On this episode of the podcast, we talk with Cory Brock and Gray Sutanto about their new book, Neo-Calvinism: A Theological Introduction (Lexham Press). We know that our listeners come from many different theological traditions other than our own, and although this discussion may at times go into the weeds, the larger conversation is about what it means to work out of a historical tradition, retrieving while also reimagining. Among the topics we discuss:
- – What is Neo-Calvinism? What makes it “neo”? Is it broad or specific?
- – What does it mean to restore and renew instead of to “repristinate” a tradition?
- – How do we value the unique calling & perspective of a particular tradition while also recognizing the larger body of Christ?
- – What does it mean to say that “grace restores nature”?
- – How do we answer the charge that “every square inch” leads to triumphalism, or even Christian nationalism? What’s the difference?
- – What is the nature of our hope for “re-creation”? What do Neo-Calvinists believe about the age to come, the renewal of all things, and the “beatific vision” (encountering God face-to-face)?
A series of reviews engage “Neo-Calvinism: A Theological Introduction”. Neo-Calvinism is a distinctive of Dordt’s historical background.
“Orthodox, Holistic, and Organic” – part 1, by Gayle Doornbos
“Total, Unified, Catholic World” – part 2, by Laremy DeVries
”Do Modern Christians Know God Differently?” – part 3, by Geoffrey Fulkerson
“Created to Glorify” – part 4, by Jess Joustra
“Evangelizing Everything, Including Ourselves” – part 5, by Justin Bailey
Is Pre-Vatican II Roman Catholicism a Closed Church?: A Review of Ch. 2-3 – by Eduardo Echeverria
Cory and Gray’s podcast, Grace in Common: https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/grace-in-common/id1609942093
Transcript (click to expand)
Note: This transcript is autogenerated and may contain grammatical errors.
Justin Ariel Bailey: Welcome to the newest episode of the In All Things podcast, where we host conversations with diverse voices about living creatively in God’s created world. I’m your host, Justin Ariel Bailey, and I teach at Dordt University, which is home to the Andreas Center, the sponsor of this podcast. On this episode of the podcast, we speak with Gray Sutanto and Cory Brock, coauthors of a new book on Neo-Calvinism which names the general theological perspective of this podcast. We know that our listeners come from many different theological traditions other than our own, and although this discussion at times goes into the weeds, the larger conversation is about what it means to work out of historical tradition retrieving, but also reimagining. The conversation touches on Christian unity, Christian nationalism, and what we may expect in the age to come. Wherever you come from, we hope it has something for you. Thanks, as always, for tuning in. I thought this episode would be as good a time as any to give listeners a peek behind the curtain to see the logic behind the authors we interview on this podcast. The roster is a bit whimsical and idiosyncratic, but books are selected under three broad themes: retrieving the tradition, reckoning with evil, and renewing our imagination. This episode falls under the heading of retrieving the tradition. By the tradition, I mean both the broad Christian tradition as well as the more specific tradition and perspective that undergirds In All Things. That tradition has Dutch roots in theologians like Abraham Kuyper and Herman Bavinck, as well as in the philosopher Herman Dooyeweerd. What does it mean to inhabit and work out of a tradition? To go on in the same way, but also in ways that our forefathers and foremothers may not have anticipated? I’ve always liked the distinction between tradition, the living faith of the dead, and traditionalism, the dead faith of the living. By working out of a tradition, we confess that the faith did not begin with us, that it is an inheritance bequeathed to us by many faithful believers who trusted God and wrestled with faith in the generations before us. They were flawed, just as we are, but they sought to be faithful, and we seek to follow them in patterns of faithfulness even as we face new situations and new challenges. So, we take time to sit down at the table with them, so to speak, learning from them and carrying the project forward in the times and places that are ours. Whether you identify with a Reformed or Calvinist or Neo-Calvinist tradition, we hope you find these questions interesting. How do we go forward into the future without forgetting the past? How do we honor the diversity of the body of Christ while also recognizing unique gifts? And what are the gifts that the Neo-Calvinist theological tradition seeks to offer? This brings me to my conversation partners. First is my guest, co-host Dr. Jessica Joustra. Jess is a former guest on the show—look up that episode. She’s also an In All Things editorial board member, and she teaches theology at Redeemer University in Hamilton, Ontario. Her featured guests are coauthors of this new book. Dr. Gray Sutanto is a professor of systematic theology at Reformed Theological Seminary in Washington, DC. Dr. Cory Brock is a minister at St. Columbus Free Church of Scotland in Edinburgh and lecturer and theology at Edinburgh Theological Seminary. Both are authors of several books, but as I said, their newest is Neo-Calvinism: A Theological Introduction, which is the focus of this conversation. To that, we now turn.
Justin Ariel Bailey: I’m joined now by three friends, doctors of theology all, my guests and co-host, Dr. Jessica Joustra, Dr. Cory Brock, and Dr. Gray Sutanto, talking about Gray and Cory’s new book Neo-Calvinism: A Theological Introduction. Good to have all you on the In All Things podcast.
