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Neo-calvinism – Cornelius Pronk

March 22, 2010 Comments off

NEO-CALVINISM*

By Cornelis Pronk

10 Highgate Place, Brantford, ON N3R 5V4 CANADA

Tel. 519 751-4470; Email pronk@frcna.org

Definition of the Term

What is Neo-Calvinism? “Neo” means new and Calvinism is the name given to that branch of Protestantism that followed the teachings of John Calvin. As such, Calvinism is another word for Reformed. When people say Calvinism, they mean the Reformed faith as distinguished from Roman Catholicism, Lutheranism or Arminianism. The term Neo-Calvinism, therefore, would suggest that it represents a form of Calvinism that is new or different from its original form. This is indeed the case.

Let me say first of all that the word Calvinism and its derivatives, Calvinist and Calvinistic, are not really proper as synonyms for the Reformed faith and Reformed churches. Calvin himself was opposed to calling the Reformed churches after his name. Neither did those churches want to be referred to as Calvinistic, but simply as Reformed. The reason for this was that they felt that the church of Christ should never be associated with a mere human being. As indebted as the Reformed churches were to Calvin, they understood that the doctrines he taught were not products of his own genius but simply the doctrines of Christ, which he had found in the Gospel.

Another reason for rejecting the name Calvinism was that historically it had always been heretics whose names were given to the movements they started, e.g., Arianism, Pelagianism and Montanism. A third reason was that Calvinism was a label put on them by their opponents, the Roman Catholics, Lutherans and Anabaptists. The name Calvinist became an abusive nickname for anyone holding to the hated doctrine of predestination, which many thought to be the invention of Calvin. For these reasons the Reformed rejected the label Calvinism; they maintained that position for many years.

Calvinism and Abraham Kuyper

Why then was the name Calvinism eventually adopted? Perhaps it was inevitable that in their controversies with Rome, as well as with other Protestant churches, the Reformed were increasingly identified with their great leader and his system of theology. While Calvinism eventually became just another name for Reformed because of the doctrines associated with Calvin (especially predestination), in more recent times the term Calvinism has come to represent something more than that. It is here where Neo-Calvinism comes in. And Neo-Calvinism brings us to Abraham Kuyper, the great Dutch theologian and statesman whose name is inseparably connected to what has been called the great revival of Calvinism in the Netherlands.

In his book, Lectures on Calvinism, which is a collection of lectures on that subject delivered at Princeton University, N.J. in 1897, Kuyper mentions four uses of the word Calvinism. According to him, Calvinism may be viewed as:

  1. a sectarian name given to the Reformed by their opponents;
  2. a confessional name used by those who subscribe to the dogma of predestination and other related truths;
  3. a denominational name used by churches that want to be identified as Calvinist, such as Calvinistic Baptists and Calvinistic Methodists.
  4. a scientific name, either in a historical, philosophical or political sense.[1]

Says Kuyper:

Historically, the name of Calvinism indicates the channel in which the reformation moved, so far as it was neither Lutheran, nor Anabaptist nor Socinian. In the philosophical sense, we understand by it that system of conceptions, which under the influence of the mastermind of Calvin, raised itself to dominance in the several spheres of life. And as a political name, Calvinism indicates that political movement which has guaranteed the liberty of nations in constitutional statesmanship; first in Holland, then in England, and since the close of the 18th century in U.S.A.[2]

Neo-Calvinism as World and Life View

It is in this scientific sense that Kuyper understands the concept of Calvinism , namely as “an independent general tendency which, from a mother-principle of its own, has developed an independent form both for our life and for our thought among the nations of Western Europe and North America.”[3] For Kuyper, the domain of Calvinism was much broader than what most people in his time understood it to be. His contemporaries in Reformed circles saw Calvinism as basically an ecclesiastical and confessional movement. Reformed or Calvinistic for them meant believing in the depravity of man and his absolute dependence on God for salvation. In other words, they stressed the doctrines of grace or the so-called “Five Points of Calvinism” in opposition to Arminians and Modernists who denied these doctrines. Kuyper saw it as his mission in life to convince his fellow Reformed believers that Calvinism was much more than that. It was an all-encompassing world-and-life view, he insisted, which enables us to understand and make sense of reality. Our task as Christians, he believed, is to bring the principles of Calvinism to bear upon the world so as to influence and change it, redeeming and claiming it for Christ to whom the whole created order belongs.

The Key Concept: God’s Sovereignty

The key concept of Calvinism, according to Kuyper, is the sovereignty of God over the whole cosmos in all its spheres. This divine sovereignty is reflected in a three-fold human sovereignty, namely in the State, in Society and in the Church. It is this concept of Calvinism that has come to be referred to as Neo-Calvinism, not only by its opponents, but also by Kuyper and his followers themselves. It is new in that it represents ideas and teachings that are not found in the original, classic Calvinism or the Reformed faith–although Kuyper claimed that many of his ideas were seminally present in Calvin. The seeds are there in Calvin’s thought, he insisted, but they only need to be worked out and applied.

It is true that Calvin taught the sovereignty of God in all things. He also knew that God’s sovereignty is not limited to salvation, but that there are implications of this doctrine for all of life, including Church-State relations, the role of the family, the Christian’s calling in society, the place of science, and so on. Yet, in the process of working out the implications of Calvin’s thought, Kuyper ended up with a system of Calvinism that in some important areas constituted a departure from its original version. Kuyper has often been praised for the impact he has made on the Netherlands by applying Calvinistic principles to society in all its spheres. This praise is well deserved. The man was a genius in many respects. For those who are not too familiar with Dutch church history, the following thumbnail biographical sketch of this great man may help to give some idea of his importance.

Biographical Sketch of Kuyper

Abraham Kuyper was born in 1837 at Maassluis, South Holland. His father, J.F. Kuyper, was a minister in the Dutch Reformed Church and belonged to the moderate party. Young Abraham was exceptionally intelligent. A voracious reader from the time he mastered the alphabet, he needed no prodding from his parents to apply himself to his studies. At the age of twelve he was enrolled at the gymnasium of Leiden, which he completed with distinction six years later. The next seven years were spent at the famous Leiden University from which he graduated in 1862 with a doctor of theology degree, summa cum laude.

