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Neo-Calvinism: A Theological Introduction

Cory C. Brock and N. Gray Sutanto
Published by Lexham Academic in 2023

What is neo-Calvinism? The authors describe it as holistic, organic, and modern in its orthodoxy (8). Still, these terms are pregnant with meaning and need explanation. Thankfully, Brock and Sutanto have provided an excellent text to help us understand neo-Calvinism within its own theological genesis. There is a particular salience to the book’s emphasis on neo-Calvinism’s theological foundations in light of contemporary uses of neo-Calvinism, whether used directly (politics and culture) or used indirectly (common grace and missiology). As such, the book fills a lacunae in contemporary neo-Calvinist literature on the foundational theologies of the movement’s founders, Abraham Kuyper (1837–1920) and Herman Bavinck (1854–1921). The authors’ descriptive attempt to provide a “panoramic overview” of Kuyper and Bavinck’s theological project is particularly helpful as an entrée into the ever-increasing literature being published today on neo-Calvinism (7). Thus, this book is paramount for anyone interested in understanding neo-Calvinism in its current form.

Yet, there is much more to this book than a detailed primer on Kuyper’s and Bavinck’s theologies of grace, ecclesiology, God, etc. Although the intention of the book is not to directly address our contemporary culture, it is nearly impossible to read this text and not dialogically reflect upon one’s own context. Indeed, it seems that the authors are presenting two narratives in the book. One is a straightforward descriptive presentation of neo-Calvinist theology through the works of its founding figures. The other narrative is an affective engagement of the spirit of Kuyper and Bavinck’s theology. The authors state as much in their conclusion, “While we should still continue to learn much from their dogmatic constructions, it is those instincts that we wish to emphasize for our present emulation in this conclusion” (290–91). Kuyper and Bavinck, writing at the turn of the twentieth century in the Netherlands, were trying to address the theological, ecclesial, and cultural problems of their time through Reformed theology, European Romanticism, and ecclesial pietism. It was important for Kuyper and Bavinck to demonstrate how Reformed orthodoxy and cultural modernity could exist in a dialogically reciprocal relationship without collapsing into pseudo dichotomies. Theological conservatism forgets that it is the same God who saves in Christ through the Holy Spirit and who is also working in human culture and history (291). This dialogical lens promotes a holistic understanding of theology that asserts false binaries. Theology is not separated from daily life, nor is daily life separated from theology. Theology is dialogically holistic within one’s historical context. Thus, neo-Calvinism emphasizes the catholicity, or universality, of Christianity. The Christian faith is not the product of a single culture. Rather, Christianity is free to engage with any culture, philosophy, or movement and free to critique as well. Christianity is dynamic, or in Kuyper and Bavinck’s language “organic.” It rejects assimilation and isolation. Instead, a neo-Calvinist understanding of Christianity is universal in its scope of engagement allowing multiple expressions of the faith tradition (292–293). Thus, Christianity is not monolithic, it is holistic, organic, and modern in its orthodoxy.

The book’s cogency comes from Brock and Sutanto’s ability to weave together a descriptive presentation of neo-Calvinism’s theological doctrines while communicating the affective spirit of Kuyper’s and Bavinck’s engagement with their contemporary contexts. The authors present these two dimensions of neo-Calvinism through a systematic presentation of topics that follows traditional Reformed dogmatics. However, I want to suggest that the organization of the book also offers a glimpse into the authors’ interpretation of Kuyper and Bavinck’s theology. The book consists of seven chapters examining neo-Calvinist theology. Chapter’s two and three establish Kuyper and Bavinck’s historical and theological context. This leaves chapters four through nine to discuss neo-Calvinism’s theological doctrines. It appears that these six chapters operate as a sort of chiasm, with chapter four (revelation) and five (scripture) establishing the warrants for chapter six (organic creation and re-creation) and chapters seven (anthropology), eight (common grace and special grace), and nine (ecclesiology and the world) presenting theological consequences of chapter six.

Chapter two serves as a historical introduction that explains the origins of the “neo” in neo-Calvinism. The authors distinguish Kuyper and Bavinck’s use of the term in contrast to their contemporaries, who employed the term critically against Kuyper’s and Bavinck’s theological projects. Specifically, Kuyper and Bavinck saw the Calvinism of John Calvin as a full world system where Christ’s lordship applies to all aspects of creation. They saw the “neo” aspect of their project as expanding the scope of Calvin’s theology into a holistic worldview that organically relates the insights of modern thought with Reformed theological foundations.

