Contours of the Kuyperian Tradition: A Systematic Introduction

Craig G. Bartholomew, Contours of the Kuyperian Tradition: A Systematic Introduction.  Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2017.  xiii + 365 pages.  $40.00, hardcover.

Craig Bartholomew endeavors in this book to set out the major centers of gravity within the school of theological, political, and educational thought that looks to the extraordinarily prodigious and wide-ranging work of Abraham Kuyper for its headwaters.  Bartholomew’s project is not a mere historical reconstruction and uncritical repristination of Kuyper’s thought.  Kuyper would surely take his place as first in line to repudiate such a project as a “false conservatism” (34).  Rather, Bartholomew’s aim is to take the salient insights of the “Kuyperian tradition” and “scout our age and work out how to embody the gospel together in our context” (2).  The reader of this book will thus find themselves constantly prodded to bridge the theological work of the “Kuyperian tradition” with the issues which loom upon our contemporary horizon.  Bartholomew does a fine job throughout the book modeling various ways this might be done.

In the introductory chapter Bartholomew orients his account of the Kuyperian program in the perennial call of Christian discipleship which is “lived in particular historical and cultural contexts” (1). “[I]n one sense” his book is about the need for Christians to attend to two issues:  1. plausibility structures and 2. worldviews (8).  By plausibility he means “the personal, communal, and social embodiment of the life of the kingdom so that when Christians do speak they are listened to” (8).  In criticism of Kuyper, Bartholomew admits his own ecumenical preference to speak with James Orr of “a Christian worldview as opposed to Kuyper’s calling it a Calvinistic worldview” (10).

This admitted critical preference spotlights one lacuna in the book.  Bartholomew never provides a distinct treatment of how the uniquely confessional Calvinistic theology of Kuyper and Bavinck with its emphasis on the sovereignty of God shapes the account of the worldview they developed.  The predestinarian concerns which are exemplified in Kuyper’s Particular Grace and E Voto Dordraceno or in Bavinck’s Reformed Dogmatics are never attended to in any sustained detail.

Chapter 1 narrates a condensed account of Kuyper’s early life and conversion out of his modernist theological roots and into his lifelong conflict with that same theological modernism.  Bartholomew notes that “Kuyper’s conversion contains in seed form all the great themes that will dominate his life” (27).  Central to these themes and the “key to the Kuyperian tradition” (27) is the “palingenesis” which is not just about “our personal rebirth” but also “the rebirth of the entire cosmos” (31).  This leads into the foundational account given in chapter 2 of Kuyper’s way of framing the relationship between “creation and redemption” or “nature and grace.”  Here he also gives extended attention to the contributions of Herman Bavinck on the topic.

Bartholomew’s overview of this most central theme of these two Neo-Calvinist thinkers is quite helpful in its attention to the cosmic sweep of palingenesis, yet it also spotlights another major omission of the book.  While he cites Kuyper’s insistence on the importance of keeping the questions of individual soteriology “front and center in our thinking and practice” (40), he does not provide a focused account of how the relation of nature and grace were developed in the individual soteriology of Kuyper and Bavinck.  Attention to that individual soteriology is especially important against the contemporary backdrop of the excesses of N.T. Wright, whom Bartholomew brings in at places to develop and supplement the “Kuyperian tradition.”

Chapter 3 is an account of Scripture as developed in the Kuyperian tradition.  Bartholomew sets the groundbreaking insights of Kuyper’s and Bavinck’s notion of “organic inspiration” helpfully against the backdrop of their deep familiarity with the biblical criticism of their own day.  Bartholomew’s overview is crisp and accurate.   It is tainted only in passing by the dubious claim that Kuyper held to a sort of proto-neoorthodox notion that “Scripture becomes the Word of God only when the Spirit facilitates God’s address to one in and through Scripture” (86).

Chapter 4 is a meaty account of the Kuyperian notion of worldview, which closes with some very apt criticisms of the way some have seen the Christian appropriation of the notion of worldview to be decificient, perhaps the most trenchant and needful being that “rather than leading to the transformation of society, a worldview entrenches middle-class Christianity and leads to unhealthy messianic activism” (123).

