Podcast: The Dutch Philosopher/Poet/Politician/Journalist/Theologian You Should Know (James Eglinton)

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Podcast: The Dutch Philosopher/Poet/Politician/Journalist/Theologian You Should Know (James Eglinton)

This article is part of the The Crossway Podcast series.

A Man of Ageless Wisdom

In this episode, James Eglinton introduces us to Herman Bavinck, explains his role in the neo-Calvinist movement in the Netherlands, and reflects on advice that Bavinck might offer us if he were alive today.

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Topics Addressed in This Interview:

  • Who Was Herman Bavinck?
  • The Theologian
  • The Author
  • What Would Bavinck Say to Us?

01:09 – Who Was Herman Bavinck?

Matt Tully
James, thank you so much for joining me on The Crossway Podcast.

James Eglinton
Thanks, Matt. It’s great to be here.

Matt Tully
In the last few years, it seems like I’ve been hearing the name of a long-dead theologian quite a lot—someone I didn’t hear much about growing up when I was in high school and youth group, or even in Bible college and maybe even in grad school a decade ago. I was not hearing his name bandied about like I am today. I’m guessing that’s probably true for many of our listeners—pastors, seminary students, regular lay people today who might be more theologically engaged. Nevertheless, they probably aren’t very familiar with this guy, even if they have heard his name a lot in recent years. And before we get to him and you tell us about him, I want to just read a few quotes from some contemporary theologians today who we all would know, probably, who have said some things about him. J. I. Packer called him “a man of giant mind, vast learning, ageless wisdom, and great expository skill.” John Frame, a famous systematic theologian today, said that “his systematic theology has been the fountainhead of Reformed theology for the last hundred years.” Also writing about this systematic theology that he produced, Richard Gaffin said that it was “arguably the most important ever produced in the Reformed tradition.” That’s a massive statement. And then finally, the late Tim Keller said, “When it comes to theologians that contemporary church leaders should be reading, I don’t know of a more important one than Herman Bavinck.” So my first real question for you is, Herman Bavinck—does he really live up to the hype that we tend to be hearing today?

James Eglinton
I think so. I hope so because I’ve been reading him and investing my time in trying to help other people read him for quite a while now. I first started reading him when I was in seminary in Edinburgh, Scotland back in maybe 2005.

Matt Tully
How were you introduced to him initially?

James Eglinton
Well, his most important work is called Reformed Dogmatics. It’s a big four-volume set. It was released in English between 2003 and 2008. So I was at seminary right in the middle of that time, and I had a systematic theology professor, Donald Macleod, who had read him some. He had actually been reading Bavinck for quite a while before then in snippets that were translated.

Matt Tully
So still in English?

James Eglinton
In English, yes. There were little bits and pieces of Bavinck that had been available in English for a while, so he’d read those and was really impressed. And then when the Dogmatics came out, for people who were in the know like that, they were aware from the little bits that they’d seen in English that this guy was really something special and his work was amazing. But unless you could read Dutch, then you didn’t know. But you lived in anticipation of when someone would finally translate the big work. So that happened. And then I was just at seminary around the time that it was coming out. And then Donald Macleod would encourage us in class to read this guy, Herman Bavinck, and I wasn’t disappointed. I thought this is just a wonderful theology. And all of the quotes that you gave there, that was what I felt about reading him at the time as well. He does have this quite remarkable name recognition across the English-speaking Christian world now, even if, as you say, if still a lot of people might know the name but they haven’t necessarily read the works, the fact that the name recognition is out there is pretty amazing.

Matt Tully
And you’ve played a role in that. You’ve written a biography of Bavinck and you’ve translated a couple of his works. We’ll talk about some of that as we keep going, but maybe take us back a little bit. Help us understand, for those of us who aren’t very familiar with him, tell us a little bit about his life. When did he live? Where did he live? What did he do?

James Eglinton
He was from the Netherlands. He was born in 1854, and then he died in 1921. And if you think about those years, 1854 is a very different world to 1921. He lived through a period of incredible change. He was really born in a very different world to the one that he died in.

Matt Tully
He was born before the Civil War in America and then died after World War I. That’s incredible.

James Eglinton
It’s quite a period to live through. He was a fabulously gifted thinker, really erudite, very clear in how he could think and express himself. And to do all of that from a very resolutely Christian perspective, and to chart all that change and engage with so many things as he did, it just makes him quite remarkable. If we think of him at all in the English-speaking world as a theologian, and we have that as quite a clear-cut category for him—

Matt Tully
That’s a valid category.

James Eglinton
It’s a valid category. Absolutely. He certainly was a theologian—a theologian and a half—but in his own lifetime, what I think makes him really remarkable and what I tried to draw out in the biography, is that alongside his theological work he wrote about so many other topics. He wrote books on psychology, he was an educational reformer and also an educational theorist, he wrote a couple of biographies, he led a political party—not very successfully, but he did it. And that’s still quite a thing. He was a member of parliament for a decade, a really effective Christian in politics. He wrote poetry. Again, not that well, but we should acknowledge that he did it.

Matt Tully
He took a shot at it.

James Eglinton
Yeah, he tried. He was a journalist and he became a national newspaper editor. It’s the stuff that a biographer’s dreams are made of because his life was so complex and textured. In his own lifetime, his own contemporaries quite often struggled to find a label to put on Bavinck. And there’d be all kinds of debates about is he a philosopher (because he wrote a lot of philosophy as well)? Is he a historian? Is he a theologian? Is he a pedagogue? Is he a psychologist? And then towards the end of his life, people started to settle, actually, on the label polymath in his own lifetime to try and describe him.

Matt Tully
Define that word.

