Church - Contemporary Issues

'What Do You Think of Herman Bavinck?'

By Dr. Paul M. Elliott
A once little-known Dutch theologian's pernicious influence is growing exponentially in the American church, helping to spawn a growing crop of false teachings.

From the TeachingtheWord Bible Knowledgebase

A once little-known Dutch theologian's pernicious influence is growing exponentially in the American church, helping to spawn a growing crop of false teachings.

Dutch Reformed theologian Herman Bavinck (1854-1921), was little known in America until recent years, but these days we receive more and more questions about him. Bavinck was a professor of theology at the Free University of Amsterdam during the first two decades of the twentieth century. His massive four-volume systematic theology, titled Gereformeerde Dogmatiek (Reformed Dogmatics), was written in the late 1890s but only published in English beginning in 2002. Since that time, Bavinck's theological views have gained rapidly-increasing influence within Reformed and Evangelical colleges, seminaries, and churches.

However, Bavinck's influence on the church did not begin in 2002. A number of men who later became influential in American seminaries and churches either studied at the Free University of Amsterdam under Bavinck during his lifetime, or came under Bavinck's influence through the tutelage of his followers later in the twentieth century. It was because of his influence on this group of men that Bavinck's works were eventually translated into English and are now being more widely propagated. But his underlying theological thought has been a steadily-growing influence in Christian academia and the church for nearly a hundred years.

Bavinck's Pernicious Influence

And so we now receive the question, more and more frequently, "What do you think of Bavinck?" We're hearing it not only from pastors, but also from church members who are serious students of Scripture and have become aware of him. What did Bavinck teach? Are his teachings influencing the church for good or for ill?

The sad answer is that Bavinck's theology has had a spiritually pernicious influence on schools that train men (and these days, un-Biblically, women) for the ministry. As men immersed in Bavinck's thought have moved from seminary classrooms into positions of influence in church pulpits and in other educational institutions, Bavinck's influence has spread into the churches and is now growing exponentially.

Roots and Fruits

I would not make such a strong statement if I could not support it. There are two Biblical tests of any theologian, preacher, or movement: the roots and the fruits. Bavinck fails the test in both respects.

How do we evaluate the roots? The infallible test in evaluating the teachings of any preacher or theologian is to compare them objectively with the system of doctrine that we find in authentic Christianity's sole authority, the Word of God.

How do we evaluate the fruits? Once again, the answer is: Go to the Word. See what kinds of fruits the man himself produces. Compare them with the fruits that emanate from sound doctrine according to Scripture. Also, look at the kinds of fruits the man's followers are bearing, because often a man's influence does not come into full view until the next generation or even the one after that.

Jesus coupled these two principles with strong warnings in Matthew 7:13-23 -

Enter by the narrow gate; for wide is the gate and broad is the way that leads to destruction, and there are many who go in by it. Because narrow is the gate and difficult [that is, inherently involving hardship and persecution] is the way which leads to life, and there are few who find it.

Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep's clothing, but inwardly they are ravenous wolves. You will know them by their fruits. Do men gather grapes from thorn bushes or figs from thistles? Even so, every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.

Therefore by their fruits you will know them. Not everyone who says to Me, "Lord, Lord," shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father in heaven. Many will say to Me in that day, "Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in Your name, cast out demons in Your name, and done many wonders in Your name?" And then I will declare to them, "I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness!"

In Matthew 3:10, Jesus gave this warning of impending destruction to the apostate religious leaders of Israel, because they had failed the "root" and "fruit" tests: "And even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees. Therefore every tree which does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire."

A "Bavinck Revival"

How does this apply to Bavinck and his followers? Let me begin to answer that question with an excerpt from a 2009 article titled "A Bavinck Revival - May It Spread!", written by Dr. Richard Mouw, president of the Evangelical left's Fuller Theological Seminary:

There is a Bavinck revival going on in some theological circles in North America...

Bavinck was the younger colleague of Abraham Kuyper, and together they developed the perspective known today as "neo-Calvinism."...

