Bavinck’s Christian Worldview: Context, Classical Contours, and Significance

Nathaniel Gray Sutanto
Assistant Professor of Systematic Theology
Reformed Theological Seminary, Washington, DC

Many thanks, Dr. Scott Redd, and RTS DC, for this kind invitation to discuss Bavinck’s 1904 treatise on Christian Worldview. I’m thankful that we have before us today the first English translation of Bavinck’s important work, and for the privilege to discuss with you its content and significance. [1] My talk will fall under three headings. First, why did Bavinck write Christian Worldview? What are some contextual features we should note in this regard? Secondly, what are some of the main lines of argument in this key text? Thirdly, how is this work significant for us readers in the twenty-first century?

Why did Bavinck Write Christian Worldview?

Let’s begin with a brief introduction to Herman Bavinck. The Dutch theologian lived from 1854 to 1921. He earned his PhD at Leiden University, writing on the ethics of Zwingli, and he was regarded by some as a kind of theological right-hand man to Abraham Kuyper – though of course now we are starting to see Bavinck’s genius in his own right. The work under consideration in this talk was first published in 1904. Bavinck is perhaps most famous in the Anglophone world for his magisterial four- volume Reformed Dogmatics, which gave us not only a great history of Christian doctrine but also some of the most enduring, catholic, and eclectic articulations of the Reformed faith in the late modern era.[2]

But what is less well known about Bavinck is his pre-occupation with the relationship between theology and the other academic disciplines. This was for good reason. In 1876, the Higher Education Act in the Netherlands asserted that theology within the universities should be reconfigured into religious studies. Theology was good for private piety, or for the church and the seminaries, perhaps, but it was not to be considered as public knowledge like the other academic disciplines. By way of contrast, Bavinck insisted on the ongoing relevance of the Christian faith for the academy and for the world as a whole, and that without it the human heart remains unsatisfied. Hence, we see at the turn to the twentieth century a focusing of his work on Christianity and the other areas of life, especially with the fields of metaphysics, epistemology, ethics, psychology, and the other academic disciplines.[3]  He was concerned to show how Christianity contained holistic insights that continue to aid the modern world.

It is also important to note that early on in Bavinck’s career, he did not actually emphasize a Christian worldview, but rather  a Calvinistic world-and-life view. Ten years before he wrote Christian Worldview, he wrote an important article, called “The Future of Calvinism”, where he made this provocative point:

The words Reformed and Calvinistic, however, though cognate in meaning, are by no means equivalent, the former being more limited and less comprehensive than the latter. Reformed expresses merely a religious and ecclesiastical distinction; it is a purely theological conception. The term Calvinism is of wider application and denotes a specific type in the political, social and civil spheres. It stands for that characteristic view of life and the world as a whole, which was born from the powerful mind of the French Reformer. Calvinist is the name of a Reformed Christian in so far as he reveals a specific character and a distinct physiognomy, not merely in his church and theology, but also in social and political life, in science and art.[4]

Notice, that for Bavinck, the words Reformed and Calvinist mean different things. Their meanings overlap, of course, but they are not synonymous. Bavinck was saying that to be Reformed means to hold on to a specific set of doctrines. It’s an exclusively ecclesial and theological principle. But Calvinism, however, referred to something more all-encompassing and holistic. Calvinism offered a whole world-and-life view, a distinct perspective on social and political life, science (or scholarship), and art. This is rather different from the contemporary, more popular, understandings of the difference between Calvinism and Reformed theology, where the former is often taken to denote a subset of doctrines under the umbrella of the latter.

Why did Bavinck emphasize Calvinism, rather than Christianity, as the worldview to hold and espouse ten years before he wrote Christian Worldview? We are here at Reformed Theological Seminary, of course, and I assure you that I’m not saying that Bavinck became less Reformed as he matured in his thought.

