James Bond, Agent 007, had a “license to kill.” There are Reformed folk who also seem to have “license” of some sort or other based on what they call “the Christian world and life view.”
This expression, CWLV, is interesting because it does not occur in any of the Reformed confessions. It’s not an expression that one finds in the literature of the Classic Reformed theologians of the 16th and 17th centuries. This doesn’t mean that the substance of the ideas might not be present but answering that question would take us well beyond the capacity of a column. Nevertheless, it is worth noting that, for many Reformed Christians since the late 19th century, the idea of a distinctly Christian world and life view is perhaps the single defining element of their self-identity and yet it is a notion that is harder to define that it seems.
The language and notion of a “Reformed world and life view” have their roots in the work of Abraham Kuyper (1837–1920) who, along with Groen van Prinsterer led a political, cultural, and religious reaction to the French Enlightenment.
It is beyond controversy that the various European and British phases of the Enlightenment were essentially anti-theistic and anti-Christian in spirit and effect. One may divide all of Western history in two: BE and AE (Before the Enlightenment and After the Enlightenment). Such a radical revolution called for a response. It is certainly true that the message of the Enlightenment to Christians was that Christian theism is no longer a tenable explanation of the world or persons or God and that, if Christians insisted on continuing to believe, they could no longer speak as if Christian truth claims had any objective validity or correspondence with reality. They must now describe only a subjective experience (“if it’s true for you). Thus pietism, which majored on the Quest for Illegitimate Religious Experience (QIRE) flourished under the Enlightenment. Pietism was all too happy to privatize Christianity. This is why Friedrich Schleiermacher was able to make a seamless transition from the Moravian Brethren to his later views, which he described as “mature” (i.e. Enlightenment-based, critical) pietism.
There is no question that Van Til was right to say that God’s Word speaks “to” everything but CVT, like Kuyper, taught both “common grace” and “antithesis.” In our time, as the culture seems to become increasingly hostile to Christian theism and Christian truth claims it’s easy to emphasize “the antithesis” between belief and unbelief but both Kuyper and Van Til also taught that there is a common (not neutral) realm shared by believers and unbelievers.
It also seems true that, in some cases at least, in responding to the Enlightenment some Reformed folk have sometimes neglected some important distinctions. Just because the Enlightenment was totalitarian does not mean that our response to it must be undifferentiated. Yes, Christ is Lord over all things, but he administers that dominion in distinct spheres (Kuyper’s term) or kingdoms (the older Reformed language). His revelation speaks to everything but not in the same way. The cultural or civil sphere is normed by God’s general or natural revelation. Special revelation wasn’t given to norm cultural or civil life. E.g. if we wish to apply special revelation to civil life, then we should all become theonomists, since they are those who wish to apply the only civil code in Scripture (the Mosaic civil laws) to post-canonical civil life. Most Reformed folk aren’t theonomists and reject theonomy so I take it that most Reformed folk agree, in principle (if not in rhetoric) with me that special revelation is redemptive not cultural or civil in focus. Thus, most Reformed folk don’t insist that the magistrate implement the Mosaic civil law. We do, however, rightly insist that the magistrate be restrained by natural law. In the nature of the magistrate’s office there are things that properly concern him and things that do not,
The church, however, is a distinct sphere from cultural or civil activities. The church has a specific, divinely revealed charter in Holy Scripture. This doesn’t mean that the Christian faith is thereby “privatized.” Rather we ought to respect the intent of Scripture itself. When Paul wrote the pastoral epistles he was not laying out a charter for civil society. He was, however, laying out a charter, with divine authority, for the church, the principal and chief manifestation of the Kingdom of God. The Kingdom of God is not about eating and drinking or painting or softball but about sin, guilt, salvation, and grace in Christ. Because they are citizens of the heavenly kingdom and members of the civil kingdom simultaneously, Christians ought to conduct themselves differently. Our heavenly citizenship should be manifested in our civil life, not that we have a “Christian” solution to the financial crisis but that we don’t steal. A Christian who runs an investment business may not turn it into a Ponzi scheme! It ought to be manifest that we’ve been bought with a price.
There are other differences (antitheses) between Christians and non-Christians. Believers and unbelievers have different theologies and therefore different explanations of why things are as they are. The unbeliever alternates between rationalism (a single truth explains all) and irrationalism (subjectivism; there is no explanation of anything). Earlier modernity tended to rationalism (if my intellect can’t comprehend it, then it isn’t true) and empiricism (what my senses can’t experience doesn’t exist). Late modernity (where we are now) is dominated by subjectivism and irrationalism. Subjectivism says that one’s experience of anything is the determinate fact. Thus in post-structuralist hermeneutics, one’s “reading” of a text norms the text itself. Both rationalism and irrationalism serve as ostensible ways of escape allowing the unbeliever to elude God’s authority and the claims of truth.
As it refers to the competing theologies of belief and unbelief, we may certainly speak of a “CWLV.” There is a Christian understanding for what the world is, why it works as it does, for who and what God is to us, for who and what we are, for the nature of sin, grace, Christ, the church, sacraments and last things. Scripture speaks to all these things and about all these things authoritatively and comprehensively.
Nevertheless, even the fundamentally different explanations of why things are (theology, or ultimate concerns) does not obliterate the existence of the penultimate. The truth is that Christians and non-Christians live together in the same world at the same time and in much the same way much of the time. It is much less clear what is distinctively Christian about the allegedly “Christian” view of any number of penultimate matters. When it comes to the relation of the CWLV to the particulars of penultimate questions, the CWLV tends to devolve into platitudes more than it tends to press to particulars.
Consider plowing (sue me, I’m from Nebraska). In the spring and fall farmers plow. They break up the soil to plant and then, after harvest, they turn over the soil to let it rest or perhaps to plant another sort of crop. Is there a distinctly “Christian” way to plow? I doubt it. What farmers do is determined by the nature of the work. I don’t think one can look at a field and tell whether it was a Christian or a pagan who plowed it. Christians plow, but does that make it Christian plowing? Are there “Christian” plows sold in “Christian” implement stores? No, Christian farmers and non-Christian farmers sit on the same tractors and use the same implements. A Christian farmer should be a good steward of the earth and practice soil conservation but the non-Christian farmer does the same if only out of economic self-interest and further, sinful Christian farmers may not be as stewardly as some pagan farmers acting solely out of economic self-interest (if the soil blows away, the pagan cannot plant or harvest).
Again, there is no question whether the Christian and the non-Christian explain why farming works the way it works. The Christian says that seeds grow and rain falls and fertilizers work because of the sovereign providence of God. The pagan farmer appeals to magic or random chance. Their theologies of farming are radically different but the actual art and science of farming is the same for Christian and pagan (which, ironically is Latin for “farmer” or “rustic”) alike.
This example illustrates my concern about careless invocation of the CWLV. It tends to become a license to baptize one’s pet views as “Christian” and thus to make them incontrovertible. This more about, as one writer likes to put it, “control, authority, and power” than about truth. It’s a form of the very sort of “Reformed” Narcissism about which I commented in RRC. “I am Reformed, I think x, ergo x is Reformed.” Really? Is it that simple? Obviously the conclusion doesn’t follow from the premises. This is the problem about claims concerning “Christian” music or “Christian” farming or “Christian” politics or whatever. It it hard to see how such claims are not really rooted in the Reformed faith but in a fearful reaction to frightening cultural changes. The question is how we should respond to these changes and what claims we should make about what Christians know as distinct from what our non-Christian friends, neighbors, and co-workers know.