Gray Sutanto: Great to be here.
Cory Brock: Yeah, thanks for having us.
Justin Ariel Bailey: So, let’s start with the very idea of Neo-Calvinism. One of the things that you do in the early chapters of the book is sort of disambiguate Neo-Calvinism. In other words, it’s like you say, “Will the real Neo-Calvinism please stand up?” And you try to make the contours clear and say, sometimes it’s mistaken for this, sometimes it’s mistaken for that. So, I wonder if you could explain for our listeners what is Neo-Calvinism, what makes it neo, what makes it Calvinism? And what are some other things that might go by the same name that are not quite what you’re describing?
Cory Brock: Thanks, Justin. Well, I mean, I’m realizing now that we should have cited Eminem, and maybe all historical theology works should cite Eminem in the introduction at some point. We’re not saying that there can’t be many things that can be called Neo-Calvinism, not at all. What we’re trying to do is say that it’s important to go back to original sources as we develop a definition of Neo-Calvinism in order to interpret the many tributaries that have come off of the original river. That was the Dutch Neo-Calvinist movement in the late 19th, early 20th century. So Neo-Calvinism for us is a movement that begins in the late 19th, early 20th century in the Netherlands. It’s got precursors and influences, but its main theological proponents are Abraham Kuyper and Herman Bavinck. And we think of that as its original form. Now, one way to think about it might be this that when we ask, “What’s Calvinism?” A mistake would be to start with TULIP and to go and say, “Well, Calvinism is TULIP.” TULIP is an acronym that’s formed later, right? And it’s a response to a controversy that arose after Calvin. If we want to know what we’re talking about, we need to go back to the source itself. And so that’s what we’re trying to do in this book, that in order to rightly interpret later streams of Neo-Calvinism, we need to understand the original sources themselves. Gray can say more about this, but there are all sorts of things that aren’t driven by the Dutch theology that have been called Neo-Calvinism in the last 50 years, especially the last 20 years, especially in North America. And so, what we’re talking about particularly is a theological tradition that comes from the Netherlands and that began with Kuyper and Bavinck. If you read sources, secondary sources, theological sources that want to talk about Neo-Calvinism over the past 25 years, let’s say in North America, one of the things that often will happen is you’ll see Dutch Neo-Calvinism referenced, and then somebody might immediately move on to speak about N. T. Wright as a primary example of what Neo-Calvinism is. In some ways, we understand why some of these things happen, but it’s an incredibly common phenomenon. And what we want to say is that we haven’t been very helpful in talking about it until we’ve realized what it was trying to say originally in its context, in its time, particularly between 1880 and about 1920. And so that’s what we’re referring to.
Gray Sutanto: Well, thanks very much for that, Cory, and for setting up the trajectory pretty well. So maybe to directly address Justin’s question there, what does Calvinism mean? What does the “neo” mean, presupposing all that Cory has just said about the goals of what we’re trying to do in this book? Calvinism here in this sort of context refers to the ways in which Kuyper and Bavinck wanted to, I guess two things, retrieve the older reformed orthodoxy for a modern age. And secondly, they were very much inspired by Calvin’s attempts at showcasing the public impact of theology in his own context in Geneva. But of course, here’s where the neo comes in. We can’t just represent everything that Calvin did in Geneva, right? So, the neo refers to the ways in which they wanted to update what Calvin was doing. So, this idea that God is sovereign over all things, that we live before the presence of God coram Deo that should have implications for everything that we do. But how do we do that in the context of modernity where we have learned a lot of things about modern life? And Kuyper actually argued that modernity liberalism, they’re merely atheistic, sort of caricatures of Calvinism or imitations of Calvinism. And one of his arguments was that if God is sovereign, then no human being should be sovereign. If Christ is Lord, then we are not lords. So how do we showcase the universal implications of theology without having an established church, let’s say without denigrating the real plurality that we see in the modern world? How do we accommodate that, yet at the same time show that Calvinism and Christianity is the proper foundation for these things that we take for granted in the modern world, like democracy, pluralism, and things like that. So, that’s the immediate sense of Neo-Calvinism. There is also a broader sense which makes sense of the many tributaries of Neo-Calvinism. And Kuyper and Bavinck did this too. Again, it’s that retrieval of Reformed orthodoxy. So, they want to presuppose the confessional boundaries and articulations of that orthodoxy, but they want to expound on that same doctrine using different philosophical language and different expositions. So, of course the one the sort of language that we’re all aware about now is the kind of organic motif that we see in Kuyper and Bavinck. They used that to articulate the doctrine of Scripture, the inspiration of Scripture. And one of the things that surprised us most in writing this book is they argued that it is in the doctrine of Scripture that they needed to be most creative, to be the most acute in terms of their rearticulation of a particular classical doctrine. We also saw them incorporating more romantic language about affection, romantic language about distinguishing between form and essence. The form of Calvinism could change from age to age, but the essence remains the same. So, it’s the same doctrine but different philosophical expositions of the doctrine. So that explains a lot about the creativity of Neo-Calvinism after Kuyper and Bavinck.