Kuyper left the university with different religious views from those he held when he entered it. He had been brought up fairly conservative and even felt inclined towards the ministry. During his university years, however, Kuyper became thoroughly influenced by liberalism. His model was Dr. Scholten, one of the leading exponents of modernism at the time. Therefore, if God had not called him to a halt, Kuyper would have gone far down the road of apostasy, probably even further than his mentors. But God did intervene and changed the direction in which this brilliant but blind student was going at break-neck speed.

In 1862 Dr. Kuyper became a candidate for the ministry in the Dutch Reformed (state church), but due to an oversupply of candidates he did not receive a call until almost a year later. He was ordained as pastor of the congregation of Beesd, a small village in the eastern province of Gelderland.

Not all the members of the congregation were happy with their new minister, however. There was at least one lady who did not agree with his preaching. Her name was Pietje Baltus, a God-fearing woman who sensed immediately that her minister was a stranger to God and to grace. When he came to visit her she told him how the Lord had converted her and spoke to him about the needs of his soul. She warned him that unless he was born again he would perish forever. Kuyper listened and was impressed. More visits followed. As it turned out, the Lord was pleased to use the testimony of this simple, uneducated woman to bring about a radical change in Kuyper’s life. Through contact with this godly woman as well as others who feared the Lord in Beesd, Kuyper’s life was completely changed. He went through a profound spiritual struggle and there came a moment when he surrendered to the Lord and experienced the peace that passes all understanding, through faith in Christ and His finished work on the cross.

The re-born preacher rapidly became known as a champion for orthodoxy and started to receive calls from larger, more influential congregations. In 1867 he accepted a call to Utrecht and three years later he moved to Amsterdam, where he became the leader of the Doleantie (Grievance), a movement which in 1886 led to a separation from the State Church similar to, yet also different from, the earlier Secession of 1834.

For many years, Kuyper worked tirelessly in an effort to reform the Dutch State Church from within. He was not just concerned with church reform. National concerns also had his interest and he became actively involved in politics. Soon he became editor of a weekly paper called De Heraut (The Herald) and a Christian daily, De Standaard (The Standard). He was elected to parliament and became leader of the Anti-Revolutionary Party (anti, against the godless principles of the French revolution).

From 1901 to 1905 Kuyper served as Prime Minister and helped to pass many laws improving the lot of the poorer classes and promoting social justice for all citizens. Kuyper was also the main founder of the Free University, a school of higher academic education based on Scripture and Reformed principles. An accomplished speaker with great oratorical gifts, he could hold audiences spell-bound for hours on end.

For almost half a century Kuyper dominated the ecclesiastical and political scene in the Netherlands. During that time, Calvinism became a force to be reckoned with in the affairs of the nation. Almost single-handedly he was able to mobilize Reformed Christians into a powerful constituency strong enough to secure many seats in Parliament and even form governments. This was certainly a great accomplishment.

Although he respected God-fearing people like Pietje Baltus, he realized that their faith was too inward directed and that they had to be brought out of their religious and cultural isolation. They needed to let their light shine and take seriously their task as Christians in the world, while still showing that they were not of the world.

Antithesis and Common Grace

How did Kuyper convince and persuade his religious constituency? He did so by teaching two seemingly contradictory doctrines, namely those of the antithesis and common grace.

The word antithesis is made up of anti, meaning against, and thesis which means proposition, theory or statement. Antithesis, then, means taking position against beliefs held by one’s opponents, e.g. in the spheres of religion and philosophy. According to Kuyper, there exists a basic antithesis between the church and the world. The redeemed live out of one principle–love for God, and all others live out of the opposite principle, namely enmity against God, however this might be expressed.

One might conclude from this that with such a gap existing between church and world there could be no cooperation at all between the two camps. But Kuyper found the solution to this problem by constructing a new doctrine, namely that of common grace. It was not an entirely new doctrine, because elements of it can be found in Calvin and the Reformed confessions,[4] but it is certainly true that Kuyper put his own stamp on this doctrine.

What, then, is common grace, as defined by Kuyper? It is the idea that in addition to special or saving grace, which is given only to God’s elect, there is also a grace, which God bestows on all men. Whereas special grace regenerates men’s hearts, common grace (1) restrains the destructive process of sin within mankind in general and (2) enables men, though not born again, to develop the latent forces of the creation and thus make a positive contribution to the fulfillment of the cultural mandate given to man before the Fall. Because all men share in this common grace by virtue of the image of God left in them, Christians can and should work together with unbelievers towards improving living conditions, fighting poverty and promoting social justice for all.

Besides, Kuyper argued, common grace enables us to recognize and appreciate all that is good and beautiful in the world and allows us to enjoy God’s gifts with thanksgiving. Therefore, Christians should be actively involved in the arts and sciences and thus in the development of culture. In this way Kuyper challenged the Reformed community to “purge themselves of their ‘pietistic dualisms,’ their separation of Sunday from the workweek, of the spiritual from the physical-in theological terms, of nature from grace.”[5]

Kuyper’s doctrine of common grace has been called the linchpin of his entire work and thought. By skillfully combining it with the doctrine of the antithesis, he was able to reassure those who were concerned to preserve the difference between church and world, while at the same time satisfying intellectuals within the Reformed camp who appreciated at least some aspects of culture.

The Dual Purpose of Common Grace

Common grace thus served a dual purpose. On the one hand it reconciled the doctrine of total depravity with the presence of good among the unregenerate, while on the other hand God’s sovereignty was safeguarded by insisting that whatever good there still is in the world is not the result of human effort, but the fruit of divine grace. But even more, common grace also showed that such institutions as the government and the legal system, the arts and sciences were not just products of grace but also means of grace–instruments whereby God restrained sin and enabled man to develop creation as He had originally intended.

If common grace was the linchpin of Kuyper’s thought, it also proved to be the Achilles heel of his system. While many Reformed people followed Kuyper and his ideas enthusiastically, there were also many who strongly disagreed with his views. Especially in the Secession churches (the churches which had left the state church earlier, in 1834) there was much opposition to Neo-Calvinism. Men like Lindeboom and Ten Hoor were convinced that in some very important areas Kuyper’s teachings were contrary to Scripture and the Reformed confessions. There were at least three areas of concern: First, there was Kuyper’s doctrine of the church; second, there was his view of the primary task of the church; and, third, his optimistic view of culture and the potential for redeeming it.

The Church as Institute and Organism

Kuyper believed that a distinction should be made between the church as institute and the church as organism. As institute the church has been entrusted with the three offices (prophetic, priestly and kingly) and is called to preach and administer the sacraments, and exercise discipline. As organism or body of believers she is to be involved in social activities and thus carry out the cultural mandate.

