Neo-Calvinists Should Be Afraid, Very Afraid

I have said many times that the prefix “neo” is more important for understanding neo-Calvinism than the noun. But the more I read neo-Calvinists, I wonder if they actually read Calvin or simply make up what they contend to be the Reformed faith. Just this afternoon I was reading Henry Van Til’s A Calvinistic Concept of Culture and saw the classic Reformed triumphalism which turns Calvin into a reason for Reformed Protestants to take credit for all the blessings of modern Western society — his impact on economics, politics, and culture. Why I even read that Calvin was responsible for defending and maintaining civil liberty. That may be, but do neo-Calvinist cheerleaders ever consider the downsides of liberty and whether Calvinism deserves blame for libertinism and licentiousness? Most would respond, “of course, not, because Calvin properly grounded liberty in the Word of God.” But once people taste civil liberty is it so easy to avoid Rousseau or Voltaire (Calvin was a Frenchman, for those who may be ethnically challenged).

Meanwhile, the idea of redemption as the restoration of creation picks up more and more steam and neo-Calvinism puts more and more novelty into ideas Calvinistic. Here’s just a smidgeon of the contrast. Over at a website devoted to Kuyperianism, I ran across a whimsical essay by James K. A. Smith on the nature of redemption from a Reformed perspective. For Smith, salvation is not individual but cosmic:

The Word became flesh, not to save our souls from this fallen world, but in order to restore us as lovers of this world—to (re)enable us to carry out that creative commission. Indeed, God saves us so that—once again, in a kind of divine madness—we can save the world, can (re)make the world aright. And God’s redemptive love spills over in its cosmic effects, giving hope to this groaning creation.

Odd perhaps might be the idea that we can save the world. (Bad enough, as James Davison Hunter reminds us, is the idea that we can actually change the world.) Smith not only has us changing but also saving the world. Charles Finney and John Calvin have joined sides.

But even odder is the idea that the work of recreation is not reserved for the regenerate. It is also something in which unbelievers engage:

One of the New Testament words for “salvation” (soteria) carries the connotations of both deliverance and liberation as well as health and well-being. So salvation is both liberation from our disorder and the restoration for health and flourishing. I can think of no better picture of this than the sort of health-giving practices that Wendell Berry notices and celebrates in his recent collection, Bringing It To The Table: On Farming and Food. . . .

Thanks be to God, such redeeming, health-giving, cultural labour is not the special province of Christians. While the church is that people who have been regenerated and empowered by the Spirit to do the good work of culture-making, foretastes of the coming kingdom are not confined to the church. The Spirit is profligate in spreading seeds of hope. So we gobble up foretastes of the kingdom wherever we can find them. The creating, redeeming God of Scripture takes delight in Jewish literature that taps the deep recesses of language’s potential, in Muslim commerce that runs with the grain of the universe, and in the well-ordered marriages of agnostics and atheists. We, too, can follow God’s lead and celebrate the same.

But what does redemption look like? For the most part, you’ll know it when you see it, because it looks like flourishing. It looks like a life well lived. It looks like the way things are supposed to be. It looks like a well-cultivated orchard laden with fruit produced by ancient roots. It looks like labour that builds the soul and brings delight. It looks like an aged husband and wife laughing uproariously with their great-grandchildren. It looks like a dancer stretching her body to its limit, embodying a stunning beauty in muscles and sinews rippling with devotion. It looks like the graduate student hunched over a microscope, exploring nooks and crannies of God’s micro-creation, looking for ways to undo the curse. It looks like abundance for all.

Redemption sounds like the surprising cadences of a Bach concerto whose rhythm seems to expand the soul. It sounds like an office that hums with a sense of harmony in mission, punctuated by collaborative laughter. It sounds like the grunts and cries of a tennis player whose blistering serve and liquid forehand are enactments of things we couldn’t have dreamed possible. It sounds like the questions of a third grader whose teacher loves her enough to elicit and make room for a sanctified curiosity about God’s good world. It even sounds like the spirited argument of a young couple who are discerning just what it means for their marriage to be a friendship that pictures the community God desires (and is).