Justin Ariel Bailey: Yeah, just as a follow up, I was using the adjective “reformational” the other day, and somebody said, “By ‘reformational,’ do you mean something broad or something narrow?” I thought it’d be interesting to pose that question to you as well, because the way you’ve described it in some ways could seem quite narrow. You’ve said the Dutch stream. You’ve mentioned two thinkers in particular, but you’ve also sort of teased out these universal implications for all of life. So how would you answer that sort of question? Is Neo-Calvinism, as you perceive it, simultaneously narrower and broader at the same time than what most people consider to be Calvinism?
Gray Sutanto: Great question. I think the immediate sort of response that I would think of in response to that would be, it’s historically very specific. So, I never want to use the word ‘narrow.’ It’s historically specific, but it’s got definitely universal catholic implications because it’s empowering. I would suggest people to receive the same credential confessional doctrines that we would receive as Reformed Christians in their own context, in their own way. And also, therefore there’s a kind of posture of anticipation that you might see the same doctrines afresh when you see them articulated in a new context in their own way. And this idea of catalyst means anticipating that we can learn from the present that Christianity looks a little bit different in every place and space and different philosophical articulations of it. And yet there’s a unity. Christ is Lord, salvation is by grace, right? Scripture is the word of God. So, I think there’s definitely universal implications there. And the word, ‘reformational,’ I definitely don’t want to just limit it to be delivered in philosophy. I understand it, and I’m very happy for them to do what they are doing. But I think it’s a good word, and I just don’t want to limit it to just that.
Cory Brock: Gray no, I think that was a great answer. For Bavinck, when he writes about this, ‘Reformed’ is a more precise word. It’s a word that is about subscribing to a Protestant confession that comes to us from the time of the Reformation, where Calvinism is actually the broader claim. Calvinism, as Gray mentioned, means that because the point of creation has always been that God is going to sum up all things in Jesus Christ, Calvinism means that God matters for every single aspect of human life. And so, it’s the broader, more universal claim, while ‘Reformed,’ for Bavinck, is a reference to subscribing to the confessions and catechisms of the Reformation itself. So that’s kind of his definitional way of thinking about it.
Jessica Joustra: We’ve already talked a little bit about the way this book looks at a particularly historically situated tradition that, again, has these universal implications. And it’s a tradition that’s already been picked up. It has tributaries. It has all of these people that are thinking about what Kuyper and Bavinck have done, what Neo-Calvinism means today, and the way that Bavinck and Kuyper themselves thought about what does it look like to do theology, to be Calvinist in a particular time. And you really hopefully situate them as both catholic and modern thinkers. They do this themselves. You tease out for us what that means. And as they do that, that’s both a positive project for them, right? They’re being catholic and modern, and they’re also rejecting a word we’ve already talked about today, repristination. And so, you tell us how they’ve expressly rejected, they’ve fought against this bad conservatism, they fought against repristination in their own time, and this lure in even their own Reformed circles to return, return to simply the past. And that is not what you’ve articulated here as their project. They are working on restoration, not repristination. And I’m curious, as we see this Bavinck and Kuyperian Neo-Calvinist resurgence, is there a danger again, of the lure of returning or the lure of simply repristination? And I’m wondering if you can kind of think aloud with us about what it might look like in the middle of a Neo-Calvinist resurgence to take part in the project that Kuyper and Bavinck themselves are taking part in, a project of restoration, not repristination.
Gray Sutanto: Well, I think the project of reformation to sort of maybe comfort our listeners. The project of reformation necessarily involves retrieval of the past, right? So, we’re not against retrieval. That’s a word that’s been really important in recent years, especially because my colleagues Scott Swain, Mike Allen, so we like retrieval. We love retrieval. And so, the very word ‘reformation’ presupposes developing from the past, right? Or using the past, looking at the past for the sake of renewal. So that’s what we mean by the term ‘reformation.’ It’s not just doing away with the past and doing something completely new, which is what Kuyper thought the liberals in his day were doing, the liberal theological tradition. I do think that we need to be wary of representation in Kuyper and Bavinck. But the thing is, what’s really helpful about the Kuyperian and Bavinckian tradition is that the more you involve in their writings, the more they themselves call you to take their work and to do something very fresh and creative with it while again presupposing the past. So, in their context, when they were saying that we shouldn’t want representation, the specific sense of that term is used against sort of the old conservative established church movement in the Netherlands, right? This idea that each nation should have an established church, we should enforce a particular religion, we should give privileges to the Christian faith. And a lot of the older conservatives wanted to say that the Dutch nation is a Protestant nation still. And Kuyper, who wanted a free church, disestablished church, was arguing that that’s not the way of the future. We still want the old confession. We still want to reject liberalism, but we want it in a disestablished church. So that’s why he argued that the form of Calvinism would look different today in a modern and pluralistic society. And he actually argued that there were good theological grounds for that. And because of your doctrine of common grace, this is the time of God’s patience. God is not going to judge us just yet. And so, we have to be patient with unbelief if God is calling us to be patient with unbelief. And so, he has theological grounds for advocating democratic pluralism. And that’s really fascinating to us here today. So, as we consider his work for our project, again, there’s that posture of anticipation of people doing really fresh and new things. And when I meet Dooyeweerdians, when I meet lots of the Van Tillians, when I meet different tributaries, the Neo-Calvinist tradition where there’s the Wolterstorff planting giants, my posture is never well, that’s not what Kuyper and Bavinck did exactly. So, let’s just go ahead and go back there. My posture is always, that’s great. I’m glad that you’re working on these traditions. So, there’s a kind of a healthy sense of diversity in the tradition once you deal with your posture. I do think speaking to our delivery in France, there’s a narrowing, that there’s a possibility because of the new vocabulary that delivered introduces. But I’m happy for them to work in that tradition. And I think the impulse is that Dooyeweerdians can take a look at their original forms of Neo-Calvinism and say there’s room for uses of scholasticism, there’s room for uses of Aristotelian philosophy, even within a Neo-Calvinistic framework. So, it’s not going to be exactly the same as the 17th century reform orthodox. But we can still use these tools as very helpful for today. So, I want to see that diversification continue to flourish within the bounds of confessional orthodoxy. Because, again, actually a lot of the creativity stems from reflecting on the confessional orthodoxy that we all draw upon.
