Abraham Kuyper: A Personal Introduction (review)

As far as introductions to neo-Calvinism go, this is the most lucid. Prof Mouw goes beyond the standard “take every square inch” models of Neo-Calvinism and asks us to reflect on what it means to be created for many-ness.

mouw

His chapter on “Filling the Earth” is standard Kuyperian treatment, so I won’t spend much time on it here. His chapter “Celebrating Many-ness” was pure gold. Contrary to state-church claims, the church of Christ doesn’t depend on only one form and that being manifested in a national church. Indeed, we should celebrate a “multiplicity of institutions” (16). Pluriformity means “created complexity” (17). We have to be careful, though. Affirming many-ness without insisting on an integrated whole leads only to the nihilistic void of postmodernism.

This reminds the reader of James KA Smith’s suggestion that in Genesis 1-2 God “creates in plurals.”  This contrasts very nicely with the Greek chain-of-being concept where any movement away from the one is always a diminution from goodness.

Sphere Sovereignty

So what counts as a “creational sphere”? Mouw notes Kuyper wasn’t always clear. In fact, what is a sphere? Let’s call them structures where “interactions take place” and “authority is exercised” (23). Each structure has a “point” and to that point corresponds an authority-pattern (24).

Per Kuyper, Christians must form collective entities within each “sphere.” The many-ness of mediating structures, per Peter Bellah, protects from both individualism and statism. It strengthens social bonds.

The part I particularly enjoyed was the section on neo-Kuyperianism and the Holy Spirit. As a continuationist and a Kuyperian, I’ve often sensed that the two streams could merge quite fruitfully, yet I haven’t really seen how it is to be done. Mouw’s (or Kuyper’s) suggestions were interesting. The Holy Spirit is to prepare creation for God’s glorious future (88-89).

Politics

Indeed, we need a crowded, public square. Not a naked one. A pluralism under secularization but not secularism (110, Mouw quoting James Bratt). Mouw correctly notes how the term “Constantinian” has been so over-used to be useless (113). Kuyper is not a Constantinian (whatever that word means).

Reflections

I am not sure how Kuyper’s correct insights on the antithesis give him any grounds on thinking a secular government will protect the “spheres.” I agree with Kuyper that we should have a “crowded public square,” and perhaps this “crowd” will make it difficult for the government to take away our liberties. Perhaps.

All in all, an outstanding work.

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Review of Reformation Scholasticism (Dooyeweerd)

Identifying this book is tricky.  I am reviewing Herman Dooyeweerd’s Reformation and Scholasticism volume 1.   Paideia Press, an otherwise outstanding publisher, has released what appears to be several volumes under similar titles.  This volume only covers up to Aristotle (but not Aristotle).  It is Works Series 5/1.

Herman Dooyeweerd identifies four religious ground-motives in Western thought. These aren’t just “worldviews.” They go much deeper than that and control the thought-formations in a pre-conscious way.

1. Form-Matter of Greeks
2. Creation-Fall-Recreation of Scripture
3. Nature-Grace of Western Medievalism
4. Nature-Freedom of Modernity

1, 3, and 4 are dialectical and are torn by an inner dualism (Dooyeweerd 3).

Greek Form-Matter

This ground-motive is torn between earlier nature-religions (pre-Homer) which posited a divine, eternally-flowing stream of life (5-6). It is a psychic fluid which technically isn’t material, yet it is bound to material life and is conceived materially.

The best way to review this book is to highlight a number of “pressure points” within the Greek ground-motive.

Pressure Point #1: What is the soul made of?

The Socratic “Idea” is the life-giving principle, so it is necessarily related to the sensible cosmos; yet it is exalted above the matter principle of flux (137). For Plato Like must be known by Like–so the thinking soul must share in the immobility of the eide, and even to the eidos of “life in itself.” Why is this a problem? This would make the soul the world of ideas.

But if the soul is furthered pursued on these lines, then it is “deprived of the anima rationalis of all vitality, rendering it completely inert” (154). But if the soul contains the principle of motion, is this not a move backwards towards the Elatic school and its ever-flowing physis?

