Neocalvinism . . . for Christian renewal: a comprehensive, 'insider' response

Let me emphasize at the outset that I speak as a neocalvinist "insider," with all the strengths and weaknesses that such "insiderdom" implies... I have been an enthusiastic advocate of its distinctive strengths throughout my adult life
Appears in Summer 2006 Issue: Reading the Bible
June 1 st 2006

I am honoured to respond to two sets of reflections on neocalvinism that have appeared in recent issues of Comment. The first set consists of ten brief reactions to my article "What is to be done . . . toward a neocalvinist agenda?" (December 2005). The second set consists of five essays on the topic "Neocalvinism: yes, no, maybe?" (earlier in this issue). I will first respond briefly to the ten reactions, and then reply in turn to the five essays.

Let me emphasize at the outset that I speak as a neocalvinist "insider," with all the strengths and weaknesses that such "insiderdom" implies. As Bruce Wearne puts it, neocalvinism is "the tradition in which [Wolters] teaches, in which he was educated, and into which he was born." I have been an enthusiastic advocate of its distinctive strengths throughout my adult life. Furthermore, there are strong personal ties that connect me with some of my interlocutors. Four of the ten respondents to my article are former students of mine, and one of the essayists is my close friend and brother-in-law, Harry Van Dyke. In fact, in the interests of full disclosure, I should perhaps also confess that I married a niece of Herman Dooyeweerd!

Perhaps they were just polite

Having made a clean breast of my historical situatedness, let me pick up on some of the observations of the December 2005 respondents to my article. I liked the way Jay Green spoke of "culture, doctrine, and piety" as essential pillars of a full-orbed understanding of what it means to be Reformed. In the North American setting, neocalvinism has indeed emphasized the first pillar, and traditional Presbyterianism the other two. However, I would argue that the example of Kuyper himself shows that such one-sidedness is not intrinsic to the genius of neocalvinism. Something similar could be said about Richard Greydanus' comment that neocalvinism "has never been strong on contemplation of divine mystery." Depending on how he means "contemplation," this may be true. However, I would also refer him to M. C. Smit's inaugural lecture The Divine Mystery in History, as well as Dooyeweerd's notion of the conceptual indefinability of "nuclear moments" and his stress on the limitation of all theoretical inquiry to the temporal world as evidence that his claim needs to be qualified. Joel Hunter takes a probing look at the formulation "grace restores nature" as embodying the fundamental intuition of neocalvinism. He puts his finger on a fundamental point when he says that neocalvinism "run[s] the risk of putting the incarnation at odds with creation, of articulating a christology that interprets incarnation as a means rather than an end." From my perspective, neocalvinism, in fact, deliberately embraces what he sees as a danger. Paul Otto quite rightly stresses that in neocalvinism the Bible and the creation order are mutually illuminating. His formulations remind me of the way Herman Bavinck always stressed the interdependence of special and general revelation. Russ Reeves comments that in my book Creation Regained I tend to treat the key categories of Creation, Fall and Redemption "as static concepts, as frameworks, propositions, patterns, or laws, whereas the Bible treats them as events, narratives, and history." I believe he is putting his finger on something that Mike Goheen and I sought to rectify in the additional chapter (entitled "Worldview between Story and Mission"), which we wrote for the 2005 second edition of my book. Perhaps that chapter will also give at least a partial answer to Russ Kuykendall's probing question, "What is the neocalvinist narrative?" As for what Rob Joustra says about the danger of "inhabiting one's beliefs like a shell," what Eric Miller says about the "inescapable tension" between particular beliefs and epistemological humility, and what George Pierson says about the danger of viewing "grace and the eschaton as triumphing over law," I can only say that I agree entirely.

I must say that I was very gratified by the generally positive tone of the ten reactions to my article. However, I was a bit disappointed (perhaps I should be relieved) that very little was said about the more controversial parts of my article. Not much was said about my claim that neocalvinism and the charismatic movement were essentially compatible, or that we should take more seriously what the scriptures say about slavery or violence. Nor did anyone comment on the way I spoke of "Reformed epistemology" as one philosophical manifestation of neocalvinism on a par with "the Amsterdam school" of Dooyeweerd and Vollenhoven. No one picked up either on my comments concerning the centrality of mission. Perhaps everyone was just being polite.

