Written by Rev. Charles Redfern
Think of this as a shout-out to the custodians of Protestantism’s brains: Arise and rescue us, oh Calvinists. This is your hour. An invisible behemoth has wielded scissors and snipped our mentalities. Our thoughts lie like scraps on the floor: Thinking is severed from doing; spirituality has been sliced from its heritage and theological reflection has deflated like a hissing pool toy. You once bequeathed us a sophisticated cultural theology that anchored itself in Heaven while summoning us to this-worldly relevance: God inserted us at this time and this place to do his will – now.
You can do it again. We’ll even listen as you invoke your favorite words: “responsibility,” “duty,” “obligation.” Go for it.
The shredded thinking is on full display after recent events related to humanity’s most dire Earthly concern. Scientists keep filing alarming reports of climate change — including discoveries that CO2 levels surpassed 400 parts per million at least twice this year — and yet we’re on a full-scale policy retreat. Movements for rollbacks in goals for renewable energy have rumbled through several states, with Republican Gov. Chris Christie dismissing New Jersey’s ambitions as “pie in the sky” and Connecticut Democratic Gov. Dannel Malloy elevating large-scale Canadian hydro-power in the renewable mix, then raiding clean energy funds to balance the budget. Meanwhile, the renewable industry prospers in Germany, which feasts on the pie and dons the can-do spirit for which the United States was once known.
Kudos to President Obama for at least attempting to stem the tide, but executive orders have their limits.
Reformed thinkers, equipped with their critical and independent minds, would sift through the evidence and conclude: “Climate change is not just another issue.” Imagine a 14th-century physician anticipating the looming bubonic plague. He merely whispers to a local priest, who dismisses any need to address “unspiritual” or “secular” concerns. The sleepy king flies his falcons and ignores the swelling rat infestation. Your forbears would lecture that priest – especially after their cultural theology evolved and ripened in the mind of Abraham Kuyper (1837-1920), the Dutch theologian, politician, journalist, educator and prime minister.
Discussions over Reformed Theology often freeze in the 16th-century and focus on predestination, then leap to the Salem Witch Trials. It’s not fair. Reformed synapses have sparkled. Legions of monumental thinkers abound and not all agree on predestination (Moses Amyraut, John Cameron and Richard Baxter were among those who differed). The theology’s unifying heart centers on God’s sovereignty: Everything and everyone sprawls flat before the transcendent Being — including monarchs, dictators, CEOs, generals, oil barons, union leaders and Wall Street brokers. Brawling over who is superior is like sparring over the most significant mole hill on Mount Everest. We’re equally microscopic — and important. Each believer is a priest and everyone is responsible, with civil government given the vital role of protecting all citizens in a well-ordered society. The office of the magistrate, said Calvin, is “specially assigned” by God.
Thinking developed through the centuries: The law restrains kings and queens. If absolutely necessary, citizens must depose rogue monarchs, which is why Congregational and Baptist churches spurred revolutionary fervor in the American colonies. It all crystalized in Kuyper’s roaring intellect and his claim, “There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is sovereign over all, does not cry, ‘Mine!’”
Christ not only came to restore individuals, but the world. Richard J. Mouw sums it up: “When God saves us, Kuyper insisted, he incorporates us into a community, the people of God. And this community, in turn, is called to serve God’s goals in the larger world.” Genesis 1:28 implies a “cultural mandate” in which God delegated his rule to humanity, a rule implemented through distinct but interconnected spheres: Religious institutions, politics, science, the arts and so on. Each sphere must honor the other. Clerics cannot mandate their practices via law and politicians must respect religious liberty. The separation of church and state thwarts both secular domination and theocracy, giving Christians a theoretical basis for political participation in a pluralistic society: we advocate our positions while co-ruling with others; we do not dominate.
Mouw cautions that “there is plenty in Kuyper that needs updating and even serious correcting” (for example, his sympathies with his Dutch cousins, the South African Boers), but he left us a framework for envisioning societal engagement. Calvin College took up the mantle in its mission statement: “We aim to develop knowledge, understanding, and critical inquiry; encourage insightful and creative participation in society; and foster thoughtful, passionate Christian commitments” (emphasis added). Kuyperian minds bred thoughtful declarations on social and ecological justice in the Christian Reformed Church and planted roots for The Center for Public Justice, a Christian think tank with origins in the Evangelical Left of the 1970s. His framework has spread into evangelical academia and mainline Protestantism via Princeton Theological Seminary’s Abraham Kuyper Center for Public Theology.
We needn’t speculate on what Kuyper himself would say now. Invoking present-day deeds on past figures is always hazardous; besides, Reformers have always owned their responsibility while thanking their forbears: We now possess stewardship’s mantle. We’re responsible.
You have a noble heritage, my Calvinist brothers and sisters. Seize it and don’t let go.
Charles Redfern is a veteran writer, pastor, and activist. His current writing focuses on the intersection of religion, culture, and politics — with an eye toward the growth of a deeper social and environmental consciousness among evangelical Christians. He graduated magna-cum-laude from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in 1989; ordained by the ABCUSA and CCCC. He is an associate member of the Religion Newswriters Association, a member of the Evangelical/Catholic group that drafted “A Joint Declaration on Life,” signed the “The Evangelical Climate Initiative;” a steering committee member of The Connecticut Roundtable on Climate and Jobs; a board member, Inter-Religious Eco-Justice network; and a panelist, “Interfaith Conference on Climate Change” in April, 2013, sponsored by Rhode Island Interfaith Power and Light.