Category Archives: Neo-Calvinism

What is the Relationship between the Church and the Academy?

The issue is of considerable contemporary relevance. A very large number of colleges and universities in the United States were founded by denominations of the Christian church. Some of the most famous — Harvard, Yale, Princeton — retain selected elements of this foundation — an architecturally distinguished college chapel, for instance, or prayers at graduation ceremonies. But to all intents and purposes, these great schools have long since relinquished their Christian connection, and would not want to try to revive it in an academic world that prides itself on its multiculturalism. And the same observation could be made about hundreds more.

At the same time, this separation of church and academy is not universal. There are still a great many colleges that continue to profess their Christian allegiance. There are even new Christian colleges being established. Such institutions, however, whether newly formed or long established, tend to be regarded with suspicion by the secular academy. How can religious affiliation be compatible with academic integrity? Must it not put limits on the intellectual freedom essential to the life of the mind? It is not so very long, some will say, since the Pope suspended professors who taught contrary to the official doctrine of the Catholic church. Is this not inevitable, and no different from a far more famous case when the Inquisition sought to silence Galileo in 1632?

On the other side, of course, avowedly Christian colleges see a need to combat the corrosive effects of the secular academy, which is marked by a failure to engage in debate and discussion about some of the most fundamental human choices. Under the protestation of “neutrality,” such choices are declared to be a matter of personal “values” rather than the objectively ascertainable facts with which academic inquiry is concerned.

-Gordon Graham (HT: EerdWord)

The Kuyper Center Review – Calvinism and Democracy

The Kuyper Center Review - vol 4 - Calvinism and DemocracyIn 2012 a group of scholars gathered at Princeton Theological Seminary for a conference titled, “Calvinism and Democracy.” The purpose of this conference was to reflect upon the neo-Calvinist legacy, to explore its theological roots, and to assess in what ways this tradition might provide resources for democratic criticism and renewal. The Kuyper Center Review (Volume Four): Calvinism and Democracy represents the published proceedings of this conference.

Although this collection covers a wide range of topics, there are two themes that tie all eleven essays together: (1) the notion that democracy today is facing a crisis. and (2) the fact that neo-Calvinism has always had a complicated relationship with democracy. Despite these unifying themes this variegated compilation of essays lacks coherence. Since there does not seem to be a strong organizing principle behind their arrangement, for the sake of the review I will divide them into three categories: historical essays on Abraham Kuyper, prescriptive essays based upon Kuyper’s theology, and essays examining other theologians.

You can read the rest of my review of The Kuyper Center Review (Volume 4): Calvinism and Democracy in the Journal Themelios.

Top Ten Books of 2014

Christmas is the best time of the year to make lists!

  • Santa Claus is checking his list of kids who were naughty and nice, deciding which kids are going to get presents and which kids are going to get coal.
  • The nice kids are making lists of toys they want. (God bless the greedy little children, every one!)
  • Grown ups are creating Amazon wish lists hoping that somebody will get them something. (Mine is up on Amazon, just in case you want to get me something…)
  • Mom is making a grocery list, outlining all the stuff she needs to buy in order to pull off the perfect Christmas dinner. (I’m okay with just Tamales.)

But maybe most importantly, bloggers are making their “Best Of….” Lists for 2014. So I present to you the most important list you will see this holiday Season….

Chris Woznicki’s Best Books of 2014!!!

Best of 2014

Here are my qualifications to make it on to this list:

  1. Published in 2014
  2. I would give that book to somebody else
  3. I would re-read the book
  4. It is not a crappy book

With that I give you my favorite books of the year across 10 different categories: Biblical Studies, Theology, Mission, Ministry, Biography, Reformed, Charismatic, Devotional, Most Important, and of course Book of the Year.

Biblical Studies – Reading Backwards by Richard Hays

Reading Backwards

There were a lot of good biblical studies books that came out this year, including From Jesus to the Church by Craig Evans & How God Became Jesus by Michael Bird. However, the book that takes the top honor is Richard Hays’ Reading Backwards. In this series of printed lectures, Hays makes a most convincing case that the Gospel writers portraits of Jesus depend on a typological reading of the Old Testament. We have been waiting for this book for years!

Theology – Christ Crucified by Donald Macleod

Christ Crucified

Originally the winner was supposed to be Atonement, Law, and Justice by Adonis Vidu – probably the most important book on atonement theory published in the last 5 years. However another book on the doctrine of atonement snuck its way into my list of books to read in 2014. I haven’t finished it yet (I’m halfway through), but the top honor goes to Donald McLeod’s Christ Crucified: Understanding the Atonement. Rarely does an academic theology book make me cry because of how it glorifies Christ. This book had me in tears (the good kind) because it helps me see the glorious wonder of the cross and of penal substitution.

