Apparently Calvin Did Not Receive the Neo-Calvinist Memo

Calls for a transformational, wholistic, and cosmic redemption do not die. In fact, whenever sin is readily apparent in the news, the need for a solution (or at least a response) from Christians generally involves an appeal to the gospel. What else do believers have? (Short answer: as created beings, they have a lot more — just think of all the subjects in a university or college course catalog and imagine saying after reading all that “the gospel is always the only answer to human hardship.”)

Here’s one way of talking about Cosmic Redemptive Christianity:

CRC is a redemptive-historical view of the gospel. Tim Keller’s definition of the gospel is a great example. He defines it this way: “Through the person and work of Jesus Christ, God fully accomplishes salvation for us, rescuing us from judgment for sin into fellowship with him, and then restores the creation in which we can enjoy our new life together with him forever.” The difference is subtle but overwhelming in its implication for the black experience in America.

The key phrase here is “restores the creation.” [Great Commission Christianity] sadly does not include creation, the kingdom, or redemption as a necessary part of the gospel. Leaving out “creation” explains why GCC struggled to encourage Christian involvement in social issues.

I’d define the gospel by saying it is the good news of God’s saving work in Christ and the Spirit by which the powers of sin, death, and judgment are overcome and the life of the new creation is inaugurated, moving towards the glorification of the whole cosmos.

Here’s another:

As such, this Gospel message is indeed anemic as it does not properly answer to the nature of mankind, nor the restoration of all that is the image of God in man. If man as the image of God includes not only soul, righteousness, and immortality, but also his physical nature, his social relations, and even his proper habitation, then the message of redemption—i.e., renewal “after the image of him that created him”—must of necessity be, in Bradley’s words, “the good news of God’s saving work in Christ and the Spirit by which the powers of sin, death, and judgment are overcome and the life of the new creation is inaugurated, moving towards the glorification of the whole cosmos”; that is, something like “Cosmic Redemption Christianity.”

If the message of redemption includes anything less, then man is not being restored by the Gospel; but if we take seriously all that it means to be made in the image and likeness of the Triune God, then we must likewise take seriously all that is included in man’s redemption, and craft our mission and message accordingly.

Talk about setting expectations high.

That’s not exactly what Paul told the church in Corinth (who had a fair amount of troubles — wealth gap, incest, imperial injustice):

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. 2 For in this tent we groan, longing to put on our heavenly dwelling, 3 if indeed by putting it on we may not be found naked. 4 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. 5 He who has prepared us for this very thing is God, who has given us the Spirit as a guarantee.

6 So we are always of good courage. We know that while we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord, 7 for we walk by faith, not by sight. 8 Yes, we are of good courage, and we would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord. 9 So whether we are at home or away, we make it our aim to please him. 10 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 Cor 5)

That’s a tad dualistic for some inclined to a cosmic gospel. But Calvin lays it on thick in his commentary on this passage:

The body, such as we now have it, he calls a house of tabernacle For as tabernacles [512] are constructed, for a temporary purpose, of slight materials, and without any firm foundation, and then shortly afterwards are thrown down, or fall of their own accord, so the mortal body is given to men as a frail hut, [513] to be inhabited by them for a few days. The same metaphor is made use of, also, by Peter in his Second Epistle, (2 Peter 1:13, 14,) and by Job, (Job 4:19,) when he calls it a house of clay. He places in contrast with this a building of perpetual duration. It is not certain, whether he means by this term a state of blessed immortality, which awaits believers after death, or the incorruptible and glorious body, such as it will be after the resurrection. In whichever of these senses it is taken, it will not be unsuitable; though I prefer to understand it as meaning, that the blessed condition of the soul after death is the commencement of this building, and the glory of the final resurrection is the consummation of it. . . .

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.

Calvin could be wrong, though saying that about holy writ may take a little more chutzpah. Maybe Reformed Protestants misunderstood the gospel until Tim Keller started planting a church in New York City.

