What is Neo-Calvinism? Dr. Gray Sutanto gives a brief historical overview of Neo-Calvinism using two of the overarching challenges the theology seeks to address.

So, what is Neo-Calvinism? Neo-Calvinism is not to be confused with new Calvinism, which is a 21st-century, late 20th-century phenomenon of the resurgence of Calvinist soteriology in America, specifically the United States. So, Neo-Calvinism is a much older tradition. It refers to the tradition birthed out of Abraham Kuyper and Herman Bavinck in the Netherlands in the late 19th century, early 20th century. And they were a retrieval movement. They were trying to argue that Reformed orthodoxy has resources to engage modern life in a very new and fresh way. So let me just push two challenges from this Neo-Calvinist movement for us to consider, which we explore in a deeper way in our newest book, Neo-Calvinism: A Theological Introduction.

Orthodox Yet Modern

So Kuyper and Bavinck challenged us to be Neo-Calvinistic in the sense of being orthodox yet modern. We’re Calvinists, and yet we recognize that Calvinism should be reshaped in some ways as it is brought about to address modern questions and modern concerns. So what do we mean by orthodox yet modern? Orthodox in the sense of seeing the past, especially our creeds and confessions of faith, as resources rather than impediments to engage modern life. Oftentimes when we think about engaging modernity, lots of revolutionary-minded theologians would say, “Well, we need to just redo everything. Recreate a completely new theology and leave the past behind.” Reformed orthodoxy has resources to engage modern life in a very new and fresh way.Kuyper and Bavinck were firmly against that. They were confessional, Reformed theologians. They confessed, for instance, the Three Forms of Unity. They republished important works from high Reformed orthodoxy, including the Leiden Synopsis, works from Franciscus Junius, or even Gisbertus Voetius. So they argued, “Actually, we’ve got to keep learning from the past to engage with modern life.” And in that sense, they were orthodox.

And yet they argued that we ought to be modern, not in the sense of endorsing modernism, but in the sense of recognizing that even today God is still sovereign, God is still the one at work behind the scenes, we are still made in the image of God, even if we are 19th, 20th-century, 21st-century people, as modern people. And so even modern people can’t help it but say ideals that are in conformity with the Christian faith, even if they were using those ideals against the Christian faith, unwittingly so. So in one example of this, Kuyper and Bavinck argued when you consider the objections against the Christian faith in the modern world, consider their claim, for instance, that Christianity is against freedom or Christianity is against diversity. Christianity is against tolerance. Where actually Kuyper and Bavinck argued, “Well, if you think about it, it’s not Christianity that’s against those things, but rather atheism and naturalism.” Why? Because naturalism immediately argues that all of religion is reducible to superstition, and hence atheism and naturalism is going to push a kind of new uniformity that goes against the religious consciousness of the majority of the world. So whereas in the Christian faith, we see people as made in the image of God. We see, therefore, that the religious impulse is absolutely important. And so we believe in religious freedom and tolerance towards those people who are confessing different religions from us. Because we live in a time of God’s common grace, God is calling us to be patient with unbelievers. God is calling us to be pilgrim people alongside and coexisting with unbelievers in a way that naturalism cannot because naturalism says, “Well, these beliefs are not respectable. These beliefs are really just nothing but figments of our own imagination.” So we have to be orthodox yet modern, and hence we’ve got to steward our orthodox faith. Actually, by looking back, we can see doctrines there like image of God, like providence, like common grace, that address seriously modern concerns.

The Holistic Challenge

The second challenge is what’s called the holistic challenge, perhaps. And again, we explore this more deeply in the book. Kuyper and Bavinck noted that in the modern world, there’s a newer, more holistic form of unbelief that is more perhaps challenging than earlier forms of unbelief. So when Bavinck wrote The Christian Worldview, he prefaced his introduction with a discussion of Nietzsche, and he argued there that Nietzsche had a more thoroughgoing kind of unbelief. Christianity is not just a theological confession for the church, but rather it’s also about how the confession implicates every area of life.For Nietzsche, unbelief in God means that we have to reconsider every area of life. We’ve got to consider our understanding of morality, our understanding of humanity, human nature, human society, so that unbelief or atheism is not just a subtraction thesis where we get rid of belief in God and then life just goes on normally in the Western world. No, Nietzsche argued, “No, we’ve got to absolutely reconsider the foundations of everything.”

So with this holistic atheism, Bavinck and Kuyper said we’ve got to counter it with an equally holistic form of Christianity. We have to show that Christianity is not just a theological confession for the church, but rather it’s also about how the confession implicates every area of life, as well, whether it’s society, morality, the family, whatever it might be. We have to show that Christianity has a kind of leavening, transformative impulse, not in a tribalistic way, but in a way that witnesses to God’s kingdom—the eschatological vision of what the people of God ought to be in the last days. So these are real challenges. I think oftentimes, we’re forced to choose between orthodoxy or modernity. We have to be orthodox yet modern, and we can’t just be piecemeal Christians saying that Christianity is just my private life. No, Christianity is for all of life. And so it’s holistic.