The July 2021 installment of the monthly RTS Jackson Online Discussion Forum features Dr. Cory Brock in conversation with Chancellor Ligon Duncan about the life and writings of theologian Herman Bavinck.
Step Morgan: Well, how about we get rolling with the formal introduction? Before we do, I’d like to say welcome to our July online discussion forum here at Reformed Theological Seminary in Jackson, and we’re delighted that you joined us today. We have a special welcome to Dr. Duncan’s covenant theology class at RTS Washington. And one of the things you will eventually hear Dr. Duncan say, if you’ve not already heard him say, is that all of RTS belongs to every RTS student. So we love having, not only our Jackson students and alumni and friends, but friends and alumni and current students from across the institution join us for these events. So help us spread the word! We’d love to bring even more people into these [garbled, crosstalk]. Couple of housekeeping details to let you know: before we introduce our guests, first, if you would, please make sure that your mic [garbled, crosstalk]. Some interesting additions to the conversation, so check those mics and make sure those stay muted if you don’t mind. Also, you likely know we’re going to be giving away some books today. We’ve got 10 copies of our guest’s Orthodox Yet Modern, an analysis of how Herman Bavinck utilized modern scholarship and particularly Schleiermacher’s work in a way that was still orthodox. I’m sure we’ll hear more about that today. We also have one set of Herman Bavinck’s Reformed Dogmatics, all packaged up, ready to hit the mail. If you would like to be entered in that drawing. All you have to do is comment or leave a question in the chat box. We’ve already got your mailing address from the registration form. Just say hello. If you have a unique Zoom handle, give us your actual name so we know who it is there that’s commenting. But otherwise, just say hello or leave a comment, ask a question. Towards the end of the call, Dr. Duncan will be building questions and passing them on to our guest. So as you think of questions along the way, put them in the chat box. We’re going to save time for those near the end. Any prospective students on the call, just a reminder, your participation today gets your application fee waiver for a limited time, so get rolling on those applications and then reach out to me or to CL Pearce and let us know when you’re ready there, and we can get that processed for you. And if you hang on to the end of the call, we’ll be sharing some details and the registration link for next month’s event. So stay tuned for that if you possibly can. OK, before handing it over to Dr. Duncan, how about I pray for our time together and we’ll get going. Father, we thank you so much for your kindness to us. We thank you for the joy of seeing the faces of old and new friends, and we thank you for the gifts that Christ has given to his church in ministers and theologians. And we thank you for the life and work of Herman Bavinck and the opportunity we have to reflect upon that now. Thank you for our guests and our host. We ask that you would give them sharpness of mind as they share with us a conversation about Bavinck’s work. We ask that all of this would be to your glory, that it would be to our joy. In Christ’s name we pray, amen. All right, Dr. Duncan, over to you.
Ligon Duncan: Thank you, Step. Before we even begin, I want to introduce Dr. Cory Brock to you. Dr. Cory Brock graduated from Reformed Theological Seminary in Jackson, and then went to the University of Edinburgh, New College, where he studied with James Eglinton, who is arguably the best known and most accomplished Herman Bavinck scholar in the world today. Dr. Eglinton speaks many languages, and of course, has mastered theological Dutch. Really has contributed greatly to the revival of Herman Bavinck studies and has what we affectionately refer to as the Bavinck Mafia around him, doing great work on Bavinck. And Cory is a part of that. Cory studied with Dr. Eglinton. They’re good friends and colleagues, along with our Gray Sutanto here in Washington, D.C. In fact, Cory and Gray have written a book on Neocalvinism, which I’ll probably ask Cory to tell us about a little bit later on. Cory ministered in Edinburgh, so he’s a scholar, but he’s got a heart for ministry. And just hear him—he’s going back to Edinburgh because he’s got a heart for ministry. And so this is not only a scholar, this is a scholar with a pastor’s heart. And while he has served on the ministry staff of First Presbyterian Church in Jackson, he has also taught not only at RTS, but I think at Belhaven. Cory, have you taught some at Belhaven in your time yet? OK, I’m right about that. I am glad I wasn’t wrong about that. So he’s taught at Belhaven. He’s taught Herman Bavinck for us. He’s done, I think, getting ready to do theological Dutch for us. And sometime after the call, I need to ask him if he’ll help me teach a course this fall at RTS in Jackson. So he’s been generous with his academic gifts, using them at both the undergraduate and graduate level while he ministers in a local congregation, and is going back to Edinburgh to continue that work. As Step already said, his Ph.D. has been published, and it focuses on—a lot of Bavinck scholars say, 50-60 years ago would sort of detect a schizophrenia in Bavinck, between his engagement with modern thought, that of Schleiermacher in the liberal tradition, and his embrace of historic, reformed, confessional Christianity. And James Eglinton has very much challenged that kind of interpretation, and really, what Cory has done is, he’s demonstrated in Bavinck’s usage of Schleiermacher and his engagement with these sort of epistemic questions that he’s thoroughly orthodox and thoroughly modern at the same time. So all of that to say is, we’re getting ready to talk somebody who knows a whole lot about Herman Bavinck. I don’t think I knew who Herman Bavinck was until I got to seminary, and we were assigned the only parts of Bavinck at that time that were in English, were in a book that was then called Our Reasonable Faith, which has since then been republished in the form of The Wonderful Works of God. And that was that was about all that most English speakers knew of Bavinck directly. Now, if you have read Louis Berkhoff’s Systematic Theology, which is probably the most widely used systematic theology in the North American, English-speaking world in the last 75 years, you’ve read Bavinck, you just didn’t know it. Don’t run plagiarism software on Berkhoff’s Systematic Theology, because you’re getting Berkhoff mediating Bavinck to you. He’s distilling and summarizing what he has learned from Bavinck. So if you’ve read Berkhoff, you’ve read some Bavinck. You just didn’t know it. But reading Bavinck directly is an entirely different experience. And so, we’re going to get to learn about that a little bit together today. But I’m going to start off, Cory, by assuming that there may be some people on the call that were like me when I went to seminary, and they didn’t know anything about Herman Bavinck. So tell us Cory, who is Herman Bavinck?
