Book Review: Lectures on Calvinism

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In 1898, Dutch Reformed theologian Abraham Kuyper delivered the Stone Foundation Lectures at Princeton University. His topic: Calvinism. At the turn of the century, from the European vantage point of the Netherlands, surrounded by Liberalism’s positivism entrenched in the churches and universities of Europe, Abraham Kuyper set out to recapture a holistic vision and understanding of the Christian faith as reclaimed by the leaders of the sixteenth century Reformation. These six lectures are now available in reprint in the Hendrickson Christian Classics series published by Hendrickson Publishers.

Calvinism is usually associated theologically with its high view of God and a particular application of salvation as well as its historical origin in the theological movement of Reformed European churches led by theologians such as Ulrich Zwingli and John Calvin. With this association, the usual context for discussing Calvinism is within Historical and Systematic Theology; what the Reformers believed and how that fits within a system of beliefs. Yet Abraham Kuyper’s plots for himself a different path of discussion, one which defines the works and legacy of the Dutch Reformed tradition within the Netherlands and surrounding areas. Unable to avoid the schools, scholars, and publications of 19th century Liberalism on the continent, the Dutch Reformed tradition produced theologians who came of age for church leadership in the fray of heated scholarly debate. They could not avoid interacting with and responding to the plethora of material published from Liberal Christian leaders who were denying the inspiration of Scripture, the incarnation and the bodily resurrection for the sake of their parishioners. As is often the case, the unique situation of the Dutch Reformed church–being on the front lines of theological controversy–produced scholars and works with a greater working knowledge of intricate theological arguments and mature responses.

On the verge of the 20th century, Abraham Kuyper’s message to his Princeton audience, across the “pond” from his own home and the arena on the brink of two major world wars, was prophetic. Looking at the conservative Protestant’s privatized religion, disconnected from the outside world and compartmentalized within their own individual belief systems, Abraham Kuyper calls his Protestant brothers to a return to Calvinism. The Calvinism Abraham Kuyper is calling his audience and us by association today to is not a Calvinism limited to five neat points or a few selected works, but a Calvinism which takes its big view of a God who is sovereign over all things and builds a whole life system around this belief. The main point of Abraham Kuyper’s lectures is that Calvinism, or Protestant Christianity, (even Biblical Christianity) that which is grounded in the Scripture, built upon a big view of God, and applies to every area of our life. What makes Calvinism unique from other forms of Christianity and other religions and life systems (which includes Modernism), is that they fail to support a belief system which can lead to human flourishing and a growing society. He is critical of Modernism, Lutherism, and Romanism (Roman Catholicism) because they have proven themselves unable to support adequately to support a way of life which benefits all of humanity within its system in the past. Modernism failed in its grand attempts to build a society upon atheism in the French Revolution and the chaos thereafter, and both Lutherism and Romanism have failed to produce flourishing societies.

The main bulk of this book is spent analyzing how a holistic view of Calvinism, or living all of life in the divine presence, impacts how Christians ought to engage with the world. He analyzes Calvinism and religion, politics, science, art and the future of Western Civilization. The benefit of this work in seen in how Abraham Kuyper is adamant that a Biblical Christianity, grounded in the Gospel and the Kingdom of God, leads to human flourishing in society today. Christianity cannot inevitably impact practice and churches ought to have a presence in the world today as embassies of the kingdom of God.

One of the examples of Abraham Kuyper’s thinking is seen in his unique interaction with Calvinism and Politics. Some might be leery of his seemingly theonomist tendencies, wanting to put all of society under the authority of God, but I think his argument is more sophisticated than that. Every society is based upon a civil religion or a set of held beliefs which manifest themselves in practices that unites a people together. These civil religions will at some point have an epistemological foundation, which Kuyper would say is based upon a Biblical understanding of a God who is sovereign over all and one to whom all of life is acted out before. A sovereign God, to whom all are accountable, leads to a flourishing society, where politics and religion can be kept within their appropriate spheres, science can be appropriately pursued and arts can be used for building up of one another rather than pursuing foolishness and robbing the dignity of others for pleasure and profit. It is interesting that Kuyper’s vision of a “Calvinistic” nation is not one where the Ten Commandments are placed within every school and we force everyone to pledge allegiance to a Christian flag and to the Bible, but one which supports the dignity and importance of the human conscience. Calvinism rightly understood does not lead to a formalized Christian nation, but a nation made up of free individuals who are responsible to God. But in being responsible ultimately to God they must have the ability to exercise their religious beliefs according to their conscience.

Abraham Kuyper, one of the founders of the movement known as “neo-Calvinism” is one of the most influential theologians of the 20th century upon the Church as well as the Western world. For those who are interested in seeing how different people have wrestled with issues pertaining to Christian engagement with the world as well as how their beliefs ought to unfold in personal engagement with the world and culture, Abraham Kuyper offers a path previously trodden. His lectures on Calvinism are a great primary source introduction to Christianity and Politics, Dutch Reformed Calvinism and influential 20th-century theologians.

Interested Yet? Click here to see the book!  

I received this work from Hendrickson Publishers in exchange for my honest review. The photo above is copyrighted by Hendrickson Publishers. 

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