Herman Bavinck: Pastor, Churchman, Statesman, and Theologian
Ron Gleason. With an introduction by Roger Nicole.
Phillipsburgh, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing, 2010. Pp. xvi + 511. $29.99.
We are greatly indebted to the Rev. Dr. Ron Gleason, pastor of a Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) congregation in the bucolic setting of Yorba Linda, California, for surprising us with this book at this strategic time. For now that the four imposing volumes of Bavinck’s Reformed Dogmatics are available in English, who does not want to know more about the man behind the work and the context in which it was written?
Ron Gleason would seem to be well qualified to write this book. After receiving his M.Div. degree at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, he went to the Netherlands and between 1975 and 1981 studied under Jan Veenhof in Amsterdam and Herman Ridderbos in Kampen. In 2001 he was awarded a Ph.D. at Westminster Theological Seminary after submitting a dissertation entitled The Centrality of the Unio Mystica in the Theology of Herman Bavinck.
Gleason’s biography is a robust soft-cover volume with a well-placed portrait of Bavinck on the cover. It comes with a handy Index of Names and Subjects (501–11) and contains no less than six extensive Appendixes (431–99), three of which are valuable synopses (in English) of keynote addresses by Bavinck published (in Dutch) during his lifetime.
The work is based on a variety of sources. Among the primary sources used are Bavinck’s Stone Lectures, several of his smaller publications, and articles in the church weekly De Bazuin. Use is made of the Acts of the synods during these years. In addition, an autobiography by Rev. Jan Bavinck, the father, provided information on Herman’s formative years growing up in a devout home appreciative of learning and culture in a Christian spirit. An interview with a granddaughter of Lucas Lindeboom proved useful for a better understanding of that forceful personality and powerful opponent of Bavinck on more than one occasion. Finally, there are Bavinck’s recently discovered lecture notes for his course in ethics. (One only wishes that another appendix had summarized the basic thrust of those lectures.)
For a life of Bavinck, the main secondary sources available are the existing Dutch-language biographies. There are five: the 80-page In Memoriam by Bavinck’s one-time pupil J. H. Landwehr (1921) and the biographies by his successor V. Hepp (1921), by A. B. W. Kok (1945), J. Geelhoed (1958) and R. H. Bremmer (1966). Gleason does not use Kok or Geelhoed, quotes Landwehr six times, relies quite frequently on Hepp, and follows Bremmer chapter by chapter, almost page by page.
Gleason includes numerous illustrative citations from correspondence held in archives; these, however, appear to be directly quoted from Bremmer. Almost as numerous are a host of very helpful thumbnail sketches of secondary figures, gleaned from the Christelijke Encyclopedie (2nd ed.) and placed in footnotes.
Composing a work in this manner involves constantly transposing into English an enormous amount of prose that one is reading in Dutch. Gleason is generally felicitous in his choice of translations, but before getting to the content of the book I should point out some puzzling choices. For example, “a convent-like mentality” is not the equivalent of conventikelgeest (120); in context, the word denotes the “sectarian mindset” prevalent among the initiated members of a conventicle, i.e., of a small group of disgruntled parishioners meeting privately for mutual edification. The word“union” is not always the right word for vereniging (157); the Free University, for example, was owned and operated, not by a “union,” but by an “association.” Some other slip-ups may have been almost inevitable: tenure instead of tenor for teneur or strekking (222), Christendom instead of Christianity for christendom (350), field preacher instead of padre for veldprediker (381), and grace instead of pardon for (judicial) gratie. Dutchmen may “climb in the pen” (passim) but Americans just take it up. I do not wish to be a purist, but I protest that Bavinck is made to appear guilty of resorting to an “underhanded method” (297) when all he did was convey a confidential communication (onderhandse mededeling).
Gleason’s book is both edifying and entertaining. The noble figure of Herman Bavinck (1854–1921) rises before us as a consummate theologian, a leading statesman in the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands, and an enthusiastic champion of a culture-engaging Neo-Calvinism, justly renowned in the Reformed world internationally, yet at the same time a discreet and humble man leading a life of self-sacrificial service to his church, his academic institution, and his country. To describe all this in detail, Gleason organizes the story of Bavinck’s life in chronological order. He patiently traces three phases in Bavinck’s career: a brief but fruitful pastoral charge of two years in the Frisian town of Franeker, followed by 20 years of teaching in the Theological Seminary in Kampen (the phase that culminated in the publication of the four-volume Gereformeerde Dogmatiek), and the final phase of another two decades spent in the chair for systematic theology in the Theological Faculty of the Free University (VU) in Amsterdam. This last phase was marked by an almost abrupt switch around 1911, away from the pursuit of theology in the strict sense (other than giving his lectures) to a concentrated effort at outlining principles for philosophy, pedagogy and psychology in a number of what were then pioneering studies, both academic and popular.
