Tag Archives: political philosophy

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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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.

I Pledge Allegiance To….

Over the last few weeks I have been answering some common questions about Christianity and Culture. Today I turn my attention to the other subject one is never supposed to talk about in a proper setting. Thankfully this isn’t a proper setting – so lets talk politics!

How does Christian allegiance intersect with national allegiance? Does national allegiance pose a challenge to Christian values in any way?

In Christ and Culture Revisited (a book that I have mentioned several times in the last few weeks), D.A. Carson succinctly articulates his position when he says that

The texts (i.e. the Scriptures) encourage good citizenship within the Empire while insisting on the Christian’s primary allegiance to a heavenly citizenship. The proclamation of the gospel transforms people….sooner or later such transformation will either improve the state or excite its opposition. (172)

I wholeheartedly agree with Carson’s position.

Throughout the Bible, especially in the New Testament (and also in the exilic period) there is definitely a sense that one is to submit to the authorities that God has placed above oneself. In the modern day this can range from teachers, to police officers, to the federal government. However, it is also clear from the Bible that one’s primary allegiance is to God himself, anything else would be idolatry.

The Bible is clear that one’s primary allegiance is to God alone, anything else would be idolatry.

Usually this is not a problem, the government (at least in the United States) does not usually legislate in such a way that Christians are forced to choose to act in a Christian manner or in an American manner. However when such legislation does occur, Christians have the responsibility of refusing to bow the knee before anyone other than God. It is in these situations that Christians must express the fact that their allegiance is not towards America but to God. One such situation that immediately comes to mind is immigration. The immigration debate is often framed in light of what is best for America, but as a Christian who believes that my allegiance is to God and his purposes before it is to America and its purposes there are situations where I will have to deviate from American foreign policy. This deviation from American policy will likely be unpopular in the eyes of those (even Christians) who think in terms of what is “best” for the United States. It might even incite opposition from these people, but that is to be expected. In my opinion, this is an issue of idolatry. Who or what is worship directed to? Is it to God or is it to our state?

Some questions for you to chew on (courtesy of an anonymous friend at Church):

  1. In the lives of Daniel and his friends, we see that they clearly obeyed the laws of the land in almost every circumstance, despite the fact that Babylon was clearly their enemy…
    1. Are there any laws you find yourself being tempted to disregard? If so, why?
    2. How does it detract from our witness when we are not living in submission to authorities?
  2. As Christ followers, our sole allegiance is to God, and there is a limit to our submission to our country.
    1. Keeping in mind the examples of Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednago, what are 2 or 3 examples of when we should stand against our own government?

Two Quick Political Philosophy Reviews – Balibar and Rawls

Spinoza and Politics (Radical Thinkers)  – Etienne Balibar

This book was great. I read it as a 3rd year philosophy student at UCLA and I took 2 classes on Spinoza. In one class we studied The Ethics, and in the other we read the Tractatus Politicus. Balibar’s book was mostly about the Tractatus Politicus and his theological essay as well. Balibar’s ability to capture Spinoza’s themes without resorting to the use of technical language was extremely helpful. Because Balibar explained Spinoza at an intuitive level, it made for a light yet informative read.

According to Balibar the fundamental theorem of Spinoza’s metaphysical politics is that reason and imagination interact in a certain way to create a stable society. It turns out that state itself determines if and how this interaction will proceed. Because 1) the state determines how the interaction between imagination and reason proceeds 2) this interaction determines the stability of the state thus 3) the preservation of the state’s existence is in the state’s own hands.

A Brief Inquiry into the Meaning of Sin and Faith: With “On My Religion”

A Brief Inquiry is Rawl’s undergraduate thesis. In it you can see that he was formulating his more mature political philosophy in this theological work. His focus on community in explaining sin and faith is an interesting take on the traditional definitions of sin and faith which involve rebellion or obedience to God. Although this interpretation of the meaning of sin and faith might not be the traditional one, it is orthodox nonetheless. It is interesting to see what kind of philosopher Rawls was becoming even at a young age.

The Right to Education? (Pt. 6)

Over the last 5 posts (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5) I have compared and contrasted Wayne Grudem’s and Michael Walzer’s position on the injustices in our education system and their responses to the problem. Today, I am going to offer my own opinion regarding this issue.

