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What is to be done . . . toward a neocalvinist agenda?

Neocalvinist philosopher and theologian Al Wolters calls present and future generations of neocalvinists to look back to neocalvinism's intellectual roots and forebears, to look forward to alternative ways of expressing neocalvinist commitments to our world. Neocalvinism is a considered, Christian response to the broad, controlling philosophy of our times—modernism—and an attempt to account for the myriad ways in which our society develops into various categories of activity.

Editor's Note: For more on the following article, read the symposium it spurred.


I am honoured to be asked to contribute to the "What Is To Be Done" series, but agreed to do so only if I could offer some random and highly personal reflections on neocalvinism, the spiritual and cultural movement in which I myself stand, and which has shaped my own identity in many ways.

Neocalvinism is not just some idiosyncratic sectarian movement rooted in 19th-century Holland. It is one manifestation of a broad strand of catholic Christianity which goes back to such church fathers as Irenaeus, John Chrysostom, and Augustine of Hippo. To be sure, neocalvinism as a distinct cultural movement has its roots in The Netherlands, and the work of such men as Guillaume Groen Van Prinsterer, Abraham Kuyper, and Herman Bavinck, but its religious antecedents are much earlier and more catholic than that. As I see it, neocalvinism is a kind of distinctive focusing, in a particular historical situation characterized by ideological modernism and societal differentiation, of a basic Christian intuition with respect to the relationship of creation and redemption, nature and grace.

In theological shorthand that intuition can be formulated in the phrase: "grace restores nature." This means simply that the new life brought about by redemption in Jesus Christ does not (A) stand in opposition to created reality, nor does it merely (B) supplement or (C) parallel it, but rather (D) seeks to penetrate and restore the reality of creational life. Redemption is a comprehensive salvage operation, the goal of which is nothing short of recovering all of life as it was meant to be lived according to God's creational design from the very beginning. On the question of the relationship between grace and nature (and thus Christ and culture, church and world, theology and philosophy), historic Christian orthodoxy has chosen for options A, B, C, or D. In my opinion, neocalvinism is a particularly strong and consistent manifestation of the D option in a modern western cultural context. It is characterized by both its strong allegiance to Scripture and its critical relevance to modern culture. In my opinion, these matters are especially clearly laid out by Herman Bavinck.

Although I would like in this way to relativize the specifically Dutch connections of neocalvinism and the reformational movement, I would also like to emphasize the value of retaining a connection with its Dutch roots. Especially in North America, but more broadly in the English-speaking world, there is a dearth of young neocalvinists who make it their business to learn Dutch well enough to read it, or who show an interest in the works and historical context of men like Groen Van Prinsterer and Kuyper. There is a wealth of untranslated scholarly work done in this tradition—not only in philosophy and theology, but in a wide range of other disciplines, from physics to psychiatry—which is largely inaccessible to its non-Dutch-speaking heirs.

Part of the answer to this is of course translation (and the Dooyeweerd Centre for Christian Philosophy at Redeemer University College is doing much to make this a priority), but a working knowledge of Dutch will continue for a long time to be a strong asset to anyone wanting to do in-depth work in this tradition. A further partial solution is the new one-year English-language Master of Arts program, Christian Studies of Science and Society, which is being offered at the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, but this too is only a band-aid solution to the problem of inadequate knowledge of the Dutch roots and sources of neocalvinism.

Another problem has arisen as the reformational movement has spread beyond its country of origin. This is the problem of insufficient communication between members of this movement spread all over the globe. There are significant pockets of neocalvinists in the Netherlands, South Africa, Canada, the U.S., Mexico, Australia, New Zealand, Korea, and the UK, but they have very little contact with each other. Although there are periodic philosophy conferences in the Netherlands, an internet discussion forum called Thinknet, the philosophy journal Philosophia Reformata, and of course the general journal Comment, there is still woefully little connection between the heirs of Kuyper scattered around the globe. Perhaps we need an organization or institution that can hire a full-time "reformational ambassador" who can coordinate activities and facilitate contacts of all who are prepared to call themselves "neocalvinist" or "reformational" (not necessarily the same thing).

