Back to the Beginning: A Review of A Call to Christian Formation

January 18, 2022
Title: A Call to Christian Formation: How Theology Makes Sense of Our World
Author: John C. Clark, Marcus Peter Johnson
Publisher: Baker Academic
Publishing Date: July 20, 2021
Pages: 224 (Paperback)
ISBN: 978-1540960689

“There’s not a square inch in the whole domain of human existence over which Christ, who is Lord over all, does not exclaim, ‘Mine!’” 1  

At my university—and no doubt at the host of this online journal, Dordt University—this famous phrase of Abraham Kuyper’s is quoted a lot. Even the name of this journal alludes to it! For some, Kuyper’s words are so familiar that they’ve become nearly meaningless; for others, the familiarity of them bolsters a world-engaging confidence. It would be a mistake, however, to think that the familiarity of not only these words, but the all-of-life embracing theological vision that they encapsulate, is broadly shared amongst all North American evangelicals. There remains a pervasive, synthetic dichotomy between “what we do in the church” and “what we do in the world.” Whether the goings-on of our daily lives (especially for those not in vocational ministry) are seen as indifferent or antagonistic to gospel work, the result is that all too often spirituality, faith, and theology are bracketed off, away from “normal” or “everyday” activities.  

Kuyper battled this challenge in his day. In the first of his Stone Lectures, “Calvinism as a Life-System,” he argues, rather polemically, that Calvinism, as opposed to other Protestant traditions, is an “all-embracing life system.” By this, Kuyper means that Calvinism provides biblical principles that encompass all of human life: “(1) our relation to God, (2) our relation to man, and (3) our relation to the world.” 2 In other words, Calvinism highlights the biblical reality that every aspect of our lives is lived before the face of God and ought to be lived in line with God’s ways and design. Other Protestant traditions, Kuyper argues, fail to grasp just how expansive God’s reign is by, for example, “plac the kingdom of God in the room of the Church.” 3  

“The relegation of theology to anything less than foundational for everything was a challenge in Kuyper’s day and is no less one in our own.”

Certainly, Kuyper’s rhetoric here is neither ecumenical nor gracious to his fellow brothers and sisters in Christ, but his passion does highlight a distinctively Calvinist answer to a perennial question that Kuyper’s colleague Herman Bavinck articulates in this way: “what is the relationship between the creation and re-creation, of the kingdoms of the earth and the kingdom of heaven, of humanity and Christianity, of what which is from below and that which is from above?” 4 For Kuyper and Bavinck, the answer to this question is that grace restores nature, and thus has everything to say about our life, here and now.  

The relegation of theology to anything less than foundational for everything was a challenge in Kuyper’s day and is no less one in our own. John C. Clark and Marcus Peter Johnson address this challenge head on in their book, A Call to Christian Formation: How Theology Makes Sense of our World. Their claim, simply stated, is that “our theological beliefs shape and determine our understanding of reality” (10). That is, contra the epistemological shift of the enlightenment, theology is a “founding” or “foundational” discipline that should not, and cannot, be ignored. Like Herman Bavinck, who argued that “theology is entitled to the place of honor, not because of the persons who pursue this science, but in virtue of the object it pursues; it is and remains—provided this expression is correctly understood—the queen of sciences,” 5 Clark and Johnson aim to crown theology queen once more. Such a coronation is not due to some high and haughty view of theologians and their work, but on account of the very substance of theology: the triune God.   

Theology is necessary, they argue, for “unless we first truly know God, we cannot truly know ourselves or the rest of creation” (11). On account of its importance, and in the face of modernity’s challenges to theology—whether it’s been relegated to an ecclesial corner, repudiated, diminished, or dismissed—Clark and Johnson issue their challenge: “if Christians have lost this all-encompassing sense of the priority of the knowledge of God…it is high time to recover it” (11).   

In many ways, those of us who come from a tradition in the line of Calvin, Kuyper, and Bavinck, or those influenced by them may read Clark and Johnson’s challenge and assume this is a book for other Christians. It’s unsurprising, after all, that A Call to Christian Formation is full of Reformed voices: Calvin, Bavinck, Newbigin, and others show up frequently in the text and footnotes. But to simply say that we understand the necessity of a Christian worldview, or are well versed in theology’s universal claims, would be to miss the important word Clark and Johnson have for all students of theology. This book gets at the heart of the foundational nature of theology, to be sure, but it also has an important word for how we study theology, challenging two “isms” that have found too much a home in the Reformed world (and beyond): intellectualism and transformationalism.  

Some have taken the robust, weighty theological reflections of the Reformers found in works like Reformed Dogmatics and the Westminster Confession and—against anti-intellectual currents—drill hard and far into the definitions, distinctions, and nuances of these theological works. But this can engender a kind of doctrinal pride, bringing people to the point that they might all but say right doctrine is the key to salvation.  

Others have taken the wide, sweeping claims of the sovereignty of the triune God over all creation and—against the modern currents that Clark and Johnson point to—proclaim a Christianity that speaks to all of life: church, state, school, family, economics, sports, art, and more. But this too can go too far, focusing so much on our action in the world that we downplay or even forget the importance of ecclesiology and piety.  

At the heart of both “isms” is the same issue: making what is logically secondary, and good and right in its proper place, primary. That is, forgetting what fuels us towards these good endeavors, the work of the one true creator God who has united us to himself on account of Jesus’ death and resurrection, by the work of the Spirit, and focusing only on the endeavor itself.  

