Sunday, May 31, 2015

Neo-Calvinism: early failures and post-Reflections

This post can be similarly titled, "For and Against Van Til." I've decided not to write this in a strictly logical order. Rather, it will be written in Nietzschean style [bracketed paragraph numbering]. As a side note: I have read William Young's WTJ article on Neo-Calvinism. I have no problem with it. He simply points out that Neo-Calvinism tended to denigrate experiential religion. Perhaps they did. That's an emphasis argument, though, and does not bear on whether other distinctives are true or false. (And almost identically tragic results can be found in the Anglo-Scottish Calvinist tradition).


What would Neo-Calvinism look like without its emphasis on politics? Yeah, I know sphere sovereignty and all that, but let's be honest: among neo-Calvinists what gets talked about the most, the church or politics?


One area where Neo-Calvinism [let's just call it Reformational Theology from now on) actually got right and later generations, even the Banner of Truth men, dropped the ball was in theological prolegomena. If you read Kuyper and Bavinck, they are fighting hard for ectypal theology. Can Together4theGospel say the same thing? Can Banner of Truth?


But theology is more than prolegomena, and the Reformational theology didn't do a great job on anthropology. Wanting a rich creation theology, and fearing gnostic dualisms (both admirable goals), they came very close to rejecting the doctrine of the soul. I've summarized their position here.


The most important aspect of Reformational Theology is that it was a constructive theology. That's very hard to do. It's easy to build a theology of critique, whether Rome or other deviant systems. And that's important, for the battle must be fought in every generation. But a soul (pun intended) cannot live long on a theology of criticism.

Bavinck constructed an entire theology around "New Creation." Yet he never drifted from Reformed Principial theology. This is nothing short of an ultimate triumph. Dooyeweerd's 14 or 15 modalities might sound odd, and I suspect he overdid it, but he simply wanted to outline man-in-the-world and man-in-relation-to-God.

Now for the Criticism of Reformational Theology


The emphasis on politics, at least practically speaking, failed miserably. Amsterdam is Sodom. The American front is slightly different. In America Reformational theology went in two directions. One school, the Toronto school (and with is periphery in the CRC and other Dutch American communities), systematically embraced sphere-sovereignty but with a temptation to more left-wing, socialistic politics. The more conservative appropriating of Kuyper is best seen in the Reconstructionist school and the Christian Right, neither of which is a success today. Recons are on the extreme margin of society (and may they stay there) while the Christian Right/Moral Majority has more or less lost the war.

The Way Forward: What Should We keep and where should we go?


To the degree that the Reformation School sees itself primarily as a Dutch(y) outpost, it is a non-starter. The worst thing that anyone can do is contrast "Amsterdam with x." This prevents Reformational Theology from fully incorporating gains from other traditions.  For example, Nicholas Wolterstorff has suggested commonalities between Bavinck and Reformed Epistemology, which has its roots in the Scottish Common Sense tradition (Wolterstorff, Nicholas. “Herman Bavinck—Proto Reformed Epistemologist.” Calvin Theological Journal 45, no. 1 (2010): 133–46.). This is a major advance in epistemology and only possible because Wolterstorff didn't get blinded by a Dutch ghetto mentality.  


I admit I don't care too much for the "reclaiming politics for Christ" mindset.  Christ makes claims to the political life, to be sure, but I am also reminded of something Don Carson said, "If Kuyper lived in the killing fields of Cambodia, one suspects he would have framed the relationship between Christ and culture differently" (Christ and Culture Revisited, ix). Of course, that doesn't change whether or not Christ owns politics, but it does highlight the tensions--tensions that are already evident in Scripture (see Romans 13 and Revelation 13).  


I like the organic motif.  Some have suspected a latent Hegelianism within the organic motif, but I think that criticism falls short for a couple of reasons.  For one, it's never argued that "organicism necessitates Hegelianism." It's just asserted.  Secondly, Christ himself had no fear of using it because of future Hegelian overtones (John 15).  Thirdly, let's assume it's a valid criticism.  Even then, it doesn't prove what people fear most in Hegel: Pantheism.  If it does prove pantheism, then we need to see an argument for that claim, which would include primary sources from both Dutch Reformed theology and German idealism. A tall order.


But what does Bavinck mean by the organic metaphor?  A full discussion will be found in his Dogmatics, but we can offer a brief one here.  The metaphor  traces the idea of revelation in its form and content and how it correlates with the rest of life (Bavinck, Philosophy of Revelation, 18). Revelation doesn't appear in the abstract. It is always context-ed. God's unfolding drama in history is never a bunch of propositions falling from the sky. Not even Plato can be accused of that crude a view (though many Calvinist critics of Reformational Theology tend hold just that view). It meets Israel at Israel's situation--calling, changing, and challenging that situation.



We can say two things about it:

1) In terms of a Reformed theology for future generations and a Reformed social ethic, Reformational theology failed miserably. 2) In terms of future philosophical reflection, it was a mighty triumph of the highest order. Without neo-Calvinism we would not have Alvin Plantinga. Without Alvin Plantinga, we would not have seen a renaissance in Christian Philosophy.
3) I know a lot of his cultural philosophy borders on the bizarre, but James K. A. Smith is a highly competent philosopher who has done more than anyone today to make Dooyeweerd relevant.

Therefore, we should mine the Reformational theology for insights on the human person and his knowing within his life situation. We should never content ourselves at having arrived--or even worse, having arrived in our ethnic situation. (It's really hard to nail Eastern Orthodoxy's phyletism when we have slogans like "Ain't Dutch, Ain't Much.")

Works Cited

Bavinck, Herman. Philosophy of Revelation.
Carson, D. A. Christ and Culture Revisited.
Wolterstorff,  Nicholas. “Herman Bavinck—Proto Reformed Epistemologist.” Calvin Theological Journal 45, no. 1 (2010): 133–46.
Young, William. "Historic Calvinism And Neo-Calvinism." Westminster Theological Journal 36:1 (Fall 1973) p. 49. 
Recommended Websites
Paideia Press.
All of Life Redeemed (probably the classic site).

Recommended Works
Bavinck, Herman.  Reformed Dogmatics 4 volumes.  Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic. 2008.
Clouser, Roy. The Myth of Religious Neutrality.  Notre Dame Press.
Dooyeweerd, Herman.  New Critique of Theoretical Thought 4 volumes.  Good luck finding it.
Kuyper, Abraham.  Principles of Sacred Theology. Westminster Discount Books.
Spykman, Gordon. Reformational Theology. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1992.
Plantinga, Alvin. and Wolterstorff, Nicholas. eds. Faith and Rationality. Notre Dame Press, 1983.
Plantinga, Alvin.  God and Other Minds.  Cornell University Press, 1990.
Wolters, Al.  Creation Regained.  Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2005. A beautiful manifesto.
Wolterstorff, Nicholas. Until Justice and Peace Embrace. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1983.
--------------. Reason within the Bounds of Religion. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1988.

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