As such, there was nothing wrong with this distinction, but the way Kuyper used it alarmed the Seceders. Kuyper seemed to say that the real church is not the church as institute, but the church as organism. This is how he put it: “The church as institute is not all of the church, nor the real or essential church, not the church itself, but an institute established through the church and for the church in order that the Word can be effective in its midst.”[6] In other words, the church as institute exists to serve the church as organism, equipping the saints for their task in the world. And what is that task? For Kuyper it is primarily one of social involvement, redeeming the world for Christ, obeying the cultural mandate.

Thus, Neo-Calvinism marks a radical departure from the older Calvinism or Reformed theology. Until Kuyper’s time the Reformed viewed the church as a salvation-institute, the work-shop of the Holy Spirit, where sinners are saved and believers nurtured in the faith as well as equipped for living in this world as Christians. In Kuyper’s scheme the elect enter this world already regenerated and thus may be presumed to be in a state of grace from birth. In fact, infants are to be baptized on the ground of this presumption.

Consequently, the church’s primary task is to nurture the regenerate and prepare them for life in the world. Prior to Kuyper, the Reformed, while not denying that the church has a task in society, put the emphasis on the salvation of sinners. Preaching for the Old School Calvinists, therefore, dealt with the great biblical themes of repentance–not just the daily repentance of believers–but especially the initial act of repentance on the part of the unconverted in the church: faith, the new birth, justification, sanctification, etc. With Kuyper a shift in emphasis took place. Not what the Holy Spirit works in sinners’ hearts through the Word, but what Christians should do to redeem society and culture became the important thing.

The Cultural Mandate

This brings us to the cultural mandate. Kuyper believed that the task God gave Adam before the Fall is still the task of Christians today. In fact, he says it is really only Christians who are able to carry out this task properly because they have been regenerated by the Spirit of God and restored into the original relationship that was lost through Adam’s fall.

What was that task? According to Kuyper, it is spelled out in Genesis 1:28, “And God blessed them, and God said unto them, Be fruitful and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth.” This verse, Kuyper says, sums up God’s real purpose for man. That purpose, ultimately, is not the salvation of sinners, but the redemption of the cosmos. Salvation is but the means to that end. God’s real purpose in saving us is that we will carry out that original command or cultural mandate first given to Adam and Eve.[7]

This mandate is so important for Kuyper and his disciples that it seems to take precedence over the Great Commission. Kuyper believed that Christ is not only the Mediator of redemption, but also the Mediator of creation. That means Christ died not only for lost sinners, but also for a lost world or cosmos. To put it still differently, in Kuyper’s view, predestination does not just concern the salvation of the elect, but also the restoration of the entire creation. God, in predestination focuses His attention on the whole creation so that the decree encompasses all of history and is directed to the end that He will receive the glory from all the works of His hands. In this way, Kuyper felt, one’s attention is not restricted to the work of particular or special grace, but it also extends to that completely different work of God in the realm of common grace.[8]

The Christian, then, has a formidable task in this world. He is to carry out his cultural mandate and fully develop the creation’s potential. In fact, the believer’s activity in this area is absolutely necessary as a preparation for the coming of God’s kingdom. Christ will not return until this mandate is completed. For us, Kuyper says, “it is certain that the Parousia must bring us not only a change from the militant to the triumphant church … but also that everything that God has hidden in nature and the world must be brought to light before the end can be ushered in [emphasis mine, C.P.].[9]

Surely Kuyper went too far here, and so did and do many of his followers. Not many years ago, B. Zylstra, one of the spokesmen for the Toronto based Institute for Christian Studies (ICS), wrote that the church is essentially “redeemed humanity restored to its original task assigned to mankind at the beginning,” and that in his view the missionary mandate of Matthew 28 is basically a republication or restatement of the cultural mandate of Genesis.[10]

Critical Evaluation of the Cultural Mandate

Is this biblical Christianity? Hardly. The very notion that Christ’s second coming is contingent on the progress we make with our cultural endeavours is preposterous, to put it mildly. If the timing of our Lord’s second coming has anything to do with our activity, it is our involvement in missionary work that is emphasized in the New Testament. As Jesus Himself states in Matthew 24:14, “This gospel of the kingdom shall be preached in all the world for a witness unto all nations; and then shall the end come.”

What about Genesis 1:28? Does it have nothing to say to us today? Indeed it does. It cannot be denied that here God speaks of a definite task or mission given to man. But is this so-called cultural mandate still in force in the same way as it was for Adam? Clearly it is not. The very notion of a cultural mandate carries with it a connotation of legalism. It is a term that does not belong in the context of grace and the covenant of grace. When God gave this mandate (if you want to call it that), the fall had not yet taken place. When Adam sinned, however, he was no longer in a position to carry out this command. It was Christ, the second Adam, who took over this responsibility from the first Adam and fulfilled the task assigned to man at the beginning.

No, God did not abrogate His original demand. Rather, in Christ He Himself met that demand. By His obedience He has kept the law for us. The result of His saving work is that the character of our work and activity has fundamentally changed. Good works, cultural or otherwise, are now performed by the believer out of gratitude and never out of fear. Any notion, therefore, that our activities, or the lack of them, could either hasten or delay the return of Christ is to be firmly rejected.[11]

For this and other reasons the term cultural mandate should be avoided. As Dr. W.H. Velema says, “as a term it does not reflect any relation to the work of Christ and puts us all the way back to the starting line. Our work takes place after Christ has brought about a decisive turn in world history.”[12] When the apostles urge believers to perform good works they always join the imperative to the indicative. In other words, the command to work is always issued on the basis of Christ’s finished work. All our spiritual activities are grounded in His saving activity.

