Interview with Willem de Wit on his On the Way to the Living God

Next up in our series of author interviews is Willem J. de Wit, whose proefschrift at VU University Amsterdam under Professors A. van de Beek and C. van der Kooi was recently published as On the Way to the Living God: A Cathartic Reading of Herman Bavinck and an Invitation to Overcome the Plausibility Crisis of Christianity (Amsterdam: VU University Press, 2011). In chapters 2 and 3 Willem presents a “cathartic” reading of Bavinck based primarily upon Bavinck’s personal correspondence with Christiaan Snouck Hurgronje. In the remaining chapters Willem formulates a series of “invitations” as a way to (re)gain perspective on the living God in a post-Christian context.

LO: Willem, tell us a little about your background. Where did you grow up? Were you born into a Christian home? How did you become interested in studying theology?

WJdW: May I first of all thank you for the opportunity to have this interview. Quite a few people have already found On the Way through the Bavinck Society website, and others may read it soon now that it has become available through Logos. While it is not possible to interact with each reader individually, I hope that this interview will contribute to the kind of conversation as expressed in the quotation from Augustine in the preface of the book:

May all who read this go with me where they are as certain as I am,
may they search with me where they doubt as much as I do,
may they return to me where they recognize their error,
may they call me back where they recognize mine.
Thus we take together the way of love,
heading for him of whom it is said: “Seek his face always.”

My native village is called Bodegraven and is located in the Green Heart of Holland (the area between the main cities of Amsterdam, Leiden, the Hague, Rotterdam, and Utrecht). While the village has both Christians of various denominations and non-Christians among its inhabitants, I was born into a family in which the fear of the Lord is found and grew up in a safe environment in which home, church, and school basically breathed the same Reformed faith and piety. At high school my grades in mathematics, physics, and chemistry made it seem natural that I would study science or technology at university, but gradually I felt that there are more fundamental issues in life and decided to register for theology. Although I could not predict at that point that I would end up as a missionary professor in Egypt teaching Biblical studies and systematic theology, it feels like I am now doing the kind of work that I somehow saw ahead of me when taking up theological studies at the age of eighteen.

LO: Where have your academic studies taken you? And whom do you consider to be significant influences upon your thought?

WJdW: I studied theology at Utrecht University, and specialized in Biblical studies. My doctoraalscriptie was on the “Messianic Apocalypse” (4Q521, one of the Dead Sea Scrolls) and the light it sheds on the New Testament. While I have had the privilege of attending lectures of many great professors, not only in Utrecht but also in Durham (UK) and Tübingen, both in Old and New Testament studies and in systematic and philosophical theology, my most special learning experience was perhaps an intensive course by the late Martin Hengel on the four Gospels and the one Gospel of Jesus Christ in which he piously poured out a mild rain of knowledge on us.

After graduation and before moving to Cairo I worked as a junior researcher fellow for the International Reformed Theological Institute (IRTI) at VU University Amsterdam and as a teacher of Greek, Latin, and Classical Culture. While I am interested in Biblical Studies, I felt that my master’s thesis kept me too much in the world of two thousand years ago, and therefore I was glad to get the opportunity to write a doctoral dissertation in systematic theology that addresses core questions of today.

While I have read theologians from Irenaeus, through Augustine and Thomas Aquinas, Luther and Calvin, Bunyan and Brakel, Bavinck and Schweitzer, to Pannenberg and am currently reading Van de Beek’s new study on ecclesiology and pneumatology and eagerly awaiting Van der Kooi’s new one-volume dogmatics (which he writes together with Gijsbert van den Brink), I have always remained a fairly independent thinker and have not become a follower of one of them in particular—not even Bavinck. Although it may sound a bit weird from the mouth of a theologian, some Biblical passage have perhaps had a more significant influence on me than any of these men.

LO: What about Bavinck’s correspondence with Snouck Hurgronje piqued your interest? And do you think this material deserves more attention in Bavinck studies?