What precisely is “Christian” about “Christian” art? It has Christian themes, but if we obey the second commandment and do not attempt to represent the deity (including God the Son incarnate) then what is Christian about “Christian” art? —By the way, while I’m on this topic it puzzles me to no end to hear about the CWLV from those who think nothing about blatant visible violations of the 2nd commandment in church buildings. If we’re going to have a CWLV let us start with the law of God as confessed by the Heidelberg Catechism and the Westminster Confession. If the CWLV includes anything it certainly includes the 2nd commandment! We now return you to your regularly scheduled programming—It has Christian themes. Fine but the mechanics of painting (to pick one medium) are the same for Christian and non-Christian alike. The Christian has no unique insight into putting paint on canvas because of his Christian faith. The Christian musician has no distinct insight into playing his instrument because of his faith. He explains the meaning of music differently than the pagan but now we’re back to theology again. How is a “Christian” symphony different from a “pagan” symphony? Might not a “Christian” symphony (conceding the category for the sake of argument) be just as cacophonous as the late modernist piece as a way of suggesting brokeness resulting from the fall? In which case, who can tell just by listening whether the piece is by John Cage or a Christian composer?
The concept of a “worldview” is essential. Derived from the German “Weltanschauung” the English noun denotes “a particular philosophy of life or conception of the world.” Worldviews are like belly-buttons. Everyone has one. They are standard equipment. Everyone has some interpretation of the world, its meaning, of oneself, and of ones relation to the world and everything in it. The question for the Christian is whether his worldview conforms to Scripture. One of the things that has increasingly made me skeptical, however, about the way we often talk about “worldview” is the eager adoption by American evangelicals of the heretofore Reformed language about worldviews and a CWLV.
Sometime in 1995 or 96, in front of a crowded room of Freshmen in a section of the course on “Christ and Culture” at Wheaton College, I gave an impromptu talk about Kuyper’s distinction between the spheres. I was shocked by the response. The students acted as if we were in the desert and that I was the only water salesman. I also noticed a considerable degree of emphasis in the Christian Colleges (including Wheaton) on statements on “integration of faith and learning.” Increasingly faculty members and candidates for faculty positions were expected to develop a coherent statement explaining a distinctively Christian approach to a particular intellectual discipline.
One could see immediately the need to address this issue in some way. It would not do to have a student sit in a theology class at 10AM, in which the Christian faith was propounded, and then to sit in an English class at 11AM in which the Christian faith was implicitly or explicitly denied. Addressing the issue, however, wasn’t as easy as it might seem. Since, to that point, all my experience in the Reformed world had been Kuyperian (or perhaps neo-Kuyperian) I did not question the need for such statements but I did struggle to write one. What exactly was distinctively Christian about my approach to history? Were some teachers were denying the faith because of a non-Christian view of their discipline or because of bad theology?
Over time I realized that the problem wasn’t English, History, or Physics but theology and the assumption that there is a distinctively “Christian” approach to every discipline. The problem faced by school administrators was not that faculty were poor English teachers or poor practitioners of Biology but that faculty outside the theology department often had poor training in theology or effectively a non-Christian theology. Many Christian schools are effectively theologically pluralist so they could not come out and demand that all faculty adhere to one theological system or another (or to any!) so they began to press for a CWLV in place of a coherent theological system.
Here’s the rub. A CWLV is really just code for “a sound theology.” Failure to recognize this by evangelicals seeking to reinforce boundaries created a good deal of confusion. Many academics, who are highly trained in specialized academic disciplines, have only the most rudimentary, Sunday-School grasp of the Christian faith. It is no wonder that administrators too often found faculty members effectively denying the faith in their disciplines: they might not have known what the faith is or even that they were denying it. Being highly trained in biology doesn’t make one highly trained in Christology or the doctrine of God or even theological anthropology (the doctrine of humanity).
There is no question here whether there is a CWLV. There is certainly a Christian view of truth, reality, God, humans, Christ, sin, salvation, the church, sacraments, and last things. There is no question that the Christian faith provides a hermeneutical framework within which to interpret the world and ones place in it. There is no question that, on this fundamental level, as Van Til said, there is either “theonomy” (meaning nothing more than “God’s authoritative self-disclosure; it doesn’t properly mean, “the abiding validity of the Mosaic civil code”) or “autonomy.”