Neo-Calvinists, with their emphasis on cultural, rather than missionary endeavour tend to lose sight of the fact that believers do their work in the sphere and context of Christ’s soteriological work. This is a tragic error that has hindered the progress of the real work of the Gospel.[13] In recent years, Dutch theologians like J. Douma and W.H. Velema have questioned the exegetical basis that Kuyper and his followers have adduced for the cultural mandate. Douma, e.g., wonders if such passages as Genesis 1:28; 2:15, 3:23 and Psalm 8 really constitute such an all-encompassing mandate as Neo-Calvinists believe. True, Genesis 1:28 and 2:15 assign man the task of subduing the earth as well as dressing and keeping the garden, but does this have to be seen as a mandate to bring the life of creation to its full potential? Douma points out that the Hebrew verb “abad” means simply to cultivate a field. This labour is required of man if he is to eat (Gen.1:29; 2:5; 3:17ff.). What these verses seem to tell us is that there is a connection between working and eating and that sin has made work difficult. Douma does not deny that there may be implications here for culture in a broader sense, but he cautions against reading more into these verses than is warranted. Culture in the sense of the unfolding of what God has put in His creation in seed form, in his view, is more a matter of consequence than a specific mandate. Because God has created man in His image and with the urge to reproduce himself, the human race will populate the earth and in the process a culture will develop that will go beyond eating and drinking so that man may still enjoy many good things.[14]

W.H. Velema rejects the idea that Christians are under obligation to complete a specific cultural program. If this were so, such a program would first have to be drawn up; but we find no evidence for this at all in the New Testament, let alone that it prescribes a “mandate.”[15] He warns against such a preoccupation with culture and social involvement that the Christian life loses its “pilgrim” character. We are first and foremost strangers and pilgrims on earth. Being a pilgrim is essential for the church of Christ. “The congregation of the New Testament knows that she is ‘on the way.’ She is not at home here. She has been loosed from her old environment and now looks for the future revelation of the Kingdom which Christ will establish, not man.”[16]

Velema prefers to speak of the Christian’s vocation or calling in the world instead of a mandate. And what is this vocation? It is to live in this sinful and corrupt world as salt and light. Just as salt checks decay in meat and other foods, as well as giving it flavour, so Christians should by their Gospel witness and holy walk seek to influence the world around them. In other words, their presence and activity in the world should help to alleviate and offset the baneful effects of sin and make life in society tolerable and conducive to the work of proclaiming the Gospel. Everything we do as Christians should have a missionary and eschatological focus. Even our cultural involvement such as it is, should take place from the perspective of Christ’s coming kingdom.

This is the clear teaching of the New Testament. As Paul writes to the Philippians,” Do all things without murmuring and disputings: That ye may be blameless and harmless, the sons of God, without rebuke, in the midst of a crooked and perverse nation, among whom ye shine as lights in the world, holding forth the word of life; that I may rejoice in the day of Christ, that I have not run in vain, neither laboured in vain” (Phil.2:14-16; cf. 1 Thess.3:13; 5:23; 2 Pet. 3:14).

While it is our calling as Christians to try to have this kind of impact on the world, we should not entertain unrealistic hopes of success. We should certainly not expect the kingdom of God to come through our efforts, be they cultural or missionary. The most we can look for in the way of visible results is that the Lord will graciously enable us to erect a few signs of the coming kingdom. That kingdom is basically an eschatological reality, i.e., as far as its fullness and visible manifestation is concerned, but it is still a future reality. During this dispensation it is basically inward, spiritual and invisible. “The kingdom of heaven,” Jesus said, “is within you.” Christ now rules in the hearts of His people and He is King of His Church and acknowledged as such. True, Christ is also King of the world, but until His return Satan continues to rule–be it illegally–as prince of the world and as long as this dispensation will last, “the whole world lieth in wickedness” [or in the wicked one, Satan] (I John 5:19).

Common Grace: a Doctrine Fraught with Danger

Summing up, 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, as we saw, 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 realized 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 De Grote Ontsporing (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 externalization 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.[17]

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 with 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 recognized 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.[18]

About a decade earlier, H. Bavinck had written in an introduction to a 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 still know these things in theory, but we no longer know them in the awful reality of life.”[19] 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


Endnotes

[1]Abraham Kuyper, Lectures on Calvinism (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1931), pp. 12-15.

[2]Ibid., p. 14.

[3]Ibid., p. 15.

[4]Calvin, John. Institutes of the Christian Religion, 2 Vols. Edited by John T. McNeill. Translated by Ford Lewis Battles (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1960), II,2,12-17; cf. “Canons of Dort, “III,IV,4, The Psalter With Doctrinal Standards, Liturgy, Church Order, and Added Chorale Section (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1991), p. 107.

[5]James D. Bratt, Dutch Calvinism in Modern America (Grand Rapids: William Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1984), p. 16.

[6]H. Zwaanstra. “Abraham Kuyper’s Conception of the Church,” Calvin Theological Journal (1974), p. 178.

[7] Abraham Kuyper, Dictaten Dogmatiek, (Kampen: J.H. Kok, n.d.) Vol. 2, pp. 192, 194, 205; Vol. 3, p. 108.

[8] J. Douma, Algemene Genade, (Goes: Oosterbaan & Le Cointre N.V., 1966), p. 306.

[9] Abraham Kuyper, Van de Voleinding, Vol. 2 (Kampen: J. H. Kok, 1929), p. 507.

[10] Bernard Zylstra, “Thy Word Our Life,” Will all the King’s Men (Toronto: Wedge Publishing Foundation, 1972), p. 171.

[11] W.H. Velema, Ethiek en Pelgrimage, Ethisch Kommentaar (Amsterdam: Uitgeverij Ton Bolland, 1974), p. 55.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid., p. 55.

[14] Douma, Algemene Genade, p. 345.

[15] Ibid., p. 57.

[16] Ibid., p. 18.

[17]W. Aalders, De Grote Ontsporing (Den Haag: J.N. Voorhoeve, n.d.), p. 100.

[18] J. C. Aalders, Veruitwendigen onze Kerken? (Kampen: J. H. Kok, 1916), pp. 19-20.

[19] H. Bavinck, “Introduction,” Levensgeschiedenis en Werken van Ralph en Ebenezer Erskine (Doesburg: J.C. Van Schenk-Brill, 1904) p. 5.

SOURCES CONSULTED

Aalders, J. C. Veruitwendigen onze Kerken? Kampen: J. H. Kok, 1916.

Aalders. W. De Grote Ontsporing. Den Haag: J.N. Voorhoeve, n.d.

Bavinck, H. Introduction to Levensgeschiedenis en Werken van Ralph en Ebenezer Erskine.

Doesburg: J.C. Van Schenk-Brill, 1904.

Bratt, James D. Dutch Calvinism in Modern America. Grand Rapids: William Eerdmans

Publishing Company, 1984.

Calvin, John. Institutes of the Christian Religion, 2 Vols. Edited by John T. McNeill. Translated

by Ford Lewis Battles. Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1960.

Douma, J. Algemene Genade. Goes: Oosterbaan & Le Cointre N.V., 1966.

