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It Takes More Than a Theory

17 Nov

By Gary DeMar—11/17/2008

As a student at Reformed Theological Seminary in the 1970s, I was taught that certain cultural applications flowed from a consis­tent appli­cation of Calvinism. Calvinism is synon­ymous with a comprehen­sive biblical world-and-life view not just the doctrine of predestination. Simply put, I was told that the Bible applies to every area of life. To be a Calvin­ist is to make biblical application to issues beyond personal salvation (Heb. 5:11-14).

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The first place I turned after reading Abraham Kuyper’s (1837-1920)  Lectures on Calvinism[1] was to Henry Van Til’s The Calvinis­tic Concept of Culture. Van Til, in his discussion of Augus­tine, wrote:

Augustine believed that peace with God precedes peace in the home, in society, and in the state. The earthly state too must be converted, trans­formed into a Christian state by the perme­ation of the kingdom of God within her, since true righ­teous­ness can only be under the rule of Christ.

Not only in the realm of ethics and politics must conversion take place . . . [but also] for knowledge and science. Apart from Christ, man’s wisdom is but folly, because it begins with faith in itself and proclaims man’s autonomy. The redeemed man, on the other hand, begins with faith and reason in subjec­tion to the laws placed in this universe by God: he learns to think God’s thoughts after him. All of science, fine art and technology, conventions of dress and rank, coin­age, measures and the like, all of these are at the service of the re­deemed man to transform them for the service of his God.[2]

Van Til believed, along with Augustine, Calvin, Kuyper,[3] and Klaas Schilder that the building of a Chris­tian culture is a biblical imperative. Van Til castigated the Barthians for their repudia­tion of a Christian culture. “For them,” he wrote, “there is no single form of social, political, economic order that is more in the spirit of the Gospel than another.”[4] Christians today are hearing a similar refrain from within evangelical circles. If there is no specifi­cally bibli­cal blue­print, we are left with a pluralistic blue­print, no blueprint, or a postponed blue­print (dispensationalism).

Second, what do these views mean for economics, law, poli­tics, and education? Does toleration for non-Christian reli­gious groups mean that we should also toler­ate their law sys­tems? If we tolerate the religion of Islam, must we tolerate their views of econom­ics and civil law? Babylonian law called for the “amputation of the right hand of the physi­cian whose patient died during sur­gery.”[5] Should this law be placed on the same plat­ter with bib­li­cal law? If not, why not?

My seminary training never hinted at plural­ism. Noth­ing I read in Van Til’s Calvinistic Concept of Culture led me to embrace plu­r­alism. In rejecting Barth’s repudiation of a specifically Christian cul­ture, he assured us that the

Calvinist maintains that the Word of God has final and abso­lute author­ity, and is clear and sufficient in all matters of faith and conduct. It consti­tutes the final refer­ence point for man’s think­ing, willing, acting, loving, and hating, for his cul­ture as well as his cultus. . . . [F]or all prac­tical purposes, the church through­out histo­ry has ac­cepted the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testament as the Word of the living God. Calvinism, also in its cultural aspects, proposes to continue in this historic perspective, not willing to accept the church or the religious consciousness, or any other substitute in place of the Word.[6]

This is the historic position of the church, Van Til assert­ed. This is what I was taught in seminary. This is the view that my pro­fessors defended. But there was one problem. Even after finish­ing Van Til’s book, I noticed a glaring defic­iency: There were few specifics and even fewer references to the Bible as to how it actually applies to culture. Van Til, however, was a few steps beyond Kuyper.

After Van Til, I next turned to H. Henry Meeter’s The Basic Ideas of Calvinism. This work looked promising even though its focus was on politics. The first edition (1939) of Meeter’s work was described as “Volume I.” A subsequent volume never appeared. Again, the Bible was empha­sized as the standard for both Christian and non-Christian.

The Calvinist insists that the principles of God’s Word are valid not only for himself but all citizens. Since God is to be owned as Sover­eign by everyone, whe­ther he so wishes or not, so also the Bible should be the determining rule for all. But espe­cially for him­self the Christian, according to the Calvinist, must in politics live by these princi­ples.[7]

Since God is the Sovereign of all His creatures, He must be recog­nized as the lawmaker for all mankind. How does one determine what that rule is? Me­eter told us that the Bible should be the deter­mining rule for all, not just for Christians and not just for settling ecclesiastical disputes. So far, so good. Meeter then moved on to answer the question as to whe­ther the State is to be Chri­stian.