Redemption smells like the oaky tease of a Napa Chardonnay that births anticipation in our taste buds. It smells like soil under our nails after labouring over peonies and gerber daisies. It smells like the steamy winter kitchen of a family together preparing for supper. It smells like the ancient wisdom of a book inherited from a grandfather, or that “outside smell” of the family dog in November. It smells like riding your bike to work on a foggy spring morning. It even smells like the salty pungence of hard work and that singular bouquet of odors that bathes the birth of a child.

Golly gee.

Does redemption ever smell like the manure of agribusiness dairy farms in Southern California when the Santa Anna’s are pumping those odors into your car windows as you sit in a traffic jam on the 15, fearful that your car is going to overheat? Mind you, I like Wendell Berry too. But I don’t think I need to turn him into a re-creator or re-restorer in order to appreciate him.

The novel part of neo-Calvinism is particularly striking, maybe like that manure’s odor, when you compare it to Calvin. Here is what he writes about Christ’s office as king:

We must, therefore, know that the happiness which is promised to us in Christ does not consist in external advantages—such as leading a joyful and tranquil life, abounding in wealth, being secure against all injury, and having an affluence of delights, such as the flesh is wont to long for—but properly belongs to the heavenly life. As in the world the prosperous and desirable condition of a people consists partly in the abundance of temporal good and domestic peace, and partly in the strong protection which gives security against external violence; so Christ also enriches his people with all things necessary to the eternal salvation of their souls and fortifies them with courage to stand unassailable by all the attacks of spiritual foes. Whence we infer, that he reigns more for us than for himself, and that both within us and without us; that being replenished, in so far as God knows to be expedient, with the gifts of the Spirit, of which we are naturally destitute, we may feel from their first fruits, that we are truly united to God for perfect blessedness; and then trusting to the power of the same Spirit, may not doubt that we shall always be victorious against the devil, the world, and every thing that can do us harm. To this effect was our Saviour’s reply to the Pharisees, “The kingdom of God is within you.” “The kingdom of God cometh not with observation,” (Luke 17:21, 22). It is probable that on his declaring himself to be that King under whom the highest blessing of God was to be expected, they had in derision asked him to produce his insignia. But to prevent those who were already more than enough inclined to the earth from dwelling on its pomp, he bids them enter into their consciences, for “the kingdom of God” is “righteousness, and peace, and joy in the Holy Ghost,” (Rom. 14:17). These words briefly teach what the kingdom of Christ bestows upon us. Not being earthly or carnal, and so subject to corruption, but spiritual, it raises us even to eternal life, so that we can patiently live at present under toil, hunger, cold, contempt, disgrace, and other annoyances; contented with this, that our King will never abandon us, but will supply our necessities until our warfare is ended, and we are called to triumph: such being the nature of his kingdom, that he communicates to us whatever he received of his Father. Since then he arms and equips us by his power, adorns us with splendour and magnificence, enriches us with wealth, we here find most abundant cause of glorying, and also are inspired with boldness, so that we can contend intrepidly with the devil, sin, and death. In fine, clothed with his righteousness, we can bravely surmount all the insults of the world: and as he replenishes us liberally with his gifts, so we can in our turn bring forth fruit unto his glory. (Institutes, 2.15.4)

What is striking is the opposing themes of Smith and Calvin. For Smith, we are involved in doing the saving. For Calvin, it is all from Christ. And for Smith, redemption is part and parcel of this world. For Calvin, it is spiritual, eternal, heavenly — not to be realized in this world.

As I say, do neo-Calvinists ever read Calvin (on their way to the Bible)? Or does their philosophy give them liberty to make up whatever they want to believe?

Do They Really Want What They Want?

Steven Wedgeworth over at Credenda Agenda has registered a critique of two-kingdom theology that uses David VanDrunen’s new book on natural law and the two kingdoms as the object of critique. Some of the usual federal vision suspects have lined up to promote Wedgeworth’s piece. Rabbi Bret writes:

Wedgeworth also spends time exposing how the Two Kingdoms, as defined by the Magisterial Reformers, covered different realities then the Two Kingdoms of Escondido fame. For the Magisterial Reformers the Two Kingdoms were defined as such that there was a diversity in unity. For Escondido the Two Kingdoms are defined in such a way that there is diversity (Nature realm vs. Redemptive realm) with no unity. (Hence the constant charge of Dualism.)

