Review of Herman Bavinck by Ron Gleason

Herman Bavinck, Pastor, Churchman, Statesman, and Theologian, by Ron Gleason, Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2010, 511 pp.

This is one of the more interesting and informative biographies out of the couple dozen or so that I’ve read on various church figures.

Herman Bavinck had a central place in the Dutch Reformed churches in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The son of Jan Bavinck, a pastor in the secession (or Afscheiding) movement, he was connected with the most orthodox of Calvinists. Yet, as is seen time and again Bavinck moves in more than just that circle. First he decides to study at Leiden rather than the secession’s Theological Seminary in Kampen. Later he expends tremendous labors working towards the better unification of the Afscheiding (A-brothers) and Kuyper’s Doleantie (B-brothers). He has a challenged relationship with the strictest of his Kampen colleagues (Lindeboom especially) and an up-then-down relationship with Abraham Kuyper. Bavinck is Reformed but can’t be pegged down to fitting entirely in a single camp.

Gleason paints Bavinck’s contemporary Kuyper in a rather negative light. Mostly this is to do with Kuyper’s personality (referred to as “impetuous” on page 129), but extends also to his doctrine (see: the “flaws in Kuyper’s theology” on page 194, and who ventured “off into theological speculation from time to time” on page 262). While one might find some disagreement here with Gleason, it is refreshing to see such an honest appraisal of a figure (Kuyper) that is usually so praised in Reformed circles. A lot more, it seems to me, can be learned by reading critiques of a theologian than by reading praiseworthy accounts.

The subtitle of the book, “Pastor, Churchman, Statesman, and Theologian” is accurate indeed, but given that Bavinck was a pastor for just a brief period of less than two years, I wouldn’t chose “pastor” as the first descriptor of the man. Gleason in fact notes, “Bavinck was not a pastor for as long as would be optimal for someone teaching theology.” This is an all too frequent occurrence in the church. Cornelius Van Til, for example, also just had a single brief pastorate before his career at Westminster Theological Seminary.

The latter chapters of the book address, among other subjects, the Dutch politics of the first two decades of the 20th century and Bavinck’s involvement therein as an elected official and party leader. Here we see the increasing tensions between Bavinck and Kuyper. Gleason also addresses the question of whether Bavinck remained true to the Reformed faith or compromised in later life. His answer to whether Bavinck shifted theologically is a nuanced “yes and no.” Bavinck had a “shift in his focus” (p. 402) but did not “move away from solid Reformed views.” (p. 403)

While a number of Bavinck’s theological positions come to light in the biography, I continued to anticipate further development on that topic later in the book, only to be disappointed. Specifically, I think the volume could be improved with a chapter on Bavinck’s magnum opus, the Reformed Dogmatics. I guess I’ll have to go read RD myself and find out what all the hoopla is about. As Rev. Gleason recently wrote to me on this very point, “Tolle Lege.”

Finally, I recommend also this more thorough review by Russell J. Dykstra starting on page 133 of the November 2012 Protestant Reformed Theological Journal: