Reformed Intramurals: What Neo-Calvinists Get Wrong

To a teenage boy growing up in post-Christian-before-the-term Seattle, the old Reformed Journal was a gift, like rain on dry ground. My predilection for that magazine shows either that theological persuasion is genetic, or that one can absorb far more theology than one might expect in a home far from the bastions of the Reformed world. Thinkers like Richard Mouw, Nicholas Wolterstorff, and others seemed so fresh and exciting, relevant and culturally engaged. At the time names like John Calvin, Abraham Kuyper or Karl Barth meant almost nothing to me. I had little understanding of the underpinnings and presuppositions of what I was reading.

To this day I still appreciate the work of neo-Calvinists like Mouw and Wolterstorff, Cornelius Plantinga, and others. But over the past thirty years as I became more familiar with Kuyper and his followers, I developed different perspectives and began to move away from Kuyper and the neo-Calvinists. It is hard to know how to gauge my disagreements with the neo-Calvinists. I might want to label them as significant, going to the heart of theological method and touchstones. A casual observer outside the Reformed arena, however, would have a difficult time even discerning any external differences. Of course, my disagreements with Kuyper and his disciples are intramural disagreements. We all still play within the Reformed league. But then again, intramurals are often the most rough and tumble form of play.

Below are some simple challenges and basic critiques of Kuyper, or actually more often his recent protégées, the sort who propelled the Reformed Journal and whose ideas are still often found in these pages. There are, literally, shelves in libraries that sag under the weight of the volumes addressing what I will dispatch in a few sentences. As much as possible, I have tried to avoid neo-Calvinist terminology and to sidestep the intricate disputes within neo- Calvinism. What I am attempting is not a definitive dissection, but a friendly nudge to see if anyone is awake.

What Have We Wrought?

Historians may some day come to measure the 2004 elections as the high water mark of the Christian political right in the United States. The morning after those elections, when evangelical Christians had flexed their political muscle in the service of nationalism and mammon, I wonder if not a few of the old Reformed Journal contributors, with their progressive, center-left political agenda, woke up and wondered, “What have we wrought?”

In reality of course, the old Reformed Journal can hardly be held single-handedly accountable for the rise of American evangelical political activism! There is, however, a sad irony at work here. In the 1970’s and 80’s, progressive neo-Calvinists tried to awaken the people in their churches about issues like violence, racism, sexism, imperialism, the environment, and more. Often these neo-Calvinists sounded impatient and exasperated because their kindred were so insulated, unaware and uninvolved in the pressing issues of day. Almost a century before, Abraham Kuyper had similarly appealed to de kleine luiden (the little people) of the Netherlands, galvanizing them as a social-political force. In the 70’s and 80’s, the neo-Calvinists appealed the people of their subculture to leave behind their parochial and distrustful ways in order to engage the world. Engage they did, just not for the causes the neo-Calvinists had hoped. By 2004, evangelicals (presumably including more than a few Dutch Reformed) were the mainstay of the conservative wing of the Republican Party. Surveying this strange turn of events, some of the progressive neo-Calvinists perhaps said to themselves, “We might have done better, in hindsight, not to have awakened the sleeping giant that was American evangelicalism.”

Of course, no one can seriously blame the progressive neo-Calvinists for the rise of the evangelical right in the United States. They were not alone in failing to foresee changing demographics, new political coalitions or to account for Nixon’s “southern strategy.” Nonetheless, their urging the people of their churches and subculture to enter the political fray does disclose some theological miscalculations. Kuyperian theology with its broad sweeps and universal statements rooted in the biblical creation story is able to move quite easily from confessional statement to public policy–probably too easily. There is an expectation that the Christian, the Church and the Word will find some significant agreement with cultural and civil powers. This may be true in west Michigan or northwest Iowa, but is it still broadly the case in North America?

In the past few decades, American evangelicals of all sorts, far beyond the circle of the Dutch Reformed subculture, have come to drink from Kuyperian wells. Kuyper is “in.” He and his recent protégées provided a theological framework to understand and explain the place of politics to evangelicals of other stripes. Neo-Calvinists argued that culture, politics and the state were not post-fall accommodations, to be avoided and ignored as “worldly.” Instead they were part of God’s original intent, and so Christians should assist in helping to reclaim and preserve these prelapsarian structures.

