Academic journal article Journal of Markets & Morality

Herman Bavinck's Contribution to Christian Social Consciousness

Academic journal article Journal of Markets & Morality

Herman Bavinck's Contribution to Christian Social Consciousness

Article excerpt

The year 1891 represents a high-water mark in the development of Christian social consciousness in the modern world, represented most famously by Pope Leo XIII's fertile encyclical Rerum Novarum, the Holy See's answer to the nineteenth-century preoccupation with "the social question." (1) The essay by Herman Bavinck under consideration here was part of the deliberations of the First Christian Social Congress held in Amsterdam on November 9-12, 1891. Bavinck's essay is not nearly as well known as the opening address to the congress given by Abraham Kuyper, "The Social Question and the Christian Religion," but it deserves attention as a thoughtful reflection on the hermeneutic question of how to use the legal framework of the Pentateuch/Torah for Christian social engagement in the modern world. (2) In the introduction that follows I will briefly set the stage for the congress' work in the broader context of nineteenth-century social discussions, summarize the key elements in Bavinck's report, and conclude with some observations about its reception and ongoing value.

The Context: European Social Congresses

The social question--what to do about the growing number of urbanized, working-class poor who struggled to meet basic necessities of life--arose in the nineteenth century thanks to the Industrial Revolution and the resultant dislocation of working people from rural areas into the urban centers of Europe as cottage industries gave way to factory production. Whatever date is chosen for the beginning of this major shift, (3) it is clear that the forces of industrialization, driven by technological innovation in iron and steel production as well as textile manufacture, spread like wild-fire across Europe after its initial phase primarily in England at the conclusion of the eighteenth century. (4) The resultant social upheaval cried for response and a variety of "fixes" were proposed in the nineteenth century. One response, socialism, and its chief intellectual voice, Karl Marx, has been well studied and is generally well known. Much the same can be said about the "Christian socialism" of Anglicans Charles Kingsley (1819-1875) and F. D. Maurice (1805-1887), along with American Baptists Walter Rauschenbusch (1861-1918) and Francis Julius Bellamy (1855-1931). (5) Not as well known in North America is the tradition of continental European Christian Social Congresses, many of them, such as the Dutch First Social Congress, were based in and focused on specific national concerns. The term congress can be misleading if we think in terms of single, conference-like events, again such as the 1891 event in Amsterdam. It is more appropriate to think of them--even when used in the singular--as organized movements for social reform, often including a variety of groups and interests, and acting in varying degrees of concert over an extended period of time. (6) Thus, the simply named Evangelical Social Congress was a diverse social-reform movement of German pastors founded in 1890. (7) The men who played a prominent part in the leadership of the congress reflect this diversity: social thinker Max Weber (1864-1920); the Christian socialist Friedrich Naumann (1860-1919); (8) Adolf Stoeker (1835-1909), chaplain to the court of Kaiser Wilhelm II and founder of the Lutheran, anti-Semitic, Christian Social (Workers) Party (1878); (9) as well as liberal, social gospel mainstays Wilhelm Herrmann (1848-1922) and Adolf von Harnack (1851-1930). (10)

The Dutch Christian Social Congress: Context

The First Christian Social Congress of the Netherlands was held in Amsterdam on November 9-12, 1891, but the events that shaped it went back to the 1860s and included the formation of cooperatives and workers' groups, including typographers (1861, 1866) and construction workers (1866), along with a ship-builders' strike in 1869. (11) In the intervening years, leading up to the congress of 1891, the world's workers formed the International Working Men's Association (IWMA, later the "First Internationale") in London on September 28, 1864, but the Paris Commune momentarily seized power on March 28, 1871, establishing a brief communist rule until its bloody defeat two months later. …

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