A hundred years after his death, Herman Bavinck no longer belongs to the Dutch church. The 19th-century theologian has gone global in the 21st.
But does he belong to the Chinese church? He should.
The neo-Calvinist luminary passed away in 1921. For the next eight decades, the study of his theology was largely confined to Dutch communities, both within the Netherlands and its diaspora. But the past two decades have seen a surge of Bavinck studies in English-speaking theological circles.
Many of his works have now been translated into English. Many scholars have written about him, offering now a worldwide selection of secondary sources. Calvin Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan, has established an institute, society, and journal to further promote the Bavinck research boom.
Especially thanks to the publication of his four-volume Reformed Dogmatics (2003–2008), Bavinck is no longer a theologian restricted to the Dutch. He has transcended the Netherlands and entered the conversations of the global church.
As a Chinese scholar who studied Bavinck for my dissertation, for me this momentum begs the question: What does a Dutch theologian born in the 19th century have to do with the Chinese church in the 21st century? And how can Chinese Christians better understand and apply his beliefs?
Bavinck is technically no stranger to Chinese churches. A popular digest of his dogmatics, Our Reasonable Faith, was translated into Chinese as early as 1989. However, the Chinese church has only scratched the surface of his theology with a superficial understanding, as it was not until 2014 that a second tome, The Philosophy of Revelation, a series of lectures he gave at Princeton Theological Seminary, was published in mainland China.
Meanwhile, North American theologians and seminaries have dominated the Chinese church’s understanding of his thought. The Bavinck in works by the likes of Cornelius Van Til and Louis Berkhof became the standard portrait in the minds of Chinese Christians. Yet recent studies show that these conventional readings of Bavinck’s thought are incomplete and lack a deeper consideration of his historical background and theological contextualization.
In his latest book, Bavinck: A Critical Biography, James Eglinton draws a vivid portrait. We encounter a Bavinck who, in the tension between modernism and the Reformed tradition, seeks to construct a theological system that is embedded with catholicity based on the doctrine of the Trinity and to portray a vision of a Christian worldview. This portrait is of great significance for Chinese churches today, as well as for the evangelical church in North America, because of Bavinck’s three emphases:
1) The Christian faith is catholic
Since the 1980s, theological education in churches in mainland China has flourished, with Reformed theology at the forefront of this growth. The Reformed evangelical movement led by Stephen Tong has played an important role in this development, as have Chinese translations of works by North American New Calvinists such as Tim Keller and John Piper.
However, this development in many churches in mainland China has gradually bred a pathological theological complex that only holds the Reformed faith as orthodox. Believers and churches with such a complex presuppose that only Reformed theology is the truth, placing it in opposition to other traditions.
For example, many newer urban Reformed churches more often than not cannot get along with older traditional house churches (think pietist networks started by Watchman Nee or Wang Mingdao) in mainland China. Chinese Reformed adherents normally turn down the traditions of these indigenous churches and are instead enthusiastic about importing Reformed confessions and Presbyterian polity from Western countries. Even worse, they sometimes regard one particular Western Reformed theologian (e.g., Van Til) as the yardstick by which they measure the truth of all theological discourse.
This narrow-minded theological stance has often invited much criticism of Chinese Reformed churches and incurred misunderstanding of actual Reformed theology. It has also spread to Chinese churches outside of China.
As a Reformed theologian in the modern age, Bavinck constructed a theological system that was deeply concerned about, as he wrote, “The Catholicity of Christianity and the Church.” For him, this catholicity “is based on the conviction that Christianity is a world religion that should govern all people and sanctify all creatures irrespective of geography, nationality, place, and time.”
His magnum opus, Reformed Dogmatics, is both profound and beautiful—full of meaningful words worthy of savoring. In dealing with many theological issues, he always had an expansive vision and a kingdom mind. Bavinck tirelessly absorbed the best of various theological and philosophical traditions—for example, his appreciation and critical appropriation of German theologian Friedrich Schleiermacher ¹—in the spirit of Christian catholicity, seeking to manifest the goodness of God in every sphere of human life. In addition, he emphasized that the catholic nature of the church transcends the limits of time and space. It possesses all the doctrines that human beings need to know concerning visible and invisible things.
In Bavinck’s view, that is the strength of Reformed theology: It provides a holistic view of life and of the world that helps believers live out this catholic faith. Thus, although he came from the separatist Christian Reformed Churches, Bavinck cooperated painstakingly with Dutch statesman and theologian Abraham Kuyper to promote unity among congregations that broke away from the Netherlands’ state-endorsed church. In 1892, they achieved the union of Kuyper’s Doleantie (“the Sorrowful”) churches with Bavinck’s denomination to form the Netherland’s second-largest Protestant denomination, the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands.
The Chinese church’s neglect of the catholic nature of the Christian faith needs to be addressed urgently in order to correct any pathological complexes and narrow-minded ecclesial positions, such as those held by some Reformed churches in mainland China. Bavinck, who lived in the Netherlands a century ago, gives us golden words in this regard: “Universal, catholic, is the Christian confession in this sense, that it spreads itself over the whole earth, includes all true believers, applies to all people, and has significance for the whole world.²” Any Christian church must not be narcissistic but should participate in fellowship with the global church and practice peaceful coexistence in its own region.
2) The Christian faith is contextual
It is true that Christianity was introduced to China from Western nations. Thus, the stereotype of Christianity as a “foreign religion” has long been prevalent in Chinese society. Yet interestingly, the practice of many Chinese churches seems to be an endorsement of this stereotype.