James Eglinton
If you think back to Leonardo da Vinci and the idea of the Renaissance Man. If you think of what Leonardo was, he was a painter, he was an engineer, he was a war theorist, he was an anatomist. It’s someone who pursues knowledge of a bunch of different things to a very high level. You have the Renaissance Man, or someone who masters different disciplines. To work in different disciplines is a literal meaning of polymath. Bavinck was someone who was like that. We’ve kind of lost touch with what that looks like in the twenty-first
century because if you think of when Bavinck was around, he had to read a lot to master all these different disciplines. But the twentieth century was this age of hyper-specialization of knowledge and expertise in all of these things, so it’s quite difficult nowadays to be a leading scholar of psychology and theology. Just even within theology, just trying to keep on top of things in one niche area—

Matt Tully
The advancements in each of these disciplines has gotten so deep.

James Eglinton
Yeah, so deep. We live in an age of hyper-specialized experts in all fields of life, but there’s something that’s lost a little bit with not really having a lot of polymaths like Bavinck around anymore, in that the life of a polymath shows you one individual who can see a lot of dots and who tries to connect them in a very thoughtful way. And they’re just fascinating figures in that regard. And in Bavinck’s case, he’s a Christian who’s connecting all the dots and trying to embody this all in one life as well. So there’s a kind of holism. It’s a really holistic example of how to live as a Christian. And for us, we live in a very fragmented age. This is what I’ve found so tremendously appealing and edifying with Bavinck in reading him over the years is the Christian faith is a really holistic faith. It’s a faith for all of life, and it shouldn’t be something that’s just siloed off in one part of your life that’s a faith compartment and it doesn’t have anything to say to the rest of life. For Bavinck, the whole of life should be an expression of your Christian faith, and that’s what he tried to do. That’s just such a valuable kind of example.

Matt Tully
That gets into the topic of neo-Calvinism. I want to get into that in just a moment, but a little bit more on Bavinck the man. You’ve told us about his professional life, his achievements, even his theological vision. Tell us a little bit more about what he was like as a man. Was he married? Did he have children? What did his friends say about him in terms of his personality?

James Eglinton
Yeah, he did marry. Part of what I uncovered when I was writing my biography was that there’s a tragic love story there that nobody had really looked at before because it’s all written in his teenage diaries and his diaries when he’s in his twenties and early thirties. But it’s all written in Latin as a kind of code language to keep it a secret. So there’s a really sad love story there with the woman that he hoped to marry, and then he was rejected multiple times by her father. So that didn’t happen. And then he was a kind of sad and lonely singleton in his twenties, and that’s why he spent his twenties reading all the time, and that’s why he could produce all of this work. But he did marry in the end—a pretty remarkable woman, Johanna, who was a really formidable character in her own right, a really industrious, intelligent woman. She was a passionate anglophile, a really cosmopolitan kind of person, and a very thoughtful Christian as well who picked up on a lot of his work after he died. She co-founded a journal after he died called Christianity and the Women’s Movement, which was thinking through the place of women in society in the twentieth century from a Christian perspective.

Matt Tully
He was a big advocate for women’s suffrage?

James Eglinton
He was. He married, and they had one daughter. He himself was quite a reserved person.

Matt Tully
You see pictures of him and he’s a little intimidating looking. He doesn’t look like the most gregarious guy in the world.

James Eglinton
He doesn’t in pictures, but then nobody really did in the nineteenth century. That’s just the way it was.

Matt Tully
They didn’t smile much back then.

James Eglinton
They didn’t. If you have to sit for like eight minutes to have your picture taken, you’d have to sleep with a coat hanger in your mouth the night before just to hold that smile. So people looked kind of serious then. He was someone who I think probably projected his thoughts a lot, but maybe less so his feelings. He had a small number of friends who he corresponded with, and they were really his close companions. But they were also spread out internationally. Gerhardus Vos—maybe some listeners might know him. He was a really important biblical theology guy in the old Princeton tradition. Bavinck had a friend who was his polar opposite in every way, and he actually converted to Islam as well. And that was a really important long-term friendship.

Matt Tully
A Dutch friend?

James Eglinton
A Dutch friend. He had a couple of friends who died at various points in his life as well, and then close companions that he built up friendships with over many years that are ended and separated by death. So he really valued close relationships, but I don’t think he was a social butterfly or something like that. Not an outrageous extrovert, but a really sincere, warm person. When you find accounts of him from his students, they loved him. And he really gave himself to his students and didn’t hold back from investing in them. So those kinds of accounts you see are of a very warm Christian. But he was just a very careful thinker in every regard. He wasn’t a swashbuckling kind of person. His colleague Abraham Kuyper was this larger than life character, and Bavinck wasn’t like that at all.

Matt Tully
Did he have any children?

James Eglinton
He did. They had one daughter. Her family’s story is also pretty remarkable. His daughter married a lawyer, and they had three sons. In World War II, they were part of the underground resistance movement against the Nazis because they lived under Nazi occupation. Bavinck’s son-in-law, as a lawyer, would work to try and protect Jewish possessions from being taken over by the Nazis. They would hide Jews in their house and that kind of stuff. The sons worked for an underground resistance newspaper, and they were just teenagers doing this kind of stuff. So they were raided by Nazis, and Bavinck’s son-in-law eventually died in a concentration camp. Two of Bavinck’s grandsons, for their role in the resistance, were executed by Nazis. One of his grandsons survived, hidden in the loft of their house, and his daughter survived. But they were a really remarkable family in that regard as well. So their story had never really been told before the biography. So there’s a kind of postscript telling the story of the Bavinck family after Herman.