This call to activism in the world, to till the garden, to better society is not new to Kuyper, of course, but has deep roots within Reformed thought. The neo-Calvinist version still suffers from the same Reformed tendency to assert its ability to improve the surrounding culture, to become enamored with its “civilization building” character.   Surveying this strange turn of events, some of the progressive neo-Calvinists perhaps said to themselves, “We might have done better not to have awakened the sleeping giant that was American evangelicalism.”   A sure symptom of this self-congratulatory civic-mindedness is found in exhortations to “do more than apply bandages” or “get at the root of the problem.” Not only do such slogans neglect the great amount of good done in the name of bandages (the Good Samaritan, Mother Teresa), they also express a hubris that one has both access to the power to get at the root of the problem and then the wisdom to know how to better the structures of society with insights from the Gospel.

In all of this, a trace of Constantinianism remains, a confidence and implicit trust that the Christian voice can remain faithful and convincing in the public square. The creation-based theology of neo-Calvinists not only expects a relatively uncomplicated nexus between the particularity of confessional statements and the public square, it also may be naïve and unrealistic about the corrosive effects that political power and liberal society in general have upon faith claims and communities of tradition and particularity. Kuyper might say that his protégées over-utilized “common grace,” while almost forgetting “antithesis.”

The call of progressive neo-Calvinists to the American kleine luiden of the 1970’s and 80’s reveals one other failing. The call to involvement and activism, to “get out there,” displays an under-appreciation for the church. In typical American evangelicalism, the church is a place to get saved, an aid for those so inclined, a support group for the individual believer. Neo-Calvinism does not hold such a low, volitional or utilitarian ecclesiology. Instead for Kuyper’s heirs, the church is often just one of many institutions embedded in God’s creational intent. But either way, neo-Calvinism or American evangelicalism, there is an anti-institutionalism at work toward the church. (Yes, neo-Calvinists can be anti-institutional! Or at least anti-ecclesial.) Neo-Calvinists, frustrated by their kinfolk’s insular life, tend to describe the church instrumentally, as a tactic, a vehicle for the betterment of society. Instead of being a unique body, the
strange way God has chosen to be present and move in today’s world, in neo-Calvinism, the church too often plays the role of subservient donor to creation and culture. Creation and culture set the stage and pose the questions that the church must then engage and answer. For neo-Calvinists, the implication is that the “real action” is outside the church, not the church itself.

Looking Forward, not Backward

One sure sign that you are talking with a neo-Calvinist is that sooner or later phrases like “restoring God’s creational intentions” or “recovering the creation order” will creep into the discussion. Analyzing the Garden, discovering and repairing the structures that God has built into the universe, allowing the various spheres of God’s good creation to express their sovereignty–these are the mainspring that keeps neo-Calvinism ticking.

Neo-Calvinists infer these structures, orders and spheres from the biblical account of creation in Genesis. Tying their theological method to the creation story allows them to speak in sweeping, cosmic terms. Genesis is an all-encompassing story about all people, all creation, all cultures. Yet as Richard Mouw, with tongue clearly in cheek, asked the followers of Herman Dooyeweerd, “Can Genesis be made to carry all this freight?” And elsewhere Mouw joked that neo-Calvinists “seem to have an unusual facility for finding detailed cultural guidance in the biblical record.” Mouw himself is also fond of citing Genesis, although he also has a penchant for the book of Revelation. Like Genesis, Revelation also offers a “big-picture” viewpoint and an all-encompassing account. Even Nicholas Wolterstorff’s account of “shalom,” so evocatively expressed in his 1983 classic, Until Justice and Peace Embrace, has an ontological rightness about it. Shalom is a wholeness grounded in the very structures of creation.

