The Riddle of Life, by Johan H. Bavinck. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2016. 102 pages. $21.50, softcover.

[Reviewed by Dr. Marco Barone]

This book was written by Johan Herman Bavinck (1895—1964), whose uncle was Herman Bavinck. The book can be described as a general introduction to the Christian worldview. It is neither an exegetical work nor a theological monograph. The book is rather a discussion of vital philosophical questions answered from a Christian perspective. In eighteen short chapters, Bavinck seeks briefly but pointedly to discuss metaphysics (the nature of reality), epistemology (the nature of knowledge), ethics (the nature of the good and evil), aesthetics (the nature of beauty), and even a little bit of logic (the structure of right reasoning) from a Christian point of view.

Bavinck invites the reader to marvel and awaken himself to wonder at the following: That we and anything else at all exist (chapter 1); that knowledge is achievable (chapter 2); that knowing the world outside of ourselves is possible (chapter 3); that creation is undeniably harmonically ordered (chapter 4); that all men (even unbelievers) nourish in their heart a sense that there is something else beyond this life (chapter 5); that all men long for unity (chapter 6) and meaning (chapter 7); that God works through the evil in the world (chapter 8); how easily and tragically money (chapter 9), honor (chapter 10), and earthly pleasure (chapter 11) deceive us with false promises; the tragedy of sin and humanity’s dreadful blindness to it (chapter 12); humanity’s misplaced cries for deliverance and the saints’ godly cry to God and their eternal benefits of referring all things to God (chapter 13); the uniqueness of Jesus Christ (chapter 14), the man-God (chapter 15); faith in Him as the only escape from life’s miseries (chapter 16); the world’s illusory view of “progress” over against the hope of the gospel (chapter 17); death as the gate that leads the believer to the ineffable glory of belonging eternally to Jesus Christ (chapter 18).

These are all things that we often take for granted or hardly notice, but that in fact should leave us either in joyful awe or in trembling astonishment! The following is an example of the author’s point from chapter 15:

Jesus is capable of reducing a person to nothing, till her soul is shattered, but he also can grab this same person, while crying for help, and embrace her with his unimaginable love…. We can spend much time thinking about God, make all sorts of images and ideas regarding him, but when we find ourselves in the tightest spot ever, or when we start to discover what life really is all about, then it suddenly dawns on us: now I know how I must visualize God because he comes to us as Jesus. In the moments when life presents itself in its truest form, we need only look to the true God, the one we can see with our own eyes, the one whom we know when we look straight at Jesus (75).

The book is an exercise in godly philosophy, where “philosophy” is treated as the first Christian apologists intended it: a biblically grounded doctrine that leads to pious practice. This little volume contains very insightful remarks about ethical issues such as pride and humility, the abuse of technology and science, service and self-centeredness, childlike faith over against complaint, the purposely ordered life according to God’s law over against the desire of autonomy. These are all very relevant issues today, where proper order and decency are questioned, not only in society, but also in some sections of the church-world.

The following is an example from chapter 10, where Bavinck contrasts the self-seeking and proud individual to the selfless and service-centered man.

There are at times also those who make wild accusations without any basis whatsoever, thereby deeply hurting people’s feelings and causing all sorts of commotion, which only earns them the label of fools and good-fornothing. When this backfires on them, such people often blame the world at large because they fail to recognize that those who harm someone’s good name are well on the way of trampling on their own happiness (47-48).

It is a book that, like all other books, needs to be read with discernment. For example, carefulness needs to be exercised with regard to the unclear references to the theory of evolution, and where Bavinck wrongly ascribes the title of “God’s children” to all humanity in general (chap. 6). That said, Bavinck leads the reader’s mind into a brief intellectual journey to a deep and heart-searching understanding of both the misery of fallen humanity and of the amazing redemptive work of God in Jesus Christ. This volume will help the university or seminary student and the thoughtful reader perceive the reasonableness and the beauty of all things, continually seeing them by faith in the light of the truth of the triune God through Jesus.