Bavinck on the Christian Life: Following Jesus in Faithful Service by John Bolt
For the upcoming year I will be reading through the “On the Christian Life series.” If you have never heard of this series I would highly recommend you check it out as we begin 2018. Unlike many biographies these books deal more with the direct influences and theology of prominent figures in the history of the Church, rather than their life story. As such I will be taking time, hopefully, each month to highlight another one of these great texts and reflect on some of the important contribution they have made to life and theology.
The first book in the series which I picked up, was on one of probably the least likely to be read and that was John Bolt’s study on the life of Herman Bavinck and his theological impact on the 20th century. Now Bavinck, for most, probably isn’t a household name like many others in the series such as Luther, Owen, or Calvin, but his contribution to the life of the church and especially the reformed branch in Holland and Europe was as shinning light of Christian orthodoxy in a world that was quickly being absorbed by liberalism and political accompaniments.
Bavinck was a scholar born in Holland and was best known by many for writing the massive text: Reformed Dogmatic and being the right-hand man to Abraham Kuyper, but as you journey through the book you begin to see that he is so much more. He is a staunch defender of both the church and academics, putting out early on the that these two should not be seen as competitors but as companions. He believed that pastors are raised up both in the church and in the schools, both are necessary to form a godly leader framed by the best of theological knowledge and pastoral love for the flock. If you drift in either direction too far(especially in the 19th and 20th century) you create and imbalanced man. This is a battle that still rages on in the modern church as the drive to “free” it from academic’s theology has in some church created pastor who love the flock, but have no knowledge of the totality scripture, while on the other hand we can create seminarians who can parse the original text and explain some deep mysterious of the gospel, but lack care and compassion for the widow and the orphan. It is from this frame work that I feel the book does some of its best work instructing us on the importance of living the Christian life, but also engaging the brain in the why. So, for ministers and churchman the goals are to know the scriptures deeply and apply them to all aspect of our lives.
The other key point that jumped out was the overarching commitment, by the author John Bolt, to frame Bavinck in his original time and place, he didn’t sugar coat all his theology or make it palatable purely to our modern sensibilities but wrestled with the early 20th century views on things like the role of women in the world. He highlights the disagreement that arose between Bavinck and Kuyper over women’s suffrage, the role of women in the home and workplace, as well as issue surrounding families choosing not to have children. Issue’ swe would have seen as long since settled yet was a reality of the early 20th century. This situation highlighted how Bavinck spent much of his time writing about practical theology. He took theology out of pure academics and applied it to real life.
His ethical applications of the scripture can be seen in his teachings on the centrality of the family, and within that family the equality of it’s members. The Trinity becomes an overarching theme for him and as such the husband taking on the figure of the Father and the wife humbling submitting to her husband as Christ submits to he Father, and the children deriving from them both and loving doing their will as the overflow of who they are to be. From these trinitarian ideas he presents the function of each member and the responsibility of each member to lovingly care for the needs and purpose of the whole. He will point out the importance of children to the life of a married couple as a further extension of shinning Gods light to the world as His image becomes more clearly seen and experienced. He points to the role of the home as a center for instruction in the truth of God.
Bavinck may not be the most well-known of theologians, but he was an essential character in the life of the church, and this book helps to put him in a context that allows us to better appreciate his work and apply some of his work to our modern context. He deals with issues such as the role of Christianity in the state, how do we deal with the breakdown of sexual norms and ethics, where is the place for the family in the whole of civil life, and how do we as believers ultimately live faithful as aliens and strangers in this world, striving for the next.