What is to be done . . . toward a neocalvinist agenda?
What is to be done . . . toward a neocalvinist agenda?

What is to be done . . . toward a neocalvinist agenda?

The preceding article by Dr. Al Wolters sparked significant conversation and debate. Comment presents a selection of these responses, printed below in alphabetical order.

December 1 st 2005

The preceding article by Dr. Al Wolters sparked significant conversation and debate. Comment presents a selection of these responses, printed below in alphabetical order.

Al Wolters's recent essay in Comment provides an important moment of reflection for all who have a stake in the neocalvinist agenda. I write as a Presbyterian, and my part in the neocalvinist agenda has come mainly from working at a relatively conservative Presbyterian college.

It may be an understatement to say that an uneasy relationship exists between neocalvinists and anglocalvinists of the traditional, Westminster Confession mold. With some justice, neocalvinists have variously considered these theological cousins biblicists, fundamentalists, pietists, rationalists, and garden variety dualists. In turn, many of us have been suspicious of neocalvinism because of what some see as its dangerous obsession with culture, its overly ideological reading of the Scriptures, its triumphalistic spirit, its marginal assessment of the Church, and its disdain for classical doctrine, traditional evangelism, and warm-hearted piety.

It may therefore surprise some to learn that my employer, Covenant College (the college of the Presbyterian Church in America), has required and highly commended Al Wolters's book Creation Regained to its freshmen and new faculty for many years, and considers itself a significant beneficiary of Abraham Kuyper. Beginning in the early 1970s, perhaps due to the impact of our own Francis Schaeffer and his emphasis on what the historian George Marsden later called "cultural Calvinism," a movement of our faculty enlisted neocalvinism as an antidote to some debilitating blind spots in our own tradition. After many faculty reading groups and a famous pilgrimage to Toronto, a consensus emerged that would push us to embrace and unpack the deep cultural implications of our Christian witness.

Thanks in no small part to the neocalvinist vision, Covenant faculty and students were reawakened to our creational responsibilities, sobered by the now-ness of Christ's preeminence over all the earth, challenged to broaden our conception of fallenness and our vision of redemption, and charged with the task of engaging, integrating, and making His reign known in every sphere and structure of life. Lord willing, these ideals continue to anchor all that we do as a community of learning and service.

But I don't think any of us believes that our admittedly myopic vision was improved and enlarged by exchanging the heritage of Scottish Presbyterianism for that of Dutch neocalvinism. We never bought into the logic that suggested an implicit disparity between serious cultural engagement and evangelical piety. Culture, doctrine, and piety: all essential pillars of the Reformed witness in our world, each informing, correcting, and enriching the others.

I therefore applaud Professor Wolters's essay, first, for reaffirming the essence of what has made neocalvinism such a vital force in Christian thought. Its prophetic challenge and corrective potency are evident here in ways too many to count. But I also applaud Professor Wolters because he plainly states the dangers of embracing one dimension of Reformed Christianity to the exclusion of others. Just as my Presbyterian forebears sought and received correction along the Toronto Trail, perhaps the neocalvinist agenda might experience a revival, so to speak, from an infusion of Puritan preaching and piety. I don't know if this is what Professor Wolters has in mind, but it might be worth considering.

Jay Green is Associate Professor of History at Covenant College where he is in his eighth year of service. He received his BA from Taylor University, an MA from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, and the PhD at Kent State University. He is a ruling elder in the Presbyterian Church in America, and a former elder in the Christian Reformed Church. He is married and has three children.

Al Wolters claims that the neocalvinist tradition is situated in "a broad strand of catholic Christianity" extending back to such men as Irenaeus, John Chrysostom, and Augustine of Hippo. So I ask, how so? Take Augustine for example. His theology and philosophy are virtually impossible to separate and the whole of his thinking is oriented towards what "no eye has seen, no ear has heard, no mind has conceived, what God has prepared for those who love him" (I Cor 2.9).

