Evangelicals Finally Waking Up Should Beware
Close to sixty of us Evangelicals packed into our premium quality folding chairs, row-by-row, on the third floor of a nondescript office building. The fluorescent light (never flattering its subject) felt slightly more exotic as it landed on a white-haired, professorial man striding up to the podium in front of the white backdrop with “Reformed Theological Seminary” recurring some dozen times upon it. The man was George Harinck, a Dutchman and leading neo-Calvinist historian, who was introduced with his notable accomplishment of writing well over 100 academic articles and books on Abraham “one square inch” Kuyper and his Philip Melanchthon, Herman Bavinck, who has experienced a small centenary renaissance within Christian academia.
My limited experience has confirmed that the Dutch Calvinists are a very warm—almost American—bunch, and Dr. Harinck was no exception. And as that warm and brilliant scholar concluded his lecture on the history of Herman Bavinck, he closed with a most peculiar reflection on why neo-Calvinism was experiencing this revival now, more than a century after America first became acquainted with the Dutch duo. Pondering the final victory of the neo-Calvinists over their Barthian rivals, he remarked, “neo-Calvinism became relevant to [evangelical] Americans when they began secularizing.” In other words, neo-Calvinism is the typhoid Mary of Protestant political consciousness.
Neo-Calvinism was the unique blend of the populist Prime Minister of the Netherlands, Abraham Kuyper, and his elitist theologian, Herman Bavinck, both of whom adhered to historic Reformed soteriology while renegotiating Calvinism’s relationship to pluralism, apologetics, and the conscience. Serving in the Dutch Anti-Revolution party, they argued the telos of Calvinism was always to progress beyond its scholastic theological shell (especially regarding political theory), providing instead the only consistent foundation for individual rights, freedom of conscience, and a pluralistic society.
The Dutch neo-Calvinists traveled to the United States, spoke frequently at Princeton Theological Seminary, and their work was sustained for generations at Calvin College and Seminary, reemerging in popular American evangelicalism first in the work of Carl F.H. Henry and Francis Schaeffer, and then more recently through a resurgence in Protestant seminaries and universities.
While this second resourcement can and certainly will bring many valued aspects of Kuyper and Bavinck to Evangelicalism, to the extent neo-Calvinism is adopted as a cohesive worldview from the Netherlands, its adoption by American evangelicals is a grave mistake.
Bavinck is an erudite scholar, and his work can and should be critically mined for its apologetic wisdom and clarity. But the recent reception of Bavinck (and continued interest in Kuyper) has conspicuously blossomed at the very moment when American Evangelicalism has clearly emerged as the “lone bulwark” against a radical political agenda seeking to undermine our nation. Witnessing a rare moment of political consciousness, Evangelical leaders seem to be pumping as much neo-Calvinism into the bloodstream for the expressed purpose of slipping American evangelicalism back under. This is surely not entirely intentional. I believe men like Dr. Gray Sutanto, one of the foremost advocates of Bavinck today, has the best of intentions in his translating and popularizing of Bavinck, but his (and other neo-Calvinist scholars’) project will be a kiss of death to evangelical institutions. The George Custer of Reformed thought. The Tony Romo (Mark Sanchez?) of the culture war.
After Rod Dreher published The Benedict Option, he remarked that many evangelicals would not heed its message because of Donald Trump’s electoral upset. This certainly proved true, with its message of building anti-fragile communities, restricting internet access to youth, and recovering church history going largely (but not entirely) unheeded until at least late 2020 after a summer of riotous chaos. What few Christians realized back in 2017 was that leading Evangelicals were already working for the other side, and beginning to develop a theological framework to combat any sort of drastic action that would awaken evangelical political consciousness, construct alternative economic systems to avoid participating in an activist economy, or lead evangelicals to recognize the direness of the American political system until after they had been stripped of all political autonomy. As long as evangelical Christians could remain sedated until after their numbers were too small to affect elections or seriously impact political decisions, America would be safe for a more tolerant and ethically Christian nation, even if that meant far fewer Christians represented.
