Friday, March 10, 2006

Calvinist and Quaker

I've been a little busy . . . but I'm back, at least for today.

Some have thought it odd that I left a reformed, indeed, reformational, college to teach at a Quaker school. Truth be told, from a practical standpoint, there's lots of overlap. For that reason, my reformational perspective is welcome on campus as evidenced by the following articles:

My experience in general at GFU and in this particular instance reinforces my conviction that reformed and reformational believers spend too much time talking to (and arguing with) each other and not enought time engaging other believers. The trick, I think, isn't to try to lay out all the reformational groundwork before getting on to other matters, but to start with scripture, the common source of wisdom and knowledge for all believers (no matter how different they may read and interpret that scripture).

This concern inspired my response to Al Wolters' "What is to be done" piece published in the print version of Comment this past December:

Throughout Al Wolters’ essay, we find an emphasis upon Scripture and upon the Creation Order. Here, I think, we find the foundation upon which Neo-Calvinists can pursue an ecumenical embrace of their philosophy. I have long been troubled by the unwillingness or inability (or both) of many Reformational thinkers to share their vision with, well, those who aren’t Dutch or Christian Reformed or both. But I acknowledge the great difficulties in doing so. Speaking of modal aspects, sphere sovereignty, law and subject side, meaning-nucleus, and so forth, usually leaves the uninitiated Christian confused.

“True ecumenicity,” writes Wolters, “will always depend on biblical . . . rootedness.” And indeed, it is Scripture which opens up to us the Creation Order. The authority of Scripture is also a point which Neo-Calvinists share, at least on the surface, with many of their Christian brethren. I was recently asked by a group of students on my campus to share with them “the Biblical basis for justice.” This group had just formed, calling themselves Quaere Verum (seek the truth). Mostly of Evangelical background or persuasion, they nevertheless recognized that their faith meant more than “worship and evangelism,” as one of them put it. So I joined their meeting and opened the Scriptures for them saying that Christians too often read their Bible from the perspective of the Fall and not from (the Biblically revealed) perspective of the Creation Order. From there I was able to highlight Scripture’s emphasis on our creational calling as human beings, God’s ongoing concern for His creation, the Creation’s own corruption by evil, and the responsibility of God’s people to fulfill their task as God’s image bearers and empowered through Christ’s redemptive work. This was certainly new to them, but it was clear that they began to see the world through new eyes. One student said she found it “refreshing, inspiring, and encouraging . . . because it addressed so much of what I have been struggling to understand on my own.” I can’t say that during my short presentation I turned them into Neo-Calvinists, but I can say that by turning to Scripture, I helped them begin to see the importance of the Creation Order and the radical implications for Christian living.


At 11:22 AM, Anonymous David said...

It is good to see another post. I think engaging the evangelical discourse is an important aspect of being reformational. I would be interested in knowing what scripture verses you used when you talked to this group.

At 2:19 PM, Anonymous Bruce C Wearne said...

Dear Paul: Sorry for the length of this but your blog is important and needs to promote some serious reconsideration.
What is to be done? Don't Just Do Something, Sit There!