So far as I know, the debate over the relation between theology and philosophy in neocalvinist circles is far from over. Herman Dooyeweerd provides us with the tools to get at the religious foundations of philosophy. But neocalvinists love to discuss the structural makeup of reality. This tends to preclude recognizing those things which are, in theological terms, ultimately incomprehensible. Reformed epistemologists have, as Professor Wolters says, "never been strong on the challenge of providing a systematic account of the structural make-up of reality."

Are neocalvinist thinkers heirs of Augustine et al.? Certainly. But how? The neocalvinist tradition, in my perspective, has never been strong on contemplation of divine mystery or our unknowable future. H. Richard Niebuhr in Christ and Culture writes, "whatever our capacities to state relatively inclusive and intelligible answers to the problem of Christ and culture, they all meet their limit in a moral imperative that commands, 'Thus far shalt thou go and no further.'"

Richard Greydanus served as a summer intern for the Work Research Foundation in 2005. He graduated Redeemer University College (Ancaster, Ontario) in May, 2005 with a B.A. (Honours History & Philosophy majors, Classical Studies minor), and started graduate studies at McMaster University (Hamilton) in History in the fall of 2005.

Of the many remarks in Al Wolters's meditation that struck my fancy, I want to focus on his suggestion that "the time may have come to find new terms for the fundamental intuition ("grace restores nature") or to forge new philosophical categories to give more adequate expression to it in the twenty-first century." I couldn't agree more and I foresee this as perhaps one of my own philosophical projects in the near future.

I like the formulation, "grace restores nature," because in the expression of an essential duality, grace and nature, is contained an equally essential relatedness. They are related inextricably by a concrete and historical outworking of Restoration. Grace is essentially restorative. It renovates, renews, heals. The "re-" in "restoration" connotes a return, a repair, a recovering, a mending of some original situation. God's grace is the gift to the world, the pouring out of healing, the loving curative for sin which is centered on the cross. Thus, I think that neocalvinism's "basic Christian intuition" is spot on. As a reformational Christian movement, it is not surprising that Grace is in clearer thematic focus. So we have a more or less fully-orbed neocalvinist interpretation of grace and restoration. What is needed, I think, is a correlative thematic focusing on the other "pole" of the relationship: nature. We need to very clear what is meant by "nature" now: Physis, Natura, or Tekne?

Nature is defined as "created reality" or "structured creation." When we interpret nature in terms of some constitutive and normative creational ideal prior to the misshaping and misdirection of the Fall, then we make the status of the Incarnation problematic. We need to take care that our understanding of nature does not entail a diminished understanding of Incarnation. If the purpose of salvation in Christ is interpreted as "renewed conformity to creational law," then I think we run the risk of putting the incarnation at odds with creation, of articulating a christology that interprets incarnation as a means rather than an end. If the incarnation is primarily for the sake of the reinstitution of "stable parameters" to which we are to return, then I think the traditionally articulated antinomies are profoundly unhelpful for a distinctly Christian orientation within (and toward) nature. As long as that antagonism remains unexamined and unthematized, then neocalvinism will indeed remain an "idiosyncratic sectarian movement" of traditional metaphysics rather than a contemporary manifestation of catholic Christianity.

I think Wolters's suggestion to seek out new terms is not radical enough if it does not encourage rethinking the entire antinomic schematism (nature and spirit, law and grace, church and world, etc.). Insofar as neocalvinist explication of reality proceeds down these well-worn paths, then I fear that this way of understanding nature never escapes traditional metaphysics. What is needed is a grown-up phenomenological investigation of creation on a totally different trajectory, namely, creation as cosmogony . . . It is the origin of this world, the origin of the whole structured realm of experience, comprising both experiencing and experienced, that begs for christocentric explication. Such a task for neocalvinist philosophy would involve a trail-blazing philosophy, beyond the traditional theme of creation laid out as a unitary complex of appearances, to a meontic theme of creation as the temporally unfinished cultivating task of Incarnation.

