Hart Interview on Calvinism: A History

Our very own D.G. Hart recently visited Reformed Forum to speak about his book Calvinism: A History on Christ the Center. After listening to the latest episode, browse Dr. Hart’s previous interviews and lectures in their archive. It includes an excellent series on J. Gresham Machen.

Listen now.

The Reorganization of Old Princeton

Our own Darryl Hart recently visited with the folks at Reformed Forum to speak about the reorganization of Old Princeton on Christ the Center. Darryl’s article on the subject, “The Reorganization of Princeton Theological Seminary and the Exhaustion of American Presbyterianism” is published in the 2012 issue of The Confessional Presbyterian Journal. Listen to another interesting conversation on this important event in the history of American Presbyterianism.

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.

When the World is Breaking Bad

Mrs. Hart and I finally had the chance to watch Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and generally enjoyed it, though as is the case with most spy flicks, you don’t pay enough attention the first time through to figure out the villain (and once you know the villain in a second viewing the mystery that energizes a spy flick is gone). What continues to intrigue (all about) me about the genre of espionage movies is how indifferent Americans (and Europeans?) appear are to be to the morality of spying.

Most spy flicks take place in the context of the Cold War and presume that the United States (or the UK) is in a moral and political contest with the Soviets and the evils of Communism. Even if agents lie, kidnap, kill, and steal, agents of the CIA and MI6 are on the side of good, and the preservation of liberty and the American way requires intentionally breaking eggs. Broken shells and wasted yokes are the price of doing business.

Parenthetically, one of the curious features of debates over the Obama Administration’s handling of incident at the embassy in Libya is to see folks who grew up distrusting the CIA and calling cops “pigs” now having to rely on those very same intelligence agents to justify their decisions, actions, and authority. Boomers once envisioned a world where intelligence would be unnecessary and its immoral associations eliminated. A funny thing happened on the way to running a superpower — the realization that espionage and intelligence gathering are par for the superpower course. In which case, when it comes to international affairs, Obama depends upon secretive and duplicitous spies as much as tricky Richard Nixon and Slick Bill Clinton.

As I say, most Americans (aside from the pacifists) are immune to the moral compromises involved in living in a superpower. Our global hegemony depends in some way on a lot of craftiness and worse. Whether our security requires it is another matter. (Do we need to fear Mexico or Canada?) No politicized preacher of the Religious Right or neo-Calvinist persuasion I know has taken on the military-industrial complex or the ethics of agencies like the CIA. And yet, w-w advocates would have us think that the great instances of defective thinking and spiritual decline in the United States are policies and laws regulating human sexual desires. In point of fact, the United States likely lost her innocence well before the sexual revolution, that is, she lost it at least when she decided to wage an international war against the spread of Communism. Europeans like the Brits have never seemed to be as troubled by the ethical compromises involved in ruling and protecting a nation’s global footprint. Americans, by contrast, prefer thinking of their nation as one innocent of European decadence and intrigue. That preference may be a condition for demonizing those who break some of the Ten Commandments and not other parts of God’s law.

But on the upside, the new character in Breaking Bad (formerly Larry Sanders’s agent) is welcome a welcome development even if the series continues to depend on Dooms Day scenarios like divorce, girlfriends’ deaths, RV battery failures in the desert, suicide turtles, and airline crashes. Those extraordinary moments of Walt’s and Hank’s life make me think experimental Calvinists would prefer Breaking Bad more than confessional Protestants since the latter know the value of the ordinary and routine over excitement and glitz.

Muether on Warfield

Our esteemed colleague, John R. Muether recently joined the panel of Christ the Center to discuss the life and ministry of B.B. Warfield. John is currently working on a short book on Warfield. As you wait expectantly for what is sure to be an excellent read, listen to the interview at Reformed Forum.

If You Can Put A Woman in the Pulpit, You Can Self-Serve the Lord's Supper on the Moon

Thanks to Joe Carter comes a link to the news story about Buzz Aldrin’s observance of the Lord’s Supper (by himself no less) on the moon. Because NASA was receiving flack from Madalyn Murray O’Hair for the astronauts on Apollo 8 reading from Genesis, the federal authorities decided to let Aldrin commune on his own without a radio broadcast of the event.

But the Presbyterian Church that supplied Aldrin with elements and utensils has not kept the event silent:

. . . at Webster Presbyterian church – the spiritual home of many astronauts – Aldrin’s communion service is still celebrated every July, known as Lunar Communion Sunday. Pastor Helen DeLeon told me how they replay the tape of Aldrin on the moon and recite Psalm eight, which he had quoted on his return trip to Earth (“… what is man that thou art mindful of him”). The church still holds the chalice that Aldrin brought back with him. Judy Allton, a geologist and historian of Webster Presbyterian church, produced a paper, presented at a Nasa conference, arguing that communion could be an essential part of future manned space travel. She claims that rituals such as Aldrin’s communion “reinforce the homelink”.

Perhaps if the PCUSA congregation (was it PCUS or UPCUSA then?) had had the sense to see the problem with private observances of the Supper, they might have also detected the anomalies of ordaining a woman. I do wonder if Christian readers of this story will be more inclined to see this as evidence of secular government run amuk than an instance of liberal Christianity.

(Will this get me any blog-cred with the Baylys? I’m not holding my 2k breath.)

Not All About Me (sort of)

I will be speaking tomorrow at the Front Porch Republic conference at Hope College. Here are a few specifics:

Registration is now open for our Second Annual Conference to be held on September 15. This time we will be in Holland, MI on the beautiful campus of Hope College. We’ve got a stellar line-up of speakers including Bill Kauffman, Mary Berry Smith, Patrick Deneen, Jason Peters, Richard Gamble, William Schambra, Kate Dalton, D.G. Hart, Jeff Polet, Matt Bonzo, Authur Verslius, and a keynote address by Eric Jacobsen, author of the New Urbanist book, Sidewalks in the Kingdom.