Some bibliographic and other reflections:
In recent times, Al Wolters has updated his understanding for us of the insistent particularity and profound catholicity of neocalvinism's worldview. His was the lead essay in the What is to be done? - toward a neocalvinist agenda symposium in the December 2005 Comment Magazine. I was privileged to have my response published along with Russ Reeves, George Pierson, Paul Otto, Eric Miller, Russ Kuykendall, Rob Joustra, Joel Hunter, Richard Greydanus and Jay Green. I notice I am the only non-North American resident in that group. I also notice that we are all male. In various ways and in different places, at one time or another, we have all been involved in higher education and neocalvinist currents that flow through a variety of reformed and presbyterian denominations, educational institutions and movements.
Other contributions to the volume also discuss What is to be done? The editor's own article attempts to capture this moment in history. And the published reflections upon the future of Canada, schooling, political theory, politics, the public square, theology are all part of the mix.
In answer to the question, "What is to be done?" there is a common theme, a common answer. It goes like this:
"Don't just do something! Sit there!"
In fact, it is an answer that has been articulated repeatedly by North American Neocalvinists during the second half of the 20th century. Despite initial appearances, it is not an answer that advocates passivity. But it is an answer that stresses the importance of careful and sustained analysis prior to committing oneself to long-term organised engagement. It is an answer that challenges the notion that activism has to be the base-line which is then modified incrementally into a principled response "as we go along". It is a challenge to any idolatrous confidence that our method of adjustment can keep us from falling in error. It is a challenge to the culture of pragmatism.
In fact, twenty years ago Jim Skillen was a regular columnist producing "In the World" for the Christian Legal Society Quarterly. In the fall edition of 1986 (7:3) he wrote a piece with this answer as its title: "Don't Just Do Something: Sit There!" His concern was with the tendency, strongly evident in the doing and thinking of American evangelicals, of a pragmatic mindset that instinctively got involved in "social action" and problem solving rather than "sitting there" and analyzing how the structural problems of our society have come about. His point is made by what amounts to an "in your face" challenge to those who apply the can-do aphorism without thinking. A central tenet of the North American can-do philosophy is just that: "Don't just sit there, do something!"
In his way Skillen was actually reiterating something H Evan Runner had identified in his 1960 Unionville Lecture "Sphere Sovereignty":
Pragmatic or principled? Here my dear young friends, is the greatest issue your generation has to face. The crisis of our age presses us to give an answer. Where are we? What is it to be a Christian, to lead a Christian life? What is it to possess the Word of God? Is there nothing left for us but to nudge, along with the other creeping specimens of our lowly human species, or are we able in Christ to stand in our Office - (calling) - as Man, and oversee what we are doing and what there is to do? Is it true that "the entrance of thy Word giveth light; it giveth understanding unto the simple" (Ps 119:130)? Is it meaningful to pray "Teach me thy way, O Lord; I will walk in thy truth", together with what the psalmist wondrously immediately conjoins: "unite my heart to fear thy name" (Ps 86:11), by which the essential connection between the seeing of the way to go and the seeing of the religious root-life of our existence is established? (Relation of the Bible to Learning 1970 p. 140).
As well, in one of E L Hebden Taylor's books a description is given of the pragmatic mind-set. A well-known authority is quoted to emphasize the point: "We don't know where we are going, but we are on our way!" Hebden Taylor was calling upon his readers to get out of the "can-do" slipstream.
Around that time, Peter Schouls wrote a book called Insight, Authority and Power (Christian Perspectives Series 1972). When I first read it, I was immediately reminded of a study much beloved in Keswick circles by Watchman Nee. It was called Sit, Walk and Stand. When Gideon Strauss reminds us of the Chinese challenge that is now before us, I wonder whether it might be worthwhile to have someone critically compare Watchman Nee's pastoral argument with that of Peter Schouls the philosopher. And while we are about it we might also encourage examination of works written and published by leading Christian thinkers who, despite all the fury that communist repressive governments have thrown at them, have been enabled by God's grace to maintain a good profession. Wang Ming Dao is another Christian hero who suffered much while trying with all his strength to maintain a good profession through the printed word. As we "sit" and master what needs to be mastered, let's add the latter-day Christian thinkers, theologians and polemicists who have arisen from within that quarter of the world's population.
This is a suggestion to augment rather than criticise Al Wolters' reminder about the un-tapped resources in Dutch - learn Dutch young scholar! And the more I study the limited material I have at my fingertips in my moderately resourced personal library, the more I am convinced of the significant resources that have indeed accumulated in the English speaking world over the past 5 decades. There are also those in the UK, Australia and New Zealand who are realising the importance of gathering together archives and records of their own.
