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 transformed life.
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!