Chapter 5 takes on the notion of “sphere sovereignty” and does so with a little dose of the post-Kuyper work of Herman Dooyeweerd.  Chapter 6 is an overview of the Kuyperian understanding of the church which begins with Kuyper’s early comparative work of Calvin and Laski.  In chapter 7 Bartholomew gives a summary foray into the political program of Kuyper’s Anti-Revolutionary Party and its further systematic development which again he acknowledges has happened “on the back of Dooyeweerd’s work in Christian philosophy” (208).

Chapter 8 is a treatment of the mission of the church which quickly turns from the missiology of Kuyper to an extended and engaging overview of the missiological work of J.H. Bavinck whom Bartholomew sees as supplementing the deficiency of Kuyper who “treats mission mainly as evangelism” (182).

Chapter 9 engages the topic of philosophy providing a treatment of Kuyper’s claim in his Encyclopedia of Sacred Theology that the antithesis between the regenerate and unregenerate leads to the production of “two kinds of science” (248).  The rest of the chapter summarizes the Reformational Philosophy of Dooyeweerd and Vollenhaven followed by an account of the Reformed Epistemology of Plantinga and Wolterstorff.  It ends with the astute challenge that “As Christian scholars we either go our merry ways, ignorant of the philosophical foundations as work in our disciplines, or we explore them and bring them into obedience to Christ.” (268).

Chapter 10 provides an overview of the way that Kuyper, Bavinck, and Berkouwer framed theology as “a particular science” (272) and the prolegomena concerns to which they attended.  Bartholomew also puts here the project of these Neo-Calvinists in dialogue with the Neo-Orthodoxy of Brunner and Barth.  Chapter 11 tackles the distinct and pronounced Neo-Calvinist interest in the subject of education. Bartholomew closes the book in chapter 12 with a vigorous and challenging engagement with “the need for spiritual formation” (316) which among other things draws upon Bavinck’s work on the imitation of Christ (317-318).

Bartholomew acknowledges in his preface that “[t]his is not a historical work” (ix).  Thus, the term “tradition” is a very appropriate titular descriptor of the book as Bartholomew does not necessarily give a strictly historical reconstruction of Kuyper’s individual thought.  Rather he gives a synthetic-theological work which brings in many other theologians post-Kuyper to develop various strands of thought which Bartholomew identifies in Kuyper.  In this sense Bartholomew is delineating a “tradition.”  That is to say he is a developing school of thought originating in Kuyper but which moved out and ramified beyond Kuyper.  This leads into another key thing which should be noted about the book.

At regular intervals throughout the book, Bartholomew will offer criticisms of what he perceives to be deficiencies or undeveloped points within Kuyper’s (and sometimes H. Bavinck’s) thought.  Bartholomew is forthright about this. “While we should never absolutize Kuyper or Bavinck and should continually reform their work in the light of Scripture, it is important that such reform be done consciously so that we can see what is at stake in the moves that are made” (264).  This of course is an entirely legitimate enterprise for the work of a theologian and many of Bartholomew’s critiques are quite percipient and salutary.

However, this should lead to the recognition that we really cannot speak of a current “Kuyperian tradition” in the singular as Bartholomew does in his title, as if such a monolithic entity existed.  Rather, there are varying traditions, varying disciples who have divergent opinions about which particular insights of the master were essential and wholesome, and which were accidental accretions of a less wholesome sort.  Consequently, what is represented in Bartholomew’s book is not “the Kuyperian tradition” per se, but rather one permutation of that tradition which applauds certain aspects of Kuyper’s thought, chides others, and even ignores certain contours of Kuyper’s theology altogether.

This notwithstanding, Bartholomew has produced a very helpful introductory handbook to the major thematic centers of the thought of Kuyper, Bavinck, and many of their disciples.  It will surely stimulate further research, development, and application of the fecundity of Neo-Calvinism in the coming generation of the church and Christian scholars.

Daniel Schrock
Westminster Theological Seminary, Philadelphia