The nous is only the origin of the pure form, not of the chaotic elements in matter, or the chaotic motions. Thus, if the soul is the source of all motion in the cosmos (or in the microcosmos), then its simplicity is under tension.

Plato alleviates this problem with a tripartite division of the soul.

Pressure Point #2: Forever Apart?

Dooyeweerd notes that the ontic realm of the Forms “can never be joined logically to matter…an eidos of hule is inherently contradictory” (192). He points out that if motion and rest can both be applied to Being, then there is nothing to distinguish it from temporal reality. We aren’t quite at Plato’s chorismos (sharp division) between the eternal and sensible worlds, but we are getting there.

Pressure Point #3: Is Weakness Evil?

In the Timeaus Plato notes that faulty conditions of the body give rise to bad decisions (Tim. 86D). In Christian terms, you sin because you are finite and created. Something just seems wrong about this. Given a Platonic anthropology, the rational part of the Soul is good but the rest of the body is subject to Ananke. Thus, man is both rational and irrational (Dooyeweerd 310).

Conclusion

There is no denying the book’s value in its giving a minute and precise analysis of pre-Aristotelian philosophy, yet that might also be its problem. Dooyeweerd’s “Ground-Motive” schema is accurate and with it we agree 100%. And I think Dooyeweerd is successful in identifying the problems in pre-Aristotelian philosophy. Nonetheless, one often loses the forest for the trees. It is easy to get lost in the analysis and it isn’t always clear when Dooyeweerd is bringing you back to the larger picture. Yet, this book is certainly valuable for its deconstruction of Greek thought and its indirect establishing the ground for the Creation-Fall-Redemption Ground motive.

When Matter Becomes Form

This is a review of Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics: Holy Spirit, Church, and New Creation vol. 4.

And so ends the greatest theologian of all time. The following are highlights around the central theme of grace restoring nature. Indeed, with Bavinck we see the rejection of dualisms: “The dualisms between the internal and the external, the spiritual and the material, eternity and time, essence and form…are products of a false philosophy and contrary to Scripture” (458).

*The Church*

In his discussion of the church Bavinck always comes back to the truth that it is in the Reformed churches that preaching is exalted. Bavinck makes an important distinction that Lutherans see the Spirit working per verbum, while Reformed see him working cum verbum.

*Ethics*

Ethics

While Bavinck appreciated a Christianized society, he didn’t think all sins (e.g., fornication, drunkeness) should be punished by the State (437).

Bavinck’s discussions on the sacraments are par for the course with most Reformed dogmatics, so no need to explicate them here. He takes Calvin’s view as a middle path between Roman realism and Anabaptist gnosticism. He believes the Supper should be monthly.

*New Creation*

This is the most important section. When you want good eschatology, always go to the Neo-Calvinists, never American neo-Puritans. Recreation

“The resurrection is the principle of the renewal of all things” (428).

Judgment

Bavinck ably rebuts the hippy, humanitarian idea that hell is too mean for God, especially when evaluated on human sentiment. “For when the interest of society becomes the deciding factor, not only is every boundary between good and evil wiped out, but also justice runs the danger of being sacrificed to power…Human feeling is no foundation for anything important, therefore, and neither may nor can it be decisive in the determination of law and justice. All appearances notwithstanding, it is infinitely better to fall into the hands of the Lord than into human hands. The same applies with respect to eternal punishment in hell (708).

The New Earth

“The state of glory will be no mere restoration of the state of nature, but a re-formation that, thanks to the power of Christ, transforms all matter into form, all potency into actuality, and presents the entire creation before the face of God, brilliant in unfading splendor and blossoming into a springtime of eternal youth (720).

“The difference between day and night, between the Sabbath and the workdays, has been suspended. Time is charged with eternity of God. Space is full of his presence. Eternal becoming is wedded to immutable being. Even the contrast between heaven and earth is gone (730).

Conclusion:

Perhaps, as others have noted, this book isn’t as good as volumes 1-2. But it’s still the best thing on the market regarding this locus of systematic theology.

Review of Dennison on Van Til

Dennison, William.  In Defense of the Eschaton.  Wipf and Stock, 2015.