Digging in: a school of thought or a renewal movement?

Things get a bit more forthright with the five essays—published in this print issue—which deal, not with my article, but with neocalvinism in general. I note that the essayists in question all took neocalvinism in a more restricted sense than I had myself, generally limiting it to the "reformational" tradition of the Amsterdam school, and in one case focusing especially on Kuyper. Most also focused on neocalvinism as a school of thought, rather than a more general, Christian renewal movement.

(1) I regard Jamie Smith as one of the most impressive young academics in the reformational movement today, and I resonated strongly with what he said in "Neocalvinism. . . Maybe: A peek into my neocalvinist toolbox." The title of his contribution is rather misleading. I would classify him as a dyed-in-the-wool neocalvinist (with commendable charismatic tendencies), who wants to call it back to its true identity.

Of course the neocalvinist set of tools is incomplete and needs to be adjusted and expanded! And yes, the fault lies as much with the users as with the tools themselves. However, if every school of thought were to be primarily judged by the lives and opinions of its followers, then each would be found significantly wanting. To be sure, if neocalvinism is simply identified with neoconservatism, then we may need a stronger word than "maybe" to express our reservations about it. But I myself do not see that identification. I see instead the writings of such theorists as David Koyzis and Jim Skillen as representing neocalvinist thought in the area of political life.

I can find little to disagree with in the "ifs" which Jamie lists to justify his "maybe." Yes, neocalvinists need to recover a more robust sense of the antithesis. Yes, neocalvinists need to see themselves as part of the catholic tradition. Yes, neocalvinism can welcome the charismatic renewal. And yes, it might be pushing it a bit to envisage a Reformed monasticism—but it has been done. There are some remarkable passages in the writings of the aforementioned M. C. Smit which show considerable appreciation for the monastic ideal as countercultural rather than anticultural.

(2) The essay I found most provocative was of course the one by Daniel Knauss, entitled "Neocalvinism . . . No: Why I am not a neocalvinist." I do not know Mr. Knauss, but I feel enough sympathy for his impassioned cri de coeur to think of him as a friend, and I will take the liberty of calling him Dan. Dan makes a crucial distinction between what I will call neocalvinism as an intellectual movement and neocalvinism as a communal—and ecclesiastically grounded—way of life. Despite all his scathing criticisms of neocalvinism in general, he retains quite a high regard for it as an intellectual movement. In fact, he calls it "the only sustained alternative in North American Protestantism to marxist thought and political action that has been attentive to critical insights on the left (and the traditionalist right) regarding modern, social and political problems." Mind you, he then proceeds to list a host of intellectual failings in neocalvinism as well, but these are secondary (and partly based on misunderstanding). As Dan himself says, "none of these critical objections explains, in themselves, why I am not interested in being a neocalvinist." The real reason why he rejects neocalvinism is that it has failed, in his view, to move beyond intellectual commitments to communal and ecclesial commitments. In his own journey he has found neocalvinism of no help at all in finding a church and community which is both socially and culturally engaged and rooted in historic Christian orthodoxy. Neocalvinism is of no help to him here, because "it now increasingly shares with fissiparous free-church evangelicalism a detachment from a defined ecclesiological reality, from concrete communities."

The problem which Dan describes is a very real one, and he is right to insist on it. I myself know many (ex-)neocalvinists who suffer as he does, and I do not know what to say to him or them. Part of the answer is given by Dan himself, when he writes, "If . . . neocalvinism must leave behind the confessional communities in which it was nourished and is most intelligible, then it becomes something else—something rather flat and hollow." Implicit in this sentence is the thought that neocalvinists should stay in the Dutch Reformed tradition which gave birth to neocalvinism. In fact, that has been my own choice. But of course that is little help to people like Dan himself, who grew up elsewhere and was disappointed when he attached himself to a Reformed church. Of course, the situation he describes is typical of all renewal movements in the history of the church. The adherents of such movements almost always find themselves significantly alienated from the existing Christian communities of their day. I can only encourage Dan to stick with an imperfectly faithful local body of believers which will baptize and catechize his children—and not to reject neocalvinism because it does not provide him with a nurturing church home or community.

