“Calvinism is back,” so says David Van Biema in the March 22, 2009 issue of Time magazine. Calvinism is listed as one of “10 ideas changing the world Right now.” It’s third on the list. When most people hear the word “Calvinism,” they bite down only on the gristle of predestination and then spit out the whole piece of meat. There is much more to Calvinism that is obscured by the misapplied aversion to particular redemption. As a student at Reformed Theological Seminary in the 1970s, I was taught that certain cultural applications flowed from a consistent application of Calvinism. Calvinism is synonymous with a comprehensive biblical world-and-life view. Simply put, I was told that the Bible applies to every area of life. To be a Calvinist is to make biblical application to issues beyond personal salvation (Heb. 5:11–14).
All the literature we read on Calvinism had at least some reference to the application of world-and-life view Calvinism in history. No one ever questioned this theological framework until some students began to apply worldview Calvinism to particular social themes. This is what we were taught to do, from our first reading of Abraham Kuyper’s Lectures on Calvinism to Francis Schaeffer’s How Should We Then Live? Take away Calvinism’s worldview paradigm, and Calvinism’s plane won’t fly. The New Calvinists better understand this or they will become hopelessly pietistic.
The Kuyperian tradition “was at once pious and socially influential.”1 “As Abraham Kuyper said, there is not one inch of creation of which Christ doesn’t say ‘Mine.’”2 In his Lectures on Calvinism, Kuyper discussed politics, science, and art—a rather odd mix, but it was more than the familiar five points of Calvinism. Curiously, economics and law were strangely absent from his discussion.
Reading Kuyper was like reading a repair manual that was all diagnosis and little if any instruction on how to fix the problem. Here’s a sample:
That in spite of all worldly opposition, God’s holy ordinances shall be established again in the home, in the school and in the State for the good of the people; to carve as it were into the conscience of the nation the ordinances of the Lord, to which the Bible and Creation bear witness, until the nation pays homage again to God.3
Everything that has been created was, in its creation, furnished by God with an unchangeable law of its existence. And because God has fully ordained such laws and ordinances for all life, therefore the Calvinist demands that all life be consecrated to His service in strict obedience. A religion confined to the closet, the cell, or the church, therefore, Calvin abhors.4
This is marvelous biblical world-and-life view rhetoric, but there is almost no appeal to the Bible in Lectures. Broad principles are set forth, but a specific biblical worldview is lacking. As one soon learns after reading Kuyper, there is little that is distinctly biblical in his cultural position. Kuyper, along with Herman Dooyeweerd (1894–1977), is best known for the concept of sphere sovereignty and what is now being described as principled pluralism. Writes pluralist Gary Scott Smith:
This position rests upon several major tenets. God built basic structures or institutions into the world, each having separate authority and responsibilities. He established state, school, society, workplace, church, marriage, and family to carry out various roles in the world, and He commands human beings to serve as officeholders in these various spheres of life.5
The first place I turned after Kuyper was to Henry Van Til’s The Calvinistic Concept of Culture. Van Til, in his discussion of Augustine, wrote:
Augustine believed that peace with God precedes peace in the home, in society, and in the state. The earthly state too must be converted, transformed into a Christian state by the permeation of the kingdom of God within her, since true righteousness can only be under the rule of Christ.
Not only in the realm of ethics and politics must conversion take place . . . [but also] for knowledge and science. Apart from Christ, man’s wisdom is but folly, because it begins with faith in itself and proclaims man’s autonomy. The redeemed man, on the other hand, begins with faith and reason in subjection to the laws placed in this universe by God: he learns to think God’s thoughts after him. All of science, fine art and technology, conventions of dress and rank, coinage, measures and the like, all of these are at the service of the redeemed man to transform them for the service of his God.6
Van Til believed, along with Augustine, Calvin, and Kuyper7 that the building of a Christian culture is a Christian imperative. Van Til castigated the Barthians for their repudiation of a Christian culture. “For them,” he wrote, “there is no single form of social, political, economic order that is more in the spirit of the Gospel than another.”8
Some modern-day Calvinists agree. I next turned to H. Henry Meeter’s The Basic Ideas of Calvinism. This work looked promising even though its focus was on politics. The first edition (1939) of Meeter’s work was described as “Volume I.” A subsequent volume never appeared, so it’s possible that he had planned to deal with other worldview areas. Again, the Bible was emphasized as the standard for Christians and non-Christians.
