The Bible’s Forked Tongue?

Put simply, the Bible speaks narrowly to the church but broadly to believers. This, at least, is the unexamined logic of neo-Calvinism.

Two-kingdom proponents and neo-Calvinists both distinguish between the institutional church and its members. This distinction allows us to recognize that Christians properly do things that the church can’t do. Christians work as artists, parents, plumbers, bankers, and bakers. The church does not produce or rear children, lacks its own currency, uses bread from common sources for the Lord’s Supper. So far so good.

But the hiccup for neo-Calvinists comes when they insist that Christians must have biblical warrant or use the lens of Scripture for all that they do. In Kingdoms Apart, Timothy R. Scheurers, puts it this way:

Where . . . proponents of the Two Kingdoms perspective go wrong, however, is in their failure to distinguish adequately between the work of the church (as an institution) and the cultural activity of Christians who are simultaneously citizens of heaven and earth (church as an organism). The Two Kingdoms doctrine neglects the biblical command that in every area of public living, believers should apply the principles and values that shape their distinctiveness as Christians. If fails to provide a biblical and helpful paradigm for cultural living by limiting the unique identity and spirituality of believers in this world. . . .

Scripture nowhere hints that we are to live a compartmentalized life in which we relegate our Christian convictions to Sunday observance only. Romans 12:1 declares that for those who have been renewed by the Spirit of God, it is entirely reasonable and fitting for them to offer up to God their whole person, both body and soul, in an act of worship. . . . If we accept the Two Kingdoms assertion that the Christian’s secular activities are “thoroughly common,” and that it is improper to “apply” the gospel to our work in the common realm, it would seem a type of Sunday Christianity remains for us. However, if we are transformed by the gospel, then it is profoundly relevant for how we conduct ourselves as Christians in the civil realm, for “the very essence of Christian faith includes a grace-produced identity that comes to manifestation in the way we live our lives every day of the week.” (144-45)

And thus we see another example of neo-Calvinism’s bloated rhetoric for admirably pious reasons.

Here is the rub: if the essence of the Christian faith is a grace-produced identity for every area of human existence, then the church (institute or institutional) lacks this Christian essential. After all, the corporate church does not take stands on matters in which Christians engage throughout the week — plumbing, baking, banking, gardening, ditch-digging. No Reformed church has produced a chapter or chapters in its creeds about algebra, Greek, or photosynthesis. That does not seem to bother neo-Calvinists since the work of the church is different from that of the believer.

But if neo-Calvinists are content with churches that lack the essence of Christianity, why do they demand more of believers than of the church? Churches don’t confess articles of faith about hydrogen or dangling prepositions because the Bible does not speak to such matters. The Reformed creeds summarize biblical teaching and if Scripture taught trigonometry or Asian history, churches would be expected to teach what God’s word reveals.

And yet, under the logic of the comprehensive sweep of Christianity and biblical testimony, neo-Calvinists claim powers for believers what the church lacks, namely, the ability to apply biblical norms to all walks of life. We do not let ministers preach sermons on tax rates, rotation of crops, exercise, or television game shows. But now along come neo-Calvinists to tell us that any Tom, Dick or Mary, who has no training in biblical exegesis or may not even be catechized, is going to tell us how the gospel transforms cat litter, Alfred Hitchcock movies, and meteorology?

And people wonder why the institutional church ends up suffering in neo-Calvinist contexts, or why the convoluted notion of kingdom-work has given every member a ministry.

As I say, neo-Calvinists intentions may be admirable. But Calvinists, who put the T in TULIP, were not supposed to be suckers for good intentions.

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414 Comments

  1. Zrim
    Posted January 9, 2013 at 7:54 pm | Permalink

    M&M, my particular favorite is: “Non-Christians believe that authority hurts the growth of the child. Christians believe that without authority a child cannot live at all.” Two words: Amy Chua (Tiger Mom).

  2. Posted January 9, 2013 at 7:56 pm | Permalink

    That was CVT? Ouch.

