Different Gospels? (VanDrunen Review IX.1)

(for previous posts on VanDrunen, see here)

In chapter 9, VanDrunen turns to consider another form of the rejection of the “classical Reformed position”–that of Herman Dooyeweerd and his “Neo-Calvinist” heirs.  As with the previous chapter, I will not try to engage in any detail with VanDrunen’s reconstruction of his interlocutors here.  I know almost nothing about Dooyeweerd, nor have I read any of his five popularizers that VanDrunen considers: Henry Stob, Craig Bartholomew, Michael Goneen, Al Wolters, and Cornelius Plantinga.  I have known a number of people working in that general milieu and influenced by its ideas, and VanDrunen’s portrayal is roughly accurate–indeed, some of his concerns are very legitimate ones. 

This chapter is very interesting, because here VanDrunen starts becoming much more explicit about his polemical target, the target that has been lurking in the shadows all along.  The latter four figures that VanDrunen considers are contemporaries of his, and you can sense the concealed urgency in his tone when he starts trying to show us just how wrong they are.  Not, of course, that he says it quite like that; he has consistently maintained that he is making historical, rather than theological arguments.  However, it is clear that when he starts showing all the ways in which they differ from the classical Reformed standpoint (which he does quite a lot in this chapter), he intends us to agree with him that this is a kind of apostasy, not an advance.  Of course, these sketches are plagued by the fact that he never established an adequate historical case that the “classical Reformed position” was anything like he said it was, and so in his summaries of it in this chapter, he waffles between making defensible historical generalizations that are in tension with his claims from earlier in the book, or making indefensible generalizations along the lines of those he has made earlier.

However, my interest here is not in revisiting more than necessary his questionable historical claims–I have already beaten that dead horse more than enough.  I am intrigued because VanDrunen finally sets out in clear opposition what he sees as the two basic alternatives of Reformed political theology today, and thus reveals to us much more clearly the theological engine that has been driving this study of his.  Whether or not it is Calvin’s theology is beside the point; clearly there are those today who think it is, and who want to promote it themselves, and this chapter helps us understand just what they’re trying to say and why.  And what they are trying to say, it seems to me, is a different gospel than the one I have understood that we are called to follow.  Now, don’t freak out there–I know that schismatic Reformed people love to throw around the phrase “a different gospel,” along with such choice epithets as “heretic” and “Papist.”  I don’t mean anything like that; I don’t even mean to prejudge the question of who’s got the right gospel (though, clearly, I hope that the balance of truth is with mine).  I simply mean it as a sober judgment of the chasm between our assumptions.  If VanDrunen were to say, “God Jesus Christ is Lord and he has come to redeem the world”  he would not mean anything remotely close to what I would mean by that same statement–in fact, I’m not even sure if he would be willing to accept that as an accurate summary of the Gospel, since he prefers to think, it seems, that Jesus came to redeem us out of the world.  

(Before I go any further, I should perhaps make clear again that I am not in great sympathy with the neo-Calvinists on many of these issues–VanDrunen is right to call them on their carelessness at many points and their weak ecclesiology.  But, if there are only two sides, I would rather be on their side.)

If we were to define the fundamental difference in traditional categories, it might come down to saying that VanDrunen is an amillenialist and I (and most neo-Calvinists) are post-millenialists.  But that doesn’t really get to the root of it.  A better way of summarizing the difference would be that in my understanding, the resurrection is fundamental to the Gospel, whereas in VanDrunen’s it seems to play little or no role.  An even simpler way of summarizing it, and one that doesn’t seem to unduly prejudice the matter against VanDrunen, would be to say, I think N.T. Wright’s Surprised by Hope is spot-on, and I’m sure VanDrunen does not…in fact, I doubt he’s read it.  


I will try to flesh all this out, by looking at how he puts things in this chapter, but it will take a little while. 

