Category Archives: Neo-Calvinism

Calvinism and Democracy

In 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 of essays 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 collection of essays lacks coherence. Since there does not seem to be a strong organizing principle behind the arrangement of these essays, for the sake of the review I will divide these essays into three categories: historical essays on Abraham Kuyper, prescriptive essays based upon Kuyper’s theology, and essays examining other theologians.

The historical essays include contributions by seasoned Kuyper scholars George Harinck and Harry Van Dyke, as well as an essay by Clifford Anderson. Harinck contributes the first essay in this collection by exploring the reasons behind neo-Calvinism’s complicated relationship with democracy. Anderson makes perceptive observations regarding the logic behind liberalism and democracy. He argues that the Kuyperian notion of divine sovereignty rather than popular sovereignty allows us to hold these two ideologies together. Finally, Van Dyke makes two contributions; the first is a translation of correspondence between Willem Groen van Prinster and Kuyper regarding Kuyper’s election to parliament. The second is an essay addressing the nature of Kuyper’s democracy and his role as an emancipator of the kleine luyden in the Netherlands.

However, this collection does not limit itself to looking back at neo-Calvinism’s historical and theological roots; in the group of prescriptive essays Jeffrey Stout, Michael Bräutigam, and Michael DeMoor look to Kuyper as a resource for democratic criticism and renewal. Stout turns to Kuyper’s The Social Problem and the Christian Religion in order to prescribe a course of action for addressing the problems of poverty, domination, and exploitation. Bräutigam makes the case that Kuyper’s distinction between the church as an institution and as an organism “provides a significant motif for Christian political involvement” (p. 67). Finally, DeMoor calls upon other political theologians to develop a specifically neo-Calvinist conception of deliberative democracy rooted in the God’s sovereignty.

The final group of essays are focused on theologians other than Kuyper. David Little argues that Calvinist theology has made “a significant, if sometimes very ambivalent contribution” to the rise of modern constitutionalism (p. 24). He makes this argument by turning to the political theology of John Calvin, John Cotton, and Roger Williams. In “Distinctively Common,” Clay Cooke utilizes the thought of Herman Bavinck to develop ways to hold on to Christian peculiarity and the common good in the public square. James Eglinton also looks to Bavinck’s theology and shows how Bavinck could support the democratic development of the Netherlands while insisting that churches ought to be organized around principles that differ from democracy. Finally, Brant Himes shows how Kuyper’s and Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Christology and doctrines of creation enable them live our their convictions that Christianity demands “public discipleship.”

Calvinism and Democracy is a superb collection of essays that will serve to stimulate further theological and political reflection upon its subject matter. Many of these essays provide avenues for further scholarly research. For instance Clay Cooke’s essay suggests that Bavinck sees cruciformity as a political virtue. One might want to further investigate what it looks like in practice to engage in politics in a cruciform manner. Michael Bräutigam’s essay “The Christian as Homo Politicus” explains how Kuyper used new forms of media to stimulate political action among the kleine luyden. It would certainly be a worthwhile project to see how new forms of social media, including twitter and blogs, could be used to continue Kuyper’s legacy of stimulating political action within the church. In addition to stimulating further research, this collection will also serve ministers who are attempting to form their own theology of political action within the church. Clay Cooke’s and Michael Bräutigam’s essays will be especially helpful. Both essays move beyond mere theory and develop practical courses of action for the church.

Despite possessing these strengths, this collection certainly has its flaws. One weakness of the collection as a whole is its lack of organization. There is no apparent logic as to how the individual essays were organized within the collection. Several essays also have major flaws. For instance, DeMoor’s essay does not make any significant contribution to neo-Calvinist scholarship, here merely calls for someone else to develop a neo-Calvinist model of deliberative democracy. The essay would have been stronger if he had developed it a model himself. Little’s essay also has a serious flaw; although he addresses John Cotton’s and Roger Williams’s political theories he never specifically addresses their distinctive Calvinist theology. This certainly undermines his thesis. Despite these drawbacks Calvinism and Democracy is a valuable collection that will stimulate further scholarly work and encourage ministers to develop their own theology of political action.

