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The History of Neo-Calvinism Examined and Explained

In the 1890s, in a small yet iconic town in the Netherlands on the river IJssel named Kampen, Herman Bavinck wrote and published his Reformed Dogmatics in four volumes. He wouldn’t have known then that in 2023, and for the last decade, his readership has grown from the small community there to span six continents. Today, there’s an ever-growing movement all over the world to translate and read works from Bavinck and his elder colleague Abraham Kuyper. In a twist of history, the so-called neo-Calvinist movement born of their pens in a particular late 19th- and early 20th-century Dutch context gave birth to a tradition presently undergoing recovery and refinement. The question is “Why the interest?”

This question is even more appropriate when we consider how many ways this term, “neo-Calvinism,” has been used since first appearing as a prototradition in Kampen and Amsterdam—many of them negative. Often the word is used as a pejorative to refer to theological movements that overemphasize one aspect of theology and lose what’s most important. Has neo-Calvinism abandoned doctrines like justification by faith, seeing God as the hope of new creation, pilgrim theology, or the evangelical mission of the church?

While in its travels to six continents over the last century, neo-Calvinism’s tributaries or “extended family” did often change or leave behind some of what was most important to the original movement. Yet today, many are revisiting its claims because, for the first time in history, its original and most important sources are available in English, Korean, and Mandarin, among other languages.

In our new book Neo-Calvinism: A Theological Introduction with Lexham Press, we seek to understand what this movement was in its original form in order to explain the rising interest in neo-Calvinism. We examine many of the central theological contributions of neo-Calvinism through a close reading of Abraham Kuyper and Herman Bavinck on the theological points of reference that, in their perspectives, needed rearticulation and refinement.

Above all, we suggest the movement was primarily theological yet sought to articulate a vision for what it could look like to be a Calvinist in the modern, ever-changing world of the 20th century and beyond. Neo-Calvinism was—and is today—a movement that desires to understand what it means to be a Reformation Protestant, under the tutelage of the Reformer of Geneva but in a different cultural landscape than Calvin ever knew.

Due to the conflicting explanations of neo-Calvinism, we might be led to ask “Who is a neo-Calvinist?” But a better question might be “How does the theology of the Reformer of Geneva matter for today?” The latter question frames the issue so the Reformed Christian community can all, to a degree, subscribe. And to answer this question, we should explore three neo-Calvinist instincts and 16 summarizing theses to help us understand the impulse of the original movement and to serve as a guide for how we use the term and implement neo-Calvinism today.

Neo-Calvinism is a movement that desires to understand what it means to be a Reformation Protestant, under the tutelage of the Reformer of Geneva but in a different cultural landscape than Calvin ever knew.

Neo-Calvinism Is Ancient Yet Modern

Kuyper and Bavinck worked hard to convey how orthodoxy and modernity exist in a reciprocal relationship. When considering the creedal and confessional theology of the past—particularly found in Reformation Protestantism—we must understand both its influence on the modern world and how the modern setting requires fresh articulation of that theology for the sake of the people of today. Emphasizing orthodoxy at the cost of the modern leads to a conservatism that forgets our work as theologians depends on the very conditions that enabled us to be here in the first place. We may also overlook the gifts of divine providence and common grace manifest in the 21st century.

We can’t go back in mere retrieval. We can be thankful for much in the present age. A contemporizing instinct leads us to avoid nostalgic longing for a bygone golden age of theology, as if such an age ever existed, and fuels patient optimism that rests on God’s sovereign plan. As Bavinck often reminded us, the God who saved us in Christ Jesus is the same God at work in history today.

On the other hand, an emphasis on the modern at the expense of our confessional, scriptural, and ancient moorings for­gets that our modern age continues to be indebted to the theological and ethical culture it rejects. Looking to the past and future with thankfulness and hope produces the culture-affirm­ing yet sin-rejecting, hopeful but sober posture that can continue to fuel present theologians. It protects us from a malformed, curmudgeonly spirit that either looks down at the past with chronological snobbery or looks at the present with total suspicion.

Neo-Calvinism Rests on Revelation

God’s revelation is the secret to understanding our lives. The Christian call toward seeing all things in the light of God is an important Calvinist posture that emphasizes the rich and manifold aspects of reality. Theologians must understand that philosophies around us not resting on revelation will produce false binaries and reductionisms.

We will encounter philosophies seeking to reduce the immaterial to the material or the material to the immaterial—body to spirit, subject to object, and vice versa. We may no longer be wrestling with the particularities of the debates Kuyper and Bavinck participated in during the 19th and early 20th centuries, but our present circumstances call out even more for a renewal of their posture.

The church in our era must seek to resolve false binaries by finding a third way forward and use patient interdisciplinary reading to oppose syncretism and reactionary alarm­ism. The doctrines of revelation, common grace, the corporate character of humanity, and the organism of the church all lend themselves toward these holistic postures that we believe would produce intellectual virtues required for the dogmatic tasks ahead. They further attune us to work with the grain of reality, which is much more capacious than modern people often think.

