Kuyper for Our Time: Three Books Reviewed and One Free Offer

Usually in these pages I recommend books that are fairly basic. I have never been one to promote texts that are so academic that typical folk involved in ministry can't wade through them. I sometimes even refer to the paperbacks we sell as "ministry tools," implying they are helpful for their practical use. Most of the more meaty books that I often suggest--say, Os Guinness' Time for Truth or Ron Sider's important Good News & Good Works--are relatively brief and accessible. Even the important introduction to philosopher Michael Polanyi that I have promoted (Tacit Knowing, Truthful Knowing) is an audio tape for Pete's sake! Last month's list on higher education was, mostly, books which are not at all tedious or difficult.

Occasionally, though, it pays to read a long, serious book, accepting the Godly challenge of being a life-long learner and pressing against the cultural routines of hurry, skimming the surface, multi-tasking and channel surfing. You recall Postman's worries of such shallowness in Amusing Ourselves to Death and, if he's even partly right, it may be wise to intentionally exercise the ol' gray matter a bit more than usual on regular occasions--lest we end up, in Guinness' memorable phrase, with "fit bodies and fat minds."

Broad-ranging works like the ones below call me to work harder than usual and yet happily remind me of the joy of rubbing shoulders with someone who is more than just bright, but who has real depth and has poured years of their life into a book, resulting in what can sometimes only be called magisterial.

Three such books which deserve that sort of high accolade, and that sort of attentive reading, are reviewed here--not just because of the recent debate in our circles about the CCO's relationship with the Dutch neo-Calvinism of Abraham Kuyper, but because, by any standards, these are truly wonderful and significant works. Certainly in our organization, many of us should read them; others less connected with the Kuyperian all-of-life-redeemed worldview have raved about them. These are the heavyweight texts of our tradition and we should rejoice in them.

I have previously mentioned Peter Heslam's fine 1998 work, Creating a Christian Worldview: Abraham Kuyper's Lectures on Calvinism (Eerdmans, $28.00). An Anglican who isn't Dutch, Heslam has given us what may be the best treatment of Kuyper in English. Kuyper's Stone Lectures delivered at Princeton in 1898 argued for a worldviewish, culturally-significant understanding of the sovereignty of God over all creation. These big ideas are discussed, compared with others, and are shown to be a major contribution to the 20th century religious landscape.

The lectures, as Helsam documents, were published widely, discussed throughout the world, and taken seriously even by critics. (And, of course, are still in print today, simply entitled Lectures on Calvinism.) The liberal theologian Ernest Troeltsch called them a "manifesto of Kuyperian Calvinism," and Princeton titan B.B. Warfield was extolling their importance 20 years later! (Heslam includes letters of appreciation between Warfield and his Dutch hero, an interesting point for those who emphasize the differences between Dutch Calvinism and the Princetonian sort.)

Heslam covers much ground, and this book can only help us learn more about this amazing man's remarkable career. A bit is told of his pioneering work in starting a Christian newspaper, the first free Protestant university, Christian schools, a political party, and his stint as Prime Minister. The book's focus, though, is on the nature and influence of Kuyper's amazing perspective. Sure, Al Wolters' little book Creation Regained spells it all out with precision and clarity, but this major work shows where Al is coming from, literally. Such creation-wide concerns--political liberty, economic justice, Christian perspectives in science, an openness to common grace in the arts, a hope-filled view of history, a radical call to commitment to Christ's reign over every human endeavor--were developed by God's Spirit perhaps most clearly in the Netherlands, and now are being taught in many evangelical outposts. (Think, for instance, of Chuck Colson's magnum opus, How Now Shall We Live?)

It is helpful that Heslam mentions particular places and people who have been informed by and are attempting to advance the overall vision of Kuyper's brand of thoughtful, principled public witness--the staff of the Institute for Christian Studies in Toronto, Alan and Elaine Storkey in England, James Skillen's team at Washington's Center for Public Justice, just for instance. And it is especially nifty to think that each of these folks have had an influence within CCO, have been supportive of our work with college students, and see us as colleagues in the international movement to press the cosmic claims of our Lord Jesus in an intelligent way that brings shalom. This is a well-documented and thorough book that will teach you much, inform you about one of Christianity's best-kept secrets, and keep you well-rooted in the tradition into which we have been grafted.

