What is neo-Calvinism? Not to be confused with “New Calvinism” (the resurgence of the Reformed doctrines of grace within American evangelicalism in the 21st century), neo-Calvinism refers to a theological and ecclesial movement in the Netherlands during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, which developed into a theological tradition that’s alive today. Its founders were Abraham Kuyper and Herman Bavinck. They sought to retrieve and apply Reformed orthodoxy for the modern, ever-changing world in which they lived.
Since its emergence, neo-Calvinism has diversified. Sometimes, because of its many streams, it’s conflated with a theology of “transformationalism”—the view that Christians are called by God primarily to redeem every field of life for the lordship of Christ, often to the neglect of the local church and an emphasis on preaching. Neo-Calvinism can also be identified with “Reformational philosophy” birthed by thinkers like Herman Dooyeweerd and D. H. Th. Vollenhoven. Others still may simply associate neo-Calvinism with a culturally engaged yet theologically thin outlook on the Christian life.
But these streams don’t represent neo-Calvinism as it originated. In our forthcoming book and our podcast (Grace in Common) we seek to disambiguate and broaden the term by showing its theological roots. We suggest that learning from the early movement of neo-Calvinism is important for Christianity in the 21st century. Here, we highlight three features that make it helpful.
1. Calvinism is a holistic view of the world and life.
While contemporary American evangelicalism recognizes Calvinism as referring to the so-called Five Points in the TULIP acronym (total depravity, unconditional election, limited atonement, irresistible grace, and the perseverance of the saints), “Reformed” is often understood as a broader, catholic term. It refers to the principle of confessional subscription (such as to the Westminster Standards or the Three Forms of Unity), covenant theology, and churchly associations.
In other words, “Calvinism” is often thought of as a more limited term than “Reformed.” Bavinck and Kuyper, however, thought it was the reverse. While Reformed orthodoxy refers to the broad theological and confessional identity of the Reformed churches, Calvinism refers to a whole world-and-life view:
Reformed expresses merely a religious and ecclesiastical distinction; it is a purely theological conception. The term Calvinism is of wider application and denotes a specific type in the political, social and civil spheres. It stands for that characteristic view of life and the world as a whole, which was born from the powerful mind of the French Reformer.
Hence, Kuyper’s famous Lectures on Calvinism posited Calvinism as a holistic “life system” competing with other life systems, one of which is modernism. This inspiration from Calvin’s public-theology work in Geneva doesn’t mean Kuyper and Bavinck were seeking to copy Calvin’s work (neo-Calvinism is not paleo-Calvinism). Rather, it draws from Calvin the instinct that Reformed theology ought to have real public consequences—and for Kuyper and Bavinck, it meant at least showing the modern world that Christianity is the best foundation and the historic source for some modern ideals, such as pluralism and the freedom of conscience.
American Christians are likely aware of the term “worldview,” but for the first-generation neo-Calvinists, a worldview isn’t reducible to a set of beliefs or to an individual’s unarticulated assumptions. Rather, it involves the whole self, both mind and heart. Hence, Bavinck and Kuyper speak of a world (intellect) and life (heart) view rather than a merely intellectual interpretation of the world. Worldviews aren’t reducible to the unknown either, hidden within other core beliefs in the subconscious. Rather, developing a Christian world-and-life view is consciously seeking the goal of an objective perception of the world in the light of the triune God. Our preferred analogy is that forming a worldview is more like making a map over time rather than quickly putting on a pair of glasses. Developing a world-and-life view is a corporate work.
The Christian worldview is far too rich to be contained by one nation’s, people’s, or individual’s expression of the Christian faith. It requires the reasoned collaboration of Christians in every age and place in a diversity of fields. In other words, worldview formation requires attending to the catholicity (universality) of the Christian faith.
2. Calvinism calls us to be orthodox yet modern.
Developing a Christian world-and-life view is consciously seeking the goal of an objective perception of the world in the light of the triune God.
If the reformers wanted to show that Protestants were more catholic, that is, more rooted in the Bible and the ancient church than their Roman Catholic counterparts, Bavinck and Kuyper argued that catholicity doesn’t just mean rootedness in the past but also openness to the present and future. If Christianity is true, then all human beings, no matter their professed faiths, will inevitably echo something from the Christian worldview. The neo-Calvinist motto is not “No Plato, no Christ,” but rather “No Christ, no Plato.”
Further, this means that even though secular modernism might be explicitly against the Christian faith, modernity itself will still unwittingly retain Christian truths that it cannot escape and manifest the gifts of God’s common grace. The Christian’s task is thus not to fight for the return of a golden age (for no such age exists) but to continue to show the perennial relevance of Christianity for the modern and to learn from modern thought wherever we may find truth. As Bavinck put it,
Theology is not in need of a specific philosophy. It is not per se hostile to any philosophical system and does not, a priori and without criticism, give priority to the philosophy of Plato or of Kant, or vice versa. But it brings along its own criteria, tests all philosophy by them, and takes over what it deems true and useful.
As argued in one of our recent books, the mode of the neo-Calvinist is “orthodox yet modern.” But how exactly do we show the orthodox yet modern character of Calvinism?
3. Calvinism argues that Jesus is Lord and Christians are not.
Earlier, we mentioned that neo-Calvinism is often conflated with “transformationalism,” and others may even think of an association with “theonomy” or with seeking to reestablish a national church (Kuyper was prime minister of the Netherlands, after all). But Kuyper and Bavinck opposed all three of these misunderstandings.
Nevertheless, there are reasons for the confusion. Consider Bavinck’s call:
Here the Gospel comes fully into its own, comes to true catholicity. There is nothing that cannot or ought not to be evangelized. Not only the church but also home, school, society, and state are placed under the dominion of the principle of Christianity.
Likewise, one may point to the most oft-quoted but oft-misunderstood Kuyperism: Jesus calls “every square inch” (actually “thumb-breadth”) under his lordship.
Only the coming of Christ can unify the family, state, and church into one living organism. A Christian ruler recognizes the distinction between the Spirit-wrought church, the world upheld by common grace, and the state as servant of God’s justice.
Sure enough, Bavinck and Kuyper thought that as Christianity renews individuals, the cultures and institutions of which those individuals are a part will be leavened as well. They believed faith matters for work and all the rest of life. Grace does restore nature, after all. Christianity witnesses to the natural (or, better, creational) way of forming both human relationships and society.
As individuals are restored to Christ, they recognize Christ is King. However, the church must recognize the present order is the time of common grace and not the final (eschatological) kingdom of God. So when Christians ask, “What time is it?” neo-Calvinists respond that this is a time of God’s patience, a time of witness to the kingdom. Only the coming of Christ can unify the family, state, and church into one living organism. Thus, for Bavinck and Kuyper, a Christian ruler recognizes the distinction between the Spirit-wrought church, the world upheld by common grace, and the state as servant of God’s justice.
Such a distinction of spheres gives freedom in the age of sin and allows the witness of the kingdom to flourish in every realm of life. This vision is the product of the Christian worldview. In fact, one of Kuyper’s famous addresses is an argument to show that “Calvinism is the source and stronghold” of our democracy and liberties. This means too that neo-Calvinism has the resources to ground the good of religious pluralism without succumbing to modernist relativism.
The church often asks, How do we stay faithful to our confession while being engaged in the world? How should we develop distinctly Christian communities and yet be fruitful for society and for the common good? How might we make sense of the diversity of the Christian church and the unity that binds us?
We suggest that neo-Calvinism, especially as articulated by the first-generation leaders, holds resources for Christians to navigate these difficult and perennial questions while resisting the temptation of either world flight (separatism) or world conformity (compromise).