Cultural Transformation Is Not The Article Of The Standing Or Falling Of The Church (But Justification Is)

Within the last two weeks or so it has been asserted by some, in a letter to a congregation, that the doctrine of cultural transformation is a matter of Reformed orthodoxy and that anyone who dissents from what this letter describes as the “Kuyperian” tradition, which is a little over a century old, is “outside” of Reformed orthodoxy.  This is a striking assertion. Further, a Facebook commenter has described as “slimy” my earlier plea for mutual understanding and toleration between transformationalists and advocates of a two-kingdoms (or, twofold government) approach.” The objection is that I was harshly critical of the Federal Vision theology but I am advocating toleration regarding Christ and culture and therefore being inconsistent or disingenuous.

I am being neither inconsistent nor disingenuous. I am doing what the Reformed have always done: setting priorities. The Reformed, including Abraham Kuyper himself, have never placed ethics on the same plane with the doctrine of justification. We have always prioritized justification sola fide. Calvin described the doctrine of justification as the “axis” around which the Christian faith pivots. The Reformed theologian J. H. Alsted (d. 1638), in a 1618 summary of Reformed theology famously wrote, “the article of justification is said to be the article of the standing or falling of the church.” John Murray, who taught at old Westminster wrote, “Justification is still the article of the standing or falling church.” Abraham Kuyper himself did not make cultural transformation the article of the standing or falling of the church. It is not the axis of the Christian faith. In the system of doctrine we begin with prolegomena (method and our doctrine of Scripture), then we move to the doctrines of God, humanity, Christ, salvation, church, last things, and then Christian ethics. Over the centuries our ethics have changed, in some respects, as our circumstances and understanding of God’s Word and God’s world have changed. Most Reformed folk are no longer theocratic, i.e., we no longer believe that God has instituted a state-church and tasked the state with the maintenance of religious orthodoxy. My own federation has adopted the very revisions to Belgic Confession art. 36 for which Kuyper advocated. We have not, however, revised our doctrine of justification. We have not revised the Heidelberg Catechism, Belgic Confession, and Canons of Dort on the article of the standing or falling of the church. When the Federal Vision theology began to make inroads in the Reformed Churches, including the United Reformed Churches in North America, we repeatedly rejected those revisions. At various synods (2004, 2007, 2010) we affirmed that justification is by grace alone, through faith alone, without works. We adopted Nine Points of Pastoral Advice rejecting the Federal Vision point by point. In 2010 we received a detailed committee report rejecting the New Perspective on Paul and the Federal Vision and re-affirmed our confessional standards on justification.

None of our synods has made a judgment on the various approaches to Christ and culture. In our midst we have pietists, who tend to flee cultural engagement, transformationalists, who look forward to a time, in this life, when the culture is conformed to Christ’s Word, and advocates of a two-kingdoms approach, who advocate for Christian engagement with the culture and what is sometimes called the spirituality of the visible, institutional church. One of our ministers, however, has argued in his commentary on Belgic Confession Art. 36:

By using this language, the Belgic Confession grounds the civil government in God’s goodness, not his grace, in creation, not redemption. God rules over all things, but in two different ways, as the two kingdoms doctrine of the Reformers expressed. This doctrine was that God rules what Calvin called the civil kingdom and what Luther called the kingdom of the left hand as creator and sustainer of temporal, earthly, and provisional matters, while he rules the spiritual kingdom or kingdom of the right hand (Calvin and Luther respectively) as creator, but especially as redeemer of the eschatological kingdom.

If this interpretation is correct, then it may be that a “two kingdom” approach has the strongest claim to confessional standing in the URCNA. Whatever the case, this is an inference and we do not explicitly confess one view or the other on Christ and culture.

We do, however, confess a very specific view on justification by grace alone (sola gratia), through faith (sola fide). Thus, the URCNA has been quite strict on the article of the standing or falling of the church while we have been tolerant of what George Marsden called the “pies, docs, and Kuyps” (and hitherto, two kingdoms or twofold government). If a twofold government or two kingdoms approach is outside the bounds of orthodoxy, has this document condemned John Calvin and all those other of our fathers who invoked “two kingdoms,” including one of the contributors to our catechism, Caspar Olevianus? If so, that is passing strange.

There are resources below on all these questions.

©R. Scott Clark. All Rights Reserved.

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