My Position

Walzer begins his book by saying that “human society is a distributive community.”[1] As a community we decide how we distribute goods like food, shelter, knowledge, capital, and education. Of course how goods are distributed will vary from community to community. Some communities will distribute goods more justly than others. The United States is a community composed of people from different parts of the world and of different cultures. It would be fair to say that the United States is a community that is composed of many small communities and social structures. The family might be considered a small community representing one unit of society to the larger community. The government might be considered one part of the community created to serve the smaller units of community as well as the aggregate of these smaller communities. The government however is not a standalone entity, it is an entity which exists as part of the larger community embedded within a particular culture. In other words, in the United States the government is not separate from the people it is part of the people. Because the government is part of the society, it plays a role in deciding how the society as a whole will distribute its goods. In this series of blogs we focused on education. Walzer argues that education is a good which is distributed by the community. I believe that Walzer is right in saying that the society as a whole has the responsibility of distributing goods in such a way as to eliminate the practice of domination.

In regards to the good we call education, I personally believe that society as a whole should do its best to provide an education to all who are willing so that none within that society experience domination. Glen Stassen points out that justice has four dimensions: 1-deliverance of the poor from injustice, 2-lifting the foot of domineering power off the neck of the dominated and oppressed, 3-stopping violence and establishing peace, and 4-restoring the outcasts into the community.[2] If society as a whole were to take these four points seriously they would realize that providing an education to all people is a matter of justice. This means that if our society is going to take the biblical mandate to enact justice seriously, all segments of society must do their part to educate children. (Whether or not “society” should be working to ensure “biblical justice” is an entirely different question, and its too big to address in this particular post.)

How we understand the authorities in our community will influence how the proper education of all children will occur. We must remember that God has placed the government as an authority over our society. “For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God.” (Rom. 13:1) These authorities are God’s servant for our good. But the government is not the only authority God has placed in the world for the good of society. God has created families so that they may instruct, discipline, teach, and raise children in the ways of the Lord (Deut. 6:4-7). If we take seriously the government’s God given mandate to serve its people and the family’s mandate to raise children in the ways of God, and believe that a society is mandated by God to enact justice then education is the responsibility of both government and family. In other words, all of society is responsible for being interested in the education of its children.

As a church, how are we to create a society that cares for the education of all children, especially the children of poor, oppressed, and marginalized people? I believe that the first step is to teach our churches about justice. Justice is a deep concern to God. Jeremiah 22:3 says “Thus says the Lord: Act with justice and righteousness, and deliver from the hand of the oppressor anyone who has been robbed. And do no wrong or violence to the alien, the orphan, and the widow, or shed innocent blood in this place.” As evangelicals, the justice element has really been ignored in our preaching. And I must admit, I gravitate towards ignoring it in my own preaching as well. Once our churches have understood God’s concern for the poor and oppressed we will desire to find ways to bring about justice. This might involve creating programs which help underprivileged children succeed in their education. Perhaps it will involve political advocacy for educational reform. It will certainly involve prayer for our government so that they would enact justice.

If education reform is to happen and our society will distribute education in a just way that pleases God then churches, families, governments, and non-governmental organizations must come together to work in ways that will bring about deliverance for the oppressed.


[1] Walzer, Spheres of Justice: A Defense of Pluralism and Equality, 3.

[2] Stassen and Gushee, Kingdom Ethics, 249.

The Right to Education? (Pt. 5)

In The Right to Education? (Pt. 4) I laid out both Wayne Grudem and Michael Walzer’s proposed soultions to education inequality. Today we will take a look at their distincitve approaches to the solution, and their basis for their proposals. It will soon become evident that their solutions although are a bit similar, their presuppositions are is radically different…..

Differing Presuppositions: Authority

In Kingdom ethics Glen Stassen states that our perceptions powerfully shape how we approach any ethical issue. According to him there are four variables that “make crucial differences in how people perceive the context of action across the spectrum of ethical issues.” One of these variables is how we perceive authority. Some people have a high view about the present authorities, and believe that there is a God-ordained authority that everyone should obey.  Others believe that each of us is responsible to a certain extent, and that authority lies in the hands of the society at large. Either way there is a strong relationship between how people understand justice and how they perceive the authority variable.[2]

Before we move on to examine how Grudem and Walzer differ on the authority variable, it will be useful to make a few brief comments on basic convictions about justice. Both Grudem and Walzer believe that justice is something that all human beings should strive for. Both believe that justice is not an issue of merely distributing wealth. Although Grudem does not treat the issue of justice extensively in his book, he says that the government does not have the responsibility or the right to attempt to equalize the differences between the rich and the poor by taking money from the rich. This is because stealing property, in this case money, from anyone be it rich or poor is morally wrong.[3] In addition to the moral wrongness of simple distribution of wealth, it would not work. Grudem provides a thought experiment in which wealth is distrubted evenly, at the end of the thought experiment inequality would arise once again because some have saved, invested, or spent their money.[4]

