An earlier version of this article appeared in The Christian Courier as “Born Again Kuyperians” on Oct. 23, 2017.
Jesus said to people who rested in Old Testament covenant promises: “If God were your Father, you would love me, for I have come here from God” (John 8:42). Jesus is saying that having an impressive spiritual lineage should lead to affection for him. In the gospel of John, that means loving Jesus as our Brother, Friend, and Master.
I want to ask: do good Reformation-shaped Christians love Jesus, deep down in their hearts? That’s my background, and I think anyone with a strong faith tradition needs to ask this question again and again: do you love Jesus? I’m Calvinian in my faith in Christ, which I believe nurtures in me a cosmos-wide faith—really a cosmopolitan faith. We love the world, because the world belongs to God. But does this tradition shape me to love Jesus as both divine friend and the hope of the world? In other words, does the weight of tradition overwhelm the heart of our spirituality–our prayerful connection to God?
In his book American Jesus (2004), American historian Stephen Prothero argues that early colonists of America followed John Calvin’s teaching, “which emphasized the absolute sovereignty of God and the total depravity of human beings” and so they “typically focused their piety largely on the First Person of the Trinity, whom they feared as a distant yet powerful potentate. In their religious training, the Old Testament trumped the New, and Jesus the Son cowered in the shadow of God the Father . . . he functioned more as a principle than a person.”
Although some people might be able to love a principle, it’s more difficult to feel love from a principle. “Few [Calvinist] colonists saw Jesus as a person who could be understood or who might understand them,” continues Prothero. “Few loved him and expected love in return. Most could not even conceive of imitating him. . . . The Puritans, in short, were a god-fearing rather than Jesus-loving people, obsessed not with God’s mercy but with his glory, not with the Son but with the Father.”
Well, times have changed since the Puritans, and if 500 years of a Reformation-oriented world and life view are to continue for another 500 years, its practitioners need to love a full-blooded and divine Jesus Christ first and foremost. I think many Christian thinkers are now realizing this and emphasizing its priority. Although there is a strong emphasis on Sola Scriptura in Craig Bartholomew’s book Contours of the Kuyperian Tradition, there is a marked priority given to Jesus, a variation of Solus Christus. The book begins: “A disciple is a follower of Jesus.” Bartholomew seems to recognize, as anyone following in the line of Calvin would, that our faith rests most centrally on being in union with Christ. A few pages later, remarking on a world where “the vortex of forces . . . often seem completely out of control,” he states that our “difficult hope” lies “preeminently by living deeply into Christ.”
This is more evidence of the cosmopolitan inheritance of my faith in Christ: the South African Craig Bartholomew, drawing on the Dutch thinker Abraham Kuyper who in turn expanded on the French lawyer-theologian John Calvin’s worldview, bears witness to the centrality of the Palestinian Jesus Christ in drawing us nearer to God. Jesus, they all emphasize, is the doorway to embrace the Creator–and his entire cosmos.
Live deeply into Christ
This introduction by Bartholomew to Kuyper’s legacy is bookended with a focus on spirituality. The first chapter centres on Kuyper’s conversion and insists that kingdom vision without being born again is as much of a travesty as being born again without a kingdom vision. “The kingdom is first about coming into a right and living relationship to the King,” he insists, for a kingdom vision “begins on our knees before God and returns there again and again.” Any religious inheritance, he argues, is a trap without this vital spiritual core.
The last chapter, “The Need for Spiritual Formation,” echoes the first. Here Bartholomew warns that there is a danger of absolutizing Kuyper, or falling into an intellectualism or activism that neglects the practice of prayer which forms us in the likeness of Christ. “The great need of the Kuyperian tradition if it is to be retrieved today” he maintains, is developing this kind of scripture-bathed Christian spirituality. Turning to Catholic resources like Nouwen and Vanier, Bartholomew insists: in this secular age “we need time and space to live deeply into Christ and to journey in his name into all of life.” The “journey in” is the basis for the “journey out” that forms “culturally savvy Christians”—what I’m calling cosmopolitan Christians. Loving the world, yes, but out a love for Jesus, who loved the world first.
In what I take to be a truly Trinitarian spirituality, Bartholomew repeats the phrase “living deeply into Christ” and being “formed to be like Christ.” This isn’t American pietism but it connects with Kuyper’s piety and it has possibilities for inspiring a wider North American evangelical and Catholic audience. It’s cosmos-wide world and life view is not lost in principles and systems, but centred on the source, the Spirit of Jesus that gives life to all the world: philosophy, art, games, science, development work and culinary experimentation. A life of prayer keeps culture-making in Jesus-perspective, pointing us ever towards both his teaching and healing, both his cross and crown, which point to God’s new world.
So I do believe a Kuyperian, Reformational Christian can love Jesus, deep down in their heart. Tradition need not overwhelm spirituality; in fact, it can positively shape our relationship to God. We all have a tradition: the question is what it shapes the heart to love. Ideally, it can shape a more loving character in our pluralistic mingling, a character prone to conviction, civility and empathy, rather than hard-headedness, arrogance or schism. Jesus saves in many ways, including the refining of our civic character.
A renewed cosmopolitan Christianity like this will enliven the next generation if it keeps this suffering servant/coming king close to its heart. Prothero’s American Jesus goes on, unfortunately, to chronicle how over the centuries Jesus was freed from Calvin, creeds and eventually the Bible and even Christianity to become a personality, a celebrity and finally an icon of the American nation. A cosmopolitan Christianity today cannot love a tamed Jesus who is identified with guns, cheeseburgers and flags. Jesus is not less than a person, but he is significantly more than a person, and definitely more than a national mascot. He is a prophet whose touch makes the blind man see, a priest whose love stretches as wide as a Roman cross, and a king who rules over spinning galaxies. He is the divine personal presence so near to us and yet also a mysterious cosmic power restoring the wide sweep of a broken creation. Hope is difficult on the stormy waves of the 21st century. But loving this Jesus, hope becomes an anchor.