White Horse Inn Modern Reformation

“Christian Worldview” By Herman Bavinck

Published Tuesday, October 6, 2020 By Greg Parker Jr.

Herman Bavinck’s Christian Worldview, translated and edited Nathaniel Gray Sutanto, James Eglinton, and Cory Brock, is subtly one of the most important books for those interested in the Dutch Reformed theologian. The Dutch edition played a major role in the unveiling of one of Bavinck’s major themes ‘the organic motif’, which has enabled fruitful work to be done on Bavinck over the last decade. This recent trajectory in Bavinck studies was kickstarted by James Eglinton, one of the three editors/translators of the book. Eglinton used Christian Worldview in his doctoral thesis to identify Bavinck’s organicism (See Trinity and Organism). He is also the author of Bavinck: A Critical Biography . The other two editors/translators, Nathaniel Gray Sutanto and Cory Brock, were two of his first doctoral students. Sutanto and Brock, also worked on a revised edition of what Bavinck perceived as the sequel to Christian Worldview in Philosophy of Revelation: A New Annotated Edition. The English translation of this book is aided by the involvement of these three theologians.

In the editorial introduction, Bavinck is presented as a concomitantly orthodox and modern theologian, who perceives Christianity as the firm foundation the world unwittingly pines for in the shifting ground of modernity. The editors helpfully identify that he prefers the terminology of “world-and-life-view” rather than simply “worldview” and that this world-and-life-view is what provides unity to the person, in head and heart (12). This is parsed then as including both (world), the reality beyond the self, and (life), “the human subject, the consciousness, its needs, desires and affections” (12). Bavinck prefers this language because one of the most important philosophical arguments of the 19th century was over the nature of the relationship between subject (life) and object (world). Thus, Bavinck puts forth a vision of a unified world-and-life-view that grounds all things in the Triune God; it is a world-and-life view that grounds all of knowledge, the self, and the world. Christian Worldview should not only be of interest to readers because Bavinck is a significant theologian in the Reformed tradition, but also because the world-and-life-view that Bavinck puts forth is one rooted in the confession of the Triune God, with a vision for the harmony of all of life.

In Bavinck’s introduction, he argues that the present age is one of disharmony, and while the world has rejected Christianity, and sought to fill the restlessness of the heart elsewhere, truly all harmony, in meaning and reality, in the world-and-life is rooted in Christianity. “Christ shows precisely in his death that he alone gives life to the world” (28). Thus, Bavinck sets off to unlock how a Christian world-and-life-view preserves the harmony of the world. The questions he seeks to answer are simple: “What is the relation between thinking and being, being and becoming, and becoming and acting?” (29). These three questions frame the chapters that follow. His fundamental answer is that the same God who created all things, including the world and our consciousness, facilitates the harmony between these three.[1] In the words of Bavinck:

It is the same divine wisdom that created the world organically into a connected whole and plants in us the urge for a unified [einheitliche] worldview. If this is possible, it can only be explained only on the basis of the claim that the world is an organism and has first been thought of as such. Only then do philosophy and worldview have a right and ground of existence, as it is also one this high point of knowledge that subject and object harmonize, as the reason within us corresponds to with the principia of all being and knowing… It is the same divine wisdom that gives things existence and our thought objective validity, that bestows intelligibility to things and the power of thinking [denkkracht] to our mind, that makes the things real and our thoughts [denkbeelden] true. The intelligibility of things is the content of our intellect. Both, being and knowing [het zijn en het kennen], have their “reason” [ratio] in the Word, through whom God created all things (51-52).

Thinking and Being

What is the relation between thinking and being? Bavinck contends for an organic world in which we may know God because we are part and parcel with the world that God has created. “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” (46). Key to this is that Bavinck contends that our sense perception gives us a reliable representation of the world because the world is made by God, to make God known.