  3. Don Frank
    Posted January 10, 2013 at 9:45 am | Permalink

    Z,

    I think the key to understanding how one could arrive at such “bizrre” conclusions is contained in this quote which you posted:

    The only reason why we are justified in having Christian schools is that we are convinced that outside of a Christian-theistic atmosphere there can be no more than an empty process of one abstraction teaching abstractness to other abstractions.

    The motivation I think is good, but the method is madness. What the writer of this statement fails to grasp (btw, I don’t think this is true only of neo-Cals), is the truth of Calvin’s words in his commentary on 1 Cor.10:31-35:

    If the fullness of the earth is the Lord’s, there is nothing in the world that is not sacred and pure. Now, what things the Lord has in his hands, he preserves by his power, and consequently sanctifies them. The sons of God, therefore, have the pure use of everything, because they receive them no otherwise than from the hand of God.

    He addresses the objection that the earth is cursed on account of sin with the following:

    He [Paul] has an eye to its [the earth's] pure and perfect nature, because Paul is speaking of believers, to whom all things are sanctified through Christ.

    If this is true, and understood by the believer, there is no such thing as an abstraction. So the Pythagorean theory reveals the sacredness and purity (what in medieval times was called mystery) of the world because God holds the fullness of the earth in His hands.

    Consequently, it makes no difference whether the pythagorean theory is taught by a non-believer or a believer who understands and can communicate the truth of the theory to the student.

  4. Zrim
    Posted January 10, 2013 at 10:16 am | Permalink

    Don, thanks. So now it sounds like you agree that none of CVT’s statements comport with the Bible. Your initial response seemed to suggest otherwise, i.e., that learning can’t really take place without also understanding that God made heaven and earth.

    So I think Erik’s previous remark that CVT’s “…thinking was probably colored by his Dutch ghetto upbringing” is closer to the mark. When it comes to education, what CVT and those who affirm these sorts of statements really end up doing in a glorified way is prop up a Christian environment (which is really a form of Christian culture). It is said that CVT was enormously frustrated with the state of Christian schools by the end of his life, that he didn’t see his theory really being put into practice. I wonder if that’s because there really is no such thing as Christian education as he imagined it, and the fact that real people couldn’t cobble it together to his satisfaction only proved it.

  5. Don Frank
    Posted January 10, 2013 at 11:17 am | Permalink

    Z,

    I think it depends on what you mean by “comport with the bible.” I agree that his methods do not comport, but his motivation that God be glorified certainly do. And, not to be a word quibbler, but the word “learning” needs to be properly understood.

    What I said in my initial response assumed the meaning of “learning” to be in line with Calvin’s thought, versus “learning” the skills, which I called “principle.”

  6. Posted January 10, 2013 at 1:14 pm | Permalink

    John T and Doug S: We look to Scripture first as the final court of appeal! We use our Confession to help guide us in understanding Scripture. But when we argue doctrine, we better use Scripture if we want to argue with any force.

    I would agree with this. However, I want to tighten it up. For John T wants to use the notion of sola scriptura to throw out any use for the Confessions, so we need some clarity on the matter.

    Scripture (in the original languages, and the original text, no less) is the final court of appeal. That is the objective yardstick against which our doctrines are measured.

    The Confession acts as a secondary yardstick: it is calibrated against the Scripture, and we may take it as a non-final authority on sound doctrine.

    If we want to dissent from the Scripture, this is disallowed.

    If we want to dissent from the Confession, this is potentially allowed, BUT we must be upfront and clear-headed about our dissent. I say “potentially allowed” because an exception to the Confession flags to the rest of us the possibility of an exception to Scripture itself.

    When we take exception to the Confession, we have the obligation to (a) defend our exception rigorously from Scripture, and (b) be in subjection to our brethren as much as conscience will allow — included demitting an office if our brethren deem the exception to be out of bounds.

    John T, while I share your desire that we might argue directly from Scripture, I allow sense your desire to be unshackled from any creed. This suggests that you discount the collected wisdom of the church on the meaning of Scripture, but without requiring of yourself the high bar of rigorous proof from Scripture.

    No creed + non-rigorous proof ==> doctrinal errors in the wings.

    Doug S, I don’t get the sense that you’ve interacted with the “merit” side of the argument very much.

