Why Neo-Calvinists Are Like Feminists

Damon Linker comments on the folly of ideological purity in a democracy:

In a democracy, successful political movements go broad. They are ecumenical, seeking to bring as many people as possible into an inclusive coalition, because that’s how elections are won and mandates are forged, and because they understand that politics involves compromise and building bridges of partial agreement and commonality with those who disagree on some important issues but not on others. (Pro-life feminists tell Green that they’ve been inspired to attend the march by “cultural misogyny, the state of education and health care, and a desire for their own daughters to be able to lead.”)

Sects (whether political or religious) have different priorities — like upholding ideological purity, enforcing conformity to official doctrine, policing the boundaries of acceptable opinion, and excommunicating those who fail to toe the party line. They prefer losing to compromising their principles.

So why do neo-Calvinist treat 2kers like they are not Reformed? Remember Lutheran?

And since when is neo-Calvinism the way to approach society and politics? If you think you have the “real” w-w, the one that is True Truth, the one that is orthodoxy in the church, how exactly does that build a political consensus? At least Abraham Kuyper didn’t approach church life or politics that way.

Constructing Neo-Calvinism

How do you go from the Puritans who had laws on the books for the execution of disobedient and recalcitrant male adolescents and who refused to let Presbyterians set up shop in Massachusetts, to Calvinism as the glue that makes Americans think the U.S.A. is exceptional?

Damon Linker explained way back on the 500th anniversary of Calvin’s birthday:

Early in the eighteenth century, the vision of America as a new Israel specially chosen by God to perform a divine mission was primarily limited to the Puritan and post-Puritan elite of New England. But by the middle of the century, the more modest views of providence that until that time had dominated throughout the mid-Atlantic and Southern colonies had been supplanted by the stringent Calvinism of Massachusetts and Connecticut. America was New Englandized. According to historian John F. Berens, the motor behind this extraordinary transformation was the Great Awakening of the 1740s, which helped to spread theological concepts throughout the colonies. In the electrifying sermons of George Whitefield, Jonathan Edwards, Gilbert Tennent, Samuel Davies, and many other preachers, colonists from New York to South Carolina encountered for the first time the potent providential ideas that had previously transfixed the minds of the Puritan settlers of New England.

Not that these ideas were identical to the ones that originally inspired John Winthrop, Cotton Mather, and other seventeenth-century writers. On the contrary, American providential thinking evolved dramatically as it circulated throughout the colonies. As Berens notes, the French and Indian War (1754-1763), which followed immediately on the heels of the Great Awakening, contributed decisively to the transformation. For the first time, Americans began to define themselves in contrast to a vision of tyranny — namely, the (political and religious) absolutism of Catholic France. Unlike France, they concluded, the American colonies were a bastion of political and religious freedom. This freedom had been won, moreover, with the help of God’s providence, which would continue to protect the colonies in times of danger, provided the colonists proved themselves worthy of it by maintaining their divinely favored civil and religious institutions. In Berens’s words, by 1763 — a full thirteen years before the signing of the Declaration of Independence and the outbreak of war with Great Britain over the supposedly tyrannical usurpations of King George III — the “ever-increasing intercolonial conviction that America was the New Israel” had come to mean that the colonies “had been assigned a providential mission somehow connected to the advancement of civil and religious freedom.”

Through the Revolutionary War, the years surrounding the ratification of the federal Constitution, and the early national period, pastors and presidents repeatedly praised the “great design of providence” that had led to the creation of a country dedicated to protecting and preserving political and religious liberty. Call it the consolidation of America’s Calvinist consensus. What were once the rather extreme theological convictions dominating a handful of rustic outposts on the edge of a wholly undeveloped continent were now the unifying and motivating ideology of a rapidly expanding and industrializing nation. Whatever difficulties the new nation faced — from the traumas of the War of 1812 to the gradual escalation of regional hostilities that ultimately issued in the Civil War — Americans remained remarkably confident that God was committed to the survival and success of its experiment in free government and would continue to intervene providentially in its affairs to ensure that outcome.

Lo and behold, Americans were on the ground floor of turning Calvin into a political theologian of national greatness, but the French also beat the Dutch to the punch, as Bruce Gordon explains in his biography of Calvin’s Institutes. Emile Doumergue’s biography first published in 1899 included this:

Far from being a man who seeks retirement or turns from the world and from the present life, the Calvinist is one who takes possession of the world; who more than any other, dominates the world; who makes use of it for all his needs; he is the man of commerce, of industry, of all inventions and all progress, even material.