13:23 – The Theologian

Matt Tully
That’s amazing. It connects into some of his comments about race and racism. He came to America and was very critical of the racism that he found here in the years post the Civil War, in the early 1900s. That’s maybe another conversation. Tell us about neo-Calvinism. That’s this term that’s often associated with the likes of Bavinck and Kuyper. What was that movement, and what was his role?

James Eglinton
It was a movement that sprung up in the late nineteenth century in the Netherlands, and it was originally a pejorative term, as a lot of these great terms that stick are.

Matt Tully
Calvinism would have been the established framework, and so the neo part was—

James Eglinton
You could think of it like this: they were Christians in the Reformed tradition, and they wanted to address the big questions of their day from within that tradition. From their way of talking about this anyway, Calvinism for them meant what John Calvin was doing in the sixteenth century. And they were in that tradition, but they were aware that they lived in a very different period. So a lot of the questions that they faced just weren’t questions that existed in Calvin’s time. So you can’t just carry on doing Calvinism only with what you find in John Calvin’s works.

Matt Tully
What would be an example of some issues that they were facing?

James Eglinton
The Industrial Revolution. All of a sudden, you have these huge factories, and one person owns the thing but there might be thousands of workers in there. The factory conditions weren’t great in Western Europe in that period. So you have lots of questions around, How do we think through work or the economy? For Bavinck, these people are made in the image of God, but they spend their lives on factory lines and they die young because their bodies are just worn out. What should Christians think of that? That just didn’t exist in Calvin’s time. Or we can think of a really big issue that’s very different in Calvin’s time to the late nineteenth century in the West. In Calvin’s Geneva there was a guy called Miguel Servetus, who was an anti-Trinitarian heretic and who was burned at the stake because he was anti-Trinitarian.

Matt Tully
Something Calvin himself even approved of.

James Eglinton
Yeah. In Calvin’s own take on this, everyone approved of it—Protestants and Catholics. This was a capital offense to be explicitly anti-Trinitarian. And for Bavinck and Kuyper, they live in a very different world centuries on.

Matt Tully
A pluralistic world.

James Eglinton
Yeah, a pluralistic world where they don’t think that people should be executed for being anti-Trinitarians. So the questions that they face are just different, and that means that there are parts of this older Calvinism that they actually want to challenge and revise for what they thought were Christian reasons, actually. That’s the neo part, that they want to continue to develop Calvinism. So there were people in the background there who also would call themselves Reformed and thought they were drawing on Calvin, but they were really radically revising Calvinism. They saw this as a living tradition they wanted to continue, and that meant, in some ways, you have to go back and challenge what you found before, but you also have to expand the tradition because the questions are new. There are all kinds of advances in the natural sciences. They’re facing questions about evolutionary theory; Darwin is there in the background. There are all kinds of questions about new technologies and the structure of society, the family and society, democracy. That didn’t really exist in Calvin’s Geneva. Mass democracy is this big, new thing that they’re having to ask all these questions about. So the neo part is really a way of understanding this older tradition that continues to move forward, and they’re trying to push it forward.

Matt Tully
How would you draw a distinction between a neo-Calvinistic view of the world that’s seeking to engage culture and transform culture? There are a lot of these ideas of living as Christians in the world that precede the rise of neo-Calvinism, so what was the new insight or impulse that they were bringing to this idea of engaging as Christians with the rest of the world?

James Eglinton
Christians who’ve done this in the past have done so in the context of Christendom, at least in the West. So you’re trying to show that Christianity expresses itself in every area of life and enriches all of these areas. But in Christendom, that was done against the backdrop where, fundamentally, the way people think about society supports that.

Matt Tully
And even that Christendom was supported by the power of the state. Ultimately, the state is enforcing this vision of the Christian life.

James Eglinton
But after the Enlightenment, so we’re now talking about late modern Western Europe, Christendom is really over. For Kuyper, he already identified in the early twentieth century that this is now post-Christendom. So now there’s not that supportive infrastructure, and now there’s actually this challenge across the board that maybe Christianity should be removed from every area of life. And it’s that kind of vision of secularization that says religion is a part of our past but not our present or our future. So without a supportive backdrop, and actually with the challenge to eject Christianity from everything, you have a push in the opposite direction to say that maybe Christianity hinders us from flourishing in all of life, and we’re certainly not going to support it. So from that very different backdrop all of a sudden, Christianity is challenged to give a really positive, holistic account of itself, not just in the church and in soteriology but in all of life. And neo-Calvinism in history is this attempt to do that in the secularizing late modern Western context, and done with tremendous confidence in the Christian faith that it’s going to pass the test. And actually, Kuyper’s argument is that in those settings the outcome is even more glorious. For Christianity to succeed, and it’s expressing itself holistically in all of life in the context of Christendom, that’s amazing that Christianity can do that. But to do so when it faces opposition is even better for Kuyper; he thought that Christianity looked even more glorious in a post-Enlightenment context when it succeeds in the face of discouragement rather than encouragement. So it’s not novel in that sense in their eyes, in terms of it didn’t just spring out of nowhere. It’s like it’s an ongoing continuation of what Christians have been trying to do, but they’re just very aware of their context.

Matt Tully
The way the world is changing, the rise of secularization, as you said. So would you say, when it comes to neo-Calvinism as espoused by people like Kuyper and Bovinck, it’s fair to summarize their posture towards the prevailing secular culture broadly as one of engagement and transformation rather than resistance and maybe retreat?

