It’s no secret that Dutch theologian Herman Bavinck has enjoyed a renaissance in the past few years, as James Eglinton also pointed out in a previous piece for CT.

Ever since the English translation of Bavinck’s landmark work, Reformed Dogmatics, was released in 2008, there’s been a constant stream of fresh readings of his life and thought. More recently, new translations of lesser known but no less important texts include his Christian Worldview, Christianity and Science, and Guidebook for Instruction in the Christian Religion; and new editions have been published of Philosophy of Revelation, based on his 1908 Stone Lectures, and The Wonderful Works of God.

Theologians like me are also rediscovering the neo-Calvinist tradition shaped by Bavinck and his fellow Dutch theologian, Abraham Kuyper, and examining how these thinkers might engage with cultural issues today, including our nation’s reckoning with racism. And while many have recently (and rightly) criticized Kuyper’s checkered legacy on this issue, they have often neglected Bavinck’s contributions on the subject, which many scholars see as an improvement on Kuyper.

Bavinck’s assessment has enduring lessons for American Christians living in a polarized political climate. Similar to Bavinck’s own context of 19th-century Europe, those in the US today are confronted by the challenges of living in an increasingly post-Christian culture. This has led to heated debates on the identity of America, Christian nationalism, and how we can all find common ground amid our substantial differences.

Bavinck and Kuyper’s neo-Calvinist Christian worldview, for instance, affirmed the diversity of reality but saw that this diversity reflects a greater unity. Since the Creator is Triune, they observed, the world often conforms to patterns of unities-in-diversities. Yet Bavinck believed this motif held further implications for humanity itself.

As I’ve shown elsewhere, Bavinck argued that the image of God (imago Dei) refers not only to us as individuals but to humanity as a whole. As theologian Richard Mouw writes, Bavinck articulates how the image of God unfolds itself “in the rich diversity of humankind spread over many places and times,” as the human race disperses across the globe and develops organically differentiated cultures, languages, and contexts. These differences are not ossified or static but coalesce in beautiful and surprising ways through the Spirit-wrought union of God’s kingdom.

Article continues below

In short, Bavinck believed the glory of God is revealed more clearly through humanity’s diversity, and this diversity is held together by a common confession of Jesus as Lord. The global church is a corporate people from every tribe and tongue—a renewed humanity fulfilling its telos under Christ’s Lordship.

But Bavinck coupled this positive vision with harsh warnings against racism and nationalism. In two texts, Christian Worldview and Philosophy of Revelation, Bavinck anticipated the rise of Eurocentric nationalism. In a forthcoming book, I explore how Bavinck detected these developments in German philosophy at the turn of the 20th century—which eventually set the stage for Hitler’s regime, World War II, and the Holocaust.

Bavinck attributed these ideological changes to the decline of Christian faith in Europe. When humans cease to worship God, they will substitute divine with creaturely realities (Rom. 1:25). Thus, he said, any society that departs from the Christian faith will naturally nurture racism and nationalism.

If God is not the source of defining what is true, good, and beautiful, then morality must be grounded in humanity. And if humanity is not “generic” or “universal” but diverse and ever evolving, then one must decide which humanity at which point in history becomes the standard for moral evaluation. In Bavinck’s context, that benchmark was Aryan nationalism (which he referred to as “pan-Germanism, pan-Slavism, and so on”), which saw the Aryan race as the apex of universal humanity and therefore the embodiment of normativity.

Bavinck cites some of the “eloquent” early thought leaders whose emerging racist ideology influenced Bavinck’s contemporaries—and whose ideas eventually led to reconfiguring Jesus himself as the ultimate symbol of the Aryan race.

Since every religion looks to a historical figure as the source for their revelation, the new German nationalism needed to refashion Jesus into “the purest type of the Aryan or Germanic race” in order to “retain” his authority. “Jesus did not come from Israel but from the Aryans,” they determined, because all other and past cultures are primitive, including the Jews. “How foolish is the one who believes Jesus was not a Jew, that he was an Aryan” writes Bavinck, “and that the Bible, in which every heretic finds his proof text, gives the evidence for the matter.”

Article continues below

This “revival of the race consciousness” was further reinforced, according to Bavinck, by the historical view many philosophers held in his time: that each successive stage of human history ascended to their present age, which (conveniently) was depicted as the most evolved and cultured. Thus, the Aryan stock is seen as the dominant and superior race to which all the greatest achievements of Europe (and hence the world) could be credited.

The result, Bavinck observed, was that the “so-called pure historical view turns into the most biased construction of history.” By locating ethics within their own history and projecting their culture as if it were the absolute norm, the Germans posited themselves as the arbitrator and pinnacle of history and eclipsed all other nations and people groups. They untethered their “master race” from accountability to a transcendent revelation of God, which allowed them to inflict oppressive coercion on all “inferior” races and reject any other culture from being a source of correction.

These ideas were coupled with the emerging practice of eugenics—where evolutionary theory and natural science were applied to the notion of creating a superhuman race (Übermensch). What if, for example, the process of natural selection by “survival of the fittest” could be accelerated by winnowing out genetic weaknesses to “purify and perfect” the human race? Thus, philosophers, scientists, and psychologists joined together in the goal to deliver humanity from its miseries—or, as Bavinck put it, “to improve the racial qualities of humankind in an artificial way.”

