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.

This entry was posted in education, phi. of history by Steven Wedgeworth. Bookmark the permalink.

About Steven Wedgeworth

Steven Wedgeworth is the associate pastor of Faith Presbyterian Church in Vancouver, British Columbia. He writes about theology, history, and political theory, and he has taught Jr. High and High School. He is the founder and general editor of The Calvinist International, an online journal of Christian Humanism and political theology, and a Director for the Davenant Institute.

16 thoughts on “Christian Classicists

  1. Steven,

    Only in our very narrow circles could anyone try to explain why Van Tillianism has become “so popular”!

    I hope that you are enjoying your summer.


  2. I call it “playing the hand God deals us”… reality has a cruel way of trashing the pretty little fairy tale worlds we build for ourselves or others.

  3. Steven-

    In other words: “Back to Bavinck!”

    Charles: excellent gloss on Steven’s post.

    peace to all

  4. When you say “We do not need folks looking for the magic ‘culture,'” do you mean that we should not be looking back into history to find a sterling example of a culture to imitate?

  5. Yes, and also we should not go foraging about this material looking to find “the culture.”

    The culture will just be us, once we’ve imbibed the best of God’s gifts.

  6. Well I don’t know that we know what it looks like going in. We might be very surprised by what the culture(s) actually looked like, and we might be surprised by what we look like currently and how we will look after we complete actual, good, legit. studies.

  7. Certainly, but it shouldn’t be a total surprise, should it? Shouldn’t we at least have a goal in mind, one which is open to revision as we mature?

    I think there is value in reading the Scriptures, looking at history, and doing our best to articulate what a God-honoring Christian culture would look like, then strive to make it a reality in a God-honoring way. Of course, we should learn a lot in the process and when we finally get there, it will probably be quite different than what we imagined at the outset, but I don’t think we arrive at such a culture by accident, or merely as a happy consequence of other endeavors.

  8. I don’t think we arrive at such a culture by accident, or merely as a happy consequence of other endeavors.

    Why not?

    If my neighbors and I are all successfully living a pious life, worshiping rightly, and excelling at true truth (ie. God’s truth) in each subject we are employed in, then won’t we have a Christian culture?

    Won’t it necessarily happen?

  9. Possibly. You might have a Christian neighborhood, but I think a full-blown Christian culture is something that will need to be brought about intentionally.

    Besides, I think you would agree that a “Christian culture” is something – at the very least – to be desired. That being the case, if I am to desire a Christian culture, one could reasonably expect me to have thought about what that might be. Otherwise, we are no different from Obama groupies who advocate “change” without the slightest idea what they are talking about.

    I don’t think the problem is trying to figure out where we’re going before looking up directions, but I do think it is a problem to be so inflexible regarding what it will look like that we drive right through the town once we’ve gotten there (because the shutters weren’t dark blue like we expected).

    In short, if I advocate a Christian culture, I should at least have an answer to the question, “What’s that?”

  10. Well my point is that “culture” is nothing other than Christians doing well at life- being true human beings.

    “Culture” just is who we are.

    Too many Christians go into the “culture search” with a set of ideas that are questionable to say the least. Usually they want Little House on the Prairie or some other version of White people central. Nice, safe, quiet- “Christian culture.”

    And this usually causes them to remake certain historical periods into their own image, or to just neglect them entirely.

    Or to just be plain dorky.

  11. Oh lots of his historical stuff.

    He said that Richard Hooker was an Arian in The One and the Many.

    His entire take on the early church councils is profoundly wrong, particularly when he portrays the orthodox churchmen as opposing the emperor’s power. In fact, it was the reverse. Whichever party had the emperor’s favor won its claims to orthodoxy. Athanasius even found himself under persecution, not for opposing the emperor, but for backing the wrong son of Constantine. This is why it took the council of Constantinople and Theodosius’ reign to finally give the pro-Nicene’s their victory. His whole take on Chalcedon is questionable in this regard, and when it comes to the patristic doctrine of deification, all of the Chalcedonians affirmed it.

    Tim Enloe (feel free to chime in Tim), found a portion of Rush where he attributes a position to Plato which was in fact, a position being advocated by one of the foils in Plato’s dialogue, thus meaning it was a position that Plato was rejecting.

    Then there are the more complicated issues like Frederick II of the Holy Roman Empire, King James’ role as Christian monarch, and the political founding of America.

  12. I am late getting to this, but a really good post. I am not sure 50% of Rushdoony facts are wrong, but some surely are. I think it is interesting that many of the current reformed thinkers are indebted to CR’s but have moved beyond them. A reason for this is they read more broadly. Your citation of Lewis is a good example. I think fiction in general has been much neglected in the reformed church for quite a while. The revival of reading Piers Plowman, Beowulf, Inferno, Hamlet, and Paradise Lost may have as much to do with the reformed world be forced out its box as anything.

    As for the culture issue, I think it is a matter of principles and specifics. Every culture that is Christian will shun greed and promote hard work, but how this looks specifically will vary from family to family and nation-state to nation-state. The danger on one side is talking about culture with weak or unbiblical principles. Many evangelicals stand on this shifting sand. No Christian culture can be built if abortion is okay. On the other side, there are those who make the specifics a particular Christian culture in the past mandatory. I see this with the Little House example you used, but also with the Covenanter people who view them as the pinnacle of Christianity. This latter group tends to begin things with, “if we could only get back to…”

    In Christ,
    Peter Jones

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s