More than twenty years ago, in a lecture at Leiden University, I once launched the bold thesis that the central insight of reformational philosophy could be said to be captured in the distinction between "structure" and "direction," meaning by those terms the creational design and the spiritual orientation of things. I think I would still defend that thesis, provided we understand that this is a distinction which in principle applies to all creational entities, whether they be physical, societal, cultural, or what have you. There is a creational shape to a crystal, to a state, to a method of instruction, or one's use of language. And each of these "entities" may or may not conform to its God-intended shape, and may therefore be in need of being reshaped and redirected in order to fit more perfectly its creational design. To thus see every thing in our experience as being fundamentally shaped and constituted by God's workmanship in creation (and thus very good), and at the same time as being subject to the mis-shaping and re-shaping forces of man's sin and God's grace (and thus simultaneously evil and in principle redeemable), is to my mind to capture the basic intuition of the neocalvinist worldview, as elaborated in its philosophy.

This basic vision implies a fundamental affirmation of creation in all its pluriform variety, and at the same time a deep sense of the extensive damage done by sin, as well as the ultimate recoverability (by God's grace in Christ) of even the most desperately distorted ontological shapes in our fallen world. Thus to my mind the distinction between structure and direction is a restatement, within the discourse of worldview and philosophy, of the theological affirmation that grace restores nature, since "nature" refers to the structured creation which has directionally fallen, and "grace" refers to directional re-creation in Christ.

In my view, this fundamental vision is philosophically worked out in different ways by Herman Dooyeweerd, Dirk Vollenhoven, Hendrik Stoker, and the other first-generation pioneers of reformational philosophy. Dooyeweerd, for example, elaborates philosophical categories like "law and subject side," "normative principles and positivization," "individuality-structures," and "modal aspects," to give philosophical expression to the basic neocalvinist vision of life and the world. The time may have come to find new terms for this fundamental intuition, or to forge new philosophical categories to give more adequate expression to it in the twenty-first century. The terms "structure" and "direction," for example, do not communicate very well in our current context. I have toyed with the idea of substituting the terms "design" and "spirit" for them, but these have their problems too. Perhaps, the whole category of "law," which Kuyper and his successors used to describe the structural design or creational constitution of things, and which has such strong biblical roots, should no longer have the privileged position in this intellectual tradition that it once had. But whatever category is used instead should retain, in my opinion, the notion of creationally given constant or stable parameters which are both constitutive and normative, and which define the creational point to which redemption calls us to return. That is, even if we adjust terminology, we must retain the philosophical commitment to the constancy of creation, and to creation as delivered by the creator, prior to the Fall, as the normative standard to which creation is being redeemed and restored. As long as a more adequate substitute for "law" is not found (I have no proposals to offer myself), I propose we make do with the "idea of law" (Dutch wetsidee), and explain what we mean.

As I see it, the two main branches (at least in North America) of philosophy in the neocalvinist tradition, roughly associated with the "Reformed epistemology" of Alvin Plantinga and Nicholas Wolterstorff, and the Torontonian heirs of the "Amsterdam school" of Dooyeweerd and Vollenhoven, differ in their appreciation of what I have here called structure and direction. The former has grown in its emphasis on religious directionality (or the "antithesis") in recent decades, but has never been strong on the challenge of providing a systematic account of the structural make-up of reality. The latter has tended to increasingly de-emphasize religious directionality in those same decades, and simultaneously to question the notions of creation order and law which underlie the classical reformational understanding of structure. As a not entirely disinterested observer of these latter developments, I tend to see the influence of historicism making itself felt here.

I do not mean the foregoing remarks to be understood as an unqualified endorsement of the neocalvinist tradition in some earlier phase of its development, or as a quasi-canonization of the thought of one or other of its philosophical pioneers. Neocalvinism represents a rich tradition, with much to offer the contemporary world church and secular culture, but it also has much to learn from other traditions—or from earlier phases of its own tradition. In what follows I will offer some reflections on what I take to be significant challenges and opportunities for those who want to carry this tradition forward in a fruitful way.

