Neo-Calvinism: An Introduction to Neo-Calvinism

Several months ago, I received an email saying I appeared to be a neo-Calvinist. I had no idea what that meant, but as my correspondent knows I’m no Calvinist, I figured I should investigate. And I have. And I’m not a neo-Calvinist — because you have to be a Calvinist to be a neo-Calvinist. So maybe I’m more of a neo-Arminian. Except “neo-Arminian” as a term has already been taken for other purposes. And I’m really somewhere between Calvinism and Arminianism, so call me a neo-Calvi-minian. According to Google, the term is available for use, so I hereby claim it.

To get a grasp of neo-Calvinism we have to go back to the 19th Century scholar and prime minister of the Netherlands Abraham Kuyper (or Kuijper — the Dutch have some very strange spellings). Kuyper was, of course, a Calvinist, but a new kind of Calvinist. He asserted —

There is not a square inch of the entire world of which Christ does not rightly say, That Is Mine.

The point of the saying is that God is sovereign over the entire Creation — not just the people in it — and over all the people — not just the elect.

Next, Kuyper rejected the view that all sovereignty comes from the people and the view that all sovereignty comes from the state. Rather, as stated in the Kuyperian blog,

Kuyper developed this sense of ordered diversity in relation to society in his doctrine of sphere sovereignty, and argues that, for instance, the family has sovereignty in its own sphere in the face of both the state and the church, and should not be internally made subject to these other relationships. The authority of mother and father does not require the rubber stamp of a party commissar or the holy water of a parish priest – it is received out of the very hand of God. But all human authority, every human relationship, is subject to the sovereign rule of God, This view does not deny historical development in society, but rather emphasizes the possibilities given in creation which provide room and set limits for the emergence of a wide range of different relationships in society.

Thus, at a time when some pushed for absolute state power (because Romans 13 requires us to be subject to the king) and others pushed for absolute popular power (because we are a priesthood of believers and so all answer directly to God), and others argued for two kingdoms — the church and the state (per Luther), Kuyper argued that every institution answers directly God, each individual, each family, each congregation, and each state.

Kuyper also affirms that God intends that man realize the potential of his creation, but to do so in a way that glorifies God.

Neocalvinism has a deep appreciation for the historical development of human cultures and societies. The development of technology, the advances of the sciences, the building of cities, and the disentanglement of various distinct relationships in society (often referred to as ‘differentiation’) – these are all fundamentally appropriate human responses to God’s command to realize the possibilities of creation, the cultural mandate (see Genesis 1:28 and 2:15). It is the responsibility of Christians to affirm normative differentiation in the context of the coming of the kingdom of God – while opposing all misdirection away from the glory of God.

Neo-Calvinism also recognizes that the battle between the Spirit and the flesh Paul describes in Romans 7 is not just a church thing. It defines much of life.

There is a battle going on at the deepest level in every society and within every human person – a struggle between the inclination to submit to God and the inclination to rebel against God. This personal and public conflict between the kingdoms of light and darkness neocalvinists call the antithesis. This struggle is not relegated to some spiritual realm above, or alongside, or in paradox with everyday, common life. Rather, it is a spiritual struggle for everyday life itself. The antithesis issues forth a clarion call for Christian cultural activity in opposition to every manner of idolatry. Glorifying God in everyday life is what neocalvinists mean when they speak of “redeeming” or “transforming” culture and societal spheres. It is a transformation from various ways of life that are sinful or at odds with the truth, to ways that are lawful and according to the truth, by the sanctifying power of Christ’s Spirit.

The result of this thought is to avoid the compartmentalization of life where we see economics, politics, the environment, and law, for example, as somehow outside the realm of the church’s concern. I mean, how many sermons do you hear arguing that free markets are not inherently good — and are only as good as the free choices that we make? Or that the church should honor Jesus by cleaning up a creek? Or that the church should oppose laws that are unjust to the poor?

According to neo-Calvinist Bavinck,

The thoughtful person places the doctrine of the Trinity in the very center of the full-orbed life of nature and mankind. The confession of the Christian is not an island in mid-ocean but a mountain-top overlooking the entire creation. The mind of the Christian is not satisfied until every form of existence has been referred to the Triune God and until the confession of the Trinity has received the place of prominence in all our life and thought.

