Neo-Calvinism, Roman Catholicism, and Reformed Catholicism

September 4 and 5, 2014, a conference will be held on Neo-Calvinism (Abraham Kuyper, Herman Bavinck, Gerrit Berkouwer et al) and Roman Catholicism. The following are two comments regarding Bavinck that may stimulate reflection on the conference topic.

Bavinck: (Neo-)Calvinist or Catholic Reformed?

While I understand that “Neo-Calvinism” is a common term to refer to people like Kuyper and Bavinck and (to some extent) Berkouwer, a title like “Reformed Catholicism and Roman Catholicism” might have been more appropriate, especially for Herman Bavinck (1854–1921).

Here in Egypt, I notice that it is usually helpful to use the term “orthodox” for the Coptic Orthodox Church and other Eastern churches, the term “catholic” for the Roman Catholic Church and related churches, and the term “evangelical” for the Presbyterian Church and other protestant denominations, even though one would hope that each of the three main branches of Christianity is orthodox, catholic, and evangelical in the true senses of the words at the same time.

However, for Bavinck the term “catholic” was very important: see e.g. his lecture on the Catholicity of Christianity and the Church. His relationship to the term “Calvinist” is more ambivalent, which led me to the conclusion that he is better called a “Catholic Reformed” theologian than a Neo-Calvinist one. In On the Way to the Living God I wrote:

« Abraham Kuyper uses the term “Calvinism” for his reflection on the meaning of Christianity for all areas of life and is consequently called a Calvinist or neo-Calvinist. Bavinck is also often called a Calvinist or neo-Calvinist, but I think we should stop doing so. At best, we can speak about a Calvinist period in his life.

Bavinck uses the term “Calvinism” most often in his address for the council of Presbyterian churches in Toronto in 1892, in which he speaks about the influence of the protestant reformation. Reflection on his transatlantic journey makes him relativize Calvinism a bit but he does not yet distance himself from the term. In his travel account he complains that religion in America suffers from superficiality—“religion is a matter of amusement, of relaxation,” but he also sees that there is much good in it and therefore he concludes: “Let American Christianity develop according to its own law. God has entrusted a high and grand calling to America. Let it strive for it, in its own way. Calvinism is surely not the only truth!”

In 1893 he reviews a book about the Heidelberg Catechism and in the review article he draws a distinction between “Reformed” and “Calvinistic”:

In the first place, Calvinistic is wider than Reformed. Reformed only indicates a persuasion in the areas of religion, church, and theology, but Calvinistic also includes a certain view on state and society and science, and therefore it can also be used as a name of a political party. . . . But secondly there is also a theological difference between Reformed and Calvinistic. In this sense Reformed is wider than Calvinistic. All are Reformed who agree with one of the many confessions that are generally recognized as Reformed and who belong to one of the many churches that are generally recognized as Reformed. But the name Calvinistic indicates a specific view on and representation of the Reformed truth.

In this context, he points out that Calvin himself recognized the Anglican Church as a Reformed church although the organization of this church is not Calvinistic. A year later, Bavinck expresses himself even more precisely:

The term Calvinism . . . stands for that characteristic view of life and the world as a whole, which was born from the powerful mind of the French Reformer. Calvinist is the name of a Reformed Christian insofar as he reveals a specific character and a distinct physiognomy, not merely in his church and theology, but also in social and political life, in science and art.

In these publications from 1892 to 1894 it is clear that Bavinck understands himself as a Calvinist. However, some years later one perceives a change. In 1901 he rejects the terms Calvinism and Calvinistic, at least with regard to the church, because they sound sectarian: “Calvin did not teach a special, Calvinist truth, but he intended to preach and teach nothing but the pure truth of God, the unadulterated gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ.” In practice, he also observes some onesidedness among the proponents of “Calvinism”:

The church and its confession are reduced to a small area. . . . But outside it is the large domain of “common grace.” And there Calvinism should rule, which is not a theological but a philosophical system . . . and which encompasses a full view of life and world. In this domain the confession of the church is of no avail. . . . Here one needs the “Reformed principles,” which nobody knows and which have not been formulated anywhere, but which nevertheless exist and have to be traced by the Free University.

His conclusion is that “in this way the point of gravity is more and more moved from Calvinism as religion to Calvinism as philosophy, from the church as institute to the church as organism, from particular grace to common grace.” He writes this in reaction to a publication of the Reformed youth association. Given his own publications, one should not read it as a rejection of concepts as philosophy, worldview, principles, and common grace as such or as a tendency to narrowminded confessionalism. If I understand Bavinck correctly, the problem of the “Calvinism” of the youth (and others) is not its width as such, but its risk that one loses the focus on the core. Even Calvinism can become a current away from the cross.

In 1911 Bavinck explicitly prefers the term Reformed over the terms orthodox, Calvinistic, and neo-Calvinistic. Although one could call him a Calvinist, at least regarding his views on science, society, etc, because of the cited publications from the nineties, it seems to me better to respect his later cautions and not to use this term for him at all. If we want to identify him in a more specific way than as a Christian theologian, I suggest that we combine keywords from the titles of his lecture The Catholicity of Christianity and the Church and of his Reformed Dogmatics and call him a catholic Reformed theologian. » (For footnotes to this section, see On the Way to the Living God, par. 2.9, pages 44–46.)