The first thing that caught my attention was how VanDrunen kept saying that Dooyeweerd and his disciples all manifested a tendency to use a “creation-fall-redemption motif” in their theology.  Now, forgive me if this is a dumb question, but what other kind of motif is there?  I’m sure that by asking that, I’m showing that I’m hopelessly provincial and ignorant of key streams of Christian theology, but I really thought that a creation-fall-redemption pattern was the basic narrative of the Bible, and the basic pattern of Christian theology.  VanDrunen, however, seems to prefer a pattern something like “creation | fall-redemption” or perhaps “creation-fall | redemption”–I’m not entirely sure.  What VanDrunen resists is the idea that somehow, redemption means a restoration of humanity to be able to fulfill again its created potential, indeed, to fulfill it better than it could have in the first place.  He explains Dooyeweerd’s position on this: “Dooyeweerd…saw the natural, creational laws as the universally governing laws that, thanks to redemption in Christ, Christians are now once again enabled to pursue rightly.  Redemption restores human beings in accomplishing the task that they were meant to accomplish from the beginning, prior to the fall into sin: to obey the creational laws and thereby to develop the potentialities of creation in the unfolding of human culture.”  Now, all this rings rather true for me–why does it not for VanDrunen?  

We could summarize the difference thus: for the “neo-Calvinist” narrative, creation is Plan A, and once sin enters the picture, God introduces some new elements into the plan to put it back on track and to reach the endpoint intended in Plan A by a different route.  In VanDrunen’s narrative, however, God created the world, man fell and ruined His plans, and so he devised a Plan B–to bring mankind to a very different kind of fulfillment on a spiritual plane–while the rest of creation limped along somewhat pointlessly, unable to fulfill its original destiny, but still able to do some temporarily worthwhile things.  VanDrunen sketches out the difference thus:

“For Dooyeweerd, human beings from the beginning were to develop the creational laws toward the full flowering of the cultural potentialities that God had placed within them.  This same eschatologically oriented task is restored in redemption and thus constitues the Christian program of the present day.  For the earlier tradition…the original creation was given an eschatological destiny, a conviction expressed through the doctrine of the covenant of works.  It also ascribed a role to natural law in this covenant, for this law written on the heart constituted part of the original obedience that Adam was to render to God.  Upon the breaking of this covenant, human beings became unable to achieve their eschatological destiny, but Christ has achieved it for them.  That eschatological destiny–the spiritual kingdom of Christ–is reserved in heaven for believers, and present participation in this kingdom occurs only in the (visible) church.  Heeding the laws of nature is still required of every person and is decisive for the health of the civil kingdom, but it does not manifest the spiritual kingdom of Chirst and therefore it has no eschatological goal.”

So the original creation originally had an eschatological destiny, but it lost it because of sin and God has never given it back (I’m not quite sure how Rom. 8:18-23 fits into this), and now the only eschatological destiny is in the “spiritual kingdom of Christ” which is up in heaven, not here on earth.  Will it ever be here on earth?  It is hard to say, because if so, how could it still be “spiritual”? What does a “spiritual kingdom” mean anyway, in VanDrunen’s sense?  Later, VanDrunen quotes neo-Calvinists.  Bartholomew and Goheen as saying “The biblical story does not move toward the destruction of the world and our own ‘rescue’ to heaven.  Instead, it culminates in the restoration of the entire creation to its original goodness.”  VanDrunen, however, seems to think that the gospel is just that–a cosmic rescue plan to whisk us away to another place.  

