The Limits of W-w

Like I say, transformationalism is good on inspiration but not so good on transformation. Jim Bratt gave a peak behind the curtain of neo-Calvinist culture in the U.S. in his last post before heading to China on a Fulbright (happy trails, Jim):

Boy, do we need that now. I’m thinking of the death this past week of Tim LaHaye. The span of tomfoolery he pumped out in the name of Christianity has created lasting disrepute for the faith. The creation “science.” The “end-times” irresponsibility, compounded of self-pity, blaming others, and a certain cultural idolatry. All of it redolent of the John Birch Society swamp from which he first slithered. Still, it’s the sort of religious fantasy you can expect to hit the American best-seller list. The death that really strikes home for me is the moral nadir of Mr. Family Values, “Dr.” James Dobson. His endorsement of Donald Trump puts paid to any pretense that the ethics and politics he pushed, lo, these many years have come to anything but authoritarian nationalism with a particular macho strut. For that is Trump. Dobson’s worse for covering it with smarmy God-talk.

I say this hits home for me because back when I was on a denominational committee studying the future of the CRC’s magazine, The Banner, we were given some research stats of readership habits and opinion. James Dobson turned out to be the CRC’s #1 rated authority on current events. Charles Colson was its #1 theologian. The Fraud and the Felon atop the Calvinist hit parade. Two minor sins in that revelation somehow stuck out for me. Dobson, a member of the Church of the Nazarene. Read rank Armininian. Colson, invoking the name of Kuyper as he bullied along.

All this, I mused, was the price of that “Americanization” to which the CRC, as an immigrant church, had been long pushed to accede. Well, nationalist mush compounded by militancy turns out to be the bitter fruit of that process. And so it is today.

I don’t pretend that Kuyper ever represented more than a small fraction of Dutch people claiming a Reformed commitment. Ditto, in Dutch-American Reformed circles, for The Forum, The Journal, or Perspectives. But these magazines have fought hard and punched way above their weight because of that magic formula that Kuyper caught, and taught. And it’s worth carrying on their mission, worth trying to maintain cultural, political, and theological integrity above the open sewer into which white-American Christianism has descended.

I bring this up not to delight in the sufferings of neo-Calvinists, nor to take a shot at Jim on his way out of the blogosphere. Bratt, it must be said, is honest about the state of neo-Calvinism and properly annoyed at its abuses.

I do refer to this to remind those would-be Kuyperians that the neo-Calvinist project is a lot harder than it sounds. Take every thought captive. Christ is Lord of every square inch. Television (and plumbing) redeemed. Integration of faith and learning. New York City as a tipping point for global revival. Bratt’s own account of the CRC is a ready warning that even with all the infrastructure of neo-Calvinist culture — church, school, catechesis, denominational magazine, world-and-life bleep, you are a poor match for mass culture in a liberal capitalist democracy.

Take every though captive? More like, kid yourself that you are large and in charge.

I truly admire the grit and determination of Dutch-American Calvinists. They are one of the true success stories of transplanting a distinct form of Old World Calvinism to the New World. They were BenOp Calvinists before the Benedict Option became hip.

But as all immigrant groups know, leaving the ghetto for the suburbs is part of the American dream. So for w-w to happen you may need to hunker down in the ghetto (or if Amish on the farm or if Benedictine in the monastery). But if you are going to live and move and have your being as a citizen of a modern nation state, chances are many of your square inches will be taken captive.

And if you want a theological rationale or explanation for that, for being part of the mainstream society but not, learn, live, and love 2k. The water’s warm.

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Why I Love the Modern State

It helps me keep straight the difference between the city of God and the city of man, at a time when so many Christians want Christianity to define “ALL of me.”

Mark Oppenheimer thinks it possible to distinguish Christian as a noun and adjective:

And Jews and Christians alike have internalized these different connotations. Most Jews, if asked about their religion, say not, “I’m a Jew” but the softer, more acceptable, “I’m Jewish.” With Christians, the answer will vary depending on the kind of Christian you’re talking to. Liberal Protestants may say, “I’m Christian,” using the adjective, but many evangelicals, born-again Christians, and other passionate believers will say, “I’m a Christian.” It sounds a little jarring to more secular or liberal types, but not in a bad way. It just sounds hard-core, like the person is planting a flag and standing by it.

For Christians, the difference between “Christian” the adjective and “Christian” the noun is one of both degree and kind. We are all described by many adjectives, but we select very few nouns to sum up who we are. The nouns require a bit more commitment. It’s the difference between “I’m liberal” and “I’m a liberal”—the man or woman willing to own the noun is more committed, for sure. The adjective is what you are like; the noun is who you are.

And what about James Bratt’s suggestion that politicized evangelicals should own the moniker, “Christianist“?

Whatever the label, believers have trouble (without the help of modern politics) sorting out their Christian and non-Christian aspects. Just consider the confusion in this response to yesterday’s bombings in Belgium:

I’ll leave it to people who know what they’re talking about to expound further on the radical nature of what Christ is demanding of us when he says this. Suffice it to say for now that it’s clear and direct and we don’t have any choice if we call ourselves Christians: we have to forgive our enemies.

And that includes the terrorists who killed 34 people in Brussels on Tuesday. We have to forgive them.

BUT…But…but it is also written, “thou shalt not kill.” And that means that we need to kill all the other terrorists who are still out there.

Why? Because justice and reason and the teaching of the Church. The Fifth Commandment (don’t kill) imparts on Christians a duty to protect and defend innocent human life. Sooooo…it is morally just to use lethal force to prevent the killing of innocent people. Self-defense, just war, etc. etc. etc.

So kill ISIS.

First, I thought God through the ministry of the church forgives sins. It’s not up to me to forgive people who have not wronged me. Do I even have authority as an elder to forgive sins that are crimes against humanity? The Book of Church Order doesn’t say so.

Second, I don’t have the power to kill anyone legally unless I become part of the executive branch of our constitutional order. As a policeman, executioner, or soldier I could legitimately kill someone. As a policeman, executioner, or soldier I am also carrying out orders of someone else. As a Christian policeman, executioner, or solder I am carrying out the duties of my vocation. But I am not acting “merely” as a Christian since non-Christian police and soldiers carry out similar orders.

So as a 2k Christian I don’t have to forgive or kill. I defer to those with higher pay grades, which includes — piety alert! — praying, “Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done.”

Another Case for the Gateway Drug

Once again comes a suggestion that neo-Calvinism in its desire for comprehensiveness paves the way for Roman Catholicism:

As it happened, the young pastor Abraham Kuyper found something to like in the “Syllabus [of Errors]” too, and said so on no less an occasion than his Reformation Day sermon in 1865! The pope went too far, Kuyper quickly assured his startled (if not outraged) congregation; the document was not to be affirmed in all its details. But its intention was correct. The rising philosophy of naturalism and ethical materialism which the pope was condemning was exactly the enemy that needed to be opposed, Kuyper said, and that opposition would mark his work in church, state, and cultural commentary across the 50+-year career upon which he was just embarking. In fact, this philosophical challenge—this rise of a cruel worldview antithetical to Christianity—is what motivated Kuyper’s turn to strict Calvinism from the more nebulous piety in which he had started out his ministry a few years before. A much older Brownson, now near the end of his career, held much the same sentiments.

If I understand the implications of James Bratt’s argument, reasoning about politics, society, economics, and education apart from first principles (read revealed truth) — one of the building blocks of modern liberalism (and secularism) — is an indication of naturalism, and the enemy of Christians. Thus the antithesis between Christianity and secularism, between 1689 (the Glorious Revolution) and 1789 (the Inglorious French Revolution), between Christian schools, labor unions, and political parties and secular schools, labor unions and political parties.

I can understand that. But if the antithesis is right and if Christians live in societies with unbelievers, on what basis are non-Christians supposed to operate in their social endeavors? If Christians alone have the true w-w, then should they allow those with false w-w’s to “run things?” Or if unbelievers do have access to positions of authority, wouldn’t they need to rely on what they know which does not include revealed truth?