Bavinck connects these trending theories to the aspirations of German philosophers to present themselves as the bearers of some form of eschatological salvation to the world. He observes that these thinkers do not merely reject Christianity because they perceive it to be false, but because it is seen as bad for the future’s development: “If modern culture is to advance, it must wholly reject the influence of Christianity and break completely with the old worldview.”

Why? As Bavinck explains, whereas modern human hope was believed to be wholly “this-worldly,” Christianity was seen by his European contemporaries as “indifferent to this life,” since its hope ultimately lies in an otherworldly kingdom, eternity, heaven, and God. In other words, hope in tangible human achievements is surer than hope in intangible divine realities.

Article continues below

Seeing a particular human society or nation as the primary bearer of ethical civilization, Bavinck reasoned, fills the eschatological void left by removing Christian hope from modern society. If moral law is not found in the transcendent but in the immanent, then so is heaven. In this case, a utopian society is modeled by whichever nationality represents the “height” of humanity.

These ideological developments, which were all in vogue at the time, paint a bleak picture indeed. What was Bavinck’s response—and what alternative did he propose?

In his Philosophy of Revelation, Bavinck points out the insurmountable problems with transposing the scientific principles of naturalistic evolution onto the social history of humanity. This instinct reflects a form of monism, he argued, which reduces the rich diversity of created life into singular uniformity—as if an explanation that works well in one sphere can be used for all areas of life.

Attempts to craft a grand historical narrative often privileges one nation or people group over others, he further argued, and ignores the unity of the human race across time and space. More than that, claiming that each century is intrinsically and holistically better than the previous one fails to acknowledge that “high civilization” existed in antiquity, even more advanced than us in some ways, and that the same vices of ancient times still plague our contemporary cultures.

Instead of a linear story of progressive development culminating in one nation or master philosophy, Bavinck believed that history is pluriform, a rich and multifaceted maze, and that it recounts a united humanity—across all of its particularities, locations, and time periods.

And to avoid the supremacist instinct to elevate one nation or phase of history, Bavinck argued, the historical sciences must be rooted in Christian theism. That’s because historians require a unique, divine “revelation” to assert that “all creatures … are embraced, and are held together by one leading thought, by one counsel of God.” To believe in the unity of humanity, which is the “presupposition of all of history,” is a claim “made known to us only by Christianity.”

Rather than seeing one culture or ethnicity as the universal expression of true humanity, Christianity for Bavinck teaches that “the unity of humanity does not exclude but rather includes the differentiation of humanity in race, in character, in attainment, in calling, and in many other things.”

Article continues below

Bavinck writes that this “variety has been destroyed by sin and changed into all kinds of opposition” ever since “the unity of humanity was dissolved into a multiplicity of peoples and nations.” But instead of seeking the “false unity” of a worldly monism, preserving humanity’s rich differentiation requires that the “unity of all creation is not sought in the things themselves but transcendently … in a divine being, in his wisdom and power, in his will and counsel.”

In other words, affirming Christianity means rejecting humanly fabricated uniformity and embracing divinely ordained diversity. Only salvation in Christ and fellowship in his Spirit, divine revelation and redemption, can restore and achieve the ideal of humanity’s true, organic unity in diversity.

As human beings, our unity and differentiation, identity and dignity, are all ultimately secured in Christ—who Bavinck calls the “kernel” that revealed the “plan, progress and aim” of history, and who evacuated our sinful tendency to exalt ourselves as the historical ideal. In other words, history’s center, aim, progress, and ultimate end is not found in humanity but in Christ.

The only worldview that “answers the diversity and richness of the world,” writes Bavinck, is one that insists history is governed by divine will. Not only that, but we must believe God willingly entered into the world “historically,” in the person of Jesus Christ, to lift it “up to the heights” of “the kingdom of heaven.”

The heavenly utopia we seek, then, is not a result of human historical progress but a divine work of God: “If there is ever to be a humanity one in heart and one in soul, then it must be born out of return to the one living and true God.”

In today’s increasingly polarized age, Bavinck’s message of humanity’s unified diversity is more needed than ever. Instead of assuming our worldview is ultimate or superior to those in other contexts, Bavinck reminds us of the prophetic witness of God’s universal message of reconciliation embodied in Jesus Christ.

Bavinck’s anthropological reflections are certainly not perfect. He remains a man of the 19th century and, at times, reflects analyses or language that 21st-century readers would reject (for instance, his language of “high” and “low” cultures). But it’s remarkable that, at the turn of the 20th century, Bavinck foresaw the dangers of the emerging eugenics, racism, and nationalism in German philosophy—which were in vogue at the time, even among Christians.

Article continues below

In the centuries leading up to the horrors of WWII, when it was believed that the “German spirit shall heal the world,” Bavinck presented a transcendent eschatological vision—one advanced not by human hands but initiated by God’s divine will. And in a post-Christian era, then and now, Bavinck reminds us that the nefarious roots of racism and nationalism trace back to a rejection of Christian claims—which ground our dignity, our morality, and our ultimate hope in God.

N. Gray Sutanto is associate professor of systematic theology at Reformed Theological Seminary in Washington, DC. He is author, editor, and translator of several books, including God and Humanity: Herman Bavinck and Theological Anthropology and the T&T Clark Handbook of Neo-Calvinism.

[ This article is also available in español Português Français русский, and Українська. ]