This is a collection of essays dealing with Van Til and Education, with a few other themes thrown in.   Some essays are quite good, particularly the one on Genesis 2:15.  Unfortunately, it manifests all the weaknesses of Van Tillian thought:  inability to interact with recent developments in philosophy, attacking other schools because they don’t use the same jargon, refusing to understand what other Christian thinkers are getting at.

Some flaws aren’t as serious.  In the chapter on Plato, much of it was good but I am not sure what the pay-out was.  We got a good summary of Plato’s view on the soul, and we saw that some philosophers weren’t “Platonic” (though he never says who).  But all of this could have been found elsewhere.  Other flaws are found in most Van Tillian works: broad-brushing all of the opposition as “autonomous thought” without always spelling out how it is bad.

Dennison’s first chapter places Van Til (hereafter CVT) within the context of Continental vs. Analytic philosophy and it begins on a promising note. Few of CVT’s disciples are aware of this context and it makes these studies difficult. So we commend Dennison for that. Indeed, he notes the connection between Vos and CVT, and that connection is “the biblical story.”

So how does a “Vosian narratology” influence CVT’s thought? Dennison gives us an interesting suggestion, but only that. For him, CVT places epistemology within the realm of history (Dennison 28), which would be the biblical story. So how does that determine CVT’s apologetic? I think Dennison wants to say it means CVT sees man as either a covenant-keeper or breaker within the respective kingdom. So what does this have to do with Vos? I’m not sure.

Had Dennison stopped there the chapter would have been fine, even perhaps groundbreaking in a few parts. However, hee takes several shots at “analytic philosophy” and “Reformed Epistemology” and fundamentally misrepresents both.

He begins by noting there are two schools of analytic philosophy: logical positivism and linguistic analysis (23). I’m not so sure. Let’s take the greatest Christian analytic philosophers today: Plantinga, Swinburne, Craig. Where do they fit? They do not belong to either category. Even more, what does “Possible Worlds Semantics” have to do with Wittengstein or Vienna? Analytic philosophy today is a tool, not a totalizing approach. Dennison appears to read all analytics as following in Wittgenstein’s footsteps, whether early or late.

He notes some perceived problems with Reformed Epistemology. It doesn’t place Jesus as the beginning of epistemology (28 n69). Well, maybe, and Calvin didn’t use the transcendental argument for the existence of God, either. He criticizes Plantinga for failing to take account of the noetic effects of sin, and notes Plantinga’s Warrant and Proper Function. But Plantinga does take such into account in Warranted Christian Belief (see Plantinga, WCB 214). Did Dennison read Warranted Christian Belief?. Dennison rebukes it for its alliance with Common Sense Realism. Okay, so what is the problem exactly? In fact, what is Common Sense Realism? How are beliefs formed? That’s the issue. Simply chanting “Jesus is the starting point” tells me nothing on how beliefs are formed. And finally, he suggests Plantinga has affinities with Barth, but he gives no such evidence besides mentioning Plantinga’s paper on natural theology.

Criticisms

His review of Keller’s book was fine and I agree with most of his concerns. It was odd at a point. Dennison attacks Keller for holding to the “neo-Calvinist” scheme (168ff). What is this scheme? It is the story-line of Creation-Fall-Redemption. So what is bad about this? I think he wants to say that it makes us lose sight of heaven as our homeland? Let’s look at it.

Neo-Calvinist: Creation-Fall-Redemption and Jesus came to put the world to right.

Puritan Pietist: Heaven is our true homeland.

As it stands there is no contradiction between the two statements. Maybe all he is saying is that some Neo-Calvinists denigrate heaven. I guess. That’s an entirely different argument.

I would take it a step further: what or where exactly is heaven? Is “heaven” the final destination? How does this tie in with the New Earth? Elsewhere Dennison says that we are already in the age to come of a sorts (107). I agree. If that’s so, then there is no contradiction between Neo-Calvinism and Vosian eschatology.

The Good

Despite my criticisms, several essays are quite valuable. His notes on anthropology highlight man as an image-bearer (39). The imago dei is often missing from treatments on man’s essence.

