Can Calvinists Save the World?: A Review of Calvinism for a Secular Age

February 7, 2022
Title: Calvinism for a Secular Age: A Twenty-First-Century Reading of Abraham Kuyper’s Stone Lectures 
Author: Jessica R. Joustra, Robert J. Joustra 
Publisher: IVP Academic
Publishing Date: February 8, 2022
Pages: 248 (Paperback)
ISBN: 978-1514001462

Short answer: definitely not! Most would ask these days, “Can the world be saved from Calvinists?” But we argue in this edited, little book Calvinism for a Secular Age, that Calvinism—while very clear that it is not us that does the saving—is indeed a rich and practical tradition that deserves fresh eyes for the problems of a new generation. It is especially the tradition within Calvinism that is called neo-Calvinism that we stake some hope on, and a 21st century reception of one of its foundational classics in the Anglo world, Abraham Kuyper’s 1898 Lectures on Calvinism.

It seems to us there are at least three common pathologies in the modern world. Charles Taylor names them as well as any other: authenticity and individualism, consequentialism and ethical crisis, and what he calls the “double-loss” of freedom. The social and political backdrop of this is not that different from what Alexis de Tocqueville described in Democracy in America in 1835. There were two dangers to a vigorous public life in America, he warned: the fragmentation of the masses into their “little vulgar pleasures” (it’s better in French), and the countermove to mitigate fragmentation through increasingly prescribed beliefs and practices, eventually a kind of tyranny. There is a fear of collapse of free public life in both ways, inwardly toward our individualist cul-de-sacs—and interior oppression—and on top of us, through a tyranny that holds fragmenting publics together through force and terror. It is not centripetal or centrifugal collapse, it is—bafflingly—both, at the same time.

What can this sleepy little low-country pastor turned journalist turned politician from over a century ago possibly offer these crises of our time?

First, we are not our own. Authenticity addled modernity has us chasing our authentic selves, cut off from tradition, history, our parents, but Kuyper’s Calvinism drives us back to the Heidelberg, driving us back to the good news: we are not our own. We are from somewhere. We are for something. Even in our minor rebellions against our parents, we are defined against the backdrop of our revolutions. We do not merely build ex nihilo our positions in the world, these positions, in a sense, have us first. This is what Kuyper’s Calvinism meant by worldview, not the abstract brains-on-sticks culture war apologetic to which the term has been sadly reduced in some parts of the Anglo world, but the primal confession that long before we got into the business of articulating it, we believed, we practiced, in our bones, a view of God, the world, each other. We are part of something, whether we confess it or not.

“We are part of something, whether we confess it or not.”

Second, we belong. The crisis of consequentialism hits our ethics hardest, Charles Taylor has that right. If judgments of value and virtue are made on the basis of what extends our sense of self, our journey, what is right and good follows from what enlarges and enables that authenticity. But if we are not our own but we belong, then our ethics are not personal, nor are they consequential. We are not left to wonder in astonishment and then horror about how things ought to be, the God of the universe has claimed us, and written us in his Law a love letter to creation. That belonging is what makes any building, any common life, possible together. Kuyper’s Calvinism doesn’t just prove the lie of consequentialist ethics, it drives us forward into common projects, it gives us fidelity and possibility for loving faithful institutions.

Third, we are not afraid. So much of our common politics today is driven by fear: a crisis in identity politics and the pressure for recognition, a crisis in whether common causes or values hold us together beyond the procedures and institutions, straining under the stress of shifting architectonic plates of culture. Kuyper’s Calvinism is not idealistic, but it is hopeful. Calvinists, in the end, are the last ones to talk about saving the world. God in Jesus has brought salvation to us. We live now in gratitude. Kuyper’s Calvinism drives us into the world not as conquerors or as anxious dualists, but with the quiet confidence of those for whom everything has already been accomplished. Now we join in where we can. Now we do the work of proximate justice. Here are the little Calvinists, Kuyper’s kleyne luyden, sowing their seeds, wiring their houses, making and reforming their laws, building their ships.

“Calvinism is not idealistic, but it is hopeful.”

Calvinists won’t save anyone, not even themselves. But Kuyper’s vision of Calvinism isn’t about us, it isn’t even about our salvation, it’s about God’s sovereignty. Everything—everything—flows from there. We are not alone. We belong. And we don’t need to be afraid.

For further engagement around this topic, listen to this podcast conversation with the editors of this book, and read additional book reviews from Dordt faculty: theology (1) professors(2), a Co-Director of Kuyper’s Honors Program professor, an English professor, and a planetary science professor.

About the Authors
  • 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).

  • Robert Joustra is associate professor of Politics & International Studies at Redeemer University (Hamilton, ON).

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