As a student at Reformed Theological Seminary, 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 soul-saving.
All the literature we read on Calvinism had at least some reference for the application of Calvinism’s world-and-life view in history. No one ever questioned this theological framework until some of us actually 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? I contend that theonomy logically follows from worldview Calvinism. Take away Calvinism’s worldview, and Calvinism’s plane won’t fly.
Abraham Kuyper’s Lectures on Calvinism
Those students who were interested in cultural Calvinism were directed to Kuyper’s 1898 Lectures on Calvinism. It was here that we were told we would find a fully developed, com prehensive, biblical world-and-life view. Kuyper’s brand of Cal vinism has been described as the “only modern exception” to the tendency of Christians either to abandon social action in favor of piety or to abandon piety in favor of social action.1
The “Kuyperian” tradition “was at once pious and socially influential.”2 “As Abraham Kuyper said, there is not one inch of creation of which Christ doesn’t say ‘Mine.'”3 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. (Economics and law were strangely absent.)
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.4
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.5
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. . . .
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.6
What standard are these officeholders to use in the governance of these various spheres? This is the essence of the debate. Reconstructionists agree with the principled pluralists’ Kuyperian expression of world-and-life-view Calvinism that Christians should be involved. The disagreement is over how we should be involved and what standard we should use in our establishment of a developed social theory. . . .
Henry Van Til’s The Calvinistic Concept of Culture
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.7
Van Til believed, along with Augustine, Calvin, Kuyper,8 and Klaas Schilder—Christian scholars whose predestinarian views are expounded in The Calvinistic Concept of Culture—that the building of a Christian culture is a Christian imperative. The Reconstructionists agree. 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.”9 . . .
There seems to be no room for ethical pluralism for Henry Van Til. My seminary training never hinted at pluralism. Nothing I read in Henry Van Til 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 through out 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.10
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, but the plane still had no wings. It was not going to fly.
Henry Meeter’s The Basic Ideas of Calvinism
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.11
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. Of course, this is not the issue in theonomy. 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.”12
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.13
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.”14
Meeter left the inquiring theonomist with additional questions: “If the Bible, then, is the ultimate criterion by which the State must be guided in determining which laws it must administer, the question arises, with how much of the Bible must the State concern itself?”15 He told us that “Civil law relates to outward conduct.”16 The inquiring theonomist is looking for specifics, a methodology to determine which laws do apply to the civil sphere. What “outward conduct” should the State regulate? Sodomy and adultery are certainly “outward conduct.” (This is the legal issue of “victimless crimes.”)
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. The plane still had no wings.
The Calvinistic Action Committee’s God-Centered Living
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.”17
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.
The Need for a Biblical Worldview
Calvinism was set off from Christianity in general precisely because of its advocation of a comprehensive biblical world view. Quoting Francis R. Beattie, Calvinism was described as “the richest systematic expression of revealed truth yet made, . . . the richest product of Protestantism.”18 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.”19 Quoting Warfield:
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.20
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 Catechism21 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.”22 . . .
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.23
So, then, to be a full-orbed Calvinist is to demonstrate the ethical demands of soteriology. The Calvinist preacher 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.”24
The Need for a Biblical Ethical Standard
Where is this “inflexible standard” to be found? Is it a “NewTestament-only” ethic? “From Moses and the prophets to Christ and the epistles, the law is expounded in such a way as to re quire that the Christian influence society for righteousness and the glory of God. The Christian witness is a life whose thinking and action has been brought into conformity with the will of God, as well as an oral declaration of the way of salvation in Christ.”25
Notice the indictment on those who “give too much credit to the redeemed conscience.” Some “inflexible standard” is necessary to keep even the redeemed conscience in check. This would also include the redeemed conscience’s ability to discern ethical requirements in general revelation. And what about those who give too much credit to the unredeemed conscience? This is the latest trend in ethical pluralism. Supposedly “‘the law written on our hearts’ (Romans 2:15)26 . . . is the law by which all candid people know that murder is wrong, for example. It is the law by which our consciences, if they are not too cauterized by sin, judge us.”27 There are “candid” abortionists who daily support the murder of innocent preborn babies. There are “candid” sodomites who practice “degrading passions, . . . men with men committing indecent acts. . .” (Rom. 1:27).
Of course, theonomy has little quarrel with those who maintain that general revelation convicts the unregenerate of sin. This, however, is not the issue in the debate over theonomy. What should the convicted sinner do once he recognizes that he has transgressed “the ordinance of God” (Rom. 1:32)? This is the theonomic question. The theonomists have asked, ever since Rushdoony’s first book was published: By what standard? Does the Bible have a clear standard of ethical behavior that should be followed by sinners everywhere? Why the need to go to general revelation if the Bible already gives an answer? When you lead someone to Christ, do you point him to general revelation or special revelation? What book did you use for daily devotions this morning? What law have you adopted for the governance of your family? What principles should govern your mind as you enter the voting booth? . . .