Cost is $30 for the day, $15 for students. Lunch is included. Porchers in the mid-west, this is your chance. There will be plenty of time for discussion during the day, and we are making arrangements for a post-conference gathering at a local establishment where the conversation can continue. We are looking forward to a great event, and we hope to see you there.

For location and other matters, go here:

And here is the conference schedule:

Panel 1: Politics and Economics 9:15-10:30

Jeff Polet, Hope College
Patrick Deneen, University of Notre Dame
Richard Gamble, Hillsdale College

Panel 2: Local Culture 10:45-12:00

Bill Kauffman, author of Ain’t My America
William Schambra, Hudson Institute
Mark T. Mitchell, Patrick Henry College

Lunch: 12:15-1:00

Keynote Address: Eric Jacobsen, author of The Space Between, 1:00-1:45

Panel 3: Environment and Place 2:00-3:15

Jason Peters, Augustana College
Arthur Verslius, author of Island Farm
D. G. Hart, Hillsdale College

Panel 4: Food and Farming 3:30-4:45

Mary Berry Smith, The Berry Center
Katherine Dalton, Contributing editor to Chronicles magazine
Matt Bonzo, Cornerstone University

Closing Remarks: 4:45-5:00

The title of my talk will be “Confessions of an East Coast Snob.”


I am not in the habit of making political predictions, nor do I follow the polls or pundits sufficiently to feel comfortable doing so. But I did tweet on the eve of the Supreme Court’s ruling on Obamacare that if the President’s plan was upheld, then he would lose the November election. The reason is that the Supreme Court’s decision would energize the GOP’s base at a time when its November candidate is hardly inspiring too red meat conservatives.

Obama had no control over the Court’s decision or timing (on the eve of the election), but he has had some say in other matters that are also energizing social conservatives, such as immigration or gay marriage, and for some reason the Obama campaign doesn’t seem to worry about riling up all of those people who listen to Rush, Sean, Bill (Bennett), Michael (Medved), and Hugh (Hewitt). Maybe these guys are the smartest people in the nation. Or it could be that they are tone deaf to Red State politics.

A further indication of Obama unwittingly helping Romney came yesterday with the news that Wheaton College is joining with the Catholic University of America to file a lawsuit against the Obama administration’s contraception mandate. In an interview with Christianity Today, Wheaton’s president Phil Ryken explained why despite the timing this should not be construed as a partisan political act:

Wheaton College is not a partisan institution and the effect of our filing on any political process has played no part at all in any of our board discussions on the issue. The timing of things is driven primarily by the mandate itself. Wheaton College stands to face punitive fines already on January 1, 2013, and I am welcoming incoming freshmen in two weeks. It’s already an issue for us in terms of our health insurance and what we provide for this coming academic year. Although we wanted to wait for the Supreme Court decision out of respect for the legal system, we do not believe that we can wait any longer.

I too regard this as simply the prudent action of a college administration in response to unwise federal policy. And that is what is remarkable. Wheaton College is hardly part of the Religious Right. Ryken is no culture warrior. In fact, if anything the college is as uncomfortable with the GOP as many evangelical colleges and universities (compared to the 1980s). And yet, Obama and company have put Christians, with all sorts of reasons to be sympathetic to him, on the defensive at a time when they may revert to Republican habits of vote.


Why Exclude Walter and the Dude?

Viewers of “The Big Lebowski” may well remember one of many memorable lines from Walter Sobchak. This one comes in the context of a discussion with Donny about the merits of nihilism. Walter will have none of an outlook that believes in nothing. As he explains to Donny, “Say what you like about the tenets of National Socialism, Dude, at least it’s an ethos.”

That line came to mind when reading a recent Christianity Today editorial about Chuck Colson and his efforts to unite Roman Catholics and Evangelicals in an Abraham-Kuyper like coalition to oppose “spiritual nihilism.”

Colson, like Kuyper, was concerned about the effects of modernism and later postmodernism on contemporary culture. And like Kuyper, he believed that unless believers are equipped with the critical tools of worldview thinking, they are unlikely to make any headway in redeeming culture.

When Colson and Richard John Neuhaus formed Evangelicals and Catholics Together (ECT), their new Protestant-Catholic initiative, the group focused its initial statement on the common mission of the church in the third millennium. That mission, their 1994 document said, involved contending together “against all that opposes Christ and his cause.” In “developed societies,” that included “widespread secularization” that had descended “into a moral, intellectual, and spiritual nihilism that denies not only the One who is the Truth but the very idea of truth itself.”

Within the framework of Kuyper’s vision, this was an excellent summary of what Protestants and Catholics needed to address together.

As commendable as it may be for Christians to combat nihilism, why would this be a project that would exclude religiously conflicted folks like the Dude’s good friend and bowling team member, Walter? Lots of people who are not Christians oppose nihilism. Some of them are Christian. Some are Muslim. Some are Mormon. Some profess no God. If you want to oppose nihilism, then why not broaden the tent?

It could be that Christians think they alone have the true basis for a proper opposition. Or it could be that “spiritual nihilism” is different from Karl Hungus’ version of nihilism. But it does seem to me to be a form of shooting yourself in the foot when you make a common cultural cause into a matter of the gospel of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.

Postscript: are neo-Calvinists really comfortable with Colson carrying the water for Kuyper’s legacy?