Bavinck's tone was more moderate, and he treated views with which he disagreed with much charity - unlike Kuyper, who often came across as a polemicist. Bavinck's kinder and gentler orthodoxy holds out much promise for us in North America, especially since his works are being assigned these days to students in a variety of seminaries on the more conservative end of the Reformed and Presbyterian communities.

Take his comments about Islam. He observes, in [the first volume of Reformed Dogmatics], that "in the past the [Christian] study of religions was pursued exclusively in the interest of dogmatics and apologetics." This meant, he says, that Mohammed and others "were simply considered imposters, enemies of God, accomplices of the devil." Now that these perspectives are becoming "more precisely known," however, "this interpretation has proven to be untenable" - we do well to search for the ways, he insists, in which such perspectives display "an illumination by the Logos, a working of God's Spirit."

And here he is, in a little book, The Certainty of Faith, on the "works righteousness" associated in Calvinist minds with Catholicism:

[W]e must remind ourselves that the Catholic righteousness by good works is vastly preferable to a Protestant righteousness by good doctrine. At least righteousness by good works benefits one's neighbor, whereas righteousness by good doctrine only produces lovelessness and pride. Furthermore, we must not blind ourselves to the tremendous faith, genuine repentance, complete surrender and the fervent love for God and neighbor evident in the lives and work of many Catholic Christians. The Christian life is so rich that it develops its full glory not just in a single form or within the walls of one church.

Quite a friendly tone, for a Calvinist writing six decades before the reforms of Vatican II.

Indeed, wise thoughts all. If that way of being "orthodox Reformed" were to take hold here in North America, we might have a real revival on our hands!1

At the outset, one must wonder about the theological mindset of a man who thinks that Islamic theology may be "an illumination of the Logos, a working of God's Spirit"; who overlooks the plain teaching, running all the way through the New Testament, that the fruits of the Spirit are the products of adherence to sound doctrine; and who can assert that Roman Catholicism is simply another (and perhaps superior) "form" of true Christianity. Furthermore, one must beware of a seminary president who considers all of these to be "wise thoughts" and who thinks that "Calvinist minds" are the only ones that understand the centrality of the false doctrine of works-righteousness in Roman Catholicism.

A "Revival" of What?

Just what kind of a "revival" would result if Bavinck's influence continues to grow and expand? We already see the early evidences of it in the efforts of Evangelical postmodernists to bridge the unbridgeable gulfs between authentic Christianity and Roman Catholicism and Islam. These include such efforts as the Evangelicals and Catholics Together declarations, the Manhattan Declaration, and the "black-robed regiment" of Evangelical postmodernist preachers, Catholics priests, and Muslim imams who stood arm-in-arm at the Glen Beck rally at the Lincoln Memorial a few months ago.

Postmodern Evangelicals are willingly curtailing and even suppressing the proclamation of the only truth that will save souls for eternity, the Gospel of Jesus Christ. They suppress it because the truth of the Gospel is an inconvenient truth. It is a dividing line. It permits march under no other banner. But rather than fulfill Christ's commission as He gave it and in the way He commanded it, they seek to join with everyone and anyone who seems to agree with them on society's ills (but not their root cause) in an effort to "redeem the culture."

Thus Postmodern Evangelicals march off arm-in-arm with unbelievers on the fool's errand of trying to make this present doomed world a more outwardly righteous place, without the uncompromised proclamation of Jesus Christ as the one and only Way, the one and only Truth, and the one and only Life (John 14:6). They are trying to bring about the results that only come from the proclamation of the Gospel, without the Gospel.

The rise of interest in Bavinck's theology is not the cause of this phenomenon, but it certainly facilitates it. In Bavinck the Postmodern Evangelical finds support for false conclusions he has already drawn. What kind of aberrant theology underlies such views of Islam, Roman Catholicism, God, and the Gospel? We shall explore those questions in our next article.

 

References:

 

1. Richard J. Mouw, "A Bavinck Revival - May It Spread!", September 9, 2009, as viewed at http://www.netbloghost.com/mouw/?p=118 on 12/13/2010.

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