What is to be done . . . toward a neocalvinist agenda?

Neocalvinist philosopher and theologian Al Wolters calls present and future generations of neocalvinists to look back to neocalvinism's intellectual roots and forebears, to look forward to alternative ways of expressing neocalvinist commitments to our world. Neocalvinism is a considered, Christian response to the broad, controlling philosophy of our times—modernism—and an attempt to account for the myriad ways in which our society develops into various categories of activity.

Appears in Winter 2005 Issue: What is to be done?
December 1st, 2005

Editor's Note: For more on the following article, read the symposium it spurred.

I am honoured to be asked to contribute to the "What Is To Be Done" series, but agreed to do so only if I could offer some random and highly personal reflections on neocalvinism, the spiritual and cultural movement in which I myself stand, and which has shaped my own identity in many ways.

Neocalvinism is not just some idiosyncratic sectarian movement rooted in 19th-century Holland. It is one manifestation of a broad strand of catholic Christianity which goes back to such church fathers as Irenaeus, John Chrysostom, and Augustine of Hippo. To be sure, neocalvinism as a distinct cultural movement has its roots in The Netherlands, and the work of such men as Guillaume Groen Van Prinsterer, Abraham Kuyper, and Herman Bavinck, but its religious antecedents are much earlier and more catholic than that. As I see it, neocalvinism is a kind of distinctive focusing, in a particular historical situation characterized by ideological modernism and societal differentiation, of a basic Christian intuition with respect to the relationship of creation and redemption, nature and grace.

In theological shorthand that intuition can be formulated in the phrase: "grace restores nature." This means simply that the new life brought about by redemption in Jesus Christ does not (A) stand in opposition to created reality, nor does it merely (B) supplement or (C) parallel it, but rather (D) seeks to penetrate and restore the reality of creational life. Redemption is a comprehensive salvage operation, the goal of which is nothing short of recovering all of life as it was meant to be lived according to God's creational design from the very beginning. On the question of the relationship between grace and nature (and thus Christ and culture, church and world, theology and philosophy), historic Christian orthodoxy has chosen for options A, B, C, or D. In my opinion, neocalvinism is a particularly strong and consistent manifestation of the D option in a modern western cultural context. It is characterized by both its strong allegiance to Scripture and its critical relevance to modern culture. In my opinion, these matters are especially clearly laid out by Herman Bavinck.

Although I would like in this way to relativize the specifically Dutch connections of neocalvinism and the reformational movement, I would also like to emphasize the value of retaining a connection with its Dutch roots. Especially in North America, but more broadly in the English-speaking world, there is a dearth of young neocalvinists who make it their business to learn Dutch well enough to read it, or who show an interest in the works and historical context of men like Groen Van Prinsterer and Kuyper. There is a wealth of untranslated scholarly work done in this tradition—not only in philosophy and theology, but in a wide range of other disciplines, from physics to psychiatry—which is largely inaccessible to its non-Dutch-speaking heirs.

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