Found: One Lost Category

To follow up on the earlier essay on Christ and culture, I want to make a further observation about the importance of creation or nature as a category of thought. When many conservative Christians think of creation, the first thing they think about is the act of creation or perhaps even the length and nature of the creation days.

The Goodness Of Creation

In the early church, however, as the orthodox Christians battled the Gnostics (those who tried to remake Christianity into a religion about deliverance from the created world through secret knowledge), when they thought about creation, they thought about the Creator, the essential goodness of nature (even though corrupted by the fall), and the natural pattern of things established by God. When they thought about the creation days, which they did, they appealed to their reality to vindicate the reality and goodness of the created world over and against the Gnostics (and others) who denied the reality and goodness of creation.

We might learn something from their use of the creation narrative because we, too, live in a skeptical age, in a time when people regularly dismiss truth claims on the ground that all such are mere “constructs” to be deconstructed. What the deconstructionists are really saying is that nothing is real and nothing is good. They are nihilists and cynics but they are winning the day with a lot of young people who have been convinced that nothing is good, nothing is real, and everything is a con.

I started to sense this shift several years ago, and in response I started to say that the world was made to be known and you were made to know it. The world is not an illusion or a complex of constructs to be deconstructed. Our biological sex is not an illusion. It is a reality. The laws of nature are not a construct and God’s moral laws, which are revealed in nature and in the consciences of every human being, are real.

Lost: One Important Category

Many evangelical Christians are not used to thinking of nature as a category because they have been reared in a Pietist or Revivalist or even Anabaptist religious culture, which does not really have a place for nature as such. In those traditions, grace is the only thing that matters. One’s good, natural inclinations are to be subordinated to grace. If a convert liked baseball before conversion, after conversion he had to give it up.

This is not to say that Christians in those traditions do not enjoy the outdoors or even live off the land (e.g., the Amish are closer to the natural world than most urbanites and suburbanites) but I am saying that nature as a category does not figure prominently in their theology. Nature is something to be denied and overcome. In a way, this is true for my neo-Kuyperian friends too.

Consider the adjectival use of “Christian” in the evangelical and neo-Kuyperian sub-cultures. E.g., “Steve is a Christian plumber.” What does it mean to speak of “Christian plumbing”? Steve is a Christian yes, and he plumbs, yes, but it suggests more than that, does it not? To some, it might suggest that Steve is an honest plumber who will do a fair day’s work for a fair wage. To some, however—and here we get to the nub of the issue—to say that Steve is a Christian plumber is to suggest that he has a unique insight into the nature of plumbing, an insight that Pete the pagan plumber does not have. To be sure, a Christian plumber, when he is reflective, realizes things about the world and the God who made and sustains all things that the pagan does not see. The pagan does not honor God and the Christian plumber does, but now we are talking about the meaning or significance of plumbing, not about plumbing itself.

The question remains, does Steve have special insights about plumbing per se that the pagan does not? I submit that when we answer “yes” to this, we have engaged in a bit of Gnosticism because we have lost nature as a category. In truth, it is, in my experience, nigh unto impossible for Christians to say just exactly what is distinctly Christian about “Christian math” or “Christian plumbing.” When, however, we accept that nature is a category of analysis, then we no longer have to make exaggerated claims about “Christian math,” or “Christian plumbing.” There is just math and plumbing. They both do what they do according to nature as God has established it and according their own natures as God has ordained.

Have you ever wondered why we do not see Luther, Calvin, or Calvin’s orthodox successors writing about “Christian math,” etc? They did not speak this way because they worked with nature as a category of analysis that is distinct from grace. To speak of “Christian math” is a category confusion. There is a Christian gospel, which is not found in nature. There is a Christian faith that is not found in nature. These are creatures of grace or special revelation. The doctrine of the Trinity is not a natural doctrine, but math, like plumbing, is found in nature and taught by nature. We do not go to Scripture to learn plumbing or math and when, in the past, some have tried, it has not ended well. Our older Reformed writers did not use Christian as an adjective in the way we have come to do because they did not need to do so. They had a category that we have, to a certain degree, lost: nature.

When we use nature as our category for understanding things such as plumbing and math, we need no longer tie ourselves into knots trying to explain what is distinctively Christian about our math or pluming. Under nature, the real question is whether we are any good at it. Under nature, we see that math does what it does because God made it that way. Water does what it does because God made it that way. Physics and fluid dynamics are what they are because God ordained them to be so.

Vocation Is Back

There is another corollary here: vocation. The Reformation helped us relearn the truth, which the ancient Christian apologists defended against the Gnostics et al., that marriage is good (which the Gnostics and domestics condemned), that food is good, that sex is good, and that our daily vocations are good. Our vocations need not be sacred or sacralized to be good. They are good by nature. Plumbing is a good, honorable vocation and the plumber reminds you of that when he hands you the bill, and you pay it because he is right. Without his skill, your house would be a mess. The math teacher must honor the nature of math to do it well. The pilot must honor the laws of physics and aerodynamics in order to fulfill his good vocation.

Everyone ought to honor God as the Creator and sustainer of all things. The heavens declare his glory. It is sheer, sinful, blind stubbornness that causes us to suppress the knowledge of God. The Apostle Paul says just this in Romans 1. Nevertheless, the fact that our pagan neighbors refuse to honor God and that they worship the creature rather than the Creator should not cause us to turn to a sort of Christian Gnosticism. Let us speak plainly, as the Apostle Paul did. He appealed to the shared sense experience of Christians and pagans in Romans 1 and 2 and in Acts 17. “I see that you Athenians are very religious.” That was a natural fact. Then he preached the gospel to them, which they could not know from nature. Some of them believed and some of them did not but Paul engaged in no sophistry with them and neither should we, and if we accept the old Reformed category of nature, we are free to speak as Paul did.