Bavinck on Roman Catholicism

While calling Bavinck a Neo-Calvinist is understandable but questionable, the idea to discuss his (and Kuyper’s and Berkouwer’s) relationship to Roman Catholicism seems very well chosen. One of the most beautiful texts that Bavinck wrote in the nineties of the nineteenth century is the preface to his dogmatics, which reads as a catholic Reformed manifesto and which also refers to “Rome.” The following is a translation of some parts, with headings added:

[a. The communion of saints necessary to understand the dogma]
Not only the believer, but also the dogmatician has to confess the communion of saints. Only with all the saints he can comprehend what is the breadth and length and depth and height, and know the love of Christ, which surpasses knowledge. It is only in and through communion with them that he learns to understand the dogma, in which the Christian faith expresses itself.

[b. The communion of saints a consolation over against the depreciation of dogmatics]
Moreover, there is an empowering strength and an excellent consolation in this communion of saints. Dogmatics is not honored today; the Christian dogma does not find the favor of this time.… But this makes us the more grateful that we can call on the alliance of ancestors.

[c. Attention to early Christian and medieval theology]
More attention has been paid to patristic and scholastic theology than is often the case among protestant dogmaticians. Men like Irenaeus, Augustine, and Thomas do not exclusively belong to Rome. They are Fathers and Doctors to whom the whole Christian church has obligations.

[d. Attention to Roman Catholic theology]
Further, Roman theology after the Reformation has also not been forgotten. Protestants are often too little aware of what they have in common with Rome and of what separates them from Rome. . . .

[e. Reformed theology relatively the purest expression of truth]
This dogmatics stands in closest connection to the type of Christian religion and theology that was shaped by the sixteenth century Reformation, especially in Switzerland, not because this is the only-true expression of the truth, but because this author considers it to be the relatively-purest one. The essence of Christianity has not come out so well in its religious, ethical, and theological character and has not been conceived so deeply and broadly, so widely and freely, so truly catholicly in any confession as in that of the Reformed churches.

In On the Way to the Living God I wrote about this text among other things:

« Paragraph a. immediately makes clear that Bavinck rejects theological solism and separatism. In an article about the council of Presbyterian churches in Toronto he complains that the English and Americans are too much interested in apologetics and try to solve problems too soon, so that in fact they are too much influenced by modern science and theology and lead their churches into a crisis. However, he does not want to judge too negatively: one should recognize that “God has more than one blessing and works elsewhere in his own way,” and he continues:

If we truly believe in the catholicity of Christianity and the Church, we fully acknowledge the right that both appear elsewhere in a different form than in our own country. . . . More than any age our century calls us . . . to maintain communion with all the saints, so that with them we somehow understand the depth and height, the length and breadth of the love of Christ, which surpasses understanding.

For Bavinck, the communion of saints includes more than only Reformed and Presbyterian Christians. His attitude towards the Roman Catholic Church is ambivalent (see paragraph d.) rather than one-sidedly negative. In his dogmatics he pays considerable attention to Roman Catholic theology and G. C. Berkouwer is even of the opinion that “Bavinck’s polemics with Rome belong to the most valuable parts on the history of dogma in his dogmatics.” In a lecture about evangelism Bavinck emphasizes that one should not do this work “to glorify one’s own name or to expand one’s own kingdom”: “We should cooperate in a brotherly way, also with those who do not belong to the same church.” As for the Roman Catholics,

We should accept the historical right of the Church of Rome, not its errors of course. Our calling regarding the Church of Rome is not that we try to make converts among them for us, but that we bring the gospel to the lost, to whatever church community they may belong. . . . The work of evangelism may lead to the result that persons join the Reformed Church, but this is not necessarily the case. We should have a broad view and first of all seek to take sinners to the foot of the Cross—not in a methodistic, but in a Reformed sense.

When he reviews a Roman Catholic journal for psychology and theory of education, he has only one “reservation,” that it may arouse the envy of the Protestants because they have nothing of equal quality. He himself hopes to learn much from it. Conversely, his own works on education have also been appreciated by Roman Catholics. . . .

. . . What makes him so big-hearted? On the one hand, it is the recognition that the core of the Christian faith can only be known and understood in communion with all the saints (see the preface of the Reformed Dogmatics) and the actual observation of good things outside the Reformed tradition (for example in John Wesley). On the other hand, he needs the consolation of the communion of saints in order to be able to remain standing over against the contempt for the Christian faith in his days. He needs to see that he does not stand alone. He needs a strategic alliance of as many as possible in order to fight the modern worldview and to stand against the force that moves Western culture away from the cross.

A passage from his preface to the German edition of Christelijke wereldbeschouwing [Christian Worldview] may fittingly conclude this section and this essay as it expresses clearly why Christians need to unite their forces and what is at stake for Bavinck:

The contest that the Christian religion has to suffer in its core and essence nowadays should join all those who, even if separated by church, confession, or nationality, stand together on the common ground of the catholic undoubted Christian faith. Although they should not efface and forget the controversies that exist among them as if they were totally meaningless, it is their task to let them rest for a moment, because the confession that is common to all of Christianity is to be defended against attacks. »

(For footnotes to this section, see On the Way to the Living God, par. 2.10, pages 46–51)

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While I may not be able to attend to attend the conference in Rome, I wish organizers, speakers, and participants a stimulating conference on the thought provoking topic of Neo-Calvinism and Roman Catholicism.


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