A new bio of the churchman, Herman Bavinck...
A review of Ron Gleason's Herman Bavinck: Pastor, Churchman, Statesman, and Theologian.
The Reformed tradition has used a number of texts to teach theology to the next generation of ministers. Calvin, Ames, Turretin, Hodge, Dabney, Berkhof, Grudem and Reymond have all written systematic theologies students have studied and underlined and memorized.
Several of these were first written in Latin and later translated into other languages, including English. In the last decade, another set of volumes has been added to this illustrious list including the original four volumes of Herman Bavinck’s Reformed Dogmatics(published in 1895, 1897, 1898, & 1901, respectively) recently released from their imprisonment in Dutch and made more widely available in English translation.
The Dutch Reformed have exercised an influence in American Christianity out of all proportion to their size, mainly by their books and publishing houses: Zondervan, Baker and Eerdmans were all Dutch Reformed at their beginnings. This influence promises to continue with the publication of the set by Bavinck.
Now, we also have a biography in English to help us understand Bavinck and his context. Ron Gleason, a PCA pastor in California, learned Dutch from Roger Nicole while he was a student at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary... (Interestingly, Nicole, originally from French-speaking Switzerland, learned Dutch so that he could read Bavinck.) After Gordon-Conwell, Gleason went to the Netherlands and studied Bavinck. This biography published by P&R is a part of the fruit of that work.
The subtitle is the key to understanding this volume. You won’t find out a lot about Bavinck the husband or father. Nor is it really an intellectual biography, giving a detailed exposition of Bavinck’s theology. My guess is that Gleason knows Bavinck’s doctrine, but that knowledge is not on full display here. This book is really an ecclesiastical biography telling the story of the Reformed Church in the Netherlands with Bavinck as the focal point. Gleason is a churchman, active in the ecclesiastical affairs of the PCA, and he writes about Bavinck, the churchman; and, to a lesser extent, Bavinck the statesman.
The outline of Bavinck’s life is rather simple. He was born in 1854 into a pastor’s home. His father was a minister in the CRC, a small breakaway denomination from the Reformed Church in the Netherlands. Herman had a studious bent and eventually studied for a doctorate at the school of the (liberal) Reformed Church. He served as a pastor for one year and then was called to teach in the small CRC school for training ministers in the tiny town of Kampen (in 1883). He taught at Kampen for twenty years and then became professor at the Free (=Reformed) University in the cosmopolitan city of Amsterdam where he served until his death in 1921.
Gleason highlights several aspects of Bavinck’s life. First, he tarries on the character and career of his father, Jan Bavinck. Second, he tells us about the intricacies of a church union that proved very difficult. And finally, there was Bavinck’s relationship with his close friend, Abraham Kuyper, pastor, educator, author, journalist and politician.
Much of the book is taken up with that “difficult church union.” A group of conservatives in the mainline Reformed Church were called the Doleantie. This was Kuyper’s group and they eventually joined with the CRC in 1892. Both the CRC and the Doleantie were filled with strong personalities and a union of two groups led by stubborn men is difficult. They argued over minutia. Coalitions were made and broken in back rooms. Every compromise was carefully noted. Peacemakers (of which Bavinck was one) were scorned. If you still have doubts about the Dutch reputation for stubbornness, this book will put them to rest.
The two groups, the Doleantie and the CRC, each had ministerial training colleges. When the two groups united, it was expected that there would be some kind of union between these two schools, but this proved very difficult and there was no union in Bavinck’s lifetime. Gleason gives us a blow-by-blow account of this battle. One is tempted to say that it is too detailed, and while most readers may find it so, I found it fascinating.
Kuyper comes off as rather imperious, like a general who is used to being obeyed. He sent down orders to his lieutenants who were expected not to raise objections or tweak things, but to obey. Bavinck was a loyal lieutenant, though his relationship with Kuyper became very strained toward the end of Kuyper’s life, even if it did not break.
What do we learn about Bavinck from this work? Just look at a picture of the man and you can tell that he was serious. He also had an extraordinary capacity for work, a factor that may well have weakened his heart and led to his relatively early death. He was beloved by his students and the common folk of the churches. Though he only worked as a pastor for one year of his life, he was constantly preaching in the pulpits around the country. A loyal friend, occasionally indecisive, Bavinck gave himself for the church and, to a lesser extent, for the nation. (He served for a short time as a senator and the head of the Anti-Revolutionary political party.) He diligently taught theology to many students and tried to ground them and the wider church in a Reformed worldview.
Our thanks should go out to men like Herman Bavinck, and also to Ron Gleason for this fine work.