Bavinck’s answer to the above question rests on these four points: First, that the world and mankind are both created by God. Second, Bavinck posits that the relation between thinking and being occurs in our consciousness, through sense perception (32, 48-50). This facilitates the organic connection between mankind and the world. The human may know the world because he is a part of God’s creation, he is in God’s creation, and he has an organ by which he might know God. God has revealed himself in the whole as well as the parts. “The organs of our sense perception are thus connected to the elements, out of which the whole cosmos is composed, by virtue of a common origin” (38).

Third, this relationship is improved by thinking.[2] The object is made known to the subject through sense perception, then this perception is refined through the activity of the mind, to the extent that the world can be truly known by the human. Bavinck writes, “The world becomes, and can only become, our spiritual [geestelijk] property, for it is itself existing spiritually [geestelijk] and logically and resting in thought” (46). In the act of thinking, one makes the divine thoughts, one’s own thoughts. Finally, thinking and being can only be unified when the God of humans “becomes his God, and his Father” (52). In other words, “It is the same God… who makes himself known in both his works. It is the same Word who made all things and who, in the fullness of time, became flesh. The same spirit who renews the face of the earth and changes the heart of the sinner.” And this world-and-life-view makes one a true philosopher (52). In his manifold wisdom God makes himself known in his act of creation and recreation, both independent of us and within us (33, 36, 46).

Being and Becoming

The relationship between being and becoming, put differently, is a question of the relationship between God and the world. Thus, it is in this chapter that the framework of Bavinck’s “organic motif” is unveiled (71-78, 82-83, 89-90).[3] Succinctly put, the organic motif of CW is (i) creation itself is composed of unities-in-diversities that reflect the unity-in-diversity of God, (ii) in this world the whole precedes the parts and unity makes way for diversity, (iii) the vivifying role of the idea, and (iv) the teleological orientation of the organism. Readers of Bavinck’s Reformed Dogmatics will be aware that Bavinck uses his ‘organic motif’ in the more constructive areas of his theological program.

In answering the question of the relationship between being and becoming, Bavinck again begins first with God, that all of creation finds its unity in the manifold wisdom of God. Therefore, both the physical and the spiritual, the invisible and visible, is rooted in the divine consciousness; all becoming is rooted in being. Therefore, the relation between being and becoming is one of Creator and creature. God is being; creation is becoming. This divine wisdom is then realized by God in the act of creation through the divine will, and by this God grants existence to and sustains all things (79). Finally, this becoming is not opposed to organic development either. All of creation is oriented towards its destiny, the glory of God. “All of these different created things, with their different substances, ideas, powers, and laws are—according to the organic view—taken up in one great whole, and are subservient to an ultimate goal” (90). Thus the whole of creation is unified by the mind of God, guided by his will, and progresses towards his glory.

Becoming and Acting

The final question Bavinck approaches is the relationship between becoming and acting. In the background of this question are the answers to the previous two questions. Bavinck put it this way:

This same divine wisdom that thought and knew the world before he created it, that by this thinking granted reality to things and truth to our intellect, also determined the norms for our knowing, willing, and acting. The ideas that lay the connection between thinking and being, between being and becoming also provide harmony between becoming and acting… between head and heart (108).

Thus, undergirding the relationship between becoming and acting is the God who creates all things, who providentially guides all things towards his glory, and reveals himself within his organic creation, internal and external to man (110). One of the key questions that this chapter explores is human freedom. For Bavinck, God’s freedom and human freedom are not analogous. He does suggest that humans have an obligation to strive for freedom. This freedom, he counsels, we find in the eternal norms. ‘Eternal norms’ then are rooted in the divine being, but revealed in man and to man. As much as God makes himself known in the human consciousness and in the Scriptures, these eternal norms are known. Therefore, undergirding the good and the beautiful, the true and the ethical is the will and wisdom of God. On account of the unity provided by God, the world presents to man superlative freedom and choice of belonging and virtue, of beauty and goodness (94, 109, 123). Thinking, feeling, and acting are all united in the harmony God provides.