Separating church and state was a long and difficult struggle for Roman Catholics. Distinguishing the differences between neo-Calvinist and theonomic arguments is also difficult. Of course, it needs to be noted that Kuyper did affirm social pluralism and found remarkable ways to include Roman Catholics in Dutch society. Still, when you start with opposition to naturalism and the antithesis between Christians and unbelievers, how you avoid winding up in theonomy or church-above-the-state (e.g. Roman Catholicism) is not at all obvious.

When Christianity Goes Cosmic

Roman Catholics fall for neo-Calvinists.

Michael Sean Winters closes his reflections on James Bratt‘s biography of Kuyper with a big finish:

It would be wrong to finish this treatment of Bratt’s book without mentioning Kuyper’s most famous quote, uttered in his “sphere sovereignty” speech inaugurating the Free University: “there is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry: Mine!” All of us, Catholics or Calvinists, must seek to rediscover that insight in our lives and our thought, perhaps not with the comprehensiveness or brilliance that Kuyper brought to the task, but as a check on our willingness to live out the designation “Christian.” It is one of the gifts of Pope Francis that, by word and gesture, he lives this conviction: The environment, the economy, our sexual lives, all of it is not really ours but His. Even our very lives are given to us as if on loan, and there will be a reckoning for how we lived those lives, whether it was for ourselves or for Him. It is this – and ultimately, only this – that distinguishes Christian social and cultural criticism from other flavors. Its absence betrays us as chaplains to the status quo. Its presence, in Kuyper’s life and in our own, can be the occasion for miracles.

When transformation isn’t inspiring enough, work in the possibility of working miracles.

Why Kuyperians Don't Like 2k

Michael Sean Winters is reading James Bratt’s biography of Abraham Kuyper and quotes the following assessment of the Dutch statesman:

Nowhere did he so minimize the effects of sin as in his assumptions about the macro level of social development. Sometimes – for instance, in his speech against “Uniformity” – he could spy a fearful momentum that was greater than any particular part, and on many occasions he noted individual persons, policies, agencies, or communities perverting their social potential. But in formal theory Kuyper more often celebrated than worried about the direction of the whole. Here he shared in his era’s cult of “progress.”

Notice the connections. Minimize the effects of sin to think that the whole of society is improving.

How do people invariably view 2k? Too pessimistic, nothing we can do.

How do 2kers respond? Yes, things are bad but God has done great things. Salvation comes from him. Improving social conditions may be positive — don’t let the unintended consequences hit you between the eyes, DOH! — but social improvement is not salvation.

How do 2kers perceive neo-Calvinists? As blurring the gospel into social or holistic aspects, or as being excessively optimistic about human potential for overcoming sin and its consequences.

2k puts the total in Total Depravity. Neo-Calvinists have plans for restoring creation to its original order.

Can anyone possibly explain why Calvinists would be optimistic about anything other than the plan of salvation?

Back in the Day with the CRC

James Bratt describes worship and preaching at Eastern Avenue CRC (Grand Rapids, for the uninitiated in Dutch-American Calvinism) during the 1940s:

Worship services themselves made modest accommodations to the American world. English services were introduced alongside the Dutch only at the end of World War I, and against the will of even the progressive Johannes Groen. The singing of hymns, as opposed to exclusive psalmody, had been a major grievance of the 1834 Secession in the Netherlands, but the practice tended to come along with English services. The CRC’s 1914 Psalter Hymnal limited hymns to an obscure, heavily didactic Presbyterian collection calibrated to the fifty-two Lord’s Days of the Heidelberg Catechism. In 1934 the denomination published a more extensive Psalter, including 141 hymns next to 327 Psalm settings, the former selected according to “doctrinal soundness, New Testament character, dignity, and depth of devotional spirit, and clearness and beauty of expression.” None had the slightest odor of Arminianism. At the same time, leaders tried to impose a uniform order of worship across the denomination, a movement that Eastern Avenue resisted because of the “formalism” of some of the new order’s prescriptions: recitation of the Apostles’ Creed, reading of the Decalogue, and a service of confession and absolution. The same reform allowed choirs to take part in worship, another “American” gesture that Eastern had long suspected. They did encourage vocal and instrumental ensembles but had these perform after services. The church year was not organized by liturgical seasons but by preaching through the Catechism. Baptisms (once a month) far outnumbered celebrations of the Lord’s Supper (once a quarter), but profession of faith — normatively in one’s late teens — overshadowed them both. Groen’s pastorate averaged two a week.

As for theology, a glimpse at Pastor Christian Huissen’s deliverances during World War II reveals the most resolute Calvinism in force, at great odds with the more liberal confidences in play at Park Church (the Congregationalist cross-town rival). The calls that Vandenberg heard for immediate planning to institute a postwar regime of peace Huissen decried as arrogant folly: unless everyone started to “reckon with the risen Christ . . . the coming peace treaty will be the beginning of the next war.” Upon news that one of the eighty-eight youth that Eastern had sent into the armed forces had died in action, Huissen responded: “The world would say you have given your life so that the world may be a better place to live in. We do not believe that. The world will not be a better place to live in.” Rather, the young man had done his duty before earthly powers, enjoining those left behind to exceed mere duty and perform joyful service unto the power that really counted, the eternal Lord. That God exercised as specific and absolute a control over events as any Calvinist could imagine: “Every bullet and every bomb goes exactly where he has predestined that it should go,” Huissen declared, so that of Eastern’s fallen son it could be said, “The Time, manner of death, and all the circumstances are exactly as he deemed best.” In so anxious a world, Christian Reformed people whether at war or at home were simply to keep their minds daily on God and keep themselves weekly at worship. (James Bratt, “Rites of the Tribes: Two Protestant Congregations in a Twentieth-Century City,” 149-150)

Do Supreme Court justices, homosexuality, or Planned Parenthood videos generate more anxiety than world war?

Anachronistic Calvinism

James Bratt may think that historians of Calvinism need to explore the ways that this form of Protestantism interacted with or even shaped the forces of modernity, but scholars who study early modern Europe have moved on from the Calvinist exceptionalism that goes with neo-Calvinism:

. . . the essential historical importance of the story told here does not lie in its connections to metannaratives of modernization; it lies in its centrality for understanding that now-bygone era when confessional principles and attachments becamee structural elements of European society. The stance of recent historians who have approached the subject with a sense of anthropological otherness unquestionably appears more appropriate than that of whose who continue to insist on its links to that quicksilver concept of modernity. The particular variant of the broader Reformation call for evangelical renewal that insisted on purging from worship all rites without explicit biblical sanction and on eliminating from eucharistic doctrine all possible confusion between created matter and a God who is spirit first gained official sanction within a small, distinctive corner of the Continent nestled on the periphery of its largest states. From there, the polysemous message of its early prophets was able to go forth and crystallize dissatisfaction with the Roman church across much of the Continent, in some areas by virtue of its capacity to offer ordinary Christians motivation and models for forming alternatives to the established church, in others by virtue of its ability to convince rulers and their key theological advisers of its fidelity to Holy Writ. The consequences shook many states to their foundations. The establishment of Reformed churches in defiance of the authorities, the resistance of Reformed believers to state-sponsored ecclesiastical innovations they viewed as infringements against the purity of God’s ordinances, and the fear of a Catholic plot to roll back the advances of the Reformation: each precipitated some of the bitterest conflicts of the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Even when the religious transformations associated with the movement’s spread did not occasion full-scale civil war, the alteration of the traditional form of worship — occasionally as many as three or four times within a few decades — placed the local clergy before a series of difficult decisions of conscience that led many to resign their posts. For ordinary believers in virtually every generation, the decision of whether or not to join a Reformed church, to embrace a specific contested point of Reformed doctrine, or to refuse to abandon one when ordered by the authorities to do so could be a literally life-changing decision, casting individuals upon the paths of exile or assuring them of access to positions of power and respectability. The story of the establishment and defense of Europe’s various Reformed churches is fundamental to the history of the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. (Philip Benedict, Christ’s Churches Purely Reformed, 543-44)

In other words, Reformed Protestantism didn’t begin as a w-w but as an effort to reform church, doctrine, and liturgy. No one was willing to go to the stake in order to integrate faith and learning, or to practice slaughtering animals and selling the meat Christianly.

