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By February 1, 2008 No Comments

The editors of Perspectives invited me to respond to Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell’s very interesting article, “Reformed Intramurals: What Neo-Calvinists Get Wrong.” I happily accepted the invitation. I have found composing my response difficult, however, since there’s little I disagree with and a simple “Amen,” I feel sure, is not the response the editors were looking for. A vigorous “Nein” will have to come from someone else.

Mathonnet-VanderWell recalls being inspired in his youth by the Reformed Journal. What inspired him was the call for Christian political engagement issued by writers like myself who had a “progressive, center-left political agenda.” He now wonders whether, when we of the old Reformed Journal crowd look back over the past two decades of evangelical engagement in American politics, we sometimes ask ourselves “What have we wrought?” He acknowledges that those who wrote for the Reformed Journal cannot be held responsible for the turn that evangelical politics has taken. But he observes, correctly, that one of the sources of our inspiration was Abraham Kuyper; and he notes that Kuyper is now “in” among American evangelicals. So he wonders whether perhaps the neo-Calvinist tradition that we helped to promote has contributed to what has happened. Presumably it’s not accidental that the American evangelical political movement of the past couple of decades has been drinking from Kuyperian wells.

Before I say anything else, let me declare that, on what I regard as the most fundamental point, I have been a Kuyperian ever since coming of age. Whether Kuyper was talking about education, politics, economic activity, art, or whatever, always it was his view that Christians are called to think, speak, and act qua Christians within these shared spheres of human activity. He thought that there was indeed a distinctly Christian way of thinking, speaking, and acting in such spheres–though it was by no means his view, contrary to that of a good many of his followers, that everything the Christian thinks, speaks, and does is different from that of all non-Christians. Likewise he thought that Christians should articulate their way of thinking, speaking, and acting not off in their own corner somewhere but in the course of interacting with non-Christians in our shared human practices and institutions. These views underlay everything Kuyper said about the Christian in the social world. They constitute a highly distinctive position. And as I said, this position continues to shape my own way of living as a Christian in the social world.

Nothing that Mathonnet-VanderWell says suggests that he disagrees with this deep strand in the neo-Calvinist tradition. His difficulties lie elsewhere. As I understand him, his bill of particulars contains four major items.

Neo-Calvinists, says Mathonnet-VanderWell, are disdainful of applying bandages to social problems. Rather than applying bandages, they try to identify the structural dynamics that cause the problems and to change those dynamics. They exhibit a great deal of confidence in their ability to do this–to identify those dynamics and to work the levers of power to change those dynamics, without themselves becoming corrupted in the process. Mathonnet-VanderWell thinks they are naïve about all of this.

I think he is right in his analysis, with one explanatory qualification. It appears to me that a good many evangelicals do have the confidence that they have been successful in identifying the dynamics that lead to perceived social problems and in working the levers of power to change those dynamics, without themselves becoming corrupted in the process. (This confidence may be diminishing.) I think the attitude of the typical neo-Calvinist is somewhat different. He holds that if Christians in general just had the right worldview and were sufficiently devoted in implementing it, social transformation would ensue. But transformation has not occurred. His analysis is that Christians as a group are guilty of failing in their calling.

I share Mathonnet-VanderWell’s view that these attitudes are naïve. Seldom will Christian social endeavor, no matter how insightful and devoted, result in what one could describe as “transformation.” Usually it results in no more than small incremental changes–if that. An important element of Christian social action is learning how to act faithfully in the face of what Ellul calls “inutility,” without giving up hope.

In developing the second item in his bill of particulars, Mathonnet-VanderWell points to the use by neo-Calvinists of such phrases as “restoring God’s creational intentions” and “recovering the creation order.” “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, he says, “are the mainspring that keeps neo-Calvinism ticking.”

I think he’s right about this, though again with an explanatory qualification. The neo-Calvinist thinks of creation in dynamic rather than static terms. The various spheres, embedded in original creation as potentials, become differentiated and disclosed over the course of history; we can now identify, as distinct sovereign spheres, the academy, the state, the economy, the art world, etc. Once these spheres have been differentiated, they can then function properly or improperly, and be well-formed or malformed. The basic social task of the Christian is to struggle to get these spheres to function properly and to be well-formed; that’s what God wants. To get the state, for example, to carry out the proper task of the state and not fall short of that or take onto itself what is properly the task of some other social sphere.