A number of religious traditions have combined to marginalize the Evangelical will. Stanley Hauerwas mainstreamed the Anabaptist (anti)political tradition which has been adopted by several evangelical seminaries and influencers. David VanDrunnen and Meredith Kline’s Kantianism-by-any-other-name spiritualized Old Testament covenants such that God’s promises carried no political significance whatsoever. Mark Noll sided with the modernists against Old Princeton and ridiculed the Presbyterian Thomas Reid’s Common Sense philosophy—the philosophical backbone of the Great Awakenings and re-Christianization of the United States after the War for Independence—in his Scandal of the Evangelical Mind. But no Christian philosophy has been more of a scandal than Dutch neo-Calvinism.
Part of this is due to sheer scale. Pastor Timothy Keller, historian George Marsden, philosophers James K.A. Smith and Alvin Plantinga, and theologians Richard Mouw and G.C. Berkouwer, all heavily influenced by neo-Calvinist philosophy, have left a massive imprint upon American evangelicals, particularly in how they imagine the public square and their role within it. Recapitulations of “Two Kingdoms” and Anabaptism have had far less impact within the rank and file. While there have been neo-Calvinist strands that leaned into the antithesis between Christianity and pluralism such as the Reconstructionists, the South African neo-Calvinists, and Van Tillians suspicious of transformationalism (such as Briarwood’s late Harry Reeder), the vast majority of those under the sway of Kuyper’s Stone Lectures have weakened, not strengthened, the will of their pastors and followers to engage politically.
The first and principal mark against the neo-Calvinist tradition is its bad historiography. The Reformers simply did not intend to introduce a pluralistic public square. Many of them, Calvin and Zwingli most infamously, but also Archbishop Whitgift, Martin Bucer, and countless others actively defended and exercised the civil magistrate’s active role to “punish wickedness and vice and maintain true religion and virtue.” As Richard Muller has proven, the Reformed theologians maintained that same theology of governance for centuries. That Calvinism was distinct from other Protestants “in its impress[ion] in and outside the church upon every aspect of human life,” may very well be true, but that does not mean the Institutes contained the First Amendment in seed form.
The religious liberty of conscience which emerged particularly in England was a uniquely English phenomenon, and resulted in part from a pragmatic political situation and in part from the rise of Thomas Reid’s Scottish Common Sense philosophy taught by Declaration-signer and Princeton president John Witherspoon to a whole host of other founding fathers. This Common Sense philosophy undergirded almost all American colleges into the late 19th century, and was the epistemic basis of Old Princeton until it split in the 1930s. With Common Sense went the epistemic basis for Anglo-American liberty of conscience and self-government.
Neo-Calvinism seemed to provide an updated defense of that limited government and free exercise of religion tradition, and gave the Reformed tradition the credit for its adoption in the Western world—a sort of Protestant Work Ethic defense of industrialism—but for individual liberty and orthodox faith. For ambitious orthodox Protestants after the Scopes Trial such as Cornelius Van Til, Carl F.H. Henry and Francis Schaeffer, the tenets of neo-Calvinism seemed to provide the intellectual basis for an academic, social, and political revolution within the United States. They defended key Reformed theological doctrines such as the reliability of Revelation, a traditional view of sex and gender, and the right of political resistance even as it offered an historical lineage from America’s conservative Puritan founders down the U.S. Constitution to the neo-evangelicals so keen on saving America’s soul.
The neo-evangelicals, interfacing with Bavinck primarily through Van Til and also with Kuyper’s own speeches, were fast at work, making prominent converts out of men such as Chuck Colson, and building evangelical institutions such as Christianity Today, Fuller Theological Seminary, InterVarsity, and Campus Crusade for Christ (not to mention the immense influence exerted at Gordon-Conwell and Wheaton College). Unfortunately, what was made could not be saved. Fuller was entirely lost within a few years of its inception, and all the other institutions have moved significantly to the left on Revelation, gender, and social reform even as they maintained an identical stance on religious plurality within the public square. This is equally if not more true of the other strand of neo-Calvinists in the United States: West Michigan’s Dutch Christian Reformed Church. Calvin College and Calvin Seminary, where the apostolic succession from Kuyper and Bavinck is most pure, are unrecognizable to historic Dutch Reformed theology, but at least they celebrate LGBTQ+ affirming groups and faculty on campus. Coincidentally, defending neutrality in the public square is the clearest commonality between the neo-Calvinists of 1900, the neo-Evangelicals of 1975, and the Evangelical institutions they have created today. The great modification of Calvinism has become the gravitational center around which the rest of the neo-Calvinist system has orbited. “Tis the sounding of the trumpet that shall only call retreat.”