Or maybe, people who think about Great Commission Christianity are not shocked by sin and its consequences in this life because they look for a time and place when suffering will completely end. Meanwhile, the Cosmic Redemptive Christianity advocates are the ones who expect heaven to come down to earth and are endlessly frustrated if not enraged when it doesn’t happen.

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.

What's Missing?

The visible church, preaching, worship, and the Lord’s Day, for starters. These are what are missing from a summary of “Reformed-Evangelical” spirituality from Peter Adam (lots of redemptive historical heft there) via Justin Taylor:

Christ is the mediator of the revelation of God, so this spirituality is Christ-centred, responding with faith in Jesus Christ, and especially to his saving death and resurrection.

Christ has revealed the Father, so this spirituality is that of trust in God our Father, his love and kindness in Christ, and his sovereign and providential rule over everything.

Christ has sent the Spirit, so believers are sealed or anointed with the Spirit, the Spirit witnesses within them that they are the children of God, and they use the gifts of God in the service of God.

The response of trusting Christ and obeying him, of loving God with heart, mind, soul and strength is common to all believers, so spirituality is not just an option for the advanced but is required of all the saints. It is a spirituality common to all the people of God. It is a spirituality of normal humanity, of daily life and duties, or work and play, of family and society.

God’s grace and acceptance of us in Christ means that we do not have to search for God, find him, ascend to him or journey towards him. God has come to us in his Son Jesus, spoken to us in the gospel, and welcomed us into his presence through Christ our High Priest. We stand now in God’s grace, we are now at peace with God, we can now have assurance of final salvation, through trust in his promises.

The great barrier to true spirituality is not the lack of technique in spiritual aptitude, but sin. Sin is the state of humanity in every aspect of life and personality, and the wages of sin is death. But God has dealt with our sin by the sacrifice of Christ, and has accepted us as his children. His holiness and righteousness are demonstrated in the death of Christ, our sin is atoned for and we are forgiven. We stand in his grace, and he works in us by the death and resurrection of Christ and by his Spirit, to change us into the likeness of Christ. God gives us faith and obedience, God trans- forms us, and God does his good works through us.

God has provided ‘means’ by which he works in us for his glory. We must make good use of the means provided by God, and not replace or supplement them with means that we devise. The means provided by God are explained in the Bible, namely the Bible itself, the fellowship of the people of God, prayer, baptism and the Lord’s Supper, and a right use of the creation. We should not neglect these means, nor use other means, such as statues, pictures, icons, silence or impressions of God’s will. We should not over-value the sacraments, those visible words of God. While we will hear echoes of the Bible in our inner selves, the God-given and certain place to hear God speaking is in the Bible.

The great means is the Bible, in which we find Christ clothed in all his promises. To love God is to love his words, and to be alert to the Spirit is to receive the words of the Spirit in the Bible. In the Bible we find God’s self-revelation, God’s character, God’s will and God’s plan. In the Bible God’s mystery, Christ, is now revealed. A corporate and personal spirituality of the Word is at the heart of biblical faith and life. We do not know everything about God and his plan, but what we do know is found in the Bible.

Prayer is an expression of our trust in God, and our dependence on him. It is gospel-shaped: we come to pray to God our Father through the power and goodness of Jesus’ death on the cross. This is the means of our access to God. We pray in response to God’s words in the Bible, so that we know the God to whom we pray, and what he has promised. As we read his Spirit-inspired words, the Spirit also works within us, prompting us to know that God is our Father, and that we may approach him with boldness because of Christ’s death for us on the cross. We pray to God alone, and not to saints, because we pray as instructed by God in the Bible. [bold mine]

Compare to chapter 21 of the Confession of Faith:


Religious worship

is to be given to God, the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost; and to him alone; not to angels, saints, or any other creature: and, since the fall, not without a Mediator; nor in the mediation of any other but of Christ alone.

3. Prayer, with thanksgiving, being one special part of religious worship, is by God required of all men: and, that it may be accepted, it is to be made in the name of the Son, by the help of his Spirit, according to his will, with understanding, reverence, humility, fervency, faith, love, and perseverance; and, if vocal, in a known tongue.