Cory Brock: I’ll just add that very basic to the theology of Neo-Calvinism and to the theology of Bavinck, especially in his dogmatics, is that it’s that classic distinction between archetypal theological thinking and ectypal. What we mean by that is that only God does theology perfectly. Only God thinks theology completely correctly. We don’t, and we do it ectypally. We try to think God’s thoughts after him, but we do it as finite human beings that are sinners. And that means that theology is always in development. It’s never arrived, and it will never arrive until Christ returns. And so that gives a theological groundwork to say that there’s no golden age in that. We must return and we must retrieve. But the call to retrieval, the call to return is as a visitor, it’s going back and visiting, especially when the faith in the present is compromised at its basic foundations. We go to the past to retrieve and visit in order to see what the saints of all have understood as the essence of the faith. But the problem gets created when we suppose that the forms of the past need to migrate into the present in all the ways that the essence of the faith has taken shape in a particular context and culture. And I think Bavinck and Kuyper understood that really well. I think they’re models. So, the danger of representation for us as we read Bavinck and Kuyper would be to fail to see their own model and to fail to see that they’re providing a model, not a material theology that has to be adopted in every single way, shape, and form. You guys probably have examples of this playing out at a very specific level in your own lives. I know that in the past I’ve been a part of church communities, for example, where we decided to go and plant a church in another part of the world. And in order to do that, the decision was to take the book of church order, the form of how a church ought to be and function in the most circumstantial ways and translate that to the language of the culture that we were going to. That means that the new culture needs to meet in its church courts according to Euro American parliamentary procedure or whatever it might be, and make decisions in these ways. Shapes. That’s the form, that’s a form, that Christianity takes as elders and deacons meet together. But it has nothing to do, it’s not in any way the essence. And that would be a way down the road detailed mistake of missing returning and retrieval and actually doing repristination. And so, I would say that Neo-Calvinism is antithetical to a culture that draws lines in the sand about every single secondary matter, about every single circumstance and element that takes place in a particular church context and then determines its enemies according to those lines in the sand. And instead, what we want to say is that we never want the mission to be uniform, duplication. We want it instead to be catholic, small “c”, so universal and broad to take shape in all different cultures and societies according to its own logic, according to the logic of their own culture. This is a huge question. I mean, there’s so much we could say about it, but those are a few thoughts.
Justin Ariel Bailey: Yeah, that’s great. As you talk about diversity and catholicity with a small “c,” one of the things we’ve struggled with in the past (adored, where I teach) is a certain kind of insularity. And some of that reflects the Dutch immigrant experience. And some of it represents what we perceive as a unique Reformational perspective, a Dooyeweerdian perspective, especially. And so, as our student body, as our faculty, becomes more diverse, one of the tensions that we feel is holding on to the vitality of the tradition, variously conceived while also being hospitable to the larger family of faith. And so, I found the discussion in the latter chapters about Bavinck’s call for broad ecclesiology to be quite compelling. I wonder if you could explain this a bit to us and answer the question of how we might value the unique calling and perspective and gifts of the Reformed tradition, but also recognizing everything that Cory said as far as our fallenness, our finitude, the fact that we are imperfect in our theology and recognizing the reality of the larger body of Christ.
