June 30, 2010
In keeping with my new commitment to keep this review concise, I’m going to try and cover this chapter in just one installment (though it will be a very long one). This shouldn’t be too difficult, moreover, as it is a shorter chapter, its argument is generally rather clear and straightforward, and where there are difficulties in the argument, they’re at points already discussed in this review. Also, having officially and publicly lost patience with VanDrunen in the last chapter, I have regained my composure, and don’t expect there to be any more outbursts of that sort, although from here on out the focus of the reviews will be essentially critical, rather than expository.
VanDrunen’s basic point in this chapter is to argue, that even when it comes to Abraham Kuyper, the father of “Kuyperianism” and thus of modern “neo-Calvinism,” neo-Calvinists do not have a firm foundation for their views. Kuyper, he wants to argue, remains by and large in the two kingdoms, natural law camp, despite--you guessed it--some lingering inconsistencies.
My complaint, as you might have expected, regards VanDrunen’s continued certainty that all these historical Reformed figures simply could not make their practice consistent with their theory. This is plausible at first, but as the inconsistencies pile up, the most persuasive conclusion is simply that their theory is not what VanDrunen insists it must be. Admittedly, VanDrunen says that the inconsistencies in Kuyper’s case are somewhat different than those we’ve seen in the previous chapters--Kuyper is no Erastian. But there still seem to be some assumptions VanDrunen is foisting on the discussion that make it inevitable that he will find “inconsistencies.”
One assumption that I am still trying to figure out is exactly what he thinks modern “neo-Calvinists” think. This is a problem that is coming to dog the discussion more and more insistently, as the polemical target of this book becomes ever more prominent--who is the target? If he intended to write a book against the “neo-Calvinists,” as he clearly intended to do, it would’ve been helpful for him to explain what precisely he thought they were. The opening chapter made some stab at doing this, but it was a stab in the dark, if there ever was one. No particular “neo-Calvinist” was ever cited, but instead what we had was a vague mosaic containing figures as diverse as John Howard Yoder, N.T. Wright, and John Milbank, who have few things in common except for the fact that none of them are Reformed. So, we begin the book with almost no idea of what these Reformed neo-Calvinists look like, except that they want “to construct specifically Christian world views, bring Christ’s kingdom to exprssion in every area of life, and level radical critiques of non-Christian thought.”
Now, as it turns out, VanDrunen is planning to turn in chapters 8 and 9 to examine these neo-Calvinists, and I am eager to see what he has to say. However, the fact that he has not clearly identified them earlier makes many of his contrasts between true Calvinism and neo-Calvinism vague and unhelpful at best. This becomes particularly true in this chapter, where he seeks to claim that Kuyper was not like a modern neo-Calvinist because he still saw that there were essentially two kingdoms, rather than one kingdom of Christ, even if he didn’t exactly use this terminology. Now that VanDrunen has allowed for a little flexibility in terminology, then we may fairly ask why the mere fact that some neo-Calvinists use the terminology of “one kingdom” puts them in an entirely different paradigm. After all, all neo-Calvinists that I know of would still affirm many important distinctions between the civil and ecclesiastical jurisdictions, and they would all (at least, all the ones with whom I have any familiarity) insist that the Church remains the kingdom of God in a uniquely important sense. So it seems a bit disingenous when VanDrunen says something like, “Kuyper maintains a distinction between the two realms, and identifies the Church as the focal point of God’s redemptive activity; therefore he’s with the old two kingdoms paradigm, not the new neo-Calvinist paradigm” (leaving aside of course the problem of VanDrunen’s failure to offer us a clear portrait of the “old two kingdoms paradigm” in the first place).