4. Prayer is to be made for things lawful; and for all sorts of men living, or that shall live hereafter: but not for the dead, nor for those of whom it may be known that they have sinned the sin unto death.

5. The reading of the Scriptures with godly fear, the sound preaching and conscionable hearing of the Word, in obedience unto God, with understanding, faith, and reverence, singing of psalms with grace in the heart; as also, the due administration and worthy receiving of the sacraments instituted by Christ, are all parts of the ordinary religious worship of God: beside religious oaths, vows, solemn fastings, and thanksgivings upon special occasions, which are, in their several times and seasons, to be used in an holy and religious manner.

6. Neither prayer, nor any other part of religious worship, is now, under the gospel, either tied unto, or made more acceptable by any place in which it is performed, or towards which it is directed: but God is to be worshiped everywhere, in spirit and truth; as, in private families daily, and in secret, each one by himself; so, more solemnly in the public assemblies, which are not carelessly or willfully to be neglected, or forsaken, when God, by his Word or providence, calleth thereunto.

7. As it is the law of nature, that, in general, a due proportion of time be set apart for the worship of God; so, in his Word, by a positive, moral, and perpetual commandment binding all men in all ages, he hath particularly appointed one day in seven, for a Sabbath, to be kept holy unto him: which, from the beginning of the world to the resurrection of Christ, was the last day of the week; and, from the resurrection of Christ, was changed into the first day of the week, which, in Scripture, is called the Lord’s day, and is to be continued to the end of the world, as the Christian Sabbath.

8. This Sabbath is then kept holy unto the Lord, when men, after a due preparing of their hearts, and ordering of their common affairs beforehand, do not only observe an holy rest, all the day, from their own works, words, and thoughts about their worldly employments and recreations, but also are taken up, the whole time, in the public and private exercises of his worship, and in the duties of necessity and mercy.

Or to chapter 25:

2. 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.

3. Unto this catholic visible church Christ hath given the ministry, oracles, and ordinances of God, for the gathering and perfecting of the saints, in this life, to the end of the world: and doth, by his own presence and Spirit, according to his promise, make them effectual thereunto.

4. This catholic church hath been sometimes more, sometimes less visible. And particular churches, which are members thereof, are more or less pure, according as the doctrine of the gospel is taught and embraced, ordinances administered, and public worship performed more or less purely in them.

What’s added? The parachurch.

And the “right use of creation.”

Recycling is a means of grace?

And so the similarities between New Calvinism and neo-Calvinism continue, with paleo-Calvinism not an option for the other so-called Calvinists.

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.

The Neo-Calvinist Bible

Thomas Jefferson, like Marcion, is legendary for taking out the parts of Scripture that were not agreeable with his outlook. After reading Nelson Kloosterman on the cultural mandate, I wonder what he does with Paul.

First Dr. Kloosterman:

It’s not worship or witness, cult or culture. The crux of this entire discussion lies precisely in the word and. The word and is a word of integration. This conjunction proclaims not merely the intersection of worship and witness, but also the integration of worship and witness. Moreover, in order that both worship and witness conjoin effectively for the salting and illuminating benefit of the church for and among the nations, this worship and witness are corporate rather than individual, not at the expense of the private and personal, but for the enriching and deepening of them. This worship and witness are open to creation and its integration with redemption, refusing every dualism that segregates and isolates from the gospel’s grace and power any life experience within creation, but seeing every life experience as expressing one’s religious heart response. Stated clearly: to segregate cult from culture is suicidal, for both.

Now Paul:

though I myself have reason for confidence in the flesh also. If anyone else thinks he has reason for confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless. But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith—that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead. (Philippians 3:4-11 ESV)

Is it just me or do I detect a lot more or in Paul than Dr. Kloosterman’s and? What exactly about “rubbish” (or dung) does Dr. Kloosterman not understand (assuming that Phillipians is still in his Bible)?