In A Call to Christian Formation, Clark and Johnson remind us that a world-engaging, foundational and formational theological vision is necessary and important, as is deep theological study and reflection. But these are not ultimate. First and foremost, theology is about who God is and what God does. Only by dwelling in this grand story, in this grand mystery, in encountering the risen Christ, are we able to participate in the gift of theological reflection and are we sent out to engage the world that he has made. In our theological study, we are called to mature into “Christ-normed childlikeness…to grasp that doctrine is not entrusted to us, but we are entrusted to doctrine; that we do not determine the gospel, but the gospel determines us; that we do not make the Christian faith, but the faith makes us; that we do not speak, act, or know in our own name, but in the name of the Father, Son, and Spirit” (178). Theology, they argue, is not simply about historical knowledge; it “entails information, yet is even more about reformation and transformation by our participation in Christ” (91).   

Though their work aims to be broadly catholic and evangelical, Clark and Johnson have a word for the particular pathologies of not only broad North American evangelicalism, but also the Reformed tradition. Perhaps Clark and Johnson simply offer a reminder of the best of the tradition that has at its heart piety and gratitude, or maybe they offer a corrective. Either way, their invitation to study theology with wonder and reverence is a timely reminder.  

Clark and Johnson highlight the foundational nature of orthodox, catholic, evangelical theology by exploring the basic commitments of theology: its substance (Jesus Christ), its context (the church), and its character (mysterious and filled with eschatological tension). In these, they mine the depths of the witness of the church, from the exuberant testimony of the apostles, to the early church’s creedal declarations in the face of heretical challenges, to contemporary thinkers who grapple with the challenges of modernity. They begin by going back to the beginning, to the basics of who the church confesses Jesus to be, and remind us that these (perhaps) seemingly innocuous and inane distinctions of the early councils change everything. But their re-telling of these councils, and the basics of the trinity, highlights the posture with which we ought to do theology: not merely as a re-telling of facts, but understanding that drives us towards wonder, awe, and gratitude at God’s self-revelation in Christ and the incredible mystery of God’s grace towards sinful humanity.  

“…in a world plagued by sin, we are always pilgrims, seeking to trust, obey, and, in humility, be transformed more and more into the likeness of Christ.”

After they cover what we study when we study theology, Clark and Johnson move to where we study. Here, they remind us that because theology is so foundational, it is not merely for the professional theologians and students engaged in an academic study of theology. All Christians receive a theological education in the church through the word and sacrament and through its liturgy. The invitation is extended, thus, to actively partake in that theological education so that we may be rightly formed in the knowledge and way of Christ. And finally, to accept this invitation, we must know how to study theology. Here, once again, Clark and Johnson offer an important word, especially to those who are all too comforted by the seeming certainty that modernity tries to offer. This side of the eschaton, in a world plagued by sin, we are always pilgrims, seeking to trust, obey, and, in humility, be transformed more and more into the likeness of Christ.  

Clark and Johnson offer six theses to sum up their call to be formed through the study of theology (192-194): 

  1. Theology involves accepting the call from our Lord Jesus Christ to have the whole of us transformed by the whole of him, so as to be conformed to the one Christ-reality of God. 
  1. Theology is captivated by and preoccupied with the triune God of the gospel. 
  1. Theology serves the life, worship, and mission of the church. 
  1. Theology is a way of life. 
  1. Theology always originates in divine revelation. 
  1. Theology requires and produces holy humility. 

A Call to Christian Formation doesn’t say anything new or revolutionary, but therein lies its beauty. In it, Clark and Johnson invite us to dwell in the mysteries of God and to be formed more and more into the likeness of Christ. And these, of course, are not new goals. Rather, they are the steadfast desire of orthodox, catholic Christianity throughout time and place. Our own time has its challenges, which Clark and Johnson readily point to. Some of these challenges are perennial, some more unique to our age, but the call to be “transformed by the renewing of our mind” (Rom. 12:2) is one for each time, place, and challenge. This is the posture that Clark and Johnson invite us into: to be captivated by the grand, all-encompassing story of who God is and what he does. 

In an age where the shiny, new, and innovative reign supreme, Clark and Johnson’s call to explore the ancient truths is beautifully revolutionary. This book is, in many ways, part of an exciting renaissance of sorts in evangelical theology to bear witness to the robust, orthodox, catholic, evangelical claims of the church for centuries. Theology matters, they argue. It is nothing less than foundational, for everything.

About the Author
  • Jessica Joustra is Assistant Professor of Religion and Theology at Redeemer University (Hamilton, ON, Canada). She also serves as an Associate Researcher at the Neo-Calvinism Research Institute (Theologische Universiteit Kampen).

  1.  Abraham Kuyper, “Sphere Sovereignty (1880)” in Abraham Kuyper: A Centennial Reader, ed. James D. Bratt (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1998), 488.  

  2.  Abraham Kuyper, Lectures on Calvinism (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1999), 19.  

  3.  Kuyper, Lectures on Calvinism, 31.  

  4.  Herman Bavinck, The Sacrifice of Praise: Meditations before and after Admission to the Lord’s Supper, ed. and trans. Cameron Clausing and Gregory Parker Jr. (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Pub., 2019), 48.  

  5.  Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics: Prolegomena (Vol. 1), ed. John Bolt, trans. John Vriend (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2003), 54.  

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