WJdW: In some of these letters we meet Bavinck very personally as a struggling believer. Moreover, he sometimes gives background information about the intention of his publications, and he sometimes has interesting discussions with Snouck Hurgronje. So, in this correspondence we meet the man of flesh and blood who wrote these great works such as the Reformed Dogmatics and The Philosophy of Revelation. Now that Bavinck’s major works have been translated, I would really recommend giving priority to translating the correspondence with Snouck Hurgronje into English as well as a selection of Bavinck’s personal notes—ranging from his Leiden diaries to the 1919 notes published in “Als Bavinck nu maar eens kleur bekende” (“If only Bavinck showed his colors”)—, articles in De Bazuin, and other short articles such as “Geloof en Liefde” (faith and love; 1909), and perhaps his speeches in the Upper Chamber of the Dutch parliament. These materials do not show a different Bavinck than in the big books as if there were two but the same man from a somewhat different perspective and thus will add depth to the view that one has of his rich personality.

LO: The genre of your book—a collection of somewhat loosely-connected essays—is unique for a theological dissertation. You invite the reader to construct their own journey through the book and to find their own meaning in the relation of the various essays. Unlike the standard format for dissertations, your work does not begin with a central thesis and proceed with supporting arguments. Instead of arguments you present the reader with a series of “invitations.” Additionally, your writing style has a strong poetic cast. Why was it important to you to present your dissertation in such a unique format?

WJdW: Let me first give a more general answer and then speak about my book in particular. There are global differences and developments in dissertation writing. Your definition of a dissertation as a work beginning with a central thesis and proceeding with supporting arguments is in my view a North American definition in which some continental European dissertations may fit but others may not. Rather than beginning with a central thesis or claim, they may be structured around a topic (a good example is Bavinck’s on Zwingli) or a central open question that is only answered towards the end or even offer a text edition with introduction and annotations. In other fields of study it is rather common that a doctoral dissertation consists of a collection of published articles, and nowadays this is also possible in theology in the Netherlands.

Next, it is good to keep in mind that the function or intended audience of a Dutch dissertation is somewhat different from that of an American one. If I am not mistaken, the intended audience of an American dissertation—a double spaced piece of work that does not look like a regular book—is limited to the doctoral committee that will evaluate and examine the work in a private meeting. A broader audience only comes in view later on in case the thesis is rewritten for publication. However, the intended audience of a Dutch dissertation itself is relatively broad: the dissertation has the layout of a book, is defended in public (some months after a committee has read it and given approval for public defense), and is then often immediately available for sale as a regular book. Thus, when writing a Dutch dissertation it is more important for the author to keep the broader audience in mind who will read the book out of personal interest rather than academic obligation.

Moreover, educationalists sometimes raise the question whether the narrowly focused thesis is the best assignment to create good doctors. I recently learned that a school in China indeed decided not to import this Western invention but to develop its own dissertation format instead, putting more emphasis on keeping balance between various perspectives. Time and again the question is also raised whether every scholarly argument should be structured with linear logic or that such a monopoly disregards a preference for other patterns of argumentation in many cultures around the world. Hopefully my dissertation shows that even a Westerner can do something meaningful in a different way. And while On the Way can perhaps be characterized as a post-modern composition, studying the startling structure and rich poetics of an age-old work like the Book of Isaiah may also have had some influence on my own approach to writing.

This being said, there simply came a point that I had a published conference paper about post-Christian Amsterdam, many drafts about Bavinck, thoughts about theological method, explorations of the idea of a binocular worldview, and some other pieces of writing, and needed to compose one dissertation in order to get a doctoral degree. Although the material was diverse, I felt that it could and should be brought together because it contributes to one high goal: (re)gaining perspective on the living God in a post-Christian context in which the Christian faith suffers from a plausibility crisis. (While my book hopefully contributes to Bavinck studies, I would personally have failed my real purpose if I had just written a regular dissertation about Bavinck.)