John Calvin helps out by having us understand that the gospel does not require us to live as if culture is rubbish:

As to riches and honors, when we have divested ourselves of attachment to them, we will be prepared, also, to renounce the things themselves, whenever the Lord will require this from us, and so it ought to be. It is not expressly necessary that you be a poor man, in order that you may be Christian; but if it please the Lord that it should be so, you ought to be prepared to endure poverty. In fine, it is not lawful for Christians to have anything apart from Christ. I consider as apart from Christ everything that is a hinderance in the way of Christ alone being our ground of glorying, and having an entire sway over us.

I assume that we can include in Calvin’s notion of riches, neo-Calvinist notions of culture — math, science, Shakespeare, and Hegelian philosophy. In which case, believers should be willing to divest of our attachment to culture. We really do have to decide whether we are loyal to cult or to culture. Transforming culture won’t turn it into the equivalent of Christ. As Calvin says, we need to look at cultural goods the way that sailors look at cargo when trying to save the ship during a storm:

For those who cast their merchandise and other things into the sea, that they may escape in safety, do not, therefore, despise riches, but act as persons prepared rather to live in misery and want, than to be drowned along with their riches. They part with them, indeed, but it is with regret and with a sigh; and when they have escaped, they bewail the loss of them. Paul, however, declares, on the other hand, that he had not merely abandoned everything that he formerly reckoned precious, but that they were like dung, offensive to him, or were disesteemed like things that are thrown away in contempt.

In other words, cultural goods may be good, even pretty good, but not great or redemptive. In fact, trying to integrate them may be as suicidal to the gospel as Dr. Kloosterman thinks segregation is. Calvin himself warns:

Paul renounced everything that he had, that he might recover them in Christ; and this corresponds better with the word gain, for it means that it was no trivial or ordinary gain, inasmuch as Christ contains everything in himself. And, unquestionably, we lose nothing when we come to Christ naked and stript of everything, for those things which we previously imagined, on false grounds, that we possessed, we then begin really to acquire. He, accordingly, shews more fully, how great the riches of Christ, because we obtain and find all things in him. . . .

He thus, in a general way, places man’s merit in opposition to Christ’s grace; for while the law brings works, faith presents man before God as naked, that he may be clothed with the righteousness of Christ. When, therefore, he declares that the righteousness of faith is from God, it is not simply because faith is the gift of God, but because God justifies us by his goodness, or because we receive by faith the righteousness which he has conferred upon us.

Of course, clothing is a good thing and is part of culture. Just watch The Devil Wears Prada to see one of the great speeches on behalf of the fashion industry, not all that far removed from the brief for Pinot Noir in Sideways. But when it comes to the righteousness that God requires, Bill Blass and Robert Mondavi have nothing on Christ and the clothing and drink he provides through the means of grace.

To try to integrate human cultural goods and the work of Christ does not upgrade culture but trivializes the gospel. If Dr. Kloosterman wants to render a service to the church, instead of warning God’s people about the dangers of 2k, perhaps he could address how neo-Calvinists reconcile Paul’s notion of human accomplishments as rubbish with the Kuyperians’ promotion of the cultural mandate.

The Preferred Outlook for Ecclesial Reformed Protestants — You Guessed It

Bill Evans recently wrote about the importance of ecclesiology and made recommendations for seminarians. Nothing wrong with the post except that Evans doesn’t seem to notice that 2kers are the ones who have been arguing for the importance of ecclesiology (as opposed to the Unionists, transformationalists, theonomists, and New Calvinists). My own bona fides (all about me) are Recovering Mother Kirk. So why won’t Evans give 2kers any credit?

Evans writes:

Reasons for the decline of ecclesiology in many mainline churches are not difficult to discern. Much of this can ultimately be traced to the fact that many in these churches bought wholesale into the optimistic Enlightenment notion of the autonomous individual human being. People are basically pretty good, it is thought, and any tendency toward dysfunctional behavior (i.e., what used to be called “sin”) is attributed to the environment. Moreover, these human beings are not answerable to any authority, such as Holy Scripture, higher than themselves. Needless to say, this quickly resulted in the erosion of the Scriptural basis and confessional moorings for church life.

