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The letters between Herman Bavinck (1854–1921) and Christian Snouck Hurgronje (1857–1936), preserved in the archives of the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam and the Leiden University Library, provide fascinating insights not only into a friendship that endured despite serious differences, but also into the role and functions of religions like Islam and Christianity in the modern world. The questions raised in the exchanges between Bavinck and Snouck Hurgronje remain strikingly relevant and will be explored in the Abraham Kuyper Center for Public Theology’s upcoming conference at Princeton Seminary on April 15–16, 2010, which will be devoted to exploring the resources of Neo-Calvinism for interfaith dialogue and understanding.

Bavinck, author of the recently translated four-volume Reformed Dogmatics, grew up in a conservative Protestant family in the Netherlands. His father was a pastor in the Christian Reformed Church, a young denomination that separated from the Dutch Reformed Church in 1834 over questions of doctrine and liturgical practice. The new denomination established its seminary in Kampen, and Bavinck’s father accepted a call to a church in that city in 1873. When Bavinck, who was raised happily in this pious atmosphere, decided to study theology, his friends and family rejoiced. But when he announced that he intended to study in Leiden rather than Kampen, he stirred considerable controversy. Why would Bavinck want to study in Leiden, the center of theological modernism, rather than Kampen, the cradle of doctrinal orthodoxy? Bavinck’s rationale provides insight into his character. He preferred not to caricature theological modernism, but to understand its objections to orthodoxy on its own terms.


Shortly after his arrival in Leiden, Bavinck met Snouck Hurgronje, who was also the son of a pastor, but had grown up in a modernist atmosphere. He felt fully at home in Leiden, not simply because his widowed mother had moved there, but because he embraced the new perspectives offered by the developing field of religious studies. Bavinck and Snouck Hurgronje became fast friends and faithful study partners. Both struggled to learn Arabic, for example, as a component of their study of Semitic languages. In their correspondence during vacations, Bavinck often bemoaned how little progress he was making in his studies and asked Snouck Hurgronje what page he was on in their Arabic textbook.

The two friends eventually took their studies in different directions. Snouck Hurgronje devoted himself to the study of Islam. He wrote his doctoral dissertation on the emergence of the traditions of the Hajj in early Islam.2 Bavinck carried on with Christian theology and wrote his dissertation on Zwingli’s ethics.3 Bavinck departed Leiden to become a pastor in the Friesian city of Franeker. Snouck Hurgronje traveled to Strasbourg, Germany, for the equivalent of a “post-doc.”

Their careers would continue to diverge. Bavinck was soon called to become a professor at the Theological School in Kampen. Snouck Hurgronje returned to Leiden to teach students preparing for administrative careers in the Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia). He was one of the first Europeans to journey to Jeddah and Mecca, publishing his descriptions in a groundbreaking two-volume work.4 He subsequently accepted a position in the East Indies as an advisor to the Dutch colonial government, where he studied the indigenous form of Islam and sought to improve colonial policies. Eventually, he returned to Leiden as a professor of Arabic. Bavinck, by contrast, became a leader along with Abraham Kuyper in the Neo-Calvinist movement. After publishing his Reformed Dogmatics, Bavinck moved to Amsterdam to succeed Kuyper as professor of theology at the Vrije Universiteit. He also became actively politically, first as chair of the Anti-Revolutionary Party and then as a member of the First Chamber of the Dutch Parliament.

Bavinck and Snouck Hurgronje corresponded throughout their lives, even as they differed in their educational philosophies, colonial policies, and, especially, religious views. The role of Islam in the modern world was an ongoing subject of conversation. Snouck Hurgronje judged that Islam, once it had moved beyond any “mediaeval restriction of the right to complete political existence,” could become a force for world peace. He advocated educating the Muslims of the East Indies in secular, rather than Christian, schools. Bavinck, by contrast, was more pessimistic about the potential of Islam. He promoted Christian missions to the East Indies as a way of overcoming what he considered the troubling dimensions of Islam. He wrote, “Religion can, I believe, only be overcome and replaced by religion.” This disagreement over the relative liberating value of secular education vis-à-vis Christian conversion reflected the friends’ underlying disagreement about the priority of religious studies to theology—or, more broadly put—about studying religion qua human phenomenon and qua God’s revelation to humanity.

Clifford B. Anderson is the curator of the Seminary Library’s Special Collections.

1.    See R. H. Bremmer, Herman Bavinck en Zijn Tijdgenoten (Kampen: Kok, 1936), Chapter II.
2.    C. Snouck Hurgronje, Het Mekkaansche Feest (Leiden, 1880).
3.    Herman Bavinck, De ethiek van Ulrich Zwingli (Kampen: Zalsman, 1880).
4.    C. Snouck Hurgronje, Mekka (Haag: M. Nijhoff, 1888). English translation on the second volume: C. Snouck Hurgronje, Mekka in the Latter Part of the 19th Century, tr. James Henry Monahan (Leiden: Brill, 1931).