© R. Scott Clark. All Rights Reserved.


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  1. “ Nevertheless, the fact that our pagan neighbors refuse to honor God and that they worship the creature rather than the Creator should not cause us to turn to a sort of Christian Gnosticism. “

    I was wondering what you think of some aspects of high Calvinism, the Puritans and even Bunyan’s take on the Christian life in Pilgrims Progress? Would they fit in the category you referred to as Pietists? Or were they simply sharpening the personal domain of the Christian convert?

    “In those traditions, grace is the only thing that matters. One’s good, natural inclinations are to be subordinated to grace. If a convert liked baseball before conversion, after conversion he had to give it up.

    This is not to say that Christians in those traditions do not enjoy the outdoors… but I am saying that nature as a category does not figure prominently in their theology. Nature is something to be denied and overcome.”

    I think there may be certain aspects of English & Dutch Puritanism that also flirt with the errors you are covering. I believe Luther would call them mystics and spiritualists who would even divide inner work of the spirit (and all that entails) from the written and preached Word of God and the good of natural gifts and creation. (These individuals would still consider themselves Calvinist, or even true Calvinist in a purer from as espoused in the Canons of Dordt.) Did some of the puritans and post-puritans rightly define Christian living or did they establish a new law?

    Living as pilgrims in the world can means different things to different sects and branches of Reformed Christianity. I think Christian Gnosticism can become a default position to folks unwilling to engage in a meaningful way with the culture at large due to a narrow view of what it means to live as a pilgrim in a fallen world. How would you speak to this? Are there even greater distinctions to be made to account for these phenomenons? Maybe this is just a hyper-vigilance to guard against sinful endeavors when functioning in the secular realm (vanity fair, etc.) or is this trying to maintain a holy bubble around ourselves to ensure the heathen won’t penetrate our personal spiritual domain?

    • AJ,

      I should want some very clear evidence that orthodox English and Dutch Reformed theologians “flirted” with the sort of Gnosticism I was describing in the essay. I’m a “high Calvinist” and quite opposed to Gnosticism as were all the orthodox Reformed.

      There were Pietists in the Netherlands whom the orthodox, e.g., Brakel opposed for just the reasons I gave in the essay.

      Are you making your judgments based on primary sources or upon caricatures drawn by others? My professional area of study is early Reformed orthodoxy (late 16th century and early 17th century) and I teach courses on Reformed orthodoxy from the 1550s to the early 18th century and I’ve not seen the sort of quasi-Gnosticism of which you write.

      I’ve written about the importance of engaging the culture and of vocation. See these e.g.,

      See also

      “‘Magic and Noise:’ Reformed Christianity in Sister’s America,” in eds. R. Scott Clark and Joel E. Kim Always Reformed: Essays in Honor of W. Robert Godfrey (Escondido: Westminster Seminary California, 2010), 74–91. (See also the Apple Books version).

      In this essay I describe what happened to American religion in the 19th century. In Recovering the Reformed Confession I describe what happened to it in the 18th century.

  2. I guess there could be degrees and elements of what you are touching on in certain reformed circles. I would paint any particular culture with such a broad brush. But if TULIP becomes a standard thru which to view the world….

    At a certain point a virtue could be forsaken for a judgemental standard of isolated living. …. You mentioned pietist religious culture and having to give up baseball and for them nature is to be denied and overcome (natural inclinations are to be subordinated to Grace). I didn’t think you were just referring to the Amish. I know that’s not your major thesis here, but it was just something that caught my attention for semi-personal reasons.

    This kind of touches on what I am describing (which can include good and bad religious elements and/or extremes Im assuming):
    “In general the term ‘Pietist’ signifies a type of dedicated, personal faith in which deep devotion to Christ and strict morality were prominent. Emphasising the emotions, rebirth, a changed life and religious experience, it often generated a sense of separation from the unredeemed world in its adherents, who typically made use of sermon, Scripture, devotional works and small gatherings of the devout to obtain spiritual edification, often also espousing missionary work. For them experience counted for more than knowledge of doctrine, dedication for more than ecclesiastical status and the personal for more than the institutional. “ – © Cambridge University Press 1977

    • “I wouldn’t paint any particular (Reformed) religious culture with such a broad brush.” Although my time in Netherlands Reformed Congregation felt that way.

      • AJ,

        There are wings of the Reformed churches, e.g., NL Ref’d, that were historically a lot closer too the Pietists than other wings, which focused more on the objective truths of the faith (rather than their subjective appropriation and the life of the soul).

        Arguably, the NLRCs have a “second-blessing” theology, which is not Reformed. It is not the theology of the Heidelberg nor is it the theology of the mainstream of English, German, Swiss, or Dutch Reformed theology.

  3. Interestingly, just yesterday I heard Aaron Renn say that one of the reasons Evangelicals are not in positions of influence in our culture today is directly related to this pietism. He makes the point that Evangelicalism has made having desires for excellence in fields such as intellectual scholarship, law, and science evils that must be overcome or idolatry. Unlike Jews and Romanists who have always promoted such “secular” pursuits. He gives examples such as the make-up of the supreme court and executive cabinet positions regardless of the administration’s party.

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