Neo-Calvinism’s Whiggish W-w

In his piece for Christian Renewal (March 26, 2014) Bill Evans expands on his earlier critique of 2k. And he commits again two important mistakes.

The first is to assert that 2kers identify the church with the kingdom of God. Wrong. 2kers follow the Confession of Faith in identifying the kingdom of Christ with the visible church and — see if you can follow the balls — the kingdom of God is not the same as the kingdom of Christ. If it were, then Saddam Hussein, who was under God’s reign, would have been part of the kingdom of Christ.

Remember how the Confession puts it:

The visible church, which is also catholic or universal under the gospel (not confined to one nation, as before under the law), consists of all those throughout the world that profess the true religion; and of their children: and is the kingdom of the Lord Jesus Christ, the house and family of God, out of which there is no ordinary possibility of salvation. (25.2)

I still remember sitting across a seminar table from solid conservative Presbyterians under the spell of Kuyper who asked me if I really believe that affirmation (even though they had subscribed the Confession).

The second mistake is to say that Calvinism is socially activist in contrast to Lutheranism. Evans writes, despite similarities in the way that Calvin and Luther spoke about two kingdoms, Calvin’s efforts to protect the church from encroachments of the state, and to emphasize the duties that Christians have to the state wind up denying the sort of ecclesiastical independence that results in Luther’s view (even though Lutheran churches were as much part of the political establishment as Reformed).

This difference helps to account for the profound contrast between the passivity toward the state that has characterized much of the Lutheran tradition and the historic pattern of social and political activism evident among Reformed Christians.

And there you have in one sentence a historical verdict on 400 years, as if everyone knows this, as if the Scottish Kirk was all that militant in resisting London, or as if the Dutch churches were any more successful in opposing Hitler than Lutherans were. Just glide right over those complexities and arrive with two thumbs up for Calvinism which gave us the modern world. These Calvinist optimists — who seem to forget that TULIP is not exactly John Locke write large — never seem to calculate that Calvinists never lifted a hand to stop the execution of Servetus or argued against sending Roger Williams into exile.

Aside from Calvinist soteriology, the Confession of Faith and its historical circumstances pose a speed bump to Evans’ whiggish rendering of history where all lines lead to Christian Renewal‘s readers. Of the major confessions from the Reformation era (as far as I know), only Westminster’s has a chapter devoted to Christian liberty, a pretty important concept for those who argue for Calvinism’s influence on modern social and political arrangements. For instance, this is how John Witte understands Calvinism’s contribution to human rights:

The first and most essential rights for early modern Calvinists were religious rights — the rights of the individual believer to enjoy liberty of conscience and free exercise of religion, and the rights of the religious group to enjoy freedom of worship and autonomy of governance. Already in Calvin’s day, the reformers discovered that proper protection of religious rights required protection of several correlative rights as well, particularly as Calvinists found themselves repressed and persecuted as minorities. The rights of the individual to religious conscience and exercise required attendant rights to assemble, speak, worship, evangelize, educate, parent, travel, and more on the basis of their beliefs.(2) John Witte, Jr., The Reformation of Rights)

It would be harder to find a view of freedom of conscience, though thoroughly accepted by moderns, more at odds with the way the Westminster Divines conceived of freedom of conscience, which was for them first and foremost a spiritual reality:

The liberty which Christ hath purchased for believers under the gospel consists in their freedom from the guilt of sin, the condemning wrath of God, the curse of the moral law; and, in their being delivered from this present evil world, bondage to Satan, and dominion of sin; from the evil of afflictions, the sting of death, the victory of the grave, and everlasting damnation; as also, in their free access to God, and their yielding obedience unto him, not out of slavish fear, but a childlike love and willing mind. All which were common also to believers under the law. But, under the new testament, the liberty of Christians is further enlarged, in their freedom from the yoke of the ceremonial law, to which the Jewish church was subjected; and in greater boldness of access to the throne of grace, and in fuller communications of the free Spirit of God, than believers under the law did ordinarily partake of. (20.1)

Unlike the Anabaptists, Quakers, or Roger Williams, freedom of conscience had nothing to do with politics. But for Evans’ understanding of Calvinism’s activist progressive side to make sense, he needs Witte to be right and to ignore what the Westminster Confession says.