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More exhilarating, more learned and including even more fascinating footnotes--from 19th century archives to contemporary current events--is the breathtaking new study Free Church, Holy Nation: Abraham Kuyper's Public Theology by Calvin Seminary professor John Bolt (Eerdmans, $38.00).

Throughout this 500-page book, Bolt goes on delightful excursions (delightful, that is, if you are not in a hurry). For instance, he spends considerable time in a fascinating comparison of Kuyper with deToqueville and Edmund Burke, who shared his distrust of the secularizing autonomy of the French Revolution. He reproduces turn-of-the-century landscape paintings from the Hudson Valley School to show how American self-understanding was shaped.

As Bolt works through his chapters, each idea falls into place as he develops an argument about the need for an explicitly Christian moral imagination to undergird our public work and witness. (I don't know if the professor would appreciate it, but Bolt's notion here made me think of Brueggemann's Prophetic Imagination or his book on preaching, Finally Comes the Poet.) Similarly, it is Bolt's creative thesis that it was Kuyper's role as a "poet" (meaning a rousing rhetoritician who appealed not just to cold logical ideas, but to visions and dreams) which helped create a social movement that transformed late 19th century Holland. His passionate sermons, his bombastic speeches, his fiery editorials (indeed, his regular reminder that he drew strength from certain reform-minded poets) and even his well-orchestrated public appearances all served to galvanize a people on the move! Not unlike the American orator and activist Martin Luther King, Jr. (or even Moral Majority leader Jerry Falwell) Kuyper tirelessly preached and published, networked and mobilized the political elite and, even more, the common folk, the rural "little" ones in Reformed churches who were culturally marginalized and discounted.

Kuyper's thrilling appeal to the imagination was not just personality-driven (although he was quite the character) but was, as portrayed by Bolt, an intentionally wholistic approach which broke with the reductionistic arguing styles of modernity's Rationalism. Kuyper knew that in God's good world, people are created multi-faceted and artists often carry the day. As a politician and journalist, he was progressive and hopeful--perhaps with rhetoric similar to Campolo calling his Jubilee audience to be "children of tomorrow." But for Kuyper, rooted in the political theory of one of his mentors, Groen van Prinsterer, Christian hope is always located in real history, rooted in the past and tied to God's providential work in God's own world. As Bolt summarizes, "a Christian historical imagination is rooted in divine revelation, honors the past not by slavishly seeking its repristination but by reappropriating its truth through creative application to the present, with the visionary promise of future blessing....it was just such a Christian-historical imagination that nurtured and shaped Abraham Kuyper's public theology."

The thrust of Bolt's work is to glean from Kuyper not just a moral imagination--a compelling worldview--but to explore the particular political ideals that emerged from that worldview and translate them into 21st century American politics. Clearly, the evangelical world--described at Jubilee by Christy Wauzzinski as "individualistic"--may be good at personalistic evangelism, simple acts of compassion, short-term mission trips, urban outreaches and the like. But, due to what Noll has called "the scandal of the evangelical mind," we have failed to develop a coherent Christian public philosophy; our civic work is, at best, piecemeal, issue-oriented and moralistic. Still, the Kuyperian tradition calls us to distinctively Christian thinking of a comprehensive sort ("architectonic" Kuyper called it). Bolt's book reminds us that the previously mentioned Center for Public Justice is perhaps the best example of this tradition currently working in North America.

