Neo-Calvinism and Distinctive Christian Living: A Response to Darryl Hart’s Quibble

Last week at Old Life Darryl Hart graciously ventured his agreement with my basic statement of the two kingdoms doctrine at Reformation 21, though with a qualification. He writes,

My lone quibble with Matt is the sign of lingering neo-Calvinism (which I attribute to his Covenant College education, in part, and which he denies). For instance, he still believes that Christians will look or be different and noticeable when they apply the Bible to their daily lives …

But I also know and I am sure Matt knows, plenty of non-Christians who believe government officials should serve the public, that businessmen should not ruthlessly pursue profits, that husbands should be considerate and loving toward their wives, and that those with resources will share them with those in need. In other words, I see nothing inherently distinctive or biblical in the Christian pursuit of these social and cultural goods. Do different motives exist for Christian businessmen compared to their unbelieving peers? Sure. Can I see those motives? No. And that is the point. The best stuff that Christians produce in public or cultural life is hardly distinct from non-Christian products. Where you do literally see Christianity at work is on Sunday.

Darryl describes my project as an “effort to find a middle way between 2k and neo-Calvinism. This is not how I perceive my own work. Although I do not view myself as a neo-Calvinist any more than I view myself as a representative of some sort of “two kingdoms movement” (I don’t find such flag-waving helpful), I, like David VanDrunen, wholeheartedly affirm neo-Calvinism’s teaching concerning the sovereignty of God over all of life, along with its emphasis on the cultural mandate, the antithesis, sphere sovereignty, and common grace (you will recall that in Natural Law and Two Kingdoms VanDrunen, with qualifications, claims Kuyper and Bavinck for the two kingdoms tradition, distinguishing it from neo-Calvinism’s subsequent evolution). Rightly understood, as David VanDrunen argues in his Living in God’s Two Kingdoms, every one of these principles is fundamentally compatible with, and to a significant extent even presupposes, a two kingdoms perspective.

To be sure, a prominent strand of neo-Calvinism has evolved in a highly problematic, radical direction, in part due to its abandonment of biblical two kingdoms distinctions, and it therefore easily devolves into the worst forms of the social gospel and liberation theology. In between Kuyper, Bavinck, and this radical form of neo-Calvinism there are a plethora of variants and distinctions among self-conscious and unconscious neo-Calvinists, all of which suggest that we should not dismiss the movement as if it is some sort of monolithic beast.

But let me get to the precise quibble about which Darryl is concerned. Yes, I believe that Christians should look different from the world when they work out Christ’s lordship in their daily lives. At the same time, yes, I believe that the same moral law that binds Christians is written on the hearts of nonbelievers as natural law. As Calvin clarified time and again, outwardly nonbelievers often keep the moral law just as well as, if not better, than those who profess the Christian faith. (Once we get into the realm of the “products” of “public and cultural life,” by which I assume Darryl means things like civil laws, party platforms, scientific discoveries, works of art, or manufactured products like homes, clothing, or tools, there is no question that for the most part, the best that Christians do is hardly different from the best work of nonbelievers. But let me focus on the moral question in this essay.)

There are various reasons for this. On the one hand, many who profess the Christian faith are insincere or hypocritical. None attain to the moral standards that they themselves profess. On the other hand, many nonbelievers readily perceive the advantages of maintaining the natural moral order, whether as a result of their own religious convictions or of the influence of the very Christianity which they reject. But as C. S. Lewis points out in Mere Christianity, the relevant question is not whether every Christian is morally superior to every non-Christian. The relevant question is whether a Christian is more sanctified than he or she would be apart from the work of Christ. That’s why when professing Christians act like the worst unbelievers, the church excommunicates them.

But of course, that sanctification may be outwardly imperceptible in some cases, as Darryl rightly insists. This is particularly true when Christians are compared to those nonbelievers or practitioners of other religions who outwardly live moral lives worthy of the highest human praise, for whatever reason. In fact, there are myriad instances in which even the most sanctified Christians have much to learn – even morally –  from individuals who deny the Christian faith. We need humility. Here again Darryl and I are agreed.

But Darryl overemphasizes the degree to which either Christians or nonbelievers actually live according to the best moral standards. I would suggest that the main reason why Christians often look no better morally than the world is that Christians are plagued by so much vice rather than that nonbelievers are marked by so much virtue. If Christians actually followed the teaching of Christ they would look profoundly different from the world, just as would nonbelievers if they actually obeyed the natural law. I understand Darryl’s desire to reject the “They will know we are Christians by our t-shirts” variety of Christianity, but that does not mean our Lord was wrong when he told us that they will know we are his disciples by our love for one another.

The fact remains that even in the works that Christians do that look just like the best works of the most morally admirable nonbelievers, the context for the former distinguishes them from the latter. The Apostle Peter gets at this when he calls Christians to act in ways that the world will respect and admire (which would be impossible if the world did not share the same moral awareness to some extent), but then insists that they always be ready to give a reason for the hope that is in them. Taken as isolated, individual actions, therefore, what Christians do often looks identical to what is done by nonbelievers, but viewed in the context of a life of Christian witness (expressed most directly in worship, as Darryl emphasizes, but also present in the readiness of Christians to testify to the gospel), the same actions look different. As Ryan McIlhenny helpfully explains in Kingdoms Apart,

The good works done by Christians, although common in the abstract, nonetheless can effectively win over people to the kingdom, as Lord’s Day #32 … of the Heidelberg Catechism tells us (265)

In the particulars, Christian activity is similar to that of unbelievers and therefore part of the common, secular realm, but the picture changes when the pieces form a whole (269).

Christianity makes a difference in the life of anyone who is regenerate. When Christians rightly apply the Bible to their lives, following Christ, their actions will look different than they would have if they had not become Christians, a reality the New Testament explicitly associates with the calling of Christian witness. Does Darryl really disagree with this, understood rightly (rather than facilely)? I doubt it.

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About Matthew Tuininga

Matthew Tuininga is a doctoral candidate in Religion, Ethics and Society at Emory University. He is an adjunct professor at Oglethorpe University and a licentiate in the United Reformed Churches of North America.

Posted on December 14, 2012, in Abraham Kuyper, Calvin, Christian Life, Neo-Calvinism, Two Kingdoms, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Comments Off.

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