(Did someone say, “stay thirsty, my friend”?)

What Hath W-w Wrought?

One of our southern correspondents sent us this, which must be causing some embarrassment to Grand Rapidian neo-Calvinists:

After graduating from high school in 1975, Betsy [DeVos] enrolled at Calvin College, her mother’s alma mater. Calvin’s mission, as stated in the 1975–1976 course catalog, was “to prepare students to live productive lives of faith to the glory of God in contemporary society—not merely lives that have a place for religion … but lives which in every part, in every manifestation, in their very essence, are Christian.”

Once w-w is out of the bottle, gate keepers can’t control the gate. W-w can go Left or Right. The neo-Calvinist with the most money decides seemingly:

The DeVos family is Dutch, thoroughly so. All four of Richard DeVos’ grandparents emigrated from the Netherlands, and today, the family continues to observe the tenets of the Christian Reformed Church, a Calvinist denomination. Calvinism believes in predestination—that God has decided whether our souls are saved before we are born—and emphasizes an “inner worldly asceticism” in its practitioners. Historically, in avoiding ostentatious displays of wealth, Calvinist Protestants have instead turned their economic gains into savings and investments. One of the bedrock texts of sociology, Max Weber’s 1905 Protestant Work Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, is expressly about the links between Calvinism and economic success. (“In the place of the humble sinners to whom Luther promises grace if they trust themselves to God in penitent faith,” Weber wrote, “are bred those self-confident saints whom we can rediscover in the hard Puritan merchants of the heroic age of capitalism.”)

In this, Dick and Betsy DeVos’ familial roots serve as an object example. Dick is the eldest son of Richard DeVos, who co-founded Amway in 1959, and grew it from a meager soap factory into a multinational colossus with $9.5 billion in annual sales, enlisting his children to manage and expand the company. Betsy hails from a dynasty of her own. In 1965, her father, Edgar Prince, founded a small manufacturing company that came to be worth more than $1 billion on the strength of Prince’s automotive innovations, which include the pull-down sun visor with a built-in light-up vanity mirror.

Not to mention, that Christian day schools become a threat to public schools (the CRC beats the RCA):

In the 1960s and ’70s, Ed and Elsa Prince advanced God’s Kingdom from the end of a cul-de-sac just a few miles from Lake Michigan. There, they taught their four children—Elisabeth (Betsy), Eileen, Emilie and Erik—a deeply religious, conservative, free-market view of the world, emphasizing the importance of self-reliance and sending them to private schools that would reinforce the values they celebrated at home, small-government conservatism chief among them. . . .

In 2001, Betsy DeVos spoke at “The Gathering,” an annual meeting of some of America’s wealthiest Christians. There, she told her fellow believers about the animating force behind her education-reform campaigning, referencing the biblical battlefield where the Israelites fought the Philistines: “It goes back to what I mentioned, the concept of really being active in the Shephelah of our culture—to impact our culture in ways that are not the traditional funding-the-Christian-organization route, but that really may have greater Kingdom gain in the long run by changing the way we approach things—in this case, the system of education in the country.”

Dick DeVos, on stage with his wife, echoed her sentiments with a lament of his own. “The church—which ought to be, in our view, far more central to the life of the community—has been displaced by the public school,” Dick DeVos said. “We just can think of no better way to rebuild our families and our communities than to have that circle of church and school and family much more tightly focused and built on a consistent worldview.”

I understand that Right neo-Calvinists find private schools reassuring, the antithesis and all. But Left neo-Calvinists don’t have the stomach for such partisanship.

Will the real neo-Calvinism stand up? Calvin and the CRC or their daughter, Betsy DeVos? Faced with that choice, the spirituality of the church looks pretty appealing.

Neo-Calvinists Ordain Women, New Calvinists Don’t

[corrected] Molly Worthen deserves credit for trying to explain the difference between neo’s and News in the context of wives, husbands, church officers and complementarianism:

“It’s like we opened up a blister, and we’re getting story after story. I’m frankly shocked,” [Marie Notcheva Darlene Parsons] said. “I would say that I’m getting word of new stories once a week, (from churches across the country) and they’re all tied to this Neo-Calvinist movement that’s become more popular.”

Molly Worthen, an assistant professor of American religious history at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, refers to this as a Calvinist revival that has been taking place primarily in Baptist and evangelical churches since the ’70s and is continuing to spread into other churches to this day.