This is big. And correctly thought through and sorted out, this is what the 21st Century church needs to be thinking about. We desperately need a theology that tells us how to respond to unjust governments, to the pressures mankind places on the environment, to the plight of the poor, to globalization, to life in a democracy where we can influence the most powerful nation the world has ever known. We are just beginning to talk about these things in our churches, and it seems we ought to invite Kuyper to pull up a chair and join the conversation.

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5 Responses

  1. I’m sure you have more to say on the subject. I’m not convinced that the answer for Christians is to throw themselves in the middle of the political process. (And I don’t know if you meant to imply that or not)

    The church speaks to all of those areas with a prophetic voice, not an insider’s voice. We address the political process from the outside, as neither liberals nor conservatives, neither Republicans nor Democrats. We speak as Christians, free to address the evils of any and everyone in politics. When we step into the middle of things, when we “pledge our troth” with one party or the other or one candidate or the other, our voice loses its distinctiveness.

    To have the right to speak we must be apolitical and nonpartisan. An example: Brian McLaren wrote an excellent piece on the need for Christian behavior in the political process. Most conservatives rejected the piece because: (1) They know McLaren supports Obama; (2) McLaren only criticized conservative leaders in his article. Once we’re perceived as being on one “team,” the other team can’t hear our voice.

    Sorry for the long rant.

    Grace and peace,
    Tim Archer

  2. Should we be in the middle of the political process as Christians? Better us than the pagans, I think.

    Does this mean we become a special interest group within a political party? No, we don’t submit to any power but the Power from above.

    And so, yes, the church (and Christians) such speak prophetically, constantly calling the government to act righteously, by being the government God wants.

    So I agree that we must be non-partisan. I disagree that we shouldn’t be in the middle of things. I think that this means the church must be about issues and not parties or candidates — and only those issues where Jesus has a position. But where Jesus has a position, we should be on Capitol Hill urging Congress to do what’s right.

    I suspect we don’t really disagree at all.

  3. I’m not sure I think God expect anything of “government,” Jay.

    It seems to me, in spite of all the garbage going on with the Roman government, Jesus pretty much ignored it, in favor of individuals treating individuals with the kind of love Jesus showed us.

    I don’t see how that translates to “government.” It’s more fundamental than government.

    I’m basically a pretty conservative guy, and I want to be left alone to try to do whatever good I can do.

    But I have good friends who believe the government should be a tool to do what they perceive to be good things for large groups of people. While I respect their perspective and do not impugn their motives, I disagree politically and think them to be advocates for an ineffective strategy to accomplish the goals they have.

    I don’t think Jesus has a position on a political issue. He has a position on how I, as a believer, treat you.

    For example, I don’t think anyone of us believes Jesus would advocate for abortion — that’s a pretty abhorrent idea.

    But if advocating against abortion made a pro-abortionist less willing to listen to the gospel message, which opportunity would you choose: oppose abortion or share the gospel?

  4. Were all of our forefathers wrong to rebell against the government that demanded a state church?

    If the very best people in a society (assuming that Christians would be the best people) are apathetic and passive guess who is left to shape the society?

    I look forward to more discussion of theology Jay. Sorry your train got derailed so quickly.

    Royce

  5. You most certainly do NOT have to be a Calvinist to become a neo-Calvinist! You don’t even have to be a Christian, You just have to be a hipster looking for new lingo and a new group of friends that have the same quasi-spirituality without that dern heavy burden of producing spiritual fruit… A group that is vying just as heavily for political and social power (even though it hasn’t got any yet) but pretends not to be just the same in this regard as some already geo-politically successful large, polymorphous world-dominating churches beginning with C. ‘Oh, but we’re doing it to claim the world as a prize for our God.’

    Anyone remember about heaven being the final destination and living with precious Jesus as the wonderful end to all our struggles in this ruined world? I didn’t know God needed us to claim the world back for him. I thought there would be a new heaven and a new earth since this old earth is running down and corrupted by sin. I really didn’t know ANYTHING depended on us humans, really.

    However, speaking of you specifically, don’t be afraid to be sort of Calvinist and sort of Armenian. I’m not convinced of all five TULIP points in every way and only embrace them in so far as they are scriptural. These theological discussions are still up for partial debate and anyone staying grounded in scripture and endevouring to the final goal of understanding God’s words to his people certainly has a place at the table of discussion.

    Sorry about my kinda raucous criticism of the neos. It’s totally off the cuff and raw but I come by this honestly by personal experience with people I (still) love…

    God Bless!

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