James Bond, Agent 007, had a “license to kill.” There are Reformed folk who also seem to have a license of some sort or other, based on what they call “the Christian world and life view” (hereafter, CWLV). This concept is interesting because it does not occur in any of the Reformed confessions. It is not an expression that one finds in the literature of the classic Reformed theologians of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. This does not mean that the substance of the ideas might not be present, but answering that question would take us well beyond the capacity of a column. Nevertheless, it is worth noting that, for many Reformed Christians since the late nineteenth century, the idea of a distinctly Christian world and life view is perhaps the single defining element of their self-identity; yet it is a notion that is harder to define than it seems.
The language and notion of a “Reformed world and life view” have their roots in the work of Abraham Kuyper (1837–1920) who, along with Groen van Prinsterer (1801–1876), led a political, cultural, and religious reaction to the French Enlightenment.
It is beyond controversy that the various European and British phases of the Enlightenment were essentially anti-theistic and anti-Christian in spirit and effect. One may divide all of Western history in two: BE and AE (before the Enlightenment and after the Enlightenment). Such a radical revolution called for a response. It is certainly true that the message of the Enlightenment to Christians was that Christian theism is no longer a tenable explanation of the world, or persons, or God, and that if Christians insisted on continuing to believe, they could no longer speak as if Christian truth claims had any objective validity or correspondence with reality. They must now describe it only as a subjective experience (“If it is true for you . . .”). Thus pietism, which majored on the Quest for Illegitimate Religious Experience (QIRE), flourished under the Enlightenment. Pietism was all too happy to privatize Christianity. This is why Friedrich Schleiermacher was able to make a seamless transition from the Moravian Brethren to his later views, which he described as “mature” (i.e., Enlightenment-based and critical) pietism.
There is no question that Van Til was right to say that God’s Word speaks “to” everything. But Van Til, like Kuyper, taught both common grace and antithesis. In our time, as the culture seems to become increasingly hostile to Christian theism and Christian truth claims, it is easy to emphasize the antithesis between belief and unbelief; but both Kuyper and Van Til also taught that there is a common (not neutral) realm shared by believers and unbelievers.
It also seems true that, in some cases at least, in responding to the Enlightenment some Reformed folk have neglected some important distinctions. Just because the Enlightenment was totalitarian does not mean that our response to it must be undifferentiated. Yes, Christ is Lord over all things; but he administers that dominion in distinct spheres (Kuyper’s term) or kingdoms (the older Reformed language). His revelation speaks to everything but not in the same way. The cultural or civil sphere is normed by God’s general or natural revelation. Special revelation was not given to norm cultural or civil life. If we wish to apply special revelation to civil life, then we should all become theonomists, since they are those who wish to apply the only civil code in Scripture (the Mosaic civil laws) to post-canonical civil life. Most Reformed folk are not theonomists and reject theonomy, so I take it that most Reformed folk agree, in principle (if not in rhetoric) with me that special revelation is redemptive, not cultural or civil in focus. Thus, most Reformed folk do not insist that the magistrate implement the Mosaic civil law. We do, however, rightly insist that the magistrate be restrained by natural law. In the nature of the magistrate’s office, there are things that properly concern him and things that do not.
The church, however, is a distinct sphere from cultural or civil activities. The church has a specific, divinely revealed charter in Holy Scripture. This does not mean that the Christian faith is thereby privatized. Rather, we ought to respect the intent of Scripture itself. When Paul wrote the pastoral epistles, he was not laying out a charter for civil society. He was, however, laying out a charter, with divine authority, for the church, the principal and chief manifestation of the kingdom of God. The kingdom of God is not about eating and drinking or painting or softball, but about sin, guilt, salvation, and grace in Christ. Because they are citizens of the heavenly kingdom and members of the civil kingdom simultaneously, Christians ought to conduct themselves differently. Our heavenly citizenship should be manifested in our civil life, not that we have a “Christian” solution to the financial crisis but that we do not steal. A Christian who runs an investment business may not turn it into a Ponzi scheme! It ought to be manifest that we have been bought with a price.
There are other differences (antitheses) between Christians and non-Christians. Believers and unbelievers have different theologies and therefore different explanations of why things are as they are. The unbeliever alternates between rationalism (i.e., a single truth explains all) and irrationalism (i.e., subjectivism; there is no explanation of anything). Earlier modernity tended to rationalism (if my intellect cannot comprehend it, then it is not true) and empiricism (what my senses cannot experience does not exist). Late modernity (where we are now) is dominated by subjectivism and irrationalism. Subjectivism says that one’s experience of anything is the determinate fact. Thus, in post-structuralist hermeneutics, one’s reading of a text norms the text itself. Both rationalism and irrationalism serve as ostensible ways of escape allowing the unbeliever to elude God’s authority and the claims of truth.