As for the terms “essays” and “invitations,” in the preface I say about the former: “Characteristic for essays is a style that is both scholarly and personal. To me such a style seems to be adequate to a question that is too existential to be treated in an impersonal way and too important to be delegated to the realm of private reflection only.” And section 4.9 says about invitations: “Inviting is an alternative to both describing what has been believed and done, and prescribing what should be believed and done. . . . [It] expresses scholarly prudence without sliding down into non-committal language.”

Finally, despite my attempt to do something different, if you see the purpose stated right at the beginning of my dissertation as its central thesis and read the six essays as supporting arguments, then, of course, my book perfectly resembles the standard format of dissertations that you describe.

LO: Geographical context provides a colorful and significant influence in your writing. In the book there is a bit of interplay between Amsterdam, where you studied theology in a “post-Christian” context, and Cairo, where you now teach theology amidst political upheavals. You also mention that a couple of the essays in the book derive from your short time of study at Calvin Seminary in Grand Rapids, MI, USA. In your experience as a student, a teacher, and a churchman within these disparate cultural settings have you noticed any significant differences or obvious tendencies in how Bavinck’s theology is studied?

WJdW: Let us limit ourselves here to the United States and the Netherlands and talk about Egypt later. When I studied theology in Utrecht in the nineties, Abraham Kuyper was usually seen as a guy who produced bad theology and split the church. Bavinck was seen as more okay, but at the same time as dull, dusty, and outdated. Although the situation was perhaps somewhat different at other universities, in the 35 years between Jan Veenhof’s dissertation in 1968 and Dirk van Keulen’s in 2003, relatively little was written about Bavinck. The Bavinck conference in Amsterdam and Kampen in 2004 (published as Ontmoetingen met Herman Bavinck, ed. George Harinck and Gerrit Neven), Henk van den Belt’s and Hans Burger’s dissertations, some other publications, and the growing awareness that Bavinck is being discovered in other parts of the world have certainly contributed to a renewed interest in him in the Netherlands.

Still, the interest should not be exaggerated. While we have the archives, can easily buy his major works second-hand, and find even most of his obscure articles in libraries, and, not unimportantly, know his language, we as Dutch are not yet sufficiently aware how interesting an export product we have in Bavinck. Perhaps it has to do with what I notice in my book: even one of our greatest Reformed theologians who so deeply engaged with the modern worldview of his day does not seem to offer the key to overcome the current plausibility crisis of Christianity and the church in the Netherlands.

When I came to Grand Rapids in 2004 I enjoyed the rich Bavinck collections in the library and was even given a small article by him (entitled “Nader bescheid”) that probably nobody knew in the Netherlands, but I did not have too many conversations about him—even there he was perhaps not yet so widely known as he is today. People rather asked me to explain Abraham Kuyper to them as if he were a theologian of remaining importance. I also got the impression that the fundamental questions that Christianity faces in Western Europe were sometimes taken rather lightly and could encounter an attitude like “Alvin Plantinga has answered the most important objections against Christianity for us, so we do not have to bother about them.” While surely not all Americans think this way, it may actually create a context in which Bavinck can be read with youthful enthusiasm as a healthy alternative to both rigid conservatism and liberal theology. If so, I would hope that my attention to Bavinck’s inner struggle does not kill the enthusiasm but rather deepens it.

LO: Historical context is another major motif in your book. “Post-Christian” is the dominant adjective here, and naturalism and new atheism are its major correlates. One way to summarize the gist of your “invitations” is: Amsterdam is post-Christian; therefore, theology, if it wishes to remain relevant, must reinvent itself in a manner that appropriates naturalism among its principia. This “invitation” is obviously provocative. At one point you note yourself that the true theologian must be willing to walk to the edge of blasphemy in order to find the truth. Is that what you see yourself doing in this book?

WJdW: Thanks for your interest in my book as a whole and not just the chapters about Bavinck. You bring up a lot in a just a few sentences. Let me try to unravel and answer your question as briefly as possible.

