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Book Review: Herman Bavinck by Gleason
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Book Review: Herman Bavinck by Gleason

Ron Gleason, Herman Bavinck: Pastor, Churchman, Statesman, and Theologian (Phillipsburg: P & R, 2010). $29.99. Paper.

Herman Bavinck: Pastor, Churchman, Statesman, and Theologian is a very detailed and multifaceted biography.

What I knew of Herman Bavinck prior to reading this volume came solely from his Reformed Dogmatics. Gleason’s work encompasses all aspects of Bavinck, as indicated in the subtitle. As Gleason posits, it is a shame that this Dutchman is so overshadowed by Abraham Kuyper, who tended to be “more romantic and speculative” where Bavinck was “a man of precision and exact exegesis” (427-8). I suspect most people are like me: if they know something about one historical Dutch figure, it is Abraham Kuyper. Gleason remedies this shortcoming with his excellent book on Herman Bavinck.

Gleason sets the stage for the reader, beginning with Bavink’s grandfather, and ends with Bavinck’s death in 1921. The different phases of Bavinck’s life in academia, politics and church affairs are given in great detail. When I had finished reading this book I felt as though I had gained, in addition to the life story of Herman Bavinck, a thorough overview of the theological and ecclesiastical history of the Reformed church in the Netherlands. Included in great detail are the battles and conflicts in which Bavinck engaged in the academy and the Synod.

Despite the detailed analysis, the writing is engaging and holds the reader’s attention. It is clear from Gleason’s work that this research was massive and thorough. His unfolding of Bavinck’s story shows his in-depth mastery of the subject matter and synoptical thinking regarding all the various angles and aspects involved in the story.

Gleason begins his biography with Herman Bavinck’s grandparents and parents. This was of particular interest to me because it showed something of the family culture into which Bavinck was born. The introductory paragraphs describe Herman’s baptism. Gleason tells of the glorious mundane Christian life and his parents’ commitment and influence on their son from his birth. “The distinctively Christian life and worldview present in the Bavinck household deeply influenced young Herman’s thinking, behavior, relationships, and spiritual perspectives. His parents molded his character and carefully guided him” (2). There is something wonderful about this ordinary manner of discipleship and handing down of the faith.

Bavinck’s father, Jan, was raised solely by his mother after the early death of his father. While his mother was devout and dedicated her life to her children (4), Jan said his early training “did not introduce him to the necessary spiritual exercises that belong to the inner life of the Christian and the experience of faith that is discovered by those who are truly children of God” (5). Jan had several men in his life who became spiritual mentors of sorts to Herman. One was an uncle who returned to the Lord after walking away for a time, and the other a “dynamic” preacher. From them Jan learned the spiritual, experiential side of the Christian life. These are some of the factors that surely contributed to Jan being a well respected and loved pastor.

In chapter two Gleason’s syntopical thinking shows where he interacts with an earlier biographer, Valentine Hepp, regarding Bavinck’s choice of clothing at Leiden. Hepp makes much of Bavinck’s garb while Gleason attributes the choice to the culture in which he found himself (bucolic vs cosmopolitan) (37).

Bavinck’s decision to go to the liberal Leiden rather than the school in Kampen was not a popular one (40-1). His decision was based on his desire to learn firsthand and fight against the liberals there. This is a tendency that occurs at other times in history (i.e. Machen). He wanted to know them well and represent them accurately. Bavinck emerged from his studies with his Reformed faith unscathed (55). He had clearly learned from his father a vibrant and lively faith and he clearly loved his church. Gleason ends chapter three (and elsewhere in this book) with some very pertinent questions that any MDiv student would do well to ask of himself: “How would this young brilliant theologian function as a pastor? Would he prove to be merely an academic or would he also possess a pastor’s heart? Would he be the type of pastor that stayed locked away in his study or would he be accessible to his congregation, and would he shepherd them according to Scripture?” (68).

Gleason opens chapter four with similarly insightful word, “After completing his studies…the time came…to take his very high level of academic achievement and accomplishment and to translate it into spiritual edification for God’s people” (69). Only in the pastorate for one year, Bavinck entered into his academic career and his life as a theologian and churchman. Chapters five through twelve detail Bavinck’s years at Kampen, his friendships and battles with Abraham Kuyper and others at Kampen and at the Synod. In chapters thirteen and fourteen Gleason tells the reader of Bavinck’s time at the Free University in Amsterdam. Gleason discusses Bavinck’s life as a politician in chapter fifteen. This section of the biography, chapters 5-15, is essential for anyone wanting an overview of the political and ecclesiastical situation and development of the time.

Chapter sixteen asks the question “Did Bavinck change theologically later in life?” Gleason says no (399). He adds (402) that Bavinck did shift in his interests from dogmatics to a wider range of topics. Bavinck wrote more on psychology and pedagogy than on dogmatics and philosophy (413). Bavinck at this stage was aging and burned out from the workload he kept for so long. He experienced the joy of marrying his daughter and baptizing his grandchild. Gleason ends with Bavinck’s last days. Bavinck is said to have repeated themes and phrases in his last days, the most common was, “I have kept the faith” (424).  Gleason comments that “the Lord’s ways are truly inscrutable. He raised up three theological giants for the edification of His church: B.B. Warfield, Abraham Kuyper, and Herman Bavinck, who all were taken from the church within an expanse of time of less than a year” (422).

Gleason’s love for the topic at hand is evident from his analysis of others’ work on Bavinck with his own, as well as the sheer volume of details and topics that he skillfully intertwines to tell the story of one this important Reformed man. Gleason includes several appendices which include some of his father’s work as well as Herman’s inaugural address and other essays. This book is not overly technical or theological. The little theology in it involves where Bavinck disagreed with Kuyper (Kuyper’s view of justification from eternity and resultant preemptive regeneration (baptismal regeneration), reordering the ordo (regeneration prior to calling contrary the traditional Reformed view)—all stemming from his supralapsarianism (190ff).

This was a wonderful read that I would recommend to anyone interested in the history of the Reformed Church, the Netherlands, or Herman Bavinck. Gleason is readable, intelligent and witty (139 fn 37 for example). The $29.99 cost of the book is quite reasonable for a book of 511 pages. While I liked the price, a really nice hardback would be worth the extra expense.

Review by Tony Garbarino