Reading, Thinking, Speaking
by Herman Bavinck
TRANSCRIBED BY GREG PARKER JR.
The following piece was found written on a scrap of paper (dated March 6, 1906), on the back of a death announcement (dated July 22, 1908), and on a list of American cities (e.g., Hotel New York, Asbury Park, Boston, Cambridge) and people (e.g., Longfellow and Emerson). (1) It is possible that this writing dates to the late summer or fall of 1908 when Bavinck lived with his family at 62 Singel in Amsterdam, or his 1908 trip to America where he was introduced as “undoubtedly the foremost living Calvinist theologian.” (2) Additional essays in the archival file written in English suggest Bavinck wrote this in preparation for that trip. The italicized words below are found in Dutch in the archival piece but translated here for accessibility. The items in brackets are provided by the transcriber to furnish a smoother reading.
The Dutch poet [Isaac] Da Costa has said that the printing art has been a gigantic step to hell as [well as] to heaven. And no one who has only a superficial knowledge of the bad press, the horrible misuses of [the] press, the demoralizing novels and plays, may doubt as to the truth of this expression. [The] press has to a large degree corrupted our manners, customs, habits, our character, and moral and religious feelings. Her victims are thousands and thousands. She has cast down many wounded, yea, many strong men have been slain by her. Her home is the way to hell, going down to the chambers of death. But surely there is a reverse side. [The] printing press has also been a step to heaven. We owe to it the enormous spreading of the Bible, translated [into] 500 languages; we owe to it that Holy Scriptures and other pious, moral writings have found their way into nearly every home. Bible teaching has permeated our whole private domestic and social life, yea, also influenced our science and art. [The] printing art has democratized Christian religion, put the Bible in the hands of all people—not only of the clergy but also of the laity. She has popularized the good, the true, and the beautiful. She has broken down the high walls, which in the former centuries were erected between the different classes of humanity. [The] printing art has for a great deal opened the sources of knowledge for all men.
Now, we all want the sources of knowledge, to know and to understand. We are not born with innate science and philosophy. As the apostle says, “We bring nothing into the world” (1 Tim. 6:7), neither in earthly treasures nor in spiritual. We must gather our treasures from without, out of the whole wide world of God’s creation. We are bound to the environment, just as feet to the ground and grain to the earth. So it is our duty to collect treasures for ourselves and our posterity: to read, to interpret, to understand, to make the whole earth our domain; to subject nature to spirit, matter to thought. And that is the duty of reading. To read is to collect, just as the poor men and women in Israel collected and grasped fallen corn ears. The whole [of] nature is a book, written by God’s hand, and the great and small creatures are letters and syllables and words and sentences. We must gather from everywhere—in the depths of the earth and in the heights of the heavens. We must make all thoughts of the Creator [in] possession of our brains, assimilate them, and stamp them to our own. Reading well is better than copious reading books in the second place—[the] staff of Moses that devours other staffs [Exod. 7:12]. (3)
But reading is not enough. Men are not machines without consciousness and will. One cannot make the thoughts of other men, of nature, (4) the thoughts of God our own without thinking [ourselves]. And so thinking is the second duty, and a duty much more difficult to fulfill than reading. Reading is tiring, enemies of the flesh, (5) troublesome, irksome. Reading is discovery. Reading is to go out ourselves and to travel the whole world around and to decipher the hieroglyphs of nature, of all being and becoming, of the manuscript of God and men; and in working thus to despise all difficulties, to surmount all heights, to trespass all barricades, and everywhere to go straight to the essence of things. But in this all we have to consider, to deliberate, to think. Thinking is to penetrate the heart and the soul, in the kernel and essence of all things, to assimilate them, to become like them. We cannot understand what we [are not]. A scientist and artist cannot reproduce what [they] learn and know without becoming what [they] intend to reproduce. A painter told Emerson that nobody could draw a tree without in some sort becoming a tree. He must enter into the inmost nature of the object of his painting, and so it is in all labor of mankind. To think is to descend in[to] the depths of nature, to penetrate into the heart of being. That is a difficult labor, a labor of the body, the brain, much more of the soul itself. It is a self-sacrifice, self-abandoning; it is (as Bacon says) to become a child and so to enter into the kingdom of knowledge. A truly learned man is a humble, modest man, a child. He does not command, he obeys; he does not speak, he listens; he listens to what the Spirit of God has to say to him by his revelation in nature and Scripture; he sits at the feet of nature as Paul was sitting at the feet of Gamaliel. We [are opposed] in our times to all authority and dogma and sentences of men; we try to be quite free and independent. But there still remains one authority we cannot dispense from. It is the authority of facts of nature and history. Whoever rejects this authority cannot know, just as he who refuses to eat and to drink cannot live. Thinking that is not to be as the spiders and the ants, but to do as the bees, which suckle honey out of the blossoming flowers. And so we get rich, fill our heart, brain, soul; we enrich ourselves with the treasures of God’s thoughts, we grow spiritually, we become full-grown men, free, independent, self-reasoning, self-acting; we become rich by the riches of God.