Walzer makes a similar point, there can be no simple mode of distribution because no power is so pervasive as to be capable of regulating the patterns of sharing, dividing, and exchanging within a society.[5] Eventually it will be invested, spent, and saved.[6]

So then what is the solution to the injustice of poor education? Grudem’s solution relies on his theory of the government’s authority. Grudem believes that the government has several primary responsibilities. The government is to punish evil and encourage good. Grudem cites Genesis 9:5-6, Romans 13:1-7, and 1 Peter 2:13-14 as evidence for this.[7] The Government should safeguard human liberty. He says that “the Bible consistently places high value on human freedom and responsibility to choose one’s action.”[8] Finally, he says that the government should serve the people and seek the good of the people. He cites Romans 13:4 as evidence for his. It is this belief that serves as the foundation for his solution to the threat. He claims that it in regard to education it is goal of the civil government to produce educated citizens for the next generation. Although it is the primary responsibility of parents to train their children, it is in the interest of the government to help parents accomplish this goal. He thinks this because it is the purpose of “the government to promote the general well-being of a society, or as the U.S. Constitution says ‘to promote the general welfare.’” According to him the government should do all it can to enable its citizens to live adequately in the society.[9] Thus the government should provide enough funding so that everyone is able to gain enough skills and education to earn a living. We should note that Grudem’s belief is not based upon the idea of justice, that providing an education is the just thing to do, but that it is the government’s responsibility to promote the general welfare of its citizens that serves as the foundation for his solution to the threat.

Walzer on the other hand bases his solution to the threat entirely upon the idea of justice. He does not make a case that it is specifically the government’s responsibility to ensure the welfare of its citizens, but that it is in the interest of human society as a whole to bring about justice when it comes to education. He claims that justice is equality, but not the mere equality of possessions. It is not the elimination of differences, but the elimination of domination by others. For Walzer the aim is “a society free from domination.”[10]

Walzer notes that domination is always mediated by some set of social goods. These goods vary from society to society. In some societies domination is mediated by birth and blood, in others it is mediated by land and wealth. In our society it is capital and education. Thus education is a good which has been used to dominate others. If education is a good that perpetuates injustice, it must be reformed. Thus the solution to the ending of domination through social goods like education is to distribute it for distinct and internal reasons.[11]

If we are to focus upon reducing dominance, especially in regard to education, we need identify how education serves as a dominating social good. Walzer notes that education often reinforces structures of membership and hierarchy which tends to dominate others. Although domination is often what results from unequal education, it is in the interest of the community as a whole that all children be educated to be future citizens of that society. But equal citizenship requires common schooling in which everyone is taught the basic knowledge necessary for active citizenship.[12] Since education is in the interest of the society as a whole, “educating citizens must be a matter of communal provision, a kind of welfare” provided by the society.[13]

So it is helpful to think of educational equality as a form of welfare provision, in which all children, conceived as future citizens, have the same need to know, and where the ideal membership is best served if they are all taught the same thing.”[14] In conclusion, Walzer believes that education is a good which should be distributed equally by the society itself so that all members of that society may participate in it equally, keeping all people free from domination and injustice.

We should notice that the major point of difference between Walzer and Grudem is not their perception of the problem; they both recognize that failure to educate children harms the entire society. It is not their solution to the threat, both recommend vouchers as a possible solution. Their fundamental point of difference is in the government’s role in solving the problem. Grudem thinks it is the government’s responsibility to enable its citizens to receive an education in whichever form they choose to do so. Walzer believes that it is society’s role, not the government, to provide education so that no citizen will be dominated by the social good of education. Of course, for Walzer the government is an important part of society but it is just one part of society. Walzer does not emphasize the government’s role in stopping domination because Walzer is interested in justice that transcends time and culture. Grudem on the other hand is primarily concerned with a very specific government, the American government.

Before I state my personal belief on this variable of authority and its relationship to education, we should note that Grudem and Walzer are not advocating for conflicting views on authority. They simply disagree on what role the government plays in the creation of an educated society. Grudem places much responsibility in the government’s hands whereas Walzer places responsibility upon the whole society’s pursuit of justice and equality.


[2] Stassen and Gushee, Kingdom Ethics, 66.

[3] Grudem, Politics According to the Bible, 281.

[4] Grudem, Politics According to the Bible, 282.

[5] Walzer, Spheres of Justice: A Defense of Pluralism and Equality, 4.

