Het christelijk huisgezin (The Christian Family) is one of the lesser known works of the Reformed theologian Herman Bavinck (1854–1921). I remember that when I borrowed it from a university library some years ago, the librarian looked at the title and said something like: “Such a book reminds us of the good old days, but has now completely had its time.” But let us go for a moment to these good old days of a century ago.
In an advertisement in 1908, the year in which the book appeared, the publisher asserts that Het christelijk huisgezin is exceptionally favorably received and quotes sixteen reviews to prove that statement. For example, a magazine praises it as being “popular and very instructive; a beautiful present for newly married couples and for those who are about to marry” (see 1908wo, ). To Bavinck’s own surprise, there is a need for a second edition in just a few years’ time. This slightly revised edition appears in 1912 and its preface expresses the wish that it “meets again with a favorable reception in many families” (1912ch, 5).
A book about the family raises the question of what the author’s family life looks like. In 1908 Bavinck and his wife celebrate their seventeenth weddings anniversary and his daughter her fourteenth birthday. Two years later Bavinck will commit to paper what family life means for himself. Writing to his good friend Christiaan Snouck Hurgronje, who is about to marry, he says:
As for me, if you allow me to speak from my own experience, the appreciation of and gratitude for the blessing that is enclosed in family life have increased year after year. The more the disappointments multiply and the experiences gained in the hard world make us lonely, the more the unselfish love that is enjoyed in the small, intimate circle of the family is valued. (1999bsh, 167)
Given the warmth of his own family life that we find expressed in this passage and the favorable reviews that the publisher could quote, it may come as a surprise that Het christelijk huisgezin has also made a “too cold philosophical” impression on some readers (Bremmer 1996, 246, quoting J. C. Sikkel and agreeing with him). They certainly have a point: some parts of the book are certainly too theoretical for newlyweds looking for practical advice, for example when Bavinck discusses evolutionary views on the origin and development of the family.
Why has Bavinck included these more philosophical passages? Bavinck does not mention a special occasion for writing the book, but it can probably be seen as part of his program of developing a Christian worldview. In 1904 he published Christelijke wereldbeschouwing (Christian Worldview) and we know for sure that he understood his Paedagogische beginselen (Principles of Education) and The Philosophy of Revelation as elaborations of this work (1904pb, 5; 1908wo, 275 n31; 1909pr, 320 n31). In 1882 he already wrote:
The Reformed is a complete view of world and life. It puts humans in a special relationship to God and therefore also in a specific relationship to all things: to family, state, society, art, science, etc. . . .Nothing exists on which the Reformed principles do not put their peculiar hallmark. (1882wrk, 104; quoted in De Wit 2011, 55)
Thus, since the family takes a foremost position in Bavinck’s concept of worldview, it cannot surprise that in a book on the family he discusses this institution at the fundamental level of the conflict of worldviews of his day.
Het christelijk huisgezin consists of ten chapters (the final five constituting two thirds of the work), which can be grouped as following:
- The origin (I) and disruption (II) of the family
- The family among the nations (III)
- The family among Israel (IV) and in the New Testament (V)
- Dangers for the family (VI)
- Family and marriage (VII), education (VIII), society (IX)
- The future of the Family (X)
The first two chapters are especially based on the opening chapters of Genesis. Bavinck emphasizes that God created the human after a special deliberation, in his image and likeness, and immediately differentiated as man and as woman, and that he blessed them and gave them dominion over the whole earth. “In these few lines all we have to know about the origin, the essence and the destination of the human is included” (1908ch, 2; 1912ch, 10). One human cannot fulfill the calling of God’s image-bearer to fill, to subdue and to dominate the earth, and the image of God can only fully be expressed in humankind, in the trinity of man and woman and child—with these thoughts Bavinck founds the family in creation (see 1908ch, 3–10; 1912ch, 11–18).
Although he also locates the beginning of the disruption of the family in the early chapters of Genesis, he perceives that the family is especially undermined in his day: “No time is known in which the family was in such a serious crisis as in the age in which we live. Many are not satisfied with an alteration; they want a demolition to the foundations” (1908ch, 80; 1912ch, 88). But he does not despair. In accordance with the “grace restores nature” motif in his theology, he urges for the reformation or restoration of the family:
The human cannot create; the foundations of society have been laid by God himself once and for all; but on those foundations he can build further and restore what needs restoration. One must never despair about the reformation of human and family and society; even if the modern human despaired about this, the Christian must not give in to this despondency, because true godliness holds promise for both the present life and the life to come. (1908ch, 185; 1912ch, 193; for the last sentence, cf. 1 Tim. 4:8)
If one reads the “cold philosophical” passages of Bavinck’s family book twice, one perceives the underlying ardor of an existential-intellectual struggle—and of hope.