Kuyper, Abraham. Dictaten Dogmatiek, Vols. 2 and 3. Kampen: J.H. Kok, n.d.

_________. Lectures on Calvinism (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing

Company, 1931.

_________. Van de Voleinding, Vol. 2. Kampen: J. H. Kok, 1929.

The Psalter, With Doctrinal Standards, Liturgy, Church Order, and Added Chorale Section,

“Canons of Dort.” Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company,

1991.

Velema, W.H. Ethiek en Pelgrimage, Ethisch Kommentaar. Amsterdam: Uitgeverij Ton Bolland,

1974.

Zwaanstra, H. “Abraham Kuyper’s Conception of the Church,” Calvin Theological Journal

(1974), p.178.

Zylstra, Bernard. “Thy Word Our Life,” Will all the King’s Men. Toronto: Wedge Publishing

Foundation, 1972.

*Published also in

The Free Reformed Student Journal, Spring 1994.

Reformed Theological Journal (November 1995), 98 Lisburn Road, Belfast BT9 6AG IRELAND.

For a summary, see Banner of Truth Trust website: http://www.banneroftruth.org/pages/articles 1/5.2005.

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Recovering experimental religion

March 21, 2010 Comments off

Sherman Isbell

Experimental religion, which once was a vital part of the Reformed tradition of preaching and spirituality, has in a large measure been lost sight of in our day. Even use of the term experimental in connection with religion is no longer customary, it being more commonly associated with the natural sciences, where a method of probing and investigation leads to an understanding of reality. The older Reformed writers used the word to indicate that we not only read and confess what Scripture teaches, but also are enabled by the Holy Spirit in our own experience to prove and enter into those truths. The propositions of Scripture are true regardless of our experience of them. But in those who belong to Christ, there is a work of the Holy Spirit to persuade them of those truths, so that they taste and feel the power of them in their own souls. To tremble when we discern our guilt before God, and to be driven to seek covering in the blood of Christ, is to gain an experimental knowledge of realities revealed in Scripture. Such experiences are not like the groping of the heathen, who reflect on the mystery of their own hearts, trying to understand themselves, and pondering what God might be like and how he might relate to the world. Experimental religion in the Reformed tradition entails an experience which arises from being confronted with the testimony of Scripture, and in which the prime mover is God the Holy Spirit, driving home to heart and conscience the truths of the Word of God.

John Elias, preaching in Wales in the early nineteenth century, describes such experiences of biblical truth: “To have an experimental knowledge of something means to try it, to possess it, and to enjoy it ourselves. You must not merely read or hear about it. . . . You may read many a sweet chapter about Christ, and no doubt you have heard many a faithful sermon about Him, and yet, you may be without a saving knowledge of Christ. But an experimental knowledge of Him is to prove, see, and feel what you have read and heard about Him.” 1

Anthony Burgess, a member of the Westminster Assembly, speaks of the knowledge that a man may acquire about foreign countries by looking at a map. But map knowledge cannot compare with actually going to the country, climbing its mountains, swimming in its rivers, and walking the streets of its towns. “Or as the Queen of Sheba, who had heard rumors of Solomon’s wisdom, when she came to have an experimental knowledge of it, then she was astonished, and said, All that she had heard was nothing to that which she saw. . . .But how is it to be feared, that many have seen godliness but in the map only, they never had experience of the thing itself. How many are there that talk of conversion or repentance, as men do of bringing forth a child, who never had the experience of the throbs and pains that then are endured. Paul, what a long time did he live in a road of religious duties, but when he came to have an experimental work upon him, he died, whereas he was alive before, that is, he became sensible of the damnable and dangerous estate he was in, whereas he had great confidence of his good life and salvation before. And thus it is with every man that hath gotten experimental knowledge; alas (saith he) I was alive once, I thought myself somebody, when I could pray, write sermons, dispute so understandingly, but now I see I did not know what that faith was, or godliness was, that I did argue so much about, I never knew anything of God, or of his gracious works till now, will that soul say.” 2

There is a memorable passage in which J.C. Ryle presses on his readers the distance between belief that there is forgiveness and the believing reception of that forgiveness. “You believe perhaps, there is forgiveness of sins. You believe that Christ died for sinners, and that he offers a pardon to the most ungodly. But are you forgiven yourself ? . . . What does it avail the sick man that the doctor offers him a medicine, if he only looks at it, and does not swallow it down? Except you lay hold for your own soul, you will be as surely lost as if there was no forgiveness at all. . . . There must be actual business between you and Christ.” 3

Therefore we preach not only what Christ once did in his death and resurrection to accomplish our redemption, namely what he did outside of us, but also how Christ now works within our hearts by his Holy Spirit to apply that redemption. The Spirit brings us to appreciate Christ as the pearl of great price. He puts down the opposition of our hearts and carries us forward in repentance. In the resulting conflict, struggle and upheaval in our experience, the Spirit progressively conforms us to Christ. All of this touches the realm of our conscience, our desires and choices, our affections, joys and sorrows, and things felt and experientially known.

Thus I take a close look at myself, observing whether the truths revealed in Scripture concerning God’s holiness and his just displeasure against sin have elicited a response from me. I consider the overwhelming generosity and mercy of God in the gospel provision for the ungodly, and I ask myself, What constraint do I feel from such kindness, by which God is wooing me in the gospel? Is there discernible in my life and thought that spirituality, repentance and love which Scripture indicates will be found in a true child of God?

A prominent aspect of Christ’s ministry was that he aroused his hearers to go beyond a shallow consideration of his kingdom, challenging wouldbe disciples as to their readiness to accept what was entailed in following him, and probing whether their hearts were truly alienated from the world (Matthew 7:21–23, Mark 10:17–22, Luke 9:57–62 and 14:25–33).

To examine ourselves as to whether we actually belong to Christ may be painful, and it may lead us to the discovery that we do not manifest the characteristics present in one who is savingly united to Christ, but ultimately it can also produce the deep comfort of a well-grounded assurance of our salvation. Under the thrust and shove of the probing questions and confrontational rebukes found in Scripture, we are brought to a place where we feel compelled to resolve the question, Are my faith and life true to what Scripture says will be found in a child of God? Scripture pointedly calls us to practice such self-examination, and provides us with the criteria for carrying it out. The people of God should welcome preaching that sets forth the biblical marks of grace in the life of a believer, indicating traits of character which are found only in the regenerate and which therefore are sound evidence of conversion, and distinguishing these from traits which may appear in the regenerate and unregenerate alike, and therefore provide no basis for assessing whether one has come to Christ. One objective in such preaching is to undeceive persons who are indulging a misguided hope.