Cory Brock: So Neo-Calvinism has at its heart a principle that says Calvinism in the name is the greatest expression of Christian theology in all its development so far, but it is not the whole truth. So, Bavinck says it to the shock of some of his listeners at a conference when he was in Canada, in fact, said that Calvinism is great, but it’s not the whole truth. And that might be a starting quote for a reflection on this question. To be a Neo-Calvinist is to say, “I cannot be insular. I have to learn to critically dialogue with every single Christian tradition.” And the archetype/ectype distinction is at the back of that. And so, a broad ecclesiology is one that says, it’s really one that says, “I’m willing to approach every Christian without suspicion as my starting point.” It’s the opposite of Christian social media today in some ways. It’s an antidote, I think. And so, for ecclesiology really means that hospitality to the Church, catholic, small “c,” across the world is more important than the different and temporary institutions that have developed in the Christian Church across the world. Our institutions are temporary. They’re going to fall away. They’re scaffolding. We have all these named denominations and named institutions. But what’s more beautiful than institutional distinction is hospitality between the catholic body of Christ. And I think that’s what he means by a broad ecclesiology. And so, for him, that’s not to fail to say I’m convinced and I’m compelled by this particular form of Christianity. It’s not at all to push that away. It’s to stand firm within an exegetical tradition, a theological tradition, absolutely. But at the same time, say, I know how limited I am, an objection that might be had here, an objection that is commonly had on this topic is well, what about the wolves? What about the New Testament metaphor of those who want to come in and undermine the church and undermine theology and do bad things with specific doctrines? And what we’re not talking about, we’re not talking about here a failure of confrontation. We’re not talking about here about a failure to seek truth as far as we can know it and as far as it can be found, this is not winsomeness to the lack of confrontation, not at all. Instead, it’s about loving the very point of existence, which is that God is summing up all things in Jesus Christ and in that he has a bride. And so, it’s about loving the bride, loving the bride that is Christ’s bride, the whole church in all of her expressions, both individually and corporately. And so, I think a broad ecclesiology is so important. It recognizes the fact that you don’t have to get your theology right to be a Christian, that that really is foundational to the Neo-Calvinist impulse. And so, on the one hand, Neo-Calvinism, you know, if you’ve looked at our book at all, you know, Neo-Calvinism seeks to be precise, theologically, robust. It’s not always the easiest stuff to read and yet at the same time wants to be generous and merciful and gracious, hospitable in the posture of love.
Gray Sutanto: Alongside that too, not only hospitality towards those who are Christians in the church or at this broad catholicity also involves a posture of openness to culture as well, because grace is only against sin, not against nature. Culture is itself an organic development of nature. We can’t help but be culture makers, as we’re image bearers of God. The Psalms talk about this all the time that God has given us the plants to cultivate so that we might make wine and bread to gladden the heart of men. So, culture is the product of who we are as image bearers. And to be against culture and to think of ourselves almost as a kind of separatist sort of way where we could be a pure church apart from the world is not only, I think, a rejection of God’s gifts to us posture of ungratefulness, Bavinck could argue, but also it’s painfully naive because we think that we are pure from that. So, Chris Watkins was just here last night, and I think he makes this point brilliantly in his book, the Book of Critical Theory [Biblical Critical Theory]. And in his talk as well, he says that because Christians argue that the point of reference for good and evil is not in creation but in God, we can be free to evaluate all of culture as a mixed entity, as there are principally elements of sin there because of the antithesis but also common grace. And because that point of reference is not in creation, we’re free to be self-critical in ourselves. Because we’re not tethered to something in creation where we can’t critique. And also, we can see, no matter how vague it might be, no matter how hidden it might be, the goodness of God is still in the image bears who are against him. Right? And so, I think it’s treating human beings as human beings in a post-fall reality after the entrance of sin and yet with that expectation that God is patient with them and they’re still image bears, metaphysically speaking. So, I think that openness to culture is involved in the catholicity as well.
Jessica Joustra: Yeah, that’s wonderful. And as in Neo-Calvinism is such a compelling vision. And you’ve already, I think, wonderfully kind of introduced us to the theological project of Bavinck and Kuyper in this conversation and in the background of a lot of what we’ve been talking about. And Gray, you kind of started to bring it to the foreground a little bit in that last answer. Is this nature/grace relationship that they understand, this key tagline that grace restores nature? And I wonder if you can tease that out a little bit more. What do Bavinck and Kuyper mean by their claim that grace restores nature? And how does that both situate them as broadly within this Church, small “c,” catholic, this broad ecclesiology? And how do they see it functioning as not only situating broadly within the Church Catholic but an important distinction of Neo-Calvinism?
