Becoming Human at Home

Herman Bavinck on the Family

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Professor, University of Edinburgh

In his own lifetime, the Dutch theologian Herman Bavinck (1854–1921) was well-known for his insistence that Christianity is good news for all of life. Rather than treating it as an abstract message that issues us a ticket to heaven whilst leaving the remainder of our earthly lives more or less untouched, Bavinck saw Christianity in strikingly holistic terms. Indeed, he believed it was better news than many Christians realized: good news not simply for the soul, but also for the body; not only for the church, but also for society; not just for your worship, but also for your work.

This was so, he thought, because the gospel is God’s answer to the impact of sin in every area of our human existence. Sin taints all of life. In view of this, Bavinck saw Christians as those whose message brings hope for life, precisely because Christianity is a faith for all of life: it takes every thought captive for Christ, floods darkness with light, and washes clean all that has been spoiled. Wherever sin abounds, grace abounds much more. In this sense, Bavinck insisted that Christianity is truly catholic, or universal, in its scope: its good news applies to every part of every life everywhere.

With that perspective, Bavinck set about a lifelong task of exploring how to live Christianly in his own rapidly shifting, secularizing modern world, and produced works on a wide-ranging number of topics, from politics to poetry, from worker’s rights to modern art. All were reconsidered in the light of Christ. And central to this effort to think Christianly about modern life was the home.

Society of Individuals

The early twentieth century was a time of tremendous social upheaval, within which the most basic building block within society moved from the family unit to the individual. While that shift was already underway before the First World War (1914–18), it was nonetheless affected profoundly by it. Millions of young men had suddenly died in combat. What would happen to the women they otherwise would have married? Who would take their place in the work force? What future did the family unit have in a new world increasingly populated by single (often female) adults? Who forms the individuals who now make up their societies?

“A culture of individualism shapes us according to the groupthink of whichever social power looms largest.”

In the last two decades of his life, Bavinck — by then a husband as well as a father to a teenage daughter — applied himself to these questions, thinking and writing extensively on the family and the home in that modern age. Before World War I, his book The Christian Family (1908) was an early attempt in this direction. As the war rolled on and eventually concluded, he produced two more substantial books dealing with this shift to a society of individuals: On Raising Teenagers (1916) and The Woman in Contemporary Society (1918).

In his early life, and like most in his day, Bavinck believed a society of families to be ideal. As the social changes forced by the war became clear, though, he accepted the move to a society of individuals with a pragmatic realism. The world had changed. The realities of a war-torn social fabric needed careful Christian thought. In that regard, some of his pre-war views in The Christian Family are not representative of his later post-war opinions: the most high-profile example is his move from supporting a “one family, one vote” view of democracy (in which only the husband had the vote), to arguing publicly for individual voting rights as also applied to unmarried individual men and women.

In Bavinck’s mind, this willingness to accept a society of individuals was informed by Scripture’s own silence on the matter. The times are always changing, and as the Bible does not make a case for a specific version of democracy, he reasoned that Christians were to pursue wisdom in wrestling with how they organize their societies.

Perilous ‘Individualism’

While he saw himself as biblically permitted to roll with the times on this point, the same commitment to following Scripture led him to defend the importance of family and the home — all the more so, in view of the individualism growing all around him. From writings across his career, Bavinck recognized that the modern age makes us acutely aware of our individuality: perhaps more than our ancestors did, modern people perceive their experiences to be unique, and the identities they create all the more so. He also had no difficulty in seeing human individuality as God-given, and as something to be valued. In The Christian Family, for example, he writes that it is God who grants all people their “special individuality,” which is “God’s artistic work,” and as such should be affirmed (90).

Alongside that observation, though, came his insistence that modern culture tended to set family and individual in conflict by telling us that our most authentic individuality comes about precisely as we break away from our family histories. This, the idea went, was how to become an authentic individual. In the process, however, an undeniable reality — our individuality — is elevated to become a new and altogether more dubious thing: individualism.

In a culture of individualism, the world becomes the stage upon which we perform, rather than the community in which we are formed. Believing we have formed ourselves from some deep inner wellspring of authenticity, he argued, we fail to see that the formative role once granted to the home is actually given over to other forces within society. (In Bavinck’s own time, his focus fell on the state’s viewing itself as “the one true family” and conforming citizens to its own arbitrary view of life and the world. In our day, we might add many new formative influences: social-media role models, celebrities, and package-deal political ideologies, to name but three.)

If Bavinck is right, individualism is a strange misnomer. Rather than enabling us to be the people whose individuality begins from our own unique (family) histories, a culture of individualism shapes us according to the groupthink of whichever social power looms largest on the horizon. Our real individuality collapses under its weight.

