Tag Archives: princeton seminary

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.


Atonement & Human Suffering – Notes on Bruce McCormack’s LATC15 Presentation

Bruce McCormack is the Charles Hodge Professor of Systematic Theology at Princeton. During the 3rd plenary session of LATC15 he presented a paper on Atonement and Human Suffering. Here are my rather shabby notes (it was harder for me to see the structure behind this lecture than the other two lectures).


Atonement and Human Suffering

Bruce McCormack

Objection: If God himself is capable of willing the death of his human son – then this allows violence into the life of God.

  • This is the most important critique of atonement.
  • Question: So how can we establish that God willed the death of his son without allowing violence into God’s inner life?

Human suffering is at best an analogy to the death of Jesus Christ.

  • The difference b/w Christ’s suffering & our suffering is not quantitative, its qualitative.

Three Main Sections

  • Gospel Narratives & Death of Christ
  • Critical Engagement w/ Hans Urs Von Balthasar
  • Problem of Suffering

The Death of Christ in the Gospel Narratives

  • Christ in his death is “the Sinner.”
  • Mark’s Rendering is the briefest, most raw, most tragically beautiful
  • In Mark the darkness ends @ the death of Christ – it’s a symbol of the outpouring of the wrath of God
  • What’s going on in the cry of dereliction?
    • List of several views
    • The abandonment itself is “all too real” – more than that cannot be said exegetically
      • Death and God- abandonment is not saving just b/c a human experienced it
        • Every human could and should experience it. If it is merely a human experience, it should not have value for all.
      • The “victory” happens in and through this abandonment

The Death of Christ: An homage to Von Balthasar & a Bit of a Critique

  • Basic to VB’s Christology is that Christ’s person just is his mission. “He is the task.”
    • It follows that God’s being really undergoes development… It is also clear that being and becoming in the incarnate one express a single being which is the streaming forth of eternal life.
  • What fails to convince is his talk of being and becoming.
    • God does not cease to be God – does not become anything other than what he eternally is.
  • (What motivates me & everything I do – is the coherence of the church’s confession that Jesus Christ is Lord. – Bruce McCormack)
  • VB – personhood & task go hand in hand.
    • Person is being employed to speak of the man Jesus – who as human is divine
  • VB – cannot free himself from a two subjects Christology – this undermines his treatment of the atonement.
  • VB in Lusterium Paschale – His most important work on Atonement
    • The early VB knew that real substitution would be impossible unless one of the trinity has suffered – both in his human nature and divine person.
    • What takes place in the Cross of Christ = turning point of old age and new
    • Describes passion in kenotic terms
    • Reaches climax in the Garden of Gethsemane
    • VB interprets the cup as the chalice of the eschatological wrath.
    • His obedience is not cheerfully offered – but something to which he is reduced.
    • In the event of the cross God condemns sin in the flesh
      • It is not just any suffering but the suffering of the eschatological wrath of God.
    • Primacy must go to the words of the cry of abandonment
    • VB believes that the Holy Spirit is “freed” when Jesus breathes his last.
      • Whatever happens next – Jesus is alone – alone in death and alone in his experience of hell.
    • Really Important – Theology of Holy Saturday
      • Hell for VB is not a place but a condition of the soul.
      • Hell is a timeless experience – not hope for change
      • The dead don’t do anything – complete and total passivity
      • Thus Jesus did not engage in any activity on the 2nd day
      • The Spiritual condition to which Christ enters is not simply going to sheol but gehenna.
    • What is hell? The deprivation of the seeing of God. It is the visio mortis – the contemplation of the pure substantiality of hell which is sin in itself.

Problem of Human Suffering

  • Much suffering isn’t due to sin. Suffering in and of itself is natural. So what can we say about the relationship b/w suffering and atonement?
  • Death of Christ does not remove suffering – only new creation does.
  • Christ’s resurrection is a proleptic in time of the end of suffering.


  • Has God made an inner peace with the violence of this world? Not at all
    • The physical suffering is not redemptive
  • Divine judgment is an act of mercy – it’s the destruction of the old world for the establishment of the new

The Gospel Knows No Frontiers

Last week I read through a book called Dispatches from the Front – Stories of Gospel Advance in the World’s Difficult Places. The book follows Tim Keesee as he travels the world, telling stories of the bold faith and sacrificial bravery that many of our brothers and sisters portray as they face challenges for being Christians.

The truth is that our brothers and sisters on the other side of the world – Asia, Africa, the Middle East, and Latin America often face persecution and challenges at the hands of their governments and/or neighbors. Thinking about the challenges they face can surely be discouraging yet we know that the gospel is moving rapidly in these “impossible” and “hard” places. Samuel Zwemer, an early 20th century missionary to Islamic countries and professor of missions at Princeton Seminary reminds of this fact, that no situation is impossible for the Lord:

The Kingdoms and the governments of this world have frontiers which must not be crossed, but the Gospel of Jesus Christ knows no frontier. It has never been kept within bounds. It is a message for the whole race, and the very fact that there are millions of souls who have never heard the message becomes the strongest of reasons why we must carry it to them. Every year we hear of further advance into these regions of the world by commerce, by travelers, by men of science. If they can open a way for themselves in spite of all these difficulties, shall the ambassadors of the cross shrink back? God can open doors. He is the “Great Opener.” He opens the lips of the dumb to song, the eyes of the blind to sight, and the prison house to the captive. He opens the doors of utterance and entrance of the gospel. He opens graves and gates, the windows of heaven and the bars of death. He holds all they keys of every situation. – Samuel Zwemer (The Unoccupied Mission Fields of Africa and Asia)

Do not be discouraged when you hear stories of other Christians facing opposition in these “closed” places – for opposition and suffering is the appointed means for the Gospel to reach these places. Don’t be discouraged for we know that the Gospel will flourish in these places one day because the Gospel of Jesus Christ knows no frontier….

The “10-40 Window” is one of the most difficult areas to reach for the gospel. But it can be done!

A Dose of Theology – Archibald Alexander

Archibald Alexander (1772-1851) an American educator and theologian, was President of Hampton-Sydney College (Virginia) from 1797 to 1806. In 1807 he became pastor of Pine Street Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia. He received the Doctor of Divinity in 1810 from the College of New Jersey. He is most noted as founder and first principal of Princeton Seminary serving there from 1812 to 1840. As principal and professor of theology, he is considered the first of the great “Princeton theologians.” He continued as professor at Princeton until his death in 1851. He was buried in Princeton Cemetery. (HT: Theopedia)

Charles Hodge, the most famous student and successor of Alexander, named his son Archibald Alexander Hodge after his mentor.

Quote: “Do not for a moment suppose that you must make yourself better, or prepare your heart for a worthy reception of Christ, but come at once – come as you are.” —Archibald Alexander