A Review of Gleason’s Bavinck Biography

Review by Dane Ortlund:

It is a real gift. Many of us have been exposed to Bavinck for the first time in any significant way this past decade, with the translation (an excellent one) of his Reformed Dogmatics into English. Rich, wise, Bible-saturated, philosophically aware, reverent, courageous–it makes one want to know more about this man who wrote the systematic theology Henri Blocher calls the best in the Reformed tradition since Calvin.

Ron Gleason has come through for us. Ron spent many years in Holland, giving him facility with Dutch and a front-row knowledge of Dutch culture and history. This included studying at the university where both Kuyper and Bavinck taught a century ago. He did a PhD at Westminster (East), finishing in 2001 and writing a dissertation on Bavinck, arguing that the notion of union with Christ is the centerpoint of Bavinck’s theology. Today Ron pastors here.

It is a good biography. I know neither the Dutch language nor the Dutch culture and history like Ron does, so any kind of review is a bit like me critiquing Lebron’s dunks when I can’t even touch the rim.

But some might be pondering whether they should invest the money and (more importantly) the time into reading this biography, so perhaps a few thoughts would be useful.

1. I find that Christian biography of people who have made an unusual difference in the world is almost invariably encouraging. Yes, it can be paralyzing or threatening, I suppose, to read about the giants of the faith, but far more pervasive in reading Christian biography is the encouragement of seeing, in specific historical circumstances, how God used a frail man or woman to accomplish great things. This biography was no exception.

2. There’s hardly a better man to write the book–someone who did a PhD on Bavinck, who is serving in the local church and thus immersed in the realities of life in a fallen world, who has a deep conviction about the Lord’s providence in all things (this came through often in the book), and, most of all, who knows Herman Bavinck the way you know your own signature.

3. Ron does an outstanding job tracing Bavinck’s career as a churchman and politician (American readers should understand how intertwined the two often were in nineteenth century Holland). Bavinck’s involvement in seeking to unify the two Reformed separatist movements is an interesting story, well told. Perhaps the greatest strength of the book is fleshing out the ecclesial world in which Bavinck was immersed throughout his life.

4. Readers wanting to learn about Bavinck’s personal life and theology will need to look elsewhere. No biography can do everything, and we are much the richer for having this account of ecclesial, academic, and political events surrounding Bavinck’s life. Yet one wishes the book had painted a bit more of a portrait of the man himself, his family (the brief comments on his daughter and wife on pp. 416-17, 426, respectively, cry out for elaboration), and his theology (one finds occasional forays into Bavinck’s interaction with Kuyper’s supralapsarianism and the related notion of eternal justification, but not much more). Yet for what I learned of Bavinck’s life in other ways, I am enriched and grateful. And it could be that there simply is not much to be found, historiographically, on his personal and family life.

5. The book errs a bit on the side of hagiography. Ron speaks extensively and repeatedly on the errors of Kuyper and some of the other men with whom Bavinck worked, but Bavinck seems to receive special treatment. Perhaps he truly was in a category of his own when it comes to personal integrity and relational wisdom and the exercise of love. I think to some extent this is likely true. Yet more needs to be candidly said of Bavinck’s weaknesses. Yes, Ron does affirm that Bavinck had ‘feet of clay’ (pp. 125, 223), and there is an extended section on Bavinck’s error in going ahead too fast with his 1899 proposal to unite the churches. But the former is not explained, and the latter receives mere puzzlement from the author.

6. Regarding style, the book moves along fairly well, footnotes are kept to a minimum, Dutch words and phrases are used judiciously, and the book (mercifully) is not written to impress but to illumine. Yet there are some annoying stylistic idiosyncrasies (such as a penchant for using ‘vis-a-vis’ to a distracting degree), is frequently overdramatic in a way that feels forced, and is stilted and at times confusing in terms of flow (e.g., ch. 7 is entitled ‘A Tear in a Laugh’ yet this phrase is not explained until ch. 14). Overall, the book is not elegantly written (as, e.g., Fred Zaspel’s recent theology of Warfield is), and one wishes an editor had improved the style and ensured that the content flowed well.

Summary: While there are weaknesses in content and tone, the overriding feeling in closing the book is one of immense gratitude for this work. This was a significant labor and we in the English-speaking world are greatly enriched by our brother Ron Gleason’s fruitful labors. I hope this is not the last that Gleason teaches us about this theologian he knows so well.

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