Book Review: Contours of the Kuyperian Tradition

Contours of the Kuyperian Tradition: A Systematic Introduction
Craig G. Bartholomew
InterVarsity Press, 2017. 363pp.

Early in my time with Theologian’s Library, about a year ago, I wrote a review on a collection of essays by Nicholas Wolterstorff. Little did I know at the time that Hearing the Call would actually be an introduction to a whole constellation of theological ideas revolving around topics of politics, public theology, and the institutional life of the Church catholic that I would continue to ponder for the next year and onward. In fact, if there is some undergirding thread to my book choices, it is that this constellation of thoughts continues to recur, especially as I read James K.A. Smith’s Cultural Liturgies (see my review for Vols. 1 and 2, and my review for Vol. 3). Since reading Wolterstorff (and entering the foray of the contemporary theological scene), I have learned to identify that constellation of ideas as “the Kuyperian tradition.”

Craig G Bartholomew

As my personal fascination with Abraham Kuyper’s legacy and thought grew, I realized it was about time I went backward to Kuyper himself and the origins of Kuyperian thought (and other thinkers associated with him). To that end, I searched out Craig G. Bartholomew’s recent introductory survey from IVP Academic, Contours of the Kuyperian Tradition. It accomplished precisely what an introductory survey out to accomplish: it orients the reader with substantive surrounding material in order to begin to suggest new directions for research, discovery, and learning. For those unfamiliar with the origins and history of the Dutch Reformed church, its unique history and structure, and the thought of Abraham Kuyper, this survey is indispensably helpful.

Critiquing the (Post-?)Modern

Unsurprisingly, the national church in the Netherlands wrestled with and against the tides of modernism throughout the nineteenth century. The influence of such luminaries as Friedrich Schleiermacher and David Friedrich Strauss in the early higher-criticism / modernist schools bled over past Germany into all parts of European Christianity, leading to what has now become known as the modernist crisis. In this milieu, Abraham Kuyper (and those associated with him) took an ardent counterstance.Abraham Kuyper

Bartholomew paints a picture of Kuyper as a nuanced anti-revolutionary: Kuyper isn’t a fundamentalist by any stretch of the imagination, nor is he the kind of biblicist evangelical that is popular in present-day American circles. Rather, he is an intellectual  raised in the modern context, educated with modern values, who, nevertheless, finds the modern system lacking when faced with biblical Christianity. And, yet, (this is perhaps the most surprising bit of Kuyper) he is able to integrate the language and the politics of modernism into his critique of it.

Following Kuyper, Bavinck, et al.’s lead, Bartholomew takes the tack of the Doleantie to engage present-day postmodern movements, integrating the worldview(“ish”) discourse of James W. Sire. In so-doing, Bartholomew observes a crucial lesson from Kuyper — that is, engaging constructively with the culture rather than (as the Anabaptists and fundamentalists did) retreating from it. And, yet, Bartholomew’s critique of postmodernism (and Sire’s, for the record; nevertheless, The Universe Next Door is a crucial text for contemporary practical missiology) falls flat precisely in the way that it is dissimilar from Kuyper’s; in short, he doesn’t fully appreciate (or reflect) the problems that postmodernism observes. (For a more integrative, and thus truly Kuyperian, approach to postmodernism, see James K.A. Smith’s The Fall of Interpretation.)

The misstep with engaging postmodernism aside (and especially forgivable given postmodernism’s difficulty in expressing itself clearly, something Smith also notes in The Fall of Interpretation), Bartholomew hones in on Kuyper, Bavinck, et al.’s anti-modernism in almost every single chapter, observing their vast disengagements with modernism’s views of theology, philosophy, Scripture, church, and science. And, most importantly for both Kuyper’s time and our own, Bartholomew hones in on the fact that (post)modernism must be discussed; it cannot be ignored.

Pastor, Public Theologian, Politician… “Reformer”

Most central to Kuyper’s work and legacy, even beyond his engagements with modernism as a pastor and theologian, are his roles as public theologian, politician and leader of the Anti-Revolutionary Party, and founder of the Free University of the Amsterdam. Kuyper is a “Reformer” in more senses than just his theological tradition!

Through excerpts intertwining Kuyper’s theological, political, and private lives, Bartholomew is able to accomplish what a cursory reading of Kuyper’s writings won’t: present a balanced, nuanced vision of “sphere sovereignty” (Kuyper’s greatest, or worst [depending on your inclinations], contribution to public theology) in the context of his day and age and reasons for so-doing. Late modern interlocutors are cautioned regarding taking Kuyper’s systems too linearly and reminded periodically of the unique position of the Doleantie, living in-between the end of Christendom and the rise of modernity. Both those who take “sphere sovereignty” to literalist extremes (like our contemporary Charismatic “seven mountains” version of dominionism) and those who oppose it at every chance (like Northern Seminary’s David Fitch) would do well to engage with Bartholomew’s excavation of Kuyper and Bavinck’s thoughts here.

The Voice of the Historian

One of the unwritten rules of writing history or biography (and Contours includes its fair share of both alongside its survey of theological and philosophical ideas) is that the historian or biographer in question ought to remove or edit out his or her voice from the writing. If there’s one thing we’ve learned from the postmodern insistence on the storied nature of existence, this is impossible. Not only is it impossible, in my view, it can often lead to a deceptive sense of security in the objectivity and/or neutrality of the author with regards to the work-in-question.

Contours of the Kuyperian TraditionBartholomew, thankfully, breaks this unwritten (and, honestly, foolish) rule, and freely inserts himself and his perspective and his stories into the retelling of Kuyper (and company)’s journeys and developments in public theology. And his voice is necessary. Sometimes he can be a little-too-insistent on clarifying certain terms (see his take on postmodernism, above, for example), and sometimes his judgments on Kuyper are a little too quick. But most of the time Bartholomew’s voice serves as the mediating factor, bringing Kuyper’s late-nineteenth century words into conflict with the world of the early-twenty-first century. And it is always a productive engagement.

Final Thoughts

Altogether, Bartholomew has presented a winsome overview of the work and life of Abraham Kuyper and his immediate successors, to the extent that this introductory text ought to be a requisite companion to any starting off researching the Dutch Reformed Church and neo-Calvinism in general. The public theology of Kuyperianism is a far more balanced view of “the politics of the church” than pretty much any of the major streams in American Christian thought today – which range from radical separatism (i.e. Anabaptist, pietisms, Holinesses) to radical theocracy (i.e. dominionism in all its shades) – and brings the healthy perspective of (gasp!) an actual politician to the conversation. In our present context, voices like those of Gov. Bill Haslam and Gov. John Kasich currently represent some of the more nuanced perspectives of Christian political thought from politicians; but Americans need the voices of those outside our own circles too.

Maybe this Dutch “Reformer” holds the medicine we need to keep our warring eschatologies and politics at check and pursue a more verdant and fruitful common life? Bartholomew certainly seems to think so, and he has done an excellent job of introducing us to the topic!

I would like to thank InterVarsity Press for sending me a review copy of this work. As with all these reviews, I was not required to write a good review, and all the opinions expressed within are my own.