Benedict continues modestly:

If the fatal flaw of theories crediting Calvinism with distinctive consequences for economic behavior or political development (me: think Kuyper) is that they exaggerate the spillover effects of religious doctrine outside the religious domain, the great shortcoming of the recent emphasis on the parallel consequences of the Lutheran, Reformed, and Catholic Reformations is that it downplays each faith’s distinctiveness within the domain of culture and religious life. For all of the undoubted similarities between the various confessions and for all of the porosity of confessional boundaries to the motifs and practices of the new devotion of the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, it made a difference in peoples’s life experience whether they were raised as Lutherans, Reformed, or Catholics. It made a difference as well where and when within each tradition they were raised, for none were monolithic or static. Each confession had its own set of styles of devotion. Each had its own doctrinal and psychological points of friction.

In other words, can you believe it, Calvinism was a religion. Getting from there to Kuyper’s lectures is another matter altogether but the way history generally works is that what comes first sets the standards for what comes after. The other way around is anachronistic — or worse — Whiggish.

The Limits of Kuyper's Appeal

First, Jim Bratt raises questions about the triumphalism that traffics under the banner of all things Kuyper:

Kuyper himself favored military images. His newspapers were named The Standard and The Herald, and he often used metaphors of combat, titanic struggle, desperate battle. Of course, it was an age of heroic language, the era of muscular Christianity. Lead on Oh King Eternal (1887). Onward Christian Soldiers (1865). Dare to Be a Daniel (1873), which he quoted on the floor of Parliament! Two world wars and the whole bloody twentieth century have taught us to be wary of such language, though we must in fairness remember that Kuyper and his contemporaries lived prior to all that. The man was stunned and deeply shaken—not to mention financially bankrupted—by the outbreak of the first war, now exactly a hundred years ago.

The legacy of separate Christian institutions that grew out of Kuyper’s work in the Netherlands the Dutch labeled “pillarization”—each religio-ideological group inhabiting its own column of consociation, cradle-to-grave. At another place Kuyper imagined Dutch higher education as a collection of ideologically defined universities that were hermetically sealed off from each other, communicating not in person but only via a “post office.” But then again, he pictured the universe of knowledge as a tree, everyone sharing a common trunk and root system, but different schools of thought—including Christian—diverging ever farther apart from each other as branches the greater growth and maturity they attained.

Pillars. Armies. Islands. Branches. Not much hope of colloquy there. Not much of a truly engaged conversation with religio-ideological rivals, an ideal or expectation that we entertain—realistically?—today.

Then, Chris Lehmann questions whether contemporary appeals to Kuyper (like George Marsden’s latest) can withstand the errors of Francis Schaeffer (thanks to our Pennsylvania correspondent):

. . . Marsden doesn’t place Schaeffer at the demoralized rear-guard of a massive breakdown of intellectual discipline on the evangelical right. Indeed, one of Schaeffer’s unacknowledged oversights, Marsden suggests, was that he unwittingly shared in the very Enlightenment tradition that he was attempting to banish to the margins of the American spiritual consensus. “The strictly biblicist heritage fosters a rhetoric that sounds theocratic and culturally imperialist, and in which a Christian consensus would seem to allow little room for secularists or their rights,” Marsden writes. But these same figures remained in thrall to an Enlightenment legacy that privileges “the necessity of protecting freedoms, especially the personal and economic freedoms of the classically liberal tradition.” As a result, Marsden argues, when evangelical thinkers like Schaeffer talk “about returning to a ‘Christian’ America, they may sound as though they would return to the days of the early Puritans; yet, practically speaking, the ideal they are invoking is tempered by the American enlightenment and is reminiscent of the days of the informal Protestant establishment, when Christianity was respected, but most of the culture operated on more secular terms.”