As someone whose academic career is now almost equally divided between professional involvement first in reformational philosophy and then in biblical studies, I would plead for a fresh or continued engagement with Scripture on the part of neocalvinist academics and other cultural leaders. The Bible needs to be known, and its authority taken seriously. This means immersing oneself in the entire Bible as a unified and integrated metanarrative, but it means more than that. It means taking seriously the offensive parts of Scripture, and not sweeping them under the hermeneutical rug, or explaining them away with an appeal to a canon within the canon. For example, what I have in mind is what the Scriptures have to say about gender relations, sexuality, slavery, authority and violence. These are things which we today, as children of our times, tend to find deeply offensive, and we devise ever more strained hermeneutical strategies to prevent ourselves from hearing them as authoritative moments of the word of God. Here the present generation of neocalvinists stands in marked contrast to earlier generations, who had a much more robust and straightforward notion of Scriptural authority, and a greater suspicion of their own sensibilities. I see it as one of the signal failures of contemporary neocalvinism that it has not done a better job of honouring Scripture in these respects.

A deepened appreciation of the authority of Scripture is part of a keener sense of what Kuyper called "the antithesis," the spiritual warfare between Christ and Satan, or what I call the religious "directionality" which pervades all things. Another aspect of such a keener antithetical sense is an awareness of the importance of mission, of Christian witness broadly conceived. Everything that the Christian community is and does, including its cultural life, is part of its comprehensive witness to Christ in the world. I believe that in some important ways the work of missiologists like Lesslie Newbigin, with his emphasis on the gospel as "public truth," can provide welcome support as well as a needed corrective to the neocalvinist tradition, at least as it has developed in the last generation or so. Integral to such a missiological approach is also the affirmation of the exclusive claims of Jesus as Saviour, and the reminder that suffering is part of being a follower of Jesus Christ, that the gospel provokes opposition and ridicule. As soon as we lose sight of the missional dimension of the Christian life, and become engaged in a drive for cultural transformation (whether academically or otherwise) that lacks a vital connection with the person and cross of Jesus Christ, our talk of the "kingdom perspective" loses authenticity, depth, and power.

A related issue is the place of spirituality and the traditional spiritual disciplines. Although Kuyper was a man of intense prayer and a deep devotional life, and Dooyeweerd gave a pivotal position in human life to the modality of faith, many of their intellectual heirs have paid more attention to the dangers of pietism and its relative neglect of the call to cultural discipleship than to the importance of cultivating genuine piety or authentic spirituality. Generally speaking, neocalvinists are more noted for their intellectual ability and culture-transforming zeal than for their personal godliness or their living relationship with Jesus Christ. This is of course not to suggest that there is some kind of inherent tension between intellectuality and spirituality, but only that the neocalvinist polemic against a pietistic otherworldliness can have the unfortunate effect of throwing out the godly baby with the pietistic bathwater. But even apart from the danger of this polemical one-sidedness, I believe that neocalvinism has neglected to its detriment the whole range of traditional spiritual disciplines, as cultivated in Protestant, Catholic and Eastern Orthodox circles. The practice of various kinds of prayer and meditation has not enjoyed a great deal of attention or emphasis.

This neglect has been both theoretical and practical. To my knowledge there has been little study of the pistical modality from the point of view of the dynamics of spiritual life as described in the great devotional classics, nor has there been a great deal of actual cultivation of the traditional "spiritual exercises" in neocalvinist circles. I suspect that reformational philosophical insights might actually be quite helpful in spiritual direction and the personal cultivation of spiritual growth, but I know of no literature where this is explored. Speaking for myself, I have found that exploring the tradition of Ignatian spirituality has been stimulating and enriching, but has also left me with many unanswered questions.

The single most powerful phenomenon within Christianity in the twentieth century has been the Pentecostal/charismatic movement, which has accounted for the twentieth-century spread of the gospel in far greater measure than any other comparable movement. It has been accompanied by dramatic manifestations of such charismatic gifts as tongue-speaking, prophecy and healing, as well as incidents of demonization and exorcism. It has spread from the Protestant Pentecostalism of the early twentieth century to the later charismatic waves which have affected a broad spectrum of Christian communions, both Protestant and Catholic. In my opinion it is undeniable that it has in many ways been a powerful movement of the Holy Spirit of God, even though it has also been accompanied by various kinds of excesses, absurdities, and theological errors. Unfortunately, it has also been frequently characterized by anti-intellectualism, emotionalism, and a world-flight mentality. Consequently, there has been very little overlap between the neocalvinist and the charismatic movements. Nevertheless, I believe that the two movements are not mutually exclusive, and have much to offer each other.

