Review: Calvinism for a Secular Age

Calvinism for a Secular Age, Jessica R. Joustra and Robert J. Joustra, eds. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2022.

Summary: A collection of contributions considering Abraham Kuyper’s Stone Lectures of 1898 at Princeton and both their flaws and relevance for our contemporary context.

In 1898, Reformed theologian, public scholar and politician Abraham Kuyper was asked to give the Stone Lectures at Princeton Seminary, the beginning of an American tour. In six lectures, Kuyper set forth a summary of his formulation of Reformed thought, often referred to as neo-Calvinism, with the hope of breathing fresh life into Reformed thinking in American circles. In the process, he asserted the sovereignty of God in every sphere of life, introducing the concept of “sphere sovereignty” into the Reformed lexicon.

Most lecture series of this sort survive only in library or online archives. This is one of the great exceptions. Since 1931, Lectures on Calvinism has been continuously published by Eerdmans. It represents the most accessible English summary of Kuyper’s thought, indeed until recently, one of the only readily available works of Kuyper available in English. It has inspired Christian thinking about the relevance of Christian faith in every aspect of life, including science, the arts, and political life. And it has been the source of angst in an age affirming racial equality for its deprecatory remarks about racial groups other than white Europeans, and sadly used to support apartheid and other racist practices.

This volume is an effort of a number of Kuyper scholars to assess the relevance of Kuyper in our present time, engaging both the positive contributions and criticisms of his work. The contributions are organized around the six lectures plus two essays on Kuyper and race, and the translation work involved in the English text of the lectures. Each of the lecture essays are organized around what Kuyper said, what Kuyperians did, and what we should do. After the introduction by Robert J. Joustra, covering some of the material above, the essays in this book include:

Kuyper and Life-Systems, Richard J. Mouw. Mouw discusses Kuyper’s presentation of Calvinism as a “life system” centering on how we relate to God, to our fellow humans, and the larger world in which we find ourselves. He discusses the ways the Reformed community appropriated these ideas in academic institutions. He also addresses the idea of “worldview” and advocates active “worldviewing” rather than the static notion of having a worldview.

Kuyper and Religion, James Eglinton. The essay is organized around four questions Kuyper addressed in his second lecture: 1) Who is religion about? 2) Must all people be religious? 3) Is religion only about matters of the heart, or morals? 4) Can religion be a positive force for good in the world? He notes the distinctive answers Calvinism offers for these questions, the challenge of Calvinists to move beyond separatism and division, and the sadly irreligious character of most contemporary evangelicals.

Kuyper and Politics, Jonathan Chaplin. Kuyper’s ideas of constitutional pluralism are discussed and introduces Kuyper’s ideas of sphere sovereignty, differentiating state, society, and the church. This idea argues for generally protecting each of the spheres from intrusion by the other while recognizing the sovereignty of God and the engagement of Christians in all of these. He notes that Kuyper envisioned Christian parity but not privilege in the public square, a plural public square, not a neutral one. He notes the need in our contemporary context for a contextual pluralism that addresses racial and socioeconomic status.

Kuyper and Science, Deborah B. Haarsma. Kuyper addressed both the delightful calling to study God’s handiwork, and the ways in which Christian and atheist-materialist worldviews affect the study of science. Kuyper affirmed the idea of no conflict between faith and science and that the Christian need not set aside one’s faith in the laboratory. Haarsma particularly addresses the efforts of Christians historically to address science and faith, particularly evolution, and the needs at present to take this conversation beyond the Christian college context, to address ethics, and how both Kuyper and contemporary Kuyperians address evolution.

Kuyper and Art, Adrienne Dengerink Chaplin. Kuyper addressed three questions: 1) why was Calvinism not allowed to develop an art style of its own? 2) what implications does the lack of Calvinist art style have for understanding the nature of art? 3) what has Calvinism done in practice for the advancement of art. She focuses on Rookmaaker’s critique of modern art and ideas of beauty and the more positive art and aesthetic of Calvin Seerveld. And she critiques the lack of evidence for Kuyper’s ideas about Dutch painting, the conflict between his ideas about common grace and antithesis, where he opposes Christians and non-believer, and the aesthetic emphasizing beauty.

Kuyper and the Future, Bruce Ashford. Ashford outlines Kuyper’s call to action of a vibrant Calvinism amid the malaise of modernity and the ineffectual engagement of modern Christians. By and large, the cultural conditions and the church’s response have continued to decline. Ashford believes that Kuyper’s Calvinism still offers robust resources, awaiting the awakening and empowering work of God.

Kuyper and Race, Vincent Bacote. After outlining Kuyper’s problematic statements, he discusses three responses that have been made: 1) critique and rejection, 2) critique based in history, particularly Kuyper’s embrace of European race theory, and 3) critiques tied to theological themes, namely common grace allowed for “lower peoples.” Bacote believes that all that can be done is to affirm what is useful in Kuyper’s general thought while facing his failings in this area. He believes a neo-Kuyperian perspectivalism may offer the best approach to the multi-cultural glory of the church from every nation.

Lost in Translation, George Harinck. Kuyper gave his lectures in English. Given his lacks as an English speaker, how did the English manuscript of his lectures get written. Harinck disputes the traditional account of Benjamin Warfield that it was translated by a team who received the manuscript ten days before the lectures.

Jessica R. Joustra concludes the book with reflections on the reception of the lectures then and now, proposing that the vigorous assertion of God’s sovereignty over all of life remains important to the contemporary malaise of the western church but also that this needs to be coupled with piety of Kuyper reflected in his Near Unto God.

I would recommend picking up a copy of Lectures on Calvinism to read with this work. Kuyper offered one of the best articulations of Christian engagement in every aspect of life that is out there, even for his evident faults. It serves as the inspiration for many contemporary Christians who are both thoughtful and active in various spheres, as evident in the bibliographies at the end of each chapter. This work is a helpful companion. Get them both!

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher.

One thought on “Review: Calvinism for a Secular Age

  1. Pingback: The Month in Reviews: August 2022 | Bob on Books

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