I’m a bit suspicious that when VanDrunen speaks disparagingly of the modern neo-Calvinists, he has something like theonomy and Christian Reconstructionism in mind. If so, this clarifies a lot, but it also greatly cheapens the value of his critique, given that there are probably about 15 Christian Reconstructionists remaining in the US. Ok, I’m joking, and there are certainly still circles with a strongly theonomic bent; however, they do not represent most “neo-Calvinists,” and in any case are on quite an opposite pole from the Milbanks, Wrights, and Hauerwases in many important respects. Here’s why I have that suspicion: VanDrunen acknowledges that Kuyper sought to apply the Bible to all areas of life, including politics, since Scripture “clarifies the things revealed in nature and allows people again to perceive ‘the ground rules, the primary relationships, the principles that govern man’s life together and his relationship to the most holy God’” (282). But then VanD lays great stress on the fact that Kuyper distances himself from “biblicism” and denies that Scripture can be used to make concrete decisions in the political realm, saying, for instance, “A state polity that dismisses and scorns the observation of life and simply wishes to duplicate the situation of Israel, taking Holy Scripture as a complete code of Christian law for the state, would, according to the spiritual fathers of Calvinism, be the epitome of absurdity” (283). VanDrunen seems to think he has established a significant point in the argument, and repeatedly seeks to build on it. Kuyper thought that Scripture provided only general principles for the political realm, that must be applied differently in different times and places; it did not provide a detailed theonomic blueprint--ergo, Kuyper was not a neo-Calvinist. However, I don’t think this is a tremendously significant point after all, because hardly anyone except a few die-hard theonomists would say otherwise. Even hard-core theonomists, in fact, would recognize that many features of the OT law should be adapted to changing circumstances in line with their “general equity.” Necessarily, Scripture’s teaching with reference to life in the civil realm is a matter of rational deduction and flexible application, not a matter of a timeless detailed blueprint.
But--and here’s the kicker--so is Scripture’s teaching on many matters, including many matters that are clearly within the ecclesial realm. Scripture does not, despite the desperate attempts of hard-line regulativists, provide us a detailed timeless blueprint for worship. It provides us with certain general instructions and illustrations, which we must use our reasons to adapt and apply. In fact, it does provide a detailed blueprint, but in the Old Testament, which we generally recognize cannot be applied directly to our current situation--rather, it must be sifted and applied in light of New Testament revelation and common wisdom. Or how about church polity? Here too, although clearly Scripture should be our authority on the subject, it is not terribly helpful in laying down the law with precision. Centuries of polemical struggle have failed to make the New Testament any clearer on how the government of the Church is to be organized. Oh, to be sure, we can figure out a number of things from the New Testament, rule out a number of possibilities, and, I think, establish the likelihood of certain conclusions. But ultimately, we must conclude that we do not have a detailed blueprint, and the Church must rely on its general wisdom, illumined by the Spirit and the light of nature, to ascertain how the general principles of Scripture are to be applied, and how much of the Old Testament can be carried over.
Note, then, that on two hugely significant issues about the spiritual kingdom of God, the “visible Church”--its worship and its polity--Scripture leaves us with general principles and with suggestive illustrations, but requires us to work out specific applications on our own. This does not seem to me all that different from how Kuyper envisions Scripture’s testimony on matters of culture, politics, and society--it gives us “ground rules, primary relationships, and general principles” without giving us “a complete code of Christian law.” Now don’t me wrong. There are still some important differences between these kingdoms, but I cannot understand VanDrunen’s argument: “If you grant that Scripture does not give us a detailed blueprint for X, then you commit yourself to saying (if you want to be consistent) that natural law, not Scripture, is the authority for X, and Scripture is in fact wholly unnecessary.” This is in fact a sort of reductio ad absurdum in favor of the theonomists. Theonomists, you may recall, were fond of arguing that if we did not allow that Scripture was, on its own, the sole, absolute, detailed standard for civil law, then we were erecting in its place another standard, a higher standard, so that reason, and not Scripture, was our highest authority. If this is true, then any time you use reason to help you interpret and apply Scripture, you are no longer letting Scripture be the highest authority! And yet VanDrunen here seems to happily accept the theonomic charge, and wants to insist that if Scripture does not provide us a precisely detailed standard, then it can provide us with no standard.