In short, Het christelijk huisgezin remains an interesting read if one wants to know the person of Bavinck and his thinking better. But is it more than that? Is it a classic of Christian theological thinking on the family that can speak to us today even more than it did to Reformed readers in the Netherlands a century ago? For sure, a library should not throw its copy away, but does this book deserve an English translation a century after publication, making it available to a much larger and much more international audience than Bavinck himself ever could imagine? This is an open question that I do not have to answer, because readers can judge for themselves: an English edition has recently been published, translated by Nelson Kloosterman and introduced by James Eglinton.
Primary literature (most works can be found at http://www.neocalvinisme.nl)
1882wrk. De wetenschappelijke roeping onzer kerk. De Vrije Kerk 8:88–93, 97–106.
1904cwb. Christelijke wereldbeschouwing: Rede bij de overdracht van het rectoraat aan de Vrije Universiteit te Amsterdam op 20 october 1904. Kampen: Bos.
1904pb. Paedagogische beginselen. Kampen: Kok.
1908ch. Het christelijk huisgezin. Kampen: Kok (=1912ch).
1908wo. Wijsbegeerte der openbaring: Stone-lezingen voor het jaar 1908, gehouden te Pricneton N. J. Kampen: Kok.
1909pr. The Philosophy of Revelation: The Stone Lectures for 1908–1909; Princeton Theological Seminary. New York: Longmans Green .
1912ch. Het christelijk huisgezin. 2nd ed. Kampen: Kok.
1999bsh. H. Bavinck and C. Snouck Hurgronje. Een Leidse vriendschap: De briefwisseling tussen Herman Bavinck en Christiaan Snouck Hurgronje 1875–1921. Ed. J. de Bruijn and G. Harinck. Passage 11. Baarn: Ten Have.
2012cf. The Christian Family. Edited by Stephen J. Grabill. Translated by Nelson D. Kloosterman. Grand Rapids, MI: Christian’s Library Press, 2012.
Bremmer, R. H. 1966. Herman Bavinck en zijn tijdgenoten. Kampen: Kok.
Wit, W. J. de. 2011. On the Way to the Living God: A Cathartic Reading of Herman Bavinck and an Invitation to Overcome the Plausibility Crisis of Christianity. Amsterdam: VU University Press. https://wjdw.nl/english/.
Dutch original of passages quoted in this blog post
“Het is populair en zeer leerzaam. Een schoon geschenk voor jonggehuwden en voor hen die op het punt staan tot de huwelijkssluiting over te gaan” (see 1908wo, ).
“Vinde het geschrift zoo weder in vele huisgezinnen een gunstig onthaal . . .” (1912ch, 5).
“Mij is het althans – als ik even uit eigen ervaring mag spreken – zoo gegaan, dat de waardering van de dankbaarheid voor den zegen, die in het huiselijk leven ligt opgesloten, van jaar tot jaar zijn toegenomen. Naarmate de teleurstellingen vermeerderen, en de ervaringen, in de harde wereld opgedaan, ons vereenzamen, wordt de belangelooze liefde, die in den kleinen, intiemen kring van het huisgezin genoten wordt, op te hooger prijs gesteld” (Bavinck to Snouck Hurgonje, June 27, 1910; 1999bsh, 167).
“Het Gereformeerde is eene gansche wereld- en levensbeschouwing. Het stelt den mensch in eene bijzondere verhouding tot God, en dus ook in eene eigenaardige verhouding tot alle dingen, tot huisgezin, staat, maatschappij, kunst, wetenschap enz. . . . Niets is er, waarop de Geref. beginselen niet hun eigenaardigen stempel drukken” (1882wrk, 104).
“In deze enkele trekken ligt alles opgesloten, wat wij noodig hebben te weten over den oorsprong, het wezen en de bestemming van den mensch” (1908ch, 2; 1912ch, 10).
“Er is geen tijd bekend, waarin het huisgezin in zulk eene ernstige crisis verkeerde, als de eeuw, waarin wij leven. Vele[n] zijn met geen verbouwing tevreden; zij willen afbraak tot op de fundamenten toe” (1908ch, 80; 1912ch, 88; the “n” between square brackets is only found in the second edition).
“Scheppen kan de mensch niet; de grondslagen der maatschappij zijn eens en voor goed door God zelven gelegd; maar op die grondslagen kan hij voortbouwen en herstellen wat herstelling behoeft. Aan hervorming van mensch en gezin en maatschappij mag dus nimmer gewanhoopt; al zou de moderne mensch eraan vertwijfelen, de Christen mag aan deze moedeloosheid zich niet overgeven, omdat de waarachtige godsvrucht de belofte heeft van dit en van het toekomende leven” (1908ch, 185; 1912ch, 193).