But still, reading and thinking are not enough. To these two must be added speaking [whoever possesses something shows it]. (6) Nobody is content with his riches, but [the one] who has something likes to talk about it. We have always the inclination to make other men take part in our sorrow and pain, in our pleasure and joy. Man is a social being. He cannot be alone. The prophet believed and therefore he spoke [Ps. 116:10]. There is a beautiful sentence in Revelation 22:4: the saints in heaven “shall see His face and his name shall be in their foreheads.” That means the [citizens] of the holy city shall receive revelation from God; they shall see his face, his perfections and virtues, his knowledge and wisdom, his righteousness and mercy; they shall see it super, fuller, better than ever here on earth in the mediums of nature and Scripture. And so receiving God’s revelation, they cannot be silent; they become revealers themselves in their turn; God’s name shall be on their foreheads, [and he] shall shine in them and through them. God’s revelation makes us into revealers. And so it is in science and art. He who knows—truly, verily knows—cannot be silent; he must speak. What we have learned and heard, seen, handled—it becomes in us as a burning fire; it bubbles up as water of a spring: “out of our belly shall flow rivers of living water” [John 7:38]. And that generally spoken is speaking: to speak in our tongues the wonderful works of God [Acts 2:11]. [Not] the preacher alone but every man has to speak by word, by deed, by painting and sculpture and architecture, by books of science and works of traffic, agriculture, [and] cattle-rearing. These are all works of men, spoken by the revelation God has given them. And just as reading and thinking, so speaking—this utterance of men’s inmost thoughts—this self-revelation of man must be according to the rules of God’s will [and the] laws of nature. There is a law also for our speaking. Everyone has his own voice—angels, animals, men—they have their own voice, tune, mood. We have to speak the wonderful works of God, each in his own way. But the content is the same and the aim is the same. The content is the work, and the aim is the glory of God.
Greg Parker Jr. is a PhD candidate in systematic theology at the University of Edinburgh. He is also the co-editor and co-translator of Bavinck’s The Sacrifice of Praise (Hendrickson, 2019) and Guidebook for Instruction in the Christian Religion (Hendrickson, forthcoming 2021). He wishes to express thanks to the Advanced Theological Studies Fellowship at the Theological University of Kampen, during which time this transcription was completed.
Footnotes:1. This transcription can be found in folder 213 in the Herman Bavinck (1854–1921) archive at the Free University of Amsterdam, where Bavinck taught in addition to the Theological University of Kampen.
2. “Points about People,” The Courier-Journal (October 13, 1908), 5.
3. Dutch: “goed lezen beter dan veel lezen. Boeken in de 2° plaats. Staf v. Mozes die andere staven verslinden.”
4. Dutch: “van natuur.”
5. Dutch: “nemesis des vleschen.”
6. The original sentence read, “Who something possess, this is to show.”