Mission – Primal Fire by Neil Cole

Primal Fire

Primal Fire is one of the clearest, most encouraging, and most biblically-theologically based APEST book out there right now. Not to mention, it will also ignite a fire up under you to discover how you can best serve the church to reach the maturity that God has intended for it. You can find my review here. (Honorable mention goes to Dispatches from the Front by Tim Keese – this book will get you pumped on what God is doing in unreached areas.)

Ministry – Slow Church by Christopher Smith & John Pattison

Slow Church

I loved this book! Slow Church: Cultivating Community in the Patient Way of Jesus explores what it would look like for the church to embrace the “slow” way of life. Humans can’t thrive and flourish on a fast food diet – neither can the church thrive and flourish with a “fast church” mentality. Change is needed – the church needs to slough off its industrialized and Macdonald-ized approach to church. It needs to embrace a holistic, interconnected, organic, and local way of life grounded in a grand gospel. Slow Church helps us imagine what it would look like if the church were to do that. You can read my review here. (Also, my review of this book will be published in the next issue of Themlios.)

Biography – Strange Glory by Charles Marsh

Strange Glory

This is an excellent and highly entertaining biography. It is very well written; at times it felt as though I were reading a novel, not a historical biography. But more importantly than that it is comprehensive, it goes beyond merely reporting the standard story, but instead strives to get into Bonhoeffer’s mind.  Marsh understands Bonhoeffer’s theology, and he seems to understand some of the things that really acted as driving forces in Bonhoeffer’s life. I recommended that you read this biography alongside of Eric Metaxas’ biography so that you will be able to form your own picture of who Bonhoeffer really was. You can read a full review here. (Honorable mention goes to Wesley on the Christian Life by Fred Sanders. Sanders’ book helped me to appreciate Wesley as a theologian of love.)

Reformed – Deviant Calvinism by Oliver Crisp

Deviant Calvinism - Crisp

I could not put this book down. I was so enthralled by it and the possibility moving past funadamentlistic neo-Puritianism (i.e. Johnny Mac and his cronies) that I read through it in a day and a half. Not only was it interesting though, it was very well argued. As is well known, Oliver Crisp is at the forefront of Analytic Theology – the theological method which applies the rigor and clarity of analytic philosophy to systematic theology. You can read the full review here.

Charismatic – Jesus Continued by J.D. Greear

Jesus Continued

Should I have categorized this book as being Charismatic? Probably not – but it is about the Holy Spirit! I loved this book so much. In fact I loved it so much that I have given away 15 copies of this book. I gave it to my Life Group leaders and to a few students who really needed it. Honestly this book could not have come at a better time for me. The Lord used it to speak so much truth into my life, truths that I have neglected or forgotten. It also stirred my heart for the possibility of revival. You can read the full review here.

Devotional – Prayer by Tim Keller

Prayer Tim Keller

Anything written by Keller is pure gold. Do you struggle with praying as consistently as you would like to? Would you like to experience God more personally in your quiet time? Do you want to have your heart awakened to the gospel? Are you tired of searching for the latest greatest spiritual discipline? If you answered yes to any of these questions – this book is for you. It grounds the discipline of prayer in the gospel and gives us practical ways to infuse our prayer habits with new life.

Most Important – Reformed Dogmatics Volume 1 by Geerhardus Vos

reformed-dogmatics1

Technically this isn’t a new book. It was published nearly 100 years ago. However this is the first time its been translated into English. Vos is an important figure in Neo-Calvinist theology, right behind Kuyper and Bavinck. I’m so grateful to have his Dogmatic Theology. Also, volume two has come out this year and the rest of the set will come out in the next year or so.

Book of the Year – Visions of Vocation by Steve Garber

Visions of Vocation

What the heck am I supposed to be doing with my life? Weaving together personal stories, literature, film, music, and scripture Garber helps us answer this question. He shows us what vocations are all about. He has written a book that will certainly inspire you to see your place in the world a bit differently. He not only aims at our heads, he aims at our hearts, drawing us into the story of what God is doing in this world. He invites us into the critical task of coming alongside of God as God himself give grace to a world that is broken and falling apart. Answering that invitation is what vocations are all about.

Earlier this year, when I wrote a review (here) I said:

I know its early in the year, but this book is so well written, so theologically powerful, and packs such a powerful devotional punch that it is definitely a frontrunner for my book of the year award.

It turns out that I stuck to my guns. This year was my favorite book of the year. If you buy only one book to read in 2015, buy this book!

Middle Knowledge & Geerhardus Vos

If Al Gore had become President of the United States, America would not have gone to war in Iraq. If the Broncos beat the Seahawks in the Super Bowl, the world would be a better place. If Johnny had asked Susie out on a date, she would say yes.

