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!


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

Review: The Doctrine of Creation

The Doctrine of Creation: A Constructive Kuyperian Approach, Bruce Riley Ashford and Craig G. Bartholomew. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2020.

Summary: A study of the doctrine of creation, demonstrating how this doctrine is foundational and related to everything else in Christian theology.

The doctrine of creation has often been eclipsed in various ways in recent years. It has come under attack by some scientists and the arguments about the timing and efforts to harmonize biblical and scientific accounts have overshadowed the broader implications of this doctrine. The ongoing struggle of Christianity with gnostic tendencies have led to de-emphasis on the physical creation for some spiritualized, disembodied version of Christianity. For others, a Christocentric or cross-centric approach to theology also has led to de-emphasis on the doctrine of creation.

Ashford and Bartholomew draw upon the Kuyperian tradition in which the doctrine of creation is foundational and has implications for everything else while engaging other theologians and differing viewpoints in a constructive theological approach to this doctrine. This is one of those cases where they show as well as tell, not only making the argument, but showing the connections of this crucial doctrine to our understanding of culture, of God’s providence, of redemption and our eschatological hope, centered in the new creation.

They begin by outlining the doctrine of creation as an article of faith and how this relates to our doctrine of scripture and doctrine of God, and the fundamental idea of the goodness of creation, shaping our relationship with the physical world. They then engage in historical theology, surveying all the important theologians from the church fathers up through the modern period in two chapters. Before exegeting the early chapters of Genesis, a chapter is devoted to the omnipotence of God, the nature of evil, and the implications the idea of ex nihilo creation, which the authors support.

The next four chapters (5-8) walk through Genesis 1-3. They observe that from Genesis 1 alone we learn:

  • the existence of light;
  • the reality of time, days, seasons, years, and history;
  • the three great places of our world: sky, sea, and land;
  • the distinction between birds, sea creatures, and land animals;
  • the extraordinary world of flora and fruit trees and their importance in the food chain;
  • humankind as similar to and yet distinct from the other creatures and with unique capacities;
  • humankind as called to responsible stewardship of the creation;
  • humankind as gendered and inherently relational; and
  • humankind as inherently religious–that is, made for God. (p. 171)

The subsequent chapters explore Genesis 2, a discussion of the “heaven” in “heaven and earth” and the fall.

The authors then turn to other doctrines and the influence of the doctrine of creation. First is the influence of creation on our understanding of culture. A highlight of this chapter included a vocational focus on the rise of modern science, the art of Makoto Fujimura, and philospher Alvin Plantinga. The chapter on providence, “Creatio Continua,” was the highlight for me in a book full of treasures. In particular, they delineate the threefold providence of God as preservation, accompanying, and ruling. They even throw in a striking insight of the providence of God in the Septuagint, which gave a whole dictionary of Greek theological terms on which the early Christian movement could draw. Creation and the new creation are vitally intertwined, not simply as the beginning and end of the story. To what degree will the new creation restore, repristinate, or replace the old? And how should what is coming shape the way the church lives as disciples in the present.

The last chapter on “Creation And…” is a tour de force as the authors offer some of the best delineations I have seen in a few pages each of creation and…philosophy, the table (thinking about the implications of creation for how we eat), time, science, the self, and human dignity. An appendix follows in which Bartholomew and Michael Goheen outline in enumerated points the contours of a missional neo-Calvinism that shows in concise form how creation and the redemptive mission of God are integral to one another.

As noted, this work shows the richness of the doctrine of creation in its implications for all of life. The insets in the text may seem distracting at first but offer crucial theological elaboration of the discussion in each chapter. This is a work to be read slowly and reflectively. In the tradition of Calvin and Kuyper, one will be rewarded with deepening wonder in the greatness of God and delight in God’s creation and its implications for all of life.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: Blueprint for Theocracy: The Christian Right’s Vision for America

Blueprint for Theocracy: The Christian Right's Vision for America
Blueprint for Theocracy: The Christian Right’s Vision for America by James C. Sanford
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I have to be honest. I was prepared to dislike this book. Calvin, Abraham Kuyper, and Francis Schaeffer are personal heroes to me and they are included in Sanford’s critique of the Christian Right’s vision as intellectual forbears. Furthermore, I have taught “worldview” as a heuristic that is helpful in discerning the underlying premises of everything from a TV ad to a work of philosophy to a college textbook, something I believe important to critical reading skills.

What I found instead was a carefully researched history of the intellectual lineage and practical efforts to bring a Christian Worldview into our national discourse. Particularly significant is his work on the contribution of J.R. Rushdoony’s proposals to institute biblical law in contemporary society and the ways that Francis Schaeffer helped popularize these notions late in his career. He surveys the landscape of political activism that arose in the 1980’s beginning with the Moral Majority, the Christian Coalition, and succeeding movements and how these were influenced by what he calls “Christian Worldview” ideas. He chronicles well the political alliances (which I would call a form of political captivity of the church) formed with conservative Republicans at the state and national levels pursuing everything from introducing Intelligent Design into schools to electing a President.

