A Neo-Calvinist (almost) Gets 2K Religion

If you make worship a priority in understanding Christianity and the work of the church, good things often follow. Let me try to make that overly generic and positive maxim stick by pointing to the example of James K. A. Smith. He has for a while advocated the place of worship in the life of a Christian college. The idea seems to be that what brings faculty and students together in a common enterprise as Christians is worship and so the teaching and study that take place at a Christian college should be conducted in the light of this reality. I am not sure if Smith’s proposal (about which I have read only second hand accounts and some of his own posts) can overcome my own reservations about so-called Christian education. But I find it attractive on one level because Smith puts Christ and the worship he makes possible at the center of what it means to be a Christian or a Christian community. Instead of letting w-w define Christianity, Smith appears to be suggesting that worship is key to understanding and articulating the Christian witness.

His worship-centric case for Christian higher education may also explain his recent expression of reservations about neo-Calvinism. Here are some auto-biographical considerations from Smith:

I was converted and nurtured in a largely dualistic stream of North American evangelicalism, complete with a robust dispensational view of the end times and a very narrow understanding of redemption. It was very much a rapture-ready, heaven-centric piety that had little, if anything, to say about how or why a Christian might care about urban planning or chemical engineering or securing clean water sources in developing nations. Why worry about justice or flourishing in a world that is going to burn up?

So when I heard the Kuyperian gospel, so to speak, I was both blown away and a little angry. I was introduced to a richer understanding of the biblical narrative that not only included sin and soul-rescue but also creation, culture-making, and a holistic sense of redemption that included concerns for justice. I realized that God is not only interested in immaterial souls; he is redeeming all things and renewing creation. Christ’s work also accomplishes the redemption of this world. The good news is not the announcement about an escape pod for our souls; it is the inbreaking of shalom.

You might say I finally received an understanding of Christianity that gave me “this world” back. Again, in Kuyperian terms, here was an account of the biblical story that not only emphasized the church as institute (“churchy” church) but also the church as organism (Christians engaged in cultural creation, caretaking, and justice). Because I felt like this more robust, comprehensive understanding of the Gospel had been kept a secret, I harboured a kind of bitterness and resentment toward my fundamentalist formation. Having been given back the world, I was almost angry that my teachers had only and constantly emphasized heaven.

But now he fears that the neo-Calvinist emphasis on this world has removed the finality of heaven from considerations about transformation and redeeming the world:

. . . my Kuyperian conversion to “this-worldly” justice and culture-making began to slide into its own kind of immanence. . . . We become encased and enclosed in our own affirmations of the “goodness of creation,” which, instead of being the theater of God’s glory, ends up being the echo chamber of our own interests. In sum, I became the strangest sort of monster: a Kuyperian secularist. My Reformed affirmation of creation slid toward a functional naturalism. My devotion to shalom became indistinguishable from the political platforms of the “progressive” party. And my valorization of the church as organism turned into a denigration of the church as institute.

Smith goes on to assure himself and his neo-Calvinist readers that this secularized Kuyperianism is not the real Kuyper. Abraham Kuyper, he briefly asserts, maintained a balance between heavenly watch and this worldly endeavor. That may be true for Kuyper himself, though his own spotty record of church attendance in his later years (James Bratt may set the record straight) is not a good sign. What is more, the trajectory of Kuyperianism in Europe, South Africa, and North America is toward a secularized neo-Calvinism. I know this is some kind of logical fallacy. But at some point the Kuyperians need to look at history and wonder if a fly was in the original neo-Calvinist ointment.

My own theory on that fly is that neo-Calvinists don’t actually understand the Reformation’s accomplishments (although the prefix suggests they understand more than they let on). For instance, Smith follows Charles Taylor on the secularizing consequences of the Reformation:

As Taylor so winsomely puts it, one of the world-changing consequences of the Reformation was “the sanctification of ordinary life.” This was a refusal of the two-tiered Christianity in the late medieval ages that extolled priests and monks and treated butchers and bakers and candlestick makers as if there were merely second-class citizens in the kingdom of God. Nein!, shouted the Reformers in reply. If all of life is lived coram Deo, before the face of God, then all vocations are holy. Everything can and should be done to the glory of God (1 Cor. 10:31) and as an expression of gratitude to God (Col. 3:17). In sum: there will not be a single square inch in all of creation over which Christ does not say, “Mine!” . . .