Such preaching and self-examination were prominent aspects of the pastoral ministries for which the commissioners to the Westminster Assembly were renown. But appreciation for experimental religion has become increasingly rare in Presbyterian churches that honor the theological statements and the directories of worship and preaching produced by the Assembly. There are undoubtedly a number of influences that have brought this about, but one notable cause has been a movement candidly known among its advocates as Neo-Calvinism, that is, Calvinism in a somewhat altered form, with new answers to some significant questions. One point at issue touches upon the definition of conversion. To understand accurately what it is to be converted is a very consequential matter. Indeed, the modification introduced in this area has altered the kind of preaching heard in the churches, the spiritual meditation practiced by church members, and how Christian parents conceive of the religious guidance they are to give to their children.

Neo-Calvinism has presented a more externalized definition of conversion, viewing it more in terms of what we confess, our adherence to Christian doctrine and world view, and our having a place in the church and in a Christian family. The older Calvinism warned that many, despite maintaining a public attachment to doctrinal affirmations of the faith, may never have been delivered from spiritual death, that youth growing up in a Christian setting are often still alienated in heart from God, and that a saving faith will be accompanied by experience of one’s need for Christ and of the power of the gospel.

The Neo-Calvinistic movement was a response to the increasing secularization of modern society, which has dismissed the concept of an authoritative and inerrant revelation from God given in human language.

Secular man has set out to identify a new mission for human society, without reference to traditional Christian doctrine. The power of this secularizing flood is intimidating. We may well appreciate the sense of crisis which prompted the retort given by Neo-Calvinism when secularization was making rapid progress in Europe a century and a half ago.

The mentor of Neo-Calvinism was a Dutch historian and politician, Guillaume Groen van Prinsterer, who was born in 1801. He authored an influential book analyzing the political revolutions spreading across Europe, and sought to demonstrate that this agitation was grounded in a spiritually infidel philosophy. His assessment gave rise in the Netherlands to a new political party, which offered resistance to many of the fruits of secularization. The best-known of his disciples was the theologian and politician, Abraham Kuyper, who led this political party, and was prime minister of the Netherlands from 1901 to 1905.

From a classical Reformed perspective, it is certainly appropriate to oppose secularism. But the strategy adopted by Neo-Calvinism in this conflict entailed a major shift in thinking about conversion, which came to be confused with taking the side of Christian doctrine in the culture wars, as if this were a sufficient indication of whether one has a new heart.

In failing to maintain the distinction drawn by Calvin and the Puritans between the mere espousal of biblical doctrine and an experimental knowledge of those realities, Neo-Calvinism diluted the spirituality of the churches. Endeavoring to confront external foes, Neo-Calvinists employed a method which led to the inward weakening of the Lord’s house.

We would begin by noting a point of agreement between Neo-Calvinism and the older Calvinism. The two concur in observing that no one is without a spiritual allegiance. One either has a heart renewed by grace, or one is still dead in trespasses and sins. Moreover, between these two kinds of people, regenerate and unregenerate, there exists a spiritual opposition, antipathy or antithesis in reference to the things of God. Thus far we have sound Reformed doctrine.

Where the Neo-Calvinist model became problematic is in its assumption that this antipathy or antithesis between the regenerate and the unregenerate will be visible in whether or not one adheres to a Christian world view. In the older Calvinism, it was a commonplace that there are multitudes who profess the doctrines of the Bible and traditional Christian values, but who still have not been brought from death to life, and that large numbers in the churches do not have a heart antithesis to the world.4 It is one thing to profess that we are on the Lord’s side with respect to the world view we espouse, but it is something else altogether to experience a crucifixion to the world and to its lusts when God renews the heart.

The older perspective held that a nation should be organized on the basis of a collective acknowledgement of the truth of the Christian religion. The entire population would espouse the world view taught in Scripture. Civil laws would be framed in conformity to biblical standards of morality. Society would be unified and homogeneous, and the political constitution would embrace a Christian foundation for the social order. Thus the Reformers spoke of both the first and second uses of the law of God. The first use of the law is in the preaching of the law from the pulpit, which serves to expose our sin and show us our need of Christ as the Savior. The second use of the law is in the civil order embodying biblical standards of morality in public codes of conduct, so that the citizenry are directed into at least an outward conformity to the moral law, thus restraining the worst displays of depravity, and reminding the population that they will answer both to human and divine authority for their conduct.

But though the older Calvinism understood that the moral law is to have a formative role for society, there was no illusion about the spiritually-mixed character of the population in an avowedly Christian society. It was recognized that despite the virtually universal acceptance of a biblical world view in such settings, there would still be at work a radical antithesis between the regenerate and the unregenerate. This was the social order within which the Reformers and Puritans carried out their ministries. They knew full well that masses of people in these outwardly homogeneous societies had not experienced the new birth, or come to personal contrition for sin or fled to the Savior for deliverance.

The Reformers neither identified the kingdom of God with the social structures of this present age, nor did they regard a man’s adherence to the Christian world view as implying that he has a regenerate heart. Neo-Calvinism’s approach to resisting the fruits of secularization was coupled with a large adjustment in thinking about how a Christian relates to the social order. It arose in the environment of modern pluralism, which looks for a strenuous competition of ideologies in the public marketplace of ideas. Neo-Calvinism adapted to this new playing field by advocating that Christians form their own social institutions in order to counter those which promote a secularist outlook. Christians were to develop political parties, labor unions, and schools, each of these being selfconsciously based on the principles of a biblical world view. At a moment in history when western societies are professedly framed to tolerate a multiplicity of world views, one might conclude that Neo-Calvinism had little alternative regarding how a biblical world view might be asserted in such a setting. However, the response of Neo-Calvinism was not altogether innocent, in part because Neo-Calvinism introduced the assumption that participation in these distinctively Christian institutions was a manifestation of the antithesis between the regenerate and the unregenerate. This is to confuse a participant’s adherence to the Christian world view with his having a regenerate heart.