(3) The great virtue of Harry Van Dyke's contribution ("Neocalvinism . . . Yes: Do we have a choice?"), apart from the fact that it gives a ringing endorsement of this particular contemporary renewal movement, is that it is based on an intimate knowledge of the history of neocalvinism, and that it therefore highlights the fact that this movement has never been an exclusively intellectual movement. To begin with, he highlights the central place of the institutional church in neocalvinism from the beginning. As he puts it, "Abraham Kuyper dressed his generation in Sunday suits for attending church—that first of all." But Van Dyke then adds: "[Kuyper] went on to outfit them in business suits and overalls for participating in the workaday world." In other words, to claim that neocalvinism is just a matter of theory is to ignore the fact that in many areas of life (Van Dyke mentions art, politics, journalism, agriculture, industrial relations, education, among others) neocalvinism has encouraged and equipped believers to bring their faith to bear on the concrete issues of their vocational lives. It may be true that these efforts (like so many of our efforts to live sanctified lives) have often been puny and inadequate, and in any case have not been very "successful" in terms of turning the secularist tide, but they have been successful in a truer sense, as faithful expressions of a biblical kingdom vision.

(4) The piece by Janel L. Curry ("Neocalvinism . . . Yes, but . . .") illustrates the fact that neocalvinism is indeed particularly strong in the intellectual realm. Her essay is a dense and powerful demonstration of how hard intellectual work done out of a neocalvinist perspective can yield significant fruit in a particular academic discipline, in this case geography. As in the case of Jamie Smith, Curry's reservations about neocalvinism are more about its users than about the movement itself. She worries about their use of esoteric jargon, and about talking more to each other than to professional colleagues in their field. She is right to worry about these things. At the same time, it is heartening to observe that many neocalvinist academics are learning to overcome these limitations. Increasingly, mainstream professional journals and prestigious secular publishers are carrying the work of neocalvinist scholars, and they are learning to communicate more effectively in their own professional guilds. The danger, of course, is that they will mask or lose their antithetical edge.

(5) Finally, a brief word about the contribution by Clifford Anderson ("Neocalvinism . . . Abraham Kuyper? Maybe"). Among other things, he focuses on a key concept in Kuyper's thought, namely "worldview," and contrasts this with Karl Barth's use of the same term. It is undoubtedly true that "worldview" (and its various synonyms) plays a pivotal role in Kuyper's thought and in subsequent neocalvinism. It was as a culturetransforming worldview, not just a theology that Kuyper pitted calvinism against the liberalism of his day as a competitor for hegemony in the public square. Anderson is certainly right in pointing out that Barth's rejection of the term betrays a significant difference between Kuyper and Barth. In my judgment, this difference has its roots in the quite different way in which these two thinkers construed the relationship between nature and grace. For Kuyper, the notion of worldview functions as a mediating category between Christian faith ("grace") and culture ("nature"), and helps to clarify and operationalize the cultural significance of the basic neocalvinist intuition that "grace restores nature." For Barth, however, there is a dialectical relationship between grace and nature, and any attempt to translate faith into culture-engaging practice via a Weltanschauung is bound to compromise the gospel.

This reference to the nature-grace relationship is a fitting point to conclude my comments. In my opinion it is especially the "grace-restores-nature" theme which defines the genius of neocalvinism. Among other things, it clarifies the way this movement has understood the crucial but limited role of church and academy within an overall vision of all of life as religion. On this topic I recommend to my readers Jan Veenhof's seminal essay "Nature and Grace in Bavinck," which will soon be appearing in the journal Pro Rege.

Topics: Religion

Al Wolters is Professor Emeritus of Religion and Theology/Classical Languages at Redeemer University College. He served as a Senior Member at the Institute for Christian Studies in Toronto from 1974-1984, received his doctorate in philosophy from the Free University of Amsterdam in 1972, and is the author of Creation Regained: Biblical Basics for a Reformational Worldview.