Rather, a decade before he wrote Christian Worldview, Bavinck remained convinced that no matter how many people were becoming more skeptical towards orthodox Christianity, they would still stand on Christianity in some way. Bavinck was arguing for Calvinism because he thought his opponents held merely to less-than-ideal versions of the Christian faith, whether it be Roman Catholicism, or theological liberalism. Liberals, for example, might deny that Jesus is divine or the resurrection, but they still argued that his teachings were helpful and could morally advance society. Bavinck thus held up Calvinism as the full-orbed Christian perspective that could help the world holistically.[5] He was, in other words, still more sanguine and optimistic about the ongoing influence of Christianity in modern Dutch culture, despite the growth of less-than-ideal forms of the Christian faith.

But at the turn of the twentieth century, Bavinck realized that a new kind of thorough-going unbelief was emerging. He was no longer fighting theological battles within Christianity – whether Lutherans, Catholics, or theological liberalism. Rather, Bavinck was encountering followers of a more full-orbed atheism in the wake of the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. Nietzschean nihilists did not say that we could still believe in the basic goodness of Christian teachings despite disbelieving in God – rather, they argued that because God is dead, we have to revise all of Western civilization and all of what we believe. If God is dead, why should there be truth, goodness, or beauty? Hence, the rise of nihilism created a discord between ourselves and the world: what meaning do I have here? Can I even know the world? What does it mean to be good? We should reconsider goodness itself if God is dead. Notice Bavinck’s allusion to Nietzschean nihilism in the introduction to CW:

We no longer need God. There is no place for him in our world. Let the old hermit in the forest continue to worship God. We, the youth of Zarathustra, know that God is dead and will not be resurrected.

The convergence of this rejection of Christianity and the inner discord that disturbs us in modern life gives occasion to the question whether the two phenomena exist in a causal relation.[6]

In response to this, Bavinck argues that the human heart is not satisfied until it finds a unified view behind what we do. He suggests that there is a causal link between the “inner discord” that one feels in the modern world, on the one hand, and the rejection of Christianity that is becoming increasingly pervasive, on the other. He wanted to show that Christianity provided a more thorough-going and satisfying alternative to the unbelief in his day.

What was Bavinck’s argument?

How, then, did Bavinck construct a Christian worldview? Here, we’ll survey his argumentation and also note that  it is rooted in the classical doctrine of divine ideas.[7] A key passage is the following:

Just as sense perception is the basis of all science, the results of science are and remain the starting point of philosophy. Yet it is incorrect that philosophy should be no more than the summary of the results of the various sciences and that they should be set together only as the wheels of a clock. Wisdom is grounded on science but is not limited to it. It aims above science and seeks to press through to “first principles [prima principia]. It already does this if it makes a special group of phenoemena – religion, ethics, law, history, language, culture, and so on- into the object of its reflection [denkende beschouwing] and tries to trace the leading ideas. But it does this, above all, as it seeks for the final grounds of all things and builds a worldview thereon.

If this is the nature and task of philosophy, then it is presupposed – to an even greater degree than sense perception and science – that the world rests in thought and that ideas control all things. There is no wisdom other than that which is in and out of the faith in a realm of unseen and eternal things. It is built on the reality of ideas because it is the “science of the idea” and because it seeks the idea of the whole in the parts and of the general in the particular. It tacitly proceeds from the Christian faith, which states that the world is grounded in wisdom in its whole and in all its parts (Ps. 104:24; Prov. 3:19; 1 Cor. 1:21).[8]

Notice three key terms: science, philosophy, and wisdom. Contrary to some contemporary criticisms against worldview thinking, worldview-building is not an armchair, merely intellectual exercise for Bavinck. Instead, he argues that to build a worldview, we have to begin with science – that is, with the deliverances of sense perception. This is the methodological starting point: begin with the inductive deliverances of all of the different sciences.

