Publisher: Lexham Academic
Pages: 320 (Hardcover)
Philosophy or theology? These twin sisters have long vied to be crowned “Queen of the Sciences.” These days it’s probably best to describe the old debate as relinquished to the back burner rather than settled, but as a professor who spends the bulk of my time teaching “Introduction to Christian Philosophy,” the question remains important.
Perhaps Calvin best summed it up when he opened the Institutes by saying that all “true and solid wisdom” consists of “knowledge of God and of ourselves.” He then illuminates the question by saying “But as these two are connected by many ties, it is not easy to see which of the two precedes and gives birth to the other.”1 At least my confusion is in good company.
The Neo-Calvinistic tradition is full of answers to this question that sound something like “philosophy is about the whole structure of creation and how the various aspects fit together” and “theology is just one of the special sciences like biology or economics,” or further “theology should be properly named Pisteology as a special science with ‘belief’ as it’s object rather than ‘God.’”2 These answers resonate with me, but honestly, they’re not quite convincing (at least not to my colleagues in the theology department).
Cory Brock and N. Gray Sutanto address similar questions in their new book Neo-Calvinism: A Theological Introduction. Is neo-Calvinism simply a philosophical structure that only makes sense in a specific European rooted context in the Twilight of Western Thought? Are there broader theological implications that can be read into a more global context? And how did two theologically trained preachers by trade end up getting more treatment in contemporary philosophy and political studies departments?
A good starting point to focus the question is to look at how Brock and Sutanto define Neo-Calvinist theology as opposed to Calvinism. One of the earliest distinctions the authors make between the Dutch duo and other streams of Calvinistic development is a rejection of a sort of scholasticism where evidence-based apologetics become the foundation of a theological system. The authors cite Gijsbert van den Brink writing “Bavinck was critical…(that) evidences became more and more important as rational underpinnings of the Christian scheme.”3 Later they quote a particularly juicy Bavinck quip: “People no longer confessed their beliefs, but they only believed their confessions.”4
The type of dogmatic theology that Bavinck and Kuyper were trying to build, the authors show, is not one based on a rationalistic foundation or, as they point out in chapter two, one that is based in a “false conservatism” that simply wants to recreate or “repristinate” the past. Rather, Bavink and Kuyper envision a theological understanding that becomes a worldview or a life system, a fully “cosmological theology”.5
“True orthodoxy seeks to build on the past, not to revolt from it, but also to develop a system that is in response to a particular place and time.”
The authors point to several reasons for this cosmic version of Calvinism, two of which really caught my eye. In the latter part of the first chapter, Brock and Sutanto write, “upon the emergence of the more thoroughgoing forms of unbelief in the wake of Friedrich Nietszche, Bavinck emphasized that it was the Christian, organic worldview that could best answer the perennial questions of the world and provide unity between the self, world, and God.”6 This theme comes through in Kuyper’s Stone Lectures as well. One must meet force with force, and the only solution for a modern nihilistic worldview is to form one from a Christian perspective. True orthodoxy seeks to build on the past, not to revolt from it, but also to develop a system that is in response to a particular place and time.
Another main theme (which will sound familiar to any student of Bavinck) that the authors point out in chapter two is the definition of the word “catholic.” Bavinck and Kuyper hold fast—and perhaps make the foundation of their whole theological system—that the proper understanding of catholic means universal in time and place, the whole of life. In other words, “There is not one square inch…” The typical Roman understanding of the word “imposes a forced uniformity in a mechanical fashion, decreeing to every church everywhere its styles, message, and behavior.”7 Kuyper and Bavinck prefer an organic, free developing church structure and life system in which each believer is allowed to live out their lives coram deo. Only this understanding of catholic can do justice to the real “unity in diversity” that becomes one of the hallmarks of all neo-Calvinist theology and philosophy.
A final (and perhaps most pertinent to my opening question) point is that with the organic holism summed up in the “unity in diversity” ideal:
- Calvinism is uniquely suited to encounter eighteenth and nineteenth-century philosophies precisely because Calvinism can accommodate and appropriate the philosophical truths of any age. Although Christian theology has used Plato and Aristotle as the primary philosophical handmaidens, one must remember that ‘theology is not in need of a specific philosophy. It is not per se hostile to any philosophical system and does not a priori and without criticism give priority to the philosophy of Plato or Kant or vice versa. But it brings along its own criteria, tests all philosophy by them, and takes over what it deems true and useful.’8
To contemporary neo-Calvinist philosophers, this passage sounds a bit alarming. Accommodation is, after all, one of the main stones Dooyeweerd and his philosophical descendants hurl at most of the history of Christian thought.9 What is needed, in their view, is a new philosophical outlook that does not suffer from accommodation. Yet here is Bavinck claiming that Calvinism needs no philosophy and can accommodate everyone everywhere. Where does that line of thought end? Buddhism? Islam? What about Catholicism? What about Modernism or Nietzsche?
“All thinkers are image bearers, fallen of course, but upheld by common grace.”
I think I side more with Bavinck on this than the more anti-accommodationist philosophers in the tradition. I think a simpler way to sum up his position would be to understand that all thinkers from all human traditions have a point. All thinkers are image bearers, fallen of course, but upheld by common grace. Is Marx right? No. Does he have a point? Yes. Can we learn from him? Absolutely.
In the first two chapters, Brock and Sutanto expertly clarify neo-Calvinist theology, differentiating it both from other streams of Calvinist development and from other contemporary philosophical outlooks. But have they helped us find the line of demarcation between philosophy and theology? Is Calvinism truly in need of no philosophy?
I think in the end, Bavinck and Kuyper were the twin horses pulling the plow and planting the seeds for a new type of Biblical philosophical worldview. Their theological interpretation of the word “catholic” makes thoughts about God into thoughts about the whole world. They re-blurred (or perhaps affirmed the blurring) of the lines of Calvin’s question with which this review began. And out of this ground, it is only natural that a whole enterprise of philosophical as well as theological thought should sprout and develop organically.
“Philosophers can point out the theological and religious implications about what we worship in a secular world, and theologians can critique philosophers on philosophical grounds.”
One result is a holistic philosophical understanding of the world that views all deeply held commitments and beliefs as religious regardless if they’re about God or a god. Another is the fact that Heidegger’s reaction to Nietzsche as the philosopher of the technological age,10 marking a tectonic shift in how the world shows up, sounds very similar to Bavinck’s critique of Nietzsche. Philosophers can point out the theological and religious implications about what we worship in a secular world, and theologians can critique philosophers on philosophical grounds. I think there are still important distinctions in language, tradition, and perspective where we can see the differences between theology and philosophy, but in the end, as Kuyper and Bavinck through Brock and Sutanto help us see, we are all responding to a total, unified, catholic world.
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 second in a series of five that will 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
For an interesting look at this, see Shaun Stiemsma’s review of John C. Vander Stelt’s book Faith, Life and Theology. ↩
Brock, Cory C. and Sutanto, N. Gray Neo-Calvinism: A Theological Introduction pg. 17 ↩
ibid. 17 ↩
ibid. 27 ↩
ibid. 27 ↩
ibid. 27 ↩
ibid. 61-2 ↩
See again Shaun Stiemsma’s review of John C. Vander Stelt’s book Faith, Life and Theology. ↩
See Martin Heidegger’s essay The Word of Nietzsche “God is Dead”. ↩
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