I have said many times that the prefix “neo” is more important for understanding neo-Calvinism than the noun. But the more I read neo-Calvinists, I wonder if they actually read Calvin or simply make up what they contend to be the Reformed faith. Just this afternoon I was reading Henry Van Til’s A Calvinistic Concept of Culture and saw the classic Reformed triumphalism which turns Calvin into a reason for Reformed Protestants to take credit for all the blessings of modern Western society — his impact on economics, politics, and culture. Why I even read that Calvin was responsible for defending and maintaining civil liberty. That may be, but do neo-Calvinist cheerleaders ever consider the downsides of liberty and whether Calvinism deserves blame for libertinism and licentiousness? Most would respond, “of course, not, because Calvin properly grounded liberty in the Word of God.” But once people taste civil liberty is it so easy to avoid Rousseau or Voltaire (Calvin was a Frenchman, for those who may be ethnically challenged).
Meanwhile, the idea of redemption as the restoration of creation picks up more and more steam and neo-Calvinism puts more and more novelty into ideas Calvinistic. Here’s just a smidgeon of the contrast. Over at a website devoted to Kuyperianism, I ran across a whimsical essay by James K. A. Smith on the nature of redemption from a Reformed perspective. For Smith, salvation is not individual but cosmic:
The Word became flesh, not to save our souls from this fallen world, but in order to restore us as lovers of this worldâ€”to (re)enable us to carry out that creative commission. Indeed, God saves us so thatâ€”once again, in a kind of divine madnessâ€”we can save the world, can (re)make the world aright. And God’s redemptive love spills over in its cosmic effects, giving hope to this groaning creation.
Odd perhaps might be the idea that we can save the world. (Bad enough, as James Davison Hunter reminds us, is the idea that we can actually change the world.) Smith not only has us changing but also saving the world. Charles Finney and John Calvin have joined sides.
But even odder is the idea that the work of recreation is not reserved for the regenerate. It is also something in which unbelievers engage:
One of the New Testament words for “salvation” (soteria) carries the connotations of both deliverance and liberation as well as health and well-being. So salvation is both liberation from our disorder and the restoration for health and flourishing. I can think of no better picture of this than the sort of health-giving practices that Wendell Berry notices and celebrates in his recent collection, Bringing It To The Table: On Farming and Food. . . .
Thanks be to God, such redeeming, health-giving, cultural labour is not the special province of Christians. While the church is that people who have been regenerated and empowered by the Spirit to do the good work of culture-making, foretastes of the coming kingdom are not confined to the church. The Spirit is profligate in spreading seeds of hope. So we gobble up foretastes of the kingdom wherever we can find them. The creating, redeeming God of Scripture takes delight in Jewish literature that taps the deep recesses of language’s potential, in Muslim commerce that runs with the grain of the universe, and in the well-ordered marriages of agnostics and atheists. We, too, can follow God’s lead and celebrate the same.
But what does redemption look like? For the most part, you’ll know it when you see it, because it looks like flourishing. It looks like a life well lived. It looks like the way things are supposed to be. It looks like a well-cultivated orchard laden with fruit produced by ancient roots. It looks like labour that builds the soul and brings delight. It looks like an aged husband and wife laughing uproariously with their great-grandchildren. It looks like a dancer stretching her body to its limit, embodying a stunning beauty in muscles and sinews rippling with devotion. It looks like the graduate student hunched over a microscope, exploring nooks and crannies of God’s micro-creation, looking for ways to undo the curse. It looks like abundance for all.
Redemption sounds like the surprising cadences of a Bach concerto whose rhythm seems to expand the soul. It sounds like an office that hums with a sense of harmony in mission, punctuated by collaborative laughter. It sounds like the grunts and cries of a tennis player whose blistering serve and liquid forehand are enactments of things we couldn’t have dreamed possible. It sounds like the questions of a third grader whose teacher loves her enough to elicit and make room for a sanctified curiosity about God’s good world. It even sounds like the spirited argument of a young couple who are discerning just what it means for their marriage to be a friendship that pictures the community God desires (and is).