The surprising result is that neo-Calvinists often mirror the very modernity they so perceptively challenge. Their use of creational structures and spheres makes them prone to explain too much, have too many answers, and claim expertise about too many things. They have a difficulty addressing the contextual and particular. They are wont to speak in the absolute and monolithic “the,” not the more modest and nimble, “a.”

Of course there is a rationale in both scripture and tradition for the neo-Calvinist approach. Nonetheless, the Christian life is more eschatological and future-oriented than it is restorative and backward looking. Jesus spoke most frequently in images of the inbreaking presence of God’s Kingdom, the future invading the present, staying awake until the return of the Son of Man. Christians are awaiting the heavenly Jerusalem, not scrutinizing the Garden of Eden. To be sure, neo-Calvinists know where the story of scriptures ends. However, their reliance on Garden imagery dampens the eschatological energy of the Gospel. The forwardlooking eschatological perspective is more likely to understand redemption as an innovative and healing response to sin, that may even use some of the scar tissue and debris of sin in the new creation, rather than nostalgically trying to re-pristinate the orders of creation.

These spheres and structures of creation, this ontological rightness, often serves as a form of quasi-natural law for the neo-Calvinists. During the struggles against apartheid in South Africa, more than a few critics noted how Kuyper’s theology, with its spheres and orders of creation, was distorted by Kuyper’s Afrikaner followers into a theological justification for apartheid. To lay apartheid at the feet of neo-Calvinism is an exaggerated and unfair accusation. It does, however, demonstrate how easily a theology that focuses on orders and restoration can become a tool of rigidity and fear. In the morass of today’s postmodern relativism, some sort of natural law or creational orders may seem appealing to Christians. Recovering and restoring these structures seems to offer solid ground on which to stand. But this approach is inherently conservative and static. It is more likely to be a theology of “hold the line” and “hang on,” always in danger of attaching itself to something the future will require us to toss overboard. History is littered with examples of Christians anointing our preferences and understandings as “natural” or “rooted in creation.” By contrast, an eschatological and future-looking perspective is open, adaptable, reticent and perhaps even somewhat agnostic about the future. Exactly where the Holy Spirit will lead in the future, where God’s in-breaking Kingdom will next surprise us is less defined and more of an emerging trajectory. Christians keep their eyes on places like the margins of society and the frontiers of learning, expecting we are more likely to find God’s work and purposes there, rather than harkening back to the Garden.

More than “The Fixer”

I always feel a bit of glee telling evangelicals that they just don’t take Jesus seriously enough. The same jab could also be aimed at neo-Calvinists. By not taking Jesus seriously enough, I mean that Jesus becomes understood as “the fixer,” an unfortunate but necessary remedy, rather than the pinnacle and destiny of creation. This fixer role for Jesus appears in neo- Calvinism because Jesus is understood and circumscribed within the frameworks of creation deduced from Genesis. On this view, sin hinders the unfolding of God’s purposes in creation, making Christ’s incarnation necessary to the extent that he “fixes” or puts right the original purposes of creation.

In one of Kuyper’s famous rhetorical flourishes, he spoke of Christ calling out to every square of inch of creation, “You are mine!” But for neo-Calvinists, the voice of Christ in the spheres and structures of creation is noticeably muted. In Kuyperian terminology, Christ serves as the “mediator of creation” in the various spheres of creation, although this role has little genuine Christological content. Christ “the mediator of creation” easily becomes Christ mediated by creation. Salvation and Jesus Christ are understood within the structures of creation. Moreover, the incarnation and full personhood of Jesus as a starting place for understanding God’s purposes in creation are never explored.

The Christological struggle Kuyper and the more recent neo-Calvinists have faced is not unique or new to them. It has dogged the Reformed tradition from its inception. We have always been more comfortable with the cosmic Christ of Colossians 1, the one who created all things and in whom all things are held together, than the Jesus of Nazareth of the synoptic Gospels. A quick perusal through Chapter XX of Book Four, on “Civil Government,” of Calvin’s Institutes, will reveal that a predominance of the citations are from classical and Old Testament sources. Mention of Christ is often relegated to the “spiritual Kingdom” or the “hearts of his people.” Commenting on this closing chapter of the Institutes, Barth wrote, “We look back on the earlier parts of the work, and in particular the second and third books and their cardinal statements about Jesus Christ, the Holy Spirit…[and] we feel like a traveler, suddenly transported to a distant land, who is looking back at the country from which he started.”