Joel Hunter is a doctoral candidate in Philosophy at the University of Kentucky. His area of specialty is twentieth-century philosophical approaches to natural science from a continental perspective. His dissertation is a phenomenological investigation of the measurement problem in quantum mechanics. Joel discovered that he had neocalvinist intuitions when he picked up the study of aesthetics. He currently serves as an elder in the Presbyterian Church in America.

Before I encountered Al Wolters's writing in University I was easily one of the "20-somethings who didn't know much about neocalvinism at all," and relatively disenchanted with the neocalvinist traditional for what I perceived as its thin spirituality and legalistic intellectualism. Reformed theology and neocalvinism struck me as divisive, and aloof to the insights of those other traditions that I had and have grown to find so important.

Yet perhaps the most exciting element of neocalvinism and Professor Wolters's article on "What is to be done?" is the exposure of the non-paradoxical relationship between insistent particularity and profound ecumenism—as he writes, "insistent particularity was the precondition for profound catholicity." In a tradition which has long stood prominent for its reputation for division and debate, we meet in the later works of Herman Dooyeweerd and in Professor Wolters's own assertions an agenda to finally appropriate the roots of this tradition. This radical and existential encounter with the roots of neocalvinism cannot but form the very essence of ecumenism. The most destructive man is the one who inhabits his beliefs like a shell, a tendency we neocalvinists must confess and recognize. But when the Word of God is infused through all of life, the great championing element of neocalvinism itself, both within and without, then we have found the place where insistent particularity, that is paying attention to the essence and intuition of neocalvinism, will indeed be the precondition for profound catholicity. Then we can learn to look beyond our narrow sectarian lenses, and see the Spirit, whom we know from the very bowels of our own tradition, in all the places and spaces of life and worship.

Ecumenism, rather than a search for the "lowest common denominator," becomes instinctive. I cannot imagine, for such a time as this, a more encouraging or exciting possibility for the traditions of the one faith.

Rob Joustra graduated Redeemer University College (Ancaster, Ontario) in 2005. He was a WRF research and administration intern in the summer of 2005, and currently teaches English in Japan, while preparing for graduate-level studies.

In the Scholium to his Principia (1686/87) in which he introduces and formulates his new physics, Isaac Newton identifies, in part, the metaphysical basis for his new paradigm: the universal rule of God over creation. Here and elsewhere in his Opticks (1704), Newton discloses why he set out to create one physics for both the terrestrial and the celestial, to replace the old Aristotelian physics. Aristotle's paradigm had one physics for the celestial and another physics for the terrestrial. Newton reasons that if both the heavens and the earth have one, "Universal Ruler," there should be one set of laws of motion for both. In the Scholium, Newton briefly develops the implications of God as "Universal Ruler" for Lordship (Cf. E. A. Burtt's The Metaphysical Foundations of Modern Science and his chapter on Newton).

Newton's new paradigm was central to the scientific revolution, and framed the major questions in physics at least until the appearance of Einstein's correction of Newtonian physics and the subsequent quantum mechanics. Although we may have questions about certain other aspects of both Newton's theology and his science, the Principia may represent among the finest exemplars of how the systematic theological categories of "general" and "specific" revelation can interact and inform one another. Put another way, Newton recovered, in part, the interaction between the two great narratives: the narrative of Scripture and the narrative of Creation.

What may have been neocalvinism's greatest contribution to the magisterial Reformation tradition framed by Calvinist thought was its recovery of this narrative of Creation and the implications of the Maker's pronouncement on what He created: "God saw all that He had made, and behold, it was very good" (Genesis 1:31, NASB). Al Wolters calls for neocalvinism, now, to recover "a fresh or continued engagement with Scripture on the part of neocalvinist academics and other cultural leaders." He issues similar calls for taking Scriptural authority seriously, for a recovery of spirituality, and for neocalvinists to accept a cue from Pentecostals in taking seriously the intangible realities of demons and the Holy Spirit. Wolters's call for a "true ecumenicity" that depends on biblical rootedness strikes a chord in my own faith tradition. But it is in the interaction between the Scriptural narrative and the Creational narrative that a movement to redeem the culture must ground, inform, intellectually and spiritually enrich itself, and prepare itself for the engagement with opposition. I take Wolters's call for "a fresh or continued engagement with Scripture" to include an interaction between, and integration of, the Scriptural and Creational narratives.

