Book Review

Founders Journal 73 · Summer 2008 · pp. 32-33

Book Review

Herman Bavinck (1854-1921), Reformed Dogmatics, vol. 4. Edited by John Bolt and translated from Dutch into English by John Vriend. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2008. 944 pp. $49.95

Reviewed by Roger Nicole

This is an event, a momentous event in Reformed Theology, for it marks the completion of the publication in English of the massive four-volume Systematic Theology of Hermon Bavinck. The first Dutch edition was published between the years of 1895 and 1901 and consisted in four ordinary sized volumes of some 550 pages each. In 1902 Bavinck began to teach in the Free University of Amsterdam and produces a nearly doubled sized second edition between 1906 and 1911. A third edition in 1918 was identical with the second edition. A fourth edition published in 1928-30 made no change in the text but involves a different pagination. It is this second edition which is now integrally translated by William Hendriksen (Grand Rapids: Erdmans, 1951). Two portions of the present four volume edition had appeared under the title In the Beginning (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1999) covering II 406-609 and The Last Things, (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1996, covering IV, 589-730). The text of these two partial translations appears to me identical although retyped in the four volume presentation, which also includes the Greek and Hebrew texts as well as the transliteration of them.

Writing for Dutch readers Bavinck quoted not only in Hebrew and Greek but also in Latin, French, German, and English without translation. In this edition all such quotations are translated into English with the source indicated in English editions when available. The original Dutch second edition compromised some 2850 large pages in large type, and concluded with 52 pages for indices at the end of the fourth volume. In his translation the text of Bavinck occupies some 2300 pages with 100 dedicated to some 123 pages by the editor at the opening of each chapter as a summary of what that chapter contained and some 437 pages for bibliographic information and indices. The indices of the fourth have been extensively enlarged, that of Scripture from one page of two columns to 48 pages of four columns (amounting to more than 11,000 references). That of names from 11 pages of two columns to 70 pages of 3 columns; that of subject from 32 pages of 2 columns to 50 pages of 3 columns. This will greatly enhance the accessibility of the material.

Throughout the work of Bavinck gives evidence of an exceptionally thorough acquaintance with and acceptance of the Holy Scripture (referred on average about five times per page). To this must be added a formidable mastery of the history of Christian doctrine made evident through ample reference to primary sources as well as important monographs in five languages. (German, Latin, Dutch, French. English), Bavinck has the ability to recognize a path of sound faith and good sense in the labyrinth of discordant claims and to do so with a poise and serenity that surely avoids the rabies theological that has so often characterized theological controversies. Like the pioneer in a deep woods he knows how to brush away side alleys which are dead ends and deviant ways that lead to swamps and to lead his followers calmly, firmly, and confidently in the path that the Scripture has provided for our faith.

His order follows a traditional course: starting with Prolegomena he devotes Vol. I to the solidity of Revelation and Scripture (Vol. 1), then follows the doctrine of God and Creation (Vol. 2), Vol. 3 is concerned with the impact of sin and the Person and Work of Christ the Redeemer and Vol. 4 details the work of the Holy Spirit in the individual, in the church and means of grace, and in the eschaton.

One may compare the task of the systematic theologian to that of a person who works out a picture puzzle. There is no question of modifying the pieces nor of forcing some of them into a place where they do not fit easily, but the aim is to rearrange them or to take them in such a way that together they do constitute a larger picture, more full and effective than any piece seen separately but manifestly in their unity and extensity what the painter had projected.

In 1941, when as a student I saw Bavinck’s Gereformeerde Dogmatick, on the shelves of the Andover-Harvard Library, I was so impressed by what I saw even without knowing Dutch, that I said: “I will have to know Dutch in order to have access to that work!” And so I did, and found great benefit in reading Bavinck, who, incidentally, is peculiarly clear and uncomplicated in his style. The ability to read Dutch has been very valuable for my fifty years of teaching theology. To read Bavinck was a sufficient incentive for learning another language. And now because of this English translation it will not be necessary. Bavinck is in a sense accessible to the hundreds of millions of people who can read English, instead of the 20 million who read Dutch. I have in my bedroom a large portrait of Herman Bavinck: he is for me every day an inspiration and a challenge.

C. Van Til said about Bavinck’s dogmatics that it was “the greatest and most comprehensive statement of Reformed systematic theology in modern times.” [C. Van Til, Systematic Theology, page 43 as quoted by Brian G. Mattson in "Van Til on Bavinck: An assessment." WTS 70/1 (Spring 2008), 127.] And J.I. Packer wrote, as reproduced on the jacket leaf of all four volumes of Reformed Dogmatics, “Solid but lucid, demanding but satisfying, broad and deep and sharp and stabilizing, Bavinck’s magisterial Reformed Dogmatics remains after a century the supreme achievement of its kind.”

What can I say beyond that? Only this. Thanks to John Vriend the translator, to John Bolt the editor, to Baker Books the publisher, and to the Dutch Reformed Translation Society the promoter. They are entitled to immense gratitude.