The so-called “extra-Calvinisticum” is yet another example of this Reformed tendency. Arising from debates with Lutherans about the Lord’s Supper, in which the Reformed camp asserted that the finite can never fully contain the infinite, the extra-Calvinisticum posits that Jesus, a finite human being, could not fully contain the infinite second Person of the Trinity. There was some “extra” Christ beyond Jesus, left over so to speak. All well and good. The Reformed temptation and frequent error, however, has been to make this “extra” quite unlike the Christ revealed in Jesus of Nazareth. The extra-Christ is much more like the Christ we would prefer, a strong and stern leader, more relevant and easily applied to
the public square, a Christ we have predefined according to standards found elsewhere, such as the orders and spheres of creation.

A Story

Imagine a great theatre. To call it “great” does not do this theatre justice. It was immense, stunning, beautiful, impossible to fully appreciate. The exact origins of this theatre are murky. It was generally supposed to be the venture of a great patron of the arts. While the wonder and design of the theatre were unmatched, the theatre was also gravely flawed. At some point, before any of today’s artists were around, the theatre had apparently been irreparably damaged. No one remembered exactly what happened, but it must have been cataclysmic. Everything about the old theatre was affected. The whole thing was slightly off kilter, decaying and worn. Still, the theatre troupe could stage wonderful productions there. The public was amazed and appreciative. Yet every play, concert, and even every artist was somehow–sometimes obviously, other times subtly–affected by the theatre’s tilt and deterioration.

Needless to say, no efforts were spared to try to restore and put right this magnificent theatre. All sorts of experts were brought in–historians, architects, and engineers. Most recommended research back into the original intent and design of the theatre. Countless hours were spent trying to decipher what the theatre had been like in the beginning, before the cataclysm. Enough reproductions and scale models of the hypothetical original theater were made to stock a small museum. Amazingly detailed and profound theories were put forward about what the theatre was originally like. What could be deduced about the builder’s understanding of art from the theatre? How should today’s artists perform based on what could be inferred from the design of the theatre? A cottage industry developed among those studying the theatre and theorizing about its implications for all of art.

Simultaneously, fleets of plumbers, electricians and carpenters were on the job. Yet, if they would fix one thing, something else would go on the fritz. All sorts of tradespersons came and went, doing their small part to keep the theatre in working order.

A new repairman appeared one day. Because such people were so frequent and so plentiful around the theatre, most people didn’t pay much attention. Some did notice that he seemed to really know what he was doing. A few people said that there was just “something different” about him. The repairs he made were not especially remarkable or large scale compared with many previous projects. Or maybe they were. It wasn’t that the theatre suddenly became perfect in every way. But after a while it became apparent that whatever small-on-the-face-of-it repair he had made had monumental repercussions throughout the theatre, the troupe and the productions they staged. Although the theatre was still beset by problems, many people believed that something essential had shifted.

Over time many memories and exact details about this repairman receded into the mist of history, but his reputation only grew. Many fondly recalled him as the repairman par excellence. Some lovingly gave him the title of “The Fixer.” All sorts of stories arose about who he was and what exactly was the repair he had made.

There were some, however, who wondered if perhaps he was not really a repairman at all. Instead, they claimed, he was an artist, the consummate artist, whose performance in that theatre had been so beautiful, so complete, so graceful, it had somehow righted the entire theatre. He hadn’t so much made a repair, as he had been the star, although so few had caught his performance. To consider him as a repairman, to call him “The Fixer,” missed the point, failed to grasp who he was. Instead of trying to learn about art by looking at the theatre, they began to suggest that it was actually this fixer who revealed true art. Why there was even a handful who surmised that the whole grand theatre had in fact been made precisely to be the stage on which this unsurpassable artist would perform.

Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell is co-pastor of Second Reformed Church in Pella, Iowa, and adjunt professor of religion at Central College.