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Evangelicalism and Neocalvinism: Friends or Enemies?

I have often wondered whether I can be both an evangelical and a neocalvinist—whether I can reconcile my evangelical priorities to abide in Christ and seek and save the lost with my neocalvinist priorities to claim Christ's kingship over creation and fill the earth with culture.

Editor's Note: How should the North American church relate to culture? How should it respond to deep racial, cultural, and religious differences and tensions? Is there a way beyond the false choices of cultural retreat and control? Beyond petrified conservatism and an obsession with the current zeitgeist? The daily work of Comment owes much to the rich cultural and theological vision of Dutch politician, journalist, statesman, and theologian Abraham Kuyper. For the next three weeks, we will be publishing a series of articles (curated by Matthew Kaemingk) that explore how Kuyper's vision and the neocalvinist movement he inspired can offer the church an alternative way of engaging with cultural issues as diverse as racial relations, youth ministry, personal piety, sports, work, and more. The series coincides with the release of Abraham Kuyper: A Short and Personal Introduction (Eerdmans, 2011) by Fuller Theological Seminary president Dr. Richard Mouw.

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Raised in a mainstream evangelical tradition, I was taught that life boiled down to two things: 1) personally loving Jesus, and 2) sharing the Gospel so that others might love him too. From these teachings, I concluded that fields such as the arts, psychology, and athletics—while important—did not have eternal significance. So I resolved that in order to devote myself fully to my faith and its eternal implications, I needed to enter some type of formal ministry, limit my cultural activities—music, books, movies, and so on—to those that were explicitly Christian, and copy the life of Jesus as closely as possible. In my mind, these actions would enable me to pursue my all-consuming passion in life to the fullest extent: to live as a radical disciple of Jesus Christ.

This parochial interpretation was challenged three years ago when I was introduced to what Comment readers know as neocalvinism. The chief architect of neocalvinism, Abraham Kuyper, constructed a worldview based on the unifying principle of God's sovereignty. With this principle in mind, Kuyper affirmed that God's purposes extended beyond personal salvation to include every domain of creational life. To my own embarrassment, I had never thought seriously about these ideas when reflecting upon Christian discipleship. I had never considered what God was doing outside the walls of the church, or how human cultural "filling" could have its own integrity, purpose, and eternal value (as in Isaiah 60). When I read Scripture, salvation-history was my only aperture for interpretation; creation was a peripheral issue at best.

To say the least, neocalvinism considerably expanded my views of faithful discipleship. It offered a theological framework to help me discern how the multiform modes of human cultural expression related to God and his cosmic purposes. This framework helped me develop a functional language, one that gave full import to the habitually mundane character of my day-to-day responsibilities, to help paint a richly textured portrait of every aspect of my life. In short, neocalvinism enabled me to see the significance not only of being saved, but also of being human.

Although these ideas liberated my faith, they did not come without drawbacks and challenges. Since I had unconsciously adopted the notion that the world was inherently sinful, I struggled to incorporate a robust creational perspective into my theology. That is, I struggled to account for the earth's created goodness without feeling as though I was weakening my stance on the noxious consequences of sin. Moreover, I had trouble adjusting my belief that the purpose of life was to "get to heaven." Making this adjustment, I always felt as though I had to deemphasize personal salvation.

These challenges were only exacerbated by much of my study of present-day neocalvinism. Among other things, I learned that neocalvinism is commonly criticized for lacking an emphasis on personal spirituality and godliness. Furthermore, I discovered that the sacrificial Jesus is often conspicuously absent from the neocalvinist worldview. For example, neocalvinist political theologian, James Skillen, questions whether "taking up the cross" can be apposite to the structures of public life. Referring specifically to politics, in a response in Mark Noll's book Adding Christ to Crown, Skillen asserts, "The cross itself ends up having little meaning for defining the actual structure and tasks of politics." His point is that a cruciform ethic only affects individual character; it does not relate to all of life.

As a committed evangelical, these tendencies have been unsettling for me. They have made me feel as though the Gospel was being undermined. Thus, I have often wondered whether I can be both an evangelical and a neocalvinist—whether I can reconcile my evangelical priorities to abide in Christ and seek and save the lost with my neocalvinist priorities to claim Christ's kingship over creation and fill the earth with culture. Although I still lack a perfect answer to this question, pioneering neocalvinists such as Abraham Kuyper and Herman Bavinck have at least offered me a way forward. With their own evangelical faith as their theological foundation, they have taught me that reconciling evangelicalism and neocalvinism is not only possible, but in the end, they are mutually enriching.