Mathonnet-VanderWell lodges a number of objections to this way of thinking, the most important of which I take to be that instead of being “eschatological and future-oriented,” this way of thinking is “restorative and backward-looking.” Jesus spoke not about restoring the creation but about the breaking in of the kingdom.

My objection is probably at bottom the same, though I would put it a bit differently. I think our calling as Christians in society is to participate in God’s cause of bringing about shalom–an essential condition of shalom being justice. In every society, something has to carry out the function of last-resort governance. In our present-day world, the state does that. Different sorts of institutions performed that function in other times and places; for all we know, different sorts of institutions will perform it in the future. I think it is a mistake to assume that the modern state represents final disclosure, and then to ask whether our states are carrying out the function of the State. The question to ask is whether our states are carrying out the last-resort governing function in such a way as to advance justice-in-shalom, and whether they are also carrying out whatever other functions they may have acquired in such a way as to advance justice-in-shalom. The question to ask is not whether our states are measuring up to the normative type, The State. The question to ask is whether our states are properly ministering to the shalom of human beings and human communities.

The neo-Calvinist understanding of Christian social action as aimed at recovering the creation order is seen, by Mathonnet- VanderWell, as connected to a third defect, namely, its “under-appreciation for the church.” Neo-Calvinists think of the church instrumentally, as equipping us for our work in society. In this instrumental approach to the church they resemble American evangelicals. The latter also think of the church instrumentally; the church provides what is necessary to be saved and aids us in our family lives and business activities. Neither evangelicals nor neo-Calvinists regard the church as “a unique body, the strange way God has chosen to be present and move in today’s world.”

I regard this objection as also essentially co
rrect. I have often heard it said by neo-Calvinists that “our work is our worship”; thereby they deprive the church’s liturgy of any independent significance. Work is not worship; they are distinct. And though it’s true that the liturgy of the church should equip us for our life in the world, the significance of the liturgy goes far beyond that. I have also often heard it said that “the church is for the sake of the world.” My response is that though it is indeed true that the church is for the sake of the world, the significance of the church goes far beyond that. The church, as Mathonnet-VanderWell says, is a distinct way of God being present and active among us. And the church is the first fruits of the new creation.

The two preceding objections are connected to the fourth objection raised by Mathonnet-VanderWell. Jesus is understood by neo-Calvinists 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…. making Christ’s incarnation necessary to the extent that he ‘fixes’ or puts right the original purposes of creation.”

Once again, I regard the objection is essentially on target. Of course it has to be admitted that every Christian tradition has found it difficult to understand Christ and creation together in their proper relationship. In radical versions of Lutheranism–witness Anders Nygren’s famous Agape and Eros–creation is almost entirely lost from view. It’s a relief to turn from Nygren to Kuyper. But then in neo-Calvinism, Christ is reduced to being the one who restores creation from its fallen condition. Christ does indeed restore creation. But his significance goes far beyond that.

If we are searching about for a brief formula stating the relation, I think the one Karl Barth offered is probably the best available: covenant is the internal basis of creation and creation is the external basis of covenant–it being understood that Jesus Christ is at the heart of covenant. God’s covenant dealings with humankind are the purpose and significance of creation; God’s creation of humankind makes those covenant dealings possible.

In sum, I judge that Mathonnet-VanderWell has put his finger on a number of weak spots in standard neo-Calvinism; and he may be right in suggesting that those weak spots have contributed to making Kuyper attractive to politically engaged evangelicals. But let me add that evangelicals have been highly selective in their appropriation of Kuyper. They have totally neglected what he had to say about the poor. And they have ignored his insistence that the goal of the Christian in politics is not to secure advantages for Christians but to secure justice and flourishing for all.

My problem with the engagement of American evangelicals in politics over the past couple of decades is not that they have engaged in politics; not at all. My problem is that their understanding of what the Christian has to think and say about political issues has been so pinched and distorted, and that their ways of acting have been so contrary to the gospel and so self-destructive. They have used the levers of power like everyone else, to gain power for their own party and to enhance American nationalism, nativism, and economism; they have heaped abuse on those who disagree with them. They have sold their own soul. How else is one to understand Pat Robertson’s endorsement of Rudy Giuliani as the Republican candidate for president?

Nicholas Wolterstorff is Noah Porter Professor Emeritus of Philosophical Theology at Yale University and senior fellow at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture, University of Virginia.