Publisher: Lexham Academic
Pages: 320 (Hardcover)
What is ‘systematic theology’? I often ask my Dordt students to jot down words and find an image that best represents it at the beginning of the semester. Pictures of books and libraries usually dominate as well as words like “study” and “academic.” By the end of our semester together, the hope is that their lists and pictures become a little fuller, growing to include things like worship, delight, and everyday life outside the pages of books.
In many ways, Neo-Calvinism: A Theological Introduction invites us to go through a similar exercise. What is ‘neo-Calvinism’? This term, Cory Brock and N. Gray Sutanto note, brings up words like philosophy, worldview, transformationalism, and cultural engagement or even—albeit incorrectly—pictures of today’s New Calvinists (a contemporary movement within American evangelicalism that focuses on the doctrine of Graces). For Brock and Sutanto, it is not that all of these associations are wrong. Neo-Calvinism is a movement that has birthed philosophical, political, and culturally engaged streams. Rather, they point out that this picture is incomplete. It is a picture that is missing a vital and vibrant component, without which our pictures of neo-Calvinism will be incomplete or distorted. What are we missing? it’s theology. For Brock and Sutanto, this omission is problematic for many reasons, not least of which is that historic neo-Calvinism was first and foremost a theological movement that sought to revive “Reformed confessionalist theology in the Netherlands.”1 Led by Abraham Kuyper and Herman Bavinck, neo-Calvinism was primarily the “unique marriage between classical, Reformed confessionalist dogmatics and modern philosophy and theology that allowed them to speak” to their context and develop political theology and Reformational philosophy.2
“What are we missing? it’s theology.”
To eliminate theology from our pictures of neo-Calvinism is like having a family picture without parents. Or, to switch metaphors, it’s like a gardener who spends all their time paying attention to the plants without attending to the soil. For Brock and Sutanto, this is problematic because many well-known neo-Calvinist distinctives took root in theological soil. Neo-Calvinism: A Theological Introduction invites us to attend to the soil and to create a richer, fuller, and more complete picture of neo-Calvinism. Their goal, however, is not just that we have a fuller picture, but in creating a full-orbed account to open up space for engagement with Bavinck and Kuyper’s constructive theology and inviting contemporary theologians to inhabit their habits of mind.
To fill out our pictures of neo-Calvinist theology, Brock and Sutanto structure their treatment around specific theological topics and seek to limit engagement with second—or third—generation neo-Calvinists in order to allow “Kuyper and Bavinck to remain the focus of book.”3 However, before exploring particular doctrines, they highlight three neo-Calvinist themes or modes of thinking that bind Kuyper and Bavinck’s theological enterprise together. First, neo-Calvinist theology is self-consciously orthodox yet modern insofar as it seeks to critically retrieve Reformed orthodox and contextualize it in conversation with modern insights. Second, neo-Calvinist theology is holistic as it affirms the relevance and leavening power of Christianity in every area of life. And third, it is organic, not mechanical, as it seeks to articulate a full-orbed account of God’s creation as unity-in-diversity. Drawing on contemporary scholarship on the organic motif in Bavinck, Sutanto and Brock claim that Neo-Calvinist theology “enfolds the organic language ubiquitous in Romantic philosophy into its own confessional Calvinism.”4
To those familiar with neo-Calvinism, one might be surprised that Brock and Sutanto’s introduction does not utilize “grace restores nature” or Christ’s lordship over “every square inch” as the primary points of orientation for neo-Calvinist theology. However, this is part of the brilliance of this volume; it presents a deeper and more full-orbed analysis. Brock and Sutanto identify the modes of thinking that arise from and are reciprocally related to Bavinck and Kuyper’s theology. Thus, they illuminate how theological claims about the relationship between nature and grace or Christ’s lordship inform theological habits of mind that, in turn, shape one’s approach to theology and other aspects of life.
Furthermore, as they illuminate the theological habits of mind/postures within neo-Calvinist theology, they also invite us into neo-Calvinism’s generative theological trajectory. As Brock and Sutanto explain in the final chapter of their book, understanding Bavinck and Kuyper’s constructive theology is essential for understanding the theological roots of neo-Calvinism, but their theologies were never meant to be static systems for contemporary theologians to repristinate. Rather, to engage Bavinck and Kuyper’s theology fully is to also learn their habits of mind and modes of theological engagement. Thus, as they close their book, Brock and Sutanto (helpfully!) summarize neo-Calvinist theology in 16 theses and invite us to emulate three postures closely related to the modes of thinking they identified in their introduction. Just as in the introduction, they highlight Bavinck and Kuyper’s holistic approach and firm belief that the gospel has the power to subvert and fulfill the “cultures and philosophical systems of every age.”5
“As Brock and Sutanto explain in the final chapter of their book, understanding Bavinck and Kuyper’s constructive theology is essential for understanding the theological roots of neo-Calvinism…”
As they articulate the core theological commitments and the essential postures of neo-Calvinist theology, Brock and Sutanto offer a profound gift to readers. We leave with a fuller picture of neo-Calvinism, one that is fuller, more theologically grounded, and less transformationalist picture of neo-Calvinism than is often found in contemporary treatments. It is an excellent introduction to neo-Calvinist theology and helps us see how we can inhabit this tradition. Furthermore, Brock and Sutanto do expand and deepen our pictures of neo-Calvinism.
After this book, there can be no doubt that, at its roots, neo-Calvinism was a deeply theological movement. However, this is also where some questions will arise. Our contemporary pictures or word associations around neo-Calvinism have not developed in a vacuum. Reformational philosophy, in particular, identified and developed neo-Calvinist themes as distinctly philosophical, not theological. I mention this in closing not to reignite a dispute between neo-Calvinist theologians and philosophers, but to note that this book does raise the question, “What do we do with the various streams that developed since Bavinck and Kuyper—especially those that diverted or shifted significantly?” However, this question should not be seen as an assessment of the analysis presented in the book! Brock and Sutanto are first-rate scholars who have given the neo-Calvinist world a lucid, thorough, and rich introduction to Bavinck and Kuyper’s neo-Calvinist theology. I commend it to all who wish to immerse themselves in the theological world of neo-Calvinism!
Check out our latest podcast with host, Dr. Justin Bailey, and authors of Neo-Calvinism: A Theological Introduction Cory Brock and Gray Sutanto.
This review is the first in a series of five that will engage “Neo-Calvinism: A Theological Introduction”. Neo-Calvinism is a distinctive of Dordt’s historical background.