Cory Brock: Yeah, thank you so much. Great to be here. I appreciate your kind words, Ligon. Today, July 29, 2021, is the 100th, centennial, anniversary of Bavinck’s death. So Bavinck died very early in the morning, while it was still dark, this very morning 100 years ago today. He was born in 1854. He dies in 1921, and Bavinck was Dutch. He was a Dutch churchman and theologian. I think, probably, to encapsulate the narrative of Bavinck in brief, one of the best ways to think about it, is through that orthodox and modern lens. You know, he was born in 1854, so he is born just after the Spring of Nations in 1848. The Spring of Nations was a time of revolution across Europe, where monarchies were being overthrown, in large measure, for liberal democracies. And not two decades before that, you saw the rise of the free church movement. So you’ve got, you know, in 1843, the Free Church of Scotland leaves the Church of Scotland. In 1834, before the Free Church did that, you’ve got that same thing happening in the Netherlands. And so Bavinck’s father was a pastor in this secession church movement, and this is a movement that is post-Enlightenment. So it was a response to liberalizations and overreach from the state church dictating who could be a minister where, and financial turmoil, and who owned property, and all sorts of things like that, like we’ve seen in church history. So Bavinck’s born into a very tumultuous time. James and I have both used the language from another scholar that the ground was moving beneath his feet when he was born. This is the awakening of the modern age. We talk about, “What is modernity?” Modernity is really the long nineteenth century. That’s the beginning of it. From the French Revolution to the Great War, that’s the early days of modernity. We’re still living in it, and it’s—Bavinck was born into the height of the creation of the modern world. And so, you’ve got that modern cultural and theological philosophical aspect to his life. But then you’ve got the fact that he’s a son of a secessionist free church that confesses the three forms of unity, that he’s a churchman. I mean, he was raised on a lifestyle of Sabbath rest, and worship, and piety, and hard work. And at the same time, he had access, unlike many in his world, to a really great education growing up. And so, Bavinck, from a young age, was, you know, speaking French and German and English and Dutch, and reading Greek and Hebrew. And so, that set him up for a lifetime of both pastoral ministry and theological ministry, with some really robust gifts. He, to carry on this narrative and try to be brief here, he goes to the University of Leiden to study instead of staying at the seminary. It would be somewhat similar to leaving RTS and going to Vanderbilt, going to the University of Chicago sort of a deal in a way. And he did that because he wanted to actually have an education that was from the perspective of a non-confessional standpoint. And he wanted to do that, in some ways, to strengthen his own faith and to learn exactly what it was that the modern theologies were saying, what was changing from confessional theology of the past. And so he comes out of that and decides that he’s going to go into labor for his own church denomination, to be a pastor and then a lecturer in that world, and try to support that world by offering it, eventually, a Reformed dogmatics, a theology that really speaks to modernity. And so those are some broad strokes about the balance between kind of his orthodox and modern life in the Netherlands. He becomes a national figure, and then later an international figure. I mean, he dined at the White House in the early 20th century with Theodore Roosevelt, for example. So he was a very prominent figure by the end of his life.
Ligon Duncan: Cory, he is very often associated with Abraham Kuyper. And in the late 20th century, my guess is more Reformed people in North America were familiar with Kuyper than were familiar with Bavinck. And there’s a sense in which he was—Kuyper was even more well—Kuyper ends up being the prime minister of the Netherlands, and is very important in terms of journalism and theology and education and politics. But Bavinck, less well known. Tell us about the relationship between Bavinck and Kuyper. When did that begin, what was that like, et cetera?
Cory Brock: Kuyper’s 15-17 years older than Bavinck. And when Bavinck is a student, he’ll have a poster of Kuyper on his wall in his own room. He saw Kuyper as a bit of a theological church celebrity in his young years, and really appreciated Kuyper while he was in a denomination that didn’t appreciate Kuyper, for the most part, in the early days of the secessionist movement that Bavinck was a part of. He will grow into someone who shares the public national platform with Kuyper. While a lot of people have kind of viewed it as one former scholar put it, Bavinck was Kuyper’s loyal henchman. He was kind of his theological workhorse. You know, we’ve tried to say that that’s not true at all. Bavinck very much had his own voice. He was a corrective to Kuyper in many ways, because their personalities were so different. You know, you can think of the Kuyper-Bavinck relationship very similar to Luther and Calvin, right? Or more closely Luther and Melancthon, you know, for example. You’ve got a very loud, very public, very boisterous man in Abraham Kuyper. And then you’ve got a bit more of a Calvin-type figure in Bavinck, who’s known to be a little more quiet in personality, a much more careful, nuanced thinker, a person that could produce a Reformed dogmatics, where Kuyper was never going to do that. And so they were close friends and allies, even though they were separate in age for their whole lives, but at times, experienced some real tension between the other in how they handled theological matters in public. And a lot of that had to do with their personalities.