In my opinion, Gleason underemphasizes the significance of the 1911 switch. True, Bavinck’s new focus in Amsterdam was not a break with theology as such. Yet it offers clear evidence of his burning zeal to branch out and take Reformed principles (which are nourished by theology but which embrace far more) and apply them in the very midst of the cultural battle zones of his day. He realized that the rock on which Christ built his church was not theology, but “hearing, confessing, and doing” (see Matt. 7:24; 16:18). To my mind, Gleason would have done greater justice to this phase in Bavinck’s life if he had included more details about these non-theological writings which clearly show him to have been a leading thinker and writer in the Neo-Calvinist movement of his time—to some extent, and in his own way, the equal of Abraham Kuyper. The descriptions of this aspect are too brief and lack substance (229, 253, 276).
A frustrating episode in Bavinck’s life fell in the period between 1892 and 1902. The year 1892 saw the the unification of the churches from the Afscheiding of 1834 and those of the Doleantie of 1886—a unification that was achieved, Gleason makes clear, thanks in no small part to Bavinck’s exertions. The year 1902 saw Bavinck’s move from Kampen to Amsterdam—a change of workplace he had considered and declined on four previous occasions. In the intervening ten years Bavinck campaigned for what should have been the finishing touch to the church merger: creating a single training school for future pastors through a merger of the Kampen seminary with the theological faculty of the Free University. Both institutions trained ministers for the unified denomination. Bavinck’s intent was to eliminate expensive duplication and to raise the scholarly level of the seminary inherited from the Afscheiding churches by taking it out of its relative isolation in the eastern province and bringing it in touch with modern life and academia in the heart of the country. Gleason traces the intricate and crisis-ridden campaign through its various phases with patient and painstaking accuracy (153-68, 187-201, 239-91). Several different configurations for a unified seminary were tried, but each time Bavinck failed to gain sufficient support. The whole episode suffered from a bitter power struggle: mutual suspicion; public innuendos; unrestrained agitation by both sides in local and regional church papers; and similar all-too-familiar sins that tend to mark dissension in ecclesia. Bavinck campaigned at synods, in committees and by private correspondence, but the difficult, protracted and at times acerbic negotiations were a trial for his irenic soul. A hot issue was: Who would control the unified seminary? In his final compromise draft Bavinck proposed that the new theology department function as an integral part of the Free University but that the appointment of professors for the department be the prerogative of the churches. He felt strongly that the latter could not be left to a private association such as operated the Free University. Predictably, “Amsterdam”—its professors, supporters and the association—refused to accede to such an arrangement because, after all, the Free University was founded “free of state and church.” At the same time, the supporters of “Kampen” could not abide the thought that “our beloved school” would be absorbed into a university over which the church had no control, and so they accused their own Professor Bavinck of conceding far too much and selling out to the competition.
It would have been helpful if Gleason had quoted Bavinck’s deepest motive during this protracted struggle. It is right there on page 124 of Bremmer’s biography: “At stake is keeping theology pure and keeping the churches on the path of truth.” Without explicitly mentioning this motive, Gleason’s account creates the impression that Kuyper, Rutgers and others, in their exchanges with Bavinck, were tilting at windmills (no pun intended, as Gleason would say).
For all that, I applaud Gleason for not being afraid from time to time to draw lessons from the history he recounts—for example, that churches and church leaders should avoid party spirit and not draw caricatures of their opponents’ position. Obvious enough, but still worth saying. Throughout these years, Bavinck for the most part emerges as an exemplary churchman: fair, patient and conciliatory, courteous but persistent. Gleason’s account at times borders on hagiography. Still, he does not hesitate to record how even Bavinck could run out of patience and pass harsh judgments. His vacillation and indecision was another character flaw and could exasperate colleagues and critics alike. Gleason also deplores the fact that Bavinck, though teaching and publishing balanced views concerning election and covenant, nevertheless did not put up more vigorous resistance to Kuyper’s doctrine of presumptive regeneration in reports he helped draft for the church assemblies (194, 339–42).
