speak of a Christian worldview. Bolt shares concerns that the ‘worldview project’ of Neo-Calvinism has become far too narrowly concerned with the mind instead of the whole person. By contrast, Bavinck sees the Christian faith as arising from God’s revelation, which addresses the whole person, not simply a set of ideas. Christian life flows out of this worldview.
In the final four chapters, Bolt weaves together Bavinck’s writings and public life to show the fruit of his theology in the areas of marriage, work, culture, and civil society. He closes with a translation of Bavinck’s only published sermon: “The World-Conquering Power of Faith.”
Bavinck on the Christian Life is dense, but readable. At just over 250 pages, Bolt manages to touch almost every aspect of Christian theology, as well as the vast majority of Bavinck’s writings. He expertly demonstrates the relevance of Bavinck by drawing his vision into the present. Though Bavinck’s context was different than ours, his theology still speaks today. Bolt demonstrates that Bavinck’s theology concerning marriage and family can contribute to the church’s debate on sexuality; that his theology on education can be a voice in current movements in Christian education; and that his theology of work is necessary in a world still trying to save itself. However, the book’s greatest strength is that it is not only a book about Bavinck on the Christian life, but a book about Bavinck’s Christian life. Bavinck as theologian and as Christian disciple are inseparable. Bavinck did more than talk about theology—he lived it. Whether he was serving on parliament, preaching before synod, championing education reform, or helping form liturgies, his theology shaped his life of service.
This is never more clear than in Bolt’s inclusion of Bavinck’s sermon, “The World-Conquering Power of Faith.” In it, Bavinck makes a hopeful, gracious, and passionate proclamation of the gospel. He is confident without being naive, relevant without being pandering, and accessible without being banal. Yet, what comes through most clearly is a heart and mind captive to the Triune God and eager to live for his glory.
If you’ve never heard of Herman Bavinck, Bolt’s volume will serve as a helpful introduction. But even for the initiated, Bavinck on the Christian Life is a welcome contribution to the field.