Since human beings are basically OK, the great need is not salvation in the life to come (whatever that may be), but the amelioration of social ills in this present life and the maximizing of individual freedom in every sphere of life, whether or not expressions of that freedom conflict with biblical morality. Historically the church had sought to maintain biblical moral standards for its members, but now there is widespread disagreement as to what even constitutes moral or immoral behavior—hence the current front-page controversies among mainline Presbyterians, Lutherans, Methodists, and Episcopalians over homosexuality. . . .

While the broader situation is somewhat better in evangelical churches, there is an ecclesiological crisis there as well. To be sure, many American Evangelicals have retained a high view of the Bible’s authority, and of the saving uniqueness of Jesus Christ. For that we must give thanks! But the news is not all good, for various factors have conspired to undercut a vibrant doctrine of the church. A major problem here is that many American Evangelicals have bought into aspects of the broader culture that corrode a biblical doctrine of the church.

Much of this has to do with the reflexive individualism and voluntarism of North American culture generally. Our national consciousness was historically shaped by the frontier experience and by the keen desire to be free from the external constraint of king and Pope. Individual rights are of paramount importance. We begin our thinking with individual rights rather than our responsibilities to the community, an impulse given a great boost by the Enlightenment. All this is no great secret, and was extensively explored by sociologist Robert Bellah and his colleagues in their book Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life (1985).

One reason for the decline of ecclesiology among Reformed Protestants is the very understanding of the kingdom of God that Evans uses to criticize 2k. After all, if the kingdom of God is bigger than the church, then Christians can just as likely pursue “kingdom work” through plumbing, baking, teaching (general revelation), and politics. That mindset clearly affected Abraham Kuyper whose involvements as a churchman and worshiper trailed off the more engaged he was in taking every square inch captive.

Evans falls prey to kingdom ambiguity by insisting that Reformed orthodoxy has always taught that God’s kingdom is broader than the church:

. . . on the matter of the relationship between church and kingdom the real issue is not whether the church is the kingdom but whether the visible church and the kingdom are coextensive (as 2K proponents maintain). The recent NT scholarship I referenced maintains, rightly I think, that the church is an aspect of the kingdom of God, but that the kingdom is a reality greater in scope than the church. Hart’s protestations notwithstanding, as far as I can tell none of the major Reformed confessions have definitively pronounced on this key question.

In point of fact, the Reformed confessions and catechisms everywhere teach that God rules all things and then make a separate point, that Christ rules the church in a way distinct from divine providence. How could this not be the case if we are to make sense of the Lord’s Prayer’s second petition, which the Larger Catechism:

In the second petition (which is, Thy kingdom come), acknowledging ourselves and all mankind to be by nature under the dominion of sin and Satan, we pray, that the kingdom of sin and Satan may be destroyed, the gospel propagated throughout the world, the Jews called, the fullness of the Gentiles brought in; the church furnished with all gospel officers and ordinances, purged from corruption, countenanced and maintained by the civil magistrate; that the ordinances of Christ may be purely dispensed, and made effectual to the converting of those that are yet in their sins, and the confirming, comforting, and building up of those that are already converted: that Christ would rule in our hearts here, and hasten the time of his second coming, and our reigning with him forever: and that he would be pleased so to exercise the kingdom of his power in all the world, as may best conduce to these ends. (LC 191)

That is a different kind of rule from this:

God’s works of providence are his most holy, wise, and powerful preserving and governing all his creatures; ordering them, and all their actions, to his own glory. (LC 18)

So if Evans is going to ding 2k for making the kingdom of God coextensive with the church (2kers don’t, the kingdom of Christ as redeemer is coextensive with the church), then he needs to pony up his own definition of God’s kingdom and where the church fits. Until that happens, the Ecclesial Calvinist makes more sense as the Kingdom Calvinist. The question is whether he believes in one or two kingdoms.