James Eglinton
I think you can see both. If we’re thinking of Kuyper’s life or Bavinck’s life, we’re talking about the 1870s–1890s. That’s one particular period where all of this is developing. So those decades in Dutch culture were really ripe for institution building. And there were lots of different streams in society that all had different visions of the future of Christianity in Dutch culture. And for some people in some of those streams, secularization means progress beyond religion, and now we have a secular state that meets all of our needs. They didn’t believe in miracles or the resurrection or anything anyway, so they said Christianity is just part of our past and we don’t need it anymore. And there were other streams who were trying to articulate different visions of how Christianity is important to our future and our present—

Matt Tully
A certain version of Christianity.

James Eglinton
The neo-Calvinists emerged as one group advancing particular claims. And probably the most holistic way to articulate Christianity in that context, they had this view that I mentioned before that orthodoxy is always moving forward and expanding and addressing new questions wherever it meets them. So they were really confident that Christianity could go on to do this.

Matt Tully
I think the liberal trajectories of Christianity almost had, it seems, a continually shrinking Christianity, whereas as technological and scientific advances are happening, they’re slowly eating away at what it means to be Christian. Whereas you’re saying these neo-Calvinists were kind of saying, No, no, no. The core of Christian orthodoxy is solid and it’s going to continue to expand as we understand the world more.

James Eglinton
It’s always big enough to answer any new questions. They thought the history wasn’t static either, so they thought humans are curious and creative and they’ll always create new questions, but Christianity will always meet that challenge. So in those decades, Dutch culture is very much busy with its own reinvention all the time. The neo-Calvinists are a voice within that who are saying, Actually, we really need Christianity far more than a lot of people say we do. And they were really successful with this, and they created lots of institutions, newspapers, they founded a university, they were really enterprising within society. And the trajectory looked really good for them, and then Kuyper ended up becoming prime minister as well. So they had a Christian political party.

Matt Tully
They reached the highest echelons of power.

James Eglinton
Yeah, they did. But they were also very committed to democracy within all of this, and they were arguing for a vision of society where Christians should be free to be Christians, but also they give that same freedom to others.

Matt Tully
This wasn’t a kind of Christian nationalism that they were advocating for.

James Eglinton
No. It would be really anachronistic to take American versions of that today and project it back. No. It was very much a vision of Christian democracy—Christianity as the foundation of democracy—but then that means that Christians give freedom to non-Christians to have a place within society. So then Kuyper is prime minister all of a sudden, and it looks like the zenith of what they were trying to achieve. That was at the very beginning of the twentieth century, but he only lasted one term. And then after that, Dutch culture really changed.

Matt Tully
So would you say it’s fair to say that this neo-Calvinistic impulse, at least in the Netherlands, that while it had a bright beginning and seemed to achieve a lot of noble ends, it didn’t really last and it didn’t really actually work?

James Eglinton
So that’s a critique that I hear a lot, but I always push back against it and argue that it did work and has been really successful, even to the present day. So Kuyper lasted one term as prime minister, and then he died in 1920. Bavinck died in 1921. And you’ve got World War I in the middle of that, and they’re pretty bleak years in Western Europe.

Matt Tully
Then you have the Great Depression that sweeps around the whole world.

James Eglinton
Yeah, and so there was Friedrich Nietzsche, this great atheist who died in 1900. And the Dutch didn’t really care about him in his lifetime, but he became really popular very quickly in Dutch culture. Atheism and a very new kind of atheism becomes quite fashionable. In those two decades, what you see in Bavinck and Kuyper is that they both realize something has changed in Western culture. It’s really post-Christendom now. It’s not entirely postChristian in their view. We still swim in very Christian waters, but people are trying to just explore all kinds of things to move on from, eventually, from Christendom in a very comprehensive sense. So then you find Bavinck talking a lot about evangelism way more than he had earlier in his life, and also within the Netherlands. And you find Kuyper really starting to develop as a missional thinker in his own context. The late Kuyper is fascinating. He’s not in any way triumphalist about Dutch culture or anything like that. He’s really trying to think through what has happened here.

Matt Tully
So he kind of sees the future of Christians are not going to be the center of society like they once were.

James Eglinton
He didn’t think they were the center even after his time as prime minister.

Matt Tully
Even as prime minister he wouldn’t have said that?

James Eglinton
Well, certainly after his term as prime minister. He’s really very realistic about the challenges of his own day. So in that regard, it didn’t stay a neo-Calvinist-governed country for very long. But I think that they succeeded in some really profound ways in relation to what they actually tried to do. I don’t think that they tried to set up a neo-Calvinist-led country forever. The government that Kuyper led was also a minority government. He was democratically elected, but it wasn’t like ninety-nine percent of the people all wanted Abraham Kuyper.





Matt Tully
They were always limited in what they could do.

James Eglinton
They were, but the things that they achieved that have been successful unto the present day are things like how they campaigned really hard for the government to fund Christian schools and Christian universities. Their argument there was basically that the government funds what it regards as neutral schools—they don’t teach on the basis of a worldview—but it won’t fund people whose teaching and education is explicitly run on the basis of a worldview.

Matt Tully
It echoes a lot of the conversation happening in America today, actually.

James Eglinton
No doubt. So Bavinck and Kuyper argued over decades that everyone has presuppositions and everyone has a philosophy, and the government is arbitrary and biased in only supporting these apparently neutral schools and in not supporting schools that are just honest about what they believe. But everyone has beliefs. So eventually, they won in 1917. The government agreed, Okay, we recognize that all schools have a worldview, and we fund equally. And we’ll also fund universities as well. And you still have that to the present day. I lived in the Netherlands for three years. In Scotland, the government funds Roman Catholic schools, and it funds apparently neutral schools that are just taught not on the basis of any particular philosophy. Philosophically, I think that’s—

Matt Tully
It’s incoherent.