Redemption smells like the oaky tease of a Napa Chardonnay that births anticipation in our taste buds. It smells like soil under our nails after labouring over peonies and gerber daisies. It smells like the steamy winter kitchen of a family together preparing for supper. It smells like the ancient wisdom of a book inherited from a grandfather, or that “outside smell” of the family dog in November. It smells like riding your bike to work on a foggy spring morning. It even smells like the salty pungence of hard work and that singular bouquet of odors that bathes the birth of a child.
Does redemption ever smell like the manure of agribusiness dairy farms in Southern California when the Santa Anna’s are pumping those odors into your car windows as you sit in a traffic jam on the 15, fearful that your car is going to overheat? Mind you, I like Wendell Berry too. But I don’t think I need to turn him into a re-creator or re-restorer in order to appreciate him.
The novel part of neo-Calvinism is particularly striking, maybe like that manure’s odor, when you compare it to Calvin. Here is what he writes about Christ’s office as king:
We must, therefore, know that the happiness which is promised to us in Christ does not consist in external advantagesâ€”such as leading a joyful and tranquil life, abounding in wealth, being secure against all injury, and having an affluence of delights, such as the flesh is wont to long forâ€”but properly belongs to the heavenly life. As in the world the prosperous and desirable condition of a people consists partly in the abundance of temporal good and domestic peace, and partly in the strong protection which gives security against external violence; so Christ also enriches his people with all things necessary to the eternal salvation of their souls and fortifies them with courage to stand unassailable by all the attacks of spiritual foes. Whence we infer, that he reigns more for us than for himself, and that both within us and without us; that being replenished, in so far as God knows to be expedient, with the gifts of the Spirit, of which we are naturally destitute, we may feel from their first fruits, that we are truly united to God for perfect blessedness; and then trusting to the power of the same Spirit, may not doubt that we shall always be victorious against the devil, the world, and every thing that can do us harm. To this effect was our Saviourâ€™s reply to the Pharisees, â€œThe kingdom of God is within you.â€ â€œThe kingdom of God cometh not with observation,â€ (Luke 17:21, 22). It is probable that on his declaring himself to be that King under whom the highest blessing of God was to be expected, they had in derision asked him to produce his insignia. But to prevent those who were already more than enough inclined to the earth from dwelling on its pomp, he bids them enter into their consciences, for â€œthe kingdom of Godâ€ is â€œrighteousness, and peace, and joy in the Holy Ghost,â€ (Rom. 14:17). These words briefly teach what the kingdom of Christ bestows upon us. Not being earthly or carnal, and so subject to corruption, but spiritual, it raises us even to eternal life, so that we can patiently live at present under toil, hunger, cold, contempt, disgrace, and other annoyances; contented with this, that our King will never abandon us, but will supply our necessities until our warfare is ended, and we are called to triumph: such being the nature of his kingdom, that he communicates to us whatever he received of his Father. Since then he arms and equips us by his power, adorns us with splendour and magnificence, enriches us with wealth, we here find most abundant cause of glorying, and also are inspired with boldness, so that we can contend intrepidly with the devil, sin, and death. In fine, clothed with his righteousness, we can bravely surmount all the insults of the world: and as he replenishes us liberally with his gifts, so we can in our turn bring forth fruit unto his glory. (Institutes, 2.15.4)
What is striking is the opposing themes of Smith and Calvin. For Smith, we are involved in doing the saving. For Calvin, it is all from Christ. And for Smith, redemption is part and parcel of this world. For Calvin, it is spiritual, eternal, heavenly — not to be realized in this world.
As I say, do neo-Calvinists ever read Calvin (on their way to the Bible)? Or does their philosophy give them liberty to make up whatever they want to believe?