Menu iconFilter Results
Topic: Book Reviews

Review of Herman Bavinck: Biblical and Religious Psychology

June 18, 2024

Editor’s Note: The following book review appears in the Spring 2024 issue of Eikon.

Bavinck, Herman. Biblical and Religious Psychology. Jenison, MI: Reformed Free Publishing Association, 2024.

In his superb introduction to the newly-translated-in-English Biblical and Religious Psychology (BRP), John Bolt helps today’s reader see what animates Bavinck’s design in writing this book a century ago. Bavinck claims there are “precious few books on biblical psychology” for Christian teachers, and in BRP he is attempting to help “Christian educators…be more attentive to children’s psychological makeup and development, what the Bible says about their nature, their faculties, and abilities” (xvi). Reading with this contextual backdrop in mind amplifies the book’s pastoral and paternal nature. Bavinck seeks to equip Christian parents/teachers with a biblical rationale for understanding the psychological, moral, and religious development of children. And he does so after establishing a broader biblical psychology of humanity (in the first half of book), before focusing on how Christian parents/educators need to think about the development of children as humans into greater depths/experience of their human personality (in the second half of the book).

The debate surrounding psychology in Christian circles was not all that different in Bavinck’s day than it is ours, and he is a significant figure in the Reformed tradition as it relates to engaging empirical psychology dogmatically. In BRP, we encounter the thinking of the mature Bavinck. This two-part book was published between January 1912 and April 1920, meaning this was one of the last works before his death on July 29, 1921 (xv). He was aware that his teaching on “human nature” in his magisterial Reformed Dogmatics was somewhat lacking, as evidenced in a letter written to William Kuyper on September 20, 1897, where he claims: “The doctrine of man is incomplete [from Reformed Dogmatics]. Therefore, in a couple of months I shall publish a small, separate work: Beginselen der Psychologie [Foundations of Psychology].”[1] In the author’s preface to the second edition of Foundations of Psychology, dictated by Bavinck over twenty years later on his sickbed in 1921, he writes, “The foundations described in the book have had my lifelong acceptance and they remain powerful principles deserving use and expression alongside empirical psychology.”[2] As Matthew Lapine has pointed out,

The earlier book [Foundations of Psychology] seems to be an attempt to provide a psychology that is conversant both with contemporary psychology and with the Christian tradition, especially the psychology of Aquinas, yet contains less than ten biblical references. In the latter book [Biblical and Religious Psychology], Bavinck is more obviously engaged in biblical reasoning.[3]

In what follows, I will focus my summary and evaluation on Bavinck’s chapters entitled “Children’s Defects” and “Religious Education” from the second part of the book: “Religious Psychology.” I do this because much of this work is somewhat repackaged content which those familiar with Bavinck will have encountered in Reformed Dogmatics and/or Philosophy of Revelation. I find his interaction with the influence of Rousseau, Darwin, and Freud on the development and formation of children to be an outstanding example of how to critically evaluate psychology while also highlighting where their concerns/criticisms may have validity. I will also draw out a disagreement that I have with Bavinck, related to his understanding of the Covenant of Grace (CoG), and its implications on child-rearing for Christian parents/educators.

Children’s Defects

Bavinck pushes back against two extremes when it comes to raising children. He claims that in earlier times it was common to emphasize the doctrine of original sin, such that, “Until God converts the children, nothing good dwells in them and they must be bridled by strict discipline” (153–154). Often accompanying this misconception, he says, is the “spirit of abstinence,” which he contends was evident in Roman Catholicism, as well as pietistic Protestant circles, like the Methodists (154). His concern with this approach is how it so emphasizes the spiritual and the afterlife that it neglects the earthly calling, or the “right of natural life” (154). This preoccupation with asceticism and pietism in child-rearing leaves “little sympathy for the free, unrestrained, spontaneous life of the child; they nurtured an instinctive aversion to [the] happy laughter and joyful play of children” (154).

Bavinck then highlights how in the seventeenth century, church and theology “had taken precedence and set the tone,” but that instead of setting forth reforming principles, “they used this precious opportunity to create more and more division and to engage in endless dispute” (155). This exhausted many, and the close conceptual union between natural morality and the Christian religion (which ultimately would take the fall for the dissension) caused the “humanitarian philanthropists” (progressives) to want to work back from “culture” to “nature.” Bavinck explains, “Previously people had always tried to make Christians out of ordinary people; now the time had come to turn Christians back into human beings” (156). One hundred years later we see this same strategy on the part of progressivism, in which Christianity is no longer viewed as exemplary, but as bigoted, harmful, and repugnant.