The problem comes when we try to transfer the authority of the Christian revelation and faith to mundane things. The faith tells us what farming means. The significance of farming is that it testifies to God’s providence and the mystery of his sovereign power in the world. The Christian faith also tells the farmer to what ends he farms: to the glory of God and the welfare of his neighbor. Nevertheless, as we saw last time, it is more difficult to say exactly what constitutes “Christian” farming.
In my “integration statement” I ended up not talking about what constitutes good historical method. Rather the imperative to “integrate faith and life” seemed to assume a disintegration. So my “integration” statement was a failure because it began by questioning the very premise. It was really a statement of Christian eschatology more than a statement about historical method. Instead of talking about the past I ended up talking about the future and divine sovereignty.
The problem became even more intense and practical when, a few years later, now at WSC, I began teaching the orientation seminar for the historical theology program. The first question we always face is the matter of a “Christian” approach to history. If the question is posed theologically, it’s easy to answer. God is sovereign and nothing comes by chance but everything comes from his fatherly hand, as it were. What else do you want to know? Is there is distinctively Christian approach to history? Is there a “Christian” historiography?
Well, if you mean “May Christians appeal to their doctrine of providence to vindicate their interpretation of a given event?” the answer is no. A good doctrine of providence says not only that God sovereignly decrees all that happens but that he executes his decree, in time, space, and history, through second causes or agents and agencies. The concern of the historian is to tell the truth as best he can about how those agents and agencies operated and why. Yes, God’s sovereign good pleasure lay behind the Reformation but it’s not good theology to attempt vindicate the theology of the Reformation by appeal to providence because anyone who knows Reformed theology will point out that the Counter (or Roman) Reformation was also a the result of divine providence.
The Christian historian and the Christian farmer face the same dilemma: is there, beyond soli Deo gloria and to the welfare of one’s fellows, a distinctively Christian way to farm or write history? Does the Christian historian know more (beyond his doctrine of providence) about the second causes or agents and agencies leading up to the Thirty-Years War than the Marxist or Freudian historians? One of my great problems with the Marxist and Freudian historians is that their theological overlay is so heavy that it often keeps them from doing good history. The Freudian knows a priori that Luther must have had a problem with childhood development and thus it’s merely a question of figuring out which stage was incomplete and presto we have the explanation for the Reformation! The Marxist knows a priori that the Reformation was only a manifestation of the class struggle between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie. The Reformation is merely the story of elites oppressing the working class under the guise of religion. Ho hum. Is the “Christian” approach to history just another highly-charged competing ideology? Is the “Christian” view of history the “true” interpretation of providence? Wait a minute! I thought that good Reformed theology warns us against trying to interpret providence? Do we really know why God decreed that a man should be born blind or why he decreed that a tower should fall at Siloam?
In an essay dated 28 May 2008 Fred Pugh sketches what has become a fairly standard view among many neo-Kuyperians. His account probably obviously leans to the cultural-political right and the antithesis is established with “secular humanism.” The views Pugh categorizes under the heading “secular humanism,” Kuyper would have attributed under the anti-Christian of the French Revolution.
The label “secular humanism” is unfortunate, however, because, in themselves “secular” and “humanism” are unobjectionable terms. Thrown together thus they’ve been made by culture warriors into an epithet. As J I Packer and Tom Howard pointed out years ago and as thoughtful Christians have known for centuries, there has been a Christian humanism since the earliest years of the medieval period. Several of the major Protestant Reformers were trained “humanists.” The adjective “secular” is derived from the Latin word “saeculum” which means “age” or “world.” The phrase “in saeculum” is used in theological Latin for “forever.” The expression “secular humanism,” has come to mean, however, “an anti-Christian and anti-theistic assertion of autonomy.” Christians would do better, however, to refrain from using “secular” as a pejorative. The secular realm is better considered the common realm preserved by the providence of God as outlined in Genesis 9 (as distinct from the covenant of grace in Gen 6).
