Neocalvinism . . . No: Why I am not a neocalvinist

Neocalvinism is a tradition detached from the broader and longer, western intellectual tradition. It's detached from its confessional roots, and from a catholic understanding of church. Most of all, it's detached from ecclesial community. Is it truly a mere publishing project, with a view to variously showing signs of vitality or allowing evangelicals to recover a Christian mind? Neocalvinism . . . Dan Knauss replies, "Just say, 'No.'"

Appears in Summer 2006 Issue: Reading the Bible
June 1st, 2006
There is the final addition, the failing
Pride or resentment at failing powers,
The unattached devotion which might pass for devotionless,
In a drifting boat with a slow leakage,
The silent listening to the undeniable
Clamour of the bell of the last annunciation.

—from "The Dry Salvages," by T. S. Eliot

While trying to form a response to the question, "Why aren't you a neocalvinist?" I find myself uncertain whether it is intended primarily as a broadly philosophical question a person could reasonably ask a wide range of Protestants, or if it really implies an ecclesiological question as well. "Why don't you agree with neocalvinist thought regardless of your church membership?" versus "Why don't you belong to a Reformed church denomination where neocalvinism has some purchase?"

In the past I would have restricted myself to the first question. I would have said that I saw (and I still do see) much that is admirable in neocalvinism as the only sustained alternative in North American Protestantism to marxist thought and political action that has also been attentive to critical insights on the left (and the traditionalist right) regarding modern, social and political problems. Early in my exposure to neocalvinism, it struck me as being unique in this way within all of Anglo-American Protestantism, barring some parts of the Anglican tradition that barely exist now and which have in many cases adopted radical marxist and gay liberationist agendas. Along with the parallel, ongoing movements in the Catholic church that influenced Abraham Kuyper over a century ago, neocalvinism has an older, deeper, and wiser basis for understanding the modern age than its other co-religionists with a Reformation heritage.

"Killing of the fathers"

To account for my partial admiration from a distance, I would have singled out points of historiographical and philosophical disagreement, starting with the facile critiques and rejections of various straw men: the various -isms, whole groups of people, historical eras, key figures and bodies of thought that neocalvinism has discarded. In this discarding process a deeply parochial anti-intellectualism is ironically built into the foundations of a movement ostensibly aiming at a cultural and intellectual renaissance. From Herman Dooyeweerd to Francis Schaeffer and Nancy Pearcey, a confessionally partisan, self-legitimating history is told, apparently in total ignorance of and complete contradiction to established historical and theological scholarship of at least the past three decades. "Humanism," pretty much from the Renaissance on is labelled a groundswell of autonomist individualism. "Greek thought" is deemed to be fatally flawed with pernicious "dualisms." Catholic thought is dispatched with antiquated generalizations about particular thomistic ideas which are then projected on all Catholic doctrine and belief for the past eight centuries. The real history of monasticism and late medieval/early modern ideas about vocation, and the spiritual and secular domains go untold in favour of a leveling "white hats v. black hats" narrative. Out with all of the above goes natural theology and any serious credit to reason untouched by right Christian (that is, Reformed) faith and doctrine. I have too much C. S. Lewis in me, among other things, to tolerate this Reformed chronological snobbery and "killing of the fathers" that undervalues those who have come before, or those in other folds, in order to overvalue its own elect, attributing to them a presumptive intellectual superiority. Never one to hide from a paradoxical reality, Martin Luther said it is better to be ruled by a smart pagan than an ignorant Christian, and a lot of Christians who have bought into some version of Dooyeweerd's "Whig" view of history strike me as willfully ignorant to the extent that they adhere to the myopic, rejectionist, backslapping groupthink of Dooyeweerd's identity-forming narrative.

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