Chapter three investigates how Kuyper and Bavinck’s neo-Calvinist project navigates between a dead conservatism, which imposes universal uniformity, and contemporary liberalism, which “offered no real substance” and would fail to satisfy (44). Neo-Calvinism proposes that, although the form of the Christian faith might look different across time and contexts, the essence of the faith remains the same. Conservatism errs in forcing all manifestations of Christianity to conform to their perceived essence while liberal approaches err in taking the form as the essence of Christianity. Since Christianity exists in multiple forms, the liberal conclusion is that Christianity has no single essence. Bavinck responds to the liberal critique, asserting that Christianity’s essence is amenable to multiple contexts because its essence is universal. Indeed, Bavinck continues, the church’s universal scope “is expressed not in spite of diversity but precisely in diversity” (55). Thus, neo-Calvinism contends that every generation must reformulate the Christian confessions in conversation with, but not surrendering to, contemporary wisdom.

Chapter four examines the relationship between reason and revelation. Kuyper and Bavinck substitute the terms “general revelation” and “special revelation” for “natural” and “supernatural” theology (72). They make this change in order to emphasize humanity’s dependence on God in every aspect of human knowledge. Interestingly, neo-Calvinism adopts Romanticism’s notion of pre-cognitive human affections into its theology of revelation. Bavinck, and especially his nephew Johann Herman Bavinck, discussed the pre-cognitive and unconscious feeling of absolute dependence as a sign of general revelation on the human mind. It is here that we get a strong sense of Romanticism’s influence on neo-Calvinism in that Kuyper and, especially, Bavinck understand revelation as having an affective dimension in addition to its intellectual and historical dimensions (96–97). This is perhaps the most technical of the chapters. However, I am appreciative of the author’s time spent walking the reader slowly through the nuanced theological discussions involved in Kuyper and Bavinck’s theology of revelation, which is especially foundational to the remainder of the book.

In the following chapter, the authors explain Kuyper and Bavinck’s doctrine of scripture as an authority in relation to the sciences and as an organic inspiration. Regarding scripture’s relationship with the sciences, Kuyper and Bavinck affirmed scripture as the ultimate authority over all science (100). However, they were careful to nuance this claim by affirming the Bible as the ultimate authority regarding faith and practice and not as a reference text for the sciences. This means, when the sciences conflict with biblical teaching regarding salvation and religious practices, the Bible is authoritative. However, when the sciences offer something that does not pertain to salvation or religious practice, Christians must take scientific claims seriously. In this manner, they were following well within the confines of John Calvin and Reformed theology by maintaining biblical authority over faith and practice but remaining open to human investigation into nature, which is the theater of God’s glory. Yet, the Bible remains organically connected to all scientific endeavors. This is because Kuyper and Bavinck affirmed that the Bible arose from an organic relationship between divine and human agencies. Brock and Sutanto explore the many implications of neo-Calvinism’s organic understanding of scripture: the center as divine and the periphery as human contextualization, the nature of Christ as divine and the nature of Christ as human, and scripture’s ability to speak universally across time and context, maintaining an essential message while reframing the message according to changing contexts (107–108).

Chapter six is the chiastic center of the book, focusing on Kuyper and Bavinck’s theological narrative of organism to explain God’s work in the world between the “bookends” of history—creation and re-creation (134). Brock and Sutanto emphasize that the “relationship between creation and salvation is one of the most prominent and tenacious matters appearing in the whole of the neo-Calvinist theological tradition” (13). Indeed, the authors claim “at the heart of neo-Calvinism is God’s action of re-creation as the essence of Christianity and the meaning of world history” (135). Salvation’s goal is the reformation of creation. Neo-Calvinism stresses the strong Reformed theological emphasis that the telos of creation before the fall and after the fall is the same—God with humanity. In this sense, there is no strong nature-grace binary; rather, grace restores nature because nature and grace share a qualitative similarity—they are both revelation. From this perspective, the goal of salvation is not an entirely new creation but a re-ordering of a fallen creation in order to attain its original telos (134).

