Born again Kuyperians

Jesus said to people who rested in Old Testament covenant promises: “If God were your Father, you would love me, for I have come here from God” (John 8:42). Jesus is saying that having an impressive spiritual lineage should lead to affection for him.

I want to ask: do good Reformed Christians love Jesus, deep down in their hearts? In his book American Jesus (2004), American historian Stephen Prothero argues that early colonists of America followed John Calvin’s teaching, “which emphasized the absolute sovereignty of God and the total depravity of human beings” and so they “typically focused their piety largely on the First Person of the Trinity, whom they feared as a distant yet powerful potentate. In their religious training, the Old Testament trumped the New, and Jesus the Son cowered in the shadow of God the Father . . . he functioned more as a principle than a person.”

Although some people might be able to love a principle, it’s more difficult to feel love from a principle. “Few [Calvinist] colonists saw Jesus as a person who could be understood or who might understand them,” continues Prothero. “Few loved him and expected love in return. Most could not even conceive of imitating him. .. . The Puritans, in short, were a god-fearing rather than Jesus-loving people, obsessed not with God’s mercy but with his glory, not with the Son but with the Father.”
Well, times have changed since the Puritans, and if 500 years of a Reformed world and life view are to continue for another 500 years, its practitioners need to love a full-blooded Jesus first and foremost. Although there is a strong emphasis on Sola Scriptura in Craig Bartholomew’s new book Contours of the Kuyperian Tradition, there is a marked priority given to Jesus, a variation of Solus Christus. The book begins: “A disciple is a follower of Jesus.” Bartholomew seems to recognize, as anyone following in the line of Calvin would, that our faith rests most centrally on being in union with Christ. A few pages later, remarking on a world where “the vortex of forces . . . often seem completely out of control,” he states that our “difficult hope” lies “preeminently by living deeply into Christ.”
Live deeply into Christ
This introduction to Kuyperian living is bookended with a focus on spirituality. The first chapter centres on Kuyper’s conversion and insists that kingdom vision without being born again is as much of a travesty as being born again without a kingdom vision. “The kingdom is first about coming into a right and living relationship to the King,” he insists, for a kingdom vision “begins on our knees before God and returns there again and again.” Ethnic religious inheritance, he argues, is a trap without this vital spiritual core.

The last chapter, “The Need for Spiritual Formation,” echoes the first. Here Bartholomew warns that there is a danger of absolutizing Kuyper, or falling into an intellectualism or activism that neglects the practice of prayer which forms us in the likeness of Christ. “The great need of the Kuyperian tradition if it is to be retrieved today” he maintains, is developing this kind of scripture-bathed Christian spirituality. Turning to Catholic resources like Nouwen and Vanier, Bartholomew insists: in this secular age “we need time and space to live deeply into Christ and to journey in his name into all of life.” The “journey in” is the basis for the “journey out” that forms “culturally savvy Christians.”

In what I take to be a truly Trinitarian spirituality, Bartholomew repeats the phrase “living deeply into Christ” and being “formed to be like Christ.” This isn’t American pietism but it connects with Kuyper’s pietism and it has possibilities for connecting with a wider North American evangelical and Catholic audience. It’s Kuyperian world and life view not lost in principles and systems, but centred on the source, the Spirit of Jesus that gives life to all philosophy, art, games, science, development work and culinary experimentation. A life of prayer keeps culture-making in Jesus-perspective, pointing us ever towards both his teaching and healing, both his cross and crown.

So I do believe a Kuyperian Christian can love Jesus, deep down in their heart. This, too, could shape a more loving character in our pluralistic mingling, a character prone to conviction, civility and empathy, rather than hard-headedness, arrogance or schism. Jesus saves in many ways.

A renewed Kuyperian Christianity will enliven the next generation if it keeps this suffering servant/coming king close to its heart. Prothero’s American Jesus goes on, unfortunately, to chronicle how over the centuries Jesus was freed from Calvin, creeds and eventually the Bible and even Christianity to become a personality, a celebrity and finally an icon of the American nation. A Kuyperian Christianity today cannot love a tamed Jesus who is identified with guns, cheeseburgers and flags. Jesus is not less than a person, but he is significantly more than a person, and definitely more than a national mascot. He is a prophet whose touch makes the blind man see, a priest whose love stretches as wide as a Roman cross, and a king who rules over spinning galaxies. He is the divine personal presence so near to us and yet also a mysterious cosmic power restoring the wide sweep of a broken creation. Hope is difficult on the stormy waves of the 21st century. But loving this Jesus, hope becomes an anchor.    

  • Peter is Executive Director of Global Scholars Canada, a transnational guild of Christian scholars. He preaches, teaches and writes – having written columns, editorials, news and features for CC since 1997. His book The Subversive Evangelical: The Ironic Charisma of an Irreligious Megachurch (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2019) is an ethnographic journey into the life of a megachurch and its “irreligious” charismatic leader. He loves stories that cross boundaries while maintaining integrity.

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