This is why, in the editorial introduction to our translation of Christian Worldview, we used a map-building analogy as a way of depicting how to build a Christian worldview, rather than the common analogy of using spectacles. While the latter analogy often communicates that a Christian worldview can be put on rather quickly, building a map communicates that constructing a worldview takes progressive and inductive work, which can then be revised as new information arises. [9] Building a Christian worldview has Trinitarian parameters and principles, to be sure, but organization and construction is open to empirical data that promise the correction and enlargement of the maps by which we investigate the world. There is thus a reciprocal relationship between the maps we use and the world investigated – as we explore the deliverances of the sciences, we reconfigure our maps, but as we reconnoitre those maps, we revisit new terrain with them firmly as our guides.

Philosophy pursues the summary of these deliverances, and then, following the guidance of wisdom, pursues the unity behind the sciences into the first principles therein. A worldview, then, is built upon the “final grounds of all things”, after discovering that “the world rests in thought and that ideas control all things.” The empirical phenomena we encounter in daily life and in science – which includes the many academic disciplines – actually lead us to invisible, and, indeed, divine realities. Bavinck is here appealing to the classical doctrine of divine ideas, where creation reflects ectypally the diverse perfections and wisdom of the simple, triune God.[10] Reality is thus grounded in divine wisdom, and there is a whole which undergirds the sum of its parts.

How does Bavinck then apply this worldview and metaphysics to particular issues? We will take a look here at two specifically nineteenth century matters that he addressed: epistemology and ethics.

One of the most pervasive issues discussed in nineteenth century epistemology is the connection between subjects and objects – that is, how does the mental representations in our minds actually give us an accurate access of extramental physical objects? The ideas in our mind, for example, have no weight, mass, or physicality to it, whereas objects in the world are tangible things in the world that we can run into and feel. Consider the black chair that we have before us here. The chair itself is quite heavy – it has a mass, a substance to it. One might presume that it is the presence of this chair that created the mental idea of the chair inside your mind. But the idea of the chair, notice, is quite different from the chair itself. The idea is not exactly in space and time, and has no weight, substance, or mass. How do these two heterogenous realities actually correspond?

Empiricism, which begins with the sense perception of the external object, and rationalism, which begins with the ideas within us, cannot seem to make sense of this connection.

Empiricism trusts only sensible perceptions and believes that the processing of elementary perceptions into representations and concepts, into judgments and decisions, removes us further and further from reality and gives us only ideas [denkbeelden] that, though clean and subjectively indispensable, are merely “nominal” [nomina] and so are subjective representations, nothing but “the breath of a voice” [flatus vocis], bearing no sounds, only merely a “concept of the mind” [conceptus mentis]. Conversely, rationalism judges that sensible perceptions provide us with no true knowledge; they bring merely cursory and unstable phenomena into view, while not allowing us to see the essence of the things… in both cases and in both directions, the harmony between subject and object, and between knowing and being is broken.[11]

In short, empiricism begins with objects, but then argues that the ideas in our mind are merely nominal and subjective representations of those objects, having no intrinsic connection to them. Rationalism, on the other hand, begins with ideas, but can only infer from one idea the presence of another idea, not the things outside of the mind, much less the “essence of the things.” By way of contrast, Bavinck argues that the knowability of external reality has to be acknowledged from the very beginning of our scientific investigation, “but this presupposition is of such a great significance that it must be considered and ought to be justified.”[12]

How, then, does he justify the knowability of the world? Here the argumentation is complex, but for our present purposes can be boiled down to a few moves. Firstly, again appealing to the classical doctrine of divine ideas, Bavinck argues that the physical objects in the world can become represented by the ideas of the mind only if the world itself is rooted in ideas, that is, in the divine ideas: “The doctrine of the creation of all things by the Word of God is the explanation of all knowing and knowing about [kennen en weten], the presupposition behind the correspondence between subject and object.”[13] “Appealing to Heb. 11: 3 and Romans 1:18, Bavinck claims that “The world becomes, and can only become, our spiritual [geestelijk property], for it is itself existing spiritually [geestelijk] and logically and resting in thought.”[14]