  7. Posted January 10, 2013 at 1:19 pm | Permalink

    Zrim, in short: I don’t accept CVT’s absolutism. I certainly don’t teach math or physics in that way.

    At the same time, I can appreciate an over-arching point that he makes: If we teach the chapters of life called “math” and “physics”, but we teach them as short stories that stand on their own (and are not a part of the creation-redemption tale), then are we really teaching the same story?

    Jurisdictionally, I think it’s more the church’s job to teach the big picture. But it needs to be someone’s.

  8. Posted January 10, 2013 at 1:25 pm | Permalink

    Sean:

    Lev (18:5) is analogous to Jesus saying, “if you love me, then keep my commandments” which is just another way of saying “do this and live”. How can we “do this and live”? By grace through faith! It’s called faith working itself out in love! When we walk by faith, (that is life!) because Christ delights in a broken and contrite spirit! Moses could have just as easily said, “the just shall live by faith” Hey, I think he did, and that was in the law!

    Could the Israelites “do this and live” in there own strength? No, but God’s elect did walk this way by grace through faith. Was Moses faithful and pleasing to God? Did Moses, “do this and live”? Of course! Was it by works? God forbid!! Moses was saved by grace through faith, just like we are! His obedience was the fruit of a humble heart before God.

    Moses proved the law was to be appropriated by faith, (sorry Sean) because he was a man of faith! Moses, “did this and lived” for 120 years with the vigor of a man in his twenties. What was Moses secret? He was the most humble man in the world!

    Both the old and new administrations are the same covenant in substance in that they require God’s people to trust and obey. Both the old and new administrations have blessings for obedience and curses for disobedience. On that point, they differ not.

    How can anyone deny this, when there is overwhelming Biblical evidence?

  9. Posted January 10, 2013 at 1:31 pm | Permalink

    Jeff, what merrit argument did I miss?

  10. Zrim
    Posted January 10, 2013 at 2:18 pm | Permalink

    At the same time, I can appreciate an over-arching point that he makes: If we teach the chapters of life called “math” and “physics”, but we teach them as short stories that stand on their own (and are not a part of the creation-redemption tale), then are we really teaching the same story?

    Jeff, it seems to me that the chapters on the 3Rs correspond to creation and not redemption. So I don’t know what you mean when you say they are part of the –redemption tale. But to teach/learn the 3Rs as corresponding to creation doesn’t necessarily imply some sort of autonomy. This is what I suspect is going on in many a neo-Cal mind (and those influenced by it): to say that the 3Rs correspond to creation and not redemption is to open the way to godless autonomy, so out pops something about redemption to ward off the autonomous demons. But what the 3Rs have immediately to do with the Three Persons remains less than obvious to me.

    Still, I don’t think it is any more necessary in an educational setting to draw straight lines from the 3Rs to an orthodox doctrine of creation than it is in any other common vocation, trade, enterprise, or discipline. All that is necessary is that the respective principles are followed. I think if that were better understood we’d have fewer bizarre statements like CVT’s and more willingness to examine educational presuppositions.

  11. Posted January 16, 2013 at 10:08 am | Permalink

    Zrim: Jeff, it seems to me that the chapters on the 3Rs correspond to creation and not redemption. So I don’t know what you mean when you say they are part of the –redemption tale.

    I mean the standard Reformed understanding of history as the story of Creation, Fall, Redemption.

    And significant for this understanding is that creation stands in a particular logical relationship to redemption: God created in order to redeem.

    It seems that what you want to do is entirely decouple the two, yes?

    Zrim: Still, I don’t think it is any more necessary in an educational setting to draw straight lines from the 3Rs to an orthodox doctrine of creation than it is in any other common vocation, trade, enterprise, or discipline. All that is necessary is that the respective principles are followed.

    Is not one of the respective principles that “The work of creation is, God’s making all things of nothing, by the word of his power, in the space of six days, and all very good.”?

  12. Zrim
    Posted January 16, 2013 at 10:50 am | Permalink

    Jeff, I understand the standard Reformed teaching on creation-fall-redemption. And I understand how the 3Rs correspond to creation. What I don’t understand is how the 3Rs correspond to redemption.

