New life for 120-year-old words

Review of "Calvinism for a Secular Age" by Jessica R. and Robert J. Joustra.

Calvinism for
a Secular Age

Jessica R. and
Robert J. Joustra, editors;
Intervarsity Press, 2022.

How did Princeton Theological Seminary’s community and wider Reformed enclaves receive Abraham Kuyper as a person and theologian during his extended sojourn in the United States in 1898? What became of Kuyper’s hope to establish Calvinism as a spiritual guide for not only Dutch, but also other nations’ public life, without establishing an official state religion? Does Kuyper’s theology one hundred twenty-four years later exert any influence in public life? How might Kuyper’s neo-Calvinism influence nations’ public life in the future? To those main questions this new compact, thoroughly readable Calvinism in a Secular Age seeks to respond.

Many would say that is a hopeless and unrealistic goal that flies into endless contemporary hurricanes of anger, agnosticism, atheism, cynicism and indifference. Philosophers, political theorists and politicians put church leaders and ordinary Christians on the defensive. Then there are the thousands of intellectuals who have abandoned Christianity; millions more disdain or rejecting Christianity for some sadly understandable reasons. 

Editors Jessica R. and Robert J. Joustra, spouses teaching at Redeemer University in Ancaster, Ontario hope that Calvinism can help stop and even reverse that great distrust. To that end they assembled a team of known and respected Reformed authorities in their respective disciplines and organizations. They have produced this book with an informative preface and foreword, followed by eight honest and thorough essays. 

Accessible and focused

The first six essays pose the same three questions: What did Kuyper say? What did Kuyperians do? What should we do? Over the years rigorous critical scholarship and action in some Dutch-immigrant communities have made significant impact. These scholars aim at giving birth to concrete ways that this new “neo-Kuyperianism” might flourish today in North America. 

Much more narrowly focused than Mark Noll’s 1994 work Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, this collection can justly stand as a companion volume to that seminal work. Here, a close, narrow focus is good. Though not reaching as broadly as Noll’s book, Calvinism digs deeply into Kuyper’s 1898 Lectures on Calvinism. That slim volume was the first of Kuyper’s works that appeared in English. Written for American audiences, they were first presented as “The Stone Lectures” at Princeton Theological Seminary.

Though the lectures are brief, the editors recognized that no single Kuyperian scholar could with sufficient expertise treat all the themes that Kuyper covers in his dense, yet accessible talks. Wisely not satisfied with tasking the essayists only to review the lectures’ original impact, the editors gave them plenty of room to suggest and hope for Kuyperian thought to play new melodies in today’s ever greater cacophony of intellectual and political thought.

The Essays one-by-one

Most appropriately, Calvinism begins with Kuyperian scholar James Bratt placing Kuyper in Europe’s 19th century philosophical and theological climate. From there, Bratt follows Kuyper across the Atlantic to Princeton Seminary, where he presents his six densely packed lectures. Before Kuyper’s arrival, Charles Hodge, “long Princeton’s foremost theologian, had once asserted that no fundamentally new idea had ever been broached at the seminary.” Countering that dour opinion, Kuyper challenged Princeton and later several Dutch enclaves in the US to “go back to the living root of the Calvinist plant . . . to blossom once more, now fully in accordance with our actual life in these modern times”. 

In “Kuyper and Life-Systems” Richard Mouw recalls one student who observed that “there’s a bit of an arrogant spirit in the way he makes Calvinism look good and other perspectives – including Christian ones – look bad.” Mouw admits to finding that first lecture too polemical. Many Christian sisters and brothers, feeling demeaned by Calvinists, have accused us of spiritual pride for centuries, by insisting on our own rightness, while showing how all the rest are off-base. 

Mouw observes that Kuyper recognizes four other systems that offer foundational guidance for human life – paganism, Islamism, Roman Catholicism and modernism. But none accepts “the supreme authority of the God of the Bible”, nor accept God as distinct from creation. Kuyper considers “Romanism” as flawed Christianity, because the church considered herself co-authoritative. Many people over 50 hailing from Reformed churches recall antipathy toward Catholics because we learned that they worshiped idols, i.e., statues inside churches, homes, schools and even on dashboards!

As do writers of subsequent essays, Mouw censures Kuyper for condemning African cultures. That censoriousness helped South African governments justify apartheid and still stands as a roadblock to Kuyperianism for scholars of other cultures. Yet today, many Christians think and act in “worldview” terms, a now familiar Kuyperian word replacing “life-systems.” 

In “Kuyper and Religion,” James Eglinton highlights Calvinism as an appropriate foundation for social ethics, because it, according to Kuyper “produces a blessing for man . . . but does not exist for man.” Here Kuyper was responding to earlier 19th century theology and philosophy that went off the historical rails by claiming faith was of human origin or an expression of subjective, vague “feeling of absolute dependence.” 

For Kuyper, God-centred faith is the only reliable source of personal and social ethics and thus is “soteriological.” That is, because of “the lostness of humans and the cultures they produce” Calvinist churches’ “center point must be entirely external to this world.” When criticized for the endless splitting of Calvinist churches in this world, Kuyper allowed for such contradictions since uniformity in faith cannot be coerced. Such flaws surely admit of human lostness, but they weaken the public witness of Christians and churches and still today engender doubt and hostility.