Ligon Duncan: You know, I think a lot of people sort of viewed Bavinck as a sidekick, for a while, to Kuyper. But the longer we—the further we’ve gotten away from Kuyper and Bavinck, I think the greater the appreciation for Bavinck has grown. And you actually see some of those areas where Kuyper was un-careful. So for instance, the celebrated Kuyper Stone Lectures—if you look at them closely, Kuyper has bought into some of the eugenics of the early 20th century, and in a way that Bavinck in his exposure to America, protects him from some of those ideas. I was talking with Tim Keller a few months ago. He said, “I consider Bavinck as the greater Kuyper, the greater and better Kuyper.” And I think that’s an opinion that’s shared by a lot of people today, that Bavinck is actually the superior of the two in terms of the product of his literary-theological output, as influential as Kuyper was. Bavinck is the more comprehensive and careful of the two scholars in his articulation. Now, you use the word Neocalvinism to describe Bavinck’s project. What do you mean by that? What’s Neocalvinism? You’ve written a book on this with Gray. So tell us about what that means, and then maybe tell us a little bit about that book so that we can be on the lookout for it, Cory.
Cory Brock: Yeah, thanks. So, Neocalvinism. One of the things that Gray and I are trying to do in this new book that we’ve written—it’s going to be with Lexham Press, it’s under edits right now, so we hope that it will be out early 2022, maybe late 2021, possibly. It’s called Neocalvinism: a Theological Introduction. One of the things that we’re trying to do is define Neocalvinism, and what we’re arguing in the book is that Neocalvinism needs to be thought of in its historic parameters, first off. So, Neocalvinism—while there’s a Kuyperian tradition or a Neocalvinist tradition that continues, right, that we can think of people like Cornelius Van Til, like Dooyeweerd and others, and Al Wolters and others in contemporary America that are part of the Neocalvinist tradition—that Neocalvinism, properly speaking, was a historical movement in the Netherlands that begins in the early 1880s and starts to wane and die out in the 1920s, after the death of Bavinck and Kuyper. Kuyper died in 1920, Bavinck in 1921. And so Neocalvinism has historic parameters, and it’s a movement, really, a theological and ecclesial movement of a revival of orthodox Reformed confessional theology in the midst of modernism in the Netherlands. And that’s one way of defining it quite simply, was this neo-confessional ecclesiastical movement. Now, Neocalvinism, you know, the words themselves are important. It’s distinct, right, from New Calvinism. So we need to separate those. New Calvinism is a contemporary or early 21st-century movement in the US that many people here will be very familiar with, right? Neocalvinism is particularly a Dutch movement, right? But it’s still got the Calvinism part, just like New Calvinism does. And Calvinism for Kuyper, Calvinism for Bavinck, while it assumes the confessional, theological, dogmatic standpoint of Calvin, right—so we can think about the TULIP or something like that, a focus on the doctrines of grace and on a predestinarian, elective emphasis on the sovereignty of God. That’s not particularly what they had in mind by the term Calvinism and Neocalvinism. Kuyper makes that very clear in the Stone Lectures and Bavinck in texts like the Future of Calvinism and Calvin and Common Grace. What they said was that while the doctrines of grace are shared amongst many of the Protestant movements and the Protestant confessions, what Calvin and Calvinism offers is a more full-orbed vision for all of life. So how the dogmatics and ethics, theological ethics, moves into a command and imperative that all of life be, for lack of a better term, transformed by the fact of the gospel, that the gospel changes everything, that the gospel changes all of who we are from inside out. And that for Kuyper and Bavinck, indeed, the gospel has an impact and needs to, must, change if we’re being faithful witnesses and in our context, the family, the culture, society, the workplace, our standpoint on our vocational lives, and even the state, for them, can be impacted by the gospel. Of course, they were not—to nuance this a bit, and to say, talking about the difference [between] that and some type of transformationalism—Bavinck and Kuyper never thought that the church could usher in the Kingdom of God through her actions. They never thought that—they didn’t have a postmill-type sense of it, that we were progressively Christianizing everything unto the kingdom of God. Rather, their thought in Calvinism was more that to be a faithful Christian is to heed the command to love God and neighbor, and that godliness is of value in every way, in every circumstance. And so, there is a way that the Christian worldview transforms the work of the biologist. There is a way that the Christian worldview transforms the work of a judge. You know, when a judge meets with somebody in court, the judge’s own particular view of the metaphysical condition of the law can have a real impact on the way they act in the courtroom, on what they think, where they think law comes from and what they think true justice is, for example. And so Calvinism takes the Reformed dogmatics of Calvin and as it’s developed, and then wants, in some ways, to say, but we also need Geneva. We also strive after Geneva. What they were trying to do in Neocalvinism was take that theological model and ask, “How does this work in modernity? How do we do Calvinism, full-orbed Calvinism, in a world that is becoming post-Christian and secularized?” And that even changes over their lifetime. It changes from the late 19th-century, the age of Renault, as they talk about it, the age of Darwin and Hegel and Marx, to the age of Nietzsche in the early 20th-century, and how Calvinism impacts those different ages, and needs to speak into those different ages. So in Bavinck, we’ve got a great example both in dogmatic activity, and in how he operated as a churchman and as a husband and all sorts of things. He wrote a book, The Christian Family, that [is about] what it means to be full-orbed, de-compartmentalized, to reject the modern sense that Christianity needs to be private. Religion needs to be privatized.