Neo-Calvinism Is Committed to Catholicity

We must be catholic Christians and understand the implications of catholicity. Neo-Calvinism’s theological commitments highlight the true universality of the Christian faith. Christianity is a pearl—it’s the gospel for all places and all times. Christianity is also a leavening power: it can take root in and influence all places and times and in a diversity of ways. This emphasis on the unity and diversity of the Christian faith means a further commit­ment to philosophical eclecticism.

Looking to the past and future with thankfulness and hope produces the culture-affirm­ing yet sin-rejecting, hopeful but sober posture that can continue to fuel present theologians.

Christianity doesn’t need a single cul­ture or philosophical handmaiden but rather is pliable and intellectually versatile. It’s free to use any philosophy or culture it finds, it can reshape any philosophy or culture it encounters, and it isn’t married to any single intellectual or cultural milieu. Too often, presentations of Christianity can look suspiciously like a call to a conversion to a particular nation’s culture or a philosophical system rather than a conversion to the universal claims of Christ.

Neo-Calvinism makes a firm distinction, then, between the philosophies and cultures Christianity became provi­dentially tethered to in the past and Christianity itself. Christianity’s form may look different in each time and place, but the substance and revelation remain the same. Taking the claims of Bavinck and Kuyper seri­ously means adopting a posture of humble anticipation when believers (and scholars) from differing philosophical commitments seek to articu­late the Christian faith in ways that might sound different from ours. Just as Bavinck argued Christianity in America shouldn’t be expected to sound or look the same as Christianity in the Netherlands, so should we not confuse our Christian expression with the kingdom of God itself. These postures should develop a hopeful and prayerful disposition in us.

What Is Neo-Calvinism?

Below are 16 theses we believe provide a healthy understanding of the core of neo-Calvinist theology. If these are compelling, you can find expansion, explanation, and application in fuller form in our book.

  1. Neo-Calvinism is a critical reception of Reformed orthodoxy, contextualized to address the questions of modernity.
  2. Christianity can challenge, subvert, and fulfill the cultures and philosophical systems of every age.
  3. Neo-Calvinism rejects theological conservatism and progressivism. Instead, it applies historic creedal and confessional theology to the concerns of the contemporary world.
  4. The triune God created the world and all creatures as a living unity in diversity, with a definite purpose and goal.
  5. “Organism” and “organic unity” are fitting terms to describe creation’s many unities in diversities, as it analogically reflects the triune God.
  6. The image of God is the pinnacle of creation’s organic shape, referring to humanity collectively, male and female, and the self as a unity.
  7. The problem with the world is not ontological but ethical—sin has corrupted much (in fact, everything).
  8. Out of the sinful mass of the organism of humanity under Adam, God elects to regenerate individuals into a new, sanctified organic humanity under Christ, thus asserting a covenantal antithesis between the seed of the woman and the seed of the serpent.
  9. 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.
  10. God has revealed himself to every person—both objectively and subjectively. This implanted affection and knowledge of God isn’t a human determination as the product of reason (or natu­ral theology) but God’s general revelation by the Holy Spirit.
  11. The Bible is God’s revelation of himself, as the Spirit inspires a diversity of human authors to write all that God intends to communicate. The Bible serves as the ultimate norm and agent of unity, though not the sole source, for the fields of knowledge.
  12. The triune God and his revelation matter for the entire human life because every person always stands before the face of God.
  13. Wisdom points us to a Christian worldview: Christian the­ology should discipline the insights of both philosophy and the various sciences. Christians should conform their entire selves to the lordship of Christ.
  14. Re-creation happens by divine agency alone and brings creation to its original goal: that God would make his dwell­ing place with humankind, in a consummated and sanctified cosmos.
  15. Jesus Christ’s messianic dominion as King of God’s kingdom is the aim of God’s work in history and the purpose of creaturely redemption.
  16. The visible church exists as an institute and an organism: as an institute to preach the gospel and administer the sacraments and as an organism of individuals bound together by the Spirit to witness to new creation.

These theses are helpful to address pressing questions like the following:

  • How might we continue to trans­mit and translate the older theologies of the past into the contemporary philosophical idioms of the day?
  • How might we continue to accommo­date the genuine findings of contemporary scientific scholarship without compromising the substance of our theological commitments?
  • How do we not merely tell but show that the Christian faith continues to be rel­evant for our age and for every age?

As Tim Keller has also suggested in a recent podcast episode, neo-Calvinism has resources to help us show the global and perennial relevance of the Christian faith. We hope these 16 theses and our book might help toward that end.

Editors’ note: 

This article is adapted from Neo-Calvinism: A Theological Introduction by N. Gray Sutanto and Cory C. Brock (Lexham, February 2023).