Bavinck uses Rousseau, Darwin, and Freud as a sort of unholy trinity to represent this error. Reading Bavinck almost feels like reading sections of Carl Trueman’s The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self for kids, because he essentially shows how the rotten fruit of “expressive individualism” undermines parenting/teaching children well. He argues that Rousseau wrongly taught “children were born good and uncorrupted, because everything was good as it came forth from the hands of the Creator of all things, but that everything was spoiled at the hands of man. And nowadays, criminals are frequently treated as if they were sick, and prisons are increasingly more seen as a kind of hospital” (157). Thus, society and culture are the root of all evil, and the “experts” (who are somehow immune) must diagnose the disease and prescribe treatment for improvement, which takes on a revolutionary character. Which is why, Bavinck reminds, “Rousseau emphasized sexual education…Sex education is now regarded by many as a remedy in times of distress” (172).

Darwin, Bavinck contends, set forth the theory that not only species traits, but also acquired traits are inherited…However, “this theory has gradually faced strong oppositions because numerous facts contradict it” (158). While he is clear that heredity does play a significant role in both intellectual (e.g., music, mathematics) and physical (e.g., athletics, diseases like tuberculosis, alcoholism, facial features) aptitudes, he is strongly against the notion that we can draw a direct line from the inherited aptitude to the activity or disease itself (158). He concludes, “Augustinianism has been proven right, but it has to incorporate the undeniable truth found in Pelagianism, namely the influence of the environment, the power of imitation” (159). It is worth noting that Bavinck considers lying and sexuality together, highlighting how Rousseau was equally wrong about the former, “believ[ing] the lies of children were entirely the work of educators” (166). In contradiction to this logic, he demonstrates how children lie because they are sinful and predisposed to self-preservation, which at times fuels lying, and/or they are imitating the deception they witness from others (168–9).

Freud, according to Bavinck, “Overlooks that a child’s love for its parents, especially its mother, in the early years bears an entirely unique character and by no means is or needs to be of an erotic nature” (173). Bavinck avers the sensual and sexual are “two distinct things, in adults and even more so in children” (173). The intimacy of a mother and child ought not be distorted and sexualized but revered and guarded. He concludes that contemporary culture has wrongly awakened sensual desires in children and then turned to sexual education to solve the problem it creates, stating that “the fear is not unfounded that the remedy may prove worse than the ailment” (175). Bavinck laments that “contemporary culture, through various means and methods (such as provocative literature, cinema, photography), promotes the awakening of sexual desires,” which essentially interrupt and intervene upon the child’s “soul-life,” not allowing the gradual development of their faculties and powers (175). I would add here that I can only imagine what his concern would be in view of the invention of the laptop, tablet, and smartphone since his day.

Since the physical and psychological, the intellectual, religious, and ethical aspects of human existence are all deeply interconnected, Bavinck advocates for both the “ethical” and “psychological” method, so that parents/teachers can “judge with truth and equity concerning one or another evil” that a child commits, so that we can “first, [possess] a standard or rule according to which that wrongdoing must be measured,” and second, [have a] precise knowledge of the person who committed the wrongdoing and the circumstances under which they committed it” (160–161). The problem with the “humanitarian” theory of parenting that Bavinck is critiquing in his day (or what we may call “gentle parenting” today) is that it requires abandoning the normative character of ethics and reduces child-rearing to merely “a description of moral phenomena…Punishment then naturally gives way to being a means of education and improvement” (161). Bavinck criticizes the “welfare education” of specialized institutions in Germany, which separate kids who were diagnosed as “simpletons, psychopaths [into] strict schools, correctional schools, educational institutions…There has even emerged a distinct science, which bears the name ‘therapeutic’ or ‘remedial pedagogy’” (160). Against this, Bavinck contends,

The holy Scriptures, although often speaking openly about human sexuality, never mention a word about sexual education for children. Instead, they repeatedly admonish parents to raise their children in the instruction and admonition of the Lord [Eph. 6:4]. They do not condemn the sexual life as many ascetics of the past and present have done, nor do they demand the emancipation of the flesh, as various kinds of libertines have advocated, especially in our century (176).