Marsden is persuasive here—until he overreaches. It’s true that in annexing the American founding and most of its skeptical Enlightenment apostles to the broader sweep of a redeemed Christian history, Schaeffer and others like him at least paid lip service to the rationalist ideals of religious toleration—a tradition, moreover, that was deeply imprinted in the history of dissenting Protestant denominations such as Baptism. But there’s little suggestion, in the general brunt of the emerging religious right’s brief against the secular humanist enemy, that the ideals of toleration merit much more than lip service. . . .

The contradictory impulses on display in The Twilight of the American Enlightenment may well help explain why Marsden’s study finally alights on the author’s own plea for a sort of Protestant revival—by suggesting that American thinkers more closely examine, and appropriate to their own ends, the model of plural religious observance advanced by Abraham Kuyper. That’s right: Marsden is proposing that we move beyond the present impasse in the annals of evangelical controversy by returning to the Dutch theologian and statesman who inspired Cornelius Van Til to envision an evangelical order of pure and absolute presuppositionalist certainty.

The Appeal of Otherworldliness

I have often wondered whether neo-Calvinists have a difficult time singing hymns that put singers in the passive position of waiting for the triumph over sin and death in the world to come. I mean, constantly looking for signs of Christ’s victory in the affairs of this world has to be depressing, unless you avoid the news or are remarkably naive. The analogy might be something like a Chicago Cubs fan who every season and off-season believes the franchise is proving itself the best in Major League Baseball.

One hymn I’ve had in mind that would not make a neo-Calvinist editorial cut is #444 (original Trinity Hymnal), “Father I Know that All My Life” (exclusive psalmodists, avert your eyes):

Father, I know that all my life
Is portioned out for me;
The changes that are sure to come,
I do not fear to see:
I ask thee for a present mind,
Intent on pleasing thee.

I would not have the restless will
That hurries to and fro,
Seeking for some great thing to do,
Or secret thing to know;
I would be treated as a child,
And guided where I go.

I ask thee for the daily strength,
To none that ask denied,
A mind to blend with outward life,
While keeping at thy side,
Content to fill a little space,
If thou be glorified.

In service which thy will appoints
There are no bonds for me;
My secret heart is taught the truth
That makes thy children free;
A life of self-renouncing love
Is one of liberty.

The stanza about not having a restless will must especially give those who would go out and transform the world pause.

But then it turns out that sometimes a little quiet time this side of the new heavens and new earth is just what the physician of souls ordered. Jim Bratt, at The12, anyway, gives reasons (in connection with Harold Camping’s death) for thinking otherworldly thoughts:

Now the coincidence. That same day I read the gloomiest forecast I’ve seen to date about global warming. (“Are We Falling Off the Climate Precipice? Scientists Consider Extinction,” by Dahr Jamail.) Melting Arctic shelf, disappearing glaciers, warming and acidifying oceans, all the old familiars strains, but then the big one—the likely release of unfathomable amounts of methane from the Arctic permafrost, spiking the mean global temperature by at least 4 degrees C—and ending life on earth as we know it. The sixth mass extinction in planetary history is underway, and our species is part of it. Their food sources and fresh water supplies wiped out, the human race will be reduced to slight remnants huddled around the two poles, trying to keep cool. It all makes Camping’s prediction of seven billion people dying in his end-time disaster sound quite plausible. Who knows, maybe 2011 will turn out to have been the tipping point, the year the books were closed on human folly. Funny, the Christian fundamentalists who tuned into Camping revile the global-warming scenarios spun by eco-radicals, and the eco-radicals, secular to a fault, have not the slightest use, not even ridicule, for the likes of Camping. But they come out at the same place.

So Advent? Christmas? Not on the tip of my singing tongue. Today being the deepest midwinter, the pit of darkness, my mind and my mood go instead to an old Dutch hymn that we used to sing on New Year’s Eve when I was a boy. Right after the congregation’s necrology was read, and after a sermon heavy with the specter of judgment and finality and aspersions upon “the world’s” way of spending the evening in frivolity and laughter. Set against that background, the hymn ain’t bad. Not bad at all. A sense of an ending is there, but so—even more—is God’s “right hand [that] will take us/to our everlasting peace.” For a fidgety boy dying to get out of church those nights, knowing that yet another service faced us the next morning, the lyrics felt solid and honest, and the tune sounded somehow noble and assuring in its steady march up and down the scale.