But, we have digressed far from Kuyper. It is also worth observing, briefly, that eager as VanDrunen is to rescue Kuyper from the neo-Calvinists and throw him into the camp of Reformed orthodoxy, this merely serves again to highlight the incommensurability of VanDrunen’s own commitments with Reformed orthodoxy. You may recall in the last chapter that VanDrunen chided even Thornwell for not sufficiently recognizing that the Church must refrain from offering any guidance on civil affairs, since Scripture offers no guidance for them. But Kuyper here has insisted that Scripture provides various principles for life in the civil kingdom, a position that VanDrunen has had to acknowledge ase consonant with the historic Reformed position. He has also provided us, incidentally, with a rather helpful and clear position on the relationship of natural law and special revelation, one which for the most part fits with historical Reformed reflection on these issues. This position can be briefly summarized thus: there is a natural law, implanted in creation--it provides the principles by which God intended creation to operate. However, because of the fall, creation no longer operates as it was intended to, and we are no longer able to properly grasp how it was intended to operate. Special revelation helps show us what natural law is supposed to look like, and corrects the misunderstandings into which we would be prone to fall if relying on our sinful intellects alone. The Gospel, then, does not try to divert the creation toward some new purpose, but helps show us what creation’s original purpose was supposed to be, and gives us the tools we need to realize that original purpose in this fallen world. Now, this is how Kuyper sees natural law, and this is, so far as I can tell, how most of the earlier figures that VanDrunen discusses saw it. And yet VanDrunen thinks that, on the whole, this provides evidence for his case. “See, they believed in natural law!” he shouts and waves; “See, they believed that creation had its own purpose, which it continues to have even after the Gospel!” Well, yes, but they believed that the gospel, that special revelation was necessary to help us realize all that. They did not believe that just because there was a natural law meant that it was completely self-interpreting and self-authorizing even in a sinful world. This is the lacuna that VanDrunen has never filled in his historical analysis--his idea that the natural law alone was fully sufficient for life in the civil kingdom. The earlier Reformers did not seem to make this claim, becuase they understood that sin got in the way of our understanding of natural law. VanDrunen continually gives lipservice to the problem of sin, but he never explains how his understanding of the sufficiency of the unilluminated natural law squares with a robust doctrine of human depravity.
Now, given that VanDrunen seems reasonably happy with these aspects of Kuyper’s thought (even when it is hard to see why), where does he identify the problem? Where is the tension in Kuyper, the tension that neo-Calvinists resolve in the wrong direction? The answer comes in the past couple pages.
First, VanDrunen says, “Kuyper believed that societies and nations could be ‘Christian’ even if few true Christians were in them, so long as Christianity had had a formative influence on the character of their culture. The point of tension is that the cultural life of such a society is then both ‘common’ and ‘Christian’ simultaneously. Since it exists on the terrain of common grace there is never anything new in it, as it simply develops the potencies inscribed on the original creation. Special grace, that is, the ‘Christian’ influence, serves merely to help the common realm develop these potencies better than it otherwise would. This is therefore a non-redemptive ‘Christian’ influence, a ‘Christianization’ that does not save or pertain to re-creation. Though Kuyper here is careful not to confuse the salvation or re-creation that is administered in the institutional church with the common preservation of the original creation in the other spheres of human endeavor, his use of ‘Christian’ terminology for both seems at best confusing.” (312-13)
Now, in objecting in this way, VanDrunen seems to want to put a wide chasm between the original creation, which is simply preserved, has its original “potencies” developed, and is not redeemed, and the “re-creation,” salvation, which is something entirely different. This isn’t how Scripture speaks: “For the earnest expectation of the creation eagerly waits for the revealing of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of Him who subjected it in hope; because the creation itself also will be delivered from the bondage of corruption into the glorious liberty of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation groans and labors with birth pangs together until now. Not only that, but we also who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, even we ourselves groan within ourselves, eagerly waiting for the adoption, the redemption of our body.” (Rom. 8:19-23) Sure, we could say that creation only has its original “potencies” developed, because the glorified new creation is what creation was built to become. But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t need outside help, just as a child will not develop the “potencies inscribed” on him without good parenting--thus grace must perfect nature (even in the absence of sin, I would tend to argue). But after sin, creation has been subjected to futility, and needs this redemption even more. Its redemption, its bringing-to-fulfillment, is bound up with our redemption, says Paul here. When Scripture speaks of “new creation” or “re-creation,” when Christ says, “Behold, I make all things new,” the picture is of a “renewed creation,” not of some totally new project that Christ decided to undertake. This is why, for all his problems and tensions, Kuyper can legitimately speak both of something being “Christian” in the sense of being itself within the locus of redemption--the Church--and of something being “Christian” in the sense of being in the sphere of common grace, of the original creation, as it is being renewed by redemption.
