With A Little Help from Our Experimental Calvinist Friends

Some of the critics of 2k have created the impression that it is a radical or non-mainstream position in the history of Reformed teaching. David VanDrunen’s recent publications suggest otherwise. Sometimes it seems that the debates are merely conflicting interpretations of history, with theology and exegesis, not to mention the church’s confession, waiting on the sidelines for their turn to enter the match.

Often lost in the discussions is the point that the neo-Calvinist understanding of Christ and culture is confused and confusing. Kuyperianism is long on inspiration but it fails on a number of fronts – what is a Christian view of the election of 1828? or what is the Christian interpretation of As You Like It? or what is the Reformed position on national health care? The lack of obvious or even complex answers to these questions does not stop, however, lots of evangelicals and New School Presbyterians from appealing to the PRIME MINISTER!!!! of the Dutch Republic for justification to go out and vote, raise heart rates, conduct experiments, lobby Senators, and fix toilets.

The difficulties of neo-Calvinism have not been lost on other Calvinists. I do not presume to know where Geoff Thomas, a pastor in Wales and regular contributor to Banner of Truth, stands on 2k. I still recall and have a very kind letter he wrote to me upon the publication of my book on J. Gresham Machen. But since I only believed in the spirituality of the church then, and had not blossomed into a full-blown 2k proponent, perhaps Geoff did not notice 2k implications of my biography and so wrote a gracious note.

No matter his assessment of 2k, he did write a series of articles for Banner of Truth on Klaas Schilder, the hero of Dr. Kloosterman and often the standard by which 2k is brought up short for not having a Reformed world-and-life-view. What is interesting to see in this four-part series is that Thomas not only offers some pointed reservations about Schilder, but he sees similar defects in Kuyper. For instance, here is Thomas’ take on the debate between Kuyper and Schilder over common grace:

Schilder opposed the concept of common grace. After man falls into sin life in a fallen world goes on and there is music, poetry and various skills mentioned in the line of Cain. Kuyper says that that is due to God’s goodness to all mankind, and is not that, we ask, God’s common grace? Is the phrase that inaccurate or offensive? Schilder does not accept the phrase but simply accepts that some men in the Cainite civilisation, as God’s servants, used their time wisely and others did not. Dr Jan Douma gently differs from Schilder in places, and, though he does not support Kuyper, he commends going back to John Calvin and his view of common grace. But the actual difference between Schilder and Kuyper in their attitude to the achievements of the non-Christian is confusing. According to Kuyper there cannot and should not be a Christian culture. Christ adds his particular grace to the culture of Greece or Rome as a result of common grace. Therefore Christians should not try to make a specific Christian culture. They should further ‘Christianise’ Western culture. Schilder says that there should be Christian culture, for Christ regenerates people to renewed obedience to the original mandate and this results in a Christian culture. But what of all the work in which we are involved with people who are not Christians? Schilder states that we are building different pyramids, but are we not often co-operating with unbelievers in building the same pyramid, but from different convictions? Think of a non-Christian and a Christian scientist who co-operate together in a research programme and the publication of a joint-paper. It frequently happens. What of the two women in Matthew 24:41:- “Two women will be grinding with a hand mill; one will be taken and the other left”? Are they not co-operating in the same cultural work even though one believes while the other does not?

Then Thomas follows with a comment on the small difference between Kuyper and Schilder, with speculation on the Dutchness of the entire matter:

Our concern with Schilder is that he did not go far enough from Kuyper’s views. In practical terms there was scarcely a membrane between those leaders. The views of both men tended to externalise the doctrines of grace, especially justification and regeneration. Schilder shared in the judgment of Kuyper that the pietists had a too rigid view of the Christian’s separation from the world. The Reformed faith as a result of theie convictions became more hollowed out. They did not give enough attention to the needs of the individual heart and soul. This lob-sided emphasis on culture was encouraging a Christianity that was speculative and abstract, rather than one that focused upon the sovereign, spiritual, inward working of the Word. Almost a hundred years ago Herman Bavinck wrote an introduction to a Dutch translation of sermons by the Erskine brothers of Scotland, and he said, “Here we have an important element which is largely lacking among us. We miss this spiritual soul-knowledge. It seems we no longer know what sin and grace, guilt and forgiveness, regeneration and conversion are. We know these things in theory, but we no longer know them in the awful reality of life” (quoted by Cornelis Pronk in “Neo-Calvinism”, Reformed Theological Journal, November 1995, pp.42-56). Those sermons are still revered in Holland today. Whether it was in the name of ‘common grace’, or ‘Christ and culture’ the ‘Christianising’ of the cosmos became the deeply optimistic enterprise on which both men and their followers set out. There is a triumphalistic note in Kuyper’s Stone Lectures at Princeton on ‘Calvinism.’ It seemed to be saying, “look what we’ve done in Holland. Next … the world!” That is a fantasy. Twenty years later began the first of two world wars which came in quick succession, and the rise of Marxism and humanism which was to devastate Europe and make the Netherlands known as much for being the home of moral anarchy as it is for the European centre of the doctrines of grace. The drug culture of Amsterdam would have been something which Kuyper could never have envisaged. Yet his doctrine of the dreadful wickedness of the heart of man, the hostility of the world to Christ and his church, and the activity of the powers of darkness should have made him alert to the bleakness of the future.