So you know it must be good.

Wedgeworth has two main complaints – one is that the idea of a spiritual and a temporal kingdom (or Augustine’s two cities) do not correlate with the church and the state. Wedgeworth writes:

It was precisely because the visible church existed in the temporal kingdom that Christian magistrates had a duty to protect and reform them. The princes were not to personally involve their office in crafting doctrine or worship, but they surely were involved in financing, defending, and promoting certain visible churches to the exclusion of others. Since all Christian laypersons were priests, the Reformers saw no problem with allowing princes to function as Christians in their particular vocation and to make use of their superior ordering abilities in the visible church. All of the Reformed confessions are in agreement on this point, as well, and so it seems impossible to remove this feature from the ecclesiology of the Reformation.

What Wedgeworth fails to acknowledge (aside from an inordinate fixation on Calvin as the standard of all things Reformed) is that Zurich and Geneva differed over the respective powers of the city council and church authority. Zurich was much closer to (if not guilty of) an Erastian model, with the magistrates reserving the right of excommunication, while Geneva worked hard to gain for the church the spiritual power of excommunication. In other words, the responsibility of the state to preserve the true religion is much more a legacy of Zurich than of Geneva and the difference is evident in the way that the Geneva Confession (1556) and the Gallican Confession (1559) refuse to attribute ecclesiastical powers to the magistrate the way, say, that the Westminster Divines did when in the original version of their Confession (subsequently altered by American Presbyterians in 1787) gave the magistrate the right to call and preside over synods and councils of the church. Can anyone imagine George Bush or Barack Obama presiding over the General Assembly of the OPC? (For that matter, can anyone imagine why a president would care to preside over a gathering of 160 pastors and elders?) And yet, that was the kind of power that a Zurichian arrangement bequeathed to one side of the Reformed brain.

(By the way, for the record this would make the Federal Visionaries pro-Zurich on political theology but pro-Geneva on the Lord’s Supper. Can you say “dualism”? Sure you can.)

While Wedgeworth’s point that the spiritual and the temporal do not equate to church and state, it’s pretty hard to read Calvin on the two kingdoms and not think that the civil and ecclesiastical polities lined up pretty neatly with the visible church and the visible state.

Therefore, to perceive more clearly how far the mind can proceed in any matter according to the degree of its ability, we must here set forth a distinction: that there is one kind of understanding of earthly things; another of heavenly. I call “earthly things” those which do not pertain to God or his Kingdom, to true justice, or to the blessedness of the future life; but which have their significance and relationship with regard to the present life and are, in a sense, confined within its bounds. I call “heavenly things” the pure knowledge of God, the nature of true righteousness, and the mysteries of the Heavenly Kingdom. The first class includes government, household management, all mechanical skills, and the liberal arts. In the second are the knowledge of God and of his will, and the rule by which we conform our lives to it.

Of the first class the following ought to be said: since man is by nature a social animal, he tends through natural instinct to foster and preserve society. Consequently, we observe that there exist in all men’s minds universal impressions of a certain civic fair dealing and order. Hence no man is to be found who does not understand that every sort of human organization must be regulated by laws, and who does not comprehend the principles of those laws. Hence arises the unvarying consent of all nations and of individual morals with regard to laws. For their seeds have, without teacher or lawgiver, been implanted in all men. (Institutes, II.ii.13)

Since Calvin puts government and household management – and not the church – under earthly things, it looks like the distinction between church (spiritual) and state (temporal) was in Calvin’s mind (and not just VanDrunen’s or Luther’s). Heck, it was even in the minds of the Westminster Divines when they wrote:

Synods and councils are to handle, or conclude nothing, but that which is ecclesiastical: and are not to intermeddle with civil affairs which concern the commonwealth, unless by way of humble petition in cases extraordinary; or, by way of advice, for satisfaction of conscience, if they be thereunto required by the civil magistrate. (WCF 31.5 original)

In other words, even in an Erastian environment with a king or parliament calling the church’s shots, Reformed churchmen were able to distinguish the differences between the civil and the ecclesiastical in ways that leave today’s Christendomians (read: theonomists) tripping.