Secondly, Bavinck argues that the world is created with a diversity of parts – there are bodies and ideas, spirits, and physical objects, yet all of these parts are united together by a divine wisdom into a single organic unity: “It is the same divine wisdom [Goddelijk wijsheid that created the whole organically into a connected whole and planted in us the urge for a “unified” [einheitliche] worldview. If this is possible, it can be explained only on the basis of the claim that the world is an organism and has first been thought of as such.”[15] In the final analysis, Bavinck argues that it is on distinctly Christian, Trinitarian metaphysics – an organic worldview – that epistemically justifies the reliability of our knowledge of external realities: “the Christian – that is, the organic – view gives the answer that thinking proceeds from being, word precedes deed. All things are knowable because they were first thought. And because they are first thought, they can be distinct and still one. It is the idea that animates and protects the organism’s distinct parts.”[16]

It is important to note that Bavinck’s argument led him to a broader and more holistic vision. He did not reject the deliverances of the rationalist or empiricist philosophers. He took them seriously and tried to accommodate both. Sense perception, for example does not negate but rather leads one to ideas. Our ideas, then, can organically correspond to reality precisely because all of reality finds its source in these archetypal divine ideas. The Christian worldview, in Bavinck’s hands, leads us to a capacious vision that allows us to accommodate the best insights of the current debates.

Bavinck’s argument concerning ethics is particularly potent, especially considering that he wrote it in the years before two world wars. He is wrestling once again with the nonbelieving thesis that ethics – goodness and value – are not grounded in a divine source outside of us. The main alternative considered in the nineteenth century, then, is to argue that ethics and norms are grounded in history. Bavinck counters that the moment ethics and value are grounded not in transcendent norms but rather in immanent history, we have to answer the question: which history? Or, perhaps more pertinently, whose history?

Bavinck argues that rejecting transcendent norms thus means absolutizing our own preferences and, by extension, the preferences of our own people group in the present – the history of our culture, nation, and people will be the absolute standard by which we adjudicate between other histories, cultures, and people groups. This is done precisely because, having done away with divine ideas, we will inevitably seek stability elsewhere:  “because a person always needs some form of stability, however, the grave and in no sense imaginary danger quickly arises that through this one-sided historical viewpoint, he is led to a counterfeit nationalism, to a narrow chauvinism, to a fanaticism about race and instinct.”[17]

Hauntingly, Bavinck traces this to the German nationalist philosophies arising in his day. Writing in 1904, Bavinck was terrifyingly prescient of the tragedies that would arise just a few decades later:

“’The German spirit shall heal the world.”’ [some people say]. But that is how the so called pure historical view turns into the most biased construction of history. If the theory or the system requires it, then the primal human is a wild animal, then the most uncivilized peoples are the representatives of the original human race…then Jesus did not come from Israel but from the Aryans.[18]

Rejecting transcendent norms, in other words, does not lead to a humble position which allows us to appreciate the diversities of the different peoples and cultures. Rather, the German philosophers with whom Bavinck interacted showed that a kind of nationalism was the result. Germany became the standard by which many were judging the other nations as less developed, primitive, and so on: “Relativism appears, then, to be impartial, as it wants to know of no fixed norms and claims to be concerned with and to speak of only the concrete, the historical. But it makes the relative itself into the absolute and therefore exchanges true freedom for coercion, real faith for superstition.”[19]

In a provocative fashion – the application of which is not difficult to see in a racially polarized twenty-first century – Bavinck asserted in 1904 that rejecting the Christian faith leads us to the terrible consequence of racism. What may seem to be the most humble and relativistic view turns out to be the most triumphalist and imperialist. By getting rid of the transcendent, we end up absolutizing one particular historical people group.

