7 Insights into Dutch Theologian Herman Bavinck

Dutch theologian Herman Bavinck (1854-1921) is widely celebrated as one of the most eloquent divines in the Reformed tradition. Despite having preached regularly throughout his adult life, how he preached and what he thought about preaching have remained largely unknown to the many preachers who read him in the present day-until now.

Though we sadly cannot interview Bavinck himself, we have had the pleasure of talking with James Eglinton, the editor and translator of the recently published book Herman Bavinck on Preaching & Preachers. Eglinton is a systematic and historical theologian who has written extensively on Herman Bavinck, so you’re bound to discover some great nuggets about his work as well as some unique insights on Bavinck. Enjoy!

1. What/Who piqued your interest in Herman Bavinck? 

I was first introduced to Bavinck’s work while a student at the Free Church College (now Edinburgh Theological Seminary). I was a seminarian while the English translations of Bavinck’s Reformed Dogmatics started to appear. Our professor of systematic theology, Donald Macleod, would regularly speak enthusiastically about Bavinck, and encouraged me to read him. Bavinck introduced me to the Dutch Reformed tradition, which was different enough from my own Scottish Reformed tradition to capture my attention.

2. What drew your interest to these particular Bavinck texts?

When I moved from the Netherlands to Scotland four years ago, I was looking for ways to keep my Dutch active. I decided to spend 30 minutes each day translating Dutch texts, and began with Bavinck’s short book on preaching, Welsprekendheid (Eloquence). It is a beautifully written and rewarding text, and made me wonder why so little attention has been paid to Bavinck on preaching and preachers. After I finished translating Welsprekendheid, I found some other texts on this theme, and started working through them. In the end, it made sense to publish them together as a tool for preachers who read Bavinck’s Reformed Dogmatics.

3. How has speaking multiple languages aided you in translation projects, this one particularly?

I have written a longer blog post on this topic here. Translation is a complex task. It is an art, rather than an exact science. The level of training and skill required to translate texts well is often misunderstood by monolinguals, who sometimes think that multilinguals can easily translate any given text between their languages. In reality, multilinguals have different strengths in their various languages, and those strengths reflect the time we have spent using our languages in particular contexts. Although many Dutch people speak very good English, you couldn’t give some late 19th century Dutch texts on preaching to a random Amsterdammer and expect her to produce a solid, publishable English translation. Without a lot of specific training, a modern day Dutch speaker wouldn’t understand the content or historical references in an older theological text, and they would find some of the archaic grammar and vocabulary confusing. And while that person’s English might be good, producing a translation in English that reads with a convincing native fluency would be difficult.

I speak a few languages, but am not equally strong in each of them. To use languages in a specific way—like translating a theological text—requires a lot of practice. I read Dutch well enough, and have invested a lot of time in reading around Bavinck and his historical context, to translate him into my native English. It has taken years of hard work though.

4. As your first book-length publication since Trinity and Organism, how does Bavinck’s preaching advance/affirm the role of the ‘organic-motif’?

His view on how to preach well presupposes a certain organic harmony in the creation (which is a general revelation of the triune God), although this has now been disordered by sin. For Bavinck, we are ‘connected to all things’ and should be rightly provoked by them: by the glory and grace of God, and by the world around us. Those things should affect the preacher to the very core of his being, which is then given verbal expression in his preaching.

5. How have Bavinck’s thoughts on preaching impacted your own preaching?

When I read A Secular Age by Charles Taylor, his portrayal of the buffered and porous selves made a lot of sense to me: pre-secularised Europeans didn’t view the self as a detached and distant from their bodies, their neighbours, their environment, or God. The relationship between the self and all else was porous. According to Taylor, secularised Europeans view the self in almost excarnate terms: we are buffered from our own bodies, from other people, from our environs, and from God. It is a profound insight that shook me personally, and helped me preach to secularised people.

Bavinck’s critique of the quality of late modern Dutch preaching relies on quite similar observations: he argues that 19th century Dutch preachers were cold and distant, and were hard to provoke to praise or outrage, because they no longer experienced their selves as connected to cosmos or Creator. In that regard, I found Bavinck’s text very helpful. In ‘Eloquence’, he applies a Tayloresque insight directly to preaching.

6. If the church broadly took away one thing from Bavinck’s thoughts on preaching, what would you hope it would be?

‘In order to preach well, one must exist well.’ By that, Bavinck meant that preaching well first means becoming a different kind of person through the gospel. Homiletics has to begin with personal transformation. It’s not enough simply to learn homiletical methods or exegetical skills. You cannot preach well if you do not learn how to live coram Deo (‘before the face of God’). But Bavinck certainly thought that kind of personal transformation was hard for late-moderns, as their selves were so heavily buffered.

7. What is next for Bavinck and you?

In general, Bavinck scholarship increasingly recognises the complexity of his life and thought. That complexity was not adequately recognised in much earlier work on Bavinck, which tended to talk about ‘two Bavincks,’ one orthodox and another modern. He was portrayed as a Jekyll and Hyde figure who lived in a constant crisis of identity. In recent years we have moved beyond this, to perceive better that his overall theological strivings were to confess the historic, orthodox Reformed faith in his own late modern culture. I am currently working with an excellent group of PhD students who are grappling with what that meant for Bavinck in a range of topics: epistemology, modern theology, the church, and so on.

In the next few years, I expect to see an increasing number of works that will advance our understanding of Bavinck in that regard. My own current monograph project is a new English-language biography of Bavinck. I pay particularly close attention both to his cultural and ecclesiastical location: what kind of modern culture did he inhabit? How did that modern culture change over his lifetime? Was his ‘modern orthodoxy’ part of a broader ecclesiastical movement? I think that the answers to those questions go a long way in helping us make sense of his theological development.

Herman Bavinck on Preaching & Preachers provides an English translation of Bavinck’s key texts on preaching and preachers, including his only published sermon. For Bavinck, in order to preach well, one has to be a particular kind of person: someone who lives coram Deo, whose conscience and imagination are open to being powerfully stirred by both Creator and the creation, and who is steeped in Scripture. In short, he describes someone quite different from the detached, disenchanted modern Western people of Bavinck’s own day. These texts provide a profound critique of modern Western culture, and describe the sense in which it often prevents its inhabitants from preaching well. Furthermore, they demonstrate both how Bavinck himself preached, and how he understood preaching within the worship service and the wider life of the church.

James P. Eglinton (PhD, University of Edinburgh) is the Meldrum Lecturer in Reformed Theology at New College, University of Edinburgh. He is a systematic and historical theologian who has written extensively on Herman Bavinck. His first book, the acclaimed Trinity and Organism (Bloomsbury, 2012), offers a new reading of Bavinck as both an orthodox and a modern figure.

2 thoughts on “7 Insights into Dutch Theologian Herman Bavinck

  1. Pingback: Translating Herman Bavinck: A Q&A with the Editors of The Sacrifice of Praise | Hendrickson Publishers Blog

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