The Netherlands has always had large self-governing minorities, so the “Calvinists are the real pluralists” ostensibly had some political mileage. As it was, the neo-Calvinists absolutized their political strategy for winning Parliamentary elections in the Netherlands by masquerading it as dogmatic theology, and in so doing telegraphed a playbook to orthodox Calvinist hold-outs in the United States exiled from the public square. “This is how the politically successful conservative Calvinists talk.” This bad theology has become standard fare “Calvinist” doctrine for decades since, replacing our tradition of Anglo-American Protestant political philosophy with a hodge-podge of decontextualized political strategy, bad historical scholarship, and proof-texting to defend the Warren Court’s bad jurisprudence.
In hindsight, it seems hard to avoid the neo-Calvinists’ baptized “free state” as a sort of Divine Command to not dominate the public square’s multiculturalism. The neo-Calvinist doctrine evolved into political antinomianism. And like any sort of antinomianism, it claims to deal with “real life,” and then suffocates spiritual life. Look at the statistics: from 1840 until 1900 adherence to a Protestant church did not move so much as 2 percentage points (and when it did, it went up). Kuyper’s party came to power with over 60% of the Netherlands worshipping in Protestant Churches. Yet after the decade of Kuyper’s greatest influence, religious participation had declined to a record low 57% Protestant. By the end of his life, it was under 54%, and by 1930 all the Protestant Churches combined to be 46.3% of the nation, the first time since the Reformation Holland was not majority Protestant. Protestant affiliation has only shrunk since Kuyper first took office, and under him, it saw the greatest losses in its 350-year history, well before the great secularization after World War I. Notably, Romanism, which had been shrinking through the late 19th century, actually began a slow ascent from 35% of the country when Kuyper took office as Prime Minister of Declining Protestantism, to over 40% by the early 1970s. The cataclysmic decline in faith was unique to the Calvinists.
Perhaps neo-Calvinism had other benefits: it certainly energized many creative minds in the Netherlands and gave a second wind into orthodox Calvinism, creating a new Reformed denomination in the Netherlands and founding the Free University of Amsterdam. Unfortunately, that denomination now accepts homosexual unions, women’s ordination, and has had a large contingent of atheistic clergy. Only a small splinter group, rejecting women from any office of ordained ministry and prioritizing their sung Psalter, has maintained their confessional identity. The Free University began accepting government grants in the 1960s and ended its Protestant subscription and quickly left behind any semblance of Protestant identity. None of Kuyper and Bavinck’s organs for cultural, political, or theological reform survived fifty years past their own lifetimes. All drifted and then flat-out reversed their mission, all moving significantly to the cultural, political and theological left. “Judge none blessed before his death: for a man shall be known in his children,” saith Jesus ben-Sirach.
The neo-Calvinism reformation project failed in the Netherlands, and the last four decades have proven the project very unreliable in the United States as well. Riding on the evangelistic efforts of Billy Graham’s Crusades, Carl Henry, Alvin Plantinga and Francis Schaeffer made significant headway in collecting Evangelical energy towards constructive political ends, but none of those organizations would let their original founders lead their institutions today. To quote the prophetic introduction to Crossed Fingers from 1996: “it boils down to this: you’ve been sold out to liberals; you’re being sold out to neo-evangelicals who will later sell you out to liberals; or you’re not yet worth buying.” The Dutch neo-Calvinist project and its conservative American adaptation were already post-confessional Protestants retreating behind their Maginot Line and unable to recreate the splendors of a mainline denomination, they settled for a diverse post-denominational coalition which has been splintering ever since.
