Another Way The Reformed Confessions Can Help Us If We Let Them

I am in the studio today to work on an Office Hours podcast for May so there is just time for a quick thought about another way the Reformed confessions can help the churches be more faithful.

Recently I learned about a Reformed congregation where the leadership has decided internally that they are so committed to the Kuyperian (cultural transformationalist) approach to Christ and culture that they will not permit anyone in the pulpit or consider any pastoral candidate who does not affirm that view. I am aware of congregations that take a similar approach on the other side, i.e., they would not permit a minister in the pulpit nor consider a candidate for the pulpit who did not affirm some version of a “two-kingdom” approach to Christ and culture.

Now, those who are regular readers of this space know that for many years now I have been advocating the recovery of Calvin’s distinction between a “twofold kingdom,” in which one aspect is “spiritual” and the other “temporal” or secular. I would not apply this distinction exactly as Calvin did. E.g., he assumed the righteousness of a state-enforced religious orthodoxy. I agree with Abraham Kuyper that, on that question, Calvin was wrong. Nevertheless, we should all agree that God is sovereign over all things and he administers his sovereign reign in these two spheres. In speaking of “spheres,” we are not very far from Abraham Kuyper’s language of “spheres” (family, church, and state). Thus, there are ways in which one may affirm a twofold kingdom and important aspects of Kuyper’s program (e.g., the antithesis and common grace). They are not utterly at odds and there is no need for the sort of tribalism that seems to have developed over these issues and such  a division as sketched above is bordering on tragic.

I have doubts about the transformationalist rhetoric and agenda especially as it developed in Kuyper’s wake (i.e., neo-Kuyperianism). I am much more attracted to the traditional Reformed distinction approach to relating Christ and culture but I also think that Kuyper himself was closer to the Reformed tradition than are some neo-Kuyperians. Kuyper was a scholar of the Reformed tradition. He read Calvin and the Reformed orthodox, which is something that cannot be said of most neo-Kuyperians, who eschewed the Reformed “scholastics,” whom they typically regarded with disdain. Nevertheless, both sides should be willing to live together in the Reformed churches, in peace, and in mutual understanding. These two virtues, peace and mutual understanding are inter-related. Since I entered the Reformed world before the recovery of the twofold kingdom approach to Christ and culture, the reigning paradigm was either Kuyperian or that of his successors, the neo-Kuyperians. That was the paradigm I learned. Yet, even though I moved on from the neo-Kuyperian vision of Christ and culture, I continue to appreciate their faithfulness to the Word and their zeal for the Kingdom of God and for the Lordship of Christ over all things. My experience makes me wonder, however, whether my neo-Kuyperian brothers have taken the time to learn the older Reformed view? After all, the Kuyperian tradition is a relative newcomer. Do we not owe it to each other to try to understand one another and appreciate what each approach brings to the table? If you identify with the Kuyperian tradition(s) and think and speak in transformational terms but have not read, e.g., David VanDrunen on the history of the Reformed use of the two kingdoms approach or even Calvin on the twofold kingdom (my preferred category) but you know a priori that it must be wrong are you really being faithful to Kuyper? Do you imagine that he would reject a view that he had not read on the grounds that it must be wrong? I think not.

Why did I move on from neo-Kuyperianism? As a long-time student of Calvin and Reformed orthodoxy, I have come to appreciate their approach to Christ and culture and the distinctions they used to help make sense of God’s Word,  his world, and our place as Christians in it. In Calvin and the orthodox I do not find talk of “transforming” culture. Yes, they were writing during Christendom but they were also scholars of the apostles and church fathers and were well aware of the life of the church before Christendom. Their appropriation of the apostles and the church fathers made it unnecessary to speak of “transforming” culture because they distinguished between the sacred and the secular. They understood that God administers his sovereignty in the world in two distinct ways. They also distinguished between nature and grace, which is something that the neo-Kuyperians typically have refused to do. Calvin and his orthodox successors knew that redemption extends to God’s elect but they did not speak of “redeeming” culture or cultural institutions. Calvin and the his orthodox successors typically (but not universally) postponed cultural transformation to the new heavens and the new earth. Certainly that was true of Guy de Bres, the author of the Belgic Confession and of Calvin. They were, to put it anachronistically, amillennialists. For them, this life is more a pilgrimage than a glory age. From a historical point of view, the twofold kingdom approach is the norm and the Kuyperian and neo-Kuyperian approaches are the revisionist approaches. They may be correct, that the tradition was wrong on Christ and culture, but the neo-Kuyperians have no grounds for assuming that they are correct and that the tradition was wrong.

Nevertheless, both sides should resolve to live together graciously. It is not as if we do not have prior commitments that bind us together and that serve as boundary markers to which we are already agreed. We all confess that God’s Word is the final authority for the Christian faith and the Christian life (sola scriptura). Further, on those points that have been identified, from God’s Word, as essential, we have an agreed understanding that is memorialized in three documents: the Belgic Confession, the Heidelberg Catechism, and the Canons of Dort. We call these documents the “the three forms of unity” or “the formula of unity.” They are not the three forms of disunity. Does Kuyperianism come before the Belgic, the Catechism, or the Canons? No? Do the twofold (or two kingdoms) come before the three forms? No. One’s position on Christ and culture is beyond our confession and as such we ought to be prepared to live peaceably with each other despite our disagreements. We do this on other issues. Most confessional Reformed folk are convinced that the covenant of works is essential to Reformed theology. Nevertheless, it is a fact that, in Three Forms denominations and federations we do not confess the words, “covenant of works.” The essence of the idea is arguably present in Belgic Confession Art. 14 (“commandment of life”) and the URCNA has adopted pastoral advice (the Nine Points of Synod Schereville, 2007) in which we agreed: “Synod 2007 rejects the error of those who, in any way and for any reason, confuse the ‘commandment of life’ given before the fall with the gospel announced after the fall (BC 14, 17; HC 19, 21, 56, 60).” Nevertheless, those of us who affirm the historic Reformed doctrine of the covenant of nature/works/law/life and those who reject it live together peacefully. The covenant of works touches directly on the doctrine of salvation. Different views of Christ and culture, however, are beyond the Reformed system of doctrine. If we can live together while disagreeing over the existence of the covenant of works, can we not live together while disagreeing over an issue that is less important? Certainly we can and we must.

©R. Scott Clark. All Rights Reserved.

RESOURCES

2 comments

  1. Thank you for this article which has brought before me some new concepts.

    Can you direct me to a foundational discussion on the nature and purpose of all that is secular, with a focus on the non-elect?

    Thank you.

    • Hi Peter,

      I don’t know that there is a single, foundational discussion. This is a distinction that is rooted in the Christian tradition going back to the Fathers. It was used in the medieval theologians and by the Reformers and the Protestant orthodox theologians. I read it in Calvin regularly. Have you read Calvin’s Institutes (especially 4.20)? Augustine’s City of God is foundational in many regards but it is here.

      Resources On The Nature/Grace And Sacred/Secular Distinctions

Comments are closed.