“It tends to refer not to the historic ethnically Dutch (Calvinist) church,” she explained. “It tends to refer more to conservative evangelicals, often southern Baptists who have chosen this as a way to support certain theological and social points.”

Worthen, whose studies served as the basis for her 2013 book “Apostles of Reason: The Crisis of Authority in American Evangelicalism,” said that churches in this movement of religious thinking often promote conservative “separate but equal” gender roles.

“There’s a lot of pressure for women just to accept things and accept the authority of men,” she said. “In the context of marriage and the context of the church, the man is the head.”

Worthen also said these churches tend to settle personal matters, such as marriage or abuse counseling, inside the congregation, rather than reaching outside the church for help.

When you start inspiring with every square inch, it’s hard to put the genie back in the bottle.

Reading about Machen in The Reformed Journal

Reformed Protestants 50 and up may have spent some of their reading hours with The Reformed Journal, a magazine of Dutch-American Calvinist provenance that came into existence as a forum for Christian Reformed Church progressives. I read it from my days as a seminary student until 1990 when it folded. I didn’t always agree with the politics or theology, but it was provocative and thoughtful.

Given the “progressive” character of the magazine, I should not have been surprised that TRJ’s regular contributors were slightly sympathetic but underwhelmed by J. Gresham Machen. That outlook bothered me because the deeper I went into the archives, the more impressed I was by the man who started Westminster Seminary and the OPC (with lots of help from others). In light of yesterday’s post with an excerpt from Machen’s testimony at his trial and with some reflections still fresh from the fall Presbyterian Scholars Conference (where several participants were experiencing the joy of post-PCUSA life but still not on board with Machen’s own version of that experience), I reproduce some high or low lights of TRJ takes on Machen.

First comes Rich Mouw’s argument that Machen’s departure actually hurt the cause of conservatism in the PCUSA (one echoed by George Marsden at the Wheaton conference):

Barbara Wheeler and I have argued much about the issues that threaten to divide us, but we share a strong commitment to continuing the conversation. She regularly makes her case for staying together by appealing to a high ecclesiology. The church, she insists, is not a voluntary arrangement that we can abandon just because we do not happen to like some of the other people in the group. God calls us into the church, and that means that God requires that we hang in there with one another even if that goes against our natural inclinations.

I agree with that formulation. And I sense that many of my fellow evangelicals in the PCUSA would also endorse it. The question that many evangelicals are asking these days, though, is whether God expects us to hang in there at all costs.

One of my reasons for wanting to see us stick together is that a Presbyterian split would be a serious setback for the cause that I care deeply about, namely the cause of Reformed orthodoxy. I spend a lot of time thinking about how people with my kind of theology, have acted in the past, and I am convinced that splits inevitably diminish the influence of the kind of orthodoxy that I cherish — for at least two reasons.

First, the denomination from which the dissidents depart is typically left without strong voices to defend orthodox. This is what happened in the early decades of the 20th century when J. Gresham Machen and his colleagues broke away from the northern Presbyterian church.

I know that this is not a very popular thing to say in this setting, but I happen to be a strong admirer of Machen. I think that he pretty much had things right on questions of biblical authority, the nature of Christ’s atoning work, and other key items on the theological agenda. But I have strong reservations about his ecclesiology and I regret that his views about the unity of the church led him to abandon mainline Presbyterianism. As long as he remained within the northern church, he had a forum for demonstrating to liberals that Calvinist orthodoxy could be articulated with intellectual rigor. When he and his friends departed, this kind of witness departed with them.

The evangelicals who stayed on in the northern church generally did so because they were not as polemical as the Machen group; they were also not nearly as inclined as the Machenites to engage in sustained theological discussion. This meant that the quality of theological argumentation in mainline Presbyterianism suffered for several decades — some would even say up to our present time.

Not to let facts get in the way here, but Mouw would do well to remember that the PCUSA brought Machen to trial and excommunicated him. Yesterday’s post shows that Machen was not eager to flee even if it would have been a lot more pleasant. Whether his actions were legitimate or constitutional is another question. But he asked about the constitutionality of PCUSA actions and that didn’t endear him to the people who stayed. In fact, they tried him for having the temerity to question the soundness of the Board of Foreign Missions — as if that’s never happened — and the administrative fiats that condemned dissent.

I too wonder if Mouw considers that from 1869 until 1920 the PCUSA became infected by the social gospel and Protestant ecumenism. During that very same time Princeton Seminary as the voice of Reformed orthodoxy in the northern church was still dominated by conservatives. What happened during the years when Princeton kept alive the theology that Mouw values? Princeton and it’s orthodoxy became marginal and then a nuisance — hence the reorganization of Princeton Seminary in 1929. The idea that had Machen stayed conservatives would have done better is naive and ignores what actually happened before Machen “left.” Plus, what kind of high ecclesiology settles for articulating “Calvinist orthodoxy with intellectual rigor”?

George Marsden and Mark Noll regularly wrote for TRJ and again the returns on Machen were not always positive. First, Marsden:

Both at the time and since critics of Machen have suggested that there was something peculiar about him. Most often mentioned are that Machen remained a bachelor and his very close relationship to his mother until her death in 1931. Neither of these traits, however, was particularly unusual in the Victorian era, which certainly set many of Machen’s social standards.

More to the point is that he does seem to have had a flaring temper and a propensity to make strong remarks about individuals with whom he disagreed. One striking instance is from 1913 when Machen had an intense two-hour argument with B. B. Warfield over campus policy, after which Machen wrote to his mother that Warfield, whom he normally admired immensely, was “himself, despite some very good qualities, a very heartless, selfish, domineering sort of man.” You can imagine that, if someone says things like this about one’s friends, that it might be easy to make enemies. Machen does not seem to have had a great ability to separate people from issues, and this certainly added to the tensions on the small seminary faculty. Clearly he was someone whom people either loved or hated. His students disciples were charmed by him and always spoke of his warmth and gentlemanliness. His opponents found him impossible, and it is a fair question to ask whether, despite the serious issues, things might have gone differently with a different personality involved.

This observation continues to baffle me, as if people do not distinguish public from private statements. Maybe we are only learning that lesson after Donald Trump, but historians generally know that in the archives you find people saying all sorts of things that they wouldn’t say in public. In private we blow off steam, unless we are all walking John Piper’s and sanctified all the way down. I also don’t understand why Marsden starts his sentence on Machen’s personality with the man’s opponents found him impossible. Hello. The feeling was mutual. But Machen as a sanctified believer was supposed to find his adversaries hedonistically delightful?

And finally, Mark Noll’s estimate on the fiftieth anniversary of Machen’s death:

By reading controversies within Princeton Seminary, Presbyterian missions, and eventually the Presbyterian denomination as battles between two separate religions, “Christianity and Liberalism,” Machen undermined the effectiveness of those Reformed and evangelical individuals who chose to remain at Princeton Seminary, with the Presbyterian mission board, and in the Northern Presbyterian Church. By committing himself so strongly to theological and ecclesiastical combat, Machen left successors who were ill-equipped to deal with the more practical matters of evangelism, social outreach, and devotional nurture. By pursuing the virtues of confessional integrity, he opened the door to sectarian pettiness.

No real sense here that blaming the victim is a potential downside of such an interpretation. The perspective seemed so often in TRJ to be that Machen was a man on a mission and looking for a controversy. The bureaucrats and seminary administrators were innocent. (Yes, the lawyer who defended modernists in the 1920s, John Foster Dulles, became the Secretary of State who crafted the Eisenhower administration’s Cold War policies — the very administration that the founding editors of TRJ questioned.) The Presbyterian hierarchy simply responded — with a hammer, mind you — to Machen’s provocations. That could have been the case but no one argued that. They largely reduced Machen to a cantankerous figure who got what most of us would expect if we rock the boat the way he did.

And now in hindsight I wonder what these same men would think of Abraham Kuyper who was also part of a church that came out of the Netherlands’ state church. Didn’t Kuyper’s GKN (Reformed Churches of the Netherlands) make it a lot harder for conservatives who stayed in the NHK (Dutch Reformed Church)? And didn’t Kuyper’s Free University make life more complicated for orthodox theologians who remained at Leiden or Utrecht? (In other words, why wouldn’t it be possible to imagine Machen akin to Kuyper? Why doesn’t the Kuyper glow trickle down to Machen? Because Kuyper became Prime Minister and Machen merely president of the Independent Board for Presbyterian Foreign Missions?)

And what of John Calvin? Was he wrong to leave France? Did he leave Huguenots in the lurch? Was the Roman Catholic Church worse off without Calvin’s ministry and theological reflection? Or does the mind boggle at the questions you need to start asking other historical figures when you become so demanding of a figure of which you disapprove?

Could You Write this after 9-11?