[6] Walzer, Spheres of Justice: A Defense of Pluralism and Equality, xi.

[7] Grudem, Politics According to the Bible, 77-81.

[8] Grudem, Politics According to the Bible, 91.

[9] Grudem, Politics According to the Bible, 281.

[10] Walzer, Spheres of Justice: A Defense of Pluralism and Equality, xiii.

[11] Walzer, Spheres of Justice: A Defense of Pluralism and Equality, xv.

[12] Walzer, Spheres of Justice: A Defense of Pluralism and Equality, 208.

[13] Walzer, Spheres of Justice: A Defense of Pluralism and Equality, 209.

[14] Walzer, Spheres of Justice: A Defense of Pluralism and Equality, 203.

The Right to Education? (Pt. 4)

In my last post I laid out what Wayne Grudem and Michael Walzer take to be a major issue in our education system, namely that an unequal education system perpetuates an economic underclass in our society and that unequal education opportunities often fall along racial lines. In essence unequal education is a justice issue. Today we will take a look at some of the solutions that Grudem and Walzer propose in order to alleviate this problem.

The Solution – Grudem

Wayne Grudem believes that it is appropriate for the government to provide enough funding so that everyone is able to gain enough skills and education to earn a living.[1] He knows that the problem is a failure to educate children to be active and productive citizens of their society and he advocates for a school voucher system, funded primarily by the government, as the solution to the threat. He says that “the most beneficial change in our schooling system would be a system of school vouchers provided by the local government to pay for the education of the children in each family.”[2] Parents would then be able to use these vouchers to pay for the fees required by the school that they choose for their children. He believes that privately run schools could do better job educating children than government run schools could. In addition to the claim that privately run schools could educate children in a more efficient manner, he believes that this fulfills the biblical mandate which calls for parents to be the party primarily responsible for training their children.[3]

The Solution – Walzer

Michael Walzer advocates exploring educational vouchers as a solution to the problem. He says that because private schools are expensive parents have little control over their children’s education. Thus instituting a voucher system seems at the surface to get rid of the inequality that arises as an accident of birth.[4] The voucher plan would make tax money available for education purposes, thus parents could spend this money on the open market. This would guarantee that children go to a school with other children who are similar in interests and ideologies. In one way, this is a pluralist proposal. It would strengthen many traditional organizations, such as religious institutions.[5] It “would help create a society where there was no strong geographic base or customary loyalty, but rather a large and changing variety of ideological groups.”[6] However, it might also serve to inhibit diversity within schools, thus children would not be exposed to a variety of ideas and cultures. Walzer concludes by saying that a voucher plan is a possible solution, and that it makes sense,[7] however it is not the only solution.

The Solution – From Within the Church

Last time I introduced a couple of former classmates that I had while at Fuller seminary, Jamal Scarlett and Randy Demary. Both of these students also provided “solutions” to the issue at hand. Both students believed that the schools, whether they be public or private, and parents should work together to solve the problem. Jamal Scarlett said that it is in part due to broken families and faulty government structures that children find themselves receiving an education which keeps them in a cycle of despair and failure. Thus if children are to be reestablished into the community, both family and governmental structures must be strengthened. Randy Demary believes that parents “must confront the system, protest, move, tutor, and seek out afterschool programs”[8] if the school district is failing to do its job educating the children. Also, the government has a responsibility to respond to such complaints, making sure that such complaints do not arise in the first place by ensuring a quality education for all.[9]

By examining Grudem’s and Walzer’s solutions to the problem of a lack of quality education, as well as Jamal Scarlett’s and Randy Demary’s solutions, we have seen that there is a pretty common belief that the provision of a quality education is the responsibility of families and government. In other words, both Grudem and Walzer have much in common when it comes to the practical nature of the solution. However as we will see in our next blog, their theoretical approach to the solution, their basis for their proposals, is radically different…..


[1] Grudem, Politics According to the Bible, 281.

[2] Grudem, Politics According to the Bible, 250.

[3] Grudem, Politics According to the Bible, 247.

[4] Walzer, Spheres of Justice: A Defense of Pluralism and Equality, 218.

[5] Walzer, Spheres of Justice: A Defense of Pluralism and Equality, 218.

[6] Walzer, Spheres of Justice: A Defense of Pluralism and Equality, 218.

[7] Walzer, Spheres of Justice: A Defense of Pluralism and Equality, 219.

[8] Demary, E-mail Interview, December 4 2010.

[9] Demary, E-mail Interview, December 4 2010.