The remainder of the book explores the effect of neo-Calvinism’s nature-grace relationship. In chapter seven, the authors explore the theological consequences of neo-Calvinism’s organic theology on anthropology. Although Kuyper and Bavinck agreed that all humans have the image of God individually, they argued that the totality of the image of God is best seen through the diversity of humanity as a whole. This means that to merely view an individual is to see a part of the image of God, not its totality. This is not a theological partialism where the summation of all individual human images of God equal the whole; rather, human limitations can only partially manifest the image of God, which is whole within each individual. It is the organic relationship between all per- sons, and all manifestations of the image of God, that brings a wholeness to the image of God through all of humanity. This is not to say that all humans equally manifest the image of God, since sin corrupts human manifestations of God’s image. Thus, Kuyper and Bavinck argued that humans fall under the federal headship of either Adam, who sinned and corrupted the manifestation of the image of God, or of Christ, who heals and fulfills the manifestations of the image. Brock and Sutanto chose to label Kuyper and Bavinck’s theological anthropology an “organic whole federalism” (192). It is “organic” because it emphasizes the relationship between individual manifestations of the image of God. It is “whole” because it emphasizes that the image of God is best seen through holistic humanity. It is “federal” because the teleological orientation of humanity is either under the federal headship of Adam, which is misguided, or Christ, which is fulfilling. Thus, humanity taken as a whole is an ectype of the Triune God, having unity in diversity (211).

Chapter eight discusses the neo-Calvinist doctrine of common grace in relation to natural law theology and special grace. Common grace, in Kuyper’s and Bavinck’s understanding, consists of God’s general favor towards fallen creation. There is the external function of common grace, which consists of God’s loving patience to humanity and human cultural development, and the internal function of common grace, by which all humans experience love and moral inclinations. Common grace’s counterpart is special grace, which restores creation and fulfills common grace. It is through common grace that the Christian can affirm the moral, epistemic, and cultural developments in human history, while maintaining the need for special grace, the Gospel, to restore what common grace aims to achieve but cannot achieve on its own accord. Although many might assume common grace is the unique core of neo-Calvinist theology, Brock and Sutanto’s organization of the book places their discussion after their critical discussion of organic creation and re-creation. Thus, the authors seem to suggest that common grace theology is an outworking of neo-Calvinism’s organic theology of creation and re-creation.

Chapter nine sketches the ecclesiological implications of Kuyper and Bavinck’s theology. Following the chiastic structure I have suggested, Kuyper and Bavinck’s ecclesiology held a tension between the church as an institution and the church as an organism. Although the church has a visible institutional presence, the church catholic is an organic unity that transcends her institutional presence. It is from this neo-Calvinist vision of the church catholic that Christians are to engage the world through cultural, political, and missional work as the church exists to move organically out into the world.

In the final chapter, Brock and Sutanto offer “16 Theses” that are intended to summarize the significance of their study for neo-Calvinism today (293). Roughly, these theses can be divided into a theology of culture (theses 1–3), a theology of organic unity-in-diversity (theses 4–6), a theology of sin (theses 7–9), a theology of revelation (theses 10–12), and theological anthropology/ecclesiology (theses 13–16). Some of these are great theological “sound bites,” such as “Neo-Calvinism is a critical reception of Reformed orthodoxy, contextualized to address the questions of modernity” (293). Others only make sense in light of the previous chapters. For example, “The problem with the world is not ontological but ethical, that sin has corrupted much, in fact, everything” (293). After reading a book that is dense in theological discussions, these sixteen theses provide a clarifying digest that highlights the book’s contemporary significance.

The book establishes a standard that defines neo-Calvinism for future scholars, and there is much to recommend about this text. The authors have done an excellent job in presenting Kuyper and Bavinck’s foundational theological project. There are only two areas where I think this book could expand. First, the book seems cursory in its discussion of the antithesis. Understandably, the appeal neo-Calvinism has for contemporary theologians is its flexibility to engage with culture while remaining rooted in theological orthodoxy. Yet, the antithesis loomed large in Bavinck and especially Kuyper, who defined it as the basic opposition between the patterns of fallen humanity and God’s intention for redemption. As I discuss my chapter on “Neo-Calvinism, Islam, and Other Religions,”1 there is a group of scholars that emphasizes Kuyper and Bavinck’s antithesis theology in their work on other religions. A more expansive treatment of theology of the antithesis would help a newcomer to Neo-Calvinism better understand how the concept operates in contemporary receptions of Kuyper and Bavinck. Second, it would be helpful for those new to the field to have a reference list of current neo-Calvinist texts that the reader could engage with after reading this book. That said, this book is a must read for anyone interested in understanding not only neo-Calvinism, but contemporary theological movements in general because, as the authors point out, neo-Calvinism is at the core of many contemporary theologies of culture, politics, ecclesiology, scripture, revelation, and missions.


  1. . Alexander E. Massad, “Neo-Calvinism, Islam, and Other Religions,” in T&T Clark Handbook of Neo-Calvinism, ed. Nathaniel Gray Sutanto and Cory Brock (New York, NY: T&T Clark, 2024): 375–387.

Alex Massad

Alex Massad, Assistant Professor of World Religions, Wheaton College.