And yet, the Westminster Divines, who wrote under the patronage of a Parliament at war with the crown — a sure sign of political activism if you wanted one — refused to let freedom of conscience be a buttress to political ends:

And because the powers which God hath ordained, and the liberty which Christ hath purchased, are not intended by God to destroy, but mutually to uphold and preserve one another, they who, upon pretense of Christian liberty, shall oppose any lawful power, or the lawful exercise of it, whether it be civil or ecclesiastical, resist the ordinance of God. And, for their publishing of such opinions, or maintaining of such practices, as are contrary to the light of nature, or to the known principles of Christianity (whether concerning faith, worship, or conversation), or to the power of godliness; or, such erroneous opinions or practices, as either in their own nature, or in the manner of publishing or maintaining them, are destructive to the external peace and order which Christ hath established in the church, they may lawfully be called to account, and proceeded against, by the censures of the church. (20.4)

Call it Lutheran if you want, but the A2k view of the Reformed tradition relies on a recent construction of Calvinism that has been foisted as the general article.

This entry was posted in Adventures in Church History, Lordship of Christ, Neo-Calvinism, Paleo Calvinism, spirituality of the church and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Post a comment or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.


  1. Zrim
    Posted May 20, 2014 at 3:03 pm | Permalink

    Terry, the implication of what you (*you*) have said is that there is a difference between real knowledge and so-called “knowledge after a fashion.” It seems safe to say that the former is true and good, the latter is lacking and corrupt.

    That said, my point about religious arrogance is not in regard to the spiritual antithesis—there are indeed children of light being saved and children of darkness being condemned and ne’er the twain shall meet. It’s in relation to our commonality. It is simply arrogant to suggest that among those who have equal access to the reservoir of the created order some have real knowledge of that order and some only a “knowledge after a fashion.” One either has true natural knowledge or he doesn’t, much like one either has supernatural faith or he doesn’t. What your views imply is that just as some might teach that there are first and second class believers in the realm of redemption, there are first and second class citizens in the realm of creation and that it is based on the respective spiritual statuses. There is only true knowledge (2+2=4) or false knowledge (2+2=5) of the created order, but once that fuzzy category called “knowledge after a fashion” of the created order pops up so does the religious arrogance.

  2. Posted May 20, 2014 at 5:04 pm | Permalink

    Terry, do you think Christians should take others to court (which is what contract negotiations are)? Great, you think Christian labor unions aren’t corrupt. That’s where w-w always leads. Christians are moral, non-Xians aren’t.

    More fundamentalism.

  3. Posted May 20, 2014 at 5:07 pm | Permalink

    Terry, re: perspective. What neo-Cal’sm had done in countless cases is nurture a fundamentally flawed (i.e. unbiblical) perspective. It has encouraged Xians to think they have insider knowledge on things that are common, on things that Christians have no more insight (because Scripture is silent) than unbelievers, on things they regard as holy or profane when they aren’t either — they are merely common. Neo-Calvinism ratchets up the stakes of everything — all endeavors are finally spiritual and either for or against God.

    And you talk about perspective. Neo-Cals need to get one.

  4. Posted May 20, 2014 at 5:16 pm | Permalink


    I’m not sure it’s “after a fashion” that’s trying to bear the weight; I suspect it’s more the word “true”.

    Here is the CVT quote from A Survey of Christian Epistemology

    The argument in favor of Christian theism must therefore seek to prove that if one is not a Christian theist he knows nothing at all as he ought to know anything. The difference is not that all men alike know certain things about the finite universe and that some claim some additional knowledge, while the others do not. On the contrary, the Christian theist must claim that he alone has true knowledge about cows and chickens as well as about God. He does this in no spirit of conceit, because it is a gift of God’s grace. Nor does he deny that there is knowledge after a fashion that enables the non-theist to get along after a fashion in the world. This is the gift of God’s common grace, and therefore does not change the absoluteness of the distinction made about the knowledge and ignorance of the theist and the non-theist respectively.

    My attempt to explain this is at

    What surprises me in all this is that Van Til and his view of knowledge has been standard fare in the OPC and at WTS throughout their history. @OldLife and the “Escondido Theology” are the new kids on the block on this issue as far as the OPC is concerned. You all may think of yourselves as “paleo-Calvinists” but as far as the OPC is concerned you’re the “neos”.

    Would Darryl and Zrim want to say that Van Til’s book is mis-titled? That there’s no such thing as a Christian epistemology.