As it refers to the competing theologies of belief and unbelief, we may certainly speak of a CWLV. There is a Christian understanding for what the world is, why it works as it does, for who and what God is to us, for who and what we are, and for the nature of sin, grace, Christ, the church, sacraments and last things. Scripture speaks to all these things, and about all these things authoritatively and comprehensively.
Nevertheless, even the fundamentally different explanations of why things are (theology, or ultimate concerns) does not obliterate the existence of the penultimate. The truth is that Christians and non-Christians live together in the same world, at the same time, and in much the same way much of the time. It is much less clear what is distinctively Christian about the allegedly Christian view of any number of penultimate matters. When it comes to the relation of the CWLV to the particulars of penultimate questions, the CWLV tends to devolve into platitudes more than it tends to press to particulars.
Consider plowing (sue me—I am from Nebraska). In the spring and fall farmers plow. They break up the soil to plant, and then, after harvest, they turn over the soil to let it rest or perhaps to plant another sort of crop. Is there a distinctly Christian way to plow? I doubt it. What farmers do is determined by the nature of the work. I do not think one can look at a field and tell whether it was a Christian or a pagan who plowed it. Christians plow, but does that make it Christian plowing? Are there Christian plows sold in Christian implement stores? No, Christian farmers and non-Christian farmers sit on the same tractors and use the same implements. A Christian farmer should be a good steward of the earth and practice soil conservation, but the non-Christian farmer does the same, if only out of economic self-interest. And further, sinful Christian farmers may not be as stewardly as some pagan farmers who act solely out of economic self-interest (if the soil blows away, the pagan cannot plant or harvest).
Again, there is no question whether the Christian and the non-Christian explain why farming works the way it works. The Christian says that seeds grow and rain falls and fertilizers work because of the sovereign providence of God. The pagan farmer appeals to magic or random chance. Their theologies of farming are radically different but the actual art and science of farming is the same for Christian and pagan (which, ironically is Latin for farmer or rustic) alike.
This example illustrates my concern about careless invocation of the CWLV. It tends to become a license to baptize one’s pet views as Christian and thus to make them incontrovertible. This is more about, as one writer likes to put it, “control, authority, and power” than about truth. It is a form of the very sort of Reformed narcissism about which I commented in Recovering the Reformed Confession.1 “I am Reformed. I think x; ergo x is Reformed.” Really? Is it that simple? Obviously the conclusion does not follow from the premises. This is the problem about claims concerning Christian music or Christian farming or Christian politics or whatever. It is hard to see how such claims are really rooted in the Reformed faith. They seem rather to be rooted in a fearful reaction to frightening cultural changes. The question is how we should respond to these changes, and what claims we should make about what Christians know as distinct from what our non-Christian friends, neighbors, and co-workers know.
What precisely is Christian about Christian art? It has Christian themes, but if we obey the second commandment and do not attempt to represent the deity (including God the Son incarnate), then what is Christian about Christian art? It puzzles me to no end to hear about the CWLV from those who think nothing about blatant visible violations of the second commandment in church buildings. If we are going to have a CWLV, let us start with the law of God as confessed by the Heidelberg Catechism and the Westminster Confession. If the CWLV includes anything it certainly includes the second commandment.
If art has Christian themes, fine. But the mechanics of painting (to pick one medium) are the same for Christian and non-Christian alike. The Christian has no unique insight into putting paint on canvas because of his Christian faith. The Christian musician has no distinct insight into playing his instrument because of his faith. He explains the meaning of music differently than the pagan, but now we are back to theology again. How is a Christian symphony different from a pagan symphony? Might not a Christian symphony (conceding the category for the sake of argument) be just as cacophonous as the late modernist piece, as a way of suggesting brokenness resulting from the fall? In this case, who can tell just by listening whether the piece is by John Cage or a Christian composer?
When I googled the expression, “Christian world and life view,” the first piece I found was a reasonable representative of what people often mean by CWLV.2 We will take a look at it in the following parts.
- R. Scott Clark, Recovering the Reformed Confession (Phillipsburg: P&R Publishing, 2008).
- Fred Pugh, “The Necessity of a Reformed World and Life View,” The Forerunner (blog), March 1, 1996.
©R. Scott Clark. All Rights Reserved.
Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on the Heidelblog in 2009.
- Subscribe To The Heidelblog!
- The Heidelblog Resource Page
- Heidelmedia Resources
- The Ecumenical Creeds
- The Reformed Confessions
- The Heidelberg Catechism
- Recovering the Reformed Confession (Phillipsburg: P&R Publishing, 2008)
- Why I Am A Christian
- What Must A Christian Believe?
- Heidelblog Contributors
- Support Heidelmedia: use the donate button or send a check to
Heidelberg Reformation Association
1637 E. Valley Parkway #391
Escondido CA 92027
The HRA is a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization