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A Theological Introduction
by cory c. brock and n. gray sutanto
lexham academic, 320 pages, $36.99 

Abraham Kuyper and Herman Bavinck are the theological fathers of the Reformed renewal movement known as “Neo-Calvinism,” which launched in the Netherlands in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. This movement continues to inspire Christians all over the globe, and has picked up steam in the Anglophone world over the past two decades with translations of Kuyper’s key works in public theology and Bavinck’s Reformed Dogmatics. 

The recent book Neo-Calvinism: A Theological Introduction, by Cory C. Brock and N. Gray Sutanto, will likely be the standard guide to the movement for years to come. Neo-Calvinism—not to be confused with the “New Calvinism” that emerged in the U.S. in the late twentieth century—seeks to retrieve and extend Calvin’s comprehensive vision, and thus has both continuity and discontinuity with classical Reformed theology. The founders of the movement, Kuyper and Bavinck, were confessional Calvinists, subscribing to the Three Forms of Unity (the Belgic Confession, the Canons of Dort, and the Heidelberg Catechism). Yet they believed that Reformed Christianity needed to be updated for the modern world. 

This is reflected in two of the sixteen summative theses Brock and Sutanto provide in the final pages of their book. Thesis 1: “Neo-Calvinism is a critical reception of Reformed orthodoxy, contextualized to address the questions of modernity.” Thesis 3: “Neo-Calvinism . . . applies historical creedal and confessional theology to the concerns of the modern world.” The architects of Neo-Calvinism, as Brock and Sutanto explain, sought to be “orthodox yet modern.” But did Kuyper and Bavinck provide enough resources to promote unity and appreciation of the broader Christian tradition, or even of their own Reformed heritage? 

My chief concern with the Neo-Calvinists is that their innovations may end up cutting off future generations from the Reformed tradition that made their contributions intelligible. Quotes are provided in which Kuyper describes earlier Reformed political theory as outdated and Bavinck claims that Reformed scholasticism paved the way for rationalism. As our authors explain, Kuyper replaced the names for the attributes of Scripture traditional to Protestantism (sufficiency, necessity, authority, and perspicuity) with his own: durability, catholicity, fixedness, and purity. And he and Bavinck invented new terms, such as “common grace,” “sphere sovereignty,” and “pillarization.” My qualms echo R. R. Reno’s argument about the nouvelle théologie, the twentieth-century renewal movement within Catholic theology. Reno writes that these theologians inherited the basic bones of orthodox thought, but in trying to shed sterile scholasticism and re-package orthodox thought for the modern world, their interventions ran the risk of cutting their students off from an older theological heritage. Renewal movements, argues Reno, can “introduce so many new concepts and novel formations that, to come alive for students, they require the formation of an almost hermetic school of followers.” After such periods of “creativity” and “exploration,” argues Reno, “we need a period of consolidation that allows us to integrate the lasting achievements of [these movements] into a renewed standard theology.” 

Any renewal movement must wrestle with this challenge. We see the beginnings of such a grappling in Bavinck, who claimed that while Calvinism is an especially beautiful form of Christianity, “it is not coextensive with Christianity.” As Brock and Sutanto note, Bavinck pivoted from emphasizing the resources of “Calvinism” for addressing the modern world to focusing on Christianity in a more general sense. In view of the need for consolidation, we would be wise to privilege traditional Christian terminology as opposed to foregrounding Neo-Calvinist novelties. 

My second concern with Neo-Calvinism is that it does not adequately promote unity and appreciation of the broader Christian tradition. Neo-Calvinism argues that Christianity does not need any one culture or philosophical handmaiden, though it can adapt to and incorporate the insights of any age. While I fully agree with this, the embrace of pluriformity is not unique to Calvinism, as Brock and Sutanto seem to suggest. Henri de Lubac, for instance, similarly argued that true catholicity recognizes that “all races, all centuries, all centers of culture have something to contribute to the proper use of the divine treasure which [the church] holds in trust.” Brock and Sutanto, praising pluriformity, assert that institutional unity is mechanical and imposed, but this is not fully substantiated. Might some institutional aspect be involved in visible unity? Does any kind of uniformity play a role within a unity that can incorporate diversity? 

An example of a missed opportunity for unity and theological agreement comes with their exposition of the nature-grace relation. Throughout this volume, the authors frequently set the Neo-Calvinist position—“grace restores nature”—against Catholic teaching on this topic. But the dualistic, “pure nature” positions that Kuyper and Bavinck critiqued were a product of a particular moment in Catholic thought and were severely criticized by prominent Catholics themselves in the following decades—foremost among them, de Lubac. Neo-Calvinists remain averse to the “elevation” language of Catholic theology, or any notion of an ontological shift. But in places Kuyper and Bavinck are willing to say that grace (and “re-creation”) not only restores, but “perfects” nature, taking us beyond man's state in Eden. Kuyper says that “[r]e-creation brings us to that which is . . . perfected, completed.” Bavinck says that “Christ gives more than sin took away.” Summarizing Kuyper’s and Bavinck’s thought, Brock and Sutanto claim that even in Eden the first humans would have ascended to a “higher state,” a higher “glory,” through their obedience, which is now achieved in Christ. 

My proposal is to look at all of this through the incarnation. Bavinck claims that Christ is the “heart of dogmatics,” that creation is ordered to re-creation, and that Christ brings humanity to its fullness. And was this not all planned, as the Apostle Paul claims, before creation? The question then is how this pre-planned perfecting of human nature in the incarnation of the Son of God should inform our understanding of the nature-grace relation. On this point, the contemporary “Neo-Chalcedonian” renewal movement, comprising Catholic, Orthodox, and Anglican theologians inspired by the writings of Maximus the Confessor, provides clarity and potential unity, further underscoring the need to embrace the language of the broader tradition. 

I believe that the Neo-Calvinist movement has much to offer contemporary theology. But if its contributions are going to last, we need to enter that period of “consolidation” Reno describes. This book is a fine summation of the Neo-Calvinist innovations. What remains is to further explicate the relationship between those innovations and the broader tradition, including the magisterial Reformed tradition from which it sprang, the Reformed scholasticism which it critiqued, and later developments outside of the Reformed tradition that promise mutual understanding and refinement. 

This essay is adapted from a speech delivered at the 2023 Kuyper Conference.

James R. Wood is assistant professor of ministry at Redeemer University. 

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