The power, vitality and emotional spontaneity of the charismatic movement, as well as its openness to the charismatic gifts, its emphasis on the effectiveness of prayer, and its acknowledgement of the reality of the demonic are all part of a vibrant biblical Christianity from which neocalvinism can benefit. On the other hand, I believe that charismatic Christians can derive great benefit from the strengths of neocalvinism, notably its broad cultural vision of the Christian life, its intellectual sophistication and maturity, and its tradition of responsible biblical exegesis. In particular, I believe that neocalvinism, precisely in its conception of the relationship between nature and grace (or creation and redemption), can help to neutralize the unfortunate dichotomy between "natural" and "supernatural" aspects of human experience, and thus to avoid the spiritual elitism which so easily afflicts the charismatic movement. It is my belief that a "charismatic neocalvinist" is not a contradiction in terms.

I append a brief reference to show that such a notion is not altogether unprecedented. In a Dutch book entitled De doop met de Heilige Geest (Baptism with the Holy Spirit), published in 1963 by the Reformed pastor D. G. Molenaar, one of the seven chapters is devoted to "The Opening-Up Process in the Philosophy of the Cosmonomic Idea," in which the author uses this central category in Dooyeweerd's philosophy to account for the experience of overwhelming spiritual joy and empowerment which he (like many charismatic writers) calls the "baptism with the Holy Spirit." I am not sure whether this is the biblically correct designation for this experience, but Molenaar's discussion at least illustrates that Dooyeweerdian philosophy and charismatic experience are not necessarily incompatible.

A penultimate word about ecumenicity. I believe Dooyeweerd was right when, later in life, he stressed the ecumenical character of his Christian philosophy, and no longer insisted on its uniquely calvinistic character. Nevertheless, I believe it remains true that his philosophy cannot be fully understood without taking into account its calvinist roots. In a strange kind of way, by initially being distinctively—even fiercely—calvinistic, his thought developed into an ecumenical philosophy which could bear fruit for the church universal. Somehow insistent particularity was the precondition for profound catholicity. It seems to me that true ecumenicity will always depend on biblical and confessional rootedness, and not on finding the lowest common denominator. Thus I believe that neocalvinism, if it remains true to its radical original intuition, can truly embrace the riches of other traditions, even as it shares its own with others.

I conclude by quoting a passage from an article entitled "The Centre and the Circumference," which I published in 1980 in the now long-defunct reformational magazine Vanguard. I find that I can still fully affirm this description of the neocalvinist worldview:

The gospel of Jesus Christ means good news for this whole range of creaturely reality. Just as all our natural lives (and there really is no part of our lies which is not "natural" in this sense of plain, ordinary, everyday created reality) is infected by man's rebellion, his refusal to live by the standards God has established, so all of our natural lives are reclaimed and renewed by Christ, that is, brought into conformity again with those standards. In fact, the Bible teaches that the whole creation groans in travail, and that "all things" are reconciled in Christ. Salvation in Christ, the overriding concern of the Scriptures, means renewed conformity to creational law. It is for this reason that the Bible contains so much in the way of laws, commandments and imperatives. These are all pointers to the specifics of the redeemed life, a spelling out of the meaning of creational law for specific times and places. The Mosaic Law is God's authorized concretization of his will for creational life in the case of Israel (in Palestine, before Christ). The Sermon on the Mount affirms the Old Testament law by penetrating to its deepest creational meaning, the way things were meant to be "in the beginning': the admonitions of the prophets are a call to live our lives as new creatures in Christ, delivered from the bondage of sin which had corrupted creation . . . That is why the Mosaic legislation has not lost its significance for the people of God today, since it teaches such enduring principles as justice and stewardship and respect, and shows how they can be implemented in a concrete societal setting. None of the commandments of Scripture are irrelevant to the New Testament community of believers; all of them point to the renewal for which Christ came, i.e. the renewal of his Father's world.