I will back away from Charlie Sheen-like delusions before putting Paul Helm in the 2k camp — he is a philosopher, after all. But he does raise precisely the sort of common-sensical observations that have for a long time been missing from all the chatter about transformation and w-w:

In the dust raised by the current renewed appreciation of the Reformed doctrine of the two kingdoms, through the work of David Van Drunen and others, it is sometimes asked, in adopting the doctrine of the two kingdoms, what becomes of the divine cultural mandate? In the hands of Abraham Kuyper and the neo-Calvinists, this mandate has become the work of the kingdom, as distinct from the church, and part of the Christian’s endeavour to transform society by promoting Christian this and that: Christian education, politics, art, literature, care for the environment, and so on. This has become a familiar theme, some being sanguine about the prospects of such transformation, stressing the place that such endeavours have as an expression of God’s ‘common grace’, others from the same stable stressing the ‘antithesis’ between Christian cultural endeavours and those of the secular world. These attitudes have no more than the status of private opinions, the relevant attitudes and actions being neither commanded by the word of God as a part of Christian worship or conduct, nor required by the state.

To add ‘cultural transformation’ to Christ’s command to his first disciples to go into all the world and preach the gospel, would (in Calvin’s view) jeopardise Christian liberty, and no doubt we could add that it would be to privilege the educated middle-class Christians over their blue-collar fellow believers. A command, or a kind of culturally-correct pressure on Christians to transform society, could amount to a new law, and if it came to that it would infringe the spirituality of the church and the liberty of Christians.

But one might think of such ambitions as a matter of Christian liberty within society. If someone thinks that what they paint is ‘Christian painting’, then fine. There ought to be nothing to stop them painting in this vein, whatever they take Christian painting to be. Like choosing to paint the new baby’s bedroom pink. Neither kind of painting is commanded or forbidden so neither the colour of the baby’s bedroom nor the painting of a ‘Christian’ still life is a God-given requirement of Christian discipleship. Each may be done to the glory of God. As may sweeping a room. (I Cor. 10.31)

Jamie Smith Gives, and Jamie Smith Takes Away

Erik has already commented that neo-Calvinists could learn from the Vatican, but the affinities between neo-Calvinism and Rome were even more striking in Jamie Smith’s recent post about Lumen Fidei. His remarks suggest that the real gateway drug for Protestant converts to Roman Catholicism is the sort of comprehensive Christianity that fuels every-square-inch transformationalism. Part of what makes neo-Calvinism appealing to evangelical Protestantism is that it offers so much MORE than salvation from sin and the need to evangelize daily. It talks about redeeming the whole world and promotes the value of every legal walk of life.

But just imagine how much more comprehensive Rome looks when it has 1500 more years of history, and an institution that (in addition to opposing the French Revolution, a neo-Calvinist requirement) put the Holy in Holy Roman Empire. If you want a culturally influential Christianity, Dutch or Dutch-American Calvinism looks like a piker compared to Rome.

This may explain why Jamie was so pleased by Francis’ first encyclical:

. . . the Pope rightly argues that the standpoint of Christian faith is not opting for un-reality—to believe the Gospel is not an irrational escape from “the real.” To the contrary, it is an invitation to participate in the One in whom all reality holds together. And this is an incarnational faith: tangible, sticky, concrete, embodied, in contrast to the vague Gnosticism that too often passes itself off as “Christian.”

So if Christians practice an otherworldly faith because Christ has gone somewhere else to prepare a home for his people, or because Paul tells us to set our minds on things above, or Calvin prays that we should not become too deeply attached to earthly and perishable things, these otherworldly saints are simply gnostics or fundamentalists.

And Smith goes on to quote approvingly Francis’ depiction of faith as a common (as opposed to a Spirit-wrought) good. Here’s Francis:

Faith makes us appreciate the architecture of human relationships because it grasps their ultimate foundation and definitive destiny in God, in his love, and thus sheds light on the art of building; as such it becomes a service to the common good. Faith is truly a good for everyone; it is a common good. Its light does not simply brighten the interior of the Church, nor does it serve solely to build an eternal city in the hereafter; it helps us build our societies in such a way that they can journey towards a future of hope.