It is a common phenomenon that the Chinese Christian community often wishes to import the ideas of many Western theological traditions or theologians while neglecting to consider their own situation here and now. In particular, the Reformed boom of the last 40 years in mainland China has witnessed this non-contextualized theological mindset. Many of the emerging Reformed churches have been quick to introduce Reformed confessions and apply them to their churches without sufficient discernment or reflection. This approach often makes a Chinese church look more like a “foreign church” that lacks the power to communicate the Christian faith in the Chinese context.
In “The Future of Calvinism,” Bavinck argues: “Calvinism wishes no cessation of progress and promotes multiformity. It feels the impulse to penetrate ever more deeply into the mysteries of salvation, and in feeling this honors every gift and different calling of the Churches. It does not demand for itself the same development in America and England which it has found in Holland. This only must be insisted upon, that in each country and in every Reformed Church it should develop itself in accordance with its own nature and should not permit itself to be supplanted or corrupted by foreign ideas.”
Beyond Calvinism, Bavinck’s argument can be applied to the church’s articulation and communication of the faith in every region. In other words, while the Chinese church can draw on the rich theological legacies of other nations to promote its own articulation of the Christian faith, it must always preach the gospel in its own cultural context according to the unique gifts God has given to it. In doing so, Chinese communities will realize that the Christian faith is also a religion that belongs to and is oriented toward the Chinese people.
Furthermore, Bavinck’s emphasis on the contextuality of the Christian faith is a particular reminder for the unregistered church in mainland China. Due to their tensions with the government, contemporary house churches are reluctant to contextualize Christianity in order to address Chinese atheism, socialism, New Confucianism, digital authoritarianism, and other local challenges. This is because the government has enacted a policy of “sinicization” of religion, defined as “religion conforming to socialism with Chinese characteristics.”
Many house churches fail to distinguish between this politicized sinicization and a biblical contextualization of the Christian faith. As a result, they often implicitly proclaim an uncontextualized or “acontextual” Christianity. Bavinck’s view of Christian contextuality can remind unregistered congregations that the church that is rooted in the mysteries of salvation is called to contextualize God’s revelation.
3) The Christian faith is public
Bavinck was raised in a separatist church community. While there was no shortage of people in his denomination who proposed to participate in society from their own position of faith, there were still many who were hostile to the modern culture of the time. This tension has long existed in the church, which in every age has needed to think about the public nature of faith and to address the question of Tertullian, “What indeed does Athens have to do with Jerusalem?”
Such a question is especially pertinent amid transition from a Christian to a secular civilization. Because of its position on this transition, the rise of fundamentalism in North America in the first half of the 20th century by and large showed a tendency toward separatism and anti-modernism. Even by the end of the 1950s, separatism became the test of fundamentalism (as established by George Marsden in Reforming Fundamentalism).
Under the influence of this fundamentalism, the North American church was in a state of cumulative incompatibility with public society and culture. Through the writings of Gordon-Conwell Seminary professor Kevin Xiyi Yao, it is clear that in the 1920s and 1930s North American fundamentalism reached China through the Western missionary movement, which gave birth to Chinese churches gradually developing a separatist posture toward their surrounding culture.
Bavinck strongly opposed separatism by churches. In his view, this approach is at variance with the gospel of Christ. He argues: “The Gospel is a joyful tiding, not only for the individual person but also for humanity, for the family, for society, for the state, for art and science, for the entire cosmos, for the whole groaning creation.” In his view, the true gospel is not silent and weak when it faces the world, but delivers a joyful message from God in all areas of society.
It is worth noting that Bavinck also cautions the church to avoid a cultural triumphalism when addressing the public nature of the Christian faith. In his early career, in the article “The Kingdom of God, the Highest Good,” Bavinck pointed out that if someone tries to gradually win the world and have it transformed into the kingdom of God through actions such as evangelistic missions, charity or politics, that person harbors a naïve optimism. In other words, Bavinck believes Christian actions cannot triumph over all evil and, consequently, transform culture into being Christian completely and universally. After all, God’s kingdom cannot be fully realized on earth through human endeavor.
The public nature of the Christian faith, as presented by Bavinck, means it is neither “world-conformity” nor “world-flight” but is “in the world.” The Christian church does not belong to the world, nor can it leave the world; rather, it is in the world spreading the gospel of Christ to every sphere of human life.
The growing body of Bavinck studies reveals that scholars believe the theological system he constructed more than a century ago continues to offer benefit to the church today. Now the challenge is to help congregations—whether Chinese or not—better understand his emphasis on the catholic, contextual, and public nature of the Christian faith so that they can better flourish in their communities.
Simeon Ximian Xu is a post-doctoral research fellow in theology and ethics of artificial intelligence at the University of Edinburgh School of Divinity. His monograph, Theology as the Science of God: Herman Bavinck’s Wetenschappelijke Theology for the Modern World, is forthcoming in the series Forschungen zur Reformierten Theologie (Research in Reformed Theology). He is founding editor of the Chinese-language Studies in Dutch Neo-Calvinism series.
English translation by Sean Cheng
Footnote 1: See Cory Brock’s latest monograph, Orthodox yet Modern: Herman Bavinck’s Use of Friedrich Schleiermacher
Footnote 2: Herman Bavinck, The Sacrifice of Praise: Meditations before and after Admission to the Lord’s Supper, trans. and eds. Cameron Clausing and Gregory Parker Jr. (Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson, 2019), 51.