Rediscovering a font of cultural wisdom
Jennifer Marshall Patterson | Herman Bavinck’s insights about grace and nature speak to problems today
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“Before all else, what strikes us in the modern age is the internal discord that consumes the self and the restless haste that drives it.” Dutch theologian Herman Bavinck wrote that in 1904, but could just as well have been describing our own generation’s internal discord and restlessness. As a theologian and statesman, Bavinck sought to help Christians at the turn of the 20th century develop a robust “world-and-life view” amid a rapidly shifting cultural terrain. We need the same for navigating unsteady ground in our day.
2021 marks one hundred years since Bavinck’s death, and the contemporary relevance of his numerous writings on theology and Christian worldview has only recently begun to be appreciated in the English-speaking world. One reason is that Bavinck’s legacy has largely been overshadowed by his more famous fellow Dutchman Abraham Kuyper, who served as prime minister of the Netherlands from 1901-1905.
Born on this day 167 years ago on Dec. 13, 1854, Bavinck’s public life largely coincides with that of Kuyper. He was active in Kuyper’s political party for decades, addressing such issues as Christian education and poverty. Bavinck served in the upper chamber of the Dutch parliament from 1911 until his death in 1921.
For most of the century since then, little of Bavinck’s work was translated into English. That has begun to change in the last two decades, first with the publication of Bavinck’s four-volume systematic theology, followed by additional texts like Christian Worldview and Philosophy of Revelation, originally delivered as the Stone Lectures at Princeton University in 1908. In 2020, James Eglinton of the University of Edinburgh published a biography of the remarkable life of this theologian, academic, and political figure.
One of the things that Bavinck teaches us is that “grace restores nature.” He uses the biblical metaphor of leaven to describe the way the Christian faith works into all aspects of life. As a leaven, a Christian worldview serves as an activating agent that enables everything to expand to the fullness of its created potential.
Bavinck applies the idea of grace restoring nature to the four essential relationships of our human existence. God designed us for right relationship with him, with self, others, and the created world around us. Sin fractured each of these relationships; God’s grace operates to restore them. In our context today, the challenges that individuals and communities face—from divorce to opioid addiction to suicide—have to do with brokenness in one or more of these relationships. Christian responses need to consider how to restore each of them.
Bavinck’s discussion of the four essential relationships—with God, self, others, and the created world—offers a framework for thinking about flourishing as we approach social issues. Flourishing, according to God’s design, entails right relationships in each of these areas.
Today many ideas of what it means to flourish are competing in the public square. Some of these leave the impression that thriving is primarily about material wellbeing. So, for example, antipoverty programs—both public and private—have too often reduced human need to a lack of physical resources. Bavinck’s insight teaches us that the mission to improve material living standards can’t ignore relational living standards.
The evidence bears out the truth of this insight. Decades of increased welfare funding has led to better material conditions while relational flourishing has declined and poverty persists. Today four in ten children are born to unwed mothers; 50 years ago, that rate was less than one in ten.
Another prevalent idea is that human beings reach fulfillment through expression of their inner selves. As Carl Trueman has documented, this quest for “authenticity” can show disregard for the limits of created reality. Indeed, expressive individualism may even depart from such limits radically, as in the case of transgenderism. Bavinck’s framework helps us see that a person cannot be true to herself if she does not recognize truth in the world around her. She cannot rightly be free if she does not acknowledge what is fixed about reality around her.
The Christian worldview presents “a wisdom that reconciles the human being with God and, through this, with itself, with the world, and with life,” writes Bavinck. In a culture confused about flourishing, that truth remains as relevant as ever.
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