This error has even more serious implications when it is brought to bear on the life and practice of  the church. Kuyper regarded those in the congregation, including the children, as being in a state of grace from their birth. The church, therefore, is not a place where people are being brought to salvation. The congregation need not be warned to flee from the wrath to come. This removes a primary reason for preaching the gospel of justification in the congregation. The call of the gospel is to be directed rather to those who are not in the church. According to this model, what the church should seek among those in its care is not their conversion to new life in Christ, but their nurture in the eternal life which they are presumed to possess already. Unless and until children of the church give clear indication of repudiating the covenant, their parents and the church were to proceed on the supposition that the children are regenerate.

However, the biblical method of bringing sinners to Christ is to confront them with the law and the gospel, and with the call to faith and repentance. In this respect, children are no different from adults.

Evidence of a work of saving grace will be given in a child’s response to law and gospel. Inasmuch as the sign of the covenant in baptism functions as an offer of mercy extended with particular reference to each child of a believer, and without regard to the status of the child as either elect or reprobate, the basis for concluding that such a child has passed from death to life is found in his answer to this call. Though the child might manifest doctrinal orthodoxy and a moral demeanor, he is to be taught the discipline of self-examination, so that he may discern in himself the marks indicative of a heart renewed by grace.

Archibald Alexander cautions that, “Although the grace of God may be communicated to a human soul at any period of its existence in this world, yet the fact manifestly is, that very few are renewed before the exercise of reason commences; and not many in early childhood. Most persons with whom we have been acquainted grew up without giving  any decisive evidence of a change of heart. Though religiously educated, yet they have evinced a want of love to God, and an aversion to spiritual things.” 5 The call to faith and repentance should be addressed to children in the church, in recognition that, though we do not know whether a young child is regenerate, we dare not withhold from him those means which God ordinarily employs for bringing sinners to himself. “The education of children should proceed on the principle that they are in an unregenerate state, until evidences of piety clearly appear, in which case they should be sedulously cherished and nurtured. These are Christ’s lambs—‘little ones, who believe in him’—whom none should offend or mislead upon the peril of a terrible punishment. But though the religious education of children should proceed on the ground that they are destitute of grace, it ought ever to be used as a means of grace. Every lesson, therefore, should be accompanied with the lifting up of the heart of the instructor to God for a blessing on the means.” 6

At whatever age an individual is regenerated, his experience of conscious trust in Christ will not be without conviction of his guilt and wickedness, which drives him to forsake self-reliance and to rest in Christ alone for salvation. His faith will be a faith which appreciates the need for justification.

A century ago, the Dutch theologian Herman Bavinck had opportunity to observe the effect of Neo-Calvinism on the religious life of his country. Bavinck came from churches in which experimental religion had been cherished, but which had come under a new influence when they merged with churches guided by the perspective of Kuyper. Bavinck commented on what followed, in his introduction to a reprint of the highly experimental sermons by the Scottish Presbyterians 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.” 7 What Bavinck had witnessed was the widespread absence in his generation of anything like the experience which led Luther to cry out to God for mercy, in concern about sin and guilt. One still found justification, faith and repentance confessed as valid doctrine, but it was no longer expected that they would be reflected in the experiences of the soul in seeking God. The theoretical knowledge of Reformed doctrine had come to be separated from a sense of personal need for salvation.

There was a second error of similar magnitude. The aggressive pursuit of a social and cultural agenda in the service of God came to be seen as a basic objective of man’s life, with the Christian called to redeem society and culture from the influence of unbelieving principles. Neo-Calvinists were intent upon advancing a cultural program which would stand in contrast to that of opposing world views, and which would increasingly bring to light the underlying antipathy or antithesis between the regenerate and the unregenerate. It came to be suggested that the foundational character of man’s involvement with culture may be seen in a mandate given to him at creation.

This development has a background in the personal history of Kuyper, the principal figure in the emergence of Neo-Calvinism. A mark had been left on him by the university training he received at the hands of a sophisticated exponent of modern philosophy. Kuyper then entered the ministry, and it was only after he was settled as a pastor that he came to saving faith, in part through the influence of parishioners who had discerned that their minister was not converted. These humble folk avoided many of the interests of the culturally sophisticated, but Kuyper was of the view that there was no need for believers to hold aloof from cultural pursuits. He was convinced that their perspective would be enhanced if they came to appreciate how a Christian could make application of biblical principles in the realm of culture.

But such was the impetus which Neo-Calvinism gave to cultural activity, that there has been a striking alteration in the message heard from the pulpit. Preaching about the necessity of the new birth, about  the call to faith and repentance, about the justification of the ungodly, and about the pursuit of personal sanctification, was in a measure displaced by preaching which assumes that the congregation is already regenerate, and that the need of the congregation is to be nurtured in the Christian’s mission to transform society and culture. What criticism should be made of the Neo-Calvinist claim that the development of culture is a primary task in the service of God? There is something appealing in Kuyper’s proclamation that there is not a thumb’s breath in all of life but Christ will have it as his. There should be no disagreement that in every aspect of life we should think and act from the perspective of God’s revealed truth. Our intellectual, social and cultural life must be in conformity with and obedient to Scripture. Moreover, our faithfulness to the Word of God in these matters will have a powerful effect on others. A society shaped by a biblical perspective on social and cultural issues is a mighty instrument for restraining sin, for guiding the young into wise patterns of conduct, and for commending biblical faith to those who are blessed to live under such outward influences.

The first point of criticism of the cultural mandate regards the displacement of religion’s primacy in man’s life. Here is a significant departure from the classical Reformed tradition, which regarded all matters of this present life as subservient to the interests of religion, so that all institutions are to join together in furthering religion as that which is of ultimate significance for man’s life. For this reason, promotion of the true religion was the goal not only of the church, but also of the civil order. The Reformers understood man’s highest service, greatest access to God, and chief means of furthering the glory of God, to be through religion and worship. The direction of Kuyper’s thought is indicated by his rejection of the concept of an established religion.

It should be evident that to view the goal of man’s life largely in terms of a social and cultural agenda is not in accord with the Bible. Culture and society do not hold any such preeminence in the narrative and doctrine of Scripture. Of course much is said in Scripture about family life, public justice, and other forms of social involvement, but they are in no way primary in the message of Scripture. This disproportion between social concern and religious concern has contributed significantly to the decline of experimental religion, and directed the thoughts of Christians away from what the original Reformed tradition considered to be most vital for the life of the church, for spiritual stability, and for living to the glory of God.