To which Smith adds:

I can’t imagine a better articulation of the faith that animates our work here at Cardus. The Reformation isn’t over, but the protest that has separated us might not be as significant as the Gospel that unites us. This Protestant is deeply grateful for the witness of Pope Francis to the light of faith for the common good.

I know it is a sign of doctrinalist, logo-centric nit-picking to compare Smith’s words to the confessional standards he subscribes. But how exactly does faith become a common good when you define it the way Heidelberg does? (Can’t you at least show that you know what the Three Forms teach and then try a form of reconciliation?)

Question 21. What is true faith?
Answer: True faith is not only a certain knowledge, whereby I hold for truth all that God has revealed to us in his word, but also an assured confidence, which the Holy Ghost works by the gospel in my heart; that not only to others, but to me also, remission of sin, everlasting righteousness and salvation, are freely given by God, merely of grace, only for the sake of Christ’s merits.

And what comes of the protest that separates Protestants and Roman Catholics when Heidelberg goes on to describe the centrality of faith to the imputation of Christ’s righteousness?

Question 60. How are thou righteous before God?
Answer: Only by a true faith in Jesus Christ; so that, though my conscience accuse me, that I have grossly transgressed all the commandments of God, and kept none of them, and am still inclined to all evil; notwithstanding, God, without any merit of mine, but only of mere grace, grants and imputes to me, the perfect satisfaction, righteousness and holiness of Christ; even so, as if I never had had, nor committed any sin: yea, as if I had fully accomplished all that obedience which Christ has accomplished for me; inasmuch as I embrace such benefit with a believing heart.

I understand and even admire the desire of Christians and NPR listeners to make the world a better place (even if I also think that desire can look fairly naive or self-righteous at times). But if you do grasp the otherworldliness of Christ, Paul, and the Reformers, you do understand that the good of a common life together on planet earth is remarkably inconsequential compared to a separate existence in heaven or hell. Gussying up the goods of western civilization, the humanities, Christendom, or social and political solidarity in talk of “the permanent things” still doesn’t cross the gulf that exists between the life that believers and unbelievers share in this world and the separate worlds they will inhabit in the world to come.

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.

Hyper-Calvinism and Common Grace — I Mean — Providence

I always get nervous — better, agitated — when folks who do not belong to Reformed Protestant communions weigh in on Calvinism’s boundaries and definitions. It is a little like Canadians telling U.S. citizens about what the United States stand for — though, given our provincialism in the U.S. I often learn from Canadians, not so much with evangelicals.

Anyhoo, Justin Taylor linked to a post that alleges to spot the telling features of Hyper-Calvinism. I am less interested in the 5-point list than I am (all about me) in what Phil Johnson writes about denying common grace — a tell-tale sign of Hyper-Calvinism. Here is what he says but consider the thought experiment of using “providence” instead of “common grace”:

The idea of common grace providence is implicit throughout Scripture. “The Lord is good to all: and his tender mercies are over all his works” (Ps. 145:9). “He doth execute the judgment of the fatherless and widow, and loveth the stranger, in giving him food and raiment. Love ye therefore the stranger: for ye were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Deut. 10:18-19). “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you; that ye may be the children of your Father which is in heaven” (Matt. 5:44-45).

The distinction between common grace providence and special grace closely parallels the distinction between the general call and the effectual call. Common grace providence is extended to everyone. It is God’s goodness to humanity in general whereby God graciously restrains the full expression of sin and mitigates sin’s destructive effects in human society. Common grace providence imposes moral constraints on people’s behavior, maintains a semblance of order in human affairs, enforces a sense of right and wrong through conscience and civil government, enables men and women to appreciate beauty and goodness, and imparts blessings of all kinds to elect and non-elect alike. God “causes His sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous” (Matt. 5:45). That is common grace providence.

The doctrine of common grace providence has a long history that goes all the way back to Calvin and even Augustine. But type-4 hyper-Calvinism denies the concept, insisting that God has no true goodwill toward the non-elect and therefore shows them no favor or “grace” of any kind.

Does this make (all about) me a Hyper-Calvinist? Or what exactly is gained by using a novel phrase for one that has a long tradition in Reformed confessions?