However, Taylor points out an unintended, “Frankensteinish” turn that was the result: by unleashing a new interest and investment in “this-worldly” justice, the Reformation also unleashed the possibility that we might forget heaven. By rejecting the dualism of two-tiered Christianity, the Reformation opened the door to a naturalism that only cared about “this world.”

This misconstrues the Protestant doctrine of vocation and misses the three-tier Christianity that the Reformation made possible. Luther and Calvin did not “sanctify” this world. Ordinary vocations did not become “holy.” How could anyone familiar with “A Mighty Fortress” (just how much theology to worshipers learn from hymns!?!):

That word above all earthly powers, no thanks to them, abideth
The Spirit and the gifts are ours through Him Who with us sideth
Let goods and kindred go, this mortal life also
The body they may kill: God’s truth abideth still
His kingdom is forever.

How exactly you get the sanctification of all of life in this world out of those words is beyond me (though 2k sure does seem to fit that stanza naturally). The Reformers believed that this world was good, not holy. They believed that it was passing or fading away and therefore incapable of sustaining salvation that endures. A new heavens and new earth would require that. And when you put the Reformation in these terms before a neo-Calvinist, you invariably hear as a response, “fundamentalist.” Maybe, but that makes the Reformers fundamentalists (along with the New Testament). Another reason for adding “neo” to Calvinist.

But to Smith’s credit, he does see that the otherworldly character of the gospel is crucial for preventing an identification of human flourishing in this world with Christianity:

The holistic affirmation of the goodness of creation and the importance of “this worldly” justice is not a substitute for heaven, as if the holistic gospel was a sanctified way to learn to be a naturalist. To the contrary, it is the very transcendence of God—in the ascension of the Son who now reigns from heaven, and in the futurity of the coming kingdom for which we pray—that disciplines and disrupts and haunts our tendency to settle for “this world.” It is the call of the Son from heaven, and the vision of the New Jerusalem descending from heaven, that pushes back on our illusions that we could figure this all out, that we could bring this about. Shalom is not biblical language for progressivist social amelioration. Shalom is a Christ-haunted call to long for kingdom come.

Whether that means that Smith has abandoned trying to identify earthly goods with heavenly truths or is simply now going to be careful about too much optimism, it is a start. Finally, we have a neo-Calvinist recognition of the tension between this world and the one to come.

12 thoughts on “A Neo-Calvinist (almost) Gets 2K Religion

  1. First sentence of this post is worth the price of admission. And the “often” is an important qualifier. The FVers and paedocommunists take their aberrant forms of worship and sacrament quite seriously. 2K can help improve worship too, since it can help draw a line between the silly stuff, otherwise good stuff, and really important (sacred?) stuff. I mean, if Erik were an evangelical he’d be in charge of picking out all the movie clips to support the sermon illustrations, right?


  2. Nice catch & nice post.

    This may be bad news if Sioux County gets wind of it. A political scientist was on Iowa Public Radio yesterday talking about how overwhelmingly Republican it is. I haven’t listened yet.

    The odd thing is how Kuyperianism leads some Dutchmen to the left (the CRC), and some to the right (Northwest Iowa, which apparently lags a generation behind Grand Rapids & Calvin or something).



  3. Scott – For those outside this small–but very significant (IMHO)–slice of American Christianity the question may be incomprehensible but that doesn’t mean it’s unimportant

    Erik – Flattery will get you everywhere.


  4. Finally we might be cooking with gas.
    Worship – as in ahem, the regulative principle of worship – not w.view, is one of the things that distinguishes the p&r church from take your pick: (NYC?) mega churches, reformed baptists and the world.

    But if Christian education is a questionable proposition, what do we do with the invention of the university, as opposed to what some would call the multiversity? Or did Islam or China come up with something similar w.o. piggybacking on intellectual janissaries?
    Jus askin.


  5. Never mind all that Katy. We’re busy warring. We’ll let the medics(lutherans) onto the field to tend the wounded later.


  6. #10 – The Apostle E.F. (Robert Duvall) baptizes himself an apostle in “The Apostle”

    #9 – Blake (Alex Baldwin) reminds a room full of shady real estate salesmen that “Coffee is for closers” in David Mamet’s “Glengarry Glen Ross”.

    I’m going to need more than 10.


  7. I’ve long puzzled how the one tradition with something like the RPW doesn’t have doxology as a fourth mark. And if only some Reformed took more seriously their confessional tradition than their academic legacy. And if only I had a dime for every time I’d heard the word “shalom” while in the CRC (I’d have lots of dimes, but probably not quite enough to take Mrs. Z. on the honeymoon she really wanted). The CRC needs more James Smiths.


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