He has some outstanding suggestions on the role of the Reformed apologist in light of his eschatological existence (107ff).

Conclusion:

This collection of essays is strong where Van Tillians have always been strong: eschatology, piety, and culture. It is weak where Van Tillians have always been weak: interacting with recent philosophy, fleshing out their views, etc. This is actually a three-star book, but Dennison’s essay on Genesis 2:15 was so good I bumped it up a star.

The Ethics of Belief (Review)

Wolterstorff, Nicholas.  John Locke and the Ethics of Belief.  Cambridge.

Locke’s goal is simple: to offer a rational, objective, public account of reason that will heal the warring factions of society.  His method, at least in the broad strokes, is fairly straightforward: believe in accordance with the evidence the things of “maximal concernment.”  In other words, not only should you believe things on the basis of evidence, the strength in which you believe something should be proportional to the evidence.

It is to Nicholas Wolterstorff’s credit that he shows us a different picture of Locke:  sure, the empiricist is in the background, but Locke’s account of knowledge in Book IV of his Essay is far more nuanced than a mere empiricism.  And so we begin:

For Locke Knowledge is perception (Book IV).  What does it mean to see/become aware that a proposition is true? The classic answer:  One is aware that one and another proposition are true and that certain relationships that follow are true.

Whenever we say we “just know” something to be true, we usually attach to it the ocular metaphor that we “see” it to be true. Thus, for Locke, we perceive facts. Perception for Locke is immediate awareness (Wolterstorff 43).  That which comes short of certainty is not knowledge (Letter to Stillingfleet, Works III: 145). Does this mean we can’t know anything, given such limited criteria?  Not necessarily, for perception and certainty comes in degrees.  

Knowledge = act or state of mind (45).  It is not the same as belief. For Locke believing is a mental state; assenting is a mental act.  Problem: We all believe things that aren’t present to the mind.

Knowledge = not only awareness of some fact, but the relationship between facts (59)

Will Locke’s proposal work?  No.  It could not survive the hammer blows of Hume (or Reid).  Let’s take the claim that “Reason should be our guide.”  Locke’s view of empiricism and “the association of ideas” demands induction, and as Hume pointed out, that demands a formal fallacy.

But that’s not the biggest problem with Locke.  The problem is quite simple:  How are we to tell when the evidence is satisfactory (167)?  Not all evidence is simply a collection of apples and oranges on the ground and we count which side has the most.  Here is a sample of Locke’s argument (pp. 169ff):

P1: I note a correlation between a certain noise and a car going by
P2: The noise I am presently hearing is of that sort
C:  Hence it is highly probably a car is going by.

The main problem is that the correlations aren’t necessarily representative of reality.  We need another premise:

P1*. I note a correlation between a certain noise and a car going by
P2*. My sample of the correlation of events was and is representative of all tokens of that sort.

P3*. The noise I am presently hearing is of that sort.

But as Hume points out, P2* is not a necessary truth.  It is not intuitive.  Indeed, Hume doubts any real connections between past and present.

But Locke is still important.  His form of classical foundationalism remained more or less in play until the late 20th century.  Indeed, one can tease out connections between Locke’s epistemology and his ethics.  Further, one wonders about such ethics, the Anglo tradition in philosophy, and the current (if waning) dominance of neo-liberalism in politics.

The book is a hard read.  Locke isn’t necessarily an easy read and Wolterstorff’s analyses are very technical.  One other point:  Both Locke and Wolterstorff draw attention to the correct insight that knowledge has ethical dimensions.

Bavinck and the Beginning of Knowledge

This is a modified review of his Prolegomena.

Bavinck’s project consists of drawing upon the strengths of the Magisterial Protestants while formulating theology in response to the modernist crisis of his day.  To do so, he realized he could not slavishly mimic older platitudes and simply “hope for the best.”   Bavinck represents a very exciting yet somewhat embarrassing hero for modern Calvinists.  Exciting, because his work is simply awesome and coming into English for the first time ever.  Embarrassing, because modern Calvinists generally dislike the movement “neo-Calvinism,” yet Bavinck is the unofficial godfather of it.

