One hundred years ago today, in the early hours of the morning, the great neo-Calvinist theologian Herman Bavinck (1854–1921) died. A century on, his work is undergoing a remarkable renewal of interest across the church and the academy, and his influence extends far beyond his Dutch Reformed starting point.
Why this international fascination with his life and work? Bavinck certainly was an outstanding theologian. In 2021, many pastors and theologians cherish classical ideals about the life of the Christian mind: we long to be skilled in the biblical and ancient languages, exegetically rigorous, doctrinally fluent, culturally and psychologically insightful, and crystal clear in exposition.
In Bavinck’s case, those classical instincts meet with an all-but-bygone classical upbringing and education, for which reason he theologized like most of us only wish we could. And the added bonus, of course, is that Bavinck did so with a beautiful generosity of spirit. Even when being polemical, he was never rebarbative. He befriended his opponents and took their views seriously. In that way, he continues to draw an audience, even beyond the bounds of his theological camp, and even beyond the Western world.
Bavinck [theologized] with a beautiful generosity of spirit. Even when being polemical, he was never rebarbative. He befriended his opponents and took their views seriously.
Bavinck is not the only theologian of a previous age in whom we can find that blend of saintly erudition. One hundred years on, his influence continues to grow not simply because of the quality of his work in a pristine sense, but because that work took place at the beginning of a cultural moment that has not yet passed.
Particularly in his mature years, in the early decades of the 20th century, Bavinck applied himself to questions that continue to loom large over our lives in the early 21st-century West. Many of those who read, and re-read, him today do so because they sense his relevance. They know that this long-dead Dutchman scratches precisely where they itch, even if they struggle to articulate how he does so.
Every second year, I teach an undergraduate theology class that introduces students to the discipline by asking a series of key questions: who does theology, where, and why? In a lecture on whether a Christian theologian must be a Christian theologian—which is to say, a person of faith—we look at examples of people who do not identify as Christians, but nonetheless work with theological texts and claims.
Bavinck applied himself to questions that continue to loom large over our lives in the early 21st-century West.
In that context, we first study the Chinese “cultural Christians”—a movement of Chinese intellectuals who often profess no personal faith, but who write on Christian theology because of its influence on Western culture, and its possible cultural benefit in the East. The existence of these non-Western, non-Christian cultural apologists for Christianity is usually surprising to my students, who tend to see the movement as interesting but very foreign. In class, I often hear the response that the “cultural Christians” are probably not doing real theology—at least, not the sort of theology that professing Christians need to follow closely.
To add to their surprise, I then introduce the growing number of Western voices who now advance a similar line, charting the staggering success of Tom Holland’s Dominion, the controversy that churns around Jordan Peterson, the wide influence of the “Christian atheist” Douglas Murray, and most recently, historian Niall Ferguson’s drift from the atheism in which he was raised. I ask my students how we should make sense of figures like these, who argue boldly that the West needs Christianity, even if their views of each Westerner’s individual need of Christ are much more muted.
In doing so, I present my students with a historical novelty: in the West, today’s theologically conservative Christians, living as they do in a “culture war” between progressives and conservatives, increasingly follow the lead of intellectuals whose arguments promote a collective cultural need of Christianity, but who do not speak from an unambiguous, first-person faith perspective.
In the West today, many of the great questions faced by Christians deal with our place in a culture that was molded by Christianity, but that has now rejected it—not merely in a passive sort of indifference, but in an active effort to undo the faith’s historic formative influence on our world. This is the context in which a constellation of homegrown “cultural Christians” has gained such influence.
In The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self, Carl Trueman helps us understand their rise to prominence. He does so by bringing the work of Philip Rieff, the outstanding Jewish sociologist, to the table. Rieff argued that the history of the West is the history of three worlds. The first was a supernaturally charged, pre-Christian pagan world in which life and death were governed by fate.
This gave way to a second world reshaped by Jewish and Christian thought, able to advance scientific knowledge and social order, looking to expand on the basis of each previous generation, and fundamentally oriented to things that exist beyond the world itself. (In Rieffian terms, the second world is marked by “sacred order” rooted in divine transcendence. In most basic terms, it’s a world cast as a creation in relation to a Creator.)
Much more recently, a third world has emerged. This new world tries to justify itself without transcendence or any notion of sacred order. It knows no Creator, and rather, only creates itself. Rieff describes this third world as an “anti-culture” in that it exists to put to death the old world and all the order that it deemed sacred—physical, psychological, social, spiritual—precisely because that old world was a creation with a Creator.