  5. Zrim
    Posted May 20, 2014 at 6:16 pm | Permalink

    Terry, the older Protestants used the categories of belief and unbelief, not true knowledge and knowledge after a fashion. Sorry, but when I read you and CVT I hear modernity in the background. So if 2kers follow the older Prots and use the categories of un/belief and others prefer the modern categories worldview and esoteric distinctions between kinds of knowledge, then who’s paleo and who’s neo? I mean, Calvin pre-dated CVT. But even more than that, 2kers also part with the theocrat Calvin. Do neos ever contemplate the possibility CVT’s foibles? Gasp.Can you distinguish between a man inspired after a fashion (Calvin, CVT)and an infallible writer (Paul and Peter)?

  6. Posted May 20, 2014 at 6:42 pm | Permalink

    Zrim, of course, no human theologian is perfect. And I don’t disagree with your timeline (although I tend to see more continuity between Calvin and Kuyper (and Augustine and Paul) than you guys do). I don’t really think DVD’s analysis extended much into the OPC. I’ll have to review what he had to say about Van Til. My point is the narrow point about the OPC only. The OPC has been Van Tillian to its core (almost extra-confessionally so). The MTI guidelines for ministerial training recommends presuppositional apologetics and a defense of its superiority over other forms of apologetics. While this is not the WCF or even the Church Order, it shows the commitment of the OPC to this view.

    “CVT foibles”. I think CVT would say that this epistemological claim here is at the heart of his project. This is no foible. Take away this epistemological claim and you’ve gutted Van Til. He may as well not be there.

    No doubt the neo-Calvinist project resulted from engagement with modernity. The problem with paleo-theology and paleo-philosophy to some degree is that I’m not sure you can go back. The evidentialist project collapses in light of modern epistemology. Yeah, yeah, I know that you’ll somehow appeal to Peter and Paul and some kind of straightforward reading of the Biblical text. (Although I’m not so sure I’m willing to grant that Christian theology hasn’t always had some of the elements of modernity that you eschew.)

  7. Posted May 20, 2014 at 7:08 pm | Permalink

    When I see Pope Francis the term that comes to mind is “gravitas”. Either that or, “Hey, look at that cute old guy in his pajamas…”

  8. Posted May 21, 2014 at 2:56 am | Permalink

    Terry, in case you haven’t noticed, CVT is not standard fare in the CRC. So where’s your neo-Calvinism now?

  9. Zrim
    Posted May 21, 2014 at 9:07 am | Permalink

    Terry, yes, those straightforward readings of the biblical writers will always throw a wrench in the neo-Calvinist works–best to avoid it and consign any attempt to a thinly veiled Biblicism. But what can I say? The point isn’t to gut CVT or presuppositional apologetics. It’s to question neo-Calvinism, a third rail effort in the P&R world convinced of its awesomesauce, I know. But when the logic leads to conclusions like the following statements, some of us are simply left wondering if something’s askew in the Netherlands:

    “Non-Christians believe that the personality of the child can develop best if it is not placed face to face with God. Christian believe that the child’s personality cannot develop at all unless it is placed face to face with God. Non-Christian education puts the child in a vacuum. In this vacuum the child is expected to grow. The result is that the child dies. Christian education alone really nurtures personality because it alone gives the child air and food.”

    “Non-Christians believe that authority hurts the growth of the child. Christians believe that without authority a child cannot live at all.”

    “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.”

    “No teaching of any sort is possible except in Christian schools.”

    “On the basis of our opponents the position of the teacher is utterly hopeless. He knows that he knows nothing and that in spite of this fact he must teach. He knows that without authority he cannot teach and that there are no authorities to which he can appeal. He has to place the child before an infinite series of possibilities and pretend to be able to say something about the most advisable attitude to take with respect to the possibilities, and at the same time he has to admit that he knows nothing at all about those possibilities. And the result for the child is that he is not furnished with an atmosphere in which he can live and grow.”

  10. Terry M. Gray
    Posted May 21, 2014 at 11:54 am | Permalink

    Darryl, is neo-Calvinism alive and well in the CRC? And I do recognize that CVT in general has had less influence in the CRC. I could see in the 80’s already that Calvin College transformationalism was being disconnected from the Reformed confession. The OPC and CVT more faithfully maintain that connection. The 3 strands–docs, pies, Kuyps–were seen as equally legitimate even in isolation from each other. In other words someone was considered Reformed if they were a transformationalist without holding to Reformed doctrine or Reformed piety. I prefer to think that all 3 ought to be maintained simultaneously. As such the possible excess of each are curbed.