But how does one act freely? For Bavinck, obeying these eternal norms is not a matter of force or coercion but rather because it is fitting, for the law is written on the heart (105), although the law is also demanded of us in Scripture (128). In this section, to display that the Christian religion is the only religion that recognizes the moral decay of man, while also holding out a way of salvation, he engages with the philosophies of Immanuel Kant and Arthur Schopenhauer (111-113). Thus, on account of the fall, humans are in bondage to sin and must experience conversion to have freedom.

Post-conversion, in acting freely one moves by the Spirit from thinking to acting. This activity is one in which we conform our lives, in head and heart, in thinking and acting to the image of God’s Son. “And this is the ideal and destiny of the human being.” In conforming ourselves to the image of Christ we experience true freedom (129). For the eternal norm of God outside of us becomes our own in our thinking and doing (133). In the first chapter, Bavinck suggests that one can only experience freedom as one imbibes the truth. In the closing paragraph, he grants that in Christ, the truth enters into us, becomes our own “spiritual property; through a living and true faith” and as Christ becomes ours and we Christ’s, we are on the path of freedom (133).

This is a fascinating little treatise by Herman Bavinck and is well suited for the needs of the 20th century. It offers an opportunity to reflect on how the Triune-God who created us also upholds all facets of our thinking, becoming, and acting. Moreover, how the Christian religion offers a harmonious account of the world, for science and art, for ethics and beauty, for head and heart. Thus, as Christians imbibe the truth within us we may turn to the world outside of us and spread the knowledge of God.

Gregory Parker Jr. is a graduate of Cairn University and Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. He is currently a Ph.D. candidate in Systematic Theology at the University of Edinburgh and the co-editor and co-translator with Cam Clausing of Herman Bavinck’s The Sacrifice of Praise (Hendrickson Publishers, 2019)and Guidebook for Instruction in the Christian Religion (Hendrickson Publishers, 2021).

[1] Nathaniel Gray Sutanto, God and Knowledge: Herman Bavinck’s Theological Epistemology (London: T&T Clark, 2020), 142. Sutanto delineates that Bavinck thinks of God accomplishing this in three ways: “(i) an organic ontology of creation, (ii) the work of divine providence, and (iii) the ongoing revealing activity of the Word as Logos.” In CW this can be seen as argued on pgs. (i) 38, 45-46, 51-52, 71-74, 78, 108, 110, 122 (ii) 45-46, 54, 79, 83, 108, 122 (iii) 47, 51-52, 78, 108, 110; Sutanto also provided a separate introduction to CW. He argues there for the importance of the ‘divine idea’ and that it pivots around “science, philosophy, and wisdom” for Bavinck. (See Sutanto, “Bavinck’s Christian Worldview: Context, Classical Contours, and Significance,” Reformed Faith and Practice Vol. 5, no. 2 (2020): 28-39, 32).

[2] Herman Bavinck’s “Reading, Thinking, Speaking” will be published in Modern Reformation 30, no. 1 (Jan/Feb, 2021). This piece was written in the intervening years between the first (1904) and second (1913) edition of Christian Worldview. There Bavinck writes, “Thinking is to penetrate into the heart and the soul, into the kernel and essence of all things, to assimilate them, to become like them.” (See “Manuscript of Reading, Thinking, Speaking”, (1908), Box 346, Folder 213, Herman Bavinck Archive, Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, Amsterdam, Netherlands).

[3] To read more on Bavinck’s organic motif see (James Eglinton, Trinity and Organism: Towards a New Reading of Herman Bavinck’s Organic Motif (London: T&T Clark, 2012); Gray Sutanto, God and Knowledge, 1-71; Cory Brock, Orthodox yet Modern: Herman Bavinck’s Use of Friedrich Schleiermacher (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2020), 1-65; Bruce Pass, The Heart of Dogmatics: Christology in Christocentrism in Herman Bavinck (Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2020), 13-85.

  • Greg Parker Jr.