One can only imagine Bavinck’s horror at the thought of puberty blockers and the chemical castration of children increasingly prevalent in our day, which is the tragic logical entailment of “emancipating the flesh” of those whose innocence is destroyed by a wicked and perverse generation. Instead, Bavinck contends that “teachers who interact with children daily and gain knowledge of all their virtues and vices through experience” are best equipped to disciple them physically and psychologically (165).

He concludes his argument in this chapter by reminding parents/teachers that we must distinguish between sin and the sinner because, “The sinner may remain the object of compassion and love, but sin itself must be measured solely by the incorruptible moral law” (178). It is within the confines of a loving Christian home/school where children receive the immeasurable gift of being raised by a compassionate normative standard.

Religious Education

I have one significant disagreement with this book. In his chapter on “Religious Education” Bavinck brings together his religious-ethical conception of child-rearing by advocating for the children of believers being in the CoG by virtue of their infant baptism. He explains that “children of the covenant” have a threefold privilege and duty: (1) Parents and educators have “the right and obligation to consider and treat their children as though they are raising Christian children,” (2) The CoG provides “strong support in combating the evil that resides in the thoughts and desires of the children’s hearts,” and (3) “Parents may proceed from the idea that their children, in principle, partake in the promises of that covenant until it is proven otherwise through their confession and conduct later in life” (220–1).

As a convinced Baptist, I reject the notion that my children are members/partakers of the CoG (or better yet, the new covenant, apart from the regenerating work of the Spirit and their subsequent profession of faith and baptism), while rejoicing in the reality that they receive the blessed and holy influence of growing up as wards of the church.[4] However, I fully agree with Bavinck’s argument, “If parents exclude religion from their children’s upbringing, they sin against the nature of their children, against the light that shines in their reason and conscience” (214). One reason that I as a Baptist catechize my children and expect them to join my wife and I in private and corporate worship is because they are indeed religious beings, “not by coercion or force but by the voice of nature” (214). To not provide this religious formation for them is as much a failure of my natural duty as a father as not providing them with shelter, food, clothes, etc. But it does not follow that my children are therefore members of the new covenant. This blends together moral/natural law and covenantal membership in a way that undermines the nature and structure of the new covenant in Christ.[5]


I commend this book to Christian parents looking for a deep dive into Scripture and for a guide in conversing with contemporary psychology. Though Bavinck’s conversation partners are a bit antiquated, their influence is certainly felt today. There is indeed nothing new under the sun. I was most impacted by how holistically Bavinck views humans, and specifically, children, seeking to faithfully raise/educate them as fallen yet moral, rational, ethical, and religious beings. He seeks to avoid the false antithesis between Scripture and Nature, and between nature and nurture, providing a robust foundation for childhood development. Even while putting the covenants together differently, I resonate strongly with his urgent reminder that Christian parents/educators have a moral duty, flowing from the moral law, to raise their children in the fear and nurture of God. This is a blessed, weighty, challenging, and joyful vocation.

Michael Carlino is Operations Director for CBMW and Adjunct Professor of Christian Theology at Boyce College

[1] Herman Bavinck, Foundations of Psychology (Beginselen der Psychologie), trans. Jack Vanden Born (Master’s Thesis, Calvin College, 1981), vii.

[2] Herman Bavinck, Foundations of Psychology (Beginselen der Psychologie), trans. Jack Vanden Born, Nelson D. Kloosterman, and John Bolt, 2nd ed. (Kampen: J. H. Kok, 1923), ii.

[3]  Matthew A. Lapine, Logic of the Body: Retrieving Theological Psychology (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2020), 205–6.

[4] For an excellent treatment of how Baptists can and ought to think of raising their children, see Richard Furman, “The Children of Church Members,” Christ Over All, last modified May 15, 2023.

[5] For a sound Baptist treatment of the biblical covenants as it relates to baptism and the new covenant, see Stephen Wellum, “Baptism and the Relationship Between the Covenants,” from Believer’s Baptism: Sign of the New Covenant in Christ (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2007), 105–170.

Did you find this resource helpful?

You, too, can help support the ministry of CBMW. We are a non-profit organization that is fully-funded by individual gifts and ministry partnerships. Your contribution will go directly toward the production of more gospel-centered, church-equipping resources.

Donate Today