The Pot-Smoking Dutch Calvinists Who Stopped “worshipping the Ph.D.” and Gave Their Students “guerrilla credentials.”


Institute of Christian Studies, Toronto

I don’t pretend to know much about Dutch Calvinism in America or the differences between Abraham Kuyper and Herman Dooyeweerd. (There are good books on the subject, I would start with the work of James D. Bratt). But I know these differences mean a great deal to the Christian intellectuals who live in places like Grand Rapids, Michigan, and Sioux Center, Iowa. Having said that, I have been learning a lot about this unique religious culture since both of my daughters started attending Calvin University in Grand Rapids. In fact, my youngest daughter, a political science major, just finished reading Kuyper’s Lectures on Calvinism for a course in political philosophy. It has made for some good quarantine conversations.

I also knew that Dutch Calvinists have a presence in Canada where they established educational institutions such as the Institute for Christian Studies (Toronto), Kings University (Edmonton), and Redeemer University (Ancaster, Ontario).

It is the Institute for Christian Studies (ICS) that provides the focus of David Swartz‘s recent piece at The Anxious Bench: “The Reformed Evangelicals Who Smoked Pot in Toronto.” Here is a taste:

ICS adherents castigated what they viewed as the quaint moralisms of their home denomination. The Christian Reformed Church, they felt, was failing to address pressing social issues.

For instance, the denomination’s periodical explained in the mid-1960s that even if John F. Kennedy’s assassination left his agenda incomplete, still Christ could declare, “It is finished.” Hendrik Hart, James Olthuis, Bernard Zylstra, and other young turk Reformationalists at the ICS—typically fiery personalities in their early thirties—denounced such lines as pietistic sophistry. Instead, they envisioned new radical, socially active Reformed communities all over North America.

By the early 1970s, the ICS had evolved into an idiosyncratic fusion of Dutch ethnicity and political counterculture. Its constituency came mostly from children of the 185,000 Dutch immigrants who entered Canada between 1947 and 1970 because of a stagnant economy in the Netherlands. Tobacco and marijuana were pervasive at the Toronto school. Baggy jeans and tattered corduroy hung on gaunt frames, and beards proliferated. Communal living in several large houses in Toronto was common. Requiring no assignment deadlines, grades, transcripts, or degrees, ICS nurtured a profoundly anti-establishment ethos that stressed collegiality over hierarchy. Its administrative structure evolved into what faculty member Peter Schouls called “coordinate decentralization,” a system in which employees were accountable to boards and committees, not other individuals. An advertisement for ICS in the early 1970s read, “Are you going to grad school? Try the House of Subversion. … We are subverting the American university structure. We don’t have million dollar buildings. … We aren’t scholarly imperialists. We’ve stopped worshipping the Ph.D. We give guerrilla credentials.”

Read the entire piece here. It draws from Swartz’s book Moral Minority: The Evangelical Left in an Age of Conservatism. Swartz shows how Grand Rapids Dutch Calvinists associated with Calvin College tried to moderate the radicalism of ICS and connect with moderates and progressives within evangelicalism.  It’s a fascinating read.

News Flash: Richard Mouw Invokes Abraham Kuyper In Essay on 2016 Election

Abraham_Kuyper_1905_(1)Despite my sarcastic and snarky title (I don’t know what has come over me lately), I am in agreement with the Calvinist philosopher/theologian Richard Mouw here. Abraham Kuyper, the Dutch Reformed intellectual and former Prime Minister of the Netherlands, offers some nice theopolitical insight to this mess of a presidential election.

Here is a taste of Mouw’s piece at First Things:

In the mid-1970s, the famous Mennonite theologian and ethicist John Howard Yoder visited Calvin College to give a lecture explaining the Anabaptist perspective on political authority. His opening comments offended many in his audience (including me). Referring to the Gospel account of the third temptation of Jesus in the wilderness, Yoder said that in refusing to bow before Satan in order to receive authority over the governments of the nations, “Jesus was refusing to be a Calvinist.”

…while I still harbor irritation at Yoder’s piece of anti-Calvinist rhetoric, I think the third temptation reminder is an important one specifically for Calvinists to heed. I can appeal in this regard to the authority of no less than the prominent 19th century Calvinist statesman and theologian Abraham Kuyper. When Kuyper visited the United States in 1898 to deliver the Stone Lectures at Princeton Seminary, he made a point of criticizing John Calvin for tying his theology too closely to a political agenda—a topic very much on Kuyper’s mind, given his active role in the Dutch Parliament, where in a few years he would serve as prime minister. In almost one hundred pages of extolling the virtues of Reformed life and thought in his prepared text (still in print as Lectures on Calvinism), Kuyper confesses that on some key elements in past Calvinist thought he not only was unable to “pick up the gauntlet for Calvinism,” but he actually found it necessary to “directly oppose it.”

Kuyper explains himself by offering a litany of historical cases where Calvinism went wrong. The defects of Reformed politics can be seen

in the pile and fagots of Servetus [whom John Calvin had executed for heretical teachings in Geneva]. It lies in the attitude of the Presbyterians toward the Independents. It lies in the restrictions of liberty of worship and in the “civil disabilities,” under which for centuries even in the Netherlands the Roman Catholics have suffered. The difficulty lies in the fact that an article of our old Calvinistic Confession of Faith entrusts to the government the task “of defending against and of extirpating every form of idolatry and false religion and to protect the sacred service of the Church.” The difficulty lies in the unanimous and uniform advice of Calvin and his epigones, who demanded intervention of the government in the matter of religion.