For the Calvinist law is not a matter of convenience, or of protection primarily. It is the expression of the will of God; it is based upon eternal principles of right and justice as revealed in the Scriptures, for example, in the Ten Commandments. From them man learns that theft, murder, and immorality are sins. To be sure, not all points of law and justice are directly covered in the Bible. However, the principles which govern them can readily be distilled from these eternal principles of right and justice which are expressed there. Again, government is divinely instituted, and obedience to its ordinances, if they be in accord with these eternal principles, is the duty of the Christian.28
It is one thing to talk about the ethical requirements easily distilled from general revelation, but theonomists are still waiting for someone to demonstrate that this can actually be done. Theonomists often catch general revelation advocates borrowing from the theonomist’s garden, similar to the way humanists borrow from the Christian’s garden. But as our nation moves steadily from an ethic that most Americans recognize as being Bible-based, any ethic based on general revelation will dissipate as quickly as a morning fog vanishes at the appearing of a blazing sun. . . .
God-Centered Living almost produced a plane with wings. But like Kuyper, Henry Van Til, and Meeter, the symposium was little more than versions of Howard Hughes’ “Spruce Goose”: a few seconds of flight and then back to the hangar. There was a great deal of discussion about applying the Bible to every area of life, but only a few glimpses as to how this might be done. The Christian community would soon put their faith in a pilot named Francis A. Schaeffer.
(Part two to follow. . . .)
(Originally published as “Some Wings for Calvinism’s Modern Plane,” Chapter 2 in Theonomy: An Informed Response, ed. Gary North (Tyler, TX: Institute for Christian Economics, 1991), 39–56.)
- Irving Hexham and Karla Poewe, Understanding Cults and New Religions (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1986), p. 126. [↩]
- Ibid. [↩]
- Douglas Groothuis, “Revolutionizing our Worldview,” Reformed journal (Nov ember 1982), p. 23. [↩]
- Abraham Kuyper, Lectures on Calvinism (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, [1931) 1970), p. iii. [↩]
- Ibid., p. 53. [↩]
- 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), p. 75. [↩]
- Henry R. Van Til, The Calvinistic Concept of Culture (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1959), p. 87. [↩]
- 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, pp. 118, 119. [↩]
- Ibid., p. 44. [↩]
- Van Til, Calvinistic Concept of Culture, p. 157. [↩]
- H. Henry Meeter, The Basic Ideas of Calvinism, 5th rev. ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, (1939] 1956), pp. 99–100. A 6th edition appeared in 1990 with three chapters added by Paul A. Marshall. [↩]
- Ibid., p. 111. [↩]
- Ibid., pp. 111-12. [↩]
- Ibid., p. 112. [↩]
- Ibid., p. 126. [↩]
- Ibid., p. 127. [↩]
- Calvinistic Action Committee, God-Centered Living or Calvinism in Action (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1951), p. 5. [↩]
- Francis R. Beattie, Calvinism and Modern Thought (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: Westminster Press, 1901), pp. 13, 14. Quoted by Clarence Bouma, “The Relevance of Calvinism for Today,” God-Centered Living, p. 14. [↩]
- Bouma, “The Relevance of Calvinism for Today,” God-Centered Living, p. 14. [↩]
- Benjamin B. Warfield, Calvin and Calvinism (New York: Oxford University Press, 1931), pp. 354-55. Quoted in ibid., p. 15. [↩]
- On the Forty-First Sabbath, question 108 of the Heidelberg is read: “Ques. 108. What doth the seventh command teach us? Ans. That all uncleanness is accursed of God, and that, therefore, we must, with all our hearts, detest the same, and live chastely and temperately, whether in holy wedlock, or in single life.” Under the “Explanation and Proof” various texts are added, including Leviticus 20:10: “And the man that committeth adultery with another man’s wife, even he that committeth adultery with his neighbor’s wife, the adulterer and the adulteress shall surely be put to death.” [↩]
- Bouma, “The Relevance of Calvinism for Today,” God-Centered Living, p. 20. [↩]
- Bouma, “The Relevance of Calvinism for Today,” God-Centered Living, p. 20. [↩]
- Peter Van Tuinen, “The Task of the Church for the Solution of Modern Problems,” God-Centered Living, pp. 43-44. [↩]
- Ibid., p. 44. [↩]
- While it might not seem to make that much difference to some, Romans 2:15 actually says, “in that they show the work of the Law written in their hearts.” [↩]
- Thomas C. Atwood, “Through a Glass Darkly: Is the Christian Right Overconfident It Knows God’s Will?,” Policy Review (Fall 1990), p. 49. [↩]
- Heyns, “Calvinism and Social Problems,” God-Centered Living, p. 236. [↩]