Science and Humanities

In his essay “Kuyper and Politics,” Jonathan Chaplin explains Kuyper’s conviction that he calls “constitutional pluralism.” That is, governments must be limited by institutions and individuals in order to develop true liberty and justice. Here the concept of “sphere sovereignty” – personal, institutional, family and local – work together for the public good and individual well being. Chaplin notes such institutions familiar to Christian Courier readers as CLAC, CFF, CPJ in Canada, Center for Public Justice in the US and Christian universities in both nations as living centres of Calvinist-Kuyperian thought and action.

Astronomer Debra Haarsma begins “Kuyper and Science” with a personal testimony celebrating her discovery of “integrating faith and learning” as a scientist and Christian. Lamenting the growth of rejection of many Christians toward science, she calls for cooperation among all scientists and laypersons. Her summary of Kuyper’s  principle of Christ’s “cosmological significance,” witnessed in Colossians 1, John 1, and the Belgic Confession’s metaphor of creation’s “two books,” suggests all manner of sermons, class discussions and scientific cooperation across faith boundaries. Haarsma trusts common grace as God’s gift for peace between faith and science, including such minefields as “evolutionary creation.” 

Adrienne Dengerink Chaplin digs into Kuyper’s understanding of art, noting that Protestant churches have until recently been deserts of graphic art. Kuyper posited that 17th century Dutch painters accurately reflected their different social classes and connected it to election. Their products “highlight God’s impartiality by saving not only those of importance by human standards but, at least in principle, anyone.” Chaplin later cites Calvin Seerveld as a major advocate of present-day application of Kuyperian aesthetics in music and art.

Bruce Ashford’s “Kuyper and the Future” starts with memories of interaction with Soviet colleagues during a sojourn in Russia. In that vacuum where theology and religion were so oppressed, he began reading Kuyper and awakened to the need of public theology in Russia. Returning to North America’s secularism and denial of anything supernatural, even among theologians, Ashford sees neo-Kuperianism as a force to live pluralistically even among non-Christian faiths like Islam. Sphere sovereignty provides the cultural space to respect other faiths, while keeping proper limits on church/mosque and government.

WAS Kuyper Racist?

Vincent Bacote’s “Kuyperianism and Race” takes this book beyond the six lectures and looks closely at Kuyper’s racism, which continues to cloud his work and reputation. Bacote recognizes the need to repudiate Kuyper’s view on race, yet suggests to counter balance it by Kuyper’s recognition that we all “have no claim to lord it over one another, that we stand as equals before God and consequently equal man to man.” How effective such a balancing act can be is difficult to determine.

For me, the most unexpected chapter is George’s Harinck’s examination of the various translation revisions that “The Stone Lectures” survived until they were finally delivered. This fascinating chapter employs a kind of textual criticism and manuscript study that reminded me of the task of reconstructing the most accurate Bible manuscripts. Harinck sketches the lecture’s translation travails to show how Kuyper and assistants presented in both oral and later printed essays that, though densely written, sounded and read like a native English speaker’s prose. 

Jessica Joustra’s concluding essay traces Kuyper’s impact on Dutch immigrant communities in both the US and Canada during his post-lecture tour. She notes development of local and regional Kuyperian organizations, some of which still live with greater influence in Canada than in the US. Significantly some 124 years after Kuyper’s lectures, their three foundational principles remain essentially the same, though their concrete manifestations continue to develop, fittingly, within their respective contexts. Thus God’s sovereignty and integration of faith and life show significant vitality, though the principle of catholicity still founders among the different ideologies of Christians and churches. 

This book both encourages the best of Kuyperianism while honestly challenging its tendency toward elitism and recognizing the lasting effect of Kuyper’s racist views. Intervarsity Press has done a fine service to the lack of catholicity by opening Kuyper’s thought and his fans’ hope for the future to a much wider readership than other publishers can promise.


  • James Dekker

    Jim is a semi-retired Christian Reformed pastor and missionary who now works for Resonate Global Mission ten hours a week as "Member Care Coordinator," which means "Pastor to Missionaries," because where lots of our missionaries work it's inadvisable to use pastor or missionary publicly. That cool job puts a framework to his week, keeps him in contact with hundreds of even cooler servants of Jesus all over the world, compels him to travel to visit them once in a while, though he connects with them via email and Zoom most of the time. The rest of the time Jim reads books--lots of free ones that he "pays for" with reviews. He was acclaimed President of Christian Courier Board of Directors while on his way to that meeting from a long ophthalmologist appointment. As long as God gives his wife Rose and him health, they ride a tandem bike around Niagara and other places in the bikeable months, paddle canoes and kayaks, visit children and grandchildren in the distant places they live because their parents provided them poor role models for stability of residence.

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One Comment

  1. Thanks for this great review, Jim! While I agree with you and these authors/editors that we still have much to learn from Kuyper (including, how to creatively, dynamically, and sensitively apply his massive insights into our Canadian context today), I’ve noted for a while now that Kuyper’s legacy (as his European sense of superiority undergirds both South African apartheid as well as Canada’s Indian Residential School System) may present too large a stumbling block for readers today, given our current polarized political culture. Just think of Washington DC a year ago January where Kuyper’s “square inch” was dragged through the mud. For this reason, we need the church today to spur on the next generation of those, like Kuyper, who feel compelled to apply the “Creation-Fall-Redemption” good news to every part of life. Let’s re-energize our prayer, discernment, and action!

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