  11. Terry M. Gray
    Posted May 21, 2014 at 6:46 pm | Permalink

    Zrim, we all know that straightforward reading of the text isn’t the way to go or we’d all be cosmic redemptionists (Col. 1:20) or we’d think we should raise our hands when we pray (1 Timothy 2:8) or we’d baptize for the dead (1 Cor. 15:29) or we’d think that sanctification did something significant (1 Cor. 6:9-11) or we’d think that the kings of the earth will bring gifts to the New Jerusalem (Rev. 21:24) or we’d think that God created the heavens and earth in six twenty-four hour days just a few thousand years ago (Gen. 1,5,11).

  12. Zrim
    Posted May 21, 2014 at 9:35 pm | Permalink

    Terry, since when was a plain reading of the text more biblicist than Reformed? But a plain reading also keeps the fairer sex from being ordained, Mr. CRC (1 Tim 2:12), as well as the unqualified among the uglier sex (Titus 1, 1 Tim 3). And nothing wrong with raised hands, I say, so long as it’s done per the dialogical principle and in a good and decent order (1 Cor 14:40). Do biblicists care about the dialogical principle?

  13. Terry M. Gray
    Posted May 22, 2014 at 1:03 am | Permalink

    Zrim, I’m curious why you guys never agree with me, even when I state the obvious. A Reformed hermeneutic doesn’t just read the text “plainly”. It reads it rightly with proper grammatical-historical and redemptively historical nuance. Are we violating the regulative principle if we don’t greet each other with a holy kiss? Do your women wear head coverings? The argument for infant baptism or cessationism or Presbyterian government or a dialogical principle in worship or amillennialism or for that matter, limited atonement, irresistible grace, or perseverance of the saints, isn’t “plain”. Now I happen to think that the Reformed confessions have it right on all these things, but if you’ve spent any time discussing these issues with people who don’t share your viewpoint you see that perhaps its not as clear as we’d like to think when we declare something to be the “clear teaching of scripture.”

    Additionally, it strikes me as interesting that we can agree on the vast majority of Reformed doctrine yet get worked up about things that aren’t even in the creeds, confessions, and catechisms.

  14. Zrim
    Posted May 22, 2014 at 9:36 am | Permalink

    Terry, you might recall that you’ve earned the reputation of a neo-Cal with which this 2ker can live, so you might dial back the suggestion that you get nowhere over here. And in keeping with that, you make a good point about plain reading. Reformed hermeneutics 101 does tell us that no reader comes to the text without bias, that every reader has a grid with which to interpret holy writ. Which puts a stick in the spokes of wider evangelicalism’s biblicism (and Reformed that are unduly influenced by it) which says to simply pick up and read the Bible and, presto, everything will become clear. That wasn’t my experience as a young unbeliever. A bare back reading by someone seeking worldly wisdom only caused me to toss the little green NT being handed out outside Pierce Hall over my shoulder (pshaw, just a bunch of play-by-play accounts about some fellow who made wild claims and then allegedly rose from the dead, yawn). And moving out of eeeevangelicalism and into Reformation doesn’t come with a simplistic reading of the Bible, it comes more so with the hard work of having to change categories with which one reads the Bible (and plenty of other shifts).

    But that’s my point, namely that there is a difference between naive biblicism and plain reading. There really is such a thing as taking the biblical writers at their word and not unnecessarily complicating things. And the mirror error of Biblicism is what we find in something like Romanism, where the text is rendered so complicated that we need an infallible magisterium to decode it. Plain reading balances those two errors out. Is that really controversial?

    And so by that same point the claims of neo-Calvinism become sketchy, because by neo-Calvinism’s lights everyone should read the Bible and conclude that whatever else it may mean the gospel entails the transformation of society or that the Bible provides a framework for doing all of life. Pardon? I don’t see any of that anywhere in the Bible. I don’t see a framework for how to make sense of this world but a revelation about the world to come. Those are two very different things.

  15. Terry M. Gray
    Posted May 22, 2014 at 3:30 pm | Permalink

    Zrim, wasn’t sure I really I had that reputation, especially with Darryl 😉

    I wasn’t distinguishing between “plain reading” and “naive Biblicism”. I like to say that we take the Bible seriously which means that we interpret it rightly (not necessarily naively) and do what it says even when highly counter-cultural. I suspect we’re on the same page here.

    I suppose we continue to disagree about the degree to which the Bible and the worldview derived from Christian theology is relevant to creaturely existence in general and about the nature of the world to come.

  16. sdb
    Posted May 22, 2014 at 11:55 pm | Permalink

    I’m a bit late getting back to this. I can’t say much about the OPC/WTC reverence for CVT (or lack thereof) – this blog is the extent of my experience with the OPC. I’m PCA – I don’t think we have any OPC congregations in my neck of the woods.

