Neo-Calvinism: A Theological Introduction by Cory C. Brock and N. Gray Sutanto

David VanDrunen

Neo-Calvinism: A Theological Introduction, by Cory C. Brock and N. Gray Sutanto. Bellingham, WA: Lexham Academic, 2022, 322 pages, $36.99, paper.

Neo-Calvinism: A Theological Introduction is a straightforward title that indicates what this book’s authors, Cory Brock and Gray Sutanto, wished to accomplish in writing it. But both title and subtitle need clarification. By “neo-Calvinism,” the authors refer to “a nineteenth- and early twentieth-century movement in the Netherlands” (3). This means an almost exclusive focus on the work of Abraham Kuyper and Herman Bavinck. In writing “a theological introduction,” the authors unfold “the unique dogmatic contributions” (2) of these two figures. Brock and Sutanto observe that most treatments of neo-Calvinism explore topics such as “public theology, politics, and philosophy” (1). In contrast, Brock and Sutanto aspire to explain the “key dogmatic developments” in Kuyper’s and Bavinck’s thought, and to do so in a “descriptive rather than prescriptive” (7) way.

After a brief introduction, chapter two (“Calvinism and Neo-Calvinism”) argues that Kuyper and Bavinck identified Calvinism with the development of a Christian worldview, an emphasis on divine sovereignty, and a robust doctrine of common grace. Their neo-Calvinism, then, developed John Calvin’s theology into a holistic worldview within the context of the modern world. The third chapter (“Catholic and Modern”) claims that Kuyper and Bavinck distinguished between the essence and the external forms of historical orthodoxy. They were devoted to preserving the essence but believed that the external forms rightly change from time to time and place to place. Thus, they defended the “multiformity” of the church over against stale conservatism.

Chapter 4 (“Revelation and Reason”) explains Kuyper’s and Bavinck’s views of general revelation. It argues that they affirmed the classical Reformed position but that they combined it with “a romantic emphasis on the affective dimensions of revelation’s reception” (72). The basic idea is that God has implanted his revelation deep in the heart, such that human beings feel God’s existence even before they reason about it. Chapter 5 (“Scripture and Organism”) explores Kuyper and Bavinck on the Bible. They affirmed Scripture’s divine inspiration but also emphasized its human character and authorship. According to the authors, they held an organic rather than mechanical view of Scripture, and they believed Scripture was authoritative for all scientific disciplines although not a manual for non-theological disciplines.

Chapter 6 (“Creation and Re-creation”) revisits perennial questions about nature and grace. The authors suggest that affirming the continuity of God’s work in creation and re-creation was Kuyper’s and Bavinck’s central contribution to the topic. This chapter also contains a lengthy refutation of recent claims about Bavinck’s view of the beatific vision.

Chapter 7 (“Image and Fall”) focuses on anthropology, particularly on humans as image of the divine Trinity and its vocational implications.

Chapter 8 (“Common Grace and the Gospel”) explores a topic especially associated with Kuyper. Brock and Sutanto contend that Kuyper and Bavinck found the idea of common grace in earlier Reformed theologians but were the first to give this doctrine “magisterial treatment” as “a distinct loci [sic] of dogmatic logic” (216). This chapter includes extended discussion of natural law. The ninth and final full chapter (“The Church and the World”) unpacks the famous Kuyperian (and less famous Bavinckian) distinction between the church as organism and institute, and particularly its implications for the church’s relationship to the world. The volume concludes with sixteen theses summarizing neo-Calvinist theology.

It may be tempting to judge this book by the degree to which one appreciates the theology of Kuyper and Bavinck. But the important question to consider is whether the authors accomplished their purposes in writing. In important respects, I believe they did. They generally maintained the descriptive tone they desired and set forth these Dutch theologians’ work in ways that allow readers to agree, disagree, or argue with them. Brock and Sutanto effectively draw readers into Kuyper’s and Bavinck’s thought. In the big picture, this is precisely what the book aims to do.

In some other respects, I judge the book to be less successful. I first mention three concerns briefly and then reflect a bit further on the book’s title and subtitle.

First, this volume could have been considerably more concise. Some individual chapters circle around similar issues repeatedly. This was especially the case in chapter nine. Moreover, many of the same topics appeared in multiple chapters. In part, I believe, this is because so much of the book comes back eventually to a handful of core issues related to Christianity-and-culture questions. I will return to this last point shortly.

Second, while the book usually explains its claims clearly, there are occasional exceptions. In my judgment, chapter four fails to clarify some of its key assertions. The basic human-psychological distinction between the affective and rational is clear enough, and the idea that Kuyper and Bavinck believed that general revelation provokes both affective and rational responses is persuasive. But the authors portray the affective as a “preconceptual” (96) knowledge, a knowledge “without thinking” (80). What exactly “knowledge” is that exists entirely without concepts or thinking is not obvious, and the authors never adequately explain. The chapter also suffers from lingering confusion on whether, for Kuyper and Bavinck, general revelation itself is distinct from the human responses it provokes. For example, the authors say that general revelation both “has” affective dimensions and “produces” an affective knowledge of God (96).

Third, the authors’ discussion of Kuyper and Bavinck on natural law in chapter eight was not entirely satisfying. Brock and Sutanto state that Kuyper and Bavinck affirmed much of the older Christian (including Reformed) tradition of natural law. This is clearly true. But the authors portray older and contemporary Reformed thought on natural law in a somewhat flattened and unnuanced way, which allows them to present the Dutchmen’s views as distinctive and richer. While I have no quarrel with their description of Kuyper and Bavinck themselves on the topic, I believe there is more to the Reformed natural-law tradition than the authors give it credit for. Kuyper’s and Bavinck’s views were probably not as substantively distinct from the larger tradition as the authors suggest.

I conclude with a few reflections on this book’s title and subtitle. The authors entitle their book Neo-Calvinism, yet their focus is almost entirely on the work of Kuyper and Bavinck, whom they frequently refer to as “the neo-Calvinists.” To their credit, Brock and Sutanto are very clear what they mean by “neo-Calvinism,” but neo-Calvinism ordinarily means something rather different from the thought of Kuyper and Bavinck. Neo-Calvinism represents a tradition of thought that has been developing for nearly a century and a half. It has spread to many places around the world, and its practitioners have advocated a variety of ideas, many of which Kuyper and Bavinck themselves did not advocate and some of which, arguably, they would have rejected. Kuyper and Bavinck may have been its progenitors, but neo-Calvinism involves a good deal more than their work. There is something off-kilter about defining neo-Calvinism so narrowly when the neo-Calvinism almost everyone knows has been filtered, modified, and developed through many subsequent writers and institutions. Treating neo-Calvinism as “a nineteenth-and early twentieth-century movement in the Netherlands” (3) is analogous to defining Christianity as a mid-first-century movement in the Mediterranean or Reformed theology as a mid-sixteenth-century movement in Switzerland. This is not really a book about neo-Calvinism. It is a book about Kuyper and Bavinck, the progenitors of neo-Calvinism.

The book is subtitled A Theological Introduction because this is a study of Kuyper’s and Bavinck’s theology, in distinction from most works on neo-Calvinism which focus on the movement’s views of politics, art, or other broader cultural issues. I found this an intriguing and promising goal. Yet it is remarkable how almost every topic addressed in the book turns into a discussion of something related to “Christianity-and-culture” debates. As two examples, chapters three and nine address ecclesiology, yet a major theme of the former is the “leavening” power of Christianity’s catholicity, and a major theme of the latter is the relationship of the church and the world. One might also note how the authors define neo-Calvinism in terms of developing a “holistic worldview” (20) and their suggestion that “the continuity of God’s work in the nature-grace relationship is the key insight of neo-Calvinism” (134). This book is indeed a work of theology, but more precisely it is a book on the theological roots of Kuyper’s and Bavinck’s views on Christians’ place and work in the broader world. If one of the book’s purposes was to show that neo-Calvinism is more than a Christianity-and-culture movement, its success is limited. In fact, it may reinforce the opposite conclusion. The authors say that the term “neo-Calvinism” has “become associated, even as a synonym, with transformationalism” and that “this ought not to be so” (4). Although I agree with them that such an association is simplistic, their book has not done as much to dispel this impression as they probably hoped.

David VanDrunen is a minister in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church and serves as the Robert B. Strimple professor of Systematic Theology and Christian Ethics at Westminster Seminary California, Escondido, California. Ordained Servant Online, December, 2023.

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Ordained Servant: December 2023

Remembering G. I. Williamson

Also in this issue

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G. I. Williamson: Encounters with the Life of a Faithful Servant of God

G. I. Williamson’s Farewell Sermon

The Case for the Majority Greek New Testament Text

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Letters to a Younger Ruling Elder, No. 10: Be a Presbyter

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