The Calvinist insists that the principles of God’s Word are valid not only for himself but all citizens. Since God is to be owned as Sovereign by everyone, whether he so wishes or not, so also the Bible should be the determining rule for all. But especially for himself the Christian, according to the Calvinist, must in politics live by these principles.9
Since God is the Sovereign of all His creatures, He must be recognized as the lawmaker for all mankind. How does one determine what that rule is? Meeter told us that the Bible should be the determining rule for all, not just for Christians and not just for settling ecclesiastical disputes. So far, so good. Meeter then moved on to answer the question as to whether the State is to follow biblical standards as they relate to the civil sphere. Meeter wrote: “Whenever a State is permeated with a Christian spirit and applies Christian principles in the administration of civil affairs, it is called ‘Christian.’ If that be what is meant by a Christian state, then all States should be Christian, according to the conscience of the Calvinist, even though many states are not Christian. If God is the one great Sovereign of the universe, it is a self-evident fact that His Word should be law to the ends of the earth.”10
Meeter had moved from “Christian principles” to “His Word should be law.” The goal, then, is God’s Word as the “law.” Meeter continues:
If God is Ruler, no man may ever insist that religion be a merely private matter and be divorced from any sphere of society, political or otherwise. God must rule everywhere! The State must bow to His ordinances just as well as the Church or any private individual. The Calvinist, whose fundamental principle maintains that God shall be Sovereign in all domains of life, is very insistent on having God recognized in the political realm also.11
In what way is the State to “bow to His ordinances”? Where are these ordinances found? “For matters which relate to its own domain as State, it is bound to the Word of God as the Church or the individual.” For Meeter, a “State is Christian” when it uses “God’s Word as its guide.”12 Like Kuyper and Henry Van Til before him, Meeter, who asserts that the Bible “is the ultimate criterion by which the State must be guided in determining which laws it must administer” never set forth a biblical methodology to show how this might be done.
I next moved to a symposium produced by the Calvinistic Action Committee: God-Centered Living. God-Centered Living began with this noble goal: “This book seeks to be of help to those who desire to know what the will of God is for the practical guidance of their lives in the complex relations and situations of our modern day.” The Committee encouraged the reader with its intent not simply to “theorize,” describing its method as “a call to action” based on the “clarification and application of basic Christian principles. There will be no solution for our pressing modern social problems without recourse to the verities of the Word of God.”13
Calvinism was set off from Christianity in general precisely because of its avocation of a comprehensive biblical worldview. Quoting Francis R. Beattie, Calvinism was described as “the richest systematic expression of revealed truth yet made, . . . the richest product of Protestantism.”14
What does this greater consistency imply? “It means greater Biblical consistency, being more genuinely and more deeply and more richly true to the teaching of the Word of God.”15 Benjamin B. Warfield wrote:
He who believes in God without reserve, and is determined that God shall be God to him in all intellectual, moral, spiritual, throughout all his individual, social, religious relations—is, by the force of that strictest of all logic which presides over the outworking of principles into thought and life, by the very necessity of the case, a Calvinist.16
Similar to the appeals by Kuyper, Henry R. Van Til, and Meeter, the authors of the symposium believed that the comprehensive nature of the applicability of the Bible was unique to Calvinism. This included the applicability of God’s law. “In Reformed church worship the law is an integral part of the sacred program. Many Fundamentalist fellow-Christians seem to know the law in only one relation, viz., that of sin and redemption. . . . The Heidelberg Catechism recognizes the significance of the law both as a teacher of sin and as a norm for the Christian’s life of gratitude, and it gives an exposition of that law precisely in the latter context.”17
The American Vision on Facebook
The Presbyterian dispensationalist, Donald Grey Barnhouse, had no such high view of the law. He considered it to be a “tragic hour when the Reformation churches wrote the Ten Commandments into their creeds and catechisms and sought to bring Gentile believers into bondage to Jewish law, which was never intended either for the Gentile nations or for the church.”18 In following the debate over Christian Reconstruction, a number of Reformed brethren seem to be more comfortable with the dispensationalism of Barnhouse than the high view of the law of the Reformed confessions and catechisms. It is time for Calvinists to abandon dispensationalism, not just in name but in principle.