David Koyzis tries to turn B. B. Warfield into a Kuyperian and quotes this:

For there shall be a new heaven, we are told, and a new earth. Under these new heavens, in this new earth, shall gather redeemed humanity, in the perfection of its idea, and in perfect harmony with its perfected environment. In the perfection of physical vigour: for what is sown in corruption shall have been raised in incorruption, what is sown in dishonour shall have been raised in glory, what is sown in weakness shall have been raised in power, what is sown in selfishness shall have been raised in spirituality. In the perfection of social organization and intercourse: for there shall be none to hurt or destroy in all God’s holy mountain, and all the people of the Lord shall have learned righteousness. In the perfection of spiritual communion with God: for then it is that the Lord shall make Himself known to His people and shall dwell with them, and they shall need no Temple to which men should require to repair in order to meet the Lord, for the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb are the Temple thereof, and the grace of the Lord shall flow down the streets in a river of the water of Life washing into every nook and corner.

Such is the picture the Scriptures draw for us of the salvation of our God. And let us not fail to note that it is a picture of a saved world. As no sphere of human life is left untouched by it; as on its touch, every sphere of human life is transformed; so the completeness and the profundity of its renovation of man is matched by the wideness of its extension over man. It is the renewed heavens and the renewed earth that we are bidden to contemplate; and dwelling in them in endless bliss renewed humanity.

Hard not to think that with the British Empire chugging along, the Ottomans still in charge of an unruly part of the world, the Austro-Hungarians doing their part to keep order in the Balkans, and western dominance spreading around the globe, the world was getting better and that Christians (of a kind) had a large hand in that betterment. This quotation comes from a book published in 1913.

But when the world looks less stable and life less predictable, can any Reformed Protestant still be post-millennial? (And doesn’t Koyzis have a duty to protect Warfield’s good name?)

Human Bodies Waste Away But Cities Abide (psshaw)

One of yesterday’s sermons has me thinking: when will the neo-Calvinists ever do justice to the physical-spiritual dualism that legitimately arises in Paul’s teaching?

For we know that if the tent that is our earthly home is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens. For in this tent we groan, longing to put on our heavenly dwelling, if indeed by putting it on we may not be found naked. For while we are still in this tent, we groan, being burdened—not that we would be unclothed, but that we would be further clothed, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life. He who has prepared us for this very thing is God, who has given us the Spirit as a guarantee.

So we are always of good courage. We know that while we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord, for we walk by faith, not by sight. Yes, we are of good courage, and we would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord. So whether we are at home or away, we make it our aim to please him. For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive what is due for what he has done in the body, whether good or evil. (2 Corinthians 5:1-10 ESV)

You can’t simply point at “all things” passages and make Paul’s understanding of life in this world go away:

He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together. And he is the head of the body, the church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross. (Colossians 1:15-20 ESV)

You can affirm both. Christ is preeminent and we are not at home until we are with Christ. But to use the Lordship of Christ as the basis for transforming cities or redeeming movies and rejecting the dualism between fallen bodies and redeemed souls as fundamentalist is not Pauline. Heck, it’s not even Calvinist:

The wicked, too, groan, because they are not contented with their present condition; but afterwards an opposite disposition prevails, that is, a clinging to life, so that they view death with horror, and do not feel the long continuance of this mortal life to be a burden. The groaning of believers, on the other hand, arises from this — that they know, that they are here in a state of exile from their native land, and that they know, that they are here shut up in the body as in a prison. Hence they feel this life to be a burden, because in it they cannot enjoy true and perfect blessedness, because they cannot escape from the bondage of sin otherwise than by death, and hence they aspire to be elsewhere.

As, however, it is natural for all animals to desire existence, how can it be, that believers are willing to cease to exist? The Apostle solves this question, when he says, that believers do not desire death for the sake of losing any thing, but as having regard to a better life. At the same time, the words express more than this. For he admits, that we have naturally an aversion to the quitting of this life, considered in itself, as no one willingly allows himself to be striped of his garments. Afterwards, however, he adds, that the natural horror of death is overcome by confidence; 515 as an individual will, without any reluctance, throw away a coarse, dirty, threadbare, and, in one word, tattered garment, with the view of his being arrayed in an elegant, handsome, new, and durable one.

Farther, he explains the metaphor by saying — that what is mortal may be destroyed 516 by life. For as flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, (1 Corinthians 15:50,) it is necessary, that what is corruptible in our nature should perish, in order that we may be thoroughly renewed, and restored to a state of perfection. On this account, our body is called a prison, in which we are confined.