All these statements are examples of statements called counterfactuals. We use counterfactuals in every day conversation. For example we might say that “If I would have left home 5 minutes earlier, I would have missed traffic.” We say stuff like that all the time. But does God have this sort of knowledge too?

Most theologians agree that God has knowledge of all necessary truths. That is indisputable. Most also agree that God has knowledge of things that “will” be. However a disputed question is whether God has knowledge of things that “would” be. And if God does have this sort of knowledge, when does he have it? Does God have it before or after his divine decree to create?

Luis Molina (a Jesuit), from whose name Molinists derive their own name, believed that God’s hypothetical knowledge of creatures free decisions comes logically prior to his decree to create. The Dominicans, following Thomas Aquinas disagreed. Supposedly this makes room for human freedom, after all truths about human decisions come prior to God’s decree. According to Molinists, God knows what hypothetically humans would do prior to his divine decrees thus this allows room for human freedom but allows God to bring about his ultimate purposes through free creaturely decisions since God decides which world he will create.

According to William Lane Craig, this knowledge, lies between his knowledge of necessary truths and his knowledge of what “will” be, thus Molinists call this God’s middle knowledge.

But we need to ask ourselves a few questions:

Is middle knowledge a coherent concept?

Is middle knowledge a biblical concept?

Now before we answer some of these questions let’s define middle knowledge.

Here are a couple of definitions:

God knows, for any creature he might create, how that creature will behave in whatever circumstances he might be placed. God is able to know this, moreover, even though the creatures in question will, if created, enjoy libertarian freedom. This kind of knowledge…[is] called middle knowledge. –Hugh McCann

What is middle knowledge? This is the doctrine that between God’s natural knowledge, his knowledge of all necessities and possibilities, and his free knowledge, what he has freely planned to bring to pass, there is a middle knowledge, his knowledge of what his free creatures would do in a vast variety of different circumstances. – Paul Helm

So what should we think about Middle Knowledge? Geerhardus Vos helps us to think through some of these things in his Reformed Dogmatics…

First Vos says that – Knowledge is only “knowledge” if it refers to something that is certain. “Only what is certain and sure can be known.” This makes sense, knowledge only consists of what exists. Counterfactuals don’t have real existence – hence it is impossible to know them in the full sense of the word. So the concept is incoherent. (This is basically the grounding objection.)

Second, Vos says that what is free and uncertain in itself cannot be the object of knowledge. This is the same type of objection that Open theists make… Gregory Boyd helpfully points out: “it is hard to understand how agents can be said to possess libertarian freedom when the facts about every choice they will ever make eternally precede their making it.” So for freedom to be truly libertarian, an agent’s actions must be unknown. This is precisely what Middle Knoweldge tries to avoid. Again it seems like Middle Knowledge is an incoherent concept. Either God does not know libertarian actions or they are not truly libertarian – there doesn’t seem to be a way between these two options

Finally, is it biblical? Vos seems says that 1 Samuel 23 and Matthew 11, verses used to support middle knowledge are not in fact biblical. I don’t think the answer is as clear as Vos wants it to be.

But there are a host of issues, not touched upon by Vos, that make the concept of middle knowledge incoherent, or at least muddy. For instance, What is the Ontological status of molinist counterfactuals? These counterfactuals are logically prior to God’s decree to create, so how are they related to the Creator? How is it possible for the truth of these “facts” to exist apart from God’s creative will?

So what is the status of middle knowledge? I don’t know – all I know is that there are some pretty weighty objections against its existence. In my opinion, this last objection regarding the ontological status of these counterfactuals is the trickiest. From where do they derive their existence if they somehow “are” prior to God’s decree to create? Tricky Stuff…

Geerhardus Vos on Atonement

A lot of criticisms leveled against penal substitution (PSA) are based upon the fact that PSA is far to commercial in nature. It makes it seem as though God is subject to some abstract economic theory over which he is not sovereign. It is also said that it makes atonement a cold unloving action in which we are only forgiven because we met some abstract rule rather than saying we are forgiven simply because God loves us. Now I must say that these are some pretty weak objections, nevertheless, it must be pointed out that all the “commercial” stuff behind atonement is just a God given-inspired metaphor for the mystery of atonement. We must not push the metaphor too far and we must not make it the sole controlling metaphor. Note what Geerhardus Vos has to say about this in Reformed Dogmatics Volume One: Theology Proper

110. Must the exercise of punishment be understood as a purely commercial transaction?

No, it may not. There is a manifold difference between paying a financial debt and punishment for guilt, as the doctrine of atonement will show. Punishment is the restoration of relationship, of the status of sinners in relation to God, not taking back something that was first taken from God. (p. 33)

Young Geerhardus Vos

So there you have it, atonement is not merely a commercial transaction. It is a restoration of relationship. However, what is interesting is that Vos seems to completely disavow a satisfaction theory in this brief statement. Contra Anslem, and others who see atonement as Christ giving God what is due on our behalf, Vos says that atonement (PSA) does not such thing. I can’t wait till further translations of Reformed Dogmatics come out so I can further explore this.