My fundamental concern as I finished this book was the tone and some of the rhetoric that I believe represents a mirror image response to the kinds of ‘secular conspiracy’ rhetoric he chronicles with regard to the Religious Right. His repeated usage of language like “idealogues” “absolutists” and, most notably “Jihadists” is inflammatory and creates the kind of “be afraid, be very afraid” tone that I think undercuts the good descriptive research he has done. While every movement has extremists, it is unjust to define a movement by its extremists. For example to equate a Nancy Pearcy or the late Charles Colson with isolated incidents of people who murder abortion providers only perpetuates the us/them divide of which he criticizes the Religious Right.

Similarly, instead of a nuanced discussion of the intellectual and activist lineage he traces, he paints the whole thing as absolutist, dogmatic, and intolerant. Too often in our national discourse, these words are easily thrown about to dismiss what we don’t like without doing the careful work of distinguishing between what might be right or commendable in an interlocutor’s ideas and where we think they are wrong and why. For example, the idea that if there is a God, that God may well be sovereign over all physical and human affairs stands to reason and has been affirmed by most orthodox believers through history. To conclude then that we must attempt to forcibly impose our understanding of the sovereign God’s commands on the political order is wrongheaded. God Himself does not do this in the Garden, nor does Christ or any New Testament writer commend this to the church. Similarly, Kuyper’s sphere sovereignty recognizes that the sphere of government is just one of a number and is a good protection against tyranny. Some thoughtful commentators like James Skillen have extended these ideas both to encourage political engagement and define the limits of political engagement in very different ways from the Religious Right. My point is that good critiques look for common ground as well as points of difference rather than pursuing a “scorched earth” approach.

The usage of the term “Christian worldview” as the umbrella under which to gather the intellectual influences and current players in Christian Right is unfortunate. As I noted early, it fails to differentiate between those who use it as rhetoric to underscore a perceived cultural divide, and those including authors like James Sire, who use this primarily as a heuristic to promote understanding and irenic engagement with those holding different premises from our own.

To conclude on a positive note. the author speaks in terms of having an “open” rather than naked or sacred public square. Open, or as Os Guinness has termed them, civil public squares allow for the expression of diverse and disparate ideas. Civility in particular seems to imply refraining from ad hominem attacks and inflammatory rhetoric on all sides while encouraging critical engagement that looks both for common ground and recognizes and respects important differences. The author calls for critique of the views of the Christian Right and their successors and I would agree with the need for this. However, I would like to suggest that “what is good for the goose is good for the gander.” What if each “side” to these discussions were committed to improving the thinking of the other in a common pursuit of the public good? This will only happen if we stop believing the worst of each other and affirm the good wherever we see it. I hope the writer of this book will devote his excellent skills of research and articulation to help foster the understanding and civil engagement so much needed at this time in our history.

I received a complimentary copy of this book for review from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

View all my reviews

The Month in Reviews: September 2014

The onset of a new academic year seemed to bring a more serious tone to the collection of books I read this month. I looked at the question of what it means to be a saint, a collection of essays around the topic of language and literary criticism, a memoir by a leader of the Tienanmen demonstrations, a factbook about HIV/AIDS, and a challenging book on the nature of Christian love, among others. Not a light reading month! So here’s the recap:


1. Called to Be Saints: An Invitation to Christian Maturity, Gordon T. Smith. Smith explores how sainthood is rooted in union with Christ and works out in holiness in every dimension of life.

2. Language and Silence, George Steiner. This collection of essays written in the 1950’s and ’60’s reflect Steiner’s attempt to articulate a philosophy of language in a post-Holocaust world.

3. A Heart for Freedom, Chai Ling. This is Chai Ling’s riveting account of the Tienanmen demonstrations and its aftermath, including her escape, and life in the West. She includes her concerns and advocacy against forced abortions that result from the “one child” policy.


4. Abraham Kuyper: Modern Calvinist, Christian Democrat, James D. Bratt. This biography gives us a narrative not only of Kuyper’s life but also an intellectual biography of the thought and writing of this formidable thinker, politician, and church leader.

5. Responding to HIV/AIDS: Tough Questions, Direct Answers, Dale Hanson Bourke. This book is a very helpful introduction to the facts about HIV/AIDS and also the global landscape of the fight against HIV/AIDS. Crisp and concise.

6. State of Wonder. Ann Patchett. This novel is a Conrad-esque type journey up the Amazon where Marina Singh confronts both her past and surprising present realities.


7. The Battle for Leyte Gulf, C. Vann Woodward. Woodward gives us a nearly moment-by-moment account of the last major naval battle of World War II, the near success of the Japanese strategy to divide American naval forces, the inexplicable retreat of Kurita’s force and the heroic defense of the San Bernadino Straits by an inferior force of destroyers and escort carriers.

8. Steelworker Alley: How Class Works in YoungstownRobert Bruno. Bruno explores how “working class identity” is distinctive from a middle class ethos even though incomes may be similar. He does this through interviews with those working in Youngstown’s steel industry from the 1940’s to the 1970’s.

9. Works of Love, Soren Kierkegaard. A searching reflection on the biblical passages that help define love in Christian terms.

10. Why Church History Matters, Robert F. Rea. Christians committed to the authority of the Bible are often suspicious of “tradition”. Rea explores how this actually can help us to be more faithful to scripture and to extend our “communion of the saints” beyond our own circle to those of other traditions, cultures, and times.

The links will take you to my reviews if you missed these the first time around. If you don’t want to miss them, I would encourage you to follow the blog, either via WordPress or by email (options for both are available on my homepage).

Next month will have a review mix of both theological and lighter books. I’ve begun reading Edmund Morris’s Teddy Roosevelt series and will also have reviews of a book on earthquake storms and some Jeff Shaara Civil War historical novels. Thanks to all of you who comment on reviews and other posts!


Review: Abraham Kuyper: Modern Calvinist, Christian Democrat

Abraham Kuyper: Modern Calvinist, Christian Democrat
Abraham Kuyper: Modern Calvinist, Christian Democrat by James D. Bratt
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Abraham Kuyper is one of those “larger than life” figures. He was a pastor, writer of over 20,000 newspaper articles, multi-volume theological treatises, the founder of a university, a politician and a Prime Minister.

He was, in James Bratt’s assessment “a great man but not a nice one” (p.xxii). As a young man, he put his fiancee’ through a rigorous tutelage to prepare her to be a minister’s wife. He often could be more generous to political opponents than to party members who challenged him on details. He was a shrewd political organizer but a difficult one to wrest control from–really only physical decline and death did this. He was a monumental intellect who drove himself to physical and mental breakdown at several points in his life. Bratt explores this paradoxical man in all his complexity.

This biography traces his life from his early pastorates to his entrance into politics, his engagement on the question of the place of church in education and other issues of the day and his establishment of the Free University of Amsterdam. It narrates his leadership of the Doleantie exodus from the Dutch Reformed Church, his political organizing in building up the Anti-Revolutionary Party (Christian Democrats), his Prime Ministership, and loss of power after one term and the gradual decline of his powers.

"Abraham Kuyper - Griffis" by Unknown - Scanned from "The American in Holland" by W. E. Griffis (published 1899). Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons -

“Abraham Kuyper – Griffis” by Unknown – Scanned from “The American in Holland” by W. E. Griffis (published 1899). Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons –

But above all, this is an intellectual biography. We begin with the formation of thought under Johannes Scholten and his studies of Kant and Jan Laski. We see his turn to a warm-hearted Calvinism as his former professor turned more to theological Modernism, and as he had an experience of spiritual renewal at Brighton. The rest of his life was a project of working out the implications of Calvinism, not simply in the church but for all of life. Kuyper practically gave us the language of world and life view that many in Reformed and Evangelical streams use today. He saw that God was Sovereign over all of life, and he expounded this in his inaugural speech for the Free University of Amsterdam in these famous terms:

“Oh, no single piece of our mental world is to be hermetically sealed off from the rest, and there is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry: ‘Mine!'”

Kuyper further extended these ideas through the conception of “sphere sovereignty” in which various parts of life were meant to operate autonomously under the sovereign grace of God — church, state, education, commerce, the arts, and so forth. The sovereignty of one sphere was not to intrude on others. In Kuyper’s thinking this allowed for Christian presence in a pluralistic society as Christians in sphere’s of politics, or say education, made common cause with those who held differing beliefs. In each, Christians would bring a Christian mind and perspective, and yet neither state nor church would control any sphere outside its own. So Kuyper could argue for both the existence and funding of church schools and yet see this as part of a comprehensive educational enterprise.

To read this biography of Kuyper is to understand the intellectual foundations of much of the Reformed and Neo-Reformed movement in this country. His thought has influenced figures like Nicholas Wolterstorff and Albert Wolters in philosophy, Timothy Keller in preaching, and James Skillen in politics and public life. (See my review of Skillen’s The Good of Politics as an example of Kuyperian thought.) It is also a narrative of one who was both an accomplished thinker and a skilled politician. For Christians interested in political life, whether you agree with Kuyper’s theology or not, this is an excellent study of Christian political engagement.

For those, like myself, who work in higher education, there are two predominant streams of Christian intellectual engagement of the academy. One is the Catholic tradition both of Aquinas and the Jesuits. The other is the Reformed tradition strongly shaped by Kuyper. Both strongly connect the love of learning and the love of God. If we should differ from either of these, we will be unlikely to improve on their contribution to Christian intellectual life unless we learn from them. Kuyper is one good place to begin.

View all my reviews