To borrow the words of that third world’s purest exponent, the atheist Friedrich Nietzsche, the third world’s driving force is to “unchain the earth from the sun” and, on that basis, to “revalue all values.” Order becomes plastic and profane, rather than sacred and constant. The third world is a wholly new thing, unpredictable, unstable, and chaotic. By necessity, it can only sail into uncharted waters.
This new world tries to justify itself without transcendence or any notion of sacred order. It knows no Creator, and rather, only creates itself.
By bringing Rieff to the fore, Trueman reminds us that what we experience as “culture war” is really the surface-level rumbling of something far deeper. Deep beneath that surface are two tectonic plates, each sustaining a world unto itself: one inhabited by culture-warring conservatives, the other by progressives. Like ocean plates, they push against each other jarringly, bluntly, violently. All the while, we remain on the surface waiting to see which plate will push itself above the other, and which will sink deep into the earth’s mantle.
Little wonder these are unsettling times for Christians. The historical backdrop to our lives is no mere theatrical “culture war.” Rather, it’s the effort of Rieff’s “third world” to undo the “second world” as if its religiously derived sacred order never happened. Bavinck perceived this when he remarked, in 1910: “In general, the current of the times is away from Christ and his cross.”
Nine years before, in 1901, he had forecast that the 20th century would witness a “gigantic conflict of spirits” between two worldviews that closely resemble Rieff’s second and third worlds. During the last two decades of his life, few names appeared in Bavinck’s writings more often than that of Nietzsche. Although Bavinck died shortly before Rieff’s birth, and as such predated Rieff’s three worlds account, little in it would have taken him by surprise: he knew well that a profound change had taken place at the dawn of the 20th century, and that in many hearts, the earth and the sun had indeed become unchained.
Looking for Guides
It’s unsurprising that many Christians see a certain utility in gladly following the lead of Western agnostics and atheists who, for diverse reasons, push back against the death of a West oriented around divine transcendence and sacred order—even if those same thinkers refrain from wholeheartedly identifying themselves with Christ, or do not believe God actually exists. And of course, on the basis of Reformed theology, there is much to be gained by listening to the insights of thoughtful people as they navigate the complexities of these rival worlds, whether they identify as agnostics or atheists. Such is the doctrine of common grace.
He knew well that a profound change had taken place at the dawn of the 20th century, and that in many hearts, the earth and the sun had indeed become unchained.
But there is also much to be gained by listening to the insights of those who do identify personally as Christians, and who navigate the profound struggle between worlds with express commitment not only to the common-grace issues of culture, but to the saving-grace realities of the Christian gospel. Figures who do this with intellectual depth and a winsome personal disposition are worth their weight in gold. Bavinck was one such Christian guide to the challenges of the modern age.
Ground Moving Beneath His Feet
Throughout Bavinck: A Critical Biography [read TGC’s review], I rely on the metaphor of Bavinck as an orthodox Christian who spent his life trying to find his feet as the cultural ground beneath him shifted. Most immediately, that image—first used in the opening lines of the first chapter—was borrowed from the historian Tim Blanning’s observation on the modern European experience of culture as an unsettled and constantly changing reality. Blanning rightly notes that from the modern European viewpoint, “the ground [was] moving beneath their feet”—an observation that lends itself well to the story of a life spent moving on restless and unstable terrain. The metaphor even extends to Bavinck’s death: shortly after his burial in an Amsterdam graveyard, his coffin was taken up, and lowered into the ground a second time in Vlaardingen. Even in death, the ground offered his body no immediate and final rest.
The biography’s dominant metaphor is not haphazard, or borrowed simply as useful introductory fodder. Rather, it runs throughout the book because it captures a set of instincts and intuitions seen in Bavinck that bear a striking similarity to Rieff.
Why does Bavinck remain important a century after his death? Today, many professing Christians lean heavily on cultural Christian apologists—themselves often agnostics and atheists—in order to make sense of their times. Rieff, himself a sharp Jewish critic of Christianity, has also become one of the most sought-after guides for Christians looking to make sense of the cultural chaos that surrounds them. Reading around these figures, many Christians wonder whether the journeys of Tom Holland, Jordan Peterson, or Douglas Murray will eventually lead to unabashed personal faith in Christ, and what such conversions would mean for their insights on the struggle between worlds.
With Bavinck, though, no such speculation is needed. A century after his death, he is more relevant than ever.