Ligon Duncan: When did he start writing the Reformed Dogmatics? And why did he do it? What was he up to, Cory? What was he trying to do?
Cory Brock: So, he begins very early portions of the Dogmatics in the early- to mid-1880s. But he complains during that time that his teaching load was so heavy, that he couldn’t write like he wanted to, and he had so many things to work out. He’ll publish the first volume in 1895, but he really gets going on it in 1889-1890. Part of the reason that he was allowed to really spend the time on it was because Abraham Kuyper had asked Bavinck to come to the Free University three times by 1889, and it’ll be five times in total before he actually goes. So, five very public requests: “Please come to the Free University and teach for me,” and Bavinck will deny him four times, and all of it, for the most part, happens very publicly. But the most public was in 1889. I mean, it got into the newspapers. The rejection letter got into the newspapers. And when that happened, Kampen, where Bavinck was teaching, wanted Bavinck to stay so badly that Bavinck really had a bit of a leg up, and he was able to do a little bit of negotiation to teach a lot less and write a lot more, so. And when that happened, he turned to focus on the Reformed Dogmatics. Now the key to understand what was going on and why he did it, why he wrote this magisterial dogmatic was because at the same time, he and Kuyper were trying to work to unite two different free church denominations together. Kuyper’s denomination, that had broken away from the state not very long ago, and then, of course, the secessionist church. And the way they saw it was, they needed a new dogmatics for a new church and a new modern generation. And at the same time, they were doing the new Bible translation as well, an updated Bible translation. And so they wanted a new Bible translation, a new dogmatics for a new, united free church in a modernist, new, very different generation from which had come before. So that was some of the key motivation. But you know, more acutely, perhaps—and I’ll try to wrap. I’m trying not to talk too long, but it’s hard not to just go on and on about all this stuff—
Ligon Duncan: It’s all good, Cory. You’re doing exactly what we wanted.
Cory Brock: Bavinck wanted—in the original foreword to the Reformed Dogmatics, which was not published in the Reformed Dogmatics in English that we have—Bavinck had written a forward that we don’t have that has been translated now as an article in English you can go hunt down and read. But he talks about how the theologian’s calling is to present dogmatics that is fresh for every single age, and how while the eternal truths of God, the archetypal theology, how God knows God’s self, and how God reveals God’s self ectypally into the world, and through God’s revelation, never changes, right? The way we express theology does have to change to some degree in every generation, so that we can speak the truths of history in the language of today, according to the questions of today, and according to the philosophical grammar of today. So one of the things that you’ll—people will know that some people read through Bavinck’s Dogmatics and they love it, other people get a little frustrated because you can get bogged down in a lot of Kant, Schleiermacher, Hegel, Ritschl, and many, many others, is because Bavinck—the reason for that is because Bavinck was saying, “We’ve got to address in every single age the philosophical milieu through the theological lens.” And so if we were to write Dogmatics today, if we were to write Bavinck’s Dogmatics, if Bavinck was alive one hundred years on, his Dogmatics would look, in some ways, very different from what he wrote in 1895 to 1901-1902 in that first round. Of course, he’ll do another round of it, and even—it’s different than The Wonderful Works of God. It’s different than the Handbook of Dogmatics that’s soon to be out that’s being translated right now, because he was trying to speak to the moment and to address the people of his day with the problems of his day, so.
Ligon Duncan: And of course, that’s like, you know, when a student first encounters Calvin’s Institutes. One of the typical things that a modern student will say: “Why is he spending all this time on Roman Catholic ecclesiology, sacramentology, et cetera?” Well, the context of his time determined and dictated that Calvin was going to have to interact with the dominant theology of the day in Western Europe, and Bavinck had a very, very different situation, has to deal with a different set of conversation partners who did not even exist in Calvin’s day, when Calvin was writing the Institutes. So that’s a—the other thing about Bavinck is his remarkable care to understand, from the inside out, those with whom he is disagreeing. And you hinted at this in his desire to study at Leiden and hear, you know, the modern theological perspective from the practitioners and exponents of that modern theology, and understand it inside-out. And consequently, sometimes when I give Bavinck to students, they start hearing him describe his opponent’s view, and they’re so attracted by it, they think it’s his view. And it’s not. He’s describing the person that he’s getting ready to disagree with. But he’s doing it elegantly and eloquently and accurately. And so you have to say, “No, no, no, wait a second. He’s not told you yet what the right answer is.” So that’s clearly a hallmark of Bavinck. How long does it take him to write the Dogmatics, Cory?
Cory Brock: From the time where he starts publishing number one, I mean, he had been very closely working on the first volume for about three years before he publishes it. And, you know, even that, I mean, in some sense, he’d been working on for 10 years. But I mean, he’s rigorously writing it for about three. He’ll publish them all from 1895 to 1901. So it’s a six-year span in round one. And then of course, he’ll come back and revise them around 1909-11 if I remember correctly, some time, something like that. So it was about a six-year publication span, six, seven year publication span.
Ligon Duncan: Cory, what was the response to the publication of Bavinck’s Reformed Dogmatics? What sort of reviews did he get? How did it land when it came out?