In Pugh’s essay, however, it becomes clear that, to have a truly “Christian” CWLV one must oppose the enemies of the cultural right, e.g. Planned Parenthood. This comment is not meant as an apology for Planned Parenthood. Anyone who knows the roots of PP in the quasi-Nazi eugenics movement would be wary of defending it for that reason alone. The essay moves on to tick off (list) the enemies of the cultural right, “feminism,” and the sexual revolution.
This strikes me as the sort of metaphorical baptism of the culture the effect of which is to make a certain approach to cultural issues incontrovertible. What is the biblical basis for this baptism? The writer appeals to 2 Corinthians 10:1-6. The author’s deconstruction of the parade of culturally leftist institutions is “casting down“casting down arguments and every high thing that exalts itself against the knowledge of God, bringing every thought into captivity to the obedience of Christ.” The most serious problem with the author’s use of this passage is that it has little to do with Paul’s intention. This use of Paul has more to do with subjectivist late-modern reader-response hermeneutics than it does with historic Reformed hermeneutics. The Apostle Paul was addressing a threat to his apostolic authority and office from opponents to his ministry. He has spent chapter 9 defending his office and ministry against these critics because Paul, the suffering apostle, didn’t much resemble what the Corinthians thought of as “an apostle.” He wasn’t nearly as glorious as the “Super Apostles.” Those are the non-Christian ideas he intends to tear down. The sphere in which he was speaking was distinctly spiritual and ecclesiastical not secular or cultural. This doesn’t mean that Christians ought not to subvert fundamentally non-Christian theology and philosophy, but now, in this tranformationalist application of the passage, we’ve entered into a different realm of discourse. Moving to a list of approved social views is yet another step removed from Paul’s original intent.
Central to this approach to the “Christ and Culture” problem is the “Biblical doctrine of God’s sovereignty over all of life.” Now, all Reformed confessions and theologians and theologies confess and teach the absolute sovereignty of God. Of this there is no question now. This deduction from the doctrine of divine sovereignty, however, does not seem to appreciate the difficulty of moving from the theological doctrine of divine sovereignty to an allegedly “Christian” set of social values or cultural views.
The author quotes Van Til: “The Scripture is authoritative in every area of life to which it speaks and it speaks to every area of life.” Again, this principle is not in question, at least not here, but it’s one thing to affirm that Scripture speaks “to every area of life” and quite another to say what “the” Christian view of any number of penultimate questions might be. Math works because God is sovereign and has ordered all things. Christian theism is the necessary assumption to human life. Those who deny God and who continue act as if he exists are hypocrites. The author continues to qualify this claim by noting that one “should not misunderstand that idea to say that the Bible tells you how to fix your washing machine when it breaks. It does, however, give either direct orders or indirect principles that one is to follow in every area of life.”
I quite agree that Holy Scripture doesn’t teach me how to fix my washing machine but one does need to parse and apply very carefully the claim that it gives “direct orders or direct principles that one is to follow in every area of life.” God’s Word does describe reality and God’s moral law does norm all our actions. Once more, there is no neutral sphere of life.
Nevertheless, it does not follow, as Pugh claims, there is not distinction ” between sacred and secular” and that all “[a]of life is sacred.” He assumes that if Christ is Lord of all, (and he is!) that therefore he exercises his dominion in only one kingdom or in only one way, without distinction. Why is it necessary to baptize the Maytag repairman? We baptize sinners because they are born in sin. By baptize we testify that those who are united to Christ sola gratia et sola fide are holy. That which was unclean is not recognized as sacramentally, outwardly clean. Is repairing washing machines unclean in the same way that it needs to be baptized?
What about Romans 8? After all, it does say that creation is groaning.
For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved.
There is a cosmic element to the Christian faith, just as there was a cosmic aspect to the covenant of works. What was, as it were, frustrated in the fall, will be consummated. Had the first Adam obeyed, the creation would have been glorified. Now that the Second Adam has obeyed, he has initiated, in the church, a new creation.
