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Bandung in the 1930’s

I’m sure we’d all agree that our missionary and evangelistic methods should be derived scripturally. However, how many of these methods have actually considered the nature of the world religions from biblical perspective. Surely, this must be one of our foundations in considering how to reach those who worship other gods.

Bavinck was a missionary in the Reformed tradition, who thought carefully about the nature of other religions and in the light of this developed his missiology. Given that Bavinck is not well known today, this blog will give an overview of his life and ministry before briefly considering his missiology, particularly focusing on other religions.

 

J. H. Bavinck’s Life[1]

Johan Herman Bavinck’s family was rooted in Dutch Reformed Christianity. Both his father and grandfather were Reformed pastors, and his uncle was the theologian Herman Bavinck. Bavinck himself was born on 22nd November 1895, as his parents’ fourth child. Often during his childhood he spoke of his desire to become a missionary. In 1912 he began to study theology at the Free University in Amsterdam. He continued to study in Germany and by 1919 he received a doctor of philosophy degree.

In 1921 Bavinck went to Bandung in Indonesia as the pastor of a Dutch speaking church, which was made up of Dutch colonials as well as Dutch speaking Javanese and Chinese. During this time Bavinck was also concerned to reach the indigenous population and started a catechism class.

In 1926 Bavinck returned to the Netherlands for home assignment. However, it was prolonged and he was only able to go back to Indonesia in 1930. On his return, Bavinck’s desire was to “devote himself fully to work amongst the Javanese.” During this period, his ministry was characterised by immersion in Javanese culture, a desire to proclaim the gospel to the Javanese in a culturally effective way, an emphasis on youth work, and a desire to “stimulate the growth of independence among the Javanese churches.” After an early furlough in 1933, Bavinck taught theology at Jogjakarta until 1938.

In the Netherlands Bavinck was appointed to the new position of Mission Studies at Kampen Theological Seminary to train missionary pastors, a position he held until 1954. Bavinck’s teaching focused on three areas: “the history of mission in the Dutch East Indies/Indonesia; the theory of mission according to Reformed principles; and Elenctics[2] or missionary apologetics with specific reference to the non-Christian religions found on the RCN [Reformed Churches in the Netherlands] Indonesian mission fields.” During this period, and until his death in 1964, Bavinck increasingly lectured overseas (America and South Africa), as well as writing his most important missiological works dealing with the relationship of Christianity to other religions.

 

J. H. Bavinck’s Missiology

One of Bavinck’s strengths was his concern to biblically consider the nature of non-Christian religions, and let that inform the nature of missionary work. In other words, before we can devise missionary strategies to proclaim the gospel, we need to consider the nature of non-Christian religions: we need to ask what are non-Christian religions, where did they come from, how do they relate to the gospel?

Bavinck’s starting point is general revelation. After studying Romans 1:18-27 he concludes that general revelation has a:

personal nature. It is divine concern for men collectively and individually. God’s deity and eternal power are evident; they overwhelm man; they strike him suddenly in moment when he thought they were far away. They creep up on him; they do not let go of him, even though man does his best to escape them. Escaping from them and repressing them is the human answer to God’s revelation, an answer that becomes evident in the history of religious man.[3]

This leads him to say that other religions arise because of humanity’s suppression of and fleeing from God’s revealed truth:

We have to be aware of the fact that every non-Christian religion is a common response to the unceasing activity of God in revelation. Therefore, every religion is in what we call a dialectical situation. God’s work is behind it and in it but, as the same time, it is man who is trying to evade Him.[4]

Therefore, “the gods of heathen worship are not God, but the product of human imagination.”[5] This obviously has huge significance as to the relationship of Christianity and other religions, as well as for how we should proclaim Christ to those who hold to these religions – which we will consider in a moment.