I hesitate about the expression “wishes to remain relevant,” since a misguided desire to remain relevant can easily lead to introducing “heterogeneous” elements into theology. Perhaps my book is more about finding truth and relevance in a context of crisis (cf. section 4.4).

Further, I would not say that theology should appropriate naturalism among its principles. Apart from the fact that I do not think in terms of principia or principles, the whole discussion about naturalism in the fifth essay is not the goal of the book in itself, but is instrumental to the main invitation to live—in a context in which God is seen as non-existent, irrelevant, or unreachable—on the way to the living God. As I formulate at the end of the book: “If the church cannot find any other significance for herself in our present age, let she limit herself to this: a ministry of liberation from all bondage of religion and worldview and presumptuous certainty, fear from others’ opinions, and inner despair, by inviting us to the cross to die with Christ, so that we may live in liberty and love going with open eyes the way to the living God. The invitation stands and I pray that the reader will accept it.”

Next, as for the term “naturalism,” it should be noted that people define it in many different ways. I make a distinction between weak ontological naturalism and strong ontological naturalism. The latter is atheistic by definition, while I define the former as “the view that every phenomenon has a purely natural explanation (be it known to humans at present or not) or does not require an explanation at all.” So, weak ontological naturalism is not atheistic by definition, but the question can be whether it is by implication. Because I see weak ontological naturalism as rather plausible but not proven, I speak about the “naturalistic assumption” and analyze how it relates to the Christian faith. Section 6.1 summarizes:

If this argument [as developed in the fifth essay] stands, then the naturalistic assumption need no longer give us the sense that God does not exist. In the spiritual struggle between Christianity and atheism, the naturalistic assumption is no longer the natural ally of atheism. In itself it is a rather neutral position, and we saw that it can even be a good friend to Christianity. Hopefully, this brings some people on the way to the living God, people who have been atheists so far because they thought intellectual honesty required this from them although their hearts thirsted for God. Hopefully, this also convinces some Christians that they should not fight the naturalistic assumption as such for religious reasons, but only the atheistic implications that some want to draw from it.

In short, while I am glad that you find my book provocative and it may indeed contain some passages that are on the edge of blasphemy in order to find the truth, my discussion of the weak ontological naturalistic assumption as such is not so much intended as a continuous walk on the edge but rather as the kind of creative intellectual homework that a theologian is supposed to do.

LO: In addition to being provocative, your “invitations” raise many questions and objections, several of which you attempt to answer in the essays. In the next few questions I will select a few questions that I had while working through the book. First, if the main crisis of the church today pertains to naturalism and new atheism, then why did you choose Bavinck as your main dialog partner? Is your point to provide a negative example—that the church needs to give up outmoded theological methods such as “Father Bavinck’s” that precludes naturalism as a principium of theology?

WJdW: No, the main point of the essays about Bavinck (chapters 2 and 3) is not to provide a negative example, but, by following him in his struggle with the modern worldview of his day, to offer readers a mirror in which to face their own struggle between Christian and post-Christian thought: in this way reading Bavinck remains relevant even if we see some of his statements as problematic.

More generally spoken, even though present day atheism and “something-ism” is not exactly the same as the modern worldview that Bavinck faces—especially in his writings from “Creation and Development” (1901) to The Philosophy of Revelation (1908)—, there are enough parallels to make it relevant to study what he said in his day: hence, for example, my analysis of his lecture “Revelation and the Future” in chapter 3 (which I originally wrote, by the way, as a paper at Calvin Seminary).

However, since my encounter with Bavinck is especially at the personal level, I have simply not seen it as my purpose to discuss how my theological method exactly relates to Bavinck’s (see also the first footnote to the fourth essay). Nevertheless, even though I would not take responsibility for all what he says, there are certainly parallels between Bavinck’s concept of the “organic” and my usage of the term “binocular”: both of us reject an either/or way of thinking in which natural explanation and perceiving God’s will or hand are seen as mutually exclusive.