Cory Brock: It landed, it reviewed very well. I mean, it immediately became a national text in some ways. The reviews were very, very positive. Kuyper was very publicly appreciative. Back to the Kuyper-Bavinck story here. There were some reviews that spoke of how Bavinck’s text were so much better than Kuyper’s that Kuyper immediately came out in public in the newspaper and said, “Actually, my work and his work are complementary. My encyclopedia is kind of a step one, and then you move on to the Reformed Dogmatics, step two.” And so Kuyper was quickly making sure he wasn’t overshadowed by the Dogmatics. But yeah, it was very well-received. It was. It was seen as quite an accomplishment. It was engaged in by some of the more modernist theologians as well. I mean, there were some—there was a man—this is when the second edition came out, but—a man by the name of Eerdmans that reviewed it that said something to the effect of, “Bavinck reads more like a modernist theologian that’s trying to hide in the midst of orthodoxy.” So you had some coming at it and saying, “This is confessional theology in the modernist world, that in a modern world, that’s so helpful in some sense. And I see hints of modernist thinking here in the midst of an orthodox kind of structure.” And so you had public reviews that went like that both ways. I mean, that was one of the catalyst’s for my own book, for trying to think through that duality.
Ligon Duncan: We are already starting to get questions, and I do want to invite—again, Step has already said this, but—if you have questions for Cory, put them in the meta, put them in the thread, and Cory will make sure and get them to me because these are—they’re popping up so fast on my screen, I can’t get them so. So Step sends them to me, and he’s already sent me a number of questions. So here’s here’s a few questions that have come. What would be the best way to introduce Bavinck to our congregations? It’s easy with a Calvin or an Augustine, but how do you do that for Bavinck?
Cory Brock: Yeah. Well, I always recommend to people to pick up and read The Wonderful Works of God. So if you’re looking for a text, the best text I think for Bavinck, of Bavinck’s for anybody, is to pick up The Wonderful Works of God. There it is right there. Step’s got it in his window. It is a fantastic, readable, accessible—in some ways, to me, it’s the best one volume dogmatic, or systematic theology text, if you want to put it that way, that may have ever been written that is pretty accessible. Now, there’s about to be a publication of his handbook on theology, which is a step down from The Wonderful Works of God. A couple of my friends, Greg Parker and Cam Clausing, are about to publish this, or they’re working on it now. And it was written for teenagers. So this is Bavinck’s one volume for teenagers on theology. And so, if you’re looking for a book to give to people, that’s the book, I think.
Ligon Duncan: Great. Another question that—and this comes from Jonathan Hunt—”While we have the compilation of his lecture notes on ethics, why do you think that he never personally wrote a book on ethics?”
Cory Brock: Yeah, so James Eglinton goes into this in some detail in his biography, so I’d say to pick that up and look at the sections on that. I cannot remember all the details, but what I can say—thanks Step—what I can say is that one of the reasons is that he didn’t teach ethics at the Free University of Amsterdam, and there was another prominent ethics teacher and text that was kind of standing in place for the main ethics text at the time. And so there’s just—in some ways, there’s a very practical reason for it, that the work had in some ways been done already. So it’s it’s a shame, because what we have now in the Reformed Ethics is, you know, an incompleted manuscript, and something that he never edited. And so we can’t fully say that he’s totally comfortable and happy with what we have in our hand. But yeah, so. But check out James’s biography on that.
Ligon Duncan: That’s a very helpful answer, Cory, thank you. Here’s another one. Bill Sigler asks, “Comment on Bavinck’s friendship with Geerhardus Vos.”
Cory Brock: Yeah, so Geerhardus Vos’s father and family had immigrated to the US right when Bavinck was a child, and so they knew of the Voses, and I think their fathers knew each other. But Bavinck’s relationship with Vos really sprang to life whenever Vos came back to Europe to study in Germany. And so Bavinck went and visited Vos, and they would exchange letters and ideas. He stayed with Vos when he came to America on his trips, he would spend a season with Vos, and they exchanged letters throughout their lifetime, which you can get a hold of. There is somebody right now—and their name is escaping me—that I’ve spoken to that’s doing a Ph.D. on Bavinck and Vos at the very moment. So I think the best thing to say about this is, hopefully in a couple of years, you’re going to see a publication that kind of gives you all the detail on that relationship.
Ligon Duncan: Here’s another question that comes in. “How can, or should we, as people studying and living as pastors, scholars, and public theologians, best continue the thinking and work of Bavinck today?”