What then is the origin of Neo-Calvinism’s dominant interest in cultural progress? The answer, we believe, is that it took over this interest from an aggressive secularism. Though Neo-Calvinism sets out zealously to resist secularism, there is a foundational matter regarding which it has retreated in the face of Enlightenment philosophy, because Neo-Calvinism has effectively abandoned the primacy of religion as the goal of man’s life. In doing this, Neo-Calvinism has capitulated to secularism’s choice of the field on which the contest between Christianity and secularism will be fought. As the parties contended over which world view should guide the development of culture, they concurred that the goal of man’s life should not be viewed in terms of religion. This removal of religion as primary in man’s life and in society is an abandonment of what is theologically indispensable to Christianity’s strategic position.

Inasmuch as man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever, his proper orientation to God is not so indirect that man may give himself fundamentally to the affairs of this life, albeit with the plea that it is done in the name of God. The goal of his life is found in God, and not in this creation. Only religious worship and the communion of the soul with God can give the access and intimacy of relationship to God which answers to what is ultimate for man.

A second point of criticism against Neo-Calvinism’s concept of a cultural mandate respects its exegesis of Genesis 1:28. It is claimed that language about man’s dominion implies a mandate for developing the hidden potential of creation. Though the reference to multiplying may be taken as indicating the increase of families, the reference to filling the earth and subduing it as the extension of human habitation across the earth and the tilling of the soil, and the reference to exercising dominion over the animals as implying herding and shepherding, Kuyper appealed to the text as inclusive of every dimension of man’s social and cultural life. The verse has been made one of the most important in the Bible, a foundation for identifying man’s calling throughout history, and perhaps beyond. One suspects that some texts are asked to support more weight than they were ever intended to carry, and when that happens one feels that presuppositions are being brought from elsewhere and forced onto a text rather than arising from it. Indeed, Calvin seems to be quite unaware that the passage would be viewed as a key to man’s mission in life. Instead, the Reformer reads the text as a simple blessing from God, in which attention is drawn to the riches of God’s provision for mankind, to whom he gives abundance of food, and allows geographical space into which the race could expand as its numbers increased.

A third criticism of the cultural mandate is that Neo-Calvinism’s strong orientation to this present world misses the pilgrim character of the believer. Calvin and the Puritans were deeply interested in what the Bible teaches about family life, civil government, and godly relationships throughout society. But their understanding of what these relationships implied for the Christian’s relationship to this world was quite different from that of Neo-Calvinism. The older view was given classic expression in Augustine’s The City of God , which is an extended reflection on the decline of the Roman world, and the place of the kingdom of God in this present age.

Augustine discerned two societies to which men belong, which he called cities. The city of God, composed of the holy angels and God’s redeemed, is in heaven. Some, who by grace have become its citizens, are pilgrims on this earth while still on their way to the heavenly city. These pilgrims are like the Jews exiled in Babylon, longing to be united with their home elsewhere. This is the outlook adopted by Calvin: “For, if heaven is our homeland, what else is the earth but our place of exile?” 8 Augustine understood that the city of God was not the same as the Christian church, because only some members of the church are pilgrims traveling to the heavenly city. The other city, which Augustine calls the earthly city, is composed of those men and angels who in heart are the enemies of God. The men of this city are dominated by the angels who turned away from God and became devils. Whereas the citizens of the city of God are characterized by love to God, the earthly city is driven by selfish love. The earthly city is the city into which we all are born, though by grace we can become citizens of the heavenly. And yet, though the pilgrim is sighing for a distant country, he does not flee from the life around him, being aware that his present life is inextricably bound up with the lives of others around him in this place away from his home. He currently has business in this world. He can value virtues such as patriotism, friendship, marital fidelity, responsible parenthood, and a degree of justice administered by civil rulers, all of which are common to citizens of the two cities. But the pilgrim recognizes that these virtues are not good in an absolute sense, because they are defiled by an unbelief and human pride which turn away from the Creator and use created things without gratitude to God as our benefactor. And so the division between the two cities remains, despite the necessity and advantage of sharing the present life.

Here is a model which expresses the ambivalence found in Scripture about the believer’s place in the world. There are those within the church who are not citizens of the heavenly city, so that espousing a set of doctrines does not indicate where the ultimate division is to be found. Further, citizens of both cities are involved in the discharge of responsibilities which pertain to this present life. Social institutions are useful for restraining evil and giving outward enforcement of biblical morality, but their administration of justice will often miscarry, and they fall far short of the righteousness of God’s heavenly kingdom. The social structures of the present life, though they are under obligation to promote the true religion, never represent the coming of the kingdom of God. Accordingly, Augustine does not have a high expectation for them, and finds their value relativized in the perspective of eternity.

Neo-Calvinists have a number of names for this point of view. They call it dualism, Manichaeism, pietism, and world flight. Rarely do they call it Augustinian or Calvinistic, though it is certainly the view with the longest pedigree in the Reformed tradition. The larger question remains, Is it biblical? In such passages of Scripture as Hebrews 11:8–16 and 13:10–14, and 1 Corinthians 7:29–31, the believer’s situation is certainly regarded as that of a detached pilgrim journeying to his true home, though having responsibilities here for the present. The goal of his life is found in what transcends this creation.

Neo-Calvinism and the classical Reformed tradition represent two discrete concepts of the Christian’s relationship to this world, and historically one of them has not been congenial to experimental religion.

Though there sometimes have been and will be attempts to form a hybrid of the two traditions, the leaven of the new perspective will eventually militate against experimental spirituality.

Notes

1 John Elias, The Experimental Knowledge of Christ and additional sermons of John Elias (1774–1841) (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2006), 27.

2 Anthony Burgess, Spiritual Refining: or a Treatise of Grace and Assurance (London: A. Miller for Thomas Underhill, 1652), 5.

3 John Charles Ryle, Old Paths, being plain statements on some of the weightier matters of Christianity (Cambridge: James Clarke & Co., 1977), 204–205.

4 Joel R. Beeke, Living for God’s Glory: An Introduction to Calvinism (Orlando: Reformation Trust Publishing, 2008), 279.

5 Archibald Alexander, Thoughts on Religious Experience (London: Banner of Truth Trust, 1967), 13-14.

6 Alexander, Thoughts on Religious Experience, 13.

7 C. Pronk, Neo-Calvinism (Millgrove: Free Reformed Student Society, 1994), 15.

8 John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed. John T. McNeill (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1975), III.viii.4, 716.

Source

Neo-calvinism

March 21, 2010 Comments off

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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Historic Calvinism and Neo-Calvinism

June 12, 2009 Comments off