Of course, this quote gives us some interesting insight into VanDrunen’s concern: “Upon the breaking of this covenant, human beings became unable to achieve their eschatological destiny, but Christ has achieved it for them.”  He is concerned that, in the neo-Calvinist paradigm, Christ’s work simply sets us back on our feet to carry out the work of creating the kingdom, and makes us co-redeemers with Christ.  This kind of anthropocentrism and triumphalism is a real problem, and we must insist that all that we do is utterly dependent on Christ and is simply a realization of what he has already accomplished.  But if we live in Christ, and Christ in us, if He is the head that animates the body, then his work is carried out by his members; we are called to participate in the inbreaking of his kingdom, and are given now, already, a foretaste of the restored humanity that will be fully ours at the resurrection.  In any case, there is a gaping hole in VanDrunen’s narrative.  According to the covenant of works, Adam was supposed to be the king over a perfect creation.  Adam failed and we cannot accomplish his end anymore–only Christ can. So Christ comes and fulfills the covenant of works in place of Adam, and then receives the promised reward of kingship over a perfect creation, in which we participate by union with Him.  No, wait, stop, that isn’t right!  No, Christ fulfills the covenant of works in place of Adam and then receives something totally different than that which was promised to Adam; he does not receive creation, but rather, a spiritual kingdom up in heaven.  Gosh, that’s a raw deal!  

I’m serious though–why is it that in VanDrunen’s paradigm, Christ fulfills the covenant that Adam failed to keep toward God, but then God does not reciprocate in the way he had promised to for Adam? 

VanDrunen returns to the same points later, in discussing Cornelius Plantinga, and I’ll go back over it with him briefly, to make sure we get as clear a picture as possible:

“Plantinga, resembling Dooyeweerd, speaks of cultural work as the task of developing the potentialities imparted to human beings in creation.  Cultural work now, after the fall, is a project of restoration, in that redemption re-enables people to do the cultural tasks to which they were called before the entrance into sin.  This cultural work, furthermore, not only builds the kingdom of God here and now but also builds the new earth.  In fact, ‘we may think of the holy city as the garden of Eden plus the fullness of the centuries.’”

Now, what exactly is wrong with this, I want to ask?  Let me try putting this into natural law categories, which VanDrunen would be happier with.  At creation, we are designed to live in a certain way, to fulfill our true calling, glorify the world that God has made, and glorify God Himself; what we were designed to do could be described as natural law.  When we fell, we lost proper sight of this true calling, of exactly what natural law was, and of how to obey it.  We could not live in the world the way we were supposed to.  When Christ redeems us and gives us new hearts and minds, makes us participators in His perfect humanity, we are able again (not perfectly, but to an important extent) to see again what we were made for, to understand the “natural law” and to live in accord with it.  We are thus able to start building the world again as God intended it, though all our works will be imperfect until perfected by Christ the true man.  In other words, something like what Plantinga’s saying seems to me to actually be the most coherent form of natural law thinking, unlike whatever VanDrunen thinks he’s doing with the concept.

For VanDrunen, it again seems to come down to the uniqueness of Christ’s work, but I think he forces false dichotomies:

“Whereas the earlier Reformed tradition taught, in its doctrine of the covenant of works at creation, that human obedience in its cultural mandate would have resulted in eschatological consummation, but that after the fall into sin only the obedience of Jesus Christ could bring such a result, Plantinga speaks as though the original eschatologically-driven cultural task is reestablished in redemption for all believers.  Whereas much of the earlier Reformed tradition placed post-fall cultural work within the civil kingdom, a temporal and provisional realm originating in creation, preserved by God but not redeemed by Christ, Plantinga places it within the one, redemptive kigndom of God such that Christians are called to produce things that will carry over into the age to come.” 

Leaving the historical issues aside for the time being, I must ask as a theological point why there is a contradiction between insisting that only the obedience of Jesus Christ himself can bring eschatological consummation, and claiming that we are to be caught up in that task, and participate with Christ in its realization?  The New Testament, I would argue, while it is insistent on the uniqueness of Christ, is equally insistent on the unity of the Head with the Body, and our calling as the Body to live out what we already are through our communion with the Head.  VanDrunen seems to envision a passive Body that just sits there, content that the Head has already done and will do all the work.  It’s hard to see how that paradigm leaves much room for a concept of Christian ethics.

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