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(Review) Beyond the Modern Age

In Beyond the Modern Age: An Archaeology of Contemporary Culture Bob Goudzwaard (Free University Amsterdam) and Craig Bartholomew (Redeemer College) provide an in-depth examination and critique of four modern worldviews. These four worldviews are: 1) the classical modern worldview, 2) the structural-critical worldview, 3) the cultural-critical worldview, and 4) postmodernism. In formulating their critique they lean on the work of Philip Reiff on culture and religion, Rene Girard on desire, and Len Goodman & Abraham Kuyper on pluralism. 513vpc01u1l-_sx322_bo1204203200_With this arsenal of contemporary thinkers, they proceed to put forth a positive proposal for a worldview which can contend with modern worldviews. This is a worldview which is thoroughly Christian but also fits well within our increasingly pluralistic world.

So what does this proposed Christianity for public life look like? The authors propose that Christianity which will be able to engage in our pluralistic world, and compete among the panoply of worldviews will be marked by the following:

  1. It will be self-critical, willing to take a close look at itself, explore how it has been positively and negatively shaped by modernity, and resubmit itself to the authority of Scripture and tradition.
  2. It will see clearly the relevance of the gospel for the whole of creation, for the whole of society and not just the individual soul or the institutional church.
  3. It will be genuinely committed to the flourishing of all creation.
  4. It will have a preferential option for the poor.
  5. It will take spiritual formation seriously.
  6. It will attempt to “live the solution.”

Their positive proposal is essentially and expansion upon points 3, 4, and 6. The problem of modernity, as they see it, boils down to an interconnectedness between population growth, environmental crisis, material production and consumption, economic crisis, decreasing global security, and deepening world poverty. The four modern worldviews have proposed solutions to these problems, however, they have not only failed to provide an adequate solution, some of these worldviews exacerbate the problems! Their answer to these problems is to set forth a solution in light of Reiff’s work on the sacred in culture, Girard’s work on desire, and the preferred option for the poor. They call this solution an economy of care. An economy of care flips upside down what modernist economies say is the “bottom line”:

Suppose our first priority is not dynamic economic growth but rather the ability to safeguard time, provide justice for the poor, protect and restore the environment, create more opportunities for meaningful employment, and care for the vulnerable. There is nothing to prevent these needs from becoming the starting point in an economic approach rather than expansion of material prosperity at all costs. (235)

They call this approach an “economy of care.” Although it may sound crazy, they are convinced that it is not simply wishful thinking. The authors point to several small scale instances in which an economy of care has worked for local communities. They also point to how an economy of care has had an impact upon the well-being and even economy of Holland. A Dutch study has shown that long term an economy of care would have a more favorable impact than either the market economy or welfare state on 1) employment levels, 2) quality of work, 3) the environment, 4) energy saving, 5) capital transfer to the South, and 6) government deficits. (254) And this economy of care could be implemented if “the Dutch people were willing to maintain average income and consumption levels at their present level and if they agreed to cooperate in orienting society, as a whole and in parts to these broader ends.” (254) All this to say, an economy of care seems not only plausible, but realistic! That is until we start thinking about the sinful condition of humanity. Maybe its my Calvinist bent (or maybe my realism), but I tend to believe that people are actually pretty selfish. Maybe they aren’t selfish with people they love and know, but they are certainly selfish about people that bear no relation to them. Not only that but people have a near future bias. In other words, people are prone to taking actions which serve their near futures rather than their further out futures. This means, that even though it may be irrational, people in general will be less likely to make sacrifices in the near future for the sake of a more secure future further out. Think about how people treat their health. Most people are more likely to not workout now because its painful for the near future even though rationally they know it is best for their far out future. If we can’t even get people to work out, how will we convince people to sacrifice their economic good in the near future for the sake of their far-out future, and more so, for the sake of the far-out future of other generations and of people from other nations and states! There is absolutely no reason to do so. That is, unless, there is a stronger drive compelling them to do so. Something like the gospel. The gospel has the power to reshape our desires, to shift our desires from self-centered and near-future oriented, to other-centered and eschatologically focused. The gospel really does have power. This book shows that the gospel really could have an impact on the flourishing of this world, and if taken seriously, provides a stronger alternative to the current worldview that are available.

 

Note: I received this book from the publisher in exchange for an impartial review.

 

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.