The great Dutch Reformed theologian Herman Bavinck is most well-know for his four-volume Reformed Dogmatics (1906-11). In 1912 he wrote this relatively brief book which was not translated into English until last year (by Nelson Kloosterman, published by Christian’s Library Press). Better late than never, though now that I’ve read it I lament the fact that it took a century for such a profound book to become available in English. For all of Bavinck’s prowess as a systematic theologian, The Christian Family vividly demonstrates his practical wisdom, as he reflects on the origins of marriage, the roles of husbands and wives, the nurturing of children, and the place of marriage in society.
Bavinck’s view of the family is essentially Trinitarian, as becomes clear in the first chapter: “The two-in-oneness of husband and wife expands with a child into three-in-oneness. Father, mother, and child are one soul and one flesh, expanding and unfolding the one image of God, united within threefold diversity . . . within harmonic unity” (p. 8). Next, Bavinck reflects on the impact of sin on the family, especially relationships between men and women. Then he devotes a chapter each to the family in the Old Testament and the family in the New Testament, highlighting the “spiritual elevation of women” with the birth of Christianity.
From there he discusses various threats to the family, and it is striking to see how, even 100 years later, Bavinck’s observations remain timely. The chief anti-family ideologies, he identifies, are (1) Darwinism, specifically its implication that family emerged naturalistically via natural selection as opposed to being divinely instituted, (2) social constructionism, which essentially follows from a naturalist view of human society, and (3) socialism, in particular the “ideal society” envisioned by Marxism, which invites a dismantling of society down to its foundations in order to eliminate all social differences. Such radical ideas of absolute equality are inevitably destructive, says Bavinck: “A society that is a genuine society, and as such is a complex organism of relationships and operations, cannot be anything but multiform” (126). And he adds that “because the organization of society possesses its starting point and stability in the family, the struggle against society ultimately leads to a struggle against the family” (127). Given all that we’ve seen in the West in the century since this book was first published, Bavinck’s words seem almost prescient.
In a chapter entitled “Marriage and Family,” Bavinck tackles the thorny issue of the differences between men and women. And it is fascinating to see him speak so frankly about an issue which today is so politicized as to make (published) frank talk about the issue virtually impossible. He even devotes a section to the unique sins to which men and women are each tempted in married life. For men, he says, the great temptation is infidelity, while for women it is stubbornness. And each of these sins, he points out, represents a playing out of the curse of the Fall and guarantees that in every marriage the husband and wife will each be a “cross” for the other to bear. This surely sounds pessimistic to the unmarried, but for anyone who is married it is more likely to be regarded as an encouraging realism. And lest this suggest that Bavinck is anything less than positive about marriage, I should emphasize that he takes a very hopeful and optimistic view, such as when he says, “as time progresses, and the years multiply, among the adventures and disappointments of life, the souls of husband and wife grow together more intimately, until marriage comes to be acknowledged more and more as the precious and priceless gift of God on this sinful, thorn-covered earth, and the estate of marriage becomes a cause for worship and gratitude” (p. 86).
In a chapter entitled “Family and Nurture,” Bavinck discusses the nurturing role of family and challenges the trend of surrendering the nurturing of children to government (another theme that is particularly apposite today). Such an approach is not only bad for children, says Bavinck, but also robs the parents of a powerful sanctifying force. Children are like “living mirrors,” since they “show their parents their own virtues and faults, force them to reform themselves, mitigating their criticisms, and teaching them how hard it is to govern a person” (p. 97). Amen to that. Bavinck goes on: “The family transforms ambition into service, miserliness into munificence, the weak into strong, cowards into heroes, coarse fathers into mild lambs, tenderhearted mothers into ferocious lionesses. Imagine there were no marriage and family, and humanity would, to use Calvin’s crass expression, turn into a pigsty” (p. 97).
The Christian Family is full of such wisdom and rhetorical flourishes. So both in terms of style and substance, it is a book that is quite unlike anything available today on the topic. To read it is to gain valuable insights about the issues Bavinck discusses and also to be struck by how much Western culture has changed in the last century when it comes to our views of marriage, family, and relationships between men and women. Yet it also reveals how certain truths about the family—both its blessings and challenges—are timeless.