To see how much the Reformed tradition identified Christ’s kingdom with the church you only need to look at the way that the Reformed catechisms treat the second petition of the Lord’s Prayer or Christ’s kingly office. Here is the Larger Catechism’s rendering of Christ role as kind:

WLC Q. 45. How doth Christ execute the office of a king?
A. Christ executeth the office of a king, in calling out of the world a people to himself, and giving them officers, laws, and censures, by which he visibly governs them; in bestowing saving grace upon his elect, rewarding their obedience, and correcting them for their sins, preserving and supporting them under all their temptations and sufferings, restraining and overcoming all their enemies, and powerfully ordering all things for his own glory, and their good; and also in taking vengeance on the rest, who know not God, and obey not the gospel.

In other words, the Reformers, whether influenced by Zurich or Geneva, were jealous to preserve the spiritual rule of Christ from being confused with the rule of the state, and to locate the spiritual rule of Christ with officers of his visible church.

Wedgeworth’s other objection to VanDrunen’s book is the distinction between Christ’s mediatorial (i.e. redemptive) and his creational rule. Wedgeworth believes this sets up an impossible scenario of a divided self where a Christian is “guided by his cultural spirit and imagination at certain moments of his life and by his religious spirit and imagination at others.” Why this is so hard to imagine I do not know. After all the Christian father who is also an elder treats his son differently when appearing before the session or when addressing him in the home, just as a Christian gynecologist treats a naked woman differently depending on whether he’s married to her and he’s her physician. Christians make distinctions of office and vocation all the time. If we can imagine doing it, why not someone who is more adept at juggling human affairs and diverse responsibilities than we are – namely, Jesus Christ.

But not to be missed is that if Wedgeworth wants to collapse the mediatorial and creational rules into one power, he is guilty of Roman Catholicism. At least, that was how David McKay explained it when expounding Samuel Rutherford’s account of church-state relations. McKay writes:

. . . Rutherford does maintain that Christian magistrates have a duty to promote the well-being of the church. He also insists, however, that “the Magistrate as a Magistrate is not the Deputie of Jesus Christ as Mediator,” a view that he goes on to describe as “the heart and soule of Popery.”(McKay, “From Popery to Principle: Covenanters and the Kingship of Christ,” in The Faith Once Delivered, p. 136)

Later in this essay, McKay also quotes George Gillespie to the following effect: Christ has all power “by the eternal generation, ad by the declaration of him to be the Son of God with power, when he was raised from the dead, Rom. 1:14.” According to McKay, Gillespie agrees that Christ has power to subdue the enemies of his church, but “as Mediator he is only the church’s King, Head, and Governor, and hath no other kingdom” (p. 139).

So while the Federal Visionaries and neo-Calvinists keep figuring out ways to redeem all of life – with the aim, I guess, of putting Christians in charge of everything so believers can be the ones calling synods and councils – they should remember first that the magisterial reformation started with the magistrate, not the church. Zwingli, Bucer, Calvin, Ursinus served at the good pleasure of the state; they did not call a church council and send petitions to the magistrates to adopt pro-Protestant policies. And if Federal Visionaries want the same circumstances today as those that informed the Reformation, they better start working on getting Doug Wilson or Neil Plantinga to run for office – preferably with a little more clout than the district superintendent of public recreation.

Or they could simply follow Calvin’s advice and remember that the effects of salvation are first, foremost, and ultimately, not cultural, political, legal, medicinal, or agricultural but spiritual. As Calvin put it at the beginning of his discussion of the magistrate, the problem with Federal Visionaries and neo-Calvinists is their addiction to the Judaic Folly:

But whoever knows how to distinguish between body and soul, between this present fleeting life and that future eternal life, will without difficulty know that Christ’s spiritual Kingdom and the civil jurisdiction are things completely distinct. Since, then, it is a Jewish vanity to seek and enclose Christ’s Kingdom within the elements of this world, let us rather ponder that what Scripture clearly teaches is a spiritual fruit, which we gather from Christ’s grace. . . (Institutes, IV.xx.1)