Ron Gleasonâ€™s new biography, Herman Bavinck: Pastor, Churchman, Statesman, Theologian (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publications, 512 pps., $29.99, paperback, available May 31, 2010) is a warm and inviting portrait of one Hollandâ€™s most influential Reformed theologians. Bavinckâ€™s theology is rigorous yet deeply concerned with the quality of the life of faith and Gleasonâ€™s book captures that Bavinckian vitality with great acumen. Gleasonâ€™s prose is highly accessible and enjoyable reading, which should satisfy the academic and the casual reader. Anyone who has struggled with the tensions between the sophistication of modern life and a strict Christian upbringing will highly prize this biography.
Gleason starts out with the pious background of the Bavinck family. The story centers predominantly on Hermanâ€™s father Jan and his pastoral vocation. Gleasonâ€™s sympathetic narrative reads like many classic evangelical biographies such as Iain Murray on Pink and Edwards or William Arnotâ€™s Life of the Rev. James Hamilton. Gleason occasionally glosses over some detail with high praise for the strong ideals and values of the Bavincks ministry and home life but the ample footnotes keep the reader on task. Yet Gleason does not go entirely overboard either, presenting the differences between the HK and CRC in a fair and accurate light. Gleasonâ€™s ability to remain objective throughout when presenting sensitive issues such as Bavinckâ€™s transition to Kampen, the Bavinck / Kuyper debate on presumptive regeneration and the fallout of the Groningen Synod (1899) is impressive.
Bavinck is all about balancing tensions and so is Gleason. One of the chapters that I felt personally closest to was Bavinckâ€™s first and only pastorate at Franeker (Chapter 4). Bavinck faced all the dilemmas awaiting a young pastor: the work load, congregation politics, and faithfulness to scripture in a dry, positivist climate. According to Gleason, Franeker had a string of pastors that did virtually nothing to benefit the spiritual wellbeing of the congregation yet Bavinck handled his situation with remarkable grace and humility, which I found surprising.. Gleasonâ€™s depiction of Bavinck as scholar and pastor is well rounded and multi-dimensional; presenting a man of high principles and a guy you could have coffee with.
â€œBavinck has been for me,â€ writes Gleason, â€œan inspiration and a challenge. His grasp of theology in all its dimensions, his thoroughness and fairness in dealing with those whom he did not agree … his architectural gift in perceiving doctrine in its correlation with the Christian view as a whole â€¦ are some of the excellencies that characterize his work throughout.â€ Gleason has certainly captured the character and career of this essential theologian in a rare non-stuffy, non-boring lucid biography. We highly recommend this book especially to young pastors and seminarians worried about the great divide between the academy and the church, evangelism and a gospel-centered family. Gleasonâ€™s book is available May 31, 2010 from P&R Publications. Pray for hardcover.