James Eglinton
It doesn’t work at all, and obviously the apparently neutral schools teach on the basis of a philosophy because we’re human beings. Nobody lives without a whole bunch of presuppositions and priorities. So they were talking about that kind of context as well. But even today in the Netherlands, when I lived in the Netherlands my kids went to a state-funded Christian school that’s run by the church, but it’s supported by the state. Christians pay their taxes, so why shouldn’t those taxes go towards the kind of schools that actually allow Christians to raise their kids holistically? I worked for a Christian university that was state funded. That doesn’t exist in the UK. That still exists in the Netherlands today, and it’s a really big deal. Ten percent or so of the Dutch population is a practicing Orthodox Protestant. So I think that a century on what Kuiper and Bavinck achieved has a huge legacy that’s really important. In the Netherlands, every day I had a choice of different really high quality Christian national newspapers. I would read the same news as any other newspaper reported, but it’s actually being put together from a Christian perspective. We don’t have that in the UK. In the Netherlands you can choose between multiple Christian political parties, where you actually feel like you’re represented as a Christian, and they take part in democracy. Again, we don’t have that in the UK. So a lot of people in america and in the UK look on the Netherlands and there’s like a pretty shallow stereotype that it’s just all drugs and prostitution.

Matt Tully
We look at places like Amsterdam and we hear some of the horror stories about the secularization and so on.

James Eglinton
That’s one part of Dutch society, but there’s so much of it that people outside of the Netherlands aren’t aware of. And none of that would exist without Bavinck or Kuyper. So I think at one level, the Netherlands is quite remarkable in secular Western Europe that the government actually supports that kind of stuff still.

28:26 – The Author

Matt Tully
That’s amazing. Let’s talk a little bit about Bavinck’s works. You’ve already mentioned a few of them, and you’ve already mentioned that for a long time, up until just fairly recently, most of his works were not available in English, which probably explains why so many of us have this feeling of, Whoa! Who’s this new guy on the block that people are talking about now? Let’s start with that magnum opus that you mentioned—his Reformed Dogmatics. That’s this multi-volume systematic theology. What is it about that work that is so impressive?

James Eglinton
Reformed Dogmatics is a four volume work, so it’s really impressive in that it’s very long. But a book can be long and unimpressive because it’s long-winded or repetitive, and it’s not like that at all. Volume 1 is the Prolegomena, and it’s quite dense and tough to read. It’s really high level. And a lot of systematic theologians who were writing at the same time didn’t include a volume like that. They just got straight into the doctrine of God or creation. But the Prolegomena is Bavinck facing up to all of the questions that you need to ask in order to do theology. Can we know God? What is the basis of our knowledge of God? Because a huge part of the Enlightenment was Immanuel Kant saying there is no knowledge of God.

Matt Tully
So the epistemic questions.

James Eglinton
Yeah. The epistemic questions that you really need to ask in order to do theology. After that, volumes two, three, and four, I’ve argued in the past, are actually structured around the Apostles Creed. The Apostle’s Creed is structured around the three persons of the Godhead, and then around creation by the Father, salvation, and then the Church and recreation through the Holy Spirit. So Volume 2 of Bavinck’s Dogmatics is about God, the doctrine of God, and the doctrine of creation. Volume 3 is Christology, sin, Christology, salvation. Volume 4 is the Holy Spirit, the church, and the new creation. So what I’ve tried to argue in writing about Bavinck in the past is that Reformed Dogmatics is an enormous exposition of the Apostle’s Creed. And in that regard, it’s not sectarian theology. What Bavinck is trying to argue is that his Reformed tradition is the best, most comprehensive way to explore and elaborate on and expand the Apostle’s Creed. So he’s trying to show that it’s really catholic in spirit and also very Reformed in what that looks like actually. So the idea is that wherever you are in Reformed Dogmatics, you can always trace it back ultimately to the Apostle’s Creed. So in that regard, it’s really impressive work.

Matt Tully
Another book that you actually were involved with in translating and editing is Christian Worldview. Tell us about what Bavinck is doing in that small book.

James Eglinton
The background to it is that in the Netherlands in that period, you have the neo-Calvinists who are very transparent thinkers in saying our starting point in how we think is Christian, and we have a whole load of Christian assumptions. Ultimately, the first presupposition is that God is there, that God exists. And on that basis, we move forward in how we think about the world and how we’re going to live within it. So we are just explicitly Christian. The Christian is this adjective that shapes everything. But there’s this rival claim in society that is people who say, Well, we’re really neutral, and we’ve managed to free ourselves from the straitjacket of bias and presupposition, and we just do science.

Matt Tully
You never hear that today.

James Eglinton
Nothing much has changed. The English-speaking world is just catching up with the Netherlands. So you have all these people who will claim that they don’t have a worldview.

Matt Tully
I’m just looking at the facts.

James Eglinton
I’m just looking at the facts, and I’m not interpreting anything and I don’t have any a priori starting points. I’m cool-headed, detached, unbiased, and the way that I see things is the way that things are. So what Bavinck is trying to argue in that book is actually, everyone has to live on the basis of starting assumptions. That doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t put those assumptions to the test. That’s really important to do that—

Matt Tully
They might not be right.