Gray Sutanto: That’s a great question. Maybe I’ll start and Cory can also continue on with this. But grace restores nature in principle. It’s always been there in our tradition, even before Neo-Calvinism, right? So, you see this sort of dictum in all of the scholastics, whether medieval or reform. Grace perfecting nature, grace consummating nature. So, the Neo-Calvinist idea of grace restoring nature is not against all of those dictums, but it does put its own spin on it because, yes, grace does elevate nature in the sense that consummation brings us to creation’s. Tell us creation was was that it had a trajectory to begin with. God had created Adam and Eve in the context of the covenant of works. And had they been obedient to the covenant of works, God would have given them the Beatific vision, which is a promise of life that was given to them in the covenant of works. So, in that sense, it’s a consummation of human nature. And so original perfect righteousness was given to Adam and that perfect righteousness was meant to be consummate in the Beatific vision with God. But I think the Neo-Calvinist spin is the recognition that after the Fall especially, nature is no longer self-sufficient. Nature has been corrupted, inherently corrupted because of the Fall. And so, the proper functioning of nature in morality presupposes common grace. So, grace restoring nature, I think, refers not merely to special grace but also to common grace. This is a really important distinctive of Neo-Calvinism that the proper functioning of nature in morality and epistemic. Access to nature has common grace as a sort of precondition to it. So, when we see therefore human beings as good when they have access to truth, the Neo-Calvinist instinct is not to just say well, it’s because of human nature. The Neo-Calvinist instinct is to say it’s because of grace that we do that. So, we’re not surprised when human beings do evil in a sense because of the radicality of total depravity, right? But we are surprised when human beings are good in a sense where God is merciful here to us such that we can have agreements with a non-believer. God is merciful to us such that we have access to these truths. Because left to ourselves, as Romans once says, God would give us over to ourselves. So, I think Kuyper and Bavinck articulated this idea that without common grace, total depravity would be utter depravity. He’s very clear on this in a lot of passages. So, I think common grace is a really important, distinctive fear. And also, when we talk about grace restoring nature, there is that aspect of when you’re Christian, you are given a new way of looking at things, right? I know worldview has been critiqued to death, but I think we need to rehabilitate it. Bavinck talks about looking at all things under the light of eternity, under the light of the word of God. And so, when Christians are gifted with regeneration, we view all things in light of the Trinity. And that does give a unique perspective on things, a perspective on things that actually perceives the nature of things, the reality of things. So, Cory wrote a wonderful section, and I keep mentioning this in all of our podcast interviews on common grace and natural law and of course, grace restoring nature presupposes that there is such a thing as a natural moral order, a natural created order that we need to rightly perceive. But how do we have access to that natural order? It’s not going to be just attributed to human nature as if it’s a thing that we can take for granted that after the fall we can still have access to it non-problematically. It’s always because of God’s general mercy to us that we have access to these things.
Cory Brock: Yeah, Gray gave you all the details that are harder to explain. So, I can give you maybe broaden out and give you the simpler stuff, which is just to say that one of the things that grace restores nature means is that God loves the world that he made. And that when Jesus Christ rose from the dead, God was saying in the resurrection that I’ve decided that I’m not going to leave the material order to death, I’m going to keep it forever because God himself now has a body forever in Jesus Christ. And you connect that back to the Garden of Eden. And grace restores nature says that, as Gray mentioned, the problem of the world is ethical and that what God has done in Christ has restored the hope of the consummation of Eden. So, it’s not repristination, it’s not recovering Eden. It’s actually restoring creation to what it would have been if Eden would have found its consummation in the presence of God forever. Right? And so, grace restores creation to its original tell us its original purpose, which is to be with God, the beatific vision in the material realm, with embodied souls. Human beings never separate. And so, I mean, another way we say it, grace restores nature is that God’s work of redemption has been to bring things toward the organism that he always intended. So, there’s the organic motif and the organism really is just sort of a philosophical, biological way of talking about when all parts of the cosmos are exactly what they should be as God determined it together. Not separated by fighting and sin and death, not separated by any chaos, but truly one. One in the fact that they are not like God. They’re not simple like God, but they’re composed of parts, yet at the same time they are a living unity. Grace restores nature in the broadest sense, is ultimately God’s work of bringing all things together to their organic end in Jesus Christ, which was exactly the point and hope of Eden itself. And then within that, as Gray talked about, you can talk about how that impacts a doctrine of common grace, for example, or a doctrine of the no attic effective sin and how much more important seeing the no addict effective sins is. And so, again, we should stop because we could, Jess, you could as well go on and on about this subject for a long time.
Justin Ariel Bailey: So, one of the questions I have with that marvelous picture of creation consummated is the incipient temptation with that for Christians to sort of be impatient with the progress of the kingdom coming. In fact, one of the most common accusations that’s made against Neo-Calvinism, or things going by that name, is that it’s triumphalist in its desire to transform culture, for example. And then you have the famous Kuyper quote that makes its way into the mouths of lots of people like the governor of one of the states here, claiming every square inch of the state for Jesus, others invoking Kuyper in favor of something like Christian nationalism. So, I wonder how you would respond to this and help us understand how a Neo-Calvinist account of political engagement or pluralism, as you’ve already mentioned, is distinct from something like a Christian nationalist one. And what are the theological resources and reasons we have for resisting the temptation to take over every square inch?
