Do you speak kuyperian? Or, the neocalvinist language barrier

Neocalvinism is an idea whose time has come. But its long overdue impact hinges on stripping away jargon to explain the roots of the movement.

September 11 th 2009

Jargon—the vocabulary peculiar to a particular group—can provide common ground from which meaning and communication can flourish. But it can be also be a quicksand that traps and drowns ideas and understanding. Whether in science, philosophy or religion, the use of recondite terminology has a tendency to impede the dissemination of useful concepts and theories.

This is certainly true when it comes to the ideas behind neocalvinism. As a cultural movement, neocalvinism offers an intriguing alternative to the options for engagement that are often on offer in the church. But for the uninitiated, attempting to understand what the philosophy is all about can be a daunting and exhausting task.

To begin with, the term neocalvinist is itself misleading and has a polarizing connotation. The prefix implies that it's referring to a new brand of calvinism, an update perhaps on TULIP or the Canons of Dort. Instead, the neo modifies a term—calvinism—that refers not merely to the basic theological system, but rather to what Abraham Kuyper called a particular "life and worldview."

It's this connection to Kuyper that leads some people to abandon the term neocalvinism altogether in favor of the catchier term: kuyperianism. Like calvinism, the term has the advantage (and weakness) of being tied to a singular genius. Others, who want to avoid this narrow connection to a specific individual, adopt the descriptive phrase "reformational philosophy"—a term that parallels many modern calvinists embrace of the less polarizing "reformed theology."

Although "kuyperianism" and "reformational philosophy" do not carry the connotational baggage of neocalvinism, the plurality of terms can cause confusion about whether the terms refer to a unified movement or to distinctive subcultures within the movement.

But the name is just the beginning. Once you know what to call this worldview, the hard work of understanding it begins in earnest. Slogging through the important names o the personalities and technical terminology of the movement can be a frustrating experience, even for the most motivated and intellectually curious novitiates. Almost all of the key founding thinkers—Herman Bavinck, Herman Dooyeweerd, Guillaume Groen Van Prinsterer, D. H. Th. Vollenhoven—were from the Netherlands and completely unfamiliar to most North Americans. Many of their primary works are difficult to find or are expensive to obtain in English translations (Dooyeweerd's books sell for over $100 per copy on Amazon).

Then there is the terminology—almost all of which is abstract, complex and ill-defined. When I first became interested in neocalvinism, I spent several hours just trying to pin down what was meant by pluriformity. The other terms I needed to learn just to follow the conversation—sphere sovereignty, differentiated responsibility, modal aspects—nearly scared me away.

I soon realized that, short of learning to read academic Dutch or moving to Ancaster, Ontario and plunking down the tuition at Redeemer College, the options for gaining a solid education in neocalvinist thought were extremely limited.

This is why when those of us who didn't grow up in the Dutch Reformed church (I'm a lifelong Southern Baptist) or in Sioux Center, Iowa (I'm a native Texan) learn about neocalvinism, it is almost always mediated through second-hand sources like Francis Schaeffer or Charles Colson. This "neocalvinism lite" is better than nothing, of course, but it lacks the richness and sophistication of the more undiluted form.

What is needed for the movement to expand is a broad range of bilingual cultural missionaries who are able to translate the jargon of neocalvinism into common vernaculars (in my case, evangelicalese).

Such distillation is already being carried out at the academic level (the work of Roy Clouser, for example, is indispensable for those how want to grasp the basics of Dooyeweerd's thought), but rarely is an attempt made to communicate the key concepts at the popular level. The only two introductory works that I can think of that are broadly accessible—Albert Wolters's Creation Regained and Paul Marshall's Heaven is Not My Home—are still more than many Christians are able to digest.

For the movement to truly have an influence on the North American church—and after a hundred years it's long overdue for it to have a more substantial impact—there needs to be a massive educational program implemented by every individual neocalvinist. At a minimum, we need dozen of books, hundreds of articles, and thousands of one-on-one conversations in which neocalvinist thought is presented in a comprehensible manner for an unfamiliar audience.

This means that all of us, from the philosophy professors to the artists to the union members, need to find a way to engage those we come in contact with. Each person who sits in a pew on Sunday and engages culture the rest of the week should be able not only to live out our "life and worldview" but also to be able to explain it to others who are hungry for a more robust means of engagement with the world.

Neocalvinism is an idea whose time has come. But it can't spread through the culture when those of us who are interested in learning more are getting trapped in a morass of jargon.

Topics: Religion
 

Joe Carter is the web editor for First Things and an adjunct professor of journalism at Patrick Henry College. A fifteen-year Marine Corps veteran, he previously served as the managing editor for The East Texas Tribune and the online magazine Culture11. Joe has also served as the Director of Research and Rapid Response for the Mike Huckabee for President campaign and as a director of communications for both the Center for Bioethics and Human Dignity and Family Research Council. He is the co-author of How to Argue like Jesus: Learning Persuasion from History's Greatest Communicator.

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