Home Improvement

To save true individuality, Bavinck argued, we must pry it free from individualism. The unnatural and unnecessary divide that secular modernity has wedged between the individual and the family needs to be healed. And for that, his books The Christian Family and On Raising Teenagers argue, we need a thorough commitment to home improvement, precisely because the story of each person’s individuality begins there.

In The Christian Family, Bavinck claims that individuality takes as its starting point the combination of histories — biological, social, psychological, spiritual — that are combined when a man and a woman come together, and a new human being results. Every person is the unique product of one such combination, which exerts an unfathomable influence on each of us. “Whether we later find [this starting point] agreeable or disagreeable,” he writes, “we can change nothing about it” (91).

“To save true individuality, Bavinck argued, we must pry it free from individualism.”

Each of us, of course, channels this starting point in new directions. We can even work against it — as sometimes we must — but there is no sense in simply ignoring it. Our individuality begins in the home, rather than in a vacuum, or in some detached inner sense of authenticity. Modern societies might be centered on individuals, but every individual has been formed by a home of one kind or another — for which reason, the home matters more than ever.

How should Christians think about the home in modern individualistic societies? For Bavinck, Christians do not serve the common good of their modern society of individuals by making individuality their great enemy. Rather, their calling is to show that Christianity, rather than secular individualism, presents the most compelling account of our individuality — in its beauty, but also in its fallenness, and in the gospel’s hope for the complex mixture formed by those factors. That insistence gives us reason to care about the health of the home in society. Done well, Bavinck writes, the home is “the first and best school of nurture that exists on earth” (The Christian Family, 92). The home is the place in which we are first directed either toward or away from God, and where our basic posture toward our fellow human beings is formed. In terms of spiritual and moral formation, the home is uniquely important. We cannot conceive of true human flourishing without it.

Time and Space for Flourishing

Thus far, we might expect Bavinck’s arguments for the importance of the home to be marked by an otherworldly kind of piety. The reality, however, could barely be further from the truth. In The Christian Family and On Raising Teenagers, he writes in concrete terms on the practical implications of a pro-family, pro-home stance. For Christians to support the home, for example, Bavinck argued they must stand against poverty. Low wages force parents to work ever longer hours to make ends meet, which makes it harder for them to be regularly present and engaged in their children’s lives. As an aspect of poverty, Bavinck argued that poor-quality housing made it harder for families to flourish, especially in cities. He argued for better laws around housing and affordable home insurance. He also argued for reduced homework for children, claiming that when schoolwork creeps into the home hours, it takes up the gloriously unproductive time parents and children should spend simply being family together.

In all of his recommendations to counter these “external circumstances that advance the destruction of family life,” his guiding principle was that a family needs time and space in order to flourish. Those factors, of course, are scarce resources in our modern individualized societies.

Good, Not Easy

How might we learn from Bavinck today? The answer will depend on our own particular contexts. In the UK, perhaps the most striking issue is Bavinck’s campaign against small and inadequate family housing. On average, for example, new-build houses in the UK are the smallest in Europe. Since 1970, the average new British house has shrunk in size by one third, with kitchens and living rooms becoming ever smaller. The typical design of British family housing is led by the search for maximum profit, rather than the real needs of families. Worse still, the poorest British families are increasingly dependent on derelict offices cheaply turned into single-room apartments.

Bavinck certainly recognized that “house” does not equal “home,” yet he believed that the two were closely related: it is hard to encourage struggling families to eat and pray and read Scripture together, as well as simply enjoying being together, when the buildings in which they live assume that sitting and eating together are peripheral parts of modern family life. In that context, a pro-family stance begins by addressing the widespread problems faced in turning these shoebox houses into homes.

Compared to Americans, Brits are time-rich, with shorter working hours and longer vacations, but space-poor. The British home struggles accordingly. While the same issues might apply in some North American contexts, on average, the size of the typical American family home has only grown in recent decades. In general, America has an abundance of space, but a chronic shortage of time. (When visiting the United States, Bavinck himself was struck by this cultural difference, writing that everything there is “in a hurry”). In America, Bavinck’s vision would call for distinct sacrifices in how the family fits within a context that is materially rich, but time-poor.

In East Asian contexts, where the family collective trumps individuality, and children spend many out-of-school hours being hothoused in evening classes, Bavinck’s anti-homework and pro-individuality vision would be deeply counterintuitive.

Clearly, grappling with and implementing his vision is complex and costly in distinct ways. In each context, though, Christianity is good, albeit not easy, news for the family.

(@DrJamesEglinton) received his PhD from the University of Edinburgh and is now Meldrum Senior Lecturer in Reformed Theology at the University of Edinburgh. His book Bavinck: A Critical Biography won the History and Biography Book of the Year prize in The Gospel Coalition 2020 Book Awards and was a finalist in the 2021 Christian Book Awards. He is married, with four children.