Let’s Give Credit Where Credit Is Due

Bill Evans head shot

It seems that transformationalism is taking it on the chin these days.  The secular and religious media are awash with reports of how the millennial generation of evangelicals is burned out on the political activism of the religious right, and the Two-Kingdoms theology (2K) currently being trumpeted by some faculty members at Westminster Seminary in California (WSC) certainly provides a theological fig-leaf for such culture-war fatigue.  In short, H. Richard Niebuhr’s Christ and Culture, with his favored model of “Christ transforming culture,” and the great Dutch Neo-Calvinist theologian and politician Abraham Kuyper are not exactly the flavor of the month.

Nevertheless, I was a bit surprised, though certainly not shocked, to see Carl Trueman jumping decisively on the anti-transformational bandwagon (here on Ref21 and here on TheAquilaReport).  Dr. Trueman, as most of us know, teaches church history at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia (WTS), and is the former Provost and academic dean there.  But despite Trueman’s very public aversion to all things trendy, he seems to be right in step with the Zeitgeist on this one.  He also seems to be somewhat out of step with his institution’s history.

For much of its history, WTS was, along with Calvin College in Grand Rapids, one of two great bastions of Dutch Neo-Calvinism in America (later joined by the Institute for Christian Studies in Toronto), and from these places notions of the “integration of faith and learning” and making a difference in the broader culture went forth to Christian liberal-arts colleges, churches, and other institutions.  The idea was that as we “think God’s thoughts after him” and embrace a Christian “world-and-life view” we just might be in a position to have a positive impact on the broader society.  That historic emphasis of my seminary alma mater is apparently changing.

It is crucial to note that such Neo-Calvinism from the get-go evinced a somewhat chastened transformationalism.  Most of these folks were amillennialists who recognized the “not yet” as well as the “already” of redemption.  Thus the social transformation envisioned was at best provisional, temporary, and incomplete, although the later dalliance of some with democratic socialism muddied the waters a bit.  This eschatological horizon pretty much ensured that they were not expecting to usher in the millennium.  In fact, it took the “you-can’t-beat-something-with-nothing” American pragmatism and optimistic postmillennialism of the Christian Reconstructionists to upset this balance and to push evangelical transformationalism in a more problematic and coercive direction.

Trueman’s brief article presents a syllogism of sorts, which can be summarized in this way:  (1) Despite his gifts Abraham Kuyper failed to transform Dutch society; (2) Tim Keller is our best hope for social transformation; (3) Tim Keller is no Abraham Kuyper; and (4) Ergo, transformationalism is a pipe dream.

While I will confess to being a bit mystified by the animus directed at Tim Keller from people like Trueman and D. G. Hart, it is Trueman’s first premise that requires particular scrutiny.  According to Trueman, the cultural decadence so evident on the streets of Amsterdam today is proof positive that Kuyper failed.  But this is to expect too much.  The last time I checked, Kuyper’s period of political effectiveness ended well over a century ago (he left the office of Prime Minister of the Netherlands in 1905).  By any reasonable standard, Kuyper (despite his weaknesses and ambiguities) accomplished a great deal of good in his time, but Trueman seems miffed that he failed to inaugurate a Dutch millennium.

Now I’m quite aware of the legitimate criticisms that can be lodged against Neo-Calvinist transformationalism, and I’ve expressed some of them myself.  For example, the notion of a world-and-life-view (Weltanschauung) has a distinctly post-Kantian feel to it, and not nearly as much “integration of faith and learning” takes place in Christian colleges as some might have us think.  After all, what does a “Christian perspective” on mathematics or geography look like?  And Christian transformationalism can be co-opted.  To use Niebuhr’s typology, the model of “Christ transforming culture” sometimes (often?) morphs into a “Christ of culture.”  I’m willing to grant all that.  I’m even willing to grant, with Trueman, that at this particular point in history it is the antithesis between the church and the world that needs to be emphasized.

Nevertheless, God does at times use his people to transform social structures.  Things are never perfect, but transformation—real change—happens.  Sometimes this takes place, as in the medieval period, through the slow-and-steady cultural leaven of the church’s ministry. Sometimes it takes place more quickly, such as through revival and the powerful social-reform impulse that accompanied it in the early nineteenth century.  Sometimes single individuals, such as a John Calvin, have a dramatic impact on their time and place.  Given that he is a better-than-average church historian, I’m confident that Trueman is aware of all this.

Particularly striking to me is the fact that there seems to be a contemporary analogue and even connection to this corporate anti-transformationalism in the sphere of individual soteriology.  For example, according to Mike Horton of WSC there is no such thing as regeneration in the traditional sense of the term, and we are faithed by our justification.  Any real intrinsic transformation of us as persons, apparently, is thought to mess with the extrinsic and purely forensic categories that some wish to maintain, and so everything is made to hang on an “actualistic ontology” of divine activity.  And as an aside, I will add that I really cannot see how this monergism on steroids is consistent with the theology of the Reformed confessions.

But isn’t it wonderful that the disruptive grace (to use George Hunsinger’s splendid term) of God does not always conform to our neat theological categories!  So let’s give credit where credit is due.  Let’s honor servants of God, like Abraham Kuyper, who have made a positive difference in the world.  Most of all, let’s honor the God whose sovereign grace makes a real transforming difference in our individual lives and beyond.