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: Saving Calvinism

Saving Calvinism

Saving CalvinismOliver D. Crisp. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2016.

Summary: An exploration of the breadth of theological resources, including alternate theological positions, within what is often thought to be the narrow bounds of Calvinism.

Oliver Crisp asks us to imagine taking possession of a huge old mansion with many rooms and only exploring a few of those on the ground floor. He thinks that is the situation today for many who tout “the Reformed tradition.” He writes:

“Returning to our example of the old mansion that is only partially occupied. Reformed theology has many rooms that the current generation, the ‘Young, Restless, and Reformed’ of whom Collin Hansen writes, have not explored. Sometimes this means that what goes under the name ‘Reformed theology’ is actually only the downstairs rooms we occupy. There is much more to explore and much more to learn. Some of that task will enrich and enliven us. But sometimes we will be faced with a broadening of our views on matters we thought the Reformed tradition had closed down or narrowed. Often in popular culture today Reformed theology is thought to be a cold, narrow thing. If this volume goes some way toward addressing that misperception by helping its readers to understand how expansive and encompassing Reformed thought actually is, it will have done its job” (p. 17).

In the words of Thomas H. McCall, ““Oliver Crisp wants to save Calvinism—from some of its most impassioned proponents.” Another way of putting it is that Crisp wants to show how Calvinism is far more than TULIP, an acronym that stands for what are often thought to be the defining beliefs of Calvinism–total depravity, unconditional election, limited atonement, irresistible grace, and perseverance of the saints. Crisp argues that there is so much more to Calvinism, and that even some of these defining beliefs are understood in differing ways among confessional Calvinists.

In Chapter One, he takes on TULIP and shows the broader context of creeds and confessions and doctrine concerning the church, sacraments, and the authority of scripture in an ever-reforming church. Chapter Two explores the doctrine of election and a positive account of this doctrine that comforts rather than arouses dread by exploring the timelessness of God, a supralapsarian view of election, that God ordained the incarnation, and chose us in Christ prior to, rather than after the fall and that the incarnation from creation on was essential in uniting us with God. In Chapter Three, he shows differing positions on free will held by Jonathan Edwards and John Girardeau and addresses the question of how any of these views might be held without making God the author of sin.

Calvinism is often thought to be sharply antithetical to any version of universalism. In Chapter Four, Crisp observes that there were a number of Reformed theologians including William Shedd and Benjamin Warfield who held that the majority of humanity would be saved. This was not a hopeful universalism, but rather an optimistic particularism, rooted in the power of God, his desire that none would perish, and the inclusion of whole classes in the saved of those incapable of belief. Chapter Five turns to the theology of the atonement, classically thought to be the doctrine of penal substitution. He allows that this has been a view held by many, but that other, particularly older writers going back to Anselm held to the idea of satisfaction, that the divine Son who dies satisfies the justice of God, not as punishment in our place but as an act of merit. He also looks at views of penal nonsubstitution and non penal substitution, showing that one single model does not dominate. Finally in Chapter Six, he takes on the issue of the “limited atonement,” setting forth ways in which a hypothetical universal atonement may be possible within Reformed theology.

All this is to demonstrate the breadth, depth, and diversity within the Reformed tradition. I suspect that there will be those who read this account of Crisp’s book who will repudiate that account and insist that Calvinism is “this and only this.” What Crisp has done is not to relativize Calvinism, but to challenge its reduction to “five points” and the concealment of the diversity of ideas that have historically characterized Reformed theology. For those repelled by the perception of Calvinism as narrowly and reductively  uniform, this concisely written text might suggest that one look again or more closely and that there are greater riches in this tradition than often thought. One would also hope this might be true of the “young, restless, and Reformed” crowd, that they will indeed at least explore the other rooms and floors of the great mansion of Reformed thought, discovering there are yet great riches than they imagined.


Review: Harriet Beecher Stowe: A Spiritual Life

Harriet Beecher Stowe: A Spiritual Life
Harriet Beecher Stowe: A Spiritual Life by Nancy Koester
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Harriet Beecher Stowe is forever known in American cultural history in the words Lincoln reportedly spoke to her when she met him in 1862: “So you are the little woman who wrote the book that started this great war.” What Nancy Koester’s “spiritual life” of Stowe gives us is a narrative of the spiritual journey of Stowe throughout her life. We see her spiritual development from the stern New School New England Calvinism of her father, Lyman Beecher, to a much broader Anglo-Catholic Christianity centered around the life and love of Christ.


Author: Francis Holl (1815–1884) after George Richmond (28 March 1809 – 19 March 1896)

Koester’s chronicle begins with her youthful struggles to meet the conversion criteria of New England Calvinists even as she awakens to a love for Christ. We follow her family west to Cincinnati and the struggles of her father as President of Lane Theological Seminary–a microcosm of the struggles within the Presbyterian church over versions of Calvinism, Old and New, her partnership with Catherine in a female academy, and her first exposures to slavery, and growing involvement with abolition and the Underground Railroad. This exposure provided the basis for the writing of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which had such a profound impact both upon the nation, and her own life.

While in Cincinnati, she married Calvin Stowe and moved back to New England so that he can pursue his academic career and Andover Seminary. During this decisive period, Koester chronicles her struggles with parenting including a six month hiatus at a water-cure spa, resulting from exhaustion and her struggle to write the book and the critical encouragement she received from brother Henry, her husband, and her publisher. Its publication, first in serial form and then as a book thrusts her into the competing factions of the abolitionist movement and attacks upon both the literary and factual character of the book. Koester explores these criticisms, which continue to the present, including the portrayal of Tom, the mawkish character of some passages, and the literary power of the book. She shows the grittiness of Harriet, who charts her own course and defends her work with a follow up work, A Key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin that documented the work and showed that the reality of slavery was actually worse than she portrayed.

Perhaps lesser known and of great interest is her later life and her journey away from Calvinism. It seems that the decisive event was the death of her son Henry in 1857, due to a drowning accident. It was not clear that he was “converted” at the time and Stowe struggled with the question of the eternal fate of her son. She dabbled in spiritualism and moved to a position closer to universalism in envisioning a “wideness to God’s mercy.” She embraced a form of Anglo-Catholicism centered around liturgy, the sacraments, the church year that emphasized a growth into belief rather predestination and the struggle of her youth to experience conversion.

Koester chronicles her later literary career–she contributed the bulk of the family’s income. We see her contact with and differences with the women’s movement. We conclude with her and Calvin’s ministry in Florida, where they establish a church and promote Florida’s citrus agriculture. Koester helps us see the continuing center of Stowe’s faith in the person and work of Christ, however one may assess her later spiritual journey.

We have here a whole-life, multi-faceted portrait of Stowe against which we see the spiritual and national struggles of her age and her own role in those struggles. I would highly recommend it to understand the life of the woman who wrote the most published 19th century work after the Bible.

View all my reviews