Cory Brock: Yeah, so this is another big one, and one that has come up quite often when we’ve talked about this book and Neo-Calvinism lately, for many obvious reasons. But one of the things I would want to say is that I think it’s a Neo-Calvinist principle that we’re actually okay with saying that Christ is the only one who can build a truly Christian nation. And that Christian nation, the kingdom he is building, is eschatological, not present in the temporal. We as Neo-Calvinists are exactly opposite. Transformationalism. We seek transformation, but we let Jesus Christ be the Lord that will cataclysmically bring the kingdom. And so, our job now is to witness to that kingdom by saying, yes, Jesus Christ matters for all of life. Yes. Jesus Christ has Lordship over everything. And as far as I can, I want to seek that out and make that manifest. I do desire a Christian commonwealth. I do desire that the magistrate, the president, the king would recognize the authority of God above the authority of the jurisdiction of government in his own sphere. Yes, but a Neo-Calvinist in its original form is actually okay with losing. We don’t expect it to be a winning strategy at every time and in every place and in every culture. And so, it’s actually the Christian nationalist that I would say now, respecting that there are so many definitions of that, okay. But it’s the Christian nationalist that has a tendency to Transformationalism and not the Neo-Calvinist, because we are okay with witnessing and losing at the very same time. One of the poorer arguments I’ve ever heard against Neo-Calvinism said something like, and this was from a really great historian, actually, but he said that you can look at the Netherlands and say that the Neo-Calvinist concept of transformation doesn’t work because the Netherlands became secular. And I think that that’s not too far from saying that because many, many societies have made martyrs out of Christians in the past, that there is no evidence that the Christian message didn’t matter for transformation in particular lives, in particular families, in particular workplaces or something like that. So, we expect, until Christ comes again, that every culture is going to wax and wane in terms of its reception to Jesus Christ and to the message. But what we say, what Neo-Calvinism says, is that we’re called to transformation. We’re called to show forth how Jesus matters, that godliness matters in every way for every sphere. That prayer and thanksgiving, Paul says, can make anything holy, whether that’s a food sacrifice to idols or a family or a workplace or whatever it might be, or a political sphere. But at the same time, we’re not going to build the kingdom, only Jesus Christ is. And so, we seek transformation. Never Transformationalism. We’re not transformationalists. And so, we would say that while there are many a more specific example, while there are many post-millennial Neo-Calvinists that develop in the 20th century, especially in North America, the original form is not post-millennial in that way.
Gray Sutanto: Yeah, and what you mean by that, right, Cory, is that there is no univocal one to one correspondence between human labor and the advancement of the kingdom of God. Right. If prayer and thanksgiving is that which makes something so prayer and thanksgiving inherently points these things to God and the kingdom that is to come, and not yet the kingdom that is now by our labor. What I say in class is that the Neo-Calvinist’s vision is kind of a chaste and transformational witness rather than the advancement of the kingdom by way of human advancement or human labor. So, I think that’s a really important point to make. So, with regard to the governor, I’m sure he means well and all of our other sort of it’s not as if when I make a Christian coffee shop and I call it Holy Ground or something, that this little corner of Virginia has become a little bit more Christian, no? Right. But it does mean that whatever I do, I want to point to the kingdom that is of another world, not that this little square inch literally becomes part of the kingdom of God. Jesus Christ is already Lord, whether I make that Christian coffee shop or not. All I’m doing is witnessing to an already existing sovereignty. And again, that sovereignty tells us that we are not reigning now. And hence what Cory said, that we have to be okay with losing despite our witness.
Jessica Joustra: Yeah. In your chapter on eschatology, on creation and recreation, you dive into this in depth, and you also dive into one particular contemporary debate that I think sheds a lot of light on, again, what Neo-Calvinism does say and what it doesn’t say. And so, I’m wondering if we can talk a little bit about that, this debate about the Beatific Vision, the question or critique raised by Borsma. Can you talk a little bit about a why this particular debate made it into the book? It’s one of the kind of standout debates that is contemporary in nature about Neo-Calvinism that you spend some time on in the book. And how does it help us, how does this charge by Borsma, your response to it help tease out the central claims of Bavinck and Kuyper about creation and recreation and then what’s at stake, theologically and practically, about this misunderstanding? And what do you hope readers take away about what Kuyper and Bavinck understand their eschatological views to be?
