Magazines 2024 Mar - Apr Calvinism for a Secular Age: A Twenty-First-Century Reading of Abraham Kuyper’s Stone Lectures

Calvinism for a Secular Age: A Twenty-First-Century Reading of Abraham Kuyper’s Stone Lectures

01 March 2024 By Tim Perry

An extended review of a 2022 book by Jessica and Robert Joustra

Note: Our print issue contains a shorter version of this review. Faith Today welcomes your thoughts on any of our reviews. We also welcome suggestions of other Canadian Christian books to review: Contact us.

Book by Jessica R. Joustra and Robert J. Joustra, eds. IVP Academic, 2022. 248 pages $35 (e-book $30)

Calvinism is a word that provokes different reactions from different readers, depending on denominational history and formation, familiarity with Reformation history and a host of other factors. I suspect, however, that for many, if not most readers of Faith Today, Calvinism inspires one word: predestination. Calvinism for a Secular Age is a happy antidote to that truncated view of a particular theme of Christian thought, reminding us that Calvinism invites an entire world-and-life view.

Unlike Calvinism, “worldview” and similar words are likely more familiar and more broadly understood by Canadian evangelicals. Many of our pastors and leaders, and not a few lay people, encountered James Sire’s The Universe Next Door and the works of Francis Schaeffer and L’Abri. This collection presses deeper, inviting readers into the roots of those more popularly presented positions by reminding us of the 1898 Stone Lectures by the Dutch Reformed theologian, journalist and academic Abraham Kuyper.

Delivered at Princeton University, these six lectures sketch a worldview in which Christian faith is integrated deeply into all areas of life. The first lecture develops the notion of worldview; the remaining five then apply that notion to religion, politics, art, science and the future.

The editors of this new volume follow the same outline, having contributors follow Kuyper’s original lectures, offering summary, critical analysis, and then proposing how Kuyper’s thought might be developed now 125 years later. The result is a winsome collection that invites Christians from across the theological spectrum to consider the ways in which Christian commitment can and should impinge upon all aspects of our lives, personal, professional and vocational.

Christian faith does not sit easily in the realm of the private to which modernity has been trying to banish it for the last three centuries. Richard J. Mouw, the grand dean of evangelical theology, puts the matter perfectly: “That is at the heart of Kuyper’s understanding of worldview. God loves his creation and has refused to allow our sinful rebellion to cancel his original designs for all that he has made” (p. 30).

The editors (a married couple who teach at Redeemer University in Ontario) also include two more critical essays. Of these, the most important is Vincent Bacote’s “Kuyper and Race.” Bacote, a theologian from Wheaton College, himself African American, faces squarely the problem of Kuyper’s engrained racism.

At one level, Kuyper’s views on race reflected the 19th century. At the same time, Kuyper’s thought on “sphere-sovereignty” was deeply influential on Dutch Reformed South African Christians. It contributed to the mindset that constructed the apartheid regime.

Bacote concludes that Kuyper’s racism is not so contaminating as to condemn his thought as a whole, but neither can it simply be passed over with a “that was then.” It has to be reckoned with.

There is much in this volume that will invite readers to consider whether and how their commitment to Jesus actually controls thought and action in “ordinary” areas of life. In my opinion, however, it leaves one serious question unanswered. Namely, why didn’t Kuyper’s convictions work? His dogged work in journalism, academia, churchmanship and politics did not prevent the Netherlands from leading the way in the rapid secularization of Europe after the Second World War.

In this, I was reminded of another Reformed theologian’s classic reflection on the relationship between Christian commitment and our public life. H. Richard Niebuhr’s Christ and Culture was penned at a time when mainstream Protestantism provided the deep structures on which American life ran. Christ, Niebuhr wrote in his last chapter, was present in culture, slowly but surely transforming it.

Today, 70 years after its publication, Christ and Culture provokes the same question. In the light of the collapse of mainline Protestantism and the inability of another Christian body, whether evangelical or Catholic or something else, to take its place in public life, one must ask whether this strand of Reformed thinking has failed due to historical accidents, or if its failure actually reflects a flaw in the project.

That is an essay (or book) that needs to be written if a project like Kuyper’s is to be salvaged for today.

Perhaps such a work could start with this observation. “Christ Against Culture,” Niebuhr’s characterization of the earliest Christian communities, failed because it succeeded. It could not continue because it actually converted a Caesar, rather than looking for ways to make peace with him.

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