There is another reason why the theme of creation is important in interpreting the Bible. It is this, that the range of applicability of the message of Scripture is not restricted to any marked off sector of creational life (our private or church life for example), but that it is relevant, directly and immediately, to all of it. The message of Scripture must resonate in the whole house of creation, with all its many rooms (journalism, business, music, politics, education, labor, entertainment—you name it) and not be muffled by one or two heavily soundproofed rooms marked "organized religion" and "relationships (personal)". The whole spectrum of the many-splendored gifts of God's creation must be drawn into the great covenantal intercourse of Yahweh with his people. "For everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, because it is sanctified by the word of God and prayer", as Paul writes to Timothy. Our word of thanksgiving and prayer is answered by God's word of promise and blessing, and our creatureliness, the God-given warp and woof of our daily lives (Paul mentions eating and being married) is sanctified, made holy, transformed to reflect the glory of God. Roman paganism may jail apostles, and modern humanism may construct soundproofed rooms or padded cells, but the Word of God is not bound. The scope of the Scriptures is unrestricted.

This emphasis also delivers us from biblicism. It is not necessary to find specific texts on writing poetry or filmmaking or teaching school in order to apply the gospel of atonement for sin and the restoration of creation to those areas. The task then becomes to look at those creational realities through the glasses of Scripture, discerning the creational law revealed in experience in the light of the creational law revealed in the Scriptures, and thus working as agents of Christ's reconciliation in these areas, where the reality of sin and the necessity of salvation are as real as anywhere else in God's creation.

t strikes me that the two principles we have mentioned, the Christocentric focus and the orientation to creation, are crucial for a hermeneutic of Scripture which does justice to its self-proclaimed unity and universality, and which offers fruitful perspectives for a deepening understanding of the riches of Scripture for contemporary believers. In a word, we must learn to read the Scriptures in their entirety as a witness to the cosmic Christ, directly related to the living Lord whom we serve and the realities of our experience. Both that Lord and those realities are contemporary, so that the gospel which puts us in touch with them is not in need of being "made" relevant or up-to-date.

Two final comments may be useful in rounding off our discussion. The first is that there is no tension between centre and circumference, even though they are contrasted as concentration and expansion. In fact it is precisely in their "soteriological concentration" that the Scriptures achieve their "universal range and scope." The focus on the individual person of Christ is like the eye of the needle through which we gain access to the universal significance of his work. It is a great mistake to conceive of Christ-centered-ness as being in conflict with Christian cultural action. There can be no Kingdom activity without Christ, in whom, as it were, that Kingdom is personified.

The second comment is closely related. One might say that the road to creation is only via the cross. The restoration of creation depends entirely on the atonement for sin which makes that restoration possible. When we say "cross," we say sin and grace, guilt and punishment, wrath and propitiation. These are not part of God's design for creation; they are the result of man's spoiling of creation and God's dealing with that sin, in forgiveness and judgment. To the extent that the Scriptures deal with these realities—and it is clear that they are filled with references to them—it is not accurate to say that the Bible is the republication of the creation word or law. If we had only the republished creation law, the Scriptures would not be the book of comfort and admonition, hope and encouragement that it now is. It is only because it points throughout to the cross, which is not part of the creational scheme of things, that it is possible for us to live by the creation law again. The Scriptures may be said to be the account of the struggle and sacrifice involved in reestablishing obedience in creation.

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Al Wolters Al Wolters
Al Wolters is Professor Emeritus of Religion and Theology/Classical Languages at Redeemer University College. ... read more »

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  1. December 2005: What is to be done?
    Comment Magazine - What is to be done?

    What we are offering in this print issue of Comment are notes toward a Christian social manifesto, encouragements toward the beginnings of a discussion of the strategic question. As will become evident from some of our articles, we are not pretending here to provide a comprehensive prescription for Christian cultural engagement. This is not a marxist-leninist tract, replete with misguided utopian hubris. It is, however, a collection of serious efforts to determine what our responsibilities are in this time, given our deepest commitments and the spirit of the times.

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