LO: Second, a major formal feature of your “invitation” to a “binocular worldview” is an alleged distinction between explanation and x-planation. However, you nowhere provide a clear definition of this distinction despite the importance you place upon it, namely, the ability to look at the world through a special pair of binoculars that allows one to see supernaturally through one eye (x-planation) and naturalistically through the other (explanation). Again, the “Why Bavinck?” question comes to mind since one of his passions was to counter the dualism that he saw in Kant’s distinction between knowledge and faith and in Schleiermacher’s reduction of theology to a science of faith. How is your project different from Kant’s or Schleiermacher’s?

WJdW: The reason why I introduce the distinction between explanation and x-planation is that if God seems to be superfluous as an explanation because more and more things can be explained in a natural way, we should not stop looking for him or only try to find him in gaps that have not yet been explained, but should rather return to those phenomena that have already been explained and see perhaps something different in them that neither contradicts the explanation nor is already expressed in it—a reference that, if one accepts the rest of my argument, is perhaps most plausibly understood (x-plained) as a reference to the living God. Once one has followed my argument, explanation can be seen as understanding creature-creature relationships while x-planation is about understanding the Creator-creature relationship (by the way, I never speak about seeing “supernaturally” in this regard).

Although it feels flattering to be compared with great names like Kant and Schleiermacher, I do not have the feeling that my position is particularly close to theirs. However, not being a specialist in either of them, I do not dare to make such a comparison myself and to point out the exact differences. Nevertheless, it is hopefully clear that while I distinguish between a scientific and a religious eye, I do not aim at dividing the world into a domain of science and a domain of religion but rather want to see all of reality in a binocular way, that is, with both eyes, in order to see depth. A said in my previous answer, this as such, rather than being the opposite of it, comes rather close to Bavinck’s position.

In general, while treating science and religion as two complementary rather than contradictory or unrelated perspectives is not such a unique idea, a special characteristic of my argument is perhaps the discussion of the problem of evil in it. After using the fairly standard example of a beautiful new-born baby of whom we know the natural origin (explanation) and in whom we see a gift from God (x-planation), I mention situations in which things are much more complicated and references can at best seen as broken references to God. While this may seem to be an argument against the Christian religion, section 5.6 argues for the opposite and has the brokenness lead us to the cross where the Lord of glory is revealed without form or glory. I would not mind if one calls this section close to blasphemy and nevertheless true.

LO: Third, among your series of “invitations,” perhaps the most difficult one to swallow pertains to your “invitation” to interpret Jesus’s resurrection in “binocular” terms. “We assume,” you aver, “that the New Testament stories about Jesus’ resurrection can be explained in a natural way, even though we do not know the explanation, and that such an explanation (or series of explanations) is coherent with the x-planation that God has raised Jesus from the dead” (155). The crux that arises here is whether such a “binocular” method truly allows us to have our naturalistic-supernaturalistic cake and eat it too or whether this method, in conceding the metaphysical question to naturalism, sweeps religion away into the sea of subjectivity, never again to reach objectivity’s shores, and hence invites a vicious incoherence between a supernatural act from Father God and an unknown natural process from Mother Nature. In your view how does one avoid such a dualism while asserting on the one hand that there must be a naturalistic cause for Christ’s resurrection, albeit an unknown one, and on the other hand that there is a known supernatural cause?

WJdW: I think dualism would arise if one understands nature as a rather independent “Mother Nature,” but it is avoided if one sees nature as creation, which is thought and willed by God “in it its entirety and in all its parts and at all moments of time” (cf. section 5.3).

Further, while I appreciate your attempt to formulate the crux of my invitation, is it not first of all your choice of language that complicates matters? “Naturalistic-supernaturalistic,” “conceding the metaphysical question to naturalism,” “Mother Nature,” “there must be,” and “a naturalistic cause” are all expressions that I do not use or recognize as mine.

