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Contours of the Kuyperian Tradition: A Systematic Introduction

Craig G. Bartholomew
Published by IVP Academic in 2017

The tradition and legacy of Dutch theologian, politician, and journalist (and more) Abraham Kuyper and his theologian colleague Herman Bavinck have been often regarded as the special or narrow object of interest of those associated with denominations and institutions with roots in the Netherlands. Craig G. Bartholomew has written Contours of the Kuyperian Tradition with the intent to disseminate this tradition widely:

What is clear to me is that Kuyper’s time has come. Kuyper lived when the Enlightenment vision was taking hold all around him in Europe and the Netherlands. We live at a time when that same project is unraveling, and religion is making a major comeback globally. I propose that in our fragile time the Kuyperian tradition holds resources for finding constructive ways forward that can defuse some of the major threats we face, renew the life of the church, and promote human flourishing. (x)

Bartholomew, as stated here, aspires to far more than conveying a tradition; he aims both to introduce the work of Kuyper (and to a lesser extent, Bavinck) and to explore how the tradition known as neocalvinism can be implemented and developed, while also retrieving some of its neglected dimensions. This disposition toward the tradition was also shared by Kuyper himself; the label of “neocalvinism” indicates a desire to pass on the tradition of Reformed faith stemming from John Calvin, while expanding it beyond the domain of church life and considering how to articulate and practice this trajectory of Christian tradition in the context of his time.

Across twelve chapters and an epilogue, Bartholomew introduces readers to a tradition that has a Scriptural and theological base with relevance to and for domains such as politics, education, philosophy, and spiritual formation. The first chapter provides a biographical overview of Kuyper, followed by chapters presenting the drama of creation, fall, and redemption; the centrality of Scripture; and the neocalvinist understanding of worldview. Subsequent chapters cover sphere sovereignty (Kuyper’s idea about structural and world- view pluralism), the church, the approach to politics and the poor in a pluralistic society, an expansive view of mission, an important chapter on the role and place of philosophy in neocalvinism, education, and a chapter giving prominence to the place of spirituality in neocalvinism. The epilogue draws attention to ways other figures and traditions can be helpful for making the most of neocalvinism.

Among many valuable contributions, Bartholomew directly addresses the question of the usefulness of worldview. While noting that the concept is a translation of the German Weltanschaaung coined by Immanuel Kant and used by figures including liberal theologians such as Albrecht Ritschl and the orthodox Scottish theologian James Orr, the book clarifies that for Kuyper, worldview was a general, loosely articulated concept indicating what he called a “world and life-system.” Part of Kuyper’s contribution is the emphasis on Calvinism as providing a comprehensive view of reality in the face of the totalizing specter of modernity. Bartholomew gives greater conceptual clarity by supplementing Kuyper with the work of James Sire (he also mentions several other contemporary figures, including those beyond Protestantism such as the Eastern Orthodox Alexander Schmemann and Roman Catholic Romano Guardini), and he shares the following definition from his work with Michael Goheen: “Worldview is an articulation of the basic beliefs embedded in a shared grand story which are rooted in a faith commitment and which give shape and direction to the whole of our individual and corporate lives” (124).

Perhaps even more important than his definition is the direct encounter with criticisms of worldview thinking, which is very important for indicating its ongoing usefulness. Bartholomew identifies five concerns: intellectualizing the Gospel, universalizing the Gospel, relativizing the Gospel, disconnection from Scripture and susceptibility to the spirits of the age, and the entrenchment of a triumphalistic middle-class Christianity. Each of these are acknowledged as legitimate concerns, and Bartholomew is convinced that with awareness of these pitfalls, worldview “remains a rich and useful word for articulating the comprehensive, unified vision embodied in the kingdom of God” (124).

A native of South Africa, Bartholomew is well aware of the connection made between Abraham Kuyper and apartheid. One can find many places where Kuyper is referred to as “the father of apartheid” or is said to have invented apartheid. Among the most prominent reasons for this connection is the use of Kuyper’s sphere sovereignty idea as part of the reasoning for keeping ethnic groups separate. Bartholomew argues that Kuyper is partially responsible for apartheid because of his affirmation of the Boers keeping separate from native South Africans and because of his negative and racist language about Africans. Though he argued elsewhere that ethnic intermarriage (“commingling of blood”) is one of the ways for the advance of civilization and that Calvinism clearly places all humans as equal in standing before God, Kuyper’s language about Bantus and Hottentots indicates he was inconsistent about the value of intermarriage. But in what ways is Kuyper not responsible for apartheid? Bartholomew argues that Kuyper’s theory of sphere sovereignty was never intended to include distinctions in ethnicity, which is highly plausible because the distinctions made by Kuyper had to do with distinctions between social realities such as the state, education, and church, and Bartholomew notes that Kuyper’s view of the state as existing for the justice of all citizens is inconsistent with the oppression that occurred under apartheid. While it is indeed quite lamentable that Kuyper’s discourse on race is one of his lowest points, the blame for apartheid cannot be as easily laid at the feet of Kuyper as much popular opinion would suggest.

The case of apartheid presents a perpetual challenge for scholars in any discipline who work with particular figures or movements: how does one assess not only the work of a figure, but also the range of developments that occur in the years and decades that follow their life? On the one hand, it is important to reckon with the frailties, blind spots, and mistakes made by any figure, while on the other, it is important to consider how postmortem developments stem from the intended trajectories of the contributions made by figures and the foundational communities of movements or traditions. The truth must be told about positives and negatives of each figure or movement and about the healthy or distorted developments that emerge subsequently.

Bartholomew’s view on education is among the intriguing contributions of the book, as it has important implications for the ways Christians think about questions such as the integration of faith with various disciplines. Bartholomew advocates for an education where there is the clear recognition of a Christian starting point, and he resists the idea of a neutral approach within any discipline. As Kuyper sought to make clear in his inaugural address when the Free University of Amsterdam opened in 1880, while there may be many aspects of disciplines where there will be common descriptions of literature, the sciences, law, medicine, and so on, at the root of the approach to any particular discipline lies a core commitment or view about the basis of all reality. The book indicates that, in practice, this is a complex challenge. Christians need to be aware of the conceptual frameworks that exist within various disciplines while likewise doing the hard work of moving from Scripture to conceptual framework (this means an ongoing dialogue among theology, philosophy, and other disciplines). Intellectual coherence will not come easy, but the work must be done if there are to be universities and colleges that are truly Christian. For Bartholomew this also requires (drawing on Peter Berger) a plausibility structure, as not only is the content taught crucial, but also “the way we structure the Christian university, the habits and practices we adopt and develop” (310-311).

As noted above, the book provides a strong emphasis on the place of Scripture in the neocalvinist perspective, though these dimensions of the thoughts of Kuyper and Bavinck receive less attention. For Bartholomew, this emphasis on Scripture is not only a matter of knowledge, but also of spiritual formation. For certain, a potential hazard among some neocalvinists is an engagement with God’s world but a diminished internal life and anemic life in the church. Bartholomew urges a vibrant intellectual and spiritual life consistently exposed to Scriptures, and while he is brimming with enthusiasm for neocalvinist sources, he calls for engagement outside the tradition, highlighting figures as diverse as Henri Nouwen and Wendell Berry. Bartholomew asks, “Are we on an inner journey ever deeper into Jesus that will nourish and sustain our active lives?” (322)

Contours of the Kuyperian Tradition: A Systematic Introduction yields far more than my review suggests, and is a very important and valuable book beyond the domains of theology and philosophy. It is very important for showing the breadth of neocalvinism and its wide vistas open for development and also as a primer for those unfamiliar with the tradition.

Cite this article
Vincent Bacote, “Contours of the Kuyperian Tradition: A Systematic Introduction”, Christian Scholar’s Review, 47:2 , 205–206

Vincent Bacote

Wheaton College
Vincent Bacote is professor of theology and director of Center for Applied Christian Ethics at Wheaton College.