Cory Brock: So, the conversation about the Beatific Vision as well as natural law are probably the two contemporary issues that we do address in terms of very present, very live discussions in the community. Hans Boersma wrote a wonderful book, Seeing God. Really helpful. I appreciated it very much. However, we took his initial parts of his introduction suggesting that Bavinck was a catalyst for the demise of the Beatific Vision in the 20th century theology to not really match the sources very well. And on the one hand, I understand why he said that and why he did that. It is true to say that Bavinck wrote less about the positive potential detail of what the Beatific Vision might be when experienced by the Christian than he could have. Okay, one of the things we’ve tried to say, I’ve tried to say, in responding to that is when we talk about the details of any eschatological event, we have to be really modest. And I think Bavinck was trying to be pretty modest. But another thing was, again, he was doing theology in his own time, and he was trying to respond to the way the Beatific vision had developed in neotemistic sources around Vatican One, Roman Catholicism. And so, a lot of what he says is really a response to that. He’s responding to late 19th century when he’s writing developments in the concept of what the Beatific vision is. And so, I think for Bavinck, what he wants to do, what we’re trying to suggest is that we don’t have to make choices in salvation in the salvific life, the life of of the eschatological kingdom between the material and immaterial, between seeing God and seeing my family, seeing my neighbor. We don’t have to make that choice. So, there’s kind of a tendency, I think, to go back and forth in Christian theological publications where one person overemphasizes the material hope of new creation and then the next person comes around and says, no, it’s all about seeing God. And then the next person comes in and said, but we also need to remember the material. And I think what we’re trying to say is for Bavinck and for Kuyper, seeing God really was, is, the most important thing. I mean, being with God is exactly what we were made for. And that’s why the Garden of Eden is the temple, right? As it’s been made very clear in biblical theological development, the temple is the point. And yet at the same time, I think they were holistic. They understood that when Jesus Christ rose from the dead, God pronounced that we don’t have to give up embodiment. We don’t have to give up our desire for fine meats and aged wine. As Isaiah puts it, that all of these things come together in organic unity in the hope that is the Beatific vision. And ultimately, that is about being truly blessed in the sight of God himself in the face of Jesus Christ. But that doesn’t mean that we then have to give away the things that God has given us in the embodied life. And so Gray hopefully noticed after I had written an essay on this, he noticed how Bavinck sort of just points the reader towards John Owen on this issue. And while we do admit that Bavinck doesn’t give a whole lot of positive development, John Owen did. And John Owen, if Bavinck saying, hey, go read John Owen on this, then you can go see a little bit more of how important he thought and what he thought the Beatific Vision might be like. But again, might is a very important word when we’re talking about the Beatific vision.
Justin Ariel Bailey: So, we need to wrap up. Perhaps we can end like this. The conclusion of your book outlines 16 summative theses to capture the heart of the Neo-Calvinist theological tradition. And my personal favorite is number two, which is Christianity can challenge, subvert, and fulfill the culture and philosophical systems of every age. And I know that all 16 are important, but I’m wondering if each of you could pick one of your favorites of these theses that kind of captures why you find Neo-Calvinism so critical and also so compelling. Jess, you can also weigh in on this if you’d like.
Gray Sutanto: I’m very curious to hear Jess’s answer for anything else. But just to echo you quickly, Justin, that’s also my favorite thesis. I think that’s the most important one, perhaps. And it’s the one that we need to hear in every age to resist the sort of polarization that we see to encourage optimism. Well, a non-naive optimism, a critical optimism, a critical gratitude for the contemporary age that we live in. And also, again, this posture of humble reliance on God as we learn from the age so that we can continue to mind the word of God better. So, we’re not wedded to Platonism, Aristotelianism continism idealism. That’s always a temptation of a particular theology tethered to an age. But because the kingdom of God is eternal, every age will unwittingly witness to that kingdom.
Cory Brock: This is tough. I think that probably number 14 and 15 together simply because those are the ones that are about grace restoring nature and they’re about the kingship of Jesus Christ and the goal of creation and recreation. And as I argued in the chapter on creation and recreation that this this really is the central piece of theology for Neo-Calvinism that everything else is subservient to this claim that grace restores nature. And so, God has always from eternity determined that he would do this work that he is doing in and for the glory of Jesus Christ. I think Bavinck and Kuyper were far from the first to know that. Of course, the Apostle Paul was one of the early ones. But in terms of modern theologians understood the implications of that claim, I think, better than most have. And for that reason, we’ve loved what they’ve offered us in this tradition.
Jessica Joustra: I would in many ways simply agree with Justin and Gray that number two is probably my favorite. So, I’m going to pick another one. The next one I would have picked was actually what Cory picked about creation, God bringing creation to its original goal. So, I’m going to emphasize another one. This is number nine. By the Spirit’s work in common grace, God restrains sin and gifts fallen humanity with moral epistemic and life-giving goods to enjoy for the sake of redemption in Christ. And one of the things I love about that is this note of gratitude that Bavinck gives us, that Neo-Calvinism gives us. We often, I think of Calvinism, if you look at it through the lens of, say, the Heidelberg Catechism, of this guilt, grace and gratitude, but that gratitude can sometimes be wrongly constrained to just salvific gratitude. And what this, I think, opens up the kind of Neo-Calvinist posture opens us up to is a posture of all of life gratitude to recognize any good gift and every good gift as a gift from the Father of Lights that we respond to with thank you. And that, I think, is just a wonderful vision of life in God’s good earth.
Gray Sutanto: Amen. That would preach.
Justin Ariel Bailey: Amen. That’s a wonderful way to finish the podcast. My guest co-host is Jessica Joustra. My featured guests have been Cory Brock and Gray Sutanto. The book is Neo-Calvinism: A Theological Introduction published by Lexam. Gray and Cory are also on the popular podcast Grace in Common, and we’ll have links to all these things in the show notes. Jess, Cory and Gray, thanks so much for joining us on the In All Things podcast.
Cory Brock: Thank you, Justin.
Gray Sutanto: Thank you, everyone. It’s delight.
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