At the same time, we cannot say that Jesus died for “creation” per se. He died for sinners. Our longing for the consummate state is analogous to the longing of the cosmos for the consummation but there are discontinuities. We redeemed sinners long for adoption (or the consummation of the adoption that was inaugurated in the ordo salutis), but nature, per se, is not said to have been “redeemed.”
The transformationalist confusion of the creational and the redemptive is the very sort of metaphorical baptizing about which this series has been concerned. Affirming God’s sovereignty over all of life does not eliminate the need to distinguish between two kingdoms. Pugh’s appeal to 2 Corinthians 10 illustrates the problem. What the Apostle addressed to the visible, institutional church is taken out of context and applied in support of cultural agenda that the Apostle himself did not imply or teach, at least not in that passage and it gets to a larger problem: the Apostles did not lay out a cultural agenda. God the Spirit did not reveal the “Christian” approach to the federal budget. They were busy preaching the gospel of Christ’s obedience, death, and resurrection. Yes, Jesus is seated at the right hand of God, and he administers his spiritual kingdom through the keys of the kingdom (Matt 16) namely Gospel, sacrament, and church discipline. Approaches such as this one fail just where they need to make the connection between divine sovereignty and cultural engagement they assume what needs to be proved: the direct nexus between divine sovereignty in salvation and the writer’s opinion about this or that cultural problem.
The second fundamental weakness is the failure to recognize that cultural issues are not well addressed from the kingdom of God (Word, sacraments, and discipline). Rather they are best addressed from creational or natural revelation. The response to Planned Parenthood is that it denies the creational or natural order. It’s against nature to selectively eliminate certain races (the original intent of PP) or to destroy human beings in utero. As Darryl Hart has argued, the Christian faith is not intended to serve as platform for political parties. It should certainly inform Christians in civil affairs but the integrity and original intent of Scripture must be honored if we’re to deal with Scripture honestly. Christians may disagree over civil policy.
Another distinction the author fails to make is that which exists between law and gospel. In his zeal to transform the existing social order he argues that “[a]ny gospel…which does not affect the political and social structures in which it is proclaimed is a truncated gospel.” The Apostle Paul characterized his gospel relative to life, death, and resurrection of Christ (1 Cor 15). He seems to have left the social consequences of the gospel up to the Holy Spirit. Luke does not record that Paul gave divinely inspired advice to the rulers to whom he preached. Was Paul’s a “truncated” gospel?
More importantly, the civil or common (not neutral) realm is not a “gospel” realm. it is a legal realm. It belongs not to the covenant of grace but to the covenant of works. The second table of the law directs the civil magistrate. “Do not steal” is God’s holy law, which the magistrate is morally and duty bound to enforce. It is not the gospel. The gospel is an announcement of good news accomplished for sinners by Christ.
Do the Apostles Paul, Peter, and John pass the author’s test? Did their gospel affect the “social structures” in which is was proclaimed? Not in their lifetimes. The church was persecuted into the middle of the fourth century. Who gets to say what constitutes the correct “affect”? One of the earliest Christian writers, the author of the epistle to Digonetus, simply asked his non-Christian inquirer to allow the Christians to live quietly and in peace. He explicitly denied that Christians had a distinctive language or culture. This, of course, is exactly what Paul commanded we should pray for (1 Tim 2:2).
We should agree with the author that the way to develop a CWLV is to “immerse” oneself in Scripture, but as we do so doing we should recognize that Scripture itself teaches us that our “citizenship is in heaven” (Phil 3) and that, in this world, in “this age,” we live in two kingdoms simultaneously. We give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s. Our doctrine of divine sovereignty is a precious and absolutely necessary biblical truth confessed by the Reformed churches but it’s much more difficult that some think to deduce from it a social policy or a distinctively Christian approach to any given cultural problem or social policy.
This essay first appeared on the Heidelblog in 2009.