Contours of the Kuyperian Tradition: A Systematic Introduction
By Craig G. Bartholomew. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, $40.00, 365 pages.
Reviewed by: Mr. Gerry Wisz
For most reading Christians, whether Reformed or not, Abraham Kuyper and his influence are the stuff of bygone days, when it was still possible to gain a public hearing as a Christian holding an openly Christian world-and-life view. Those days are gone, many will say. As soon as the word Christian is summoned, we face a cavalcade of bombastic accusations and insults, from being “oppressive” and “inhumane” to being called “blockheads” and “fantastical.”
And yet, claims Craig Bartholomew, this may well be our Kuyperian moment: though not admitting it, the world is desperately looking both for a reason to go on (hope) and for an undergirding philosophical approach that could provide this searched-for hope with genuine traction in any and all of the affairs of work and life, even as our society’s cynicism outpaces its increasing complexity and sophistication.
It’s not that Kuyper had the definitive answer to all of our dilemmas, but he boldly understood biblical Christianity as all-encompassing in its application, however difficult that application may be to work out, as it affects every area of life, regardless of how simple or how complex. He also had followers, of course, in theology, philosophy, the arts, education, politics, and journalism; many of these, we know, he took up, not only theoretically but also practically, himself.
Famous But Little Known
Most of us who know of Kuyper know him only through his Lectures on Calvinism and possibly some popular, laudatory biographies. It’s a great service, then, for Dr. Bartholomew to have written a book that takes up all of Kuyper’s chief concerns, their development, and their influence within the context of his times in post-Enlightenment nineteenth-century Europe. At the same time, he draws some significant conclusions about how this work can be—in some cases already has been—picked up in any number of public arenas since Kuyper.
Outlook readers may know that most of Kuyper’s corpus is being translated and published in English by Lexmark. That will make accessible Kuyper’s work as never before, and likely will pose plenty of reason for arguments both pro and con. Kuyper’s reputation has suffered, not only because of rampant secularization pushing Christian thought to the periphery, but also because some of his followers have left the gospel on the shelf when pursuing their own studies even while following Kuyper’s method.
Bartholomew ably shows that this was not the case with Kuyper or Bavinck, for whom the gospel was the beating heart that informed their study and endeavors. Kuyper cannot be accused of guilt by association with those who followed in his methodological footsteps, but not in the one thing needful—the gospel. There’s the baby and the bathwater—the baby needs bathing, but there’s no sense in having the bathwater if there’s no baby. Kuyper is mostly about the bathwater, presuming there is a baby. As a Reformed Christian, Kuyper began with God, his sovereignty, and revelation, and kept these before him as he teased out and explored their implications in “spheres” or areas of life as they existed or were institutionalized in society. Unlike other Christian traditions, Reformed Christianity, quite evident in Kuyper, gave a prominent place to creation, though obviously not as prominent as it did to revelation. This meant that revelation can and should be explored as fully as possible in the creation, which meant not only in nature but also in all ways that humanity organized itself.
A key insight Bartholomew raises is that while the Roman church tradition (per Aquinas) placed grace above nature, and the Anabaptist view of the faith placed grace against nature, the Lutheran tradition placed grace alongside nature (like a pair of rails comprising one railroad track, only to find out later that these were two separate tracks altogether). Only Calvinism, however, understood grace as not originating in but divinely arising from within nature (the Incarnation) so as to restore it. This had vast implications for how the faith was understood in the world, and rendered broader (though no less biblically precise) interpretations of Paul’s words to the Corinthians: “All things are yours (1 Cor. 3:21)” accordingly.
It’s in this sense that we can speak of “redeeming” disciplines such as science, the arts, business, politics, or anything else, not in triumphalistically “claiming” them for Jesus, but in seeking to apply biblicism in its principle and fruit to any and all of our endeavors. This takes dedication, focus, and trial and error, but it will never happen if it’s not attempted. Not all of us are called to be pastors or missionaries, so then in our callings the question becomes, How can I take every thought captive for Christ here, whether it’s an academic post, as CEO of a company, as a secretary, businessman, or workplace employee, or among any number of other callings, which also include husband, wife, son or daughter, church member, citizen, member of society, voter, etc.
A theme in Kuyper also explored by Bartholomew is disengagement in preparation for re-engagement. We often think in terms of our children and their Christian and church schooling before entry into the world and the responsibilities of life. But this needn’t be restricted to covenant youth. We disengage from the world to engage with God, from where we then re-enter the world equipped with godly motives, understanding, and an interpretive grid to re-engage the world, though not on its own terms (like Paul or, in fact, the Lord himself). This is the antithesis, but the antithesis in action, not merely theoretically conceived. It’s the place of battle, but also the place of kingdom influence and thereby advance. As such, it can also be the place of evangelism.
“All Things . . .”
Bartholomew considers Kuyper’s thought and influence in myriad ways, including the church, politics, and how the Christian is to understand pluralism under the sovereignty of God, education, mission, and the need for spiritual formation from the perspective of worldview study and application. One really has to read the book to get a sense of the breadth and depth Kuyper faithfully attempted and to a large degree succeeded at accomplishing, regardless of what others had done with his legacy. Herman Bavinck’s theology is also thoroughly explored as it dovetails with Kuyper’s thought, as are other thinkers’ work, such as Dooyeweerd’s presuppositional philosophy and its applications.
Despite that this is an academic title, it’s highly accessible, clearly written, and chockful of referenced sources whose titles will appear as appealing to Christian readers as Bartholomew’s book itself. Kuyper’s genuine legacy is rich and vital, both deeply rooted and overspreading as a canopy of grace in its many, variegated implications in this our Father’s world. None of us can do, even attempt, all of this, likely not even a significant piece of it. But the biblically interpretive grid and accompanying work Kuyper has shown to be possible provides us with the realization of the power (not our own) that sits in our pockets, like Jack’s beans. Imagine if they were planted, watered, and tended in a widespread way.
I’ll end with a quote from Bavinck that Bartholomew reproduces: “Every Christian must take into account two factors: creation and re-creation, nature and grace, earthly and heavenly vocation, etc.; and in accordance with the different relationship in which he puts these to each other, his religious life assumes a different character . . . Whoever breaks the divinely appointed connection between nature and grace is led to sacrifice one to the other.” Grace separated from nature leads to a narrow fundamentalism disengaged from the world, while nature separated from grace (while still trying to reference grace) leads to theological liberalism that engages the world, but always on the world’s terms. In its God-centeredness, the Kuyperian tradition has shown us the better way.
Mr. Gerry Wisz and his wife, Betty, live in Garfield, NJ, and are parents to eight children and grandparents to six. His family (children still at home) are members of Preakness Valley URC in Wayne, NJ. Gerry has been a long-time contributor to Christian publications, including Christian Renewal and World Magazine, and is featured on Redeemer Broadcasting’s show “Holding All Things Together.” He has also served as an elder in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. He can be reached at gmwisz@ optonline.net. revelation, and kept these before him as he teased out and explored their implications in “spheres” or areas of life as they existed or were institutionalized in society. Unlike other Christian traditions, Reformed Christianity, quite evident in Kuyper, gave a prominent place to creation, though obviously not as prominent as it did to revelation. This meant that revelation can and should be explored as fully as possible in the creation, which meant not only in nature but also in all ways that humanity organized itself.