Bavinck’s disappointment at failing to achieve a unified centre for Reformed theological study ran deep. Bremmer indicates that Bavinck saw it as weakening the strength of the revived Calvinism of his day. Unity on this score would have made for a stronger basis of operation for addressing the issue of Scripture in the face of Higher Criticism and for developing alternatives to the many secular movements gaining ground in society.
Toward the end of his life, Bavinck called for revisiting the doctrine of Scripture as traditionally applied in the Reformed Churches. Gleason, following Hepp and Bremmer, denies that he was capitulating at last to modernist elements in the biblical criticism to which he had been exposed as a student at Leiden. Rather, Bavinck felt that the churches needed to apply its view of Scripture in a more nuanced way. He may have feared a slide from an infallibility standpoint to one of inerrancy. Would he have approved of the defrocking of Rev. Netelenbos over his view of Scripture? Hepp (338) claims he did and that he said so explicitly to fellow delegates to the synod that had to deal with the case. (Bavinck wrote the pre-advice but was unable to attend any further sessions due to failing health.) Bremmer reports (266) that in his pre-advice Bavinck had urged the improvement and expansion of the confessions with respect to the inspiration and authority of Scripture. Gleason stops his account with Bavinck’s death in 1921, but in this connection one cannot help but speculate what Bavinck’s position might have been in 1926, when Rev. Geelkerken was deposed over a similar issue. Interestingly, at that time Bavinck’s widow, together with his daughter and son-in-law, joined the seceding Geelkerken churches.
For all my appreciation of Gleason’s effort, I must put my finger on some misstatements. The author studied for some years in Kampen and writes about Bavinck growing up and laboring for twenty years in “the bucolic setting” of Kampen. This description may refer to the outskirts of the provincial town, but the late-medieval Hanseatic city with its red-brick buildings, its white-washed city gates and its Gothic basilica can hardly be described as “a small, rural village” (136, 224, 307, 399 et passim). The initial description on page 29 is more to the point. And in case readers wonder, marriages in Holland are performed by a Justice of the Peace (39, 416) only when bride and/or groom are minors and lack parental approval; normally, marriages are performed by the local mayor or his deputy.
I admit that there are times when one does not know whether to take the author seriously. Surely it was not global warming (435) but rather unsanitary conditions in town and country that caused a lack of clean drinking water around 1830. But wait, a similar indictment in a note on page 139—blaming global warming for what has become known in Dutch history as “de barre winter van negentig” (the severe winter of ‘90)—persuades me that the author has planted his tongue firmly in his cheek. Rather odd, for a serious biography.
For the record, readers should be aware of a few instances where the text states the opposite of what was actually the case. For example, Hovy was not president of the VU association “from 1895 on” (176) but until 1895, the year he resigned in protest over the dismissal of Professor Lohman, in which Bavinck was complicit with Kuyper in flouting proper procedure. Keuchenius was not Lohman’s nemesis (217) but rather the other way around. Were Doleantie preachers “experiential” and Afscheiding preachers “less subjective” (261)? If anything, the opposite was the case. Did Bavinck “dismantle” the defence published by a certain Mr. Huisman of some of Kuyper’s theological ideosyncracies (264)? That could hardly be, since Huisman actually critiqued Kuyper, and Bavinck largely agreed with Huisman. Was Bavinck’s colleague Professor Lindeboom the eternal waffler in Bavinck’s eyes, and was Bavinck impossible to work with in Lindeboom’s eyes (296)? No; the relationship was exactly the reverse. And finally, to name no more, it was not Bavinck but Kuyper who became “president of the Council of Ministers” (374); that was the old title for the rotating chairman of the Cabinet, which Kuyper proceeded to have renamed “minister-president” or prime minister. Most of these reversals of meaning are due to misconstruing passages in Bremmer.
In the end, however, these are little more than momentary lapses. They do not affect the overall thrust and sweep of Gleason’s sympathetic account of Bavinck’s life. As mentioned, I was edified and entertained by this important book. I hope it will soon need a reprint, so that with the removal of these lapses it can become an editio castigata.
Harry Van Dyke
Originally published in Calvin Theological Journal 46.1 (April 2011): 192–197.
Republished here by permission of the author.