Contours of the Kuyperian Tradition: A Systematic Introduction

Written by Craig G. Bartholomew Reviewed By Michael R. Wagenman

There was a time when knowledge of Abraham Kuyper or the Kuyperian theological tradition was limited to a few Dutch scholars with ties to Amsterdam or West Michigan. Today, that situation has changed. Major publishers are pumping out first-ever English translations of primary Kuyper works and a wide range of secondary literature on Kuyper’s enduring relevance for global Christianity. Many Christians outside the Reformed tradition are turning to Kuyper for inspiration and help in making a constructive Christian contribution to the public issues of our day. We’re living in the midst of a Kuyperian renaissance.

As pastor, theologian, professor, newspaper editor, political organizer, member of parliament, prolific author and public speaker, and prime minister of the Netherlands, Kuyper was a key public Christian at the turn of the twentieth century. He lived at a time of great technological, political, economic, and cultural change and sought to articulate the Christian faith for every area of life. In many ways, Kuyper slowed the secularization of the Netherlands and the leftward drift of the church and state. He was convinced that no area of life was outside the lordship of Jesus Christ.

In Contours of the Kuyperian Tradition: A Systematic Introduction, Craig Bartholomew has now provided an overview of Kuyper’s magisterial world of thought, both in its historical context and potential contemporary application. Bartholomew uses his own South African context to illuminate how Kuyper has been misappropriated in the establishment and enforcement of apartheid. Moreover, he suggests multiple ways that a deeper and more robust engagement with Kuyper’s thought can make civic healing and church renewal possible in our fractured world.

The chapter organization of the book roughly follows the chronology of Kuyper’s life and work. Early chapters outline Kuyper’s conversion, Reformed orientation, view of Scripture, and Christian worldview. Central chapters address Kuyper’s socio-political theology (sphere sovereignty), ecclesiology (in a pluralistic world), and political philosophy. Bartholomew then engages Kuyper’s relevance to mission, philosophy, theology, and education. The concluding chapter highlights some of the pitfalls that Kuyper’s followers have fallen into and stresses the importance of holistic spiritual formation in the task of both Christian theology and civic engagement as witness. As Bartholomew argues, “In the absence of a deep spirituality, the Kuyperian tradition cannot be sustained without being distorted or collapsing in on itself” (p. 183). Extensive notes, resource lists, and bibliography allow readers to follow up with further study of primary Kuyper works or secondary literature within the expanding Kuyperian tradition.

The major strength of Contours is that it complements James Bratt’s excellent historical work on Kuyper (Abraham Kuyper: Modern Calvinist, Christian Democrat. [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2013]) with equally strong theological analysis. Bartholomew insightfully reveals the ways in which Kuyper not only retrieves Calvin and the Reformed tradition for his day but also introduces brilliant new Christian arguments in response to the rise of historical-critical hermeneutics, theological liberalism, and revolutionary politics that have come to dominate the Western world.

One example of both Kuyper’s theological richness and Bartholomew’s insightful analysis can be found in his treatment of the church. Kuyper lived at a time when the secularizing liberal forces of modernity were beginning to marginalize the institutional church and Christian contributions to public life. We live today more than a century later into this cultural shift. As such, the church today is assumed by many Christians and non-Christians alike to be a voluntary association of private concern.

Kuyper’s ecclesiology represents a retrieval of a biblical understanding of the church as both an official, gathered community for worship as well as a dispersed movement of public action. He refuses to engage the dilemma of privatized faith versus public/social action but consistently seeks to hold them together in a dynamic and productive tension. As such, Kuyper offers to Christians today a way to regain the centrality of the institutional church for the life of Christian faith and worship as well as a missional engagement of the Christian Gospel with the whole of life. Kuyper gives us a refresher on the sheer comprehensiveness of the Gospel.

Bartholomew’s treatment of Kuyper at times can tend toward over-simplification. This is understandable given that the project is an “introduction” and ideal for those new to Kuyper’s thought. While Bartholomew highlights areas where Kuyper’s thought has been distorted by his followers in destructive or unbiblical ways, he glosses over some of the evolution and contradictions within Kuyper’s own life and thought that still challenge scholars.

For example, historians have noted that while Kuyper was a genius, he was not a particularly nice man. Even his peers and opponents remarked during his lifetime that he tended to be rude, brash, and intolerant of differing opinions. Added to this are the apparent shifts in his thought once he gained political power and his personal exodus from church attendance as his popularity and output grew. It is precisely some of these areas of unresolved tension within Kuyper that have provided a doorway for a branch of Kuyperian scholarship to emerge which has embraced leftist agendas (e.g., sexual identity politics, revisionist biblical interpretations, and anti-ecclesial postures) that Kuyper surely would reject today.

Those new to Kuyper or the Kuyperian tradition may find themselves struggling to fully appreciate the explosive power of Kuyper’s thought for life and ministry today. As Bartholomew notes repeatedly, specific retrieval and application of Kuyper’s thought for today is still needed. Therefore, those looking for practical or application-oriented treatments of Kuyper’s thought will need to consult the notes or postscript for other resources within the Kuyperian tradition. This is not a fault of Bartholomew’s work but a sign of the rich resources that remain to be unearthed from this prolific public theologian. But Bartholomew’s grasp and presentation of Kuyper’s daunting genius is inspiring and full of the joy of working in the fields of the Lord.

Michael R. Wagenman

Michael R. Wagenman
Western University/ Redeemer University College
London/ Ancaster, Ontario, Canada

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