Cory Brock: You know, that’s a great question. So I mean, in some ways, what I was doing in my work was exploring a theological method through the lens of how Bavinck appropriates modernist thinkers, principally Schleiermacher, which is by far the most important, not only the most important modernist thinker, probably before Barth, but also the most important for Bavinck. So in that, there’s an example, an exemplar. And so, if we’re going to learn from him and how he did that, I think the application would be something like, as we are doing theology, as we’re preaching, as we’re leading Bible studies, it doesn’t have to be through writing a four-volume Reformed dogmatics. But in any ministry domain that includes the occupation of knowing and teaching, and trying to help people along, Bavinck would say that our calling is actually to get to know the contemporary landscape as best as possible, to know the current philosophical milieu, to know the culture really well, to understand what’s going on and understand the best thinkers, the best non-Christian thinkers, and to be able to use our theology, use our biblical studies, to address the questions and the grammar of that world in our contemporary day for the sake of our people, making it as as accessible as possible, but in the language. So for instance, you know, we’ve got to understand what postmodernity is, much more than we’ve got to understand Schleiermacher, probably. Most of us are probably facing issues that stem more from Derrida and Focault, than from Schleiermacher and Hegel. Although you can’t understand Derrida and Focault very well without Schleiermacher and Hegel and Kant, of course. But being willing to get into those texts—and another kind of subcomponent of that would be that, as you mentioned earlier, Ligon, that unlike Kuyper—and this is a personality difference, and in some ways I talked about this with Camden Bucey once on Reformed Forum, but—unlike Machen and unlike Van Til, Bavinck’s personality and Bavinck’s approach was quite different. He was very polemical. You read through the Reformed Dogmatics and you’ll see him engaged in polemics all the time. But as you mentioned, Bavinck will “steel-man” every single writer and thinker and argument before he tries to address it. He wants to understand it as thoroughly as possible. He won’t shortchange it. He’ll make sure that he gives the view from the writer’s perspective as best as possible in a way that, sometimes, when you read the Reformed Dogmatics, you start to think, “Is this Bavinck’s view? I don’t know.” And he “steel-manned” everything, and we’ve got to learn from that. You know, that’s part of a Christian spirit. A charitable spirit is to steel-man and to understand those interlocutors we’re engaged with to the best possible degree. And we see that in our own time with social media and other things. But, you know, even if we’re—if it’s critical race theory we’re trying to talk about, we’ve got to read the primary sources. We’ve got to understand from the perspective of the original authorship, what is it that we’re talking about before we engage? And so that’s one of the things that Bavinck, I think, helps us. It’s a spirit of charity and a spirit of helpfulness, and trying to help the church in understanding exactly what’s going on in the milieu and speaking to it, so.
Ligon Duncan: That’s a great answer. Here’s Walter Stevens asking, “Would Trinity and Organism by James Eglinton be a good guide to Bavinck’s Reformed Dogmatics? And if so, would you suggest reading it prior to or along with the Reformed Dogmatics?”
Cory Brock: Yeah, I mean, I think James will get mad at me if I say no, right? No, of course, yes. Let me just tell you a little bit in a minute or two what that book is doing. What James is doing, is saying that one of the ways we can think about the orthodox-modern relationship of why Bavinck is not a schizophrenic thinker as it’s been posited in the past, is by understanding his organic motif. So we can get into the nitty-gritty of Neocalvinism by talking about the organic motif. The organic motif is both Kuyperian and Bavinckian, and in it, the organic motif, which James lays out very clearly in his book, essentially understands that the way God created the world is a cosmos that is teeming with life, and it is a unity in diversity. Bavinck and Kuyper understand everything through this motif, through the lens of organism. Everything that God made, nature in itself, is good, and it is unity in diversity. So you can think about humanity, for example, that there is no humanity apart from Adam and Eve, that humanity is one and many, never individual. So thinking about humanity per individuality breeds individualism, and that, they say, is mechanical. So the organism of creation is things as they should be, things as God has defined them. Unity in diversity, even the own human being is a unity in diversity. We have intellect, feeling, and will. Yet we are one consciousness. We’re not brains on sticks. We are one thing, right? And all of society needs to be unity in diversity. The church is unity in diversity. So what Bavinck is doing, what James is doing in that book, is explaining how Bavinck’s organic motif, which is a modernist way of speaking about an old theology, a Patristic theology. You know, the church fathers would talk about humans being the microtheos, the micro divine beings, the pinnacle of existence is in one human being and in collective humanity as a university, sorry, as a unity in diversity, a representation of the whole cosmos in the single human. They’re taking that old Patristic, Augustinian way of viewing reality and metaphysics, and updating it into modern language. And James uses the organic motif to show how Bavinck is a unified thinker across his corpus, that the organic motif is in some way the unifying theme of the whole of the Neocalvinist theology.
Ligon Duncan: Great. I’m getting a lot of, sort of, comparison questions like, you know, how does this vision that you were sketching out that Bavinck has this sort of world in life view-ish, you know, Al Wolters-ish, creation Calvinism. How does it compare to things like Christian reconstruction? How does it compare to sphere sovereignty? How does it compare to Dooyeweerd? You know? So however you want to answer that question, take a shot at that, Cory.