Interestingly, the Center's Kuyperian understanding of principled pluralism and the conflict of various worldviews (which all deserve legal protection and just room in a free society) was one of the specific insights which gave rise to President Bush's White House Office of Faith-Based Community Initiatives that has been so much in the news this winter. CPJ's role in the creation and passage of this law over four years ago--that faith-based groups may not be discriminated against as they apply to be partners in the government's distribution of social service monies, against the previous bias of only working with secular groups--cannot be overstated. Now, under Bush's daring strategy to have a specific office in the White House emphasizing this plan, CPJ's Stanley Carlson-Thies (a former Jubilee speaker) is in that office, and we can see the fruit of decades of Kuyperian research and mobilizing in the political sphere. Please note, this is indeed a strategic victory for those who believe that this very Dutch model is helpful and that its product will be greater justice for all, especially the poor. Whether it can be a signpost of the Kingdom of Christ, to the credit of reformational thinking and to the glory of God, remains to be seen. Abe, though, would be pleased. That this initiative links themes typically thought of as liberal (passionate concern for the poor and governmental advocacy) and conservative (rejecting the typical welfare-state model of sheer governmental answers to social issues for local and religious solutions) is remarkably innovative and exciting. The head of the White House Office, John DeLulio, is a Catholic Democrat, a friend of Ron Sider's and Tony Campolo's and has graced the cover of Sojourner's magazine and Stanley, of course, is a Dutch Kuyperian. Those of us who read John Bolt will have more insight about all of this than any of the numerous journalists and pundits who have weighed in on this historic initiative.

A Free Church, A Holy Nation really is one of those books worth owning. It is readable and, as Mark Noll says in an endorsement blurb, "serves as an antidote to what ails the various "˜Christian politics' on offer in the US today." He continues, "Those who take the time to engage Bolt's careful arguments will know why this Dutchman should be employed as a major force for good in the American political landscape." And, I might add, why we in the CCO should be proud to be a part of an organization that in at least some ways, attempts to embody and live out his legacy.

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Lastly, no discussion of recent scholarly books on Kuyper would be complete without mentioning the spectacular collection of various articles in the compilation entitled Religion, Pluralism and Public Life: Abraham Kuyper's Legacy for the Twenty-First Century, edited by former Calvin College prof, Luis Lugo (Eerdmans, $28.00). Written by a truly diverse gathering of political scholars, this offers specific ways that Kuyper's civic ideals and political theories can or cannot be applied in postmodern American.

Several authors in this collection are quite critical of Kuyper's notable blind spots and a few do not appreciate all of his many contributions. Still, the tone is laudable (even among those who are critical) as they struggle to appropriate the legacy of this energetic Dutch statesman to our times.

Excellent pieces by Richard Mouw on Kuyper's important notion of "sphere sovereignty," John Bolt's comparison of Kuyper with his contemporaries, Pope Leo XIII and social gospeller Walter Rauschenbusch, and Bob Goudzwaard on globalization make this truly a vital collection. CCO friend Elaine Storkey offers helpful insight as an Anglican, calling some of Kuyper "timeless." Peter Paris, a well-known African American academic, offers insight, as do two South Africans, a writer from India, and several Europeans, making this a truly trans-national work. But perhaps the most poignant essay is James Skillen's, whose piece "Why Kuyper, Now?" summarize the book's proceedings. Finally, says Skillen, it is not just that Kuyper was ahead of his time, with books, speeches, sermons and cultural deeds hardly matched in his century, but because he strove to work as a Christian, biblically-informed and prayerful, and thereby gave evidence to the Lordship of Christ and the coming of the Kingdom of God. His own work gives us a framework, a place to stand and to work. And for that, we can all be grateful and only hope to carry on the grand tradition of the Protestant Reformation's slogan, always reforming!

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THE FREE BOOK DEAL:
To assure you that I have not lost my passion for communicating this Dutch neo-Calvinism and it's worldviewish engagement with the burning issues of the day to the younger students among us, I want to make you a remarkable deal. For every one of the three books I have reviewed above that you order, I will include--absolutely free--a copy of Albert Wolters' Creation Regained: The Biblical Basis for a Reformational Worldview. After reading this historical Kuyperian stuff, you will be reinspired to invite students to this perspective and you'll need extra copies of Wolters around. Or, if you're feeling unsure yourself, re-read Wolters to remind you why this more serious work is so very important. Either way, you buy an enduring text and get a fabulous "ministry tool" to give away for free! How else do you keep a reformation going??