A Forgotten Masterpiece
Translators, including visiting scholar Dr. Jessica Joustra, are bringing theologian Herman Bavinck’s forgotten manuscript to English audiences for the first time.
3 min. read
October 18, 2019

Through the tireless work of a translation team, including Redeemer visiting scholar Dr. Jessica Joustra, a forgotten masterpiece is being published for the first time. The first volume of theologian Herman Bavinck’s partially published manuscript, Reformed Ethics, was released for English readers in June 2019.

The manuscript will be published in English as three volumes. Work on the following volumes continued over the summer. In July, Joustra completed a translation marathon of 10-hour days for two weeks.

With more than 1,000 pages discovered, the translation is a massive undertaking. Bavinck’s notebooks were scattered and many of them damaged, with pages escaping their binding and paper crumbling. The manuscript is made up of Bavinck’s handwritten notes on Reformed Ethics and material that he likely created during his time teaching, continuing his studies and seeing some of his work published. “The text itself is sometimes, given his handwriting, a bit difficult to read,” Joustra said.“The manuscript contains unfinished citations and marginal notes. It’s also incomplete; Bavinck’s notes end in the middle of a discussion on the Christian family with a list of topics to be discussed. It has been quite a project to get it all into readable form!

The Theological University of Kampen (TU Kampen), where the manuscript was most likely written, granted Joustra a postdoctoral fellowship for her work on Bavinck. The translation team is headed by Bavinck expert Dr. John Bolt, who is professor emeritus of systematic theology at Calvin Theological Seminary, director of the Bavinck Institute, editor of the annual Bavinck Review and translator of Bavinck’s four-volume Reformed Dogmatics.

Bavinck likely worked on Reformed Ethics while writing Reformed Dogmatics, now considered one of the most important theological works of the 20th century. While crafting his two masterworks, Bavinck taught dogmatics and ethics, first as a professor at TU Kampen. Twenty years later, he was named a professor of dogmatics at the Free University in Amsterdam, where the unfinished manuscript was found. In that role, Bavinck succeeded the Free University’s founder Abraham Kuyper, a passionate Reformed theologian still known by many today.

In Bavinck’s dogmatics, the focus is on what God is doing and has done. As Bavinck explained it, “Dogmatics describes the deeds of God done for, to and in human beings.” In ethics, then, Bavinck focused on how individuals should act in their own lives and in the society that surrounds them.

Bavinck also spoke in Reformed Ethics and a number of his other works about the imitation of Christ. Joustra wrote her PhD dissertation at Fuller Theological Seminary on the imitation of Christ in Bavinck’s ethics and those of theologian John Howard Yoder. With the support of the Neo-Calvinism Research Institute, Joustra is working on a book and a number of articles exploring how Bavinck, Yoder and their traditions teach today’s Christians to navigate theological, social and ethical difference. By placing the Neo-Calvinist Dutch theologian and American Anabaptist in dialogue, Joustra is seeking out new insights that will speak to NorthAmerican evangelical ethics in the 21st century.

“Bavinck’s notes end in the middle of a discussion on the Christian family with a list of topics to be discussed. It has been quite a project to get it all into readable form!”

One year into her two-year fellowship at Redeemer, Joustra has helped bring the first volume of Reformed Ethics to print, completed her PhD, worked on her own book project and taught courses in Redeemer’s theology and philosophy departments. In the Winter 2019 term, she also taught the Core course “Being and Knowing in the Digital Age” with her husband, associate professor of politics and international studies Dr. Robert Joustra.

“It is wonderful to be part of an institution with such a rich Neo-Calvinist heritage,” Dr. Jessica Joustra said. “It has been especially rewarding, in this season, to move between Kampen, Amsterdam, Pasadena, GrandRapids and now Hamilton and see the many ways the carriers of this tradition are active and engaged in scholarship, teaching and public life. I am so grateful for the opportunities Redeemer has granted me to be deeply engaged in Neo-Calvinist research both among colleagues and in the classroom.

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