Cory Brock: Yeah, yeah, that’s a big question. Well, I mean, one of the—can I say, check out the book we’re about to publish. That’s a shameless plug of the book. But that is what we’re trying to do in the book, is kind of say there’s a difference in historic Neocalvinism, first generation, if you want to put it that way, and Reformational philosophy, reconstruction, Van Til, you know, there are different phases of the Neocalvinist Kuyperian tradition, and they’re not all the same, and they have disagreements. So you read Van Til and the reconstruction theologians and Dooyeweerd on Kuyper and Bavinck, and they were very critical of Kuyper and Bavinck for being overly Thomistic and Aristotelian, for example. And so there are some strong distinctions. They are all in one stream, all in one vein. And those latter learned a lot from the former, but they did go in different directions. Let me do this. Let me talk about, just for a moment, what Bavinck means about “worldview.” Maybe that would be helpful. Yeah. So—and it’s even different from Kuyper. So it’s been noticed very early on in the history of Neocalvinism that Kuyper and Bavinck are different types of thinkers. That Kuyper is a deductive thinker and Bavinck an inductive thinker, and this plays out in the way that they describe worldview. Kuyper’s notion of worldview is more like what we think of as worldview in an American cultural sense, right? Where we, how evangelicals talk about world view probably most often. You know, you subscribe to Christianity, you put on, kind of, your Christian-tinted glasses and then you can intellectually deduce from the basic tenets of Christianity the way things are supposed to be, the creation-fall-redemption-consummation pattern, and read that into the rest of life and say, “Well, there’s that pattern, and then there’s other ideological patterns that are contra that pattern,” right? Bavinck, although he gets there eventually, approaches it very differently. He’s an inductive, an empirical, inductivist worldview-ist, if you will, a worldview thinker. And so for Bavinck, what worldview means is something more like understanding the path of the child onto maturation into adulthood. So, you know, a child is born and immediately they become a scientist. I have a two year old, and he constantly asks the question, “What’s that? What’s that? What’s that?” And Bavinck would say that he’s doing science, and there’s a whole ‘nother discussion here about what Bavinck and Kuyper mean by Christianizing science and art. Well, science for Bavinck is merely exploring the world that God has made, and making some determinations. And so every single child looks out at the world and does science. And then from science, they start to gather the individual pieces of reality, gather those together and then they seek to pursue philosophy. So philosophy moves from science inductively and says, “Well, how can we find some of the connective principles underneath the things we’re discovering in reality?” In other words, they’re asking in a very childlike way, “What’s the metaphysics of reality?” Right? “What are the principles? What are the first principles that make all this that I’m discovering possible?” You know, not only what are the words, but what is language, for example. And so, you move in your lifetime from science to an age of philosophy where you’re trying to put on wisdom, but then Bavinck says that worldview comes about by then letting religion bear down on science and philosophy. And so, creating a worldview is like creating an inductive map where eventually religion draws the border. But your life of science and art and philosophy fills in the details in the middle, and it’s a never-ending exploration. It can always change. And so it’s more like drawing a slow map over a lifetime than putting on glasses. And so, I think a lot of later Kuyperian streams are more like putting on glasses than inductively building a map over a lifetime, if we could put it that way.
Ligon Duncan: That’s good. Very helpful. Here’s another interesting one. “Did Bavinck touch on the development of modern psychoanalysis? Freud would have been a contemporary of his.” Any interaction from Bavinck in those areas?
Cory Brock: Yes, but not a lot. So you’ll get him mentioning Freud in his latter career some, but to my mind, I’m not aware of a detailed analysis of psychoanalysis, of Freud. However, very important, and this is part of Bavinck’s modernist tendency is that, we say, I say in the book, and it’s been very common to say that, Bavinck, although he’s not a modernist, does experience a turn to the self, which is one of the ways of talking about one of the key distinctions of modernity, to really place a lot of emphasis on consciousness and a study of the self. And so, while he’s writing Reformed Dogmatics, he very famously writes a textbook on psychology at the very same time. And it’s a very important text that’s recently been retranslated into English that you can, I think, Google and find, and it gives you huge insights to how he understands even doctrines like general revelation. So Bavinck, although he—I don’t know that he interacts with Freud in any immense way—he is very much a modern man in the sense of, he sees immense importance in psychology in ways that those in the past have not. I mean, one of the ways he critiques older doctrines of scripture, for example, is by saying while he agrees with the Reformed doctrine of scripture as it’s been presented from the Reformation, they did not pay near enough attention to the psychological mediation of the Holy Spirit in the individual lives of the authors. It’s one of the things that he says, for example. Yeah, well, I’ll stop there.
Ligon Duncan: Here’s another one. This is Josh Walker asking. This is an edgy little question. Let’s see how you tackle this one. “Do you think that men like Craig Bartholomew and Michael Goheen have in the main, rightly understood Neocalvinism?”
Cory Brock: Yeah, absolutely in the main. Yeah, I mean, there are definitely differences between Bavinck and Kuyper and that tradition, but on the whole—and that’s OK, right? We expect development. I mean, Bavinck would not want us to write the same things that he wrote in every way, shape and form. I mean, probably some of the smaller differences is just Bavinck’s desire and willingness to continue to uphold more traditional language and grammars, Aristotelian grammars, for particular doctrines and things like that. So that’s something that—I don’t know if Bartholomew and others have critiqued him specifically for that, but that might be a subtle difference. But in the main, yeah, absolutely. Especially in what we mean by Neocalvinism in its broadest stroke, which is the application of Reformed Christianity to all of life, certainly.
Ligon Duncan: Stephen Felker asks, “How did Bavinck understand the church-state distinctive? Did he hold to a two-kingdom view?”
Cory Brock: Hey, Stephen, thanks for that. He did not, no. He does not hold to a two kingdom view if by it, you mean a Reformed two kingdoms view as it’s been defined in the past 10, 15 years or so. He’s definitely distinct. I mean, Bavinck has a sphere sovereignty view, like Kuyper. If you want the details on that, I would say read The Kingdom of God the Highest Good, which is one of his very earliest publications. And in that publication, he lays out very clearly his own view of sphere sovereignty. He lays out a sphere sovereignty view of the relationship between the spheres. I mean, just a couple of things very quickly—for Bavinck and Kuyper, even though people will talk about them desiring a transformation of the whole of life like I’ve talked about, they did not want a national church. They did not want an establishmentarian system. So that’s one of probably the myths that’s that’s out there, that’s been wrongly inferred. The entire Neocalvinistic movement was modern in the sense that it wanted a free church and not a national establishmentarian church. So that’s—one way to say yes, there’s two kingdoms, certainly agreement between an R2K system and so much of what Bavinck and Kuyper were doing, to be sure. But technically, they’re different systems, being sphere sovereignty and R2K. Read Bavinck, The Kingdom of God the Highest Good, we’ll have a chapter on that—chapter eight in our forthcoming book that will address all of it in detail.