Bavinck’s Virtue Ethics

In “Distinctively Common” an essay by Clay Cooke – a PhD candidate at Fuller Seminary and Free University of Amsterdam – he notes that Herman Bavinck has a unique Reformed take on virtue ethics.  Bavinck believes that

“We can profit from Aristotelian thought, and without doubt Aristotle’s ethics is basically the best philosophical ethics.”                    –(Notes from Gereformeerde Ethiek van Profess. Dr. H. Bavinck)

In the notes to the lecture that Jelle Michiels De Jong took from one of Bavinck’s lectures it seems pretty clear than he lends his fervent support towards the general structure of virtue ethics. However, he also takes a critical view of virtue ethics. I believe that Bavinck’s eager but critical appropriation of this ethical system serves as an example for Christians who wish to take the best of culture while at the same time recognizing the incompatibility of certain beliefs with our faith. In other words – Bavinck’s approach to virtue ethics is both critical yet appreciative – we ought to learn to be both critical and appreciative of other man made cultural systems.

According to Cooke – Bavnick expressly rejects the Aristotelian claim that people can achieve the human telos by means of their own agency. This is quite in line with his reformed theology which asserts that the development of virtue is only acquired by grace. A Reformed version of virtue ethics will need to prioritize grace in the process of moral formation. It will need to make explicit the fact that one does not become virtuous by means of mere habituation or practice of the virtues, rather one become virtuous (or a person of christian character) when God’s grace enables us to perform those actions which create virtuous lives.

Another aspect of Reformed virtue ethics which will remain distinctive from Aristotelian virtue ethics is that Reformed virtue ethics will aim at Christ-like cruciformity as its telos. This isn’t strictly a reformed view, rather it is a Christian view, however how one understands what cruciformity will actively look like will certainly be shaped by one’s understanding of the reformed tradition.

Abraham Kuyper vs. John Rawls

Today I came across an interesting article by Gordon Graham on Neo-Calvinism and Contemporary Political philosophy. In this article he contrasts the two extremely different visions of Abraham Kuyper and John Rawls. For instance, consider this claim by Kuyper:

“No political scheme has ever become dominant which was not founded in a specific religious or anti-religious conception.”

Today this claim seems ludicrous, at least to the mainstream liberal-democratic tradition embodied by John Rawls. (By liberal I don’t mean left leaning – I’m describing the dominant western political system). John Rawls, like most contemporary political philosophers attempt to divorce politics, specifically political justice, from any comprehensive view of life, both religious and anti-religious. Note what Rawls himself says:

“A conception of justice is political when it is presented independently of any wider comprehensive religious or philosophical doctrine… This means that in discussing constitutional essentials and matters of basic justice we are not to appeal to comprehensive religious and philosophical doctrines – to what we as individual or members of associations see as the whole truth.”

To simplify things a bit – Rawls thinks justice, especially political justice, is blind. Thus any political system should build itself up or maintain itself independently of any sort of religious/anti-religious philosophical system. This is the exact opposite of what Kuyper claims to be true, that all political schemes are specifically built upon religious or anti-religious foundations.

John Rawls

So given the fact that Kuyper’s opinions would seem ludicrous in any learned discussion of political philosophy (within our Western tradition) what should we do with Kuyper’s political philosophy? That is precisely the question that Gordon Graham tries to address in this paper.

One option is that we could completely discount Kuyper as a conversation partner with contemporary political philosophy because his time has passed and his views are antiquated – as Graham says, we could ignore him because “His world, in short, is not ours.” This seems like a reasonable position, after all the political world of 2014 is quite different that it was in 1914. We live in a world, quite unlike Kuyper’s, after all we live in a pluralistic world. This claim however is unfounded, after all Kuyper’s neo-Calvinist project was undertaken precisely because he lived in an increasingly pluralistic world. So discounting Kuyper just because he wrote a long time ago is not an option.

If anything, we have seen in recent years with the rise of the “religious right” and Islam as a political force that politics certainly cannot be separated from religious commitments. I’m not saying that politics is at its core religious, it certainly might by anti-religious. What I am saying, and I’m just using Kuyper’s words here – “No political scheme has ever become dominant which was not founded in a specific religious or anti-religious conception.”

You can’t remove your religious or political commitments when approaching questions of politics. Unlike what Rawls tries to claim, there is not such thing as a neutral approach to politics. The fact that this is true certainly poses a huge problem for how to do politics in a pluralistic world where everybody brings their commitments to the table – but that is an issue I sure don’t want to address or try to address in a short blog post.