Bavinck takes the traditional terminology of principia, yet in the background is an ever-present urgency to respond to modernism.   Therefore, he takes the terminology and reframes it around the neo-Calvinist slogan, “Grace restores Nature.”  There is an antithesis and dualism, to be sure, but it is not between nature and grace, but sin and grace.

Principia

God himself is the principle of existence for theology (principium essendi).  Objective revelation of God in Christ is recorded in the Scriptures and this is the external source of knowledge (externum principium cognoscendi).   The Holy Spirit is the iternal source of knowledge.   This leads Bavinck to a line he repeats throughout the book:  there must be a corresponding internal organ to receive the external revelation.  This anticipates the later Reformed Epistemology school.

Circular Reasoning and First Principles

Bavinck does not try to hide the fact of circular reasoning.  He asserts, quite rightly, that first principles in any science are by definition circular.  If they were proven by other principles, they would not be first principles!

Towards the Future of Reformed Epistemology and Apologetics

It’s obvious that Van Til read Bavinck.  It is also obvious, if perhaps less so, that the Reformed Epistemologists follow in Bavinck’s train.   It’s interesting that while Van Til drew heavily from Bavinck, I don’t think they are always saying the same thing on apologetics.   Bavinck used the categories of presuppositionalism, but he knew when to stop the train.  I think he kept himself from many of what would later be some of Van Til’s errors, or at least weak points.

Criticisms

The book isn’t always easy to read.  If the reader does not have a background heavy in European Rationalism, many of Bavinck’s sparring partners will be over one’s head.  Conversely, if one does have such a background in those disciplines, then there is little point to read Bavinck on them, since he is merely given a cursory reading of them.

Calming down on Neo-Calvinism, to all

The evangelical/Calvinist resurgence in American life is properly termed “New Calvinism.”  The Dutch intellectual tradition from 1880 to sort of today is Neo-Calvinism.  Admittedly, new and “neo” are the same thing, but they are applied differently at different times in history.

So, some in the Reformed world are saying that Dutch Neo-Calvinism (or any of its American variants) is the bad kind and Westerminster Calvinism is the good kind. There is a WTJ article floating around somewhere to the same effect.

I think that’s a bit simplistic.  So here are some pros and cons to Dutch Neo-Calvinism.  I include the following in the survey:  Bavinck, Kuyper, Vollenhoven, Dooyeweerd, Stoker, Knudsen, sort of Van Til, and the legacy of Calvin College.

Plantinga and Wolterstorff are wild cards.

The Good

These guys are strong on creation.  Bavinck is simply sublime, Van Til more forcefully so.  Al Wolters’ little monograph begs to be reread.  Jamie Smith noted that God creates in “plurals.”  This is about as close and forceful a break with the Platonic ontology as one can get.  When you read the Prophets on New Creation and eschatology, you can hear a Dutch accent in the background.

The Bad

As is probably typical of Dutch American existence, these guys can get insular and clannish.  Orthodoxy isn’t the only church with a claim on phyletism (whatever that is).  But maybe Scottish Americans like myself are also clannish.  I’m not aware that I am, but it is possible.

Do some Neo_Calvinists denigrate philosophy?  Maybe.   But if you read Plantinga, Wolterstorff, and Bavinck, that’s just not so.  Bavinck’s theological and philosophical reasoning is as astute as any.  See below.

God himself is the principle of existence for theology (principium essendi). Objective revelation of God in Christ is recorded in the Scriptures and this is the external source of knowledge (externum principium cognoscendi). The Holy Spirit is the iternal source of knowledge. This leads Bavinck to a line he repeats throughout the book: there must be a corresponding internal organ to receive the external revelation. This anticipates the later Reformed Epistemology school.

Do some denigrate piety?  Probably, and this seems to be a recurring theme among culture-reclaimers (see modern day Reconstructionism).  But it doesn’t logically hold that because some denigrate piety, Neo-Calvinism as a whole must.  What the pietist Calvinist needs to show is that the Neo-Calvinist’s commitment to Christ’s Lordship in all spheres logically entails skipping my prayers tonight.  I don’t think it can be done.