Neo-Calvinism’s Blind Spots

Now I should begin by clarifying that I consider myself a neo-Calvinist. I believe that God’s kingdom is broader than the institutional church, and that redemption is not limited to just the “spiritual” part of our lives but also has social, political, and economic dimensions. I think that believers  should be actively engaged in culture, applying biblical norms and our Christian worldview to every area of life. That said, I think it is important for us to take seriously the many criticisms of neo-Calvinism and to strive to find common ground with believers of different perspectives. For that reason, I thought it would be helpful to list some of the areas where the critics can help expose our blind spots:

  • Neo-Calvinists are prone to over-politicizing the gospel. Yes, we should vote based on our Christian values. God’s standards are, after all, the basis for all human flourishing. But in the famous words of Galadriel from The Lord of the Rings, what men desire above all else is power. This temptation can be especially strong when we are convinced that right is on our side. This can cause us to run roughshod over those who disagree with us, rather than taking the time to persuade them of the truth and goodness of the gospel. Changing laws is of little value if we are not also seeking to change hearts. Further, there is the danger of binding the consciences of believers on matters where Scripture itself is unclear or silent. Not every social issue is a gospel issue. Although Scripture provides us with general principles for political involvement, much is left to the believer’s prudential judgment.
  • Neo-Calvinism can breed a spirit of human-centered triumphalism. It is common for well-meaning transformationalists to speak of “building” God’s kingdom or of “redeeming” culture. But we would do well to remember that the Bible never speaks in this way. Scripture exhorts us to seek the city that is to come, not to build it (Heb. 13:14). Redemption is ultimately God’s work, not ours. Now it is true, God does allow us to participate in his redemptive work—Paul, for example, writes about “saving” some through his ministry (1 Cor. 9:22) and even “filling up” what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions (Col. 1:24). But our present involvement in earthly institutions is never more than a partial and provisional reflection of God’s kingdom. I think it would be better for us to adopt the language of Amy Sherman, who speaks of “advancing foretastes of the kingdom” rather than advancing the kingdom itself (Kingdom Calling, 40ff.). This should guard us from over-zealous efforts to “immanentize the eschaton,” and it would also protect us from discouragement when our cultural endeavors meet with failure.
  • Neo-Calvinists are prone to speak on issues where they have limited or no competence. Although we should all be concerned about matters like social justice, few take the time to research what “justice” really is, let alone how to work toward it without causing greater harm in the process. A good example would be government welfare programs. We might often be tempted to think that federal payouts are an easy solution to the problem of economic inequality. But how many of us stop to ask whether economic inequality is really a problem in the first place? Even granting for the sake of argument that it is, will government handouts really fix the problem? What if that only leads to a greater lack of personal motivation or economic stagnation? Such well-intended efforts might only serve to prove that helping can sometimes hurt.
  • Neo-Calvinists can undervalue the institutional church and the ordinary means of grace. For all our talk of engaging culture and applying the gospel to all of life, it is easy to forget the central and vital role of the visible church. The kingdom may extend beyond the walls of the church, but the church is still the “headquarters” (or perhaps “vanguard”) of the kingdom. And the means by which the church is established and preserved is through Word and sacrament. In his comments on the phrase “Thy kingdom come” in the Lord’s Prayer (Matt. 6:10), John Calvin taught that God exerts his power “partly by the preaching of the word, and partly by the secret power of the Spirit.” To be sure, the effects of God’s kingdom are made manifest in the renovation of the whole world (see Calvin’s commentary on Luke 17:20), but the lifeblood for this renovation is found in the ordinary means of grace.
  • Neo-Calvinists can sometimes neglect personal holiness. Related to the previous critique, we need to be mindful of the ever-present temptation to over-intellectualize and externalize the gospel. This risks turning our living faith into a dead orthodoxy. Therefore, we need to be careful not to throw out the “piety” baby with the “pietism” bathwater. This is one of Kevin DeYoung’s critiques in his book The Hole in Our Holiness. He writes, “I have no interest in making anyone feel bad for being passionate about Bach, bass fishing, or Herman Bavinck. There are a hundred good things you may be called to pursue as a Christian. All I’m saying is that, according to the Bible, holiness, for every single Christian, should be right at the top of that list. We need more Christians on our campuses, in our cities, in our churches, and in our seminaries who will say with Paul, ‘Look carefully then how you walk’ (Eph. 5:15)” (p. 20).

I am convinced that neo-Calvinism presents the most biblical picture of how to relate God’s work of redemption to his work of creation. I also believe that neo-Calvinism provides us with the best model for Christian engagement of culture. But for all its strengths, we should still strive to have the humility to listen to the other side and take seriously their concerns. We just might have something to learn from them.

About Kyle Dillon

A teaching elder in the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA), assistant pastor of theological instruction at Riveroaks Reformed Presbyterian Church, and theology/languages teacher at Westminster Academy in Memphis, Tennessee.

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