Let me make a critical point here: there is a persistent problem which Dutch reformed immigrants and their children and grand-children have experienced with the promotion of a "principled stance" not only in schools and colleges, but also in other kinds of organisations and associations. This is one of the problems "in the background" of Al Wolters' essay. It needs to be further developed along the line of Paul Otto's blogged comments "Calvinist and Quaker"
There are various ways of advocating a principled Christian position. Indeed it is possible to attempt to "restore" such a Christian approach via a path that is in reality a reactionary one. What is needed is a "return" which is an authentic repentant biblical understanding of the faith. But sometimes when such a "return" or "restoration" is advocated midstream - say within the context of a Christian higher education association - it is confused with an attempt to reach other and restore some "founding visionaries" to the circle that is said to be true to "the founding vision". The "founding visionaries" may have once been involved in the earliest days of the association, school or institute, but drifted away although in all likelihood they will have kept their church membership intact. In this way "a church connection" is viewed as the source of renewal; the "principled Christian position" is actually a code for a view that "our church" is the source of biblical reformation. A system of privilege is set up and open conversation among members is thus, in principled, undermined.
We are in debt to Comment for rendering an important service by reprinting, on occasion, important excerpts from important publications. In that regard we have been reminded of the possibility of bringing together significant collections from various writers. But there is this particular dogma that needs to be reconsidered if the value of Al Wolters' provocation is to be fully exploited.
Now I'm not about to advocate a re-run of Out of Concern for the Church, but the kind of reflection I have suggested is no doubt pertinent to neoCalvinist movements around the world. Take for example, Ed Grootenboer's important study of the CLAC's first 50 years In Pursuit of Justice - So Far, So Good (2005) which arrived in the mail recently. Someone now could follow up with an in-depth study to show how the effort to establish and maintain the CLAC actually deepened and broadened neocalvinistic thinking in economics and politics. The impact was not just in North America. That study also reminds us of the writings of Harry Antonides, Comment's inaugural editor and now doubt there are differences and no doubt the differences are not just in style. Harry not only published books but every month, for years on end, Harry wrote significant book reviews for The Guide that are still worth reading because of the important insights they provide about the industrial, economic and political landscape that lies before us. It would indeed be excellent for some Christian post-graduate students to examine the careers and the writings of the likes of Antonides and Ed VanderKloet. That kind of study would also be extremely pertinent for neocalvinists in the English-speaking world outside of North America as we seek to encourage fellow Christians, of whatever stripe, as well as non-Christians, in our God-given stewardship and calling to promote public justice.
Or south of the border. In his 1986 CLSQ column Skillen addressed his readers, presumably some of the fellow evangelicals amongst whom he had been educated, and explained why he thought radically Christian political and legal reflection was needed. It is simply part of our Christian calling to do so. Skillen was a graduate of Wheaton College and Westminster Seminary, and in this was like Runner before him, commending his discovery of a neocalvinistic path. It was from this same evangelical path that he has sought to make his contribution to American political science.
Back in the 1979, when the Association for Public Justice was gathering a little momentum from its Iowa heartland, and Skillen was publishing the results of his studies of Herman Dooyeweerd in the Journal of the American Scientific Affiliation ("Herman Dooyeweerd's Contribution to the Philosophy of the Social Sciences" March 1979 pp. 202-4), he was also initiating another effort at scholarly anakainosis with his article in the Reformed Journal "Augustine and contemporary evangelical social thought" (January 1979 pp. 19-24). An expanded version of this argument can be found in a paper delivered at the Christian Legal Society Conference April 23-26 1981 titled: "Christian faith and political freedom: can Christians make a constructive contribution to contemporary politics?"
If it were possible for Comment to republish that 1979 Reformed Journal article, perhaps with Skillen's own 2006 "update", inviting responses from the various other inheritors of Augustinian political thought he identifies, it might help refresh discussion between the various inheritors of the Augustinian tradition. The article illustrates a positive neocalvinistic way of engaging critically and reformationally with fellow Christians. It illustrates a methodology in the "history of political ideas" by which differing approaches can be compared and contrasted, and further critical questions posed.
