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Last Friday I had the honor of speaking at “Sharply into the Wind,” the program marking Cornelis van der Kooi’s emeritation at the Free University (VU) of Amsterdam. 

I’ve written about Kees’s theological contributions before in this space, particularly about his most recent work, on the Holy Spirit. It was a pleasure to be able to salute him publicly on this occasion, as Kees and his wife Margriet have been good friends of our family for about 25 years. The salute was for more than his many fine personal qualities, however, since Kees was the fifth occupant of the chair of systematic theology at the VU after its founder, Abraham Kuyper. A distinguished line, too. Herman Bavinck and G. C. Berkouwer are the most familiar to Reformed folks in North America; Valentijn Hepp was the least lamented, Jan Veenhof the most beloved.

In light of my own work on Kuyper and the Neo-Calvinist tradition, the organizers asked me to reflect on how that tradition might be renewed to speak a needed word amid the neo-fascist populism currently descending around Europe and the USA. What follows speaks more to the theme of renewal; maybe the application to neo-fascism next time. Inevitably, my reflections show my greater familiarity with the North American than with the European scene.

“Whence, How, and Whither?”

In analyzing the scholarly enterprise, Kuyper remarked: “Our mind constantly and inescapably asks these three great and mighty questions: whence and how and whither.” That’s a good place to begin thinking about where Neo-Calvinism has been strong and where it needs to get better. Kuyper himself was much stronger on origins than on destiny, on whence than on any real whither to which we are bound. Here is the first needed pivot since for us it is the very possibility of a human future that is in question and that theology must therefore take up.

In any case, building political theology on creation ordinances, as Kuyper did, has not been an inviting option since the Nazi era with all its perverse applications of “creation order.” Nor does this “starting point” duly register the theme that makes the New Testament new. As Paul puts it: “I would know Christ, and the power of his resurrection, and the fellowship of his sufferings, being made conformable unto his death, if by any means I might attain unto the resurrection of the dead.” And why? “So that forgetting those things which are behind, and reaching forth unto those things which are before, I press toward the mark for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus.” (Phil 3:10-11, 14)

Calling and the Resurrection

He Qi, “Easter Morning”

“The high calling of God.” Calvinists have always been good on calling, but have we sufficiently noticed how Paul locates that calling squarely in Christ Jesus as made manifest in the resurrection? There the new creation, or the already existing future world, is opened to us, inviting us to live today in and by the hope of a radically different reality. Invitation, thus, not first of all rules—at least, not the rules of this world. Hope, not first of all restrictions. Power, yes, but power made perfect in suffering and enabling us to enter a fellowship of suffering—with Christ first of all but also with the suffering others in our world.

Forgive me if this is all old-hat to you, but I did not so learn Christ, and re-learning him this way, in part through the good work of Kees van der Kooi—and on this side of the water, from Daniel Meeter and The Twelve’s own Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell—has truly been a deliverance. There are some others who could benefit likewise, not least the American version of New Calvinists who remain tied to an obsession with Christ’s crucifixion legalistically understood. That understanding sets up an ethics that has all the appeal of the late-medieval treasury of merits, while engendering a backwards-looking spirituality centered on punishment and fear—at the same time being capable of celebrating one’s own deliverance without any connection to others. As was true in Luther’s time, a lot of American evangelicalism needs a full reformation in theology that will also spell a new spring of ethics and spirituality.

A Radicalism of the Middle

As to visions of the future, the political Left and Right for all their strong differences sometimes share a profound sense of apocalyptic foreboding. For the Left, doom arises in catastrophic climate change; for the Right, from Western civilization being swamped by people of color. Neo-Calvinism offers a third option here. Though born out of and often bearing a sense of urgency, it has typically been a radicalism of the middle—a determination to get to the roots (radix) of things for diagnosis, but cultivating institutions, retrieving the best parts of tradition, and proposing progressive development by way of prescription. The heirs of Kuyper have often enough sounded self-righteous but at the end of the day, they know that they are part of the mix of humanity and do not stand above it pure and safe. They have a constructive part to play with others, not the role of judge and executioner that believers are given in the apocalyptic fantasies so popular among American religious populists. (See The Late Great Planet Earth and the 12-volume Left Behind series.)

Remembering that Kuyper’s movement for church reform arose amid one of the harshest decades in Dutch history, the 1880s, we might ponder its ethos as a mission statement for our own challenging times. As Dutch church historian Cornelis Augustijn put it, Kuyper’s followers aimed to be “a church of spiritually mature, sober-living, serious people who, consciously assuming God’s promises and in the tradition of the historic Reformed church, sought to make visible in their personal lives and the life of the nation something of the kingdom of God.”

Lightening Up

The words “serious” and “sober-living” in that description might give us pause. The great American humorist (and Nietzschean skeptic) H. L. Mencken was on to something when he defined Puritanism as “the haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy.” In connection with this fault, we might ponder two other phenomena in the annals of Neo-Calvinism. First, at least in North America it has appealed much more to men than to women. Second, in the Netherlands it worked much better at galvanizing a first generation or two than at keeping creativity and zeal alive in the third and fourth.

Maybe it is inevitable for a movement to get bogged down in routine and institutional maintenance. But maybe the problem has also been a rhetoric of rule and control that betrays the aspiration to become kings. Yet Kuyper’s famous speech on “Sphere Sovereignty” begins by reminding us that in this world ultimate sovereignty belongs only to God. For his part, Jesus sent out his disciples with the counsel to be “wise as serpents and harmless as doves.” That is, to be discerning and improvisational; to work in the seams in the edifice, not commanding the upper story; maybe even to be playful and have some fun.

In the eternal contest within Calvinism between its themes of order and liberty, now is the hour for freedom—freedom from the hegemony of the American gods of militarism and the market, freedom from the determinism of technology or tribe, freedom from the tones of command and obeisance, freedom to imagine what the peaceable reign of the Lord might look like someday, starting today. That means also that it is the hour of the Holy Spirit, the topic on which Kees van der Kooi rounded off his formal academic career. I hope we can expect more wisdom and insight from him in the years ahead. For now, let his work remind us that the breath of the Spirit blows where it wills and can fill the sails also of Calvinists, who are born to steer sharply into the prevailing winds of this world.

 

James Bratt

James Bratt is professor of history emeritus at Calvin College, specializing in American religious history and especially the connections between religion and politics. Starting in Fall 2016 he took a break from blogging on The Twelve to teach in China and on the Semester at Sea, which venues afforded him some welcome distance from the USA’s descent into its current mortal illness. But now he’s back in the States, looking for hope. The title of his most recent book, Abraham Kuyper: Modern Calvinist, Christian Democrat (Eerdmans, 2013), is eerily echoed in that of the volume he has edited and completed for the late John Woolverton, which will appear in 2019: “A Christian and a Democrat”: Religion in the Life and Leadership of Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

3 Comments

  • Tom Eggebeen says:

    Terrific piece … outlining the ongoing work of finding our way … pointing out the issues that require our attention, and pointing the way ahead … it’s clear in your work the transformation occurring throughout Western Christianity – from a theology in which we could hide from the world and its distress, to a theology that thrusts into the midst of the distress, to be the light of the world and the salt of the earth.

  • Marty Wondaal says:

    Professor,

    I look forward to your thoughts on how Neo-Calvinism can speak to the Neo-fascist populism descending on North America. Are you referring to Trudeau?

  • Fred Mueller says:

    Freedom too from the idols of celebrity and glamour.

    Thank you, James.

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