But how, exactly, then, do we do justice to both the transcendent and the historical? Bavinck insists that ethics has to be based on the transcendent God himself. The true, good, and beautiful subsist in the one God.[20] The God whose ideas are reflected in the world, and through whom we then know all things, is the same God that created the norms that we encounter within reality. By God’s thought, God granted “reality to things and truth to our intellect”, and, likewise, God determined “the norms for our knowing, willing, and acting.”[21] But this one God does not just elevate these moral norms for us – he entered into human history. The Logos became flesh, and so the transcendent ethical ideal, became historical in Jesus. As the Logos enters into flesh, he too invites us to partake in his divine wisdom in Christ: “But just as the wisdom of God became flesh in Christ, so should the truth also enter us.”[22]

How is Bavinck’s Christian Worldview exemplary for us Today?

Let me close this lecture with three brief, interconnected points to this end. First, Bavinck’s Christian Worldview was patiently inductive. Bavinck’s treatise dealt with significant subject areas outside of his own, and always dealt with the cutting edge research – as we saw briefly in the fields of metaphysics,  epistemology, and ethics. There was this profound sense of a patient confidence in God even as he was detailing the arguments that stem from opposing worldviews and thinkers. He was able to describe the yields of the newest research in his own day, before showing in very particular and specific ways how Christianity offers aid and a more holistic alternative. Bavinck was eager to present Christianity not just as an opposing philosophy, but rather as a fuller philosophy that fulfils and accommodates other worldviews. He wants to show that Christianity offers a pervasive metaphysics that is anticipated by and fulfils the perspectives of philosophers and scientists.

If we are to follow Bavinck’s example, then, we would not just be reading Bavinck. We would be reading the deliverances of the cutting-edge research and science. We might not be wrestling with the connection between mental ideas and external objects any longer now, but we have new and urgent questions before us to which we need to turn our attention. How should Christianity be a help to the leading deliverances of today’s academy, and to the challenging questions of the present generation?

Secondly, Bavinck’s Worldview thinking deepens understanding, rather than simplifies. Worldview thinking in our day often times simplifies thinkers by categorizing them together under an “ism” and then dismissing them. We might be tempted, for example, to say that we need not deal with Derrida and Foucault because they were advocates of “postmodernism”, or we say that Kant and Hume were all proponents of “modernism.” Such a move simplifies rather than deepens, because we reduce them into a simple caricature – a worldview –  in order to dispense with them, not noticing the insights, details and complexities that these thinkers uniquely pose. In other words, he opted for patient description rather than facile denunciations.

Bavinck pushes us to explore particular thinkers deeply and to seek to find out their first principles, that which is behind what they are saying, their foundations and assumptions. He treated each thinker with the appropriate care required before he adjudicates on their worldview. We do well, then, to emulate this desire to treat each thinker with patience and care, rather than boxing them into an “ism” that we can dismiss beforehand.

Thirdly, and finally, Bavinck’s Christian Worldview was confidently, rather than brashly, Trinitarian.     Bavinck does not set the Christian-worldview as a deductive starting point from which he simply denounces or rejects other worldviews that look different beforehand. Rather, you get a complex, slow, and inductive process in Bavinck’s thought where he argues not that Christianity trumps other worldviews from the beginning, but that Christianity is the inescapable conclusion that overcomes and fulfils the one-sidedness of unbelieving alternatives. In other words, Bavinck argues not for the indubitability of the Christian faith but rather for its inescapability.

This is a revised manuscript taken from a lecture delivered at Reformed Theological Seminary, DC, January, 2020. I’m grateful to Michael Allen, Scott Redd, Thomas Keene, and Peter Lee, for their comments on the lecture or earlier drafts.

[1] Herman Bavinck, Christian Worldview, Nathaniel Gray Sutanto, James Eglinton, and Cory C. Brock (trans. and eds.), (Wheaton: Crossway, 2019). Hereafter, CW. Dutch original: Herman Bavinck, Christelijke wereldbeschouwing, 3rd edn. (Kampen: Kok, 1929).

