Calvin and Universalism

Here’s a good one:

For were it not that the reprobate, through their own fault, turn life into death, the Gospel would be to all the power of God to salvation, (Romans 1:16) but as many persons no sooner hear it than their impiety openly breaks out, and provokes against them more and more the wrath of God, to such persons its savor must be deadly, (2 Corinthians 2:16.)

~ Commentary on Matthew 16:19

So, if it weren’t for the reprobate, universalism would be true. Just a sentence earlier, Calvin states that condemnation is “accidental” to the gospel message, since its essence is salvation. Condemnation comes from a rejection of this message once heard.

Christian Classicists

Wilson discusses his views of “antithetical classicism” over and against North’s more straight-laced and scowling Van Tillianism here.  The contrast between these two men is instructive for the overall landscape of Reformed theology’s relationship to history and the rest of the world.

Van Tillianism has always had a tendency to simply lend a rocket booster to fundamentalism.  I think this is why it became so popular.  It met the masses where they were and told them that they had been right all along, but they simply didn’t know how to say that in smart-people language.  Now they can, with three easy steps…

You can see this in a lot of Rushdoony’s work.  I really like Rush, and I owe a good deal in my own theological development to him, but any honest reader will note that he gets about 50% of his facts wrong.  He loves to show that older Christians were really pagans and/or heretics, and if you were in a position of a civil leadership, you were definitely a bad guy.  With a few exceptions, of course, that’s how a Rushdoony view of history works.  Tweak a few things here and there as is appropriate, and that’s how the basic Christian Reconstruction view of everything works.  Mostly bad, until us.  You’re welcome.

Wilson has always been a different flavor of CR though, and this is mostly because he douses the whole project in C. S. Lewis.  Wilson started with Lewis and then moved to Van Til, but he’s always tried to be a kinder, gentler Van Tillian.  If CRs were fundies with rocket boosters, then Wilson is a fundie with a top-hat, pipe, and monocle.

As I’ve begun working at a “Classical Christian High School,” I have noticed myself enriched by the material we cover.  I am reading Lewis, Socrates (via. secondary sources), and studying in some detail figures like Julius Caesar, Charlemagne, King Richard I and Saladin.  Basically, I’m being forced out of my little box.  I’m being pushed out of even my “Reformed Van Tillian” box, simply by the facts of history (even interpreted facts!), and this is a profoundly good thing.

Now the CRs wandered out of the box from time to time, but usually this was only to grab something that looked like it could prop-up the box, and then they’d run back to the box in hopes of taking over the world through the box.  The problem, ironically of course, is that they never adequately questioned the presuppositions that formed the box.  They just assumed the box was “Bible Christianity” and that it was obviously so.  In truth, CRs were often classical liberals (ie. libertarians), who truly believed in the early American republic/empire, and wanted to promote this vision through some form of Reaganonomics.  I’m generalizing horribly here, but you get the picture.

Now, the Wilson version is already head and shoulders above this, as his project goes further back in history, seeking to sculpt a “medieval Protestantism” out of the stones of time.  This has the benefit of being pre-Enlightenment, something that Van Til and the CRs never really accomplished (Van Til was indebted to Hegel and Kant.  Bahnsen was indebted to Wittgenstein.), however it runs the same risk of remaking history into its own already much-influenced and culturally-conditioned image if it doesn’t give its classicism an authentic presentation.  If “antithetical classicism” means simply accenting the popular views of the classical and medieval periods with 20th and 21st century Calvinist commentary, then we won’t have made much improvement.

What we need are true classicists who maintain their Reformed Christian principles, but do not allow those principles to hijack their scholarship.  We need flexible classicists who take into account the varied influences of history: religious, political, economic, and military.  We do not need folks looking for the magic “culture.”

We need a Lewis view of creation; namely, that it is good and given by God.  We need a Jim Jordan doctrine of the Holy Spirit working among the Gentiles (or even the non-Christians!).  We need a mature disposition that understands that there are very few uniform movements, and we need to be able to admit that even our favorite heroes, whether they be political or religious, were capable of being scoundrels at any given point in time.  We also have to be willing to accept that scoundrels can give us genuinely good things that we wouldn’t want to do without.

Socrates’ Critique of Modernity

Marigold: Your work may conquer thoughts, but mine conquers nature.
: Why do you want to conquer nature? Why not befriend her instead?
: Her?
: Do not the poets tell us nature is our mother? Why would you want to conquer your mother? We conquer our enemies?
: Nature is not my mother, nor is it my enemy. It is simply matter, raw material to be improved…

Marigold: …The ancients feared nature and even worshiped it. We conquer it.
: Are there no alternatives to those two extremes? Must you either conquer something or else fear and worship it?
: What’s your alternative? What do you philosophers do with nature?
: We try to understand it and befriend it. For instance, where you speak of “the conquest of space” I should prefer to speak of “the befriending of space.” Though I should also prefer to speak of “the heavens” rather than “space.” …

Socrates: I think we premodern philosophers had a better relation with nature because we had a better answer to an even greater question, the question of the summum bonum, the greatest good, the most important thing in life. ..

Socrates: They all agreed that the most important thing in life was somehow to conform the human soul to objective reality. Your “conquest of nature” philosophy thinks the most important thin is to conform objective reality to the desires of the human soul.

from Peter Kreeft’s The Best Things in Life pgs. 37-42

I think Socrates definitely scores some points on us here. He deconstructs modernity rather effectively, but he also deconstructs modern Reformed Theology in North America. Whether the Radical Orthodoxy folks are correct to blame nominalism, or whether Van Til, Schaeffer and Kuyper really did fall into postmodernism via their twist on Kant’s transcendentals, it seems undeniable to me that we have managed to become closer to the modern ontology of violence (as represented by “Marigold”) than the premodern understanding of harmony with nature.

How many times have you heard folks, with the best intentions, say that truth is based on authority? And how often do they mean by “authority,” power or strength? Do you think that this metaphor might be the reason we get so cranky and violent when we meet something different?

An illustration will make this evident.

For Van Til, when a nonbeliever grasps actual truth, he is said to be using borrowed capital. He is making off with something that is not his. This certainly seems like a bad thing.

Contrast this with C. S. Lewis. In The Screwtape Letters, the demons warn against the dangers of true science, for insofar as it brings a person closer to truth, it brings them closer to God. Even an unbeliever, when in the presence of truth, is closer to God than not. It is a reason for Christians to rejoice and for demons to be frustrated.

I wonder whether we haven’t also allowed sin and the Fall to become so normal that we forget it is a distortion. Yes there’s a violence in existence, but it isn’t existence as such, but rather existence marred by sin. Thus the truest truth goes beyond even our sin-world and on to the character of God.