James Eglinton
Indeed. They might be wrong or they might be right, but we all live on the basis of starting points that we take for granted. So we should all be honest enough to admit that. We’re all trying to pursue a particular worldview. So Bavinck tries to help Christians think that through by looking at the kind of questions that you need to ask in order to build a worldview. They’re questions about, What am I? Can I know things? If I can, what can I know? And then if it’s possible for me to know things, how then should I live on the basis of what I am and what I know? So Bavinck’s argument is that we all live by assumption that we have answers to those questions. And we might not even realize that there are questions there. We just take the answers as though they’re just obvious to all people and as though the way that you are is the way that all people should be. And that’s really the kind of argument that he faced from this secular side that regarded itself as neutral and said, The Christian should stop being Christian because we’re not Christian; so therefore, you shouldn’t be either. So the book Christian Worldview is his attempt to set up a set of what are ultimately quite philosophical questions, but you have to ask them because humans are philosophical creatures really. We all need to ask those kinds of questions. So the book Christian Worldview sets out those questions and tries to lay down a bit of a gauntlet for people who might say, I don’t even have a worldview. I’m not affected by worldview. This is just the way things are.

Matt Tully
I would imagine for some of our listeners this might make them think of presuppositional apologetics and Cornelius Van Til and the work that he did and others following after him. How connected would what Bavinck was saying on this stuff—what we would consider today to be Christian presuppositionalism?

James Eglinton
It’s all related. The neo-Calvinist tradition is just quite strong on this and the insistence that people do have presuppositions. All people do. It’s just that it’s not possible to live a human life without presupposing a whole load of things every day. Bavinck’s way of talking about this is that human life cannot be lived on a purely a posteriori basis, as though it’s only when you start off in it from a neutral perspective and then put everything to the test. Nobody is a blank slate where all of the the big decisions are reached and relied on a posteriori. You can find that kind of presuppositional approach elsewhere. I think maybe something that the neo-Calvinists, and particularly Bavinck and Kuyper don’t do, is I don’t think they elevate it to an -ism. Later in his life, Bavinck starts to see humans as incredibly inconsistent creatures, in that people might have particular presuppositions, but that doesn’t always determine what they do and how they live out those presuppositions. That’s actually part of the chaos that sin brings in. Sin is a kind of lawlessness. We’re even lawless in relation to the assumptions that we make that should determine how we live.

Matt Tully
Sometimes they do and sometimes they don’t.

James Eglinton
Indeed. And also common grace is a factor for how they think about presuppositions and how we live them out. For us in sin and in Adam, our unregenerate hearts have really bad presuppositions. The a prioris are towards evil rather than towards our creator. And if we were left to be really consistent with unregenerate presuppositions, this world would be a truly awful place. But in the doctrine of common grace, which they see as rooted again in Calvin, God has a restraining hand on our capacity for evil, and we’re not the worst version of ourselves, thankfully. And that means that sometimes we might have presuppositions that should lead to far worse outcomes, but God doesn’t let that happen. And those things are quite hard to predict, and there’s the inconsistency of humans and also the mysterious workings in God’s providence of his common grace and that restraining hand. So Bavinck and Kuyper are very aware of the reality and the power of presuppositions, but I think those other factors maybe stop it from becoming some kind of a predictive -ism. I think maybe Bavinck’s actually a bit stronger on this than Kuyper, but certainly for Bavinck it’s not the case that if you just tell me your presuppositions, then boom! I already know you and I can say exactly what you’re going to do in this situation.

Matt Tully
So maybe one last book to talk about that you, again, have been very involved with in translating and editing is Christianity and Science. Immediately, our minds in the American context are probably going to go to all these debates around science and how we integrate it with faith, and arguments around evolution and the age of the earth. But that’s not exactly what Bavinck was focusing on in this book. Tell us a little bit about what he was doing.

James Eglinton
Indeed. The title is maybe provocative in that regard, and I hope it draws in an audience and surprises some people. But that kind of debate is a very anglophone debate. I think some readers in the UK might have a similar kind of impression, that by science you therefore mean the natural sciences. For a lot of the twentieth century, those debates have been focused on seeing the natural sciences in Christianity as things that are hard to integrate, so they come from very separate places. But in Bavinck’s context, the Dutch word wetenschap, which we translate as science, has quite a different meaning. Wetenschap, or science in this Dutch context, refers to things that you come to know by effort and by investigation. So it’s not just stuff that you know effortlessly or intuitively; it’s actually stuff that you have to go and work hard to find out.

Matt Tully
You have to study.

James Eglinton
Yeah, you have to study. Exactly. And that is true of a physicist, it’s true of a geologist, it’s true of a linguist, it’s true of a theologian, it’s true of a philosopher, it’s true of a scholar of literature. It’s all knowledge that you have to go and work hard to find out. And you have to work hard to find out that knowledge on the basis of appropriate methods, and the methods then enable you to have some kind of expertise so that you can speak with authority on your field. And there’s one word for all of this—wetenschapper science. So what you have in that kind of history is you don’t have a bias towards some disciplines over others because they get to use one very powerful word. And that’s what we have in the English-speaking world.

Matt Tully
Follow the science.

James Eglinton
Follow the science. How often do you hear people end a conversation with, Because science.

Matt Tully
It’s meant to be that hammer that shuts down any objections.

James Eglinton
Indeed. I’ve yet to hear someone shut down an objection with, Because the humanities. Duh. That just doesn’t really happen.

Matt Tully
Only ironically might that be laid down.

James Eglinton
I’m going to do it, but try and do it subversively then. Herman Bavinck was really critical of the way that this works in the English-speaking world because it was still like that in his day. This is not a new thing, that we restrict the word science to things that you know on the basis of the empirical method and that you know by sense perception, and that that’s authoritative knowledge. A scientist is someone who really knows with a lot of authority, but humanity scholars just deal in very subjective opinions but they’re not real experts and as a kind of popular culture impression. But for Bavinck, these are all wetenschappen; they’re all sciences. They’re all forms of knowledge that you have to acquire. So the playing field is much more level and much more even. So this big Christianity and Science, the original title is just Christian Science in Dutch, but we can’t really render it like that in English.