I hope that by mentioning this fine series Dr. K. will not take it upon himself to open up a thirteen-part series on Christ and culture in Great Britain through the lens of the Banner of Truth. But if he does, he may also wake up to the possibility that it is more than a few kooks in the OPC or at a certain California institution of higher learning that have reservations about neo-Calvinism.


10 thoughts on “With A Little Help from Our Experimental Calvinist Friends

  1. Isn’t Kuyper a good example of a theologian incorporating the spirit of his age into his doctrine instead of having his mind renewed by his confession or coming under it’s authority? If I remember correctly, the pre-WWI secular world had been on a long trajectory of increasing utopianism and the only thing that stopped it, at least for a while, were the two world wars. Wasn’t this utopianism a major problem with his theology?

    My observation, of what I understand to be Neo-Calvinism, is that they seem to be having the same problem with the spirit of the age as their chosen mentors, plus, perhaps, a few additional ones. One elephant in the room seems to be that they seem to have a similar mindset as Cafeteria Catholics picking and choosing what appeals to them and refusing to come under the authority of their Magisterium.

    To this outsider, it does not seem as though the Neo-Calvinists want to settle down and learn to color within the lines of one of the orthodox Calvinist confessions. They appear to be trying to put together one puzzle from a dozen different puzzle boxes and ending up with a mess. I honestly don’t see much difference between them and Saddleback church. From what I’ve read of their writings, they all seem fairly incoherent to me theologically and I can’t understand why others think they are such astounding teachers (FWI, I don’t see these problems in the WTS CA gang).

    It seems to me that it would be a good idea for the Neo-Calvinists to figure out exactly what they want to be (Baptist, Presbyterian, etc.), come under the authority of one of the orthodox confessions and stick with faithful teaching under that confession, or label themselves non-denominational. Am I being too tough on them or am I just an ignorant Lutheran who thinks Calvinists are supposed to be bound to their confessions just as Lutherans are supposed to be bound to the Book of Concord?


  2. Lily,

    You have just entered into the twilight zone of the debate between the confessionalists and the philosophical theologian types, ie., neo-Cal’s or anyone who thinks confessions are putting God in a box and are not a proper route to take when discussing truth claims. You not only have to be a theologian and understand historical theology, biblical theology and systematic theology but you have to know the various schools of philosophy and keep up with all the modern and post-modern philosophical schools of thought (according to the Neo-Cals). Logic and arguing properly is also a big issue for the Neo-Cals. The debate gets even a bit more complex then the way I have presented it in those few sentence but that seems to be the gist of it to me. Those basic idea have been presented on this blog and many others and as far as I can tell no concesus at all has been reached. The Christ and culture issue is a by-product of the differences between the confessionalists and neo-Cals (read: 2K wants a separation of the Kingdom of man and the Kingdom of God and the neo-Cals believe it is the Christians duty to redeem culture as part of Kingdom of God work). Someone else can probably explain it better than that but you might get ignored too. The people who blog here have many other things to do in their lives besides answering the same questions over and over again. Blogging and reading blog sites can become an addiction- I find I have to take a hiatus from it from time to time or I never would get anything else done in my life. You can learn a lot though if you find the right sites. In my opinion this is one of the best.


  3. Many thanks John, I appreciate the brief.

    May I please apologize to all for commenting here. I am out of my league and, obviously, a confessional who thinks the confessions, liturgy, hymns, and all that jazz are the only way to fly. I will refrain from commenting again. Please enjoy yourselves! 🙂


  4. Give me the old Reformed confessions and catechisms over the philosophical and political ranting of a dead dutch man any day.


  5. I wholeheartedly agree Joseph. Stick to your guns Lily- I have quite enjoyed your comments. Darryl and Zrim have been fighting the Neo-Cals relentlessly for as long as I have been frequenting the site. The Neo-Cals still hold positions of power in the Calvinist denominations and are trying to send the confessionalists back to the Outhouse. As Michael Mann stated, please keep on fighting and don’t get assimilated into the Borg. I certainly would go to battle with them too. They have helped to increase my faith.


  6. John,

    I appreciate your take and input.
    I think all the 2K guys are presently in an on-going food fight on the greenbaggins web site at the Machen thread.


  7. Brian, Jim Bratt, historian at Calvin College, is about done with a biography of Kuyper. It should be very good and arguably the best in English. But I’d recommend for starters Bratt’s anthology of Kuyper’s writings. It has a good biographical introduction and lots of relevant texts. Also, Peter Heslam’s book on Kuyper’s Lectures on Calvinism supplies a lot of helpful perspective.


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