That is why projects like the Bartholomew and Goheen effort to recover an understanding of the unity of the OT/NT and give expression to its narrative in The Drama of Scripture are so important. Narratives—modernist/liberal, Jewish, Muslim, Christian, or whatever—re important for their power to animate, to cohere, to move, and to instill confidence. What I've read of the new Benedict suggests that he wants to focus on "the narrative," particularly with respect to European modernism (now, in its death throes) and Islam.

So, to the "What is to be done?" question, let me pose these questions: What is the neocalvinist narrative? What is the animating, cohering, moving, and confidenceinstilling story? And, who will write it?

Russ Kuykendall is Senior Researcher with the Work Research Foundation, formerly a political staffer at the Parliament of Canada and the Ontario Provincial Parliament for some eleven years. Prior to this, Russ served in the pastoral ministry for some eleven years.

Any healthy tradition has already made the crucial discovery that liberality and catholicity are virtues, essential for survival in history's rough corridor. The presence of liberality and catholicity within a mature tradition reflects a carefully cultivated communal ability to live within a difficult but inescapable tension: the need of a given people to affirm particular beliefs and practices even as they remain humbly aware of the partial nature of the knowledge that defines and guides them.

Dissolve this tension and endanger the tradition. It is Professor Wolters's sensitivity to this tension that I find most heartening. He knows that this dynamic state is something that must be aimed for, not evaded. And he is attending not only to the intellectual dimensions of the Dutch calvinist tradition, but to the ecclesial and spiritual as well, recognizing that the quality of intellectual life is intimately connected to praxis and worship. In this light, the concerns he underlines—from his worry about the future of Dutch scholarship to his openness to charismatic Christians—seem to me to indicate a wise vantage.

Inasmuch as calvinists of most stripes seem to have a chronic (and ironic) inability to live with a mess, it's particularly noteworthy to me that Professor Wolters displays an openness to learn from evangelicalism, an ecclesiastical and theological mess from "the get-go." But as he seems to intuit, in this age messiness and vitality usually go together. Evangelicalism's manifestations may require close scrutiny, but the evangelical impulse itself—at its best, both liberal and catholic—is not just understandable. It is necessary.

Eric Miller teaches history at Geneva College in Beaver Falls, Pennsylvania. His primary areas of interest are U.S. intellectual and cultural history, and the history of political thought.

Throughout Al Wolters's essay, we find an emphasis upon the Bible and upon the creation order. Here, I think, we find the foundation upon which neocalvinists can pursue an ecumenical embrace of their philosophy. I have long been troubled by the unwillingness or inability (or both) of many neocalvinist thinkers to share their vision with, well, those who aren't Dutch or Christian Reformed or both. But I acknowledge the great difficulties in doing so. Speaking of "modal aspects," "sphere sovereignty," "law and subject side," "meaning-nucleus," and so forth, usually leaves the uninitiated Christian confused.

"True ecumenicity," writes Professor Wolters, "will always depend on biblical . . . rootedness." And indeed, it is the Bible that opens up to us the creation order. The authority of the Bible is also a point which neocalvinists share, at least on the surface, with many of their Christian brethren. I was recently asked by a group of students on my campus to share with them "the Biblical basis for justice." This group had just formed, calling themselves Quaere Verum (seek the truth). Mostly of evangelical background or persuasion, they nevertheless recognized that their faith meant more than "worship and evangelism," as one of them put it. So I joined their meeting and opened the Scriptures for them saying that Christians too often read their Bible from the perspective of the Fall and not from (the Biblically revealed) perspective of the creation order. From there I was able to highlight Scripture's emphasis on our creational calling as human beings, God's ongoing concern for his creation, the creation's own corruption by evil, and the responsibility of God's people to fulfill their task as God's image bearers and empowered through Christ's redemptive work. This was certainly new to them, but it was clear that they began to see the world through new eyes. One student said she found it "refreshing, inspiring, and encouraging . . . because it addressed so much of what I have been struggling to understand on my own." I can't say that during my short presentation I turned them into neocalvinists, but I can say that by turning to Scripture, I helped them begin to see the importance of the creation order and the radical implications for Christian living.

