Theologians of the English-speaking world are aware of household names such as Abraham Kuyper and B.B. Warfield, two of the greatest Calvinist scholars of the last century. Both of these men died within 12 months of each other, yet there is a third man who joined Kuyper and Warfield at their time of death and their greatness. That man is Herman Bavinck. Up until just about a decade ago, Bavinck’s writings were left untranslated from the original language. Bavinck’s exposure to the Western world has been minimal. Hailing from Hoogeveen, Bavinck has a story that has long gone untold. But now, with the translation of his seminal Reformed Dogmatics into English, studies of Bavinck are growing more popular. And luckily for us, Ron Gleason has written the first full biography of Bavinck’s life, exposing us to the man behind the towering works left for the Church.
Biographies follow all sorts of styles. Some are incessantly dry, filled with objective information and anecdotes. Others are authorial musings upon the life of a man, giving us little historical insight and more of an interpretation of the man’s life. Gleason’s writing style is warm, engaging, and extremely thorough. As Derek W.H. Thomas captures well, “This is more than a biography; it is a theological and cultural analysis that aids us in grasping the significant contours of the past century.”
Here’s an example. Gleason at length talks about Bavinck’s journey in theological school, going from Kampen to Leiden. This decision may be glossed over by some archives, but Gleason unpacked just how significant such a decision was. Bavinck’s decision to leave Kampen for Leiden led to much controversy for both him and his family. Gleason also showed how this decision went on to benefit Bavinck incredibly, and shape him for his future work. After all, his Reformed Dogmatics would arguably be nothing at all what it is without Leiden’s influence. Also compelling is how Bavinck stayed so committed to conservative theology at such a liberal school.
What we have in this biography is a well-rounded, broad, but deep exploration into the life of Bavinck as a student, a preacher, a politician, and a thinker. There are many moments in which Gleason connects the dots from experiences Bavinck had to lessons we can learn. Biographies easily applied are valuable tools, indeed.
I am grateful to Ron Gleason for this magisterial work on one of my favorite theologians. I have always appreciated Bavinck from the moment I began to read his Reformed Dogmatics, and after reading this biography, I feel like I understand and appreciate the man he was more than I ever have before.