The Riddle of Life (J.H. Bavinck) -- A Review

THE RIDDLE OF LIFE. By J. H. Bavinck. Translated by Bert Hielema. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2016. Vii + 94 pages.

                What is life? Where did it begin? What is its meaning? Where does it end? These are all questions we ponder. Religion seeks to answer these kinds of questions, and J. H. Bavinck seeks to answer them in TheRiddle of Life.  This brief, accessible book, invites us to consider the nature of life and the way in which God is involved with this world.  The blurb on the back page offers it as something written in the spirit of C.S. Lewis by Calvinist thinker. That is, the book serves to introduce some basic elements of the Christian faith to a general audience. 

                The book itself was originally written in Dutch sometime before 1940 (the date of its publication), and only now is being translated into English—some seventy-five years later. The question is why is it appearing at this time and place. That’s a question that is never answered, as there is little introduction beyond a translator’s note. It would appear that there is a ready audience for the book, as Eerdmans is a major Christian publisher and wouldn’t go to the trouble to publish it unless they thought it had an audience. Most likely that audience is to be found in the American descendants of the Dutch Reformed Church and others of like-mind.  As a non-Calvinist I can appreciate the book, but I must admit I need more information to determine if it has broader value. One of my key questions is why now!

                Not having that information, I must piece together what I do know. Bavinck (d. 1964) was Dutch Reformed missionary who served in Indonesia, who later served as a professor of missions in Holland.  His theology was Calvinist in orientation. That is clear throughout. Thus, if one is of that perspective this will prove to be a good introduction.

                The book itself is comprised of eighteen chapters that take us from "the great awakening," by which the author means the awakening to the reality of the world around us, to the end of the journey—life's completion. He covers issues such as faith, the world order, where humans come from and who we are. Since this book appears long before the dawn of the “intelligent design” movement, it seems that Bavinck can be categorized as an “Old Earth Creationist.” He’s seems uncomfortable with evolution and uses design language, but of an earlier, more theologically defined vision. He speaks of the meaning of life, and in a chapter that for those of us non-Calvinists sounds very Calvinist titled "God's Plan," the subtitle of the chapter is "the Grand Chess Game." Yes, it would appear to me that we are the pawns used by God in this chess game. Putting it a bit more gracefully, he writes: “When we abide in the faith that God’s plan is being revealed in all the world’s happenings, then we can affirm only this single truth—that when once the mist disappears and we clearly see what has really happened, we will realize that all other kingdoms have broken up and disappeared, that the only Kingdom that comes is the kingdom of God’s love that has appeared to us in the cross of Jesus” (p. 40). As I read this statement from the concluding paragraph of the chapter on God’s plan, I’m wondering if he’s trying to make sense of the early days of World War II, when his nation has fallen under Nazi domination. I say this because he never speaks of that in the book. There are small hints, but nothing explicit.

                Having spoken of God’s plan, and his hope that things will soon be revealed, he speaks of three idols—money, honor, and pleasure. There's a chapter on sin and the need for deliverance, which leads then to a discussion of the need for a redeemer. The conversation on the need for a redeemer covers two chapters. The first chapter provides the setting to reveal Jesus to be the true redeemer. Thus, he writes a comparison piece about the way Buddhism and Islam speak of redeemers. I found this chapter a bit odd, in part because Bavinck suggests that there are only three great religions. I'm assuming that Judaism and Hinduism, to name two others, would disagree (as would Sikhs and Zoroastrians). He suggests that these two religions understand redemption in terms of knowledge. Christianity, however, believes the need of the hour is much greater. We need not a prophet, but one who redeems. Thus, he writes that "Christ is the hand of God who grabs the fallen humans and pulls them up" (p. 79). The book concludes with chapters on salvation, why we're here, and finally life's completion.

                As I’ve noted, the book is nicely written, or at least nicely translated. At the same time its distinctly Calvinist orientation didn’t speak to me in ways it might speak to others. Then again, it’s clear from the lack of an introduction that I’m not the intended audience. Still, even if I’m not the intended audience I would love to know why the book has been translated at this moment in time. The fact that Eerdmans sent me a review copy makes me assume that they would love for it to have a broader audience than simply Bavinck partisans. So, I would have appreciated a preface or introduction that would have introduced the reader to Bavinck and set the context for the book. This is especially true of a book that appeared in Nazi-occupied Holland. Why did Bavinck not speak of that occupation in anything other than oblique terms. This would make the book more attractive to a broader audience.

                This context is of importance. It seems that Bavinck had recently returned to Holland to take an academic post after years of service in Indonesia. At the time the book was published Holland had been overrun by Hitler's forces. There are references to conflict and wars, but no real word about the challenge of Hitler's ideology or his rule over Holland. There might be good reason for this, but since there's no introduction I'm left to wonder how he could speak of God's purpose (Grand Chess Match) without speaking of the travails of the day.

                Thus, this isn’t a book that speaks to me, but perhaps it will speak to others, especially those with a more Calvinist vision of the faith.


Unknown said…
There is a revival of interest in Bavinck in reformed circles due to his works being translated into English for the first time. That is why this has been published.

(Being a Reformed Theologian I'm pretty sure Bavinck would have viewed Christianity as the true blooming of Judaism)

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