Paul Otto is Associate Professor of History at George Fox University in Newberg, Oregon. He is the author of The Dutch-Munsee Encounter in America: The Struggle for Sovereignty in the Hudson Valley (Berghahn Books, 2005).

Al Wolters, as always, speaks with clarity and insight. His assessment of neocalvinism is right on target but I'd like to highlight some areas.

First, the distinction between "structure" and "direction" is both the most original, the most crucial, and the most often misunderstood, concept of neocalvinism. While the notion of "worldview" has become common in the broader Christian community, the concepts of "structure" and "direction," which respectively reference both God's ordered creation, and the radical effects of sin, are either missed or misconstrued. These terms don't translate well, but that is not so much the result of the terms' problem as it is of an increasingly antinomian culture.

This leads to another emphasis. While the broader evangelical world is ripe for many neocalvinist insights (for example, most evangelicals today are very open about redeeming all of creation), evangelicals are hindered by what Professor Wolters rightly describes as a tendency in some neocalvinistic quarters to not take the authority of Scripture seriously. I have personally seen the interest in neocalvinist thinking among evangelicals plummet when they see the Scriptures handled badly. A high view of Scripture is not only what the Scriptures deserve, but the sure bridge to the broader evangelical world. A renewed submission to Scripture would also correct a recent tendency in some neocalvinist quarters to view grace and the eschaton as triumphing over law.

Finally I would plead for more publishing. When I get someone interested in neocalvinism, they always ask "what can I read?" After Professor Wolters's Creation Regained, the list gets real short real quick. Roy Clouser's The Myth of Religious Neutrality is great, but more is needed.

George Pierson is Associate Professor of Philosophy at Trinity Christian College in suburban Chicagoland, where he has taught since 1987. He earned his bachelor's degree from Allegheny College, and has done graduate work at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, the Institute for Christian Studies, and the Catholic University of America.

I purchased Al Wolters's Creation Regained: Biblical Basics for a Neocalvinist Worldview off a clearance shelf in a Southern California Christian bookstore. I had no background in neocalvinist circles. For that matter, I had no idea what the author even meant by "reformational." But, coming at a transitional point in my Christian life, this book offered a set of categories that reshaped the way I thought about creation, sin, salvation, and my calling as a Christian. It is my pleasure, then, to offer three random responses to Professor Wolters's random reflections.

First, my impression is that for most evangelicals, neocalvinism's common grace openness to cultural expression is its most compelling distinctive. While I did find this appealing in discovering neocalvinism, I was at least as drawn to its formulation of the antithesis, and I am encouraged by Professor Wolters's call for a renewed appreciation of this theme. When playing cards was second only to seeing a Charlie Chaplin film in the hierarchy of personal sin, the liberating message of neocalvinism to appreciate culture needed to be heard, but we live in a time when no product of popular culture is too crass or obscene to result in the claim of a "God sighting" of some sort. The slogan (and I suspect the slogans of neocalvinism have become one of its worst enemies) of "engaging culture" is a multivalent concept. It could mean participation, but could also take a martial or marital meaning. The spiritual warfare aspect of a neocalvinist world and life view needs renewed attention. The primary reason for this is not so much the degradation of the broader culture. The greatest insight of neocalvinism, here, is that the antithesis cuts through us, rather than marking a boundary around us, so a new appreciation for the antithesis means first and foremost greater attention to our own spiritual development.