[2] See Cory Brock and Nathaniel Gray Sutanto, “Herman Bavinck’s Reformed Eclecticism: On Catholicity, Consciousness, and Theological Epistemology,” Scottish Journal of Theology 70 (2017): 310-37; Cory C. Brock, Orthodox Yet Modern: Herman Bavinck’s Appropriation of Friedrich Schleiermacher (Bellingham: Lexham Press, 2020); Nathaniel Gray Sutanto, “Confessional, International, and Cosmopolitan: Herman Bavinck’s Neo-Calvinistic and Protestant Vision of the Catholicity of the Church,” Journal of Reformed Theology 12 (2018): 22-39.

[3] See especially his yet to be translated Herman Bavinck, Christelijke wetenschap (Kampen: Kok, 1904), and Philosophy of Revelation: A New Annotated Edition, Cory C. Brock and Nathaniel Gray Sutanto (eds.),  (Peabody: Hendrickson, 2018).

[4] Herman Bavinck, “The Future of Calvinism”, Geerhardus Vos (trans.), The Presbyterian and Reformed Review 17 (1894): 3. This is not to suggest that Bavinck reconsidered the Calvin or Calvinism to be insignificant after 1904. See, for example, his Johannes Calvijn: Eene lazing ter gelegenheid van den vierhonderdsten gedenkdag zijner geboorte, 10 July 1509-1909 (Kampen: Kok, 1909), and “Calvin and Common Grace,” in Calvin and the Reformation: Four Studies, trans. Geerhardus Vos (London: Fleming H. Revell, 1909), 99-130.

[5] See, also, the discussion in George Harinck, “Herman Bavinck and the Neo-Calvinist Concept of the French Revolution,” in Neo-Calvinism and French Revolution, eds. James Eglinton and George Harinck (London: Bloomsbury, 2016), 13-30, especially pages 21-30, and James Eglinton, Herman Bavinck: A Critical Biography (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2020), chapter 9.

[6] Bavinck, CW, 25. Kuyper made similar comments in 1893: “Heine and Feuerbach are old hate; Schopenhauer is a bore; today everything revolves around Nietzsche.” “The Blurring of the Boundaries,” in James D. Bratt (ed.), Abraham Kuyper: A Centennial Reader (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003), 366.

[7] For some recent accounts of the classical doctrine of divine ideas, see, e.g., Matthew Levering, Engaging the Doctrine of Creation (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2017), 29-72, and Ian McFarland, From Nothing: A Theology of Creation (Lousiville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2015).

[8] Bavinck, CW, 50-1.

[9] See our “Introduction” in CW, 21-9.

[10] On the classical contours of Bavinck’s organicism, see my God and Knowledge: Herman Bavinck’s Theological Epistemology (London: Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2020), especially chapter 2, and “Divine Providence’s Wetenschappelijke Benefits” in Fred Sanders and Oliver Crisp (eds.), Divine Action and Providence (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2019), 96-114. See also the fruitful interaction with Bavinck’s account in Steven J. Duby, God in Himself: Scripture, Metaphysics, and the Task of Christian Theology (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2020), 112ff.

[11] Bavinck, CW, 32. For a more detailed analysis of Bavinck’s account of perception, see my “Herman Bavinck and Thomas Reid on Perception and Knowing God,” Harvard Theological Review 111 (2018): 115-34.

[12] Bavinck, CW, 40.

[13] Bavinck, CW, 46.

[14] Bavinck, CW, 46.

[15] Bavinck, CW, 51. On the organic motif in general, see James Eglinton, Trinity and Organism: Toward a New Reading of Herman Bavinck’s Organic Motif (London: Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2012).

[16] Bavinck, CW, 74.

[17] Bavinck, CW, 100.

[18] Bavinck, CW, 101.

[19] Bavinck, CW, 102.

[20] Bavinck, CW, 110.

[21] Bavinck, CW, 108.

[22] Bavinck, CW, 132-3.