The Gateway to the Deep End
Guidebook for Instruction in the Christian Religion, Herman Bavinck. Translators and editors, Gregory Parker Jr. and Cameron Clausing. Peabody: Hendrickson Academic, 2022. Hardcover, 224 pages.
Let’s say you’ve read one or two of those modern popular-level theology surveys and you’re ready for something more. You’ve heard about this great Dutch Reformed theologian named Herman Bavinck. Doing a little research, you discover he wrote a massive 4 volume Reformed Dogmatics (RD). That’s the deep end of the Reformed theology pool. You’re not the type intimidated by challenges – “where there’s a will, there’s a way” is your motto. But how are you going to eventually find your way to swim confidently and profitably in that deep end? Thankfully, Herman Bavinck answered that question for you already back in 1913 when he published this book.
In 1911, Herman Bavinck was approaching the sunset years of his life (he’d die ten years later). In that year, he completed the definitive second edition of RD, the fruit of years of teaching both at Kampen and the Free University of Amsterdam. With that publication, he almost entirely left dogmatic writing behind. However, in 1913, he published his Guidebook, intended as a short summary of RD. His audience, he said, was high school and university students. While I’m not sure it would still be accessible to high school students, certainly anyone who’s read some of the more basic theology books will manage it.
The Guidebook consists of 20 chapters covering all the essentials of Reformed theology in the conventional order. Most of the chapters are fairly short – they could easily serve as edifying reading between church services. Like RD, there’s nothing here in terms of personal anecdotes and little in the way of illustrations. Bavinck is all business. Like RD, there are plenty of Scripture references and much careful thought. Unlike RD, you’ll find sparse interaction with other theologians, whether negatively or positively.
The Guidebook presents Bavinck as a classically Reformed theologian, faithful to Scripture and the Confessions. Some of his formulations are especially concise and elegant. For example, on sanctification he mentions the image of faith as a hand. In justification, what that hand does is receive Christ’s benefits. It’s a merely receptive activity. But subsequently, with that hand of faith, “we desire to carry out our own work” in our sanctification (p.155).
I’ve yet to read a book like this where I’ve agreed with the author on everything. Here too, there are some formulations I find infelicitous and others curiously indecisive. To give just one example of the latter, Bavinck appears unsure about whether the days of creation were ordinary days. In his 2020 biography (review here), James Eglinton noted that Bavinck’s personal copy of the second edition of the Dogmatics contained all manner of handwritten annotations. There were also 23 pages of material for further expansion, including material on the creation days. What direction was Bavinck’s thought heading? I’d love to know, but Eglinton doesn’t say. The Guidebook only suggests limbo.
On at least one other topic, Bavinck’s thinking apparently changed. In RD, Bavinck argued on the basis of 1 Pet. 3:19 that Christ preached to the dead. In the Guidebook he writes: “…there is no mention of the gospel being preached in the world of the dead, even if one invokes Matthew 12:32 or 1 Peter 3:18-22” (p.184). The Guidebook represents Bavinck’s most mature theological reflection and should be taken as the last word on what he thought about any particular issue.
The translation reads well; though I do question why the authors gave us the corresponding Dutch word for just about every technical term. The volume of it is rather distracting. The Guidebook also has many footnotes, many of which are comparing the text to a higher-level compendium of the Dogmatics, Magnalia Dei. Here’s one of those rare situations where endnotes could have been used with no one’s regret.
In Hosea 4:4, God says, “My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge.” In 2 Peter 3:18 all believers are told to “grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.” Nothing is more important than developing a deeper knowledge of God so we can have a deeper, more meaningful relationship with him. That’s the point of theology. Do you want to go deeper? Bavinck can help you along the way.
Originally published in Clarion 72.3 (February 24, 2023).