Matt Tully
There’s a different kind of connotation.

James Eglinton
The connotations are different, and it doesn’t really work in the English-speaking world. We titled it Christianity and Science in English rather than Christianity and Scholarship because we thought that if we call it Christianity and Scholarship, that’s still biasing things towards the natural sciences. We thought Bavinck would hate that title, if we called it Christianity and Scholarship because it’s precisely the thing he critiques.

Matt Tully
It’s giving up this word science.

James Eglinton
Yeah. It’s giving it over to something that he really wanted to challenge. So what he’s trying to do in this book is make a case for Christianity as a thing that expresses itself in the life of the mind and in how we try and pursue knowledge and obtain it, and knowledge of lots of different things. In fact, the whole sphere of our existence and the creation. So that will include the natural sciences and things that appropriately are known by sense perception and empirical method, but it also includes the humanities. There are fields of inquiry where we have to obtain knowledge, and you have to have particular methods that are appropriate, and therefore you have particular people with distinct forms of expertise there. So you can’t get a physicist and say, Tell us how to interpret this section of ’Othello’, and do it with authority because you’ve got the empirical method. That just doesn’t work. That’s not livable. And if you have this very weighted, skewed approach that the natural science people are the true scientists, the true experts, and the rest of us are just vague opinions people, that’s quite a shrunken form of human existence.

Matt Tully
It’s pretty amazing, too, to think that one of the main critiques from Christians in recent decades, especially of the new atheist, so to speak, has been that they often do overstep. They step out of their sphere of expertise, the natural sciences like astrophysics or biology, and they start to make all these philosophical pronouncements that they don’t even necessarily know that they’re making, but they are kind of going beyond or they’re making ethical claims, moral claims based on this biological discipline. Bavinck would presumably have words to say to that.

James Eglinton
We have some celebrity atheists, and they’re based in the academy, but celebrity atheists, intellectuals, who will make what are, in effect, philosophical pronouncements. But they’ll say, This is just because of science. I don’t do philosophy at all. I just do science.

Matt Tully
Right. Or they’ll demean philosophy as this kind of unimportant, subjective exercise.

James Eglinton
Yeah. We have one celebrity academic in the UK, a high profile humanist who on Easter Sunday will make a point of tweeting, This is your annual reminder that dead people don’t rise from the grave. You’ll have Christians who will push back against this and say, Well, let’s talk about the assumptions that you make about metaphysics and why Christians think it’s reasonable to say that actually the resurrection did happen. And the moment that you introduce some philosophy to the conversation, you’ll get some kind of reply that says, Oh, I don’t deny the resurrection because of philosophy. I just do science. There’s no philosophy involved. And so Bavinck would push back against that to say, Of course there’s philosophy involved. You’re a human being, and all scientific inquiry presupposes a particular metaphysic, it presupposes a particular approach to philosophy. And what Bavinck is trying to do in this book, Christianity and Science, is just be really transparent in saying, My inquiry also presupposes a philosophy. So does yours. This is how my my Christian faith gives a very coherent way of grounding all these things together. So tell me, What’s your starting point? Because it’s not neutrality. Show me that it can do a better job than Christianity.

43:06 – What Would Bavinck Say to Us?

Matt Tully
Maybe a last few final fun and somewhat speculative questions about Herman Bavinck. I thought it’d be fun to hear you answer. What advice would Bavinck offer us today related to the increasing polarization that we see in the US but probably around the world as well in the West? Political polarization, ecclesiological polarization—we just see this fracturing all around us, it seems. What would Bavinck say to that?

James Eglinton
I think in the first place, he would offer a historical reminder, maybe specifically within the US, of what that was like for him. Because he came to America twice, and one of the really interesting observations he left behind was that Dutch culture to him was very polarized, but American culture wasn’t. He made this fascinating comment that in America, people think that you can be a Christian and be a Republican, and you can be a Christian and be a Democrat. And he said, “And neither denies the other a place in heaven.” Which is quite a way to put it.

Matt Tully
That might be less true today, perhaps.

James Eglinton
Yeah, it may be less true today, but he was struck by how civil Americans were in their disagreements, and how non-polarized they were despite the two party system.

Matt Tully
And despite the legacy of the Civil War, which happened after he was born.

James Eglinton
It might be a rosy picture that wasn’t totally accurate, but that’s what he was struck by anyway, enough to write it down and tell Dutch people, We should be more like the Americans because they treat each other much better than we do. So he would offer some kind of reminder, maybe, of that. But I think something that’s a reminder that he might offer as well is if you think of the history of Christendom, that offers you, in terms of the cultural waters that you swim in, a basic set of ways of thinking about human beings and the dynamics of our relationships that factor in sin, grace, forgiveness. And all of those really make a big difference in how you’ll get on with people who differ from you. The kind of Christian cultural waters that Western people had been used to swimming in for so long, that gave them quite deep intuitions about themselves as imperfect, as sinners who receive grace, who receive a lot of immense patience from God, and who then have deep intuitions about that towards other people. As we move away from Christendom, there are elements of a return to maybe what was there before all of those Christian intuitions came into the world.

Matt Tully
A paganism, you might call it?

James Eglinton
Yeah, paganism. Some kind of return to that. We inherit a lot of those intuitions in the West from Augustine. Augustine was someone who, before he was a Christian, had been a Manichean. Manichaeism is this belief that everything is either light or dark, and everything is divided between good and evil, and you better make sure you know which side you’re on, and you don’t want to be contaminated by the other side. It’s not a way of thinking about life or the world that has those categories of grace and forgiveness, and accepting that within my own life, there’s a whole lot of right and wrong.