Kuyper may be quite harsh here in his version of Calvinism’s historical record, but he quickly goes on to insist that the proper correctives to this regrettable pattern can be found in a unique and compelling way within Calvinism’s own theological resources. In tension with the practices and events that Kuyper deplores, he holds up an underlying Calvinist celebration of the liberty of the individual conscience—a theme clearly on display, he observes, in the way “our Calvinistic Theologians and jurists have defended the liberty of conscience against the Inquisition.” Indeed, Kuyper argues, it was the genius of Calvinism to oppose the French Revolution’s corrupt notion of individual liberty as the freedom “for every Christian to agree with the unbelieving majority” in favor of the kind of liberty, as Calvinism eventually came to endorse explicitly, “which enables every man to serve God according to his own conviction and the dictates of his own heart.”

Read the rest here.


Calvin’s Beatles

Calvin gang

l to r: Wolterstorff, Marsden, Mouw, Plantinga  Cartoon credit: Jack Harkema

Four of the greatest Christian thinkers of the last generation once taught together at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan.  They are philosophers Alvin Plantinga and Nicholas Wolterstorff, historian George Marsden, and theologian/philosopher Richard Mouw.

Plantinga taught at Calvin from 1963 to 1982 and spent the rest of his career at the University of Notre Dame.

Wolterstorff taught at Calvin from 1959 to 1989 and at Yale University from 1989-2001.

Marsden taught at Calvin from 1965 to 1986, Duke Divinity School from 1986 to 1992, and finished his career at the University of Notre Dame (1992-2008).

Mouw taught a Calvin for seventeen years and then moved to Fuller Theological Seminary, where he was eventually elected president.





Eric Miller Reviews James Bratt’s Biography of Abraham Kuyper

Abraham Kuyper is famous for saying, “There is not a single square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is sovereign over all, does not cry: Mine!”  Today, those who follow his transforming vision of everyday life are often called “Neo-Calvinists.”  Many Neo-Calvinists have found an intellectual home at Calvin College and some of the other institutions who hold membership in the Council for Christian Colleges & Universities. (For example, many faculty members at the evangelical Wheaton College have been deeply influenced by Kuyperianism).  Mark Noll once wrote that Kuyper “was as filled with noteworthy achievements as that of any single individual in modern Western history.”  Wow!

James Bratt, a member of the History Department at Calvin College, has written the first English language biography of the Dutch theologian, politician, and public intellectual.  It is titled: Abraham Kuyper: Modern Calvinist, Christian Democrat.  Over at Christianity Today, Eric Miller offers a review of the book.  Here is a taste:

Kuyper was a progressive—and a disappointed one. Bratt notes Kuyper’s affinity with his American Presbyterian contemporaries, William Jennings Bryan and Woodrow Wilson. Both men also “wished not to overthrow the prevailing order but to humanize it.” In fact, when Kuyper came to the United States in 1898, he found himself both attracted and repelled. He found hopeful the open religiosity of American politics and politicians. But he disdained the unabashed materialism there. “Your capitalistic classes have too much power,” he told reporters. Decentralizing power and dispersing authority was his hope for a truly human life. 

Kuyper was stateside to give the Stone Lectures at Princeton Theological Seminary—later published as Lectures on Calvinism. He sounded what Bratt calls a “revolutionary proposal”: that, in Kuyper’s words, “all knowledge proceeds from faith of whatever kind,” and that “the person who does not believe does not exist.” It took some time to find its American audience, but Kuyper’s thinking on “worldview” would lay the foundation for the intellectual renaissance among evangelicals. 

By the turn of the century, Kuyper had spent decades distilling and developing these insights into a form that was impelling movement of all kinds—cultural, intellectual, political, social. From his teaching at the Free University (which he helped found in 1880 and where he taught until 1901) to his reporting and scholarly writing, he elaborated what Bratt calls his “enduring dream,” the hope of a Calvinism refitted for action on the world’s stage. Orthodox yet contemporary, it would transcend “mere dogmatic theology” to forge a “‘life system’ whose ‘root principle’ branched out into every domain of human life and learning.” Kuyper’s vision centered on grace: the special grace of salvation for the elect, and the common grace God elects to give to all. This is the grace that makes possible a full, culture-invading, culture-making witness.

Woodrow Wilson’s Calvinism

Check out my colleague Dean Curry’s excellent review of Malcolm Magee’s What the World Should Be: Woodrow Wilson and the Crafting of a Faith-Based Foreign Policy. (Baylor 2008).  Here is a taste:

Magee concludes that the tragedy of Woodrow Wilson “had more to do with Jerusalem than Athens. It was a tragedy of faith.” And so it was. The lesson of Woodrow Wilson’s presidency is not that Jerusalem has nothing to say to Athens in the realm of international politics; rather, it is that good intentions inspired by misguided theology can lead to disastrous foreign policy consequences.

The antidote to idealism of the Wilsonian sort is a deep knowledge of the contours of history, a keen understanding of the moral ambiguities that delimit human action in the “meanwhile” in which we live, and a commitment to honing the virtue of prudence in defining the purposes to which we direct national power. In short, Reinhold Niebuhr is not a bad place to start after all.

For those of you interested in some of the nuances of twentieth-century American Calvinism, Matthew Tuininga offers a slightly different perspective on Wilson.