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No. 177: The Closing of the Calvinistic Mind

BIBLICAL Horizons, No. 177
Copyright © 2005 Biblical Horizons
August 2005

Once upon a time there was such a thing as Calvinistic thought. It existed when I was younger, but seems to have largely disappeared in recent years. But let me elaborate.

When I became a Calvinist, back in 1970, I bought a bunch of books. Over the next few years, I bought some more. Let me list some of the titles. Just read them over:

C. Gregg Singer (Presbyterian), A Theological Interpretation of American History (1964), 300pages.

E. L. Hebden Taylor (Calvinistic Episcopalian),The Christian Philosophy of Law, Politics, and the State (1969), 650 pages.

Taylor, Evolution and the Reformation of Biology(1967).

Taylor, Reformation or Revolution (1970) 630pages.

Herman Dooyeweerd (Dutch Reformed), In the Twilight of Western Thought (1968).

Dooyeweerd, A New Critique of Theoretical Thought (4 volumes, 1953), about 2000 pages.

Dooyeweerd, The Christian Idea of the State(1968)

J. M. Spier, An Introduction to Christian Philosophy (1966)

Spier, Christianity and Existentialism (1953)

David H. Freeman, A Philosophical Study of Religion (1964), 270 pages.

H. van Riessen, The Society of the Future (1952),320 pages

Francis N. Lee, Communist Eschatology (1974),1200 pages

Rousas J. Rushdoony, The Messianic Character of American Education (1968), 400 pages

Rushdoony, The Mythology of Science (1967)

Rushdoony, The Nature of the American System(1965)

Rushdoony, The Myth of Over-Population (1969)

Rushdoony, The One and the Many: Studies in the Philosophy of Order and Ultimacy (1971), 390 pages.

Rushdoony, Politics of Guilt and Pity (1970), 370pages.

Rushdoony, The Foundations of Social Order(1968).

Now, this is only a representative sampling. I could have listed more titles by each of the above men, and books by others as well. I’ve included the pages of the larger books, to show that big heavy books werebeing published. In hardcover! And they were being read!

This list is interesting because all these books have something in common: All were published by the Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company. Some were published in a series called University Series: Historical Studies. Others in a series calledUniversity Series: Philosophical Studies. There was also a series called Modern Thinkers that published books of about 50 pages each on Paul Tillich, Rudolph Bultmann, Søren Kierkegaard, Charles Dewey, Friedrich Nietzsche, Arnold Toynbee, Karl Barth, Reinhold Niebuhr, Paul Sartre, Cornelius Van Til, Sigmund Freud, and William James. Authors included R. J. Rushdoony, Herman Ridderbos, Gordon Clark, S. U. Zuidema, H. van Riessen, Gregg Singer, and others.

And I have not even mentioned the many heavy-duty works of Cornelius Van Til that P&R published during those years, nor the similar kinds of works from other publishers, such as Henry Van Til’s The Calvinistic Concept of Culture, works by Klaas Schilder and Evan Runner, and others.

Not all of these books were of equal value, of course. But all were engaged with the world. They were books about the kingdom of Jesus the Christ, who claims all of life and culture.

So, where is this kind of stuff today? From Calvinistic publishers we get Bible commentaries, usually fluffy stuff that reads like someone’s daily devotional thoughts, or else questionable scholarship that is compromised with critical thinking. And we get all kinds of pastoral and psychological and family books and helps. All fine and dandy, I suppose, though in the nature of the case, this kind of literature tends to be “me-centered.”

But, you see, once upon a time, there were people who wrote, people who published, and people who read deep and thoughtful books about the kinds of things the titles above describe. And these books were not the kind of light-weight “we need a Christian worldview!” fluff written by evangelicals. Theseweren’t movie-guides. They weren’t warmed-over Roman Catholic natural-law stuff written by evangelicals steeped in reading First Things. These were books written by serious Bible-believing Calvinists who were engaged with the Reformation but also with the whole history of Christian thought. They were written by men who sought to think presuppositionally, and who did not mind saying so, even if they differed with each other a bit over how to do so. They were written by men who took seriously the depravity of the mind, and were not fooled by the majority opinions in society, academy, and church.

These men, and those like them, were aware that the Reformation was only the beginning of a restoration of Biblical thought. Works like the Belgic and Westminster Confessions were steps along the way, but not the last words. Presuppositionalists like Cornelius Van Til and others did not hesitate to criticize John Calvin and the Westminster Divines for employing flawed philosophical notions. Nor did they mind pointing out places where theological formulations needed improvement as a result of the exorcism of bad presuppositions. And, wonder of wonder, nobody minded.

Because back in those days, Calvinists were still able to think.

It seems no longer so. The controversies over the so-called “federal vision” and “new perspective onPaul” are but two examples of the closing of the Calvinistic mind, at least in many parts of the Reformed world. Men with little knowledge of history, evidently incapable of thinking presuppositionally, and sometimes (not always) rather obviously motivated by political concerns (if not by sheer envy),have not hesitated to distort and even lie about this thing called “federal vision” (which, as they discuss it, is largely a product of their own minds).

With minds like steel traps, these critics insist that“shibboleth” be pronounced their way, on pain of expulsion. Indeed, those who try to reason within the great Reformed tradition – the tradition reflected by the list of books above – have been called “heretics”because they don’t say “shibboleth” rightly.

This has nothing to do with liberalism. Indeed, the men accused of heresy are by and large more conservative, and far more consistently Reformational, than their semi-Baptist critics. But that’s not the main issue I’m getting at in this essay.

My burden here is to point out, to all the younger people reading this essay, that once upon a time it was not so. Once upon a time, a man being examined for presbytery could take issue with Calvin or the Westminster Standards, defend himself from the Bible and Reformed theology, and have a conversation. He could say that a flawed epistemology was found in some parts of these early works. He could say that pitting good works against grace was not true to the genius of the Reformed faith, or to the Bible. He could point out that there is no “merit theology”in the Bible. He could say that he preferred to speak of being united to the whole risen Christ rather than speak in the abstract about an imputed righteousness separated from that union. He could argue that the book of Romans is not after all a kind of proto-Berkhof systematic theology, but a book that is to a considerable extent about how Jew and Gentile, torn apart and dead to each other, were now reunited through resurrection in the kingdom of the Resurrected One.

In many places such conversations are no longer possible. Pastors have been cast out of or rejected by PCA presbyteries for believing what the Westminster Confession says about baptism. In others, the bullies who run the presbytery or classis have so cowed all the licentiates that they dare not raise any questions about anything. Here and there things are better, but from what I see, I’m not encouraged. The Calvinistic mind, if it has not closed already, appears to be closing fast.

But, that’s to be expected. As I maintained inCrisis, Opportunity, and the Christian Future, the Protestant age is coming to an end. That means that the Reformed faith and Presbyterianism are also coming to an end. The paradigm is exhausted, and the world in which it was worked out no longer exists. We must take all the great gains of the Calvinistic heritage and apply them with an open Bible to the new world in which we are now living. We must be aware that there is far more in the Bible than the Reformation dealt with, and that many of our problems today are addressed by those hitherto unnoticed or undeveloped aspects of the Bible. Those who want to bang the drum for a 450-year old tradition are dooming themselves to irrelevance. Our only concern is to avoid being beat up by them as they thrash about in their death-throes.

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