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Neo-calvinism

March 21, 2010

NEO-CALVINISM

The question is not whether Christians have a task in this world or not, but what this task consists of and what is the Scriptural basis and warrant for it

Cornelius Pronk is a graduate of Calvin Seminary and pastor of Brantford Free Reformed Church, Ontario. He is radio pastor of the Banner of Truth Radio Broadcast which can be heard in USA, Canada, Mexico, Europe and the Middle East. He spoke at the USA Banner of Truth conference last year giving two addresses on church discipline.

In the November 1995 edition of the Reformed Theological Journal (98 Lisburn Road, Belfast BT9 6AG), he wrote a 15 page article entitled “Neo-Calvinism” examining the teaching of Abraham Kuyper and his followers. It is extremely valuable, being the only readily available evaluation of that movement. The following is the conclusion of his article and is reprinted from that Journal with permission. The full article is available for download here as a Word file, and is provided with permission of the author and the Reformed Theological Journal.

The question is not whether Christians have a task in this world or not, but what this task consists of and what is the Scriptural basis and warrant for it.

Kuyper found the basis in the doctrine of common grace. This doctrine, or at least the way he formulated it, is open to serious question. If he had only meant by common grace what the church has always understood by it, namely God’s gracious disposition toward all men, so that he lets his sun shine and his rain fall on the just and the unjust, few in the Reformed community would have a problem with it. Again, if common grace for him meant that God wants his Gospel to be preached to the whole world and offers his grace to all, most would heartily agree. But Kuyper’s version of this doctrine includes much more than that. For him common grace is primarily a grace directed to the redemption of the cosmos and culture. By rooting this doctrine in the divine decree of predestination he was able to construct a system whereby God’s plan for his creation is realised along a double track: the elect are brought to salvation by Christ as Mediator of redemption (particular grace) and the cosmos with all its potential for culture is redeemed by Christ as Mediator of creation (common grace). Such a conception had to lead to an essentially optimistic view of culture and the world. Not that Kuyper himself lost sight of sin and its awful consequences for the human race and the cosmos. He deeply believed in the antithesis and thus in the fundamental difference between common and particular grace. The same cannot be said of all his disciples, however. If some had problems with his theory of common grace because they saw in it a threat to particular or saving grace, many others were only too happy with it because it offered an escape from what they considered a too rigid view of the Christian’s separation from the world. Thus common grace opened the door to worldliness.

Is Neo-Calvinism different from the old, classic Calvinism? Yes, in many ways. W. Aalders, a scholar of renown in the Netherlands who has studied this issue thoroughly does not hesitate to refer to Kuyper and the whole Neo-Calvinist movement as ‘The Great Derailment’. In his view, Kuyper with his lop-sided emphasis on culture and social involvement has contributed greatly to what he calls the externalisation of the doctrines of grace, especially justification and regeneration. In Neo-Calvinistic circles, he says, justification is not denied, but no longer experienced as it was by Luther, Calvin and all who live by God’s Word rather than by human, be it Christian philosophy. What do Neo-Calvinists still know of justification as an inner occurrence wherein the living Word in union with the Spirit introduces a sinner into the spiritual reality of Christ and his realm? Speculative, abstract, philosophical thinking has eliminated the sovereign, spiritual, inward working of the Word, turning it into a cerebral, intellectual concept. An abstract, organic idea of regeneration as a slowly maturing seed has taken the place of regeneration and justification by God’s Word and Spirit.’

Kuyper’s zeal for the kingship of Christ in the world had to lead to an acceleration of the process of the secularization of spiritual values. Through ever-increasing contact with the world and exposure to the spirit of the world, the Reformed faith became more and more externalized or hollowed out. Some of Kuyper’s closest friends were alarmed by this growing trend in Reformed circles. J.C. Aalders, himself a Neo-Calvinist, warned his colleagues at a ministers’ conference in 1916 in these words:

“Our Reformed people, having gradually come into contact with the world of culture are in great danger of being influenced by humanism. To the degree that mysticism and anabaptism have been overcome, God’s people have recognised their earthly calling. But now we face the danger of contamination by the spirit of the age. The doctrine of common grace, confessed and put into practice by our people, opens with the world at the same time the danger of conformity to the world. We have not escaped a certain imbalance in our spiritual food. Not enough attention is given to the needs of the individual heart and soul. Outward obedience is not sufficient to salvation.’

About a decade earlier, H. Bavinck had written in an introduction Dutch translation of sermons by the great Scottish divines Ralph and Ebenezer Erskine:

“Here we have an important element which is largely lacking among us. We miss this spiritual soul-knowledge. It seems we no longer know what sin and grace, guilt and forgiveness, regeneration and conversion are. We know these things in theory, but we no longer know them in the awful reality of life.”

It is well-known that Bavinck became very disillusioned with certain aspects of the Neo-Calvinist movement towards the end of his life, because so much of it seemed to result, be it ever so unintentionally, in worldliness, superficiality and pride.

What Neo-Calvinism has ultimately led to or at least contributed to, can be seen in the apostasy taking place at present in the very churches Kuyper did so much to establish, the Gereformeerde Kerken in Nederland (Reformed Churches in the Netherlands) and to a lesser degree in their sister churches in North America, the Christian Reformed Church. May God help us avoid making the same mistakes and may he preserve us in the faith once delivered to the saints by the apostles and rediscovered and set forth by the Reformers and their successors the Puritans. What we need is not neo-Calvinism but the old or classic Reformed faith which is Scriptural, confessional and experiential.

CORNELIS PRONK

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