The framework for the discussion is set up as follows: "Do Christians manifest a strong commitment to constructive politics? If so, why and how? If not, why not?" Some other basic questions follow that one rather quickly: "How does civic and political responsibility fit within the priorities of the Christian life? How should it fit? What are the norms of justice which should guide Christians in their efforts to establish good laws and to oppose bad ones? Should we look for anything distinctively biblical in all of this, or are Christians in the same boat as everyone else when it comes to politics and government?" The discussion proceeds as an attempt to "penetrate behind our contemporary experiences and attitudes to the historical streams of thought and action that have shaped us." And who is "us"? Broadly speaking Skillen, as a post-doctoral researcher, was trying to grapple positively with some basic ideas that had long shaped western Christianity. For him, Augustine is "probably the most influential figure in all of Christendom when it comes to these issues. His influence is evident today in almost every Christian approach to politics." "Us" therefore not only refers to evangelical graduates from such colleges as Wheaton and Westminster, but to the many and varied streams of American (at this stage evangelical and protestant) Christianity who can find some commonality between them because they share the Augustinian heritage. It is at this point that Skillen notes that there are at least three different views of political responsibility to be found in the writings of Augustine.
Augustine promotes the view that "true justice has no existence save in that republic whose founder and ruler is Christ." This is a key theme of The City of God. Political society is not natural but a consequence of the fall. Human purpose in creation is radically non-coercive. This means then that the Augustinian view of the antithesis is essentially negative. Thus Christian political responsibility is about the responsibility we have as Christians in public to keep each other from going astray. There is another view which ascribes a positive impact from the gospel upon the earthly city, and this then results in either quietistic accommodation - in order to support the peaceful harmony required for society - or an activistic attempt to maintain such peace and harmony as has hitherto been achieved. But there was also a third stream to Augustine's thought, Skillen notes, and it derives from Augustine's judgment, late in his life, when he was challenged profoundly by the controversy stirred by the Donatists. This led him to the view that it was legitimate to apply force to heretics in order that they reconsider the truths of the one true Church. In the United States, most, if not all, American evangelicals would not follow Augustine down this path since church and state have been constitutionally, albeit ambiguously, differentiated. The rest of the article is designed to show that in their political viewpoints most evangelicals swim along in the first two streams that flow from Augustine.
The discussion examines the views of Cart F Henry and the Moral Majority - different appropriations of the second stream of Augustinian thought. Henry's political evangelicalism contrasts with the Moral Majority's majoritarian morality; both promote a politics resting upon an antithesis between true love for God and a false love of self..
This seems to be consonant with that of Tim LaHaye of the Moral Majority until it is realized that LaHaye advocates an American "love of virtue" that is shared by Christians and non-Christians alike - ie the moral majority. In this he is close to Augustine's view that the Christian approach should be one of preserving a particular political order in which they have some degree of freedom. LaHaye also believes that the Government should follow Augustine's third tendency at least to some degree. Christian should engage in politics for the sake of the church and its mission.
John Howard Yoder and Jim Wallis consider that all forms of coercion and hierarchical rule among human beings are excluded from the City of God. Augustine did not see "dominion of man over man" as part of God's purpose in creation. Yoder and Wallis are concerned with the way Christians should stand over against the "powers" (Colossians 1:15-17). Christ's kingdom is one of love, harmony and true justice. It is not based in power.
Finally the views of Ronald Sider are considered. Via Evangelicals for Social Action Sider had been busy calling for self-conscious Christian social action. Sider may see sin invading the good creation but he sees Christ standing over the 'powers' rather than over against them. For Sider Christ has called His people to work for renewal and reconstruction within the world, beyond the confines of the church.Sider's diagnosis of injustice came to expression in his views about world hunger - political and economic structures are there to anticipate the coming of God's kingdom in Christ. Skillen's assessment is that this represents an under-developed social perspective and political theory.
Would it not be worthwhile to engage the various streams of evangelical Augustinian political thought in an ongoing exchange, perhaps over a few years?
In conclusion we confess that Christ's appearance on earth has everything to do with reassuring us about our life of service on this earth. Our purpose is found in the One in whose image we have been created and re-created. And so, assured by God's Word, we hold firmly to our hope, as we keep on working, waiting patiently and with joy for the new heavens and the new earth. Creation is the God-established context in which Christ's redemptive revelation has been, and is being, promulgated. God's norms of justice and love are integral to our life and they are not merely for preservation. As part of creation they are certainly not sinful. So let us seek ways to discuss, examine and elaborate this Christian vision amongst those who confess that their contribution to politics and government has been made possible by the King of Kings Himself who has called us back from death to share in His life.

Bruce C Wearne
Point Lonsdale Victoria AUSTRALIA
March 11, 2006 (Labour Day)


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