Ligon Duncan: That’s great. Several people, Ann Spooner, Roger Key, and others, have asked questions like, “OK, who are the important non-Christian philosophers of today?” And by the way, James Eglinton writes about that in the article that he has on the TGC website about how influential scholars like Niall Ferguson or Jordan Peterson or Tom Holland, or others who don’t claim to be, you know, anything like orthodox Christians, and yet have a lot of influence on Christian thought. So who are some of the thinkers today that we need to be—if we’re going to do what Bavinck did, who some of the people we need to be paying attention to, Cory?
Cory Brock: Yeah, well, maybe—you know, I’m certainly not the best person to detail all the best thinkers and philosophy in 2021, but what I would say is that before we focus on exactly who’s doing what work right now and who’s the most important, that it’s very important for us to have a pretty good grip on 20th century philosophy. And so, if you read Bavinck, one of the things you’ll notice is as much as he was engaged in people right at the moment, engaged with people he disagreed with and his own particular day, most of his work is trying to say, “How did Emmanuel Kant change everything? You know, how did Hegel change everything? How did Ritschl?”, people that had preceded him just in the previous generation that really shaped what was going on at that very moment. And so for us, we’ve got to have a good grip, I would say, on—if you want to be a theologian and philosopher in our tradition, the Reformed tradition, needs to understand phenomenology to some degree, needs to understand the original postmodern philosophers. I mentioned some of those earlier. One great place to go do that, that I’ve been helped by, is Christopher Watkin’s work. Christopher Watkin at Monash University is doing exactly what Bavinck did with Focault, Derrida, and others. Christopher does it as good as I’ve seen. Kevin Vanhoozer’s one that’s regularly engaged.
Ligon Duncan: James Anderson writes in that series, too. A volume on Hume.
Cory Brock: So yeah, yeah, yeah. Those are great places to go. Kevin Vanhoozer, you can see an example of kind of a Bavinckian method in his work with Paul Ricoeur, for example, and Gadamer. So really haven’t [garbled] on how modern philosophy affected postmodern philosophy from Kant to Focault, for example, will, I think, give anybody a pretty good ability to interact with current philosophy. Probably, the other—last thing I’ll say about it is while the analytic and continental traditions and philosophy—that division has been blurred now for the good, I think—you’ll need to interact at least a little bit with exactly what we mean by those two traditions.
Ligon Duncan: It’s good. Jonathan Ortiz asks, “Did Bavinck change his views on certain doctrines at the end of his career? And if so, what?”
Cory Brock: Yeah. Nothing fundamental. I mean, maybe this question is being posed because the narrative of Bavinck’s story was that at the end of his career, he kind of abandoned a lot of his confessionalist roots. But James demonstrates very clearly in the biography that that’s not the case. I mean, maybe let me spin this in a positive way. One of the great discoveries of Bavinck in his latter career was evangelism, and was missions, international and local missions. I mean, Bavinck, in his earlier career, you won’t see much by way of reflection on evangelism and its importance, because in his early career, the hope of Neocalvinism, of Kuyper and Bavinck, was that while modernism had infiltrated the Netherlands, that while they didn’t want an established church, they did want a Christian nation to a degree, and that the goal was for that to be a grassroots movement from the bottom up, from the people of God, the organic church coming out of the institution, doing its job in ministry, in word-and-deed ministry, and seeing the nation turn back towards a more Christian state, even though it wouldn’t be a Christian state officially in an establishmentarian sense—well, in the 20th century—sorry—Bavinck realizes that’s not going to happen, probably, in his lifetime. And so he turns from from saying Calvinism is the answer to the problems of today, to saying Christianity is the answer to the problems of today. And with that, when he went to America, the second time he comes back and says, “I was struck by our need for evangelism from the American context.” He learned that from the American context. He was very harsh about the US in many ways, very critical and rightly so, especially of race relations in the US. But that was one thing that he awakened to. And so he really gets behind the missionary movement in the early 20th century when he comes back and wants to see a lot more evangelism happening in the Netherlands.
Ligon Duncan: Cory, this has been fantastic. Really instructive, helpful, edifying. Thank you everybody for your questions. I tried to get as many of them as I possibly could, while respecting your time frame. Step, any final words for us today?
Step Morgan: Yes. If you did not comment or leave a question in the chat box type your name in there real quick before we end the call so that you’ll be entered in the book drawing. We’ve got 10 copies of Dr. Brock’s book to give away. And also one set of Reformed Dogmatics that we’d be happy to send someone’s way. Also, I’ve just posted in the chat box the info for next month’s event on August 17th. Dr. Mike McKelvey, our associate professor of Old Testament here at RTS Jackson will be our guest, and the topic will be the necessity of the Old Testament to Christian ministry. The registration form for that event is already live. It’s in the chat box there. You may have to scroll back up a bit. We’ve got a lot of names coming in. We hope you’ll join us for that. Thank you so much for joining us today. We look forward to seeing you soon.