This problem is related to the second, which has come up before--this issue of the dual mediatorships of Christ. I have charged VanDrunen with latent modalism at this point, and he is not giving me much opportunity to back down from that charge. Kuyper too uses the language of dual mediatorship, but in a way that seems to me safe from heresy, as he makes a distinction without a separation--these are two distinct works of Christ, but they cohere in the same person and so are ultimately related and inseparable. But VanDrunen won’t have it:
“But once Kuyper makes this distinction and seeks to use it to construct his cultural and political program, theological coherence and clarity require considerably more precision in language than Kuyper exhibits. To distinguish between the Son as creator and the Son as redeemer entails that the title of ‘Christ,’ or ‘Messiah’--the Anointed One--in his special mission of becoming incarnate for the particular work of saving his people. The Son redeemed the world, but did not create the world, as the Messiah, the Christ. Therefore, for Kuyper to make the traditional distinction between two mediatorships and then defend the idea of the ‘Christianization’ of the common grace realm because it is the work of ‘Christ,’ is to confuse categories and language precisely where categories and language are at issue. If the Son of God creates in a different capacity from his capacity as redeemer, then he does not create as ‘Christ,’ and the terrain of common grace, grounded in the creation order, is not ‘Christian,’ no matter how noble it becomes.”
In other words, not only can you not attribute the same office to the person who does both of these works, you can’t even attribute the same name to the person, because that might lead us to think that there might be some kind of connection between these two things that he does! Let us not fall into the danger of attributing any more unity than necessary to this bifurcated person of Christ! In any case, VanDrunen is being exceptionally disingenuous in chalking this up to a confusion of language, because he himself has indulged in this same confusion repeatedly in this book (e.g., p. 180: “as creator and sustainer, Christ rules the temporal kingdom as the sovereign lord of all; as incarnate redeemer, Christ rules the spiritual kingdom as a tender savior”) as do all the major figures he cites. VanDrunen, immediately after this quote, grudgingly acknowledges that Turretin spoke this way, but, it was different, he says, because Turretin did not use this language in support of error. Ah, ok. Well, what about the Apostle Paul, who repeatedly uses the name “Christ” to refer to the Son in his eternal role of upholding creation and ruling every principality and power (e.g., Col. 2:2-3, 8-10), and Paul seems inclined to use this unity of name and person as a device to--God forbid!--confuse the offices: “He has delivered us from the power of darkness and confeyed us into the kingdom of the Son of His love, in whom we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of sins. He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For by Him all things were created that are in heaven and that are on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or principalities or powers. All things were created through Him and for Him. And He is before all things, and in Him all things consist. And he is the head of the body, the church, who is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in all things He may have the preeminence.” (Col. 1:13-18) Here Paul moves seamlessly between Christ as eternal mediator, ruler of the nations, to Christ as saving mediator, ruler of the Church. Paul wants us to see these two works of the one Christ in close relationship, as complements of one another. But, let’s not get overly distracted by the Bible, now. This is after all supposed to be history.
Just in case there’s any confusion, I should make clear that I am no Kuyperian, just as I am no Erastian. I would’ve identified myself self-consciously as a Kuyperian for a brief span between, if you really want to know, the eighth month of my seventeenth year (i.e., the year when I was 16) and roughly the fourth month of my eighteenth year. Since then, I have considered Kuyperianism a serious problem, indeed, for some of the same reasons VanDrunen does. One of the strongest points in this chapter was his criticism on the marginalization of the visible Church in Kuyper’s life and thought. I am wholeheartedly against that, and I think that an overemphasis on Christ’s kingship over the nations instead of his kingship over the Church is part of the problem. But here’s the rub. VanDrunen thinks he can solve this problem by completely separating Christ’s kingship over the nations (Oh, forgive me...I meant to say, “the Son of God’s kingship over the nations”) from Christ’s kingship over the Church; whereas I think, rather, that we need to much more closely bind Christ’s kingship over the nations to his kingship over the Church, and make the latter the source, so to speak, for the former. This is, after all, what Paul seems to do in 1 Corinthians 15, Ephesians, and Colossians, and what the author of Hebrews seems to do, so I’m pretty comfortable taking that route.