    Maybe it is “true” rather than “fashion” that is tripping me up…I dunno. Who has better knowledge of electrodynamics – Maxwell (an orthodox Christian) or Jackson (an atheist as far as I know)? Maxwell’s formalism is great as far as it goes, but his framework was all wrong. Jackson has more knowledge of electrodynamics than Maxwell ever did. Of course neither of them have “true” knowledge of electrodynamics – theories are constantly evolving as more data comes in. No one has “true” knowledge of these things if by “true” knowledge you mean complete.

    So what is the scientist missing out on about electrodynamics by not believing in God? How does Christian electrodynamics look different from Atheistic electrodynamics?

    I could see if it was something “sprinkled on” so to speak – perhaps we might keep our science in proper perspective and be less likely to fall into the IFLS nonsense. But CVT is making a much stronger claim than that. I don’t find his epistemology very convincing.

  17. Terry M. Gray
    Posted May 23, 2014 at 1:13 am | Permalink

    sdb, if the knowledge of something includes that it is created by God, then the unbeliever doesn’t have the most basic knowledge of that thing. It seems that you want to separate the knowledge of the physics of electromagnetism from the knowledge of God. Van Til wants to say that this cannot and should not be done. Thus, it is only knowledge after a fashion. I think he would even avoid calling it partial knowledge because then you get the notion that the knowledge of God is just an add-on.

    I’m not saying here, as some have suggested, that the knowledge of God or the illuminating work of the Holy Spirit gives some kind of advantage with respect to this knowledge after a fashion. Although, as I’ve said before, some ideas may be eliminated because the conflict with what we know from scripture about the nature of reality. But, in all honesty, I’d be hard-pressed to think of any current scientific theory that I couldn’t understand as an expression of God’s creative and providential will. Admittedly, some scientists (in priestly garb) will use some scientific theory to deny God or to suggest that he is superfluous, but it’s usually because they are bad theologians. In many ways it gets back to the idea that if there is a scientific explanation for something then somehow God is not involved (a univocity of explanation). But if we hold to an idea such as concursus (as we do when we speak of the divine and human in the Scriptures–see my paper here if you’re interested), then God is present and at work even when I have an scientific explanation in hand. Is God’s action part of our scientific theory? I think not. And this is why believers and unbelievers can cooperate. We both start with the common ground that there is a regularity to the operations of the universe. We disagree on the basis for that regularity.

  18. Zrim
    Posted May 23, 2014 at 11:12 am | Permalink

    I wasn’t distinguishing between “plain reading” and “naive Biblicism”. I like to say that we take the Bible seriously which means that we interpret it rightly (not necessarily naively) and do what it says even when highly counter-cultural. I suspect we’re on the same page here.

    Terry, could be. One test might be what each of us makes of Enns who doesn’t want to take Paul at his word on submitting to civil authorities and suggests that to do so is to make a mistake–Paul was just propping up the assumptions of his times, which is to say being countenance-cultural, which is to say not binding believers in all times and places on civil obedience. But it’s highly counter-cultural to read Paul plainly and conclude that his words are indeed binding on those believers who inhabit a time and place that esteems civil rebellion as a virtue and obedience a vice.

  19. Terry M. Gray
    Posted May 23, 2014 at 2:23 pm | Permalink

    Zrim, while I think Pete is sensitive to a lot of the nuances of Biblical interpretation and Inspiration and Incarnation has much good in it. But generally, I think he’s gone off in the wrong direction. He’s disconnected from the Reformed confession. Even I, with what many think is a liberal stance on origins, don’t accept his views on Adam and the way he handles Romans 5 and 1 Corinthians 15. To be honest I’m not clear how he decides what’s from God and what’s Paul’s sanctified opinion or personal wisdom. I cannot see how this cannot but erode the foundations of evangelical doctrine. I’m not sure he has landed yet.

    While I appreciate and endorse my country’s political system as defined in various founding documents, I am willing to say that the American Revolution may have been a violation of God’s revealed will. Who knows which side I would have picked had I been there? Of course, one can make a defense on the basis of the powers of lesser magistrates and the legitimacy of lesser magistrates to challenge and resist higher magistrates. But Pete makes it sound like any one who’s an American doesn’t accept Paul’s teaching in Romans 13. I think he’s wrong about that.

Post a Comment

Your email is never published nor shared.

You may use these HTML tags and attributes <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>