Secondly, Professor Wolters expresses a concern that his categories of structure and direction no longer communicate well. I am not sure this is true, but I do have a broader dissatisfaction with these and some of his other terminology. There is a lack of movement, of narrative, in these terms. Even the first chapters of Creation Regained, though titled for the elements of the Creation, Fall, and Redemption (yet, no Consummation) narrative, tend to treat these elements as static concepts, as frameworks, propositions, patterns, or laws, whereas the Bible treats them as events, narratives, and history. When there is motion, it seems to move in the wrong direction; the phrase "grace restores nature" carries an inevitable connotation of repristination, as if the goal of grace is to get Christians back to what Adam was. But God's redeeming grace does not return us to the state of Adam under probation in Eden; rather, it resurrects us in Christ, who has passed the test and clothes us in his righteousness (affirming such a statement would require a full-orbed commitment to covenantal theology and a doctrine of Christ's active obedience). I wonder if the themes Professor Wolters defines as central to neocalvinism could be preserved and better expressed with reference to eschatology than exclusively to creation?

Finally, I think neocalvinism should be appreciated and advanced as a mode of reflection, one that must be in harmony with our fundamental theological commitments and spiritual practice, but that is not itself a self-sufficient theology or spirituality. This is a more narrow vision for neocalvinism than some would hold, but I think it is essential for a biblically-based perspective. A neocalvinist should seek a comprehensive Christian faith that extends beyond theology and the church to all aspects of life, but never one that leaves theology and church behind. We live by God's grace in all aspects of life, but God gives us the means of grace in his church, and neocalvinism rightly understood should not undermine God's high calling for his church. It has become almost a requirement for critics to fault neocalvinism for its failure to give proper place to the church, to a degree that one need hardly understand neocalvinism to launch the objection. But both those targeted by the criticism as well as the critics themselves expect more from neocalvinism than they should. Neocalvinism is neither a substitute nor a means for creating a healthy church; rather. Neocalvinism is itself dependent for its health on a church that faithfully prays and proclaims the gospel in Word and Sacrament. It is in this context that neocalvinism can thrive.

Russ P. Reeves teaches history and humanities at Providence Christian College, a newly established Reformed liberal arts college in Ontario, California. He and his wife are expecting their fourth child in June, and are members of Grace Presbyterian Church (PCA) in Yorba Linda, California.

Al Wolters's paper reminds me of hearing, as a student, his 1974 inaugural lecture at the Institute for Christian Studies, "Ourselves in the Philosophical Tradition." Like that lecture, this set of "random reflections" gives expression to a neocalvinist sense of obligation. Professor Wolters reflects upon the tradition in which he teaches, in which he was educated, and into which he was born. His reflections are about finding a neocalvinistic openness, so that our lives can be filled with the good things God has for us in bringing others across our path to serve his purposes. Professor Wolters knows that such openness should characterize relations among neocalvinists, and in particular between those who have and those who have not been born, raised, educated and employed in such a context.

In a recent project I have written two books, one on Mark and another on Acts. A third on the Apocalypse is under way. Through this writing I have been reminded that the Holy Spirit's work is always characterized by an "insistent particularity" and "profound catholicity." This is the true path to openness. John the Evangelist tells us of Peter's turn to ask Jesus about John and Jesus' reply—Follow me!—confirms this same pattern. The John of the Apocalypse turns to see the One addressing him and is sent with seven letters to give to the seven churches who are to hear what the Spirit says to each of them in the context of hearing what the Spirit says to all.

Al Wolters is quite right. Neocalvinism needs to rediscover the Bible.

Bruce C. Wearne lives in Point Lonsdale, Australia, where he seeks a place for Christian higher education after fifteen years of political reforms. He is an Honorary Research Associate at Monash University in Victoria, where he also supports the Christian Radical Club, a student initiative for vocational empowerment.

Topics: Religion
Jay Green
Jay Green

Jay Green is Professor of History at Covenant College.

Richard Greydanus
Richard Greydanus

Richard Greydanus started a Masters of Philosophy in 2006 at the Institute for Christian Studies in Toronto. This effort follows previous degrees from McMaster University (Masters in History) in 2006 and Redeemer University College (B.A., Honours History & Philosophy majors, Classical Studies minor) in 2005.


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