This being said, my section 5.10 about the resurrection may certainly need some chewing before one is able to swallow it. It touches on many questions and perspectives that as such could be elaborated into different directions, and it would be great if it stimulated further research and reflection. As said towards the end of the section, I especially hope that through critical interaction with this text—“chewing”—, people may be helped on the road “to receive the resurrection narratives not out of credulity or with unbelief, but in the true receptivity of faith.”

While more could be said, may I wind up the discussion of my book by reading part of the prayer of Augustine that concludes it: “When we will have reached you, the many things we said without reaching you will pass away, and you alone will remain all in all, and without end we will say one name, praising you in one, while we too have become one in you.”

LO: Tell us a little bit about your current teaching post at the Evangelical Theological Seminary in Cairo. How long have you been in Cairo? What courses do you teach? Are your lectures in Arabic? Do your students read any of Bavinck’s works in the course of their studies?

WJdW: I have been in Cairo since summer 2008. Our Bachelor of Theology (equivalent to an American MDiv program) is in Arabic and is especially aimed at preparing pastors for the Presbyterian church in Egypt (the Synod of the Nile), although it is also taken by evening students from a variety of denominations out of personal interest. As a recent development we are now also offering part-time programs in Alexandria (225 km/140 miles northwest of Cairo) and in Minya (250 km/155 miles south of Cairo). Moreover, our seminary has two master programs in English: a professional program in organizational leadership and management from a Christian perspective and an advanced theological program with concentrations in Biblical studies, Christianity in the Middle East, and systematic theology. International students are particularly welcome in this last program, and we also invite foreign professors from time to time.

While I have colleagues who are specialized in either the Old Testament or the New Testament or systematic theology, I myself am a lecturer (assistant professor) for all three disciplines and have taught a rich variety of courses over the years, most of them in the master’s program:

  1. Ancient Middle Eastern Source Texts: Context and Reception of Genesis 1–11
  2. Hebrew Texts for Theologians: The Book of Isaiah
  3. Hebrew Texts for Theologians: The Book of Psalms and the Problem of Evil
  4. Greek Texts for Theologians: Syntax, Textual Criticism, Usage of theos for Jesus
  5. Greek Texts for Theologians: Messianic Expectations, Historical Jesus, Early Christology
  6. Introduction to Systematic Theology (in Alexandria, this fall in Minya)
  7. Pneumatology (new spring 2013)
  8. Eschatology (in Arabic)
  9. Research Principles and Methods
  10. Bible, History, and Theology Research Seminar

As for Bavinck, his Our Reasonable Faith has been translated into Arabic, and parts of it are sometimes assigned in systematic theology courses, but otherwise he is not so well known in Egypt. For this reason I have written an article entitled “Who Wrote Bayna al ‘aql wa-al-īmān [Our Reasonable Faith]? An Invitation to Read Herman Bavinck in the Middle East,” which has been published in our new online ETSC Journal both in English and in Arabic. Moreover, I presented a paper about Bavinck in the seminary’s scholars’ seminar in 2010. When we read his letter from 1881 in which he describes how his studies made him lose “the innocence of a child’s faith,” one of the students said that she recognized herself very much in what he writes. Recently, one of my students read a chapter of the Reformed Dogmatics in English for his eschatology paper, and his clear conclusion was that this work needs to be translated into Arabic.

Finally it is said that, especially in his Kampen years, Bavinck stood in close relationship to his students and was willing to discuss their questions. In this respect I try to be a good follower of him: since my apartment is in the same building where our full-time students live, I often talk with them during meals and in the evenings, and also enjoy the opportunities to visit them in their villages and churches in Upper Egypt.

LO: Do you enjoy any hobbies in your spare time?

WJdW: Life is never dull in Egypt and gives me a lot of inspiration for taking pictures (see my galleries on Facebook or my website) and blogging in my mother tongue at wjdw.nl and sometimes in English at willemjdewit.com.

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