Craig G. Bartholomew. Contours of the Kuyperian Tradition: A Systematic Introduction. IVP Academic, 2017. See here to purchase the book.
Craig G. Bartholomew teaches philosophy and religion at Redeemer University College, which is in Ancaster, Ontario. His book, Contours of the Kuyperian Tradition,
is about the thought of Abraham Kuyper (1837-1920). Kuyper was a Dutch
minister, a member of Parliament, and a prime minister. He also founded
the Free University in Amsterdam. Many Christians have quoted his
statement that “There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our
human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not
cry: ‘Mine!’” Bartholomew not only explores Kuyper’s thought, but also
the thought of some of Kuyper’s predecessors and successors.
Here are some of my reactions:
A. A compelling part of the book was Bartholomew’s narration of
Kuyper’s conversion. Kuyper was initially a religious modernist, and he
had an academic interest in religion, as he wrote a paper about John
Calvin. Kuyper converted to Calvinist Christianity after reading a
novel by an author who had Anglo-Catholic sympathies. This narration
personalized Kuyper, and, although I lean more towards the liberal end
of the religious spectrum, I found his conversion intriguing. Kuyper
had an academic interest in religion, like me, yet he came to long for a
B. Kuyper was a Calvinist, but he was not afraid to disagree with
Calvinists, and he drew from other Christian traditions, as well. The
novel that he read presented an Anglo-Catholic perspective on the
church, and that influenced Kuyper to see the church as a mother. There
are things that Kuyper said that many other Christians have said as
well. For example, Kuyper, not surprisingly, favored a unifying
perspective on Scripture to a fragmented picture, which historical
critics posited. Kuyper resolved to trust Scripture, whatever its
apparent problems. Kuyper did not believe in the divine dictation of
Scripture but maintained that God shaped and used the experiences and
personalities of the biblical authors such that they wrote what God
desired. Kuyper desired a living, active faith rather than a dead
orthodoxy. Not surprisingly, Kuyper held that education should go
somewhere (i.e., provide wisdom and a larger picture of life) rather
than merely passing down facts. Some of the details of Kuyper’s thought
were not particularly interesting to me, since, as I said, other
Christians have said similar things, repeatedly. But what was
interesting was the eclectic nature of Kuyper’s thought: where Kuyper
was a “conservative,” where he was a “liberal,” etc. And, occasionally,
there were surprises. For instance, Kuyper had an open, yet critical,
stance towards evolution, and Kuyper also stressed the importance of
church tradition in theology as opposed to basing theology primarily on
the first century church.
C. Some discussions in the book were of more interest to me than
others. For instance, the criticisms of having a worldview that
Bartholomew surveyed (by Barth, Bultmann, and others) struck me as
nit-picky. I could see Bartholomew’s response to them coming a mile
away: a worldview is not necessarily bad, as long as it is done in a
certain way. The discussion of the relationship between nature and
grace could get arcane, at times, yet this issue looms large in
Christian theology and is significant to understanding Kuyper’s thought,
so Bartholomew did well to engage it. And Bartholomew summarized the
different views on nature and grace concisely.
D. One chapter that gave me a slightly new (from my perspective)
perspective was the one on missions. Bartholomew discussed J.H.
Bavinck’s view that God is at work in non-Christian religions (which are
still non-saving), such that people in those religions seek God, even
as they run away from God (a la Romans 1). When they seek God, that is a
result of God’s revelation and influence. I have heard elements of
this idea before, but Bavinck put these elements together.
E. Parts of this book could have been better had concepts been
illustrated more. How did Kuyper believe that church tradition should
contribute to theology? How exactly did Kuyper think that belief in
Christianity could contribute to learning rather than restricting it?
Examples may have been helpful, assuming Kuyper himself provided them.
There were also some apparent tensions within Kuyper’s thought that
could have been ironed-out more effectively or saliently, assuming
Kuyper himself resolved them. Kuyper was for religious freedom and
against theocracy, yet he maintained that Christianity should guide the
state, on some level. Bartholomew does well to explore how Kuyper’s
thought can be relevant to modern or contemporary issues: South Africa,
Christianity’s relationship with Islam, etc. But, in my opinion, the
book should also have engaged the relevance of Kuyper’s thought to
contemporary questions of how (and whether) religion should influence
politics. How does Kuyper compare and contrast with the religious
right, for example? Such a discussion could have provided a crisper,
more relatable description of Kuyper’s political ideology.
F. There was some historical context in this book, but not as much
as I expected. Considering Kuyper’s love of William of Orange in Our Program, I was expecting a reference to him in Bartholomew’s book, but I do not recall such a reference.
G. I read volume 1 of Kuyper’s Common Grace and Kuyper’s Our Program.
How did Bartholomew’s discussion of Kuyper compare to my amateur
impressions? First, it was interesting that Bartholomew had a similar
reaction to mine to Kuyper’s view that God will destroy and recreate the
earth: that it did not fit neatly with Kuyper’s view that Christians
should serve the earth because it is part of God’s redemption. Second,
in reading Our Program, I thought that Kuyper had a dimmer view of Islam than Bartholomew implies.
H. This book was variegated. There were parts that highlighted
aspects to Kuyper’s thought that are similar to what many other
Christians have articulated. There were parts that were arcane, yet
informative and important. There were parts that were more personal and
down-to-earth: Kuyper’s conversion story, Kuyper’s statement about the
perspective missionaries should have when they approach people in other
countries and cultures, Bartholomew’s discussion of Christian ministries
to the disabled, the Amish in light of Kuyper’s thought, etc. There
were also some gems in the book: T.S. Eliot’s beautiful statement about
education and wisdom, and Lewis Mumsford statement about how the
medievalists essentially turned Roman lemons into lemonade (he said that
more profoundly and eloquently).
I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher. My review is honest!