Calvin and Culture: A Response to Venema and Helm

My blogging has been light during the past few weeks and will continue to be so for the foreseeable future for several very good reasons. Last week my wife and I welcomed a new daughter into our family, and this little girl has in her own gentle ways nudged our priorities around a bit. I’m also on the stretch run for my dissertation ( I need to defend it this spring), teaching three classes at two different universities, and preparing to enter the job market.

Writing the dissertation on John Calvin’s two kingdoms theology has continued to give me the opportunity to think through some of the arguments and counter-arguments that rage across the Protestant community about whether or not Christians should be seeking to transform culture. In particular, I’ve been able to reflect on a comment by Cornel Venema in his chapter on Kingdoms Apart that has always somewhat befuddled me.

Towards the end of his chapter Venema writes that, according to VanDrunen’s interpretation of Calvin, “the future fullness of the redemptive kingdom” does not entail “the enrichment of the final state by the fruits and artifacts of the believer’s present service to God in society and culture” (26). Venema agrees that “Calvin suffered no illusions regarding the renovation of human life and the restoration of all things to proper order prior to the consummation of all things at Christ’s second advent” (31), but he worries that VanDrunen “fails to do justice to the way Calvin explicitly emphasizes the positive and integral relation between creation and redemption” (27).

I think that’s a fair criticism as far as it goes. Calvin is quite clear throughout his writings that Jesus will in fact restore and renovate the entire creation.

But then Venema goes on – in a footnote – to push a more neo-Calvinist claim about the restoration of human culture. Noting VanDrunen’s claim that the “artifacts and fruits of human culture in general” belong to the “non-redemptive kingdom of this world that is passing away,” Venema writes, “For a different interpretation of Calvin at this point, and one with which I tend to concur, see Paul Helm, Calvin: A Guide for the Perplexed” (26-27).

If you follow Venema’s suggestion and read the relevant passage in Helm’s book, you will find Helm making the fairly obvious – yet welcome – point that Calvin “certainly thinks of the renewed creation as carrying through to the world to come.” Like Venema, overall Helm gets Calvin right. But then he seeks to push the point further. On the basis of Calvin’s declaration in light of Romans 8 that even animals, trees, and stones long for the redemption of the world, Helm writes,

“Is it too fanciful to suppose that Calvin would be receptive to a parallel ‘releasing from emptiness’ of some of the artifacts of human culture, the products of the Holy Spirit of beauty and truth?” (Helm, 135)

To be honest, I am not entirely sure what Helm is proposing here. But he raises the question as if Calvin doesn’t address the matter. Venema’s endorsement is somewhat surprising here, given his own awareness that Calvin used Aristotelian logic to distinguish the the ‘substance’ of the creation, which the reformer argued will be renewed and restored, and its ‘accidents,’ which will pass away. In any case, Helm’s question seems to be answered by Calvin in his commentary on 1 Corinthians 13. The context is the Apostle Paul’s contrast of love, which is eternal, with other virtues and gifts, including knowledge, that will “pass away.”

For Calvin the contrast between love and knowledge raises a “question of no small importance – whether those who in this world excel either in learning, or in other gifts, will be on a level with idiots in the kingdom of God?” Calvin’s response, in contrast to that of Helm, is immediately to reject undue speculation. “Let them rather seek the way by which the kingdom of God is arrived at than curiously inquire what is to be our condition there, for the Lord himself has, by his silence, called us back from curiosity.”

Calvin goes on to argue, however, that Paul’s teaching does indeed suggest that the gifts of knowledge and learning are temporal and will pass away with the present life.

So far as I can conjecture, and am able even to gather in part from this passage – inasmuch as learning, knowledge of languages, and similar gifts are subservient to the necessity of this life, I do not think that there will be any of them remaining.

All of these blessings of culture were designed to direct human beings upward and forward to the kingdom of God, Calvin argues. That is their ‘fruit’. Once that kingdom has been fully established, the artifacts of culture will pass away. “That perfection, therefore, which will be in a manner a maturity of spiritual age, will put an end to education and its accompaniments.”

This statement of the point is less than dogmatic, but it hardly encourages the sort of speculation entertained by Helm and Venema. Calvin was always worried that Christians would get too caught up in the hope of a temporal kingdom. This would, in turn, soften the church and distract it from the more basic call to righteousness. He constantly stressed that God’s purposes for the church necessarily involve conflict, opposition, and suffering, as believers are called to be conformed to Christ through the way of the cross. And it was to that end that he pointed Christians forward to the second coming of Christ as the time when their labors would be blessed with triumph, peace, and the restoration of the world.


About Matthew J. Tuininga

Matthew J. Tuininga is the Assistant Professor of Moral Theology at Calvin Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Posted on September 17, 2013, in Calvin, Calvinism, David VanDrunen, Neo-Calvinism, Two Kingdoms and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. Comments Off on Calvin and Culture: A Response to Venema and Helm.

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