Here’s the hymn:

1 Hours and days and years and ages
swift as moving shadows flee;
as we scan life’s fleeting pages,
nothing lasting do we see.
On the paths our feet are walking,
footprints all will fade away;
each today as we enjoy it
soon becomes a yesterday.

2 But from sin your mercy drew us,
would not leave our souls alone.
Gracious Lord, you did renew us;
in Christ’s death we are your own.
Through the mercy of your leading,
each short step along our way
now becomes a path to guide us
to the land of endless day.

3 Though swift time keeps marching onward,
it will not decide our end.
You will always be our Father,
loving God, eternal Friend.
When life’s dangers overwhelm us,
you will ever be our stay;
through your Son you are our Father,
always changeless, come what may.

4 Speed along, then, years and ages,
with your gladness and your pain;
when our deepest sorrow rages,
God our Father will remain.
Though all friends on earth forsake us
and our troubles shall increase,
God with his right hand will take us
to our everlasting peace.

What do you know, it’s only a digit removed in the CRC’s Psalter Hymnal from “Father I Know that All My Life”‘s number in the Trinity Hymnal.

Who's Afraid of Distinguishing the Temporal from the Eternal?

Neo-Calvinists are, is the short answer. Even James Bratt’s kvetch about the abuse of every-square-inch language, offered this resistance to hierarchical distinctions between the world and the spirit:

Over against any kind of body-soul, nature-grace, fulltimeChristianservicevs.secularwork dualism, Kuyper’s words insist that God can—must—be served anywhere and everywhere. No better jobs or worse jobs before the Lord by how “spiritual” they are. No writing off whole sectors of culture or society as inherently worldly, or privileging others as inherently good. No more traditional pietist (Victorian?) hierarchies. I get it, and endorse it.

Lots to unpack there and not enough space in a post to do it. A lot of the spade work needs to go in the direction of “pietist” and “Victorian” as code for some sort of objectionable distinction between the realms of religion and common life. At the same time, the entire history of the West, philosophy, and liberal education makes no sense without some kind of distinction between what Greeks, Romans, and Christians deemed were higher aspects of human existence (the realm of the spirit or philosophy or reason or language) and the lower (eating or sex or wealth). In fact, what continues to bedevil me about neo-Calvinism is this Turrets Syndrome like reaction to binary distinctions. It is as if the West was swimming along sorting out and thriving on the distinctions between spiritual/intellectual and temporal/physical spheres and along came Kuyper and said, “we will have none of it” or “this is all fault of the French Revolution.” And he might have added “we will not pay any attention to similar distinctions between flesh and spirit, or Caesar and God, in Scripture.” “Dualism is bad because all of life, the cosmos (do we hear an echo of Carl Sagan?) needs to be integrated.” So writes Kuyper in his famous Lectures:

. . . wherever two elements appear, as in this case the sinner and the saint, the temporal and the eternal, the terrestrial and the heavenly life, there is always danger of losing sight of their interconnection and of falsifying both by error or onesidedness. Christendom, it must be confessed, did not escape this error. A dualistic conception of regeneration was the cause of the rupture between the life of nature and the life of grace. It has, on account of its too intense contemplation of celestial things, neglected to give due attention to the world of God’s creation. It has, on account of its exclusive love of things eternal, been backward in the fulfilment of its temporal duties. It has neglected the care of the body because it cared too exclusively for the soul. And this one-sided, inharmonious conception in the course of time has led more than one sect to a mystic worshipping of Christ alone, to the exclusion of God the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth. Christ was conceived exclusively as the Savior, and His cosmological significance was lost out of sight.

This dualism, however, is by no means countenanced by the Holy Scriptures. (118)

What is particularly troubling about Kuyper’s disregard for distinguishing the temporal from the eternal is that paleo-Calvinism used this distinction for making sense of Christianity and the work of the church. For instance, here is the very confession and Kuyper subscribed on the Lord’s Supper:

We believe and confess that our Savior Jesus Christ has ordained and instituted the sacrament of the Holy Supper to nourish and sustain those who are already born again and ingrafted into his family: his church.

Now those who are born again have two lives in them. The one is physical and temporal– they have it from the moment of their first birth, and it is common to all. The other is spiritual and heavenly, and is given them in their second birth; it comes through the Word of the gospel in the communion of the body of Christ; and this life is common to God’s elect only.

Thus, to support the physical and earthly life God has prescribed for us an appropriate earthly and material bread, which is as common to all as life itself also is. But to maintain the spiritual and heavenly life that belongs to believers he has sent a living bread that came down from heaven: namely Jesus Christ, who nourishes and maintains the spiritual life of believers when eaten– that is, when appropriated and received spiritually by faith.
To represent to us this spiritual and heavenly bread Christ has instituted an earthly and visible bread as the sacrament of his body and wine as the sacrament of his blood. He did this to testify to us that just as truly as we take and hold the sacraments in our hands and eat and drink it in our mouths, by which our life is then sustained, so truly we receive into our souls, for our spiritual life, the true body and true blood of Christ, our only Savior. We receive these by faith, which is the hand and mouth of our souls. (Belgic Confession, Art. 35)

Parenthetically, if you apply this distinction then you might distinguish between the eternal words of Holy Writ and the temporal words of Shakespeare, which would in turn shape the way you understand the task of Christian education and the relationship between the humanities and divinity.

But if neo-Calvinists have their way, then Belgic makes a distinction that partakes too much of a pietistic or Roman Catholic or Greco-Roman view of the sacrament.

Meanwhile, Calvin himself relied on this very distinction between the temporal and eternal when trying to understand the relation of church, state, and the heavenly kingdom:

Having shown above that there is a twofold government in man, and having fully considered the one which, placed in the soul or inward man, relates to eternal life, we are here called to say something of the other, which pertains only to civil institutions and the external regulation of manners. For although this subject seems from its nature to be unconnected with the spiritual doctrine of faith, which I have undertaken to treat, it will appear as we proceed, that I have properly connected them, nay, that I am under the necessity of doing so, especially while, on the one hand, frantic and barbarous men are furiously endeavouring to overturn the order established by God, and, on the other, the flatterers of princes, extolling their power without measure, hesitate not to oppose it to the government of God. Unless we meet both extremes, the purity of the faith will perish. We may add, that it in no small degree concerns us to know how kindly God has here consulted for the human race, that pious zeal may the more strongly urge us to testify our gratitude. And first, before entering on the subject itself, it is necessary to attend to the distinction which we formerly laid down (Book 3 Chap. 19 sec. 16, et supra, Chap. 10), lest, as often happens to many, we imprudently confound these two things, the nature of which is altogether different. For some, on hearing that liberty is promised in the gospel, a liberty which acknowledges no king and no magistrate among men, but looks to Christ alone, think that they can receive no benefit from their liberty so long as they see any power placed over them. Accordingly, they think that nothing will be safe until the whole world is changed into a new form, when there will be neither courts, nor laws, nor magistrates, nor anything of the kind to interfere, as they suppose, with their liberty. But he who knows to distinguish between the body and the soul, between the present fleeting life and that which is future and eternal, will have no difficulty in understanding that the spiritual kingdom of Christ and civil government are things very widely separated. Seeing, therefore, it is a Jewish vanity to seek and include the kingdom of Christ under the elements of this world, let us, considering, as Scripture clearly teaches, that the blessings which we derive from Christ are spiritual, remember to confine the liberty which is promised and offered to us in him within its proper limits. (Institutes IV.20.1)

None of this means necessarily that neo-Calvinists are wrong and 2kers are right. Maybe Kuyper came along and corrected a deep flaw within both Reformed Protestantism and the West more generally. But since distinctions between spiritual and worldly affairs haunt the pages of Scripture, not to mention the leading texts of Western civilization, neo-Calvinists have some obligation to explain why they reject (or appear to) the categories that practically all Europeans and their offspring have used to make sense of the world and Christianity.