When I was a student at Reformed Theological Seminary (1974-1979), 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. It’s not just about TULIP (Total depravity, Unconditional election, Limited atonement, Irresistible grace, Perseverance of the saints). Simply put, we were told that the Bible applies to every area of life. To be a Calvinist is to make biblical application to issues beyond soul-saving. I never heard anything about natural law or a two-kingdom approach to social, cultural, and political action, alternatives that are all the range among prominent Reformed thinkers.
All the literature we read on Calvinism had at least some reference to 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? As time went on, however, some of the professors got a little nervous. They didn’t like where all of this worldview talk was going. The theory of a Christian worldview was appropriate, but its application to particular issues was a different matter. The first time I saw this aversion was when a guest speaker applied the Bible to modern-day economic theory.
Little has changed in 2011. A number of Reformed thinkers are still nervous about applying the Bible to particular issues beyond the church. They’ve taken a two-kingdom approach. While the Bible applies to the life of the Christian, his family, and church, there isn’t a moral word for the world other than to repent and believe in Jesus. But then what? What are these new creatures in Christ (2 Cor. 5:17) to do while they are “are exiles and pilgrims” in Babylon? Some great Reformed thinkers had a lot to say about this question. Here is some of what I found:
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 that we would find a fully developed, comprehensive, biblical world-and-life view. Kuyper’s brand of Calvinism 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, finished 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
Notice that there is no talk about natural law or a two-kingdom approach to ethics that essentially separates special revelation from our world beyond the church.
Henry Van Til’sThe Calvinistic Concept of Culture
Next was 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 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.”7
H. Henry Meeter’s The Basic Ideas of Calvinism
H. Henry Meeter’s The Basic Ideas of Calvinism focused on politics. The first edition (1939) 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.8
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.
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.”9
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.10
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.”11
Meeter left the inquiring Christian 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?”12 He told us that “Civil law relates to outward conduct.”13
The Calvinistic Action Committee’s God-Centered Living
The Calvinistic Action Committee’s 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.”14
A.A. Hodge, Evangelical Theology: Lectures on Doctrine
A.A. Hodge was Professor of Systematic Theology at Princeton Seminary from 1877 until his death in 1886. Hodge made the case that “the kingdom of God on earth is not confined to the mere ecclesiastical sphere, but aims at absolute universality, and extends its supreme reign over every department of human life.”15 The implications of such a methodology are obvious: “It follows that it is the duty of every loyal subject to endeavour to bring all human society, social and political, as well as ecclesiastical, into obedience to its law of righteousness.”16
In addition, he had no problem in teaching that there are political implications to the preaching and application of the gospel. Consider the following:
It is our duty, as far as lies in our power, immediately to organize human society and all its institutions and organs upon a distinctively Christian basis. Indifference or impartiality here between the law of the kingdom and the law of the world, or of its prince, the devil, is utter treason to the King of Righteousness. The Bible, the great statute‑book of the kingdom, explicitly lays down principles which, when candidly applied, will regulate the action of every human being in all relations. There can be no compromise. The King said, with regard to all descriptions of moral agents in all spheres of activity, “He that is not with me is against me.” If the national life in general is organized upon non‑Christian principles, the churches which are embraced within the universal assimilating power of that nation will not long be able to preserve their integrity.17
Hodge calls the Bible the “great statute‑book of the kingdom.”
All of these works speak against the idea that even though we are pilgrims and exiles in Babylon, we have a duty to transform Babylon. In fact, those who held to a world-and-life-view Christianity did exactly that. I suggest that the two-kingdomers read Vishal Mangalwadi’s The Book that Made Our World: How the Bible Created the Soul of Western Civilization for a historical lesson. It’s marvelous reading.
- Irving Hexham and Karla Poewe, Understanding Cults and New Religions (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1986), 126. [↩]
- Hexham and Poewe, Understanding Cults and New Religions, 126. [↩]
- Douglas Groothuis, “Revolutionizing our Worldview,” Reformed Journal (November 1982), 23. [↩]
- Abraham Kuyper, Lectures on Calvinism (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans,  1970), iii. [↩]
- Kuyper, Lectures on Calvinism, 53. [↩]
- Henry R. Van Til, The Calvinistic Concept of Culture (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1959), 87. [↩]
- Van Til, Calvinistic Concept of Culture, 44. [↩]
- 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. [↩]
- Meeter, The Basic Ideas of Calvinism, 111. [↩]
- Meeter, The Basic Ideas of Calvinism, 111–112. [↩]
- Meeter, The Basic Ideas of Calvinism, 112. [↩]
- Meeter, The Basic Ideas of Calvinism, 126. [↩]
- Meeter, The Basic Ideas of Calvinism, 127. [↩]
- Calvinistic Action Committee, God-Centered Living or Calvinism in Action (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1951), 5. [↩]
- A.A. Hodge, Evangelical Theology: Lectures on Doctrine (Carlisle, PA: The Banner of Truth Trust,  1990), 283. [↩]
- Hodge, Evangelical Theology, 283. Emphasis added. [↩]
- Hodge, Evangelical Theology, 283–284. [↩]