I first moved toward this conclusion after discovering Abraham Kuyper's dynamic devotional life. After reading through hundreds of his published meditations, I noticed that Kuyper discussed heaven in a way that was unfamiliar to me. In my mind, heaven implicitly meant turning away from the world to focus on eternal issues, and spending my life personally evangelizing others so that they could do the same. Therefore, when I prayed, I sought to extirpate my desire for "worldly" things. For Kuyper, however, drawing near to the God of heaven was not solely about world denial and personal salvation. This practice also had enormous implications for the very structures and "spheres" of creation. In short, Kuyper's personal piety was closely linked to the flourishing and common good of the entire cosmos. By communing with the God of heaven, then, he did not finally escape the world; he became even more immersed in it.

If Kuyper's meditations opened the door to a new conception of the relationship between heaven and earth, Herman Bavinck's writings allowed me to delve further into this subject. Bavinck asserted that heaven and earth were not in competition. Instead, much akin to a couple engaged to be married, they belonged together and were, in essence, made for one another. Bavinck explicated this relationship by saying that while "heaven may be a treasure and a pearl; it is also a mustard seed and a leaven." I found that Bavinck's description of heaven as the "pearl" of earthly life was in line with my evangelical sensitivities. I too affirmed that heavenly salvation was a prize more precious than anything, worth abandoning all else for—family, home, life, and so on. Therefore, I agreed with Bavinck that heaven's focus on personal salvation was more significant than cultural renewal.

In addition, I found that Bavinck's description of heaven as the "leaven" of earthly life was in line with my neocalvinist sensitivities. As a leaven, heavenly salvation was the healing and redeeming catalyst that permeated every square inch of creation. Bavinck could therefore affirm that the salvific aspect of his faith was neither otherworldly nor only relevant to individuals. It also had implications for the entire cosmos, insofar as no sphere of creation was precluded from Christ's redemptive work. Or as Bavinck simply put it, "grace restores nature."

From this formulation, I learned that grace adapts itself to the "grooves of creation" in order to stimulate human flourishing in the here-and-now. These grooves—the Divine-given structures, laws, and norms for the earth—provide God's special grace with something tangible to imbue and regenerate. This is why in addition to evangelizing individuals, Bavinck could also speak of evangelizing realms of society such as the arts, psychology, and athletics. In my efforts to unify my evangelical and neocalvinist priorities, this insight has been paramount. It has enabled me to see that Christ's salvific work encompasses all of the ways in which I culturally express myself as a human being.

This brings me to my current struggle to define how evangelicalism and neocalvinism can ultimately be friends, and not enemies. I find myself asking, if soteriology (theology of salvation) is intrinsically related to the modal functioning of the creational spheres, then how is Christ's method of salvation germane to these areas of life as well? In other words, how is the cross of Christ pertinent to art, psychology, and athletics? As a neocalvinist, I am forced by this question to move away from my comfort zone—namely, from the position that Christ's cosmic Lordship is the sole basis for a Christian approach to culture. It requires me to admit that this perspective is somehow incomplete, in that it lacks a much-needed emphasis on the relationship between Christ's sacrificial death and the way that the spheres operate.

In my effort to take this cruciform perspective seriously, and thereby balance Christ's crown with his sacrificial blood, I have found much help in the stories of Christian missionaries such as Kosuke Koyama. In his book Water Buffalo Theology, Koyama describes his attempts to articulate the Gospel to a group of Thai farmers. He recognized that in order to do this, he needed to sandwich himself in between the questions and answers of the Gospel and questions and answers of the Thai farmers. In this two-way process of exegesis, Koyama found that the Thai farmers spent most of their time in rice fields with water buffalos, and consequently, soteriology had to be relevant to this experience. To make this correlation, he developed a "water buffalo theology" as the means through which to communicate the Gospel to these people.

Just as missionaries such as Koyama have shown that the Gospel touches all human cultures, I believe that the process of two-way exegesis can be adapted to culture itself. That is, in a similar way to how missionaries listen to the questions and answers of particular human traditions, Christians can listen to the questions and answers of particular cultural spheres. They can then seek to contextualize how the cross redeems these sphere concerns. For if Christ truly makes all things new and not just people (Revelation 21:5), and if he reconciles the world to himself and not just people (2 Corinthians 5:19), then this at least seems possible.

We can look to the sphere of politics for a specific example. Kuyper claimed that one of the primary responsibilities of the state was to adjudicate boundary conflicts between the spheres. This was nation-state's juridical sphere identity—its calling to pursue justice and shalom for people within its geographical boundaries. In a liberal democracy where citizens are viewed as co-sovereign lawmakers because of the social contract, citizens have an immense responsibility to seek justice as well. If the cross of Christ shapes the form and content of a citizen's ethic, then she will conceptualize and embody political life differently than the citizen who strives for justice apart from the cross. This does not mean that only Christians can pursue political justice, but it does mean that the cross has something new to say about this justice.

In the domain of politics, and all of the other domains that people find themselves participating in on a daily basis, there is much more work to be done in the area of sphere contextualization. We hope that this series of articles has encouraged you to join in this task!

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Clay Cooke was born and raised in small town North Carolina. ... read more »
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