The fact that God has been revealing himself to the non-Christian through general revelation means that when the gospel is proclaimed, this person already has had dealings with God:

When a missionary or some other person comes into contact with a non-Christian and speaks to him about the gospel, he can be sure that God has concerned Himself with this person long before… Now he hears the gospel for the first time… We do not open the discussion, but we need only make it clear that the God who has revealed His eternal power and Godhead to them, now address them in a new way, through our words… In the preaching of the gospel Christ once again appears to man… He awakens man… At last suppression and substitution cease – but this is possible only in a faithful surrender.[6]

So how do Christianity and other religions relate? Bavinck argues that, “the redeemers and saviours about whom heathendom dreams are not types of what Christ is and would be, but they are saviours conjured by the fancy of men.”[7] Therefore, “there is no direct uninterrupted path from the darkness of paganism to the light of the gospel.”[8] Bavinck says that this is clearly seen in Paul’s Areopagus address when he speaks of the need for repentance in the light of God’s judgement.[9] Thus, in proclaiming the gospel:

Our argument may begin with the ideas of our audience, it may be modest, friendly, polite, and cautious, but it may never omit the call to repentance. This is the truth in the expression that our point of contact exists in an antithesis. In other words, if those whom we would convert have already been busy with God, in the sense that God has done something with them, and they have done something with God, then the missionary can only call such people to abandon the old and accept what has been made new in Christ Jesus.[10]

In summary, given the nature of non-Christian religions as supressing and substituting the truth of God, there is a radical discontinuity between Christianity and other religions. Therefore, gospel proclamation must call for repentance – a turning from the old religion and idols to Christ.

 

Conclusion

I hope that this blog has introduced J. H. Bavinck to you, and whet your appetite to learn further from him. Though currently not well known, his deep theological thinking coupled with his missionary experience will help us to think rightly as we seek to understand other religions and proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ to those who worship other gods.

 

Further Reading

  1. H. Bavinck, An Introduction to the Science of Missions: Don’t be put off by the title! Bavinck means an introduction to missiology. This is a great place to start reading Bavinck. This book gives an mature overview of his thoughts on other religions and mission.
  2. H. Bavinck, The Church Between Temple and Mosque: Bavinck’s classic work on how Christianity and other religions relate, and in the light of this how other religions should be evaluated.
  3. J. Visser, Heart for the Gospel, Heart for the World: An introduction to Bavinck’s life as a missionary and missiologist. Bavinck’s thoughts are systematised under various topics including “theology of religion, biblical theology of missions, and mission apologetics.”
  4. J. Bolt, J. Bratt and P. J. Visser (eds), The Bavinck Reader: A compendium of various works of Bavinck translated into English for the first time, including General Revelation and the Non-Christian Religions, and Christ and Asian Mysticism.
  5. Daniel Strange: For Their Rock is Not as Our Rock (US edition: Their Rock is not Like Our Rock): A contemporary work building on the theology of Bavinck to establish a theology of religions. Strange seeks to address various issues including: (1) where have other religions come from, (2) how should Christians think about other religions, and (3) how can we proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ to people who hold to other religions. Highly recommended.

[1] This section is summarised from Paul J. Visser, Heart for the Gospel, Heart for the World: The Life and Thought of a Reformed Pioneer Missiologist Johan Herman Bavinck [1895-1964] (Eugene, Oreg.: Wipf and Stock, 2003), 1-77.

[2] “Elenctics is the discipline that deals with a very special aspect of missionary approach, viz., the direct confrontation of non-Christian religiosity preparatory to calling people to conversion.” J. H. Bavinck, An Introduction to the Science of Missions (trans. David H. Freeman; Phillipsburg, N. J.: P & R, 1960), 233.

[3] J. H. Bavinck, The Church Between Temple and Mosque: A Study of the Relationship Between the Christian Faith and Other Religions (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1966), 124.

[4] J. H. Bavinck, “The Problem of Adaptation and Communication,” International Review of Missions 45 (1956): 312.

[5] Bavinck, Introduction to the Science of Missions, 136.

[6] Bavinck, Church Between Temple and Mosque, 126-127.

[7] Bavinck, Introduction to the Science of Missions, 136.

[8] Bavinck, Introduction to the Science of Missions, 136.

[9] Bavinck, Introduction to the Science of Missions, 137.

[10] Bavinck, Introduction to the Science of Missions, 137.

photo credit: By Tropenmuseum, part of the National Museum of World Cultures, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=8614716

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J. H. Bavinck: A Missionary you Should Know

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