In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.
—John 1:1-5, ESV
There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is sovereign over all, does not cry: Mine!
In this editorial, we reprise two awakenings: Gideon Strauss’s lightning bolt engagement with the biblical narrative, and Russ Kuykendall’s discovery of the neocalvinist tradition of thought. Gideon recounts how the discovery of “personal grace” was a discovery of where he was situated in the cosmic story of creation and redemption. Russ describes his discovery of a Christian, intellectual tradition seeking the redemption of culture in the “now, but not yet” between the Resurrection and the Return. We believe that both are dimensions of the same story: the story of creation, fall, and redemption, and the implications and demands of Christ’s lordship for all.
In 1982, I (Gideon) was a teenage Buddhist and anarchist. I was also the seventh violist in our local youth symphony orchestra (there are some very funny viola jokes . . .). To my surprise I was invited out to a Valentine’s Day school dance by the leader of the orchestra (the girl who has since become the woman to whom I am married), and Angela and I started what I as an English-as-a-second-language speaker insisted on calling “a relationship.” Three months later we were in the Green Market of Cape Town on an orchestra tour when Angela bought me a second-hand Good News New Testament from a used-books vending hippie. The cover had been taped back on a few times, and it was actually fourth-hand, not second-hand: three previous owners had written their names on the flyleaf. In the days that followed I read through the book as though it were a novel, using every spare moment and staying awake, reading, until I fell asleep with the book in my hands. I was like a man struck by lightning. For the first time, I truly heard The Story, and in the intersection of my story with The Story, things—all things—made sense. Long before I read Eugene Peterson’s Reversed Thunder: The Revelation of John & the Praying Imagination, I experienced what Peterson portrays as the effect of the apocalyptic ending of that Story:
If we suppose (which many seem to) that salvation is a diploma that qualifies us for eternity, a diploma we can frame and hang on our bedroom wall, then we have it all wrong. It is battle. The moment we walk away from the Eucharist, having received the life of our Lord, we walk into Armageddon, where we exercise the strength of our Lord. [. . .]
In the apocalyptic perspective of St. John’s vision, the vaunted pretensions of diabolic evil are brought to our surprised awareness in the forms of dragon, sea beast, and land beast, but at the end evil can only express itself in the comic ugliness of three frogs (Revelation 16:13-14). [. . .]
By setting Armageddon before us as a vision of salvation, [St. John] prevents us from thoughtlessly reducing salvation to good behavior, supposing that the consequence of salvation is to make us nice, install good manners in everyone, and make us all docile consumers. It is difficult to see how people who read scripture for very long can come up with such a tame view of salvation. There is, of course, a great deal of ethical instruction in scripture, but the instruction is not the action; salvation . . . is the action, and the one prominent characteristic in this action is an aroused ferocity against evil. There is simply no margin left for misunderstanding salvation as an Ivy League honor code.
“I am persuaded,” says Bishop Aulen, at the end of his book Christus Victor, “that no form of Christian teaching has any future before it except such as can keep steadily in view the reality of evil that is in the world and go to meet the evil with a battle song of triumph.”
When I put down that tired old paperback that Angela bought me, I entered a night of vigil. For my teenage imagination, informed by years of reading Tolkien, entering The Story was like laying down arms before a conqueror, changing sides in a furious war, finding peace in the service of the true king. It was less a choice than a surrender, less an achievement than a gift received.
As the existence of the cosmos, its creation and sustained being, the restraint of evil, and the renewal of all things is common grace, so my discovery of the meaning of all things, including the meaning of my life at the intersection of my story with The Story, was a personal grace. Personal grace only makes sense within the context of cosmic grace: God does not save us from or out of creation—the view of salvation as a disembodied soul at death entering an immaterial heaven is not true to The Story—we are saved for and with the cosmos, engaged for the time being in the battle against evil and the recovery of the goodness of things.
For me this means that I belong completely to God, not through my actions but through his, and that I live in a recovered relationship of trust with God, myself, other people, and earth and sky, stone and tree, wolf and whale. I am able to use created things with enjoyment and delight, I can join the battle against evil in my own heart and in the world around me, seeking to follow the Spirit of God in bringing healing to brokenness and setting hope against despair.
Telling this story, living within The Story, is the point.
My (Russ’s) first contact with neocalvinism, broadly construed, came by way of the thought of Francis Schaeffer, who burst onto the evangelical, Christian scene in the early 1970s by way of InterVarsity Fellowship, Christianity Today, and Christian bookstores. Browsing through one such Christian bookstore, I happened on and bought Schaeffer’s Genesis in Space and Time, The God Who Is There, and Art & the Bible.
They were a revelation . . . and an intellectual lifeline.
Schaeffer was profoundly influenced by E. J. Carnell, Cornelius Van Til, and Herman Dooyeweerd in his efforts to recover a Calvinism with a public theology. And although he was an effective Christian apologist in apposition to 20th-century modernism, Schaeffer was unapologetically a Calvinist.
For Schaeffer and, probably, Kuyper, too, it was Calvinism they were promoting. Dooyeweerd, however, disliked the term, “neocalvinism,” preferring to describe his project as “Christian philosophy.” The former suggests a faith tradition. The latter is much wider in its claim.
Is neocalvinism a quaint intellectual artifact to be confined to North American communities of late 19th-c. and post-WWII Dutch immigrant families and communities and their institutions? Or, is neocalvinism a “Christian philosophy” with wider appeal to North American evangelicalism and beyond? Is neocalvinism capable of engaging other Christian traditions of thought?
Two exemplars—”examples”—suggest both are possible: that neocalvinism is a Christian tradition, a Christian tradition capable of engaging other traditions, Christian and otherwise. The neocalvinist epistemology of Alvin Plantinga intentionally positions itself as “traditioned” thought among other traditions of thought, including modernist thought traditions. Neocalvinist political theorists Jonathan Chaplin and David Koyzis intentionally and critically engage Roman Catholic social thought and the Anglican (and Augustinian) political theology of Oliver and Joan Lockwood O’Donovan. Interaction with Catholic social thought has uncovered both things in common and difference between Catholic “subsidiarity” and neocalvinist “sphere sovereignty.” The engagement with the O’Donovans’ work in political theology has situated neocalvinist political theory in the much longer tradition of Christian political thought.
Each of these engagements has been fruitful in showing that neocalvinism is not a reification of the thought of Dooyeweerd or Vollenhoven that must remain confined to an intellectual and cultural ghetto. Neocalvinism’s great strengths are its concerns for engaging Scripture, for seeking redemption in creation’s “now, but not yet,” and in its understanding that the Lordship of Christ extends, in the words of Kuyper, to every “square inch,” and over which He claims, “Mine!”
In this issue of Comment, we offer two series: Reading the Bible and Neocalvinism . . . yes, no, maybe? In the first which Gideon has introduced, above, we are concerned with reading the Bible in a particular way: with fresh eyes, with a view to its public implications, with sensitivity to the Spirit, reading the Bible “personally,” and allowing it to shape and form a worldview. In the second series, on neocalvinism, introduced by Russ, we hear from two “yes’s” (one with a qualification), two “maybe’s” (one from inside the tradition and another from outside), and a spirited and antithetical “no.” The second series culminates in Al Wolters’s “Neocalvinism . . . for Christian renewal: A comprehensive, ‘insider’ response,” a reply to the print symposium “What is to be done . . . toward a neocalvinist agenda” (December 2005) and to this series.
We hope that you, too, find at least a spark—if not a lightning bolt—and some insight—if not a revelation, and your place in the grand narrative of redemption as it unfolds.