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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 not just the doctrine of predestination. 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).
The first place I turned after reading Abraham Kuyper’s (1837-1920) Lectures on Calvinism 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.
Van Til believed, along with Augustine, Calvin, Kuyper, and Klaas Schilder that the building of a Christian culture is a biblical 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.” Christians today are hearing a similar refrain from within evangelical circles. If there is no specifically biblical blueprint, we are left with a pluralistic blueprint, no blueprint, or a postponed blueprint (dispensationalism).
Second, what do these views mean for economics, law, politics, and education? Does toleration for non-Christian religious groups mean that we should also tolerate their law systems? If we tolerate the religion of Islam, must we tolerate their views of economics and civil law? Babylonian law called for the “amputation of the right hand of the physician whose patient died during surgery.” Should this law be placed on the same platter with biblical law? If not, why not?
My seminary training never hinted at pluralism. Nothing I read in Van Til’s Calvinistic Concept of Culture led me to embrace pluralism. In rejecting Barth’s repudiation of a specifically Christian culture, he assured us that the
Calvinist maintains that the Word of God has final and absolute authority, and is clear and sufficient in all matters of faith and conduct. It constitutes the final reference point for man’s thinking, willing, acting, loving, and hating, for his culture as well as his cultus. . . . [F]or all practical purposes, the church throughout history has accepted the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testament as the Word of the living God. Calvinism, also in its cultural aspects, proposes to continue in this historic perspective, not willing to accept the church or the religious consciousness, or any other substitute in place of the Word.
This is the historic position of the church, Van Til asserted. This is what I was taught in seminary. This is the view that my professors defended. But there was one problem. Even after finishing Van Til’s book, I noticed a glaring deficiency: There were few specifics and even fewer references to the Bible as to how it actually applies to culture. Van Til, however, was a few steps beyond Kuyper.
After Van Til, 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. Again, the Bible was emphasized as the standard for both Christian and non-Christian.
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.
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 be Christian.
On the negative side, he made it clear that the State is still a legitimate sphere of government even though its laws are not based on the Bible. Is the State obligated, when confronted with the truth of Scripture, to implement those laws which are specifically civil in application?
On the affirmative side, 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.”
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.
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.”
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. In fact, he never quoted one passage of Scripture to defend his position, although there are vague references to biblical ideals! Reading Meeter was like reading an unfinished novel.
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.”
Finally, I thought, a plane with wings! This volume was more comprehensive than those mentioned above, touching on the task of the church for the solution of modern problems, Calvinism and the missionary enterprise, evangelization of America, education, art, recreation and amusements, political action, economics, business, social problems, and international relations.