Neo-Calvinism: A Theological Introduction

Written by Cory C. Brock and N. Gray Sutanto Reviewed By Josh Blount

Neo-Calvinism is experiencing a resurgence. There are major translation and publication projects both completed and ongoing for the works of Abraham Kuyper and Herman Bavinck, neo-Calvinism’s major thinkers, making primary source material widely available to the English-speaking theological world. Top quality scholarly biographies of both figures are now available. And the influence of neo-Calvinist thought, whether drawn directly from Kuyper and Bavinck or learned from one of their modern-day disciples, is widespread on the evangelical landscape.

What has been lacking in this resurgence, however, is a careful theological assessment of what neo-Calvinism actually is as a theological project. Too often theological retrieval can fall victim to an error akin to what historian Herbert Butterfield called the “Whig interpretation” of history—a selective reading designed to reenforce one’s preexistent conclusions. At its worst, “neo-Calvinism” can come to mean something like “anything I can justify with a Kuyper quote.” This kind of pseudo-retrieval fails to do the hard work of historical analysis, and its contemporary applications are correspondingly shallow. Far better to do the deep work necessary in the original sources to understand what neo-Calvinism’s founding fathers thought of their system as a coherent project. Enter Cory Brock and N. Gray Sutanto’s Neo-Calvinism: A Theological Introduction.

Brock and Sutanto bring considerable expertise to their topic and provide a detailed yet clear assessment of Bavinck and Kuyper’s distinctive contributions to seven major theological loci. In doing so they provide a volume of interest to both specialists and general readers.

The introduction orients the reader to Brock and Sutanto’s distinctive goals, summarizing the current state of neo-Calvinist studies and arguing for the need for “a theological introduction to the unique dogmatic contributions of the first-generation neo-Calvinists, especially Kuyper and Bavinck” (p. 2). The remaining nine chapters are devoted to this task.

Chapter 2 covers the “Calvinism” in neo-Calvinism: how did Kuyper and Bavinck see themselves especially in relation to Calvin’s theology? While each thinker had distinct nuances, both generally looked to Calvin as signaling the “holistic implications” of Reformed theology and thus providing a platform to engage the results of contemporary science (pp. 40–41). Here Brock and Sutanto demonstrate that, while Kuyper and Bavinck are pursuing something like “worldview thinking,” their own sense of the term is much deeper than its typical current deployment.

Chapter 3 considers the topic of the church as both catholic and modern, a topic which challenged both Kuyper and Bavinck to distinguish between an unhelpful theological conservatism and genuine theological preservation. Both thinkers employed something like an organic, unity-in-diversity motif to explain why “every generation requires new forms of the same confession” (p. 68).

Chapter 4 focuses primarily on Bavinck and his account of general revelation, which provides an opening to the larger question of the relationship between revelation and reason. General revelation engages man on more than a merely rational level, but instead also includes affective dimensions. The content of general revelation, though it includes cognitive knowledge of God, also includes a pre-rational, personal awareness of God which must be taken into account in a theological anthropology.

Chapter 5 turns to the doctrine of Scripture, a subject to which both Kuyper and Bavinck devoted extensive time and theological effort. Their specific contributions focus on the relationship between Scripture and the other sciences, and the nature of inspiration (p. 99).

In chapter 6 one finds the theological loci that develops the neo-Calvinist axiom “grace restores nature.” Brock and Sutanto expand this doctrine more broadly to include the entire relationship between creation and re-creation, suggesting that “the continuity of God’s work in the nature-grace relation is the key insight of neo-Calvinism” (p. 134). Again: “at the heart of neo-Calvinism is God’s action of recreation as the essence of Christianity and the meaning of world history.” This chapter is the longest in the volume, providing a robust survey of both Kuyper and Bavinck’s thought.

Chapter 7 is titled “Image and Fall.” The authors highlight a distinct, neo-Calvinist perspective on those two words by looking at a corporate understanding of humanity as an organic unity-in-diversity, and then exploring various ethical and social implications.

Chapter 8 again addresses the familiar neo-Calvinist topic of common grace and its relationship to the gospel. As with the creation-recreation chapter, Brock and Sutanto’s contribution here is to set the topic of common grace in Bavinck and Kuyper’s larger theological framework. Kuyper’s thought is especially important here, since he considered the topic to be “a distinct loci of dogmatic logic” (p. 216), but both theologians carefully addressed the topic of common grace and its relationship to other doctrines such as special revelation, sin, election, and salvation.

The final expositional chapter, chapter 9, discusses the church and the world. The theme of the organic nature of the church reappears here, much as an organic understanding of humanity functions in Chapters 3 and 7. Brock and Sutanto discuss Kuyper’s famous two-fold “organism and institution” definition of the church with care, tracing the idea through his theological development and considering it in relation to Kuyper’s other systematic writings, especially his concept of sphere sovereignty. The book then closes with a summary chapter that presents “16 Theses” of neo-Calvinist theology that serve as a reprisal of the main themes of the work.

Throughout their work, Brock and Sutanto are careful to present Kuyper and Bavinck on their own terms. From this reviewer’s perspective, they have done that work exceptionally well. The clarity with which they discuss their theology does allow for critical evaluation of Kuyper and Bavinck’s theological projects themselves. For instance, the questions raised by Kuyper and Bavinck about the relationship between Scripture and science (especially the burgeoning natural sciences of the early 20th century) are helpful, but their “form-content” or “center-periphery” distinctions do not fully resolve these questions. Brock and Sutanto’s work also makes it possible to evaluate certain forms of modern neo-Calvinism in light of their theological ancestors. On this front, the robust ecclesiology of chapter 9, especially its relationship to eschatology, was refreshing. I’m not sure all contemporary advocates of neo-Calvinism are as clear that Kuyper and Bavinck were not “ushering in the kingdom” with their project but instead calling Christians to holiness in all spheres of life (p. 287). That crucial nuance can sometimes be lost in contemporary discourse – all of which points to the gift this book is for evaluating and rightly appropriating Kuyper and Bavinck.

In Neo-Calvinism: A Theological Introduction, Brock and Sutanto deliver on the promise of their subtitle. Rather than discussing contemporary neo-Calvinist applications, this book challenges the reader to consider neo-Calvinism as a coherent theological project. This in turn allows for more fruitful theological retrieval as well as more salient theological critique. By presenting Kuyper and Bavinck on their own, comprehensive terms, Brock and Sutanto have done the contemporary heirs of Kuyper and Bavinck a great service.

Josh Blount

Josh Blount
Living Faith Church
Franklin, West Virginia, USA

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