It is worth asking what happened when Neo-Calvinism first traveled across the pond. According to the warm Dr. Harinck, it was displaced almost immediately within the United States (and especially at Princeton Theological Seminary) with Karl Barth. Harinck suggested this was due to translation efforts, but that only tells us the efficient, not the final, cause. Nobody cared to translate Bavinck because he was irrelevant to both Fundamentalists and Modernists. Barth had the double advantage of being to the theological “right” of the liberals without actually affirming traditional confessional orthodoxy, allowing theological conservatives to criticize their liberal counterparts without having to defend the actual Scriptures or confessions. In other words, Barth was more effective than Bavinck at helping conservatives in the PCUSA save face as the most intellectually powerful denomination sank into cultural and theological irrelevancy.
The Presbyterian supporters of the neo-Calvinist doctrines exited Princeton and joined J. Gresham Machen’s Westminster Theological Seminary, where they would have an outsized influence on the neo-evangelicals (led by Christianity Today) and American neo-Calvinists (such as Professor Timothy Keller). While Protestant Orthodoxy’s old intellectual bulwark developed many respected and hardnosed American public intellectuals, Westminster has never recreated anything resembling the old Presbyterian elite (despite its many brilliant scholars). The conservative Presbyterian denominations have never regained the status they lost in their exoduses from the mainline. It cannot be a complete coincidence that Westminster and neo-evangelicalism’s adoption of an ethnic minority’s theo-political system from a religiously pluralistic society set up theologically and socially conservative American Protestants to lose. Neo-Calvinism, distinguishing itself from historic Calvinism precisely in its absolutizing of political pluralism, never had a politically successful DNA. Losing was baked into the system from its founding, and its adoption by American Evangelicals, then and now, cannot bring different results.
Neo-Calvinists in the United States have never been connected to the Evangelical Protestant base, and notably have had the most recent success in minority-majority areas where Evangelicalism is already weak to non-existent. Neo-Calvinism’s greatest influence is in the northeastern corridor from Reformed Seminary Washington DC to Westminster Philadelphia to Reformed Seminary NYC, and then in Dutch West Michigan.
Despite repeated attempts to introduce Bavinck and Kuyper to an American audience, they have never caught on with the rank-and-file American Evangelical. The duo has captured the hearts and minds of urban church planters seeking to slim the gospel of its historic (and confessional) social and political commitments to lower the barrier to entry. The neo-Calvinists are not the first to soft-peddle harder Christian doctrines (Clement and Origen of Alexandria withheld more mysterious doctrines until Christian maturity), but they are the first to theologically justify lobbing off entire historic doctrines of the church (such as the civil magistrate and natural law) altogether in the name of contextualization and sphere sovereignty. The consequences of this slimmed-down, contextualized neo-Calvinist gospel is a Gospel that has neither a consistent standard with which to call nations to repentance nor a standard by which Christians ought to legislate while in power. Every pastor preaches what is right in his own eyes because pluralism is the desired outcome, not subservience to the Ten Commandments, the basis of natural law.
Pluralism, that is, permanent minority status, is the status quo of neo-Calvinism. The very idea of a Moral Majority is not just outdated, it is medieval. Neo-Calvinist Christianity wins spiritually when it stops winning politically. You see that? For the elite-adjacent evangelical in a medium-to-large metropolitan area, Bavinck is just as advantageous as Karl Barth was for Princeton justifying their remaining in the PCUSA a century ago.
Neo-Calvinism justifies your non-threatening presence in the city, academy, denomination, or National Institute of Health by leaving the currently objectionable parts of your theology in the past (a century ago in the U.S. the historicity of the Bible, today the presence of natural law and politically binding claims on the magistrate) by making them matters of individual faith and personal expression instead of normative claims for all nations, places, and cultures. Barth’s neo-orthodoxy and Bavinck’s neo-Calvinism both allow for respectability in the current cultural moment, but would earn them ridicule and excommunication from three centuries of their forebearers. Which statement is more ridiculous, Barth’s, that the incarnation declared all forms of secret espionage illegitimate, or Bavinck’s, that the Image of God demanded women’s suffrage? Yet were either questioned by the leading lights of the academy in their own day?
Christian pastors, academics and civil leaders who adopt neo-Calvinism are leading, whether intentionally or not, the churches, communities, and nations they serve back into a secular Egypt. Under the guise of theologically mandated pluralism, they are training their people to theologically rationalize political and social subservience at a time when they are the only group able to successfully challenge a radical political agenda.
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