Neocalvinism . . . Maybe: A peek into my neocalvinist toolbox

Augustinian neocalvinists? Anti-capitalist, counter-cultural neocalvinists? Neocalvinist monks? Anabaptist neocalvinists? Neocalvinist charismatic-Pentecostal Christians? Canadian and Calvin College professor James Smith sketches out his vision of big-tent neocalvinism.

Appears in Summer 2006 Issue: Reading the Bible
June 1st, 2006

Context is everything. That's a loose paraphrase of Jacques Derrida, and readers of Comment might be surprised to find that this symposium on neocalvinism confirms a Derridean hypothesis. But the importance of context already shows itself in the title, insofar as I'm cast in the role of saying "maybe" to neocalvinism. This is a tad surprising, even to me, since in almost any other context I would be perceived as an unapologetic, downright strident (at times obnoxious) apologist for the neocalvinist vision inherited through Kuyper and Dooyeweerd. In the hallowed halls of the Calvin Philosophy Department, I'm seen not in the genealogy that runs from William Harry Jellema to Alvin Plantinga and Nicholas Wolterstorff, but rather the more suspect "antithetical" line that runs from Evan Runner through Richard Mouw to myself. (Our department has a "Jellema Room" which is the center of the department; I keep plugging for at least a "Runner Closet." No luck so far.)

In other words, only in relation to a tighter orbit am I seen as hovering on the edge of neocalvinism. And since neocalvinists have often gloried in being marginalized—being on the fringe and falling through the cracks—I'm quite happy to occupy this space in the realm of "maybe." But before articulating any reservations, or the rationale for my ambivalence, let me begin with some affirmations.

I imagine neocalvinism as a kind of conceptual toolbox that helps me to get work done in the world. It was not a set of tools I grew up with. In fact, it provided me with a set of tools that helped me to fix a lot of problems I had inherited from the fundamentalism of my early Christian life. So as a 'convert' to neocalvinism, the conceptual tools I found in Kuyper, Dooyeweerd, Wolters, Seerveld, Mouw and others opened up the world for me in ways I could not have imagined otherwise. Unlike some of our young people who weary of the drone of neocalvinist formulae, the framework of "creation-fall-redemption-consummation" was, for me, an absolute epiphany. Al Wolters's formulation of the structure-direction distinction gave me a nuanced tool for cultural analysis that worked better than anything else that had been put in my hand. And the Reformational tension of antithesis and common grace seemed to crystallize just the tension that we experience in this time between times, in the "not yet."

But this isn't just a past period for nostalgic reflection. In other words, I don't look back to this inheritance of neocalvinism as a quaint moment in my intellectual progress, later abandoned for something better. While my toolbox has perhaps expanded (I've now got one of those big red ones, on rollers, with fifteen drawers!), the fact remains that the neocalvinist tools are the most dependable in my conceptual toolkit, and the ones I find myself picking up the most. Granted, like an old Craftsman wrench whose "Craftsman" label has been worn off, my neocalvinist tools for theoretical work and cultural analysis don't always show the label. But those who've used Craftsman tools can recognize Craftsman-tool-like work from a mile away. And, to even further stretch the metaphor, we might say that some people are kind of allergic to Craftsman tools (they're usually Snap-On tools guys). For a host of reasons, they wouldn't touch a Craftsman tool with a hundred-foot pole. But the fact is, I remain convinced these Craftsman tools are the best ones for the job. And so the fact that the labels have been rubbed off my tools actually makes it easier for Snap-On devotees to employ the tools I'm offering.

So I continue to find myself constantly picking up these tools in my work—both in the classroom and in research. The conceptual tools of neocalvinism are at the heart of my toolbox and, in fact, are usually strewn about on the bench because they're getting used so often. Which is also why they're a little messy, not polished and pristine, nor put in exactly the right place in the drawers. For real neocalvinists—what we might call "orthodox" neocalvinists—the messiness of my tools is like fingernails on a chalkboard. They look at the way I handle my neocalvinist tools as sloppy and unappreciative of the place each tool has in the entire set (apparently there's a manual that stipulates this). These are like Craftsman tool aficionados who keep all the original boxes for their tools. In fact, they're so worried about keeping the tools neat, clean, and in order, they're almost loathe to put them to work. So they tend to also keep all the boxes the tools came in and are very concerned about keeping the tools organized in the proper order. I'm more interested in the work the tools can do, than the tools themselves. And it's precisely because they work so well that I keep coming back to them again and again.

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