There was no such depreciation in the writings of the Calvinistic Action Committee. The comprehensive biblical worldview of Calvinism includes an “ethical task.” Bouma wrote:
This calls for a Christian witness in every realm of life. A witness in the home, in the church, in the school, in the state, and in every other social sphere. Calvinists have always been deeply aware of an ethical task. To them gospel preaching and social reform are not mutually exclusive, whatever Fundamentalists on the one hand and Modernists on the other, may have made of them. To live for the glory of God in every relationship of life, to be a soldier for the King, to battle for the Lord, to crown Christ King in every legitimate realm of human endeavor —this belongs to the very essence of being a true, full-orbed Christian, and it is the Calvinist—the true Calvinist, not his caricature—who stands committed to this task. It is to the exposition of this ethical task for our day that this book would strive to make a contribution.19
Ministers must preach the law of God in clear tones from the pulpit. Where fundamentalism and modernism have failed, Calvinism must not fail. With the devaluing of God’s law among fundamentalists, evangelicals, and some in the Reformed camp we can expect a reevaluation of a supposed worthy substitute. “There has been a tendency among evangelicals to give too much credit to the redeemed conscience, as though the conscience itself contained the standard of righteousness. It has been forgotten that the conscience needs to be guided by the inflexible standard of God’s law. . . . Failure to preach the law of God has left the Christian without a clear sense of direction in his Christian life. For many this has permitted a too easy conscience with respect to the need of Christianizing his life and influence.”20
If the New Calvinism is going to have any staying power, it will have to abandon its pietistic streak, its amillennial eschatology and in some cases its dispensationalism (e.g., John MacArthur), its aversion to the law of God, and its common-ground apologetic methodology.
1. Irving Hexham and Karla Poewe, Understanding Cults and New Religions (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1986), 126.
2. Douglas Groothuis, “Revolutionizing our Worldview,” Reformed Journal (November 1982), 23.
3. Abraham Kuyper, Lectures on Calvinism (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans,  1970), iii.
4. Kuyper, Lectures on Calvinism, 53.
5. Gary Scott Smith, “Introduction to Principled Pluralism,” God and Politics: Four Views on the Reformation of Civil Government, ed. Gary Scott Smith (Phillipsburg, New Jersey: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1989), 75.
6. Henry R. Van Til, The Calvinistic Concept of Culture (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1959), 87.
7. Kuyper’s emphasis on common grace as “the foundation of culture” leads one of his critics to write “that Kuyper can never really get special grace into the picture.” Van Til, Calvinistic Concept of Culture, 118, 119.
8. Van Til, Calvinistic Concept of Culture, 44.
9. H. Henry Meeter, The Basic Ideas of Calvinism, 5th rev. ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House,  1956), 99–100. A 6th edition appeared in 1990 with three chapters added by Paul A. Marshall.
10. Meeter, The Basic Ideas of Calvinism, 111.
11. Meeter, The Basic Ideas of Calvinism, 111–112.
12. Meeter, The Basic Ideas of Calvinism, 112.
13. Calvinistic Action Committee, God-Centered Living or Calvinism in Action (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1951), 5.
14. Francis R. Beattie, Calvinism and Modern Thought (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: Westminster Press, 1901), 13, 14. Quoted by Clarence Bouma, “The Relevance of Calvinism for Today,” God-Centered Living, 14.
15. Bouma, “The Relevance of Calvinism for Today,” God-Centered Living, 14.
16. Benjamin B. Warfield, Calvin and Calvinism (New York: Oxford University Press, 1931), 354–355.
17. Bouma, “The Relevance of Calvinism for Today,” God-Centered Living, 20.
18. Quoted in S. Lewis Johnson, “The Paralysis of Legalism,” Bibliotheca Sacra, Vol. 120 (April/June 1963), 109.
19. Bouma, “The Relevance of Calvinism for Today,” God-Centered Living, 20.
20. Peter Van Tuinen, “The Task of the Church for the Solution of Modern Problems,” God-Centered Living, 43–44.