Matt Tully
This idea of original sin and indwelling sin are not the focus. It’s more of either you’re pure or you’re defiled.

James Eglinton
Yeah, exactly. So you think in those very stark categories. That’s a direction that Western culture might go in, where instead of being very Augustinian, which is what we’d been for a very long time, we would actually, by rejecting him, then we revert to what he had before that, which is this idea that you’re either pure or defiled. You’re either in my camp or the other camp, and I will not hold hands with you in any sense because I don’t want to be contaminated by you. And I think we see lots of that in Western culture. We just don’t have those categories anymore of grace and forgiveness and our own imperfection. Therefore, we just don’t want to be defiled by people who aren’t in our camp. And we really have to make sure that everyone knows that we do a lot of throat clearing about our own purity and the impurity of others and the distance we keep from them. So I think that the Bavincks would give us some really great resources in thinking those things through.

Matt Tully
You’re saying they foresaw that to some extent?

James Eglinton
Yes.

Matt Tully
All right, another question. How would Bavinck counsel Christians to think about new digital technologies, including the rise of AI, the kind of big thing that we’re all thinking about right now?

James Eglinton
Continuing a lot of what I’ve said already in this conversation, Christian orthodoxy rises to meet every challenge, and so he would be really positive about Christians being in those conversations in the first place. I think Bavinck has a really good way of thinking about technology or technologies within the context of the doctrine of creation. If you talk to scholars of AI, they’ll talk about the problems of AI. Really, what they will draw you to is that the problems of AI are really the issues of the humans that create it. I know there’s the kind of science fiction AI where we’re all worried about—a Terminator 2 scenario or something and the robotic uprising. When you talk to real scholars of AI, the science fiction AI isn’t really what they’re talking about. So the real challenges are challenges for humans. And that will come down to things like the dignity of work, the place of changing labor patterns in society—

Matt Tully
All things that Bavinck, in his own way, was responding to with the rise of industrialization.

James Eglinton
Indeed. But I think with Herman Bavinck, you can actually see something that he does with the invention of the washing machine and the dishwasher that shows a real intelligence and an attentiveness to thinking about technology. For Bavinck, the washing machine and the dishwasher were brand-new, cutting edge inventions at the end of his life. Before then, to run a household in the Netherlands meant that if you have a bunch of kids, their clothes have to be washed by hand, and all the dishes have to be washed by hand.

Matt Tully
All the cups that I see everyday.

James Eglinton
Yeah, all that kind of stuff. In my family, we once had a two-week period when our dishwasher broke down until the new one could be delivered. And we have four kids. Our evenings were all spent washing dishes. It takes up so much time. And you realize that if you didn’t have this technology, life would be very different. So Bavinck could foresee that if these technologies become affordable, then the world will change. And then we really have to think about all kinds of big questions about the way that the technology actually then forces a reactive change in how humans live their lives. So there’s a shift from what people who write about technology would think of as a tool-based view of technology, that these are just things that we use, to a view of technology where you actually have to start thinking in quite profound ways about how the technology means that we react to it. So AI will do that. So you can see early forms of ways of thinking about that as a Christian in Bavinck that open that conversation up. So he covers some of that ground too.

Matt Tully
What about the dominance of expressive individualism that we see around us today, and maybe seen most vividly in the sexual revolution that we’re seeing around us when it comes to things like orientation and gender where there’s just this radical individualism and self-determination? What would Bavinck say about that?

James Eglinton
Bavinck wrote a lot about individuality over his lifetime. And he thought that individuality is a God-given gift. He thought it was a really good thing that no two humans are exactly alike. But the consistent challenge that he poses to people in his own day is that when you elevate individuality into an -ism, then you really crush individuality. So individuality needs a bigger thing to be part of for it actually to be well-sustained. So the context that he’s pushing back against is the kind of individuality that was asserted, he thought, in the French Revolution and the kind of philosophy that went with that. So he thought that individuality had been really crushed by a kind of individualism that tells people—or that told people in that context, for example—that the wider community that has formed you didn’t really form you. You utterly formed yourself. All of the burden of being who and what you are is born on your own two shoulders, and you don’t have a community to bear that burden for you. You’re responsible for your own self-creation. He thought that’s not what human life is actually like. It requires a lot of cognitive dissonance to say—

Matt Tully
You’re resisting the way the world is when you think that way.

James Eglinton
Indeed. But he thought as well that individuality is a good thing, and he’s a late modern person. So there’s a challenge which is, How do you reconcile the one and the many, in terms of individuals and the units that form them, which are families of one kind or another? So he thought that the reconciliation of those things or the harmony between those things—again, for him this is an argument for why Christianity can do this. It can teach you how to be part of a bigger group or a family or something like that, and it can teach you what it means to be an individual. But if you don’t have something to hold those two things together, then the pendulum can swing between a radical communitarian way of being human where you’ve got no choice at all and you’re just pressed into a mold. And he thought that’s not true to life either because humans are distinct. Every new individual human is a product, he said, of two distinct family histories, like the two halves of the genetic equation that produce every new individual. So it’s not true to life just to press us all into a mold, but it’s also not true to life just to completely shut your eyes as to all of the different things that, whether you like it or not, have shaped you and produced you. So you need something to bring about harmony, and for him this is an argument for Christianity, and a challenge to other takes on things as to how they’ll hold these two things together in a livable way.

Matt Tully
James, thank you so much for taking the time to talk with us today and introduce maybe many of us for the first time to this great thinker, this great theologian in the Christian tradition, Herman Bavinck.

James Eglinton
Thank you for having me.


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