On the negative side, he made it clear that the State is still a legiti­mate sphere of government even though its laws are not based on the Bible. Is the State obli­gated, when con­front­ed with the truth of Scripture, to implement those laws which are specifically civil in application?

On the affirmative side, Meeter wrote: “Whenever a State is permeated with a Christian spirit and applies Christian principles in the adminis­tration of civil affairs, it is called ‘Chris­tian.’ If that be what is meant by a Christian state, then all States should be Chris­tian, according to the conscience of the Calvin­ist, even though many states are not Christian. If God is the one great Sovereign of the universe, it is a self-evident fact that His Word should be law to the ends of the earth.”[8]

Meeter had moved from “Christian principles” to “His Word should be law.” The goal, then, is God’s Word as the “law.” Meeter continues:

If God is Ruler, no man may ever insist that religion be a merely private mat­ter and be divorced from any sphere of soci­ety, political or otherwise. God must rule every­where! The State must bow to His ordinances just as well as the Church or any private individual. The Calvinist, whose fundamental principle maintains that God shall be Sovereign in all domains of life, is very insistent on having God recog­nized in the political realm also.[9]

In what way is the State to “bow to His ordinances”? Where are these ordi­nances found? “For matters which relate to its own domain as State, it is bound to the Word of God as the Church or the individ­ual.” For Meeter, a “State is Christian” when it uses “God’s Word as its guide.”[10]

Like Kuyper and Henry Van Til before him, Meeter, who asserts that the Bible “is the ultimate criterion by which the State must be guided in determining which laws it must admin­ister” never set forth a biblical methodology. In fact, he never quoted one passage of Scripture to defend his position, al­though there are vague references to biblical ideals! Reading Meeter was like reading an unfinished novel.

I next moved to a symposium produced by the Calvinistic Action Commit­tee: God-Centered Living. God-Centered Living began with this noble goal: “This book seeks to be of help to those who desire to know what the will of God is for the practi­cal guidance of their lives in the complex relations and situa­tions of our modern day.” The Committee encouraged the reader with its intent not simply to “theo­rize,” describing its method as “a call to action” based on the “clari­fication and application of basic Chri­stian principles. There will be no solu­tion for our pressing modern social problems without recourse to the verities of the Word of God.”[11]

Finally, I thought, a plane with wings! This volume was more comprehensive than those mentioned above, touching on the task of the church for the solution of modern problems, Calvin­ism and the missionary enterprise, evangelization of America, education, art, recreation and amusements, political action, economics, business, social problems, and international rela­tions.


[1]Abraham Kuyper, Lectures on Calvinism (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, [1931] 1970).

[2]Henry R. Van Til, The Calvinistic Concept of Culture (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1959), 87.

[3]Kuyper’s emphasis on common grace as “the foundation of culture” lead Van Til to conclude “that Kuyper can never really get special grace into the picture.” (Van Til, Calvinistic Concept of Culture, 118, 119).

[4]Van Til, Calvinistic Concept of Culture, 44.

[5]Laws of Hammurabi, 218. Quoted in Gary R. Williams, “The Purpose of Penology in the Mosaic Law and Today,” Living Ethically in the 90s, ed. J. Kerby Anderson (Whea­ton, Illinois: Victor Books, 1990), 127.

[6]Van Til, Calvinistic Concept of Culture, 157.

[7]H. Henry Meeter, The Basic Ideas of Calvinism, 5th rev. ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, [1939] 1956), 99-100. A 6th edition appeared in 1990 with three chapters added by Paul A. Marshall.

[8]Meeter, The Basic Ideas of Calvinism, 111.

[9]Meeter, The Basic Ideas of Calvinism, 111-112.

[10]Meeter, The Basic Ideas of Calvinism, 112.

[11]Calvinistic Action Committee, God-Centered Living or Calvinism in Action (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1951), 5.

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