When Every Square Inch is not Literally Every Square Inch

On the day that Betsy DeVos wins Senate confirmation as Secretary of Education (when will women advance beyond the secretariat?), we need to remember that neo-Calvinism has its better and worse forms.

As the recent editorial in Calvin College’s Chimes observed, private Christian day school education does not mean public education is bad (imagine saying that in W. Michigan in 1857):

Many of us entered Calvin College directly from Christian high schools and spent our entire elementary and secondary school years in these institutions, as did Mrs. DeVos. While we appreciate the opportunity to thrive and learn that is provided by these educational systems, we recognize that the vast majority of K–12 students are educated in the public school system. Because of this, we believe that any individual who is nominated to be Secretary of Education should have a strong commitment to public education, which Mrs. DeVos does not.

So the RCA was right to worry about the CRC’s rejection of public schools?

And when it comes to all that kingdom of God rhetoric, not to mention the Lordship of Christ, take it as meaning Republicans don’t belong to the kingdom (how inclusive):

Growing up in the CRC and attending Calvin College, I heard this kind of language all the time. Calvin does indeed call its students to be “Christ’s agents of renewal in the world.” We are told to “advance God’s kingdom.” Without being inside of that tradition, it can sound, perhaps, like theocracy.

What do these phrases actually mean? Most broadly, they mean a service-oriented vision of vocation. Students are called to serve, and they can serve in many ways. For example, Calvin students are regularly called upon to work in the world for racial reconciliation. Why? Because racial reconciliation advances God’s kingdom. That’s why Calvin College faculty signed a letter to Turning Point U.S.A., asking to be added to its “professor watchlist.” The watchlist targets “radical” professors who teach about systemic racism. Serving as Christ’s agents of renewal, Calvin’s faculty spoke up, asserting together that institutional racism is real and that it must be addressed.

What else advances God’s kingdom? Social justice and care for the poor. Clean water in Flint. An improved education for all children in America. All these things advance God’s kingdom. Strong differences will arise about how to get there, but framing these goals in religious language does not mean we have to fear them. After all, those who pray together “thy kingdom come” in the Lord’s Prayer, across many different Christian faith traditions every day, can still disagree quite powerfully about what exactly that kingdom looks like and how it comes about.

Never mind that folks inside the neo-Calvinist bubble don’t worry about how their rhetoric sounds until the bubble bursts and people see inside. Makes you wonder what Afscheiding folks who didn’t join Abraham Kuyper’s church thought of Kuyper as Prime Minister.

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A 19th-Century Consensus on the Spirituality of the Church

While Europeans were figuring out what to do with Edgardo Mortara, church law, and papal power, other parts of the Christian world (okay, Protestant) were also struggling to sort out the temporal and spiritual realms. In 1834 the Afscheiding rejected the Dutch ecclesiastical establishment and opted for a church free from the constraints of political compromise. (Of course, many of these Dutch Calvinists still wanted a return to the Dutch republic of Dort’s Synod’s fame.) A similar secession occurred among the Scots when in 1843 the Free Church abandoned the comforts of the Kirk for an ecclesiastical existence free from state control. (Of course, Thomas Chalmers was loathe to call this a voluntary church – despite the name “Free” – and repeatedly affirmed that the Free Church stood for the establishment principle; this meant that the Free Church still preferred ecclesiastical establishment but only on orthodox terms.) And then there was the case of the Old School Presbyterians, who had no ecclesiastical establishment to repudiate but did reject the blurring of nationalism and Presbyterianism on display among the New School Presbyterians. This rejection involved the doctrine of the spirituality of the church – the idea that the church is a spiritual institution with spiritual means for spiritual ends.

In each of these cases, Reformed Protestants were coming to a clearer understanding of the church’s spiritual character thanks to the lessons taught by church entanglements with temporal power.

The Vatican, thanks to the case of Edgardo Mortara and a European consensus, needed also to come to grips with a church vacated of temporal power and limited to spiritual authority. Italian republicans attempted to their best efforts to teach this lesson to the papacy when in 1849 they drafted an Italian Constitution that included these articles:

1) The papacy’s rule and temporal power over the Roman State is declared over.

2) The Roman Pontiff will have all the guarantees necessary for his exercise of spiritual authority.

3) the form of the government of the Roman State will be pure democracy, and will take the glorious name of the Roman Republic. (David Kertzer, The Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara, 22)

What conservative Reformed Protetants adopted freely with some minor discomfort, the conservative papacy had imposed on it by European politics.