Conference Coverage

Scholars gather to grapple with translation of Dutch theologian’s work

by Matt Vande Bunte | The Grand Rapids Press
Saturday September 27, 2008, 5:43 AM

GRAND RAPIDS–Terms like “sanctification” and “presumptive regeneration” were seen with new eyes when scholars at a historic conference discussed some of the finer points of their theological heritage.

They gathered to review that tradition in the context of a long-dead Dutch thinker whose century-old ideas were talked about in the present tense. Herman Bavinck has come alive in English through a 15-year, $130,000 effort of a translation group and its local publisher.

About 200 scholars came to Calvin College last weekend to celebrate the English translation of Bavinck’s 3,000-page “Reformed Dogmatics” and to grapple with his thoughts anew. The fourth and final volume of the work was released this spring.

“They had a dream of bringing this into English — and that’s no small thing,” said James Kinney, director of Baker Academic, a division of Baker Publishing Group. “We really have to stand in awe of that kind of project. It’s an impressive achievement.

“There’s a sense in which students now have access to really one of the brilliant minds.”

Bavinck was a leading Dutch theologian in late 19th- and early 20th-century Holland, and his ideas have influenced many Reformed churches. But his masterpiece never was translated from Dutch.

So a group of scholars formed the Dutch Reformed Translation Society with a top priority of bringing Bavinck’s “Dogmatics” into English.

“He is very simply, in my judgment, the best statement of Reformed theology since John Calvin,” said James De Jong, society chairman and former president of Calvin Theological Seminary. “This is going to be the kind of work that theologians and studious ministers will go back to for generations. It will be consulted for a long time.

“Interest in him is just going to snowball.”

With representation from Calvin, Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary, Protestant Reformed Seminary, Mid-America Reformed Seminary and Western Theological Seminary, the society completed its work this spring. The English translation now is the basis for bringing Bavinck’s work into Korean, Portuguese, Italian, German and Indonesian.

“We had Korean students (at Calvin) committed to learning Dutch in order to wrestle with Bavinck,” said Calvin seminary professor John Bolt, who edited the translation.

From the United States, Canada and Europe, students and scholars came together on the 100th anniversary of Bavinck’s 1908 Stone Lectures at Princeton Theological Seminary to explore the relevance of his thoughts for the church and society at large.

Bolt said Bavinck addressed many theological questions 100 years ago that are still debated today. And his answers weave a common thread through today’s Reformed churches, Bolt said.

“It turns out the hunch that some of us had that Bavinck was a unifying figure is true,” Bolt said. “On this, we do have commonalities. This, we value. This, we treasure.”

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