Cornelis P. Venema
Recent decades have witnessed a resurgence of interest in what is known as “neo-Calvinism.” A considerable number of the writings of the two preeminent advocates of the neo-Calvinist movement in the Netherlands in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, Abraham Kuyper and Herman Bavinck, are now available for the first time in English translation. These include the Acton Institute’s publication of a number of Kuyper’s writings on the topic of public theology. They also include the publication of Bavinck’s four-volume Reformed Dogmatics, a new edition of The Wonderful Works of God, and his heretofore unpublished writings on Ethics.
Although most of the interest in neo-Calvinism has focused upon its social, political, and cultural dimensions—what Kuyper and Bavinck termed the “world-and-life view” of Calvinism—Cory C. Brock and N. Gray Sutanto’s new book, Neo-Calvinism: A Theological Introduction (Lexham Academic, 2022) fills an important gap in the literature. Their aim is to set forth comprehensively the theology of Kuyper and Bavinck, recognizing that this theology provided the foundation for their articulation of a comprehensive Christian worldview. As one of my colleagues has often lamented: “too many contemporary advocates of Kuyper and Bavinck’s worldview neglect to consider how it was deeply rooted in their biblical and Reformed confessional theology.” The great strength of Brock and Sutanto’s book is their focus upon the theology of Kuyper and Bavinck that undergirded the neo-Calvinist revival in the Netherlands at the end of the nineteenth century. Though Brock and Sutanto maintain that their book is descriptive and not prescriptive, they acknowledge that they are “broadly sympathetic with many of the claims of Kuyper and Bavinck . . . even while [they] may agree or disagree with some of their theological judgments” (7). In their estimation,
the theologies of Kuyper and Bavinck not only contain promising possibilities for contemporary dogmatics, but are also a significant but sometimes silent influence behind many theological trajectories today: the theological interpretation of Scripture, redemptive-historical hermeneutics, theological retrieval, Christian missiology, apologetics, and eschatology. (2)
The authors arrange their study by identifying the key topics (loci) of Reformed theology that reflect the most significant and distinctive features of neo-Calvinism. Before treating these topics, three chapters are devoted to several characteristics of neo-Calvinism that distinguish it from a mere repetition of the theology of Reformed orthodoxy in the period after the Reformation. According to Brock and Sutanto, Kuyper and Bavinck were motivated by a desire to express the broad themes of Reformed theology in a way that was both “catholic” in its breadth and at the same time “engaged” with challenges posed by developments in modern philosophy and culture.
The topics that Brock and Sutanto identify as of particular importance to neo-Calvinism are revelation and reason (chapter 4), Scripture and organism (chapter 5), creation and re-creation (chapter 6), image and fall (chapter 7), common grace and the gospel (chapter 8), and the church and the world (chapter 9). While I will not represent their summary of all these topics, I will note what they observe about several of them.
On the topic of revelation and reason, Brock and Sutanto acknowledge that Kuyper and Bavinck embraced the traditional distinction between general and special revelation. In their understanding of general revelation, both Kuyper and Bavinck distinguished between an original and immediate awareness of God given through general revelation and a secondary rational reflection upon this revelation. Through the influence of modern romanticism, Kuyper and Bavinck accented “an affective and implanted knowledge of God quite independently of the exercise of creaturely reason” (96). Though Kuyper and Bavinck affirmed a robust doctrine of general revelation, neither of them believed that a natural theology, based simply upon general revelation and articulated through “natural-theological proofs for God’s existence,” was possible apart from the more fulsome light of special revelation in Scripture (94). Though Brock and Sutanto do not associate neo-Calvinism with the apologetics of Cornelius Van Til, it is evident that Van Til’s view of natural theology reflects some of the tenets of neo-Calvinism.
One of the areas where Kuyper and Bavinck have played an important role in modern Reformed theology is the doctrine of Scripture. The authors title their chapter on this topic “Scripture and Organism” to reflect Kuyper and Bavinck’s emphasis upon the “organic” nature of Scripture’s inspiration. This language has become a commonplace in modern evangelical and Reformed discussions of the inspiration of Scripture due to Kuyper and Bavinck’s influence. An “organic” view of inspiration emphasizes the way the Spirit sovereignly enlists the human authors of Scripture, superintending their writing in such a way that the written Word is truly God’s Word and at the same time fully the word of the particular author. By means of their doctrine of organic Scripture, Kuyper and Bavinck sought to meet the challenge of modern biblical criticism without abandoning the historic Christian doctrine of the inspiration, authority, and infallibility of Scripture.
The most important chapters of Brock and Sutanto’s book address three of the main tenets of neo-Calvinism. One of the central claims of Kuyper and Bavinck is that God’s work of redemption in Christ does not “supplement” his work of creation but “renews” and “re-creates” the world to the extent that it lies under the curse and is broken through the fall. God’s grace in Christ perfects nature. As Bavinck expresses it, “recreation . . . [is] a joyful tiding of the renewal of all creatures” (33). The doctrine of common grace, especially as it was formulated and developed by Kuyper, emphasizes the general favor of God that sustains the creation order in spite of sin. God’s common or preserving grace provides a context within which his work of redemption is able to be accomplished and the cultural mandate carried out. Brock and Sutanto note that these tenets cohere with Kuyper and Bavinck’s distinction between the church as an “institution,” whose special calling is to minister the Word of the gospel, and the church as an “organism,” the body of Christ whose members are engaged in serving Christ in every appropriate calling in the world.
Though this stimulating study of the theological underpinnings of neo-Calvinism is not likely to be the last word on the subject, it is undoubtedly the best single-volume treatment now available. Admittedly, the book is not written for a general audience or the casual reader. However, for attentive students of Reformed theology, whether sympathetic to or suspicious of neo-Calvinism, this book is a must read.
The author is professor of doctrinal studies at and president of Mid-America Reformed Seminary.
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