    I also understand that creation is inherent to redemption. So I don’t know that I’d characterize my point as a “decoupling” of creation and redemption as much as to say that, first, they need to be distinguished in such a way as to be able to speak of “re-creation gained instead of creation re-gained” (a la DVD). Second, if so distinguished then what is inherent to the original creation really cannot be aligned to the new creation to come, e.g. everything from marriage to the 3Rs. Neo-Calvinism wants to speak of creation re-gained, which explains why it thinks there is such a thing as redeemed math.

    So, yes, one of the principles of creation is that God made all things very good, from math to marriage. But that’s why it doesn’t need any redemptive gloss, because it’s very good as-is.

  13. Posted January 17, 2013 at 9:15 am | Permalink

    Zrim: What I don’t understand is how the 3Rs correspond to redemption.

    Right, and I’m not suggesting that they do — beyond some basics like being able to tell “good and necessary inference” from the other kind of inference.

    Zrim: So I don’t know that I’d characterize my point as a “decoupling” of creation and redemption…

    Well, the pushback you’ve been getting from me has been on that specific point. I’m happy with a general 2k scheme, but when you begin to suggest that “bringing plumbing into conformity with Scripture” is nonsense, then you are driving a decoupling wedge between creation and redemption.

    The fact is that our redemption takes place within the created order: Fallen flesh-and-bloog men proclaim the gospel, fallen flesh-and-bloog men receive it, fallen flesh-and-blood redeemed men carry out their vocations coram deo.

    It should be possible to make those basic and seemingly unobjectionable observations without devolving into a discussion of “Christian plumbing.”

    Zrim: they need to be distinguished in such a way as to be able to speak of “re-creation gained instead of creation re-gained” (a la DVD).

    I’m happy with that.

    Zrim: So, yes, one of the principles of creation is that God made all things very good, from math to marriage. But that’s why it doesn’t need any redemptive gloss, because it’s very good as-is.

    Agreed: Doesn’t need redemptive gloss.

    Disagreed: Very good as-is.

    What about the curse?

    But my larger objection is that there are actually two issues in play, and your focus on the neo-Cal issue masks my own concerns.

    The first issue is neo-Calvinism: Does Creation need redeeming from the curse? Generally speaking, we would agree: No. People need redeeming, and God Himself will set the curse right in the eschaton.

    But the second issue is one of vocation: Does a Christian carrying out his vocation need to understand that “God made all things good and in the space of six days” (not specifying length of days here) as the framework or context for his vocational story?

    I would argue Yes. And here’s where the rubber meets the road. A Christian working in the biological or geological (or even physical) sciences has a certain amount of freedom to accept arguments about origins or mechanisms. But he does not have the freedom to accept conclusions that entail Deism or atheism. The fact of creation ex nihilo is a part of the framework of the story that he tells — or else he is unfaithful to his Lord.

    Likewise, the 9th Commandment is a part of his framework, so that he is not free to promote specious arguments about creation to others as if they were true.

    Our Christian beliefs have ethical implications for our practice of the 3Rs: not necessarily the lower story of what the 3Rs *are*, but the upper story of *how they are to be used.*

    Another example. I find several features of postmodernism to be admirable. But one feature that I do not find admirable is the insistence that all discourse is actually word-play with the aim of exerting power over another. At a fundamental level, I cannot reconcile this theory of discourse with Eph 4, “Speak truthfully one to another.” That does not mean that I utterly reject all considerations of rhetoric-as-influence, but it does mean that I am constrained, because I am a Christian, to believe that There is Truth.

    And in that way, I am compelled to bring my own practice of discourse into conformity with Scripture.

    The bottom line is that 2K generally is very worthwhile, but the rhetorical excess, denying that “a plumber should bring his plumbing into conformity with Scripture”, seems a bridge too far.

  14. Zrim
    Posted January 19, 2013 at 11:55 am | Permalink

    Jeff, if you agree that creation doesn’t need redemptive gloss then how do you disagree that creation is very good as-is? If it’s not very good as is then what keeps redemptive gloss from being applied? But you also ask about the curse. I distinguish between the essence of creation (very good) and its condition (marred).

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