John Bolt’s recent biographical and thematic sketch of the nineteenth- century Dutch Reformed theologian Herman Bavinck provides us with an encounter of a spiritual veteran who opens our eyes to the meaning, value, and practice of remembrance in the Christian life.
Not all creatures can remember. Animals that can “remember” do so primarily for survival or utility. As far as we can tell, they don’t contemplate the importance or implications of their memory. The memories of persons created by a personal Creator, however, are different. We can remember in a way that exceeds the purposes of survival and even contemplation. We can remember in a way that deepens and enriches our relationships with others, including the one who created us. But that also means we’re the kind of creatures who can forget.
Bavinck was a thinker and statesman who understood the importance of remembering and reflecting on the past. And his understanding of the past and memory in general was set ablaze by theological conviction. There are strong theological reasons (which I’ll point out below) for the believer to give careful and sustained attention to the past (and present). But Bavinck clearly demonstrates this conviction. He took the thoughts of others seriously, and he handled them with care—even those with whom he vehemently disagreed.
He puts forward a saint, but he does not uplift a hero.
His essay “On Inequality” is a great example. Here Bavinck deals with the thought of Jean-Jacques Rousseau—the solitary walker who wrote disparagingly of Christianity as a civil religion in his influential Social Contract. In this essay Bavinck takes the time not only to engage Rousseau’s ideas fairly and extensively but also to highlight Rousseau’s admirable qualities, such as his “rich imagination” and his “ability to express his thoughts in such a simple and clear manner with such deep feeling and conviction, that everyone was charmed by it.” We shouldn’t read these laudatory remarks merely as Bavinck’s desire to get his “opponent right,” as he nevertheless did, but as a genuine appreciation for the good ways in which Rousseau exercised his vocation.
While Bolt’s book tells us about Bavinck’s work in a way that shows Bavinck’s precision, generosity, and sympathy with interlocutors like Rousseau, the book isn’t just a summary of the theologian. It’s an encounter with a disciple, a follower just like you and me. We are introduced to a person who made existential choices and judgments of passion in his faithful service—such as his decision to matriculate at the “liberal” Leiden University, despite his worry that he might lose his faith; or his turning down of two teaching appointments at the Free University of Amsterdam because he loved the church he was pastoring and wanted to build it up. We hear of Bavinck’s upbringing, his time at university, and his desire to study theology. In all of this, Bolt inspires us with Bavinck’s life, but he doesn’t demand we imitate him. He puts forward a saint, but he does not uplift a hero.
It is when Bolt goes on to present Bavinck’s core theological ideas that we clearly see the grounds for Bavinck’s careful attention to the past and his engagement with cultured despisers and religious dissenters. There is an effortless flow to this section of the book, which is a credit to Bolt’s biographical skill. We first hear of Bavinck’s core ideas: creation, law, and union with Christ. Then Bolt touches on Bavinck’s discussion of discipleship and the importance of a Christian worldview. Finally, we see how Bavinck practiced these views, specifically in the areas of marriage and family, work and vocation, culture and education, and civil society.
Because we are trinitarian believers and not deists, we can find God all over the place.
Bavinck’s trinitarian view of creation provides the backdrop for a discussion of practicing remembrance. Bavinck believed that God’s wisdom and glory are to be found in all of nature and history. As creator, the Father has packed wisdom and glory into the processes of creation; as redeemer, the Son has saved creatures who can, following his lead, uncover and underscore this wisdom and glory; as renewer, the Holy Spirit leads us into places where we can participate in furthering or developing this wisdom and glory. Because we are trinitarian believers and not deists, we can find God all over the place. Because we are trinitarian believers and not pantheists, we can distinguish between what is actually God and what isn’t. A trinitarian believer does not have to discriminate in her search for God’s presence and activity. Unlike Socrates, Bavinck found wisdom even among politicians, poets, and artisans. And he knew that God could be found even among those who vehemently oppose him.
Bavinck’s discussion of human persons as created in the image of God also plays into this. An essential part of being a human created in the image of God, and of our contribution to cultural renewal, is our attention to God’s words and actions in the past (and present). But he asks us to look at past sinners as much as we do saints. Bavinck looked not only to Paul, Augustine, Anselm, Aquinas, or Calvin. He also looked for models of faith, demonstrations of hope, and examples of love in the unlikeliest of places, such as Rousseau, Friedrich Nietzsche, Zoroaster, or his liberal professors at Leiden. They, too, are created in God’s image and reflect his glory. They, too, offer wisdom. God is to be encountered in them too.
Thus, in a very practical sense, to follow Christ, to be united with him, is to interact with others in the way the trinitarian God interacts with all of his creatures, even those who do not believe in him—and this applies equally to the way we remember people. Jesus befriended Judas, debated the Pharisees, conversed with the Samaritan woman, and discussed with Pilate. God does not ignore or dismiss his creatures but freely and cheerfully interacts with them. He listens to those who do not listen to him. When we listen to others and dialogue with them, we imitate Christ—we submit to the Father’s ways and participate with the Spirit in renewing culture.
He knew that God could be found even among those who vehemently oppose him.
Our existential appropriation of the gospel as we put our nose to the grindstone of cultural renewal is enriched by calling to mind the judgments, strategies, mistakes, and successes of others and learning from them— apostle or atheist. Examining the past and listening to past voices with the intent of learning from them is simply what one does who believes that God as trinitarian creator is present and active in nature and history. Many Christians come to the past expecting only to meet dust and ashes. But they end up stumbling upon a burning bush. We are surrounded not only by a great cloud of witnesses but also by a great crowd of wise disciples— Bavinck included.
Our participation in the renewal of all things requires remembering the past. When we remember the past, we let the past portrayal of the future inform our present. In other words, when we look to the past, we re-view the present and our world in light of the future. This affects our perception of and action in the present. In this sense, we might say that remembrance has an essential place in the process of sanctification. Our remembering renews our living. We see our present through God’s eyes, as told in Scripture, and reform our lives in light of it. We reorient and reform our present vision and mission in the world by an ancient-future one. We might call this type of recollection incarnational remembrance.
Incarnational remembrance stands in stark contrast to nostalgia. Nostalgia hijacks memory. It is the desire to return to an old present. Nostalgia stays in remembrance, which contrasts with Christ’s active call to live—”do this in remembrance of me.” It’s like limbo. In nostalgia, one sacrifices the present and the possibility of the future as one squats in the past. Nostalgia implies that God is present in one moment and not another, or more perniciously, that one prefers to be in a previous, unlivable moment more than the one God has brought them to now.
Christians are called to remember the past, not to live in it.
Christians are called to remember the past, not to live in it. A follower of Jesus is not nostalgic. We do not turn to the past to reencounter or remedy a personal wound like some do in nostalgia. Rather, we turn to the past in order to reencounter healing and reconciliation with the goal of remedying the wounds of others here and now. Incarnational remembrance is sacrificial, not selfish. It minds the past to draw on it; it does not fill the mind with the past in order to reenact or relive it. Incarnational remembrance renews, it doesn’t relive.
Bolt’s book does not invite us to nostalgia.
It invites us to view the life of a “worthy follower” who might inspire and motivate. We are not taken on a journey that follows the desiccating footsteps of a Dutchman up and down the streets of Kampen. Rather, Bolt introduces us to a companion whose wise choices and remarks can reform and renew our decisions and steps in this present moment. We look back at Bavinck’s faithful service and hope so that we may be inspired and challenged in our faithful service and hope. The living does not reside with the dead, but in the moment.